Five Minute Friday: Doubt

Night sky with nearly full moon over treetops.(So, I’ve been participating in a “writers’ flash mob” of sorts called Five Minute Friday. In response to a one-word prompt, hundreds of writers sit down and write for five minutes flat. No extreme editing; no worrying about perfect grammar, font or punctuation; unscripted and unedited. Here’s today’s edition…setting the timer….)

Five Minute Friday: Doubt

Go.

It’s the middle of the night and I doubt I will be going back to sleep.

So much to think about.

Later today I will attend a funeral for a high school senior.

A high school senior I have known since she was three years old.

Her death was unexpected.

I doubt today will be easy.

Not for those of us who knew her.

Certainly not for her family.

Tomorrow I will attend a funeral for an 85 year old man I never met.

I didn’t know him, but I know and love his sister.

I know how she cared for him.

His death was not entirely unexpected.

I doubt tomorrow will be easy for my friend.

My doubts reflect our frail human nature.

Not for one minute do I doubt that God holds us all in his grace and mercy.

Stop. Front of a funeral card. Pink with a pink rose.

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The Rock

Feet in athletic shoes standing on a worn rock.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

all other ground is sinking sand;

All other ground is sinking sand.

I stood with the congregation to sing My Hope Is Built and leaned on the back of the pew in front of me for support.

My problem on this particular morning was not sinking sand, but a bad back.

It happens from time to time. I lean over to put something in a cupboard or tie a shoe and – bam! – out goes my lower back.

I’ve learned there’s not much to be done about it beyond icing, heating, and ibuprofen. It takes its time and eventually heals.

I’ve also learned that those around me generally offer a hand – either literally or figuratively – until I start functioning on all cylinders again.

So there I was, standing (a bit crooked) amidst the congregation of Highland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bellview, West Virginia, belting out the alto line to this classic hymn.

Highland Avenue United Methodist Church in Bellview, West Virginia. Sign board and front door.

This was the last Sunday of the Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.)

Standing solidly to my left and to my right that morning were friends from two other congregations I visited during the 14 week journey. Nestled among friends in a welcoming congregation, nursing a bad back, I sensed I was on solid rock.

This particular Sunday, churches statewide observed a “Day of Hope” for those suffering from addictions and for those who love them, and who worry and care about them.

We asked God to keep us from judging (“There is no hope for you!”); or despairing (“There is no hope for any of us.”); or sliding into indifference (“I’m not all that interested in hope and don’t really care one way or the other.”)

On this “Day of Hope” we challenged ourselves to help those with addictions find solid ground; to help them build hope.

We, the church, are the Body of Christ. We represent the physical presence of the solid rock mentioned in our opening hymn – the rock on which hope is built.

His oath, his covenant, his blood

support me in the whelming flood.

When all around my soul gives way,

he then is all my hope and stay.

Individually we are not the rock.

But as the connected Body of Christ with all its diverse parts, we represent to the world an opportunity to discover solid footing; to find people to lean on when slipping; to join people who have not given up – on themselves, on each other, or on Christ’s church.

Through our connection within the Body of Christ we can offer a hand up to anyone trying to get their footing on the rock; anyone needing hope.

And of course “anyone needing hope” includes us all.

As this worship service ended (and with it, my Summer Itinerancy), I gingerly stood up and joined with the congregation to sing Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.

What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting arms;

What a blessedness, what a peace is mine, leaning on the everlasting arms.

Leaning, leaning,

Safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning,

Leaning on the everlasting arms.

I sang out as one firmly standing in the knowledge that I am welcome and belong on the rock; that I have a vast connection of brothers and sisters across the rock who will offer me a hand when I lose my footing; and that my mission as a disciple of Christ is to reach out to anyone slipping off the rock, anyone seeking a way onto the rock, and to anyone struggling in sinking sand, still unaware of the existence of a solid rock nearby – a solid rock with space for them.

My hope is built on nothing less.

My grandfather standing on an outcropping of rock in the mountains.

My grandfather, Russell Dewayne Lowther, standing on solid rock in the Appalachian mountains during the Depression of the 1930s. He was traveling home after participating in training for ministry. Photo by my grandmother, Catherine Bush Lowther.

My grandfather and friends on outcropping of rock in the mountains.

My grandfather – and friends – on the rock. There’s room on the rock. Photo by Catherine Bush Lowther.

Shoes, Dogs and God’s Grace

A pair of toddler shoes

SHOES

The small boy’s lifeless body lay face down in the surf. His red shirt flagged down the world’s fickle attention span in a way months of reports about thousands of drowned refugees had failed to do. The small sneakers his parents strapped on him that morning remained loyally attached to his tiny feet.

This three-year-old from Syria had shocked me awake. My heart ached for his grieving father, who lost his wife and two sons in the same day.

How could this happen? What could I do to help?

I and the rest of the world have known about this refugee crisis. This didn’t just start last week. Thousands have already died on similar journeys. But the image, this small child, those little shoes…I was seeing the situation with new eyes.

These thoughts and images accompanied me all the way up the mountain and followed me into the pew at Sugar Valley United Methodist Church in Albright, West Virginia, this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015 (which you can read about here.)

Front of sanctuary at Sugar Valley United Methodist Church, Albright, West Virginia

As is often the case, the concerns of my heart found reflection and perspective in a thoughtfully-crafted worship experience. And this worship experience was focused on seeing with new eyes.

Just after we sang “Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me…,” the children gathered around the pastor to hear a message about giving the unknown and the unfamiliar a chance…to see things with new eyes.

She produced a small plastic bag containing some odd-shaped and unfamiliar-looking food items and asked the kids if they knew what they were.

A woman's hands holding two unripe paw paws.

“Spoiled pickles?” guessed one child.

They couldn’t identify the items and none of them appeared overly-eager to taste test.

The food turned out to be not-yet-ripe paw paws. The pastor promised to bring some back when they were ripe, and she promised that they would actually taste really good – sort of like bananas.

Moral of the story, kids: Give the unknown and the unfamiliar a chance…see things with new eyes.

DOGS

In this week’s sermon, the pastor reminded us that we all – even Jesus – sometimes need to see things with new eyes.

She based her sermon on the lectionary reading from Mark 7, the passage in which the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to heal her sick daughter.

To set the scene, Jesus is tired and has headed off to be away from the crowds. He doesn’t want anyone to know he is there. In addition, this woman who has discovered his location and reached out for help is not Jewish.

Jesus responds to her in a way that shocks us today. Frankly, it does not resonate as very “Christ-like.”

It sounds an awful lot like Jesus is telling this woman she is not his priority, he is here to take care of the Jews, she is the equivalent of a dog (not Jewish) and his time and resources should not be wasted on her.

Toddler shoes on a floor mat that says "Dead End"

If you want to read the exact words of the passage, here you go:

“He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’”

But this mom would not take “no” or “someday” for an answer.

“‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’”

She was willing to humble herself, go along with his dog analogy, and still beg him to do whatever he could to help her daughter – even if it was just the crumbs of his time and resources.

She had faith that the crumbs would be enough.

With that, Jesus saw her with new eyes and he healed her daughter.

Something tells me if this mom lived today, she would lovingly put shoes on her child’s feet, and a bright red shirt on her back, and would launch out on a dangerous journey if that’s what it took to try and save her child’s life.

If this mom lived today, she and her daughter might very well be among the flood of refugees seeking the safe harbor of Europe via anything-but-safe waters.

GRACE

What would Jesus do? (What should we do?)

Perhaps his/our initial response would be that they are not his/our priority, that his/our time and resources are needed and demanded elsewhere.

But I believe, as in the Mark 7 scripture passage, he would soon see her with new eyes. He would realize that there can be time and resources enough to help her and the other refugees.

Even the crumbs would be enough.

That, after all, is a message of God’s grace.

That, after all, is what we are commanded to show others – even (especially?) to the unknown and unfamiliar others.

As I sat in the pew at Sugar Valley and reflected on the humanitarian crisis represented by a tiny child washed up on a beach, I welcomed the message of the morning’s worship service – that we all (even Jesus) need to be willing to see with new eyes.

New eyes that see the world from a new perspective:

A perspective of plenty, not scarcity;

A perspective of sharing, not hoarding;

A perspective of helping, not fearing the unfamiliar and unknown.

Armed with this new perspective, my thoughts returned to the little boy on the beach; back to the thousands – hundreds of thousands – of refugees who are risking everything to seek safety for themselves and their families.

Will we see them with new eyes – or with the eyes of our ingrained cultural assumptions, our prejudices, our fear?

Will we consider them unworthy “dogs” – or God’s children?

Will we recognize that these children of God have the courage to approach and ask for help – even if all we have in the face of overwhelming need is crumbs?

Seeing with new eyes lets us realize the crumbs will be enough.

The crumbs – when put into the hands and service of the one who fed thousands with a few fish and a little bread – will be enough.

Toddler shoes on a door mat that says "Welcome"


As I write this – the wave of refugees swamping Europe is the crisis du jour.

You may be reading this now and facing a different crisis in your own life or community. (There are so many variations on unknown and unfamiliar people to see with new eyes.)

You may be reading this many months or years hence while in the midst of any number of challenges.

Whatever the crisis or challenge, now or in the future, may you pause and reflect and see with new eyes.

Even Jesus allowed himself to see with new eyes.

New eyes that greet the unknown and the unfamiliar – not with slurs and fear, but with welcome and healing… with crumbs of grace.

Crumbs that will turn out to be enough.


 

Five Minute Friday: Yes

Cell phone "to-do" list with two items - Bless and Don't stress

(So, I’ve been participating in a “writers’ flash mob” of sorts called Five Minute Friday. In response to a one-word prompt, hundreds of writers sit down and write for five minutes flat. No extreme editing; no worrying about perfect grammar, font or punctuation; unscripted and unedited. Here’s today’s edition…setting the timer….)

Five Minute Friday: Yes

Go.

They rhyme.

YES and STRESS.

For real – “yes” can lead to “stress.”

Yes is a powerful word; one not to be used lightly.

Saying “yes” to something, by its very nature, means saying “no” to other things.

Only so much time in the day, you know.

Yes. I know.

But, if the “yes” is for something aligned with my values and gifts and passions, it’s different somehow.

YES also rhymes with BLESS.

For real – “yes” can lead to “bless.”

So when should I say “yes?”

A gut-check can help.

If saying “yes” causes me to feel stress, it’s probably best to say “no.”

That leaves me available and ready to say “yes” to things that will bless.

Awesome, yes?

Stop.

 

Grounded

“You’re grounded!”

When you hear those words, do you automatically think you have messed up and are in big trouble?

Or do you assume the person who said it is congratulating you on your maturity and ability to maintain focus?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since church on Sunday.

Sanctuary at The Church of the Good Shepherd, Grafton, West Virginia

The sermon at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Grafton, West Virginia (this week’s stop on my Summer Itinerancy 2015, which you can read about here) focused on the lectionary reading from Mark 7.

In this passage, Jesus chides religious leaders for worrying too much about outward appearances and their own traditions and not enough about honoring God with their hearts.

The pastor at Good Shepherd shared a strong message about turning our hearts toward God; letting go of legalism; showing grace and forgiveness; and letting our hearts follow God’s direction.

From beginning to end, the worship service provided opportunity to think about whether our hearts are grounded in God’s grace.

In our opening responsive reading we confessed that we break the circle of love through alienation, misunderstanding and insensitivity when we “harden” our hearts. Together we asked God to forgive us our sins, as we forgive all who have sinned against us.

In our closing hymn we sang, “Change my heart oh God; make it ever true; change my heart oh God; may I be like you.”

On my way home from church, as I rounded the bends in the country road, my mind kept circling back to the concept of being “grounded.”

Am I striving to be grounded IN God’s grace? Or am I more worried about being grounded BY God’s wrath?

There is a big difference.

If I am worried an angry God will “ground me” for failing to follow the letter of the law, my heart is focused on me and is “far from” God.

If I soften my heart and forgive others for not being perfect, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

If I soften my heart and forgive myself for not being perfect, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

If I can boldly follow God in service to others without worrying about being punished for messing up, I’m grounded in God’s grace.

This week’s worship service felt grounded.

Welcoming. Warm. Calm. Unrushed. Thoughtful.

Having participated, I felt grounded.

It gave me lots to think about.

Do I listen to others? Do I take time for others? Do I offer others grace? Do I turn my heart toward God?

Do I act from a well-grounded heart rather than from fear of being grounded for flubbing the rules?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then I’m grounded.

In a good way.

Collage of images - "Leviticus" and "The Gospel According to Mark" pages from Bible - overlaid on a Bible cover with a small cross and a wire heart growing out of the Gospel page.