High above the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio, sits the home of the Rankin family. Reverend John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and early abolitionist, along with his wife and children, hosted over two thousand enslaved African Americans as conductors on the Underground Railroad. The enslaved would make their way across the river—sometimes on a small boat captained by John Parker, an enslaved man who purchased his freedom and moved to Ripley—and then proceed up the northern bank of the river to the Rankin home where a lantern burned in the front window signaling the pathway to freedom. Mrs. Rankin would serve the newly freed a hot meal and dry their wet clothes as they rested for a few hours before journeying on to the next stop on the Underground Railroad—often in Red Oak, Ohio, in the home of another Presbyterian minister.
In the 1820’s, Rev. Rankin wrote a series of letters to his brother, a slaveowner in Virginia, petitioning him to free the enslaved and arguing for abolition. These letters were later published as Letters on American Slavery. Rev. Rankin’s letters along with his passionate speeches ignited the abolitionist movement and influenced many of its ardent proponents.
My family visited the Rankin home this past Friday. A question asked by Jadon to the tour guide prompted her to speak of the Rankin home as a spiritual and holy place. As I later reflected on our visit and this comment by the guide, I thought to myself that indeed it is a holy place for the work of liberation is holy work—the work of God to which we are all called and invited. Rev. Rankin and his wife and children lived out the gospel in the dangerous yet lifegiving work of liberating others. They accepted God’s call on their lives even with the risks involved because they knew God needed them for the crucial work of setting others free.
People remain bound today—enslaved by poverty, addiction, mental illness, racism, sexism and homophobia. The work of liberation remains the work of God’s people. It begins by informing ourselves and understanding our own role in what keeps others bound and keeps us from setting them free. It then continues as we make changes to our attitudes and actions—seeing people differently and doing something concrete to bring liberation to them. Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom. Our welcome and our simple aid can make all the difference as they journey to a better and freer place.
Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom.
Enslaved men, women and children stood on the southern bank of the Ohio River looking and longing for the light in the window of the Rankin home—a light they knew would lead them to freedom. People look to us too. May we be light for their footsteps. May we make their path brighter and easier with our goodness, kindness and tenacious commitment to their liberation.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
I knew nothing of surprise lilies before living in Missouri. They surprised me indeed when I first saw the pink flowers adorned on tall slender leafless stems suddenly appear among gardens and various landscapes late in summer. From where did they come? How did they grow up so quickly? What should I call them? To an often dry and dusty end of summer terrain these unexpected flowers brought grace and beauty.
What a great name for a flower— “SURPRISE Lily!” It is well suited for a plant that appears so suddenly and unexpectantly in unanticipated places. What a wonder and joy it offers with its simple stem yet delicate and almost translucent pink petals. The surprise lily serves too as a reminder that you just never know when nature will wow you!
God is about surprises too. As soon as we think we have seen it all or know it all—SURPRISE—God shows up when and where we did not expect! Typically, we think of God creating the world eons ago while forgetting that God continues to create today. “I am about to do a new thing,” God said to Isaiah. A new thing. God is still in the habit of bringing forth newness of life. Oftentimes, this comes as such a surprise to us. We live wilderness and desert lands not expecting rivers and byways. But then God springs up in our path with something new, beautiful and joyous. Our task is to keep our eyes open. “Do you not perceive it?” God asks. “Yes!” we want to be able to say!
Sometimes the surprise comes from within. Suddenly, we are hit with a sense of wonder or struck with gratitude. Other times, an unexpected hope or courage rises in us and we are ready to be about the new thing God is doing in us. We find ourselves surprised yet immensely grateful to be alive and a part of what God is up to in this world.
So keep your chin up. You might see a surprise lily in your neighborhood. Or, better yet, you might be surprised to find God doing something amazing around you or deep within your heart. Wherever you are surprised take in the beauty of it all and be filled with gratitude for the creative goodness of our God.
As a kid I picked blackberries with my mother and grandmother on hot Southern summer days. The blackberries grew wild in pastures and along roadsides. I distinctly remember picking with my grandma the berries that grew along a curvy country road near my home. The tall and broad bushes offered buckets of the fruit that we picked as cars passed by. Every blackberry picking outing included my mom and grandma recalling how once while picking blackberries angry bees chased them through a pasture. They always recounted this harrowing moment with such lightheartedness. They delighted in their speedy escape.
Honestly, I never did and still do not care too much for fresh blackberries. But bake them into a cobbler and top with vanilla ice cream and I can eat them until as Southerners used to say, “I’m full as tick.” Blackberry cobbler was the taste of summer. And, oh, how I enjoy it still.
The work of God into which we are invited and called is much like blackberry picking. We venture out to pick the fruit of vines we neither planted nor tended—vines that are often wild and in wild places. But pick we do and gather a harvest that is beautiful, bright and satisfying. Sure, there is some danger involved but it is well worth it at the end of the day when you enjoy the result of your labor. And all the while you find yourself filled with gratitude for what God provides and what God does even along roadsides and among wild places.
Jesus once told his followers that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. He said this as he looked with compassion on the crowds of helpless and hurting folks and then he immediately sent his disciples out to do his work. Jesus needed their help—he needed their hands, voices and hearts to heal and help. Jesus needs us too. So he sends us out along roadsides and into wild places to do the good work of God.
So, where is he sending you, me and us? Well, we may not know for certain but we can be sure it is among the hurting and helpless. So let’s go! And remember the harvest is always beautiful, bright and satisfying—and there may even be cobbler!
My mother-in-law, Darlene, loved daisies. My wife, Terry, tried on and off to grow daisies but despite her success with many other perennials the daisies would never establish themselves and return. Darlene died in August of 2011. The follow spring, to our surprise, daisies appeared in our yard. Season after season, they grew and expanded. So much so that we could take family pictures among them in the spring. We loved those daisies.
When we moved to Ohio in the summer of 2018, we harvested seeds from the daisies and brought them with us. We finally planted them in the summer of 2020 with uncertainty about whether they would grow. Grow they did and this spring they are flourishing. One of these is pictured above. They bring us such joy with their brightness and simply beauty and how they help us recall and remember Darlene.
Life is like that. You never know when new life and beauty will unexpectedly show up. All you can do is celebrate when they do and savor the wonder of it all.
As well, don’t underestimate the power of little things—of seed themselves and of collecting a few seeds and casting them on fresh soil. Our small deeds of kindness, goodness and love can really make a difference. What is small can often impact others abundantly.
So, keep a look out for new life and beauty. Do something small yet deliberate and meaningful for someone day. You just don’t know what might spring up and the lasting impact it will make.
“Be still before the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” Psalm 37:7
As I write I look out upon the serene snowy landscape outside my window. The snow appears gentle and light; the sunlight glistens off of the snowy surface; the winter wind moves tree branches and ornamental grasses. I know that it is bone-chilling cold out there, but, wow, is it beautiful! Such beauty helps to settle me, to quiet my soul.
The thesaurus lists the following synonyms for serenity—tranquility, calmness, peacefulness, quietness and stillness. It seems to me that these are the very things that many of us in our world today find lacking. We long for serenity, peace, claim and quiet. We long for a moment in which our minds and hearts are stilled and we can simply be—be at rest in God and in this world.
Serenity is both a moment that can unexpectedly come upon us—such as when I look out my window on a sunny winter’s day—and also a state of mind which we can create—such as when I reflect and pray. For me, I need a quiet space where I can read a short passage of Scripture or a devotional book. I need to be able to sit comfortably and breath slowly and deeply. I must deliberately center my mind on what I am reading and put away distractions. In short, I need to be fully present in the moment—aware of my own being and of the Eternal Being. I find that peace comes to me in such quiet spaces where and when I am open to both God’s presence and God’s word.
I invite you in the full mix of the chaos and craziness that is too often life in this world to stop; find a quiet space; and just be and listen. If you need a good recommendation of a book of the Bible or a devotional book to read let me know; I would be pleased to recommend. And when you pray let your heart speak to God. Do not overthink or worry about the words; instead, focus on the moment with God. Also, remain open to those marvelous, unexpected moments of serenity that will often simply show up. Be ready to see them and to fully experience them.
Remember that I pray for you—prayers for your peace.
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22:1-2
A couple nights ago I dreamed of walking in a garden of spring flowers. The time was not yet spring but still January. I recall myself surrounded by all sorts of blooming flowers but I particularly remember all the tulips and peonies. In the dream I felt the beauty and serenity of the garden while also feeling some concern over the flowers freezing in the remaining days of winter. There was a certain strangeness to a place where flowers bloomed in January yet also such wonder and delight. Maybe the Spirit knew I needed such a dream—an unexpected yet welcome vision.
In the depths of winter when the cold sets in, skies are grey and the ground barren, I need some sure reminder of what will come. I need to remember that not only will these days pass but that these days are a period of preparation for the life-giving, beautiful days just around the corner. I need to remember to focus my gaze beyond the bleakness of now and watch with intention for breaks in the ground and buds on the trees. The fullness of life is upon me if I can be patient.
As readers of the Bible, we often flee from the book of Revelation—what with its signs of doom and beasts of destruction. But when we do persist to the end of the book (and the end of the Bible) we find verses that sing with promise, hope, new beginnings and peace. The verses above are a part of the final vision of Revelation—the city of God nourished by the river of life and the tree of life that gives persistent, perennial fruit month after month. This city is a place where there will be no thirst or hunger; all be satisfied and well.
The first century Christians who received and heard the book of Revelation found themselves a persecuted minority in the vast, oftentimes repressive, world of the Roman Empire. Their situation appeared bleak. Revelation promised them that suffering would not be their end; rather, a regenerated world in harmony with God awaited them. The fullness of life was upon them if they could be patient.
What about you? Is the bleakness of winter and pandemic wearing you down? I invite you to lift your gaze above what is and see what will be. May the Spirit grant you renewed vision in these days of the beauty that is to come and the promises of God to be fulfilled.