Early this week—Monday evening, actually—I had what I’ve come to recognize as a nudge from God and I paid attention and followed it. It came after a really difficult day when I was struggling; I was sad and a bit upset with God. On Monday mornings right now at the hospital, I am leading a class called Yoga for Grief Relief. We offer it several times a year, and it is a gentle routine that helps people who are grieving practice some relaxing self-care.
But last Monday, as we were finishing our class and saying goodbye to each other, one of the ladies I’ve known for years suddenly lost her speech. She tried to say something and the words came out garbled. We calmly had her sit down and we called 911. They came quickly, did a quick assessment, and got her right to the ER. We all—including Martha—knew she was having a stroke. We were thankful she was with friends and we were able to respond quickly. But later that afternoon we received word to prepare for the worst: Martha now had bleeding in her brain and the event that started in such a small way in our yoga class was likely to be a life-ending stroke. At that word turned out to be true: when I was on my way to Florence’s memorial service yesterday afternoon, the nurse called to say that she had passed. So I turned the car around and went back to Greenfield to be with Martha’s family. I think that’s what Florence would have wanted me to do.
But Monday night, at home with the dogs, I was feeling sad, upset, a bit angry. Why, God, was this necessary? Martha—still, in her early 80s—had been one of the most vibrant, active, funny, loving people I’ve ever known. She’d been through much in her life but was always kind, and strong, and true. For much of her early life she had little to call her own but that never stopped her from sharing whatever she had—freely, generously—with others, whether she knew them or not.
The comforting nudge that made it through the clouds of my struggle that night was a link to a book called, Imagining Heaven. I’d never heard of it before but thought maybe it would help me to picture the beauty and peace and joy that would be Martha’s next home. So I followed the nudge and read the sample of the book. In just a few moments, I noticed that my heart was feeling better, uplifted, by what I read. The author was describing heavenly things—God’s love, God’s presence, God’s promise, God’s beauty—and as I read, I briefly forgot the heartache that had been the center of my thoughts all day long.
The book gives many accounts of people who have had near-death experiences—a critical medical event, followed by a divine encounter, and then a return to the world we know. He explores the commonalities of the reported experiences and their connections to what we read in scripture and what appears in sacred texts of other traditions as well. The writer is a good story-teller and as I continued to read the book throughout the week—while caring for Martha and her family in hospice–I found myself feeling supported and uplifted and comforted as I kept the focus of my mind and heart on heavenly things.
We’ve all had similar experiences in our daily lives. When we look at something of beauty, we feel better. When we see meanness, or cruelty, or ugliness, we feel worse. When someone says something kind to us, our spirits lift. When they say something mean, our hearts sink. God created us to be responsive, emotional beings and our world—inside and out, for better and for worse—is impacted by what we’re paying attention to. When we pour over the headlines and lament all the chaos and meanness and distrust we see, we are filling our minds and hearts with the struggle, the darkness that seems to say, “There’s no God here.” We feel isolated, alone, afraid of the badness. We worry: Where is God in such a mean-spirited time? Has Goodness lost its power to transform, to heal, to save?
But consider where we’re putting our attention. We see the darkness and it frightens us—and that’s understandable. But it’s also only one part of the picture. There are other things we can see if we will look for them—heavenly things—God’s qualities at work right where the darkness seems most dense.
The writer of Psalm 73 recognized that the type of world he saw and inhabited had everything to do with the state of his heart. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was stupid and ignorant; I was like a brute beast toward you,” he writes. But then comes the realization that brings a change of heart: “Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.”
Those two states seem to be the opposite of each other, don’t they? Bitterness and resentment on the one hand, and gratitude, devotion to God on the other. And yet the psalmist tells us that God was there all along. “Nevertheless,” he says, and that nevertheless is an important word. When he was feeling bitter and focusing on all the things that were wrong and unjust in his experience, he was overlooking the fact that God was with him, holding his hand even then. With a change of heart and a shift of perspective, he became aware that God was offering him a higher view. All the guidance and comfort and companionship he longed for was there all along—right in the thick of his pain, in the mess of his circumstances. God was never farther away than a change of thought.
In our New Testament reading, John the Baptist is the one calling—in the wilderness—for the people to prepare for the greatest change of heart the world had ever known. As scripture says, John was a different kind of guy, making odd choices that kept him outside the normal ebb and sway of culture. He dressed strangely–scripture says he wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. It’s obvious that he wasn’t living a life focused on his own comfort and satisfaction. There was a different mission at the center of his heart.
Matthew’s mention of John’s clothes and eating habits are an unusual detail not often included in bible stories, and he does it here for a reason. The great prophet Elijah of the Old Testament dressed in a similar way. And in literally the last paragraph of the book of Malachi, which is the last book of the Old Testament, and the last time the people would hear something fresh from God for more than 400 years, God had said,
“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
So John’s ministry in the wilderness was one of preparation, calling people to a new level of awareness about their choices and the state of their hearts. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” John told them. And the people came in droves, from Jerusalem and all Judea to be baptized by him in the Jordan river. They wanted this new vision. They yearned for heavenly things.
In your bulletin this morning, you see an insert that offers Friendly Reflections for Lent. It is a calendar offering 40 familiar Quaker sayings, one for each day in the Lent season, which begins this Wednesday. We Quakers don’t put too much energy into following a liturgical calendar—and there is a reason for this, because we believe each day is holy and an opportunity to meet God in a new way, so we don’t put one day above another. Nevertheless—there’s that word again—a spiritual practice like a daily reflection can help us focus our minds and open our hearts to God’s leading. So this calendar is an invitation for us to practice putting our thoughts on heavenly things by considering the Quaker quote each day and reflecting on what it means to us in our own lives and faith.
Life has shown us we have continual opportunities to put our focus on the upsetting, challenging, stimulating things of this world. But we also have a chance to decide which we want to make more real: earthly things or heavenly things. Our awareness, our focus makes the choice.
In George Fox’s Journal, he writes:
“God was the first teacher of man and woman in Paradise; and as long as they kept to and under his teaching, they kept in the image of God, in his likeness, in righteousness and holiness, and in dominion over all that he had made; in the blessed state, in the paradise of God…God was the first teacher in Paradise; and whilst man kept under his teaching, he was happy. The serpent was the second teacher; and when man followed his teaching, he fell into misery, into the fall from the image of God, from righteousness and holiness, and from the power that he had over all that God had made; and he came under the serpent, whom he had power over before.”
Isn’t the same thing true today? When we can put down, even for the briefest time, our worries, our concerns, our assessment of all that is wrong with the world and simply let our hearts and minds rest in the presence of God, aren’t we happier? And from that place of peace, light begins to spread, making graceful changes inside and out. And we can feel in our bodies what happens when we get caught back up in the headlines and the outrage and the confusion that floods our world just now. We feel awful and small and powerless and despondent. We wring our hands about the state of our world. All those feelings are a sign to us that we’ve lost our connection with heavenly things.
Perhaps this Lent, we can make the effort to stay close to our first teacher, listening for the peace and power, the Goodness and grace that is the very nature of the actual life we are given to live each day. It does take a reckoning, a realization when we get caught up in lesser things. But just as John the Baptist taught in the wilderness, and the psalmist spoke about in discovering his own inner bitterness, we always—always—have the choice to turn from our dark thoughts toward God’s light, to choose again what we pay attention to and what we’d like to create more of in our lives and in our world.
We started with references to one Elijah and we’ll end with a different one. On my refrigerator at home, held up fittingly by a magnet of the Lincoln Memorial, I have this quote from Representative Elijah Cummings. He spoke this little poem—which he had learned as a child—as the opening words of his first speech on the House floor on April 25, 1996:
I only have a minute,
60 seconds in it,
forced upon me, I did not choose it,
but I know that I must use it,
give account if I abuse it,
suffer if I lose it.
Only a tiny little minute,
but eternity is in it.”
Heavenly things, right here, right now, in our next 60 seconds of eternity. How will we spend it? What will we choose? This Lent, let’s reflect on the state of our hearts and feel grateful for the weighty Friends who opened this way before us. And as we allow heavenly things to become our focus—eternity showing up in our lives, minute by minute–we’ll find our reality filling with the all-good, all-loving, all-comforting presence of God.
- OT Psalm 73: 21-25
- NT Matthew 3: 1-17
- Burke, John. Imagining Heaven: https://www.google.com/books/edition/Imagine_Heaven/qkKtCgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover
- Fox, George. The Journal of George Fox. https://archive.org/stream/journalofgeorgef00foxg/journalofgeorgef00foxg_djvu.txt
- Friendly Reflections for Lent 2020: http://www.noblesvillefriends.org/reflections-for-lent.php