One of my grandmother’s used to say this to me when I was growing up: “Be kind, honey. Everyone’s doing the best they can.” Can’t imagine what might have precipitated her comment. Maybe someone was being rude. Or mean. Or angry. I don’t really remember. And it’s funny to me that I don’t remember which grandmother. My money is on my maternal, Midwestern one (as opposed to my paternal, New Englander) but I can’t tell you for sure. What I know is that I have carried those words with me most of my life.
These are important words for me, for us in these days. All you have to say to an Atlantan is “Man, this morning on the perimeter there was this guy that…” and we will all be blowing our collective tops on behalf of the storyteller. It’s common place to lose our reason, our patience, sometimes lose all rhyme and reason in a split second. Somebody cuts us off in traffic. Someone cuts in line at the grocery. Some young (human being) kid whizzes by us on a scooter – and that’s enough to tip the scales. Katie, bar the door…
Is it possible to take a deep breath? Is it possible to not be so invested in…whatever it is that seems to be so “top-blowable?” Is it possible to show lovingkindness in these improbable days?
“Everyone’s doing the best they can.” These are hard and tender days. Both. These are very preciously short and painfully long days. Both. These (for many) are the best of times and the worst of times. Both.
What would it take for us to be intentional about actually seeing one another as we journey on? In these intentional Lenten days as we make our way toward Jerusalem, can see one another as God’s precious child? Sisters and brothers also on the journey? Sisters and brothers making their way through each day, carrying burdens we can’t see? Can we see one another as sisters and brothers making their way in the same way - left foot, then right foot?
Everybody's "best" might not be quite enough. Their "best" might take me 3 minutes longer at the cash register or cause me to lose my stride for just a beat on my walk. It probably would. What would change for this Jerusalem-bound journey that we are on, if instead of saying a few precious words at them, we say a few precious words for them? What if instead of getting in a good word, we speak a prayer on their behalf? Not in a shaking-our-heads, I'm-righteous condemnation, but in a prayer more like "I have no idea what your days are like, but I hope things get easier for you"? Not because we must but because we may. Maybe this is where the `turn the other cheek,' `walk the extra mile' got their starts...
Come now O God of second chances; open our lives to heal.
Remove our hate and melt our rage. Save us from ourselves.
Come now O God, release our demons; open our eyes to see
the shame within, our guilt and pain. Mend us, make us whole.
Come now O God and still our anger; open our minds to peace
Embrace our fear and hold us close. Calm the storm within.
Come now, O come now O God, shake our resentment;
open our way to choose the way of love ever revenge.
Show us a new way.
Come now, O come now O God, and grant compassion; open our hearts to love.
May we let go of all our hurt. Help us to move on.
Come now, O come now O God of second chances; may we forgive ourselves.
May we become your living sign; children of God’s love.
~ David Haas
This morning’s lectionary text from Luke 15 is the well cherished story of the prodigal son. “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So the father divided his property between them.”
Many of us have grown up hearing this story. There are many characters, but three central ones. The father who loves his children. The older brother who works faithfully and hard, doing all what is asked of him. The younger son who is restless and wants more than he can see around him.
Why do you suppose the story is thrown into the middle of our Lenten journey? What is it about this story, that matters to us today? What is it about the story that invites us in? I struggle with stories and jokes I’ve heard before. I race to the punchline. I quit listening. I know how this one turns out. Today’s story offers that same temptation.
But today is a new day. When I’ve heard this in the past, I’ve taken the side of the hard-working one who does what is expected. The one who doesn’t seem to be appreciated or get his do. As I hear it today, though my heart resonates with the one who turns and returns.
For me as I hear it again, the heart of the story is the young son’s turning and returning home. For me today, the heart of the story is the moment when the young son learns that being away from his family, being away from what is his work to do, being away brings him no life. For me the heart of the story, is when he stands up and turns back towards his family. There, the father opens his arms and celebrates his wandering son’s return. It is the turning into returning that speaks to the story, it is this message that speaks to Lent. It is when he receives his second chance.
This story does a beautiful job of reminding us of left foot, right foot. This story does a beautiful job of reminding us of the ordering of things. For us to return to a place that we love, comes after we have first turned from another direction.
In this turning, there is an immediate shift. We see things a little differently. We come at things from a different angle. We are not the same, we are not on the same journey as we were just before. Perhaps that’s one of the gifts of the story: not being on the journey that we were before.
This season is filled with places of turning and returning. What will happen if we shift just a little? What will happen if we turn in just a little? What will change, and at the same time, with love… What will always be the same?
This morning our choir is singing this anthem by David Haas. It is a hauntingly beautiful tune, with power words. Ours is a God of second chances. The turning is up to us, the love has always been there and will be there when we return home.
Don’t you wonder what it must be like to be God? I really can’t imagine. I don’t mean it in any way that sounds facetious or sacrilegious. Some days I just try to get my head around the notion of God and prayer. And that’s only one of many things I try to get my head and heart around.
Lately I’ve been thinking about how these days seem to bounce all over the place. From here to there and back again. Some days feel good, some days feel impossibly hard, some days just are…
Remember when we started this Lenten journey, I talked about walking from the parking deck to work every morning? As I’m walking in the early morning, I like to stop and take a picture of the sunrise from the railroad bridge. These two sunrises here are two back-to-back days. And those back-to-back days got me thinking about my prayers. My prayers can change from minute to minute, from hour to hour, from day-to-day. Prayers of despair melt into prayers of celebration and thankfulness and back again.
Maybe someday we will better understand. Better understand God's lovingkindness through it all. Now we understand in a mirror dimly, then we will see face-to-face, now we understand in part, then we will understand more fully. Just as we are fully understood (1 Corinthians 13:12).
For this morning and for this day, I am just thankful. I’m very thankful that God hears my prayers. When I’m wandering in the wilderness, when I am only getting in my own way, when I am angry, when I am deeply connected. I am so very thankful that God hears them - prayer after prayer after prayer. I am thankful that God is able to hear us all. This day I am thankful that God is.
There is a spiritual practice of holding a place for another person. Somehow, sometimes we understand that we will be knowing another person for just a short amount of time. Not forever, just for now. In our knowing of them, we come to understand that we will never really hear all of what happened before we met them and will not be with them to know how their lives end up. These times when it mattered that all we could do was what is right in front of us. Just for this precious time and place. Just for this holy and finite time and place.
Not long ago we spent some time in a little Air B’n B by a river. Watching a river is peaceful and hypnotizing. You can witness the river’s power. Where we were staying, we were told that only a few weeks before, this river had swept past its bank and risen 15 feet or more. Peaceful. Powerful. Both/and.
Rivers bring wisdom and are powerful teachers of life’s lessons. The place where we stayed had a carved sign that spoke to some of the lessons: “Advice from a river - go with the flow, choose to chance the rapids, go around obstacles, be thoughtful of those downstream, slow down and meander, stay current, the beauty is in the journey.”
As I was sitting and watching the river, listening for the sound of the water passing by, I felt the river’s energy moving by me. I was reminded of a life lesson I received back during the time I was working in hospice. One piece I remember from those days as chaplain for those patients and their families was the preciousness of time. Our team wasn’t given long sometimes to get to know the folks and to offer help and support. Just a short, precious amount of time. Working now in a Children’s Hospital, I am often mindful of that same truth. Life is precious. We have what is in front of us each day. The past has happened before with that child and her family. Their future will continue after they have left and journeyed on. What we have is what is in front of us.
My image is standing on a dock of a peaceful river. When I have the privilege of meeting a patient and his family, I know that this will be but a short amount of time in the chapter of this family’s life. When the boat in front of this imaginary dock, this family is seeking shelter and rest, comfort and encouragement. When the boat is there tied up to this imaginary dock, we can hear stories, we can laugh and cry. We can offer what will nourish and sustain each person. For a short, precious amount of time I/we can offer ourselves and our gifts. Not forever, but for now.
When they are rested and ready to move on, they push off and continue on downriver. We will never know or understand or have any control over what happened to that patient and her family before we met them, upstream. All we know about is what we shared in the time we had together. Right here. Right now, while they were there at the dock. And we will never know or have any control over what happens as they continue on downriver.
We just do what is before us. Each hour of each day. We care for those we care for. We love who we love for the time they are there at the end of the dock. Not forever, just for now.
Glory be to God whose power, working in us,
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
Still on the journey. Still on the road. Still making our way through the wilderness, Still making our way to Jerusalem.
It's easy to be weary these days. It's easy to grow tired of what seems like the same 'ole, same 'ole. There is something exhausting about journeying on. Journeying on when we are not able to see back to where we started and not yet able to see where this path we are on will end. We are in the in-between days of Lent. Here in this middle-place, it's easy to get discouraged and restless. Mom used to call this kind of time "ouchy." I don't remember her cussing much, so she sure couldn't say "bitchy." Instead she called this "ouchy."
Grace comes now and again to these in-between, ouchy days, and when grace comes, I find myself surprised by joy. (Perhaps Mom is nudging me along, angeling me on…) Unexpected and surely welcome, surprised by joy. This day is no exception. When I saw this verse as I was reading, I felt joyful and grateful and un-stuck. This verse from Ephesians turns what was into what just could be.
So often we debate the question of the glass being half empty or half full. This verse reminds us that we have missed the point entirely. This verse speaks to the joyful proclamation that every day, every hour of every day our glass is full to overflowing. So much time is spent wondering: "Half full?" "Half empty?" So much wasted time worrying if there is enough. Almost enough? Barely enough? For this time on the journey, we are reminded that God is present with us. God is in us. God is present in our lives working toward something greater and better and full of YES. All this time, our glass isn't half anything. Instead - all along - from our first breath until our very last, our glass is full to overflowing. Around us and within us - more than we could ever hope for or imagined.
From this place of overflowing surely, we can stop wandering. Just for right now, we can look up and around for just a bit. Surely, we can see beyond our immediate troubles and catch a glimpse of the world around us. There is work to be done. We are called to love our neighbor, and we don’t have to look farther than our own neighborhood to find a place to start. For the young and old. For the hungry and thirsty. For those who need a kind word. We have been given such a gracious plenty. We have more than plenty from which to give, more than we could ever hope for or imagine. What better time than today to give from our abundance and share the joy?
Here’s to you and me and here's to the us we have been created to be!
Come, Thou Fount of every blessing;
tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
songs of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise….
...prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love;
here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for Thy courts above.
~ by Robert Robinson (1757)
Does everybody have a “go-to” song? Does everybody have a song that they sing or hum to themselves when in a crisis or facing a mountain to climb? Is there a song that sings in you when words don’t come or when they fall far short?
Several songs sing to me. But there are only a couple that my heart knows best. Great is Thy Faithfulness, Be Thou My Vision and Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing are my big-three. Come, Thou Fount's history is strong and true. This song always lifts my spirits (especially when sung with others); it brings my soul reassurance. This hymn most certainly has old words. More often than not these old words bump and bang around into my theology. But this song has grown up with me. It has pushed me through and led me on. It has been a gift my whole life and I keep it close. One thing I know is that I will surely need it again.
As we journey through Lent, it’s important to keep our songs close, and bring them out all along the way. Some parts of the journey call for proclamation. Some parts call on our affirmations. Some parts of the journey call for contemplation and quiet. All through this year (even before the start of Lent) I have needed these songs of faith. These days are tender-lovin’ days. Every day it seems, something happens that speaks to hardship and suffering. Most every day, it seems we can hear the Earth groaning. Every day it seems, we need to bring our own light to what seems to be human-made darkness. Every day it seems, I fear of growing too weary to go on. And so, we sing.
This song asks for a “tuning of the heart.” That feels like exactly what is needed. It’s not that we can’t sing, it’s just that the tune feels a little bit off key. Here in the song’s very first words there is an ancient knowing of how easy it is to drift and lose our way. “Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” These words call on acts of lovingkindness that always hold us. These words hold to our knowing of something bigger in the greater Story than just what we are currently experiencing. Such a tender/clear request, “tune my heart to sing Thy grace.” It’s not asking for things to be fixed. Not asking for the mountain before us to be flattened. It is asking that our hearts be brought in tune with the ever-faithful melody.
“Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.” How true are these words. I remember singing these words in the MYF high school choir. I remember singing it in the midnight communion services at the when I was in college. I remember singing it when I was working with folks who were dying of AIDS. I remember singing it at the early service at Central UCC. It has been sung at loved ones’ baptisms and funerals. It continues to journey with me as I make my way into this waking-up Spring.
I wonder about a time when these words of a person's faith and a certain melody were first brought together in the mid-1700's. It's a gift that continues to lift me up and bring me home centuries later. There is a marveling that I have treasured memories of hearing each of my grandmothers sing this hymn - one in a Methodist Church in Illinois, the other (sung an octave lower) in a Congregational Church in Connecticut. There is with deep, deep gratitude that I have heard our boys sing it as well. Over the years, singing with loved ones, I have heard this song sung out-of-tune to my ear. But that tuning has never stopped us from singing. Tuning our hearts speaks to this song's message, and to this pilgrim's prayer.
So when the shoe fits
the foot is forgotten,
when the belt fits,
the belly is forgotten,
when the heart is right,
“for” and “against” are forgotten.
~ Thomas Merton
Time and again I am reminded of ways that life so often brings us opportunities to witness balances. All around us we can see parts coming together to best fit. Things joining in place, left foot and then right. Dawn to dusk. Winter into Spring into Summer into Fall.
Thomas Merton’s words provide a welcome guide for these days. So easy. So possible. They make complete sense. And yet…how difficult it is for me to make my way through an entire day without drawing a lines in the sand, lines of separation. "For" and "against." "Us" verses "them." "If those folks are for it, then I'm a'gain it." I understand his words about the shoes and the belt, but it feels so different to get my head (and heart) around his words of: when the heart is right.
Right can mean more than one thing, of course. It can be morally good, justified. These days in our conversations it can be referring to those who vote for the Republican ticket. Right can also mean correct, accurate. As I read and re-read these words, I think Merton is speaking to the right that speaks to balance and generosity; to being grounded and being loving. Right means pushing past the divisive practices that only seem to make us more certain of ourselves and at the exact same time - more lonely. Alone, on our own righteous islands. Right here invites us to see something broader, richer, deeper than what we’ve been able to see before. Merton is inviting us to understand our hearts being right as a way of bringing us back to the center. Back to who we have been created to be.
Years ago I remember a conversation I had with a beloved professor, Fred Craddock about inclusion. His words have journeyed with me now more than twenty-five years and still serve as a beacon. He said something just right. Dr. Craddock said something like, “What’s all the fuss? It’s always been Jesus’ table. He didn’t tell us who to invite, he just told us to find more chairs.”
A pilgrimage is said to be on a journey to a destination that is known and respected. Pilgrims are those who set off, body and soul seeking the sacred. Pilgrims are yearning to be in the place that holds their hearts as well as their story.
It's interesting to think about the difference between being a pilgrim and being a tourist. Years ago when I went with a group of clergy to Israel, I found myself being a pilgrim one day, a tourist the next. My best explanation of the difference was that I knew when my heart slowed down and sought a resting place and when my heart didn't seem involved at all. Being led by my heart were the times I felt myself to be a pilgrim. Most often it was when we visited the chapels and churches in Galilee. In those places I sat and listened and wondered and prayed. In those places, I heard again the songs and prayers of my childhood. There, in those moments I was aware of time being different here.
And on that same trip to Israel, I was aware of being a tourist. In those moments I found I always wanted to just keep moving. My heart never seemed to want or need to settle. It was as though I was checking places and spaces off a list of things to see. Teflon. Nothing stuck. As a tourist I was aware of wanting to take something back with me when I left. I bought things. My eyes moved over fabric, beads, wooden sculptures with my only thought being:`who needed what?' It was as though I needed to show I'd been there, without really have been there.
As I've thought about that trip years ago to Israel it is easy for me to differentiate between being a tourist and being a pilgrim. A pilgrim is seeking a place that holds the holy. A tourist is trying to capture and hold on to, to possess somehow that very same place. One is seeking, yearning to connect and rest for a bit. The other is seeking to`take it to go.'
We are called to be pilgrims on the journey, you and I. We are called to follow in the footsteps of the One who has led us to this place and continues to lead us day by day. We are called not be comfortable, not to be complacent, but instead to keep moving toward what is greater and better and next.
As we move through these Lenten days, we are invited to think beyond what is true for us now. This is a time of introspection and reflection. Is what we are doing right now bringing us closer to God and our neighbor? If it is not, then what are the obstacles that are keeping us stuck here, being merely a tourist hurrying and scurrying our way through? If we are journeying through this Lenten season as a tourist only, then what are tangible ways we can use this time to turn and return to the One who calls to us on journey?
We human beings are here for only a time. A specific, precious amount of time. What we do with those seconds into minutes into hours into years is the story we live and the story we leave. What we work toward and hope for matters. Tourist or pilgrim? Everyday it is for us to decide. As pilgrims, we are cherishing the Story that holds us, while ever moving toward what is next. It is an amazing truth that we are both rooted and moving at the same time. We are rooted in our faith and always following where it leads. Both / And. Not yet.
Stories move in circles.
They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy
and as hard
as finding your way home.
And part of the finding
is the getting lost.
And when you’re lost,
you start to look around
and to listen.
~A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance.
Maybe today is the most perfect time to talk about coloring. Now that we are moving into the season of Spring, it’s good to be reminded of the little and great things that bring color to our lives.
Sitting down with the intention of coloring is one of those life-bringing activities that I wish I did more. One of my favorite memories when we were little was Mom’s bringing home a brand-new box of 64 Crayola’s (wait for it…) WITH a crayon sharpener built into the back. All those colors. Rows of them all lined up. Brand new crayons. Those boxes were my earliest glimpses of bliss. Now that I’m older, there are choices upon choices upon choices for coloring. Crayons still, sure. Colored pencils, and now there are colored pencils that have multiple colors on the same tip (who thought of that one???). Paint (oil, water, more). Chalk. All kinds of ways to bring color to a page. All kinds of ways to break loose and jump in.
More often than not when I start coloring, I find myself drawing circles and coming round to mandalas. I first met mandalas in seminary and have loved them ever since. They are symbols for healing, for meditation. Mandalas are symbols holding the universe. Symbols reminding us of the center, of our center. They are known to be symbols of balance. Symbols of the sacred, inviting us to go beyond what is here to what is coming.
With a little imagination, you can see mandalas in so many things. As the trees have been blooming, I’ve been mindful of trying to get pictures. When I walked up to a tree and looked all the way to the top, I could see a circle at the top, with the branches forming the design of the mandala on the inside. Not far along in my walk, I saw the same thing with the fire hydrant. Then I saw mandalas in bicycle tires. Beauty is all around. Finding circles and stopping just a moment to see what is pulling us in. Is all about stopping for a moment to see.
I've heard it said that stories move in circles. I believe spending time with mandalas keeps me listening to my story. So, take a piece of paper and draw a big circle. Grab your crayons or paint or chalk or colored pencils, find a comfortable spot and see what happens. It's. All. Good.
There's a song in every silence, seeking word and melody;
There's a dawn in every darkness, bringing hope to you and me.
From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
~ Hymn of Promise Natalie Sleeth
Unrevealed until its season.
Lent is our shared time of moving from season to season. From one season to the next. Winter to Spring. Together we move from watching sunsets through the tree’s bare branches to seeing sunrises with branches now bursting with buds. We see colors come awake and come alive. Birds lift up their songs. All along the way we are reminded that life never stands still, but is always shifting, always transforming.
We mark our years by the number of candles on the cake. Most days we mark our time hour by hour, minute to minute. Still, somehow we know that there is something greater always holding us. The notions of our seasons feel much more authentic to the living of our lives than measuring only by calendars or wrist watches. Seasons aren’t exact. Seasons are experienced more by the color of the leaves turning or the smell and feel of the dirt as we are planting seeds. We live out seasons of Innocence and seasons of Despair. There are seasons of Wing-Spreading and seasons of Face Plantings. There are seasons of what was that? and seasons of what’s next? When we speak of those kinds of places, of our life-seasons, then we are talking about mystery and mercy and grace. Then we are bearing witness to the most vulnerable and valuable moments of our lives.
“A song in every silence…A dawn in every darkness…” Natalie’s song invites us into life’s shifting mysteries. Time and time again we know that being alive is recognizing that what was is no longer what is. It is seeing both the realities and the possibilities of what is now will surely change.
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
These words bring comfort. They acknowledge pain and hope side-by-side. They acknowledge the seasons of our lives. Sometimes lasting three months. Sometimes three years. Sometimes three breaths. A time. Measured. Lived. Past. Then we move on to the next season, the new season. All the while God is with us. Until what is next is revealed.