I wonder if writers sometimes just write words — words devoid of emotion or conviction or passion. I wonder if you would read my dispassionate words today just as you read my more passionate ones on other days. And does it even matter to you if the words I write come from my heart? Or not.
I ask because today my heart feels empty, just as it has felt for several days past. It’s that sense of numbness, maybe even a soul emptiness that hurts more than full-on despair. I cannot put my finger on a reason for it. I say to my friends, “I’m depressed,” but only because I can’t think of a better description, at least not one that most people would understand.
I have two particular friends, friends with whom I have a special relationship. We talk often about our feelings, about depression or anxiety, excitement or joy. We also ask one another a question that bypasses all superfluous language and tedious, spiritless conversation. The question is this:
How is Your heart?
The question gets us to the heart of the matter (pun not at all intended). The question gets us past the need to reticently enter into meaningful conversation. It bypasses all the fluff. It requires no long discourses on how depression feels or where we think it came from. It just asks a straightforward question that calls for an upfront, honest answer.
Just this: “How is your heart?” That’s it. We save a lot of time that way!
Either we struggle for a just a few seconds to figure out our honest answer, or we simply say, “I don’t know.” I realized not too long ago when my friend asked me about my heart that I was receiving her question as one of genuine concern for my well being. I did not feel that she was asking for a bunch of words like a treatise on my current state of being. I did not feel that she was asking me to bare the plethora of my feelings. I did not feel that she wanted to hear a string of words. I certainly did not feel that she was asking for a “How are you? I am fine,” conversation (likely the most meaningless set of words ever spoken).
She was not asking me for any of that, words and words and more words. She was asking about my heart, the seat of emotions, they say. All she wanted to know about was the condition of my heart — what longing was there; what heartache was there; what joy was there in that moment.
I always answer that question because it is a holy one. It’s never just words — her question or my answer. Instead, it is a sacred pause we enter, knowing that we will share with one another thoughts that are much deeper than words. We will share from the wellsprings of our lives.
The Egyptians taught that the heart was the seat of the soul. The ancient Hindus believed that the soul was located in the heart. The Aztecs said, “The heart is the seat of the soul.
“How is your heart?”
It is a question overflowing with meaning. The wise Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote that the heart is the seat of the soul. Another man of wisdom, Augustine of Hippo, actually behaved quite unwisely for a time, causing speculation that he was perhaps suffering from depression. The many wild wanderings of his youth caused him to harm his very soul and left him sitting at the salt pools of death. From that place, Augustine returned to God, like a bird to its forsaken nest. And he said in his Confessions, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in thee.”
I empathize with Augustine, if indeed he did suffer from depression. And yes, it is true that all these words have emerged from my own place of depression. Yet, even from that deep place where my heart feels wounded, I can still rest in knowing that my heart is the seat of my soul, a place I diligently guard. Gratefully, I can still rest in the fact that I am clothed in the comforting presence of my friends who never fail to ask, “How is your heart?”
To them — Sister Lee Ann and Monica — I dedicate this post.
For them, for us, the question is not just empty, superfluous words. Between us the words are sacred words, a holy question that taps into the “wellsprings” of my life. I always answer that kind of question. For these two friends, and a few other friends who keep vigil with me whenever I am depressed, I give thanks to God. Amen.
Guard your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the wellsprings of life.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Philippians 4:6 NIV
Don’t be anxious about anything? Not so easy.
Everyone struggles with anxiety at times — religious people and not-so-religious people, the wealthy people who have everything and the poor people who will always be with us. After all, Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). We don’t understand exactly what Jesus meant, but the disciples did. They would have been very familiar with the verse from Deuteronomy, and therefore would have had in mind the rest of the verse that Jesus was quoting.
There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
To be sure, people who are poor become anxious at times. So do those people who have everything. Any of us can be anxious. There is plenty of “stuff” inside of us to cause us to be anxious and, all around us, there is just as much to be anxious about. I don’t know about you, but I am pretty obedient to the words in Philippians. When I am anxious, I most definitely present my requests “by prayer and petition” to God.
Trouble is, sometimes I think that God doesn’t hear me. I feel worried beyond my normal worry level. My anxiety rages on uncontrollably, and there is no sign of relief, no glimpse of hope, no word from God. In those times, I ask myself, “What exactly do I expect God to do?” One of my dearest spiritual teachers, Bishop Steven Charleston, would answer my question by saying, “Open your mind and heart to the living presence of love that surrounds you.”
I had to sit with that answer for quite a while, breathing into it, searching for the silence I needed to take it in. It was definitely not a clear answer for me at first. But the more I let my heart receive it, the more I began to know how to open my mind and heart to the living presence of love the Bishop described. And then I read all that he had written. These are his words about being anxious.
“Whatever comes into your life, do not be anxious. There will be someone standing beside you. You will not be alone or forgotten. A great and compassionate love will hold you up, even through the longest night. A wisdom, as ancient as the stones of the earth, will whisper in your ear to help you in your choices, to comfort you in your losses, to show you the path forward. You will not be left unknowing and uncertain, but filled with a deep sense of hope. Whatever comes into your life, whether sunlight or shadow, open your mind and heart to the living presence of love that surrounds you. Listen to the urgings of your own common sense and the call of what you know to be sacred. Your life will be secure, come what may, for faith will be your home and kinship, your blessed band of believers.”
As Bishop Charleston suggested, when I listen to my common sense and the voice of what I know to be sacred, the love of God and the love of my friends gently lift me from the depths Every time! I cannot give you any wiser words about being anxious than Bishop Charleston just did from the very depth of his spiritual wisdom. I will simply pray that you will know the grace of the “great and compassionate love” he speaks of — to hold you up, to give you hope, to fill you with peace.
By the way, “not to worry, there is a Love that will not let you go. Thanks be to God. Amen.
This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.
I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.
I read this horrific headline this morning.
Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive. — ABC News
Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”
If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.
The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.
But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.
Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?
Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:
“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“
From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:
“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!
How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’” — Acts 2:1-18 NIV
The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem — “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.
And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?
In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.
Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”
What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?
What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?
May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.
Every Monday morning my routine is the same: wake up early, go get weekly labs drawn.
I have memorized the routine and the route, so I rarely spot anything new or exciting along the way. Until today! It was at the car wash at the intersection just before we enter the ramp onto the interstate. Their colorful LED SIGN caught my eye. On the sign were words I had never seen on that sign before. The words?
Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not fear, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.
— Isaiah 41:10 NLT
Normally, I’m not a big fan of sacred scripture rendered in LED. It seems a bit sacrilegious to me. So why did it catch my eye today? And not only did it catch my eye, it reached right into my deeper place. It poked on my heart and grabbed my spirit today. As I mulled over this passage of scripture over the next few minutes, I determined that it was worth remembering, worth my time to dig a little deeper into what it means and why it captured my thoughts today.
It certainly wasn’t the setting or the art that illustrated it. The art, I recall, was bubbles! Just your everyday, predictable car wash bubbles! Not so inspiring. Yet the text lingered with me a while and, obviously, seemed blog-worthy.
So here I am in a place of just a little awe that I might have received a holy message this morning. I am in awe at receiving a word of comfort urging me not to be afraid and promising me the protection of the Most High God. The words were not, “God is with you.” The message given especially to me this day was, “I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up.”
And all of that on a car wash LED sign illustrated by bubbles!
Even in frightening days like these, days that have brought a deadly virus spreading across the world, we can bury this promise from God deeply within our hearts for the times we need it most . . . “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
Yes, I feel fear that the virus will come closer to home, as most of us do. I fear for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my church family. I fear because I know that if the virus does reach into my life, I must be separated from those I love. So all that remains is this comforting promise from God, “I am with you.”
Even for a hyper-religious person like me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I need my family close, and my friends, those who have comforted me throughout my life at different points on my journey. I think maybe all of us need that, even more in these days.
My Sunday School class meets every Sunday night, religiously, because we need one another. Our relationship is a covenant between us and among us, and so we are never afraid to be vulnerable with one another and to tell the stories of where we are, how we feel, what we fear. Our stories are mostly about how we’re making it through days of isolation, what challenges us, what frustrates us, what causes us to worry, what we’re most afraid of . . . and our stories affirm two constants: 1) God is with each of us all along the journey; and 2) We are present with each other when our journeys lead us through times of faith and through times of fear.
My community — my sisters — often bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Jephthah’s daughter from the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges. Jephthah’s daughter was in a place of deep mourning because her father inadvertently betrayed her. She was facing death, but before her time of death, she begged her father to give her time to go up into the hills with her sisters to mourn.
Grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”
“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept.
— Judges 11:37-38
Such a sad story! Like some of our own sad stories, stories we tell only to our special, safe people. This is a good day to remember and to give thanks for my sisters, those who are nearby and those with whom I share a deep connection across many miles and decades.
Today’s blog was a little bit about sad stories, yes! But it was even more about today — a good day for me to notice an LED sign with bubbles and the comforting message: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” There is hope in those words on the LED sign. There is comfort there, even if the words are among the bubbles!
I wish for you the peace of this same assurance, that you will know beyond any doubt that God walks with you on your most frightening pathways, and that your community of friends do, too.
Kathy, I am so glad to hear from you.
I am a worrier and was anxious to hear that you are well.
That’s how her sweet note began, my friend who lives 1,096 miles from my house. I was so glad to hear from her. Friendship in these days of isolation and anxiety about pandemic 2020 has taken many forms, with new ways of connecting and round-about ways to still be “with” your community. My friend’s note made me suddenly think about my connection with her — when it happened, how it happened, how it has endured over time.
These hard days of self-isolation, sheltering in place — or whatever we might call the situation we’re living — causes me to think a great deal about my friends and my communities. I am safe in my communities. I belong. I have to admit that not being able to be with the sisters in my church community causes unease in me and a disquieted sense of disconnection. I have discovered, all over again, that my life takes on the rhythms of my community, creating a sacred dance of sisterhood.
If we have learned one thing from the disconnections this coronavirus has created, it is that disconnection is simply a reality of life. Disconnection is all about human relationship and the many ways our hearts connect to other hearts.
It seems to me that it is important for us to give serious thought to our disconnections, how we could have mislaid friends along the way. It is also worth our timeto think about the connections we do have. Could we ask ourselves some of the following questions and trust ourselves to answer them honestly?
What connects you to another person?
What do you cherish about your connections?
What does it require relationally to maintain a connection?
How have your past connections broken?
What could you have done to prevent the break in your relationship?
Are there relationships in your life that you need to disconnect?
Where is your heart-place that touches another person’s heart?
How do you protect your soul connections?
So many questions to consider! So much time we have in these days of self-isolation to think about the relationships we cherish so deeply. Thinking about connections and relationships is actually a very good thing to do. If we cherish a certain connection, what can we do to strengthen it?
In my life, there are so many connections that I cherish. I have friends all over the world, some I am in close contact with, but others who have disconnected from me. The many times we disconnect over a lifetime can hardly be counted. The longer we live, the more friends we have lost for one reason or another. My best work is to find ways to connect with my disconnected friends — at least the ones that my heart has held a place for. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing to reach across miles or time to connect with a mislaid friend, to rediscover the place where our hearts touched and, perhaps, to restore a deep friendship?
Back to my friend who sent me the note . . .
With her, finding the place where our hearts touch is very easy. Here’s the end of her note:
Hope we stay in touch.
Blessings for continued good health.
We will definitely stay in touch because our hearts touched through a miracle. My friend donated her kidney to give me a better, longer life. That day, we were in two different hospitals — 1,002 miles apart — but a connection happened between us when her kidney came to me just a few hours after her surgery. What a gift she gave me! What a lifelong connection we will have!
I hope you will take some time to think about your connections, the important ones and the ones that don’t feel important to you. Who knows! You may rekindle some connections, pay closer attention to other connections and even break some that need to be broken.
When a deep love leaves . . . deep sadness takes residence.
It happens — being unfriended or needing to unfriend someone. It happens not just on Facebook, even though Facebook participants probably coined the word “unfriended.” Unfriending happens in real life — my life and probably yours. When you really unpack it, “unfriended” is an unsettling word. There is even a rather despicable horror movie entitled “Unfriended.”
I sometimes wish we had never added the word to our vocabularies, yet it perfectly describes what we sometimes need to do. In the Facebook world, I have been unfriended more than once. I have also unfriended some of my Facebook friends. It was never easy, never done without some regret. On the other side, being the one who is unfriended is painful. Even on social media, we learned quickly when and how to divide ourselves from others.
Mourning the loss of someone you care about is a very real life response.
The sad reality is that Facebook unfriending closely imitates life. Sometimes I have needed to remove a person from my life. Maybe you have, too. If we are honest with ourselves about cutting someone out of our lives, we have to own the reality of mourning the loss of that friend or family member. The loss is very real. Harmony Yendys wrote this in her blog, The Mighty.com.
It’s OK to mourn the people you’ve had to cut off. Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard. Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive . . . since you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life.
I would say I’m okay but I’m done lying.
Among the most painful separations are estrangements from living parents. I have experienced estrangement from a parent, a situation in which I found it necessary to remove that parent from my life completely because of abuse. The hard choice of removing my parent from my life was mine to make, but was most surely a hard choice with long-lasting effects on my emotional health. Those who must make such a choice suddenly feel orphaned and alone in the world. Over many years, I have known many people who have lost mothers and fathers with whom they’ve shared loving relationships — not through death but through purposeful estrangement. I know that the deep void this loss creates for them is devastating. The pressing question is, “Why don’t we talk about what it is like to feel orphaned by parents who are very much alive and well, but whom we have lost due to estrangement?”
The reason, I have found, is a sense of guilt about having removed a person from my life, becoming an orphan by my own choice. Of course, there are situations in which parents make the choice to become estranged from their children. Either situation leaves an orphan in its wake.
You are dead to me.
The truth is that there are few, if any, support groups for “orphans” like me. There are few instruction manuals or self-help books. We are the orphans who grieve in silence, feeling every bit as empty and abandoned as those who have lost their parents through death. Yet we have no outlet through which to mourn in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. I hide my grief from others, fearing their judgment and their hurtful comments about how “blood is thicker than water” and how I should “forgive and forget.” And the best advice of all, the one that hurts the most and goes to the very core of the soul is this: “God is not pleased with your failure to love your parents or your refusal to ask forgiveness for it.”
When a parent dies, you receive the usual appropriate condolences. But when your soul has a deep need to remove a living parent from your life, you get nothing. Like so many people I have known, I sit with the guilt and shame, with the silence of my grief. So for now I continue to grieve, hiding behind my shame of feeling like there must have been something wrong with me . . . And hiding my grief from others for fear of judgment and comments about how blood is thicker than water and how I should just forgive and forget . . . I wish more people understood what this was like and would extend the kind of compassion and sympathy they do toward those who lose a loved one by death. I sit with the silence of my grief, empty-handed. No flowers, no cards, no phone calls, nothing. Just an orphan.
Empty-handed, except for the loss I hold in my hands
As for me, well, I am not completely empty-handed. I hold in my hands — if not in my heart — so many memories, sweet, bittersweet, and even horrific. Fortunately, I have grown old and grown up. Through the years, I have learned how to hold in my heart some of my few good memories. I remember my father praising me when for my accomplishments. I remember him being very proud of me. I remember learning to cook at his feet, and I remember those joyful midnight trips from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, singing all the way as was his custom. Yet I allowed those happy memories to be replaced by separation, tears, pain, repressed feelings and often anger. It was even more difficult to allow myself the good memories when my father was living. Harmony Yendys explains the feelings of most of us who feel this kind of grief:
Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore . . . All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life. I bought in to all the common philosophies like “love is stronger than hate,” respect your parents,” or “be the better person.” The problem with such philosophies is that they are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have bad parents, friends, relatives or relationships. That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. — Harmony Yendys
I hope the information I’ve shared today will lead to honest and meaningful conversations with trusted persons in your life. Such conversations can lead to healing from the past losses or the present ones. This post has taken us all the way from “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook to losing friends, parents, children, siblings, spouses and any persons we have lost from our lives. Do not be deceived, separation can be painful, even when separation is necessary for our well-being. People who cause a toxic environment for us must sometimes be removed from our lives. It’s never easy, either to “unfriend” a person or to be “unfriended” by them. It sometimes makes us face the pain of being alone in the world, or at least feeling alone. It whispers to us that our soul is at risk.
When your soul is at risk . . .
Know that when your soul is at risk, when your relationship with another person is toxic, chaotic and harmful — either overtly or insidiously — you may need to consider moving apart to a peaceful, more tranquil place. It is most important that you become a self-advocate and diligently seek resilience and serenity. Only enter into relationships that give you comfort and calm your spirit. Still, you live with the loss. The remedy for feeling the loss, feeling orphaned or feeling alone?
That is, of course, a very personal question with many possible answers. At the risk of seeming to offer a too simple or an unhelpful answer, I will share with you what has helped me in the times I have felt most alone — a passage of Scripture from The Voice translation of the Bible, selected verses from Psalm 139:1-16.
O Eternal One, You have explored my heart and know exactly who I am;
You even know the small details like when I take a seat and when I stand up again. Even when I am far away, You know what I’m thinking.
You observe my wanderings and my sleeping, my waking and my dreaming,
and You know everything I do in more detail than even I know.
You know what I’m going to say long before I say it.
It is true, Eternal One, that You know everything and everyone.
You have surrounded me on every side, behind me and before me,
and You have placed Your hand gently on my shoulder.
It is the most amazing feeling to know how deeply You know me, inside and out;
the realization of it is so great that I cannot comprehend it.
Can I go anywhere apart from Your Spirit?
Is there anywhere I can go to escape Your watchful presence?
If I go up into heaven, You are there.
If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the morning,
if I make my home in the most isolated part of the ocean,
Even then You will be there to guide me;
Your right hand will embrace me, for You are always there . . .
For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.
You see all things; nothing about me was hidden from You
As I took shape in secret,
carefully crafted in the heart of the earth before I was born from its womb.
You see all things;
You saw me growing, changing in my mother’s womb;
Every detail of my life was already written in Your book;
You established the length of my life before I ever tasted the sweetness of it.
For those hurtful times of “unfriending”
I pray today for each of you who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, the grief of separation and alienation from someone with whom you once shared love. I pray that you would enjoy relationships with persons faithful, true and kind. I pray for you a shared love that is pure — both given and received. I pray for you a persevering, faithful and gentle love that helps sustain and fulfill you. I pray, for you and for me, that we might have relationships with persons who help us become our best selves. I pray for genuine and life-giving friendships that grace us with full acceptance and understanding.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
― Mary Oliver
For some reason yet unknown to me, I am remembering those words today. At the same time, I have vivid memories of persons I loved — many of them through the years — who gifted me with “a box full of darkness.” Each time, it felt like anything but a gift. I accepted the boxes because I believed I had no choice. I reached out to take the boxes from people I loved and immediately discovered that it was the darkness I held in my hands. Unfortunately, the darkness in my hands was potent enough to engulf me, and for a good amount of time, the darkness was my constant companion. All around me. Above and below me. Darkness so deep that I could not begin to see the path ahead.
What would I do with these ominous gifts? How would I escape the deep effect they had on my soul? How will I cast off the heartbreak? In time, I was able to think beyond my initial acceptance of these boxes moving to the reality that they were given to me by persons I loved. These were loved ones who might ordinarily have given me gifts, but these gifts — these boxes — were filled with darkness! Why? What did these gifts mean?
I held on to the pain of those “gifts” for years, feeling anger on some days, or betrayal, or loss, or rejection. The experiences changed my life in many ways, and changed the very course of my life. Being a person who so values friendship and loyalty, I was left despondent and a bit lost. Okay, a lot lost!
Yet, the passing years actually did bring healing relief. I could not avoid the darkness that my loved ones gave me. I could not get around it, slip under it, or leap over it. It was just there with me, in my life, and feeling like it would be permanent. The boxes were to me a heart rending breach of covenant. And yes, I did experience despair in the darkness, and loneliness and lostness, and bitterness wondering how these gift boxes had such immense power over me.
When the darkness finally lifted, it brought me a brand new love of life. It gave me new courage and new excitement. It gave me an awakening! I experienced a holy transformation. I knew then that I could get on with my life, joyously, and moving forward following my dreams. So Mary Oliver knew something that I had to learn the hard way, over many years. Here’s what she wrote: “It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
And then there is this wise and wonderful postscript that Annie Dillard wrote about her writing. It applies to every vocation or avocation that we love, and it’s really about living life — all out!
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. (Annie Dillard from her book, The Writing Life)
Finally, James 1:2-4, a Scripture passage very familiar to us says it another way:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
So real and true it was when the people I loved betrayed me with a terrible “box full of darkness.” I had faith in each of them. I trusted them and held their love in my heart. My box full of darkness was indeed a trial and a testing of my faith. But the promise of The Epistle of James is there, in my face. It may just be a Holy Letter addressed directly to me. My challenge was to “consider it nothing but joy,” and to know that the testing of my faith most assuredly created endurance. Thanks be to God.
Looking back at the passing year, I am deeply grateful for so many things. Among them is the circle of sisters who listen to my stories so many times and hold me in the light. They are my spiritual community. They “weave invisible nets of love.” They hear my stories with compassion, caring, love and genuine acceptance. They listen, and through their listening, they affirm my soul-place where my stories live.
We are our stories. Our children gain their sense of personhood when they hear their family stories and begin to tell their own. My sense of “me” is entwined with the stories about my parents, grandparents and great grandparents, stories that I have heard over many years and embraced. The stories are origin and memory, history and nostalgia, truth and myth, and as Rachel Held Evans wrote, the stories are a “cautionary tale.” The stories, at least as an adult, have made a place in my soul, teaching me who I am so that now I hold my stories in my heart.
It is sad when we are socialized to keep our stories close to the vest, when we are cautioned not to tell our stories to just anyone. After all, aren’t our stories personal information, meant to be private? That could be our choice, and it is true that telling our stories might make us vulnerable with another person.
But oh, the joy of finding spiritual community and, in community, to find safe and sacred space to share our stories! I have found such communities over the years. Sometimes the community was sharing with just one person. Other communities through the years were made up of a four or five friends. These days, my spiritual community is a cherished circle of caring and loving sisters.
In her final book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” Rachel Held Evans wrote this about our origin stories:
The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.
In many “particular moments,” I have shared some of my stories with my sisters, watching “the shades of the stories’ significance” emerge within me and with my community. My stories were “brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.”
Sometimes our stories are stories of sheer joy, but sometimes our stories are about loss, pain, heartbreak, fear or the devastating effect a particular traumatic event had on us. That’s when we hold our stories inside, fearing that telling would bring the pain back with a vengeance.
But when we protect our stories, holding them in a private place within us, we miss the healing power of being heard by another person of compassion, caring, acceptance and love. We also miss the pure joy of having been cared for by another person. That experience brings us to our spiritual center, healing old wounds of the soul and spirit; giving us the possibility of experiencing life without the pain of the past. That is God’s gift to us.
There is no better way to end the old year and begin the coming year than to tell our stories of the past, the memories we hold in our hearts, to accept God’s gift of freeing our hearts as we open ourselves to others. That’s a gift worth having! That’s a gift of grace that God wants us to have. That’s a gift that God offers us right now. If we are willing, God is able. Amen.
Of all sounds of all bells, the most solemn and touching
is the peal which rings out the Old Year.
— Charles Lamb
We do get rather nostalgic at the end of a year, on the cusp of a new year. Perhaps we have regrets from the passing year. Perhaps the old year brought losses and grief. Perhaps we have fear at the thought of what the year ahead might bring. Nostalgia just seems to go along with year end and year beginning. I have been known to get teary-eyed during the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in spite of the fact that I had no idea what “Auld Lang Syne” even meant.
Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788. The poem soon became a song that was traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It was a ritual song that gave people a ceremonial way to express the discomfort of ending/beginning as well as to speak of the value of old friendships that should not be forgotten.
Another poem written by Robert W. Service (1874-1957) was entitled “The Passing of the Year.” Its seven poignant stanzas come across as a lament of the passing year, and yet the poet also expresses a juxtaposition between a somber response and an expression of fond farewell. Here are some excerpts:
My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise . . .
And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?
And so from face to face I flit,
The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
Old weary year! it’s time to go.
My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!
As for New Year’s Resolutions, the same poet wrote an expressions of regret in the year past and the resolve inherent in a phrase we know so well: “Just do it.”
Each New Year’s Eve I used to brood On my misdoings of the past, And vowed: “This year I’ll be so good – Well, haply better than the last.” My record of reforms I read To Mum who listened sweetly to it: “Why plan all this, my son?” she said; “Just do it.”
Of her wise words I’ve often thought – Aye, sometimes with a pang of pain, When resolutions come to naught, And high resolves are sadly vain; The human heart from failure bleeds; Hopes may be wrecked so that we rue them . . . Don’t let us dream of lovely deeds – Just do them.
Now that I have shared more poetry than you ever wanted to read, let me conclude with this thought: As a new year approaches, we greet it with all the regrets and losses and emotions of the old year still pressing on our spirits. That affects our attitude about the unknown year ahead, and when we look at the path that leads us into 2020, all we see is darkness. It is for us a journey into the unknown with no instructions for moving forward. We are sometimes not sure we even want to move into the new year.
That may be the very reason for the ball drop in New York, the champagne toasts with all the hugging and kissing, the elaborate party decorations including metallic pointy hats and horns blowing in the night. Maybe we celebrate so hard because we are so hurt, so filled with regret, so shamed, so afraid of the future. We stand at the gate of the new year holding all that we brought from the old one. Sometimes the burden we are carrying is a heavy, heavy burden to carry, but we simply don’t believe we can throw it off and start on the new year’s unknown path, unburdened and free.
Yes, we do leave all our memories behind in the year that has passed, and in the new year, we hope to realize fresh, new dreams. A wise person says that around us, we have those who love us and within us, we have all we need. But the most eloquent advice I know that addresses our old year/new year dilemma comes from yet another poet, Minnie L. Haskins:
And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.
And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”
I may not be able to speak of joyful things today. The physical pain I am experiencing is far too strong, covering me with just a little bit of despair. More than one of my good friends told me in the past few days that I am strong. I am not and, thankfully I don’t have to be because the friends that surround me are being strong for me. They are calling on the minuscule strength I do have and bringing it into view for me. They have told me joyful things when I could not name joyful things for myself. In the process of loving me, my friends call out to the joy and strength that is in me to make itself known. And on top of that, they allow me, without judgement, to be where I am and feel what I feel.
So although I may not be able to speak of joyful things right now, I know that you have already tucked joyfulness into the recesses of your heart. I may not have much hope to send to you today, but you have hope in abundance and it breathes over your spirit during times of courage and times of fear, times when you feel certainty and times when you feel disillusioned. Out of your stores of faith, you encircle me and breathe hope into my spirit . . . and strength and joy.
For that, I am most grateful. And I am grateful that when I am weak, God is my strength. When I am joyless, God covers me with joy. I believe this by faith (a smidgen of mustard seed faith) in those times when I cannot experience those comforts within me, times like this present time of struggle and recovery.
I’ll leave you with these words of comfort that you already know so intimately, words that I also know intimately, but that I need to hear anew today.
And God, the giver of all grace, who has called you to share His eternal glory, through Christ, after you have suffered for a short time, will make you perfect, firm, and strong. — 1 Peter 5:10
For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles. — 2 Corinthians 4:17
Though I cannot manage to speak of joyful things today, the writers of 1 Peter and 2 Corinthians most definitely can!