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.
1 The Lord is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When the wicked advance against me to devour me,
it is my enemies and my foes who will stumble and fall.
3 Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.
4 One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
5 For in the day of trouble God will keep me safe in his dwelling;
God will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock.
6 Then my head will be exalted above the enemies who surround me;
at his sacred tent I will sacrifice with shouts of joy; I will sing and make music to the Lord.
7 Hear my voice when I call, Lord; be merciful to me and answer me.
8 My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, Lord, I will seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me, do not turn your servant away in anger;
you have been my helper.
Do not reject me or forsake me, God my Savior.
10 Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.
11 Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors.
12 Do not turn me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me,
spouting malicious accusations.
13 I pray that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.
Today's lectionary (shared readings given for Protestant and Catholic churches each Sunday of the church year) contains this reading of Psalm 27. This was Mom's favorite psalm. We read it many times in the last months of her life. Mom had a beautiful soprano voice, and she would tell of the beautiful pieces she had sung on Sunday mornings using words from this psalm. When asked which verses she especially liked, she talked about the first and fourth verses. As we read it over and over, I grew to love the 13th verse, "I pray that I see the goodness of the Lord..."
As I've carried this verse with me over the years, I've grown to appreciate the Yin and Yang to this goodness talked about in this psalm. This goodness walks the halls of hospitals and nursing homes, of courthouses and prisons, of classrooms and playgrounds, of border crossings and refugee camps every hour of every day. This goodness of the Lord. Words that whisper and proclaim, that remind and remember, that breathe in and through - the goodness of the Lord, that embodies God Incarnate, God-with -us.
We're told in Acts 20:35 that "it is better to give than to receive," and that is a mantra we used in our house growing up. Along the way I've been reminded time and again that there are two sides to every coin. I've found that this "it's better to give..." is not always true. Or, maybe better said, it is true but not the whole of the truth. What is true (the other side of the coin) is that sometimes it is also good to receive.
This has been brought front and center for me this past weekend. My sister, Betsey slipped while hiking this past Friday and broke her wrist. Her right wrist. Did I mention that she is a Massage Therapist and her hands are her livelihood? Needless to say, it was a blow to her and to all who love her. You see, my sister, Betsey is a giver. She is mindful and intentional and generous as she makes her way in the world. She gives of her time and energy and resources -- day in and day out, hour in and hour out. And suddenly her world (and her wife, Mary Ellen's) made a 180 degree turn this past Friday. Upside-down and inside-out. Betsey, the one who is so generous in her giving is now (whether she likes it or not) into the position of receiving. It will be a new muscle for her, a new rhythm, a new way of being in the world.
And if Mom were still living, I can almost hear what she would be saying to youngest, "There is goodness in this, Betsey Ann." My hunch is that if Bets and Mom could share a conversation it would be about the give and the take, the Yin and Yang of loving others. In these days that are ahead, Bets is now in a place where she will be receiving much more than giving. I can hear Mom's voice telling her that the message handed down through the ages is that there is goodness in receiving as well as goodness in giving. Love is right there in both.
At work when I talk with parents whose children are in the hospital, I am mindful almost daily of this verse. I pray that goodness will find them, maybe in the hallways or the garden or in the cafeteria or at the bedside. I pray that they will be comforted and strengthened and empowered by the love that is ever-moving. This love, like our breath, moves in and out. Circular. Fluid. Living grace. Giving and receiving. They've been side-by-side all along.
There are so many amazing kids in the world. I was reminded again just how precious encounters can be with them. I got to spend a little bit of time with one amazing kid not long ago at the Children's Hospital where I work.
E. is seven or so and he is interested in the world around him. He and I had a great conversation. I was grateful to talk with him and hear what he was thinking. I guess that’s not unusual for kids who spend half of their days in the hospital. They are used to talking with grown-ups. Some grown ups they like. Some they don’t appear to have much energy for. With many of these kids, you can tell pretty quickly. When I stopped by to check in with E, I was honored to be in the “not so bad, I kinda even like her” category.
E said it was ok for me to sit down, and soon we started talking. He told me he was having a “not-very-good day.” He told me about a test he had had earlier and that he really didn’t like it very much. I told him I hadn’t ever had one of those tests and asked him to tell me about it. For most of it, he was asleep, but the parts he remembered weren’t any fun. Somewhere along the way I told him that I thought he was a “swell kid.” Well, that got us going.
E told me he didn’t know that word and he didn’t know if it was good thing or a bad thing to be swell. His mother, who’d be listening and I exchanged smiles and I tried to tell him what swell meant. And pretty soon I realized that “swell” was an old word and not used much anymore. I talked about it being in the same group as “good” and “nice,” but different. I said that if I heard a boy or girl described as “swell,” I would probably like them before I even knew him. It was a conversation I’m not sure I would have ever had with anyone else on the planet except E. And I knew (and I hope he did, too) that I enjoyed our talk from start to finish. It was the highlight of my day. I still carry it with me, days later.
After we’d kicked that can as far down the road as it would go (another expression for another day), I started to take my leave. I asked if we could talk about another word the next day, and he said he wanted to. So I asked him what the word should start with. He thought for a minute and said “E.”
The next day’s conversation was about the word “Earnest.” E was in "school," so I shared the word with his parents. Now there’s pressure. they asked me to write it on the white board, so E could see it later. Talking abut something is one thing, writing it on the white board meant that it was gonna be up there for all the world to see for a time. So, I wrote the word E A R N E S T. The next thing I wrote was something like: even though it has “ear” and “nest” in it, earnest doesn’t mean either of those things. (So, what did it mean?) “Deep truth.” “You are talking with somebody and you are being as honest and kind to them as you can be.” (His Mom nodded, so I thought I was at least in the ballpark. – Yes, another expression for another day).
And so it went for me and E while he was staying in the hospital. “Wonder” was another fun one I thought about. "Courage." "Tolerance." I don’t know about E, but thinking about what words meant to seven-year-olds was a gift to me. It was so apparent that what mattered most for me was right in front of me. They were moments when I was aware that I couldn’t do everything, but I could do something. They were instants when we listened to and for one another. They were moments of sharing Sacred Words.
Sometimes the Sacred Words we are seeking are the ones being spoken all around us. The gift is to be paying attention, so that we don’t miss them.