Walking Beside You

Someone’s walking beside you 
One you cannot always see
They arrived before you made your steps 
They’ll be there when you continue you on your journey
You are not alone.
Sometimes it’s the person in the grocery store
Reminding you of something you’ve forgotten – the story of BREAD. 

Another day it’s the vulture waiting on the roof
To alert you: every death is followed 
by new birth
Or the neighbors who pause to see what you cannot
and share it. 
An old friend; a very new friend
Someone is walking up beside you
Offering peace
Offering hope
Offering love
Wait for it.

As the light arrives
When you are given the gift to see
Receive and be grateful
These are blessings
of our Creator. 
For all the days we do not see
Or hear the footsteps
No presence felt or known
Even still…
someone is 
walking up beside you. 
Wait for it 
and keep 
moving forward.

Weekend in Memphis: A Reflection

Central Station is just three minutes away from the Lorraine Hotel and the National Civil Rights Museum. I’m as close as I can be right now.  The music of this city is pouring out of every speaker I pass by; it’s rolling out of the entrance of my room and flowing through the gathering spaces. Music washes over you…over me; it begs me pause…just let it flow over me like water. Let it soak, inspire, remind me…and speak in the remembering. 

I came to Memphis on “business” but I’ve stayed by necessity of heart.  My friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Autura Eason-Williams, was murdered here in Memphis on July 18, 2022. She was not “mine” per se – she was all of ours. We loved her. We appreciated her. We were inspired by her courageous leadership and certain call. Her husband and children were encouraged and bolstered by her love every day. I’m in her “district”; I’m in her city. 

Someone else was murdered the morning of my arrival. A runner. A mother, a wife, a teacher, a woman. Eliza Fletcher. I did not know her, but her disappearance changed my weekend. The tenseness in my body increased. I altered the plans I had for walking. When a man pulled up, rolled down his window and hollered at me as I walked down the street, “hey pretty lady what are you doing?”, I wanted to scream. I kept my cool and kept on walking. He drove on and I turned around for yet another route. I hate not feeling “safe”.

The museum walks me through history as I read through and get a taste of someone else’s experience. Someone I didn’t know, though I read some of his writing and particularly his letter to his pastor colleagues; written from the Birmingham jail. I am moved by the history I’m walking through but I am undone by the sobbing of the young man who is next to me. He must have been 11 or 12 years old. An older woman was with him; a grandmother, perhaps. She doesn’t try to stop him from crying, but she’s right by his side as he takes in this part of our history.

Something catches my eye: “Don’t stop now. Keep moving. Don’t get weary. We will wear them down with our capacity to suffer.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing a rally at Shiloh Baptist Church December 15, 1961. It’s “the capacity to suffer” that won’t leave my spirit. So many people have gone before us that had the “capacity to suffer”. I do wonder…do we have that capacity now?

Memphis is not a city of murder and violence. There is more. Music is here. Amazing blues music. Rock n Roll. Country. Incredible scores of musicians found their deep rhythms in this city. I walked over to the Arcade and got a window seat looking out at South Main Street. The lady sitting next to me has a story. She’s going to tell me a little, but not much. Memphis is “home” for her. I explain that I’m not from here; I came to town to officiate a funeral, but I stayed to take in the museum and a bit of culture. I stayed to remember my friend. She tells me she’s “sorry for my loss”, but I tell her how it’s OK, because I’m a pastor and this is what we do; we do funerals. We want to honor and celebrate people’s lives. We think it’s important.

The Arcade: The Oldest Cafe in Memphis; Established 1919

She has generational connections to the Arcade. We cover a lot of conversational ground in a few short minutes. It occurs to me as we sit and chat in what is the “oldest Café in Memphis”, that Reggie surely ate here many times. And maybe Elvis and surely Aretha Franklin.  It also occurs to me that the woman I’m talking to in this moment is just as important as all of them. For all I know, which is very little, she is probably famous herself. The chances that I would recognize her are slim to none, unless she belts out a song I know. She kind of looked famous, but doesn’t everyone? 

As she gets up to leave, she looks at me and says, “you said you are a pastor; you are a pastor; right?” And I said, “yes; I am”. She said, “I’ve been needing to talk to a pastor but not a pastor from Memphis. I’m really glad I got to talk to you today.”

Of course, I was glad too; to have a true “local” to chat with and laugh a little; share a bit of history; say some things you might only say to a stranger.  Of all the things we talked about (and I met her son in the middle of it all), I don’t know what one thing she needed to say to a pastor, whether it was “content” or just the experience she was seeking.  Whatever we both needed, we seemed to get it sitting at the window seat looking out at South Main. Saturday afternoon in Memphis, Tennessee.

“In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, LORD,
make me dwell in safety.”
– Psalm 4:8

God, please be near to anyone who needs to feel “safe” right now. We love you and we trust you completely. Amen.

If you don’t know Reggie, you’ve missed something that will bless your life. Start here and just keep listening. Peace.

Reggie Young – Memphis Grease

When The Tall Trees Rest

She was an artist and a poet. But more than anything she was a friend. Her art began with trees reaching high into the sky. They are all praising God at the move of her paintbrush. I marveled at her creative process. I am so grateful for every painting and every poem. She left us with such beauty, and it never stops blessing my days. 

It is Susie’s art and poetry that I saw when we were by the river yesterday. A tree had fallen. A big rip from an old trunk still standing on the bank of the river. A hard fall, based on the jagged edges of the trunk. It must have been loud in falling; it must have shaken the ground. The tall, strong and beautiful tree lay quietly in the flow of the river’s current. Ah…the tall tree is resting. 

Today we celebrate the life of another friend. Nothing will be able to contain her life. No words or prayers. No song or Scripture. But everything will point to the Creator who gave her to us for a little while. Everything will praise the One who placed the Holy Spirit within her and created a channel of intentional love.  Every breath we breathe is mingled with the same breath God breathed into her. She is a tall tree resting now. So deeply loved. I do wonder if Susie is talking with her; welcoming her friend into the eternal peace, eternal joy, eternal rest. 

the roots of tall trees
crumble granite
penetrate core
by the knowledge
that they are
the linchpins
that hold this

– Susie Sims Irvin, The Tall Trees

Lord, for all who mourn today, please bring peace and comfort. For all who need healing, place your hand on their eyes and bodies, restore gently and completely. For the one who is searching, may your spirit guide them clearly to discover you. Let no one who needs a friend remain alone today.
Please keep us growing, Lord. Keep us reaching tall to find you; digging deep with roots that sustain us in the long journey. And for all you hold in your arms today, Jesus, thank you for the gift of their presence. Thank you for the tall trees in our lives. Amen. 

Harpeth River, May 2022. Melinda Britt photo credit

How Are We Listening?

“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they think they have will be taken from them.”

My morning started at the river where the mist rising from the water met my prayers with hope. The birds declared melodies welcoming the day; sounds of reckless joy my voice can never muster. I am grateful how nature praises God and I am allowed the gift of participating. There is a chorus moving through the woods; a dance flowing in the water. I needed to begin here.

I wonder if I am heeding this teaching of Jesus to “consider carefully how you listen”? When I listen to the birds sing the morning praise it never occurs to me to assess their pitch or tone. I marvel at their persistence. I’m intrigued with the joy they bring in welcoming the day. I turn my attention to the music and let the song come close to me. And listen. Just listen. I laugh at how easily they all sing at once; if a director is present my untrained ear cannot discern it. I am grateful.

Is it possible we could listen to our brothers and sisters with this same grace? I wonder… If we employed such a natural curiosity as I find this morning while listening to nature, what would we hear? Anticipation not as prediction, but rather a simple wondering for what is being offered. Is there something I need to hear today?

God, you created us with ears to hear, minds to comprehend, and spirits to discern. We must often miss the very special thing we are in need of hearing. Please open our ears to what you are speaking in so many people and places right now. Tune our ears to the sound of your voice. Drown out the noise that begs for our attention and turn us carefully, humbly to you. We welcome and yearn for your divine voice to speak into this day. Help us to hear. Amen.

Early morning at the Harpeth River. May 2022

Hope in the Mourning

People make such profound marks on our lives. We are changed by those relationships, often pruned into stronger and more beautiful persons.  Last year, on Feb 23rd, one of those people in my life made the transition from earth to eternity.  His name is Cesar Muñoz, of Quetzaltenango in Guatemala.  He is the wife of Sonia; the father of Mariairene, Lucia and David. 

It was during a difficult time of the pandemic. I could not go to be with the family. I was not able to mourn with them in all the ways I wanted to share in their grief.  When the celebration of his life was held and a community gathered, though limited because of COVID, I celebrated from a very long distance – about 2300 miles away.  I shared this experience with thousands of people across the world who were burying and celebrating the lives of people they loved that ceased to be present on earth during this pandemic. 

Recently I was able to return to Guatemala and be with my family and friends who are still grieving the absence of husband, father, and friend. We told stories and cried tears. We went to the place where he was buried (an important ritual for me) and I was able to touch the place where he and other family members’ bodies rest in the earth. The time was sacred for all of us.

We are people of faith, so we speak words of hope at the site where these bodies lay. We speak of the fruit that remains from Cesar’s life and the anticipation of a joyful reunion that will one day come for us.  The stories we share here are blessings. Our spirits are strengthened.

Cesar was a friend and mentor. He was a partner in the work our church has the honor of being involved with @ ACD Guatemala.  He spoke wisdom into my life on numerous occasions and we shared many joys at his table.  And totally unexpectedly, we became family when my cousin married his daughter. At that time, the “family” we had been becoming through our shared work with God, became “officially” a family that united all of us forever.

Wedding planning, 2015
Feb 2022 Vona and Lucia @ ACD Guatemala
Aaron & Mariairene, 2015

Today I give thanks for Cesar’s life on earth and the impact he made on all of our lives. Every day we see the fruit that lasts from his time here. For all who have experienced death, grief and celebration of life during the time of this pandemic, I pray that you know that time and distance is nothing in the eyes of God. As you pray, as you mourn, as you laugh and cry and celebrate – it is all in perfect timing when our hearts and spirits are one in Christ.  I pray this brings you peace.

Cesar’s picture @ ACD Guatemala

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. – Jesus in the Gospel of John 15:16

God, thank you for the lives that so deeply touch ours and bless us. May your peace be with all who grieve, and may you continue to grant us all glimpses of eternity, so our hope remains steadfast and strong.  Thank you for the life of your people on earth! Give us humility and courage to serve in ways that bear the fruit that lasts…for your glory and not our own. Amen. 

Kari Jobe The Garden

Monday Prayer

The morning peace arrives differently for all of us. But it still arrives. God is faithful. I pray God shows up for you in exactly the way you need today. 

God bring peace to bedsides where people are making transition. Let the presence of the resurrected Christ standing guard with them be very clear today. 

Bring peace to the people we love who are healing. Let their cells receive nutrients and care; let their blood flow richly through their bodies; fill their lungs with your breath of life and sooth the rhythm of every heartbeat. Free their minds from anxiety and fear.
Thank you for equipping the medical teams with your healing grace. May their compassion and skill be guided by you.

Give strength to the ones who are weary but still face the day of long hours. Equip every person for each call and task. Cover them with safety and give wisdom in decisions.  

Please grant rest to those who have a holiday and slower pace. Give them joy and restoration however they need it. 

Where hope is needed, merciful God, please provide the flame that causes us to catch our breath and say, “it must be the presence of Lord with us!”  

Thank you for the creative ways you respond when we ask for help. Open our spirits to see you and receive. We trust you, Lord, and we love you. Thank you for being right here! 

Breaking Open

The first time I traveled to Central America I was studying: “Spirituality in Third World Countries”. It was 2004. Nicaragua. I stood in streets filled with waste, spend the night on coffee farms to learn their practice and got my taste of making tortillas over a wood stove. I also rested in beautiful places and watched the sunset in Leon.

I learned about the fireworks and made peace with the rooster’s adamant heralding of the morning. I shared conversations with strangers and made new friends. We met with religious and political leaders and witnessed firsthand the realities of another culture and people. Something broke open in me during that experience and it’s been breaking open ever since.

My heart has grown. My mind has been sharpened. I have learned hard things and have watched beautiful cultures turn into dark spaces of suffering, while others emerged with hope, strength, and humility. My spirit has been pruned and shaped for something much bigger than me. I hope, on most days, it is shaped and breathing in a way that honors my Creator.

A lot of things break us open. Experiences leave us wide eyed and surprised. Grief and sorrow take our breath away and make it hard to live through the next hour. Beauty breaks us open. Love breaks us open. God breaks us open. Marriage, divorce, death, birth, illness, strength…all so incredibly intimate; breaking us wide open while also making us whole.

If you are breaking open today – may God give you peace to know that you are not alone. Help is on the way. Ask!
If you are celebrating a joy you can’t contain – I hope you see Jesus’ hand reaching out and inviting you to dance. Do it!
If you are surviving one day at a time – know that the plans God has for you are for good and not for harm .Trust this!

We are given life to live. Live fully. When beauty is present, make time to appreciate it. When you or someone you love is hurting – sit in the valley with them; your presence is enough. We are doing this life together – the sorrow and the joy; it is a gift. Above all, remember that you are loved.

A few photos this morning as a prayer offering.

Perfect Timing

Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.  
– Proverbs 16:3

Following the Spirit is always an adventure. One of my discernment tests goes like this:
If we believe that God’s timing is perfect… 
If we rely on divine wisdom to guide our path and move us along the journey as it needs to be. 
If we trust that the one who created us loves us… 
then when things don’t work out like we hoped they might,
we can have peace that God still holds that too.
We don’t get to know all the reasons why. 

Sometimes that comes more easily; sometimes it is the hardest thing to accept. 

It was 4:15am when I clicked “Cancel flight”. Are you sure? “Yes”.  I prayed again the same prayer I’d been voicing for a few weeks, and then each day, and then…hour by hour: “God, if this is the time, please clear the way; if not, I totally trust your wisdom and guidance.”  I went to sleep. I knew I was not flying out on my originally planned 6am flight for Guatemala.

My phone rang at 7:30am. A man we’ve been praying for who is literally fighting for his life, was worse. The family had been called to come. These colleagues and friends found themselves standing, once again, in the valley.  They needed prayer too.  By noon I was praying with a circle of fire department officers as we asked the Lord for help and peace for this man and his family. We gave voice to our faith. We stood together. 

I wasn’t supposed to be flying to Guatemala that day, I was supposed to be in Franklin, Tennessee, and available. In what would have normally been a packed scheduled, my time and focus was clear to be where I needed to be. A shift of plans that could only be God’s hand. 

Later that afternoon, with a few phone calls and searching, I had free tickets on a next day flight with everything I needed. The way had not only been cleared, but it was also firmly established. I kept moving forward. 

I landed in Guatemala the next day, too late to travel the full way to my destination, but fully here and confident the timing was all perfect. I went to sleep to the familiar sound of fireworks and music – the typical Latino pop or US 70’s rock.  I woke up to the cherished sounds of birds, roosters and brooms brushing off the dust as people began their days.  Parque Central stood soundly in place. A few people moved about, and I was “home”. 

Morning bath at the fountain.
Parque Central, Antigua, Guatemala 2022

The changes in my schedule were just mine.  Others who were visiting here to explore and see what God is doing in Guatemala had their schedules interrupted by blockades earlier in the week that stalled travel, and then by something that was stirring their spirits about ACD Guatemala. They returned to Xela, and we all arrived at ACD within the same hour on Friday.  I missed their Thursday night fiesta, but I found conversation and synergy on Friday. 

As we began to meet one another and share our stories, it was clear that once again, our steps had been directed by the one we are all trying to follow. Story after story, timing and connections – some even years in the making, we all gave voice to our faith. We shared our awkward and amazing calls to ministry.  Our Creator is amazing! 

Following the spirit always leads us on paths we could have never created on our own.  If you are frustrated with the way your plans have been interrupted, just remember: We make plans, but it is the Lord who directs our steps. There may be other people and factors impacting the situation of which you have no idea. We all have our own journeys, it is God that connects them in the right timing. Trust God. 

The timing of the Lord does not fail, even when it takes what may seem like a lifetime to be revealed. When we trust this, we can stop trying to “make” things happen and start placing ourselves in the position of being prepared while God’s perfect timing is being carefully arranged. 

The human mind plans the way,
    but the Lord directs the steps.
– Proverbs 16:9

Photo of ACD Staff and Pastors from First Centenary UMC
Back row from left:  Jeff, Barry, Tanner, Will, Jason
Front Row from left: Vona, Carlos, Lucia, Marielos, Kristin, Stephanie

Just Teach Me

Public schools in Guatemala have been closed for two years. Two years. Some online learning was offered, but many students do not have access to technology at the level needed for learning. Schools were scheduled to reopen on Monday, January 31st, but many did not. COVID continues to move through families and communities. A mask mandate is in place. The current vaccination rate for Guatemala is 31.2%.  For perspective, the current USA vaccination rate is 64%. All over the world, we are living through a new experience. Everything has changed. 

And still, children have dreams! Their minds need exercise and challenge. They look to adults to help them discover how learning and education opens our lives.  The spirit and mind of a child is so deeply shaped by the encouragement, mentoring and love they experience in these early years. 

There are 23 children sponsored through ACD Guatemala and 19 of those sponsors are through Franklin FUMC. These 23 children are attending a private school, Ad-Astra La Esperanza, so they can continue to learn and thrive.  Each morning the children come to ACD and are given transportation to school. If they have need of supplies, they receive them. The children know someone is waiting for them each morning at ACD Guatemala and that someone believes in them. When they get on that bus and are on their way to school, they know an army of love is going in with them!

The presentation for our visit to the school began with the raising of the flags. The children gathered at the bottom of a steep garden area and their bright eyes watched with anticipation. The flags of Tennessee, USA and Franklin First UMC all raised as our national anthem played. ACD Guatemala, Ad-Astra La Esperanza and Guatemala flags all raised as the Guatemalan national anthem played and the children sang. We are here. Together. A big dream is unfolding. 

Flag presentation at Ad-Astra La Esperanza

When the kingdom of God is fully present on earth it is hard to tell who is serving who, because we are all serving from a mutual place of sharing what we have: giving and receiving…together. The story of ACD Guatemala, Ad-Astra La Esperanza, and Franklin First UMC is one of those thin places that we cannot stop from flourishing.  Geography and land are involved, but the friendships that connect here for a greater purpose are the real story.

If I begin to write the sequence of events that brought this moment into being the miracles are so intertwined the story overflows. I cannot find its beginning, there is no static moment, nor is there a natural end.  It is a fountain overflowing. It is out of our hands, out of our control. We can only give witness to the fruitfulness and praise God for allowing us to be a part. I am so grateful to be a part of a community of faith that serves with others in whatever way brings hope where it is needed.

Tanner, Lucia, Vona, Eleazar, Jason

Lunes por la Mañana en Guatemala

Rooster calls across the dark morning tell me to rise, a new day has come. Before the people move or I can launch my mind to the work ahead, every bird, animal and plant is making a clear claim of praise for the faithful rise of the son. Villancico; song of praise. Santa Maria is invisible; the clouds shield any human sight of her presence.  Nublado.

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 
This is what the ancients were commended for. – Hebrews 11:1

Morning Prayer
God, thank you for the creation that never ceases to praise you for the morning’s arrival. You have ordained another day; you speak it into being for all creatures.  And whether we wake with heaviness or joy – you are here with us. Please walk with us wherever our steps trod today, we need you. Clear our minds of fear and shame. Remove the weight of worry. Fill our spirits with your grace and mercy. Remind us that we were created with your love, and we cannot destroy what you are making whole. Where we are broken – keep mending and restoring. When we are moving too fast – redeem within us your pace. Wherever love needs to pour over our wounds, we welcome your presence however you come. We trust you completely. Let it be. Amen.