'Through Him who with us sideth'

"For Ragamuffins, God's name is Mercy. We see our darkness as a prized possession because it drives us into the heart of God. Without mercy our darkness would plunge us into despair - for some, self-destruction. Time alone with God reveals the unfathomable depths of the poverty of the spirit. We are so poor that even our poverty is not our own: It belongs to the mysterium tremendum of a loving God. " --Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Sliding into my usual spot in the sanctuary, I silenced my phone and placed the bulletin in my lap.  I’m a ‘back right’ girl, myself…do you have a spot?  It doesn’t matter if I arrive early with my pick of the place or slip in as the call to worship commences, I most always settle in the same general area.  I call it the  “Ragamuffin right.” An eclectic group of worshippers that includes college students, late comers with lattes, dating and/or flirting singles, unknowing visitors, a few former back row Baptists, and me.  It’s cozy in the 'Back Right', and welcome change from the 'Front Left' I grew up in.  These days I prefer my ugly face cries to not be on display.  And moreover, I can be a little more discreet when I realize after I have left the BB that my Spanx are showing.  

I scanned the bulletin to preview the songs for the service.  I can’t wait to be surprised; I like to know what is ahead so it’s a weekly ritual. Just as I noted the first hymn, the congregation stood to sing. The room filled up with voices singing:

A mighty fortress is our God, 
a bulwark never failing; 

I wanted to belt it out, and I knew my instinct to raise the roof would be perfectly accepted among my fellow ragamuffins.  By verse two, however, I was digging in my purse for my handkerchief.  (And ladies, why is it that all of the contents in the purse somehow disappear into a dark abyss when we need a particular item?) I continued digging as I sang along:

Did we in our own strength confide, 
our striving would be losing, 
were not the right man on our side, 
the man of God's own choosing. 
Dost ask who that may be? 
Christ Jesus, it is he; 
Lord Sabaoth, his name, 
from age to age the same, 
and he must win the battle.

Finally.  The pink Kleenex with the texture of sandpaper will have to suffice.  Perhaps it will also act as an exfoliator for my adult acne.  I considered the second verse, “my strength” is never a good bet…He is the Victor, not me.  

And though this world, with devils filled, 
should threaten to undo us, 
we will not fear, for God hath willed 
his truth to triumph through us. 
The Prince of Darkness grim, 
we tremble not for him; 
his rage we can endure, 
for lo, his doom is sure; 
one little word shall fell him.

Jennifer has an amazing way on the piano of building up the music as the lyrics exhort more TRUTH.  The sounds from Laura’s cello grew fuller and more powerful.  I think I almost shouted out, “Now, let’s bring it home errrbody!!!” (In my mind anyway, that’s how it almost played out.)  Instead, I blew my nose and smiled through the tears as the congregation, the ragamuffins, and me sang the final verse:

That word above all earthly powers, 
no thanks to them, abideth; 
the Spirit and the gifts are ours, 
thru him who with us sideth. 
Let goods and kindred go, 
this mortal life also; 
the body they may kill; 
God's truth abideth still; 
his kingdom is forever. 

“Encore! Encore!” I yelled. (Inside of course--I’m Presbyterian.)

In the story I am telling, you may recall my relationship to this hymn.  It was my father’s favorite, and we sang it as his funeral.   But the version that will forever be imprinted in my mind is the one we sang together just days before he passed.   The darkness of his bedroom and heaviness of the air still did not alert me to the forthcoming actions he would take.  He was lying in his bed, with his BPAP in place (a compliant sleep apnea patient) and I attempted to comfort him.  I didn’t know what to do, and I surely didn’t know what to say.  So I sang.  And as I started his favorite him, he joined in and sang every single word of every single verse.  His words had been few in recent days, but at this moment he sang.  He was clinging to the Truth He knew even in His despair.  I do not begin to understand the complexity of depression, despair, or suicide nor will I attempt to simplify or make a cliché of it on a blog post.  I will, however, cling to that same Truth my father knew deep in his heart.  It’s the same TRUTH that He is now singing with a hosts of angels in Glory.  

Sweet friends, the things of this world are fading.  Are you desperately striving for something, someone, or some new circumstance that you believe will bring you happiness or better yet, “a WIN”?  You think, “If I can just get that gig…if they would just come to my way of thinking….if I could just lose 20 pounds…if we could just start over from scratch…then things would be just awesome.” (Those are merely hypothetical and super generalized questions for the purpose of making a point. Riiight.) 

I do think about what I have my sights set on, and I have to wonder, “is that truly the objective of my life?”  If I believe what I say I believe and hinge my entire life on this idea of the saving power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then why does my life so often look like radically different?  Sweet friends, we have the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ on this Earth.  Instead of desperately trying to stay afloat in our own strength, can we just come up for air, take a breath, and abide in Him? This abiding is not a holding pattern to merely ‘survive’ till you cash in your ‘gospel track.” Absolutely NOT! This life, the here and the NOW—yes TODAY—is an opportunity to embrace His goodness and love and thrive.  

It can start as easily as counting your blessings.  Really.  Grab a piece of paper and I challenge you to write down three things you are grateful for.  It’s not a magic fix, but it does reorient our focus.  I’m grateful that I can Google the word “bulwark” and finally get a clear definition.  

1.a wall of earth or other material built for defense; rampart.
2.any protection against external danger, injury, or annoyance:
3.any person or thing giving strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt:

Yesssss.  Even better than I thought.  God is not just protecting us, he is our “bulwark” who gives us, “strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt.” That forever Kingdom we sang about? It is available today amidst the confusion doubt, and need.  I want to remember that today, and want that to be the kind of song I always sing.  We closed the service with the hymn, There is a Fountain, that chronicles God’s cleansing love.  Our ‘bulwark’ is also our Healer.  He is continually healing you and me, and pouring over us His redeeming love. I can, with confidence, cling to the TRUTH, that my father is eternally healed and thriving in communion with His Savior.  I didn’t need the sandpaper Kleenex on the last stanza we sang.  This ragamuffin girl grinned from ear to ear singing, “Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be ‘til I die.” 

I pray you taste that kind of love today! 


The confessing church of American Ragamuffins needs to join Magdalene and Peter in witnessing that Christianity is not primarily a moral code but a grace-laden mystery; it is not essentially a philosophy of love but a love affair; it is not keeping rules with clenched fists but receiving a gift with open hands…… The spiritual future of ragamuffins consists not in disavowing that we are sinners but in accepting that truth with growing clarity, rejoicing in God’s incredible longing to rescue us in spite of everything.
— Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel