Saturday, February 18, 2017

Near to the Heart of God

There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God;
a place where sin cannot molest, near to the heart of God.

At our Bible study last week, the question came up that always eventually emerges in a good Bible study: How can an all-good, all-powerful God allow little children to suffer and die?

No one has the answer to this awful question, not even – or perhaps especially – the pastor. I told the group I had some serious questions to ask God once I cross the river, so to speak. But that the thing we trust and hang onto in this life is that God is with us, in and through every tragedy.

There is a place of comfort sweet, near to the heart of God;
a place where we our Savior meet, near to the heart of God.

Congregations love the hymn “Near to the Heart of God” because it expresses so well the conviction that God is with us in all things. In fact, the hymn came out of the great sorrow of its author, Cleland McAfee, after the tragic death of two of his infant nieces (his brother’s daughters) to diphtheria in 1903. McAfee was both preacher and choir director at the campus Presbyterian church at Park College in Parkville, Mo.

As McAfee sat, grieving, wondering what he could preach in church the next Sunday, the inspiration for the song came to him, and he wrote both the words and music. The same week at choir practice, he taught it to the choir at his church, and that very evening the choir sang it outside the quarantined home of McAfee’s brother. They sang it again on Sunday.

There is a place of full release, near to the heart of God;
A place where all is joy and peace, near to the heart of God.
O Jesus, blest Redeemer, sent from the heart of God,
Hold us who wait before thee near to the heart of God.

We’ll close our worship service Sunday with “Near to the Heart of God.” I need to sing it and hear it and be reassured that the church and I are always near to the heart of God.

Monday, February 6, 2017

How Firm a Foundation

I hear the train a comin'
it's rollin' round the bend
and I ain't seen the sunshine
since I don't know when.
- Folsom Prison Blues

Wait! That’s not a United Methodist hymn! Regardless, it’s been on my mind since I discovered that the proposed Light Rail between Durham and Chapel Hill is slated to come smack through Aldersgate’s front yard, close enough to destroy both the street that provides access to the church and the steps leading into the sanctuary.

The question everyone asks is: Will the Light Rail really happen? I don’t know, but the church is planning to meet with the transit people this week. The elevated train is proposed to come through Aldersgate’s front yard so that it doesn’t negatively impact the N.C. Botanical Gardens across the street. On paper, it crosses to the other side of Fordham at Mason Farm Road so that it also does not disrupt the campus of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, who is Aldersgate’s next-door-neighbor.

Should the project get the “go ahead” from its latest potential funding source, plans are to break ground in three years.

I hear that train a comin’…. I need a better song! How about this one?

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word!
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?

Whether or not the train comes – and that is still up in the air – the church’s refuge remains Jesus, and our hope is always based on knowing that God is with us, no matter what.

Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by my righteous, omnipotent hand.

Could some sort of divine opportunity be contained within this crisis? Is there even a crisis? Time will tell.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

Here’s my favorite historical detail of “How Firm a Foundation” – it was the
Robert E. Lee
most beloved hymn of General Robert E. Lee. Interestingly, the words of the hymn are attributed only to “K,” published in 1787. The tune is American and came later – 1866. No wonder Gen. Lee loved it so; think of the “river of woe” he endured in the late 1860s!

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.

But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, and you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. 
- Isaiah 43:1-2a

"How Firm a Foundation:"

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Morning Has Broken

Morning has broken like the first morning;
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing! Praise for the morning!
Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!

Feb. 1 is Keith’s and my 30th wedding anniversary. On Feb. 1, Keith’s parents will celebrate their 70th wedding anniversary. We married on their 40th anniversary. We’re going to Florida, where they live, to celebrate with them.

A good friend, Valerie Iddings, played the guitar and sang “Morning Has Broken” at our wedding in Baton Rouge in 1987. Back then, I did not attend church and did not realize the song was a hymn. All I knew was that I really liked the Cat Stevens version I heard on the radio; liked it enough, in fact, to have it sung at my wedding.

I thought the last words in the first verse were “praise for them springing fresh from the world.”

Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from heaven,
Like the first dew fall on the first grass.
Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden,
Sprung in completeness where his feet pass.

I think I had some vague idea that “his feet” belonged to Jesus, or God.

When I finally returned to church, I remember being surprised to see "Morning Has Broken" in the Hymnal. I read the words carefully and puzzled over the use of “Word” in the first verse. Then, a bit later, when I was doing the Disciple I Bible study, it suddenly occurred to me – “fresh from the Word” was about God speaking creation into being in Genesis! The Word that God spoke at creation was Jesus! -- "In the beginning was the Word," the Gospel of John begins. It was a huge and wonderful epiphany, and it so delighted me it probably helped launch me into Divinity School, ha.

Whenever we sing “Morning Has Broken” in church, Keith and I make eye contact and smile a little private smile. It’s “our” song.

Cat Stevens did not write “Morning Has Broken,” but he popularized it in the 1970s. It is sung to an old Scottish tune and was first published in 1931, in response to a need for a simple hymn to praise God each day.

Mine is the sunlight! Mine is the morning;
Born of the one light Eden saw play!
Praise with elation, praise every morning,
God’s recreation of the new day!

Cat Stevens’ version:

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord,
And we pray that our unity may one day be restored.

We sang “They'll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” yesterday at our “Circles of Grace” meeting, a conversation intended to get pastors and lay people talking about human sexuality. I think the ultimate hope is that The United Methodist Church somehow will find a way through the impasse we are experiencing over the “homosexuality issue.” Will we ordain self-avowed, practicing gays, and will we (pastors) officiate at services of union and we (churches) host those ceremonies? The U.M. Church is threatening to split over the issue.

As an aside, The Faith We Sing hymnal we use in church changes the word "our" unity to "all" unity in verse 1. "How interesting," says Cheryl the amateur theologian.

Participants in the Circles of Grace meeting (there were about 20 people at our meeting) are held to a covenantal silence about the specifics of the meeting. It’s too bad when we can’t be open and courageous about the specifics.  

Because the meeting was held in Chapel Hill, the majority of pastors and lay people were in favor of what we call “full inclusion,” meaning the answer to the above questions is a resounding yes. I’m fairly sure there were several folks who were not “for,” but I think probably were intimidated by the rest of us.

We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand, 
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand.
And together we'll spread the news that God is in our land.

The group heard lots of highly emotional stories about people who have not felt fully included in the life of the church. 

I don’t think it would violate the covenant if I reveal what I personally feel about it all. I think it’s time to steer away from heart-wrenching stories; the people who feel that “sin is sin” will not listen, as they have proven time and again over the last 40 years. To me, the underlying issue is how we interpret scripture – who gets to say how we, the U.M. Church, must interpret scripture? Who gets to say which Bible verses are true for all time, and which might have been influenced by a cultural context?

We can either stop proof-texting or allow it, but I think that we have to allow it.  My personal favorite verse to use as a proof-text is Luke 14:33, when Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Perhaps we could make a rule that no one can vote at General Conference unless he or she is a disciple, as defined by this verse! Another of my favorites is 1 Corinthians 13:4 – “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” Anyone who blatantly violates this verse could be kicked out of General Conference – permanently. Or would that be rude?

We will work with each other, we will work side by side,
We will work with each other, we will work side by side, 
and we'll guard human dignity and save human pride.

Here’s my best idea: Let’s pass a rule that a person cannot be a General Conference delegate more than once. That should change things.

Being serious now, I would like the see the Church’s conversation veer in the direction of “sin.” Clearly, some people feel, and use the Bible to support, that the practice of homosexuality is sinful. Okay, so let’s talk about sin. We can start with coveting, failing to keep the Sabbath, and not honoring our parents. What would happen if we turned these into chargeable offenses? Because gluttony and greed are sinful, being overweight or too wealthy could be a chargeable offense. No overweight people could be married in church! Clearly, I could not be a pastor because I’m a woman, and the Bible says I cannot speak in church. All of our divorced pastors would have to go, too.

No speaking in church, woman!
So, seriously, let’s stop talking about things the Biblical literalists don’t care about (like people’s feelings), and let’s talk about sin. Let’s talk about scriptural interpretation. Our bishops should lead the discussion because teaching is part of their job description. I hope they remind us – repeatedly – that the only people Jesus condemned were the religious authorities. That should keep us all humble, an alien state of being we could use a bit more often.

And they'll know we are Christians
by our love, by our love; 
yes, they'll know we are Christians
by our love.

My favorite rendition of "They'll Know We Are Christians by our Love" ... 

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Selah: Family and Holidays

Thanksgiving 2016 - Rachel, Eric, Keith, Jonathan, Katherine
The holidays are family time for us, although now that our children are married, we must share them with their in-laws. This is relatively easy with Katherine's in-laws, as they live near Greensboro. It's a bit trickier with Eric's, who live in Fairfax, VA. We've sort of settled into a routine that has our children and their spouses with us for Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday) and away for Christmas. I have to work on Christmas Eve anyway.

This year, Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday evening, which meant Christmas Day -- and New Year's Day -- fell on Sunday. Aldersgate had wonderful Christmas Eve and Christmas Day worship services; I was pleasantly surprised by the number of folks who came to both. Katherine and Jonathan stayed in Columbus for Christmas, so Keith and I drove to see them the day after Christmas.

We had such a good time, hanging out, eating out, eating in, playing cards, visiting, doing a wine tasting, and going to see the Christmas lights at the Columbus Zoo. It was cold in Columbus!

Zoo lights!
Katherine and me at the Columbus zoo
My birthday is Dec. 29, and we planned to return home on Dec. 30 because Keith and I were hosting a New Year's Eve party, not to mention church the next day. However, a forecast of snow in Ohio and West Virginia forced us to drive home a day early, on my birthday, which left me feeling surly and sad. A surprise visit by Eric and Rachel (who were on their way home from Virginia) improved my mood tremendously. By New Year's Eve, I was feeling celebratory -- good-bye, 2016!

We're hoping when Katherine graduates this May, a new job as a small-animal veterinarian will bring her and Jonathan back to North Carolina. Meanwhile, I'm planning a mountain/tennis vacation this spring for the whole family!