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

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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.

Dark Night of the Soul

A photo by Tobias van Schneider. unsplash.com/photos/44t1AZNIMIE

When I walk through the darkness, I do not walk alone. Even though I feel utterly alone, the presence of God is real. Dark times of life are sometimes called “Dark nights of the soul.” A dark period of life is felt as a deep-seated spiritual crisis.

One person who experienced this is Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Ten years after her death, a collection of her private letters was published. The letters revealed that, for the entirety of her public ministry, she endured unceasing feelings of desolation and abandonment by God, her dark night of the soul. It persisted from 1948 almost up until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief in between.

Saint ThΓ©rΓ¨se of Lisieux, a 19th-century French Carmelite, wrote of her own experience. Centering on doubts about the afterlife, she said, “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into.”

So when we experience such darkness, we can at least know we are not alone in the experience. Still, dark nights of the soul are frightening and very real. They challenge our faith and make us question our relationship with God. Sometimes they happen suddenly. But more often, they are the result of a great loss or disappointment, triggered by some external event or some disaster.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes this from her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.

When we can no longer see the path we are on, when we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. This remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with the moment in which God seems most absent, the night will do the rest.

Small Miracles

 

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Two years. Every day on dialysis. Confined to one room for over seven hours every night, tubes holding me hostage. Tubing and tape under my clothing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply grateful for the lifesaving treatments. I am grateful for the medical team that cares for me and examines me carefully twice a month. I am grateful for my husband, the greatest caregiver, who hooks me up every night, keeps our equipment sterile, orders dialysis supplies and medication, and does so much more.

But I still get tired of the confinement of dialysis. I often wonder how long I will be on dialysis and if I’ll ever have a kidney transplant. I wonder how long the dialysis will be effective for me. I wonder about how to stay as healthy as possible. I think about the burden I am on my husband and try to find ways to pull my own weight.

I have many questions and few answers. Sometimes that reality brings me down. It is a constant effort to stay emotionally healthy.

Yet through it all, I trust the protection of God who brought me this far after a year of serious illness. Through a lot of prayer and a series of small miracles, I found my life again. It is true that I experience fear, especially when I wonder what my future holds. But God has been present for me, making sure that my fear does not consume me. I rest often on this scripture passage:

“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10

I Will Never Leave You

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At times I feel completely alone. I felt alone when I was in the hospital. Fear and anxiety would swallow me in the hours after midnight. I was quite simply afraid. Afraid of illness, afraid of pain, mostly afraid of being alone.

Normally, I am not a person of fear. Normally, I am confident and have assurance of God’s presence and protection. But I have seen a lot of life. I have seen pain and loss up close. I have known moments of fear.

In such times, I give myself the wise counsel I have given others. I reinforce within myself the promise that God will protect me. And I turn to the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, that He may be with you forever; that is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it does not see Him or know Him, but you know Him because He abides with you and will be in you . . .

These things I have spoken to you while abiding with you. But the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

In this passage of Scripture, I hear the divine promise. I lean on the assurance of the abiding Holy Spirit. I rest in the grace that God’s Spirit will never leave me. Listen to these words of promise written by Bishop Steven Charleston.

I will not leave you. The seas may rise and throw their fury against the land, the storm tossed night may rage to hold back the glimmering sun, but I will not leave you. I will stand through the night watches when all the world is asleep and I will hold my place in weather so fair it tempts others to drift away. I will not leave you but remain steadfast in my prayers, holding up your name to the listening heavens, repeating my call to care for you until the angels themselves bend low to earth to see such love. I am the Spirit that watches over you and I will not leave you.

Thanks be to the God who knows our fears and will never leave us or forsake us. (Deuteronomy 31:6)