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.

 

 

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!

A Valediction

Lovers Parting

Bye, bye, Love!

(Note: I wrote this post as a devotional for the Sanctuary Choir at Manassas Baptist Church. The choir doesn’t rehearse or sing in services during the month of July.)

1 Thessalonians 4:13: Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.

I don’t know if you have run across the word “valediction” lately. It’s not used a lot: in fact, I can think of only one occasion in John Donne’s famous poem, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” If you haven’t heard of it or don’t know what it means, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It doesn’t come up in casual conversation a lot. And while I have a general idea of its meaning, I had to look up a precise definition. Basically, it consists of words of farewell, but here’s the complete definition:

A valediction (derived  from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”) or complimentary close in American English as an expression used to say farewell, especially a word or phrase used to end a letter or message, or the act of saying parting words whether brief or extensive.

Alternatively, valediction can refer to the final prayers and remarks at the graveside before burial given by the presiding priest, after the Mass and the rite of Final Commendation, during a Roman Catholic Funeral Service.

John Donne’s poem is on the “extensive” side. I won’t read it in the interests of time, but I’ve made copies for you to have if you’d like. It’s a so-called “metaphysical” poem, and one of the characteristics of this poetry is that it is very dense. It would take us half and hour to go over it. In my graduate seminar in seventeenth century poetry, we spent three hours talking about the poem and its meaning. But then, graduate students in English are different from you and me. Well, maybe I have a lot in common with them since I was one once. But I haven’t forgotten what I learned about the poem, largely because I inflicted it on thousands of seniors in my English class. Most of them are none the worse for the experience.

Anyhow, briefly, Donne wrote them poem when he was about to undertake a trip to France and would be separated from his wife Anne for several months. In the poem, he reminds her that they are not only one physically as husband and wife, but also spiritually. In a famous metaphor, he compares this spiritual connection to gold, which is almost infinitely malleable, meaning it can be beaten to the thickness of an atom. Now, that’s thin! So, when they are apart, their souls not only are not separated, they cannot be parted. Hence, the title: he is telling his wife in a poem of parting that she should not mourn because of this spiritual reality.

And so it is with us. We endure all kinds of separations all our lives: separations of distance, of time, of diseases such as Alzheimers which affect memory and recognition, and we are called on not only by John Donne, but also be Paul in his passage about the importance of hope and faith at the death of a loved one. It’s a short step to extend that idea to any kind of separation.

And so, as we take a break from choir during the month of July, we needn’t be sad or depressed. We will miss each other, but we know we will see each other again, in this life or the next. When we sing the old hymn, ”Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” we are reminded that

When we asunder part

It gives us inward pain.

But we shall still be joined in heart

And seek to meet again.

 

It’s interesting that the version sung in England includes the line When for a while we part, while a more modern revision of the verse changes the line to When we are called to part. You can put me down for “asunder,” please. We don’t hear it much any more, but it’s a word I like.

English clergyman John Fawcett who wrote this hymn in 1740 was clearly echoing Donne’s poem composed in 1611 or 1612. He would have been familiar with it as an educated person.

And so, I wish you a safe and refreshing July, ever mindful that God holds all of us, that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we are never separated from each other as well.

 

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.

 

Poem: Ladies of the Church

I posted my piece on the ladies of the church last week, and my friend and former colleague Mary McElveen and also former Poet Laureate of the City of Alexandria, put this on her blog.

She wrote, I wrote [this] for a friend who was asked to say a few words about a lady at the church who died of cancer. Gloria was one of those indefatigable volunteers, and probably has heaven organized and running like a top.

Thank you for letting me post your poem, Mary. Every church has its church ladies.
They are legion,
the church ladies:
the hands that smooth the tablecloths, brew the coffee,
bake the cookies, make the sandwiches,
arrange the flowers.

They think of everything,
then do it.
They are the voices on the phone
the fingers on the keyboard,
the gentle nudge
reminding, recruiting,
reorganizing and regrouping—
doing the things no one has time for,
for the people no one has time for… and for us all.

They are all things good:
secretary and sorceress,
chauffeur and counselor,
teacher and student,
greeter and galley slave…

And I can’t help thinking that if Jesus is among us,
He is cleverly disguised
as a church lady.

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.

 

 

 

Already Decided

Collision at Home Plate
 
Hebrews 11:1: Now, faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.

I don’t know if you follow the Nationals like I do, who this year have been a reminder of the observation that baseball can break your heart. Their play hasn’t been consistent: they leave men on base; they don’t get the hits they need; they make Little League quality throwing and catching errors; and their pitchers oscillate between brilliance and throwing gopher balls at the worst possible time. Still, I’m a loyal home town fan and have suffered through this summer. It’s not as bad as a couple of years ago when I was happy that they didn’t finish in last place.

I probably agonize a little too much about a game in which the Nats lead by six runs for most of the game and then fritter the lead away by a series of bonehead plays. Then it’s tied up, and they go into extra innings. Sometimes they pull it out; other times they lose, generally to the Braves, who have owned them this year. I shouldn’t get so emotionally involved, but it makes me sad when they lose. Conversely, there’s a spring in my step and a song in my heart the next day when they win. I know, I’m extremely lame.

Last week, the Nats won in satisfying fashion, coming from behind to take the game at the last minute. The station rebroadcasts the game the next day, and since I heard the last inning on the radio (I forget why—I think I was driving somewhere), I watched the last couple of innings of the replay to see what happened. I was the picture of serenity. I knew what was going to happen, so I didn’t worry and I was happy!

It occurred to me that this experience is something like the life of faith. God knows all and sees all, and so we need not worry about the outcome of whatever is troubling us. Scripture tells us that the great conflict between good and evil has already been won and that the victory has been won. We can live our lives with this great assurance. As Jesus says, “Be of good hope! I have overcome the world!” Thanks be to God for this great comfort for those who are his children.