Higher Ground

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Refrain:
Lord, lift me up and let me stand,
By faith, on Heaven’s tableland,
A higher plane than I have found;
Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.

My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay;
Though some may dwell where those abound,
My prayer, my aim, is higher ground.

I want to live above the world,
Though Satan’s darts at me are hurled;
For faith has caught the joyful sound,
The song of saints on higher ground.

I want to scale the utmost height
And catch a gleam of glory bright;
But still I’ll pray till heav’n I’ve found,
“Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.”

Last night, Hannah and I went to an event called Do Justice that was hosted by the Memphis organization Agape. We heard two speakers, Brian Fikkert and Bryan Stevenson, both authors and both concerned with justice. Bryan Stevenson, the author of the book Just Mercy, talked broadly about criminal justice reform and about seeking justice as Christians.

He told the story of the first time we went into a prison to talk with an inmate on death row. He was nervous about it because he was still a law student and thought the inmate might wish for someone more qualified. The inmate walked in, hands and feet chained, hunched over and sullen. He looked defeated and explained that he hadn’t had visitors in two years and was afraid to let his family come because he was nervous that he would have an execution date set and would have to tell his family. He didn’t want them to have to deal with that.

After speaking with the man for three hours, the guards came to take the inmate away. Their conversation had changed the inmates demeanor, his face had brightened and he felt invigorated. As he was led away, the inmate began to sing a hymn, Higher Ground (I’m Pressing on the Upward Way). Stevenson’s point was that his time, his conversation, his proximity with the man gave him hope.

He called us last night to proximity. He believes that proximity is required to see justice realized, to see reconciliation, and to promote hope. Those of us who have the ability and the access to advocate have to place ourselves in uncomfortable positions. We have to step into the margins and meet the people who live there. We have to know them and to know their stories. It’s in being proximal that we develop the ability to change the social and cultural narratives that promulgate fear and anger towards people who are struggling.

The call was powerful. His words were powerful. They were convicting and urgent. We Christians so often fail at stepping outside ourselves and seeking reconciliation, hope, and love for people that don’t look like us, act like us, or live in our neighborhood. But isn’t that exactly what we’re called to do? Isn’t that what Christ did in humbling himself to become a man and to serve.

Prayer and Reflection

Pray for opportunities to be proximal. Pray for opportunities to seek justice and to humble yourself. Seek the margins, be brave, and give hope.

 

It Is Well

In 2010, author Shane Claiborne published a book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. I like the book. It’s designed to guide the daily prayer life of a group or individual. I’ve used it, like other things, as an off-and-on devotional since we bought it. I happened to pull it out this morning to use it for my personal reflection, but not necessarily for the blog, however, here I am. I’m going to use a simple quote from the March 1 reading in conjunction with the lyrics of a song from a concert that Hannah and I attended last night. I want to write it off as coincidental, but this endeavor is about seeking. So, let me break these moving parts down for you and see what you think.

Yesterday, Hannah and I had a doctor’s visit. She’s now 39 weeks pregnant. We’re completely aware that we are well into the birth range timetable, but things have progressed in such a healthy way that we haven’t been too worried about how things have progressed. Hannah and our boy have remained healthy throughout the duration of the pregnancy, and we’ve counted it a significant blessing. Yesterday though, there was a slight hiccup in a pretty routine visit. Our doctor wasn’t overly concerned about it but needed to run some tests to rule out possible complications that could change some of the details of our birth plan. Given how the pregnancy has gone up to this point, it seems unlikely that it will turn into something more serious. Nevertheless, this was the first instance in the 39 weeks that we’ve had to do something like that and in the moment it felt jarring.

We had tickets to a concert last night, The Lone Bellow, at a venue near our home. We saw them once in Chicago a couple of years ago and loved the energy they brought to their live performance. On the heels of the news from our prenatal visit, we were unsure whether we should attend. We want to do whatever we can to reduce stress at this stage and make sure we’re proceeding responsibly. We decided to go but would sit in the back and just enjoy the music.

Lone Bellow

The band added their stop here in Memphis late to their tour, so the setting was intimate. We saw a few friends and found some seats in the back corner. We couldn’t see the stage very well, but at different parts in the show could easily make out the upper quarter of the musicians. They were good. The Lone Bellow is not explicit about their religious beliefs, but there are certainly elements in their song writing that strongly suggest that they are people of faith. It’s possible there’s an interview somewhere in which they talk about it, but I haven’t searched that hard. Either way, there was an interesting moment in the concert last night during their song May You Be Well when the frontman Zach Williams, during an instrumental interlude in the song, raises both of his hands and clearly mouths the words “May you be well” multiple times with eyes closed. It was an odd sensation. It felt out of place, which is weird because it was a concert where a singer was singing the words to his own song. It felt out of place because he clearly wasn’t singing. It looked like he was speaking those words. It looked, very much, like he was praying those words over the crowd.

It seems somewhat unlikely that this is actually what was happening, but I couldn’t shake it. It felt so much like the moment in a worship service when the singer repeats parts of the song as a prayer under his breath. Fast forward to this morning and the aforementioned Claiborne book. There’s a quote for today’s entry from fourteenth century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich.

The worst has already happened and been repaired. . . . All Shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

I’ve stated previously in this blog that sometimes pain will last a lifetime. We aren’t promised reprieve during our lives, but we hold on to the hope of the life to come. The refrain here of “all shall be well” is unavoidably similar to the lyrics of the song last night. I can’t help but feel encouraged. Even though I know that we aren’t promised that bad things won’t happen to us, and even though these types of moments are easily written off as coincidental, I’m not going to do it with this one. I’m going to choose to believe that it’s the Spirit. I’m going to take the connection and rest in the comfort it provides.

Simeon Temple

Prayer and Reflection

What connections might you have written off recently as coincidence? Could they be something more? Pray that God gives you the courage and ability to see what he’s doing in your lives. Pray for God to remove the cynical spirit that keeps us from living in the joy he provides.

Once and for All

Genesis 15:1-6

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

What a wild passage. A man old in his age, childless, becomes resigned to the the fact that his fortune will simply be given to someone else in his household. Being childless was a very real, very clear point of pain for Abram and Sarai (who later become Abraham and Sarah). It’s a reason for doubt, pain, and strife for many people still today. What’s amazing in this passage, and the next couple of chapters, is how clearly God addresses that pain.

Here God tells Abraham that his offspring will be his heir. He then takes him outside and basically says what he says more explicitly in chapter 17, that his offspring will be many, that his descendants will be like the stars in the sky. This man, old in his age and childless, will become the father of many nations. It’s easy to offer empty condolences and hope from a text like this. We often look to passages like this for encouragement and see that God relieved Abraham and Sarah from their strife and healed the biggest sore spot they had by delivering to them a son. I want to be careful in doing that though. Lent keeps us grounded. Sure Abraham is promised a multitude of descendants, but the more important piece is that he believed the Lord. His belief is counted as righteousness and it’s from that righteousness that a promise like this is even made.

I can’t promise you that whatever suffering you might be dealing with will be healed during your lifetime. I truly wish I could. I do, however, feel confident in telling you that the perspective you have towards that thing can change the course of your life. Abraham’s belief in the promises of God alleviated his pain. For us, an eternal perspective is needed to know that a trusting belief in the work of Christ on the cross guarantees us freedom from sin and pain, not here in this lifetime, but in eternity.

This is good news for us that should prompt us into action. We, as the church, are called to continue the work of God with the help of the Spirit here on Earth, which includes tending to the sick, caring for widows and orphans, helping the impoverished. We’re called into action to help give the world a taste of the new Heavens and new Earth. We’re called as a community to help each other endure the hardships of this life with a hope pointed towards a glorious end, when the promises of the cross are realized once and for all.

Prayer and Reflection

Pray that God helps you see your points of pain from an eternal perspective. Ask for empathy in seeing the pain in others and wisdom to know how to serve them best.