The Singing of Angels

BethlehemHoward Thurman is one of my favorite theologians and authors. I first encountered his writings during my seminary years when an anthology had just been published. Of all of his writings this piece has touched me most at Christmas.

The Singing of Angels

There must always remain in every person’s life
Some place for the singing of angels,
Some place for that which in itself is breathlessly beautiful and,
By an inherent prerogative,
Throws all the rest of life into a new and creative relatedness,
Something that gathers up in itself all the freshets of experience
From drab and commonplace areas of living and glows in
One bright white light of penetrating beauty and meaning . . . then passes.
The commonplace is shot through with new glory;
Old burdens become lighter;
Deep and ancient wounds lose much of their old, old hurting.
A crown is placed over our heads that for the rest of our lives
We are trying to grow tall enough to wear.
Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life,
Despite all the harsh discords of life,
Life is saved by the singing of angels.

– by Howard Thurman from “Deep is the Hunger” 1951.

Friendship Is Built on Trust

Integrity is a part of the code we live by as Christians. Our word is depended upon by others. We need to know that we can trust each other in the small stuff, or how will we ever trust in the important stuff. All of which is why I was so troubled when a friend was dishonest with me recently. I wish my friend had simply spoken the truth. It wouldn’t have been hard to say, “I forgot. It slipped my mind. I couldn’t.” . . . Or any number of simple, easily forgivable reasons. Instead my friend told me something I knew was less than true.

Trust is breached when we choose dishonesty. This is especially so, when you consider the person to be a friend . . . A friend that you have trusted in the past and hoped to trust in the future. I’m not sure all that motivated the lie, but I do know that it hurt. The odd thing about the lie, is that it didn’t accomplish what it was meant to do. I’m disappointed in my friend. All of which is causing me to rethink this friendship. Do I want to be around a person I can’t trust? What can I believe that this friend tells me? What other lies have I been told?

The writer of the book of Proverbs says of friendship, “A friend loves at all times.” (Proverbs 17:17) I think that love means that we can be honest when we slip up in friendship. It is alright to admit that our thoughts were elsewhere, and what we should have done, we didn’t do. It is in fact better to be truthful than to hide behind a lie.

To have a lasting friendship is truly a gift. Our friends bless us with their care and faithfulness, through the persistence of their presence in our lives. We may live long distances from our friends, yet with a phone call or visit, years fall away. When a friend hurts, we hurt. We celebrate with friends the joy of life. Relationships grown through the years bring laughter to our hearts and joy to our spirits. I’m grateful for friends who have shared my journey . . . For those who have been with me in good times as well as bad. I’m grateful for friends that I can trust.

I’m grateful for another friendship . . . the friendship that comes in Jesus Christ. This friend will never lie to me, will always be with me offering both grace and compassion. It is a friendship that will not end, with one whom I can always trust.

The Long Journey to a Promised Land

I’m always reminded that the route to the Promised Land led through wilderness territory. The journey begins with Moses who in meeting God in a burning bush is told, “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters; I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Exodus 3:7-8

The idea of a Promised Land after years of slavery, must have appealed to the oppressed Israelites living in Egypt. What they hadn’t counted on was the path to the Promised land, would take them into a place where water was scarce and food more scarce. I’m sure the Israelites would have liked to bypass that time . . . and yet it was in the wilderness that they were shaped and formed as God’s people. Wandering through the wilderness they discovered God would care for their needs on a daily basis. In the wilderness the people learned to trust God with their future. And it was there that the Israelites learned obedience to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. No one would accuse the Israelites of being quick learners though. Their wanderings take them far afield of where God wants their hearts to be. Years spent in the wilderness are far longer than God intended.

Which in some ways gives me hope. When I read the newspapers, I can get pretty discouraged about this world. Whether it’s Martin Luther King Jr.’s “long arc of the moral universe” bending “towards justice,” or Isaiah’s words of hope that one day “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, “(Isaiah 11:9) we’ve been given words of promise that one day God will set right what is wrong in our world. Today the headlines scream of beheadings, and corruption in high places. They speak of little boys who find guns in purses and shoot their parents, measles outbreaks touching a new generation, violence in the middle east, catastrophic effects of global warming and a host of problems in our neighborhoods.

The Israelites found their way through the wilderness, when they started to listen to God and act on what they heard. We also are being led. Day by day God’s tugs at our hearts to take a turn toward mercy, kindness, goodness, sacrifice and compassion. Other voices would have us lean into resentment, prejudice, selfishness or vengeance. Still others would tell us not to care that it doesn’t matter.

Lovers of God soon learn that all of this matters. God cares what we do with our lives and how we live in our relationships, not only as individuals, but as a nation. God has this dream that one day there will be peace on earth and God’s will shall be done here, even as God’s will is done in heaven. God always uses individuals to accomplish what God intends. From Moses who led slaves in Egypt to freedom, to Mother Theresa feeding the hungry in the slums of Calcutta, there have been those who said “yes.” God still pulls at our hearts and asks us to follow to the unique places where we can best be a part of bringing healing to this world. The way out of the wilderness is in saying “yes” to where and how God leads.

Are You Listening to Screwtape or Listening to God?

In C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters, Lewis presents the correspondence between a Senior Devil . . . Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. It is Screwtape’s role to guide the young Wormwood in his task to lead a young man away from his new-found faith in God. Through the course of the book, we find Screwtape giving advice to Wormwood about the young Christian. Wormwood is to “work hard on disappointment . . . keep him from praying . . . get him to take offense at petty irritations of family life.” Wormwood is told to cause despair, or a long period of chronic suffering. When his charge goes to church, Wormwood is to get the man to think that he is better than the other people and to think that the rest of the people are hypocrites.

“Let him be disappointed in people. Remind him of the prayers that aren’t answered with the speed and in the way that he expects. Try to get his anger up – get him disillusioned, the long dull monotonous years of middle-aged prosperity or middle-aged adversity are excellent campaigning weather. You see,” Screwtape writes, “it is so hard for these creatures to persevere . . . the inarticulate resentment with which we teach them to respond to it all . . . this provides admirable opportunities of wearing out a soul.”

Screwtape knows that most often, it is not the big things that happen to us which wear away at our faith. Rather, little frustrations, hurts, pains and disappointments whittle at our spirit. We grow cynical or bitter. We forget about God or are tempted to believe that God doesn’t have anything to do with our day-to-day world. We begin to wonder if our faithfulness makes a difference.

Most of all, we forget that God loves and cares for us. The Apostle Paul has a remedy for us. You’ll find it in the 6th chapter of the book of Ephesians, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of God’s power. Put on the whole armor of God . . . so you may be able to withstand on that evil day and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith . . . take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication.” Ephesians 6:10-18

Today may be frustrating or painful, but the love we are held in is eternal. This love never ends. It will be here today, tomorrow and in all of our other tomorrows. For we are God’s children and our destiny is already set. Thanks be to God.

Pope Francis and the Environment

Pope Francis has set off a wave of controversy in the past week. His fresh Vatican perspective comes as an energizing breath of air to those of us who have wished that Roman Catholicism was more focused on the concerns of Jesus and less on the church. So, I’ve applauded his recent comments on both the economy and on the environment.

The writer of Genesis made a point of telling us in the creation narratives that we are stewards of the earth. God calls the creation good. The earth and the sky, birds and fish, water and sun, animals and humans, flowers and trees – it’s all good. God then puts the care of creation into our hands. We are to have dominion over it. Which is not a license to use and abuse the earth, but to be responsible for it. The choice has always been ours. For centuries we have recognized the human contribution to our environment. We have had to reclaim the call to manage and care for the earth, to keep our waters’ fresh and our air pure. Late in the 13th century burning of sea-coal so polluted England’s air that King Edward penalized anyone caught burning it. Lead poisoning in public water supplies was recognized in Julius Caesar’s time.

I grew up in a home that valued the environment. Just as our farm neighbor’s were dependent upon the rain and the sun for the health of their crops and their livelihood, our fishing resort was also dependent upon an adequate supply of rain. Without it, lake levels dropped, fish froze out in the winter and worry about getting the mortgage paid colored our days. We learned about conservation. We were schooled in its importance. Today we have a much more global understanding of the impact of industry and energy policies on the earth.

I’ve been convinced by the numerous scientific studies which have warned that we are entering a major change in climate if we do not act in responsible ways now. Trends obvious in the scientific community in the 50’s and 60’s are escalating today. I think what Pope Francis wants us to realize is that we have a limited period of time to turn around in the way we are caring for the earth, before cataclysmic change occurs. In the book of Jonah, we find a man who doesn’t want to go to Nineveh warning the people that they will be destroyed if they do not change as a people. Maybe it was because the Ninevites could figure out that Jonah had no desire to be in their city, warning them of impending disaster, that they took to heart his words. The city changed. They repented, which means they turned around. They changed direction. The city was saved. I wonder as I read that scripture today, if it wasn’t so much that God chose not to destroy the city, as they were saved by changing from their self-destructive actions which would have brought about their inevitable end.

The prophetic word to change comes to us through ordinary people who have been given a word by God. Sometimes they are shepherds like Amos and other times they are religious figures like Martin Luther King Jr. Most often we have stoned the prophets, or tried mocking them into silence. But God’s truth will not be silenced. God’s love for all of creation is evident in the scriptures. One day we will look back at this time either as one when the world figured out we needed to work together to save the earth, or with regret that we didn’t act when we could. May all of our eyes be opened to God’s truth and may we act accordingly.

God Knows Our Name

A few weeks before my father entered a long term care facility, he had reached into his billfold and handed me two five-dollar bills. Then he had said, “I wish I could do more.” I was struggling financially at the time, but was taken completely by surprise at the unexpected gesture of love and concern. My father was dealing with an entirely different issue. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease six years earlier, the illness had not only affected his body, but also his mind. Ten days later I would hardly recognize him as the disease ravaged his body. It was one of the last lucid conversations I had with him. I have treasured it ever since. Whenever I try to tell someone the story, tears will spring to my eyes.

Knowing that someone cares about you can have a profound impact on a life. We do best in life, when we are surrounded by loving care. God speaks through the prophet Isaiah saying, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)

The wonder of it all is that God not only knows our name, but claims us. Our own lives can be completely messed up. People who should care about us may be in so much distress they cannot see our need. I’ve heard too many painful stories of family stresses, parents who can’t connect to their children and spouses who have forgotten how to love. I’ve left counseling sessions bewildered by the strange way we treat people who are closest and dearest to us. I have been appalled at the lack of compassion or concern by family members when a heartache has occurred. I’ve heard stories that break my heart when I cannot comprehend how a parent can be so indifferent.

The scripture tells us that even when those who ought to be expected to care for us fail, God will never stop loving us.“Though my father and my mother forsake me, the Lord will take me into his care.” Psalm 27:10 (REV) God is one who is always near, who always cares and to whom we can always turn.

Sacred Space – Holy Ground

“Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” I wrote those words spoken by the Biblical Jacob (Genesis 28:16) in a thank you to the staff at the NICU where my youngest daughter spent her first three months of life. I had come to see that critical care unit as holy ground, sacred space – that space where the crossroads of life and death are determined. Sacred spaces are those where we encounter the mystery of God. It is not reserved for church buildings, although those who frequent them will testify to God’s presence there.

Visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial or Ground Zero will tell of sacred space, hallowed with the prayers, tears and memories of all who have been there. One morning I stood at a place in the road where three students and two recent graduates of a college in southeastern Minnesota lost their lives, when their car slid into the icy waters of the Mississippi. I knew myself to be in sacred space. I was standing on Holy ground, space made sacred by the prayers of friends and family who had stood in that place before me.

Day by day we live in Holy space – that gateway where we are touched by the mystery of God. Sacred space, Holy ground exists wherever one encounters the living God and we know in that moment we are in the presence of the Holy. It is an awesome place. Jacob was on the run, fleeing for his life when he encountered sacred space. To his surprise he discovered himself in the presence of God. Not knowing what else to say, he blurted out, “How awesome is this place. This is none other than the very gate of heaven.” For Jacob it was the beginning of a journey into a relationship with God which would alter the course of his life. Our encounters with the Holy are life changing as well. For in that Holy, sacred space God touches our hearts and tells us we are loved.