Deja Vu Storm Prayer

Note: I just came across this prayer I wrote two years ago when another monster storm was wreaking devastation. Harvey becomes Dorian, other details change names and locations; but the human condition is Deja vu in every generation–and so is God’s grace. So I’m just going to repost this as is, and you can fill in the blanks.

O Gracious and loving God we pray today for everyone dealing with the damage from hurricane Harvey. Be with those experiencing life-threatening floods of biblical proportions and with all the responders risking their own lives to save those of others. The news cycle will end soon and move on to some other crisis, but the recovery in Texas and Louisiana will continue for years.

So many natural disasters, Lord–wild fires, draughts causing climate refugees, the devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone that killed hundreds. We want to ask why Lord. We want to understand why there seem to be so many such calamities causing unbelievable suffering.

Our doubts and fears cause inner storms that shake the foundations of our faith at times. With the Psalmist and Christ on the cross we wonder if you have forsaken us.

So here and now Lord in the sacredness of this sanctuary we lay our most ardent prayers for everyone who is suffering. We surrender our fears and doubts because we know you are with us. You have walked among us in human form and suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous human misfortune and pain. And in Jesus the living Christ you showed us that evil and suffering will never have the final word.

When the storms of life are threatening to overwhelm us Lord, draw us to the life-saving power of your holy word. Whatever imagery works for us – be it a good shepherd, a mighty fortress, a rock of ages or that still small voice that we hear when we pause long enough to listen. Remind us again, gracious God, that you are our rock and redeemer, you are the one who speaks to the raging storms in nature, or in conflicted relationships, or within our own hearts and says, “peace be still.” Remind us again what ultimate trust and faith looks like in the form of our Lord sleeping in the boat on the stormy Sea of Galilee.

When the storms of life are raging, stand by us Lord. Empower us to face each day of life, each new challenge not because we know the future but because we know you hold the future now as you always have and always will.
We offer our prayers and our lives to you, O God, in the name of Christ Jesus. Amen

Is It Well with your Soul?

“It is Well with My Soul” has long been a favorite hymn of mine, but it has taken on a new twist for me in this year of apocalyptic election scenarios. Twice in recent months I have been in worship services where that great old hymn has been part of the liturgy. All of the lyrics to that hymn are powerful statements of faith, but the verse that has caught my ear in this election year is the last verse which says:
“And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
Even so, it is well with my soul.”

In particular I’m referring to the phrase, “The trump will resound, and the Lord will come down.” Sorry, but I can’t hear the word “trump” without being reminded of the Republican Presidential candidate. And the eschatological imagery in that line reminds me that many on both extremes of the political spectrum are feeling like the world may come to end if the “other” candidate is elected. I don’t really expect the end of the world on November 9, but regardless of your feelings about Trump or Clinton, most of us would agree the outcome of this election will have serious consequences for the future of our nation and the world. As an antidote to our anxieties about that, Horatio Spafford’s great hymn repeats the refrain, “It is well with my soul.”

If you don’t know the story behind this hymn, it was written in 1873 by Horatio Gates Spafford, a prominent American lawyer, after he had experienced multiple tragic events, including the death of a son in the great Chicago fire, financial ruin, and a storm at sea in which four of his daughters died. (More details at Knowing the history of Stafford’s Job-like tragedies, any one of which could undo most of us, we know lyrics like these are not merely pious platitudes.
“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say
It is well, it is well, with my soul”

At different times in my life words of faith like this speak more to me than others. This is one of those times, in part because of my grave concern over the deeply divided world we live in typified by the Presidential election rhetoric and the hate inspired violence from Syria to San Bernardino and far too many points in between. And on a more personal level I’m dealing with some chronic pain that makes it hard for me to function, including finding time and energy to write.

I was humbled and shamed about how easy I give into pain or despair over the state of the human condition the other day in physical therapy. A young woman was there who could barely walk, even with her cane. As she slowly made her way from the aquatic therapy pool through the main therapy room I noticed she is bald and wore a colorful bandana on her head. I assume she has lost her hair from chemo therapy. And beneath that colorful bandana she smiled at me, and that smile lit up the room as a powerful witness that though her body is betraying her, it is well with her soul.

This stranger’s smile and Spafford’s 143 year-old words, written out of tragedy and sorrow far greater than mine continue to comfort, challenge and inspire me. They remind me of a very helpful definition of faith I read many years ago by a Canadian theologian, Wilfred Cantwell Smith. At the risk of oversimplifying, my summary of Smith’s thought is that he delineates an important difference between belief and faith. We sometimes use those words synonymously, but they are not. Belief is an intellectual ascent to a proposition or idea, while faith is a deep trust in a power that can give us the “peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4:7) no matter what external circumstances threaten to make us fearful and anxious, be they personal, existential or political.

One of my favorite stories that illustrate the difference between belief and faith as trust is this one by an unknown author about Charles Blondin, a famous French tightrope walker:

Blondin’s greatest fame came on September 14, 1860, when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched 11,000 feet (over a quarter of a mile) across the mighty Niagara Falls. People from both Canada and America came from miles away to see this great feat.
He walked across, 160 feet above the falls, several times… each time with a different daring feat – once in a sack, on stilts, on a bicycle, in the dark, and blindfolded. One time he even carried a stove and cooked an omelet in the middle of the rope!
A large crowd gathered and the buzz of excitement ran along both sides of the river bank. The crowd “Oohed and Aahed!” as Blondin carefully walked across – one dangerous step after another – pushing a wheelbarrow holding a sack of potatoes.
Then at one point, he asked for the participation of a volunteer. Upon reaching the other side, the crowd’s applause was louder than the roar of the falls!
Blondin suddenly stopped and addressed his audience: “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “Who wants to get into the wheelbarrow?”

The story says no one took Blondin up on that invitation. But when things are truly well with my soul I know it’s safe to get in God’s wheelbarrow, even if I have to muster my courage like the father whose epileptic son had just been healed by Jesus. He said, “I believe Lord, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

Which is to say that faith is a journey, not a destination. John Wesley, founder of Methodism, knew that well. He asked new clergy as United Methodist Bishops still do today at ordination, “Are you going on to perfection?” That’s a not too subtle reminder to walk humbly with God and other faith seekers who know that faith and doubt wage an eternal battle in us all. Wesley also advised preachers to “Preach faith until you have it.” I believe that’s why the word “retirement” does not appear in the Bible. We’re all still preaching and seeking that trusting faith that no matter what curve balls life throws sings out, “It is well with my soul.”

Peace that Passes All Understanding

So many competing emotions in Advent 2015! Consumerism has almost ruined the holiday season for me in a “normal” year, but the epidemic of fear fed by the recent wave of terrorist attacks makes it especially challenging and necessary for me to dig deep and find the bedrock of faith and gratitude in 2015.

I struggled for days with what, if anything, to say about the attacks in Paris on November 13, partly because so much has already been said, both wise and foolish, but mostly because I have been very depressed about the state of the world and not sure what to say that can make any contribution. I finally gave up and said nothing.

That Friday the 13th for me was a metaphor for the tug of war between hope and fear. One of our beautiful grandchildren spent that day at our house. I’m very biased, of course, but little things she did that day made my papa pride swell for what a sweet, caring, smart little girl she is.

Shortly after I took her home I heard the first reports about the attacks in Paris on a TV in a fast food restaurant. Unlike 9/11 when the world stopped to watch the horror unfold, I seemed to be the only one in the McDonald’s paying any attention to the news. Everyone else was chatting and carrying on as usual because these kinds of events have become chillingly commonplace.

That evening I went to a meeting to watch a film entitled “Climate Refugees,” which in painful detail describes how millions of people have been driven from their homes by storms, floods and draughts related to climate change. The whole film, which was made long before the current refugee crisis in Europe, was alarming, but one segment especially so given the chaos in Paris that very evening. That segment talked about how desperate, frightened refugees are easy prey for sex traffickers and terrorist organizations looking for new recruits. I was so overwhelmed by the scope of the problem that I couldn’t bring myself to stay for the discussion after the film.

The level and frequency of violence in our world since then has shaken the foundations of my faith. I am questioning my long-held belief in humans being created in the image of God. I am afraid for my family and for the future of the planet. And my first reaction to that fear and anger was to join the chorus of politicians who want to bomb our way out of the ISIS problem and arm ourselves and close our borders. I know better, but it scares me even more that some of our “leaders” or wannabes don’t. Instead they see these tragedies as an opportunity to sell more guns and generate more fear and fan the flames of their own political fortunes with abhorrent ideas borrowed from Hitler’s playbook.

On the bright side there have been wonderful statements of faith and hope from those with a greater understanding of human history and a better vision of human potential. One of those reminded me that love is ultimately the victor over hate. I believe that’s true in the long run, but for now hate has a big lead and the clock is ticking.

The paragraphs above were written during Thanksgiving week, and wisely, I believe, I chose not to share them then because they felt too hopeless and negative. Then yesterday came news of the biggest U.S. mass shooting since Sandy Hook. I was still wrestling with depression and feared this latest killing spree would only deepen my despair. Much to my surprise I am not as pessimistic 24 hours after San Bernardino as I have been for 2.5 weeks. I am very sad and determined to do more to be the solution to the dis-ease strangling our nation and world. But I am not depressed, and that feels very strange.

On the one hand I feel a bit guilty for not being discouraged, and on the other I am afraid to analyze my hopeful feeling for fear I will awaken from a dream and it will be gone. But unlike Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in my favorite baseball movie “Bull Durham,” I am cursed with self-awareness. And most days that’s a good thing – and today is one of those.

I had noticed ironically yesterday that the last thing I posted in this blog was a piece about being “content in whatever state I am in” based on the words of St. Paul in Philippians 4. I posted that 4 days before the Paris terrorist attacks. How quickly I forgot those words to live by when the chips were down.

But tonight, several mass shootings later, some other words from that same 4th chapter popped into my awareness as I was pondering why I was not as depressed by these latest killings much closer to home. In particular verse 7 came to mind, and I had a warm feeling because what had been just words and ideas 3 weeks ago was actually a reality for me. I was experiencing the “peace that passes all understanding,” and it was very good.

So I revisited Philippians 4, and here’s the context for verse 7: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 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. 9Keep 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.”

How relevant and practical those old words are for this particular Advent. Rejoice, in spite of our fear. Be gentle to everyone, including ourselves. Know that Emmanuel (“God with Us”) is near. Replace worry with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving. Prayer is not enough in our struggle with death and destruction and violence, but it is the foundation, the source of strength that sustains us when “our arms are too weary” to be carriers of hope to a frightened world.

And Paul gives attitude adjustment advice better than the best self-help guru. He says to focus on what is good and true and excellent and worthy of praise. Because even in the dark days of Advent 2015 there is much goodness in the world. We may just have to work a little harder to find it, but it is more necessary than ever to find it and share it.

One such image for me that is stronger than the non-stop horrific news coverage from California is that of a simple gesture by my granddaughter that Friday the 13th. She came down to my office that morning with two juice boxes in her hands that she had gotten from the lunch box she brought with her. When I asked her if she was going to drink them both she said, “No, this one’s for you.” A simple pure act of caring and sharing, unprompted and natural. It was the best juice box I’ve tasted in a long time!

She was doing in her six-year-old way what the final advice is in that passage from Paul. It says, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard in me, and the peace of God will be with you.” Don’t abandon the ways of love and peace. Don’t fall into the temptation to fight fire with fire. Be forgiving and compassionate, even when those things make no sense and seem impossible. There is no peace in following the ways of King Herod, another mass murderer. The peace of God came “not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drum, but with deeds of love and mercy” in a helpless refugee child born in a barn.

No matter how loud our leaders and our hearts want to shout fear and hate, the still small voice of God says, “Fear not, I am still bringing you good news of great joy.” Don’t miss it!