26 July 2018
It’s been one of those spells, lately. I expect you know what I mean. Remember the phrase, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans?!?” It’s not that He’s laughing in derision, nor in judgement, and not even in pity. Rather, I think it’s laughter of the kind that parents enjoy with their little ones who come with a mess in their hands, eyes full of tears and a look on their faces that says “What went wrong?” It’s not so much a great, consuming roar of a laugh, but one that expresses the pleasure that one “short” on experience and wisdom had turned to one of greater stature and understanding, and found acceptance and understanding. It’s a smile that’s “out loud.”
My week included an unexpected contact from a young woman whose marriage was in crisis. What to do? What to say? And I found that my heart had gathered her, in this awful plight, and mourned, wept with her in this abrupt, unexpected turn in her / their life. Then I heard from another friend, saying that now, not many days after laying her father to rest in Arlington Cemetery, her mother had passed, and now she was at the “head of the generational line” – and uneasily so. We “smiled out loud” together over God’s providence in such times, wiped each other’s tears, and reminded each other of the One who goes with us through the Valley of the Shadow… and who never leaves us alone, never neglects us, never forgets us, especially in our grief. I spent Monday in a fruitless round-trip aboard Amtrak, intending to get an injection at Johns-Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore…. but the train ran late, I would have missed the return trip, and so I got off at Union Station in DC. No shot. It was a great plan; I’d done it before…. but not this time. (I did manage to redeem some of the time while there, working on Worship Planning for the rest of this year, reading portions of two books, scanning half a dozen magazines I’d brought along, receiving and responding to a “ton” of e-mails, and deleting nearly 1000 from my Inbox, some more than 2 years dormant!)
Now, it has not all been about loss and grief! Lots of things have gone well, including worship on Sunday morning, having Phyllis’ Mom with us, and spending time, just now, in my off-campus office at Starbucks, where I found a friend, Caleb, behind the counter, and a beautiful curly-red-headed little girl (about 2, I suppose) who came in for her birthday treat! What a giggle she uttered when mom handed her a cake-lollipop! Magic! On Saturday, our ASP team came home “safe and sound” from their service adventure in Harland County, Kentucky, full of stories about their handiwork and their interactions with each other and the families they’d served, and how challenging it was to leave them in a project not quite yet completed.
I suppose I find myself wondering “Where’s God?” when things are tough and tears are flowing, far more than when things are good and satisfying and fun. I want to know where’s God when I hurt, when my heart’s breaking, when things don’t work out quite like I’d planned, hoped, and dreamed? But He’s not too hard to find when things are all running smoothly, just like “I think” they should.
You know, perhaps at least as well as I, that the Psalms and a great many biblical texts speak those same sentiments a great many years ago. It’s nothing new to wonder about our God’s presence / absence. It means, I suppose, that we’re human, curiously and wonderfully made. We are at the center of the focus of the heart of the Almighty, the “apple of His eye,” as Corey ten Boom wrote in the Hiding Place in the early-1970’s. Like a dozen young soccer players and their coach, trapped by rising flood waters a long, long way underground a couple of weeks ago, God is relentless in His efforts and pursuit, His concentration, His efforts to enfold us in His arms, like a parent gathering up a cranky, teary child. Recently, I read that “Jesus’ leaving the 99 sheep to go out looking for one wayward one doesn’t make good sense…. unless you’re the one who’s lost.”
I expect that somewhere in your life-circle, there are some folks in the depths of the “brokenness and nothingness” of life, as Bishop W. Kenneth Goodson was prone to say. I imagine that among your contacts there are those who simply “need a friend.” I believe that you, reading these lines, may even be one of those with gifts untapped, unexplored, unused in caring for others. It may look like a child “full of tears” in a grocery store shopping cart, or a parent who looks like they can’t quite stand to hear one more child-sized wail from the little one! I think that you may know an “outsider” – the kind I described last Sunday from the pulpit – who wants an invitation to find out what it’s like to be an “insider.” And they’re waiting for you to open the door just wide enough for their entry…. to worship, to Sunday School, to the Wednesday Night Fellowship Dinner, to sing with you in the choir, or to help in the nursery.
20 years or so ago, I heard someone note that DT Niles, the great Christian evangelist of the sub-continent of India a century ago, said that “evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where there’s bread.” Maybe the bread you find in the midst of our congregation’s life is THE Bread…. the kind which never leaves you hungry, and is found in the substance of the Word read and proclaimed, the Cup poured and shared, the touch of grace extended all through the congregation on Sunday mornings. Maybe the Bread that a friend needs is the kind that comforts, encourages, and strengthens them for the journey in which we are all engaged. Perhaps your gift of the Bread of Life to another is conveyed in a kind word, a gracious action, a shared meal, even something so simple as an invitation to “Come and sit with me/us” in worship, in a fellowship meal, or among friends.
Coming now full-circle, it would seem that these would be among the times to listen for the low, quiet, “audible smile” of God, who is finding great pleasure in your actions, the witness we bear to His Son in our words and deeds, and especially in the risks of faith in which we engage when offering a gift that’s unbidden.
In these late days of summer, I hope that you find much joy in the Creator’s handiwork – not only in magnificent sunsets and quiet sunrises, but in the rolling hills and majestic mountains; in the quiet squeaks and coos of newborns, and in the full-throated songs of Family as you sit down together for a meal. I hope that you find opportunities, great and small, to meet the needs of others with whom you share life, not in a “look at me” fashion, but in a quiet way of embodying grace, preserving the dignity and pride of the other…. like the little guy with whom I shared a long train ride on Monday, who frequently expressed his hope that we’d get home SOON! Well, just a moment’s worth of my “new Papa’s” attention and he was full of smiles and giggles and ready for a late afternoon nap. I hope that at every opportunity that presents itself, you will find a way to give thanks to God for the gifts that flow through you to touch the heart of another with His love.
When “the wheels are falling off the cart” of daily life and plans, let me encourage you to remain steadfast, because you have confidence that the Maker of the Vessel of Life is right alongside. One of those wonderful hymns we sing says, “When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply. I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand, upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.”
Grace to you, and peace, from One whose Supply is never depleted, and whose “audible smiles” can do you and me “a world of good.”
Jim Earley, Pastor
Responses? Send me an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org), give me a call (571-239-3529) anytime, or talk with me on Sunday between or after worship services. I’ll be glad to hear from you.
TABERNACLE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH, 831 POQUOSON AVE, POQUOSON, Virginia 23662-1723, United States