For the last two Sundays, I've been playing the piano as the children at church prepare for their annual children's program. Next week, they will present the entire Sunday service. It's a highlight every year and I'm excited to be involved in a small way.
One of the songs they are singing this year is incredibly beautiful and I'm often in tears by the time we finish practicing (I'm including a YouTube clip below because you should all hear it). At the beginning, three little children are singing about the miracles of Jesus. One of the lines says, "Jesus blessed and healed the leper." But they say, "Jesus blessed and healed the leopard."
Every time I play the song in my mind that's the version I hear now. The first time I heard it, I laughed. And I still smile. But now it's almost sacred to me.
There's something about that I find very moving. And I've tried to think about it why. I think the childlike faith that Jesus healed a leopard is really lovely. I love that they are translating Jesus's miracles to something that makes sense to them. That's beautiful, as is the fact that they don't see anything strange or unusual in it. I imagine their thought process (such as it was) going something like this: Jesus healed a leopard! Leopards are cool. Jesus can do anything! And he loves them and they love leopards and so he loves leopards. I have a hard time finding any fault with that reasoning, honestly.
All week long this simple statement has had me pondering and reflecting on Jesus, his love, and his miracles in an expansive way. By that, I mean my faith and hope are expanding and growing as a result of what they said. I am more conscious of a view that Jesus is a loving god who knows and loves us. Their faith has lifted my vision and increased my faith and trust in him, in his love, in his power, and in his reality. Their simple misstatement is a profound lesson for me. For truly, healing a leopard is no stranger than healing a leper. If he can do one, he can surely do the other. And if a leper or a leopard, why not me?
I've wondered before why Jesus was so emphatic about becoming like a child and why they have such a place of honor. Children, after all, can be unruly. Any parent can tell you that they can be willful and stubborn and any number of things Jesus does not encourage. They fight, they lie, they throw tantrums. They can be sneaky and prone to lash out, and are easily overcome by their emotions rather than being temperate.
Perhaps part of it is that in their unsophisticated ability to experience wonder they are open to belief and faith in a way that most adults are simply not. Even their logical fallacies can be grounded in a higher truth, something that opens and expands our more narrow, contracted views. Their view can quickly redirect our own spiritual eyes, lifting them upward, away from the limitations and pinched view of physical reality that weans us away from a belief in miracles.
A few weeks ago, I had two cars, one for me, one for my wife. They were not fancy or impressive, but they worked well. They both had air conditioning (something important in Tennessee in August). One was paid off, one is close, and given the quality of these cars, we felt we should expect a long life yet. We also have a third car, paid off but with lots of miles, that just needed to have the A/C charged. All was well.
Then, a child had urgent need of a car. So we drove my car out to him. We would keep my wife’s car, then get the A/C charged on the 3rd car. I would drive it as long as it lasted. All would still be well.
On the drive the windshield on my wife’s car cracked and had to be replaced. That caused a problem with the windshield wipers, which required an expensive repair.
It turned out the A/C in the 3rd car did not need to be charged, it’s a major repair that exceeds the value of the car. Also: the lawnmower stopped working (but not before destroying my phone).
Now I have a car with no A/C and some very large bills for the other one, and will most likely, have more for the lawnmower.
It may not surprise anyone to hear that a school teacher has many blessings—but generally not the financial kind. We’ve worked so hard to save, to pay our cars off, and now everything seemed to be falling apart. I would be lying if I said these things had not stressed me out. They left me feeling heavy, anxious, discouraged, and worried. Fearful, not faithful.
Such was my state of mind the other day as I walked from work to the auto repair shop. I felt pinched and tight in my soul, quickly moving to irritation and anger.
As I crossed a bridge over a creek, I saw a flicker of movement. A water snake was gliding beneath the surface, moving with an incredible grace. I watched, entranced. Then I saw tiny fish, darting and dashing through the swaying weeds. Another school of fish, slightly larger, swam against the current, not making much progress but always moving.
It was cool over the river, shady on a hot day. The water lapping the stones created a gentle soothing noise.
As I watched this scene, peace started to radiate into my troubled heart. There was a moment I had a choice, a second when I wanted to push the peace away and wallow in my stress and worry. Happily, I yielded to the peace, and as I did, it grew and grew. The peace got big, bright, and beautiful, soft and soothing, like an enormous flower.
With a more peaceful heart, word flowed along into my mind, almost as if they were borne along the gentle current below. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin…”
This gave me peace and hope. I am not sure how it all will work, but I feel confident that it will, even if it’s not in my time or my preferred method.
I walked to the auto shop, with a much happier heart, peaceful and no longer troubled and anxious.
This experience is actually not to lament my problems. Rather, it sets up a meditation on something important.
The teachings of Jesus about considering how God cares for the lilies of the field had brought me comfort. I hadn’t seen lilies, but I felt snakes, fish, water, and reeds counted.
But I also realized that this teaching came back to me while I was actively considering the lilies, so to speak—actively focusing on the natural world around me.
Jesus told us to take no thought” for the needs of this life. At least one translation suggests he meant “anxious concern,” which certainly fits the way most of us attend to our modern lives. Another version says, “Don’t worry.”
We all know we can lose sight of God because we focus too much on pursuing and accumulating wealth (see Luke 12: 16-18). That is obvious. But we can also lose sight of God when we simply become consumed by worry and stress about our daily needs. Either way, we shift our focus away from God and others. That is what was happening to me.
I was saved from this when I stopped and actively watched the natural world around me—when I considered the lilies, so to speak.
I’m not the first to notice that being in nature helps calm and focus us, helping us open a channel with or at least boost the signal from God.
In light of that, I wonder if statements like “Consider the lilies of the field,” or “Behold the fowls of the air,” are meant to be active commands, not simply nice thoughts or useful images in making a point.
It seems to me that considering the lilies of the field—watching, thinking about, and focusing on nature around us—is possibly a prescription for what to do when the cares of this world start to burden us, a very real way of restoring spiritual equilibrium, balance, perspective, and hope.
But there’s something else about this that I can’t shake. It’s so deep in my soul and so profound to me I’m not sure I can effectively share it. But there’s something remarkably gentle about a God who would leave instructions to his followers that involved looking at and thinking about flowers. That he would choose that image, that specific command is telling, I think.
Flowers are beautiful. They are soft and welcoming, freely giving their gifts to anyone. They ask or take literally nothing from anyone or anything. Lilies, particularly, have no real function. They are just beautiful.
What kind of a god would use flowers to teach? Only a gentle, loving, kind god, only one who was prone to giving and bringing smiles. Only one who loved beauty and meekness.
I find it significant that Jesus even bothered to tell his disciples about the sorts of things we would encounter in daily life—the stress of providing for our physical needs. It shows just how aware of us he is, just how much he cares about things that are major to us, even if they are cosmically insignificant.
I also find it significant that to do this, Jesus used flowers. Not lightning, or earthquakes, not fire, or other big, scary, dramatic things. He told us to look at the flowers. I think it tells us a great many things about him—and those things are all encouraging and ought to give us great hope.
I don’t know why I bother.
It’s not that I begrudge the gift, not really.
But it’s not as if this will help anyone else.
It won’t make a difference to anyone.
It’s almost ridiculous.
No, not true.
It’s not almost ridiculous.
It is ridiculous. Outright.
I hope no one sees.
I would be mortified if anyone noticed.
They might think I think my offering is worth something.
But what can I do?
I can’t deny God.
This gift is the speech of my soul.
Everyone else gives so much.
The treasury bursts with the abundance of their gifts,
Each clink and clang testifies of their worth.
Mine is too small to make a noise.
What if they think I think my offering is worth something?
Still, I must give my gift.
I owe it to God.
The debt is one I must pay.
Are they laughing at me?
Is that smirk directed my way?
It must be.
And they’re probably right.
I'm only a widow.
This is only a mite.
I’ve been struck lately by the number of times that people encountered Jesus from the ground. Think of the woman taken in adultery, the man at the pool, Mary, who anointed his feet, the man who was lowered down through the roof, the woman with the issue of blood, the man out of whom the legion of devils were cast, the widow of Nain, the man at the pool of Bethesda, to name a few. These are the ones the record clearly describes, but I imagine there were more.
Their encounters began with them in abject humility, brought down by some crushing burden—illness, physical disability, mental illness or something inside: shame or guilt, ostracism.
In each case their first view of the Master would have been his feet. I wonder how long they stared at them. His skin must have been tanned deeply, even burned from walking miles in the hot sun. They must have been dusty, perhaps calloused. They must have looked so ordinary.
Did they know then? Did they feel something? At that point did their hope start to fade? In my mind I can hear some of their thoughts.
Turn around. What are you doing? He’ll despise you. You’re not good enough. You are too broken. You can’t be healed. You can’t be forgiven.
All these people will laugh. You deserve it.
Turn back now. Save some dignity. He’ll condemn you. Or laugh.
Who would ever love someone like you?
Why would you even think he would do this?
He’s just a man. He has no power. And if he does, he will condemn you.
It may have grown to a shouting chorus. As different as these people were, I imagine they heard the same things.
That moment must have seemed unending to the person at his feet. A lifetime of slights and hurts must have reignited then.
Perhaps they somehow raised the courage to look up.
But I imagine, some did not. More often, perhaps he had to reach down. I imagine fingers, strong from carpentry, gentle, but resolute slipping under a quivering chin.
The journey to meet his eyes must have seemed even longer. Unbearable. Perhaps some could not bear to see, willing themselves to be blind in that moment.
The moment when their eyes met his must have been sublime and sacred. Deeply intimate even when public. I think of feet again, and I think of Moses removing his shoes because the ground on which stood was holy.
In his eyes they must have seen so much, enough to take hope, to find fresh courage. But it still may have been difficult. Perhaps they still felt self-conscious, foolish, or ashamed.
Is this why he so often told people to be of good cheer? To let their hearts be not troubled? To let peace be with them? To not be afraid?
Then his words. Oh, those words! Even now, thousands of years later, reading them gives me hope and courage, it stirs my spirit like nothing else. What must it have been like to hear them in his voice? That voice calmed seas. It raised the dead. And before long, it would call out in pain, crying from these burdens freely born.
I can’t imagine the way their hearts must have leapt as they realized what he was saying, what he was doing, what it all meant. The thing about Jesus is that he always surprised people. Surprised them by doing what seemed impossible, by giving happy endings where none could possibly be. He always surprised people by being better than they could have imagined, better than they could have hoped.
But it's worth repeating and thinking about the fact that this was wonderful because it was a surprise, so deeply unexpected. But that also meant it would have been that much harder to muster the hope.
I can’t get this moment out of my mind, the moment of staring at his feet, the air crackling with complex human emotion, heavy with feeling and meaning, then the long journey to meet his eyes.
These people’s backgrounds were different. The burdens they bore were different. The words he spoke were different, and the lives they returned to were different. But in each case, despite the difference, the outcome was the same: healing. Peace. Hope. And despite the differences, this all happened when they came found themselves huddled at the feet of Jesus.
These feet did remarkable things. These were feet that walked hundreds of miles. Feet that were resolute and firm. Feet that walked on water, feet that would stumble beneath a terrible weight. Feet pierced with nails. Feet that would walk triumphantly from a tomb. Feet that would walk the road to Emmaus. Feet that would ascend again. But to me, one of the most miraculous moments of all came each time a wounded soul collapsed there and found the courage to look up.
I've read of lepers healed, those the Lord willed to make clean. There was the one who was grateful and nine who were not.
But I've imagined another--the 11th leper.
Perhaps he was neighbor to the woman who had the issue of blood, or an acquaintance of the man who waited by the pool. He heard of miracles, felt his need for one, but this leper had no friends to carry him to Jesus, none who were enterprising enough to tear up a roof and lower him down.
He always sought the Healer but never made it. Perhaps he was late. Too slow. Or the crowd was too great.
Or perhaps he travelled slowly--painfully--from far away, seeking the rumored rabbi with the healing touch. He might have travelled by night, avoiding the gaze of others, the cries of "Unclean!" the scattered shower of stones. He may have found darkness best to hide from himself.
He arrived too late. Passover had passed. Some said Jesus was dead; others said he lived again. Regardless, he was not there. Gone.
Perhaps the leper followed the truths the gentle Galilean left, finding some degree of transcendence and hope.
But the hard truth is that this leper was not healed, not because his faith had been wanting but simply because of an accident of time and place. But for that, he would have basked in the healing love that others experienced. That bitter irony must have made his suffering more acute as he lived out the rest of a wretched life.
Crawling, cringing, trapped in his own decay. He'd hide from others, but mostly from his own reflection, aware of his repugnance, deeply conscious of the foulness within and without. Wallowing in this mire of misery, his life may not have been long, but must have felt unending to him.
Eventually he died, finally coming face-to-face with the Lord he had sought but not found. He opened his mouth to ask, "Why, Lord?". He was ready to weep in accepting arms, ready to unburden himself of the years of suffering and sorrow. But once again, he was too late. For, in that moment, he realized he had nothing left over which he could weep.
He was home. He was whole. His nightmare was over, a fever dream fast fading.
He couldn't remember, and it no longer mattered, what his--or anyone else's--suffering was. Because now, it wasn't. It was no longer. Gone. Forever.
The healing rushed in reverse, a flood that blotted out each memory, and covered each scar.
In a way he felt he'd always been healed.
As eternity stretched before him in a long, unbroken sunrise, he realized it had only begun.Bright, fresh, and beautiful--just like him.
To Simon Peter:
I have heard all my life that you lacked faith. You only took a few steps onto the storm-tossed sea, only walked a few paces before the howling wind and swelling waves around you broke your focus.
I have heard people call you weak, for you fell asleep while Jesus prayed in the garden. You could not watch one hour.
I have heard that you denied the Christ, that you showed weakness and cowardice the night he was dragged before rulers who could flog and imprison, who wanted to torture and kill.
I have heard all these things, but I don't understand. I have never walked on water, but my faith has wavered. I have been consumed with the storms around me, but I didn't turn to Jesus straightaway.
I have never devoted all my time and energy to follow anyone, walking hot, dusty roads for three years, but I have slept through prayers.
I have never gone to places where I faced death or flogging because of my association with Jesus, but I have wavered in my witness.
You sank, but you walked on water. You trusted Jesus, not the arm of flesh. You slept, but you gave up your life. You denied knowing Jesus, but you were the only one who followed him there. You could only deny knowing him because you refused to leave him.
I hope the people who criticize you are wrong, for if your faith is weak, mine is dormant. If your strength wavered, then I wallow in weakness. If your courage or devotion were wanting, then I am the most craven of cowards.
There is one thing we have both done, one thing I have in common with you. I too have wept bitter tears when I see my failings, when I realize the ways I fall short. In that regard, at least, we are alike. And in one other--like you, I cling to my hope, my faith, and my trust in him--that he will save. That he will redeem. That he will forgive.
And Jesus looked upon those who followed him and said,
Verily, verily I say unto you, there is one among you who is loud, whose filter fails often, one who trips over boundaries; one who is too quick to speak sometimes, who has volatile emotions and sometimes hold grudges. One who is not good at moderation, one who loves the things of this world, who struggles with temperance.
Yea, verily, there is one who lives in highs and lows, who waxes hot and cold, one who daydreams, whose mind wanders, who gets bored with the every-day routines. One who does not easily keep all my sayings, and one who sometimes questions tradition and whose spirit chafes at reverence and decorum. One who wishes to follow me but seems to have a hard time leaving his sins.”
And the disciples looked one on another, doubting of whom he spake.
And it came to pass, I was exceedingly sorrowful and began to say, “Lord, is it I?” But I could not finish, for my shame choked my words. and I looked down at the floor.
And Jesus looked at me speaking, “Thou hast said.” And as I wept in sorrow and lamented my weakness, he continued.
“There is one among you who is willing to love without bound or constraint. There is one among you who takes joy in all that my Father hath created, and one who sees wonder in the skill of others. There is one who understands the joys and woes of this mortal life. There is one whose heart is tender, who understands human weakness, one who knows my mercy and sings loudly of my love.
There is one among you who is not lukewarm, one whose soul is woven from the same palette as the sunset. Whose mind soars up to the heavens at times, who can easily imagine storms being calmed, multitudes fed, and walking on water, and seeks to show others the same wonders. There is one who does not doubt that sinners can be redeemed, one who clings stubbornly to the belief that they can, one who persists in hope and labor."
And then, it was silent. After a time, I looked up, and seeing no one else said, “Lord, who is it?” And Jesus spake nothing. And then I said, with trembling voice, “Lord, is it I?”
And Jesus, loving me, said, “Thou hast said."
I've had a big, but very positive, life change recently. I won't bore you all with the details, but I've got a bit more time to do something I've been thinking about for a long time. Specifically, I want to be able to write about the spiritual and religious things that are part of my life. I hope what I write might be useful to someone else. The theme of this blog comes from a favorite hymn of mine, "Softly and Tenderly." One of my favorite performances of this hymn actually comes from the opening credits of the film, The Trip to Bountiful, but I put in a few more clips. I loved when Carrie Underwood sang it at the CMA Awards, and, of course, the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. I've put all those clips below. But this phrase--softly and tenderly--is one that resonates with me as I consider the way God has been present in my life.