A Human Song — A Heavenly Song

I noticed that after sitting and reading silently for an hour that the birds were too timid to come to the full tubular-shaped feeder nearby. The sunflower seed were not enough to overcome their fear. Their need was not elevated enough on this hot summer morning when nature offers its own buffets. But when I began to read a devotion into my iPhone in order to send it to a friend, my voice became a song to comfort the fear of the goldfinch. The sparrow felt safe to flutter over to the feeder. The chickadee sang back its own song in harmony with my voice. And when I heard it, I looked up from my dictation. The chickadee fled. But in my experience — the most timid of all — the goldfinch, kept on intently about its work of feasting. I paused my reading and actually said out loud — recorded into the microphone for perpetuity: “The birds are responding to my voice!” and then I thought, “They must hear as music — like a birdsong.” And then, as the Spirit ministered to me in that moment, I wrote this devotion you are now reading.

Of course — to the bird — these were but the sounds of some strange creature — a human song. But as the devotion rang out its true words of wisdom from holy script, I felt comforted, too. I felt safe as well. And for good reason; the music of Scripture soothes my soul.

“The voice of the LORD is powerful;
the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.” Psalm 29:4

“When he (Jesus, the Shepherd) has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.” John 10:4

By Stephen Williams © June 25, 2022

Promise of Life

The streaks of film cover the pond partly — like dust glittering beneath the reflection of the willow and weed. The brush blocks the breeze that disperses this glaze into patterns in motion. On top of the still water the fragile membrane breaks and scatters apart as the air drops into its basin. The wind is the artist that gently smooths her brush across the fluid canvas where snapper turtles split the seems by bobbing their heads from beneath. Hungry perch are peering for long legged spiders dancing across the grainy surface like splattered dark specks of paint. And God speaks through the sounds and sights of life.

Springing off a low hanging cypress limb, two sparrows soar, dancing in the air and flirting with the prospects of their future nest egg. A rabbit returns to the same spot it frequents each dawn. Its nest is near where vulnerable offspring nurse. Bashful doe hide behind the fence row and this one fowl squeaks out her song. Bees dart into yellow blooms. A hummingbird hovers over sweet nectar. And God speaks through the sounds and sights of life.

The weathered cocoon still hangs on the twig but it vibrates from turmoil deep within the chamber of its heart. It shivers and splits, opening the gate. It draws on unknown strength to burst out. Orange, lined in black paisley wings, it floats gently into the cloud and the dreams of a green thing glued to the dusty earth come true! And God speaks through the sounds and sights of life.

© W. Stephen Williams
6/15/2022

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What am I looking forward to?

It has just occurred to me today that I have not been looking forward to any special trip or big occasion in several months. On April 5, 2020, I settled into my retirement. It is mislabeled for me. I have not retired from pastoring Simpson. I have not retired from study — in fact, on an ongoing basis — I study more in a week now than I ever did. There were weeks here and there in my experience during which I studied as much; but now I study just because I love it and I study as much week in and week out! I have not retired from being creative in my sermon preparation and in my writing. But I am dependent on my retirement account and social security, and I expect to be in this exact situation as far as I can imagine into the future. So I have been missing something important that I suppose some folk in my situation have to discover anew. That something is the answer to the question, “What am I going to look forward to?”

There are two things I’m going to put my mind to looking forward to from now on. The first is a new day dawning. Psalm 118 has been coming to mind. “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I had a friend that loved that verse — Dr. James Cecil. I believe God was behind it, but James was the human instrument responsible for my becoming Pastor of Simpson’s church. After he was diagnosed with a terminal illness he said to me that his hope was to see one more spring. He didn’t make it. He died that February. We do not have any powers to negotiate new days. So, I’m going to start now. I’m going to bed tonight looking forward to the new day tomorrow brings. If the answer to this old prayer is that I have another day on this ancient earth — “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” — then it will be a day already born in my imagination and a day formed in a plan to rejoice in it. I will look forward to new days from now on.

The second thing to look forward to is heaven. Psalm 118 is really focused on the second thing. The “day” is the day our glorification is complete. I thought through the question of what to look forward to today and decided I would put my mind — my imagination — my thoughts — my pondering — to looking forward to heaven, just like I used to look forward to a big trip planned in advance. To get me started I stacked up my unread books on heaven and started on the first one, Scot McKnight’s The Heaven Promise. I don’t know how it will turn out but after several pages meant to capture interest and warm up to the subject; Scot jumped in by focusing on “the single most important fact the Bible teaches about heaven [which] is that it is promised.” God promised it! God promised heaven! God has proven himself to be an expert promise keeper. And so I’m going to meditate on its coming. I am going to put my mind to envisioning heaven each night after I turn out the light.

I believe the trip will be the best one I have ever taken. I will see the most beautiful scenery I have ever imagined and the people will be the best people I have ever imagined being around. The one’s I knew before they died will have been transformed. I will find out for myself that the man who runs everything is even more clearly perfect and fun to be with than I have already come to know him to be. His name is Jesus.

© W. Stephen Williams
June 14, 2022

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Questions

I was just remembering the day my daughter came home from church and said that her teacher would not answer her questions. They were too silly or too awkward or too off base — or something. That was a long time ago. I told her no questions were off limits to God and she could bring them home and I would treat them with respect and journey into an answer to them with her. This is what God does for me. He invites all of us to ask our questions — to bring them to him; and then the journey begins. The title given to the journey identifies the category of wisdom we are to acquire.

I knew then and still know that we do not outgrow the need to ask questions nor does Jesus ever tire of the questions we bring (James 1:5). His answers work into our minds like food works into the body — more slowly than we realize; and the nourishment often goes unnoticed because our need disappears in secret. And with each new need the process starts over again. So we keep eating. We keep asking. And we go about dissolving our energy only to find that there is what seems to be — an infinite supply (Job chapters 1-42; John 6:53-58).

I am writing this in the early afternoon of a fine day bathed in sunshine and glimmering with the prospect that February is eventually followed by Spring.  

“Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God — who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly — and it will be given to him” James 1:5

© Wm. Stephen Williams, 2/9/2022

Watermelon and Donuts

There were two neighborhood stores near my house when I was a child. Both lined US-70 just as it slipped out of Brownsville on its stretch to becoming Summer Avenue in Memphis sixty miles away. Occasionally a truck full of watermelon from Missouri would drive up and for the picking of its best, several of us kids would climb up on the back of that ten-wheeler and toss them down to be stacked inside. When we were rid of the last melon gently caught and placed for sale, we cracked open and parceled out the most delectable of all to moisten our palates on a blistering summer day.

Just up the block from there was The Kream Castle. The Sallari’s freshly cooked donuts were lined across a long row of windows. Sometimes I’d leave Anderson Grammar School by way of the front door so I could walk home by those windows which curved around the front. I would stroll by dragging my hand across the glass while gazing on the donut glaze which was glistening in the western sun and glaring back through glass with a compelling summons. Dad’s service station was right next door and I’d go begging if I were short on change.

A wise man once said, “Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul, healing to the bones” (Proverbs 16:24). “Pleasant” means kind. Kind words are as sweet as warm glaze on donuts just out of the oven. Take the time to form them in your mind. Smooth the sentences out of your memories like rolling dough in a baker’s pan. Concentrate carefully as you shape your kind thoughts of pleasant truth into consolations. Let the words be sweetened with sincere inflection. Award the soul you know with healing that pernitrates to the bones. Become a source of shalom like a juicy wet honeycomb so your friend can retreat into delightful cheer.  

Stephen Williams 

3/5/2021

Dust at Dusk


It was brought to my attention recently that the form of dirt we call dust is responsible for the beautiful sunsets I admire so much at dusk. The setting sun shines through the dust in the air – dirt, the soiled floor on the very top of the earth’s crust – the stuff that paints a writing tablet on delivery truck beds where handwritten bumper signs can be scribbled by children who pass by. The despised dull coat that collects on tabletops between dustings that we hastily brush away when an unexpected guest knocks on the door. But the sunset reminds us that God collects the dirt and creates a masterpiece. He created the first human from dirt. And in John 9, Jesus takes his hands and pulls the mud together with his fingers and puts it on the eye of a man born blind. This blind man had woken up every morning of his life smothered with continuing darkness until mud in his eye with the fingerprint of Jesus on it replaced the darkness with years of glowing daylight passing into pink and red sunsets. When the mud gets deep, the material for a masterpiece is abundant indeed. This reminds me that when Job sinks in the mud of disaster, God reviews creation with him (Job chapters 38-41) and then raises him up as one who could only say that he had just been hearing of God (Job 42:5); but now he is seeing! 

Stephen Williams

Asking Questions

The mathematician Georg Cantor wrote in his 1867 doctoral thesis, “In mathematics the art of asking questions is more valuable than solving problems.” Not just in mathematics!  Asking questions about God is essential for our spiritual growth.  Of course we must decide about the foundational ideas of sound doctrine along the way; but as far as our steadily growing in faith is concerned, it is healthy to keep restocking our mind’s shelf with new sets of unanswered questions.  After all, “Faith is the substance …of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).  So to be growing in it is to have unanswered questions.  

I expect that the hunt will continue in heaven.  Just because we will be there does not mean we will have shrunk the incomprehensible complexity of God to fit into our new minds, thus diminishing God to something other than he is — the incomprehensible God — by definition.  Galileo wrote, “There are such profound secrets and such lofty conceptions that the night labors and the researches of hundreds and yet hundreds of the keenest minds, in investigations extending over thousands of years would not penetrate them, and the delight of the searching and finding endures forever.”  

I discovered these wonderful quotes by Canton and Galileo in an article about infinity on https://wng.org by Matthew Connally, Professor in the Department of History at Columbia University in New York (https://wng.org/roundups/materialism-101-what-is-infinity-1628946910).

Stephen Williams

Bozo

Bozo was blind.  Our Peekapoo lost sight in one eye as a result of a close encounter with a car and the other eye a year or two later in an altercation with another.  We continued to let Bozo out for the obvious reasons and he always returned to our door as he did before the blindness.  I do not remember him ever bumping into things.  He seemed to sniff his way along with apparent perfection.  He needed no white red tipped cane.  He did what he needed to do following his nose.  We did have to hunt him down on one snowy day and I found him stuck in a small drift at the long end of the block beyond his normal range.  The snow covered all his invisible marks on ridged tree trunks, rain gutter spouts, and red fire hydrants.  He was way off course!  

I too find myself needing invisible markers to keep from getting mired down by the obstacles that interfere with my being contented with myself.  I need markers to help me confront the lies that come disguised as right and fluffy white but do not represent reality.  These markers are in the Bible and are a fountain of truth about how God treasures me and is ruthless in his pursuit to counter all my weaknesses with his love and cover my faults with charity (see Brennen Manning’s, Ruthless Trust, HarperCollins, © 2000 for a wonderful elaboration).  Jesus is packed for the long and hard journey and leads an ardent search until he finds me — no matter how far into thickets, deep pits, and gullies where I have traveled off course (Luke 15:4; Psalm 23:4,6; John 10:11).    

I used to be dependent on underlinings and notes on narrow margins of thin pages of india paper with fraying edges; but now it is not required that the long traveled paths are forged by fingers under good light and reading glasses slid onto the end of my nose, but I run over the invisible paths by remembering where the markers are.  This has been out of common need and repetitive experience with weaknesses rather than spiritual finesse.  These markers remind me that I can be as kind to myself as God is.  I can be as forgiving of my faults as God is.  I can be as accepting of me in spite of my weaknesses as God is.  I can give myself the needed break that God does.

My faltering steps and stammering tongue does not hamper or hinder God’s extravagant love (Exodus 4:10; Isaiah 32:4).  He continues to stretch out his open arms and reaches beyond any reasonable human effort (Hosea 11:9; 1 Corinthians 2:5).  God chooses to be forgetfully blind in His forgiving and lovingly kind in His rescue because I am his child (Jeremiah 31:34).  He raises me up and covers my head with a crown instead of crushing me (Psalm 103:3-5).  His extreme measure was to endure the crushing punishment for my reckless meanderings (Isaiah 53:5).

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his faithful love toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him. For he knows what we are made of, remembering that we are dust” (Psalm 103:11-14).

© Stephen Williams

When the Sun Does Rise

The dawn wakes me with the sounds of a cooing dove calling out a gospel of love and the bobwhite responds by sounding its name as if to place it first on the list of the ones needing to hear.  A choir of sopranos from a winged ensemble sing a chorus with the words, “I am next in that line.  I need to hear it!”.  The sky is painted translucent heavenly crystal white through which I observe the newly plowed field with small planted crop in long straight lines forecasting the bountiful harvest.  It will come soon enough.  Framed by a moist green lawn specked with little clover blooms, a yellowed back black bee is hovering over lavender in the flower bed.  It’s path is crossed by the blur of a hummingbird suckling with delight.  A spectacular canvas of beauty encircles me.  The blanket of fog with a lite mist of new spring water kisses my face bringing comfort on a chilled morning.  A pleasant breeze threatens the prospect of seeing the sun; but no sun is needed in the presence of the Lord (Revelation 21:23).  Against elegant creation’s sketch, His glory rises to overshadow so that when the sun does rise, it doesn’t matter. 

Stephen Williams

Fishing Bird

Just as I looked up, she flew in from the South with her back to me and landed a good twenty-five feet from the sunny side of the pond.  With her wings open and wide spread she gracefully set down in such a way as to show off her plume of sky blue colors offering only the slightest contrast to the early summer cerulean ceiling which fashioned a heavenly roof dotted with modest fluffy white clouds here and there.  The great blue heron paced herself for fishing.  She was earnest but carefully composed in her approach.  

With long strides, she marched over to the nearest beach which is covered in brush and weeping willows and stood there in a full stand as if to survey the possibilities.  Then she marched back out toward the spot where she landed as if to bid me a premature farewell.  But she returned.  And moved around the far side where a year or two ago, I observed one of her friends — perhaps it was her and now she has returned.  I watched her then stand in that very spot, catch her dinner, and raise her neck tall.  I watched the form of a fish descend her gullet.  That was a good day.

The water appeared to be still, but there was a rippling around the naked limb of a small tree I cut down just before leaves browned and the air began to chill last year.  She reversed course again, back up the bank.  She took more time than I would have, but she has more to fear lest she herself become prey to some other creature lurking in the brush.  Perhaps she was watching me and contemplating the level of threat I might pose.  If so, she was badly mistaken and much too cautious, for I offered only curios observation.  Eventually she made her way through the tall spring grass down the bank and she swam over behind the rippling water where she quietly waited until after the bullfrog became fearless with slow croaking base vibrating tones.  She continued on her path around to the cypress knees where she was out of sight to carry out her trade.  

I returned to my reading until she rose up and flew to the dense coverage where she first hesitated.  Momentarily she lifted off again and flew back across to a perch hight on a cypress limb.  She did not delay there for a minute.  Off she went to the North leaving for better prospects.  The entire event lasted a full hour and a quarter.  A most satisfying movie-length entertainment but more fulfilling than a happy ending.  

I am reminded of Peter and his crew after a long night of watching empty nets.  Even expert fisherman come away empty sometimes.  In sunlight the white glittering linen cords scattered the cod; but Jesus told them to cast again.  Against all odds and after defeat had been sounded (Luke 5:2), the fish were willing and the harvest was miraculous (John 4:35-36).  Most impressive!  Jesus prophesying like Jeremiah or Ezekiel with a sign-act meant to reveal God’s inspiration.  Even more than prophets of old, Jesus knows where to find his treasure (Luke 5:7; Luke 19:10).  In record time and with persuasive power, He commands the disciple (Luke 5:5) to extract those who have been drawn to the holy and designated meeting space where He has already directed them to congregate.  That was a great day!

“For he and all those with him were amazed at the catch of fish they had taken…. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ Jesus told Simon (because it was obviously miraculous to catch fish in white linen nets in the daytime).  ‘From now on you will be catching people.’ Then they brought the boats to land, left everything, and followed him” (Luke 59:11).

Stephen Williams