This past summer, my dear friend Lynn gave me a morning glory flower to brighten my spirits. I was beginning my cancer journey, and I was admittedly scared out of my wits. “Here,” she said. “Take this—morning glories helped me heal after I lost my husband. I hope it will bring you joy.” Thankful for her kindness, I dutifully planted it. I knew morning glories are climbers, so I put it right up against our backyard fence. I decided to name it “Ed” in honor of Lynn’s husband.
For a few weeks, Ed stretched his tendrils up and around the fence happily. Eventually, he reached the top of the fence. As he gained confidence, he explored more of the fence. One day, I noticed some of Ed’s leaves were curled and brown. Several days of extremely hot weather had perhaps taken their toll; I promptly grabbed my watering can and gave Ed a drink. “Come on, buddy,” I whispered.
Ed continued to sag wanly on the fence. I watered him again, hoping it would revive him. I watered him a few days later, noting that some of the leaves remained fresh and green, while others continued to shrink and turn brown. I took one of the brown vines in my fingers and carefully followed it all the way back to the ground where it was supposed to be rooted. I noticed with horror that it wasn’t in the ground—it was hanging limply just above it. More than likely, the lawnmower had accidentally severed it when I mowed the lawn the previous week. I had killed Ed, or at least, part of him. I tried to pull off some of the dead vines and leaves, but they were so intertwined with the ones still growing that I decided to leave it alone and hope for the best. “Come on, Lord,” I muttered.
Recently, I have had conversations with several friends facing grim life struggles; subsequently, the not-so-articulate, tad-bit grumpy prayer “Come on, Lord,” has passed through my lips more than I would like to admit. These friends are good people facing tectonic shifts in their lives and could use a dash of hope—but nothing happens. God is being annoyingly circumspect in His response to all of our prayers. I read a prayer that encapsulates my own thoughts in Ann Lamott’s brilliant Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (NewYork: Riverhead Books, 2012).
Hi, God. I am just a mess. It is all hopeless. What else is new? I would be sick of me, if I were You, but miraculously You are not. I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet, I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am. Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon—say, two-ish? Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings. You have never once let me down. Amen. (p. 34)
Praying such a brutally honest prayer is so freeing because it sets all artifice and superficiality aside. It is admitting that we think we know what’s best for us, but have to trust that He’s got it all covered, as agonizing as that can be. This is what faith is about. Faith is making assumptions that are true because of past occurrences. For example, we know the sun will more than likely rise tomorrow morning. Our world will continue to spin in its galaxy, probably. Winter is on its way, though whether it’s next week or next February is anybody’s guess. We don’t know, but the chance is high that hope is on its way because we have seen it blossom in our lives before.
Even plants that were partially run over by lawnmowers can suddenly blossom. One morning, I looked out the back door and saw a bright blue bloom. “Ed! Look at you!” I cheered. When I rushed out to investigate, I realized he had several blossoms. Today, he is covered with them, and every morning, they gladden my heart. Pray those grumpy prayers, B-Flat Christian. You need them, perhaps even more than God needs them.
God, help me….Plumb
Reading Time: 3 minutes
This past weekend, my teenaged daughter and I attended the Uprise Festival in Shippensburg, PA. Uprise is a gathering of some of today’s leading contemporary Christian bands. Friday and Saturday featured concerts by some of our favorite artists—Hawk Nelson, Blanca, Skillet, For King and Country, the Newsboys, and the pièce de resistance, Toby Mac. We set up our chairs and umbrellas on the side of a hill overlooking the huge mainstage and spent both days jamming, scarfing down food of questionable nutritional value, and shopping in the merchandise area.
When gushing about the weekend to a student of mine, she looked at me quizzically. “What?” I asked.
“I guess I’m just surprised you’d go to a concert like that, and even enjoy it,” she said, shrugging.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because…because you’re a musician,” she answered.
The thing is, a few years ago, she would’ve probably been correct. As an operatically-trained singer and lover of classical music, I will openly own it: I used to be a music snob. That snobbery had gradually worked its way into my thoughts about music’s place in worship, and I had always been convinced that “Lift High the Cross” and Bach, were the way to go to “Sing to the LORD a new song ” [ Psalm 96:1 ] (or should I say, “Sing the BEST, HIGHEST QUALITY song to the Lord”). Luckily, God can take our most deep-seated convictions and turn them upside down.
A few years ago, my kids’ youth group went to take part in a youth night at our local Christian radio station. Since I knew they would be on-air, I listened to what they were doing. I made a jaw-dropping discovery that night—I loved it. I heard my first Toby Mac song that night, and immediately became obsessed with contemporary Christian music. It was no longer “cheesy” sounding to me, lacking in form, melodic interest, or textual depth. Instead, the words were saying exactly what I needed and wanted to hear, and there was a groove. Something had breathed in my ear and my heart and sparked alive something in me that I never knew existed. I began to listen to contemporary Christian music every day, whether in the car or on my iPod.
What I appreciate about contemporary Christian music is that the songs have meaning and a message, unlike much of mainstream pop music of today. I realize that a few artists have been socially or religiously awakened by the 2016 election, which is hopeful to see; I have yet to really hear this in the majority of our current Billboard Charts artists, however. With the myriad of subjects available—climate change, racial inequality, poverty, healthcare issues, the plight of common folks in the “Rust Belt”—why are the main themes of songs on the Top-10 radio about partying or hooking up in a club? This is why I find some hope in contemporary Christian music. I finally hear songs that I can dance to while hearing lyrics that deal with optimism for the future, staying faithful, owning your flaws, and seeking truth.
I also enjoyed hearing different band members discuss some of the recent struggles they have encountered and how their music helps them deal with and process the negative influences in their own lives. Sometimes, I almost felt as if I were in church hearing a sermon. The most memorable of these moments happened during the Newsboys concert. Lead singer, Michael Tait, was chatting with the crowd between songs and made an astute observation. He said, “It seems some Christians nowadays are very busy hating the sins of others.” The simple truth of this statement is what makes it so elegant; grace usually is. It has the ring of something Jesus would have said to his disciples, or perhaps even to the Pharisees. As Jesus said, it sure is hard pointing at the splinter in your friend’s eye when that two-by-four in your own eye keeps swiping everyone around you. We must stop fixating on sins and trying to set them up in some form of a tiered system, especially if that tiered system benefits us above others.
Seeing the healing and uniting power of music is an amazing thing. Looking around the crowd, I saw so many different faces and skin colors—some folks with ear gauges, some with tattoos, some wearing revealing clothing, some wearing conservative clothing. Just people, who for a moment, forgot how they shouldn’t get along with one another, but who were able to unite their voices together in the Newsboys’ anthem “God is not dead, He’s surely alive, He’s living on the inside, roaring like a lion…”
Reading Time: 2 minutes
A song of ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
I have come to the conclusion that I hate Highway 81, with a deep, crimson passion.
My husband and I were headed back to Pennsylvania after spending the weekend with family in Virginia. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley, and it will always retain a special place in my heart. My heart at the moment was actually a bit heavy, as we had just left my kids with my sister-in-law. She and her husband had graciously agreed to take them with their family to The Great Wolf Lodge for three days of waterpark fun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go because I had to continue my radiation treatments at home. So, as we drove north on 81, I was already on my way to a pity party. The party was interrupted by something worse, however: a blinking sign, stating that a major accident was blocking both lanes and all drivers needed to find an alternate route. Great.
My husband and I got out the map to consider our options. Two highways run relatively parallel to Highway 81: Route 11 and 42. Route 11 (on the east side) and Route 42 (on the west side) are two very old roads that, at one time, were in regular use before Highway 81 split them down the middle. The exit to Route 11 was backed up for miles, so in a split-second decision, we chose to take an exit toward Route 42.
Route 42 was surprisingly empty, and it wound gracefully through some of the most beautiful countryside I have seen in Virginia. We passed stately old brick farm houses, majestic red barns, serene cattle and sheep, and countless deep-green fields, all nestled between the Appalachian mountains on the left and the Blue Ridge on the right. We realized that as long as we were headed north and the Blue Ridge mountains were on our right, we would eventually make it back to an exit that would lead us back to 81. Those mountains have been a source of wonder and comfort to me my entire life, and resting my eyes on them calmed me, as I recited silently Blue Ridge on the right.
I was immediately reminded of the famous Psalm above, as its words are contained within Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song,” from his Mass. The words from the song include the phrase “For the Lord is my shade, is the shade upon my right hand.” Why is the shade provided by the right hand? More than likely because most people’s dominant hand is the right hand (apologies to my left-handed friends). It is strong, and therefore, is a symbol of protection in the Bible. (Keeping the sun off your back could save your life, after all.) Furthermore, in laying on hands for blessings, it was the right hand that was placed upon the head of the one receiving the blessing (Gen. 48:18, for example). Being seated at the right hand of a host was culturally significant and constituted favor as well; according to the Creed, remember, Jesus is seated “on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
Even more interesting is that research indicates many scholars view Psalm 121 as a Psalm for travelers. Its subtitle claims it is a “Song of Ascents”—as in climbing up something. In his article, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners,” James Limburg claims that “ascents” is “a reference to the “going up” to Jerusalem for the annual festivals held there” (p. 181). Each verse offers strong encouragement and assurance to the traveler as s/he climbs. In a nutshell, this Psalm says to me:
“In every uphill climb in your life—every stumble, every rock, every burning ray of sunlight—God is watching over you. He does not prevent every fall, but he will stand by you. He may seem quiet; maybe He even seems to be asleep. He is not. If you are not sure, then look up to those mountains and the clouds above them, and remember who created them. Don’t look down at your feet; look UP.” Blue Ridge on the right.
We made it home safely and avoided the accident on 81, but we were also thankful to traverse “a road less travelled.” It was a wonderful diversion from the curse of Highway 81.
My cancer journey is almost over. As the highway winds through the valley, my heart continues to whisper: Blue Ridge on the right. Blue Ridge on the right.
Limburg, James. “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners.” Word World: Theology for Christian Ministry, 5/2 (1985): 180-87. Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota. Viewed on August 7, 2017 at http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/5-2_Psalms/5-2_Limburg.pdf