When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 
— Matthew 10:41 NRSV

Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.

How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.

I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.

God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. 
Helpless we seek You, God our joy, 
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. 

Jonathan Cook

I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out. 

You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.

When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.

Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her. 

The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV

So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!

Thanks be to God.

Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.

God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, sing through us,
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us.
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide
In Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

“If my people . . .”


I watched the news last night before bed. Not such a good idea! Halfway into the broadcast, I felt a pervasive sense of despair and became very nauseous. I’m feeling it again as I’m writing this. It was the very real and very current events that were so upsetting: hurricanes bringing destruction in Louisiana; California wildfires threatening yet again; protests after the tragic and unwarranted shooting of Jacob Blake; 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, who took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests, using a military-style rifle to kill two people; a president who is intent on meeting street protests with military violence; a president who gathers a crowd of supporters, not socially distanced and most not wearing masks; and the coronavirus hovering over it all to make situations even more devastating than they already are.

I turned off my bedside lamp and, in the darkness, pondered the news I had just seen. I could not sleep with the sorry, worry, desperation and helplessness I felt. There was not one thing I could do to change my world. My world seemed out of my control, engulfed in all of the events of our time. I wondered . . . how will we live with natural disasters, protests in the streets, killing, violence, military style weapons, police out of control, political rancor, a deadly pandemic and a seeming disregard for human life? How will I live with it? What can I do to change it?

In these times, we see before our eyes people getting very sick, people dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals because of COVID restrictions, people isolated and lonely for months, people divided by political polarization, people being killed by police, people protesting for racial justice, people pushing back hard, enshrined in their white supremacy, people losing their homes, people fighting out-of-control wildfires, people losing their jobs, people tired from working with so many hospital patients, people afraid to go back to school, people feeling angry and frustrated, people feeling complete despair. Most of all, people are hoping beyond hope for better days ahead.

My mind thought of nothing of any consequence I could personally do to reverse all of this destruction and despair. My heart memory, though, remembered some things God instructed us to do long ago. God addressed instruction to, “my people who are called by my name.” 

“I am called by God’s name,” I thought. “I know exactly what to do!” Of course, I could honor God by standing up for justice — engaging in political activism, contacting government officials to demand change or participating in peaceful protests. I could honor God’s creation by doing more to care for the earth. I could honor God by loving my neighbor and caring for those who have suffered loss. 

People of faith have God’s marching orders that dispatch those called by God’s name to practice all manner of good works. And this we must do. But the critical admonition from God that my heart recalled last night is found in Second Chronicles 7:14. If you are called by God’s name, you will likely know these words well.

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (NRSV)

But wait, Second Chronicles 7:14 doesn’t apply to us. It was for Israel. Our Biblical interpretations must have a solid contextual underpinning. Right?

Of course, many Scriptures taken out of context have done great damage. The context of Second Chronicles is that when God brings judgment on God’s own people, Israel, as a result of their sins, that God would also heal their land. And God would re-establish their blessings when they would pray and “turn from their wicked ways.”

We may look around at all the destruction around us and say, “My sin did not cause any of this.” I don’t have military weapons. I didn’t shoot anyone. I don’t set wildfires, I always wear my mask in public. I certainly cannot stop the ominous storm surge of a hurricane.

True enough! Most of us didn’t sin by doing any of these things. Yet, we should remember two things: 1) While we did not commit those particular sins, we do not fully know the harm inflicted by other sins we may have committed; and 2) We cannot begin to know the transformative power of our sincere, repentant, intercessory prayer.

Instead of entertaining such deep and helpless despair, instead of feeling physically nauseous with worry, I think I will follow the admonition of the Chronicler who gave me God’s call to pray. Of course, the admonition in its historical context truly was for Israel, but if we intend to use the Holy Scripture to guide our lives, we cannot ignore a passage that begins with “If my people.”

Perhaps my prayers and yours will bring transformation, in our spirits and in our world.

May God make it so. Amen.


 

Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

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.

 

Together!

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A blending of two photos: One is an image of protesters in Minneapolis. The second image is a portrayal of people raising their hands to celebrate Pentecost.

This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.

F0ABFCC6-C312-44E2-A39F-35F520174256I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.

I read this horrific headline this morning.

Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive.   — ABC News

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Artists honor George Floyd by painting a mural in Minneapolis on Thursday, May 28, 2020. Artists began work on the mural that morning. (Photo: Jacqueline Devine/Sun-News)

Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”

If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.

The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.

But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.

Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?

Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:

“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“

From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:

18bbdca6-8ece-4df4-aa13-fe110e3298cb“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!

How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.

They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’”   —
Acts 2:1-18 NIV

The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem —  “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.

And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?

41F5FD83-6B7A-4393-BF9E-57F0E4D51023In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.

Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”

What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?

What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?

Together! Together!

May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.

 

 

 

How Long?

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How long? How long will we have to feel imprisoned by social distancing? How long will we feel this loneliness? How long must we wear masks? How long until my children can safely visit their grandparents? How long until we’re past the danger of catching this virus? How long until life is normal again?

Most people I know had at least one bad day this week. At least three of us had a bad day on the same day, and I was not comforted to learn that two of my close friends suffered on the very same day that brought me suffering. It seems the longer we travel the journey of these distancing days, the more disheartened we become. We are ready to see our families and friends. We are ready to venture out of our secluded place and walk freely and without worry. We are ready to travel, to worship together in the same place and to celebrate with friends that the danger of Covid19 is over.

But it is not over. Not by a long shot. And what seems to be the second wave of the virus brings a second wave of emotion for us — a deep grief that we simply do not know when, or if, our lives will return to the lives we once enjoyed. Some of us can give our grief a name — sadness, anger, confusion, heartbreak, loneliness — maybe a combination of all of these names, and so many others.

Sadly, some people cannot name their grief. They will not! Instead they lash out in a kind of rage that hurts others. Call it domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, interpersonal violation that causes permanent trauma to the soul and spirit. Call it a tragic situation. It happens, in part, to people who refuse to look at their grief and allow it to turn into rage.

Other people who cannot name their grief turn it inward, deep inside themselves. These are the people who are suffering great emotional harm that can last for a lifetime. We can call it trauma, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress injury, etc. Whatever we call it, the grief that people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic seems to be increasing the probability of a widespread mental health crisis.

The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future. Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.  
— U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres

The more we watch our communities relax social distancing, the more we experience a visceral response that speaks to our fear, disappointment and confusion. I asked my Mayo Clinic doctor yesterday via video chat — “When can I get out?” Hoping beyond hope for an answer that meant release, I listened as he gave a thorough scientific, doctor-like explanation. His primary concern, of course, was my physical outcome if  I should be exposed to the virus, but he also spoke about my emotional and social needs. In the end his answer was what I feared it might be: “You must take extreme social distancing precautions, at least until you are one year post transplant.”

That means November for me, provided all goes well with my kidney and with the level of safety in my community. I think my question to my doctor was a common one, “How Long?” Sufferers ask it often. With heartbreaking angst, sufferers in hospital beds ask — “How Long?” — as do persons near death, persons with painful chronic health conditions, persons who wait for mourning to ease, persons who search desperately for work, persons who suffer from unrelenting traumatic stress, persons in a far away place who just long to go home.

“How Long?” is a question of the soul for persons of faith and for persons without faith, for persons who believe in God and for persons who believe there is no God. All persons languish with that question on their lips. People who trust in God have asked the questions in the 13th Psalm for ages, every age with its own sudden catastrophe or its own long, enduring adversity. Every person asks, as did the Psalmist, “How long?”

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
Psalm 13: 1-2  (NIV)

If you have been asking, “How long, O Lord?” during this pandemic, you probably know already that you will not receive easy answers. There simply are no easy answers. The current separations from family and friends are painful. The realities and risks of re-entering life as we once knew it are daunting. The irresponsibility of many people who move about without masks and closer to one another than 6 feet is troubling. The worry we carry about our safety and the safety of those we love is constant. And the heaviness of heart we are feeling is unrelenting.

So yes, you are probably asking God, “How long?”as I am. How in the world do we get to “rejoicing” during such a time as this? In these unprecedented days, it seems much harder to move ourselves all the way through Psalm 13 in order to get to a glorious utterance of praise, a declaration of trust, a rejoicing of heart, and even a song of praise to a God of “unfailing love.” The Psalmist seems to have made it all the way through the questions to a time of rejoicing and singing. 

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

— Psalm 13:5-6 (NIV)

So ask your questions honestly. God can take whatever questions you ask. Go ahead and ask God, “How long?” But then allow God to restore your weary spirit, to nourish your soul and to make your heart long for something much greater than answers to your questions. 

That’s what I want to do. Now if I can just muster up enough energy — and enough faith and hope — to do it.

May God make it so. For me and for you. Amen.


For your quiet time today, I invite you to use this meditative video as your prayer. 

 

“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.

 

 

“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.

 

“Listening for the Rustle of Angels’ Wings”

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Advent Sunday of Love
Transplant Day Forty-One
December 22, 2019

 

TO LISTEN, TO LOOK

Is it all sewn up — my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
so orderly,
so neat,
so arranged,
so right,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
Listen, those who have ears to hear . . .
Look, those who have eyes to see?
Oh God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds
who saw in the cold December darkness
the Coming of Light,
the Advent of Love!

— Ann Weems

I ask myself those Ann Weems questions often:

Is it all sewn up — my life? Is it so predictable, so orderly, so neat, so arranged, so right,
that I don’t have time or space for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings or running to stables to see a baby?

These are among the most important questions I might sit with for a while, pondering my answers. On this Advent Sunday when we light the Candle of Love, I suddenly realize that Advent is ending, bringing Christmas so abruptly, or so it seems. Am I ready, I wonder? Am I ready for the birth of the Child, “Love’s Pure Light?”486917B0-E862-4C44-895D-D08210690B48

Have I prepared a place in my heart for the “pure unbounded love” we sing about in the beloved hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling?” Was my life so preoccupied that I missed the gentle darkness of the Season of Advent and am now feeling pushed — shoved —into Christmas?

Love in a manger is too holy a gift to take for granted. Love in a manger offers us a gift that we must be prepared to receive, and Advent is our season of preparation. As the season ends, I cannot help but ask myself if I spent these days preparing myself, heart and soul. Did I pray enough? Did I spend enough contemplative time? Did I love my neighbor and care for the persons around me who had so many life needs? Did I create sacred, meditative moments in anticipation, preparing for Emmanuel to come into my life anew?

I’m afraid I must answer, “no.” Yes, I did reflect on Advent now and then as I wrote for my blog, but I definitely did not spend enough time in meditation, preparing myself to receive the Christ Child. I was completely preoccupied with creating my life’s new normal after my kidney transplant. New routines and schedules overwhelmed my mind. I spent virtually all my time adjusting to this new normal. Self-absorbed does not adequately describe me during this Advent.

I haven’t felt much holiness hovering around me. I didn’t have time or space “for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings.” Yet, the transplant itself was a season somewhat like Advent . . . filled with expectation, preparation, anticipation. With Bethlehem’s star shining through the darkest night, and hope — always hope.

And so it was for people waiting for kidneys to renew their lives. Advent offered us a look at journey, a journey that ended in celebration. Celebration came full circle yesterday when I learned that my transplant was a part of a chain of living donors and kidney recipients. The chain included 16 people — donors and recipients — which means eight people got new kidneys. Perhaps that felt to me something like “the rustle of angels’ wings.”

And then it dawned on me that the Christ Child was not born into a world where everything always worked perfectly, where everything was orderly and neat and planned out. The Christ Child was not born into a world where everything was sacred. He was not born into a perfect family, and the people around his manger were not always holy.

Maybe that’s part of what Advent gives us:

the grace to be genuinely who we are — on our holy days and on days we feel not-so-holy. Maybe Advent beckons us to ready ourselves and to prepare our hearts with humbleness so that we can see “in the cold December darkness . . .

the Coming of Light, the Advent of Love!”

 

 

It Is Not Over!

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The Twenty-First Day of Advent
December 21, 2019

The sages of the world came up with this wise saying: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over!” There are some similar sayings around, most notably one about the singing of a “fat lady.” But that one is not at all kind or sensitive! The point is that in life some things are never over. Grief at losing a loved one comes to mind, as does living with an incurable illness, losing a cherished relationship or any number of persisting, chronic, never-ending difficulties.

But the truth is, we are a resilient people, created by God who fully equips us for life’s calamities. We do not shrink in the face of loss. We know that weeping can last through a dark night, but the morning light may bring joy. We do not fear life’s dark times, because we know that our story is not over. There will be brighter days ahead. The brightest stars will give light in the darkest nights. Our resilient spirits will lift us up and, most importantly, God will be near right in the midst of our sufferings. It is not over! I am inspired by the thoughts of Ann Weems about this very thing:

IT IS NOT OVER

It is not over,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
listening
always listening
for angel words.

— Ann Weems

What profound truth: that those who wait for God watch “with their hearts and not their eyes,” listening — always listening — for angel words. We can find another take on that spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:

Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.

— Isaiah 40:31

When I think that I have reached the end of my resilience, when I have become weary with my life’s tragedies and believe that it’s over, I want to be able to remember the words Ann Weems wrote, that “it is not over, this birthing, and that there are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”

Like you, I need newer skies now and then. And if God can throw stars into those new skies, all the better. Advent’s promise is that those stars of hope will appear just when I most need them.

May God make it so, and may we remember stars of hope and angel words whenever we celebrate the Christ Child born under the light of Bethlehem’s star. Amen.