Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
I recently had the joy and privilege of preaching and speaking in my home church, Isle of Hope United Methodist Church in Savannah, GA. As the prayer, writing and sharing of these convictions felt so nourishing, I feel compelled to share them here, with you dear reader. I hope for you as I hoped for my Isle of Hope family that these meditations, shared over many weeks, might uplift, encourage, and guide you in these turbulent times. I echo Harry Fosdick’s prayer for us all, Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days.
I’m so grateful and honored to be able to share with you.
I believe the world is held together by the United Methodist Women and organizations like it.
And I know from my own experience and others in this room that the relationships in this community are also what hold us together.
Of course, it can feel right now like the world is coming apart at the seams, can’t it?
Or maybe we feel in some ways we’re falling apart ourselves.
The natural disasters, the shootings,
the painful divisions and hateful rhetoric in our country,
so much anxiety, despair, depression,
the humanitarian crises around the world,
illnesses, losses and hardships that deeply impact us and our families.
It’s a hard time to be human.
And it may feel like a hard time to be a person of faith.
So I’m glad we can share this time together.
My sense is that with all the bad, terrible news, near and far, we are more hungry than ever for good news.
That in this “post-truth” world, we long for deep truth.
So I hope we can hear some good news, some soul truth,
that uplifts and encourages us, that gives us a sense of perspective and purpose for living in these times.
I want to start with a poem, that I’ve been reflecting with over the past year.
It’s by Christopher Fry, a British poet and playright, who wrote during the 40’s and 50’s.
Despite living through both World Wars, folks said he was able to maintain an optimistic faith in both God and humanity.
I don’t know about you, but I crave that these days.
The poem is called The Sleep of Prisoners
The human heart can go the lengths of God.
Dark and cold we may be, but this
Is no winter now. The frozen misery
Of centuries breaks, cracks, begins to move;
The thunder is the thunder of the floes,
The thaw, the flood, the upstart Spring.
Thank God our time is now when wrong
Comes up to face us everywhere,
Never to leave us till we take
The longest stride of soul we ever took.
Affairs are now soul size.
Is exploration into God.
Where are you making for? It takes
So many thousand years to wake,
But will you wake for pity's sake!
“Thank God our time is now when wrong comes up to face us everywhere.”
Can we say that?
I think most of us, if we’re honest, strongly prefer times when things are going well, when it feels like there’s a certain “rightness” to our lives and to the world.
I know I do.
And yet I’d like to suggest that our faith, our Christian faith, is made for times like these.
We are a faith not of those on top, the powerful, the winners,
but the vulnerable, the lowly, the losers if you will.
We follow Jesus, the One who lived a life of absolute surrender to God,
who went the way of the cross, suffering a brutal death, rather than retaliating with violence,
one who bore the absolute worst of our humanity, for our sake, for the redemption of the world,
and came back breathing peace and forgiveness.
Ours is a story that when things look absolutely hopeless,
when it looks like evil is winning the day,
that death is the final word,
God is right in the thick of it all, entering into our human suffering,
bearing it in his own flesh,
to bring new life, peace, liberation, redemption,
to bring God’s kingdom, God’s beloved community,
on earth as in heaven.
And so I think this poem offers us a powerful challenge.
And really it’s the one Jesus himself issued over and over again:
Wake up and see, with God, what is really going on.
Wake up and take longer spiritual strides in following in the way of Jesus.
Wake up and join God in the healing of our world.
I know lots of people struggle these days with why participation in faith communities is waning, why many people aren’t making their home in communities of faith.
There are no simple answers, right?
But I wonder if part of the answer is not that we have asked too much, but we have asked too little.
In many cases, we have offered an exit strategy out of this world, but not a new, transformed way to be in it.
We have taught people how to worship Jesus, but maybe not how to live like him, and certainly not to die like him.
And our souls are hungry for so much more, for a vital faith that reorients and integrates everything in our lives around a true Center,
that brings the deep joy and peace and purpose of which Jesus speaks,
and that keeps on changing us throughout our lives so that our hearts become more and more loving and kind,
and we are more and more able and committed to join in God’s creative and liberating and transforming work in the world.
I want that, don’t you?
And so I am thanking God our time is now.
I think it is an auspicious time to be a follower of Jesus.
That while wrong is so much on display, there is simultaneously a powerful spiritual awakening going on in our world, and so much potential for moving more toward God’s vision for our world -
where there is no longer and us and then, but only an us,
where everyone has enough,
where we give up our guns and nucs for shovels and hoes,
where everyone, everyone is liberated from whatever binds or oppresses them-
debilitating poverty or debilitating wealth,
addictions to numbing narcotics or mindless accumulation,
a sense of self loathing or toxic narcissism,
social networking overwhelm or lonely isolation
injustices based on the color of your skin, or how you worship God, or who you love,
or soul-destroying hatred and prejudice.
And I believe God is always, always, always at work, in seen and unseen ways,
To move us, push and pull us, invite us into that fuller vision for us and all the earth.
So the question is, are we in on it? Are we awake?
Do we have eyes to see, ears to hear what God is up to, right now?
And are we free enough, surrendered enough, open enough to join God in that work?
Are we ready to take our journey of discipleship to the next season of growth and of service?
I have always appreciated Dallas Willard’s definition of a Christian disciple: one who has decided that the most important thing in your life is to learn how to do what Jesus said to do. And you do that by trying to be with Jesus, stay as close to him as possible, to apprentice in his ways of being and loving and serving.
In another place he says: A disciple (or apprentice) of Jesus is one who is trying to live their lives as Jesus would if he were in their shoes. A sort of twist on WWJD, What would Jesus do if he were in your particular shoes?
So how do we do that, right now, in these times, when wrong comes up to face us everywhere?
I. I think our first priority in these times has to be staying rooted in God through prayer. In times of crisis, when we feel like our time and energy is demanded elsewhere, perhaps we think of prayer as a luxury we cannot afford. I see it as a necessity we cannot afford to neglect. Following in the pattern of Jesus and the great spiritual teachers and leaders of all generations, we have to regularly withdraw from the crowds of people, tasks and responsibilities clamoring for our attention, to seek God’s will and way. I don’t know of any other way to nurture and sustain the hope and peace, guidance and compassion that is needed now, than by regularly returning to the Source of Life. When it feels like the ground beneath our feet is shifting every day, we need to be rooted in God, the solid Ground of our Being.
I’ve been praying and reflecting all year with these verses of Jeremiah 17:7-8:
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
It can feel like a time of drought--hot, dry, withering, life-draining, soul-sucking. Seems like everywhere we turn, there is suffering and injustice, hatred and cruelty. The material worldview that has obsessed much of American culture - where we clamor for more and more of what doesn’t satisfy, and that violates so many others and the earth in the process, dividing us against one another, has left us in a dry, parched places, longing for the living waters of life in and with God.
And so we have to be so intentional about sinking out roots into living streams, into those things that truly give life, that feed our souls, whatever that is for each of us.
Maybe it’s reading scripture or other spiritual writings that truly feeds you.
Maybe it’s spending more time in nature - where so many of us describe feeling close to God, where we can still sense the utter beauty and wonder of this amazing world, the hidden wholeness of things, the “dearest freshness deep down things” as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it.
Maybe it’s listening to uplifting music or podcasts, writing or making art.
I’ve got to put in a plug for silent meditation, centering prayer. With the world being so busy, so noisy, I think we truly long for silence, not just outside, but inside these monkey mind heads of ours. We can all feel like legion, right, like there’s a thousand voices clamoring for our attention, such that peace of mind feels really hard to come by. I can’t think of any more powerful tool than getting quiet, resting in God, and letting God work within you. The days I sit for 20 minutes in the morning flow with so much more peace and contentment and clarity, I am utterly amazed and grateful.
So, dear reader,
What makes your soul feel plump and juicy?
What keeps you green and vital?
There’s that great line by Howard Thurman: Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
What makes you more fully alive?
How are we all being invited into deeper prayer?
Friends, we’ve got to be vigilant and intentional about our spiritual lives if we want to be fruitful for God during these difficult times.
II In times like these, we also need community. While social media has its place in keeping us connected, it is no substitute for live, face-to-face relationships, and sometimes it seems to do more damage than good. I don’t know about you, but over the last year or so, when I have felt anxious or discouraged, I have craved more than ever being with other human beings in the flesh. I can lose heart in humanity reading Facebook posts or the comments sections of articles, but when I’m with real, live people, my hope is restored.
One of my all-time favorite quotes about being human come from Frederick Buechner. He is talking about telling our stories, sharing our secrets and he writes this:
What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
I believe we all long for relationships and communities in which we can be seen and heard as we really are, with our light and darkness, beauty and messiness. And yet we can be so fearful of being judged or rejected that we don’t really let people see the real us. Buechner wrote these lines long before there was Facebook or Instagram, which seem to increase the risk of our only putting forth “highly edited versions” of ourselves, rather than the real thing. I am grateful beyond telling that in every season of life, God has blessed me with friends with whom I could be my full self, that welcomed and loved the real me. I believe it is a primary way we come to know the love and grace of God, by being well-loved in our imperfections, not just when we feel like we have it together, but most especially when we don’t.
And while we’re being healed by being loved, we are also participating in God’s healing work in others by loving them. When we truly experience God’s merciful love for our broken, messy selves, we want nothing more than for others to know that profound grace. The more we receive mercy and compassion, the more merciful and compassionate we become. And reciprocally, when I encounter someone who is judgmental and condemning, my guess is that they have not yet experienced forgiveness and grace themselves. We tend to imitate the God we believe in, so how people treat others communicates a lot about how they view God. We need community to help us grow in humility and compassion, to teach us that we are in fact not self-made, but are formed and transformed through our relationships.
And in times like these, I think we need community to remind us we are not alone, that it’s not up to us to mend the whole world, but to see the part we can mend as part of a much greater tapestry. We each have different gifts and wisdom, different ways of perceiving and acting in the world, different experiences that have shaped us. So we are called to offer ourselves and give thanks for all the others in our communities that can offer something very different. I think one of the great gifts of this season in our corporate lives is that the illusion of our independence is being dismantled, and we are being reminded just how much we need one another.
So dear reader,
What are the relationships and the communities in which you can be your full, authentic self, where you truly belong without having to edit yourself to fit in?
How is God inviting you to know a deeper healing by being loved as you are, and to participate in the healing of others through offering gracious love to them as they are?
And how can we expand our circles of community to include those most vulnerable to feeling unlovable and unloved, to even our ‘enemies’ who perhaps haven’t yet experienced the transformative grace of God?
III. While we are invited to journey together in community, we have to walk our own path. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been hearing this phrase a lot more regularly: Stay in your own lane. In other words, focus on your own life, your thoughts, words, and actions, your call to prayer and growth, healing and transformation. While we are called to love one another in relationship, we are primarily responsible for ourselves.
How tempting it is to ignore our own lives and instead, get really fixated on others, and not in the good way! How much time do we spend being critical of or disappointed in others, whether it’s our spouse, friend, colleague, or child or people we don’t even know personally, but deem them wrong or idiotic for thinking or acting certain ways. How much emotional energy do we expend wishing other people - specific individuals or whole groups-- could just be different, and maybe putting in an effort or two to “fix” them? When the reality is we have about zero control over other people, and all our well-intentioned comments and posts and suggestions just seem to be hardening us more into our set ways of thinking and behaving. What if we spent all that time and energy exploring ourselves and seeking with the grace of God, to become the best versions of ourselves? I wonder if that might be a more fruitful practice, not only for ourselves, but also for our relationships.
In addition to judging others and wishing they would change, we’re also prone to comparing ourselves, seeing how we measure up (or down). Which has been made endlessly more difficult with things like Facebook and Instagram, right? How often do we catch ourselves wishing we could be different, more like this person or that? Why don’t I think or pray or serve like so-and-so? I mean, how many people in this room have ever compared yourself to Joan Broerman (my mom), and come up short? Me too! I am three decades younger, and she runs circles around me! I have come to accept that God knit me together in her, but not like her. And here’s the thing . . ..God’s not going to ask you why you weren’t more like Joan or whomever else you might admire or compare yourself to, but were you you?
God made you uniquely how you are, gave you particular gifts and graces, shaped you with particular life experiences, and nobody knows what it’s like to be in your skin, but you, and the One who created you. So keep your focus on your own life, your own journey, listening only for the One who created you in Love and continues to work within you to bring you into the fullness of who YOU are
IV Being with Suffering -
In these difficult times, I believe we’ve also got to find a (better) way to be with suffering, ours and others. As our Buddhist sisters and brothers helpfully remind us, life is suffering. We are all on the terminal bus, yes? Everyone and everything we love is passing away, at least in this temporal realm. As Anne Lamott says in her characteristically raw and witty way: “Life is both a precious, unfathomably beautiful gift, and it's impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It's been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It's filled simultaneously with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, desperate poverty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together. I don't think it's an ideal system.”
But it seems that much of our suffering comes from resisting suffering. Pretending we’re just fine when we’re falling apart, trying to get over our grief rather than walking through it, numbing or denying our pain with an endless array of distractions and addictions, instead of feeling the pain and letting it move through us.
And there seems to be a particularly pernicious form of denial in Christian communities. Where somehow being Christian means you’re not going to suffer or feel pain or fear or anxiety. Like we always have to be happy, shiny people, or what does it say about our faith? Well, what it says is that you’re a human being, one with eyes and ears and a heart open to the often painful realities of our lives, that you care deeply such that when others suffer, you feel it along with them.
The Christian story is not one of pain denial or escape. The God, incarnate in Jesus, we meet in scripture is the one who enters right into suffering, the one who weeps in and for us, who bears it in us, rather than popping some sort of escape hatch to deliver us out of it. So actually, when your hearts break for the pain you and others are experiencing, I believe that is God’s loving heart beating good and strong in you.
I don’t know about you, but when I am suffering, I don’t need to want someone to try to cheer me up or give me several good reasons why I should feel differently. There’s nothing worse than having misunderstanding, loneliness or guilt, added to the mix of pain one’s already feeling. No, I want someone who is not afraid of pain, mine or theirs, who can sit in it with me rather than turning or running away.
When we see suffering, ours or another’s or the world’s, can we be like the good Samaritan, who does not turn away or move to the other side of the road or pretend it’s not there, but moves close and offers what we can to tend the real wounds? We may not be able to relieve the suffering, but bearing it with one another, helps us to know the loving presence of the God who draws near.
To be continued . . .