Bulwark

Steeples mountain sunset wall fortress ch IMG_2379

The song in my head this morning: A Mighty Fortress

Martin Luther (a sometimes rude, crude, very imperfect man who unintentionally started something bigger than himself) wrote this song in a time of great societal upheaval. It’s funny how you can hear something so many times it loses it’s meaning. Like chewing gum on its fourth hour it had lost it’s flavour. I’ve plodded my way through this old hymn many times without really listening anymore.

This morning, before I woke, I heard the lines:

“His craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate…”

“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him…one little word shall fell him.” 

“Were not the right man on our side… Christ Jesus, it is he…” 

“Our Helper, he amidst the flood of mortal ills prevailing.”

It’s like I heard the lyrics for the first time and sensed I needed to pay attention. Yesterday, after listening to confusing reports of the source of peaceful stands for justice turned to violence in the streets, I asked, “What is actually going on out there?”

This is what’s happening. There is a war going on — a struggle between hate and love. The world is changing. God wins.

Fully Loaded: Love Is a Weapon

purple heart DSC_0035

This morning a friend posted a question: How would your life change if you lived fully loved?

That’s not what I saw, at least the first couple of times I read it. What I saw was this: How would your life change if you lived fully loaded?

She not the kind to promote violence, so I rubbed my eyes and read it again. I realized the way I saw her question at first was actually the answer to her question.

Love is a weapon. Love takes down fear, hate, disappointment, division and hopelessness. Love heals the wounds that wound. Christ came to restore our hearts and relationship with our heavenly Father, the source of all love.

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day we remember that the church began with a group of people meeting in one accord in one place when the Holy Spirit came upon them in power. They were, in a sense, fully loaded by the One who loves perfectly. They went out and changed the world.

How would life change if we, together in one accord, lived fully loaded on love?

God’s love would be seen in demonstrations — demonstrations of power, first in this place, and then in the whole world.

Come, Holy Spirit.

 

Precedented: How to Be a Rebuilder

building fire burn leamington ch crop IMG_8748 sq

The situation we find ourselves is not new. I learned recently that my ancestors came from the small town in Europe where the first peasant uprising in the 16th century led to riots, death, and destruction. Systemic injustice builds until something breaks. History teaches us the dangers of looking the other way.

God doesn’t look the other way. In plain and blunt words, he told the people, through the prophet Isaiah, their show of religion that made no difference in their treatment of each other disgusted him.

We would do well to pay attention. From the Voice translation, an extract from Isaiah 58:

Eternal One: They pretend to want to learn what I teach,
As if they are indeed a nation good and true,
as if they hadn’t really turned their backs on My directives.
They even ask Me, as though they care,
about what I want them to be and do, as if they really want Me in their lives.

People: Why didn’t You notice how diligently we fasted before You?
We humbled ourselves with pious practices and You paid no attention.
Eternal One: I have to tell you, on those fasting days,
all you were really seeking was your own pleasure;
Besides you were busy defrauding people and abusing your workers.

Your kind of fasting is pointless, for it only leads to bitter quarrels,
contentious backbiting, and vicious fighting.
You are not fasting today because you want Me to hear your voice.

What kind of a fast do I choose? Is a true fast simply
some religious exercise for making a person feel miserable and woeful?
Is it about how you bow your head (like a bent reed), how you dress (in sackcloth), and where you sit (in a bed of ashes)?
Is this what you call a fast, a day the Eternal One finds good and proper?

No, what I want in a fast is this:
to liberate those tied down and held back by injustice,
to lighten the load of those heavily burdened,
to free the oppressed and shatter every type of oppression.

A fast for Me involves sharing your food with people who have none,
giving those who are homeless a space in your home,
Giving clothes to those who need them, and not neglecting your own family.

Then, oh then, your light will break out like the warm, golden rays of a rising sun;
in an instant, you will be healed.
Your rightness will precede and protect you;
the glory of the Eternal will follow and defend you.

Then when you do call out, “My God, Where are You?”
The Eternal One will answer, “I am here, I am here.”
If you remove the yoke of oppression from the downtrodden among you,
stop accusing others, and do away with mean and inflammatory speech,

If you make sure that the hungry and oppressed have all that they need,
then your light will shine in the darkness,
And even your bleakest moments will be bright as a clear day.

The Eternal One will never leave you;
He will lead you in the way that you should go.
When you feel dried up and worthless,
God will nourish you and give you strength.
And you will grow like a garden lovingly tended;
you will be like a spring whose water never runs out.

You will discover there are people among your own
who can rebuild this broken-down city out of the ancient ruins;
You will firm up its ancient foundations.
And all around, others will call you
“Repairer of Broken Down Walls” and “Rebuilder of Livable Streets.”

(Isaiah 58:2-12 The Voice)

Leave No Unguarded Place

Caesarea Maritime G_7428 vaulted ceiling ch crop

I woke up with a verse of a song playing in my head.

Leave no unguarded place,
No weakness of the soul,
Take every virtue, every grace,
And fortify the whole.
From strength to strength go on,
Wrestle and fight and pray,
Tread all the powers of darkness down
And win the well-fought day.

It’s from the hymn, Soldiers of Christ Arise, written by Charles Wesley. His brother, John, is famous for leading a well-known spiritual awakening, but it’s Charles’ verses that come to memory for me.

I looked for a video performance of the song but none that I saw had the tone of gentle encouragement I felt when I heard this part of it in my spirit. Some of them used photos of modern military and others featured large choirs and brass fanfares.

None of them felt right because “wrestle and fight and pray” doesn’t take place in the middle of patriotic hoopla for me. The battle, for me, takes place mostly in my bed at night when I wrestle with doubt, fight fear, and pray from a position of being very aware of weakness. The only strutting involved is when I am trying to walk the cramps out of my legs, and technically, that looks more like lurching.

I don’t feel particularly virtuous when I am complaining about pain. I don’t feel particularly strong when worries attack without the defenses of daylight logic camouflage. My prayers contain no self-conscious public speech-making bravado. Mostly they are moans, for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my country, for this world where the powers of darkness, in a variety of costumes, seem to be clog dancing on the face of those suffering injustice.

And yet, I hear the voice of my Lord saying, “Get up. Put your armour on.”

In his kindness, Holy Spirit first points out places in my heart that need to be fortified with his love, joy, peace, patience kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control. Then he reminds me of his lavish, empowering grace.

He reminds me that when I fall, I don’t have to go all the way back to the beginning. My new starting point is where I left off last time. I am learning that I can fall, admit it, and get up to fight from strength to strength with his weapons — and aim them at the real enemy, not the hostages.

The process involves acknowledging the unguarded places in my soul where lies about who God is and who I am in Christ have slipped in unnoticed. One common unguarded place is unforgiveness. Another is complaining. Someone told me that complaining is the worship language of hell and not to be surprised by who shows up for a pity party.

Wrestling, puzzling, pondering draws us closer to God. Sometimes trust means moving in obedience without any more insight than knowing he is good and he’s asked me to get up and pray.

Sometimes one crumb leads to another on the path to closer relationship. As I was pondering this song another came up:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling:
Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heaven-descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
-George Croly

poppy fire ch DSC_0177

Today is Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came in power on a Pentecost day to enable the followers of Jesus to go from strength to strength. They couldn’t do it on their own.

Sometimes the next step is simply a practical one. While he fried up bacon and eggs, my husband patiently listened to me verbally process the significance of the music in my head and its metaphorical meaning.

“By the way,” he said, when I paused to take a sip of coffee, “You left the back door open last night.”

Note to self: check the doors before going to bed.

Self-propelled

IMG_4421 bicycle bw

A bicycle will get you there.

So will a jet — but much faster.

Wait.

I woke with two songs in my head today. One is The Boxer by Paul Simon. The other is Take Courage by Kristene de Marco. That’s an odd combination.

It’s a puzzle. I feel like the Holy Spirit is dropping breadcrumb hints. I follow. They lead to Jesus Christ, and the pandemic response, and the week between Ascension and Pentecost.

Before he left, Jesus told his disciples it was to their advantage that he leave. That must have been confusing. After he rose from the dead, he told them to wait to be empowered from above.  That must have been even more confusing. He had just come back. Something was coming that could not be explained with words common to their experience. They couldn’t understand. All they could do was trust and do as he said.

The Boxer, I realized as I listened again this morning, is about three responses to stress: flight, avoidance, and flight. The boy flees to the city. He succumbs to loneliness and takes comfort in loveless sex. The boxer, “in his anger and his shame,” fights on without success.

Take Courage talks about responding to stress with courage, steadfastness, and trust in a time of waiting when we don’t understand.

Today I heard the cry of more leaders in Christian ministries who are fleeing, self-medicating, and fighting not so gainfully on. All lament they feel like failures. All of them want very much to love others, relieve suffering, fight injustice, and make a difference in the world. They put in maximum effort, but they are exhausted, disappointed, broken.

One burned-out pastor, after receiving an invitation from his board to resign for failing to “put more bums in seats,” told me that with the current way most church structure operates, clergy are more like butlers than family members. They are there to work day and night for the betterment of the family, but when they themselves are tired, hurt, or losing hope, they learn they were never considered part of the family after all. They were hired help.

If you look around, it’s standard practise in many places to fire pastors when they are down. Perhaps there is more to loving each other than what we accept as “standard.”

There’s a reason why Jesus said to wait for this whoever-it-was to show up. The Holy Spirit would be their destiny, their comfort, their strength. He would teach them, reminding them of what Jesus told them. He would convict, he would transform, he would empower. Unlike Jesus in physical form, he could be everywhere and with everyone at once.

Without an external source of power, a self-propelled bicycle cannot go the distance. Without God’s grace to be who he empowers us to be, we all eventually become like the exhausted, disappointed, disillusioned character(s) in The Boxer.

In the Liturgical calendar, we are in the time between the Ascension (when Jesus was taken up in a cloud to sit the right hand of God) and Pentecost (when the Holy Spirit came in power). Many of us are sensing a shift in the spiritual atmosphere. Something is different. God is doing something, but what? I don’t know.

What I do know is that when we attempt to save the world through our own efforts we are in danger of breaking down. We need the Holy Spirit to lead, teach, convict, comfort, and empower. Waiting on the Lord requires steadfast trust as we lean in to hear the One whose promises never fail.

I am angered by lies and injustice and suffering all around. I am even more angered by my weaknesses. I want to do something – anything – to help. But I’m tired and in pain and struggling to understand truth in a barrage of “misinformation.” When I pray for wisdom, I hear, “Wait.”

So I wait.

 

 

And Then…

balsamroot ch rs

Sometimes it takes me a while to figure out where my emotions are coming from. I agree with people who say we ought not to be led by emotions, but I don’t discount them. God created us with emotion for a reason. Jesus demonstrated a full range of emotional experience, and demonstrated their rightful place. Like the Psalmist I have been asking my soul, “Why are you downcast? Why are you disquieted?”

Grief has roots that tangle under the surface. You can’t tug on one without unsettling memories of other losses and separations. This time of pandemic-led physical separation, although not permanent (we hope), is also stirring up feelings of old losses. I miss my loved ones. I miss my friends. I miss my freedom. I know we shall soon meet again, but these nebulous emotions all end up in the same pot like some strange concoction of lament that ignores reason. It feels like grief.

I’ve been feeling a bit down and unusually nostalgic the last few days. Old movies, old songs, old photos, old recipes, and even old cars make me laugh, but also shed tears. This morning, it being Mother’s Day, I thought about my mother, who passed away eleven years ago. I wish I could sit in her kitchen and tell her about my day. I read many posts from motherless children and childless mothers on Facebook, so I know I am not the only one who is aware of the ambivalent feelings this day evokes.

Then I remembered this week also marks the anniversary of separation from my Dad as well.

Time shrinks and stretches with age, moreso without the usual daily landmarks that keep us oriented. What day is it? Has it been three or four years since I received the call that Dad died in his sleep? The fence needs painting again. Didn’t I just do that? Was it really almost sixty years since Daddy took the photo of Mom serving Kool-aid to the pretty little girls in their birthday party dresses? The house I grew up in shows up on Google maps. It is dwarfed by the trees my brother and I planted as seedlings we received at school. When did that happen?

Part of prayer is paying attention to the stirrings in our hearts as we lean in to hear our heavenly Father. God often speaks to me through music. As I asked him to bring clarity to this messy emotion a song started to play in my mind. It is Brahms’ setting of John 16:22. In English it reads:

“So will you also pass through a time of intense sorrow when I am taken from you, but you will see me again! And then your hearts will burst with joy, with no one being able to take it from you!” (from The Passion Translation that seeks to include emotional content)

These were Jesus’ words to his friends before he was taken from them. We know the next part of the story – that he conquered death and appeared to them again before ascending to his place with the Father. He told them, on that same evening he gave the warning, that something better was coming. He was sending the Holy Spirit to advocate, teach, comfort, and empower in his place.

We have the advantage of living on the other side of the cross. We know loss here and now, but we also know that Holy Spirit will never leave. He reminds us of the promise that is for both here and now and even more in the future: “Then your hearts will burst with joy with no one being able to take it from you!”

 

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
for I will yet praise him,
my Savior and my God.

(Psalm 42:11 NIV)