Blue Skies and Gentle Breezes

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Blue skies and gentle breezes. That’s Macon most of the time. Oh, and you have to factor in the gnats, the annoying gnats that we have because we live on the gnat line.

And there really is a such thing. Look it up. (http://southofthegnatline.blogspot.com/p/gnat-line-101_28.html) 

You will find that not only is the gnat line a real thing, but that it also sits directly on top of Macon, Georgia. No one told me that before I moved here.

Still, there are blue skies and gentle breezes this morning. For a few seconds, I am fully in the moment, fully aware of the blue skies over me and the warm breeze that points my mind to all that is good, to all the things about nature that we can count on.

Gnats notwithstanding.

In some ways, it’s a picture of life —the beauty of blue skies and gentle breezes, right along with the persistent aggravation of gnats buzzing your face. Certainly, life is like that for me. There are every day graces accompanied with aggravations, challenges and sometimes troubles. Life brings days of deep mourning sometimes and times for gladness at other times. 

Most thoughts these days take me to the very real possibility that I will receive a new kidney. The thought of it is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would not be me if I did not have the troubling thought that I might die in the middle of surgery. Or that I might contract a lethal infection and die of that. Or maybe I’ll be be compromised from the procedure and not recover.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll thrive with a new kidney. Maybe I will feel better than I have felt in five years. Maybe it’s true that I’ll live longer. Maybe life will begin again, fresh and new and full of possibilities. I love this message from the writer of Ecclesiastes.

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (New International Version (NIV)

What a good and gracious thought! The promise that as we are enjoying life, joy will be in us through whatever “toil” we face. Struggle, trouble, travail — we experience all of these in life, right along with the joy.

So as I contemplate a kidney transplant, I might just think of it as one of life’s “toils” that, by God’s grace, will be accompanied by joy. 

I think I can do this. After all, “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Blue skies and gentle breezes all the way!

Pesky gnats notwithstanding!

 

 

Through These Dark Hours

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Unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul.

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 herself doubting 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!

Amen.

Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

The “Laughter of the Redeemed”

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So when the grand and glorious celebration of Christ’s resurrection is over, what do we do with our leftover joy? There is an easy answer to that. Celebrate Bright Week with laughter and loud singing, and look forward with great anticipation to Bright Sunday! You might be wondering what in the world I’m talking about. What’s Bright Week and Bright Sunday?

Well, just in case you didn’t know, Bright Week and Bright Sunday are real. genuine. bonafide things. Many Christian churches celebrate the Sunday after Easter as Bright Sunday, a day for joyful celebration. In fact, the entire week following Easter, called Bright Week, was set aside for the celebration of the Resurrection according to the 66th canon of the Council in Trullo:

. . . from the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God until New Sunday (or Bright Sunday) for a whole week the faithful in the holy churches should continually be repeating psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rejoicing and celebrating Christ, and attending to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and delighting in the Holy Mysteries. For in this way shall we be exalted with Christ; raised up together with Him.

The custom was rooted in the musings of early church theologians like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom, including the intriguing idea that God played a practical joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. “Risus paschalis – the Easter laugh,” the early theologians called it.

For centuries in Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant countries, the week following Easter Sunday, including “Bright Sunday,” the Sunday after Easter, was observed by the faithful as “days of joy and laughter” with parties and picnics to celebrate Jesus’ resurrection. Churchgoers and pastors played practical jokes on each other, drenched each other with water, told jokes, sang, and danced. Can you even imagine such hilarity in some of our most traditional churches?

Yet, theologians wrote about holy laughter. While languishing in a Nazi prison, Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann became fascinated by the ongoing celebrations of Jesus’ Resurrection by the early Christians that continued long after Easter Sunday. He called it “the laughter of the redeemed.”

And yet, we Christians are often viewed as offering a joyless and humorless Christianity.

Where is “the laughter of the redeemed?”

We have a Savior who, knowing that he was about to be betrayed, tortured, and crucified, told his disciples before his arrest:

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:11)

So where is our joy? Where is our laughter?

With great fondness, I remember the youth ensemble at First Baptist Church of Arab, Alabama singing an amped-up version of “Sunshine in My Soul,” lively, syncopated, full of unbridled joy! With a big smile on every face, the group sang this spirited, exuberant song about their sheer joy in Christ. Always, their offering of “Sunshine in My Soul” was a joyous event. I can hear it in my memory right now.

There is sunshine in my soul today.
It’s a glow so warm and bright.
That shines in any earthly sky
For Jesus is my light.
Oh, there’s sunshine, beautiful sunshine,
When the peaceful, happy moments roll.
When I look with love into my brother’s face, there is sunshine in my soul.

What a bright and joy-filled song! A perfect song for Bright Sunday.

Laughter, joy, fun, rejoicing!

I hope that during this Bright Week you will find sunshine in your soul. I hope that you will laugh hard and long during Bright Week, that you will pass joy along to those you love, that you will sing a song of joy or two, using your biggest, strongest outdoor voice. After all, it is Christ’s resurrection that we celebrate!

 

 

 

My Dance

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I love the lyrics of the song sung by Garth Brooks, “The Dance.”

“Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance.”

Yes, life is fraught with pain, but we take it along with the joy. The two go together, are inseparable. And if you choose to avoid the pain, you will miss the dance. Joy and sorrow come together, and those who know the greatest joy are those who also knew great sorrow.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.”
― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

The dance is filled with both joy and sorrow. Bishop Charleston describes the dance:

The dance is not over, even if the night grows long, even if others have left the floor, for as long as the band plays on, as long as music fills the air, the spirit within me will move, move in time to the sounds of life, to the rhythms of change. I age but I do not grow old. My dance goes on, and when I have no ground beneath me, I will dance on air.

Joy!

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You shall go out with joy, be led forth in peace. The mountains and the hills will break forth before you into singing, and all of the trees of the field will clap their hands. – Isaiah 55:12

What an expression of pure joy! It’s the kind of joy I long to experience, to live my life in praise to God. Such joy doesn’t come naturally for me. The toils of life push me down, and often disturb my joy. Problems and concerns often assail me. But I believe that there is a secret to finding joy, prayer and singing.

It works every time, no matter how grave your circumstance. Sincere prayer, giving praise to God with your whole heart, and singing songs of joy are remedies for the blues. And God desires that we experience that kind of joy.

I think it’s all about making life’s journey a spiritual journey. Wendell Berry writes about such a journey.

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.

When my journey turns the corner leading to sadness and I am feeling melancholy, my cousin always says, “Be joyful!” That is very good advice. Feeling joy brightens my journey and invigorates my physical, spiritual and emotional being.

And so today, I embrace joy!

Simple Joys

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Life is full of joys! Little joys and big ones! Complex joys and simple joys! Last night, I watched three of my grandchildren play on the floor . . . tickling, rolling, scooting, laughing, throwing a mini basketball. The experience was a simple joy.

I lifted a Bible verse gently out of context this morning because it expresses the kind of joy I enjoyed yesterday with my grandchildren. No doubt about it, they “refreshed my heart.”

“Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.”  Philemon 1:7

Life has its way of burdening our hearts with all sorts of “bad news.” Reading a newspaper or reading the world news online each day confirms it. So we need brief times of heart refreshing, the time to engage in simple joys that nurture our souls.

I can definitely give you an example of a simple joy this morning: surprising my granddaughter by waiting for her to get off her school bus and watching her reaction when she saw me. I had not seen her in over a year, so when she spotted me down the block from her bus stop, she shouted my name, broke into a run, and landed in my arms.

What a simple joy that was, and a profound one, all at once! I pray tha your world today will be full of simple joys.