Resting in the Everlasting Arms

 Everlasting Arms

Deuteronomy 32:27: Our eternal refuge with Our Creator eternal, and God’s almighty arms underneath are everlasting.

I am almost three weeks into my radiation treatments for prostate cancer (my prognosis is positive and the treatments are quick and painless, and I am thankful that so far I have had no adverse effects), and share a ride with a woman whom I’ll call Sharon from our church. It’s nice to have company on the 32-mile round trip drive, and I’ve gotten to know Sharon better over the past couple of weeks.

The past couple of weeks, Sharon has shared a number of stories from her past with me. She grew up in Derry, a small town in New Hampshire and went to the local high school, where Robert Frost taught for a while. (She told me she did not have him as a teacher.) The population was so small that one school bus covered the entire attendance area. And I thought I had a long bus ride in high school! Sharon went on to say that buses were only for students through grade eight. After that, they were on their own. Her father went to work at 6:30 AM and dropped her at a traffic circle about a half mile from school. The janitor lived at the school so he had the building open and stoves going when she arrived. I imagine it was a glimpse of Paradise to come in to a warm building from the New Hampshire winter.

Sharon’s older brother was born in 1930. While he was still an infant, his mother stood holding him in their living room while an electrical storm raged about them. Lightning struck the house, traveled into the room and hit the baby, not harming the mother at all. Of course the infant suffered neurological damage and had seizures and other medical problems the rest of his short life. He passed away at age seven when Marge was four, and she spoke with great tenderness of taking care of this unfortunate child.

I had never heard of a babe in arms being struck by lightning, much less while being held in loving arms. It seems to me a parallel to how God treats each of us as God’s eternal children. We are babes in this world, and as the storms of life rage about us, sometimes we are struck by any number of destructive forces. But no matter how we are harmed or the extent of our injuries and diseases, the arms that hold us are everlasting. Let us praise God for God’s goodness, care, compassion and eternal vigilance over us, who are to the Creator as babies to their mothers.

 

 

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High and Lifted Up

Road Leading to High Mountains

Isaiah 6:1: In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.

I don’t know that many of us think about escalators and elevators. They’re there and we use them, and a few people aside who have claustrophobia or a fear of falling, most of us think they’re convenient. Evensong Bells thinks an elevator in this building would be a gift from God, and while God’s time is best, my hope as someone who plays bells and, as part of the job, schleps cases around when we play in the front of the sanctuary or take our bell songs on the road. It takes either two bell players to carry one of the two largest cases, but Jim Harris can carry both at once. He is one strong man. And here ends the commercial from Evensong.

I’ve always been fond of any device that can transport me to a higher level be it airplane, funicular, ski lift, rescue basket, and of course escalator and elevator. (I’m talking physically being lifted up here–hold on for the spiritual transport. You’re on your own for the emotional version.

Now, if you’re claustrophobia and must avoid elevators, I can’t help you much. But I can do something about fear of an elevator cable snapping as it seems to in the movies and a car packed with people falling to their horrible demise. In our local writing group, Write by the Rails we had a visitor one evening who was an elevator inspector. Normally we go around at the end of the meeting and talk for a few minutes about what we’re doing and what help we may need, if any. When our guest’s turn came up, someone asked about falling elevators such as those we see in disaster movies. His answer was that it’s physically impossible for an elevator in good repair to fall because of the way they’re designed. Think about—how many times is there a story about an elevator falling with multiple fatalities on the news? I can’t ever remember seeing one. Not that that proves anything, but if you find out about such an accident, please let me know.

Escalators fascinated me from an early age. If I had to choose between them and elevators, I would choose the moving steps. The engineering is fantastic, and while you’re more likely to be injured on an escalator, if you tie your shoes, watch where you’re putting your feet and hold on to the handrail, you’ll be fine. (The preceding announcement was brought to you by your mom, who also wants to remind you to wear a raincoat, eat healthy food and not talk to strangers.)

On teacher workdays in elementary and intermediate school, our mom would take my brother Ron and me to what was then called Parkington and now Virginia Square. Parkington was so called because of the large multi-story parking garage behind the multi-story Hecht Company building, whose façade was made up of large glass windows. It was an imposing sight and sported escalators which, while new and made of steel, lacked the soul of the ones in a store at our next stop, McCrory’s in Clarendon. For most of my pre-high school career, they had wooden escalators. I wish I could tell you what kind of wood they used, but I didn’t develop an appreciation for different kinds of wood until high school. The escalators at McCrory’s were old and funky, and our mom would leave us to ride the escalators up and down while we shopped. We would have ridden all day had she not threatened to leave us and see how much we would enjoy walking the thirteen miles to our house in Fairfax. Somehow, we managed to never make that walk, which would have spoiled a nice day of riding elevators.

Now, it seems to me that sometimes God lets us carry the heaviest hand bell cases over all kinds of terrain, including high mountains. At other times, he provides a nice wooden escalator to take us to new heights. And at other times, we have those rapid breathtaking ascents as we do in one of those glass elevators that pop out from the building and we feel there’s nothing holding us up but the floor. All these experiences are part of the journey we’re on, and whether we’re toiling up the mountain on foot or riding in style to the top the God who created us and loves us so much is there with us and ahead of us. Thanks be to God for God’s eternal presence and care!

The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy Boy Flier

Matthew 5: 12: Be filled with joy and be happy…
Happiness cannot be traveled to, owned, earned, or worn. It is the spiritual experience of living every minute with love, grace and gratitude. -Denis Waitley
I don’t know if you heard about an editorial in The New York Times by Arthur Brooks, president of The American Enterprise Institute, who wrote explains happiness stems from three sources: genetics, events and values.

While half of one’s happiness is genetic, Brooks wrote that 40 percent of happiness can be attributed to events in one’s life and 12 percent boils down to circumstances well within one’s control.

“Everybody’s got these cheerful co-workers who are very annoying, and you think they must have some sort of secret potion. ‘What are they drinking, man?’ But the truth is, half of your happiness is genetic. And understanding that only about 12 percent of your happiness is under your control … you really can control it.”

What are these circumstances one can control to achieve 12 percent of total happiness? Brooks noted that there are four: faith, family, friends and work.

“Don’t waste your time on money, don’t waste your time on these things, spend your time on faith, family, friends and work, making sure that your work serves others and creates value. And if you do those four things, you’re going to get the maximum amount of happiness.”

While a promotion at work, a new house and even a chocolate sundae bring joy, Brooks wrote that the resulting state of euphoria is fleeting — a temporary feeling.

“People will work for years, just to make a boatload of dough and buy that dream house, and six months later, they’re back to their old bummed-out ways,” Brooks wrote.

So while 40 percent of happiness is attributed to events in one’s life — such as that new house, or a professional accomplishment — the happiness experienced from these milestones is short-lived.

Because of this, Brooks advised not to “bet your well-being on big one-time events.” Instead, investing energy in faith, family and friends is a better investment for long-term happiness.

“Knowledge is absolute power in this case. It’s so important. Every time I write about (happiness), it reminds me of the things that I am doing wrong, and it makes me a better dad.”

Mr. Brooks’ reminder is an important one, but it is only a reminder. An itinerant rabbi told the world the same thing over 2000 years ago when he sat thousands of people down on a hillside in Palestine and reminded us of the source of joyful living. Praise God for the gifts of joyful living and for his one and only Son.

 

Breaking the Code

Code
 
Matthew 7: 28-9: When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

I don’t know if you pump your own gas these days or not. I suspect you do, like most of us these days, unless we visit New Jersey where it’s against the law to do so. This fact of modern life was satirized in a scene from one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future, in which Marty McFly is astonished to see four attendants at a filling station launch themselves at a car to check the air in the tires, clean the windshield, pop the hood to look at the oil and coolant levels, and take the driver’s order for gas. Now, those were the days!

Of course, if we’re paying cash, we have trudge over to the attendant—the horror of it all!—and schelp back to the car where we can then fill the tank ourselves. If we’re using a credit or debit card, our lives are somewhat easier. Indeed, if we used plastic to pay for gas, we rolled up to the pumps, got out, swiped our card through the reader, waited for the screen to respond, chose a grade of gas to our liking, and started pumping. Those days are gone, apparently, because the little magic screen now asks us to enter our zip code, a security measure in case we have stolen our own credit card and are trying to use it a half mile from where we live. I understand the need for this little addition, since having a credit number used and abused by someone else does not make for a good day in the life of the card holder, but I also have to confess it took me back a bit when I first had to enter the number with my little index finger. The screen also told me that if my postal code included letters, I had to see the attendant. Huh? I thought. There ain’t no letters in a zip code. What’s with that?

As it turns out, there are letters in postal codes of many countries around the world. Say you want to send a nice letter to Oxford Press in Oxford, England. You write your nice letter, put it in an envelope, and after putting on proper postage, address it to:

Oxford University Press

Great Clarendon Street

Oxford

OX2 6DP

Please note that the “postal code” includes letters and numbers, so they got it about 1/3 right. Not bad for a former mother country. They’re not alone, however, in using letters: about 250 other countries do as well, including, in some cases, the U.S. So, we’re in a minority by using only numbers. Who knew this? Not me!

Anyhow, all these numbers and letters got me to thinking about Christian belief and theology. We who have walked the path of belief most of our lives are familiar with the language and tenets of the faith. We know the hymns, stories, parables and theological terms. It’s all old business to us.

But to someone coming fresh to the story, it must all seem like a puzzle, a set of codes, a secret language which must be interpreted and studied to be understood. Such work is difficult and can, as we know, take years. And so, we need to be sensitive to those who are new to the faith and be willing and able to help them on their way, much as we were taught and guided and mentored by those who came before us and enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Through worship, Bible study, fellowship and service, we gained understanding of what we needed to know. We all have had in our lives parents, relatives, teachers and ministers who taught us the “mysteries of the faith,” so that these matters became, for us, ways of life. Jesus assured his followers, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” His teachings as compared to other rabbis were relatively uncomplicated since his word came from God.

I pray that we might be like our Savior in this as in other matters, showing others the way to the Master and to life everlasting. Amen.

 

The Ladies of the Church

Church Ladies
 
1 Timothy 5:1-3 (selected): Treat…older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters… (and) give proper recognition to widows…

 The title of this piece this is not a reference to Dana Carvey’s Church Lady, a hilarious send-up of an uptight, self-righteous judgmental church lady on Saturday Night Live several years back. No, these church ladies are a group of ladies of a certain age at my church who are at opposite poles from uptight and self-righteous. Many (though not all) of them are widows, and they are faithful supporters of the church and its people. I see them sometimes sitting together in services. They are always immaculately dressed and well turned out and don’t seem to change or age that much.

 The ladies of the church have been through more than most of us. They have suffered the deaths of spouses, children, friends, and losses of all kinds from financial reverses to illness. I would not minimize their sufferings, but they have an indomitable faith, and a spirit that bears them up and carries them on. I feel better just seeing them wherever they are, and they are in most places around town—at plays, concerts, restaurants and sporting events, making a contribution to the life of the community just through their presence and good cheer.

 The ladies of the church have children and grandchildren of their own, and they are actively involved in supporting their families. They baby sit, take the kids to rehearsals, attend performances and games and celebrate birthdays. In some cases they are raising the grandchildren because their children are not able to do so.

The ladies of the church have a wide range of interests. One is involved in a book club that has run for years; she always has a good recommendation for me of a book to read. Another is a Nationals fan like I am and we share in our team’s suffering. One coordinated and taught in our ESOL program for decades. She lived all over the world and has a deep appreciation of other people and their culture. Another oversees a quilting ministry at the church which involves dozens of people. Another is a master gardener and leads the effort to keep the church grounds beautiful.

 I have identified the church ladies by their interests instead of their names because they would not like the attention. In fact, some of them will probably smack me in the head for implying that they are any more special than any one else. But they are, and I value their good sense, insight, sense of humor and their wisdom, although they would not claim any special qualities for themselves.

 When there is a funeral, they are there in the kitchen, making sure the family and friends are fed and insuring that they will have enough food during the trying days after the service. They supply food and help at church dinners—and you’re lucky if you come to a meal where they help provide the food—they are all excellent cooks.

 They are women of faith, with beliefs that have been tested by trial and trouble. They are involved in the Sunday School, music program, missions activities, women’s ministry and senior adult program, just to name a few. They serve without notice, but they are the quiet mainstays of the fellowship.

Of course, there are many other groups within our church family—the smallest babies, the children, the young people, the couples, the singles, those who are middle-aged and the seniors. They’re what helps make a church a church. Every church seems to have them, and each group contributes something special to the community. This time, though, I want to salute the ladies. I hope you’ll recognize and encourage them as well.

 So, here’s to you, ladies of the church. May you prosper, and may you continue to inspire and lead the rest of us. May you keep on keeping on for a long, long time.

 

 

 

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven

Matthew 18:5-6: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” 
“And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
 

It is probably no surprise to any of us that children in this life are frequently in danger.  All over the world, children are exploited, used, molested, abused, taken advantage of, injured and even killed, all through no fault of their own. Such treatment rightfully outrages us and most of us work hard to protect and nurture the children in our care.

I have been thinking about children a great deal this summer, largely because I spent two weeks with a lot—and I do mean a lot—of children.  Now, working with children is not one of my talents. I much prefer teenagers, which is mystifying to many, but to me, the miracle workers are the ones in our midst who work with the children.  I saw them at work in Lynchburg at Eagle Eyrie during the state music camp and right here during our summer music camp.  It’s amazing how small children who can barely walk or talk can be led to sing and dance and play instruments. I have the greatest admiration for those who work with children and lead them to do marvelous things.

Christians have a special charge to make sure that children and the vulnerable are led and nurtured and not exploited. Jesus said in Matthew 18,   “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

It occurred to me that these two weeks were a picture of the kingdom—one in which the young are led by shepherds to safe pasture.  All of us can do this for each other and when we do, there is something of God’s Kingdom on earth.  Now, I am not suggesting that the children are totally innocent or that those who work with them are angels.  But they come as close as we’re likely to see in this world.

William Blake, the English Romantic poet, wrote about much the same theme  in his poem, “Holy Thursday” in 1789.  It was the custom then to dress children from the charity schools in London in bright colors and have them process to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a service celebrating the ascension of Jesus 40 days after Easter. As I watched the children do their musical last Friday evening, they were dressed in their red camp shirts, singing as they were watched by parents and friends, and I thought of this poem.

Holy Thursday

‘Twas on a Holy Thursday, their innocent faces clean,
The children walking two & two, in red & blue & green,
Grey-headed beadles walk’d before, with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Paul’s they like Thames’ waters flow.

O what a multitude they seem’d, these flowers of London town!
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own.
The hum of multitudes was there, but multitudes of lambs,
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands.

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song,
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among.
Beneath them sit the aged men, wise guardians of the poor;
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Are You Afraid to Die?

Girl and Man Walking
 
Today’s post is courtesy of Connie Moser, local writer and community activist. I think you’ll find her story touching and inspiring.  Thank you, Connie, for allowing me to post your writing.

Are You Afraid to Die?

I must have asked that question 20 times while walking with my Grandpa. We often “Went for a Walk”. When he asked me if I wanted to go for a Walk, I thought in capital letters, like it was the title of a book. My Grandpa was one of the smartest people I knew. He wasn’t “book smart.” I don’t think he even finished high school because he was born in 1899 and enlisted in the Army during World War I. I think he may have lied about his age because he fought in that war, was shot and captured and spent time in a prison camp before returning to Jeffersonville, Indiana.

He had several shrapnel and bullet wounds and the scars in his shoulder and leg were rough and the edges were jagged, as you can imagine from surgery in a prison camp. He didn’t talk about that much, although I peppered him with questions, especially after we would watch a war movie on television. He always just told me, “When it’s time for you to go, you’ll be ready.”

On our walks, we often traveled through the cemetery because Grandpa knew lots of people there. Some of the stones were beautiful, especially in the Catholic section. I never had the creepy feeling that kids often experience. I didn’t shriek or “e-w-w-w” if I accidentally stepped on a grave. I think my Grandpa made me understand there was nothing there beneath my feet. Just a box in the ground and the person whose bones were still there no longer existed.

Catholic school had Mass every morning, and of course I went on Sundays, too. The sisters and priests painted a different picture, filling my imagination with people in heaven, seated near Jesus, dressed in white robes, looking healthy and happy. I had a pretty hard time understanding how they could look like that in heaven if their bones were still here on earth. Still, the clergy didn’t scare me about dying, either. I thought it may be pretty cool to live in the clouds, with or without a harp.

In all the intervening years I’ve never become afraid of dying. I am afraid of pain or a long suffering illness. My biggest fear about dying is not actually dying, it’s about living my last days dependent on others. So many things about the end of life are not about dying, but actually are about living poorly.

A friend of mine, Kathie Conn has begun a movement here in Prince William County that has already achieved popularity elsewhere. It’s called a Death Café, and if that sounds morbid to you, I assure you it is not. It is simply an opportunity to talk about death in a way that won’t freak you out or make you say, “e-w-w-w-w”!