Mercies and Blessings

IMG_6014Like many of you, I have experienced dark nights of the soul. I have faced illness, betrayal, disillusionment and loss. I have faced the dark side of life more than a few times. In the midst of those times, I found the courage of faith, the gift of hope, and the promise of Scripture.

If you have known me through the years, you may know that one of the New Testament passages that gives me strength is in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians. The following words are part of that chapter.

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

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

– 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18 18 (KJV, NIV)

The passage speaks of β€œwasting away.” When I was so ill for all of 2014, I can honestly say that I believed I was wasting away. It was a frightening emotion, one that I would rather not hold in my memories. But my memories of that time also include mercies and blessings, blessings of gradual healing, blessings of compassionate and competent health care, blessings of being surrounded by a loving faith community, blessings of my husband’s devoted care, blessings of hope and faith in a God whose mercies covered me in so many ways. Clearly, my blessings came through adversity.

Today while listening to Pandora, I heard a song that touched me with its faith-filled lyrics.

. . . What if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if the trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
What if trials of this life β€” the rain, the storms, the hardest nights β€” are Your mercies in disguise?

– Written by Liz Story β€’ Copyright Β© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

I learned that through serious illness, the fear was greatest at night. The nights were the hardest. But I also learned that what I had read so many times was true — God’s mercies are new every morning.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

 

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Suffering

IMG_5915For whatever reason, several people I know are currently going through an exacerbation of fibromyalgia. I am one of those people dealing with debilitating pain right now. Fortunately, the pain cycles usually pass over time. But when the pain is raging, it slaps us in the face with a significant challenge.

The truth is that chronic pain is much more than just physical pain. It is physical and emotional suffering. Quite often, it is also spiritual suffering. In the years I served as a hospital chaplain, I learned so much about what people experience when they are ill. The most important lesson I learned is that there is a very real difference between pain and suffering.

Experiencing chronic pain most often goes far beyond physical pain. Pain is the actual physical /physiological response to an injury or illness. It is rooted in the body. But all too often, it is accompanied by debilitating suffering. Suffering is how the brain perceives pain based on past experience and future expectations and fears. It is rooted in the mind, even in the spirit.

Suffering asks β€œHow long can this pain last? Will I feel this way forever? What have I done to deserve this? Has God forsaken me? Does God care about my suffering? Am I going to die?”

It is true that sometimes our suffering questions are irrational, but pain that has permeated the mind and spirit causes a very deep fear, a feeling of disorder, a sense of terror, and constant questioning. It takes an act of the will to keep suffering at bay, but it can be done. Deepak Chopra speaks of pain and suffering in many of his teachings.

Many people confuse pain with suffering. Pain is not the same as suffering. Left to itself, the body discharges pain spontaneously, letting go of it the moment that the underlying cause is healed.

Suffering is pain that we hold on to. It comes from the mind’s mysterious instinct to believe that pain cannot be escaped or that the person deserves it . . . It takes a force of mind to create suffering, a blend of belief and perception that one thinks one has no control over. But as inescapable as suffering may appear, what brings escape is not attacking the suffering itself but getting at the unreality that makes us cling to pain.

– Deepak Chopra

Is it easier said than done, modifying the beliefs and perceptions that accompany pain? To be sure, it is difficult. But suffering people find a number of ways to accomplish it: yoga, meditation, prayer, and for people of faith, leaning on the strength of their religious practice. In a very real sense, we can create within ourselves the kind of healing that rises above physiological pain.

Perhaps it sounds simplistic, but while in the throes of physical pain, I am often able to find a measure of relief by meditating on the truth of Scripture, not just reading it, but abiding in it, letting its words penetrate my spirit, opening my heart to its comforting truth.

Psalm 42 has been called a Psalm for the fainting soul. The Psalm is the voice of a spiritual believer who is enduring deep depression, who is longing for the renewal of the divine presence, who is struggling with doubts and fears, yet holding on to hope. The Psalm twice repeats this comforting refrain.

Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I again will praise him, my help and my God.

– Psalm 42: 5, 11

In the final analysis, people of faith really do have the ability to endure chronic pain while avoiding suffering. Perhaps we cannot stop physical pain or reverse the source of the pain. Perhaps we do not have the power to heal ourselves from physical pain when physiological realities are at play in our bodies. But our faith assures us again and again that we do have the power to end suffering at its source β€” suffering of the mind, the heart, the spirit, the soul.

If you are in physical pain, my prayer is that your faith will quiet the questions of your mind, that your inner strength will calm the anxiety of your spirit, that your depth of hope will strengthen your heart, that your soul’s resilience will transcend your suffering. This is the ultimate healing.

May God make it so.

The Promise of Daybreak

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

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

– Ephesians 6:13 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

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

– Isaiah 58:10 New International Version (NIV)

——β€”——————————————————————————-

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

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

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

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

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

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. β€œNo lie can live forever.”

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

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

We shall overcome because the Bible is right. β€œYou shall reap what you sow.”

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

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966

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

Amen. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Afraid of the Night

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From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams.Β The last line of the poem was used as an epitaph for an Astronomer-couple
buried at Allegheny Observatory.

 

 

Almost every night as bedtime approaches, I experience a feeling of panic. I have thought a lot about what is going on in me when this happens. Hoping to overcome the fear, I say to myself again and again, “I need not be afraid of the night.” And yet the panic persists. What I do know is that there is a part of me that fears going to sleep and never waking up. I have thought long and hard about where such a feeling might come from.

I recently worked through this and discovered that the panic is related to my many nights spent in the hospital in 2014. I remember well the long nights of sleeplessness and anxiety. I remember the irrational fear that clung tightly to me following a few brushes with death. I remember that, even when I was stronger and out of imminent danger, I continued to be afraid. And I remember that the nights in the hospital were lonely and seemingly endless.

When I was discharged and safely back home, I continued to be sleepless, eyes wide open every night, all night. I stayed exhausted, of course, and slept soundly during the day. It is interesting to me how the body adjusts itself to changing circumstances and schedules, physically and emotionally, even spiritually. Body and soul, I easily accepted an intense fear of the night. Perhaps I could just as easily embrace the reality of a caring God who watches over me through every dark time. Perhaps I could find the God of the Psalmist.

You have searched me, Lord, and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.

You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.

Before a word is on my tongue, you, Lord, know it completely.

You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

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

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, β€œSurely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”

even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

– Psalm 139:1-13

I need not be afraid of the night.

It is true. Through every dark day, I could not flee from God’s presence. In the β€œdark night of my soul, in every difficult time, there was a reality I needed to learn, an eternal truth waiting fir me to discover. My discovery was about the captivity of fear, especially fear that descended on me in the dark of night. My discovery was alsoΒ about a Light that is brighter than any darkness I could ever experience.

I need not be afraid of the night. Thanks be to God.

 

In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of β€œfaith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkβ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, β€œWhat is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

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

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

We Can Overcome

Design

Young girls run frantically from the sound of a bomb, screaming, crying, confused, and terribly afraid. An evening of sheer joy listening to the music of Ariana Grande had turned into an evening of terror.

In a British music venue, a suicide bomb killed 22 people, some of them children. Eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos lost her life, and 59 other people were wounded, some suffering life-threatening injuries. Many others are still missing.

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester.Β Ariana Grande spoke about the attack: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.”

Is this a portrait of the world we live in? Must we fear for our children and lament the lives they must live? Do we place our faith in a God we sometimes question when tragedies happen?

One of my favorite Scripture passages is also one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It is found in the fifth chapter of Lamentations. The words express deep mourning and profound loss, leaving the writer asking God, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” The hurting people who had lost everything they cherished cried out . . .

Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

– Lamentations 5:15, NIV

Sometimes our dancing really does turn to mourning. All of us are acquainted with loss. Our world is a dangerous place, and tragedies like Manchester remind us of our vulnerability. So how do we live? How do we go on? How do people of God live this kind of dangerous life?

The musical group Hillsong sings “This Is How We Overcome.” The song, which is written by Reuben Morgan, echoes the celebration of the Psalmist in the fifth chapter of Psalms.

You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy.

The song continues with these words.

Your hand lifted me up.Β I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart andΒ made this valley sing.

They sing of the continual presence of God, even in times of deep mourning, profound loss, and grave danger. That kind of song speaks of our faith, a faith that still holds us and always picks us up when we have fallen. Our faith is our resilience.

We can overcome. Every time. Every time life circumstances assail us and steal our music, we persist. We sing. We dance. We praise a God who is eternally near. So let us persevere, always proclaiming the source of our strength.

The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian prays this prayer.

Let us resiliently resume our dancing.
Let us sing louder. Let us speak out voices with determination.

May it be so. Amen.

(Rev. Torigian’s prayer may be found at https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/05/23/tuesday-prayer-95/.)

Beautiful and Terrible Things

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We live in a world where beautiful things happen every day. The dawn lights the dew of the night. The sun rises and warms the earth. The rain satisfies the thirsty ground. The foliage wears its lush green and the flowers bloom again and again.

Just in my own family new babies will soon be born. We will celebrate two high school graduations. Our young ones, just babies yesterday it seems, will begin college. To be sure, in the world beautiful things happen.

But terrible things will happen, too. A news story tells of an infant being found with almost a hundred rodent bites. An eight year old boy takes his own life. Syrian children are orphaned by war. The United Nations reports more than 14 million Yemenis are going hungry, 370,000 of them children. Certainly, inΒ this world, terrible things will happen.

I am comforted by these words from Frederick Buechner.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

The challenge to our hearts is to live in the world without fear, to live courageously, to live fully with hope and joy.

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.

– Isaiah 41:10

A Winding Path

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I simply cannot see what’s up ahead. I know that the path is a winding one. I know that the path is strewn with rocks and a few obstacles along the way. I know that the trees provide shade on the journey. I know, most surely of all, that the path winds on into places that remain unknown to me. That could cause fear and a reluctance to walk forward.

I have known such fear at times. I have gazed at the path before me and have welcomed the kind of fear that stops the journey. I have trembled, deeply in my soul, because the path was formidable . . . a winding, crooked path that stretched before me farther than I could see. I have never known the destination, only the fear and the path.

JosΓ© N. Harris has written about this kind of fear. He writes of a remedy, in fact.

When you find your path, you must ignore fear. You need to have the courage to risk mistakes. But once you are on that road… run, run, run, and don’t stop until you’ve reached its end.

– JosΓ© N. Harris, MI VIDA: A Story of Faith, Hope and Love

That’s wise counsel. I must ignore the fear and bravely walk my path in faith, faith in the God that placed my path before me in the first place. The truth is that God has a long history of faithfulness, a long history of guiding folk on their journeys and protecting them on the pathways they were traveling. And that’s good enough for me!

Because of your great compassion you did not abandon them in the wilderness. By day the pillar of cloud did not cease to guide them on their path, nor the pillar of fire by night to shine on the way they were to take.

– Nehemiah 9:19 NIV

Faith Breaks Through

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When all seems bleak, we tend to cling tighter to faith. In these challenging days, many people are finding that faith is all they have left. They feel like they are living in a country that has betrayed them and left them vulnerable. For many, this is a time filled with dark clouds and the fear they portend. Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. describes these days in an op-ed entitled “What Kind of Witnesses Shall We Be?” He writes:

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that since the election of Donald Trump, there has been a spike in right-wing extremism. African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims, gays, transgender men and women, all of the most vulnerable and marginalized, find themselves under renewed attack: harassment, vandalism and even murder.

It is a tragic state of affairs, to be sure, leaving so many people with nothing but their faith in America and their belief that American people are ultimately good. They are living in fear and uncertainty. Yet, for them faith breaks through to the truth that America truly is a land that promises “liberty and justice for all.”

We will live on in spite of the dark clouds that hang over us. We will take the next step, not in certainty, but in faith. People in every century have learned that in the darkest of times, faith breaks through. That’s good news for us all.

However dark the clouds may be, faith breaks through to truth, holds fast to it, and never lets it go.

– Jean Pierre de Caussade, 18th century

Courage to Move Away from Fear

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Sometimes I just have to move away from my fear. Being fearful requires too much energy, energy that I need to stay healthy. Lately, I have been going through a rough patch. Unpleasant symptoms have plagued me for several days and I have been bone tired. It frightens me because I have slept a lot and that’s exactly what I did before my hospitalization in 2014.

But I am in good hands. My medical team is spending a lot of energy trying to get to the cause of my feelings. My family is praying and encouraging me in every way. And ultimately, I am in the loving hands of God.

I intend to make it through this setback just as I did in 2014. I am counting on a faithful God to give me strength, to help me move past fear, to inspire my courage to move forward. I find comfort in the words of I Corinthians 10:13 and Joshua 1:9.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to humankind. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be dismayed: for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.