I will go before you and level the exalted places. Isaiah 45:2
I dreamt I attended the funeral ceremony of a kind and giving man, a steadfast friend of our community. I suppose I’d seen the photos of others who attended, who shared their thoughts on being there.
The faces of the family left to live without him, the dignitaries who gave thoughts and tributes and other individuals there to witness the event and offer support.
I noticed the posture of some, shoulders slightly bent, carrying a burden and I noticed downcast faces on some who stood at the podium.
But, I saw strength in many; perhaps, they told of how this gentleman taught them to be stronger.
So, I dreamt that I was there and after the ceremony was over, one of the speakers approached me to say hello. It was then that we shared our own experiences of knowing the man who passed away.
It was then I shared,
He always spoke with the kindness and sincerity in hoping the best for me every time I had the chance to talk with him.
The listener listened with the same kindness as I added, “He was like a father to many, I believe.”
Every morning, I add thick circles around my prayers. One in particular might be circled until I’m gone.
Because when I think “no need” life shows me I could be wrong.
I’ve told a very few people on rare occasions that someone felt like a father to me.
It’s super personal and often uncomfortable to express that you wish you’d had your father a little longer or worse yet, that he had been a different person.
Now, I’m seeing why I dreamed that dream. Often, writing helps me unravel the causes. It wasn’t the FB photos of the funeral attendants, it was a thoughtful documentary about redeeming our days and the days we decide were all wrong.
Yesterday, I watched “Love, Tom”, a documentary about the life of songwriter Tom Douglas.
The story is told as his response to a younger man struggling who says beseechingly so in a letter to Tom.
You’d think he might not even respond.
After all, he’s famous, the recipient of many awards.
He lives in Nashville and is beyond the early angst of a creative’s struggle. I’ve commented on Instagram to writers when feeling a likemindedness…no reply. You realize they’re famous and you are not.
I’ve promised myself if I write again, a book more well-known or become a better known artist, I’ll engage with the curious and kind followers who simply want to be closer to my craft and me, the creative behind it.
Tom wrote the young songwriter close to giving up an authentic letter.
The letter became this documentary.
And, I suppose because he’s a creative he told some beautifully, tender and honest things about himself.
About redemption and about a sort of rethinking his father who struggled’s reputation.
I won’t spoil it for you. I hope you’ll watch it for more than a couple of reasons:
A well-known responding to another who feels invisible, a parent relating to a child, a child forgiving a parent and a creative who learned not to pursue creativity harder than he pursued the Creator.
Redemption, he suggests we keep after it until we’re gone.
Now, I see that the dream wasn’t really about the man laid to rest, it was about the other prominent person who listened when I expressed my feelings over the loss and with his response and his eyes, he agreed and together our grief was encircled.
Of all the scribblings and sketches in my Bible that chart my hopes, prayers, dreams and instructions, there are a couple I prefer not to read, that cause a sort of wrestling.
Make me wish I’d used a pencil, not a pen.
One word, “mama”.
“Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well.” Luke 8:50 ESV
Jesus had just been interrupted on his way to heal an important official’s daughter. He stopped in the throng of curious people when he felt a touch, I think more a desperate, still gentle tug and he healed a woman who’d been ostracized because she couldn’t stop bleeding. He looked her in the eye and called her “daughter” and said carry on now, go and live freely and well.
A few sentences later, he raised Jairus’s daughter from the dead in front of a group of mourners, saying she was just sleeping.
“My doubt has fled; my faith is free.”Harriet McEwen Kimball, “Joy & Strength”
I’m curious about Harriet. How she came to this freedom and how she remained doubtless. Maybe it was an exercise in returning to the faith, of reminding herself in a comparative sort of fashion why she chose to believe.
Yesterday, I thought of prayers it seems I’ve been praying for quite a long time and I thought about waiting and about the wonder of prayer.
I could bullet list mentally the answers to some seemingly unrealistic and rapid responses and I could list the times I fall back to my knees and say “Here I am again, Lord and it’s the same thing.”
I can list the times I’ve been reminded by God’s spirit, give it to Him.
On Monday, I thanked God for the privilege of surrender, not being responsible for everything or maybe not much of anything at all.
I’ve written about this before, about the country preacher who came to visit when a long fought battle forced surrender.
The preacher didn’t lecture, didn’t condescend, didn’t direct me to a Bible, didn’t say he’d send the women’s ministry to see me.
He turned to me in my fragility and spoke softly,
“Just pray for mercy.”
The itinerant preacher from Poplar Springs Baptist Church saw me and responded.
And thereby started me on my tentative path towards believing, of refusing to doubt no matter the dilemma or delay.
When I wrote “mama” in my Bible, the lowercase letters resembling a middle school diary entry, I was a different woman than I am today.
If there was an assignment, I said yes. If there was a need, I volunteered to fill it.
If the church lights were on, I was seated in my pew or I was dutifully down the narrow hall, teaching or getting ready to sing.
I didn’t listen, only now cringe remembering, the Sunday morning my son said to me, “Mama, just sing with your voice.”
Oh, the ways my children endured me!
Because of my steady efforts, I was certain my mama would not die, like the daughter of Jairus, she’d rise up strong again.
But, she did not.
There were some things, I decided, my faith could not do.
I see “mama” on the page in Luke in my Bible as a gift now, a retrospective glance at the striver I was rescued from being.
I see “mama” and I still believe.
Because wellness, healing, a life without serious illness or chronic conditions is not completely up to me.
No amount of striving, performance or gut wrenching protective prayers or isolating will guarantee a life without sickness.
Circumstances will come, that’s a given.
Still, it is with certainty that I know belief is not circumstantial.
If it were, the woman with the flow of blood wouldn’t have had to wait so long or worse yet, she’d been overlooked or assumed too far gone.
Just pray for mercy.
Mercy will be given.
Perhaps not as expected and likely not without question of “if”.
And certainly not because of or despite your performance.
I was invited to write about “Hope” for an Advent series last month. My thoughts were prompted by a surprise. You know that verse about how hope deferred can make us heartsick? Don’t throw away or feel ridiculous to still hope. One day, maybe today hope will be gifted to you.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” Proverbs 13:12 ESV
Here’s my contribution:
Fulfilling Signs of Hope
The reunification came as a surprise. My brother’s wife, whispered to me as we celebrated a new coming nephew,
“I found a Bible. It has your name on it.”
Going through the remnants of my mother’s abandoned home, she discovered it. A strange Bible it was, at least for a woman in her thirties, oversized rich leather, more than substantial in size words. Someone gave it to me, and I gave it to my mama once I “graduated” in my faith to a more proper women’s Bible.
Over the course of sixty plus years, I have owned four Bibles. One, a tiny little Gideon’s New Testament and Psalms, the hefty one I passed on to my mother, a pretty leather one suited for women’s groups and my current one, a fabric covered blue Bible for journaling, for telling myself truths and stories in the margins.
Last week, I misplaced my Bible. I felt lost.
I had been traveling and packed it to reference its importance as I spoke to a group of women. Unpacked and sorting, everything was placed back in its place, except for my Bible. Anxious and confused, how could I be without that one final item?
I decided to pray, and my prayer surprised me. Rather than simply “asking and knocking” for the door to be opened to me finding my Bible, I found myself so very broken and grateful. I thanked God for the desperation, the relentless longing for my Bible, for the broken-heartedness I was feeling to be without it. I found my Bible in the place I’d tucked it away for safekeeping.
I found my hope again, the “withness” of God beautifully demonstrated.
In the margin of the first chapter of the Book of Isaiah, I have written, “Who are today’s Isaiahs?” Isaiah spoke warnings of disaster. Isaiah spoke of sin that would bring judgment then he proclaimed beautiful redemptive promises for us through a “man of sorrows” who would make eternity with God possible. The pages of my Bible are strewn with notes, sketches of women and color to remind me of the words that were significant in some way and will continue to be.
In the seventh chapter of Isaiah, we read of Ahaz, the King of Judah refusing to ask God for a sign. He announces he doesn’t want to put God to the test. Isaiah speaks up and questions his reluctance. He tells him you are testing the patience of your people, surely you won’t continue to test the patience of God as well. (Isaiah 7:10-13) Since God is not a God to be tested, a sign was given.
“Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call His name Immanuel” Isaiah 7:14 ESV
Immanuel, God with us.
How do you see evidence of hope?
Are you prone to tangible evidence being necessary or have you seen the dots connecting the scattered paths of your past to your present?
My sister in law could not have known the part she would play in my need of hope. I’d long considered the Bible I gave my mother to be lost or discarded. You see, I passed this Bible on to my mama, who believed in God but had reasons to not believe in hope.
A widow with little resources and an incapacitating illness, she’d begun to decline and spend most days alone.
As a child, we were not regular church-going people and so it was perhaps a bold gesture to give her a Bible; disrespectful, haughty or even judgmental, I suppose. I gave her my Bible with no explanation or expectation, only a hope that it may comfort. If it did, I cannot know.
I’d hoped it would be seen simply as love.
I wanted her to see I wasn’t afraid of church anymore, that I was taking a tentative chance on hope.
I cannot know.
But, the hope of it being gifted back to me, this is the evidence of God with me, seeing me, hearing the secret murmurs of my heart. The thick Bible is pristine. There are barely any marks of pencil and the pages barely looked thumbed. There are no places where pages have been turned down for later.
There is very little evidence that my mama read it.
Nevertheless, the underside of the front cover has my full name written in elementary school cursive, my daughter’s. There are construction paper faded Sunday school verses my son or daughter proudly delivered to me as we reunited on the wooden pews for worship.
There is one oddly compelling note on the very last page in my handwriting,
“When I give an account of my life…”
When I give an account of my life, I will include this Bible and its story as evidence of me being known by God and of hope.
Perhaps, this Christmas, we should all sit quietly and consider the birth of Jesus, the evidence of hope, the gift of a knowing and loving God being with us.
Where have you seen hope this year?
Has it been difficult to be hopeful in this vulnerable and bitter world?
Have you focused on the evidence of hopelessness all around us more than the hope in the miraculous although unseen, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world?
May you be surprised by hope this year, a resurgence of belief in what you long for and long to see. What have you yet to see that God long ago promised is coming?
The reasons to hope are immeasurable and too beautiful for us to fully know, the coming fulfillment or our hopes.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken to the prophet: “Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:23 ESV
What ideas about your identity are ingrained deeply in you? Does it feel more safe to believe the hopeless parts of you instead of the hopeful?
I’ve been thinking about the lame man in the Bible who was afraid to figure out a way to move into the water. 38 years of being paralyzed. When we read of his encounter with Jesus (who he thought was just a man suggesting he simply try), we’re conditioned to label him as crazy, lazy or simply self-pitiful and disabled by choice.
What a label, “disabled by choice”. Maybe though, disability was what he knew, how he planned his day, accepted the unfairness of his condition. So, what seems crazy was really just fear of different. Unfamiliar.
“They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” John 5:12 ESV
The man who learned to walk couldn’t really explain it. I suppose he just thought less about who and how than he was astounded to be walking. I wonder how long or if it took him a bit to feel stable, stable in his steps and the miracle that began his embrace of faith. Maybe.
I wonder if he was tempted to lay back down, in a sort of awe and uncertainty life could be this way for him.
If we’re not taught that change can be possible and that even though it might be trial and error, we might “stay on our mat” too.
This is a truth not often expressed.
It’s safer to be the person you’ve called yourself or been called (even if fragile and floundering) than to see our very own growth, to acknowledge how far we’ve come and to slowly dip our toes in the water…the truth of God loving us…until slowly, intentionally and not without moments of backward sliding, we find ourselves lighter, floating, completely and confidently immersed in our healed identity.
If the toil and trials of life have a larger tally it’s likely loss feels more dependable than gain, more believable.
Knowing we are loved because God is love and is patient with those of us who are just learning to swim without the weights of our past keeping us only frantically floating.