A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence โ€” a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of โ€œBaptist,โ€ the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a โ€œbeloved communityโ€ in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, โ€œTie a knot in the rope and hang on.โ€ One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

Thereโ€™s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesnโ€™t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you canโ€™t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop timeโ€™s unfolding.
You donโ€™t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

A Perfect Place to Die

IMG_5744

Japan’s Aokigaharaย Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week โ€” The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest. ย Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is the secondย leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is theย second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธMore teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

โ–ช๏ธEach day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240ย attempts by young people grades 7-12.

โ–ช๏ธEach year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night.ย At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, โ€œO the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began — ย the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy. ย Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of Godโ€™s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die โ€” or to live โ€” is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me โ€œvast, unmeasured, boundless, free!โ€ A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Persevering Hope

IMG_5700

 

PAX

(pษ‘ks ; pรคks; pรฆks ; paks). noun

1.ย the Roman goddess of peace, identified with the Greek Irene

2.ย sign of peace

 

The Reverend Jennifer Butler was wearing a white clergy stole with Pax embroidered over a cross and an olive branch. Enlight126She Was singing as police officers restrained her, arms behind her back, both thumbs held tightly together with plastic straps. Next to be arrested was The Reverend Traci Blackmon, who chanted โ€œjustice, mercyโ€ again and again as police restrained her and led her away.

The Charlotte Examiner described the event, The March to Save Medicaid, Save Lives.

Capitol Hill police arrested the president of the North Carolina NAACP on Thursday morning after he led a protest of the Senateโ€™s proposed health care repeal-and-replace bill.

Rev. William J. Barber II, who was protesting in his role as president of Repairers of the Breach, was released from jail by 2 p.m. On that morning, July 13, 2017, Dr. Barber and other faith leaders led a group of about 50 people to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellโ€™s office in the Capitol.

The group gathered a few blocks away at 10 a.m. and walked to the Capitol, chanting and singing along the way. Eleven protesters were arrested.

Read more at this link:

http://www.charlotteobserver.com/latest-news/article161200048.html#storylink=cpy

As I watched the live feed of this moral and courageous expression of civil disobedience, I hoped that the police would not arrest The Reverend Dr. William Butler, who was obviously experiencing pain from his physical disabilities. I hoped that other faith leaders would not be arrested.

The band of justice-seekers, clergy and persons of all faiths, gathered together in a prophetic action to protect the 22 million Americans in danger of losing healthcare because of what the group calls โ€œimmoral Congressional legislation.โ€ The Repairers of the Breach Facebook page gives details of the event.

Together, weโ€™ll join in song and march through the halls of power, sending a moral message that we cannot cut Medicaid โ€” a lifeline for so many children, seniors and people with disabilities.

My heart was with them in Washington. My prayers pleaded for hope for a brighter day, for justice for those who are oppressed, for peace for every person. My mind recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah . . .

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;
And will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins;
You will raise up the age-old foundations;
And you will be called the repairer of the breach,
The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.

– Isaiah 58:10-12

I watched them stand bravely as they faced the powers before them, living into the words spoken by Hannibal of Carthage, โ€œWe will either find a way or make one.” I listened to their voices echoing through the halls of the building, singing with persisting, persevering hope.

Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let injustice turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Ain’t gonna let no jail cell turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let no jail cell turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around, turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
I’m gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’
Marchin’ up to freedom’s land.

Repairers of the Breach —ย http://www.breachrepairers.org/

A Living Hope

Design

When an eight year old child takes his own life after being viciously bullied, a mother is left in deep bereavement ย holding a deep sadness that will forever mark her life. Every day, life stories like hers come through on our news feeds. We hear them; we feel a moment of strong empathy; we move on to the next like task.

The reality is that any of us, all of us, may face the worse of life’s pain at any time. None of us is immune to tragedies that turn life upside down. Each of us will at times endure gale force winds that rearrange everything we hold dear.

As always, we are left to figure out how to navigate hard times, how to summon the faith we need to persevere. We must find within ourselves a living hope that cannot be destroyed. Only then will we be able to endure the difficulty life can hand us.

Often, I find wisdom and comfort in the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. This is what he writes about faith during difficult times.

It is hard. Life is hard. The losses, the sudden arrival of illness, the struggles within families, the pressure of a world trying to find a reason to hope. Spirituality that is sugar is no help in such a reality. Feel good philosophy cannot withstand the weight of what many of us have had to face. If it is to endure the gale force winds of chance, faith must be deeply rooted, anchored in trust, strengthened by courage, able to bend but never break. So here is a prayer for all of you living in the real world: may you find your faith as tough as you are and as resilient as the love that keeps you going.

– Steven Charleston

The good news is that God graced us with a resilient faith that perseveres when we endure trials, a living hope that can never fail. Thanks be to God.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,ย who through faith are shielded by Godโ€™s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.ย In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.ย These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faithโ€”of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fireโ€”may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

– I Peter 1:3-7

Change and Hope

Enlight90

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.

Forged from Light and Fire

 

Design

Like most people, I have experienced sorrow. At times, I have felt sorrow bury into my soul so deeply that I felt as if I could not move beyond it. And I have experienced the shattering of my heart. Such times are inevitable in the cycle of life. Eventually the pain refines us and leaves us stronger than before.

We have critical choices along the way. We could choose to remain in despair. We could choose to let the past pain define our future. We could move ahead taking regret along with us. Or we could dare to dream of hope. We could walk once more in the light of healing. We could open our hearts to a brighter future, leaving the pain of the past behind.

We could take the wise and hope-filled advice of Bishop Steven Charleston.

Let the longing night alone, as shadows recede before the brightening sun, for what has past still sleeps, and will always sleep, in a land too distant for you to return. Leave sorrow beside the door, resting in a corner quietly, and step over the threshold of regret, to walk once more beneath an open sky. Today is the future you have made, a world waiting for you to define it, as honest in expectation as your own hope, as real as you dare to dream it. You were not fashioned from despair, but forged from light and fire, crafted to breathe mountain air, a child of such a long line, even angels cannot name it.

I, for one, choose to lean into a living hope, a hope that is beyond any pain and greater than any grief. Yes, I am forged from light and fire, graced by God to endure and persevere. Thanks be to God.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.

1 Peter 1:3-6, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 

Rise Up in Hope

image

Delta Sunrise. Photo by Cathy Jones.

Hope keeps us going forward. No matter what obstacles we face, no matter how dark our path becomes. We lift up our eyes to the rising of the sun knowing that we will rise up in hope for another day. We lift up our hearts to receive God’s never ending love. We lift up our voices to tell our own stories, with assurance that we have lived a story of wonder, a life well lived.

That’s the important thing about stories, no one can take them from us. They are ours to tell, and surely, our narrative of love and struggle is a sign of faith for all to see. Bishop Charleston shares these comforting words:

Rise up in hope again today, no matter what may seek to hold you down. If the world around you seems dark, then have faith that your own light will only shine the brighter. Your witness is needed now more than ever. Do not bow your head before the story you hear being told by others, but lift your voice to tell your own story, a story of beauty and wonder, a story of love and struggle, the narrative of a life lived and lived well, a sign of faith for all to see. Rise up in hope again today, for you are living testimony to what hope can do when hope is set free.

So beyond every struggle, we do rise up in hope once again. And we are a living testimony of what happens when hope is set free!

Bitter Days

image

I never had a charmed life. I have lived through bitter days, many of them. I have known sorrow, hopelessness, darkness, emptiness, loneliness, and all manner of emotional angst. But in those bitter times when I thought my world had fallen apart, I always found a fresh measure of faith, certainly enough faith to weather the storm.

It is true that I have often found myself standing alone on shifting sand. It is true that I have experienced loneliness, wondering why God had left me bereft and alone. It is true that, at times, I lost all hope. It is true that my tears fell freely and there was no one to witness my pain.

The words of Bishop Steven Charleston, once again, describe the emotions I have felt along the way.

I don’t know about you, for there are some who live charmed lives, but I have been by that lonely shore, standing alone on shifting sand, looking out to a vast dark emptiness, an ominous and unknown sea stretching out to the cloud covered edge of my world, while waves of sadness crashed around me, stinging my eyes with the salt of ancient tears. How clear and yet how distant is that memory now. Hope is not the absence of sorrow, but the release of that sorrow beside the still waters of faith. The light is right behind you. Turn to find it.

Yes, I did find renewed hope, and I did release my sorrow beside the still waters of faith. I did it many times, always finding that God’s light really was right behind me. Thanks be to God that better days always follow bitter days.

Pathways

image

Life journeys take us through pathways of all kinds – lonely pathways, contemplative pathways, dangerous pathways, mysterious pathways. The pathways make life exhilarating and unpredictable. The pathways lead us to places we never expected to go, discovering things we never expected to discover.

The pathways make life the pleasure that it is. That is, if we ever learn to travel the pathways without fear. Unfortunately, fear makes us forgo countless pathways, and we miss so much when that happens.

Walking fearlessly requires faith and a heart that can still hope. Walking life’s pathways takes courage and persistence. The Bible gives us encouragement to move forward. “When you walk, your steps will not be impeded; And if you run, you will not stumble.” Proverbs 4:12

So let us walk on with hopeful hearts, taking the pathways before us, being delighted at every turn, fearlessly moving toward our destiny.

Love Has the Last Word

image

My last blog post spoke of being unable to escape adversity. And it is true that we will not get through this life without adversity, no matter how hard we try. The path we walk is steep and winding, leading us forward through all sorts of dangers, toils and snares. The road can be frightening. It can be challenging.

We navigate in a world that is sometimes filled with terror and hate. But the best news for us comes from Bishop Steven Charleston.

The final word to our lives will not be terror or hate. Even if they seem overwhelming now, they will not define us or control us. Other forces are at work, deep forces that move silently among us, drawing us closer against the storm. Whenever human beings face disaster together, whatever that peril may be, our ancient instinct for compassion rises up to unite us in common cause. We do not shatter beneath the blows. We only grow stronger. No, fear and hate will never have the last word. Love will.

There is no better news than that!

I love the hymn Amazing Love. How Can it Be. The words of the fourth stanza give me new and fresh hope.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and natureโ€™s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Amazing love, how can it be that Thou, my God, should die for me?

Love has the last word.