Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

Unanswered Prayer

EE073AB1-5433-429E-90B2-4400B2C20C2BUnanswered prayer leaves me disconsolate. At times,  I have offered pleas to a God that seemed absent. On difficult days, I lifted up my longings to a God who was often silent. There were times when I languished in God’s silences and lamented as one who has no hope. Sometimes I cried out as one whose faith is spent.

There you have it: my candid and disturbingly honest confession about unanswered prayer. I could offer excuses for it. Or I could try to minimize the reality that this is a serious lapse of my faith. I could try to explain how, through the years, I have known trauma and trouble, as I hope for your sympathy. Or I could rest comfortably in your commiseration with me, together admitting that God is indeed absent, silent and uncaring.

But to believe those things about God would harm my faith and yours.

Good news: I am not alone in my feeling of abandonment. Remember David, who in his darkest hour, felt that God was absent:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?  (Psalm 13:1)

And hear also these words from the Psalmist that bring to light a sense of abandonment by God:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
   (Psalm 22:1-2)

So back to unanswered prayer.

To buy in to a “silent God” theology would be to deny that God has, in fact, sustained me on every step of my faith journey. When God seemed most absent, God’s presence in time became most clear. When I felt that God had abandoned me, I soon felt embraced by God’s strong, grace-filled hands. When I cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” I found God very near, saying to me: “I will never leave you or forsake you.”  (Isaiah 41:10; Hebrews 13:5)

Most of all, I discovered that unanswered prayer, in the throes of deep angst, creates a stronger faith and a more abiding hope. I love the hymn, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” especially this stanza:

Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.*

Amen.

*Hymn Text: George Croley, 1854, public domain)

Please take a few minutes to hear this beautiful hymn In the video below:

 

 

 

 

“Therefore, I have hope . . .”

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The quiet beauty of Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

I have been without hope at times, disconsolate, forsaken, wondering why my faith seemed to fail me. My struggle overcame my hope even as I listened desperately to hear the Spirit of hope. I heard nothing. Day after day, in the long dark night of my soul’s anguish, I heard nothing.

That’s the thing about hope. She doesn’t shout our her presence. She doesn’t get your attention in a loud, thunderous manner. Hope, it seems to me, is the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond your conscious mind deep into the depths of your soul. That is the only kind of hope that works, the only kind of hope that can comfort us in times of affliction. The Scripture offers a promise in the book of Romans: “By the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The prophet Jeremiah speaks in the book of Lamentations with words filled with devastating pain. Certainly Jeremiah was a man of abiding and genuine faith. Yet, he suffered. Although it may not be our understanding, Jeremiah understood his times of anguish to be at the hand of the God he served. In hearing Jeremiah’s words of lament, we hear his loss of hope. Listen to this prophet’s heart.

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

against me alone he turns his hand again and again, all day long.

though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He has filled me with bitterness . . . My soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,  his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

— Lamentations 3: 1-3; 8-10; 17-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

To reassure the prophet, God did not shout out a proclamation of new hope. There were no loud, boisterous declarations. Instead, the prophet calls to mind the mercies of God. And as he calls God’s faithfulness to mind, his soul speaks of hope.

If you are a long-time Baptist, you may have sung an old hymn that speaks of the quiet presence of hope. The hymn, Whispering Hope,* promises a gentle hope that comforts us in a whisper. Here is a portion of that hymn.

Soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:

Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

— Septimus Winner, 1868

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word . . . To me, that sounds like the whisper of the Holy Spirit who, in our times of despair, in the times when we feel that we have lost all hope, brings her comfort, her assurance, her peace to us again and again.

May you hear the Spirit’s whisper when you need it most.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Amen.

 

* If you would like to listen to a lovely arrangement of “Whispering Hope” sung by Hayley Westenra, or if you have not heard this hymn in a while, please visit this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3N9LE9FPs

 

 

 

 

Change and Hope

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Change happens always, but not always for the better. It is simply a reality of living life. Change comes to us; we try our best to navigate it; and with any luck, we will end up stronger for it. In the best of all worlds, going through change will strengthen our hope and bolster our faith. To be sure, best laid plans change all the time, often leaving us shaken. But it is good to know that God knows all about changes and what they do to our equilibrium.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

– Jeremiah 29:11

Change does not always feel like hope to us. What we face tomorrow, and all the tomorrows to come, is always an unknown, an unknown that causes fear in us. And yet, so much of our contentment depends on our outlook, how we see change, how we move ourselves through it, how we end up on the other side. I like the outlook that journalist, Linda Ellerbee shares in this statement.

What I like most about change is that it can be a synonym for hope. If you are taking a risk what you’re really saying is, “Ibelieve in tomorrow and I will be a part of it.”

– Linda Ellerbee

So if there is any good advice here, it is to hang on to your life even in the face of change. Try to see change as hope. Navigate those life risks, all the while proclaiming, “I believe in tomorrow and I will be a part of it.” Living that way is the way of God, the way of faith, the way of hope.

Mountaintop Moments

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Mountaintop experiences . . . so few and far between. They are the special times we long for, those times when we experience God in fresh, new ways. We travel along life’s dusty roads hoping for just one mountaintop moment. And on occasion, we do find ourselves with God on a high mountain. It’s worth the long wait.

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.

(Matthew 17:1-2, New International Version)
We meet you on the mountaintop, O God, hoping for a glimpse of your glory. Hoping for a moment sacred and holy. We meet you, having ascended from a mundane existence. We meet you, hoping that your usual silence with us will turn into hearing you speak to us of greater times. We meet you hoping to transcend the ordinary and to find, in your presence, a holier moment of grace.

We linger on the holy mountain, O God, waiting for your transfigured presence, and hoping beyond hope that you will change us, if only for this moment in time. And then we descend into our world, the ordinary place we live, but we are not the same. We are no longer ordinary, because we have experienced you, heart and soul, in a fresh, new way.

We give you thanks, O God, for mountaintop moments.

Amen.

Immeasurably More

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My life is immeasurably more than I ever imagined. Yes, I have a serious illness. Yes, retirement income is dismal. Yes, making ends meet is difficult. Yes, waiting on a kidney transplant is challenging. Yet the blessings that I receive from God every day that I live is immeasurably more than I deserve.

I often think of the scripture that talks about Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith. It is part of a beautiful passage in the third chapter of Ephesians. I am constantly amazed that Christ dwells in my heart through faith. It is a miracle of God that enables Christ to dwell in my heart, to be literally inside me, to make all the difference in my life. That profound thought leaves me without words of my own. Instead, I leave you with the rest of the passage in Ephesians:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. – Ephesians 3:17-21

Stones in the Road

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When we are experiencing trials, God is faithful. When circumstances in life become unbearable, God is faithful. When sadness takes over our spirits, God is faithful.

Our life journey is filled with obstacles, stones in the road, a pathway strewn with stumbling blocks. No one gets through life on an easy, clear path, at least no one that I have ever known. All of us face challenges that have the power to stop us in our tracks.

But the miracle remains. We get through. We overcome the obstacles. We navigate the rocky path. We climb the most treacherous mountains. We continue the journey and we don’t give up. The reason can be found in the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians.

God is faithful: He will not let you be tried beyond what you are able to bear, but with the trial will also provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.

  • 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 New English Translation

So I plan to move forward on the journey, slow and steady steps, avoiding the stones in the road. I can do that because God is faithful to not let me endure more than I can handle.

“Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is a beloved hymn that has provided comfort through the ages:

Great is Thy faithfulness, O God, my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee.
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not.
As Thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.

Great is Thy faithfulness; Great is Thy faithfulness;
Morning by morning, new mercies I see.
All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

I hope you will take a moment to listen to this comforting hymn at this YouTube link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1nmKHfjp8WE&autoplay=1