The Hard Way Forward

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Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
The Hard Way Forward

A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church
Little Rock, Arkansas
October 11, 2020
Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)

Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.

What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see. 

We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.

I often ask: 
God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?  Or have you forsaken us?
Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?

These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.

So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture

From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said, “Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”

“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 

Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 

So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said, 

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]

(Now the scene changes locations.)

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But Moses implored the Lord, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):

O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.

Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.

What has become of Moses?

What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?

This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?

And then their fateful request to Aaron:

You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.

Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:

Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst?
Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?

Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval. 

Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?

Are you still with us, God, or not? 

Have you brought us to this season for some purpose? 

Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.

As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”

Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?

Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:

“How long, O Lord
And God actually replied to him:

Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the land is desolate and ravaged,
until the land is utterly forsaken.

Not so reassuring!

The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.

How much longer will the wicked be glad?
How much longer, Lord?
How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?

They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you.
They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.

Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?

If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling!
Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”

Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord? 

And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.

My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.

In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember

As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!

In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go. Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go. In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go. When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!

But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.

My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!” 

Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground. We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.

I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:

My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me.
My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.

The little girl walks on with her family.

Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.

It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.

Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.

So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?  “Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!

It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.

So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?

Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest. But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise. 

Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way. 

Here is another honest confession:  It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love. 

Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!

The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go. 

The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom. The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.

For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”

You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.

That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation. 

One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?

Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it. 

So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.

I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings. 

And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward, may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation, so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

Roots Intertwined

I think often about roots — current family roots, ancestry roots and roots in my life that were created from various communities. I can’t help but recall the very first church we served in Arab, Alabama. My husband, Fred, was the minister of music and I was (unofficially) counselor and guide for our youth group. The young people of that church surged into our hearts and, along with most of their families, became a very close community — a deeper bond than even family. I thought my heart would literally break into tiny pieces, and I grieved the loss of leaving them for years.

I was sure that I would never form that kind of bond with anyone ever again. But I did, time and time again, in new places with new people — Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Uganda, East Africa. Every time, deep roots of friendship would reach deeper — reaching Into the soil, reaching toward each other, tangled and intertwined in love. And every time when we pulled up roots to move on to places God was calling us to go, I grieved in the very depths of my soul. Here’s the picture: digging up a tree and pulling it out of the soil is not easy with roots so twisted and connected. Pulling up a plant or a tree does not destroy its roots, but often injures and damages them.

I freely admit that this post is not really about trees and roots. It’s about belonging, forming attachments, community, love. Yet, it’s about more than belonging; it’s about walking away from your belonging, moving away, losing the relationships that mean so much to you, feeling the disconcerting feeling that comes from injuring the roots of your beloved community. A poignant quote by Beryl Markham explains the emotions of pulling up roots.

I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way. Leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.
Beryl Markham, West with the Night

“The future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” There it is: our fear of a future that holds new experiences and new people. For sure, moving forward truly is formidable. But when all is said and done, it seems that the best way to live is to cherish the roots we have every single day, every moment. Love them. Nourish them. Rest in them. And in some future time in your life, when you must pull up roots and move away, go ahead and grieve your loss, but also let yourself grow deep, spreading roots in another place.

With faith and hope, throw off the fear and uncertainty of an unknown future and plant yourself in a new garden. For there, you may well flourish again, grow deeply with a new community, form new attachments. You may even stumble over a life serendipity and find yourself in a place where you love all over again.

In the Graceful Arms of this Present Moment


“Live in the moment.” It is a common admonition I have heard often. “Practice mindfulness,” is a more current admonition that points us to live in the present moment. We are urged to add mindfulness to our vast storehouse of spiritual disciplines. You might wonder what mindfulness means, so I found an answer from a trusted source.

Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. (psychologytoday.com)

Today, the thought that grabs me comes from Madisyn Taylor, who writes “rest yourself in the graceful arms of the present moment.” (https://www.dailyom.com/cgi-bin/display/inspirations.cgi?view=all )

It is an idea that seems so simple. Yet, resting in the present moment is not always simple. It can be very hard to do, often impossible to do. Sometimes we find ourselves hopelessly  stuck in the past, suffering the soul bondage of its power over us. Dwelling in the past can cause us to languish about no longer having the joys we once enjoyed, the people we loved, the places we used to live, the “best job I ever had.”  The past can also be a haunting place of reliving the past trauma, loss,disappointment or betrayal. Still, there must be an emotionally healthy place to put the past. Perhaps the difference in what we do with the past is a soul struggle between “letting the past have its place” and letting the past have its way. 

I have often let the past have its way in my life as an ominous presence that reminds me of secrets and lies, violence, abandonment, anger and so many other experiences that threaten me through my memories. The critical question I must ask is how do I let the past have its place. What can I do to embrace my past and let it be a guide on my journey, not an oppressor as I walk my journey? I wonder sometimes if I can put the past in its place, no longer allowing it to wield power over my memories and torment my soul. I know It’s worth a try.

And then there’s the future to contend with, that time in life we think we can control although we have no idea what it might hold. The future is unknowable, something to try to envision knowing I cannot. The future can look to us as bright as the sun or as dark as the center of a cave. The future can be dreaming dreams or internalizing dread and fear. The thought that ”the future is taken care of” graces me with a picture of God knowing my future and preparing me to greet it with hope.

“Rest in the graceful arms of the present moment.”

The words bring to mind the many, many times I have sung the beloved hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” 

What have I to dread? What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms?
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.

I think maybe feeling safe and secure, without fear and dread, is exactly what helps us live in the present moment — not rushing through this beautiful life, not missing the real and deep beauty of it. Yet, we persist in pushing our bodies to accomplish its daily tasks without cherishing the workings of the body — its breathing, its moving, tasting and seeing, hearing and enjoying the aromas that surround us. And most often, we fail to pay close attention to the longings of our souls and the promptings of our spirits — what makes us whole, what fills our hearts with joy, what God is saying to us. We simply do not pay close attention to how is God calling us to satisfy both our soul’s yearning and the world’s deepest need.

Like me, perhaps you do not always cherish the present moment enough — all of it — this present moment we have been given by God’s grace. Life passes through us and around us in every passing moment, and we miss it.

And yet, cherishing every moment — our present moment — might just make magic in our lives, filling us with serenity and peacefulness, with lightheartedness and laughter, even bringing us to the honesty of our sorrows and the cleansing power of our tears.

I, for one, want to be continually mindful of my life — every moment of it — in my body, my mind, my world, my soul, my heart, in my yearnings and my sorrows . . . in my dreams and in the deepest desires that fill me with hope.

Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

How Long?

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How long? How long will we have to feel imprisoned by social distancing? How long will we feel this loneliness? How long must we wear masks? How long until my children can safely visit their grandparents? How long until we’re past the danger of catching this virus? How long until life is normal again?

Most people I know had at least one bad day this week. At least three of us had a bad day on the same day, and I was not comforted to learn that two of my close friends suffered on the very same day that brought me suffering. It seems the longer we travel the journey of these distancing days, the more disheartened we become. We are ready to see our families and friends. We are ready to venture out of our secluded place and walk freely and without worry. We are ready to travel, to worship together in the same place and to celebrate with friends that the danger of Covid19 is over.

But it is not over. Not by a long shot. And what seems to be the second wave of the virus brings a second wave of emotion for us — a deep grief that we simply do not know when, or if, our lives will return to the lives we once enjoyed. Some of us can give our grief a name — sadness, anger, confusion, heartbreak, loneliness — maybe a combination of all of these names, and so many others.

Sadly, some people cannot name their grief. They will not! Instead they lash out in a kind of rage that hurts others. Call it domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, interpersonal violation that causes permanent trauma to the soul and spirit. Call it a tragic situation. It happens, in part, to people who refuse to look at their grief and allow it to turn into rage.

Other people who cannot name their grief turn it inward, deep inside themselves. These are the people who are suffering great emotional harm that can last for a lifetime. We can call it trauma, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress injury, etc. Whatever we call it, the grief that people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic seems to be increasing the probability of a widespread mental health crisis.

The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future. Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.  
— U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

The more we watch our communities relax social distancing, the more we experience a visceral response that speaks to our fear, disappointment and confusion. I asked my Mayo Clinic doctor yesterday via video chat — “When can I get out?” Hoping beyond hope for an answer that meant release, I listened as he gave a thorough scientific, doctor-like explanation. His primary concern, of course, was my physical outcome if  I should be exposed to the virus, but he also spoke about my emotional and social needs. In the end his answer was what I feared it might be: “You must take extreme social distancing precautions, at least until you are one year post transplant.”

That means November for me, provided all goes well with my kidney and with the level of safety in my community. I think my question to my doctor was a common one, “How Long?” Sufferers ask it often. With heartbreaking angst, sufferers in hospital beds ask — “How Long?” — as do persons near death, persons with painful chronic health conditions, persons who wait for mourning to ease, persons who search desperately for work, persons who suffer from unrelenting traumatic stress, persons in a far away place who just long to go home.

“How Long?” is a question of the soul for persons of faith and for persons without faith, for persons who believe in God and for persons who believe there is no God. All persons languish with that question on their lips. People who trust in God have asked the questions in the 13th Psalm for ages, every age with its own sudden catastrophe or its own long, enduring adversity. Every person asks, as did the Psalmist, “How long?”

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 13: 1-2  (NIV)

If you have been asking, “How long, O Lord?” during this pandemic, you probably know already that you will not receive easy answers. There simply are no easy answers. The current separations from family and friends are painful. The realities and risks of re-entering life as we once knew it are daunting. The irresponsibility of many people who move about without masks and closer to one another than 6 feet is troubling. The worry we carry about our safety and the safety of those we love is constant. And the heaviness of heart we are feeling is unrelenting.

So yes, you are probably asking God, “How long?”as I am. How in the world do we get to “rejoicing” during such a time as this? In these unprecedented days, it seems much harder to move ourselves all the way through Psalm 13 in order to get to a glorious utterance of praise, a declaration of trust, a rejoicing of heart, and even a song of praise to a God of “unfailing love.” The Psalmist seems to have made it all the way through the questions to a time of rejoicing and singing. 

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

— Psalm 13:5-6 (NIV)

So ask your questions honestly. God can take whatever questions you ask. Go ahead and ask God, “How long?” But then allow God to restore your weary spirit, to nourish your soul and to make your heart long for something much greater than answers to your questions. 

That’s what I want to do. Now if I can just muster up enough energy — and enough faith and hope — to do it.

May God make it so. For me and for you. Amen.


For your quiet time today, I invite you to use this meditative video as your prayer. 

 

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

A Picture of Good Hope

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Photo credit: A group of black medical students posed in front of the slave quarters on a Louisiana plantation for a powerful photo. (Brian Washington Jr./Doyin Johnson)


It happened in Wallace, Louisiana on December 18, 2019.

On that day, a group of Tulane University medical students posed in front of the slave quarters of a Louisiana plantation for a powerful photo. Sydney Labat, one of the students, said this in an interview on Good Morning America:

Standing at the Whitney Plantation in front of the slave quarters of our ancestors with my medical school classmates . . . We are truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I think I speak for myself and my classmates that it was an extremely humbling experience, to say the least. We would not be here without the strength and determination of those enslaved and their strength to live and to press on.

Labat speaks of the resilience of her ancestors and she credits her ancestors’ resilience for her ability to pursue an education. I shared the photo (above) because it represents the realization of dreams that many people might label “impossible.” But seeing Labat and 14 of her Tulane University classmates in their white coats looked to me like a portrait of the realization of dreams, persistence against all odds and an emulation of the determination of the ancestors Labat spoke of. This photo of the students was posted to Twitter and was liked more than 65,000 times.

I like the photo, too —  a picture of good hope.

I cannot adequately express my emotions about seeing the photo of these students. No doubt, it brought up my deep concern about the well-being of black children in this country and the many disparities they endure. I can not begin to lay out those disparities in a coherent way, but I can cite this troubling research.

Black adolescents and young adults are at higher risk for the most physically harmful forms of violence (e.g., homicides, fights with injuries, aggravated assaults) compared with whites. In addition, black adults reported exposure to a higher number of adverse childhood experiences than whites.Disproportionate exposure to violence for blacks may contribute to disparities in physical injury and long-term mental and physical health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30139709

A study regarding youth and suicide revealed an age-related trend in racial disparities in suicide rates in elementary and middle school–aged children. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed that suicide rates for black children aged 5-12 were roughly 2 times higher than those of similarly-aged white children. https://www.ajmc.com/newsroom/racial-disparities-seen-for-black-children-age-512-in-youth-suicide-

A significant amount of research has documented the overrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic populations — including African-Americans and Native Americans —in the child welfare system when compared with their representation in the general population.Although disproportionality and disparity exist throughout the United States, the extent and the populations affected vary significantly across States and localities. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/racial_disproportionality.pdf

This researched information is definitely not a picture of good hope. The research deepens my concern, but what troubles me the most is that my grandchildren are growing up in a raciallly and ethnically divided world. When we raised our son, we certainly experienced racial discrimination. It was painful for all of us, and I hope beyond hope that my young grandchildren will not face the evil of discrimination. But I know better! I do not want to be pessimistic about it; I want to be optimistic that my grandchildren will not be “judged by the color of their skin” and that they will know the freedom to live out their dreams.

Tulane University Medical Students

So these Tulane University Medical students have given me a gift — a picture of good hope. And the photo of these students also introduced me to another place of hope: the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.

73294CDC-A48F-4E27-ABE0-4DD30A9E02FFThe Whitney Plantation has restored buildings designed to encourage guests to enter the world of a Louisiana sugar plantation and to remember those who built and worked this property. Through an hour-and-a-half guided walking tour, a guide shows guests through slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, a detached kitchen and outbuildings, a 1790s owner’s house and memorials built to honor the enslaved.

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A stunning bronze memorial at The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana *

Guests learn about the lives of 350 people who were held in bondage on these grounds for over 100 years.

Visitors are able to view beautiful memorials built to honor over 100,000 people held in slavery in Louisiana.

Tickets for the tour are available at the Whitney Plantation’s website: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/

Information overload and emotional response

This blog post has included a bit of information and research. That’s the informational part. The truth is, though, that the harsh realities of divisiveness caused by racism, xenophobia and a host of other factors that divide us are not a part of the information we have. Instead, the realities of racism are part of our emotional angst. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we receive informational material with a yawn. We have heard so many statistics and seen so much empirical evidence in our communities and schools that we have become numb to it. We have heard so much about disproportionate minorities in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration that perhaps we just try to block that information out. But we cannot block out our emotional response.

The only thing that will get our attention is a soul understanding of the pain of racism. Only then will we become agents of change, persons of conscience and advocates for justice. For me, this is a calling from God who desires that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

Consider these passages of Scripture.

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.  — Colossians 3:11

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  — Hebrews 13:1-3

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  — Leviticus 19:34

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.  — Zechariah 7:9-10

You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.
— 
Matthew 5:43-44

May each of us listen carefully to the words of Scripture and allow those words to inspire us and may that inspiration compel us to end divisions that harm. May we be inspired to promote unity and justice. May we be inspired to paint a picture of good hope to guide our world.

* Photo credit: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/photo-gallery/

 

 

 

 

Almost Magic!

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Photo by James Ronan,  FOAP/Getty Images

Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”

Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G) 

These  trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.

A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)

As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.

You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.

In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . .
— Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

And always, words from the Psalmist:

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)

These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.

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Photo by Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)

Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.

 

 

 

My Spring

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The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come . . .
Song of Songs 2:12

Now that February has brought the tiniest green shoots from the ground, I know that it brings a promise of flowers — yellow ones and purple ones — bright promises of the new life that emerges every spring. Perhaps I can take a deep breath now that I am exactly three months today past my kidney transplant. This day is a milestone for my immunosuppressed self, marking the time when my transplant team might tell me that I can possibly escape from my isolation and go out to see the signs of spring. I am making February my personal commemoration month, celebrating, contemplating, dealing with a few deep-set fears and deciding to take a microshift forward.

The beginning of this story was in February of 2014 when suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself in the emergency department of Baptist Health Medical Center with a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I faced a long illness that year that very nearly ended my life, three times during the 58 days I was hospitalized. When I didn’t die, I discovered that I could not walk, feed myself, name colors or even write my name. A kind and dedicated physical therapist helped me work for months after I returned home challenging me to regain those losses. For months, I was very weak, often confused and paralyzed by fear.

The only treatment available to me was dialysis, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Today though, February 12, is another February milestone that allows me to view my transplant three months ago today. Now that I am six years past it, I am looking back on that time that began in February of 2014, and I can see clearly the truths I discovered. I think they are important discoveries for me, of course, but also for anyone who must take an unexpected journey toward an uncertain future. So these are some of the discoveries that give me courage:

Fear takes on many forms and enters my psyche on its own terms.

Gratefulness floods over me at will through a kind word, a phone call, a connection with a friend, old or new.

Faith can be tiny in one moment and large in another, but either way, faith bears me up when I cannot move forward.

Hope constantly calls out to me to remember the source of my hope.

Patience with myself when I am not myself lifts me up, even when I feel physically weak and unable to do all the things I used to do.

These discoveries I know. I also know that, through it all, I have experienced periods of spiritual and emotional depression. Yet, those dark times were interrupted with times when my faith rose from within to comfort me and remind me of my “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 NASB) How wonderful to be able to see again the light of the Sun of Righteousness and to know that my slumbering soul can most surely rise from its lethargy like the stubborn crocus from the hard winter ground. It feels almost like rebirth.

Everything that has been dead through my winter is slowly waking up to new life, new vibrancy, a new season to grow and live and thrive. Along the way, I remember so much comfort from Scripture, thoughts of new life throughout the pages. This is but one:

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

— Song of Songs 2:12

So spring is near. My spring has come, bringing another season, another chance, another burst of hope. Thanks be to God.