A prayer for the new year: I Hold My Life Up to You Now

It’s been quite a year: big decisions, courage,  changes, growth, saying goodbye, leaving, arriving, meeting for the first time, stepping outside of comfort zones, struggle, travel, friendship, kindness, writing, wondering…

The year ahead seems full of potential, as the change in the calendar often facilitates. Yet, there is also in it, in the midst of the fog of uncertainty, a desire for more than holiday resolutions, or the promises of fluctuating emotions.

As is often the case, Ted Loder somehow writes words that resonate with my soul. Upon running across this prayer I’ve been reading it, over and over, praying with longing for a return to what is basic and in many ways simple. Perhaps it will speak to you as well, and we can pray it together.

I Hold My Life Up to You Now

Patient God,
the clock struck midnight
and I partied with a strange sadness in my heart,
confusion in my mind.

Now I ask you
to gather me,
for I realize
the storms of time have scattered me,
the furies of the past year have driven me,
many sorrows have scarred me,
many accomplishments have disappointed me,
much activity has wearied me,
and fear has spooked me
into a hundred hiding places,
one of which is pretended gaity.

I am sick of a string of “have-a-nice-day’s.”
What I want is passionate days,
wondrous days,
dangerous days,
blessed days,
surprising days.
What I want is you!

Patient God,
this day teeters on the edge of waiting
and things seem to slip away from me,
as though everything were only memory
and memory is capricious.

Help me not to let my life slip away from me
O God, I hold up my life to you now,
as much as I can,
as high as I can,
in this mysterious reach called prayer.

Come close, lest I wobble and fall short.
It is not days or years I seek from you,
not infinity and enormity,
but small things and moments and awareness,
awareness that you are in what I am
and in what I have been indiffferent to.

It is not new time,
but new eyes,
new heart I seek,
and you.

Patient God,
in this teetering time,
this time in the balance,
this time of waiting,
make me aware of moments,
moments of song,
moments of bread and friends,
moments of jokes
(some of them on me)
which, for a moment, deflate my pomposities;
moments of sleep and warm beds,
moments of children laughing and parents bending,
moments of sunsets and sparrows outspunking winter,
moments when broken things get mended
with glue or guts or mercy or imagination;
moments when splinters shine and rocks shrink,
moments when I know myself blest,
not because I am so awfully important,
but because you are so awesomely God,
no less of the year to come
as of all the years past;
no less of this moment
than of all my momnets;
no less of those who forget you
as of those who remember,
as I do now,
in this teetering time.

O Patient God,
make something new in me,
in this year,
for you.

by Ted Loder in Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (1984: Innisfree Press, Inc.)

A Song About God

I have an interesting relationship with music and singing. If I had to describe it on Facebook I’d say it’s complicated. I’m told that before I spoke I sang. My mother being a music teacher, my earliest memories involve music — be it singing solos in church, watching my mom direct a choir or band, singing as a family at gatherings, and others aspects throughout life. The truth is I love music and I love singing. My soul is healed through music in ways that nothing else can soothe. I’m inspired by musicals and artists who write and perform. As a child I daydreamed of performing in front of masses. Still today watching a good concert my mind will wander into the “I want to do that…”  If Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and Rhianna had a baby, I’d want to be that style of singer.

The it’s a complicated relationship piece of it is that I have noticed in different contexts in my life where I have felt as though a singing performance was all that was desired of me.  I am much more than than a singer, of course, I have other passions and other things to offer. So it bothers me when I sing and the focus is more on the performance than the words (this is specifically problematic to me when my singing is done during worship).  Plus, I don’t particularly like the attention.  I’m working through these issues; but I share all this to say that — whether wrong, right, or neither — I think throrougly through the decision to sing publicly.

For all of these complicated (and somewhat silly) feelings I was momentarily paralyzed while in South Africa when a woman who barely spoke English told asked me to sing.  We were on a whirlwind trip visiting different groups, organizations and churches around three cities in the country of South Africa. This particular day we had the absolute privilege to visit the Hillcrest AIDS Centre.

This organization which originally came out of a congregation/church is what I consider a vision of the active and visible kingdom of God on earth. Among the many things they do — they bring awareness and education about HIV/AIDS, encourage persons to become tested, know their status and receive and take medications when needed, empower persons to support themselves through trades, etc. — they also have a respite unit for the purpose of caring for and loving on persons with advanced stages of AIDS.  We were a privileged group who were able to spend time with persons being cared for in this respite, as well as with those who serve there.

After hearing about what the organization does from an absolutely inspiring woman, we were led and welcomed into the area where persons are live, recover, and a significant number die.

When we arrived, there were people in a porch/lanai area outside. I assumed these were persons who were able to get out of their bed and spend some time in the fresh air. I walked in and found the nearest chair by the nearest two women that I found; and I figured this would be relatively easy.  I was genuinely excited to be there; for a number reasons that I won’t go into here, for a long time I have felt drawn to the cause of persons with HIV/AIDS. I also regularly enjoy visiting persons, offering prayer, and encouragement.  But immediately I realized that there was somewhat of a language barrier.  Thus far, the majority of the persons that we had encountered in South Africa spoke English — or we at least had someone to translate for us. These two women were not fluent in English and we were kind of on our own. One of them, who seemed to be in a heightened level of pain and/or discomfort, understood more so than the other. So,this woman, who I discovered had been there for barely a month, translated for the other woman who seemed well on her way to recovery, and possibly  being discharged.  She didn’t always make the effort to translate, however, so it was slow, uncomfortable small talk.  Being an introvert there are few things I like less than small talk. But I found myself too tired or stubborn to leave and find another group, so I stuck it out. I was uncomfortable because I wanted to talk and offer my special presence (nothing like mission trip to make you realize how arrogant we Americans can be!), but they didn’t understand me nor did they seem all that interested in trying to communicate.

So I sat. I was silent for a bit and then attempted to speak again, and then I was silent again.  Then I heard a TV playing inside and there was some music playing from the TV. I had another topic for smalltalk. I asked them if they liked music. The lady who spoke more English looked at me with a grave expression and told me she did.  She then asked me if I sang. “Crap!” I thought in my head.  “Ummm… Yes, sort of…” Then she very clearly said, “Sing me a song… Sing me a song about God.”

Did I mention my relationship with singing in public is complicated? We were outside and it wasn’t just us three; there was a group of people on this porch. But a woman with AIDS who seemed to be in pain asked me to sing her a song while we sat in a respite unit in South Africa. What else could I do but sing a song? I told her that it would be in English because I didn’t know any songs in Zulu or Xhosa.  Then I asked her if she knew ‘Amazing Grace.’  I knelt by her side, in part because I wanted to sing only to her and not have everyone hear, and in part because I wanted to be close to her.  I started to sing and precisely what I would not have wanted to happen happened; everyone got quiet. But that only mattered for a second. For, whether everyone was listening or not, or ended up joining in or not, I was singing a song about God. I was singing a song that had taught me about God in a way that I had not experienced God for a lot of my life. A song about a God of grace. A song that I remember hearing one day as though I’d never heard it before, and it moved me to tears. It was a significant piece of my renewed understanding of who God is.

The woman looked intently into my eyes as I sang – my face 18 inches from hers. As I sang I would close my eyes and open them back again and see her staring at me. It was almost as if whether she knew the words or not she knew that the notes were about God. It was holy and sacred.

When I finished people cheered, then someone encouraged us all to sing other songs — songs in Zulu, English, Spanish and Creole.  It was great. Later on a couple from our group who remained in the respite area had the privilege of singing and dancing with the group of nurses, staff and some patients as they shared with us how consider themselves a people who live with great sorrow underneath, but simultaneously a people of great rejoicing and song. That time was also sacred and a gift.

I miss that place. I feel as though I left a piece of my heart there — a piece of my voice, maybe. Even now I think about their memorial wall and I’m filled with emotion. Now that we’re in Advent I’m especially reflective; and this woman’s words have been tumbling through my mind.  “Sing me a song about God.”  I’ve been thinking about another song about God — one that we recite during this time of year.  A song that may have also been reluctant in arriving at her singer’s mouth but one that overflowed from her lips — with joy, conviction, truth and hope —  once she found herself in the presence of another who encouraged it with her being and words.

Mary’s song  (in Luke 1:46-55; see vs 26-56 for the whole story) begins with praise – praise at the realization of her humble state –  which leads to being overwhelmed by God’s unreasonable Grace.  The song goes on to turn the world up…side…down.

“He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…”

What a song about God!

As I sit and reflect on this song I’m encouraged to sing louder and more often — songs about God in the midst of uncertainty.  Songs like the one Mary sang, maybe not entirely knowing what she was saying, but inspired by who God is.  A song of a God of reversals, where the lowly are made high, the high are brought low, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent away empty, the last become first, and the least become the greatest.  Songs that move us, that make us uncomfortable, that make us think, that fill us with emotion, and that tell us about grace.  And even when we’re not entirely sure what the words mean, we somehow recognize that the notes are about God — a God of great love and grace, who meets us in unexpected ways, places, and songs.  So as I reflect on this song of a God of great reversals I think of my South African companions, and I sing songs about God for them.

Victory is Ours
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
-Desmond M. Tutu,
Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa

A 5-foot-tall wall of bricks that spans 20 yards and is painted with names of the patients who die here.

A wall of bricks that spans 20 yards and is painted with names of the patients who have died at HAC.

Grace will lead

I distinctly remember the time that the lyrics from the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ made sense to me.  I was a teenager and had been suffering from anxiety and depression and had serious doubts as to God’s love for me. I carried a lot of guilt. I was beginning to learn about God’s grace and there it was:

Amazing grace how sweet the sound
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

I felt like I suddenly saw and so much shame and guilt were lifted.  Grace is something that I still depend on and that I continue to discover its wonders; something that is at the center of my call.  It’s funny though because I had another ‘eureka’ moment related to this hymn a couple days ago.  I was meeting for the last time in the children’s chapel of an Episcopal church with a woman who’d been my spiritual director for a year and a half, as I will be moving soon.  We were reflecting on the many things that had happened in the period of time that we were together — the pain I’d experienced, the many tears I’d shed, the rediscovering of grace, the growth I had experienced, and so on.  Then she said that she was reminded of a line from Amazing Grace:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

I’m usually the one who connects things through songs, but I’d missed this.  I had not really focused on or connected with the verses of this hymn beyond the first verse.  It makes sense now;  I see it!  I’m thankful for God’s presence in the midst of the most recent times where I didn’t know if God was in fact there.  I’m thankful that I can continue to trust that when dangers, toils, and snares come again, God will bring me safe once more.  I pray that God will continue to pour out that grace that I so desperately need (and that I may receive it — I have trouble with this receiving step!) so that I can also pour out grace unto others.

Transitions, even good and desired ones, are difficult, so I’m thankful for grace that will lead me home through whatever the future holds.

Let’s pray:

God, cover us in your grace.  May it overflow.  May it so overflow that we may be able to offer it to others — remembering that it is unmerited and a gift.  Thank you for your presence.  Continue to guide, to heal, to stretch us; fill us anew with your Spirit.  Lead us safely home.  Amen.

My view during my meetings with my spiritual director.

My view during my meetings with my spiritual director.

Condemned by the Righteous

Though Lent is often uncomfortable by its nature, I felt particularly uncomfortable this Lent. There’s been a lot going on for me as far as reading, travel, and processing discoveries. In the midst of all that, I’ve been preaching every other week at a midweek service, guided by the selected passages and main themes in Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours that Changed the World. One of the weeks I got to preach the title was ‘Condemned by the Righteous,’ the passage was, in part Mark 14:53, 55-56, 61-65:

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. . . . Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none.  For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree . . . The high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.

All of the passages have been from Mark, which has been interesting because I took a class specifically on Mark in seminary. In Mark things happen fast and even abruptly, and now we’ve entered the passion narrative, a critical piece where Mark places much emphasis.  We began our look at Jesus’ final 24 hours beginning with the last supper, followed by his time of anguished prayer in the garden, and now he is betrayed with a kiss from one of his close friends, and abandoned by the rest of his disciples.  Jesus was arrested in secret and with no grounds, made to walk under arrest, placed in a dungeon-ous pit and accosted by the pillars of the community for hours.

“The God of the universe chose to walk in human flesh as an itinerant preacher, teacher, carpenter, healer and pauper. He came as one of us. He healed the sick, forgave sinners, showed compassion to the lost, and taught people what God was really like. We must not miss the irony here: It was not the “sinners” who arrested God when he walked among us. Those who took him into custody and tried him were the most pious and religious people on the face of the earth. The God they claimed to serve walked among them in the flesh, and they could not see him.  They were so blinded by their love of power and their fear of losing it that they missed him.” –Adam Hamilton in 24 Hours That Changed the World, p. 48.

How could this happen?  How could the most pious men in the community, the persons who everyone thought of as being the most dedicated to God do this?  Not only because it was God, God-self — but because even if they didn’t think he was the Messiah, why would they spit on, mock, abuse, and sentence to death an innocent man?  How does that happen?

This passage is not new to me and yet this year I’ve seen it anew.  It has convicted me.  It has brought up many questions for me. And though I often think of the church with the subtitle of ‘Adventures in Missing the Point;’ I don’t believe that is solely the case here.  To me, this is an example of what fear can do to people.

I finished reading the book ‘The New Jim Crow’ recently and I was beside myself upset over this book and its revelations of mass incarceration, the overwhelming high percentage of blacks who get put in jail. and the history behind discrimination regarding voting, and other things.  I had conversations around for-profit prisons and detention centers. What struck me the most is that some of the language in the book was the very same language that someone accused me of not too long ago while discussing immigration.  Things like “the breakdown of law and order…”  Fear!

“Fear performs its poisonous work within all of us. How often are we still motivated by it? In what ways does our fear lead us, individually and as a nation, to do what is wrong–what is at times unthinkable–while justifying our actions as necessary?” (p. 50). These righteous men feared Jesus because peple liked him and that put insecurity in them and their roles. They feared losing power or status. Who knows all that they feared. I must ask, would I be found among those who out of fear and insecurity sentenced an innocent man to death?  How would my decisions be different if I asked myself not “What is the thing that will make me feel most secure?” but “What is the most loving thing for me to do?” (p. 51) As much as I want to condemn these men, judge them, and proclaim that I would do no such thing, I can’t say that with certainty.  I can’t say that with certainty because we have… we have done the same.

What are some examples? Between 1885 and 1967, approximately 49,000 homosexual men were convicted of gross indecency under British law and many forced into chemical castration. In addition to current mass incarceration and existent systematic racism, the old Jim Crow laws in past are good examples. The Holocaust, apartheid in South Africa, and so on. All things that I think in part were flamed by fear.  Fear of the unfamiliar.  Fear of losing power.  There are many different kinds of fears.  But in addition to these examples that are on more massive scales, I wonder about the things in our lives specifically.

Soldiers, religious persons and mobs end up murdering God’s son. Whether under the guise of following orders, or good biblical values, or standing up for law and order, or all of the other excuses people give for doing nonsensical things, injustice is seemingly justified.  When have I let my fears cause me to behave unjustly – whether by action or inaction.   We are not told that any of the religious individuals involved in Jesus’ trials spoke up… not one.  When have I remained silent in the midst of injustice?  It doesn’t have to be something spectacular or newsworthy — injustice occurs in many times and places — be it in our jobs, our homes, schools, the places we shop for food (even the very food we buy) or other places we pass through.

These are the things that I have been pondering.  As we remember this day the injustice that was the cross, may we not only remember how we are complicit in it, but how we are complicit in other injustices even today.

Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, you became weak so that we might be strong; you poured yourself out so that we might be filled; your body was broken so that we might be fed; you died upon a cross so that we might live. And yet your ways are not our ways. Save us from our strengths. Place within us a hunger for righteousness and a thirst for justice. Remind us that in giving we receive. Keep us near the cross, a sign of judgment and hope, of forgiveness and new life. Amen. (Kenneth H. Carter,  Just in Time! Prayers and Liturgies of Confession and Assurance, Abingdon Press.)

Live, Love, and Lent

I always look forward to Lent. I think it’s because I like self-reflection — as uncomfortable as it can be.  Or maybe it’s because I’ve identified with Lewis Carroll’s quote for the longest time:  “I can’t go back to yesterday because I was a different person then.” I like to be able to see growth, and I have plenty of it left to do- and for me, Lent is a time where I am particularly mindful of my need to do so..

I, like many, didn’t grow up observing Ash Wednesday and Lent (here’s my post from last year, Ashy Memories, with more on that and more behind its meaning) but I am continually amazed at the power of this season.

This year I’ve decided I am going to journal during Lent.  I’ve NEVER journaled for nearly as long as a month, so it will take some discipline.  I may share some of those thoughts here from time to time.  Here are a few free resources that may be of interest during this time, as well.

Prayer of Confession

Our temptations, O Lord,
are the very tests that came to you—
to be relevant; to be powerful; to be spectacular.
We may not be asked to turn stones into bread
or to be in control of vast kingdoms
or to throw ourselves down from a tall spire,
and yet, your temptations are the very ones that we face.
Where we have listened to other voices,
forgive us.
Where we have sought the applause of others,
forgive us.
Where we have worshiped other gods,
forgive us.
Give us purity of heart and clarity of vision.
Help us hear your voice to seek your kingdom and its righteousness,
to worship you alone.
In the name of the One who was tested in every respect as we are, and yet knew no sin,
even Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

Silence

Words of Assurance

We thank you, O God, for the good news
that we may approach the throne of grace with boldness
so that we may receive mercy and find grace
to help in time of need. Amen.

Kenneth H. Carter (2010-04-01). Just in Time! Prayers and Liturgies of Confession and Assurance (Just in Time! (Abingdon Press)) (pp. 82-83). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

God’s truth is marching on

My parents and I permanently moved to Florida from Puerto Rico the summer before my 3rd grade year of school.  I don’t have a particularly good recollection of that year or any early schooling, but there are certain moments in that year that stand out in my mind.  It’s funny the things we remember.  It must have been January/February, but at some point during the third grade we talked about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I had never heard of him.  I don’t know if it’s because I wasn’t old enough, and this was something that was introduced to third graders and older, or who knows why. Whatever the reason, hearing about the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King was seared into my brain.  I remember being beside myself.  I could not believe that this had happened. That people treated other people poorly for any reason, but especially because of the color of their skin.  It was unheard of and I was appalled. It made no sense and caused a stirring in me. I simultaneously developed great admiration for Dr. King. I remember 8-year-old me going to the library to check out books on Martin Luther King, Jr. I had fallen in love with this man.  It wasn’t until recently that I’ve made the connection to these memories -that a strong sense of justice and fairness was woven into the fabric of who I am while I was formed.

Over the years I’ve experienced, witnessed and heard many things that show that Dr. King’s dream has not come fully true. I still know of towns (and have lived in some of them) throughout the South where races simply do not interact, where businesses and schools are essentially segregated, and all the less explicit racism – institutional and otherwise.

I’ve seen the film Selma twice already.  Regardless of whatever factual problems it may or many not have, I think it contains a truth that goes beyond facts. I highly recommend this movie. It is emotional and inspirational. There are so many things within it that could inspire numerous blog posts — much food for thought.  I think the biggest praise I have for this film is that it portrays its characters as humans – imperfect beings. Especially Dr. King is seen as someone who grew weary, who doubted, who had struggles in his own personal life and family.  This did not make me think any less of Dr. King, and anyone who’s studied King wouldn’t be surprised. For me it was comforting and encouraging.  It reminded me that God uses imperfect beings – people who don’t get everything right, but people who are willing to sacrifice. God uses people who are willing to be courageous and stand for truth, even when it’s hard; even when it would be personally easier to give up or remain quiet.

Another thing that resonated with me in a way that never had before was that Dr. King was in his late 20s when he began to lead the SCLC movement . Glory, the movie’s award winning song at one point says that “[to accomplish this] it takes the wisdom of the elders and young people’s energy.” All of us together, not competing with each other or devaluing the other. It made me think of the things that separate us that are not race related- barriers, no less. Dr. King speaks of this and so much more to me. A courageous, unexpected leader who believed in the unbelievable.

Whether it’s black, brown, gay, straight, male, female, young, old, or any ‘other’ that causes us to make distinctions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘they’ and ‘we,’ we must stop believing the lies that anyone or group is somehow superior or better to others; stop building walls.

Eight-year-old Esther is still in me, stirred up and longing for genuine equality. I dream Dr. King’s dream still, and am thankful that God can use even imperfect me in small and powerful ways. God can and does use imperfect you. Believe the unbelievable. Fight for what is right. Don’t allow yourself to be silenced. Take courage. Practice peace.

Dr. King is still one of my heroes. Would that we all live lives that are willing to sacrifice for what is right and true.

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A prayer for the road

I often process slowly, so I was in my first semester of seminary (as I write this I realized it’s been 6 and a half years already!) and I had no idea why I was there.  I’d graduated college and felt like I kinda sorta should maybe go to seminary because I wanted to do something ministry related… maybe.  Maybe that could even be a pastor — though that desire and call was more audacious than I dared to believe. Truth be told, I was feeling pretty lost and unsure.   I found myself in a class everyone was required to take called ‘Vocation of Ministry’ that a Dr. Steve Harper was teaching.  I remember sitting there hearing this humble, grace and Spirit-filled man who was oozing of wisdom, speaking words that spoke to me on a level that I never had experienced anyone speaking on.  I remember him sharing the above prayer from Thomas Merton that affected me.  I distinctly remember sitting in that class and thinking  “This is where I’m supposed to be.”  As I reflect, I’m very thankful for that time of my life and the people in it — it was indeed the place I was supposed to be.

This prayer has spoken to me throughout the years.  It’s spoken to me in different ways and for different reasons and around different circumstances and roads.  This prayer has spoken again to me this new year.  The new year always makes me pensive.  It typically brings with it the sense of new roads, adventures, situations, emotions, and possibilities. Excitement and uncertainty. Dreams and fears.  So I share this prayer with you as one that I think is incredibly powerful and liberating — whether you know exactly where you’re going (or what you’re doing or feeling), you think you know, or you have no idea.  Rest in that God is ever with you this new year and always.

Esther