Troubled Waters and Miracles

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I love the words and the melody of the spiritual, “Wade in the Water.”

Wade in the water.
Wade in the water, children.
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna’ trouble the water.

There is just something about it that is moving to me. It digs down into my spirit and stops me in my tracks. I don’t know why I react so deeply to that simple bit of music. It could be that what draws me to it is its strong reference to healing as it recalls the miracle story recorded in the Gospel of John.

After a feast of the Jews, Jesus went to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda. It has five porches, and lying in these porches are many sick people who are blind, lame, paralyzed, each waiting for the moving of the water.

For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

Now a certain man was there who suffered from an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is troubled. Before I can get into the water, someone else gets in before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.

— John 5:1-8 NKJV (paraphrased)

Or what inspires me about the song could be the stories that surround it. Some folk claim that “Wade in the Water” contained secret coded instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture as they followed the route to take them to freedom. The website Pathways to Freedom: Maryland & the Underground Railroad explains how Harriet Tubman used the song to tell escaping slaves to get off the trail and into the water to make sure that the dogs employed by the slavers lost their scent. “Wade in the Water” was one of their most inspiring freedom songs.

Those moving stories remind me of the many ways music touches my life with inspiration, courage, and hope, how it reaches the depths of my soul during the times when nothing else can reach me, how it lifts me up when I have fallen into despair, how it fills my heart with just the melody I need to give voice to my sorrow and then gives me a way to express my moments of greatest joy.

Most of us can recall times in our lives when we needed a dose of Divine healing. We can remember times of sorrow and despair and fear when only an encounter with God could move us toward peace, times when we needed to be made whole again, times when we hoped beyond hope that God would trouble the water. Read it again.

 . . . An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and troubled the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the troubling of the water, was made well of whatever disease she had. 

So in John’s Gospel story, a man who had been sick for thirty-eight years was healed. He was too ill to make it into the troubled waters of the pool no matter how many times he tried. But Jesus was there and asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered that there was no one to put him into the pool when the water was troubled. “Before I can get into the water,” he said, “someone else gets in before me.”

But Jesus said those extraordinary words to him: “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 

Immediately it happened. The man was healed, and he picked up his bed and walked. Maybe the man rushed off to tell friends about the wonderful thing that had happened to him. Or maybe could only stand there in awe, not moving at all because the moment was just too overwhelming.

It was a miracle. Actually, the story tells of at least two miracles: that Jesus healed the suffering man and that an angel descended from above and troubled the water in that otherwise ordinary pool.

I don’t know about you, but when I encounter a pool of healing water, troubled and swirling, I want to get in. I want my faith to be big enough to expect a miracle from ordinary water, in an ordinary pool, on an ordinary day.

 

Please visit this link to hear a stunning arrangement of “Wade in the Water” featuring an excellent soloist and choir from the A Cappella Academy from Los Angeles.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=uiqQKZZo-Uc

 

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

Every Bird’s a Songbird

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Art: “Songbirds in Apple Blossoms” by James Hautman.

As I sit on my porch this morning in a light, refreshing rain, the most prominent sound I hear is joyous birdsong, different strains of music from a variety of birds that co-habit in our tiny bird sanctuary. A statue of St. Francis appropriately stands among the feeders and the suet. The hummingbird feeders are in a separate spot, providing a banquet of sweet nectar to these delightful birds, whose fast moving wings create their most unique song.

I love to listen to the songbirds, and we are graciously blessed to live in a neighborhood with very few sounds — no traffic, no motorcycles, no speeding cars, usually not even people voices. Just the birdsong, with an occasional tree frog and the wonderful southern gift of cicadas. 

In my opinion, every bird is a songbird. According to scientists at The Nature Conservancy, the term “songbirds” refers to a wide range of bird species. Songbirds typically include finches, sparrows and warblers, but most often when someone is defining “songbird” they refer to beautifully colored birds that we’ve never heard of. The Nature Conservancy website features three: the Dickcissel, the Blackburnian Warbler, and the Kirtland’s Warbler.

I have never seen any of those birds, but I have heard lots of glorious birdsong. So I stand by my opinion that every bird’s a songbird. And in my better moments, I hear their songs as an offering to God, their songs of praise to God who gave them voice. During those times, I am drawn to the many beautiful and lyrical Psalms. This is one that is particularly moving to me

Praise the Lord, my soul.

Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

You wrap yourself in light as with a garment;

You stretch out the heavens like a tent and lay the beams of your upper chambers on their waters.

You make the clouds your chariot and you ride on the wings of the wind.

You make the winds your messengers . . .

How many are your works, Lord!

In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.

There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small.

When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills,

You give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.

— Psalm 104: 1-3;10-12; 24-25, 30 (paraphrased)

Many of the Psalms urge us to sing, to praise God with our voices. 

Sing to the Lord a new song . . .

I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

As far as singing, well sometimes we are reluctant, holding back an imperfect voice that does not always make pleasant songs. Sometimes we are convinced that our singing would not be such a worthy offering of praise. So we should probably remember that every bird’s a songbird. And as for us humans, it might help to remember that every person has a voice, every heart has a song, every soul has a melody.

Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to thee. How great thou art! How great thou art!*

Amen.

 

* From the hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” a Swedish traditional melody and a poem written by Carl Boberg (1859–1940) in Mönsterås, Sweden in 1885. It was translated into German and then into Russian and became a hymn. It was translated into English from the Russian by English missionary Stuart K. Hine, who also added two original verses of his own.

 

 

 

 

The Music of Family

068E7848-EFD1-44CD-94E5-EDB43AD57577I have come to believe that family is music, sometimes loud music, sometimes music almost inaudible. But it is music that I deeply cherish. So few things in life really matter. Family is one thing that does matter. It’s all about relationship and rootedness.

This week we lost First Lady Barbara Bush who lived a long and meaningful life for 92 years. During her lifetime, Barbara Bush — called “the enforcer” by her family —was famous for speaking her mind. One thing that was most dear to her was her love for family. This she reveals in her own words:

At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child or a parent. When all the dust is settled and all the crowds are gone, the things that matter are faith, family and friends.

In our retirement, my husband Fred and I somehow managed to move ten hours away from our son and grandchildren. I’m not sure exactly how we made such a decision, but we certainly live each day with the reality of it. We have missed the delight of watching our three-year-old grandson grow up. We deeply miss the sweet moments we used to spend with our granddaughter who is now almost nine. We hardly know our grandson by marriage. And we hold tightly to the memories we made spending childhood days with our oldest grandson who is now in college.

We can’t call those moments back. We can’t relive the days when our grandchildren were babies and toddlers. But we will have the memories always.

This weekend, our entire family visited us, with the exception of the oldest grandson. We had a grand time celebrating our three-year-old’s birthday, complete with streamers, balloons and a Spiderman cake. The laughter was infectious. The excitement was palpable. Our small house was full and loud, very loud! The popping of balloons was a highlight for the boys, and quite NOISY for those of us who are older. But all of it was the big, boisterous music of family, a celebration to be remembered.

All too soon, the visit ended, and Fred and I watched the car crammed with grandchildren pull out of our driveway and head toward Arkansas. The house was quiet again, so very quiet. The music of our life got much softer when they left, and for a brief moment, I thought about crying a little. But I thought better of it. It was a beautiful, sunny day. The visit had been a very special time of celebration. Our family was happy and healthy. No call for tears.

My choices are: 1) to be terribly sad that my children are far away; or 2) to celebrate their lives and the bond we share, a bond that transcends the miles that separate us.

So my blog advice for this day is to hold on tightly to the music that is family. Listen intently when it’s soft and quiet. Join the celebration when it’s raucous and loud. But always know in the depths of your soul that the melody will dwell in your heart of hearts forever. That’s what the music of family does.

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

Baffled

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Art by David Hoffrichter Illustrations

At times, I am baffled by retirement and aging. It’s one of those “wonder-what-to-do-with-myself” times that is a part of life. Like so many people, I allowed my work to define me. On the other side of a life of ministry, there is a great deal of grief and loss, and mostly bewilderment. I constantly ask myself the question I should have answered decades ago: “Who am I?”

It is definitely true of me that I no longer know what to do. Oh, I keep myself busy enough with trivial pursuits. I cook. I write. I paint. I garden. I do crafty things. But none of those pursuits are engaging enough to help me redefine myself as a person who has passed her years of full time work and ministry.

Certainly, many people say that once you are a minister you never lose your ordination, your gifts, your calling and your mission. But I wonder what that really means. There is no preaching or worship planning going on in my world these days, no hospital ministry, no funerals and no weddings to officiate. If my mission and calling is for life, what does that mean in terms of day to day living?

I have to admit that, though I am busy doing “stuff,” I no longer know what to do with myself. Fortunately, I recently found a smidgen of comfort in these words written by Wendell Berry.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

— ‘The Real Work’ by Wendell Berry, from Collected Poems, 1987.

So when all is said and done, perhaps it’s okay to be baffled. Maybe I can become that “impeded stream” and make a bit of music, filling these baffling days with singing. Just maybe, the writer of Ephesians had some very good advice for a person in my state of baffle-ment.

. . . be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

— Ephesians 5:18-20 New International Version (NIV)

Peace on Earth. Good Will to Us All!

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We rarely sing one of my favorite Christmas Carols. Its words always cause emotions to well up within me. Although the words of this carol were written in the mid-1800’s, they still speak to the bleakness we face in these days.

It was on Christmas day in 1863, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself — wrote a poem seeking to capture the dissonance in his own heart and in the world he observed around him. He heard the Church bells that December day. He heard the singing of “peace on earth,“ but he also despaired of a world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of any sort of peace. Yet Longfellow’s words eventually led to a sense of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.

Such confident hope will also guide us through our own reality — a reality that constantly reminds us that the presence of despair, violence, injustice and intolerance destroys the hope, peace, justice and lovingkindness we so deeply desire for our world.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.””

Amen