With the Presence of God

In this week’s lectionary reading, Moses declares to God: we will not go forward unless your presence goes with us.

Actually, he says it in the negative: If your presence will not go, do not carry us from here.

It reminds me a little bit of my child refusing to go up the dark stairway to get ready for bed unless I accompany her. If you don’t come with me, Mommy, I won’t do it!

It’s terrifying to look into the distance and imagine ourselves journeying through unknown terrain on our own. And so we seek that assurance, that promise, that we won’t walk alone.

We might even dig in our feet, much like Moses, or like my daughter. I won’t go if you don’t go.

The passage in Exodus, and the Psalm that accompanies it (99) fills our minds with rich imagery of awe-inspiring power of God.

Who wouldn’t want this God to be on your side?

The people tremble; the earth quakes.

There are times when I dislike the transcendent, all-powerful, intimidating power of God expressed in these passages. I’d say most of the time I prefer nestling in to a warm and cuddly God, who is patient and kind and gentle.

But, the transcendent power of God can also be a true comfort and assurance.

So, I can also relate to Moses’s adamance that he will not proceed any further without God to guide him.

I’ve been saying this myself, recently:

I simply don’t want to go forward with anything I’m dreaming or planning or envisioning if God isn’t going to go there with me.

It’s simply not worth it.

If I’m venturing off toward something that sounds like a great idea to me but God’s not in it, I’m wasting my time and energy. I’m sure to sputter to a stop in no time.

But if God is in it, if God is on that path with me, all things are possible.

This transcendent God can move mountains. This God can make the earth quake. This God can ignite fear in the hearts of those who don’t stand for the way of justice and peace, mercy and love.

With a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day, God led Moses and the Hebrew people across their wilderness.

And today we ask this same God to walk with us across ours, and to give us signs of God’s presence that give us assurance and comfort as we move forward.

We sing to this God a new song – an ancient song, sung anew in our time.

We ask – no, we demand, in the same way as our spiritual ancestor Moses did – that wherever it is we go in the coming months and years, God’s presence would go with us.

How Quickly We Forget

Lead singer: Chloe McGrath

It’s a haunting melody, and a haunting message.

How quickly we forget.

In times of difficulty, we turn to God and plea for help. We worry, we fear, we despair… And then, God delivers.

…Delight emerges where there was only despair

…Opportunity appears where none was unimaginable

…Light shines out from amid loss

…Joy springs up unpredictably

We shower our thanks to the God who delivers

And yet, how quickly we forget.

When the worries and fears and despair return, we wonder…

…Is this the time when God will fail to come through?

…Is this the time when God will abandon?

…Is this the time when I will be forsaken and left all alone?

And we convince ourselves that this is indeed what has happened.

We seek solace in the things we can control; we cast images of our own making; we conclude that we have no option but to fend for ourselves.

How quickly we forget.

Yet, at moments when the world seems to be crumbling around us, even when we find it so easy to forget those moments of redemption…

God remembers.

…God remembers a covenant made long before our birth, to love and care for and guide us

…God remembers, graciously, to show us compassion even when we turn away

…God remembers all our worries and fears and despair and holds them, tenderly, patiently, waiting to continue the journey with us

And as this eternally loving God listens, the fog of forgetting begins to lift from our eyes.

And we see, with a clarity that we may have had before, and with a certainty that grows stronger once again, that God has been with us all along.

May we ever bless God’s holy name. Amen.

The Heavens Declare

I’m fortunate enough to live on the beautiful north coast of Northern Ireland, where I can go for swims in the sea and walks on the beach daily. 

I grew up in a big city, surrounded by concrete buildings and crowds of people, so I don’t take the nature that surrounds me for granted.

I found that during lockdown, when much of my work went online and I was spending a lot of my time glued to a computer screen, I depended even more than ever on my walks in nature – for refreshment, and for sanity. 

Not only was it precious time out of the house and away from my family of five, but it was time to recognize that I am part of something much bigger than myself, much bigger than my little home – I am a part of God’s world. 

A world created by God, a world cared for by God. 

And nature – creation – reminded me of its artistic Creator: God the Creator of majestic vistas, of the brilliant colors of flowers, sea, and sky; of creatures – birds, fish, seals, and of course humans; of cool, refreshing breeze, of warm sun on my face. 

Psalm 19 has always been one of my favorites: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” 

It reminds us that nature can act as the word of God, speaking to us of who God is and reminding us of God’s care for us. 

The youtube link above is for a song I arranged with paraphrased words of Psalm 19 set to the Irish melody The Lark in the Clear Air, part of our collection of psalms set to Irish and Scottish melodies (Celtic Psalms).

I’ve included photos of the beautiful vistas I saw on my walks through this last spring, in the height of lockdown, when every sight of beauty was even more poignant in a world turned upside-down by pandemic. 

May you find time each day to emerge from your homes, from your home offices, or from wherever it is that you spend your days, and shift your gaze to the heavens, to be reminded that the same God who speaks through the beauty of nature around us, speaks to and care for you…for each one of us. 

Part of the Pilgrimage

For many years, I have accompanied people on pilgrimages in Ireland. I meet groups at the airport, with the bags they have carefully packed, and I usher them to their hotels or retreat centers to begin their journeys.

People often come on these pilgrimages at great expense – of money, of time, of effort – and they have enormous hopes for what the experience will bring them. They hope for clarity, they hope for insight, they hope for connection, and in some cases they hope for nothing short of revelation. It’s a tall task, facing this group of people with such high expectations.

And yet, if there’s one thing I know, it’s that their journey will change them. Their journeys will leave them different when they return home a week, ten days, a fortnight later. It doesn’t matter the length of the journey: it will change them nonetheless, and most often not in the ways they anticipate.

Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice that, for thousands of years and in a multitude of cultures and religious traditions, has been embraced as a reliable source of transformation and inspiration. Regardless of the destination, regardless of the companions on the journey, regardless of the scenery, the types of accommodation, the weather, the time of year, the stage in life, those who go on pilgrimage will be altered by the experience.

Leaving your comfort zone and traveling through a new space, with all the unknowns that it brings, is sure to have an impact on you. No matter how carefully you plan the itinerary, no matter diligently you research prior to the journey, no matter how intentionally you prepare yourself for every moment of the trip and all its possible eventualities, you will still hit the unknown and the unpredictable, and it will affect you.

“It’s all part of the pilgrimage” became my mantra.

The one sure thing about pilgrimage is that it involves facing the unknown. But the question is: how do you respond to it when it arises? What does it bring up for you? What does it trigger within you? How do you treat others, or yourself, as you encounter it? How do you pray through it? How will it shape you into a new person?

The unknown and unpredictable can bring out the worst in us. It can reveal fear and resentment. It can unearth old hurts. It can expose judgmentalism, and harshness, towards others or ourselves. People can be impatient, ungracious, and uncharitable when things don’t go the way they’d hoped.

But on the other hand, facing the unknown of pilgrimage can also cast a light on the goodness within each one of us. It can reveal our resilience when encountering the unexpected. And when I saw pilgrims releasing their need to control the outcome of their journey and simply taking each step, each day as it came, with all of its surprises, the richer their experience became for them.

Here in Coronavirus 2020, we have suddenly arrived in a new space. Though we have not even departed from home, we have left our comfort zones far behind us and entered into the unknown. There’s no doubt that all this affects each of us greatly.

Though we may have scheduled these weeks, months, and years down to the hour, things have most definitely not gone according to plan. Indeed, none of us could have dreamed of how different our lives are now than we’d imagined they would be only a few short months ago.

Though we have not packed our suitcases with everything we might possibly need for this journey, we still carry our baggage. We carry our fears, resentments, and hurts as we walk through these days.

The question is: how do we respond to this unexpected present we are traveling through? What does it bring up for us? What does it trigger within us? How can we treat others with grace and kindness as we walk forward on this journey? How can we be gentle with ourselves as we step forward into whatever awaits us tomorrow? How can we find words and ways to pray through this time? And how will living through this experience shape us into new people?

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that journeys into the unknown will change us. This is a truth that has been embraced by human beings for thousands of years. We will be affected, we will struggle, we will grow, and we will not return to normalcy the same people we were before all this began.

Yet, in the midst of this unexpected twist in our plans, we may experience in our own homes the very thing we set out for distant lands to accomplish. We may receive the clarity, the insight, the connection, the revelation that we long for so deeply. We will be transformed – perhaps not in ways that we would have hoped for or chosen – but transformed nonetheless, into richer, stronger, wiser human beings.

It’s all part of the pilgrimage.