God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.
God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.
So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?
In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .
Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?
What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?
We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.
I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”
The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.
If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I believe it by faith.
I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . . I walk in footsteps of God’s love.
I see His footsteps in the way, And follow them through darkest night, Unafraid, I stumble not, In the glow of perfect light, I see.
I walk in footsteps of His love, And find His light leads on before, Then He gently turns to me, Softly whispers, “trust Me more, I walk.
Then as I follow in His way, My path ahead will brightly shine, For in His path of guiding light, I find His footsteps first, Then mine.
Before we begin Advent’s journey on November 29th, I think we need start a few days early to create some peace for our souls — enough peace to open ourselves to Advent’s life-giving message. For you see, the Advent journey always has a particularand unique message for each of us. The message weaves through our spirit as Advent days move on, gently sparking tiny lights is us that open us up to beginning again, to dreaming again. Advent nurtures and caresses us until we can dream new dreams.
Since we saw Advent past, we have languished in the chaos of 2020. Held in bondage by a terrible pandemic, lamenting racial unrest and the violence that caused it, watching political rancor and division. This was the year of “I can’t breathe” and also the year when we found that we could not breathe. Nor could we dream, because the future was unknowable — not at all conducive to dreaming.
And yet, there remains this good word — Psalm 126:1:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
What does it look like to live as those who dream? The prophets, the psalmists, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the Magi—they were all dreamers. They received, discovered, and responded to God’s dreams for the world. In Advent’s journey, we travel step by step into the mystery and awe of God’s dreams and we pray that they will shape our reality.
Advent is for the dreamers in all of us — those who dream of a deeper connection with God and those who dream of a better world. Advent is for those who dream of comfort and also for those who have given up on their dreams. Advent is for those whose dreams have been crushed and for those who wisely teach us that dreams take soul time.
In this approaching Advent, perhaps we will dream alongside prophets and angels, Mary and the Magi. Perhaps we will seek and know God’s dreams for our world.
Will you pray with me?
In this Advent of expectation, God, draw us nearer to grace, that our songs of worship might echo in the hills and valleys of this journey and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a sense of peace and silence and steady calm, that the hope within our souls might be the dreams we dream, the songs we sing, and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a vision of a shimmering star in the night sky, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. Amen.
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 strengthto 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.
People say walking on water is a miracle,
but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.
Thich Nhat Hanh
Those words ring so true, but how does one realize “the real miracle?” “Walking peacefully on earth” is much harder than it sounds, much more challenging than it ought to be, at least for most of us. Some have poetically said that walking on earth is our pilgrim journey, and I believe that many people feel that they are walking a pilgrim journey.
In his book, The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, James Harpur asserts that we are now in a new era of pilgrimage and asks: “Why is pilgrimage coming back, especially in a time when many people are questioning traditional religion?” Harpur’s answer is that in these days, there seems to be a deep longing in humans for this form of spiritual practice.
As for me, pilgrimage and journey are very real descriptors of my life. I have often set out on one journey or another, not knowing where to go, only that my soul needs the journey. I am captivated by Harpur’s book, by his tracing the history of why countless people through the ages have embarked on spiritual pilgrimages, by his many stories of pilgrimage through the ages and by his examples of why journey is so relevant to today’s pilgrims. Harpur writes:
If that is done, the destination — a shrine, a holy mountain, or a house of God — will signify not the end of the journey, but the start: a gateway into a new way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.What is essential is that the journey, by whatever means it is accomplished, gives the pilgrim enough time to expose himself or herself to the possibility of a sacred metamorphosis.
Nothing seems more important to me than seeing my life afresh “with spiritually cleansed eyes.” But getting there is a long process, a journey.
Walking peacefully on earth requires my full resolve and my desire to reach that place in life. Wouldn’t any of us want to experience transformation and the freedom to be? Wouldn’t any of us want to experience a sacred metamorphosis?
Certainly, it is a long process, a long journey. There are many steps along the way that each person must determine in order to persist on the pilgrimage. There are divergent paths and rough roads and thorny ways and threatening obstacles. Though choosing the path is personal, the graphic at the top of his post illustrates a set of steps we could possibly choose for ourselves. If I chose to take those steps, it would look like this:
First, I must learn to cry again. Crying is very hard for me, as if I dared to cry, my crying might go on forever. Yet, crying is a part of cleansing the soul, and as the quotation says, there is an importance to flowing and finally letting go. Secondly, I need to accept that within me, there is fire and that I must not be afraid to let it burn. I think I must face the flame, adapt and re-ignite my inner fire. Thirdly, I must to open myself up to refreshing air — observe it, breathe it, focus and then decide whatever I need to decide.
The quote also says “remember that you are earth” and ground yourself, give, build and heal. Finally, “remember that you are Spirit” and care for your inner core so that you can connect, listen, know yourself and be still. It’s quite a lesson — a new way of seeing myself — and perhaps it is the way I must journey if I want to walk peacefully on the earth. In these days when peace is in short supply, when nations refuse to beat their swords into plowshares, when political rivals use hate speech against one another, it is so important that peace dwells within my soul.
In the end, all of us long for what James Harpur calls sacred metamorphosis. We all want to realize the miracle of walking peacefully. We want to walk peacefully in our souls. We want to walk peacefully with others. We want to walk peacefully in our families. We simply want to walk peacefully — hand in hand with God and moved by Spirit. We want the choice to walk or to be still, to run or to leap, to breathe or to hold our breath when we kneel before wonder. We want to have the freedom to speak and shout and sing and dance . . . and truly live. That is the miracle!
I have been reflecting on a phrase I read this morning in Father Richard Rohr’s meditation— Uncreated Grace. It is an intriguing phrase and makes me wonder why I received it at this particular time and place on my journey. I have had a very long journey — many miles of life —- and, in fact, there have been many other forks on the path that seem more sacred places to contemplate uncreated grace. But here it is, today, brought to me at this place on my journey.
As I did some processing on this phrase, I thought of one of my dear friends from ages past, seminary days to be exact. Often, he would share his favorite quotes. This was one of them, an intriguing and thought-provoking quote. This quote always stayed in his favorites file. It hints at a long journey we all must take . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot
We were always left with the question “What do T.S Eliot’s words mean?” Sitting in small groups, the seminarians discussed but never reached an answer, to the question. I imagine that, like me, some of them took the words along with them on their journeys, hoping to discover the meaning at some place of enlightenment on their path.
On my journey, Eliot’s words came to mind many times. Never quite discovering a finite meaning, I did discover infinite applications that touched my life in ways simple and profound. Most always, I came away from reflecting on the words to a better place inside myself and a better space in my world. Still, I wonder why these T.S. Eliot words were brought to my mind today.
The power in these words, I think, is that they are not a directive, not a call to mission, not words of piety, not gleaned from scripture. They are words meant to be understood individually rather than offering a universal message. I identify these words as an invitation, and so today I am left alone with them to intentionally create space for reflection and understanding.
When I do that, I hear many, many other words from different places — from scripture, hymn, poetry, prose and from within myself. It feels like a Spirit encounter, the presence of “another comforter” who will be with us forever, who will, as Jesus promised, “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
Spirit teaches us and helps us remember. Spirit grounds us so that our circuitous journey will not frighten us. We are free to never “cease from exploration,” because we are comforted to know that we will “arrive where we started . . .”
And know the place for the first time . . .
When the journey leads us back to where we started, how is it that we “know the place for the first time?” I urge you to not take my interpretation as the correct one, because I believe that a “correct” interpretation comes from the soul of each person who chooses to explore. But here is an understanding based on my own musings . . . we can take what comes in our lives, or we can explore places on the journey — our encounters, our joys and sorrows, our events and calamities, our crises and emotions, our disappointments and betrayals, the chance and the wonder.
For me, there is no doubt that exploring all of these life events brings that sense of getting back to the beginning and truly knowing the place for the first time, not necessarily because the beginning place has changed, but that I have changed. The Spirit’s holy breath transformed me with gentleness again and again, transformed by the blowing of Spirit wind into my being.
Father Richard Rohr says that “the Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”
How I love those words . . . Uncreated Grace! Perhaps that’s what we all hope for in our explorations on the journey — that in us and through us, there is Uncreated Grace. If we present to the Spirit our selves as uncreated grace, I wonder if Spirit then creates grace within us again and again and again, all along the way. If we never cease from exploration, presenting ourselves as uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit will breathe on us and we will be transformed!
No wonder we know the place where we started for the first time! The place hasn’t changed, we have changed, transformed in our deepest places!
Thanks be to God and to the touch of Spirit breath. Amen
On the third Sunday in Advent, I was confined to home, unable to make my way to the manger. In every Advent season, I am strengthened in finding my place around the manger of the Christ Child. I find myself there because being near the manger moves me to contemplate the significance of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Being near the manger in spirit is holy ground, sacred space that stirs me to deeper faith. The hymn text writer Jaroslav Vajda also placed himself at the manger, searching for its significance in his life. In drawing close in spirit to the manger, he penned the text of the stirring hymn, Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.
Jaroslav Vajda penned the hymn text in 1986, seeking to place himself in spirit at the humble manger bed and there, review the implications of such a visit for himself and for all human beings. He believed that visiting the manger in order to ponder the significance of Immanuel,”God-with-us” in the flesh.
Being homebound after a kidney transplant, I missed my church’s service of Lessons and Carols. That service is always a time of deep and sacred worship for me, and I very much regretted missing it this year. In missing the service, I also missed the choir’s singing of Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, a hymn that has in the past moved me to tears. I invite you to contemplate the following text and to listen to the Anderson University Men’s Choir singing the hymn.
Where Shepherds Lately Knelt
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred:
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.
In that unlikely place I find Him as they said:
sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed:
a still small Voice to cry one day for me,
a still small Voice to cry one day for me.
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart, I stare:
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me,
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me.
Can I, will I forget how Love was born and burned
its way into my heart — unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?
This beautiful hymn places me at the manger, near the Christ Child. And in that place —in the presence of God — I begin to understand who I am and what I feel about my faith. I contemplate the shepherds who drew near to the Child following the light of a strange star. I imagine that whatever faith they had, no matter how small, brought them to their knees. Pilgrims who lived on the land, they found their way to the manger and, in adoration, knelt before this Child, in this manger, on this night.
I am but a pilgrim in half-belief on a journey led by a fragile faith. Yet, something within me compels me to keep returning to the manger, again and again. And I find myself in true worship, strangely stirred, in adoration of the Christ Child under the brilliance of Bethlehem’s star. The cry of my spirit as I look at Christ, the Savior, while standing before the manger is so perfectly described by this hymn:
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me…
Can I, will I forget how Love was born,
and burned its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me…”
Near the manger this advent, I discover that, indeed, “there is room and welcome there for me.”
For the Advent stirring of my fragile faith . . .
For newborn Love, born beneath Bethlehem’s star, thanks be to God. Amen.
The Seventh Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-six December 7, 2019
There are those who scoff at miracles.
I don’t know what they make of the birth of the Child.
For that matter,
I don’t know what they make of the birth of any child.
There are those who laugh at dreams.
so they’ve never heard an angel’s voice,
nor seen any unusual light in the night’s sky,
nor felt the yearning to set out in search
of new life.
There are those who do not see the Star.
I wonder where it is they go
when everyone else sets out for Bethlehem.
To those of us who believe,
into every night is born a Star.
— Ann Weems
I do not want to be one of the ones who miss seeing the Star. It’s important, especially when I am so focused on transplant recovery, that I make my way to Bethlehem this Advent. In her poem, Ann Weems writes that some people have never heard an angel’s voice nor seen any unusual light in the night sky. She laments that some people have never felt the yearning to set out in search of new life.
Advent 2019 finds me feeling at least a small yearning to set out in search of new life. Circumstances have left me no choice, really, because ahead of me, a new life is all there is. The old life is over and, with a new kidney to protect, I am facing a new life head-on, like it or not. It won’t be an easy life, but embracing new life seldom is. It is always a change and a challenge, asking for my best effort.
I fear it, as folks most always do when embracing a new life. And I am going to need some help — from my friends, my family and my faith community. I am going to need the singing of angels and the light from Bethlehem’s Star. I am going to need to believe —really believe — because not believing may leave me stalled on the path to Bethlehem. In believing, there is hope, hope that embraces the longing for new life. Hope that hears the singing of angels. Hope that looks up into the night sky and sees the Star.
There is no doubt about it — in believing, there is hope.
Ann Weems offers the grace of one last promise: “To those of us who believe, into every night is born a Star.”
“There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I am a student of the journey, always examining the stones in the road, the twists of the path, the crossroads that demand decision, the mountains that must be climbed and the valley of rest that replenishes the soul. All of it has been there on my journey, and I imagine on yours as well. The milestones along the way — those that are challenging and those that offer respite — are ever common for those who travel.
I question it often, the journey, asking where it next will lead me and what obstacles I might face along the way. But the journey does not tell. It does not speak, nor does it provide a map. The journey is wise, and it knows that if we know what the journey holds as we travel, we might turn back in fear. We might determine that the journey’s risks are too great.
So the beauty of the journey is this: that we give ourselves to it with at least some sense of trust. Somehow we are able to follow journey’s path blindly, accepting whatever we face next. Embracing the changing terrain, using every ounce of strength to go forward, taking paths unknown, binding up the wounds of the falls. We move onward with our soul’s faith spurring us on and in the certain knowledge that God knows the journey and that the Comforter walks beside us.
For after all, we are strangers and pilgrims (1 Peter 2: 11) on this journey, sojourners in a world that will not always be our home. We are just passing through this life, and so we take the journey as it appears before us, by faith. We trust the journey as if preordained for us by God. We hold fast to the journey in the faith that it was destined for us, and we do not set our sights on the destination, for that remains unknown and unknowable.
I share the eloquent words of Wendell Berry, who seems to understand the journey better than most:
We travelers, walking to the sun, can’t see
ahead, but looking back the very light
that blinded us shows us the way we came,
along which blessings now appear, risen
as if from sightlessness to sight, and we
by blessing brightly lit, keep going toward
that blessed light that yet to us is dark.
— Wendell Berry
May we trust the journey, moving “toward that blessed light that yet to us is dark.” Amen.
On another note, please pray for me as I await a life-saving kidney transplant. I am grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often feels so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to read the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link:
What do I do through these dark hours? How do I endure them, the lostness, the fear, the spiritual suffering? How do I make my journey and avoid the dark hours that overwhelm me along the way?
Dark hours are a part of our living, a part of our journey. They cover us — even those who are most religious and devout — like an ominous black cloud. Dark hours bring us fear, dread, a lack of hope. Dark hours steal the joy of our faith.
The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes a spiritual crisis in the journey with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross in his poem, “The Dark Night.”
In her letters, St. Teresa of Calcutta described how she endured a dark night of the soul from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.
St Thérèse of the Child Jesus wrote of her own experience of the dark night, as she found herselfdoubting the existence of eternity. She struggled and suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness, declaring to her fellow nuns: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into..!”
Examples of the experiences of those we look to as spiritual patrons of the faith do not really enlighten our own faith journeys. We walk our own spiritual paths, always hoping for the best, always striving to experience the holy along the way. And we hope beyond hope that we will not have to endure the suffering of dark hours.
The truth is that dark hours are required on the journey. We cannot walk around our dark hours, moving them aside like the sticks and brush we can so easily move off of our path. Our only option is to keep walking, to stay the course and to embrace the journey just as it is.
As I look back to take stock of my own journey, I see the the dark hours as powerful reminders of struggle and spiritual crisis. As I examine the past, I can say without hesitation that the dark hours were times I do not want to experience again. I can feel the intense pain of them, even now, the formidable affect of them on my spirit. The thought of them brings on a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that makes me want to quickly move on to the next life metaphor I might use in this post.
And yet . . . And yet, how clear it is from this vantage point that I endured my dark hours and emerged stronger, better, with faith intact and with a living hope to take with me on the rest of the journey. From the cloud of dark hours, I learned that I could believe again, hope again, move farther into my journey with joy — even unrestrained joy — because of God’s grace that gave me strength.
There is probably no writer that inspires me more than Bishop Steven Charleston. He has taught us how to live in his many writings over the years. In this piece, he shows us the way through our dark hours in these beautiful words:
Let us dance through these dark hours, while others crouch down, seeking shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow, let us give them a sign they can see, a message made of music and motion, two dancers spinning light out of darkness, a waltz in an air raid shelter, unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul. Let us dance so others can dance, dancers from every direction, standing up to join us, music filling the sky, a revolution of unrestrained joy, an invitation to believe again, to hope again, to be free again, dancing through these dark hours, as if dancing was all that we were born to do.
To be sure, I have felt the pressing urge to “crouch down” many times, “to seek shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow.” But in the end, through dark hours I learned to dance.
Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he . . .
It’s a good way to live.
It’s a good way to give witness to the world of our living faith and unrestrained joy!
All journeys begin with one step, just one step, usually into the unknown. Each step that follows goes farther into a journey that most often is made up of twists and turns and sometimes stones in the road. It takes a little faith, embarking on a journey.
Still, faith does not make things easy. But faith does makes them possible. Mildred McAfee says something very wise about moving forward in faith. She says “If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now.”
Tiny steps remind me of the book microShifts by Gary Jansen who suggests that transforming your life happens one small step at a time. The book’s message makes it quite acceptable to take micro shifts toward something in your life. As for me, microshifts are important. I have made dozens of microshifts to get comfortable with the idea of a kidney transplant.
Microshifts are still shifts, and that means change that we sometimes fear. Faith slips in on us at this point. There’s a tiny verse in the Gospel of Luke that those of us who are followers of Christ grab onto. We believe the message because we want to. We hold the message close to our hearts because we need to.
For with God nothing shall be impossible.
That’s it. Luke 1:37. Simple and clear. Without superfluous language, Luke asserts that nothing is impossible. And about the “with God” part. Well, I’m guessing that Luke adds that to remind us that faith includes a contract between us and the God of the possible.
So I am thinking today about what is really is possible, globally and personally. For instance, is it possible to end hate-motivated violence? It is possible to end racial divides? Is it possible to make sure schools are safe places? Is it possible to protect the earth from the effects of climate change? Is it possible for this nation to hold free, fair, respectful political campaigns and elections?
Global questions like those are endless — so many questions, so few answers.
But then I also ask what is possible on a personal level. What’s possible for me or you? Is it possible to live out our faith on the margins where hurt prevails? Is it possible to carve out time for contemplation, meditation and prayer?
And then there’s the question I often ask myself. Is it possible to envision a day of better health? I am thinking specifically about a kidney transplant. Right now, a transplant seems to be one step past possible, meaning that it’s just a little more than possible that it will happen. The possibility , however small, brings up feelings, emotions that have begun to escape from the place inside me that had them locked up.
I finally believe that a kidney transplant for me is probably going to happen. The stars have aligned. A brave and magnanimous donor has been evaluated by Piedmont Transplant Institutein Atlanta where both donor and recipient (me) will have the surgery. The National Kidney Registry will search for matches among paired exchange program participants. Even surgery dates are being contemplated. It’s real! After almost five years of wondering, and doubting a transplant would ever happen, a transplant is imminent.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that I feel panic and fear. My heart beats a bit faster these days. I am taking lots of deep, cleansing, centering breaths. My heart is preparing for a surgery that could well offer a new sense of freedom for me. By coincidence, blasting through my speakers I am hearing one of my favorite old country tunes, Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It is reminding me that I lost a certain amount of independence the day I got sick in 2014.
So today feels a bit like an independence day is coming for me. It feels like independence to think about a future of not being tethered to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day, every day. It feels like independence to not have permanent tubing emerging from my body. It feels like independence to be able to travel without the strain of taking large medical equipment and multiple boxes of dialysis supplies.
As with anything medical, things can go wrong. There are numerous disqualifying factors that could still preclude a kidney transplant. But right now, living donor and recipient are fully evaluated and the transplant is at least one step past possible. This is a good place to be.