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Under His Wings

(An Online Message for August 2, 2020, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Psalm 91)

It was a blistering hot mid-summer day, not unlike a few we’ve experienced in New Hampshire and Maine this year. Luckily, however, my family and I were riding out that particular heat wave on the shore of a cool and crystal-clear pond at the foot of the White Mountains.  Granted, this was a public beach at a state park, and it was in the days before Covid-19 and social distancing, and so we were sharing the experience with a few hundred or so of our closest friends (!); but that was alright, because all that really mattered is that get in the water and beat the heat!

However, late in the afternoon and seemingly out of nowhere, there was this massive thunderstorm that hit with a vengeance.  The rain came down in sheets, the wind blew like crazy, there was thunder crashing and lightning flashing from every direction – and since the storm had come on so suddenly, everyone on that beach followed their first instinct, which was to find shelter and to get there fast!  However, the only real chance for that was the bathhouse, a very basic (and extremely small) structure at the edge of the beach. 

Well, you know the old saying, “any port in a storm!”  That was us, friends, and for the next half hour or so, we were up close and personal with just about everybody who’d been on the beach. Actually, it was quite interesting, in that the women and children were sent into the inner parts of the building – both sections, incidentally – where there were benches and it was dry.  The men, by contrast, being manly and protective men (!), were all huddled together in the entryway and along the eaves of the bathhouse – the wind and rain blowing the whole time and soaking us to the bone, prompting one of the men beside me to ask if this was what it was like for the men left on the deck of the Titanic! 

Now, don’t get me wrong – as the storm raged on we were all very glad for any kind of shelter; and the storm did pass eventually. But I must confess, I came away from the experience convinced that there are certainly some places of refuge much better than others!

The bottom line is that we all need refuge; as the old song goes, it’s a bare necessity of life!  And there are many forms of refuge: certainly, the kind of physical shelter that keeps us safe from the elements – our homes, our vehicles, even a bathhouse at White Lake State Park.  But there are places of emotional refuge as well, the places we go when our lives start to feel a bit stormy: a corner nook or an easy chair at home where you can really relax, or a private retreat somewhere in the woods. Or for that matter, maybe the refuge comes in the love of a caring family member or friend.  The point is, we all have those places of refuge in our lives that bring us rest, security and peace.

 But what happens in life when all the physical and emotional shelters we seek are nowhere to be found; or worse, when the ones we cling to have been denied us or taken away? Not to sound all foreboding here, but where’s our refuge then?

I think, for instance, of those whose homes have been destroyed by flood or tornado or some other natural disaster; in just about every sense, where do they find shelter from the storm?  And what kind of refuge is there for those who suddenly find themselves without financial resources, or who are reeling from the shock of a broken relationship, or have just gotten a horrible diagnosis from a doctor?  In other words, what kind of security really exists when the world we live in is forever shifting beneath our feet?  After all, as Richard Gelson writes, “we need to know what is left to us when we strip away – or have stripped away for us, voluntary or not – the varnish of all worldly vanities.”  What comes to us when everything and everybody else is gone – that’s the refuge that really matters.

And that, friends, is what the 91st Psalm is all about. In fact, everything in Psalm 91 is about the strength, the presence and the utter reassurance of God in the midst of life’s utter chaos!  This psalm is about spiritual shelter; about our living “in the shelter of the Most High,” and abiding “in the shelter of the Almighty,”

There is no lacking for powerful imagery in this psalm! We’ve got God as a “refuge and [our] fortress,”  and because of him we will not “fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,” staying safe even amidst pestilence and destruction; that even though “a thousand may fall at [our] side, ten thousand at [our] right hand …it will not come near us,”  because God and his angels will be right there to guard us and protect us from any and all harm, bearing us up “so that [we] will not [even] dash our foot against a stone.”  It’s no wonder that long before we were singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” going back as far as biblical times, this psalm was actually sung as a worship song on the eve of battle, as a prayer for soldiers going to war.

Understand, this psalm is not saying that in the refuge of the Most High, nothing will ever happen to us – in whatever battles and storms we face, there are injuries and casualties; and much as we hope and pray otherwise, the reality of life is that sometimes we get hurt.  And it’s important to know that, especially where our faith is concerned: as a pastor, I have known people whose very faith in God proceeds under the assumption that they will be somehow always be miraculously and supernaturally protected from all the difficulties, struggles and pain of human life; but these are the same people who inevitably end up deeply disappointed and in a fractured relationship with God when the storms of life come …and they do come. 

This 91st Psalm is not the promise that everything will always be good in our lives – but it is the promise that all will be well with our souls.  It’s a reminder that of all the shelters we seek out in this world, the only true failsafe for hope comes to us from God.  In fact, it is in the very midst of the storms of life that sometimes even unbeknownst to us, God is there: holding us close and giving us refuge until the storm has past.

An article in National Geographic a few years back described the aftermath of a raging wildfire that had engulfed much of Yellowstone National Park.  On a trek up a mountain to access the fire’s damage, a ranger spotted a bird that had been literally petrified in ash – looking almost like a statue perched on the ground at the base of a tree.  The ranger, who was actually a little sickened by the sight of this dead bird, took a stick to knock it over – but when he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried out from beneath the dead mother’s wings.  You see, this mother bird, sensing impending disaster, had carried her babies to the base of that tree and gathered them under her wings to protect them, instinctively knowing that the smoke would rise and her chicks might survive the fire if she could keep them low and covered. 

Imagine; the mother bird could have flown to safety, but she refused to abandon her babies; and even when the heat of the fire had singed her body, the mother bird stayed steadfast.  Because of her willingness to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

That’s how God is, friends!  That’s what the Psalmist was saying when he sang, “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.”  Whatever the disaster, no matter the struggle and difficulty of life, we are surrounded by the strong and tender presence of a Heavenly Father who stays with us through every moment of the storm.  If I might quote another psalm, the 46th Psalm, “Therefore, we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the seas …the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” 

These are actually two psalms I’m fond of reading at funeral services, particularly when the occasion follows a sudden or tragic death.  That’s because when you and I find ourselves in a situation when our whole world seems to have crumbled at our feet with every one of life’s dangers are bearing down on us, we need to know that it’s the Lord who is our refuge; that it’s God alone who will see us through.

That’s the joy of this psalm, friends.  But, in all honesty, that’s the challenge of it, too.  I know that in reading these psalms, it’s hard sometimes for us to reconcile the promise of God’s protection with the terrible reality of life’s dangers; I mean, really, what does saying, “I will deliver you,” mean to the one who’s just lost everything in a tornado, or, for that matter, what does talking about how “no evil will befall you” say to the families of the victims of increasingly commonplace violence on our city streets?  We cannot ignore that there are things in this world and life that are truly “wicked,” and bad things do happen to good people… but the good news here is that even in the midst of these dangers, God’s promises are real; because if God is with us then that evil need not consume us.

The fact is, there are many storms in this life, and not just of the thunder and lightning variety.  There are storms borne out of life’s many unexpected and utterly uncertain challenges.  There are storms of illness, and transition, and grief.  There are storms that rise out of society’s relentless propensity for division and self-destruction.  And there are storms that have absolutely nothing to do with us… but nonetheless will seek to beat against us with everything they have. And we may well be scared and shaken, roughed up a bit or even a lot.  In the end, we may well be bruised and very sore.  But no matter how the storm rages we are safe, we are protected and we are loved because we are under His wings, these incredible pinions that have never folded, nor collapsed, nor abandoned us… that is ever and always good news, yours and mine.

So in all these storms of life, let us call out to the Lord; that he might truly “raise us up as on eagle’s wings.”

And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!      

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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Unto the Hills

My own personal “thin place” in northern Maine…

(an online sermon for July 12, 2020, based on Psalm 121)

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

The Celtic tradition has a wonderful phrase for those unique places in our lives that have a great spiritual attraction and meaning for our lives – they refer to them as “thin places,” those places where this world and heaven seem to meet. Thin places, it is said “are ports in the storms of life, where …pilgrims can move closer to God …where one leaves that which is familiar and journeys into the divine presence.”  Call it a “retreat,” a sanctuary, or call it holy ground, but I suspect we all know of special places where a sense of God’s presence and strength and love are palpable; as though you could literally reach out and touch the hand of the Lord!

Well, friends, what you’re looking at here today… for me it’s most definitely my “thin place.”

And not just the lake, mind you, but also and including all the hills and valleys and green forests that extend from here for miles in every direction. Friends, I can’t even begin to express to you just how influential this place has been and continues to be in my own spiritual grown. There’s a hill in back of the camp that I used to climb when I was young which led to this hayfield that overlooked miles and miles of Maine woodlands; I spent a good many summer afternoons up there, soaking in the sun with all of nature around me, sometimes playing guitar and singing (albeit rather badly!), learning how to pray and making some real discoveries about my faith and my life. In fact, this was the place where a great many seeds for my own call to ministry were sown; when I was on that hill, I really did feel that God was there with me.

Like the song says, I stood “in awesome wonder” at God’s creation, and as far as I was concerned it was about the closest thing to heaven that I had ever seen. And I remember thinking about how great it would be to actually live out there, to dwell with God out in the wilderness!  Hey, sometimes I still feel that way!

Of course, as a grown up who’s growing older by the year, I’m admittedly a bit more hesitant!  Truth is, these days I gaze out at such places and wonder if anybody actually lives out there, and if I did, if I’d have all the amenities we’d need?  And I’d think about how isolated a place like that would be, and what we’d do if there was an emergency; in the dead of winter, could an ambulance get to us before it was too late?  For that matter, how would we get to the store for supplies?  And let’s not even talk about bear, coyote and other assorted animals? Say what you will, it could well be dangerous to live out there in the wilderness – I might look out “unto the hills,” but who would be there to help us?

Oh, yeah …my help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

You know, after a fashion, that’s really what this particular psalm is all about.  There’s actually a very interesting question of biblical translation and scholarship regarding the 121st Psalm: you may have noticed that the words with which I began this sermon (the first verse of Psalm 121) were different than those from the scripture reading.  That’s because between the King James Version (the familiar words with which I began the sermon) and the more modern translations (including the New Revised Standard Version we read here), there is a difference in punctuation and syntax that shifts its meaning a bit.

In the King James Version, that first verse is translated as one sentence:  “I will lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help,” which suggests that the beautiful hills become the source of our inspiration, “the hills of God,” that “thin” place where the Lord, who made heaven and earth dwells.  Modern scholars, however, translate this as two sentences – “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?”  In other words, it’s a question, and in fact, a question of concern.  You see, people of biblical times recognized that the “hills,” specifically, the hills surrounding Jerusalem, were a very dangerous place.  The road between Jericho and Jerusalem, for instance, were (and still are) lined with limestone cliffs pocked with caves in which robbers would hide before swooping down to attack travelers – needless to say, a journey through those hills was not to be taken lightly!

So, according to these scholars, what you have here is the picture of the traveler looking at all the hills before him on the journey and wondering where he’ll find help on the way – and the answer is, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  Now, I still love the older translation of this verse, and I’ll always see the hills as an inspiration, but I suspect that both interpretations here have some truth to them. In other words, there’s both beauty and danger to be found in the hills – and God is with us in the midst of both.

This is all borne out in the way that this psalm, which might be called a “psalm of assurance, unfolds.  Incidentally, you’ll notice that in scripture, this psalm and several others is also referred to as “a song of ascents,” or a “song of degrees,” as the older translations put it.  Historians believe that this psalm might well have been a hiking song, sung by travelers as they climbed those hills on their journey toward the feasts at Jerusalem!  This song is all about how God will be their strength and protector along the way!

For instance…

“He will not let your foot be moved” – God will be there to keep you from stumbling on the loose rocks, lest you fall and sprain an ankle.

“The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night” – you won’t burn in the relentless heat of the desert sun, and neither will you suffer in cold and damp of the night.

“The LORD will keep you from all evil” – he will see you through any and all temptation and discouragement and danger along the way.

“He will keep your life” – yes, just as the Lord created life, making the heavens and the earth and also you and me, so the Lord will also keep us and protect us!  And he will not sleep on that watch – the one who keeps all of Israel will extend that same care even to you and me, all along every part of journey.

And the beauty part is that whether that journey is “unto the hills,” or in and through the chaotic and often confusing obstacle course we call life, or in that larger journey that each one of us makes from earthly life to life eternal, God shows that same incredible concern for our well-being.  You know, one of the things that has always drawn me to the Psalms has always been this incredible imagery of nature – mountains and eagles and so on – but also that it always points us to a God who is relentless in protecting us, even and especially when we aren’t noticing.

Christian psychiatrist and author M. Scott Peck has written, “When I put together the times I just missed being hit by cars while on foot, on a bicycle, or driving; or times when I was driving a car and almost struck pedestrians or barely missed bike riders in the dark; or times when I jammed on the brakes, coming to a stop no more than an inch or two from a vehicle; or times when I narrowly missed skiing into trees or almost fell out of windows; or times when a swinging golf club brushed through my hair – I asked myself: ‘What is this? Do I lived a charmed existence?’”  No, says Peck. “T’was grace that brought me safe thus far.” It wasn’t luck or fate, or instinct or wits; it was the unseen presence of the infinitely loving God who was his maker and ever continues to be his keeper.

And it’s also love, friends; for what else could it be that we’ve gotten this far?  I’ve got to be honest here; as I read that wonderful quote from Scott Peck this week, I found myself thinking, well, that’s great, but what about the times that we have stumbled?  I for one can name you a whole lot of times in my own life (several in 2020 alone!) when it seemed as though that swinging golf club somehow managed to hit me square upside the head!  As much as the hills fill us awe and anticipation, the fact is we usually face the dangers there head on; and yes, sometimes along the way we get hurt and wounded, “smote” by the sun and moon and the utter difficulties and tragedies of life and living.

And then I realized – the fact that I’m here right now, in this beautiful place talking about the journey — says that I’ve made it through; and have come to the other side of the challenges and dangers that were there on the way.  And most certainly, that I arrived had much less to do with my strength or cleverness than it did the goodness of God’s own heart surrounding me every step along the way.

Let me share a little secret with you this morning, friends: not to shatter any illusions here, but where this is concerned, even we ministers have a hard time figuring it all out!  I know that’s certainly true for me – I struggle sometimes to understand why things happen in life the way they do; why so often the road ahead has to be so incredibly, and frustratingly difficult (!); and why, O Lord, can’t once in a while, things just go a little bit more smoothly?!

I can’t say I’ve gotten any answers to those lamentations; but I can tell you this with great assuredness. Whatever, as the hymn puts it, “the danger, toil and stress” I have faced; whatever struggles I’ve ever had on the way to keep the faith and just keep going; whatever “adventure” there has been for me on the journey – be it good, bad, or just plain old HARD – I only made it because God took that journey along with me.

And I dare say the same could be said of each one of us here.

Truly, with each new day and every new journey of life, as we lift up our eyes unto the hills– we know from whence our help will come.  And come what may, we can walk on with confidence and even joy, because we know that “the LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

Thanks be to the God of the Hills who is the God of our lives!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2020 in Faith, Maine, Old Testament, Psalms, Sermon

 

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Living Faithfully (While Standing on Your Head)

(a sermon for June 21, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Matthew 10:24-39)

Let’s talk for a moment this morning about paradox.

As the dictionary defines it, a paradox is a statement or proposition that contradicts itself and may even sound absurd in nature, but in fact is true.  It’s a statement of fact that goes totally against the grain of how we usually understand and interpret things.  It is a paradox, for instance, that a creature as small and seemingly insignificant as an ant should be able to carry some 50 times its own weight, or for that matter, that a tiny mosquito has the ability to cause so much discomfort when we’re outdoors this time of year!  It’s a paradox that sometimes it’s the people with everything that money, power and prestige can provide who end up with nothing but misery and heartache in their lives, while those who by worldly standards have next to nothing at all can claim happiness without hesitation.

In other words, paradox is what happens when what happens is not how we expect things to go; it what boggles the mind by defying our way of thinking and yet stands there as undeniable truth!  No wonder that the great G.K. Chesterton once defined paradox as “truth standing on her head to get attention,” because these are the truths that require from us inside out, upside-down thinking! 

And if that’s true, friends, then I think it can also be said that the Christian faith is actually a pretty topsy-turvy religion!

Think about this with me for a moment, because the truth is that in a great many ways Christianity is very paradoxal in nature!  It’s a paradox that at the center of our faith is one who was the Son of God – Jesus Christ by name – yet who was not a political ruler nor a powerful leader of the religious establishment of his time; but rather a lowly carpenter.  It’s a paradox that this one who healed the sick, raised the dead, and brought goodness, joy and salvation to a hurting world would be, in fact, summarily executed in a horrific fashion at the hands of the very people to whom he brought that goodness, and that he should be executed with the tools of his own trade: nails and hammers and cross-beams of wood!  And perhaps the greatest paradox of all, that the instrument of Jesus’ death, the cross, remains for us a symbol of life abundant and everlasting; that to this day we “cherish the old, rugged cross!” 

And then there’s our text for this morning from Matthew’s gospel, a series of admittedly less than uplifting teachings of Jesus: “I have not come not to bring peace, but a sword.”  What? “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother.”  Well, then, Happy Father’s Day, everyone!  “One’s foes will be members of one’s own household… whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  Not exactly a celebration of family here!  And for the moment, let’s not even talk about that verse about fearing the one “who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  But then there’s this, which seems to sum the whole thing up: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”   Friends, if you came online this morning hoping to hear some words of comfort from the Bible, this might not be your day (!) because what we have here is confrontation, pure and simple; for the same Jesus who assures us that “even the hairs on [our] head are all counted” by our Heavenly Father and that we need not ever be afraid then goes on to warn us that “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

And that, folks, is paradox.

But then, that is the nature of faith, isn’t it: it’s grace coupled with responsibility; forgiveness that goes hand in hand with repentance; the call to follow Jesus that leads to true discipleship and a brand life that comes with risk as well as reward!  The idea that glory comes out suffering, that victory is won out of defeat, that gain comes in our loss: these are the paradoxes that lay at the very foundation of Christian belief!  And yet it’s precisely in these kinds of upside-down, inside-out truths that we gain our greatest insight into things like love, courage, strength and faith itself.

What we can take from Jesus’ words to us this morning is that there is indeed a cost as well as a joy in discipleship, but amidst all the difficulties we are loved and protected by God.  And we know this because of Jesus, who says, “everyone… who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.”    But keep in mind there’s a flip side to this promise as well… and a warning: “…but whoever denies me before others,” Jesus goes on to say, “I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

Again with the paradoxes (!); unconditional love on the one hand but the need for complete accountability on the other!   But that’s what Jesus’ words about families set against one another for the sake of discipleship is all about.  Bottom line is that when it comes to our faith we need to ask those difficult questions that Jesus sets forth:  like, have we denied Christ before others?  Do we, in fact, love others more than Christ?  Have we, at some crucial moment of life, refused to take up our crosses to follow Christ where he would lead us?  At the crossroads of life and living can it be said of you and me that we are worthy of Jesus and his “acknowledgement;” or is the truth of it that we’ve been so all-consumed with doing what we want to do for our own edification that we’ve risked losing everything that truly matters? 

What we’re talking about here, in the words of Clarence Jordon, is the difference between being “an admirer of Jesus and his disciple;” the difference between those whose faith stumbles at the first sign of challenge, struggle… or paradox (!)… and those who are willing and ready to bring a sword of righteousness against that and those who are wrong; those who are willing lose something of themselves and their lives for the sake of everything that can be gained.

Is it risky to acknowledge Christ in these strange times in which we live?  Sometimes; but then, true discipleship has always proven to be risky in some circumstances.  But as Jesus makes clear in our text this morning, the stakes involved are high; no less than life itself.  It seems to me that what you and I need to be doing, especially now, is cultivating within ourselves the ability to live faithfully while standing upside down; to embrace the glorious paradox that when we risk ourselves to the Lord – when we lose our life – we discover is that the old is made new, the lost is found, the weak are made strong, the hurts in our lives and those in others are made healthy, and that we find sight in our blindness, hope in the midst of hopelessness, and love and power in times and places we never thought could ever be.  Because when “truth stands on its head to get attention” – when we are willing to live faithfully while standing on our head – then the maze and craze of human life becomes a pathway to the kingdom.

Some years ago when they were still quite young, another Dad and I packed up our kids one night to take them to see a double-feature at a nearby Drive-In movie theater. We always loved going to the drive-in, but as I recall, the two of us taking all these kids to the movies required preparation only slightly less than a 3-day camping trip!  We had to find the perfect spot, then back up the mini-van up and lift the rear hatch up and fold the seat down so the kids could lay in the back and watch the movie in comfort, while tying down the hatch enough so not to block anyone else’s view.  (I know, this sounds excessive, but this is what you do when you take a bunch of kids for an outdoor movie!)

As you can imagine, this all took quite a while to get set up properly, but just as we had finished here comes one of the managers of the drive-in who asked us, very politely, if we might move. It seemed that this rather stern looking couple in a Toyota Celica in back of us couldn’t see, and complained to the management.  Now I looked back at that this car and saw that there were probably six slots to their right and three to their left, each one empty free and with a clear, unobstructed view of the screen; never mind that all the while we were setting up they’d been parked behind us and never said a word to us.  And I’ll be honest here; I looked down at all this little makeshift campsite that would now take several minutes and a goodly amount of effort to pick up and move I thought to myself, “Well, that’s fair!”  But please, the manager said, we’re sorry, and we hate to ask, but those people are being very, very difficult.  So I looked at my friend and he looked at me and, well… we picked up and moved the whole shebang over ten feet; not particularly happily, I must confess, but we did it.

But then a strange and interesting happened:  the owner of the place comes over to personally thank us for being helpful and “so reasonable.”  The kid at the concession stand recognized me, and pretty much talked my ear off about how much they appreciated what we did, and how some people were just hard to get along with (apparently this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened)… as I remember, he even snuck an extra bag of popcorn in with our order!  As I headed back to our car to watch the movie feeling that not only had we done the right thing in that situation, but perhaps a good thing as well; maybe even the faithful thing!  And I suddenly realized that I could no longer grumble about the hassle of what we’d been asked to do because my perspective had changed.  I’d just seen things differently; the way you see things differently when you’re standing on your head!

Was this some great and heroic religious experience that furthered the cause of Christ?  No, of course not… but it was in some small way acknowledging our faith by our actions and through our attitudes.  And I tell you about it because every day each one of us has countless opportunities, both large and small, to do the same thing: to offer up some word of kindness and support even if we risk something of ourselves, our comfort and even our own valued sense of tradition and propriety and to do it.  Truth be told, most of the time faithful living simply requires from us the ability to see things and understand circumstances in an entirely different way than we have before.  Our challenge always is to do as Christ would do, and that can be difficult at times, to be sure; but the rewards are most certainly worth the risk.  For the gospel holds true: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2020  Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.

 

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