Afraid of the Night

Design

From the poem, “The Old Astronomer to His Pupil” by Sarah Williams.ย 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, โ€œSurely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,โ€

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 Godโ€™s presence. In the โ€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 alsoย 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.

 

Nearer, My God, to Thee

Enlight136

While enjoying some quiet time on my new pergola swing, I listened to the hymn โ€œNearer, My God, to Theeโ€ sung by Brigham Young University’s male choral group, Vocal Point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was transported to a sacred place in those few moments. The hymn I had sung for so many years took on fresh, new meaning for me. It could be because of my aging, my illness, my need for a closer relationship with God. Perhaps the hymn spoke to me simply because I needed it.ย I have long loved this old hymn and its simple, but profound, message.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
Eโ€™en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain:
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams Iโ€™d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

There let the way appear, steps unto Heavโ€™n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy givโ€™n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel Iโ€™ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.

Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward Iโ€™ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

– Lyrics by Sarah F. Adams, 1805โ€“1848
Music by Lowell Mason, 1792โ€“1872
Published 1841, Hymn in public domain.

What makes this particular performance of the hymn so compelling is the inclusion of a counter melody. While a solo voice sings the words of “Nearer, My God to Thee” and paints a portrait of a life drawing near to God, the chorus sings a counter melody in Latin. The music is stunningly beautiful. The message reaches the depths of a soul in need of God’s presence. One listener described it like this:

So wonderful. It feels like angels paying a visit to earth with a hymn.

So I want to share with you the Latin text and the translation, which brings new meaning to the hymn.

In articulo mortis // At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires // My strength is from heaven

Deo adjuvante non timendum // God helping, nothing should be feared

In perpetuum // Forever

Dirige nos Domine // Direct us, O Lord

Ad augusta per angusta // To high places by narrow roads

Sic itur ad astra // Such is the path to the stars

Excelsior // Ever upward

Why, you might ask, am I writing a music review on my blog today? I suppose my words are an attempt to describe a need for the nearness of God. In times of grief, when sorrow overwhelms, when darkness is all we see, drawing near to a God of compassion is our healing balm and our highest hope. As I contemplate this truth, I am thinking of what was called the greatest disaster in maritime history โ€” April 14, 1912 โ€” the S.S. Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. As the ship disappeared into the vast ocean, Mr. W. Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, led the band in playing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”

I pray that, in whatever crisis you face, you will rest in the nearness of God. And I invite you to listen to BYU Vocal Pointโ€™s performance of this hymn:

 

A Perfect Place to Die

IMG_5744

Japan’s Aokigaharaย Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week โ€” The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest. ย Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is the secondย leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is theย second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธMore teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

โ–ช๏ธEach day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240ย attempts by young people grades 7-12.

โ–ช๏ธEach year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night.ย At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, โ€œO the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began — ย the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy. ย Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of Godโ€™s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die โ€” or to live โ€” is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me โ€œvast, unmeasured, boundless, free!โ€ A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

We Can Overcome

Design

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

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

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester.ย 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.ย I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart andย 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/.)

The Balm for Our Heartbreak

IMG_5138

We do not anticipate much to happen on Holy Monday. It is a Monday, after all, not a great time for hope and expectation. It’s more a time for heartbreak. For on this Holy Monday, we need a reminder that God’s love is ever-present with us.

Mary has prepared Jesusโ€™ body for burial, for death, and we know all too well where the road to Jerusalem leads. We know thatย the hosannas have fallen silent. We know that the high ranking officials are meeting secretly to plan for the death of Jesus. We know that Judas will betray Jesus and Peter will deny him.

We know that what comes next will break our hearts. But broken hearts are not so bad. At least that’s what Glennon Doyle Melton says.

I have learned that when I run from heartbreak, from pain, I bypass transformation — like a caterpillar constantly jumping out of its cocoon right before it was about to become a butterfly.

Pain knocks on everyone’s door. It we are wise we will greet it and say, “Come in, sit down, and don’t leave until you’ve taught me what I need to know.”

She tells us to ask ourselves what breaks our hearts. And then she explains that the heart, like every other muscle, has to be worked, even ripped apart. That’s how it grows stronger. So instead of shrinking back from our heartbreak and finding ways to disconnect from our suffering, perhaps we should run right into the painful middle of it.

Heartbreak in our lives, like heartbreak on Holy Monday, is very real. That’s why the words of the Psalmist sing so loudly inย our hearts, bringing us hope and love and light.

Your mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens;
Your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.

Your righteousness is like the great mountains;
Your judgments are a great deep;

How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.

They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.

For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.

— Psalm 36: 5-9

God’s love is the balm for our heartbreak — today, tomorrow and forever.

Silence and Solace

Enlight34

Sometimes all of us need a way to escape the ordinary day. Sometimes we need silence and solace. Sometimes we need the shimmering colors of a forest and the scents that waft through the trees. Sometimes we just need to leave behind all the concerns that hold us in bonds.

I imagine that my place of solace is in a forest. It’s only my imagination, mind you, because I never ever enter a forest. It’s a shame really, because I think I would be nurtured and comforted in a forest. I think I would find inner renewal and refreshment. I think that in a forest, I might very well hear God in the whispers of the branches.

Regrettably, I can only imagine. I will probably never make my way into a forest. Too many, bugs, poisonous plants, and creatures. Still I imagine spending some quiet time in a forest. I recently read a piece written by Ishmael Beah that said “The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer.โ€

His words confirm that perhaps the forest is a place I really do need to visit, and maybe even to hold hands with the trees and bow my head in prayer. It would be a lovely escape, a life-giving escape. It would be a place that would call to me to forget the things that worry me and hold me fast.

Patricia Anne McKillip is a creative author of fantasy and science fiction novels. One of her novels, Winter Rose, expresses the way I feel about the notion of an escape into silence and solace. This is what she wrote:

I did not want to think about people. I wanted the trees, the scents and colors, the shifting shadows of the wood, which spoke a language I understood. I wished I could simply disappear in it, live like a bird or a fox through the winter, and leave the things I had glimpsed to resolve themselves without me.

I’m off to find a forest. Before spring breaks through, I just might find silence and solace in the whispering branches of the towering, bare trees. I might even hear God.

Bridges and Tunnels

IMG_4783

River bridge and tunnel over the White River at Cotter, Arkansas. Photo by Ray Brooks.

Life has its share of bridges and tunnels. I have traversed both. The bridges were nearly always open to the world and promised to take me to the other side of something. And although long bridges, old rickety bridges, and high-over-a-river bridges do present some measure of fear in crossing, bridges are pretty welcoming. They offer a wide-open promise to get you across.

Tunnels, on the other hand, are not wide open at all. They represent a more mysterious part of the journey, a few dark moments when you must enter the tunnel with faith that it won’t collapse on top of you and that there will be light at the end of it. Tunnels bury you for a time under rock, mountains, or water.

I’m prepared for crossing bridges and going through tunnels. So many life events have been my preparation, teaching me to move forward with confidence and courage. And God has proven to be present with me no matter how deep the tunnel or how long the bridge.

So I’ll keep moving, and along the way, I will enjoy the breathtaking vistas I see from the bridges. And I might even enjoy going into the tunnels, which could well be a time for me to experience the kind of darkness that touches the peaceful darkness inside me.

 

Safe in God’s Care

enlight1

There are times when I need to draw close to God and stay there. There are moments that define us, and sometimes they are seasons of despair when prayer is the only thing to do. I have been through those hard seasons many times and found a way to reach out to God. I wanted to stay there, near to God’s heart of compassion, near to God’s glory, safe under God’s sheltering wings.

Peter, James and John found themselves on a high mountain with Jesus. Glory filled the place and the story tells us that Jesus became “as bright as a flash of lightening.” They wanted to stay there. Wouldn’t you? Peter, James and John were in the glow of the glory of Jesus. Peter spoke up and said, “We need to stay here, Master. Let us put up three shelters for you, Moses and Elijah. Let’s just stay here on this holy mountain.”

The story begins with Jesus praying in private with his disciples. He asked them, โ€œWho do the crowds say I am?โ€

They replied by telling Jesus that some people were saying he was John the Baptist; others were saying he was Elijah. Others were saying that Jesus was one of the prophets of long ago who had come back to life. But Jesus wanted them to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?โ€

As he often did, Peter answered for the group. โ€œGodโ€™s Messiah.โ€

Then Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone, predicting his imminent death and telling them that they would suffer as well. But then we get to the redeeming part of this story, the part that looks past the suffering and reveals the glory. Here is the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Luke:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, โ€œMaster, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sheltersโ€”one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.โ€

– Luke 9:28-33 New International Version (NIV)

Without a doubt, the disciples of Jesus were about to enter one of those difficult life seasons. They would be tested to their limits, and would find themselves longing to draw close to Jesus once again and rest in that place of safety.

Mary Austin relates a story told by pastor and theologian Jennifer Bailey. (https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/02/21/narrative-lectionary-glory-then-guts-luke-928-45/). In a time of deep distress, Jennifer recalls the depth of her pain. This is how she describes her experience:

I folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest . . . As I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emergedโ€ฆRocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, โ€œI donโ€™t feel safe. I donโ€™t feel safe.โ€

Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mamaโ€™s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, โ€œBaby, we ainโ€™t never been safeโ€.

Jesus proclaimed the hard truth that there is no safety for those who follow him. Yet we live on, knowing that sometimes seasons of pain will engulf us. But also knowing that we are safe in God’s care, that God is faithful and present with us always.

Yes, sometimes I need to draw close to God and stay there. I hope I’ll have the wisdom and the will to stay there long enough.

Under the Shadow of God’s Wings

enlight1

How comforting it is to know that we can find refuge under the shadow of God’s wings. It is a beautiful metaphor of divine protection. One of the emotions of aging, at least for me, is that of feeling orphaned. When parents and other significant people in my life are no longer present, I often feel unprotected and vulnerable. Never was it more true than when I spent most of 2014 in the hospital.

The nights were long and lonely, and often sleep would not come to ease my anxiety. During those nights, I sometimes longed for the comfort of my grandmother who was probably the most constant protector in my younger years.

Like I did in those long nights, all of us experience times of utter aloneness. I am so blessed to be able to recall scripture, and during that hospitalization, two Psalms came to mind.

Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
until the disaster has passed.

– Psalm 57:1 New International Version (NIV)

He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge . . .

– Psalm 91:4 New International Version (NIV)

I learned what it feels like to be in the shadow of God’s wings. I learned how to feel safe during unsafe times. Thanks be to the God of comfort who covers us with wings of refuge when we most need to feel protected.

Waist-Deep into Life

img_4627

Shrink back from the raging waves if you want to. Stand at ocean’s edge and barely get your toes wet. Or wade waist-deep into the ocean where real life happens. It holds its risks and certain dangers. It challenges one’s sense of safety. It risks being overturned and overwhelmed by a huge, strong, breaking wave. But wading in deeply is the best way of living life, a metaphor for life at its most adventurous.

Alas, I didn’t grow up as a risk-taker. Under my skittish grandmother’s care, I became fearful of many things. She forbade riding bicycles down the street. She gave us each only one skate, fearing that to skate on two would land us face down on the pavement. And yes, to this day, I am afraid of deep water.

She raised me to be fearful of going all-in on many fronts. So I missed out on all kinds of youthful adventures. I miss the things I missed. I wish I had learned to skate well on two skates. I wish I had not been afraid to ride my bicycle down a steep hill, feeling the wind in my face.

So now, all grown up and aging every day, I still don’t plunge waist-deep into the crashing waves called life. I stay in my safer place. It’s too bad, really, and maybe it’s time to make a life change.

Here’s to life adventures!

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.

– Isaiah 43:2