Well, today’s the day. Right after meeting, I’m going to drive an hour and a half south—to a tiny town called Milan, Indiana (I have no idea where that is so I hope my GPS gets me there). I’m going to gather up Gloria, who is today becoming the newest member of our four-footed family. Gloria is an 8-week-old Great Pyrenees puppy, and if things unfold the way I hope they will, she will eventually be a grief therapy dog who goes with me to visits patients and our grief group at hospice.
Gloria is so named because even though Great Pyrenees are mostly white, she has a light brown spot—an angel’s kiss—right on the top of her head. And what do angels do all day, except sing, “Glooo—orr—riaaaa!”?
Isn’t that what we would do all day, if everything were perfect, if we had no worries, and we lived in just boundless beauty and peace? We’d sing Gloria or Glory to God all day long. Or maybe whisper quietly, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
Once as a child I remember riding in the back seat of my parents’ car as we were driving south on I-65. I was looking out the window at the brown and gray fields—it was about this time of year—when suddenly a hawk swooped into my line of sight and soared a long way across the field, wings extended, just riding the wind. It looked like pure joy—it was an awe-inspiring sight. I felt like I was soaring right along with him. And the thought occurred to me that the beautiful joy in his soaring was the way the hawk said thank you to God. The Sufi teacher Osho wrote,
“Look at the trees, look at the birds, look at the clouds, look at the stars… and if you have eyes you will be able to see that the whole existence is joyful. Everything is simply happy. Trees are happy for no reason; they are not going to become prime ministers or presidents and they are not going to become rich and they will never have any bank balance.”
There’s a connection there. The innate, indelible joy of existence. Gloria.
But we humans, in our daily lives of stresses and worries, our minds get full of other things. Mostly life looks anything but perfect, although we are grateful for the blessings we have, the ones we remember to focus on. But hot water heaters break and the car needs gas and taxes are higher than we thought and someone gets sick. And a friend says something not very friendly and a relative imposes and someone leaves wet towels on the floor again.
It’s hard to feel like we’re soaring—it’s hard to feel like singing “Gloria!”—when the never-ending realities of life keep pushing in.
And sometimes we can’t quite reach that kind of transcendent joy not because of little daily events but because we’re going through a valley time—a time of worry, a time of change, when we’re really not quite sure what’s coming next and we’re steeling ourselves for maybe something awful. This isn’t just about momentary setbacks or situational problems; it can be a much deeper spiritual struggle that makes us question what we have to hope for, whether God is listening, or how our faith will really see us through.
Our Old Testament reading comes from just this sort of time, 450 years before Jesus came on the scene.
Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king in the city of Susa in Persia, about 850 miles outside of Jerusalem. Being a cupbearer meant that he was willing to risk his life every day in the service of the king as he tasted the king’s drink to ensure it hadn’t been poisoned. One day Nehemiah received word that the city of Jerusalem was in ruins—the once great people of God had lost their center and now the town itself was crumbling, just like the dissolving faith of the deserting inhabitants. Nehemiah was struck with deep sorrow for the trouble and shame they were experiencing—they were his people; this was the land of his ancestors. His heart was broken. In the first chapter of Nehemiah, it says he sat down and wept, mourning for days, fasting and praying.
Nevertheless, he faithfully continued his duty to the king, and one day the king—noticing the change in his demeanor—asked him what was wrong. In that time servants were forbidden to say anything negative to a king—it could have cost Nehemiah his life—but he told the king the truth about his burden. The king listened with concern and then asked him, “What do you request?” and Nehemiah stopped and prayed silently before answering. Then he asked the king to send him to Judah to rebuild Jerusalem and turn the people back to their faith, and the king agreed.
Throughout Nehemiah’s whole fascinating story, over and over again he turns toward God, when any obstacle gets in his way. He prays and waits for guidance, certain that guidance will come. And when it does, he acts faithful on what he’s received. We Quakers call that, “Living up to the highest light you’ve been given.” All along the way, because Nehemiah’s heart is open and listening, God can bring the right plan, the right helpers, the perfect conditions. God does it all—with Nehemiah as the catalyst–to bring God’s children back into relationship with him.
The people start to see how they have fallen away and their hearts begin to soften and change. They allow themselves to be led and taught once again. Blessing and goodwill begin to return to Jerusalem. People bring their families back to the city as it is restored. Our Old Testament reading occurs at this point, in the middle of an epic scene of beautiful worship, with Nehemiah—who’s now the governor of Jerusalem—and Ezra, their priest and scribe—standing above the gathered assembly.
When Ezra blesses the Lord, the people reverently say “Amen,” with their heads bowed, and when they hear the reading from the book of Moses, they begin to mourn and weep. But Nehemiah stops them and says that now their response to the book of law can be joy instead of mourning because their relationship with God has been restored. Nehemiah says, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Bringing us back to the heart of our connection with spirit, our Gloria.
What an amazing story. And a great encouragement for us, when things can feel so hopelessly complex and difficult. Perhaps what’s truly essential is much simpler than know: Maybe we need only a daily, living trust in God and the willingness to let God lead. The rest is joy, and our joy is God’s glory.
We don’t have to wait until we have lives that are perfect—with no stress, no worry, no conflict, no negativity, no illness—but instead we can know that whatever we’re experiencing, God is in it. The whole circumstance—the whole world, the whole created cosmos–is held in God’s grace. That’s why the hawk soaring—even though he might have been hungry—is for the glory of God. And our daily living—even though we struggle, up and down and back and forth—is also for the glory of God. No matter where we stand in our relationship with God today—closer than we’ve ever been or frayed around the edges– God’s grace is continually drawing us closer to the heart of divine Love.
This is what Paul was saying to the Corinthians in our New Testament scripture today. Paul wrote this letter as they were struggling with one another. As the people of Corinth worked to establish their early church, there were conflicts about laws and traditions, about the behavior of members and the manner of evangelizing. The Corinthians also seemed sometimes to be at odds with Paul’s authority and there are indications that the early trust and belief they had in Paul was unraveling a bit.
In the passage we heard, Paul seems to reassure the Corinthians, reminding them to keep their eyes on the bigger truth—that they are One and will be One forever in the presence of Christ. There is a purpose even for the struggles, Paul says. “Yes, everything is for your sake so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”
Perhaps the idea of something within us singing “Gloria!” to God all day long isn’t that far-fetched if we can stay in touch with the light at the center of our being. If we, like Nehemiah, can pray and listen and trust God to do the rest, maybe we can do what Paul suggests and remember that everything really is happening for our sake in every moment. God unfolds the grace we need as we need it. And the light grows and spreads. And the glory of God gets seen and known and shared.
Yesterday morning I read an fascinating article in National Geographic, entitled, “Pictures Capture the Invisible Glow of Flowers.” A photographer named Craig Burrows used ultraviolet light to capture their inner luminescence. The images show that daisies, sunflowers, and even those big yellow cucumber flowers radiate softly with their own unique and beautiful inner light. It’s a real thing, not a photographic trick. An inner light shines in every flower.
That’s creation, singing, “Gloria!”
Scientists say even seemingly inanimate objects–like rocks and minerals and hard corals—reveal an inner glow when they are viewed in ultraviolet light. They don’t yet know why that happens. But maybe we do.
The hawk soars on the currents of the wind in joy—for the glory of God.
All creation shines its gladness with an inner light, a smile of thanks—to the glory of God.
As God’s children, we live our lives in accord with our faith, doing our best to trust and love and stay open to joy. And whether we do it perfectly or not, it’s all—all—unfolding for the glory of God. That’s Gloria.
- OT Nehemiah 8:10
- NT 2 Corinthians 4: 13-15
- National Geographic. “Pictures Capture the Invisible Glow of Flowers.” https://relay.nationalgeographic.com/proxy/distribution/public/amp/photography/proof/2018/february/glowing-flowers-ultraviolet-light