Gates of Beauty

We are living in a messy time.  A time filled with fear, with anger, with frustration, with pain.  Some of these things are beyond our control.  Some we could relieve and change, if only we made the decisions required to do so. There are examples right now of people in our world who are making those hard decisions – in big and small ways.  The decisions that will rise up above the mess and exude beauty.  The kind of beauty that we need.  The kind of beauty that will inspire others.  The kind of beauty that shines a bright light on those who have done wrong and calls them into account. The kind of beauty that gives hope to those who are battered and broken and encourages the weary.  The kind of beauty that is strong and clear.  These are the people we need to focus upon. They are real leaders.

*

The idea of beauty keeps coming into my mind.  What beauty is and what value it should have in our lives.  There are times when it is a stumbling block, if understood in a superficial way.  But there are times when it opens up our souls to things beyond ourselves; things that lift us from the mire and into a place of vision and reward.

Open now thy gates of beauty, 
Zion; let me enter there,
where my soul in joyful duty
waits for One who answers prayer.
Oh, how blessed is this place,
filled with solace, light, and grace!

Gracious God, I come before thee,
come thou also unto me.
Where we find thee and adore thee,
there a heav’n on earth must be.
To my heart O enter thou,
let it be thy temple now.

Speak, O Lord, and I will hear thee;
let thy will be done indeed.
May I undisturbed draw near thee
while thou dost thy people feed.
Here of life the fountain flows,
here is balm for all our woes.

This hymn speaks of the latter kind of beauty and I must say, I love the image of the gates of beauty.  A special passageway into something that is blessed.  The word blessed is one of those that gets tossed around frequently these days.  I’ve heard so many people say they are blessed – because they are successful, healthy, wealthy, lucky…. whatever.  But to me, being blessed is about a sense of relief.  A shift, from being burdened by the many things that weigh us down, to seeking out the spaces where we can see beautiful views.  I’m not convinced it has anything to do with what we have or what we receive, but rather with those magical things that run like currents through our world and remind us of the Divine, of what is good, of what we can never understand. To me, these things make up the land of beauty – that place found when we open the gates.

As I think about the weights of this world – environmental concerns, injustice, sadness, pain, sickness, hatred, stress and many others – I find myself feeling heavy. I’m sure this is common.  I hear people speak of this weariness, of this sense of drowning in the filth.  We have access to so much information that is soul destroying.  And we take it in.  Someone said to me this week that there was no such thing as good news.  It was a kick in the gut – for how does one live with that in their mind?  How do we even begin to create good news when we no longer believe it exists?

But it does. And more and more I am thinking it exists in beauty.  True beauty – that which reflects our most beautiful souls.  The artist’s ability to recollect a lost family member’s presence in the beauty of their painting.  The composer’s notes that transcend our ability to speak and bring us closer to what we feel.  The garden’s ceaseless transition from dormancy into bloom and decay, echoing our own lives with all its stages of loveliness – each one different, each one precious.  The ocean as it moves with a constancy that brings calm reassurance and exciting motion all at the same time.  The grain dancing in the wind in fields that breathe of our nourishment.  The footsteps of those walking beside us that fill the air with a song, when we have nothing left but silence.  The stars, the planets, the comets – the darkness of night that reveals something larger than we can ever imagine.

There is beauty everywhere.  There is simply not enough evil in this world to wipe it out.  Whether we see it or not, it is constant.  When we are able to find it, something happens and we start to see beyond ourselves.  When we look through human history and see bits and pieces of beauty in amongst our horrors, we find hope.  When we take time to look at something beautiful, we start to cherish things differently, to honour them, to protect them.  When we offer a moment of beauty to someone who is so weighed down that they can’t find it themselves, we give a small blessing, a small relief from their pain – sometimes unrecognized, but inserted into their memory to be received when they are able.

Beauty is a powerful thing.  Seeking it is rewarding but so challenging in a world that has defined it in ways that tarnish its depth of importance.  Sharing it is generous and infectious, even if we are afraid to reveal how beautiful we really are.  Surrounding ourselves with it is healing, even when our world remains filled with pain. Finding the beauty that reflects the very best of your soul allows you to enter those gates, and often empowers others to follow.  And in that beauty filled space, the fountain of life flows.

Love Is A Choice

Do we love or do we hate?  It is a simple question.  It is not as simple to answer. But it is worth considering.  Our ability to love in a truthful, humble, open and generous way will determine what we leave behind us on the path we walk through this life. It is our choice whether our footsteps are destructive or peaceful; whether they disregard others on the path or provide space and opportunity for growth and flourishing.

Love sees.  Love listens.  Love acknowledges its failures.  Love tries.  Love learns.  Love sacrifices.  Love gives.  Love is strong.  Love is fierce.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.

Love does not judge others’ expressions of pain.

Love is willing to do what is right, even when it is impossible.

*

Somewhere, way back in my childhood, this is the first hymn I ever learned to play on the piano.  Or, I should say, the first one I remember playing.  I think I was about 11 years old and I suppose playing it was easy enough to draw me into the world of hymns.  I have fond memories of playing it, and other hymns, with a friend of mine – we would merrily flip through the hymnbook and play whatever we could.  Sometimes, in fits of laughter, we would settle on two hymns on facing pages, and dive in for a duet of less than inspirational quality, regardless of competing time and key signatures.  Probably not what the hymn writers intended.

These are very old words.  They can be found in many Gregorian chants, the earliest record of their use in 990 at a monastery in Switzerland. The original Latin text is: Adoramus te, Christe, et benedicimus tibi: Quia per Crucem tuam redemisti mundum.  This familiar hymn version was written as part of an oratorio by Théodore Dubois in 1867 (translated into English in 1899 by Theodore Baker).

Christ, we do all adore thee,
And we do praise thee forever.
For on the holy cross hast thou
the world from sin redeemed.

This is a simple hymn.  The music is simple; the words are simple.  Perhaps this is what drew me to it as a child.  We adore and praise Christ, why?  Because of his sacrifice and resulting redemption.  End of story.  For those that adhere to this belief, there isn’t much more to add. And, many have experienced moments where the simplicity of repeated statements of this kind of childlike faith have been very moving and very meaningful.  Sometimes that’s all we need.

And yet, as always, we need to look beyond the places we lived as children.  To look for that which confounds as well as comforts, to consider other points of view.  Can this simple sentiment mean more than what it appears – can it be meaningful beyond the confines of a specific belief system?

Christ’s example of sacrificial love is powerful. His story is about providing what was needed, in all sorts of ways, to all sorts of people.  Healing, food, comfort, reassurance, and ultimately, redemption.  And, some choose to adore and praise him as a result. Regardless of how his example has been used and misused throughout church history, these behaviours are valuable and honourable and worthy.

I don’t really know what sin is, but I suspect behaving in ways that are the opposite of love defines it well.  I also suspect that the lists of sins that have been screamed at us from many a pulpit, contain more about maintaining power structures than about expressing love, and have little to do with deep, moral truths.  The standard is so much higher than what we have been told. Simply following rules is both easy to do and easy to dismiss, and a little lazy in the lack of understanding of how humans learn, grow and evolve.  Truly living in a spirit of love requires a great deal more effort, and its absence requires enormous redemption.

For me, redemption is about the process of regaining what has been lost.  When we exhibit behaviours that are less than loving, we lose something.  We lose a part of the recipient’s spirit and a part of our own. We leave a trail of destruction in our wake.  We become unadorable.

All of this leaves me wondering about both the simplicity and complexity of choosing love.  It is difficult.  There are times when we must honour ourselves by walking away from damaging situations, or must rely on others to provide for a need we cannot possibly fill.  Being a person grounded in love does not mean we are weak and accepting of whatever the world or our neighbours throw our way. But how we choose to behave matters. What we say, what we do, how we react and respond.

Adoration and praise is probably best saved for the gods. But redemption is something we all need. If we are willing to consider the greatest examples in human history, we will see that whatever was lost is always regained through actions, words, honour and commitment.  When these things are firmly grounded in a paradigm of love, rebuilding is possible, even if it is challenging and takes a lifetime.

This simple hymn reminds me that that there are powerful forces available to guide my path.  There is hate.  There is love.  The guide I choose will determine not the perfection of my experience, but the impact my path has on this world.

The original Latin includes the words, and we bless thee.  This is my wish.  That our lives and the paths we walk provide that which blesses those we encounter and those who follow.

Et benedicimus tibi.

Wind

I looked at this hymn tune a few years ago, but today I happened upon a version with different words and it sort of spoke to me.  That doesn’t happen very often, so I felt it was worth a second arrangement and a few moments thinking about this new, to me, text.  These incredible words were written by Jessie Adams around 1907.  She was a Quaker teacher in England, but not much else is known about her.

I feel the winds of God today;
today my sail I lift,
though heavy oft with drenching spray
and torn with many a rift;
if hope but light the water’s crest,
and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at his behest,
and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries
my vain regretful tears,
until with braver thoughts shall rise
the purer, brighter years;
if cast on shores of selfish ease
or pleasure I should be,
O let me feel your freshening breeze,
and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget your love
and how that love was shown,
lift high the blood-red flag above;
it bears your name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way,
you will not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today,
today my sail I lift.

I’m not sure there is much I can add to these words.  What is the thing that sends its wind into your sail?  That persistent, cleansing, driving, rejuvenating, reminding force that keeps you going?  I know it is different for each of us.  I know some find it difficult to find, others choose to ignore its positive potential in favour of selfish or superficial breezes.  But I can’t help reading these words and thinking that the piloting energy we choose to engage enables us to live life fully and honourably.  This choice determines whether our sails are worth lifting.

This has been such a strange time.  We are so tired.  Consider how the absence of regular life has impacted you.  The restrictions.  The shortages.  The loneliness.  The fear.  The loss of jobs.  The threat of untimely death.  The boredom.  The disappointments.  The breakdown of our economies.  The failed businesses and organizations.  The need to protect oneself at all times.  The awareness required in all our activities.  The lack of easy communication and gathering.  It is draining and it is wearing us down.

We have lost a bit of freedom.  It seems to be exhausting many of us.  But it is for the greater good, so we carry on as best we can and hope for solutions that will return us to lives that are full and interesting and move in the directions we desire.  We assume we will regain what was lost, or at least regain the ability to rebuild.  We are weary, but able to be hopeful.

Not every experience is like this.  Some hopes are dashed repeatedly.  Across generations.  It is not lost on me that those who suffer at the hands of oppression are infinitely more exhausted than what we are feeling after a couple of months of isolation in this pandemic.  And it is not lost on me that what we choose to hear as this wind blows is critically important right now.  This is a storm borne from poor choices.  My poor choices.  My complacency as a white person, comfortable with my life and its privilege.  Neglectful of the weariness of those with very different life experiences.   I don’t know what the answers are, but I know that something must change.  To require people to live with injustice, fear and exhaustion for so long is simply reprehensible.

We choose the wind that steers our sails.  We choose the direction we go, the route and the speed.  We can find ways to be reminded of our vainest tears, and the times we forget that love is a flag that must be held high regardless of its weight or our weakness. We can choose to change the world.  We can choose to make whatever sacrifice is needed to ensure all are able to sail in safety.  We can brave another cruise and feel a refreshing breeze.  We can.

Powerful Beauty

Amidst everything that is swirling around us, there is still beauty.  As I sit at my desk this morning, I am listening to birds sing.  It seems there are more than usual, that they sing louder and with more enthusiasm.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it is a lovely sound.  The sun is shining and the sky is a perfect blue with a few puffy clouds.  There is a lushness to the green in my garden, and in the yards of my neighbours.  It feels as though nature’s beauty is reclaiming this little spot where I live.  This world of ours is a wonder.  It sustains us and reminds us that all who walk upon it are worthy of what it offers.  Enjoy its beauty and be reminded that each one of us deserves to live on this planet – safely, fully and with compassion for those with whom we share this beautiful place.

*

I’ve been thinking about this beautiful world we live in this week.  It’s autumn, such a perfect season for those of us that love the changing colours of the leaves and the crisp, refreshing weather.  But, perhaps you prefer winter with its sparkling white stillness and peaceful dark evenings.  Or summer, with its lush gardens and radiant sunshine.  Maybe your favourite time is spring when everything is bursting with life.  The possible variations of beauty offered to us are many.

This old hymn, written by Isaac Watts in 1715, speaks to the beauty of nature.  His understanding of the value of all these wonders is quite powerful.  Mountains rise, seas flow, skies are lofty, the sun rules the day, the moon and stars shine at night.  There is the goodness of food and creatures, and there is not a plant or flower that doesn’t express something glorious.  These words speak to the incredible value of what we have and what we share.

I sing the mighty power of God 
that made the mountains rise, 
that spread the flowing seas abroad 
and built the lofty skies. 
I sing the wisdom that ordained 
the sun to rule the day; 
the moon shines full at God’s command, 
and all the stars obey. 

I sing the goodness of the Lord 
that filled the earth with food; 
God formed the creatures with a word 
and then pronounced them good. 
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed, 
where’er I turn my eye, 
if I survey the ground I tread 
or gaze upon the sky!

There’s not a plant or flower below 
but makes thy glories known, 
and clouds arise and tempests blow 
by order thy your throne. 
While all that borrows life from thee 
is ever in thy care, 
there’s not a place that we can flee
but God is present there. 

When Watts wrote these words, I suspect his focus was on the power of God to create all these wonders.  And, for many, this continues to be a meaningful understanding of creation, of our world.  But even if you have a different understanding of our origins, there is something rather amazing about having a place on a planet so full; living amongst these things that are so easily seen as remarkable.  The beauty that surrounds us implies our own beauty, by association and by virtue of us being a part of the wonder of this beautiful world.

And yet, this week the UN panel on climate change released a report that paints a sad picture of how we have treated our planet.  Perhaps not entirely new information, but it is clear and quite dire.  We are said to be on a very short road to catastrophe. The impacts have already been seen and felt by many.  As I read through this hymn text, I was struck by how easily we praise the natural beauty around us – whether we consider it to be divinely derived or not – and how little we are willing to protect it when doing so means sacrificing our lifestyles, our aspirations, our wealth and our convenience.

If I really consider these words, I wonder if I am willing to go beyond my own enjoyment of the seasons, the glories of nature, the treasures of the animal world and really do what is required to protect all of these things I claim as beautiful. For that which is beautiful is something to be cared for, to be sheltered, to be encouraged to thrive.  These wonders are not merely for our consumption. They are essential for our health, welfare and future.  But if we believe in their intrinsic value, they are also worth conserving simply because they exist. The beauty of our earth is life giving and inspirational.  It is our saviour and our fortune.  We treat it as though it is our possession, to be used at our whim.  It is not. We owe it much more than we have been willing to repay.  We borrow our lives from it, and it is good.  We need to treat it as the treasure it is – a gloriously made gift to all who live now, and in days to come.  A gloriously made gift to be shared and cared for with a well-deserved tenacity and commitment.

This earth is our home.  Look around and take it all in.  It is worth so much more than we have given.  It is a mighty power – and it is beautiful.

Burdens

Today I am thankful for my own community of friends.  These special people who make this strange little journey we’re on, bearable.  I am especially grateful that we are able to share our burdens.  Those moments when we don’t think we can make it – the disappointments, the stresses, the feelings of being completely overwhelmed.  We can’t solve many, or any of the problems that are swirling around us right now, but we can say them out loud and know that others have heard our voices and carry us in their care.  It is enough.  We are strong.  We are loved.

Share your burdens.  They are too heavy to carry alone.

*

There are some people who seem to carry heavier burdens than others.  I’m not sure why.  I know we all have burdens – some big, some small, some fleeting, some constant.  I know we carry them in different ways – some of us are visibly strong, some walk in silence, some appear endlessly unlucky or lucky, some buckle under the weight, some recover, some do not.  It is mysterious, and often seems a little unfair.  While the severity of our struggles vary, there is none amongst us that escapes this life unscathed.

This hymn speaks to the need we all have to find external strength to help us carry our burdens.  The words are based on several Psalms, and were written to be used with this tune when Mendelssohn incorporated it into his oratorio, Elijah, in 1846.  The tune is much older, being used as a hymn since at least 1693.

Cast thy burden upon the Lord,
and he shall sustain thee.
He never will suffer the righteous to fall.
He is at thy right hand.
Thy mercy, Lord, is great,
and far above the heav’ns.
Let none be made ashamed,
that wait upon thee.

Simple words, and a simple concept.  Sustenance is always available to those who ask.  I particularly like the last line that implies that there is no shame in the asking, the needing or the waiting for help. How beautiful.  And how contrary to what most of us actually do and feel. Experiencing the impact of our burdens is often enough to shut us down, rather than open us up to expressing our needs and seeking help.  We do feel shame.  We live in a world where everything is judged on its obvious success, or failure.  We are very hard on ourselves and on others.

These words are meant to indicate a need to cast our burdens into the care of God.  This is meaningful to many, and I suspect even a few who are not religious, occasionally reach out privately towards something spiritual in moments of intense struggle.  But, as is often the case, I wonder if there’s another side to this.  To the understanding that we are meant to seek assistance. We were not meant to fight all our battles alone.

If that’s the case, then we are once again given tremendous responsibility towards our neighbours.  As providers of care, as askers of help.  For some this comes easily – on both sides of the equation. For others it is unbearably difficult. Not all are comfortable seeking help. Not all have somewhere to turn. Not all are suited to providing care. Not all have the resources or skills to offer what’s needed.  Not all believe help is available.

Perhaps this is why humans have always created communities.  Groups of people that have many talents, many perspectives, many skills.  Overlapping each other in hopes that none will fall through the cracks.  Not willing to allow those precious companions to fall, being at the right hand of the weary.  Perhaps.

We are not alone.  No matter how heavy the burdens become.  There aren’t always answers to our problems, but there is something to be said for walking through these painful moments with someone by your side – whether they can fix things or not.  There is no shame in asking for someone to walk with you.  There is no shame in carrying a burden.  Life is unfair.  The only shame I can see is that which emerges when we refuse to walk with those who carry these heavy loads.  Those close to us, those far.  Those familiar, those who are strangers.  Those we grow weary of; those we wish better for.

We all have gifts to offer.  Give what you have.  It may not be the solution, nor does it need to be, but sustenance is found in many places. Sustenance that allows us to carry whatever burdens we have received.

Listen

This post was originally written about our ability as a society to disregard women’s truths.  Disregard the damage done, the pain inflicted, the crimes committed.  There is a horrific ease with which we are able to forget their stories and relieve perpetrators of their responsibility.  As we have all been watching the news out of Minneapolis this week, and the countless similar stories we’ve heard of over the years, the sentiments are remarkably similar in cases of systemic racism.  I just can’t help noticing that we would rather let others suffer than do the hard work of redefining our culture to allow for the safety of all; the support of all; the righting of wrongs.  We are not gracious, we are selfish and we are cruel.  When certain people say we have hurt them, we simply do not listen.  There are consequences of this inaction – real lives have been destroyed and lost.  We have made this mess.  We need to clean it up.

*

We seem to be living in a time without graciousness.  A time where the intensely felt pain of some is used against them as weapons for others’ agendas.  It is disheartening.  And, although my intention with this project was to look for the positive, it is sometimes very difficult to avoid the negativity that we are swimming in. There is a great deal in the news this week about courageous women.  Women who have bravely put themselves in the position of publicly telling very personal stories.  Stories that are humiliating and deeply traumatic.  Stories that involve challenging pillars of our society – those with power.  Stories that, ultimately, can save lives and bring about change.  It is with a heavy heart that I read and hear responses to this bravery.  What is behind our inability to offer a collective graciousness to these countless souls who have been battered and compromised?  To these countless souls who have carried the weight of our society’s great shame and are emerging as a strength we should be celebrating?

This idea of offering graciousness to those among us that we have seriously neglected and discarded has been on my mind as I have watched and listened this past week.  The graciousness of being kind, delicate and generous of spirit.  The graciousness of avoiding hurtful words and thoughtless deeds.  So, in a kind of childish attempt to find a hymn to understand these thoughts, I flipped open my hymnbook and found these words.  First flip.  Divine intervention?  Luck? I don’t know, but this text speaks to what we could be, if we chose to look beyond protecting what is, and moved towards protecting those that are damaged by what is; towards changing our culture for the better even when there is something to lose for those that currently hold the power.

Gracious Spirit, dwell with me:
I myself would gracious be,
and, with words that help and heal,
would Thy life in mine reveal,
and, with actions, bold and meek
for Christ my Saviour speak.

Truthful Spirit, dwell with me:
I myself would truthful be;
and, with wisdom kind and clear,
let Thy life in mine appear;
and, with actions lovingly,
speak of Christ’s sincerity.

Silent Spirit, dwell with me,
I myself would silent be;
quiet as the growing blade,
which through earth its way has made,
silently like morning light,
putting mists and chills to flight.

Mighty Spirit, dwell with me:
I myself would mighty be,
mighty so as to prevail
where unaided I must fail,
ever by a mighty hope,
pressing on and bearing up.

Holy Spirit, dwell with me:
I myself would holy be,
break from sin and choose the good,
cherish what my Saviour would,
and whatever I can be
give Him who gave me Thee.

There is nothing in these words about protecting those with power.  Nothing about saving reputations or assuming that a victim is a liar with ulterior motives. These are words about truth and action.  They are heart wrenchingly commanding.  Listen. To be gracious is to:  be filled with words that help and heal; to take up actions that are both bold and meek; to express wisdom that is both kind and clear; to be truthful; to be silent as we observe growth of that which was previously buried in the dark, emerging into the sunlight; to bear up with hope and might; and to choose what is good.  Our task is one of powerful kindness.  Active kindness.  We do not need to rescue or protect how things have always been.  We need to listen to those who say they are in pain and be gracious.  We need to hold them, care for them – and do what is required to protect them from ever experiencing this pain again.  We need to believe what is true and stop thinking it can’t possibly be that bad.  It surely is that bad and we are culpable for this fact.

The word gracious comes from the Latin word for good will.  Are we as a society offering good will to those who bravely tell us we’ve hurt them? No.  We are avidly protecting our cultural norms.  This is a kind of avarice.  And it is a deadly sin.  We must do better.

Anger

If we can tear ourselves away from the news of our current situation long enough to notice, there are still many other tragedies happening in our world. Every day.  This week a dear friend posted a plea for justice.  Justice and safety for the lives of African Americans, particularly men, in the United States.  Safety for her husband, safety for her sons. Young and old, those who find themselves at the mercy of a system that remains so biased against them, the simplest protections that many of us don’t even think about, are just not reliable or available.  It is heartbreaking. And, lest we think we can shake our heads with a sense of moral superiority here in Canada, we should think again.  The systemic prejudice towards many, especially our Indigenous neighbours, in this country is appalling.  There is plenty of shame to go around, and we should be angry.

As we’ve moved through this pandemic crisis, there has been an incredible amount of compassion, kindness and support offered to all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways. This is a good thing.  But it is not the whole story.  We need to remain vigilant against the prejudices that lie deep within our cultures.  And we need to notice when our lives, our actions and our beliefs cause others to suffer and die for our privilege. We need to be angry and we need to find solutions. Safety for some is very precarious when it rests on the backs of others.  And it is wrong.

*

Anger.  It is a complicated thing.  It is often a manifestation of profound pain, frustration and sadness.  It can be the thing that spurs us to action, that requires us to remedy a wrong.  But it can also be a force of evil.  Evil against others; evil against ourselves.  We all feel it, and we all must come to terms with how it will inform our behaviour.

This past week we heard about another tragedy.  Another group of innocents slaughtered for being who they were.  Slaughtered in a place that should have been free from this kind of hatred.  They join many who have found themselves the targets of hatred and have paid much too high a price.  Children in their schools, young women studying at university, worshippers of all faiths, groups that are defined as different – and somehow wrong – from the majority, people simply walking down a street, crowds enjoying a concert or having a night out for some dancing.  All these lives taken because we live in a time where ideology trumps safety. Our perceived rights are more valued than our necessary responsibilities – even if it means fostering a culture of hatred and destruction.

It makes me angry.

As I listened to the news this week, I was reminded of this hymn.  When I was in high school, a girl a few years younger than I was abducted and murdered.  At her funeral, our school choir sang this hymn.  We were teenagers; children. We felt confusion, sadness, fear and anger.  It was a powerful experience that I have never forgotten.  I know it is often sung at funerals, especially those of children.  It is not difficult to understand why.  The words speak to a God that holds these lost ones with mighty arms; a refuge; protection that cannot be severed, in life or death.  For those who adhere to a belief in God this is an enormous comfort.

Children of the heav’nly Father, 
safely in His bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven 
such a refuge e’er was given.

God His own doth tend and nourish;
in His holy courts they flourish. 
From all evil things He spares them; 
in His mighty arms He bears them. 

Neither life nor death shall ever 
from the Lord His children sever; 
unto them His grace He showeth,
and their sorrows all He knoweth.

Though He giveth or He taketh,
God His children ne’er forsaketh;
His the loving purpose solely
to preserve them pure and holy.

As I read these words, they stir up many emotions.  Because we are not always safe.  And some of us are privileged to be much safer than others.  And this disparity feeds my anger.  I sometimes wonder at those who are so convinced of their religious superiority that they are unable to see that we have created a God that serves us and our needs, with little concern for those outside our doors. Who are God’s own?  Who are her children?  When we see our neighbours, near and far, slaughtered, do we ask ourselves what we have done to be God’s mighty arms on this earth?  Do we fight to ensure every nestling bird is given refuge? Are we willing to make our purpose solely that of preserving all children, old and young, in the safety of our bosom?

Clearly, the answer is no.  We might fight for those like us.  We might get angry when we hear of horrific acts of hatred, but we have forsaken many. And their bodies are piling up – here, across borders, across the seas.  Our anger is apathetic.  Our anger seems to be less about protecting others than it is about justifying our own safety and quality of living.  I know there are things in my own life that contribute to the problems of this world. I know I am rarely angry in a way that spurs me to action or makes a real contribution to change.  When I am honest about this, my anger feels empty and pointless.

I reread these words and find hope in the possibility of who we can become.  A culture focused on sparing all from evil things could be immensely powerful.  I relinquish my weapon, just in case it causes you pain.  I relinquish my privilege, just in case it steals from yours.  I relinquish my religious superiority, just in case it diminishes all you hold dear.  It is not that large a price to pay for the safety of all.   For the ability of every star in heaven to shine with the splendour it was meant to have.  For millions of stars shining together creates a sight of astounding beauty. One that benefits us all.  One that lights all of our paths.  Shine, children, with an anger that propels us forward into a world of safety and care.  Gathered together.  Pure and holy.

You Are Loved

When we sing to infants and small children, we tell them how loved they are. We don’t say they are loved because of any particular characteristic or accomplishment, we just make sure they know they are loved.  We seem to understand that it is important they know from birth that they are worthy of love just because they are alive. There is something about this that gets more difficult as we get older.  Things get clouded by our circumstances, our disappointments, our pain, our behaviour, our decisions, our confidence.  But our value doesn’t change. In this time of isolation and loneliness, we are still loved.  For some it is a comfort to know that this comes from a Divine source, as the words of this lullaby suggest.  But the  source of love may also be from a special family member, dear friend or a beloved pet.  It may come in all sorts of forms – explicitly stated or gently expressed through acts of kindness and generosity.  It encircles us with its care and reminds us that we are worthy. You are loved.

*

This Sunday marks the end of the liturgical calendar. It is the final feast of the Christian year before we start all over again with Advent. Sometimes called “Christ the King” Sunday, it is meant to be a reminder of Christ’s power and the related gifts given by God. This festival was only established in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church and was, at the time, meant to challenge the secularization of society. Well, I can’t say I am particularly concerned with or interested in that sort of focus, but I do kind of like the idea of saying goodnight to one year, reflecting on what’s occurred and moving into the new year with a spirit of peace and gratitude.

So I present a lullaby. It was suggested by a friend’s father who is, I think, in his eighties. He shared that he has very clear and fond memories of his grandmother singing this to him when he was a small boy. Another hymn that I hadn’t thought of in a while, his story triggered my own memories of my mother singing this to me. Now, I am not the most reliable for memory recollection, so I consulted with my brother and sister and both confirmed that this was indeed our lullaby. My brother thought our maternal grandmother sang it as well. The hymn is said to be a traditional Moravian song that begins to show up in print in a German hymnbook around 1693. So it’s old and has, based on what I’ve been told, been sung to children for at least eighty years. And I suspect many, many more.

Gott ist die Liebe, lässt mich erlösen;
Gott ist die Liebe, er liebt auch mich.
Drum sag’ ich noch einmal: Gott ist die Liebe.
Gott ist die Liebe, er liebt auch mich.

I can’t even hear this one in English, but the gist of it is that God is love and loves even me. Another simple, comforting sentiment. This can mean many things and probably varies for whomever is interpreting it, but for me it speaks to our intrinsic value. Something as great as a divine being loving me is a powerful source of strength and encouragement. However we see the details of the Divine, this kind of recognition and care requires us to be more than we sometimes feel like or think we can be. What a lovely thing to sing to a child. As we end one year and prepare to start the next, my hope is that this reminder serves to encourage us to learn from the past, and prepare for the future with the knowledge of this almighty, loving support.

 

Choices

If you are willing to notice, every day will bring blessings. Some will be so small that finding them will require effort.  Others are obvious.  Some are mundane, routine, ordinary. Some are exciting and fantastical. They are everywhere. What is challenging is choosing to seek them and choosing to accept them for what they are are, not what we wish them to be.  And then, choosing to become people that reflect what these great and small things ask us to be.  How we live our experiences, our gifts, our beliefs, our disappointments and our blessings, matters.  I am grateful for the many people in my life who choose offer themselves honestly and lovingly – in pain or joy, wealth or poverty, success or failure. These people are a blessing and they carry me every day.

*

There are some words that, due to overuse and misuse, make me cringe.  Awesome (are you really in awe of your specialty coffee beverage?).  Amazing (are you really amazed by your specialty coffee beverage?).  And, well, blessing (have you really been blessed by your specialty coffee beverage?). Blessing, blessed and blessings, are not words I use often in my day to day life, although I may have used them on occasion over the years of these hymn commentaries.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these words, but I do find it difficult to reconcile the superficial way in which they’ve become part of our lexicon.

And yet, I can’t help feeling that I have experienced some real blessings this past week.  It has been a week of hearing from friends, relatives and even strangers that something I said, or did, or wrote, was in some way helpful or meaningful. The blessing is not that I had the wherewithal to do anything, but that there are people in this world who take the time to express gratitude for seemingly small things that have touched their lives.  These people are blessings because they require us to acknowledge that how we choose to live is much more significant than we can fully realize.

It all reminded me of this hymn.  Written in 1757 by Robert Robinson, a minister who was originally apprenticed to be a hairdresser (perhaps more like indentured, as, from the sounds of things, he was quite poor).  He wrote many hymns and apparently ended up with a congregation of over a thousand.  This particular hymn is about divine grace.

Come, thou Fount of every blessing,
tune my heart to sing thy grace.
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount I’m fixed upon it,
mount of God’s redeeming love.

Here I raise my Ebenezer,
hither by thy help I’m come,
and I hope, by thy good pleasure,
safely to arrive at home.
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
wand’ring from the fold of God.
He, to rescue me from danger,
interposed his precious blood.

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace now, like a fetter,
bind my wand’ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
prone to leave the God I love.
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
seal it for thy courts above. 

I suppose there are many definitions of what divine grace is, but one that struck me was that the divine within us influences how we behave; how we act, react and interact with those around us. This is not just a Christian concept; many religions and spiritual practices incorporate similar ideas into their understanding of how we are connected. Because we take on whatever we believe, it emerges.  Good or bad.  This is powerful.  We simply do not know in any moment which bits of who we’ve decided to be are floating from us into the world.

I suppose it is easy to say that we decide to be one way or another, and much more difficult to actually adhere to any decision, but I wonder if we have more influence than most of us believe.   Perhaps not to influence outcomes or circumstances, but to view this world with lenses crafted by our beliefs. And, consequently, to walk through it with a particular kind of vision.

The words of this hymn are quite expressive.  We’re asking to be taught a melodious sonnet, tune our hearts to sing, safely arrive home, be rescued from danger.  All these blessings being sourced with our divine. We raise our Ebenezer – the stone of help – and keep our eyes fixed upon it, fettered to it, because we are prone to wander.  What a lesson.  Whatever we attach ourselves to, whatever we keep in our view will determine who we are, what we do, how we react and what we send out into the world around us.

So, as I reflect on the blessings I received from others this week, I am reminded that who I choose to be is important. Something about my choices resulted in kind words returned to me.  I am conscious of how I look at this world, at my life.  And how my vision, how I choose to view this world and my place in it, influences my actions.  I am grateful for those who made choices to send blessings so I might be both encouraged and reminded of my own accountability.  I welcome the blessings.  I look for them. And in doing so, it is in deep streams of mercy that I find myself.  It is there that I choose to sing.

Rowing

When I think of the past few months and the months that lie ahead, I feel a bit like I am floating along a river that isn’t really going anywhere.  Life has pretty much stopped.  There are still things to do, things that must be done and the hours fill with tasks, but there doesn’t seem to be much direction.  There are no events to look forward to, no real upcoming plans and no point in making plans.  It isn’t quite boring, but it isn’t quite anything else either.  There are lots of conversations and sharing of memories and stories, but the distance makes this odd.  Interactions are carefully orchestrated to be safe, we are on constant alert and are cautious in our activities.  Spontaneity is out, seeking interest in the ordinary is in.  We’re living virtually, which literally means it is simulated rather than real – sort of better than nothing, but a substitute nonetheless.  The river moves, it doesn’t actually stand still, but its path exists on no map and I can’t tell where its heading.

This old African-American Spiritual reminded me of this.  It is a working song – literally sung when rowing a boat.  Who is Michael?  Some believe he was an oarsman from a plantation on St. Helena Island in South Carolina.  Someone who toiled to carefully get people to and from the mainland.  Others believe he is the Archangel Michael who is called upon when the waters are rough, or called upon to carry one over the River Jordan to heaven beyond.  Either way, Michael works hard to get us where we need to be – offering a route to safety or comfort in a storm or peace as we pass through to the other side.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.
Sister help to trim the sail, hallelujah.

The River Jordan is chilly and cold, hallelujah.
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.

The river is deep and the river is wide, hallelujah.
Milk and honey on the other side, hallelujah.

Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.
Michael row the boat ashore, hallelujah.

In some ways, these words are bleak.  We need to get somewhere, we need to help, the way is rough.  There are many, many more verses that can be sung.  One version I came across had more than twenty additional statements.  Boasting will sink your soul, your father and mother have already gone, the river will overflow, darkness is coming.  Row to save your soul.  Imagine singing twenty or more verses, interspersed with Michael row the boat ashore….it is a relentless and long ride, it requires a lot of energy and strength to pull the oars with the rhythm of these words.  It is tiring to think about, it is tiring to do.  And where were these people going?  They didn’t know.

But then there’s this word.  Hallelujah. At the end of every, single statement.  Hallelujah.  When one utters this word, it is an expression of rejoicing.  How could these people who lived lives filled with uncertainty, injustice, pain, suffering, loneliness and hardship complete every observation of their lot with a triumphal proclamation?  A simple word that expresses jubilation, anticipation and hope.  It is a remarkable thing, and a remarkable example of the kind of belief the human spirit is capable of.  It is not dependant on knowing the outcome of our circumstances.  It simply acknowledges that there is joy to be found because we believe in its possibility.

As we float along this strange river we find ourselves in, there is something to be said for believing in whatever inspires a hallelujah.  Yes, we row.  We work, we think, we complete tasks, we contribute, we share, we trust and we serve. But it is a wide river and we also need to remember the milk and honey to be found on the other side.  We don’t know when we will get there, or what new beauties await us, but I am certain if we cannot sing our hallelujahs now, we may miss finding our way later.  Rejoicing is an act of will.  It is not payment for something received, or an exchange withheld until we are satisfied.  So, as I feel myself wandering with an absence of direction, I wonder if I need to sing hallelujah more frequently.  Perhaps there is something about this act that creates the space for hope to grow and for peace to reside.

Hallelujah.