AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.
A 3-Minute Read
by Luke Boggs
Another Sunday morning in Alpharetta. The dawn is cold, but the sun is bright. Our neighbors go about their business. Walking the dog. Heading to brunch. Gathering for church.
Half a world away, there’s a war on. One sovereign nation invaded by another. Innocents fleeing and falling all around—soldiers, civilians, conscripts.
There isn’t much we can do. But we can pray.
So that is what we did, lifting up distant brothers and sisters enduring inexpressible fear and pain and loss, with a liturgical prayer for the rescue of others derived from Psalm 107:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe, those he gathered from the lands, from east and west, from north and south. Some wandered in desert wastelands, finding no way to a city where they could settle. They were hungry and thirsty, and their lives ebbed away. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.
And then we sang a song, drawn from the same psalm, praising God for his love and strength, power and faithfulness.
I wondered what our far away brothers and sisters would think—and what I would think if I were in their place.
Would I sing louder, with more conviction? Would I tremble in fear and doubt—or rage? Would I question God? Would I ask if deliverance was coming in this time and place—or waiting in the hereafter?
Later, we read from Deuteronomy 26, which tells God’s people to give to him from the “first fruits” of their labor, always remembering how the Lord, “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” had delivered them out of bondage and into a promised land “flowing with milk and honey.”
Left unsaid here is that ultimate deliverance took a long time. Decades, in fact. Because, after God parted the Red Sea and ushered them out of Egypt, the Israelites wound up wandering in the desert for 40 years. All the while, God led them, protected them and provided for them.
Yes, God is always faithful. But his ways are not always easy to understand. Not all of the beaten down and afflicted are delivered this side of heaven. Our view of things—of everything—is limited. And his is not.
Years ago, in college, my history professor talked about the limits of our understanding, as people passing through history and students trying to make sense of it. He compared us to fleas marching on a hula hoop. Even when we feel like we’re getting somewhere, we may just be walking in circles.
I’m pretty sure the Israelites were under no such illusion of progress as they wandered the desert, wondering when ultimate deliverance would come.
Throughout Sunday’s gathering, I kept thinking about a news story I read last week, a dispatch from the front lines written by Nabih Bulos for The Los Angeles Times. This is how it begins:
Jackson is a singer. So, even though he was standing in a trench in this suburb northwest of Kyiv, even though a massive column of Russian soldiers and weaponry lay just a mile or so up the main road, it didn’t take much prompting from his friends in his Ukrainian army unit to goad him into song.
And what did this singer-soldier sing? When he opened his mouth, the words rang out in English, familiar to the handful of men around him and countless others around the world.
Birds flying high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life
And I’m feeling good
You may recognize the words of “Feeling Good,” a popular music standard written more than a half-century ago by two Englishmen, Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse, and immortalized by American Nina Simone.
Simone, a multi-talented African-American musician and civil rights champion, recorded her timeless, bluesy version of the song in 1965.
At its core, the song is about the sense that, somehow, all is right in the world, as the singer compares how she feels with a host of natural phenomena.
Birds flying high / Sun in the sky / Fish in the sea / River running free / Stars when you shine / Scent of the pine
It is also a song about finding liberation and freedom in a rebirth and new life that’s come at last. Which makes this, like so many others, a gospel song.
In 1965, when Simone recorded the song, all was not right in the world. Not for Black people in America. And not for anyone anywhere really, fallen and flawed and broken as this world was and is and will be.
Last week, all was not right in the world for Jackson, the singer-soldier, and his comrades near and far. And, yet, somehow, even in this present darkness, there is hope.
All of this made me think of yet another song, from another season of the church calendar: “In the Bleak Midwinter” with words by Christina Rosetti.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part,
Yet what I can I give Him, give my heart.
Sometimes, oftentimes, all we can give him is our hearts. Expressed in a song. Or a prayer. Or a song that doubles as a prayer.