O God, be gracious to me, For my soul takes refuge in you; And in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge Until destruction passes by.
— Psalm 57:1
Last night we had thunderstorms, loud ones. All of us were awakened from a deep sleep—me, my husband Fred, and Kikí the cat. And all three of us ended up in the bed together, Kikí snuggled between us in the soft covers. Sleeping in our bed is not Kikí’s normal habit, but the storm frightened her, and it was her safe place for the long, long night of the scary thunder!
Most of us tend to take feeling safe for granted. It’s all about knowing we live in a safe home, in a safe neighborhood, with the things we need. Typically, we aren’t stranded outdoors in a storm or wandering about in a scorching desert. For the most part, we are not left outdoors in freezing weather. We are the fortunate ones who have choices, but there are people all over the world who do not have the comforts they need and deserve.
In this season, we think about people who have needs more than we do in other times of the year. We may give more to organizations that help them, or we may reach out ourselves to offer a safe place for them. As we think about gifts and ribbons and bows (and gift cards for our teens), I hope all of us will remember the many people in our communities who truly need our gifts and our caring.
Truth is, we all need safe places almost more than we need anything else—physical safe places as well as emotional safe places. I suspect the little puppy in the photo above found both in the shelter of a goose’s wings. The animal kingdom is truly incredible. While we assume that animals are only focused on the safety and survival of their own kind, this simply isn’t true.
We have all heard stories about interspecies friendships. A dog who makes friends a cat. Or even a dog and a cow who have become friends. Usually the story is about an animal who went out of his/her way to comfort another, even though the two animals might be of different species and have very little in common. I want to share a true story with you.
It’s the story of a goose who sheltered a puppy from the cold during some dangerously low temperatures. The original story of this unlikely couple went something like this: In January of 2019, a polar vortex hit North America. In Montana, an especially frigid place, a passerby spotted a goose cradling a freezing puppy under its wings.
This goose’s motherly instincts immediately kicked in when she saw the puppy. Not wanting the tiny puppy to suffer, she covered the baby with her plumage to shelter it from the bitter cold. She hoped that her efforts would keep the puppy alive. Another source of this story tells us that the goose and the puppy—not at all of the same species—were adopted together. What a truly beautiful thing to witness!
There are plenty of humans that love and respect one another and even go out of their way to help those in need, even those who are not like them. But there is still far too much hatred and intolerance in the world. What might it be like if every person, animal, and every part of God’s creation could count on safe places, shelter from the danger, protection from fear, or a refuge in troubled times?
And how graced we are when we believe the Psalmist’s promise . . .
In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge Until destruction passes by.
During your meditation time, you may listen to the lyrics of this song. Original Songwriter/Composer: Scott Brenner, Cheryl Thomas
Most folk don’t take nearly enough time to notice it. These days way too much ugliness hides the beauty that’s always around us. Even when we don’t pay attention, beauty surprises us with magic and mystery. Beauty is a lot like hope.
The magical appearance of beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. For me, beauty can inspire me by color and movement, by the shimmering stars on a clear night, by the magnificence of a tree’s movement in the breeze, by looking into the eyes of my grandchildren. Beauty is there for us always—to be seen, to be heard, to be sensed deeply in our bodies and in our spirits.
These days, I need more of it—more hope, more beauty. I need more visions of beauty to supersede the ugliness of injustice, division, racism, misogyny, homophobia, political warring, brokenhearted immigrants looking for life, mass shootings, Covid, gun violence, child trafficking, suffering in Ukraine—all the varied chaos around the world.
And then there are the people here and there who bring grace to us all by transforming ugliness into beautyand hope.
As for the beauty revealed in the opening photo, I don’t know who created it or photographed it. I do know that he or she is a person who finds beauty in unlikely places at unexpected times, and translates that beauty into grace to be shared with those who most need it.
Who knows about that image? The striking silhouette of the trees, the birds flying above, the twinkling stars in the sky, and all of that with swirls of color that seem to me like holy movement. Regardless of the source of that photograph, I like to believe that its beauty—all beauty—comes directly from God as grace for me, and for you.
I confess that this is an unapologetic promotion of our newly released book . . .
When God Whispered My Name!
Stories of Journey Told by Baptist Women Called to Ministry
Rev. Kathy Manis Findley and Dr. Kay Wilson Shurden, Editors
Let me tell you why I recommend this book, unapologetically.
In its pages, you will find not only my story, but also the poignant stories of eighteen women who were called to ministry, only to face challenges and obstacles along the way. Simply because they are women! These are diverse women, each one unique, and their journeys follow winding paths, uncharted and serendipitous.
You will be mesmerized by these heartfelt stories about how nineteen ministers each heard a Holy Whisper calling her to a life of ministry and compassionate service to others. Get your copy today at these links:
“There is power in a story well told, a sacredness that speaks to shared experiences, and draws us closer to God and to one another. When God Whispered My Name is full of such stories. Equal parts inspiring, sobering, and challenging, the stories of these women bear witness to the Good News that flourishes when one dares say yes to God’s call. This timely volume is sure to offer hope, encouragement, and community to women and men who are wrestling with that same mysterious call from God and those seeking to empower them.”
—Mandy McMichael Associate Director and J. David Slover Assistant Professor of Ministry Guidance Baylor University
If you know about labyrinths, you might get this. People often ask me what a labyrinth is or what it’s for. Truth is, you can’t fully understand a labyrinth by definition, nor by reading about it. You won’t get the significance of a labyrinth by what I write here, no matter how eloquent my writing may be. To know a labyrinth, you have to walk one, or trace the circuits of a finger labyrinth, or trace the path on a sand labyrinth and feel the sand under your fingers.
As a part of spiritual direction, many folk tell me that a labyrinth looks like a maze to them, and they fear they’ll get hopelessly lost, unable to make it out. That sounds a lot like life to me. Isn’t there always fear that we’ll get lost on this journey we call life? After we’ve made a few wrong turns in life, we are often fearful of living it. Afraid our wrong turns will end badly. Afraid we’ll get lost.
The truth of the labyrinth is that it is a clearly marked path that will lead you in—to the center—and then lead you out by the same path. Perhaps that’s why it has been called “the sacred path.”
If you know me or follow my blog, you already know that my life has been made up of many curves, turns, twists, dead ends and crossroads. At times, it has felt unnavigable, a dangerous and unpredictable journey. Yours has probably felt much the same. I have learned a few good lessons along the way, though, lessons that I hope will stick with me.
The one overarching lesson is that I can neither predict, nor control my path. The twists and turns will appear before me, and I will walk through them. The curves will seem treacherous at times, and I will lean into them hoping to stay firmly on the road. I will stop in my tracks at the dead ends and simply turn around and start over. The crossroads? Well, they have their own precariousness, danger. The crossroads demand a decision. The road I choose could make a world of difference, good or bad.
It’s enough to make life frightening! And it does. Life is frightening, especially for those of us who need to control our pathways. Here’s where the labyrinth offers me so much comfort. It is a pre-created path in and then out, and when I follow it’s path, I am reminded of one of the core beliefs of my faith: that God has laid out a path uniquely for me. Whether I follow it or not is another part of my faith. I get to make that decision.
When I walk a labyrinth or even trace its circular pathways with my finger, I am aware of a guiding hand, a Comforter beside me, and the peace of knowing the path was created for me. I feel Spirit winds and hear the holy voices of thousands of years of Wisdom whispering into my ear.
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
In 1998, I wrote a book of thirty-one meditations, Meditations for Healing, specifically for survivors of sexual abuse. In 2006, I revised the the first addition and in 2022, I intend to revise it again. The meditations for each day of the month are prompts to help us find contemplative sacred pauses, very needful not only for survivors of violence, but also for all of us.
As I work on the revision, I am struck by the reality that all of us are survivors of violence, depending on how one defines violence. Is violence a horrific attack on a person’s body? Is that all it is? People who have experienced violence, and I contend that means all of us, know that violence is not only a physical assault, it is also an emotional and spiritual assault on everything we are.
“Violence in all its forms” is a phrase I use often. Defining that phrase is straightforward. Violence in all its forms does, of course, means the obvious: sexual violence, intimate partner violence, homicide, suicide and all the other big, bad forms of violence we observe or experience.
Might violence also manifest its destructive power in verbal abuse, gaslighting, racially motivated acts, the marginalization of women, homophobia, xenophobia, child neglect . . . this list could go on and on.
So as you and I name the forms of violence we have experienced in our lives, contemplative healing becomes important. So I offer you this meditation for healing:
As you enter into moments of sacred pause, this musical arrangement may open your soul to rest, peace, comfort and new hope.
The text of this choral arrangement by Elaine Hagenberg, Still with Thee, uses excerpts from a poem by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh, When the bird waketh and the shadows flee; Fairer than morning, lovelier than the daylight, Dawns the sweet consciousness, I am with Thee!
When sinks the soul, subdued by toil, to slumber, Its closing eye looks up to Thee in prayer; Sweet the repose beneath the wings o’ershading, But sweeter still to wake and find Thee there.
So shall it be at last, in that bright morning When the soul waketh and life’s shadows flee; O in that hour, fairer than daylight dawning, Shall rise the glorious thought, I am with Thee!
I write about sacred space a lot. I struggle to create sacred space a lot. I rest in sacred space . . . not so much. Certainly not enough. I confess that I, as a person who claims to cherish sacred space, can rarely find it. I must also confess that I need it. Yet, that space where I am tranquil, not agitated and troubled, is elusive to me. As some folk put it, “I’m staying busy!” Too busy!
Sacred space is different for every person. Each person will know her/his sacred space intuitively, and by faith. Mine would be under a tree with spreading, low hanging branches or walking my own garden labyrinth.
Your sacred space may be beside the seashore, a place where you find calm, peace, or the ”silence” of the ever-moving ocean. Or you may not require a particular place at all, just a state of mind and an open spirit. If you long for a place of solace, inspiration, or re-creation, you will eventually create a sacred space, either a place that nature has created, a holy place that you have found, or a place you create in your own home. You will know the place, because you will sense what it is doing for your body and soul. Still, you won’t necessarily have to find your sacred space. Your sacred space may find you. And if you have only a few moments each day, make it your sacred pause.
Your sacred space may be beside the seashore, a place where you find calm, peace, or the ”silence” of the ever-moving ocean.
Do not strain to see where your sacred space is or what it should look like. A sacred space has many faces, many facets and dimensions.
Imagine . . .
Once you find your sacred space, spend time there. You may choose to redecorate a quiet place in your home, build something in your garden that can center your thoughts, or find a quiet, beautiful place nearby that you can get to frequently and easily. As for what you do in your sacred space . . . well that will be as varied as the different spaces people choose.
Pray, breathe, sing, meditate, sit in holy silence—whatever you are moved to do is your own sacred moment—a very personal sacred moment. There is, however, one bit of wisdom that seems important—words from Joseph Campbell: “Your sacred space is where you can find yourself over and over again.”
I didn’t get ashes today. I don’t really understand why, considering that I have always been very religious and sometimes even spiritual. I think I may be in denial and don’t want to hear that I am dust (as I inch closer to dust each day that passes). I confess, I did feel emotional about not getting ashes today. I couldn’t name my emotions for some reason, so I began looking at images that might help me name them.
I found this image and, once I played with it a bit on my digital art program, I liked it. Most other Ash Wednesday images are gray and somber. I settled on this one because it has abstract ashes at the bottom and the palm that is burned to create them. It has a cross to remind me what Lent is ultimately about. It has some color, and there is light.
I didn’t get ashes today, but I got what is in this image! ashes, palm, a cross, color and light. I’m convincing myself that it’s okay that I didn’t get ashes.
Sometimes I wonder what I should do with Ash Wednesday? A better question might be, What does Ash Wednesday do with me? Must this day remind me that I am merely dust and will return to dust? At my age this is not a comforting thought.
And yet, I have to admit that standing before a minister to receive a smudge of ashes on my forehead is always like standing on holy ground, like standing in the presence of a transfigured Jesus who just last week showed us what transfiguration looks like. With a smudged cross made of ashes on my face, I walk on with just the tiniest hope that I will be transfigured, too, during the next forty days. Still, I got no ashes today.
What do I do with this day that invites me into the season of Lent by giving me ashes? How do I walk this forty day journey that is always marked by repentance, return, fasting, prayer, giving up something, and lamenting over what is, what has been, and what is to come? I am never quite sure that I want to travel Lent’s forty day journey.
So what will I do with this Lent? Some of all of it, I think — fasting, praying, hoping, healing, lamenting, giving up a thing, repenting and returning to God with all my heart.
Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Rend your heart and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
Joel 2:12-13 NIV
That’s my spiritual state on this Ash Wednesday, with a need for “fasting and weeping and mourning.” Lent has always been about penitence for me, but penitence without shame or guilt. Instead of shame or guilt when I return to God with all my heart, I will hear this:
I will arise and go to Jesus; He will embrace me in his arms, In the arms of my dear savior, Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Shame and guilt can never create newness and transformation for anyone. Sincere metanoia (sincere repentance) will create transformation.
If you know me at all, you know that hymns always offer me ”the whole story” — all the emotions that grab my heart, all the theology that matters, all the melody that lifts my soul. This hymn, one of my heart-hymns, says it all for me. And in this holy season, all that the hymn affirms will be my Lent. Please take a few moments to hear the hymn in the video below as you take time for reflection.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, love and pow'r.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
Come, ye thirsty, come and welcome,
God's free bounty glorify,
True belief and true repentance,
Every grace that brings you nigh.
Come, ye weary, heavy-laden,
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry till you're better,
You will never come at all.
Let not conscience make you linger,
Nor of fitness fondly dream
All the fitness He requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
I will arise and go to Jesus,
He will embrace me in His arms
In the arms of my dear Savior,
Oh, there are ten thousand charms.
We could have a long conversation about the potter’s messy hands, about the mud under his nails, about the strength of hands that look as if they are using every muscle to shape the pot. We would probably talk about the dynamic force of his hands that hold the pot lightly enough to form it, but controlled enough to avoid marring or damaging it.
In our conversation, we would probably remember the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a potter and the ways we have used that passage of scripture over the years. I don’t know about you, but my teachers and preachers used this text to teach me about the ways God can mold me into a worthy vessel that can hold enough faith and hope to get me through the hard times. Plus, being remolded would mean I was being ”obedient to God!”
We certainly do not want to use scripture out of its historical context, but another use of a scripture passage is to consider its imagery, its symbolism and its relevance to us in a given life situation. The following scripture, as translated in The Voice, contains a powerful section after verse 1 that tells us how God’s message comes through a prophetic drama played out at a potter’s wheel, and that there, the prophet sees an ordinary event from which he receives an extraordinary message.
1 The word of the Eternal came to Jeremiah
Now God’s message comes through another prophetic drama played out in a potter’s shop somewhere in the city. The prophet sees an ordinary event but receives an extraordinary message.
Eternal One:2 Go down to the potter’s shop in the city, and wait for My word. 3 So I went down to the potter’s shop and found him making something on his wheel.
4 And as I watched, the clay vessel in his hands became flawed and unusable. So the potter started again with the same clay. He crushed and squeezed and shaped it into another vessel that was to his liking. — Jeremiah 18:1-4 (The VOICE)
I cannot help but remember the many times throughout my life that this passage was interpreted as a potter (God) forming me. The message inevitably moved to the part where ”God is not pleased with me and is trying to remold me into a more worthy vessel for God’s glory.” Not the best biblical message we could glean from Jeremiah’s drama! Not only that, but I don’t much like the idea of the potter ”crushing, squeezing and shaping” me.
The best truth is that God does remold us in so many ways, gently and intentionally, so that we are always in the process of change and growth. In our case, the God who loves us just as we are, also holds us, as if in a potter’s hands. Though this passage does speak of serious remolding, it never indicates that the potter throws the damaged pot into the trash pile.
It is true that we are damaged again and again in this life, but God loves who we are, and like the potter, God gently remolds us along the way, creating of us the best we can be. God never throws us away, no matter how severe our damage — damage on the outside, visible to all; and on the inside, where the deepest damage rests, in the soul and spirit. Visible to no one, excruciatingly visible to us.
We can choose to be like clay in the potter’s hands, allowing a gentle God to remold us, repair our damaged life, and empower us to be new, remade. This sounds like hope to me, and grace.
This is Jeremian’s story, his vision. He sees it as an ordinary event that graces us with an extraordinary message. Jeremiah’s story is ours to ponder and to ask ourselves if there is any damage to us or in us. If you sometimes view yourself as damaged, seek help from someone you trust — a friend or family member, a therapist, a spiritual director, your minister.
And remember, the potter is always near for gentle remolding.
Such a beautiful place to worship, isn’t it? To me, this image of my church is both beautiful and mournful. This image of my church sanctuary is a picture of what my church experience feels like these days. The image of an empty church brings several words to mind—empty, quiet, lonely, dark, worshipful, silent, desolate, disconsolate.
I cannot sit in these pews right now. My doctors say it is to risky for me because of my suppressed immune system following a kidney transplant. The social risks that others are able to take are not risks that I can take. Worship ideally happens in community and I am separated from my community. Isolated.
I feel sorrow about it. I miss my friends, my Sunday School class. I miss the sound of the organ and the voices of the choir. I feel very alone and isolated, a prisoner of Covid19. Even though I am an avid Zoomer watching our worship and even teaching my Sunday School class, it is not enough for my soul.
I admit that I dwell too much on the aloneness of it all, the feeling that I walk my journey without spiritual companions. I feel a deep need to worship in a sanctuary, a soul-need for me. I sometimes feel that I am simply watching the livestream of worship, not worshipping at all. I watch many churches and sermons just to make up for it.
I even fear that when it is safe enough to be back in public spaces, I will have decided that it’s just easier to stay home. Most of all, I find myself forgetting the highest and holiest remedy for aloneness—God’s promises to be with us always—recorded in so many passages of Scripture.
Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
— Isaiah 41:10 ESV
Thanks be to God. If you have a few minutes, spend them quietly as you watch this comforting video.
Do you wonder sometimes where God is while people are being oppressed? I mean all kinds of oppression — racial injustice, human trafficking, violence and abuse, prison injustice, sexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism. The list can go on and on, all the way down to specific stories about specific oppressed individuals. At that level, the down to earth level where we see a living person suffering, is the heartrending place. It’s the place where we find ourselves face to face and up-close with someone pouring out their story. It’s the place where we learn to talk less and listen more. It is for us an experience of holy listening with just one person.
Have you ever been in that kind of space listening to just one person? Have you ever been with a person suffering oppression who is freely sharing a heartbreaking story with you? I know that this kind of face to face encounter can be intimidating, even frightening. It can be beyond frustrating to listen to someone when you’re pretty sure you can’t do much to help.
There are at least two options for those of us who have a deep desire or calling to liberate those who are oppressed. We can offer what we have, even when we do not have a way to fix things. What do we have? Our presence, our emotional and spiritual support, our ability to advocate, housing assistance, financial assistance, employment assistance, safe shelter, understanding, constancy, presence, presence, presence . . .
The other option is to rail against a God who makes pronouncements about caring for oppressed people, yet seemingly does nothing to liberate them. This may not be our best option. Scripture reveals that God has a way of dealing with complaining people, and it is almost never a positive experience for the complainer. Moses comes to mind, and Miriam, and Job.
Poor, pitiful Job had a rough go of it and he wanted God to do some explaining and answer some questions. After all, he was a devout and faithful man, so why would God allow him to suffer so many losses? Right after Job is schooled by his three “friends” on several theological matters, including that he should never question God, God appears to Job out of a whirlwind. It was probably grand entrance, and then God basically says to him, ”I’ll ask the questions, buddy!”
Here’s a snippet of the long exchange between God and Job.
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the whirlwind.
2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? 3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? 6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone— 7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
— Job 38:1; 4-7 (NIV)
Job was oppressed. God was aware of it. God seemed unconcerned for too long, but there actually is a redeeming conclusion for Job. As the story goes in the last chapter of Job, God restored Job’s fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. All of Job’s brothers and sisters, and everyone else he knew, went to his house for Sunday dinner and they consoled him for all the trouble he had been through. Then each one gave him a piece of silver and a gold ring. It worked out!
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s sculpture, ‘Monument of Oppression’ depicts hands emerging desperately from behind bars.
“I can’t think of one single nation of the world that did not practise slavery, including among Indigenous people,” the sculptor says.
(Photo by Handout)
What does Job’s story say to us? What does it teach us about oppression? In my mind, in order to confront oppression and free persons from every yoke on a societal scale, we must first be aware that systemic oppression exists. It is stark reality! It darkens our world! Right now, approximately 40 million people are trapped in slavery in the world. One in four of these is a child. This shame that pervades and plagues the planet does not seem to disturb people very much. Unfortunately, it is in some people’s best interest to maintain the oppressive systems that benefit them, that is fill their pockets with wealth (which is the primary reason for trafficking human beings, for instance).
Systems of oppression are very large, very complex and very powerful. Ending oppression is way too big for us to tackle alone. After sincerely asking the all-powerful God to help us bring down these all-powerful oppressive systems, we can add our hands and feet to the holy project. Contact senators, representatives, governors, mayors. Urge them, persist with them to use their position to help break down injustice. Know what you’re talking about when you contact them by reading about the work the many of anti-oppression organizations that exist. Join in their work. Look for those resources at this link.
Finally, we must open our eyes to the people in our own communities who need our compassion, our concern, our caring presence and our advocacy on their behalf. It takes some creativity, some committment and compassion, a lot of courage and a covenant with our God of justice to change an unjust world. The outcome might just look something like what the prophet Isaiah described:
Is this not the fast that I choose: To release the bonds of wickedness, To undo the ropes of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free, And break every yoke?
7 Is it not to break your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him . . .
8 Then your light will break out like the dawn, And your recovery will spring up quickly; And your righteousness will go before you; The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; You will cry for help, and He will say, ‘Here I am. . .’
10 And if you offer yourself to the hungry And satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, And your gloom will become like midday.
11 And the Lord will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
12 Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; You will raise up the age-old foundations; And you will be called the repairers of the breach, The restorer of the streets in which to dwell.
— Isaiah 58 (NASB)
I don’t know about you, but I want to be among the ”repairers of the breach.” I don’t want to live in a situation where I “hope for light, but there is darkness.” (Isaiah 59:9) Instead, let me find myself looking far beyond the world’s darkness, looking to the Creator who demands justice, looking upward to claim the promise, ” . . . satisfy the need of the afflicted, Then your light will rise in darkness, and your gloom will become like midday . . . And your light will break forth like the dawn.”