My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips, when I think of you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
Psalm 63:5-7 NRSV
Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm; like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock within a weary land. Isaiah 32:2 NIV(UK)
For I am the Lord your God...I have put my words in your mouth, and covered you with the shadow of my hand. Isaiah 51:15a,16 NRSV
This bird has got to be the reddest cardinal I’ve ever seen. Ever. And maybe the fattest, too.
This morning, propped up in bed reading my daily devotionals, I spied the bright crimson of a plump male cardinal, hiding inside the holly tree just outside my bedroom window. He took a tour of the interior spaces of the holly, and then chose his place. There he perched at rest, as still as still can be. Gusts of wind bent the branches of the surrounding trees; the next door neighbor brandished his leaf blower nearby, creating a noisy tornado of leaves; golfers at the ninth hole exclaimed loudly (and scurrilously) at their successes or failures...none of it bothered Big Red. He was safely tucked inside the recesses of the tree. I found myself wondering if he had taken shelter there last Thursday, as the winds howled and the rains poured down in the storm that flooded large areas of our state. It seems to be a favorite hiding place for him; I can see him right now from my seat in the sunroom. The world is in flux all around him, but he is at peace in the shelter of his refuge.
Yesterday, an old friend called me to inquire whether I would agree to appear on his weekly Facebook Live show/podcast, called Optimistic Opportunities. Now in his second season, he’s currently asking his guests if they will share a story of struggle and strength that might be motivational or inspiring to others, as we all attempt to remain positive in the midst of the pandemic. “I’m not so sure you want my take on this,” I said, “because I don’t have anything unusual or esoteric to say. And any uplift I might offer is going to be faith-based - not sure if that fits your target audience.” Apparently, faith based will be fine, as long as I don’t get too preachy. (I’ll do my best to restrain myself.) All he wants me to do, more or less, is to share something new I’ve learned about myself or about staying strong during this season that might be helpful to others. So I told him to give me a couple of weeks to wrap my head around it, and I’d be happy to help if I can.
Which could be a big “if.” Because most of what I’ve learned about myself in the last 8 months would not qualify as inspirational literature. As it turns out, I’m not particularly patient, and I’m more dependent on variety and entertainment than I’d thought. “Staying Safer At Home” is not my idea of a good time; I miss my friends and my usual activities, and I still feel awkward when I venture forth to the grocery store gotten up like Dr. Who. (Turns out that masks, goggles, and gloves are not my fave fashion accessories.). So far, I’ve kept on keeping on by leaning heavily on what has always sustained me: reading the Scriptures, spending time in prayer, and trying to stay in fellowship, one way or another, with my friends in the faith. See? What’d I tell you? This stuff is not exactly breaking news, right? But it has the virtue of being the truth. The reason my mainstays are tried and true is that they’ve been tried (over and over again across the centuries) and have been found to be true (all around the world). They’ve stood the test of time; thankfully, these are the wheels we don’t need to invent.
Though I have done a bit of re-fashioning of those wheels as needed. Keeping in touch with my faithful friends has become more virtual than it used to be. (I still like in-the-flesh better than on-the-screen; but, hey, I’ll take it where I can get it.) I’ve rediscovered that spending time in silence, especially in the great outdoors, is really helpful in maintaining inner equilibrium and finding some peace. Recently, I’ve been trying to learn how to meditate - oh, my, is that ever not my natural habitat, but I’m trying. Breath prayers (google that term if it’s unfamiliar to you) are about as far as I’ve gotten at this point, but you’ve got to walk before you run...or maybe I should say crawl before you walk, given my current rate of progress, which is less than Olympic. I’ve given a new twist to my lifelong spiritual MVP (Most Valuable Practice) - which is scripture memorization - by choosing a verse for the day from my devotionals and speaking it to myself throughout the day...repeat as needed. Nothing has ever helped me as much as committing Bible verses or passages to memory; when the going gets tough, it’s good to have them at my fingertips. “I have put my words in your mouth,” says the Lord to Isaiah; our part is to hold on to those words so that we can keep ourselves right side up, and maybe even serve as “a shelter from the wind and a refuge in the storm” for someone else. The Bible words I have hidden in my heart have become for me a rich feast; and, God’s provision being what it is, there’s always enough to share.
Today, as I’ve kept an eye out for my new friend Big Red, I’ve noticed that wherever else he goes, he keeps coming back to his safe place in the shadow of the holly branches. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly” - and eat, too! - but at regular intervals, he returns to his refuge. It reminds me of the secret shelter I used to frequent during the years I was at Centenary. From time to time, I would slip down the hall to the sanctuary, and stand behind the Table, beneath the cross that commands center stage in that beautiful space, suspended, as it is, over the altar. I would stand as still as I possibly could, and lift up my head until I could see the cross in its entirety. And there I would stay, soaking up the sense of shelter I always found there, until I was ready for whatever came next. I found it necessary to return at regular intervals to that refuge, but it was in returning that I found rest for my soul. Nowadays, I still go there in my imagination, and it still works. So here’s my prayer for you: May you find your own rich feast in the words of the Scriptures. May your times of prayer be for you like streams in the desert. May the fellowship of your friends in Christ become a refuge from the storm. And may you find your shelter in the shadow of the Cross.
Beneath the Cross of Jesus, UMH #297,
stanzas 1 & 3
Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand,
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land;
A home within the wilderness, a rest upon the way,
From the burning of the noontide heat, and the burden of the day.
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place;
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of his face
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross.
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood