A Song I Can Sing

Music has always been my go to touchstone with God. Sometimes when the requisite reading of scripture doesn’t serve up the desired comfort/blessing/encouragement or (insert the current felt need here), worship music can usually connect with my spirit and bring a satisfactory satiation of that longing for contact with God.

That’s why the following experience rocked me in a way that caused me to evaluate my dependence on a song to make me feel good; to meet my needs.

It is so hard to face the fact that it’s not about me. It never has been but I act like it is. But can I go through the withdrawals and dependencies on a predictable formula for relationship with God without the hard work of investing time and honoring Him just because He is worthy. It is all about Him.


 

Church was nearly over. The pastor handed me songbook and asked me to find one to sing before dismissing the meeting. I opened the hymnal and proceeded to look for an appropriate closing song.

As I leafed through the pages I noticed that none of them were familiar to me. I didn’t know any of them! There were lots of songs. Many were old, old obscure hymns extolling the virtues of the faith. Some were deep theological truths set to music.

Others seemed to concentrate on the beauties of nature; how the robin’s song echoes the glories of God and creation shows His handiwork. But I couldn’t sing any of them because I didn’t know them.

By this time the pastor had slid onto the piano bench to accompany the singing. I turned to him. “I don’t know any of these songs; I can’t sing them,” I said.

“Oh, I know lots of songs from that book. There are some good ones,” he said.

“But I can’t sing them because I don’t know them,” I insisted. I looked again, but it was no use. Nothing was familiar;

I had no song that I could sing.

I woke up. A song that I knew well had been in my mind and heart for about a week. I found it on YouTube and played it.

Tears came quickly. This, this was a song I could sing. “To Him Who Sits on the Throne and Unto the Lamb, Be Blessing and Honor and Glory and Power Forever!”

My ability to find a song in life has usually been a process but never lost for long. With the ups and downs of typical spiritual struggles and victories, there have been those high, joyous experiences with God of emotional exuberance.

There have been times of wrestling with self and the dark night of the soul. In time though, the sun would break through and a song would lift me out of seeming despair.

Now here, at the ending of the service; perhaps a metaphor of the late summer of my life, I found myself unable to find a song. Except that the only song I can sing is one extolling His praises.

It is not one found in a codified hymnal disconnected from the realities of life. Not a song about God but a song to God.

It turns the attention away from me and the facts of what I know, or don’t know, and in spite of that gives praise to Him Who sits on the Throne.

Storied Past – 18

Ed eased up to the front door of City Reach.

“Oh brother,” he thought. “One of those soup kitchen places for homeless losers. I don’t belong here. Why did that stupid judge send me to work here? Why couldn’t it be working in the City Park or something?”

He opened the door slowly. The smell of breakfast made him hungry for real food. He remembered the last meal he had was topped with white foam.

Ed looked around for someone that seemed to be in charge. Spotting Becky, who was directing someone to retrieve the salt and pepper, he hesitatingly walked over to introduce himself.

“Hello Miss; my name is Ed Hammberg. I was asked by a local official to give you a hand for a few weeks.” Ed had this part down cold. “Do you need any help?”

“Oh hello, Mr. Hammberg. Yes, the judge called me. He told me you needed a place to do some community service. We’re happy to have you help us for a while.”

Ed flushed. He hadn’t counted on his whole life history being laid out so soon.

“We do have a couple of rules, Ed. May I call you Ed?”

“Uh, yes, of course.”

“Good! You must always respect anyone who comes in here and treat them with love. And, we will have no swearing, no smoking, no alcohol and your first half hour each day here is with the staff only. We will talk about the daily menu for a few minutes and then we all pray for a bit. Sound OK?”

“Oh, uh yeah, I guess so. Pray? Yeah, OK, I can be here.”

“Great! So, Wednesday at 7:30 in the morning? Thank you, see you then.”

The duty nurse came in to check on the patients in 314. Mr. Beckett was sitting up and playing with the TV remote again. Paul was awake but a bit groggy. She slid the curtain back so each could see the other.

She then said, “Well, since you are both awake I think I will let you get acquainted. Mr. Beckett, this is Mr. Weiser; Paul, this is Frank. Enjoy your morning!”

“Good morning, Frank,” Paul said as wakeful as he could, still under some influence of the sedative.

“Uh, HUH,” returned Mr. Beckett, unsure of how to make small conversation with a man he was just now meeting who was probably the father of his daughter’s child.

“So . . . looks like you were in an accident. What happened?”

“Truck; I got hit by a truck,” Paul explained.

“Looks like the truck won, Paul. Are you a Christian?”

“A what?”

“Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” Mr. Beckett inquired.

“As my what? Savior? I don’t know what you mean. I was saved from getting killed, if that’s what you mean. And, I don’t know anybody named Jesus. I know Jose’ who was the salesman in the next region, that’s all.” Paul was unsure about what this had to do with the accident. Maybe Frank Beckett had some brain damage, though his head wasn’t wrapped up.

“No, I meant have you been to church and found Jesus.”

“Oh that. Yes, I went to church. That’s why I’m here. I came out kind of stumped, crossed the street and got slammed. The only thing I found in church was a bunch of people doing some ceremony that didn’t seem to include me. I don’t know how they expect to get anybody to come back when they are so unfriendly.” Paul laid back on the pillow, tired after that rant.

“Yeah, they are like that at the Catholic Church. I don’t blame you.”

“It was that big church down on Main,” Paul revealed. “I’m never going there again!”

Ramona had seen Ed Hammberg come in to City Reach. He looked familiar and thought she should know him but couldn’t place him. As she thought about it, she recalled a few years back seeing him at church. He was just a little older than her and looked a lot scruffier than she remembered.

“What did he want?” she asked Becky.

“You’ll never believe it, but he’s the guy who was driving the truck that hit Paul. The judge sent him here to do Community Service.”

“I think I know him, Becky. He went to my church and married the Pastor’s daughter.”

“Well, that’s interesting. How did Pastor Marlowe allow that?”

Ramona told what she remembered about Ed as she helped Becky clean up. “He seemed to be a decent guy, not my type, but a decent guy. I’m not sure why he went sideways but I heard the pastor was in their personal lives too much.”

“Well that can happen with any parent and their children.”

“No, I mean TOO much. He expected them to be at church for everything and didn’t even let them take time off for a vacation. Ed must have felt he couldn’t—wouldn’t live that way and left.”

Becky sighed. “Sometimes people in leadership use their positions to control others, Ramona. Couple that with the idea that the pastor may have felt that his reputation hinged on the behavior of his children and you have a recipe for misery. It happens too often. I never told you but that’s one of the main reasons I quit being a church member and became a Jesus follower instead.”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“Well, the church I attended was similar to Main Street Church: friendly, like a big family, they said. But when I was there for a short while the youth leader came to me and wanted me to check in weekly with one of the other leaders. I asked why and he said that I needed to be accountable to those over me. I agreed to and for a while it seemed OK, but when the other leader said he needed to approve my social friends I couldn’t see it. I mean, I thought we were supposed to have friends that didn’t know Jesus so we could ‘be Jesus’ to them.”

“So what did you do?”

“I met a few other friends who felt the same way; Jeremy was one, and we started getting together, reading Jesus’ story and asking ourselves what it might look like in today’s culture to share His message with our friends and community. That’s why we started City Reach.”

“Cool!” Ramona said. “At first I thought you were just doing something to feel good about yourself; you know, giving back to the poor people. But I didn’t realize you had a deeper reason. I guess that makes sense. I remember now about Eben, the guy I met my first time here. That is cool, Becky. I like the idea of serving the poor so you can share His love.”

“Yep! After all, He did feed a bunch of them as He told them stories about God and His Kingdom.”

As Mr. Beckett lay there, he thought about the guy in the bed next to him. Anger crept up on his dark side. He was conflicted about how to bring up the topic but believed it was his parental duty to confront Paul.

Paul stirred; Beckett took this as an opening.

“So you know my daughter, Ramona, huh?”

Paul shot a nervous glance his way.

“I’ve met her, yes.”

“She said you’ve more than met. Are you prepared to be a father?”

“WHAT?” Paul reeled from this sudden revelation. “Whaaat?” he stammered again. “Damn, damn, damn!”

“Yeah, you will be,” Beckett returned, “if you don’t own up.”

– To Be Continued –

Storied Past – 15

A look of fear and guilt pushed Paul’s eyes to maximum width. A deed of pure selfishness and utter wrong resurfaced in his mind. If it were other circumstances, he may have charmed his way out of the girl’s certain confrontation. But he could do nothing but lay there in captive submission to whatever she surely was about to unleash on him.

Ramona was so stunned no words came. An awkward awareness of the situation crept up into her brain along with the flush on her face. Paul, or at least that guy; the guy she had spent that evening with in the roadhouse and then . . . and then, well the awful hours and days that followed.

“Paul?” She whispered. “What . . . what happened to you?” She realized the immediate circumstances obviously dominated the initial conversation.

“I . . . I was going to call you.” He stammered out in a weak, muffled voice. “I . . . I’m sorry I . . . ”

“Mister, Paul, or whoever you are, don’t even.” Ramona said in a measured but strong, quiet voice. “I asked you what happened, that’s all. Can you at least give me enough respect to answer me with a little straight truth?” She was gaining confidence with every syllable.

“I’m sorry: yes, I can.” He started to really grasp the vulnerability of his position in this unexpected encounter. There was no way to run even if he wanted to.

“Well, I was walking across the street in an unlighted crosswalk and got hit by some idiot’s truck.”

“Hmmmm.” Ramona breathed. Her mind went to all sorts of responses she could have spat out, like, “Yeah, I did too,” or, “I think the idiot was in the crosswalk,” but to her surprise, she restrained herself.

“Is anything broken?” She kept it practical.

“Well, my chest hurts, my head is wrapped as you can see, and my left leg is in some sort of a cast, I think.”

“Ramona.”

Mr. Beckett called softly from the next bed. “Ramona, could you step over here for a minute?”

Ramona moved around the curtain again to face her father.

“Dad, that is the guy,” she whispered. “The guy I met before . . . I mean, he’s the guy who attacked me. What do I do?”

“Serious? You mean he’s the baby’s father?” Beckett whispered too.

“Yes,” she whispered back. “I know it’s him. What should I do?”

“Well,” he started, “well he’s not going anyplace soon, that’s for sure. We have time to figure it out.”

That was one thing about her father she really respected. He was wise about things. She knew he could analyze and process things very well and he always seemed to come to good decisions about hard situations. Well, except for that irrational outburst in the mercantile store. That was really so unlike his regular demeanor. Church stuff made him act irrational too, though. She had to say that.

“Ramona?” Now the other bed was calling. “Ramona, I . . . I really am sorry. I hope we can have a conversation when I get better. I want to, I mean I’ve been thinking, I mean before this accident, that I need some help. I have been messed up and something has to change. Would you . . . be willing to talk to me, I mean in spite of what I did to you?”

“Mister, I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it. But you aren’t going anywhere soon and I know where you are and I intend to have a short conversation with you, along with somebody like Officer Riley.”

“Really? You would really do that? I know I deserve it. Never mind; just never mind. I mean, please, can’t we just talk first?

“Well, mister, the last time we talked you charmed my pants right off me and that will never happen again!” She spat this out with a venomous edge to her voice now.

“I know, and the drug was totally wrong, too. But that’s what I want to talk about. I . . . well, I need you to know that I wish I could do that night differently. You are such a great girl and I so took advantage of you, I’m . . . I’m such a toad.”

This last sentence seemed to take a great effort to get out of Paul. He looked drained. The whole shock of seeing Ramona in this context and him in such a vulnerable position weakened him physically and emotionally.

Ramona looked at him with a truck load of skepticism. “I will be back. You can be sure of that,” and moved back to the other side. Her father had drifted off to sleep again so she sat down in the worn, plastic overstuffed chair to think. It was 8:25 pm.

Becky had quickly closed the coffee bar. The whole bizarre narrative that Ramona had reeled off earlier has occupied her mind all evening. Fact is, she had to remake a few drinks because she didn’t seem to be able to focus.

What a story! The whole part about the Edith angel, though a strange tale, was entirely in the realm of God activity. After all, hadn’t she and Jeremy prayed for an intervention no matter what or how?

Locking up, she hurried down the street toward the hospital. It was possible Ramona was still visiting her father and she wanted to be there for her.

And what about that guy in the next bed? She wanted to tell Ramona about him, too; that she thought she had encountered him in her coffee store.

The hospital elevator was so slow! But after an eternity and a stop on the second floor to let on an entire entourage of family from the second floor maternity ward, the elevator groaned to a stop on the third.

Confusion from the family about having gotten on the “Up” elevator when it should have been the “Down” caused the doors to open and shut several times before she could wriggle out through the crowd.

“Excuse me, I need to get out. Thank you.” Finally free, she hurried down the corridor to 314.

“Ramona? Oh, good, you’re still here.”

“Hey Becky, guess what? I have to tell you something!”

“Well, I have to tell you something,” Becky insisted.

“The guy in the next bed . . . ,” they both said at once.

Storied Past – 11

This is a continuation of a fictional story I started several months ago. All episodes are available on this blog in the archives. The characters are fictional but certain events are in my own history and perhaps yours. Thank you for reading.

Ramona hurried back into the small town bus station with her suitcase and the small flowered bag that Edith had been carrying. The contents, a soft blue blanket and a box containing a baby pacifier, still left Ramona with a cautious hopefulness that somehow, some way this horrible experience could be rectified.

It was dark outside by now and the station was quiet with only a few main lights on. She checked for the next bus north and groaned when she read that no more buses were scheduled that night. What would she do? Sleep on one of these hard benches, she concluded. That didn’t sound fun at all but after finding a corner with some privacy she settled down for the long night ahead.

Wednesday night prayer meeting was well underway. Three hymns had been sung (in their entirety, except for omitting the third verse) when Pastor Marlowe got up to read the prayer requests to everyone.

“Sister Jacobs called in and requested prayer for herself. She has extreme pain in her left shoulder and really wants to be here on Sunday. Her grandson has been on her heart for weeks, too, as his parents seem to be going farther away from God. Please pray for them.”

“And don’t forget Ramona Beckett. You all know she has left the Lord and is careening down a path that will take her to certain disaster. I saw her father this week and he is so broken up over it. Pray that God will sustain him in his resolve to keep the faith. Pray that he will recover quickly from this heart attack.”

Everyone nodded with a knowing affirmation of the serious nature of Ramona’s recent failure. Several other requests were listed and then they all knelt down for the requisite time of petition and thanksgiving.

Near the back a tall, good-looking young man sat awkwardly, wondering how he could gracefully exit without drawing attention or conversation. “This is so weird,” he thought. “I sure made a mistake coming here!” No one had greeted him yet, although several young people glanced his way when they entered at the start of the service.

When he realized now that everyone had their faces buried in the pew he decided he could slip out relatively unnoticed. It did seem that they had some kind of ritualistic agenda that he didn’t understand and they weren’t about to include him anyway.

Outside on the sidewalk, Paul decided this church thing was a bad idea. Lately he had felt some strange feeling of . . . regret or something. Not guilt, mind you, just a strange uneasiness that something was missing, so he thought maybe it was church.

He couldn’t put his finger on it. Since he started high school, he had always lived life as he wanted and at full speed. A basketball star since tenth grade, he went on to lead the team as point guard, captain and then to the regional playoffs. Of course, the perks were there; keg parties, grateful adoring fans, and girls. Always girls. His charming personality seemed to get him anything he wanted, with whomever he wanted. Life was sweet; until just recently.

He ambled down the sidewalk, deep in thought. There was an empty, unfilled place somewhere inside that craved attention. For all the women he “conquered,” he should feel self-satisfied and in control. After all, didn’t he actually live the life most men can only fantasize about?

Suddenly, without warning, his consciousness snapped back to acute awareness. But it was too late! The law of physics will not allow two material bodies to occupy the same space at the same time; the truck settled any question about that.

Becky answered her phone. It was 9:30, Wednesday evening. Marcy was hysterical.

“Becky, Becky! Are you there Becky? Sumpin’ turrible bad, Becky. Come quick, sumpin’ turrible.”

“Marcy, what is it? Where are you? Are you OK?” Becky was alarmed now.

“Yeah, Becky, I’m OK but he isn’t!”

“Who isn’t? Is Jeremy OK?”

“Not Jeremy, Becky, him, some other guy. I don’t know who but he might-a got dead, Becky.”

“Well where are you, Marcy?”

“Uh . . . uh, on Main Street, just past that church what you said Ramona went to, just past.”

“Right! Wait right there; I’m going to come over. Is the ambulance there?”

“No, it just happened! It’s turrible bad, Becky. Please hurry. I’m gonna’ pray for him, OK?”

“Yes, Marcy. You pray and I’m on my way.”

Ramona drifted in and out of fitful sleep, if you could call it sleep. The bench was getting harder and less conformed to her body. She considered the possibility that even natural substances had conspired to insure that she would continue to be miserable.

Images of Edith kept floating by in her sub-consciousness coupled with sounds of snoring from some itinerant on the other side of the small station. Ramona pulled her coat more tightly around herself and over her ears to minimize the irritation.

“What” and “why” were the interrogatives that initiated her linear thinking. What did this bizarre experience mean and why had she experienced it. She had heard of visitations people have had from angels but mostly that happened to more deserving, spiritual people, not sinners like her. Edith drifted back into view, snoring with a pacifier perched precariously in her mouth, a blue blanket pulled up over her ears.

Becky ran all the way to where Marcy was. Red and blue lights flashed up the street behind her as she arrived on the scene. A light drizzle compounded the misery and drama of the late evening.

Marcy. Where was Marcy? Then she saw her; crouched on the ground next to a bloody heap, undistinguishable as a person at first glance.

Becky gasped. Surely this was the end for Mr. Whoever-he-was. As she quickly knelt down next to Marcy she could hear her simple prayers of intervention.

“Oh God, please let him live if he don’t know you. I know you so please listen right now. If he ain’t saved, don’t take him away ‘til we can get him saved. Amen!”

“Amen.” Becky echoed.

“Excuse me, folks, I need to get to him,” the paramedic interrupted.

“Oh, sure.” Becky pulled Marcy back from the near corpse. “Let’s stand back here, Marcy. We can still pray.”

“OK, Becky. He’s gonna be awright, though. God tole me. He’s gonna be OK. I don’t think he knows Jesus yet but he will ‘cause he’s gonna be OK, Becky.”

The paramedic team proved it’s proficiency by speedily and carefully loading Paul up on a field gurney and into the back of the ambulance. Minutes later he was rushed through the Emergency doors of the Hospital and into surgery.

Ramona jerked fully awake. What time was it anyway?

“Oh no, really?” she thought. It’s going to be a long night. Only 9:30! Her tummy felt really strange. No, it wasn’t the baby. She knew it would be too early for that: just a weird sensation. She would sure breathe a sigh of relief when some of this would start making sense!

Work is Calling

Do you have one of those 9-5 jobs, or midnight to 8 am jobs? Or, maybe you are subject to your employer’s whim of whenever they need you. Do you enjoy what you are paid to do? Does it satisfy your need to be creative or productive while serving others? Maybe you wonder if your career has any meaning at all, or is it something to be endured like a dentist appointment.

Our work, our vocation, having a job to do was God’s plan from the start. It is one of the ways, if not the primary way, through which we accomplish our purpose here in the earth. I know, you probably have been taught our prime directive was to evangelize the heathens. Do you remember the first job description in history?

The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it. Genesis 2:15 NLT

This charge to care for and cultivate was considered the prime role for the newly minted man. We were (and are) created with purpose, creativity and destiny. Anything that occupies our time and energy apart from pursuing and engaging with this assignment can only result in short term satisfaction at best, and long term frustration in the end. At worst, a woman or man will be conflicted about her/his reason for existence and end it all leaving only a life of self-indulgence and guilt as a legacy.

For some, a career is merely a job that provides a paycheck, healthcare, a two week vacation and a bit of retirement. We go home and forget the hard work, the overbearing boss and the never-ending tasks of each dreary day.

But, we are created with purpose and intent. Through vocation, avocation and work we live out that purpose. We contribute, through the work we do, to the greater good of culture, to our deep satisfaction and the purpose of God’s Kingdom, Shalom, by discovering the work that we are created and gifted to do and do it.

Lest you think I’m suggesting all work and no play are the only options, I truly believe play is a huge piece of a satisfying life. (Read: The Well-Played Life by Leonard Sweet) Most religions take themselves too seriously and forget that the creation story proves God himself loves a good time. Christianity has a recent history of emphasizing the seriousness of piety at the expense of richly enjoying the life God gave us.

Activity, or keeping busy, isn’t enough. Having a highly honored position or profile or being recognized by the masses isn’t the measure of faithful service, either. Festus, of Gunsmoke fame was heard to have said, “I think our national symbol should be a mule. Now the eagle is a beautiful bird and all, but I just think he should be down here on the ground where the work is bein’ did.” What he says so well is that the bird of popularity and veneration often doesn’t get as much done as an animal that is generally ignored, or worse.

Until the Reformation of the 16th century, Christianity was heavily influenced by Platonic inspired theology. Strong gnostic dualism shaped the way they looked at creation. Anything material was evil. Depriving oneself of things and being spiritually minded alone was good. Consequently, people who wanted to pursue the spiritual life denied themselves all physical possessions and pleasures in favor of poverty and prayer.

This led to monasticism being perceived as the highest form of spirituality and individual piety the highest form of worship. Unfortunately, these well-meaning individuals deserted society in order to seek personal enlightenment in solitude and temptation avoidance.

But finding rewarding work that promotes and advances the kingdom values and then pursuing that task faithfully in community is what accomplishes our calling and purpose. It is about actually making progressive strides by whatever sized increments toward Shalom in this world through divine directive. To quote Martin Luther; “God milks his cows by those farmers he has assigned to that task.”

Further, God gives us great latitude in how we participate in Kingdom bringing efforts. He has given us the capacity to dream, invent, build, mend, organize and harmonize. Our creative minds are inspired by God and energized by faith to not only be, but do!

Our doing is not ordered by rules or authoritarian constraints of our faith but is animated and freed to do whatever our creative minds and hearts dream up that serve to make disciples and a better world.

Rather than instructing godly people to flee this evil world, the gospel urges Christians to remain engaged in the world so that they might reform their various vocations for the glory of God. Heaven is a Place on Earth: Michael Wittmer

It seems that there is a wide range of human creativity in our works of faith. St. Paul gives space to those who have God inspired ideas by invoking His blessings on those works. What kind of works? Those that minds of faith have dreamed up. They are acts of creativity that promote and extend the Kingdom. Ideas that are wholesome and bring joy and service to humanity; those activities that are building relationships, healing brokenness in humanity and the earth are what the Kingdom seeks.

Because we know that this extraordinary day is just ahead, we pray for you all the time—pray that our God will make you fit for what he’s called you to be, pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something. If your life honors the name of Jesus, he will honor you. Grace is behind and through all of this, our God giving himself freely, the Master, Jesus Christ, giving himself freely. (2 Thessalonians 1:11, 12 MSG)

So carry on with milking, making, marketing, mining, ministering or plowing with your ass. Do it with a renewed passion out of your calling and gifting. Do it with assurance that it is God-inspired and directed. Be creative. Be successful. Be fulfilled.