Afraid of the Night

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From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams.Β The last line of the poem was used as an epitaph for an Astronomer-couple
buried at Allegheny Observatory.

 

 

Almost every night as bedtime approaches, I experience a feeling of panic. I have thought a lot about what is going on in me when this happens. Hoping to overcome the fear, I say to myself again and again, “I need not be afraid of the night.” And yet the panic persists. What I do know is that there is a part of me that fears going to sleep and never waking up. I have thought long and hard about where such a feeling might come from.

I recently worked through this and discovered that the panic is related to my many nights spent in the hospital in 2014. I remember well the long nights of sleeplessness and anxiety. I remember the irrational fear that clung tightly to me following a few brushes with death. I remember that, even when I was stronger and out of imminent danger, I continued to be afraid. And I remember that the nights in the hospital were lonely and seemingly endless.

When I was discharged and safely back home, I continued to be sleepless, eyes wide open every night, all night. I stayed exhausted, of course, and slept soundly during the day. It is interesting to me how the body adjusts itself to changing circumstances and schedules, physically and emotionally, even spiritually. Body and soul, I easily accepted an intense fear of the night. Perhaps I could just as easily embrace the reality of a caring God who watches over me through every dark time. Perhaps I could find the God of the Psalmist.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, β€œSurely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

– Psalm 139:1-13

I need not be afraid of the night.

It is true. Through every dark day, I could not flee from God’s presence. In the β€œdark night of my soul, in every difficult time, there was a reality I needed to learn, an eternal truth waiting fir me to discover. My discovery was about the captivity of fear, especially fear that descended on me in the dark of night. My discovery was alsoΒ about a Light that is brighter than any darkness I could ever experience.

I need not be afraid of the night. Thanks be to God.

 

In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of β€œfaith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkβ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, β€œWhat is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed β€œthe belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to β€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Light for a Dark Path

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Life can be a very dark path, frightenly uncharted. Inching through life often finds us hesitating in dark places, afraid to take even one step into an unknown future. The darkness can be daunting. Still, for me light has at times eased the darkness, and with even a tiny ray of light, I was able to move forward.

Brother Curtis Almquist writes of the grace-filled presence of beacons of light.

There have been people in our past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present . . . and we remember them because they help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted.

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

How fondly I remember and give thanks for the people who were beacons of light for me.

Yiayia, my beloved grandmother, who was my faithful and loving protector and whose energy nurtured me.

Thea Koula, my favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me and who brought joy and lightheartedness to my life.

Ethel, my forever friend, who was a constant beacon of light, always helping me find my way.

In the darkness, the light of faith endured and made the journey possible. Most certainly, the people in my life strengthened my faith and were for me a welcomed light for a dark path. And yes, I stumbled over more than a few nasty obstacles and rough spots. But even when I languished in the darkness of an uncharted path, my faith was enough. My faith was my brightest light.

I will be forever grateful for the beacons of light that helped guide me on the journey and for the enduring, constant presence of a faithful God.

The Lord will guide you always;
will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

Out of the Darkness

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The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds
that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light . . .

– Excerpt from “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” by poet Malcolm Guite

Out of the bombing in Manchester emerge brokenhearted families — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children. We live in a brokenhearted world. We wonder what we might do with our broken hearts. Do we respond with anger, sorrow, disinterest? Do we chalk it up as just another tragedy that is inevitable in a world of terrorism and unbridled violence? How must we respond in a way that honors our faith in the Prince of Peace?

I certainly do not have answers to all the questions we may be asking in the face of this tragedy, but these things I know. We must stand firmly, always, for peace. We must speak boldly when our words might ease violence. We must pray without ceasing for a world without violence, and hope constantly for a world that is gentle and hospitable for every person.

Finally, as poet Malcolm Guite writes, we must raise our voices in the strength that comes after weakness. We must sing on, people of God, for our songs might just help bring the world out of darkness into God’s wondrous light!

. . . You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

– 1 Peter 2:9, NIV

Pay Attention

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Pay attention. Pay very close attention. For the day we call Good Friday brings us face-to-face with the trial, crucifixion, death and burial of Christ. We are placed within the awesome mystery of the extreme humility of a suffering God. This day is at once a day of deep gloom as well as a day of watchful expectation, because the Author of life is at work transforming death into life: “Come, let us see our Life lying in the tomb, that he may give life to those that in their tombs lie dead.” (Sticheron of Great Saturday Orthros)

Christ’s death is the final and ultimate revelation of His perfect love. He suffered the excruciating pain of absolute alienation when he cried out to God, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!” (Mark 15:34). And finally, Jesus accepted the ultimate horror of death with the agonizing cry, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

In my memories of what we called Great and Holy Friday in the Greek Orthodox Church, I understood, even as a child, that the profound event of the death and burial of God in Christ Jesus was marked by an eerie kind of silence. There was no eucharistic celebration. In fact, Great Friday and Great Saturday are the only two days of the year when no eucharistic gathering is held.

On Great and Holy Friday, we commemorate the sufferings of Christ: the mockery, the crown of thorns, the scourging, the nails, the thirst, the vinegar and gall, the cry of desolation, and all that the Savior endured on the Cross. The Friday afternoon Vespers left an indelible mark as I remember the un-nailing of Christ from the Cross and the placement of His body in the tomb.

Great and Holy Friday. Pay attention!

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

– Isaiah 53:4-5 King James Version (KJV)

Pay attention.

Pay attention to what goes on around you and within you. Pay attention to the water on your feet and the roughness of the towel in your hand. Pay attention to the softness of the bread and the sting of the wine in your throat. Pay attention to the brusqueness of the kiss and the splinters of the cross. Pay attention to the coldness of the tomb and the terror that clutches your heart. Pay attention to the brightness of the dawning light and the life that bursts forth.

– Br. James Koester
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

Troubled Souls

If you are a Greek Orthodox Christian, you will very likely be in church on this Holy Tuesday. I remember it well when as a child I attended the Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church every single day of Holy Week. But most church doors will not be open tonight. Candles will not be lit. Scripture will not be read. Hymns will not be sung. It’s only Holy Tuesday, after all.

Let us read one of the lectionary scriptures for this day, John 12:20-36, the passage in which Jesus predicts his death.

Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, β€œSir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

But Jesus answered them, saying, β€œThe hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.

β€œNow My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? β€˜Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, saying, β€œI have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”

Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, β€œAn angel has spoken to Him.”

Jesus answered and said, β€œThis voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake.Β Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

The people answered Him, β€œWe have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, β€˜The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

Then Jesus said to them, β€œA little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them.

– John 12:20-36 New King James Version (NKJV)

If we skip Holy Tuesday, we will fail to hear Jesus speak these words: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me . . . Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? β€˜Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour . . .”

If we skip Holy Tuesday, we won’t hear Jesus confess that his soul was troubled. And perhaps we will dismiss the moments when our own souls are troubled. It is a critical part of Holy Week for us to experience troubled souls. It isa part of our journey to the cross.

So let us rest into Holy Tuesday and experience the agony of troubled souls. Let us feel deeply. Let us worship fully. Let us move on with Jesus to the hill of Golgotha, grieving, mourning, troubled.

Prayers in the Night

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Remembering Libby Scott Hankins and Celebrating Her Life

Libby died at noon on March 17 at age 23 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. Diagnosed with the disease at age 2, she lived a full and productive life. She was just months from graduating with a degree in special education from the University of West Alabama, where she was homecoming queen and captain of the cheerleading squad.

Libby had a double lung transplant last year, but had to return to Duke University Medical Center in February. On February 25, Libby was moved to ICU because of AMR-antibody mediated rejection. Her body fought against the rejection and the many serious complications she was experiencing until March 17 when she lost her battle against cystic fibrosis.

In her final weeks, more than 50,000 people prayed and kept vigil for her day and night. Those people are now continuing their prayers for Libby’s grieving family and friends, believing that “God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 14)

On Wednesday, the celebration of her life will be held at the stadium in Gordo, Alabama. Her mother and father will likely re-experience their loss. When night falls, their minds may be flooded with memories. Mourning might well overcome them in the darkness of the night. Those 50,000 friends will keep watch as they did during Libby’s final struggle. They will fervently pray for her parents through the night, all night,Β until the light of morning.

This prayer is for Libby’s family:

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who watch or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
soothe the suffering,
give grace to those who mourn;
and all for your love’s sake.

Amen

Faith Breaks Through

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When all seems bleak, we tend to cling tighter to faith. In these challenging days, many people are finding that faith is all they have left. They feel like they are living in a country that has betrayed them and left them vulnerable. For many, this is a time filled with dark clouds and the fear they portend. Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. describes these days in an op-ed entitled “What Kind of Witnesses Shall We Be?” He writes:

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a spike in right-wing extremism. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, gays, transgender men and women, all of the most vulnerable and marginalized, find themselves under renewed attack: harassment, vandalism and even murder.

It is a tragic state of affairs, to be sure, leaving so many people with nothing but their faith in America and their belief that American people are ultimately good. They are living in fear and uncertainty. Yet, for them faith breaks through to the truth that America truly is a land that promises “liberty and justice for all.”

We will live on in spite of the dark clouds that hang over us. We will take the next step, not in certainty, but in faith. People in every century have learned that in the darkest of times, faith breaks through. That’s good news for us all.

However dark the clouds may be, faith breaks through to truth, holds fast to it, and never lets it go.

– Jean Pierre de Caussade, 18th century

Faith Restored

 

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Sometimes life has so assailed us that We cannot take another step. At such times, our faith shrinks and we can only manage to crawl out of that place of pain. Yet, it may well be that the times when we can barely crawl become the times of the most meaningful spiritual growth.

We cannot move forward on our own strength. We cannot get ourselves out of darkness and back into God’s light. We cannot rest in the faith that has always sustained us. We cannot feel hope. We cannot believe for ourselves.

I have been in such a place a time or two, fearing that I would never again be restored to my faith. I have been in a place where I felt I could not believe anymore. But I have heard some words that reminded me of my faith. They are strengthening words that I once heard from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Frank Tupper.

“When you can’t believe for yourself anymore, crawl to the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane and let Jesus believe the rest of the way for you.”

Thank you, Dr. Tupper. And thank you to the ever-abiding God who waits with us in hard times, for as long as it takes, until our faith is restored.

Morning Mercies

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Every new morning reminds me that I have been given a gift, another day to live, another chance to make a difference in my world, another day to love and grow and enjoy. Not so long ago, I lived some days of fear. Each dark night brought a sense of dread, and I allowed myself to believe that another morning would not dawn. I was afraid to let myself sleep, and did not expect to make it through the night.

Obviously, I was wrong. Fortunately, I got beyond those dark times and willed myself to believe in hope and new dawns. But the process of finding hope again was no easy task. It took time, prayer, and talking about my feelings with a trusted friend. It was a process that required persistence. Most of all, it required getting re-acquainted with God’s grace and faithfulness. I learned to find hope again in each morning’s new mercies.

The writings of Steven Charleston were a part of my process toward hope. These words gave me an extra measure of strength.

Here is the hand of morning, coming so quietly to part the curtain, letting in the first light, welcoming the wide-eyed day into the sleepy corners of our lives. A new beginning is the miracle that awaits each one of us. We are the people of new beginnings, each one of us, brought here by more mornings than we can count, fresh chances from an older life, a turn of events, a change of mind, an unexpected friend, how many different mornings have we seen? You and I are made of morning, set free by the new light, forever being welcomed into a life that is just beginning.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

Now I expect mornings again. I fall asleep these days with new hope that morning will come. As for all of us, new days are not guaranteed. We live with that reality, but we do so without fear and with faith in the faithfulness of God. The beloved hymn says:

Great is thy faithfulness . . .
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

The Scripture says it this way:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:21-23 New International Version

Thanks be to God.