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.

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

Finding Ourselves Lost

C61646A1-BE50-4157-A898-E77F1FF191AABecause I have no sense of direction at all, I have an irrational fear of getting lost. Do not tell me to go north or south. I will have no idea how to do that. You must instead say something like, “When you see McDonalds on the right, go past it. Then go past Wendys, Burger King and Barbaritos. Look just past Barbaritos, but on the other side of the road, and you’re there.” It’s a convoluted way of making sure I don’t lose my way. And if one of those fast food places were to close down, I’m lost. 

So as I am contemplating the fear of being lost, I find in my email this morning a meditation by Richard Rohr entitled, “Practice: Being Lost.” I wanted to slip right past that meditation, as I do not need or want to practice being lost. But something held me there, captive to this bizarre meditation that described being lost as a spiritual practice.

Psychologist and wilderness guide Bill Plotkin* highly recommends wandering in nature and experiencing the great gift of “finding ourselves lost.” He calls it “Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche,” and he means that we should find ourselves lost both literally in nature and metaphorically in the midst of life’s changes.

His words remind me that at least four conditions contribute to finding oneself lost: density that conceals paths, obstacles in the pathways that force you to detour, cluelessness about direction, and darkness. I would not like finding myself in a dense forest with boulders blocking some of the pathways, hopelessly lacking any sense of direction after a few detours, and knowing that the sun is setting and darkness will make everything even worse.

And yet . . . finding myself lost as a spiritual discipline seems to be beckoning to me to enter. As a lost wanderer, I might just learn to look deeply into the face of my aloneness and discover what truly gives me life and what doesn’t. I could discover inspiration, belonging, strength, resilience and wisdom in my own company — all by myself — not knowing which way to turn. Knowing only that God will meet me there and that I can “be” who I am, right where I am, lost in a discovering moment.

As David Whyte writes:

When wandering, there is immense value in “finding ourselves lost” because we can find something when we are lost, we can find our selves . . . 

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.*   

I would like to be brave enough to give it a try in some spring wood where the verdant trees form a deep, dark canopy of privacy over my soul and where aloneness takes over my psyche. A place where God will meet me, where I can fully embrace finding myself lost, and where I might just find a few sparkles of light along the way.

I have to admit that this is a terrifying prospect for me. Darkness in a dense forest, alone, lost and scared . . . I’m just not sure about that. So maybe I should settle for the swing in my yard that’s just on the edge of the woods. Safer. More acceptable. And God will meet me there, too.

*Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library: 2003), 234, 248-249, 263.

*David Whyte, “Fire in the Earth,” Fire in the Earth, Many Rivers Press: 1992, 8.

 

 

 

 

A Prayer for the Children of Santa Fe High School

06AC883D-E9C6-4CA8-B4D4-41FF5192FB9FGod whose love holds our children in your hands,

You must be weeping today, as we are.
Again.

School children in Santa Fe, Texas gunned down.  And then explosive devices — including pipe bombs and pressure cookers — found in and near the school.
The horror. Again.

Terrified children run from their schoolrooms into the woods, sit in the brush, hiding until the terror passes. Tears and screaming, chaos and fear.
Again.

A tenth grade girl spoke truth to tragedy:
Every school shooting, kids getting killed, innocent kids getting killed.

The Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, described the shooting: 
One of the most heinous attacks that we’ve ever seen in the history of Texas schools.*

Another student spoke of her fear:
It’s been happening everywhere. I’ve always kind of felt like eventually it was going to happen here, too. I don’t know. I wasn’t surprised. I was just scared.

We acknowledge, God, that the unsafeness of our children in their schoolrooms is our national shame.

And we talk incessantly, God, about what should be done and what could be done, what ought to be done and what must be done.

And we promise our “thoughts and prayers” — empty without our action.

Then we ask you to intervene, God, but we fail to give our own energy and commitment. We refuse to stand courageously and work diligently until we see change. We refuse to storm the offices of our Congressional representatives demanding their promises to address this national failure.

Discussions cover the news channels. Again.

The president says he’s heartbroken and orders flags flown at half staff. Again.

Empty words, God. 
Again.

Grant us, God, a shield of protection over our innocent children. Give grace and peace to parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, friends who grieve great loss in this very moment.

Give extra strength to those attending those who are wounded. 

And most of all, God, we ask that you ennoble us — every one of us — with the courage and the resolve to seek what is just and right, so that this kind of horrific tragedy will not befall another school, will not terrorize another child, again.

Amen.

 

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Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

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.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE

Despair

192EA03D-9DFB-4D4A-BB22-A481D2086FCDDespair has its way at times. It sneaks into my spirit and dwells there for a while, Although despair is thoroughly unwelcome and unwanted, it has a way of making a home in me at times. It has its way. It does its damage. It enslaves me with a devastating kind of bondage. It forces me into an uneasy and oppressive place.

Despair’s most damaging legacy is fear. These days are, for me at least, days of fear. I watch the current president and listen to his words in horror. He speaks with hostility. He gives welcome to divisiveness, racism, misogyny and disrespect. His words are often divisive, rude and insensitive. He uses his power to build an unsettled nation. I despair for the nation, and I despair for a world filled with violence, war, hunger, poverty, and natural disasters born of climate change.

My faith tells me that there is a remedy for despair, that fear can be conquered, and that peace might be restored in me. The poetry of Wendell Berry is a beautiful reminder.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief.

I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light.

For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

— From Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things“

When despair casts its damaging spell within me, my faith still holds. They are waiting for me, always, the peace that is a balm for grief and despair, the presence of still waters and the stars sparkling in my night sky. This otherworldly beauty causes me to rest in the arms of faith and to recall the many times of despair in my life that served only to make me stronger and more resilient.

Thanks be to God.

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 “wasting 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 — the rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are Your mercies in disguise?

– Written by Liz Story • Copyright © 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)

 

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 “How 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 — 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.