Rhythm

I was in a Christian band briefly.  On rare occasions I listen to the eight-inch reel-to-reel recordings of our practice sessions — usually alone because the grandkids quickly scatter after the novel fascination with the reel-to-reel recorder fades away.  Music no longer resides on a roll of thin tape.  It is even more like a ghost.  It comes on a chip imprinted on a board inside a small plastic box often transferred through the air instead of a wire.  

Of course, there is a rhythm in life and every aspect of it — work, church, friendships, spirituality.  Dad often said that accidents usually come in threes.  “Watch out!” he’d imply just after number two had inconvenienced him.  “Brace yourself!”  

The seasons reflect this rhythm and we codify our ups and downs as Spring or Winter.  I am living in the Fall-time season of my life.  But these cycles we go through, even with their indefinable borders and unpredictable durations, seem to have the ring of truth when we reflect upon the past.  

I taught myself a sequence of play in those days when we performed our music for youth groups and at Christian school assemblies.  It was awkward to do.  My arms did not want to move in the needed way.  They would get caught up with each other or the sticks would hit each other instead of the drum heads.  It involved playing sixteenth notes with one stroke per drum in sequence from snare drum to tom-tom to second tom-tom to floor tom-tom and back again to the snare — over and over through several musical measures.  I choreographed each movement of my hands and arms to keep them moving over and under each other.  Rhythm is natural, but some of the movements that create it require training and repetition through lots of practice.  In other words — work!  

The rhythms of life usually have more to do with discipline and work than coincidence.  If we brace for the next season, we may be unconsciously courting the next disaster and in our awkwardness setting ourselves up to trip over the next obstacle.  Better to keep practicing what we have come to have confidence in over the long term.  Accidents happen and skinned knees are going to occur; but that does not stop us from running and playing and working.  The rhythm is not about what happens to us as much as it is about the good habits we beat out in disciplined strokes like the kind that get a locomotive started moving and them constantly pulling and pushing forward down the track and up the mountain, over the valleys and into the horizon.  

For the Christian, these strokes are the same drum beats we have performed for so so long.  And they have proven themselves time and time again.  Read the Bible regularly.  Pray to God in conversations that cover praise, gratitude, and petition.  Talk among Christians in fellowship.  Let friendships flourish from testimony about the work of God in your life.  Show you care by taking action.  Invite people to Jesus and the church.  Serve in ways that help people want to come to church.  Encourage one another.  

“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble; for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you. Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you” (2 Peter 1:10–12 NASB).

Stephen Williams

Here at Home

Sometimes an indefinable longing enters the house my mind calls home.  The sense of void enters like an intruder opening the door we hardly ever use and have forgotten to lock after the grandchildren have left it unfastened.  The impulse sneaks in unwanted like a random thought or an unfounded panic.  The desire does not seem to have an origin.  The uncomfortable need flies in like the stray geese that flirt with landing on the small pond out back and on the rare occasion actually choose to thump down with a splash.  I hear them often, but I’m never quite prepared for them to grace me with their company.  

Drawn and haggard with want, I pursue this longing.  I thirst like the deer crave for water brooks. It is a kind of unsettling in my gut leaving behind a restless famine.  I let it take hold of me.  I leave out to go hunting down this desire.  Like a stranded islander desperate for the meal that will transform his last day into a new day, I stalk the illusive prey.  I strive for the sound of the sizzling meat over the campfire.  My nostrils flare.  I long for the nourishment it translates into wellbeing.  I thirst for the peace it provides – the kind that the Hebrews visualized and tried to capture with the word shalom – that flawless wholeness that includes body, mind, and spirit congealed into a kind of integrity that keeps the soul running forever like a well-oiled machine.  I strive for that emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual flourishing that eradicates every particle of dust that adulterates my soul.  I want the sense of emptiness to dissipate like smoke dissolving into a soft breeze.   

But then, and again, I find that God has been trying to get me to seize the treasure I’ve been seeking since the search began.  It is already in my heart.  It is His healing voice.  Like the prodigal returning to his home, Jesus has been waiting for me (Luke 15).  At the end of my journey, I find I am in possession of what I have to have.  God has been right where I began.  The hunt is over.  All along, His wise Word was right here at home.  

“It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.”  (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

Stephen Williams

Spiritual Orientation

My attention was drawn to a hairy little spider about the size of a black bean.  It effortlessly moved into my field of vision as it slipped out from under the deck rail onto the inside edge of the two by four.  Then it crossed over onto the top and back to the side where it clung on like it was a rock climber on the side of a cliff.  It crossed back underneath where it rested on the surface of the underside of the rail.  It was under it but on it.  It was weightless.  It experienced no inhibition.  It moved freely from one orientation to the other.  

The Bible refers to a spider in Solomon’s palace (Proverbs 30:28 KJV).  It would have eluded the guards and easily entered without detection.  Except for this day.  When Solomon was still and focused enough to notice (Psalm 46:10).  Then the spider entered his meditation.  Uninvited but welcome.  The palace became his study and his meditation became Scripture.  Solomon moved as effortlessly as the spider on my deck from a worldly orientation to a heavenly perspective.  He left gravity behind and everything else that would pull him away and he crossed over into the spirit.  He transitioned from the underside and shed his camouflage.  He slid out of any blind spot that hid God from his vision.  He came into the rays of light.  God could see him on either surface, but Solomon moved into God’s presence so he could see the heavens that declare the mystery of dwelling in the Spirit.  

“Those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on the things of the Spirit” (Romans 8:5b).

Stephen Williams

Feedback

The walls were marsh green – the kind of shade that would not draw attention to itself unless one had nothing else to glare at.  The hurdle seemed to me to span upward to an unreachable height.  A little window with a narrow shelf extending back into the small room to cover the cinder block wall was cluttered with bottles – probably chemicals for cleaning.  If I could just jump that high!  

This little washroom at the back of my first-grade classroom was where I waited for feedback to be distributed for behaviors that I was sure were perfectly innocent.  Mrs. Irene, my teacher, seemed to bide her time before carrying out the punishment.  The confining wait was apparently worse than the discipline since I cannot remember the outcome.  But the nightmarish chastisement of an unreachable window cut into a marsh green fortification, frustrated me to the extent that the image is deeply engraved into the raw nerves of my brain.  

Corrective evaluations are necessary for our development, but mercy colors every sincere act of positive feedback when that is what is needed.  Years ago, I read in a book on paranoia that the ailment is accentuated by the lack of the feedback that would extinguish the unfounded fears.  To have anxiety is to wrestle with the lack of good information.  When fear rises up into the shoulders bringing tension to the muscles in the neck and the cause of it is not real – just imagined – then accurate feedback is a warm salve that penetrates beneath the thin skin.  It brings relief.  The assurance reveals the absence of a threat.  To hold it back is an act of negligence.  

Actually, the most accessible source of feedback is much more available.  You have the resource within you to dispute the unknown possibility as just that – an unknown future.  You can tell yourself that it is not real.  It is unreal because it does not exist.  You can list the other possibilities — possibilities that will not inflict the fear.  If the worst possibility does come into existence, then convince yourself that you can choose at that time to fear it if necessary for your survival; but it is only a figment of the imagination until then.  There is nothing to fear now.  Like in the book I used to read to my children, it is an imaginary monster fancied to be hiding in the closet.  It has no power.  It cannot destroy you.  To hold this critical feedback back – to withhold it from myself – is an act of negligence.  It is self-destructive.  

Instead, talk yourself into understanding that there are many other possibilities on the horizon.  Be specific with yourself.  List them.  It will take a while to learn that you can succeed in this; but it will be sweet to your soul and healing to your bones (Proverbs 16:24).  It is hard to imagine that friends would withhold encouraging words and essential information; but it is unbelievable that I would withhold them from myself.  If the mind of the wise can instruct his mouth so that he will not say things best unsaid, then I can instruct my mind by disputing unfounded fears. 

The heart of the wise instructs his mouth. And adds persuasiveness to his lips. Pleasant words are a honeycomb, Sweet to the soul and healing to the bones. Proverbs 16:23-24 NASB

Stephen Williams

Little Fly

I am greeted by my little winged buzzing scavenger.  She never misses the chance to show her devotion.  I do not care for her persistence.  She is aways touching my skin to show she likes to be around me.  I confess, I do not return her love.  I brush her off; but she does not seem to mind.  Her dedication is undaunting.  She is relentless.  But in an odd kind of way, I’m glad that she has returned.  I still find her annoying.  I hate the thought of where she has been and what mischief has dirtied her feet; but if warm weather requires her presence then she is welcome.

When the warm ground vanishes Winter’s push to confine me indoors, she rides the wings of the southern wind to open the door to freedom.  When her great great grandmother’s great grand joined her clan and swarmed the enemies who enslaved God’s people, the result was freedom (Exodus 8:24).  If I have to endure her affection in order to lay in the sunshine, then welcome back little nuisance!  If God could purpose your ancestors, I can endure your plague!

When you lite on my shoulder, I will think to gift my praise to God because your presence meant freedom to worship (Exodus 8:20).  Your people praised you by remembering those days (Psalm 78).  So can I, when bothered by a fly.  Anything and everything reminds me to worship — even this pestering pest that tickles the hair on my hand!  “The LORD has prepared everything for his purpose” (Proverbs 16:4a).  One purpose must be, to remind me of Thee.  “Let the fields and everything in them celebrate” (Psalm 96:12a)”, even if there be flies among the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:28).  And this little worrisome creature will parcel your words of wisdom as it dances from shoelace to face.  And I will resolve to hear them!

Stephen Williams

Humility on the Line

I saw humility stationed like a sentry guarding its treasure.  It wore no badge and displayed no royal banners.  It did not put on airs nor did it show any sign of feeling awkward.  It was an eagle perched on the white painted line of the highway and finishing its meal of roadkill.  No buzzard dare blunder there!  The white crown was clean, but the image seemed to be marred.  I can’t quite conscience the contradiction imposed on my imagination.  The national bird is not so proud as to humble itself out of necessity.  

It did not shy away into some secret hiding place when it heard my truck coming.  It waited until the last second to make sure it was out of the way.  Hunger erases shame.  Need numbs us to social delicacies.  The world is not inverted when nature buries its kin under the wings of natural forces.  It does not blush at the stateliest of birds intervening on dust to dust.  Every day the natural order of things brings the humble to glory and the glorious to humility.  If we do not self-determine humility, humility will come anyway, one way or the other.  

If choosing humility were so easy and natural as an eagle taking the place of a buzzard, the word could be removed from the dictionary.  It would be unnecessary – like no longer needing a word to distinguish china on the table from paper plates if these things didn’t identify wealth or status.  It would be like not needing a word to distinguish between formal wear or sweats if social occasions did not demand them.  All we would have would be plates of pavement and the feathers we were born to wear.  We would ease into humility on our daily walks and display it as effortlessly as smiles and frowns.  We would not be embarrassed by tears.  We would receive empathy as easily as praise and interruption as easily as an invitation.   We would trust our sense of need for provision outside ourselves and live every moment acknowledging our vulnerability to changing circumstances.  We would just know without ever questioning it, that God is as necessary for our every motion as He is for our survival. 

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you. (1 Peter 5:6-7 CSB).

Blessed are the humble, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:5-6 CSB).  

Stephen Williams

After-Storm

In the night, the wind’s broom of loose twigs bound by strings of rain swept the surfaces with hurried and wild swoops leaving the last of Fall trigs and loosely attached tender Spring fresh green leaves.  Someone will have to come behind it and tidy up with a broom of straw and string.  The soothing breeze that follows the storm is stirring random paths of slightly raised waves across the pond.  They catch the rays of light that breach the lagging clouds and linger from shore to shore glittering as they go.  They bump the tender willows like a friend touching your arm and saying, “May I pass through?”  

The feathered creatures have not ceased to say their peace about the reprieve or even taken a breath from their chattering in relief.  They are happy that its force was muted.  They are singing their ballad about an aftermath invisible.  No one would know about the forceful warnings except that those deep throated frogs must be revealing the secret! It is so still that I must wonder if I were awakened in the night by a dream instead of its howling shouts.  It was just letting off steam.  And I worried for nothing.  This time, “The Lord was not in the wind” (1 Kings 19:11).  He is in the stillness instead (1 Kings 19:12).

And Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm. (Mark 4:39)

Stephen Williams

Normal

In the Bible there is a tension that surrounds the word “normal”.  Moses stretched out his hand and the Red Sea returned to normal after the previously enslaved people of God escaped on the dry path which was created by the winds sent by God to hold back walls of water.  It was good that the sea had not been normal.  Then it was good that it became normal again.  Normal then meant that the enemy was crushed by the closing path (Exodus 14:27).  On the other hand, Jesus said to a man with a withered hand, stretch it out, and it returned to normal (Matthew 12:13).  Normal was good.  Abraham’s misguided and unfaithful answer to God’s promise resulted in the birth of a son who was born the normal way while Isaac was “born because of the promise of God” (Galatians 4:23).  In the Old Testament world, for a lamb to qualify to be sacrificed to the Lord it must be normal (Leviticus 22:23 NCV).  It was anything but a normal day when the sun stood still for Joshua’s army and did not set in its normal way that day (Joshua 10:13 NLT).  Because of the evil ways of humanity God adjusted the normal life span to be much shorter than what was normal before (Genesis 6:3). This was the “new normal” and it was not better.  David did not do what kings normally did in his day and ended out yielding to temptation resulting in great grief (2 Samuel 11:1 NLT).  Ezra lamented how abnormal Jerusalem had been in its history (Ezra 4:19 NLT).  Daniel reported that King Nebuchadnezzar repented, and then his mental health returned to normal (Daniel 4:34).  He had been acting like an ox and looked like a scraggly bird instead of a normal human being (Daniel 4:33).  Normally it took eleven days to travel from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh-barnea; but it took the Israelites forty years because of their sin.  Back and forth, normal is good and normal is bad.  

Ecclesiastes 3 is a commentary on what is normal, and normal is not always constructive (3:1-8).  The wise king’s solution is this, “God wants all people to eat and drink and be happy in their work, which are gifts from God” (3:13); but Ecclesiastes is a lament about how despairing life is in that whatever you do seems to make no lasting difference (3:18-22).  

In telling us what the gospel is and testifying about how his life was changed by it, the Apostle Paul wrote.  “Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I saw him” (1 Corinthians 15:9).  The translators of the New Century Version render it this way, “Last of all he was seen by me – as by a person not born at the normal time.”  Paul is illustrating the fact that he witnessed the resurrected Jesus at a time well after the eyewitnesses saw Jesus during the forty-day period before His ascension into Heaven.  He is comparing it to a late birth.  The pregnancy lasted beyond the expected birth date.  He didn’t come as soon as he should have.  Nevertheless, he witnessed the resurrected Jesus anyway.  It did not matter when he was born.

The idea of a state of being that is ideally normal is overrated.  There is no ideal normal unless normal can be used to identify a life that is squarely lived one day at the time, day by day, yielded to the guidance of Jesus.  One day that may mean that I am open to being directed to a path that is different from the one I traveled yesterday.  Another day that may mean that I travel the same path.  One day it may mean that things are different and the next day things may be the same.  Every day, I seek guidance from Jesus and follow in the direction that God guides.  Whatever condition that God grants for me, I offer thanks.  

“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Don’t stifle the Spirit.”  1 Thessalonians 5:16-19 CSB

Stephen Williams

A Drive to Church

The little buds and tiny leaves on the trees in the Spring are just small enough to allow the sunlight to flood all around their surface.  Bursting with virgin life, the forest barely hinders the beams from following their natural path through the tree.  They flash across my windshield.  Just like in winter when limbs are bare except for the residue of dark crispy brown blades of deterioration, you can see right through.  

There are always buzzards crowding the edge of the roadway.  Before being torn down and just before falling down, an old one room school house open to the elements had become their home and early in the morning they would be sitting in single file waiting to leave the blackboards for the cafeteria.  Among them were the elders ready to lead off on the next field trip.  

The alabaster dogwoods randomly dot the tangled labyrinth of bramble.  The purple iris and buttercup decorate an orphaned homestead now shrouded by a thicket.  The sinking pools left from Winter’s flooding is frequented by long-legged waterfowl fishing for stranded chow.  Deer graze in herds like Angus in the pasture.  Some have escaped their fences and glare me down as my truck passes them on the edge of disaster.  Sadly some lie waiting for the sleepy occupants of the schoolhouse down the road.  

A fat crow sits on a fence post daydreaming in the warmth of the sunrise.  A snake has located a spot outside the shadows where it hides in the evening to warm itself.  An owl clocks out from the night shift and quiets itself for a day of rest.  Nocturnal critters evacuate into their hidden havens of safety.  Morning songs fill the vacancy left by the orchestra of night bugs blaring their crescendos to forte blast.  On a front porch we pass, an old hound settles down for its long nap and a cat tired from chasing mice snuggles into a cushion on an old rocking chair in the shade. 

God said, “Let the earth produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and fruit trees on the earth bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds.” And it was so.  Then God said, “Let the earth produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that crawl, and the wildlife of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:11 & 24). 

LORD, our Lord, how magnificent is your name throughout the earth! (Psalm 8:1).

Stephen Williams

A Minute

My next-door neighbor offered me fifty cents an hour.  I suggested he ought to pay sixty cents so it would be easy for me to figure out how much he owed me at the end of the day — a penny a minute.  He smiled at the suggestion and agreed; and my first earnings came at a place where journeys end.  He owned the newest Haywood County, Tennessee cemetery, Memorial Gardens.  My first endeavors did not go down in the history books.  I remember filling a small lake at the gardens with a long four-inch black pipe.  It took days.  I was amazed at how long it took.   We watched and I earned a penny a minute.

My neighbor also owned a share in a camp house on the end of a lingering and winding rutted road.  Driving for the first time ever, and pulling his trailer which was perched on top of a single wheel, I learned that it is more comfortable to steer in the ruts rather than in and out and bouncing up and down and all around.  The tract was on a remote neck of woods that reached deep into a low forest spotted with dirty sloughs chock full of trapped catfish.  When the flood waters receded in the spring, those bottom feeders ended out hunting in the shallows of their new summer homes, now still-water prisons shared with venomous Water Moccasins.  They were separated from the large lakes where duck congregated unaware of spying hunter’s keeping vigil in tree-blinds camouflaged by bamboo harvested from the dense watershed.  My duties included gathering this foliage from the thicket to cloak the sportsman’s perch we placed in a tree overlooking the shimmering lake.  We carried the boards on our backs over leaf covered trails and loaded the bamboo on our shoulders as we hoisted them into the high limbs.  

On each trip to the bottoms we set up our homestead by sweeping the hard and bare ground which remained sheltered from the sun as if it were the open floor of a town hall.  Then the space became our kitchen for cooking Brunswick stew.  We managed its thickness with slices of light-bread poured from their packages into a huge cooker perched over an open propane flame.  The bread’s purpose was to soak up the excess juices so the consistency would not be just that of a soup.   The bread was later discarded.

Once our pilgrimage was too close to winter and we spent the entire day jacking up the car and building a portable road of plank underneath the tires only to immediately abandon it like a bridge to nowhere except into the next stretch of mud.  Then we did it all over again until we could escape the hundred-foot trench.  All this work was history by the following June.  

In the moment, it would seem that such adventures were diversions from the more meaningful endeavors that define who we are and become the structure that memorializes our name in the memories our families carry forward.  But this is basically all I remember of my first employer – these small adventures in meaningless work.  Think again!  In reality, these vignettes are the images that turn out to be captured by the mind when we think of people we have known.  We list these mediocre but memorable days as if they were monuments when the lives of our friends are over.  Could it be that we exist for such interaction and that these snapshots are fundamentally why we reside on God’s green earth?

We set out to change the whole world, but God intends for us to abide with those who live in our little corner of it.  God wants us to pour out our lives a drop at the time as patrons of those we are blessed to live among.  How can we approach living out love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13 without terabits of time well spent in the company of the souls for whom we are granted an audience on our watch?  While we forge our temporary paths – day in and day out – we spend the currency of life in measurements of minutes with others.  We either build structures alone that disappear into the mud or we build them with those with whom we show our love.  The currency is the treasure of minutes accumulated into the span of our life.  We cannot love well unless we are together and the loving of others with the time we have is more important than preaching, doing something supernatural, or dying the death of a martyr.   The value of a minute is  more than a mint full of little copper coins.  

(1 Corinthians 13:2-3 CSB) If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Stephen Williams