God Sightings in Williamsburg and Bournemouth

There is so much grace, mystery, wonder to be seen, and I mostly miss it, but today I saw a blessing.  An elderly woman was making her way toward the local Lutheran facility where the church gathers weekly for worship (St. Stephen, you may know of whom I speak); she looked frail and ancient leaning on her cane, and yet there she was making her way toward the place where she expected, by grace, to meet the God she’s forever known in Christ.  I suspect she was unnoticed  because this is who she is and what she does; most Sundays I have also missed her on the way but today I saw and marveled at her faith, her steadfastness, her enduring perseverance that was Spirit-inspired to move her toward worship once more.

Her witness reminded me of another moment of mystery and wonder I encountered in a small Methodist church building in Bournemouth, England in 2004, with a group of students from the Wesley Foundation at The College of William and Mary.  Worship was being led by Kara Cooper, a W&M alum, now a British citizen and Methodist chaplain at Lancaster University.  What I will remembers always from that Sunday was a trio of members coming forth, the middle an elderly WW 2 veteran aided and upheld by his fellow sisters in Christ who had come and brought him to the Lord’s Table.  There is a hunger and a thirst that only God can quench, that draws us until we draw our last breath, and is a blessing.  These poems respond to the epiphanies I was blessed to see today here and then, in England.

I.

She creeps

Her three-legged crawl near imperceptible

By drivers passing on their way

Like a vine she moves toward the Light

She grasps

Her outstretched hand feeling for the sign

Aptly marking the privileged place for her

Who no longer moves so fast or far

As others do and once she did

But blesses and is grateful for a place

Reserved for her

She steps

Shyly lightly curb-toeing her way up

Wondering not if it can bear her up

But if she can bear herself to that low height

Rocking back and up once twice thrice

The small swell of success waving her on

She processes

A one-woman band gliding toward the parade

Others also drawn toward that Light

Just inside the door

Where she expects to meet The Door

The Shepherd True Gate Way of Life

She follows

The path paved every first day of life

A lifetime lifelong journey

She cannot think not going

Woman toward the well where the thirsty Savior waits

Thirsty to bless and he blessed

To feed and be fed

Welcomed Home once more grateful

II.

Call sounded

Invitation sent

Table set and prayer ended

Bread fractured Cup filled

They come

Hungry hearts anticipating

Empty hands filled with hope

The pastor stands

Dispensing grace

Ordinary ways ordinary folk

Mundane ho-hum

Nothing new as always

Until he comes they come as one

Mystery on the move

An ancient man

Armed with two women

Who stand him guide him on

Lest he fall or fail

To reach the goal of God

No rush ever patient

They have eternity

Slowly shuffling

Feet sliding on holy ground

Once young guarding shore

Ludicrously armed with battle axe

Now feebly muscled yet faith strong armed

He comes as two stand guard and lead

The pastor ready at her post to feed and bless

A miracle seen at life’s ebbing shore

Ancient soldier at ease before the soul’s Guard

At peace and fed and blessed

By two by all by One

And blessings he because I saw

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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A Prayer for the Dying

O God who knows and sees all:

She died this morning.  We do not know the ins and outs of how it came to be, but one she bore bore no interest in her passing.  Papers signed and legalities addressed and niceties tended, the child said good-bye to others, swore she would not return and cared neither to know when the mother died or how her mortal remains were disposed, and stepped away into an unknown future.

O God who knows and sees all:

We do no know what failings brought such fracture of family; we cannot know the deep seas of anger, pain, rejection, abuse or guilt that roil the lives of others; or overwhelm the connections of kin; or drown fragile cargoes of faith or hope, love or mercy, kindness or forgiveness.  But you know, O God, and so knowing nothing of these your children, we simply and humbly pray for mercy and healing, forgiveness and grace, tenderness toward wounds, and peace beyond all knowing.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  You were there at her final breath as at her first; you knew her before she was born and now know her in ways we cannot know.  For that we give you thanks.  And we give thanks for nurses and volunteers who tended her with compassion and care simply because she was in need, and that was what could be offered.  Blessings and glory to you for goodness given and received without regard.

O God who knows and sees all:

She did not die alone.  She was in the company of countless others among your beloved who died today; again we do not know them or their stories, and mostly most do not notice.  The grief would be beyond bearing and so we cease caring; there will be more tomorrow joining those of yesterday and today: refugees on high seas or behind high walls, street children or old folks who simply lived too long, the addicted or victims of violence not in our backyard, homeless folks or immigrants in a desert, people who were a pain and hard to endure and whose passing is sadly but honestly, a relief.

O God who knows and sees all:

Daily your great heart is battered and broken; your tenderness toward your own knows no bounds; your sadness before suffering does not know limits.  Soften our hearts; open our eyes; inspire us to notice even the least of these; and in whatever way we can, great or small, enable us to companion and befriend those most in need, and trust that at our end, you will know and see and stay with us, who also are your precious and beloved.

Amen.

That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Rejoice!? Always!? Seriously!? Sermon Based on Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
          Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!
          That Vacation Bible School song sung as a round came to mind when I read this week’s scripture. Especially when sung the customary four times by four groups you’re surrounded with the demand: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
          That first came to mind, but then came, really? Rejoice always? How’s that even possible? Isn’t that more than we can bear? Maybe such sweetness and light’s possible in a make believe place where purple dinosaurs named Barney live singing, If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops? Oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide. Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.
          But we don’t live there. Telling someone to rejoice always can be cruel. Who’d say rejoice always to families of Las Vegas’ dead and wounded? Or our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes, or Houston folks destroyed by three 500-year floods in three years?
          I couldn’t say rejoice always several years ago when my to friend’s son committed suicide; I can’t say that you now you after unexpected deaths of two church pillars in a week. Our land’s divided over race or politics in deeply unsettling ways; we seem closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in 55 years. Rejoice always? Seriously? That call seems, well, nuts, and unhinged from reality.
          Except, we’re those people who stand under the cross. There, instead of seeing weakness, failure, foolishness and death there, we experience God’s power, victory, wisdom and life. We’re those odd people who hear an odd scripture word and trust it’s still true for us.
          And today’s word comes oddly from prison, not from some keys to happiness book written in a cozy study with a warm hearth-side fire. Paul’s life hangs in the balance; he expects he’ll be executed and isn’t sure he’ll ever see the light of day again or his friends’ faces. On top of that, some so-called friends and co-workers are making his life as wretched as possible. This Paul says rejoice always; maybe we should pay attention. He knows something good for us.
          When I think about Paul in prison, two other prisons come to mind. One is in 1945 Germany. A young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. A prison cell’s been his home for three years because of his part in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Soon the Third Reich will collapse in blood and fire. But on this April morning, direct orders have come from Hitler. This 39 year-old pacifist Christian is ordered from his cell one final time; Bonhoeffer’s stripped of his dignity and clothes, and he’s hanged in a prison courtyard. His final words are simple. “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” And I imagine him going to the gallows singing quietly, Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice!
          The other prison’s closer to home; Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, a medium-security prison that’s home to 3,000 souls. For nearly 15 years I’ve had the honor and privilege occasionally to worship there; each time I’ve been stunned and humbled on a Sunday evening by the sheer joy in the Lord expressed by 150 or so brothers in Christ, especially when a song like this is sung: I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. When they sing in surrender with delight, Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen!; when they bow in prayer or receive the Lord’s Supper; it’s a holy time and place. Those so-called prisoners are more free in Christ than many of us. We’re locked up by custom or tradition or being proper, afraid to let our guard down or let someone see our weakness or wounds, our fears or failures.
          How can they rejoice? How can we? Paul can help. The first thing he says today is, “Therefore.” Our lesson begins as another part of the conversation is ending. A few verses earlier Paul’s written wonderful words of life: our true home is with God; for the baptized our real and full allegiance is not to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the commonwealth of heaven. That’s how young Pastor Bonhoeffer can go to the scaffold rejoicing; he trusts he’s entering in a new way that commonwealth that death cannot defeat. That commonwealth’s governor is not Terry McAullife; the one who presides and rules that realm is not Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump; our Governor and Lord is Jesus; no one else. Our first and final loyalty is to him; our true home isn’t a prison, but in Christ alone. On the way Paul promises that Christ will transform our lives so they look like Christ’s and mirror his ways, and in the end, all will be well; all creation will be healed and made new; and Christ will be all in all.
          We have God’s word on it so now Paul says, “Therefore, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” You know where the world’s going and God’s grand vision for you, so stand firm; build your life on Christ’s life so he is seen in you, in ways both great and small. For example, here Paul urges two women to stop feuding for Christ’s sake; instead of seeking their own way they’re to seek Christ’s way and to make up their minds to be of the same mind in the Lord, to have his attitude and go his way. And all those receiving this letter have a part to play. They’re not to stand idly by or enjoy the fight; they’re to help heal. When we are in Christ, we live in him together; if we live in Christ, we submit to him as head of the household and stay close to one another to stay close to him, even when it’s hard. But with Christ, nothing is impossible.
          That’s how we rejoice: we rejoice in the Lord. We don’t rejoice in all that life brings, but in the Lord’s goodness and mercy and grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and life-giving healing power and a thousand other wonders; we rejoice in God’s nearness and promise never to leave us or forsake us, not even behind prison walls. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus, nothing. Even when terribly awful things happen, God is still at work for our good. So worry and anxiety don’t have to be the final word for us; they don’t have to rule our lives. We can be gentle and generous toward others because God has given us those same good gifts. We trust this same God loves us so fiercely that we can share anything and everything with God and pray for help and guidance and for others with grateful hearts. That’s how we can rejoice, in the Lord, always, always.
          Then Paul takes it a step further. We’re promised peace that surpasses understanding as we stand firm in the Lord on a foundation that endures. Paul urges us, “Whatever is true or honorable, whatever is just or pure, whatever is pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, fill your mind with those things: not with bitterness or fear or always being right or getting into someone’s business; not with what’s hurtful or mean or glittery or passing away. Focus and frame life on what honors God to draw closer to God’s ways in Christ, and the God of peace will be with you. That’s the promise and the good news.
          Bill was so focused; a college student with cancer, he took classes to the end. When he died one of those courses was on Death. He wrote in a textbook, “I don’t know why I’m suffering, or what good can come of my death. But I know God is not my enemy; God loves me and wants only good for me.” And as he died I imagine him singing, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. In our living and dying may we learn to sing that song, too.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.