Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

When Plans Are Dreams

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Plans!
We find it almost impossible to make them in a life ruled by COVID19. Currently, school  plans are foremost in the minds of parents and students.

“Is it safe to send my child back to school? What safety and social distancing measures will schools have in place? Do I choose to keep them at home, opting for virtual learning? How do I manage online school?”

In light of such critical plans and decisions, consider this current news report:

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. [Georgia is in the “red zone.”]

Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive. [Georgia is in this “red zone” too.] https://publicintegrity.org/health/coronavirus-and-inequality/exclusive-white-house-document-shows-18-states-in-coronavirus-red-zone-covid-19/

Even with troubling reports like this one, Georgia’s governor, Gov. Brian Kemp, signed an order on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 banning localities from requiring masks. On this information, parents have to agonize about what’s best for their children. They simply cannot make firm plans as long as the virus is waxing and waning. Mostly waxing!

Plans are difficult for us for all sorts of reasons and circumstances. Every now and then over the years, my life would take un unexpected pause to contemplate this thought written by the late Mary Oliver:

 So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Unpacking that brief question has been a periodic constant in my life, popping up for me mostly in my down and disheartened times. I hear the poet describing my life as “wild and precious” and it almost shocks me. Yet, my life really has been consistently wild and mostly precious. Anything that urges me to examine my life is a good thing. I can almost always pull up memories of the times when I was wild and free — insistent upon rising higher, realizing a near-impossible dream, charging with courage into new and uncharted places, planning for a future of fresh and sparkling heights, observing just how wild I could dare to be. Unpacking that question has been exhilarating at times, exhausting at other times.

Musing on a life that could be described as precious

Entertaining the thought that my life was precious happened in my deepest soul place. It happened in my moments of introspection, meditative times that urged me to examine all the ways I saw my life as precious, cherished, valued. Of course, I have experienced many precious life moments — my wedding day, my work in Africa, my ordination, awards and recognitions of my work and career and, most of all, the adoption of my one wild and precious son, JonathanExamining my precious life was most real when I almost lost my life, my full year of serious illness, five years of dialysis and a kidney transplant made possible by the selflessness of a lovely woman I know only through email.

Such thoughts bring me back to plans. What is it I plan to do with my one wild and precious life? Even a life precious and wild is a life that requires plans, and right now trying to make plans is an exercise fraught with anxiety. I cannot find any words that can minimize this depth of anxiety. There is not one thing you or I can do about plans that have been ravaged by the pandemic we are experiencing, and yet we must make critical plans in this season of uncertainty. 

School plans are most difficult in my state and perhaps in yours. As parents agonize over the safety of their children, Georgia’s governor, Brian Kemp, offered this unhelpful comment this morning in a press conference:

I am a believer that kids need to be in the classroom and we’re working with the schools to do that. We’re going to have cases that break out in schools, either with personnel or perhaps students, just like you do with a stomach bug or a flu or anything else. Our schools know how to handle those situations.

The parents and teachers in my life know that this coronavirus is not just a run-of-the-mill “stomach bug or flu.” This virus is deadly, and parents and teachers faced with difficult school decisions know that all too well. During these pandemic days, it is a constant reality that many of us are having to make potentially hazardous plans, but just for a moment, I wonder if we can redirect our thoughts to plans we make for our “one wild and precious life.”

Can we rise above the plans we must make today, even for a moment, and instead consider the bold and courageous plans we could make? Can we set our hearts to think about plans we can make when we are our brave, adventurous and fearless selves? Can we contemplate the plans we might make when we feel bold, resolute and undaunted?

I can remember the times when I was able to make such adventurous plans, times when my plans were dreams — high and lofty dreams of changing the world. I can also remember the time when I no longer dreamed any dreams at all. It was a time when I no longer saw my life as a wild and precious one. I still entertained plans, but my plans were definitely not dreams. I believed I could no longer change the world. I believed I could no longer live a life that made a difference. I believed that my soul was dry and my spirit barren. I believed that, in my life, dangerous and noble things were no longer possible

Why can’t you and I dream dreams instead of making plans? Why can’t my “one wild and precious life” rise higher, high enough to make dreams of my plans? Sometimes I will go to one of my many favorite passages of Scripture hoping to find God’s word to me. Being true to my theological education, I always look at the words in context before I do anything else. But after that hermeneutical exercise I learned in New Testament 101, I might twist the text a bit and maybe even paraphrase it, inviting the text to speak to me specifically, just me. For this day, one of the texts found in the book of Acts reaches into my soul, and, yes, I did paraphrase it.

“In your season of most need,” God says,
“I will restore your soul and make your spirit rise within you.
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your youthful hearts will see visions,
your aging hearts will dream dreams.”

— Acts 2:17 (my paraphrase)

Amen. 

May God lift our hearts and spirits, assure us that our lives are precious and help us transform our plans into dreams.

So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

 

That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

Together!

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A blending of two photos: One is an image of protesters in Minneapolis. The second image is a portrayal of people raising their hands to celebrate Pentecost.

This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.

F0ABFCC6-C312-44E2-A39F-35F520174256I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

I read this horrific headline this morning.

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

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Artists honor George Floyd by painting a mural in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Artists began work on the mural that morning. (Photo: Jacqueline Devine/Sun-News)

Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”

If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.

The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.

But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.

Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?

Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:

“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“

From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:

18bbdca6-8ece-4df4-aa13-fe110e3298cb“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!

How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’”   —
Acts 2:1-18 NIV

The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem —  “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.

And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?

41F5FD83-6B7A-4393-BF9E-57F0E4D51023In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.

Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”

What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?

What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?

Together! Together!

May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

How Long?

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How long? How long will we have to feel imprisoned by social distancing? How long will we feel this loneliness? How long must we wear masks? How long until my children can safely visit their grandparents? How long until we’re past the danger of catching this virus? How long until life is normal again?

Most people I know had at least one bad day this week. At least three of us had a bad day on the same day, and I was not comforted to learn that two of my close friends suffered on the very same day that brought me suffering. It seems the longer we travel the journey of these distancing days, the more disheartened we become. We are ready to see our families and friends. We are ready to venture out of our secluded place and walk freely and without worry. We are ready to travel, to worship together in the same place and to celebrate with friends that the danger of Covid19 is over.

But it is not over. Not by a long shot. And what seems to be the second wave of the virus brings a second wave of emotion for us — a deep grief that we simply do not know when, or if, our lives will return to the lives we once enjoyed. Some of us can give our grief a name — sadness, anger, confusion, heartbreak, loneliness — maybe a combination of all of these names, and so many others.

Sadly, some people cannot name their grief. They will not! Instead they lash out in a kind of rage that hurts others. Call it domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, interpersonal violation that causes permanent trauma to the soul and spirit. Call it a tragic situation. It happens, in part, to people who refuse to look at their grief and allow it to turn into rage.

Other people who cannot name their grief turn it inward, deep inside themselves. These are the people who are suffering great emotional harm that can last for a lifetime. We can call it trauma, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress injury, etc. Whatever we call it, the grief that people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic seems to be increasing the probability of a widespread mental health crisis.

The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future. Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.  
— U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

The more we watch our communities relax social distancing, the more we experience a visceral response that speaks to our fear, disappointment and confusion. I asked my Mayo Clinic doctor yesterday via video chat — “When can I get out?” Hoping beyond hope for an answer that meant release, I listened as he gave a thorough scientific, doctor-like explanation. His primary concern, of course, was my physical outcome if  I should be exposed to the virus, but he also spoke about my emotional and social needs. In the end his answer was what I feared it might be: “You must take extreme social distancing precautions, at least until you are one year post transplant.”

That means November for me, provided all goes well with my kidney and with the level of safety in my community. I think my question to my doctor was a common one, “How Long?” Sufferers ask it often. With heartbreaking angst, sufferers in hospital beds ask — “How Long?” — as do persons near death, persons with painful chronic health conditions, persons who wait for mourning to ease, persons who search desperately for work, persons who suffer from unrelenting traumatic stress, persons in a far away place who just long to go home.

“How Long?” is a question of the soul for persons of faith and for persons without faith, for persons who believe in God and for persons who believe there is no God. All persons languish with that question on their lips. People who trust in God have asked the questions in the 13th Psalm for ages, every age with its own sudden catastrophe or its own long, enduring adversity. Every person asks, as did the Psalmist, “How long?”

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 13: 1-2  (NIV)

If you have been asking, “How long, O Lord?” during this pandemic, you probably know already that you will not receive easy answers. There simply are no easy answers. The current separations from family and friends are painful. The realities and risks of re-entering life as we once knew it are daunting. The irresponsibility of many people who move about without masks and closer to one another than 6 feet is troubling. The worry we carry about our safety and the safety of those we love is constant. And the heaviness of heart we are feeling is unrelenting.

So yes, you are probably asking God, “How long?”as I am. How in the world do we get to “rejoicing” during such a time as this? In these unprecedented days, it seems much harder to move ourselves all the way through Psalm 13 in order to get to a glorious utterance of praise, a declaration of trust, a rejoicing of heart, and even a song of praise to a God of “unfailing love.” The Psalmist seems to have made it all the way through the questions to a time of rejoicing and singing. 

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

— Psalm 13:5-6 (NIV)

So ask your questions honestly. God can take whatever questions you ask. Go ahead and ask God, “How long?” But then allow God to restore your weary spirit, to nourish your soul and to make your heart long for something much greater than answers to your questions. 

That’s what I want to do. Now if I can just muster up enough energy — and enough faith and hope — to do it.

May God make it so. For me and for you. Amen.


For your quiet time today, I invite you to use this meditative video as your prayer. 

 

You Do Not Walk Alone

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Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

— Joshua 1:9

Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.

In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.

It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.

What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.

The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.

One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”

Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.

Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.

So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.

I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.

On Making Your Own Rainbows

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In my kitchen window hangs a small faceted crystal ball. It’s purpose is to hang in the sunlight and make tiny rainbows in my kitchen. When I open the blinds in the morning, the facets on the ball do their job.
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I see about eight small rainbows on the floor — just tiny, insignificant rainbows on the kitchen floor. That’s it!

My first response is, “That’s all you got?”

I had hoped for more, like refracted rainbows all over the kitchen. The little ball hanging in the window apparently needed some human help. So I twisted it several times. When I let it go, the little ball’s gift to me was dancing rainbows, not only on the kitchen floor, but also all over the walls of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Now that’s more like it!

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It suddenly occurred to me that I could let the ball just hang motionless in the window, settling for the few rainbows on the floor, or I could twist it and see rainbows in motion creating a celebration all around the walls. So this morning, I made my own rainbows, which is a pretty good mental picture of creating rainbow-like times in life.

It reminds me of part of Noah’s story told in the ninth chapter of Genesis. It’s about the covenant God made with Noah after the great flood had receded. You probably know the story well, but it bears revisiting.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.

Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”

So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”

— Genesis 9:12-17 NIV

EAB02D98-3E58-48CF-B77D-1C2426E32954I never see a rainbow without remembering the story of God’s covenant with Noah. I always remember that God made the rainbow a sign, the sign of a covenant promise.

What does that have to do with me and you? Maybe not much for some. But for some of us — those of us who want to see tangible signs of God’s promises — the appearance of a rainbow means that God still covenants with us, God still makes promises to us and God still keeps those promises. That is God’s grace to us — God’s hope, God’s light, the very peace that comes to us from God.

With that assurance, we are able to make our own rainbows. Yes, in these days we are covered with a terrible, deadly virus, along with the fear it causes us. But we also know that, in days past, we have faced life storms, dark times that threatened to destroy us. And yet, we survived — with scars from old wounds, to be sure — but we weathered each terrifying time and found our way to better days. To survive the worst times of our lives — times when dark, heavy clouds loomed over us — I’m pretty sure we found ways to make our own rainbows.

What does it look like to make our own rainbows? It looks like seeking out a comforting friend, making sacred space for nurturing your soul, owning heartbreak so that you can be open to the healing of your heart, naming in prayer the wounds and scars of your soul so that your spirit can be made whole.

It seems to me that this is what “making your own rainbows” means — being open to healing through whatever ways you find soul-nurturing. Rainbows are not a bad analogy for the living of these days. A pandemic threatens us. We cannot change that, but we can change our response to this dark time. I believe that we really can make our own rainbows. Maybe for me it will simply be the act of twisting the crystal ball in my kitchen window. But if that insignificant act reminds me of God’s promise to be with me, to be in covenant with me, then I think I can make it through another dark time.

I am confident that, if you listen, your soul will whisper to you and tell you how to make your own rainbows — during these troubling days and for all the troubling times you may face on your journey.

May God make it so for you and those you love!

Be well and stay safe.

— KMF

In a Shaken Time . . . The Unshakable

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I have written often about times when I have been shaken to my core, the hard times and the seasons of angst. Not because hard times have been a constant in my life, but because in the middle of them, I have found a Divine Constant that sustained me at times and saved me at other times.

As we approach the Sunday of the Palm and Passion, we remember the journey Jesus traveled.

. . . the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” (John 1:12-13 NRSV)

Yet, before the day is done, the Gospel of John tells us how troubled Jesus was as he spoke about his death.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 1:27-28 NRSV)

As we recall Christ’s passion, we cannot help but recognize our own — and the passion of our families, friends, neighbors scattered throughout the world. Each of us, no matter where we are, are covered with the fear of a pandemic we can not begin to understand, the virus that knows no boundaries. It goes where it will, infecting those exposed to its microorganisms and leaving fear and anxiety in its wake. We are shaken to the core.

Those who are infected, or have watched as their infected loved ones battle the virus, cry out for mercy, for grace and for comfort. They are in search of the Divine Constant, a “very present help,” who keeps vigil with us offering a comfort that surpasses our ability to comprehend it. There is no better description of divine comfort than the words of the Psalmist in the 46th Psalm that tells us to take heart, hang on, fear not.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

At the very beginning of the Cold War in 1952, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the very real fear and uncertainty in the world at that time, he spoke these words: “The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time! Oh, that we might find it alone — isolated in our homes, in our prayer closets, in the breeze and beauty of springtime! Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time in community — in all the ways we are striving to create holy community despite our isolation.

Yes, we are shaken right now, but again the Psalmist has the last word of divine comfort and hope.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18 NIV)

As I look around, hearing from those closest to me and also hearing the stories of people around the world, I witness signs that we are indeed discovering the unshakable in this shaken time — the unshakable in ourselves, the unshakable faith we hold in our hearts, the unshakable spirit within us and the Unshakable Constant God who pours grace upon us when we most need it.

May each of you stay safe and healthy. May you wave your palms and witness Christ’s passion still believing in the resurrection that will dawn upon our lives again. May you find the unshakable within you and hold the Unshakable God near you.

For a time of prayer and meditation, you may be inspired by listening to this beautiful arrangement of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

 

 

Times Terrifying and Beautiful

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These days are terrifying and beautiful. After all, in times when we are harried with work responsibilities, we might just say, “I wish I was home in my pajamas!” So here we are at home — maybe in our pajamas — settled in, comfortable, rested, and maybe restless. At least some of us are settled in at home. Some of us are rested. Others, no doubt, find themselves restless. It makes me wonder if the opposite of rested is restless. So I turned to my trusted thesaurus to find out. It turns out that the antonyms — the opposites — of “restless” are peaceful, quiet, relaxed, settled, calm and unworried.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be an antonym of restless. That is, if a person can even be an antonym in the first place. I doubt it, but what I do not doubt is the existence of the kind of human resilience that can weather pandemics. Be assured that human resilience is not a “grin and bear it” state of being. Resilience is not merely being resigned to a situation or just sticking it out. Resilience is not passive acquiescence to challenging situations. Resilience resides in a soul that is able to persevere, to rest calmly through struggle, to abide in a state of mindfulness, to meditate on the goodness of God, to walk in the darkness until the light reappears.

I can certainly identify with the quote that has recently been going around: “And the people stayed home.” It’s striking that, in the midst of the fear and anxiety people feel in these pandemic days, many have recalled and published parts of this quote. Let us spend a few moments contemplating the quote in it’s entirety:

And The People Stayed Home

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

– Kitty O’Meara

To be clear, I am not suffering this pandemic as one who has contracted the virus. I am suffering the forced isolation, the inability to reach for someone’s hand, to touch a friend, to embrace my grandchildren. And I have not been isolated only because of this pandemic; I have been isolated from others since my kidney transplant on November 12. That’s a very long time to be separated from my community. Through that time, a friend or two visited me, but we could not touch one another or be in close proximity.

And now the coronavirus has isolated virtually everyone, and I suddenly realize that we’re all in this together. It makes me wonder what everyone is doing at home. And it makes me hope that at least a few of us are doing as Kitty O’Meara writes, “Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows.“

On the idea of meeting our shadows . . .  I consider Lent to be a time of confession, a time of looking into my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, confessing my sins to God and receiving God’s mercy and pardon. I emerge from my confession with my soul cleansed. Only then am I ready. I am ready to steel my heart and set my face toward the journey with Christ to the cross. and then prepare my heart for glorious resurrection.

My confession today is that I have cursed my isolation rather than giving it to God and allowing myself to enter into a place of rest and re-creation, a sacred space that would heal the anxieties of my soul. I confess that I did not dance or pray. I did not rest or make art. But the pandemic changed my soul’s response to my isolation. I found that I was no longer in post transplant isolation, I was now in pandemic isolation and it felt very different to me. It felt dangerous and potentially fatal. It felt far-reaching, pervasive and rampant. It felt lethal, at least potentially lethal.

In the face of the pandemic’s imminent danger, my soul stopped its complaining and began its healing, my healing. It was the healing I needed all along, but now an ominous virus flipped a switch inside me. I did art again for the first time since the transplant. I sang, I prayed, I meditated. And I met my shadow and re-discovered the hidden place where fear reigns within me. That was not a bad thing. Rather, it was a good thing that said to me, “Do not give power to your hidden fear. Let your hidden resilience have the power and let it rise up within you. You will be healed!”

I believed those words — literally, as I hoped for physical healing after my transplant; and completely, body and soul, as I accepted the spiritual and emotional healing my soul craved. I want to leave you with a poem written on March 11, 2020 by Lynn Ungar.

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Blackdeath.   Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar is a poet, and wrote this poem on March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

 

 

 

 

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.