Emotions, Faith, Illness, Isaiah, Psalm 73, Questions, struggle, Uncategorized, Unfaith

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

anxiety, Comfort, Community, Compassion, Emotions, Faith, Fear, God's presence, God’s promises, Grace, grief, healing, Irish Blessing, Isolation, Life Journeys, Soul

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.

Bible, Challenge, Comfort, Community, Compassion, Covenant, Emotions, Faith, Family, Fear, Friends, Friendship, God's presence, God’s promises, Isaiah, Isolation, Jephthah's Daughter, Judges 11, Life Journeys, sadness, Stories

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.

 

A new commandment, Betrayal, Christ's Passion, Comfort, Covenant, Emotions, Maundy Thursday, Passover meal

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.

Beauty of Nature, Bible, Birdsong, Comfort, Darkness, Ecclesiastes, Emotions, God’s Gift of Stars, healing, Hope, Joy, Laughter, life, Loss, Music, Nature, Psalms, Restoration, simple joys, Stars, Trees, Troubles

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.

 

 

 

Arkansas, Beginning again, Comfort, Emotions, grief, healing, Home, Loss, Mourning, Self care

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

 

 

Anger, Awakening, Betrayal, Bitterness, Change, Courage, Covenant, Darkness, Despair, Emotions, Friends, Friendship, grief, healing, Heartbreak, Joy, Love, strength, Suffering, Transformation, Trust

“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.

 

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Lingering . . . In the Presence of God

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I have observed, at this year’s beginning, as in past years, that humans are more introspective than usual. It may begin with intentions or resolutions for the new year. What I observe is that people are revisiting the past, trying to reinterpret it, digging for the meaning the past held for them and trying to find ways to heal the wounds of the soul theyp have hidden inside them for a long time. Those woulds live in us so long that they become scars, hardened in our spirits and thus more difficult to heal.

Until we have done this spiritual and emotional inner work, we are hesitant, unwilling to move into the future. So we linger in the present and re-live the past. Usually what we  revisit are past sorrows and losses, past disappointments and perceived failures, past pain that continues to pierce the soul. Seldom do we revisit past joys, because joy does not pierce like sorrow does.

It is a positive thing to linger in life review at the beginning of a new year. Just as the year is new, all of us hope that in the work of lingering, we will find newness in ourselves. The work of introspection is important for our well being and we have so many choices about how to strengthen ourselves, body and spirit. Many people use self-counseling, which may include searching their deep selves through personal contemplation and prayer. Others engage in spiritual direction, life coaching, trauma therapy or counseling. Still others tend to their souls through silent contemplation, labyrinth walks, yoga, nature walks, strenuous exercise, reading scripture, self-help books or poetry, and singing hymns or listening to music.

I want to suggest one other form of self-counseling that is unfamiliar to most people — working with Healing Runes as a part of your quiet time. Your first question probably is, “What are Healing Runes?” I want to begin by sharing an invocation written by Ralph H. Blum from his book, The Healing Runes.

Invocation

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out.

In your prayers, invoke God’s Presence.
In your aspirations, stay mindful of the Presence.
In your meditations, breathe in the Presence.

Above all, let the Presence be reflected in your attitude,
For surely then God will sing in your thoughts,
Speak in your voice and shine through your acts.
Let the Presence of God be the medicine
To heal your life, lift your heart and renew your spirit.

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out. Amen

To answer the question, a Healing Rune is a tool that provides a way of deepening  reflection and stirring the soul where we find life meaning and buried emotions. There is an interpretation of each healing rune in the book, The Healing Runes, written by Ralph Blum and Susan Loughan. They offer interpretations presented in graceful and sensitive language that allows the reader to take to heart what is appropriate for their own meditation and leave the rest.

A4B9545F-D3B1-40D5-AC08-23DF8FD547CAThe book adapts the sacred use of Runes as an alphabetic script used by the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples, creating a tool that could be helpful in the healing of body, mind and spirit.*

I suggest that we not fear the Healing Runes by considering them to be some sort of pagan artifact or something that seems like magic. They are more like mystery, something to guide our reflection and introspection. I suggest the we see Healing Runes as one way to guide us deeper into ourselves and into the presence of God, the ultimate healer of our souls.

I would like to choose a Healing Rune for us from my bag. Its meaning may not mean anything to you or to me. It may not open up any places in your soul that need attention. Or it may awaken us to a wound that we need to give some reflective time, some time for healing.

328A8B00-83F2-418F-BFC5-29960E0C06C7The Rune I have randomly chosen is the Rune of Trust. It is the Rune of restoration that calls for the rebuilding of belief in yourself, in your life and in your relationship with God. For some, drawing this Rune asks you to show trust in a present situation. For others, it calls for embracing the changes you are facing with trust and wisdom. In relationships of the heart, remember that I love you and I trust you are two stones for crossing the same stream. Most importat is that you ask your soul if Trust has something to teach you or somewhere to lead you.

Thomas Moore writes, “We separate, each from the other, the sicknesses of body, emotion, meaning and connectedness.” The soul must be moved, touched and healed, and that is why we linger at the door of our pain, trying every way we know to reconcile it, heal it, eliminate it (or just blast it with a sci-fi laser gun!) Thomas Moore has a better remedy than a sci-fi laser gun, a much more informed remedy:

I am convinced that all healing ultimately comes from a shift in deep imagination, grounding our own lives and anchoring our decisions in the very quick of the heart . . . not just relief from anxiety, but profound gifts that signal the presence of soul — intimacy, pleasure, beauty, love and piety.

As you and I explore what hides in our souls as this new year beckons us, may we not be afraid to linger directly in the presence of our fear or woundedness. Instead, let us consider that we are lingering in the comforting presence of God, in the gentle protection of Spirit. It is safe in that sacred space of Presence, safe enough for us to unearth whatever lies deeply in us and allow it to surface into the healing light.

God may be gently, lovingly calling us to do that work of healing and, in that introspection, to reveal our truth — the truth that will set us free!

 

* The Healing Runes, Ralph H Blum and Susan Loughan; Preface by Thomas Moore; St. Martin’s Press:New York, New York; ©️1995 by Ralph H. Blum.

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Holding Hope

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A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!

As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.

The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering  you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?

Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.

I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”

I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.

From the promises of Scripture . . . 
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place.
 — Hebrews 6:18-19

From the depths of our souls . . .
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”   — Psalm 42:11

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”  
— Psalm 130:5

But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”  — Psalm 71:14

The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.

I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

 

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Telling Our Stories

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Looking back at the passing year, I am deeply grateful for so many things. Among them is the circle of sisters who listen to my stories so many times and hold me in the light. They are my spiritual community. They “weave invisible nets of love.” They hear my stories with compassion, caring, love and genuine acceptance. They listen, and through their listening, they affirm my soul-place where my stories live.

We are our stories. Our children gain their sense of personhood when they hear their family stories and begin to tell their own. My sense of “me” is entwined with the stories about my parents, grandparents and great grandparents, stories that I have heard over many years and embraced. The stories are origin and memory, history and nostalgia, truth and myth, and as Rachel Held Evans wrote, the stories are a “cautionary tale.” The stories, at least as an adult, have made a place in my soul, teaching me who I am so that now I hold my stories in my heart.

It is sad when we are socialized to keep our stories close to the vest, when we are cautioned not to tell our stories to just anyone. After all, aren’t our stories personal information, meant to be private? That could be our choice, and it is true that telling our stories might make us vulnerable with another person.

But oh, the joy of finding spiritual community and, in community, to find safe and sacred space to share our stories! I have found such communities over the years. Sometimes the community was sharing with just one person. Other communities through the years were made up of a four or five friends. These days, my spiritual community is a cherished circle of caring and loving sisters.

In her final book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” Rachel Held Evans wrote this about our origin stories:

The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.

In many “particular moments,” I have shared some of my stories with my sisters, watching “the shades of the stories’ significance” emerge within me and with my community. My stories were “brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.” 

8B645361-2CE0-4762-B90F-D317010DA520Sometimes our stories are stories of sheer joy, but sometimes our stories are about loss, pain, heartbreak, fear or the devastating effect a particular traumatic event had on us. That’s when we hold our stories inside, fearing that telling would bring the pain back with a vengeance.

But when we protect our stories, holding them in a private place within us, we miss the healing power of being heard by another person of compassion, caring, acceptance and love. We also miss the pure joy of having been cared for by another person. That experience brings us to our spiritual center, healing old wounds of the soul and spirit; giving us the possibility of experiencing life without the pain of the past. That is God’s gift to us.

There is no better way to end the old year and begin the coming year than to tell our stories of the past, the memories we hold in our hearts, to accept God’s gift of freeing our hearts as we open ourselves to others. That’s a gift worth having! That’s a gift of grace that God wants us to have. That’s a gift that God offers us right now. If we are willing, God is able. Amen.