What is it about this statement from God and recorded by the Prophet Isaiah?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
This statement, or this promise, recorded in Isaiah 43 touches me to the core. It reaches into my soul that is so often parched by the events of life. As for the watercolor painting above, A Way in the Wilderness, you may have seen it before. I published it in this blog already. But this time, I would like for you to engage with me in a few moments of art appreciation. Consider the following questions.
What do you see in the painting?
What strikes you about it?
If you could choose one word or phrase or sentence in it that most relates to your life, what would you choose?
What do you see in the images and colors?
What do you see as the overarching theme of it?
What does it say to you? Or ask of you?
Okay! So maybe the painting says nothing to you! You’re not into art appreciation and it has no deeper meaning than paint to paper! I totally get that, but still, I want to tell you what it meant for me as I was creating it.
So much more than paint on paper, painting it was an emotional and spiritual release from my own wilderness. It was my way of learning to find rivers in my desert. Understand, it did not mean I could leave the desert and put the wilderness in my rear view. Instead, it allowed me to express my reality: that I live in the wilderness, but streams of river water quench my soul’s thirst in the desert.
That’s real and honest. A gut-punch of reality for me. Wilderness and desert terrain are common life habitations, for me and probably for you as well. I don’t live near the breezes of an ocean or on a ridge in breathtaking, snow-capped mountains.
I just live on a regular street in a regular town, and sometimes that can feel like wilderness.
What does that have to do with anything? Just this: During the times I feel as if I’m living in a desert wilderness, I need to remember the river. Or putting it another way, what I feel emotionally may be MY reality, but it is not THE reality.
It is not the ultimate reality of a life that is so filled with deserts and streams, storms and sunshine, smooth ways and rocky pathways, despair and hope, doubt and faith, sorrow and joy, death and life . . .
May your life be filled to overflowing with all of those things.
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)
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.
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.
I 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
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:
“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?
In 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?
May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.
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.
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.
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.
Women in white gowns emerge from the crashing water of a moonlit waterfall. What in the world does that have to do with me, other than the fact that I am completely enthralled by this painting? I certainly cannot relate or see myself emerging from rushing waters or even dancing with a tambourine in my hand. Yet, there is something about this art that inspired my soul searching and brought up some questions I want to contemplate.
Where did I come from? Where will I go?
What will I do with my life? Which of my dreams will I realize?
I have asked myself similar questions, questions about what made me who I am and if I will ever feel that I have realized my life dreams. It’s true that I have entered my seventieth year of life, and one might wonder why the need for all the introspective questions. But In the core of my being, I believe that I can still dream and that I can still experience wonder about what I see in and around my life.
What people will enter my life leaving cherished gifts of friendship? What wonder will I see around me as I search for meaning? What will Spirit say to me with the gentle breath of her voice that can also enter my life as a rushing, mighty wind? And how does God continue to call me to new ministries of the heart?
I do not know the answer to those questions. Nor do I know who or what I will be when I grow up. So I struggle to know. I plead with God to give me direction. During this season of my life while I am challenged with so many things related to my kidney transplant, I have been somewhat obsessed with finding the answers to all those “who am I?” questions. I despair a little when I can’t find the answers.
Back to the art. Yesterday, I accidentally came across the painting by Canadian artist Rob Gonsalves which is at the top of this post. I was immediately captivated by the image, especially the rushing waterfall that changed into women living life — some of them dancing, others playing their tambourines, others just emerging, still others just beginning to awaken.
The art reminds me of how we might emerge into life — to grow into life, to be open to change, to be willing to embrace a process of becoming. Each of us is engaged in that kind of process whether we know it or not, whether we embrace it or not. We want to experience an awakening that opens our eyes to wonder and our souls to extraordinary newness of life. We want the freedom to be who we are. We don’t want to stay in our awakening place, reticent about moving into the best part of our lives, refusing to move because of our fear. We want to throw off our hesitation and, in search of our dreams, to sing, to dance, to play our tambourines in celebration of our unique personhood.
I am reminded of a beautiful passage of Scripture from the Psalms.
Let them praise his name with dancing,
making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
— Psalm 149:3 (NRSV)
Isn’t that precisely what we want for our lives? To lean into our true selves so that we are compelled to sing, to dance with tambourines in our hands, to celebrate our lives, to dream and to praise the God who rejoices when we live into freedom and joy!
I may not be able to speak of joyful things today. The physical pain I am experiencing is far too strong, covering me with just a little bit of despair. More than one of my good friends told me in the past few days that I am strong. I am not and, thankfully I don’t have to be because the friends that surround me are being strong for me. They are calling on the minuscule strength I do have and bringing it into view for me. They have told me joyful things when I could not name joyful things for myself. In the process of loving me, my friends call out to the joy and strength that is in me to make itself known. And on top of that, they allow me, without judgement, to be where I am and feel what I feel.
So although I may not be able to speak of joyful things right now, I know that you have already tucked joyfulness into the recesses of your heart. I may not have much hope to send to you today, but you have hope in abundance and it breathes over your spirit during times of courage and times of fear, times when you feel certainty and times when you feel disillusioned. Out of your stores of faith, you encircle me and breathe hope into my spirit . . . and strength and joy.
For that, I am most grateful. And I am grateful that when I am weak, God is my strength. When I am joyless, God covers me with joy. I believe this by faith (a smidgen of mustard seed faith) in those times when I cannot experience those comforts within me, times like this present time of struggle and recovery.
I’ll leave you with these words of comfort that you already know so intimately, words that I also know intimately, but that I need to hear anew today.
And God, the giver of all grace, who has called you to share His eternal glory, through Christ, after you have suffered for a short time, will make you perfect, firm, and strong. — 1 Peter 5:10
For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles. — 2 Corinthians 4:17
Though I cannot manage to speak of joyful things today, the writers of 1 Peter and 2 Corinthians most definitely can!
Sometimes I am inspired by the strangest things. This time the inspiration centers around Mexican-born, American-educated artist Enrique Chiu. While the Trump administration remains intent on separating us from our Mexican neighbors with a border wall, Enrique Chiu is leading a cadre of bi-national volunteer artists to paint a mile-long mural on the border fence. The reason? To celebrate unity and peace. Their intent is to turn the fence from a dividing wall into a work of art that spreads a message of hope to families that cross the border.
Enrique Chiu calls the project, “The Mural of Brotherhood” (and “Sisterhood” emphasis mine), and enlisted more than 2,600 volunteers to paint uplifting messages on the Mexico-facing side of the U.S.-owned fence. The goal is to create an artistic riposte to Trump’s nationalist and anti-immigrant politics.
Chui has a very personal motivation for the project. When he was eight, he crossed that border with his mother and lived in Los Angeles for a year without legal status. He grew into a renowned artist and envisioned this project, which he dedicated “to all those people who are looking for a better life. Who take enormous risks. Or those have been deported and are separated from their families.”
That inspires me. Creative gifts used to make a statement; Volunteer work offered to encourage; Personal conviction making a statement about unity, peace and justice . . . through an in-your-face act of resistance to divisive, oppressive policy.
Godspeed, Enrique. May God bless the gift of inspiration you share.
On another note, please pray for me as I look toward my kidney transplant currently scheduled for November 12th at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. I am so grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often felt so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to rea the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link