Beauty of Nature, Creation, Darkness, God’s creation, Light, Night sky, Spiritual and emotional darkness

Needing More than Light

Northern Lights illuminate the dark sky in Kolari, Finland on January 15, 2022.
Photo by Irene Stachon Lehtikuva/AFP/Getty Images

If you know me at all, you know that I am a minister, an artist and a writer. Those three are not all of who I am, but they encompass a big chunk of my identity. You may also know that I find deep spiritual nurture from images like the Northern Lights image above. It’s breathtaking. I cannot fathom the sense of wonder of a person who is physically present, in person, looking up into this wondrous sky.

What sort of Creator gave us the ethereal experience of witnessing these Lights of the North? What grace we receive when we take even a moment to breathe it in, to see its splendor, even in a photograph! As spiritual beings who are on a pilgrimage on this earth, we know what it is like to experience darkness.

I imagine that we do everything we can to avoid the dark places of our journey. You know about those dark places—losing a loved one, living with illness, being suddenly injured, moving out of your home, dealing with a troubled child . . . We know about the dark places. We know about the pandemic that has upended our lives and left us in an unknowable, seemingly endless darkness.

We also know about struggling to get to light. We know about walking through the darkness for so long that we become almost desperate to see light again. The LIGHT—that amazing miracle that shatters the darkness and brightens our path.

Of course, we long for it! Sometimes we live through so much darkness—physical, emotional and spiritual darkness—that we almost need more than light. Sometimes we need release, room to breathe, freedom to experience. Sometimes we need an expanse above us, a newness we can fully experience and the inspiration to soar in the clouds until we sense something new and fresh. Sometimes we just need more than light.

So there is light, and then there are the Northern Lights. And we can at least see them in images. When we do see them, our souls might take a deep breath. These lights are different than the lights we usually count on. These Lights of the North are more than the lights that guide us along the journey and through the darkness. These lights are almost mystical—light and color and vastness. These are lights that come as if God is writing “hope” in the sky with an electric-neon crayon. Angela Abraham describes the Northern Lights in a unique way.

The Northern lights were a river of green in the midnight blue. They were what dreams could be if they were ever allowed to dance so free. The northern lights were green rivers in the black heavens, a congregation of stars, how they resonate with my soul.

— Angela Abraham

That’s it! Lights that resonate with the soul. For you, the light that feeds your soul could come from the light of brilliant stars, or moonlight, or sunrise, or even holiday lights. For me on this day, my soul awakened when I took the time to see the splendor of the Northern Lights. In a way I can’t really explain, I looked and I lingered, and then the dancing green light against the black sky caused my spirit to take flight, just for a few minutes. I realized that this was not just about light, it was also about indescribable beauty that can be seen best in God’s creation.

In the words of Angela Abraham, ”Nature’s beauty is an echo of creation’s song, it lives out there and within, as if we are spoken into being together.” I was transported to thoughts of a Creator who gave us not only life and breath, but also gave us extravagant beauty.

Maybe you need more than light right now. When circumstances are dark and bleak in my life, I often need more than light. In fact, like most strugglers and travelers on this journey of life, I have learned to get around in the dark. Most of the time, I can walk through darkness blindly and reach my destination. Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, ”Learning to Walk in the Dark,” is filled with bits of wisdom that I hang on to when I’m in a dark place.

I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light. There is a light that shines in the darkness, which is only visible there.

— Barbara Brown Taylor

It is true that sometimes I need more than light. Sometimes I need a grace-gift that reminds me that I am a small speck in a vast universe, and that the Creator that formed our immense, extravagant, beautiful world also created us, each of us tiny specks known by God. Sometimes I need more than light, but what I need is already mine to see—a world filled with beauty that takes my breath away.

Oh, just one more thing about me . . . when beauty really reaches the deep places of my soul, I often burst into song. For today, looking at the beauty of the Lights of the North, I am singing John Rutter’s, ”For the Beauty of the Earth.” Maybe you would like to sing it too, or at least listen to it. Find it below, turn up your volume and give praise to the Creator for giving us the beauty of the earth.

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flow’r,
Sun and moon, and stars of light,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
For all gentle thoughts and mild,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise.

Music by John Rutter (1980) 
Lyrics by Folliott S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917

Alone, “I Can See Clearly Now”, Darkness, Daybreak, Faith, God's love, God's presence, Hope, journey, Life Journeys, Life pathways, Light

Protection from Nothing

Sunrise at Collegeville Institute ~ Photography by Bryan Whitfield

God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!

Jim Finley

I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.

God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.

So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?

In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
(Hebrews 11:1)

To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:

Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .

Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?

What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?

We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.

I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”

The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.

If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!

I believe it by faith.

I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . .
I walk in footsteps of God’s love.

I see His footsteps in the way,
And follow them through darkest night,
Unafraid, I stumble not,
In the glow of perfect light,
I see.

I walk in footsteps of His love,
And find His light leads on before,
Then He gently turns to me,
Softly whispers, “trust Me more,
I walk.

Then as I follow in His way,
My path ahead will brightly shine,
For in His path of guiding light,
I find His footsteps first,
Then mine.

Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Light, Spiritual and emotional darkness, Vision

So Much Light We Cannot See

Photo by Shane McNary in Poprad | Slovakia
“The clouds may hang heavy, but the light still shines.”

Clouds hang heavy at times. They loom overhead as if they are holding something destructive. Rain, snow storms, hurricanes, tornados . . . whatever disaster our minds might envision. Sometimes ominous-looking clouds just move away or dissipate, as if to remind us that our deepest apprehensions are able to resolve themselves without our help. Other times, the dark clouds release their fury.

There is a point to all of this, and I think it is this: Humans have a tendency to see only what is dark and ominous, and fail to see the light surrounding it. Sometimes the light is there all the time, but we cannot see it. I want to borrow some words, actually the title of a beautiful war novel written by Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See.

An abundance of light surrounds us to warm us and brighten our days. Dark clouds do come into view, but the light is still there. We simply cannot, or will not, see it. I cannot help but name what we do as being unaware in the light. I know that, for me, the words, ”all the light we cannot see” stand as a description of my faulty vision, both physically and spiritually. It is in the spiritually dark times that I read again the treasure of Isaiah’s prophecy.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, on them has the light shined. No longer will the sun be your light by day, nor the brightness of the moon shine on your night; for the LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your splendor. Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD is risen upon you . . .

From Isaiah chapter 9 and chapter 60

Physically, emotionally and spiritually, there is so much light we cannot see. or perhaps we refuse to see it. Realities claim their strongholds. Realities harm us, to be sure—realities of war and rumors of war, realities of violence, injustice, poverty, racism, abuse. The list of harms among us could go on and on. It harms our vision and steals our light. And there is much light we cannot see.

We cannot see the good around us against backdrops of the many forms of evil. We cannot see kind people, because so many people are unkind. We cannot see the dreams we dreamed in the light, because ominous darkness has hidden them. We cannot see the light of trust, because we have seen betrayal. We cannot see the people we love when we see only their flaws. We cannot accept the light of love from another person, because other persons in our lives have refused to love us. Even the light in our own souls suffers the darkness at times when the ”dark night of the soul” takes over within us.

Could we believe that, around us and in us, there is an abundance of light we cannot see? Might we push our hearts nearer to the light we can see? And can we acknowledge that ”all the light we cannot see” has been our reality far too long?

May God help us see all the light we have never seen before. May we see the light of Christ within us, and the light of the Spirit in the world. Amen.




Please spend a few moments listening to this lovely song, ”I See the Light.”
Vocals by Olivia Collingsworth and Joseph O’Brien,


Piano: Kim Collingsworth
Bass: Phillip Collingsworth
Guitar: Grayson Lilly
Mixed By: Phillip Collingsworth (Solid Sound Studios)
Video Edited By: William Blair

Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Light, Soul, Spirit, Spiritual and emotional darkness, Spiritual growth, Spirituality

The Dance of Darkness and Light

Stunning photo of an Oklahoma ranch provided by my friend, Molly Hunt

I was amazed today by this breathtaking image of a ranch in Oklahoma. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to amaze me, but today the object of amazement for me is quite stunning. It’s art, an image to contemplate and appreciate, an image in which one could find meaning. Finding meaning in it is exactly what happened for me.

I see a play of lightness and darkness and I see that to experience light is also to experience darkness. We cannot really embrace one without the other. The beauty of one enhances the beauty of the other. Light and darkness are inseparable. I have always been intrigued by the wisdom of this thought written by Gregory Maguire, “The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say.” I find such truth in these words, and they are illustrated by the shadows — the times of darkness — in my life.

Oh, the stories I could tell about the many times when my reality has been lightness and darkness together. Both juxtaposed and moving, blending and coalescing, always showing me a kind of dance, a holy movement that makes both appear beautiful. But this “light and darkness together”thing came to me late in life. Emotional and spiritual maturity offered me this important insight that both darkness and light are in me and around me simultaneously. I experience them both together.

I also remember the past when I feared the darkness, wanting always to be in the middle of the light of things. During my illness and long hospitalization in 2014, I hated the nights. I had come to believe over the years that in hospitals, bad things happen at night. That thought was cemented in my mind when I was a hospital chaplain. In thinking of the many nights when I was on call, what I recall most were dark crises that happened at night — deaths, terrible accidents in the ER, patients on the psych unit having meltdowns.

What I’m recalling today is one particular night in the hospital. I was so sick for so long and so lonely at night. This particular night remains in my nightmares. It was actually in the middle of the night when I experienced an excruciating pain in my kidney area. I almost screamed in pain, but tried to stifle myself. The pain continued for several minutes, long enough that I felt as if I would pass out. I called for the nurse, who could hear panic in my voice and came immediately. The doctor followed within minutes. By that time, I had been given pain and anxiety medications, so I was in a kind of twilight. I knew that the room was now full of people doing things, but I had no idea what sort of things they were doing. The ultrasound people came and soon after that, the crisis team came to get me. I was moved to a hard stretcher and was quickly transported to . . . somewhere for some kind of procedure.

The only words I really understood were, “Call her husband and tell him to get here immediately!” Not such a calming message to hear, but in a medication-induced twilight, it really didn’t matter. The crisis team moved me into the inner sanctum of the hospital. They moved me through the cold halls so quickly that the wind felt cold and the ceilings of the corridors were a blur, one minute bright lights above, the next corridor completely dark. The speed of the ride made the corridors look as if they were one seamless movement of light and dark.

One repaired internal bleed later, the pain was eased and I was comfortable, back in my familiar hospital room full of cards and flowers, and with late night television still on. Obviously, I survived the darkness and lightness of my transport and the repair of my bleed. And I still survive, every day, the darkness and lightness that is my life. I did not know that night what I have learned since: that darkness and light always exist together.

Darkness and Light:
Together


To be certain, I have experienced darknesses that seemed to smother me completely and leave me with only the darkest dark. I have felt the unrelenting darkness of the soul at times. My spirit has cohabited with the deepest darkness in life that seemed never-ending, with not a single source of light anywhere.

Thankfully, the great Teacher has taught me to see the darkness and the light all at once, moving together through my life. I have learned that light is almost always a welcomed force, but it is in the darkness that I find the most life-changing, cherished moments. in myself. The darkness is the place where my soul sees itself, where my spirit entertains its longings and urges and dreams. The darkness is where my heart can break into a million pieces in mourning and lament. In those dark moments, I can see the dance, the slow and soothing rhythms that enfold me in both — darkness and light — because the two exist together. Thanks be to God.

Darkness was
and darkness was good.
As with light.
Light and darkness
dancing together,
born together,
Born of each other,
neither preceding,
neither following,
Both fully being,
in joyful rhythm
.

— Madeleine L’Engle
Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Light, Moon, Psalm 91, Spiritual and emotional darkness

Why Not Be the Moon?

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Darkest hours come to everyone. Some people know dark hours often, while others seem to experience dark hours every once in a while. Life teaches us that every one of us will know a dark hour or two during our journey on earth. For the earth turns as it will, we are not perfect, our physical bodies are not perfect, our seats of emotions and spirituality are not perfect. And what’s more, the people who touch our lives are not perfect. Imperfect people, things and circumstances sometimes create dark hours.

I have experienced many dark hours, so I know that I can survive them and even find a glimmer of light to guide me through them. Of that, I am confident, because I have in my life the presence of a healer and light-giver. The grace-giving God, who sometimes bathes me in the exhilaration of sunshine, knows about my dark hours — every one of them, every time. So I do not fear the shadowed darkness if the night. I have it on good authority that the Holy One is near me.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
    will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refugeand my fortress,
    my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers,
    
and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness . . .  —Psalm 91(NIV)

Under God’s wings, under the Spirit’s wings, I have found refuge time after time. The light glowed upon my dark times and the small light was enough. My faith assures me that even the tiniest beam of light will be enough, always. So I have survived my darkest hours.

Still, there is in me a fatal flaw: that it is not enough for me to survive the dark; I must be the light for someone else. For that, I want to bring the lightest rays of sunshine to dispel every hint of darkness. I want to be “the sun that brightens up someone’s life.” The sun? Maybe I should instead try to be “the moon that shines on someone’s darkest hour.” Maybe that’s enough. Maybe it is best, even, because that person needs the dark hour to fully live.

Why not be the moon?

“The Prayer”, Dark night of the soul, Darkness, Fear, God's presence, God’s creation, Light, Spiritual and emotional darkness, Stars

In Darkness, God Will Whisper to the Soul.

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Throughout my life there were times, many of them, when the only thing I could do was pray. In spite of knowing that praying was the very best thing that I could do, my soul held a kind of dark, helpless, hopeless sadness. My brother’s serious illness has taken me into that “dark night.” Thinking of him in the hospital’s ICU fighting the ravages of the coronavirus brought me to darkness, especially at night while trying to fall asleep. Lying in bed, I experienced panic attacks. Being unable to visit him brought even more darkness to my spirit. The fear of losing him triggered every past trauma I have suffered throughout my life.

The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it. And it is here with me now.

The writing of Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (1542–1591) gave me a kind of marker that helped me measure my current experience of “the dark night.” He described his darkness as a place of  “unknowing.”

Yet when I saw myself there
Without knowing where I was
I understood great things;
I shall not say what I felt
For I remained in unknowing
Transcending all knowledge.

— St John of the Cross

I suspect that every person has sometimes been in places I can only describe as the “dark night of the soul.” It is a place most people experience as abandonment by God. It is a place where I have found myself many times. And yes, I fear it. I dread it. Perhaps you fear it, too.

Many people believe that the dark night of the soul comes to them because of something they have done, some sin they have committed that results in God’s absence. Yet, we find the experience of darkness in the life stories of those we think of as having been faithful followers of God. People such as Mother Teresa, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen and Martin Luther. Each of these suffered particularly intense episodes of the “dark night of the soul.” 

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In his secret journal, Henri Nouwen wrote   about a dark season in 1988 in which he could not feel God’s love. He had brought millions of others into a more tender and intimate experience with God, but he writes that he was in a “dark night of the soul.”

C.S. Lewis’s dark night came after the death of his wife Joy, the love of his life who died four years after their marriage. Lewis explained that he experienced the emotional pain of Absence — not just the absence of his wife, but the immense Absence of God, his “dark night of the soul.”

Mother Teresa’s darkness came at the very founding of her Missionaries of Charity and lasted to the end of her life, with little respite. Martin Luther’s dark night plagued him as a young monk, and then in several other forms as a Reformer.

The dark night! The unknown! Yes, I fear it. I dread it.

It is for me a time when prayer is my only response. At least, what I understand of prayer. At times I have found myself turning to music to quiet my soul in my darkest night. One song that I turn to almost every time in the darkness is “The Prayer” written by Carole Bayer Sager, David Foster, Tony Renis and Alberto Testa. “The Prayer” is a song of safety and inspiration.

Carole Bayer Sager speaks about how the song’s theme of safety is so important to her:

I think it embodies everything I looked for my whole life. “Lead us to the place, guide us with your grace, to a place where we’ll be safe.” I didn’t find that safety until my mid-40s.

I wonder if the words and thoughts in “The Prayer” might comfort you on this day, reading its words and listening to the video I’ve embedded below.

I pray you’ll be our eyes
And watch us where we go
And help us to be wise
In times when we don’t know

Let this be our prayer
When we lose our way
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.

I pray we’ll find your light
And hold it in our hearts
When stars go out each night
Remind us where you are.

Let this be our prayer
When shadows fill our day
Lead us to a place
Guide us with your grace
To a place where we’ll be safe.

A world where pain and
sorrow will be ended
And every heart that’s
broken will be mended
And we’ll remember we
are all God’s children

Reaching out to touch you
Reaching to the sky.

We ask that life be kind
And watch us from above
We hope each soul will find
Another soul to love.

Let this be our prayer
Just like every child
Needs to find a place
Guide us with your grace.
Give us faith so we’ll be safe.

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, we fear it. We dread it. Praying ourselves through it may seem impossible.

Yet, might we look at darkness and the unknown in another way by reflecting on the creation story in Genesis? When I consider God’s creation of day, and night, it seems that God’s astounding creation of day and night reside in a continuum where neither are bad. They just are! When I consider our gift of “In the beginning,”I cannot help but look on in awe and wonder as God and Spirit create light out of darkness.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” 

God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. God set them in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth, to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.    — Genesis 1:1-3, 16-19

God saw that it was good. In that, I have confidence. I see the brightness of the day, and the night, night that God has filled with a glowing moon and glistening stars — light in darkness. Perhaps this thought, this truth of Scripture, will help us to not fear the darkness of night, for without it, we would can never enjoy its light. And as for the dark night of the soul, the unknown that we so fear, perhaps we can embrace it as a place to linger and to wait for the Spirit to guide us into the realization of God’s presence, even as we are experiencing God’s absence.

One of my favorite writers, Mirabai Starr, knows about the way of unknowing personally and intimately. She describes what happens between the soul and God in the “dark night:”

The soul in the dark night cannot, by definition, understand what is happening to her. . . . she does not realize that the darkness is a blessing. She feels miserable and unworthy, convinced that God has abandoned her, afraid she may herself be turning against him. In her despair, the soul does not recognize that God is teaching her in a secret way now.

At the same time that the soul in the night becomes paralyzed . . .  a sense of abundance starts to grow inside the emptied soul. . . . God will whisper to the soul in the depth of darkness and guide it through the wilderness of the Unknown.

Barbara Brown Taylor intentionally moved herself into an experience of forced darkness, a place where her intention was to stay there for a long period of time. In that darkness, she said this: “St. John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation.”

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, I still fear it. I will probably always dread it. But after being in dark spaces so many times, I think I can stay there now, knowing in my heart of hearts that my soul’s dark night really is God’s best gift to me, intended for my liberation.

The dark night!  The unknown!  Yes, I still fear it.

I may fear the darkness, but I love the stars.0F63D52B-65D9-49F5-AA31-A5A12364D676

Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light;

I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.

― Sarah Williams, Twilight Hours: A Legacy Of Verse

In my soul’s darkest nights, I learned that the light of the stars is always there, even in the times when I cannot see them. I also learned something profound about prayer — something so profound, so holy and intimate — that I am at a loss to describe it. I learned that a part of prayer in the dark is the miracle that Spirit holds me close and God whispers to my soul.

I know that the stars still comfort me in the dark, that in the darkest of my soul’s nights, I can still pray. For that, I give thanks to God.

All Shall Be Well, Contemplation, coronavirus, Darkness, Sacred Pauses, Sacred Space

ALL SHALL BE WELL . . . A VIDEO BLOG ON SPIRITUALITY – EPISODE NUMBER 2

“ALL SHALL BE WELL” is a video blog that will help us enhance our personal spirituality and lead us into sacred pauses that will nourish our souls.

Welcome to “All Shall Be Well,” where we will together explore our spiritual center, create a moment of sacred pause and join together in contemplation and silence. Tonight my thoughts will focus on the dark times of our lives, the spiritual and emotional darkness that sometimes engulfs us and the ways we can dwell in our darkness to learn the secrets the darkness teaches us. We will listen in sacred space to hear the sigh of our souls.

Finding sacred spaces while hopelessly trapped in darkness

Bethlehem’s Star, Christ’s Birth, Conflict, Confusion, Darkness, Epiphany, Hope, Light, Magi, Meditation, Night sky, Repair the world, Sacred Pauses, Singing, Spirit, Stars, Tears, Transcendence

A TRANSCENDENT MOMENT IN THE SHADOW OF CHAOS

Although churches all over the world celebrated Epiphany last Sunday, today is the actual day of Epiphany. So I invite you to pause for a few moments today and celebrate Epiphany with me. Epiphany, also known as Theophany in the east, is a Christian feast day that celebrates the revelation of God incarnate that came to us in the form of the infant Christ.

In Western Christianity, Epiphany commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. Epiphany always includes the story of the star that appeared in the dark sky to guide the Magi to the infant Christ. Epiphany also reminds us to “see” and to open our hearts to the coming of God to us in the form of an infant.

So having decided to sit quietly and contemplate the light of Epiphany, I am suddenly disturbed by terrible sounds coming from the television in the next room. What sort of chaos can so forcefully disrupt my sacred pause on this day? Crowds are storming the United States Capitol, breaching the doors, pushing past the Capitol police, violent confrontations, breaking windows, persons shot, members of Congress made to shelter of place in the building, protesters engaged in an armed standoff in front of the House of Representatives’ chamber. In this very moment — on the day of Epiphany — this is what I am hearing. I feel sad, frightened, disappointed, ashamed  — tears come and I ask why the light of Epiphany seems so dim.

Why this darkness? Why this danger? Why, on the day of Epiphany?

Then I suddenly have my own personal Epiphany and it is this: God is present. In some way, by some miracle, in the mystical wind of Spirit, God is present. With me! With our nation! With the melee! With the confused crowds that have gathered!

“Celebrate through this!” the Spirit is saying to me. “Celebrate the Epiphany — keep listening for God’s voice, pray, praise, worship, sing — because the Magi followed the star in the darkness and found the Prince of Peace!”

As I celebrate Epiphany today, I am surprised by my personal epiphany — a sudden, striking realization that indeed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2)

God of light and of darkness,

My epiphany came today when I realized anew that your divine power is working in my life. When I still know that your divine power is working, even in anarchy, even in the intentions of the violent, chaotic crowds that now gather. I know, God, that your divine power brings light in the midst of darkness, as it always has. I know that your divine power brings sudden, transcendent moments, even in the shadow of chaos.

I have encountered you, God, in these troubling moments. I weep and I grieve. Yet you, God, have given me a transcendent moment of awe that will forever change how I experience this violent world that has always been violent. And so, God, I am lifting my eyes to the dark sky and I am seeing the gleaming Epiphany star in the darkness. I pray to you, God, and I worship you. My heart is filled with gratitude for your constant presence. I praise you and I sing, because singing in the darkness is the way I always get to the light. 

Grant us your peace, God. Send your Spirit of peace to hover over us in this moment of violence in our nation’s Capitol. Send your Spirit of peace for this day of darkness, for the strife of disunity, for the hate and chaos. Send us your Spirit of peace to remain with us forever. 

Help us, God, to keep our eyes on Epiphany’s star. Help us to never choose violence and hate. Help us to persist in faith. Help us to proclaim abiding hope as we lift our voices. As we sing! Amen.

And now, friends, I invite you to lift your voice with the Aeolians of Oakwood University, as they sing of the kind of hope we need, their interpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” arranged by Roland M. Carter. 

Songwriters: R.M. Carter / J.R. Johnson / J.W. Johnson. Lyrics are below.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place on which our fathers sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath the hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

Darkness, Epiphany, Fear, Magi, Trust

“FEARFUL OF THE NIGHT”

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On this Epiphany Sunday, I want to give you a gift — a star.  Not just any ordinary star. My gift to you is a Star Word that I randomly select, eyes closed, from a large bowl. You might be wondering what a Star Word is and what it is for. What is its meaning, if it has any meaning at all? 

The use of Star Words, also called “star gifts,” is a prayer practice connected to Epiphany and the new year. The idea is that a list of intention words, or guiding words, are written or printed on paper stars. These paper stars are then arranged face down on a table or in a bowl or large basket. You are invited to draw a word and to use that word as a guiding word for you throughout the year.

I wish I could choose a Star Word for every one of you reading this blog post. Since I can’t do that, I will choose one word from a beautiful set of 150 cards entitled, “Those Who Dream.” My prayer is that this Star Word will become for you whatever it needs to be — a word to contemplate, a word to emulate, a word that becomes an intention for you, a word that guides you in new ways to new places on your spiritual journeymand into the year 2021. More about your Star Word later. First let us think a bit about Epiphany.

Epiphany, you know, is all about the special, more brilliant star that caught the eye and the imagination of three Magi (or Wise Men or scholars or astrologers) or more widely known throughout the world as The Three Kings. Nations and cultures near and far celebrate them in various ways and are amazed by their story. As the story goes, a brightly shining star in the East appeared suddenly in the dark sky and these three saw it and followed it. Each of them bearing gifts for the “King” they had looked for and hoped for.

As scholarly as these three might have been, they had no idea when this new King would appear, where they would find him or how far they might have to travel. So their journey would have to be a faith journey. And once they saw this sight in the inky black sky, this one star that had serendipitously appeared to them, they knew this would be a journey of trust. Their maps could no longer lead them because something significant about the universe had changed. I imagine that this single star had never before been a part of the constellations they studied.

This star was just unexpectedly up there, in the vast expanse of night sky, sparkling all by itself — among the constellations, but in no way a part of them. “The universe has changed,” the three Magi might have thought. And then their thoughts likely went something like this:

We cannot travel with our old maps, our long held assumptions about the ways the stars align in the sky,

our logic and reasoning about where the new King might be found,

our deductions about when he might appear to us,

our intricate, detailed drawings of constellation patterns and webs,

our studies of the prophecies that foretold the King’s coming.

No, these things we have pondered and studied over the decades can no longer lead us to the King foretold! We must follow that one surprising, unforeseen, unpredicted, astonishing, dazzling, breathtaking, bewildering star!

“Star of wonder,” we sing each year. And so it was — a star of wonder, yet a bewildering star, that called to them and beckoned them to follow. They left their old maps behind, I think, and took with them trust. Just trust. And, of course, their gifts, presumably gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gifts fit for a real live King foretold, if not for an infant born in a stable.

Trust may well be the one single, simple gift we can take to the Christ child in these days. For when our normals are no longer in place, trust is the only real and needful thing we have left. We trust even beyond pandemics and wildfires and earthquakes and storms, even beyond upheaval and confusion and uncertainty and isolation and loss and grief and death. We trust still, maybe because when we look up into the dark expanse we call sky, we still see the dazzling glow of starlight! The stars are still up there aligned in their patterns even if patterns on earth are in disarray.

I think I probably use these lines from a poem** written by Sarah Williams every single Epiphany because I so love its message. At the end of 2020 — knowing that we will still face many of the same challenges in 2021 — I am now, more than ever, comforted by these words that have passed through so many minds and lips before mine.

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

The words call us to trust, even through fear, even when our soul is in the dark. Trust is a compelling and timely message for me for the new year. Perhaps the message of trust will also guide you forward on your journey — through pleasant places along the way, but also through fearful, dark passages. May trust be your guide and lead you well, and may you know that behind trust is a God that never leaves our side. 

I am at this moment looking at the bowl of Star Words. I wanted you to see the bowl and the cards inside it. I will turn them over before selecting one.


The card below is the Star Word I have drawn out of the bowl for you, in hopes that it might offer you some extra insight for your journey.

Place your Star Word somewhere where you will see it regularly, and consistently reflect on how God moves in you, through you and around you as you contemplate your Star Word. And may the blessings of God be upon you in the coming year.

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From the Advent series “Those Who Dream” at A Sanctified Art.

** This poem by Sarah Williams was published in Twilight Hours in 1868, the same year the poet died. These lines from the poem became the tombstone epitaph of two amateur astronomers, John and Phoebe Brashear, and is located under the Keeler Memorial Reflecting Telescope at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a tiny basement room decorated in luminous mosaic tiles. The crypt contains the mortal remains of Brashear and his wife, Phoebe. The epitaph on their tomb, an excerpt from Sarah Williams’s poem “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil,” still speaks to all those who have looked upward in awe.

The last line of the poem also offers comfort: “God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.”

anxiety, Community, Darkness, Death, Despair, discouragement, healing, Heartbreak, Indecision, journey, Lament, life, Life Journeys, Life pathways, Mystery, Restoration, Sorrow, Spirit, struggle, Tears, Thin Places, Yiayia

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.