Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called โ€œthe greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.โ€ At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas,ย while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years.ย The death toll from yesterdayโ€™s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always โ€” always โ€” puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

Advertisements

Life’s Darkest Place

IMG_5929Sometimes, the heart cries out in anguish, โ€œComfort me, God, in this my lifeโ€™s darkest place.โ€ There are times when all of us find ourselves in the midst of darkness. Almost despairing, we hope beyond hope for a new dawn. We speak our prayers, often with groanings too deep for words. We look deeper within, hoping that in the depths of our spirits, we will find an enduring faith. We turn to the comfort of Scripture.

If I had to choose one passage of Scripture that has been for me a source of constant comfort, I would turn to Second Corinthians.

In times of betrayal, I turned to this passage. In times times when I felt persecuted, I turned to this passage. In serious illness, I whispered the words of this passage in the deepest darkness of the night.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

For all things are for our good, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

For which cause we faint not; but though outwardly we may perish, inwardly we are renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works within us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

So we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

– From II Corinthians 4 (paraphrased)

I can only imagine how many survivors of the recent natural disasters have spoken the words of this passage, prayerfully and with hearts disconsolate. I can imagine many of them crying out from what feels like lifeโ€™s darkest place. The hymn writer expresses so eloquently the presence of hope for all of us who find ourselves languishing, inviting us to bring our sorrows to the mercy seat of God.

Come, ye disconsolate, whereโ€™er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heavโ€™n cannot heal.

– Thomas Moore, 1816

May those who are disconsolate this day find consolation in the lavish grace of God. May those who languish find respite in Godโ€™s never-ending mercy. May those who are suffering in what feels like lifeโ€™s darkest place experience the brilliance of a new dawn. Amen.

 

The Promise of Daybreak

IMG_5911

Pierce Creek Public Boat Landing, Mayflower, Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

– Ephesians 6:13 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

– Isaiah 58:10 New International Version (NIV)

——โ€”——————————————————————————-

A friend recently described this time in history as โ€œdays of despair.โ€ She talked about “a veil of darkness” that has covered our world. I have thought a great deal about her comments and have spent time pondering the kind of fear people might be feeling. Certainly, the natural disasters we are experiencing are causing feelings of great unease. Floods and fires, mighty winds and life-changing storms have left millions of people despairing. They have experienced loss of life, loss of their homes, loss of belongings, loss of their place in community. Perhaps some of them doubt the promise of a dawning day that brings back hope.

Add to that the far too frequent expressions of hate, xenophobia and racism that exacerbate distress. Clearly, there is enough fear and despair to go around in these unsettling days. After many years of acceptance and belonging, the young people we call DREAMERS suddenly feel the fear of losing all that they have worked for, including the country that has been โ€œhomeโ€ to them since they were children.

So how do disconsolate people move forward when a sense of despair holds them captive? How do people in the midst of fear and grief believe that a new dawn will break their current darkness? How do they hold on to their faith in the God who cares deeply for them, protects them, holds them close?

Can we join hearts and hands and stand courageously against injustice, standing with those who have been marginalized, believing that we will overcome the โ€œevil dayโ€ that threatens us?

One voice throughout history declares with certain, living faith that, whatever we face, we shall overcome. I do not even need to mention his name because we hear his voice clearly during every trial. These are his words:

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. โ€œNo lie can live forever.โ€

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. โ€œTruth crushed to earth will rise again.โ€

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right. โ€œTruth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind them unknown stands God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.โ€

We shall overcome because the Bible is right. โ€œYou shall reap what you sow.โ€

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966

These days of darkness and division will pass. These days of dim uncertainty will pass. We shall overcome despair. As it always has, the breaking dawn will drive out the darkness of night. Hope will again rise within us as we embrace the promise of another glorious daybreak.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

“This is our cry, this is our prayer, peace in the world.”

Enlight138A twelve year-old girl, Sadako Sasaki, died of radiation induced leukemia ten years after the atomic bomb had fallen near her home in Hiroshima. Her story has inspired millions around the world, and her memory transformed a simple paper crane into an international symbol of peace and hope.

Sadakoโ€™s leukemia progressed rapidly and she was confined to the hospital just one month after her diagnosis. She knew the prognosis wasnโ€™t good. She knew also that she didnโ€™t want to die. Her father told her a Japanese legend that said if you folded one thousand paper cranes you would be granted a wish.

While hospitalized, Sadako began furiously folding cranes. She made a thousand and started on a second thousand. She was only able to fold 644 more cranes before she died on October 25, 1955 โ€” not quite a year after being diagnosed, but her classmates continued folding after her death and created 356 more cranes. They made sure that Sadako was buried surrounded by a thousand cranes. They also collected money to build a statue in her memory, a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane erected in Hiroshimaโ€™s Peace Park. A plaque on the statue reads: โ€œThis is our cry, this is our prayer, peace in the world.โ€

Living just beyond the terror of Charlottesville and watching hate-inspired language and actions, people of faith long even more deeply for peace in a hostile world. We saw hate on our television screens. Our children saw it โ€” groups of people beating each other with flagpoles and bats, throwing punches,ย dousing people in raw sewage, using chemical sprays on each other,ย chanting hate slogans, driving a vehicle into a crowd of people, leaving one person dead and many others injured. With great vitriol, the demonstrators trumpeted anti-black racism and anti-Semitism, displaying swastikas on banners and shouting slogans like โ€œJews will not replace us,โ€ and โ€œblood and soil,โ€ a phrase drawn from Nazi ideology.

So our hearts are heavy, our spirits nursing despair. We are desperately searching for ways to immerse our lives in the quest for peace and justice, but there are moments when hope is small. There are times when the skies above us look ominously dark, without even one sparkle to light our way. There are moments when we are filled with fear and doubt, convinced that peace in our world, in our nation, in our communities, even in our hearts, is all but impossible. The words of Russian author Anton Chekhov offer a glimpse of hope.

We shall find peace. We shall hear angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.

Can we really hear angels? Do the skies still give light? Shall we make a thoudand paper cranes? Shall we pray more constantly and fervently? Shall we look deeper into our own hearts to find the core of our own peace? Shall we move and speak and act with courage in places where evil reigns?

Perhaps we must do all of that, and more โ€” whatever it takes, however long it takes, whatever the cost. But most importantly, we must not lose heart, holding hope high so that those who see us will see hope, new and fresh and full of faith.

Once in a generation’s life, there is a spectacular lineup of the sun, moon, and earth causing a solar eclipse. Today millions of people will look into the sky to experience it. Everyone who stops to look skyward — regardless of their age, race, nationality, sexual identity — will see the very same moon and sun.ย When we experience the darkening of the sun today โ€” a stunning darkness in the midst of daylight โ€” perhaps the experience will remind us that, even in the dark, the sun still shines.

The darkness demonstrated in Charlottesville will not prevail. People of good will and kindness will stand together in solidarity to work for peace. People of faith, peacemakers called by God, will not allow the darkness to cover all that is right and just in the world. The music of hope inspires us still . . .

Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.

This is our cry, this is our prayer, peace in the world.

Afraid of the Night

Design

From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams.ย 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, โ€œSurely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,โ€

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 Godโ€™s presence. In the โ€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 alsoย 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

 

IMG_5755

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 therapistโ€™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 โ€œfaithโ€ or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkโ€”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, โ€œWhat is it all for?โ€ย 

– Richard Rohr

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

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

IMG_5623

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

Design

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, Godโ€™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

Design

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, โ€œSir, we wish to see Jesus.โ€ Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

But Jesus answered them, saying, โ€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.

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

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

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

Jesus answered and said, โ€œThis voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake.ย 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.โ€ This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

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

Then Jesus said to them, โ€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.โ€ 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? โ€˜Father, save Me from this hourโ€™? But for this purpose I came to this hour . . .โ€

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.