No Separation

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39, NIV)

It was many years ago when I was introduced to this passage from the Bible. I was asked by a very close friend to become involved in a week-long camp for youth interested in music, arts and drama. I was recruited to lead the drama portion at the Presbyterian camp near where I grew up. The youth came to camp on Sunday and were given the script to a musical which was chosen in advance. We spent the week auditioning, rehearsing, building sets, worshiping, studying the Bible, and enjoying the lake. The camp culminated in a performance of the musical on Friday night. A few years later, we began to also tour with the musical around the area for three additional performances. One of the musicals which we chose to perform was entitled, Big Picture. Toward the climax of the plot, a grieving parent sits on his son’s bed and reads from his son’s open Bible. This is the passage which he reads and his perspective on life and God is forever changed. (You can send me a message if you want to know more about the plot.)

Since assisting with this musical, this passage has become the most important Bible passage to me. I have often turned to these words when dealing with challenges in my life. This passage has spoken to me when I feel unloved or unworthy of being loved. When doubts about my faith have arisen, this passage echoes in my mind. Asked what is the most important thing to know about God and I will answer by quoting these words attributed to the writer of the letter to the Romans.

From my perspective, these are the only words a person truly needs to know when thinking about their relationship with God. My reasoning is that if there is NOTHING which can separate us from the love of God, why worry.

Our world tries to convince us that we can never measure up to what God wants. Churches have even made the mistake of saying that the only way to be in relationship with God is by following a list of rules. People have told others that their actions, words, thoughts, lives are unfit for the love of God. Criteria has been established in some faith communities to determine who qualifies to be a member based on the color of their skin, their financial status, their sexuality, their type of work, their background. To all of those with this approach to Christianity, I say it is time to read your Bible again and specifically this passage.

The writer makes it very clear here that no power upon the earth, no spiritual being, no aspects of our lives are capable of removing us from the love of God. We are not even capable of doing this for ourselves. God loves us completely as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ.

Believe this good news and live accordingly!

In The Quiet

In a world where there is constant noise around us, sometimes the loudest voice is found in the quiet.

Recently, I was sitting in my office and considering what I might wish to share next with those who read my posts. As I sat at my desk, I heard the ticking of a clock which hangs over my desk. Outside the window I could hear a bird calling. Then I became aware of the sound of my own breathing. I just sat for a while and listened. It created a calm that allowed my mind to open to possibilities. At one point, I realized that the inspiration I was searching for was found in the quiet surrounding me.

The concept of hearing the big things in the midst of the quiet is one which we find in Scripture. When we hear the story of Elijah and his fears and frustrations as a prophet of God, we hear of God being present in the quiet:

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. (1 Kings 19:11-13a, NIV)

The psalmist reminds us the importance of finding God in the quiet when we see these words:

He says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” (Psalm 46:10, NIV)

I have to admit that I have not always been very good at sitting in the quiet. I have had to train myself to sit and listen. My nature is to be going, doing, actively engaging. In order to achieve any ability to just sit and listen, I have had to work on deliberately creating a quiet environment and forcing myself to resist the urge to break the surrounding silence with activity. When other individuals would tell me what a rewarding exercise it is to be in a more contemplative and listening state of silence, I thought they were crazy or at the very least I would become crazy trying to participate in such an exercise.

Over time, and with the forced guidance of others, I began to become more comfortable being in the quiet. Early on I had to learn to forgive myself when my mind would race on and I would not be able to sit for any amount of extended time. As I engaged more frequently in taking deliberate quiet time, I found myself feeling much more comfortable with the quiet. Continued engagement in periods of time like these, let me to begin embracing these times more and more. I also was pleasantly surprised that I was able to “hear” more each time. The ideas which began to fill my mind were inspired thoughts by the Lord. While there was no audible voice, there was a sense that the Lord was speaking to me.

All of this brings me back to the two passages from Scripture which I shared with you earlier. I find the Lord more often in the gentle whispers of the world around me. I experience the presence of the almighty God more intensely when I am still.

You may be skeptical like I was. You may say that you are too busy to take time for quiet. Your fear may be just like mine in the sense that you are afraid you would go stir crazy if you just sat in silence. Let me tell you that I understand all of those thoughts and feelings because I had them all. Yet, if you will deliberately, and maybe even force yourself, to make time to be in the quiet, a whole new world of possibilities will open to you.

Shade

One of the joys which I treasure about my home is the trees in our front yard. We have a sweet gum tree, a pecan tree, and a crape myrtle. There are actually two other crape myrtles which we are nursing back to life since the previous owners cut them down to the ground. These trees provide wonderful shade throughout a majority of the day. They also add some beautiful color to our front yard. I am very thankful for these trees, and they are one of the reasons we preferred this house over some newly built houses which we looked at last fall. There is one crape myrtle in our backyard and we have planted two dwarf magnolia trees this spring. Trees provide so many wonderful benefits to our lives. As I looked out at them recently, I thought about the need for shade in our lives.

Life can be pretty taxing on a person. There are plenty of worries and concerns which add a lot of heat to our lives. When I think about the promises of God, I am reminded of passages from the Bible where I see the concept of God providing some shade in our lives. Here are a few of those passages which come quickly to my mind:

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. (Psalm 23:2-3a, NIV)

Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. (Psalm 34:8, NIV)

Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62:8, NIV)

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28, NIV)

While these passages do not specifically use the word shade, the imagery provided gives me a sense of being in the shade of the Lord.

I also consider how we can provide shade for one another. Just as God shades us and gives us rest from those difficult aspects of life even for a small period of time, we can share that shade with others. We can be a place of safety and shelter for them. We can provide calm and reassurance. People need to have that shade provided for them in the troubling times of life. By our acts of compassion, comfort and love, we share the refuge and shade which we have received from our Lord.

Where are you finding shade in your days? Where are you providing shade for others?

Shining

I am sure that every generation feels like they are living in dark times. We even named a whole era in human history as the Dark Ages. Right now we can feel like there is a lot of dark around us with all the changes in our lives which have accompanied the Corona-19 virus. The numbers of deaths and hospitalizations continue to rise. In addition, we have been living in a very volatile political environment for years as human decency has left most civic discussions and legislative debate. Truly feels like a dark time in so many ways.

As a believer in Jesus Christ, I have wondered how to respond to the surrounding events during this dark time. I have followed all the practical advice of the medical community regarding the virus. I have listened to the conversations in the political spectrum and attempted to avoid engaging in hostile debates. But there seems to be something more which I can, must, do. Then I am reminded of a song which I sang in Sunday School in my small church while growing up, This Little Light of Mine. The song is a reminder of Jesus’ words, “In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16, NIV) Jesus tells us that we are to be lights in the world. The question this begs is how do we go about being lights?

Clearly for me, being an example is the way I can be a light in the world. I can wear a mask when I am in an indoor public setting or one where social distancing is a challenge. I can listen to others who have a point of view which is different from my own and not judge that viewpoint. Taking the time to educate myself on the experiences of other individuals will be an example.

Another important way for me to be a light in the world is by sharing compassion and hope with others. Jesus showed compassion even to those who were engaged in his crucifixion. Compassion is not attempting to better others. Using words that build up and not tear down another’s self is compassion. Being present with others even when you do not understand what they are experiencing is compassion.

Sharing hope is reminding each other that we do not walk alone but together and with the Lord. Identifying the positive of each day shares hope. Putting the events of our lives in perspective with the history of humanity and God’s children can produce hope. Sharing the promises of God as identified in Scripture leads to hope.

We are called to share our light with a world experiencing darkness. How are you choosing to shine your light? Let your light shine and do not let anything blow it out!

An Oasis

With everything going on in this world, life can seem a bit chaotic and out of control. In addition to the events surrounding us, the summer heat is beginning to set in. All of this has led me to desire an escape, a place of quiet and peace. I am in need of an oasis.

If you look up the definition of the word oasis, you will find that it refers to a fertile spot in the desert where water can be found. Life can right now feel a bit barren and more energy draining each day. The pandemic has kept us isolated from others for quite some time. We cannot go about our normal activities or those things which recharge us. We are not even able to worship with others and share in fellowship. The unrest due to the racial injustices have only added to these feelings. It is easy to see life as barren and unrelieving, much like a desert.

I have an oasis for my physical and mental well-being. My backyard provides a wonderful place of retreat for me. I can sit on my patio which is covered so I do not have to experience the heat of a summer sun. The wonderful landscaping which was left to us and to which we have added provides beautiful flowers, flowering bushes, and lush green grass to remind me of the life and beauty by which I am surrounded. The pool provides a refreshing and energizing place for me to swim and cool down from the heat of life and summer.

I also have a spiritual oasis. While I cannot physically attend a worship service currently, I am able to attend a virtual worship service. I am able to continue to study Scripture and enjoy an ongoing daily devotional with my husband. My music collection contains plenty of refreshing songs and hymns to remind me of God’s love and care. Daily I am reminded of the presence of the Spirit which encourages and recharges me.

As I thought about my spiritual oasis, my mind was drawn to the words found in an older hymn, “In The Garden.” These lyrics encapsulate all my thoughts about the oasis which I, and likely you, need today.

I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear, falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

He speaks and the sound of His voice
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

I'd stay in the garden with Him
'Tho the night around me be falling
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling
And He walks with me
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own
And the joy we share as we tarry there
None other has ever known

Songwriter: C. Austin Miles
In the Garden lyrics © Kobalt Music Publishing Ltd., Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Trust Needed

We live in a time when it seems very difficult to trust anyone. Over the years, trust has been eroded in some key institutions in our lives. People have lost trust in government officials and elected leaders. As we have recently become very aware, there is limited if no trust in our law enforcement and judicial systems. The trust which people used to have in the Church and religious leaders has broken down. Our neighborhoods are no longer considered safe, so we do not even have trust in our neighbors and this is not only in large cities but also small, rural communities. Trust is a very precious commodity which appears to have become extremely rare.

One reason that this is a major issue for society is that trust is at the foundation of relationships. No relationship can survive if trust is not present. Interaction between individuals at any level requires some amount of trust. If this does not exist, then exchanges will be only on the surface and not have any depth or true meaning. Once trust is destroyed, it takes twice as much work to re-establish it, and may not even occur.

The Church has a lot of trust building to do. The distrust began with the revelations of sexual abuse occurring too often at the hands of faith leaders. However, long before that, the Church had failed to live out God’s love to everyone. For individuals who grew up realizing they were part of an unnamed group now known as LGBTQ, they were shunned by the Church, told to repent their sinful ways, and excluded from active participation in the practices and fellowship of faith. If a person was of a different ethnicity than the majority within the congregation, they were often distrusted and marginalized at best. Asking questions was seen as a lack of faith. Instead of being a safe haven for all people, a place to grow and explore faith, and a demonstration of God’s love for ALL people, the Church became judgmental, ostracizing, and a place of abuse. The Church broke the trust of numerous people and only represented pain.

It is time within our society to openly acknowledge our active role in planting seeds of distrust. The Church has the opportunity to be a leader here. Through its own acknowledgment of actions and words leading to people no longer trusting the Church and its leadership, the Church can show the first step in trying to rebuild the trust. Some individual congregations are doing that and shifts are starting to slowly begin at a greater level. This is going to take time and require a much greater effort. Some will never reclaim a trust in the Church but others can be given an opportunity to share their heart and begin healing. Then if the Church becomes a light and example to the world (as it was created to be) we may see changes happen in other institutions and among groups of people.

We need trust because we need relationships and relationships are only possible if there is trust. Let us take the first step in building trust.

Reaching

In our home we have a few houseplants. We are fortunate in this house to have windows to the south and windows to the east which provide excellent locations for some of our plants. Every few weeks, I have to turn the plants at least forty-five degrees. The reason for needing to turn the plants is that they tend to grow towards the window so by turning them I am able to keep them pretty evened out. Of course, the reason they grow toward the window is due to the fact that they are growing toward the source of the sunlight. If you remember from your basic biology class, plants need sunshine in order to trigger photosynthesis which allows the plant to grow.

You may be wondering why I have attempted to give a brief lesson regarding plants and photosynthesis. My reason is that while adjusting the plants the other day, I thought about how they reach for the sunlight. How they must have the sunlight for their survival. These thoughts caused me to ponder how I have a similar need. I am the type of person who does not do well on consecutive days of cloudy skies. After a few days, I notice shifts in my attitude and a reduction of my energy level. I am a person who needs regular days of sunlight.

I also began to consider how this applies to my faith. I have a need to feel a connection to God. When I sense this connection, my attitude is more of a positive attitude. Feeling surrounded by the Spirit of God, I experience a movement forward in my life. When going through a dark time in my life, my natural instinct is to reach out toward the Lord. Like the plant reaches toward the sunlight, I reach toward God so that I may receive what I need to survive and grow.

Between the impact of COVID-19 and the call for racial justice, there seems to me a greater need for us to reach out. A need for us to reach out to one another. A need for us to reach out to God. There we will find that life-giving source which will sustain us and help us to grow.

Living In the Grey

When we are young, we are taught about life in black and whites. Good versus bad, it is or it is not, right or wrong, are all ways we gain understanding of the world around us. When we are younger and have family to help guide us and watch over us, these black and whites make sense and provide us a clear boundary. However, as we get older and experience more of life outside of our homes, the black and whites are not so clear cut. Our world appears to us to be more grey in some areas. This can create times of confusion and tension. Yet through this process we grow and mature.

One area where this becomes clearly true is in relation to our faith. Young Christians are taught Bible stories and given examples of how God chooses us to live our lives. When we are young, these are given in very black and white terms. However, as we mature in our faith and in our lives, we start bumping up against details which cause us to question the clear black and white understandings. We learn more about God and realize that God is much more complex than black and white.

There are some individuals who never seem to make the transition from looking at the world solely in black and white to understanding a world filled with grey. These people have definite views which create an either/or dynamic in their lives. They cannot accept that life can be a both/and situation. Often they experience life on the extremes. Compromise is difficult. Uncertainty creates anxiety for them. They only see two options and determine which is the right option. Easily they can become judgmental of others. In regard to faith, they often ignore other possible interpretations outside of their chosen perspective.

I often tell people that if you truly study the original languages and cultures from which our modern day Bible emerges, you will soon discover that there is a lot of grey. First, it is difficult to truly grasp the ancient civilizations from which the stories and words of the Bible are generated without years of in depth study. Even if a person is a scholar in these ancient cultures and languages, there still are unknowns. Second, since the modern day Bible has gone through a multitude of translations and interpretations, the words we read are filtered through the experiences of Bible scholars and then refiltered through the experiences of us, the readers. Finally, there are multiple versions of the Bible today and in some cases, the words vary greatly depending on which version you are reading because of different word choices available during translation. This all points to the reality that there is grey in the main written source of the Christian faith.

Life is not black and white. There are choices based upon interpretation, experiences, culture, and new understandings which we make every day. These choices can change as we gain new insight. Understandings can be redefined as new revelations occur daily. Throughout all our life this is reality. When it comes to our faith, I believe in a living God who continues to reveal God’s self all the time. As God reveals more and more, we are moved from one interpretation to another. The grey is there because we do not fully understand God. The Apostle Paul reminds us of this when he says, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV)