When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 
— Matthew 10:41 NRSV

Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.

How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.

I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.

God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. 
Helpless we seek You, God our joy, 
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. 

Jonathan Cook

I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out. 

You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.

When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.

Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her. 

The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV

So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!

Thanks be to God.

Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.

God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, sing through us,
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us.
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide
In Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

I Think I May Have Lost My Music


I think I may have lost my music, and I’m not sure exactly when I lost it, or how. I can probably get away with blaming it on the coronavirus. After all, choirs cannot really sing right now, at least not safely.

The coronavirus has stolen so many things from us all — important things and things that are not so important. For me, one of the stolen things that affects me deeply in my soul is music.

When I hear music, the melodies and rhythms often reach into my soul. Music is my muse. Losing my music is one of my most troubling losses. I know, of course, that I can listen to Pandora or Spotify.  Or I can listen to quality music on National Public Radio and find hundreds of concerts on YouTube.

What I am missing most is being inside my church sanctuary listening to the music of the pipe organ and anthems from our choir. Part of it may well be that I’m missing the people who offer their gift of music every week. Part of it is probably nostalgia when I contemplate the decades I spent singing with choirs and other groups. Part of it is missing my many years as a soloist. Part of it is missing my last ministry position as minister of worship at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Part of it is having to leave my piano when we moved in 2015. Part of it, I am certain, is that I can’t really sing anymore, at least much of the time. After my illness in 2014 and its very long recovery, I lost my voice. This was such a profound loss for my soul.

For some reason, all of this was on my mind this morning when I had a serendipity moment. I received an email with a brief thought for the day. I receive it every day, but today it happened to include a passage of Scripture closely related to my present thoughts. This is what it said:

But now, get me a player of music, and it will come about that while the man is playing, the hand of God will come on me and I will give you the word of God: and they got a player of music, and while the man was playing, the hand of the God was upon him.

— 2 Kings 3:15

Haven’t we all heard someone singing and playing music when we were touched and changed? All creativity and beauty in this life are but a small reflection of the master musician, our Creator. Listen with your heart and be glad.

John Gaudreau

Music can be our soul’s joy or our heart’s expression. Music can lift us from sorrow’s depths and raise us to higher planes of grace. Music can be our most lavish praise to God. Music can open our spirits and create in us expressions of gladness, even in times of trouble. May God make it so. Amen.

Let me end without any more words, just music. “Listen with your heart and be glad” and hear this beautiful anthem, “Through Love to Light” with text written by Richard Watson Gilder, 1844-1909.

Through love to light! O wonderful the way That leads from darkness to the perfect day; From darkness and from sorrow of the night To morning that comes singing o’er the sea! Through love to light! through light, O God, to Thee, Who art the Love of love, th’ eternal Light of light! Amen.

My Spring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Song of Songs 2:12

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

We Can Still Sing Alleluias!

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Christmas Day

December 25, 2019

LATER

Later
after the angels,
after the stable,
after the Child,
they went back …
as we always must,
back to the world that doesn’t understand
our talk of angels and stars
and especially not the Child.
We go back complaining that it doesn’t last.
They went back singing praises to God!
We do have to go back,
but we can still sing the alleluias!

— Ann Weems

Christmas Day — it will pass too soon, out of sight for another year. The angels topping our trees will be packed away. The stars on our garlands will be neatly rolled up and packed into a box. The tinsel gone! The ornaments gone! The lights unplugged! The candles extinguished! Until another year.

And we all go back to a “world that doesn’t understand our talk of angels and stars and especially not the Child.” The world goes back to life as usual, no longer graced with the brilliance of Christmas. The wars rage on across the globe, swords replacing plowshares. The racism again begins to reign. The political parties spew hatred one to the other. Hunger remains and poverty still devastates. The border wall continues to send its message of exclusion.

It’s all the same, just as it was before. It seems that the gentle spirit of Christmas changed our spirits for only a brief moment. We slip back again into our normal lives, perhaps forgetting the silent night when the star shone over a Child. As the poem says so poignantly, Christmas doesn’t last. We do have to go back to a life that can be oppressively normal, a world that can be oppressively cruel.

But there is Good News! Because God Incarnate came to us, there is Gospel Good News! Even though we have to go back, “we can still sing the alleluias!” We can sing year around if we want to. We can sing alleluias in good times and bad, in times of joy and in times of sorrow.

We can sing alleluias, like the angels who still sing in the heavens. CDD97A09-E1FB-4271-9382-B8B7F35697B1We can sing alleluias because “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

My Constant Friend

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Transplant Day Nineteen
November 30, 2019

Sleep would not come easily last night. It occurred to me that I would probably struggle all night to get to sleep, and I began to hope for the coming of daybreak. As I drifted slowly into sleep, I did what I often do on sleepless nights. I began to sing a hymn, under my breath of course, careful not to disturb Fred’s sleep. I began to sing a Gospel hymn Fred and I used to sing many years ago. In our church, or in concert at other churches, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was one of the favorites every time we sang it. It was certainly one of my favorites and last night while experiencing a little pain, it came to mind that God was indeed watching over me and, as the hymn says, “Jesus is my portion, my constant friend . . .”

Of course, I also began whispering the Scripture text that inspired this hymn.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

— Matthew 10:29-31 New International Version (NIV)

And then the hymn:

Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart feel lonely and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is he.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I love learning the stories behind the hymns we sing. This is the writer’s story behind “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Civilla Martin was born in Nova Scotia in 1866. Her husband was an evangelist who traveled all over the United States. She accompanied him and they worked together on most of the musical arrangements.

In 1904 Civilla was visiting a very ill friend. Although discouraged and sick, her friend remembered that God was watching over each sparrow and would certainly watch over  her. She shared with Civilla the words in Matthew 10: ” . . . don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Civilla was a poet and thought this would be a perfect idea for a poem. She jotted down the idea and by the end of the day, had completed “His Eye is On The Sparrow.” The entire poem was sent to a well-known composer of that day, Charles Gabriel. His lovely music has carried it all around the world in small churches and great crusades.

And then there is my story behind this hymn: that I learned it decades ago and sang it often; that it spoke comfort to me back then, just as it did last night when sleep would not come; that God has given me the gift I call hymn memory so that every time I need encouragement, the text of a hymn — usually every word of the hymn — comes to mind to comfort me.

For this gift, I give thanks to God. Daybreak did come this morning, but before that I was led by the message of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” into a restorative night of sleep. And I know this truth in all my deep places: “Jesus is my portion, my constant friend.”

I hope you will take a moment to enjoy this video of the hymn.

Surprised by Light

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Transplant Day Seven
November 19, 2019

Today, I am singing in my mind a sacred hymn that often speaks hope to me. The
text was written by William Cowper (1731-1800) and the music by William Howard Doane (1832-1915). In the darkness of the past week, I have been surprised by light.

Sometimes a light surprises
The child of God who sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
God grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after the rain

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s’ salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

Tomorrow can bring us nothing,
But God will bear us through:
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people, too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God Who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks or herds be there
Yet, God the same abiding,
God’s praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

It is so true that “sometimes a light surprises the child of God who sings.” The surprise is almost magic. Surely the light is miracle, and I thank God for the miracle of this new day. The miracle, I think, is that I am able to look at this day in a way that leads to gratitude for life.

I am determined that this will not be a day I describe by pain, but that I would declare this day a day of healing. Today, I want to lean into healing, not suffering — faith, not fear. I am convinced that this is God’s desire for me.

There is no doubt that I have walked through darkness in the past week. It is also my truth that light really does shine out of dark places. My pondering light and darkness this morning brings up a Scripture text I have leaned on many times in my life. I love the New Century Version of this text.

God once said, “Let the light shine out of the darkness!” 
This is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts by letting us know the glory of God that is in the face of Christ.

We have this treasure from God, but we are like clay jars that hold the treasure. This shows that the great power is from God, not from us. 

We have troubles all around us, but we are not defeated. 
We do not know what to do, but we do not give up the hope of living. 
We are persecuted, but God does not leave us. 
We are hurt sometimes, but we are not destroyed.

— 2 Corinthians 4:1-11 New Century Version (NCV)

How accurately this text describes my past few days! How true it is that I have not known what to do about the pain and suffering, yet I refuse to “give up the hope of living.” This is as it should be. This is God’s desire for us — to never give up the hope of living and to cling to the good hope that light really does shine out of darkness.

Sometimes a light really does surprise us when we sing. Singing beats weeping every time. Singing drives out darkness. I have heard often that only light can drive out darkness and I believe that truth. In fact, when I find myself in the middle of darkness, I am convinced that darkness is precisely the place where I am able to see the light at its brightest.

Thanks be to God.

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.