Hemmed In!


There are large scale, widespread forces that can trap thousands of people, even millions. Dachau, Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, natural disasters all over the world and the Coronavirus of 2020. Enormous, catastrophic events can trap people. COVID19 has literally trapped me inside my home. I have to admit, the isolation has taken a toll on my spirit. No visitors! No visits with friends or family. No trips! No haircuts! I have been trapped at some level since my kidney transplant in November. Just at the March milestone that would have allowed me to break the isolation of the transplant, I was even more fully trapped by the infectiousness of this pervasive, unrelenting virus.

Being trapped for so many months has raised up in me feelings of loneliness, isolation, powerlessness, despair, anxiety, even abandonment. And yet, often there is something very good in the center of something very bad. It has been so for me. Yes, I feel trapped in the pervasive power of the coronavirus, but I also sense the arms of God and the embrace of Spirit hemming me in even further. Such a grace-gift it has been to me, as if God has said, “l am hemming you in, and in this space you will hear me clearer and sense me more fully.”

God’s words were truth. Hemmed in, my mind flourished, my heart leapt and my soul entered spaces of calm. I felt enhanced awareness! Even awakening. I saw nature in a different way and basked in the beauty of the rising sun. The sound of the hummingbirds’ trill and the rapid fluttering of their translucent wings were sounds meant just for me. I began to write and paint, to listen more carefully to God’s voice, to allow my spirit to overflow with Holy Spirit. To my hemmed-in call from God, I was compelled to answer, “Here I am, Lord!” When I finally answered God, my hemmed-in place became Holy Ground — a very good place to be that feels more like a holy mystery than a state of being.

Was this pandemic a good thing for me and for millions of people? Absolutely not! But trapped in its dark cloud, God hemmed me in further in ways I am just now beginning to understand. I can say with all honesty that being hemmed in by God has been grace to me.

If I could even begin to choose a favorite Psalm from among the many that inspire me, I would choose Psalm 139. In its weaving of words, there are many passages that are full of comfort. From childhood, I memorized a lot of Scripture and throughout Psalm 139 I memorized several snippets that I often call to mind. One verse that I did not memorize is verse 5: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”

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.

— Psalm 139:1-5 NIV

I deplore the coronavirus and what it has done to so many people. I deplore the ways it was able to trap me, physically and emotionally. But the virus, with all its ominous, far-reaching force could not trap me spiritually. That was God’s work — hemming me in so that my spirit could rise to fresh, new heights of spiritual consciousness. Being hemmed in by our Creator has been grace for me in these days of isolation. It has become a transforming sacred pause. For in my hemmed-in space, the Creator helped me create — from my mind, from my heart, from my soul. Thanks be to God.

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. 

 

Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain

You Do Not Walk Alone

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Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

— Joshua 1:9

Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.

In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.

It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.

What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.

The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.

One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”

Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.

Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.

So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.

I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.

The Sign at the Car Wash

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Every Monday morning my routine is the same: wake up early, go get weekly labs drawn.

I have memorized the routine and the route, so I rarely spot anything new or exciting along the way. Until today! It was at the car wash at the intersection just before we enter the ramp onto the interstate. Their colorful LED SIGN caught my eye. On the sign were words I had never seen on that sign before. The words?

Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not fear, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

— Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Normally, I’m not a big fan of sacred scripture rendered in LED. It seems a bit sacrilegious to me. So why did it catch my eye today? And not only did it catch my eye, it reached right into my deeper place. It poked on my heart and grabbed my spirit today. As I mulled over this passage of scripture over the next few minutes, I determined that it was worth remembering, worth my time to dig a little deeper into what it means and why it captured my thoughts today.

It certainly wasn’t the setting or the art that illustrated it. The art, I recall, was bubbles! Just your everyday, predictable car wash bubbles! Not so inspiring. Yet the text lingered with me a while and, obviously, seemed blog-worthy.

So here I am in a place of just a little awe that I might have received a holy message this morning. I am in awe at receiving a word of comfort urging me not to be afraid and promising me the protection of the Most High God. The words were not, “God is with you.” The message given especially to me this day was, “I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up.”

And all of that on a car wash LED sign illustrated by bubbles!

Even in frightening days like these, days that have brought a deadly virus spreading across the world, we can bury this promise from God deeply within our hearts for the times we need it most . . . “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Yes, I feel fear that the virus will come closer to home, as most of us do. I fear for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my church family. I fear because I know that if the virus does reach into my life, I must be separated from those I love. So all that remains is this comforting promise from God, “I am with you.”

Even for a hyper-religious person like me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I need my family close, and my friends, those who have comforted me throughout my life at different points on my journey. I think maybe all of us need that, even more in these days.

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Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
  Albert Camus

My Sunday School class meets every Sunday night, religiously, because we need one another. Our relationship is a covenant between us and among us, and so we are never afraid to be vulnerable with one another and to tell the stories of where we are, how we feel, what we fear. Our stories are mostly about how we’re making it through days of isolation, what challenges us, what frustrates us, what causes us to worry, what we’re most afraid of . . . and our stories affirm two constants: 1) God is with each of us all along the journey; and 2) We are present with each other when our journeys lead us through times of faith and through times of fear.

My community — my sisters — often bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Jephthah’s daughter from the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges. Jephthah’s daughter was in a place of deep mourning because her father inadvertently betrayed her. She was facing death, but before her time of death, she begged her father to give her time to go up into the hills with her sisters to mourn.

Grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept.

— Judges 11:37-38

Such a sad story! Like some of our own sad stories, stories we tell only to our special, safe people. This is a good day to remember and to give thanks for my sisters, those who are nearby and those with whom I share a deep connection across many miles and decades.

Today’s blog was a little bit about sad stories, yes! But it was even more about today — a good day for me to notice an LED sign with bubbles and the comforting message: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” There is hope in those words on the LED sign. There is comfort there, even if the words are among the bubbles!

I wish for you the peace of this same assurance, that you will know beyond any doubt that God walks with you on your most frightening pathways, and that your community of friends do, too.

 

Maundy Thursday

2171539D-2A43-41D5-893F-F1BFA715E329What does Maundy mean, anyway? Maybe we need Biblical scholars to refresh us on its meaning. Most of them agree that the English word Maundy is derived through Middle English and Old French mandé and from the Latin mandatum, which is origin of the English word “mandate.”

Mandatum is the first word of the phrase, Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos, which means “A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” This new commandment recorded  in the Gospel of John (13:34) was spoken by Jesus as he explained to the Apostles the significance of his action of washing their feet. But enough of definitions and origins.

Let’s move on to Maundy Thursday’s story.

Good Friday is global, with Christ dying and offering himself for the sins of all of humanity — past, present and future. But the day we know as Maundy Thursday is much more intimate as Jesus gathered with just his disciples on the night before his Passion unfolds. Jesus has gathered his closest friends, those who had given up all to go with him, those fisherfolk who followed him. They are people just like us, followers of Jesus, followers who sometimes disappoint Jesus.

Wouldn’t it be easier to believe that Jesus was unsuspecting of all that was about to happen to him? Could we think of Jesus as a shocked, brave and trusting Jesus who continued to have faith in their loyalty until the bitter end? The truth is, we cannot think of Jesus in that way, for that would be buying into fantasy.

The Gospels simply do not let us hold on to the fantasy. Instead, they tell us of a Jesus who is fully aware of what is inside the hearts of his friends. Jesus knew Judas would betray him and hand him over to the authorities, yet Judas was included in the intimate gathering.

Jesus knew that Peter would deny him. Jesus knew the others would flee, yet he prayed for them and blessed them. And with all of them, he shared a covenant meal — a Passover meal that he transformed into a meal of the “New Covenant in my blood, shed for you”.

I would like to believe that Jesus was not aware of the fickleness and fear and failure that dominated the hearts of his followers, followers like you and me. I would like to know the emotions of the disciples as Jesus washed their feet. Though Peter objected, Jesus washed, humbling himself to serve his disciples. As Jesus performed such an act of love, I wonder if he thought about the betrayals that would break his heart. All of this was a part of their covenant gathering, a feast of love in a modest, unpretentious upper room. Jesus pulled them close in a covenant gathering, around a feast table where they each experienced their own knowing — Judas perhaps knew guilt and Jesus knew betrayal.

Now the covenant gathering reaches us, and we are only fooling ourselves if we think Jesus does not know exactly who we are. Jesus knows us. He knows our hearts and he knows the innermost thoughts we hold inside, the place of our secrets that may well include betrayals.

The shocking and stunning thing is this: knowing all, Jesus invites us to come. Knowing all, Jesus gives us the command, the mandate from which Maundy Thursday derives its name. He commands us to love others, people who are as weak and hopeless as we know ourselves to be. Jesus commands us to love as he has loved us. To love those who are deemed to be “society’s worthless,” but who really are the sick, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed. These, the least of these, we must love as God loves us. The commandment of Jesus calls us to love these and, always, to invite them into our intimate gatherings.

Somehow the words of Oscar Romero seem appropriate to guide us through Maundy Thursday.

Do you see how life recovers all of its meaning? And suffering then becomes a communion with Christ, the Christ that suffers, and death is a communion with the death that redeemed the world? Who can feel worthless before this treasure that one finds in Christ, that gives meaning to sickness, to pain, to oppression, to torture, to marginalization?

— Oscar Romero

What we find around the Maundy Thursday table — even this year a virtual table — is that in Christ we do find the treasure “that gives meaning to sickness, to pain, to oppression, to torture, to marginalization.” And for this day, the treasure gives meaning to pandemic fear, to pain, to anxiety, to the loneliness of being isolated.

No words are adequate to comfort you or bring hope to your current circumstance, so I leave you with this prayer recorded on the following video. I pray it will remind you of the comfort that comes only from God.

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.

 

 

 

Back to Arkansas

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Beautiful Hot Springs, Arkansas

My thoughts today take me away, out of this house, out of this state and back to Arkansas. It’s not so much about feeling trapped inside my house because of illness. It’s more about my need to heal, to experience something new, something of beauty that also feels like home. That place would be Arkansas.

Arkansas was most definitely not a place I would have chosen as my home when we accidentally moved there in 1982! It had to be an accidental move because neither Fred nor I knew anything at all about the state of Arkansas, a landlocked state that was constantly maligned by folks that have ever been there. At first, I detested being there, but after living there for 33 years, I grieved deeply when we left our Arkansas home in 2015. It made little sense really, that a born and bred Alabama girl would fall in love with Arkansas, but I did just that.

So today my mind slips away to my Arkansas home. With a lump in my throat, I travel to that beautiful state, lush with green and dotted with stunning lakes and the magnificent Arkansas River. I visit my son and my grandchildren in my imaginary travel, and my spirit somehow feels filled with what I needed today. I walk through what was my dream house and I visit the church I pastored for nine years. I stop by the hospital where I served as a chaplain and by Little Rock City Hall and the Pulaski County Courthouse where I spent much of my time advocating for abused women and children. I head to the banks of the Arkansas River that graces Little Rock and I gaze for a few minutes at the Little Rock skyline.

Why would I make this journey today of all days? I don’t feel well at all physically, and I really don’t feel up to this level of nostalgia. I don’t want to weep for a loss that still lingers with me. And yet, this experience is strangely comforting. It feels almost like opening my arms to a place I loved and allowing myself to feel the lump in my throat for the loss of it. It feels like making peace with the past — embracing it, mourning it, allowing it to comfort me and then walking back to my present home just a little bit healed.

This is what is needed for healing after loss. I am aware that when I stop smothering my regrets and my sorrow, I will have moved my soul and spirit to a new place, a better and healthier place and a place that is open to joy and a sense that all is right in my world. Healing doesn’t happen all at once. It takes some time and some intentionality. It takes walking right through the middle of sorrow until I get to the other side. It takes a sense of knowing when I am finally standing firmly on the other side of grief.

So I journeyed back to Arkansas today to find some joy and to take it back home with me. It was a worthwhile journey. I did return a little more healed. I have learned over many years and through many losses that my spirit knows how healing comes, but sometimes my mind gets in the way, blocking the healing I need. The sign of better times is when my spirit and mind join together to create healing. I think that’s exactly what happened for me today. My mind — my imagination — took me to the place I loved and lost, and while I lingered there for awhile, my spirit tended to the healing.

Thanks be to God for my mind and spirit and for God’s healing of wounds new and old.

Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it . . .
To regret deeply is to live afresh.

— Henry David Thoreau

 

 

“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.