There's more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we're
hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles
can develop passionate patience in us, and how patience in turn
forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert
for whatever God will do next.
Romans 5:3-4 (The Message)
People experience things so differently.
In this present moment, some of us are probably doing pretty well. We've settled into a routine and we have found a way to move forward. Others of us are on edge, just trying to hang on and make it from day to day. Many of us are probably somewhere in the middle - doing okay but not completely.
What that means is that each of us will decide (maybe day by day) exactly how hard this time is for us.
Whatever we decide, however, I think it's fair to say that these are challenging days. To use the language of the Apostle Paul, we are indeed "hemmed in with troubles." But according to Paul, dealing with those troubles can help us develop passionate patience. What's required is perseverance, sticking with it, maybe simply surviving.
One of my favorite singers is Carrie Newcomer. Her voice is remarkable, rich and soulful. But it is her lyrics that move me even more than her voice. She had an uncanny ability to see the world with startling clarity. Perhaps her best-known song is called "You Can Do This Hard Thing."
As the song progresses, Carrie Newcomer highlights difficult episodes that show up in life.
First, we see a young child seated at a table trying to learn how to add numbers. The child is clearly confused. The adult in the scene says to the child: "Add these together, carry the two, now you." Learning math, for the child, is a hard thing.
In the next scene, we see a young person standing at a train station in the middle of winter, leaving for "God knows what." It's a scene of departure, separation, parting. Another profoundly difficult episode in life.
In the next scene, we find someone on the telephone receiving a message describing "the worst thing" that could possibly happen. Whatever that worst thing might be, we understand immediately that it's going to be very, very hard to deal with.
For each scene in the song - and for each scene in our lives - the same refrain is offered. And this refrain is both the point and the purpose of the song:
You can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
It's not easy I know.
But I believe that it's so.
You can do this hard thing.
It may be that you are finding life today easy. I honestly hope that's true. And if that's where you are, I am sincerely happy for you.
But it could be that you happen to find life today . . . hard, difficult, impossible. It could be today that you feel hemmed in with troubles. If so, my prayer is that enduring those troubles will help you develop passionate patience.
Even more, my prayer is that you will know that . . . you can do this hard thing.
As far as I am concerned, Tony Bennett got it right.
His iconic song ("I Left My Heart in San Francisco") celebrated his love for San Francisco. For more than thirty years, Julie and I called the Bay Area home. While the City by the Bay was never perfect, it was awfully good.
Finishing this wonderful jigsaw puzzle today, I'm feeling some pretty strong waves of nostalgia.
The puzzle was billed as a "4D" puzzle.
The first layer (barely visible here) was the city as it looked in 1852.
Then the second level superimposed a modern layout on top of that first layer. (What was most fascinating about that second step was seeing how much of the city was built on landfill; substantial areas of the city are actually built on what was once water. Which, of course, makes earthquakes in San Francisco a special kind of adventure!)
The third step for the puzzle was adding all the buildings.
What added a "fourth dimension" to the puzzle was the addition of the buildings in the order they were built. As Julie and I placed the buildings on the puzzle, we could see the city of San Francisco growing as it happened through history.
The first building (according to the puzzle) was the Pacific Stock Exchange. It was built in 1842. The Ferry Building was added in 1898. The Bay Bridge was opened in 1936, followed one year later by the Golden Gate Bridge. The Transamerica Pyramid was built in 1972. AT&T Park (in the lower left corner of the picture) was added in 2000. Even the China Town Gate is there on Grant Street, leading into Chinatown. (It was built in 1970.)
As Julie and I put the pieces in place, we remembered so many places we had been. We remembered meals we had enjoyed, places we had shopped, special moments with our children, streets we had walked. Working puzzles is not usually an emotional experience for me, but this one just about did me in. I found myself calling to mind memories and feelings that had not come to mind for a long time.
So many parts of life are important.
Obviously, relationships matter. Events and experiences shape us. Significant seasons in life stand out and make their mark.
But place is also important.
When I think of God's blessings, I often think of the magical places that I have lived, visited, and enjoyed. And near the top of that list is San Francisco.
I didn't leave my whole heart there, of course. But a part of my heart will be there forever.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
It was mid-March. The descriptive word "pandemic" was just starting to be used. We had no idea exactly what we were dealing with or what was coming next. (In some ways, we still don't know, of course.) But in mid-March, most of us were fairly light-hearted and naive about what was to come.
I saw an article on Facebook at the time that suggested six books to be read during a pandemic.
As I said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Now, as we approach 56,000 deaths in the United States and three million cases worldwide, I'm not sure that reading pandemic literature was a very good idea. What seemed fascinating back in mid-March seems simply miserable now.
But in mid-March, I was fascinated. At that time, I wasn't even aware that there was a genre of literature anchored to pandemics! But I've learned a great deal since then.
I wasn't familiar with Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year, for example. I knew, of course, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, but I didn't know that he wrote a fictional story that chronicled the bubonic plague that decimated Europe in the 1600s. Evidently, it's a classic.
And then there was Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, the first black woman to come to international prominence as a science fiction writer. That was the recommended pandemic book I read first. Written in 1993, this dystopian novel is set - get this! - in the 2020s! Here's the descriptive blurb on the back of the book:
When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others' emotions.
It is Lauren's hyperempathy that drives the story. She is called a "sharer," because the pain of other people becomes her own pain. When other people suffer, she suffers. Lauren feels the pain of others as if it were her own. And Lauren's gift is both blessing and curse.
Most of us don't know the word "hyperempathy." But we do know the word "compassion." Sometimes - and certainly today - compassion is about the best gift we have to offer: our willingness to "suffer with."
In Colossians 3:12, we learn that we are chosen people. We also learn that we are holy people. What's more, we are dearly loved by God. And because those things are true, we are instructed to clothe ourselves with compassion (and along with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.)
Quite simply, our world today is filled with people who are desperate for compassion.
And compassion is something we are well equipped to give.
If we live well these days, our empathy will be over the top. What a gift we can give when we suffer with someone else.
"I cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer."
The silence of God.
That's a hard one. For all of our talk about God's compassion and care, for all of our talk about God's presence with us, for all of our talk about God being aware and involved and active in our lives . . . there are still those times . . . when God is silent.
Job certainly dealt with the silence of God. The Psalmist struggled often with God's silence. Even Jesus on the cross wondered about the silence of his Father. And if we are honest, we will admit that we, too, know the silence of God.
Of course, it is God's right to be silent. Still, it is heart-breaking when, as Job says, we cry out to God and God does not answer.
But that's not the end of the conversation. Even when God is silent . . . we know that he is there. The text of Kim Andre Arnesen's choral piece reminds us of this profound truth:
I believe in the sun, even when it's not shining
I believe in love, even when I feel it not
I believe in God, even when He is silent
I could tell you what a beautiful piece of music Arnesen has composed, but I'll go even further than that. You can listen to it yourself! It's at the bottom of this devotional; simply click the arrow in the middle of the screen.
Before you do that, however, just a little more backstory. The conductor/artistic director of this piece is a young musician named Mark Singleton. I have known Mark his entire life. In fact, Mark and his family are probably the best friends I have in all the world. We have walked together for decades, and we have dealt together with the silence of God. Together, we have walked very, very close to the valley of the shadow of death. Together, we have dealt with unspeakable heartache. Together, we have wondered why God can be so quiet when we ask our impossible questions.
Through all of that, we learned together that God is present even when we cannot see him. Together, we learned that God is with us even when he refuses to answer our questions. Together, we learned that God is worthy of our trust even when he is completely silent.
It's a beautiful piece of music. To me, it is even more beautiful because it is shaped and guided and conducted by my dear friend, Mark Singleton. How good of him to share these remarkable musical gifts that God has given him!
Enjoy Kim Andre Arnesen's Even When He Is Silent.
One thing is certain: life can change quickly!
Can you remember how things were in the middle of March? Can you remember what was on your mind then? Can you remember what you were worried about?
Then, do you realize how quickly everything changed?
Here we are in late April and it seems as if the entire world is different. So different, in fact, that we are trying to figure out how to make sense of this brand new world.
The song "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" comes to mind. Originally written in Spanish by Maria Grever, the song was popularized by Dinah Washington in 1959. And the song was so beautiful - and the lyrics were so true - that just about every artist gave the song a try: Bobby Darin, Dean Martin, Little Anthony, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cher and Tony Bennet (just to name a few).
Our world, of course, didn't change in a day . . . but it didn't take much longer than that.
We are not the first people to have our world turned upside down quickly. In the Old Testament, we read about a man named Job. Described as "the greatest man among all the people of the East" (Job 1:3), Job's world changed in an instant. On a single day, in a series of disasters, Job lost his oxen and donkeys, his sheep and some of his servants, his camels and the remainder of his servants, and his sons and daughters (Job 1:13-19). Soon after this day of disaster, Job's health was destroyed.
Clearly, life can change quickly!
Knowing that, we could, of course, live in fear. In fact, we could be so afraid of losing what we have that we might completely miss the life we have.
Or we could take a very different approach.
This different approach would be much wiser! We could learn to value and appreciate and enjoy the life we have - not because we're afraid that we might lose it, but because it's the life we have been given. If we were to live that way, we would pay attention, we would live in the moment, and we would honor everything that comes our way as a gift.
The Texas poet Mary Connell gives us some good advice. In her poem called "Final Sightings," she says this:
And so it is with every sweet occurrence
that lends any sense or comfort to our lives.
The ultimate gaze and the final phrase
are pretty hard to recognize.
It will happen for the last time
and very likely no one will know
when it happened that it stopped happening.
So kiss me every time you go,
against returning so obscure,
for though I think I know a certain thing
I can't be sure.
Morbid? Not at all!
Just an invitation to receive the gifts that come our way. Just an invitation to live the life we've been given. Just an invitation to live today.
After all, things can change so very quickly!