Where the Present Touches Eternity

We didn’t really know what to expect when we stepped into the house. We only knew it would be a unique experience.

A Nigerian family from our church had invited us to celebrate the 50th birthday of their oldest sister with them. She is visiting America for the first time from Nigeria, and they planned a night of unabated joy.

As the evening wore on, more and more people poured through the doors, all of them dressed head to toe in traditional clothing. The women’s dresses were handmade by one of the sisters, their head wraps bold and bright, heels high, and jewelry big.

We began the evening with a hymn, following by praise songs, words of wisdom from the brother and our pastor, then words of affirmation for the birthday girl from anyone who wanted to speak.

They were effusive in their praise, voices singing loud. No one cared if they were on key or not. It wasn’t about a perfect rendering of the song. It was about praise. It was about joy.

It was a celebration.

“We want to thank God that you are still alive today!” they said, over and over. “We praise God because He could have taken you before today, but He didn’t. He gave you 50 years, and we thank Him for that.”

They pulled out drums and sang, the women all gathering around the celebrated sister, and they danced, laughing and clapping. The younger brother dropped to his knees, his arms raised high to the sky. It was worship. It was celebratory. It was praise.

It was joy.

And I sat in the corner with tears wetting my cheeks because this is the joy I long to fill my home. These people come from a country that has seen deep and lasting hardship, but you wouldn’t know. There was nothing melancholy or solemn about the evening. Only smiles that split wide their faces, and the overflowing joy that comes with praise.

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It’s something I’ve seen before. I don’t know why, but I’m forever amazed at the ability of those who have walked through pain and suffering to live in the present with great joy and gladness. But what do I expect?

Bitterness? Anger?

Why do I look for these things in those whose backgrounds have been less blessed than my own? Is it because I’ve been so immersed in the American mentality my whole life that I falsely and wrongly believe that hardship must naturally be dwelled upon? 

Is it because I have seen so many people I know, people who have been unendingly blessed, dwell on hurt feelings and heartaches, simmering in anger rather than living in the blessed beauty of forgiveness and joy?

Oh, America. How much we miss when wrapped inside all our ‘blessing’.

We miss the opportunity for joy when we aren’t willing to look past our anger.

We miss true, unadulterated praise when we get stuck dwelling on the heartaches of the past.

We lose sight of every good thing when we constantly look toward an unknown future in fear.

I’m saddened to think that my country is missing out on a great deal of celebration because we’re so blinded by ease.

Easy Street has made us boring.

“In a word, the future is, of all things, the thing least like eternity. Is is the most completely temporal part of time – for the Past is frozen and no longer flow, and the Present is all lit up with eternal rays.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Our nation is caught up in the uncertainty of the future right now. We’re rolling in our hopes and our fears, and it’s stealing joy, siphoning it right off before our eyes.

We spend so much time looking into the past, hoping that it will dictate the future, that somehow we seem to have forgotten how to enjoy the present, which is bright with the rays of eternity. The present is where love takes shape – it’s where memories are made, life is lived, and joy is found.

Oh, friends. May we all experience the joy of living in the present today. May we let go of the anger and hurt of the past, and fear not the uncertainties of the future.

May we touch eternity today, right now, in this very moment.

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When the Praise Bubbles Up

He walked up to me after church and grabbed my hand.

“I would really like to sing with you,” he said. He looked at me with kind eyes, and his hand trembled slightly inside of mine. “My wife and I are moving in a couple of weeks. Can we make this happen soon?”

Of course, I immediately said yes. Mr. David has been a kind, gentle presence inside our church home since our family first began attending. Always quick with a crooked smile, and a wink of the eye, I’d been immediately drawn to his tender spirit.

Parkinson’s Disease has slowed Mr. David down in recent years. But it has not weakened his spirit, nor has it diminished his love of music.

When I readily agreed, Mr. David smiled. “Good. I’d like to sing ‘I’ve Just Seen Jesus.’ Have you heard it?”

In that moment, my heart skipped a beat, because yes, of course I’ve heard the song. I’m a child of the ’80’s, after all. I grew up on Sandi Patty, singing my heart out in the passenger seat, while my mom tried not to cringe behind the wheel.

I mean, I don’t want to brag, but I could pretty much nail ‘Via Dolorosa’ as a nine year old. I was all over it.

But my heart didn’t skip a beat with excitement at the suggestion of this song, but rather trepidation. See, I’m older now, and I’m more aware of the fact that I am not Sandi Patty. I thought of the notes that she hits at the end of that song, and I felt like I might be a little sick. Immediately, fear took hold of me as I imagined myself trying to croak out those high notes into a microphone, and watching everyone seated in front of me cringe the way my mom did behind the wheel of our Buick.

Last Sunday morning, Mr. David and I met early to practice. Again, I felt my heart flutter with nervousness, because I was so focused on the last half of the song – the part where the female vocal is supposed to climb into the rafters and hang out for awhile.

As we ran through the song, though, I found myself less focused on my own short comings (namely that my name isn’t Sandi Patty), and more on the remarkable task that Mr. David faced. Parkinson’s has robbed him of a lot of physical capabilities, and getting the words out quickly enough was a challenge. But the one thing Parkinson’s has not taken from him is his voice. For all my concern about my ability to hit the high notes, I never once doubted his ability to do it.

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In the moments leading up to the song, I felt the Lord begin to whisper. It was the gentle, kind admonition that my heart needed.

This morning isn’t about you. It’s not about whether or not you can hit those notes. It’s not about presenting a perfect song to a listening audience.

This morning is about laying your gifts and talents before me in an offering of praise.

Give your voice to me.

I’ve got this.

I heard these words almost as if they’d been spoken audibly, and when it came time to stand in front, the tremor in my spirit was gone. No longer focused on my own shortcomings, I was able to instead focus on the truly remarkable gift that Mr. David shared with all of us.

He stood up there, and despite the physical challenges that threatened to derail him, he opened his mouth and he let the praise bubble out. The words were warbled at times, but it didn’t matter, because his heart was fully present.

By the end of the song, everyone was standing and there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Because when we are willing to share our gifts in an act of humble praise, no matter how imperfect they may be, people cannot help but be moved.

I learned something last Sunday. When we offer back our gifts and talents, it’s not about the end result. It’s not about presenting a finished product that is perfectly polished, because perfection doesn’t guarantee impact.

But when we’re willing to offer up our broken praise simply out of a passion for the art, and for the Maker, that is when the greatest offering of praise is presented.

I’ll forever be thankful to Mr. David for teaching me that lesson.

And for fulfilling the secret dream of my 1987 nine-year-old self, which was to be Sandi Patty for a day.

Happy Weekend, everyone!

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