Today I Saw God
It's that time of year. Earlier this week I stopped to pick up butterscotch krumpets for my father-in-law and saw the familiar red kettle and heard the distinct bell ringing-the Salvation Army is out in full force. I stood in the checkout line and smiled as I watched the man in front of me ask for change. I knew exactly where he was going.
Recently I discovered that the Salvation Army has its root in Methodism. In 1865, William Booth, a Methodist pastor in England, and his wife Catherine wanted to bring salvation to the poor by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs. I also found out that the red kettles started in San Francisco in 1891 to raise money to feed 1,000 people Christmas dinner.
The sight of the Salvation Army brings back fond childhood memories for me. I remember my father arranging the "adoption" of a family each Christmas. The family would provide a list of gift ideas for their children. Dad would tell my sister and me how much we could spend and then let us select the Christmas presents for the kids. I remember so clearly how fun it was to shop for someone else at Christmastime. The parents never provided ideas for themselves so Dad would purchase hats and gloves and all the fixings for a Christmas dinner. I remember how much the parents appreciated that we thought about them. I still think about how it felt to bring happiness and joy another family at Christmas.
Seeing the volunteer stand next to that red kettle also reminds me of the times I stood on the corner of Main Street in downtown Annapolis ringing that bell in the freezing cold. I vividly remember the joy I felt when someone would drop something in the kettle, but also the sadness when people would not even smile or look my way.
These memories are why every time a see a "ringer" I make sure to drop money into the kettle, look them in the eye and say, "Merry Christmas." Those red kettles and bell ringers are a reminder to me that Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, a light of hope and love in what can sometimes be a dark world.
I think prayer may the the most difficult thing for me to practice – not the kind of prayer that thanks God for my blessings, acknowledges the beauty of creation, requests healing or help for others or even prayers of confession but the quiet, silent, listening prayer. As an extrovert meditation and contemplative prayer don't come naturally, I've had to work at it.
It's a little like beginning an exercise program. I knew I needed to develop a practice of weight bearing exercises. I knew that it was critical to my well being; that it would help reduce my cholesterol and strengthen my bones. I also knew that there was no substitute for lifting weights. But none of this "knowing" was going to make it happen until I took the first step. As Jesus said to his disciples, "The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
Last December I started a regular practice of going to the gym. At first it was awkward. I felt like a novice, like I was doing everything wrong. Eventually I started to see progress. I could lift heavier weights. I began to really see the difference. Then I got my bloodwork back and I had concrete data that said this practice is changing things.
Practicing meditative and centering prayer has been a similar experience for me. I knew in my head that I needed to do it, I just needed to make my body comply. At first I felt silly sitting in silence waiting for something to happen. Inevitably I would fill the void with my words then I would scold myself and feel like a failure. One day someone said to me, "Be nice to yourself. Be patient. It takes practice." With that everything changed.
Like going to the gym, I set aside time every morning to be still. I first read from the Bible then I practice my time of silence. Sometimes I put myself in the story, sometimes I think about a specific verse and sometimes I just sit in silence. At first I did this for about five minutes each day. Eventually as I have become more comfortable, my time has lengthened. Like going to the gym, I was encouraged when I started to see progress. My days are more peaceful and I am more aware of God's presence in my life and the lives of those around me.
I still have much to learn about prayer but the practice of listening is changing things. Like going to the gym regularly for my physical health, I can't imagine not spending time in silence for my spiritual health. Francois Fenelon said it this way, "The more you seek for God, the nearer He will be to you; every step that you take toward Him will bring you peace and consolation."
Sometimes we have a clear understanding of what Jesus wants us to do. When the disciples asked Jesus, "Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover meal?" Jesus was very specific, head into town, find a man carrying water and follow him. Then say to the owner of the house he enters, "The Teacher asks: where is my the guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples." Jesus said the owner will show you a large upper room furnished and ready. The disciples did exactly what Jesus told them to do and they found things just as Jesus had said. (Mark 14:12-15)
Other times, we have the sense that God is up to something and it's not as clear. I imagine that the owner of the house might have felt like this. The Bible tells us that the owner had the large upper room in his house furnished and ready, this makes me think he was expecting company. But I wonder, did he know who his company would be? How long had he been waiting to welcome his guests? Were there times during the wait that he became discouraged, wondering if they would ever arrive? Did he ever doubt the need to prepare the room? Who told the owner to prepare the room?
I think in the owner, we see someone who was responding to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. I wonder if maybe he just had "the feeling" or "sensed" that he needed to have the room ready. It's hard to be the owner. You don't have the same clarity as when you get a clear instruction from Jesus. But the owner is just as obedient as the disciples, maybe even more so. In preparing the room the owner welcomes Jesus Christ into his house.
Since October, a group of us have been preparing for recent college graduates to join us on an adventure called the Wesley Fellows. Like the disciples who followed the man with the water, these young people have spent time in prayer and discernment and are embarking on a journey that they feel called to be on. They have a vision and mission. Like the owner of the upper room, we have host families who have been prompted to share their homes, mentors who have agreed to walk beside these young people and employers willing to give them jobs. Like the owner, the details aren't clear, but the need to respond to a request to be part of this adventure is clear.
It is an exciting time for all of us. These next nine months we will journey together. Just like the owner of the upper room we will experience Christ in our midst and we will learn and grow together as we extend Christian hospitality to our Wesley Fellows. I can't wait to see what God is going to do with this first cohort of Wesley Fellows!
There were six rows of benches on either side of the aisle. Each bench sat four people, which meant our United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team took up 25 percent of the space. It was Wednesday evening, and we were at a United Methodist church in Manajanabo in the center of Cuba. It was their midweek service, and it was packed.
There was music, drama, reading from the Bible and songs sung by so many different people. Five small children came up, one playing a ukulele, and sang a song with such joy. A young girl sang and though I didn't understand many of the words, I knew in my heart that she was praising and worshiping God. Even one of our mission team members sang a song. It was a wonderful, joy-filled praise and worship experience. The pastor talked about serving and the importance of serving. She talked about the sacrifice we made to come to Cuba, "leaving their homes and their families to come here."
At the end of the service the pastor invited a family up to the front of the church. It was a mother and her eight children. Apparently their dad had left them. Our UMVIM team leader, Aldo, was invited to pray over them. He did and then he sang too.
I was so struck by the love and nurture I saw in this church. They had such deep love of God and an equally deep love for one another. This small band of Christians was committed to taking care of this family, and in that "one anothering," the love of Christ was palpable.
I saw this deep love of God and of others over and over again all over Cuba. Love for one another. Christian community. The joy of fellowship. Genuine love of God. What I saw in Cuba reminded me of what I read about in Acts 2:42-47. The early church was a close-knit community that took care of one another. The Bible tells us they were "devoted to teaching and to fellowship…They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had needThey broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God."
The church in Cuba is growing, just like the church in the first century grew. Acts tells us that "The Lord added to their number daily." Something is happening in Cuba. Something that the early church knew and something we could learn from. There is power when people come together to love God and love others.
On my morning walk I decided to take a different path to spice things up so I turned into Middleton Farm. As I walked deeper into the neighborhood I saw a monument sitting on top of a small hill. I felt a nudge to walk up and take a look. The monument read "At Rest Bradley" and there at the base of the monument lay a yellow carnation. Just as I had done the day before in Maryland, someone had stopped by this grave and remembered the lives of those memorialized by this monument.
Why does someone do this? Why take flowers and lay them on a gravesite hidden in a development? My own trip to the cemeteries only a few days ago was about honoring the request my father made before he died. His was a tradition of visiting five family cemeteries on Memorial Day, Veteran's Day and Christmas. At each grave he would leave either a yellow or a red rose (I took carnations because, let's be honest, roses are expensive!). My trip Friday was for my Dad, in fact, at the end of the trip I added a visit to his gravesite in Arlington.
As I stood there Sunday morning at the gravesite of the Bradley family I realized others were doing the same thing (and with yellow carnations too!). It occurred to me that it may be more than a ritual. Standing over a family grave is an opportunity to reflect on the lives that are woven into the tapestry of my own life. Friday I visited my grandparent's graves, the graves of their parents and their grandparents. I stood before tombstones with dates as far back as 1865. More than a hundred fifty years and six generations were remembered on that journey.
I thought back to Friday afternoon and how I stood there at Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church listening to the church bells belt out the hymn How Great Thou Art and how I sang along, "When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home what joy my heart shall find. Then I shall bow with humble adoration and then proclaim my God how great thou art." I realize now that the trip to the cemeteries is more than a promise I made to my dad to care for and worry about the graves of our ancestors. It is a reminder of the cloud of witnesses that now enjoy the presence of God. Remembering them is remembering the importance of family and the promise of eternal life. I am honored and humbled to have the privilege to visit the graves of those who came before me and I look forward to the day when I will meet them and hear their stories.