Friday, April 21, 2017

"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus": Not Always as Simple as It Sounds

Louisa Stead was a young woman with a husband and a daughter when her family decided to take a picnic lunch on Staten Island Sound one sunny day.

Their lunch was interrupted by the screams of a young boy caught in the current. Her husband sprang into action, and rushed into the water to save the boy. It was a heroic effort, but a doomed one. As Louisa and their daughter looked on, both her husband and the boy he had intended to save, drowned.

This was in the 1800s, and employment options for a woman were limited, even without a dependent.
Without the income her husband provided, Louisa and her daughter, Lily, soon became destitute.

God, however, remained faithful, and with what he provided for them, the Steads moved to South Africa and served as missionaries. In 1882, Louisa published a hymn titled “'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” a simple but inspiring song about a simple faith that is honored and rewarded to the very end.

As Christian folklore goes, this story has all the elements needed for a hearty amen chorus at the revival service. It has a deep, personal tragedy that breaks the heart of anyone who hears and considers it. (How could you not cry at the thought of a young widow having to raise a child on her own after watching her husband drown?) It has a simple, unassuming faith in God that is proved justified time and again.

In the end, that faith even carries the young widow and her daughter into frontier missions work, where one assumes that they lived long, faithful and fruitful lives of service to those around them. Who would like to be the first tonight to dedicate her life to serving God?

Perhaps I mock a little, but only a little. A simple faith that says “I will trust God to provide for my needs” is the faith of children, and it's a not a bad place to start. It gets us through tough spots like “Janine was my friend yesterday but today she says she's not my friend anymore” and “I failed the test” and even “I can't go to the movies today, mom is so mean.”

It's a Golden Book sort of faith, one that tells us that God rescued Daniel from the lions because Daniel kept the faith, or that David was able to kill Goliath because David trusted him. It's a well-intended faith that says that we'll always be safe with God, because God-plus-one is a majority. You never lose, you never suffer, and you always come out on top because God is faithful.

It's a great faith for 4-year-olds, but it doesn't hold up well over the long haul. Sooner or later, the rest of life happens. Your dog dies. A friend betrays you. You get cancer. You lose a child. Your partner leaves you.

I've known people who try to sail through life on that same simple faith that got them through the travails of kindergarten, and it never works out well. Some bury pain deep and insist that things are all right, even when they're plainly not, because they don't want to be found lacking in faith.

So they smile and say they're happy that their child is with Jesus now; or they nurture a quiet revenge fantasy where the errant spouse will return, admit to being wrong, and then beg for forgiveness (which will be granted most magnanimously, once the humiliation has been paid back in equal measure).

That's never a good idea, because pain is real and it happens for a reason. You can plaster a smile over it for only so long until that son-of-a-bitch comes back and demands payment, with interest.

Others flounder on the rocks. Maybe they abandon the ruins of the ship; or maybe they stay there, with the ship still intact, too afraid to try pulling loose and sailing free on the ocean again. You'll see them years later, hollow ghosts of who they once were, identified entirely by the crisis they couldn't handle.

It's good to enter through the wicket gate as a child. It's a bad idea to stay a child your whole life.

“You need meat,” Paul lectures his readers. “Stop drinking milk.”

“Let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity,” writes the author of Hebrews.

God never said bad stuff wouldn't happen. People still lose their parents, and it's always too soon. Spouses still stray, and even when they don't, sometimes the relationship withers on the vine anyway. Sometimes friends act with unspeakable cruelty. Sometimes life is unfair, and sometimes it's positively unjust.

Sometimes, it's true, faith shuts the mouths of lions. But for all the heroes of faith who miraculously were rescued, there are many others who were not:

“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated — of whom the world was not worthy — wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35-38)

Faith, real faith, the kind of faith we all boast that we have, even if only to ourselves, affirms that sometimes life is awful. She acknowledges the pain of loss, the grief of separation and the searing burn of injustice. Faith sheds real tears, and she even rages against God in the face of undeserved suffering.

Faith also knows not to offer answers at these moments. She keeps her peace, and simply holds on while the storm rocks the ship and threatens to wash everyone off.

It's also faith who finds the courage to ask the important questions. Is God still worth following – not just believing in, but actually following to the end – when he turns his back on us, or when he leads us into the Shadow of Death and leaves us there? Would Christ still be worth the effort if the lions had eaten Daniel, or if Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had perished in the fiery furnace of Nebuchadnezzar?

Is faith still worth having if your husband dies, and you're left destitute with a child to raise on your own? That's not a question anyone can answer until it has been asked in the most personal way, but I think we know how Louisa Stead answered it.

God grant us the faith to do likewise.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.






"'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus"

’Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take him at his word;
Just to rest upon his promise,
And to know, "Thus says the Lord!"

    Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him.
    How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er.
    Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
    O for grace to trust him more.

O how sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to trust his cleansing blood;
And in simple faith to plunge me
’Neath the healing, cleansing flood.

Refrain

Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just from sin and self to cease;
Just from Jesus simply taking
Life and rest, and joy and peace.

Refrain

I’m so glad I learned to trust him,
Precious Jesus, savior, friend;
And I know that Thou art with me,
Wilt be with me to the end.

Refrain

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lent: Hope

It's much more fun when my cup overflows, but there are times when it is as dry as a valley of bones.

Hope, as Emily Dickinson once observed, is a bundle of contradictions. It's frail, yet it survives in the harshest lands; it's small and flighty, yet it perches in our very souls where it cannot be dislodged. Its trilling keeps us warm, and yet it never asks even a crumb in return.

Especially today when we remember that all hopes have a day to flounder and even to fail, that little bird looks more like a farmhouse canary whose neck has been wrung than it does like a phoenix whose lament eases the burden of loss.

During times like these, it's easy to believe that selfish and powerful men have won the long game. Through treachery and corrupt tricks, by taking advantage of others' decency and by leveraging their own power, they'll roll back the hardwon progress of people who don't sit at the board with them. They'll get their damnable wars and send the rest of us to fight them; they'll get rid of everyone who's not like them, and they'll teach us to be grateful for the chance to eat their scraps and pick through their garbage. It's easy to believe that we're headed into darkness where there is no sun, no trees, no grass, no moon and no stars.

Screw that. I'm going to keep my hope and keep listening to that little bird singing its heart out, even if the singing is an empty reflex. I'm going to learn wisdom from a marshwiggle.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

Lent: Spirit

I read a story 25 years ago about a woman who was made from flowers.

Blodeuwedd's story isn't really the one that was told. She was a character in the story of Lleu Llaw Gyffes, a mythic Welsh hero who, due to a curse placed on him by his mother, was unable to marry a woman of any race upon the earth. His uncle Gwydion, a slippery sort of person, found a way around that curse fairly easily, by fashioning a body for Lleu's wife-to-be from flowers, and enticing a spirit to enter it.

The story, told in the Mabinogion, soon reveals the shortcoming in Gwydion's plans, namely that a spirit so easily enticed to enter a body of flowers may just as easily be enticed to other courses of action that neither Gwydion nor his nephew intended, nor wanted.

I'd be curious to hear Blodewedd's story, and discover how she felt about all these developments. If that story has been told, I have yet to find it.

I did hear another story, though, about a human who was shaped not from flowers but from clay, and how a spirit was breathed into him, and he became a living thing, animated by the breath of God. There's a story related to that one too, about a bride found suitable for a king. She was fashioned not of flowers, nor of clay, but of all the races of humanity to walk upon the earth. She also was brought to life by the spirit of God.

Unlike Blodewedd's, this woman's wedding day hasn't come yet. She's still waiting for her groom to come for her. Her spirit is capricious too, and she sometimes has had dalliances with people she shouldn't have.

Hers is a story I'm still learning. I'll let you know how it goes once I understand it better.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Maundy Thursday: Celebrating the ordinary before the storm

Thursday may be my favorite day in Holy Week.

Formally known as Maundy Thursday, today marks the day Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper. On Sunday they threw Jesus a parade. On Holy Tuesday and Holy Wednesday, he mixed it up all over town, sparring in the Temple and winning accolades for his quick wit and sharp words. Good Friday will be set aside for horror and grief, Saturday is for despair, and Sunday is for celebrating the impossible, but tonight it's time to celebrate the Passover in quiet.

Dinner with friends. What could be more mundane, more ordinary and more profoundly human than that? We always wonder what we would do if we knew we only had 24 hours left. The gospels show us what Jesus did. He had dinner and spent a quiet evening with the people who mattered most to him.

We often think of the Last Supper as a fairly staid affair. The disciples had their little dustup, of course, they always did; but Jesus reclined at the table, serene and above the fray, absolutely stoic and unaffected as he drew the errant children back into good behavior.

I can't see it that way, try as I might. Jesus knew what was coming tomorrow, after all. How could he not? For the past three years he'd been defying social conventions and crossing lines to heal, honor and befriend outcasts in ways that scandalized decent society: welfare cheats, sex workers, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the transgender, adulterers, trained killers and religious people. Even before he looked at Jerusalem from the vantage of the Mount of Olives Jesus already was predicting his death.

When, I wonder, did he know that hammerfall was imminent? Maybe it was the heightened scrutiny. Verbal traps that masqueraded as friendly questions or as mere arguments had been ratcheting up the tension all week, the nets and spears of his opponents drawing closer all the time.Something was going to give, and soon.

Jesus had been on the road with his disciples for three years, and he knew them intimately. When did he first sense that Judas had started to pull back, moving first from all-in support to mixed feelings, and then onward to skepticism and finally to outright rejection? It must have happened quickly, but none of the other disciples noticed it. When Judas left partway through the Seder to betray their teacher, everyone else assumed that he was running out to get something they had forgotten for the meal.

When did Jesus realize that Peter was about to fail? For three years, Peter had been part of the inner circle of Jesus' intimates. Along with the brothers John and James, Peter had been there with Jesus when he raised the daughter of Jairus up from the dead. He'd also been one of the three to witness the Transfiguration.

Peter was someone Jesus clearly had been impressed with. Originally he'd been named Simon, meaning hear; but Jesus renamed him Peter, rock. Over the past week, Jesus had watched as a crack formed in that rock, and threatened to split it down the middle. He'd started praying that the rock would be strong enough to hold together.

Moments of terrible clarity come to all of us at one time or another. We realize that things are about to take a turn for the south and there's nothing we can do about it. The marriage has died, and divorce is now inevitable. Child Protective Services wants simply to close the case, and the girl you love like your own is headed back to the people who abused her. The boss has made his decision, and you're about to be fired. The mob has you at its mercy, and you're going to die.

People who survive such moments often report after it's all over that during the moment of crisis, there was a supernatural calm that fell over them and held them upright and aloft long after they would have given out on their own steam. The future didn't change; they still could hear the march of doom as clear as ever. It just didn't matter right then. These moments of serenity stretch across the surface of simmering trouble. From time to time that calm shakes from the tension of what is happening beneath, but it holds.

Did Jesus' voice tremble when he told Judas to go take care of what he had to do? Did the words catch in his throat when he predicted Peter would deny knowing him, and he described the prayers he had made for his friend's sake? Were there tears in his eyes as he held the Passover cup aloft after dinner and promised to drink it with them again in the Kingdom of Heaven?

All possible. Jesus was human, after all, and he stands squarely with us in our weakness, in our fears and in those secret places where we tremble for what we see coming for ourselves, our loved ones, for our nation and for our world.

The next moment may bring ruin, or it may bring death. Right now that doesn't matter. At this moment, there is only this moment. Right now, friends are gathered around, and it's time for dinner.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Lent: Deny

With a word prompt like deny during Lent, it's hard not to think of Peter and his denial of Christ.

That string of denials started late Thursday night and continued into early Friday morning. The thought of denying that he knew Jesus almost certainly was as far from Peter's mind on Wednesday as it was on Thursday.

And yet Jesus clearly saw something going on during Holy Week. By the time Thursday night rolled around, he knew what Peter would do with such certainty that he even gave a time that it would happen by.

None of thinks we'll ever be the one to deny our faith, our principles or those we love. Let's walk in humility and with care. None of knows what we're capable of until we discover our true price.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lent: Above

The word for today is "Above," a nice focus for direction, or for perspective.

Keeping your eyes fixed on what is above means not being preoccupied with the things that bring us down. In the same way, looking at things from above helps us to keep perspective. Viewing the city from above shows us the way traffic drifts from one neighborhood into another. It lets us see commuters as they go to work, follow the households as they carry hard-earned cash to the business district, and track our streams and our wildlife as they move from one green area to another.

Viewed from above, there are no neighborhoods. There's just a city, with all its flaws, inequities, triumphs and selling points on display.

Above also can be a vantage point that gives you perspective, and frees to laugh at things that otherwise might annoy.

Tonight was Beloved Wife's birthday, so the girls and I took her out to eat at Chili's. Our server was distracted, so it took her a while to order our food, and even longer before it arrived. When it did arrive, someone accidentally spilled a piece of it on the floor.

Life happens. It was one piece of flatbread of four, and the woman who spilled it promised to bring my daughter a replacement right away.

My daughter set to eating, and it didn't come.

She finished her meal, and it hadn't come.

About a half-hour after the food had spilled, not only hadn't its replacement come, the old was still there, staring at us from below, lying on the floor where it had been dropped.

I took a picture and started to livetweet the flatbread, tagging Chili's in each post. Employees walked over it. It stayed on the floor. The manager walked past it twice. It stayed on the floor. Other customers at the restaurant walked over it and on it. It stayed on the floor, and I started livetweeting how many people had stepped on it.

About 35 minutes after the server had spilled the food, she came back to ask if we were ready for dessert. I pointed out the food on the floor, not for the first time, and mentioned that my daughter still was waiting for the replacement.

Later, when we were ready to go, we took one of those automated surveys intended to gauge customer satisfaction. "The restaurant was clean," was the prompt. My family, who had been following my livetweets of the flatbread saga, cracked up.

"See your Twitter feed," my daughter advised the restaurant. (To this date I haven't received an acknowledgment.)

Spilled food? No big deal. Not replaced in a timely manner? Disappointing.

Perspective gained by staying above the situation and laughing at it? Indispensible.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Sunday, April 09, 2017

Lent: Celebrate

Like many other children her age, Middle Daughter has a thing for Alexander Hamilton.

Her celebration of all things Hamilton began a little more than two Christmases ago, when it was not yet clear that the musical on Broadway, while definitely A Thing, was going to be the juggernaut it since has become. She began singing "You'll Be Back" during car trips where once she had sung "Popular," and began displaying an unexpected familiarity with the Founding Fathers and early American history.

Lacking tickets to the show, Middle Daughter has embarked upon pilgrimages to sites sacred to the memory of Hamilton. Last summer, she celebrated his life at the Hamilton-Schuyler house in Morristown, N.J. Today we were in New York for an acting callback, so we built in extra time to ride the subway to Wall Street and visit his grave in the Trinity Church Cemetery.

It was barely 11 a.m. when we arrived to pay our respects. Pilgrims were out in full force. Hamilton's grave, as well as the graves of his wife, Eliza, and their son Philip, were adorned with flags and other patriotic trinkets, as well as votive offerings of money, in coins and bills of all denominations.

For my daughter, the visit alone was cause for celebration, as it is another place that she has been able to cross paths with one of her heroes. A man who gave so many years and such a legacy of wisdom and guidance to his adopted country is worth celebrating. I only pray that in remembering his life, and his accomplishments, that we also glean some of his wisdom for the days that lie ahead of us.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Saturday, April 08, 2017

Lent: Blessing

Fresh food.
Family.
Friends.
A house.
A dog.
Cars.
Climate control.
A yard.
Playground equipment.
Publicly funded education.
Publicly supported arts.
Community theatre.
Good health.
Books.
Skills.
Neighbors.
Differences.
Music.
Songs.
Stories.
Sunlight.
Moonlight.
Starlight.
Variety.
Running water.



Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.