Where Can We Go?

A Reflection in Psalm 139

Leaving Steeretown, Jamacia, after ten days of working to build a Methodist Church there, was filled with emotion. There were goodbyes to the church members who had hosted us and worshiped with us and worked alongside us to lay a concrete floor and paint windows. Our team had grown close, and we were beginning our goodbyes to one another. We shared a moment in time that changed us.

Steeretown is not where the Sandals Resort is. It’s closer to where Bob Marley was born; where he wrote his songs. “One love; One heart. Let’s get together and feel all right. Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner; There ain’t no hiding place from the Father of Creation.”

Jamaica is a poor island. Beautiful beaches with multi-million dollar resorts skirt the poverty that is the real story of Jamaica. But the people there are generous and hospitable and welcoming to teams like ours. I left remembering the goodness of the people, and I left thinking how hot the sun was there. I missed air conditioning and a bed in a room where I did not have to watch out for the scorpions. I had an overwhelming sense of my own hubris and naivete in swooping down from my perch of privilege to put a little band-aid on the situation and circumstances of pervasive wealth inequality and systemic inequities.

I remember thinking about the question of Psalm 139. Where can I go from your Presence? I remember feeling so thankful that I had a place to go back to. Home. Comfortable, beautiful, air conditioned home. Food. Gasoline in my car. And I remember thinking our Steeretown friends really did not have another place to go. They were home.

One lesson I am learning in the COVID 19 shelter-in-place social distancing is that there is nowhere I can go – nowhere you can go to get away from it. We can’t just board a plane or hop a bus and drive to a place the virus is not, or not yet there. For people in a lot of places around the world, money and mobility afford a way out. Even that is not much help now. Corona virus is the new equalizer of the human condition.

Going back to the Psalm of the second week of Lent, Psalm 121, it asks the question, “Where can I go for help?” Psalm 139 gives a clear picture of the answer by asking another question, “Where can I go from your Spirit, or where can I go from your Presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” As this virus sweeps across the globe, God is already there.

In every town and city from New York to Los Angeles, from New Orleans to Seattle, from Steeretown to Raleigh, North Carolina, God is already there. In every hospital and clinic, in every ICU and every family waiting room, God is already there. It’s why the psalmist of psalm 139 acknowledges, “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God. How vast the sum of them. I try to count them, they are more than the sand.”

Harry Smith, television photo journalist offered a piece on NBC that compared our days living with the pandemic as living in real time Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. We wake up and every day is the same. Spring is still springing; grass is still greening. Infection is still infecting. The virus is everywhere around us. Thankfully and blessedly, God is around us too. “The darkness shall cover me, but even the darkness is not dark to you.” 

Approaching Holy Week 2020, I pray we will find a prayer of assurance in the psalms and that we will find strength in the coming days and weeks to live as Resurrection people. Amen.

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Watching for the Morning

A Reflection on Psalm 130

The projection clock displays the time in red numbers on our bedroom ceiling. The clock was a gift to us one Christmas. We chuckled when we opened it that Christmas morning. Who needs to know the time in the middle of the night? From the bed? Apparently I do.

Sometimes I have nights when wakefulness overtakes sleepfulness. Long stretches of darkness and quarter turns in the bed quickly become the order of the night and waiting for the light becomes increasingly long. I watch for the morning, doing the math in my sleep deprived mind. Only an hour and forty five minutes till sunrise. I think I can wait that long.

What do I do in the stretches of darkness? How do I make the darkness fruitful as I watch for the light? Sister Kathleen said to pray the hours in those times of wakefulness. Yours is the morning, O God and yours is the evening. Keep me in the shadow of your wings. Keep me as the apple of your eye. Being awake to God becomes the present reality in the darkness that surrounds me.

I pray the alphabet – A is for Ann, B is for Bobby and on and on. I usually go back to sleep around the L’s. Because I am an equilateral prayer, sometimes I start praying from the Z’s and pray the alphabet in reverse. The Zeh’s are deceased now, so I start with the Youngs. I pray the Lord’s Prayer and recite bits of Scripture in my head. I do the examen.

The psalmist invites the examination. “Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If you, O Lord should mark iniquities, Lord who could stand?” In the darkness iniquity seems more exposed. The shadow side is absorbed into the darkness of night. Maybe that’s why Mother always said nothing good ever happens after midnight.

But there is forgiveness with God. And in God’s word we hope and we wait and we watch for the morning light. Darkness has its place. We cannot fully escape it. Light will come in the time after the watch. That is the good news of Christ in the world. Christ is the Light born into the darkness. Christ is the Light and Life risen from the grave.

As we approach Holy Week 2020, great darkness of infection, disease, and death cover the earth. We seem so small in the darkness, but God is still God and God is awake all night long. God will redeem the world through the many who are working through this darkness. Long nights; little sleep. God bless those who work or watch or weep this night. Give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend your sick ones and rest your weary ones. Bless the dying and soothe the suffering. Lead us, Lord, to the light of your love and grace. Amen.

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Got Solace?

A Reflection on Psalm 91

In times of unease and fear, recalling God’s deliverance brings solace to our weary souls. Our times are bringing anxiety. Panic is setting in. We can see it in the hoarding going on at the grocery stores. The churches are scrambling for ways to address the rising tide of dis-ease COVID – 19 is bringing to us. Even if we are not infected, we are affected.

The psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures are a great resource for addressing the human condition. In the psalms we find praise, assurances, expressed anger, comfort and assurance – a gamut of human emotion. Psalm 91 gives us assurance.

“You who live in the shelter of the Most High…” hear this word from the Almighty. God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler. God will cover you with his pinions – (I hope this is a small army of angels with arrows to pierce the plague.) You will not fear the night… you will not fear the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday. Sounds like good news to me.

Then I get to verses 7 and 8 of Psalm 91. Here is what they say:

            “A thousand will fall at your side,

            ten thousand at your right hand,

            but it will not come near you.

            You will only look with your eyes

            And see the punishment of the wicked.”

Even in the midst of comfort, I get stuck on these two verses. Seems to me that a little slippery slope is hidden in the solace. I ask myself, who are the wicked? Who are the other, those who have not done what is right so as to lose the protection and blessing of God? You know, so I have heard, the good are blessed with a providential specialissima[1]

We so quickly identify the bad and are quick to call them wicked “godless, nasty, self-serving people who are a cancer on Americans. They are a band of demons.” And this is just a sample of how we are characterizing others of a different political party. Think of the ways we demonized homosexuals when HIV first arrived. It was not until a young hemophiliac in Ohio contracted HIV from a blood supply that attitudes began to change. When I ask who are the wicked, I think it must be I myself.

I, as all of us, have a shadow side. It’s where anger and rage live. It’s where the bruised ego lives, that part of me that needs to make someone else less so that I can be more. It’s the place where the greatest reckoning is called forth; the place of my constant Examen.

Indeed, I do know God’s providence and assurance and blessing. I also know that God’s providence is broad upon the creation God called very good. God will be with us in this trouble. God will hear our prayers. Let us not destroy one another in our differences, but lift one another in our common humanity and oneness. Life is fragile at best. Let us uphold one another in all that is good, all that is God. Amen.

[1] Hans-Joachim Kraus, The Psalms, A Commentary, p. 225.

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Comfort: A Reflection on Psalm 23

For a psalm that many of us learned as children, and a psalm that today we most often hear and speak responsively at funerals, Psalm 23 speaks to life today as we are living through what seems like unstoppable dis-comfort, fear, and anxiety in the Covid-19 pandemic. Stories of this time will be told in families for generations. History will be written about how we acted and how we did not act. There will be huge financial tolls, small business shutdowns, lost 401K profits. Some of the most vulnerable populations among us may not live to tell their stories. Yet this is where we are.

Speak to us, O Ancient Psalm. Speak to us in our fear and dis-ease. God of the Universe, comfort us as we walk through the dark valley of uncertainties and suffering.

The psalmist says: You are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me. A rod and a staff! Seems a little harsh, don’t you think? Yet I can’t help but think of one of my divinity school professors who said she did not much like the shepherd/sheep imagery of the Bible. “Sheep are stupid,” she said.  I think she thought that comparing sheep to human beings was denigrating to human beings. Perhaps God might say back, “if the shoe fits”, or something like that.

Sheep will munch their way to the edge of the cliff, their appetites and grazing habits a drive greater than their judgment. Sheep herd. There are few who stand out as leaders, unlike geese whose leaders share turns at the point of the V, offering draft to those who follow. Shepherds have to poke and prod sheep along, less they get distracted. The shepherd’s crook is just right for pulling the wayward sheep back into line. And even if there is embarrassment or pain, the shepherd’s interest is the greater good of the herd that all might reach the green pasture together.

The dark valley calls us to new trust that offers assurance that may sometimes feel like a crook around our necks pulling us along. But we will not fear evil nor the pestilence that knocks at our doorstep. God’s cup overflows with grace and goodness that follows us. This is the comfort God affords.

This is a time for our collective wisdom and faith to pull us back from our most instinctive behaviors – fear and anger. This is a time to speak truth to power, to muster hope and courage to carry on and find ways to help the human herd through the valley. One other thing about shepherds; In the evenings when the sheep are corralled in their pasture, the shepherd sleeps at the gate so that not one sheep will be lost alone in the night. I pray the Shepherd will sleep at your gate tonight and grant you comfort in the dark. Amen.

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Lectio Divina at Home

For the Lenten Season 2020 a small group from various churches has met at Saint Mark’s UMC in Raleigh for lectio divina in the Psalms of Lent 2020. It occurs to me that the Virtual Church might appreciate a plan for doing lectio divina at home for the season of Lent as we are being asked to stay at home. Hope you find a blessing in this practice.

This is your suggested format for doing lectio divina at home for these weeks when we are apart. I pray you are well and using best practices for staying safe. Our times are in God’s hands. God is still speaking; let us listen together in our solitude.

Choose your most convenient hour:

:30  Settle in the silence. Breathe deeply. Gather your thoughts and open your heart.

:35 Offer a Morning Prayer – 

New every morning is your love, Great God of Light, and all day you are working for good in the world. Stir up in us a desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors and all your creation and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. [1]

                                                Enter 3 minutes of Silence

:38  Prayer for Illumination   

God of Light, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy spirit that, as the Scriptures are read and your word proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen. [2]

:40 First Reading of Psalm 23 – Read aloud. Follow with  2 minutes of silence

:45 Second Reading of Psalm 23 – 10 minutes of silence

:55 – Name/ Write down the word or phrase you have been given. word –

            Third Reading of Psalm 23 in Silence.

:00 Enter the Silence – 20 minutes – This is the time of journaling.  Sit in Meditation as you engage with your journaling, and Contemplation as you sit silently in the Presence of Holiness.

: 20 Reflect on these questions: How has God spoken to me through this psalm? To what action/response am I called?

:30  May the peace of God go with you in the day. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.

Pray for one another till we meet again. Blessings and Love, Lib

[1] Upper Room Worshipbook, p. 8

[2] Upper Room Worshipbook, p. 35

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Birdsong and evening prayer ‘gainst the setting sun. She sings in high tree top throat pulsing with song. Thirty minutes of praise, yet not enough. Blue sky and lyrics beyond my understanding, but she does not sing for me. She sings glory in the setting sun. By herself with no echo or response she sings. And as she travels on, her sung song is remembered for the pure and clear message she sang. All is well; be not afraid. She has gone now to sing evensong to a new people.

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Abba, Give Us a Word

By the 4th Century of the Common Era, monasticism already existed. Yet there were these faithful Christians, some hermits, some ascetics, who sought deeper union with God. In humility and faith they retreated into a disciplined life in the desert of Egypt. Anthony and all who followed blessed their companions and the world with wisdom in words that guide, console, prod, and direct a people into closer union with Christ and one another in a world not too different from ours.

Give us a word, they asked. That hope for a word from the Abba, and from God for me has been answered in the practice of lectio divina. I have been given words on which to pray and reflect. I carry the words in a wooden box and still reflect on them as I shuffle through them. Last summer I was given two words that I wrote on an index card and carried around with me not knowing exactly what God was trying to say to me through them. I understand them now. The words I have carried around in my purse and in my prayer for over six months are: Risk and Adaptation. Random, right?

Risk and Adaptation. Yet in the middle of the greatest health crisis most of us have ever seen, these two words have taken on great meaning. Risk is on all of our minds. What is the health risk to us and to vulnerable populations around us? What is the financial risk? What is the risk we face with hospital shortages and not enough ventilators? What are we asking health care providers and grocery store personal and druggists and sanitation workers to risk in keeping essential services going? Risk is an uncomfortable state of being; we are rattled.

And yet, is risk not a part of every day we get into an automobile? Or ride a bicycle on the street? Or fly an airplane? And think of all the activities in which we willingly engage that have risks that we call fun. Hang gliding.  Zip lines. Hover boards. Skiing. Risk aversion is not something we can accomplish; yet mitigation of risk is not a bad idea, especially as we deal with this pandemic.

Adaptation. Life is not static. Life is ever changing even without the health crisis we are now experiencing. When I think about how much adaptation has happened in my own life over the past 30 years, I think about how my energy is not what it once was, nor stamina, nor flexibility, nor skin – Oh Lordy, what happened to the skin!

Life is beautifully dynamic in its ebbs and flows, ups and downs, goings and comings. It’s like riding a wave from the rising to the crashing on the shore. Every day, every year is different. Living adaptation allows us to be present in the moment with joy, no regret, only hope and excitement for what is to come. The truth is a little time at home, disconnected, time to cook meals and weed gardens and be still and quiet is not a bad thing. Our rhythms with learning and preaching and gathering will be different, but we have this day. And for this one day, if I never have another, I give thanks.

Abba Poemen, in Sayings of the Desert Fathers, offers these words: “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart. When self will and ease become habitual, they will overthrow you. If you are silent, you will have peace wherever you live.” He also said concerning Abba Pior, “that every day, he made a new beginning.”

Risk love and compassion. Adapt to a new way of being in the world, a new humility that recognizes human vulnerability and limitation. God is with us in our risk and will empower our adaptations to our current reality. Breathe and keep the faith and find joy in it all. Amen.

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Reflection on Psalm 95

Sunday’s psalm begins with a call to song: “Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.” As Italy is on lockdown to slow the spread of coronavirus, people have taken to opening their windows and singing to the heavens and hearers wherever open ears may be. “O that today you would listen to God’s voice.”

But the psalmist knows that people have hardened hearts and cites places and circumstances where people who wander the wilderness tested God, even though they “had seen God’s work.”

Skeptics abound. Even though evidence of God’s presence and healing work in the world is everywhere around us; even in this time of pandemic and uncertainty and fear, still God is known and seen and experienced. This morning as United Methodist Churches were called to meet in a different way, not in the assembly of the congregation, but as people of the screen, pastors from all across Methodism were preaching and teaching and praying to a community beyond the pew. Today we were truly a Virtual Church. God was in every place and every pixal and the song sang out.

God does not need to prove God’s self to us. God is here. The open heart, open mind, open ear and eye know and see God with us. God is with us in caregivers and nurses, doctors and scientists working around the clock to tend the sick; God’s healing work is going on in may places through many people around the world. Thank God!

Trusting God is a call of the Lenten Journey. Has there ever been a time before this that we have known such vulnerability and such utter inability to fight a scary enemy all by ourselves? The hardened heart will not bring us to healing. The skeptic “shall not enter God’s rest.” God’s peace only comes when we put our trust and our times in God’s hand.

We do not know how long this virus, or the next one to come will change our days, rob our freedoms, disturb our sleep, and keep us distanced from one another. Perhaps this is a time to practice the disciplines of silence and solitude, entering extended times of prayer. Who knows where this will end? What we do know is the One with whom we journey and we know the end of this story: Resurrection. Travel well, friends. Stay safe and be at peace. God is with us.

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SOS: A Lenten Devotional for Edenton Street UMC

Scripture: Psalm 121

Invocation: Come Holy Spirit. Open our hearts and minds to hear a word from You today. Silence all other voices in us and tune our hearts to you. Come Holy Spirit. Amen.

On game days, there is a little man who stands at the corner at the corner of Wolf Village Drive and Varsity Drive – on the way to Doak Field from the parking deck for spring baseball at NC State.  He holds a sign that reads: “Howl if you need help.” I expect he means help finding the stadium or help finding parking. I have not yet seen anybody stopping to ask him for help.  Everybody just walks by.  As one who frequently almost but not quite knows where she is going, I know why this young man does not get many takers. We’ve got this. It’s just a walk to a baseball field. All by ourselves, we’ve got this.

That mindset: We’ve got it  – and I include myself in this – is a stumbling block, because a lot of us are can do, self directed, self made, do it yourself, type A, highly motivated, performance driven, success oriented people who are doing fine. Just ask us. Since Norman Vincent Peale wrote The Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, the self help industry in America has grown at a rate of 5 % a year that will reach $13.2 billion dollars by 2022. I’ve had a library full of these books. – Zig Zigler, Napolian Hill, Og Mandino Malcolm Gladwell. They are great. I have found my cheese, I am younger every year, I am eating and staying slim for life, I have leaned my ladder against the wall of success, I am thinking and growing rich. And I tell myself everyday that if it’s going to be, it’s up to me. And that all works for a while… until one day it simply doesn’t.

One day the rug is pulled out from under us. One phone call can change things; An unexpected diagnosis comes. An accident happens. Financial ruin looms. We stumble; We slump over. We sink in choppy water. We wander around lost – for hours. The truth is in the now and in the always, we can only help ourselves so much. We need God… we need God in Spirit to gather us and wrap us up with assurance that our nights will not loom long, lonely and dark. And we need God with skin on to help us when we need a ride to our chemo appointments, when we need a strong arm to break the window glass and call 911, when we need a young boy in a small skiff to pluck us out of the river.

The Psalmist’s question prompts our Lenten examination. And the Psalmist’s answer stokes our faith. For the Psalmist knows our help comes from the Lord. And Jesus knows that we need God in flesh, Incarnate – one with the Father, One with us. The Christ in you meeting the Christ in me. This is the “from whence our help comes.” God’s help comes in the peace and assurance that holds us in the fears of the night. God’s help comes in the hands and feet and compassion and caring of those in whom Christ lives.

Last Wednesday we were marked with ashes… marked as dust in a time to remember our mortality and the human condition. We have 40 days and forty nights to name our broken places, 40 days to howl for help and name our hurts and pain and disappointment, fears, failures and losses to God and to acknowledge our fatigue in trying to keep all the balls in the air all by ourselves. This is a season of opening our hearts, swallowing our pride, laying our lives bare in vulnerability, and as a columnist in the Washington Post last week said “engaging in an uncomfortable confrontation and a hard correction.” This is the season for our da di da dit SOS. May Day. May Day. 

Where can we go but to the Lord? Lent gives us time to remember our dependence on God, and time even as we begin, to remember that at the end is Resurrection. May your Lent be a time of becoming and trusting and leaning into the One who guards your going out and coming in. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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People of the Creed

 There may have been 70 of us gathered in worship today. We are not present in this church often, as we live in another town, but we feel part of this community. We share our lives before the service starts. Catch up on family goings on. How the crops are doing. How the twins are. Who has vertigo and migraines and I feel one with them in the human condition we share. I am bound to them in love. All the Linda-s and all the others.

Today in the order of worship when we stood to recite the Apostle’s Creed, as we always do in that little church, I was swept away in the power of the act. Recitation by rote or heart; quiet reverent voices who knew the words spoke a faith that millions have spoken through the years. I thought in that moment of my Grandmother in the Ayden Methodist Church speaking those words. I thought about Russian Christians who had spoken those words even under oppression. The words and the faith expressed in them have endured for centuries, even while the world drifts from mystery and faith to deconstruction, rationalization, and what today is called fake news.

As a person of faith, I needed this affirmation today. I needed to speak it and hear others speak it. The world I live in seems so shaken… by politics, 24-hour news cycles, bombardment of messaging and face book and email and instagram and twitter. Life seems like a Tilt-a Whirl. I can hardly hold on. Remembering and reciting the Creed brought me home.

This afternoon as I sat in a chair overlooking a beautiful river, I prayed. Lord, make me a gentle spirit. Give me kind words. Let me love fully and forgive endlessly and always remember that you are maker of heaven and earth. You are creator, begotten, Lord, Savior and even in this Lenten season when I know the suffering that comes, I also know Resurrection is right behind it. Be with us, Lord. Amen.

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