Becoming Our Better Selves

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I don’t usually write about charts in my blog. I’m not really a chart person at all. But my friend, Kim Rosby, recently sent me a chart that is worth contemplating. The chart is a snapshot of what it might look like when we become our better selves. It’s entitled “The Comfort Zone,” which is a place most of us want to be. 

That’s the problem. There is no growth and maturing in the comfort zone. It can become for us, not just comfortable, but also stagnant.

So I spent some time contemplating this provocative chart, and it definitely provoked some emotions in me. It appears that there are four zones that are possible for us:

  • The Comfort Zone
  • The Fear Zone
  • The Learning Zone
  • The Growth Zone

There you have it! So let’s unpack this chart a bit. When/if we manage to move ourselves out of the comfort zone, a place where we feel safe and in control, we will most likely enter the fear zone. In the fear zone, we are not at all sure of ourselves. We hang on the opinions of other people and use anything we can find as an excuse to remain frozen in place. If we don’t make a move, we can’t make a mistake. Right? We come to a point, though, where we do not believe we can move. We don’t believe we can change. We don’t believe we can seek another way.

Fortunately, some of us do make it out of the fear zone and thus find ourselves in the learning zone. What a renewing place to be, a place where new and fresh ideas are possible. It is in this zone that we realize we have moved at least a few steps past our comfort zone. We learn new skills and we discover that we can navigate challenges and solve problems. As long as we are learning, our path is clear and a future is possible.

So we move with courage into the growth zone, where we will re-invent ourselves in positive and exhilarating ways. As we conquer the objectives that were holding us back, we begin to believe in the possibility of new life goals, a deeper purpose. And then suddenly, we surprise ourselves with dreams and aspirations for something more in our lives, something fresh that inspires us to be our better selves.

I like my friend’s chart. I also like this promise that also says something very compelling about becoming our better selves:

 . . . I came that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.
—Jesus

 

 

Through These Dark Hours

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Unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul.

What do I do through these dark hours? How do I endure them, the lostness, the fear, the spiritual suffering? How do I make my journey and avoid the dark hours that overwhelm me along the way?

Dark hours are a part of our living, a part of our journey. They cover us — even those who are most religious and devout — like an ominous black cloud. Dark hours bring us fear, dread, a lack of hope. Dark hours steal the joy of our faith.

The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes a spiritual crisis in the journey with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross in his poem, “The Dark Night.”

In her letters, St. Teresa of Calcutta described how she endured a dark night of the soul from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.

St Thérèse of the Child Jesus wrote of her own experience of the dark night, as she found herself doubting the existence of eternity. She struggled and suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness, declaring to her fellow nuns: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into..!”

Examples of the experiences of those we look to as spiritual patrons of the faith do not really enlighten our own faith journeys. We walk our own spiritual paths, always hoping for the best, always striving to experience the holy along the way. And we hope beyond hope that we will not have to endure the suffering of dark hours.

The truth is that dark hours are required on the journey. We cannot walk around our dark hours, moving them aside like the sticks and brush we can so easily move off of our path. Our only option is to keep walking, to stay the course and to embrace the journey just as it is.

As I look back to take stock of my own journey, I see the the dark hours as powerful reminders of struggle and spiritual crisis. As I examine the past, I can say without hesitation that the dark hours were times I do not want to experience again. I can feel the intense pain of them, even now, the formidable affect of them on my spirit. The thought of them brings on a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that makes me want to quickly move on to the next life metaphor I might use in this post.

And yet . . . And yet, how clear it is from this vantage point that I endured my dark hours and emerged stronger, better, with faith intact and with a living hope to take with me on the rest of the journey. From the cloud of dark hours, I learned that I could believe again, hope again, move farther into my journey with joy — even unrestrained joy — because of God’s grace that gave me strength.

There is probably no writer that inspires me more than Bishop Steven Charleston. He has taught us how to live in his many writings over the years. In this piece, he shows us the way through our dark hours in these beautiful words:

Let us dance through these dark hours, while others crouch down, seeking shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow, let us give them a sign they can see, a message made of music and motion, two dancers spinning light out of darkness, a waltz in an air raid shelter, unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul. Let us dance so others can dance, dancers from every direction, standing up to join us, music filling the sky, a revolution of unrestrained joy, an invitation to believe again, to hope again, to be free again, dancing through these dark hours, as if dancing was all that we were born to do.

To be sure, I have felt the pressing urge to “crouch down” many times, “to seek shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow.” But in the end, through dark hours I learned to dance.

Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he . . .

It’s a good way to live.

It’s a good way to give witness to the world of our living faith and unrestrained joy!

Amen.

I Need No Wings

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When accusers declared that the thoughts of Joan of Arc were figments of her imagination, she frequently answered them with this shrewd and sensible retort: “How else would God speak to me?”

This is one of the BIG questions most of us have asked ourselves again and again: How does God speak to me? 

And these big questions follow:

How will I know when it is God who is speaking?
Could this strong intuitive thought inside me be God speaking through my inner self?
Can God speak to me through other people?
How do I find God, hear God, feel God?

Richard Rohr, arguably one of the wisest thinkers of our time, wrote this in response to some of our big questions about God:

Intuitive truth, that inner whole-making instinct, just feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and most of us are not willing to call this “God,” even when that voice prompts us toward compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess, bigness instead of pettiness.

Rohr goes on to explain that mystics like Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so many others seem to equate the discovery of their own souls with the very discovery of God.

But to be honest, this post is more about me than it is about the people I admire as spiritual giants. This post is about me making hard life-altering decisions. I admit that making decisions frustrates me, especially at the most critical turning points in my life when I have felt most intensely the need for God’s guidance in the decision. It was easy, as a younger minister, to be confident that whatever I was thinking was “God’s will,” that God had complete control of my thoughts, decisions and actions, that every sermon I preached came “from God’s own lips.”

The passing years brought doubts, questions and the determination to hear God ever more clearly. In the past few years, my most daunting decision was whether or not to have a kidney transplant. My thoughts fluctuated between deciding to leave well enough alone and live my remaining years on dialysis or taking a risk on transplant surgery that has the potential of either making me worse or making my life infinitely better. This has felt like a life or death decision, and I prayed many times, “God, you have to tell me what to do this time. I don’t trust my ability to make this decision.”

Which brings us back to the BIG question: How will I know when it is God who is speaking?

How will I know when “God has spoken” about this decision? 

So let me go ahead and say this out loud in the vernacular of my Bible Belt inspired religious training . . . How will I know “God’s will?”

Now it’s out there where I can really see it. I can theologically skirt around it, but the bottom line is about that errant teaching ingrained in me that if I try hard enough, I will know God’s will about every important matter, and even about not-so-important matters, i.e., “We both wore blue today. It must have been God’s will.” And then there’s the other faith statement declaring that one has (spiritually) reached some decision, a much better statement actually: “I have a peace about it.”

Running as fast as I could from such theological beliefs, I ran way past a simple, quiet faith in a God who wants only my best. I ran past the faith that once told me not to let my heart be troubled or afraid and that the grace-gift I had received was a Comforter who would be with me forever. I ran past the simple truth that I really can have peace about a decision. I ran past the promise of Jesus:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter . . . to be with you forever. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you . . . You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  (From John 14)

I’m still not certain I have mastered all the questions on the matter of hearing God. And I definitely do not have all the answers. But relying on the promise of scripture is a start. And listening in on the experiences of holy people — people who seem to have a more direct line to God than I ever hope to have — is of immense value to me. The beautiful Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, is one of my go-to holy people. This is one of her thoughts that speaks to me powerfully in times of indecision and confusion, times when I doubt my ability to discern God’s direction, times when I wonder if God even hears my prayers.

However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.   — St. Teresa of Avila

I need no wings to go in search of God. 3B5858AA-997E-4D5C-8695-5D41049B2B90

When I can sense God present within me, I can believe in my own decision about a transplant, and any other decision for that matter. But I know that it takes a lifetime, and a lot of life experience, to be able to trust in a spiritual — perhaps mystical — union with the mind of God. It takes a lifetime of relationship for most of us to trust our intentions and our purity of heart enough to believe that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, that our decisions and actions are God’s. But when that day comes, I have an idea that it will feel like a “peace that passes understanding,” like a calm ability to quietly trust myself and trust God at the same time. 

May God’s Spirit make it so in me.

Amen

 

 

Lost

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When our Jonathan was a toddler, we took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Not a child who ever liked his car seat, his reaction on this trip was far worse than usual with a great deal of squirming, fussing and whining. All of a sudden, he cried out in a panicked voice, “I don’t know where my home is!”

Aha! That was the emotional issue at play here. Jonathan had lost his sense of home and the safety and comfort his home gave him. All of us lose our sense of home at times, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. From experience, I can attest to the fact that losing home is a trauma. Years ago, a house fire destroyed parts of our home and many of our belongings. We were displaced for months waiting on the house to be restored and live-able, and in that time, I experienced a great deal of unease and anxiety.

And then there’s the fear of getting lost, for me an irrational fear that simply comes over me at times. It’s a feeling of panic when I feel as if the people and places that mean “home” for me are out of my reach, and I am impossibly and hopelessly lost. For instance, the simple joy of walking in a corn maze terrifies me. So I suppose I must admit to having a phobia just as real as the one Jonathan had when he lost home. 

Some of the most beautiful, comforting words in all of scripture are the words of the Psalmist in the 139th Psalm. I can almost imagine these words coming from a person who knows what losing home feels like. His message to us, and even to himself is this: “It is not possible for me to be lost. No matter where I travel — from one end of my world to other worlds far away — I am not lost. For there is One who holds me fast.”

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

Amen.

 

 

 

One Step Past Possible

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All journeys begin with one step, just one step, usually into the unknown. Each step that follows goes farther into a journey that most often is made up of twists and turns and sometimes stones in the road. It takes a little faith, embarking on a journey.

Still, faith does not make things easy. But faith does makes them possible. Mildred McAfee says something very wise about moving forward in faith. She says “If you have a great ambition, take as big a step as possible in the direction of fulfilling it. The step may only be a tiny one, but trust that it may be the largest one possible for now.”

Tiny steps remind me of the book microShifts by Gary Jansen who suggests that transforming your life happens one small step at a time. The book’s message makes it quite acceptable to take micro shifts toward something in your life. As for me, microshifts are important. I have made dozens of microshifts to get comfortable with the idea of a kidney transplant.

Microshifts are still shifts, and that means change that we sometimes fear. Faith slips in on us at this point. There’s a tiny verse in the Gospel of Luke that those of us who are followers of Christ grab onto. We believe the message because we want to. We hold the message close to our hearts because we need to. 

For with God nothing shall be impossible.

That’s it. Luke 1:37. Simple and clear. Without superfluous language, Luke asserts that nothing is impossible. And about the “with God” part. Well, I’m guessing that Luke adds that to remind us that faith includes a contract between us and the God of the possible. 

So I am thinking today about what is really is possible, globally and personally. For instance, is it possible to end hate-motivated violence? It is possible to end racial divides? Is it possible to make sure schools are safe places? Is it possible to protect the earth from the effects of climate change? Is it possible for this nation to hold free, fair, respectful political campaigns and elections?

Global questions like those are endless — so many questions, so few answers.

But then I also ask what is possible on a personal level. What’s possible for me or you? Is it possible to live out our faith on the margins where hurt prevails? Is it possible to carve out time for contemplation, meditation and prayer?

And then there’s the question I often ask myself. Is it possible to envision a day of better health? I am thinking specifically about a kidney transplant. Right now, a transplant seems to be one step past possible, meaning that it’s just a little more than possible that it will happen. The possibility , however small, brings up feelings, emotions that have begun to escape from the place inside me that had them locked up. 

I finally believe that a kidney transplant for me is probably going to happen. The stars have aligned. A brave and magnanimous donor has been evaluated by Piedmont Transplant Institute  in Atlanta where both donor and recipient (me) will have the surgery. The National Kidney Registry will search for matches among paired exchange program participants. Even surgery dates are being contemplated. It’s real! After almost five years of wondering, and doubting a transplant would ever happen, a transplant is imminent.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I feel panic and fear. My heart beats a bit faster these days. I am taking lots of deep, cleansing, centering breaths. My heart is preparing for a surgery that could well offer a new sense of freedom for me. By coincidence, blasting through my speakers I am hearing one of my favorite old country tunes, Martina McBride’s “Independence Day.” It is reminding me that I lost a certain amount of independence the day I got sick in 2014.

So today feels a bit like an independence day is coming for me. It feels like independence to think about a future of not being tethered to a dialysis machine for eight hours a day, every day. It feels like independence to not have permanent tubing emerging from my body. It feels like independence to be able to travel without the strain of taking large medical equipment and multiple boxes of dialysis supplies.

As with anything medical, things can go wrong. There are numerous disqualifying factors that could still preclude a kidney transplant. But right now, living donor and recipient are fully evaluated and the transplant is at least one step past possible. This is a good place to be.

It’s the Gospel Truth!

8832BB06-FEB5-4DAA-A86D-F8C351B53CA6I was born and raised in the South and spent most of my life in the Bible Belt. In the Bible Belt, one can hear many sayings, expressions and idioms. One of the idioms I seemed to hear continually over the years was, “It’s the Gospel truth!” Always as an exclamation. 

I learned that in life there is truth and there is Gospel truth. I learned that we need both. For instance, in my life at this moment, there is the truth that I am afraid. And there is also the Gospel truth that God watches over me through my fear. 

Sitting on the cusp between daily dialysis and the possibility of a kidney transplant, I entertain varied thoughts and feel disparate emotions. One of them is definitely fear. Thankfully, I feel relatively well physically on most days, but my body never lets me forget that I’m sick. People who know say that a transplant would change my life, that I have become so used to being ill that I don’t know what feeling really well is like. I don’t know about that.

What I do know is that the idea of a transplant is both frightening and enlivening. I also know that it may or may not happen. So I tamp down my emotions, tuck away my fear and basically try not to think about it. Where I am these days is in the place of; 1) not knowing and 2) knowing that God knows. 

As I contemplated this today, I remembered a Gospel song I used to sing back in the day. I have not thought of the song in years, but today its melody ran through my mind over and over. Many well-known musicians have sung it, but the voice I remember most clearly is the voice of Mahalia Jackson.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me . . .

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, begins with these words: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 

In the rest of the chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus gives his disciples many instructions as he sends them out. Most importantly, he instructs them not to fear. 

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.  And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.  (Matthew10:29-31 NIV)

Transplant or dialysis for the rest of my life? I don’t know which it will be, and that’s the Gospel truth! I do know that I am afraid, but whenever I fear the future, I am often reminded that I am never outside of God’s care. It is a good thing, an important thing, to know that to God, I am worth more than many sparrows. It’s the Gospel truth!

I thought you might enjoy hearing a contemporary arrangement of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” performed by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Pk5YMkEcg

All Saints

05314FDF-2986-4602-8EF9-B1839FE693CEWe all need a glimpse of hope and comfort in these troubling days. Our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and we are shocked at this and other recent acts of violence and evil. So today, I share with you the writing of Jemma Allen* in hopes that you will find her words as compelling and comforting as I have.

This week in many liturgical traditions we observe All Saints Day, and perhaps All Souls. In some places there is an opportunity to say the names, to light candles for, to ring the bell for those we love but see no longer, parted from us by death.  

All Saints and All Souls compel us to look death squarely in the face,
to acknowledge our mortality, and the mortality of those we love,
and still to make our song: Alleluia!

This is a season where we boldly proclaim
that death is not the last word.
Death, and fear of death, does not hold the power
to determine how we will live.

We are the dearly beloved children of the living God,
we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection,
we are looking to a future where justice and mercy kiss,
where nations will not learn war anymore,
where the lion lies down with the lamb,
where all things are reconciled to God.

This is our hope.
It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish or mar:
not white supremacy,
not anti-Semitism,
not any kind of hatred,
not any system of domination,
not any disease,
not any heartbreak. 

And when we cannot hold that hope for ourselves,
let us lean into the hope we can hold together
as communities of life, as communities of resistance,
as hope-bearers and pilgrims on the Way. 

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Give rest, O Christ, to your servants, with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, our Creator and Maker;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

 – Russian Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed, Jim Cotter’s translation.  

 

*Jemma Allen is a priest in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and a counsellor and spiritual director in private practice.  She serves on the Board of RevGalBlogPals and counts the RevGal community as one of her communities of life and resistance.

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

In the Light We Will Stand

 

1A6BB78E-B362-4076-8D9A-0F7A98F8B40A“I have perfect attendance pins for Sunday School going back thirty years, and until last week, I never knew that the Bible told the story of someone who had been raped.”

I have heard similar comments many times when preaching from my book about Biblical women, “Voices of Our Sisters.” The truth is that Scriptural passages like those described by Phillis Trible in “Texts of Terror” are not your Mama’s Bible stories. We don’t teach them in our classes and we definitely do not preach on them in church. The stories of violence against women in the Bible are as hushed as the stories of abused women today. Shame on us.

It was one year ago that The New York Times published an investigative article about how Harvey Weinstein had for decades paid off acusers of sexual harassment. 

“Culturally, the article hit like a meteor,” writes Maya Salam in The New York Times Gender Letter, “drastically altering the landscape around how sexual misconduct is perceived, sending the #MeToo hashtag viral and, in turn, triggering an avalanche of accusations against powerful men. It wasn’t long before #MeToo wasn’t just a turn of phrase — it was a movement.”

RAINN*, the country’s largest anti-sexual assault network, experienced a 30 percent increase in calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline since the current #MeToo resurgence, and last Friday — the day after Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee — was the busiest day in the hotline’s 24-year history.

The women of this nation will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Women who have been harmed by sexual violence will revere her for her courage. Because our courage, survivors all, has often been small and our fear very large. We know that people will not believe our stories of abuse, and that instead they will blame us for bringing our terrible stories to light.

We will not forget Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and we will remember Tarana Burke who first spoke #MeToo in 2007 to let young women of color who survive sexual assault know that they are not alone.

We will remember Alyssa Milano and her Tweet that reached dozens of countries and millions of people — over 1.7 million tweets included the hashtag “#MeToo,” and 85 countries had at least 1,000 #MeToo tweets.

So we join hands with those who understand us, hold on tightly, and speak our truth, because we need to move from darkness to light.

And in the light we will stand, hearts and spirits lighter because we have spoken our terror aloud. C47C1264-7179-455D-AA1A-6DF17B4673F8

In the light we will stand, even though staying in silence’s darkness would be easier. 

In the light we will stand, even as the people around us cling stubbornly to their darkness that screams out to us, “We will not hear you!”

In the light we will stand because that’s the only way to survive.

 

* RAINN — Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

 

 

 

Moving Towards the Sunrise: An Essay on Immigration

F6C9AEAC-5F90-4F42-B0D9-FF50DDA7D60F.jpegI could decide to stand on this side wondering what life might hold on the other side. I can see the brilliant sunrise, perhaps a symbol for a bright new life for my children. I can see the tiny lights of dwellings or businesses. I’m not sure what they are but perhaps each tiny light is a warm welcome, a place of refuge, a safe haven.

I hold on tightly to the hands of my children, and now I look back and remember the violence, the fear, the drugs, the hopelessness for the future of my children. I consider going back, barricading my family in our tiny hovel and hoping for the best. It’s the life we know. It’s what we’re used to. But do I want my children to grow us “used to” violence and crime? Do I want then to be used to fear and hopelessness?

I decide to take a chance toward the sunrise and the tiny lights that will surely open their doors to a mother and her children. The land of the sunrise is called “the land of the free.” The land of the sunrise offers the wonderful promise of welcome . . .

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free . . . 

Give these, the homeless tempest tossed to me. 

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Yes, I resolve. We will go forward. Yes!

I make, in this very moment, the most significant and life-altering decision of our lives. I choose  hope! We will go!

With great fear in the depths of my spirit, I move us toward the sunrise. I hold tightly to my children and begin the hope-filled crossing. Holding them all close on a grueling hike, I can see that we have almost made it to the other side.

Now we are actually standing in the light of the sunrise. We have crossed. Those who are to welcome us are approaching. Finally, I have made the journey to new hope for my beautiful children. Thanks be to God for safe passage! 

The welcoming people come near. But they are loud, boisterous, frightening. I never expected this. Oh my God, they have ripped my children from me. The youngest is crying, pleading for me, struggling to get away. The others are screaming “no” as they try in vain to work themselves loose from the powerful arms of those who restrain them. But the grip on them is too strong. I cry out and plead that they will not harm my children. I fall into the dirt, sobbing as they take my children away. 

Dear God, what have I done?

May God have mercy on us all.