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.

 

anxiety, Challenge, Clouds, Comfort, Darkness, discouragement, Faith, Fear, God’s promises, Grace, healing, Heartbreak, Hope, life, Light, Noah, Pandemic of 2020, peace, Prayer, Rainbows, Reflection, Restoration, Sacred Space, Soul, Spirit

On Making Your Own Rainbows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Genesis 9:12-17 NIV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well and stay safe.

— KMF

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“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

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Almost Magic!

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Photo by James Ronan,  FOAP/Getty Images

Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”

Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G) 

These  trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.

A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)

As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.

You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.

In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . .
— Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

And always, words from the Psalmist:

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)

These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.

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Photo by Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)

Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.

 

 

 

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“A Box Full of Darkness”

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Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.

― Mary Oliver

For some reason yet unknown to me, I am remembering those words today. At the same time, I have vivid memories of persons I loved — many of them through the years — who gifted me with “a box full of darkness.” Each time, it felt like anything but a gift. I accepted the boxes because I believed I had no choice. I reached out to take the boxes from people I loved and immediately discovered that it was the darkness I held in my hands. Unfortunately, the darkness in my hands was potent enough to engulf me, and for a good amount of time, the darkness was my constant companion. All around me. Above and below me. Darkness so deep that I could not begin to see the path ahead.

What would I do with these ominous gifts? How would I escape the deep effect they had on my soul? How will I cast off the heartbreak? In time, I was able to think beyond my initial acceptance of these boxes moving to the reality that they were given to me by persons I loved. These were loved ones who might ordinarily have given me gifts, but these gifts — these boxes — were filled with darkness! Why? What did these gifts mean?

I held on to the pain of those “gifts” for years, feeling anger on some days, or betrayal, or loss, or rejection. The experiences changed my life in many ways, and changed the very course of my life. Being a person who so values friendship and loyalty, I was left despondent and a bit lost. Okay, a lot lost!

Yet, the passing years actually did bring healing relief. I could not avoid the darkness that my loved ones gave me. I could not get around it, slip under it, or leap over it. It was just there with me, in my life, and feeling like it would be permanent. The boxes were to me a heart rending breach of covenant. And yes, I did experience despair in the darkness, and loneliness and lostness, and bitterness wondering how these gift boxes had such immense power over me.

When the darkness finally lifted, it brought me a brand new love of life. It gave me new courage and new excitement. It gave me an awakening! I experienced a holy transformation. I knew then that I could get on with my life, joyously, and moving forward following my dreams. So Mary Oliver knew something that I had to learn the hard way, over many years. Here’s what she wrote: “It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

And then there is this wise and wonderful postscript that Annie Dillard wrote about her writing. It applies to every vocation or avocation that we love, and it’s really about living life — all out!

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive.  Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.  (Annie Dillard from her book, The Writing Life)

Finally, James 1:2-4, a Scripture passage very familiar to us says it another way:

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

So real and true it was when the people I loved betrayed me with a terrible “box full of darkness.” I had faith in each of them. I trusted them and held their love in my heart. My box full of darkness was indeed a trial and a testing of my faith. But the promise of The Epistle of James is there, in my face. It may just be a Holy Letter addressed directly to me. My challenge was to “consider it nothing but joy,” and to know that the testing of my faith most assuredly created endurance. Thanks be to God.