With all the chaos blowing about in the world—the swirling debris of discord, fear, hate, division, tumult all around us—we cannot help but try to drill down to the solid place of our foundation. When we shake in the chaos, swaying from side to side until we fear we may by pushed over, our soul speaks up to come to our aid. It’s simple really, to find our sure foundation, the solid rock of who we are and what we must do to stay upright—that means healthy in body, mind and spirit.
I think some of you are pray-ers and others sing until you feel safely grounded. Some of you meditate and others of you read Holy Scripture. Some write poetry or create art. Whatever you might do in your times of unsteadiness, remember that you do not have to repair everything in your life or turn yourself into a person of incomparable strength and courage. I know what you’re thinking! That these are terrifying evil days that require unparalleled faith and perseverance. True enough! I remember the terrifying parts every time I watch the news. And more than once in the past several years, I have thought of this text:
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.
Ephesians 6:13 (NKJV)
That’s the way I learned that verse of scripture, but others have translated it differently, maybe better. The New International Reader’s Version perhaps speaks to us more simply and directly, and with the bold promise that we could be able to stand up to any evil day, any evil person.
So put on all of God’s armor. Evil days will come. But you will be able to stand up to anything. And after you have done everything you can, you will still be standing. —Ephesians 6:13 (NIRV)
I concur that I will still be standing, whatever comes. Too many things in my life have knocked me to the ground, and every time I have gotten up on my feet to try to live another day. I suspect you have had the same experience.We were able to stand, not because we had built up incomparable strength, but because Spirit was strength in us, beside us, before and behind us. You see, that was God’s plan all along. ”I will not leave you comfortless,” said Jesus, carrying out the precise plan of the Creator God. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever … the Spirit of truth.” (From John 14)
Just one more bit of wisdom for evil days! I have a notion that you and I do many things to protect ourselves from evil or chaos or betrayal or difficulty . … the list goes on and on. Every remedy helps a little. Every act of self-help or self-care helps a little. Some of it helps a lot. In my experience, everything I do to maintain my equilibrium and keep myself safe from chaos helps. But there is one word of advice that has stayed with me through the years, and it is this:
Above all else, guard your heart. For from it flows the wellspring of life.
That admonishment from Proverbs 4 is translated in many different ways—guard your heard with all diligence; with all vigilance; with utmost care; with all watchfulness; guard your heart above all else. I think we get the message clearly. And so I leave you with this blessing .…
As you journey through all manner of evil chaos, May you walk the road without fear, Knowing the deep peace of God’s grace, With the shadow of Christ walking ahead of you, With the presence of the Holy Spirit dwelling in your soul, Withyour resolve firmly set to guard your heart with all watchfulness, So that you will know beyond any doubt that from your heart flows the wellspring of life. Amen
I once preached a sermon entitled, “What Do You Say to a Broken World?” In this week, after our nation’s Capitol was breached and defiled, I have wondered if ministers who will stand before congregations in two days are asking themselves a similar question: “What will I say on this day to a broken world?”
A friend of mine is preaching this week. I am praying that she will have an extra measure of wisdom, because standing before a congregation while the nation is in chaos is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. My first feeling as I thought about preaching for this Sunday was relief that I was no longer a pastor with such a heavy responsibility, that I did not have to summon the wisdom to speak to a people with heavy hearts who need to hear of healing grace and hope. But my most intense feeling was envy, not hostile envy, but heart envy about my deep desire to speak Gospel Good News to people who need to hear good news. Still I envied my friend and wished that, this Sunday, I could stand before a congregation with wisdom, open my spirit and invite God to speak through me. It is a heavy responsibility and a sacred calling.
Dr. Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, wrote an essay this week entitled “Preaching When It’s Broken.” In the essay he says this:
God bless you, preachers who will address congregations this Sunday . . . Here in the United States, things are broken, most people know they’re broken, and we all need healing and truth.
For many of us, the invasion of the Capitol and the response to it by people we know, love and admire, brings this brokenness to the foreground. Since that terrible, violent day, I have heard dozens of interviews that expressed anger, frustration, contempt, indignation and all manner of raw emotion. I have also heard wise leaders express their resoluteness to lead this nation into healing, unity and hope.
Indeed, the questions about this Sunday’s preaching call us to attention: How do our pastors, our priests, our rabbis, our imams, our bhikkhus and bhikkhunis stand before their congregations offering comfort when our nation is so broken, so angry, so mournful in the face of violent acts? What will they proclaim? What will they preach? What will they pray? What will they sing?
Minneapolis Pastor and Poet, Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson, has given us a grace-gift with this poem entitled, “A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism.”
A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism
There is sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
a rush of power born by inciting fear in others,
a wave of victoryin causing enemies pain.
There is a push to solve the mystery,
to isolate the suspect and
explain the evil simply
to a safe distance from the anomaly.
There is a temptation
to skip the part that feels
near the suffering
that shares the sadness,
that names our shared humanity.
There is a courage
in rejecting the numbing need for data
in favor of finding the helpers,
loving the neighbor,
resisting terror through random acts of connection.
There is a sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
but so is the remedy.
From Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson’s book “Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life.” Used with permission.
So much truth in her words, so much wisdom “for the living of these days.” In her words, I feel all over again the desire of my heart, the impossible dream of standing in a pulpit this Sunday, speaking to a congregation that needs strength in the midst of adversity. I will not stand behind a pulpit this week, but I will pray for those who will stand in that sacred space. I will pray for them, the proclaimers, and I will pray for their hearers across this nation. I will lean on this beautiful prayer written by Reverend Valerie Bridgeman:
May God Strengthen You for Adversity
A blessing for today:
May God strengthen you for adversity
and companion you in joy.
May God give you the courage of your conviction
and the wisdom to know when to speak and act.
May you know peace.
May you be gifted with deep,true friendship and love.
May every God-breathed thing
you put your hand to prosper and succeed.
May you have laughter to fortify you
against the disappointments.
May you be brave.
When all is said and done, more important than what the “proclaimer in the pulpit” says is what the hearers hear. For in this time — when violence, riots, terrorism, pandemic and all manner of chaos is so much a part of life — those who listen need to hear a clear message of a God who dwells among us, a Christ who leads us, a Spirit who comforts us under the shadow of her wings. For hearts in these days are heavy, souls are wounded, spirits seek hope. And all the people want to believe that they do not walk alone through their present angst.
I pray that you know that you are not alone, that God’s grace-filled presence is with you and that “in God you live and move and have your being. As some of your poets have said, ‘We are God’s children.’” (Acts 17:28)
I pray that your heart will heal and be filled anew with hope. I pray that the wounds of your soul and spirit will heal and be filled anew with the peace of God. I pray that, when you listen in faith, you will hear the voice of God whispering in your ear, “You do not walk alone.”
I invite you to spend a few moments of meditation hearing the message of this music:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear
even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. He has exalted me and, humbly, His servant I will be.
All generations, henceforth, shall call be blessed.
For He has done great things for me and holy is His name.
I will probably always remember those words penned by a lyricist whose name I cannot remember. (Apologies to John W. Peterson, Anna Laura Page, Ragan Courtney or whoever helped create this arrangement. I remember the tune and every word, but I can’t remember you.)
I have sung, in my short lifetime, dozens of versions of Mary’s song that we know from the Gospel of Luke. We often call it Mary’s Magnificat. I sang the version quoted above many, many years ago as a part of my church’s Advent music. I looked through the music in our first Advent choir rehearsal and immediately turned the pages to this one that was called “Mary’s Song.” I knew I would sing it since the churches we served seldom had willing sopranos.
As November and December moved along, I rehearsed Mary’s Song over and over again, not to enunciate all the lyrics clearly or to sing all the notes correctly. I sang it again and again because the act of getting into Mary’s skin brought me to tears every time I sang it. Tears were okay, but being unable to sing because I was weeping was not okay with me. And yet, I didn’t want to rehearse the emotion out of it. I wanted to “be” Mary for just those moments and I wanted the hearers in the sanctuary to emotionally connect with her.
In the end, I prayed and left it in God’s hands, because in the end, that’s what people of faith do. Today, as we do every year, we lit the Advent candle of joy — the pink candle, Mary’s candle — hoping that the sheer joy of her news to Elizabeth would ring true enough in us to bring us joy. How? “How can this be?” as Mary said to the angel.
I suppose that in these Advent days, in this particular year, many of us have asked “How?” How will we get through this bewildering time? How can joy fill us, enter into our souls and enliven our spirits, as we bury our loved ones? As we wait for word by phone about the person we love who is hospitalized? As we touch the hand of our grandmother through the window of her nursing home? As health care professionals become almost too weary to go on while people with the virus keep coming? As we know we will not see our family this Christmas — to keep them safe, to keep us safe?
How can we sing, this year, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” — Mary’s magnificat? Joy is a hard thing this year, for 2020 has brought us grief upon grief, fear upon fear and uncertainty upon uncertainty. Yet, we have held one another close, even over Zoom, because together we have found strength to go on. Over the senseless racially motivated violence we saw on our televisions this year, we saw also a people languishing in a pandemic that took so much.
We saw politicians fighting each other over what some of them see as truth and others see as deliberate, hurtful lies. We saw children who wondered about where school would be and parents agonizing over hard decisions. We saw congregations gathering in parking lots and sanctuaries still, silent, without voices. We saw devastating unemployment and small businesses closing their doors. We saw medically vulnerable or immunosuppressed people locked in their homes. We saw people struggling to pay their bills — very poor people wanting and the very rich, as always, continuing their lavish lifestyles. We saw the rich continuing to oppress the poor, if not in their direct actions, then in their greed that, at least indirectly, deprives those among them who are poor.
The young girl Mary spoke about that, too, in the words of her Magnificat from the Gospel of Luke.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:51-53 (NRSV)
The young girl we have called the Virgin Mary, the holy one that accepted the strange and frightening mission from God to bear God’s Son — this Mary is also the subversive one who called out the rich, the powerful and the proud. In her Magnificat? Oh yes, Mary said that God would scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, bring down the powerful from their thrones and send the rich away empty.
Subversive! Courageous! Defiant! Bold! Audacious! Wise! She was all those things when she spoke the kind of subversive truth no young girl in those days would have dared to speak. The miracle of it is that God chose a young girl who possessed the tenderness to nurture a newborn, the wisdom to raise him to live into his mission and the courage to help him stand in a world that would both adore him and hate him — worship him at a manger and then crucify him on a hill. Dr. Marcia Riggs described Mary’s Magnificat like this: “The song sows joy that is the seed of a social revolution.” Indeed!
This was the Mary of our pink candle, the Mary who would be submissive enough to agree to a holy life of chaos and the Mary whose inner strength enabled her to look up and watch her son die.
To be sure, her Magnificat has been read and sung in millions of voices, with thousands of tunes, in cathedral-like sanctuaries and in mud huts. The words have been translated into various versions of the Bible and composers have woven paraphrases of her words into hundreds of melodies and rhythms. Still to this day, one phrase remains . . .
Holy! Holy! Holy is His name.
May Mary’s joy find us on this day and in our own worlds — wherever we are, however we feel, whatever sadness we hold. Amen.
For your quiet, meditative time — one version of Mary’s song:
In Advent’s first week, I really want to feel that all is calm, but in the world that revolves around me, things are anything but calm. During this season of Advent — in the first week of Advent 2020 — hearts are not calm at all and nothing feels more appropriate to do than prayer and lament.
13,822,249 Coronavirus cases in this country. 272,525 deaths. And worldwide, 66,786,028 Coronavirus cases and 1,533,302 deaths.
Lament feels right. Calm does not. Lamenting during this season of waiting is not easy. The Psalmist offers us one of the Penitential psalms, Psalm 130 that begins with a cry to God from a place of deep sorrow, from “out of the depths.” The Psalmist also speaks to us of waiting:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. — Psalm 130:5-6
I’ve been trying to wait this year, to practice meditation and prayer that emerges “out of the depths” of my soul. How else could it be when I hear the story of five children who lost both parents when Covid ravaged their family? How could I not cry out from the depths when my own family members and friends are suffering with this deadly virus? How could I do anything but Lament as I watch my friends and family suffering the ravages of this virus that has descended upon the world?
My deep prayers and laments, as well as my practice of meditation, has not been going all that well. It’s just too still for me right now, too quiet. Being still makes me impatient to do something. When I stop moving, my mind whirls and all I can think of is all the things I want or need to do.
This voice in my mind is hard to resist, because it seems so reasonable. When I consider the world’s suffering and see it so clearly in my own circle, being still feels like a sin. With the pandemic surging, the injustice we see everywhere, the suffering people who have profound need, how can I justify being calm — still, quiet, resting, breathing, waiting?
Into my place of anxiety and restlessness, the liturgical year invites me into the holy waiting of Advent. Into a culture that places productivity over presence, Advent invites us to believe that we need to be still. Into a culture that tells us if we don’t do it, it won’t get done, Advent asks us to stop working for a season.
Isn’t is an act of humility and trust to stop moving and fixing and tending and meddling, to sit still during Advent? Advent teaches us that there are forces at work beyond our own working, beyond our own dreams of repairing the world. The beautiful reality Advent wants us to know is that even when we stop, God still works. So we really can lay down our tools, set aside our pridefulness, and wait for the morning that God always brings.
In these Advent days, practicing stillness is more important than ever, because in this pandemic winter of 2020, everyone’s most important vocation is to be still and wait — at home and distanced from others. Whether we are essential workers, working from home, unemployed, managing our kids’ education, or some combination of these – we are all being called to be still and wait this winter. We are being asked to wait to hug the people we love. We are waiting for visiting our friends, waiting to eat at our favorite restaurant, waiting to fly to places we want to see, waiting to see the ocean again. We are waiting with hurting hearts to visit our families. We are waiting with aching souls to worship together in our sacred spaces.
Our stillness in this pandemic Advent matters more than it ever has. Yet, we wonder if we can survive it. We wonder if this interminable waiting will eventually make us give up, give in and just go out. Leave our homes. Disregard social distancing. Go visit our best friend in person. Go to church — inside the beautiful sanctuary we so miss — and worship God with loud singing.
In the waiting, in the stillness, how do we find the calm we long for? In the stillness, does God still work in us? We may not be so certain about how to answer those questions, but we do know that this stillness is exactly what will save our neighbors’ lives. This winter, the most important way that we can love our neighbor is to practice stillness.
This winter, we practice Advent as an act of love and an act of hope – hope that this too shall pass. The year 2020 will pass. The pandemic will ease, and we will someday see light emerge from of this dark time. Winter’s cold darkness is not forever. Winter always moves to spring. Night always turns to day. The solitude of Advent always gives way to the Immanuel, God with us of Christmas.
The Psalmist reminds us in poetic verse that the night will pass. “I wait for the Lord,” the poet sings, “more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
Julian of Norwich might remind us that “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” I am struck again, as always, by these words . “All will be well” is her golden thought. It is a provocative saying, as much in its calming, repetitive sound as in its assurance of a future reality beyond our grasp. In these days, it is a deeply grounding promise in the midst of a chaotic, painful world. Somehow, despite our current experiences, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
And yet, all is not well. We have a growing awareness that our current public health crisis will continue in waves, for God knows how long. Schools and businesses will struggle to prepare for the looming unknown. The economic situation is staggering. And the recent murders of black Americans are forcing yet another reckoning with systemic racism in this country. We yearn for calm while we nurse mixed feelings about how we can navigate this troubling time.
Julian would understand these mixed feelings. Julian lived in isolation during a pandemic — the Black Death. The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality, or the Plague) was the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history. The Black Death resulted in the deaths of up to 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
In 1373, at age thirty and so seriously ill she thought she was on her deathbed, Julian received a series of visions or “shewings” of the Passion of Christ. While Julian was struck down with the illness, she experienced the visions, which have been passed down to us as “The Revelations of Divine Love” or the “Showings.” For Julian, her revelation that “all will be well” was not calming or soothing, at least not at first. Instead it shocked her. By her own account, the Showings included the divine words “heavily” and “mournfully” and with “very great fear.” Lament perhaps.
“All will be well?” Her instant response was, essentially, how could this possibly be, given the reality of pain, suffering and human frailty we experience? Or in her words: “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”
According to the final chapter of Showings, she then spent at least 15 years isolated in her cell, immersed in a deep struggle to comprehend the divine meaning of the words that had filled her spirit. Just imagine. Fifteen years contemplating that one line. In other words, she lamented, how can it possibly be that all will be well?
Through love, she concluded — not that fleeting feeling but the divine love itself, a power and an action that beckons and encompasses everything, even the enormity of human suffering. Without context, without the awareness of Julian’s life-long struggle and spiritual quest, her calming words — “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” — becomes mere platitude.
No, all is not calm in these days, at least in the world we can see. But all is calm in the places we cannot see, in our spirit depths and in our longing souls. Advent helps bring holy calm as we wait in the quietude God desires for us. Advent helps us practice stillness. Even when we are lamenting “the sufferings of this present time,” Advent teaches us to trust that the sun is always going to rise, that the night never goes on forever, that into dark, long periods of history — God comes. Every time.
On the starry, silent night we wait for, all is calm.
I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:41 NRSV
Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.
How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.
I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.
God of the sparrow, sing through us Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. — Jonathan Cook
I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out.
You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.
When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.
Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her.
The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV
So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!
Thanks be to God.
Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.
God of the Sparrow
God of the sparrow, sing through us, Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. Alleluia.
God of the sparrow, God of hope, Tenderly guide us, be our song, God of affliction, pain and hurt, Comfort Your children, make us strong. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
God of the sparrow, care for us. Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief. Sing us Your music, lift our hearts, Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
God, like the sparrow, we abide In Your protection, love and grace. Just as the sparrow in Your care,
“Fine” is almost always the answer because usually the one who asked the question doesn’t really want to know all about how we feel. Not really. So we answer with a word — “fine.” Just “fine.” After all, we don’t often want to reveal our true feelings to anyone, and on top of that, telling them how we really feel would take more time than either of us want to spend on the conversation.
There may also be another reason for responding with just the word “fine.” Sometimes we don’t know how we’re really feeling. Some people are too busy with life responsibilities to consider how they feel. Others know there are deep feelings inside themselves, but they too are too busy to feel them. Still others sense dark, foreboding feelings in their deepest place, and they will not risk the emotional repercussions they might face by lettings their feelings rise into their consciousness. In Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina, the dialogue asks, “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?” Perhaps at that point — the seeming impossibility of telling another person how we feel — is where you and I find ourselves.
The question on the left is a very good question, even a crucial question. What does happen in us when we simply refuse to allow our feelings to come to the light os acknowledgment. The answer is at the very center of our quest for emotional wellness. We start, as the image above instructs, at owning our deepest feelings. Owning means to look at our feelings honestly and without fear. Owning means making no excuses for feelings. Owning means not blaming our feelings on others. Owning means holding our feelings in high esteem and acknowledging how they came to be. Owning means accepting our feelings, embracing then and honoring them
I was so deeply hurt that I just hold it inside until it becomes so unbearable I think I will snap.
He made me feel invisible and I just can’t let go of that feeling. I still feel invisible after all these years.
She made me so angry and I am letting that anger rage inside me and it will not go away. I don’t dare express it or let it surface.
Owning our feelings means being willing to truly “see” them, even when seeing them frightens us or creates in us a sense of dread. We sense we may experience a season of dread that the feelings will hurt us, again and for a long time. We fear what we will see. There is some truth in the fact that we tend to live into our “false self,” the self that is external and often shows little resemblance to our internal self. Contemplation is internal work. For those of us who believe in God, something divine happens when we are immersed in contemplating our hidden feelings — this thing that happens is that God meets us there, at the very moment when a buried feeling begins that awful hurting. I think of the words of promise in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah 29:11.
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.
I cannot help but find comfort in the presence of God in my life’s most painful times, and honestly, I have to say that some of those painful times were a part of contemplation and, through contemplation, beginning to own my down-deep feelings. The wise words of Thomas Merton are both instructive and provocative.
Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self . . . We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden . . . We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality . . . God begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self. ― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
In finding pieces of my hidden, true self, I also found release from harmful feelings, hurtful memories and oppressive people I held on to. Finally, after contemplation, we find the ability to share our feelings — the real ones — with the people we trust to hold them sacred and to help us better understand them. At the moment when I understood my feelings — where they came from; why I was holding on to them; who caused them; what would happen if I let my feelings rise from my depths to the light of day — that was the moment I felt free. I could live again as my best self. I could love myself, my real self. And I could be my best self. Not a small thing! A turning point in my life!
I hope you will spend some time studyIng the Feelings image above. I invite you to look at the seven feelings in the center and to then move to the outer circles. If I feel sad, for instance, the next expansion of the circle further clarifies what “sad” means for me, i.e. lonely, vulnerable or depressed. The outer section may reveal to me that I was victimized or abandoned, grieving or isolated.
Continue to contemplate your hidden, unspoken feelings. Learn to look at them and “own” them without fear, and know that God will meet you at the point of your deepest pain and that you are God’s own creation — cherished, loved, comforted and protected by a God who will never let you go.
As a part of your contemplative moments, I hope you are strengthened by this arrangement of the hymn, “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” Play it before you begin your meditation time and let its message clear your mind and comfort your soul.
Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.
My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.
As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .
— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)
How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?
I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.
This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.
May God make it so.
As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,
May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)
I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
— Joshua 1:9
Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.
In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.
It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.
What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.
The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.
One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”
Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.
Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.
So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.
I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.
In my kitchen window hangs a small faceted crystal ball. It’s purpose is to hang in the sunlight and make tiny rainbows in my kitchen. When I open the blinds in the morning, the facets on the ball do their job.
I see about eight small rainbows on the floor — just tiny, insignificant rainbows on the kitchen floor. That’s it!
My first response is, “That’s all you got?”
I had hoped for more, like refracted rainbows all over the kitchen. The little ball hanging in the window apparently needed some human help. So I twisted it several times. When I let it go, the little ball’s gift to me was dancing rainbows, not only on the kitchen floor, but also all over the walls of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Now that’s more like it!
It suddenly occurred to me that I could let the ball just hang motionless in the window, settling for the few rainbows on the floor, or I could twist it and see rainbows in motion creating a celebration all around the walls. So this morning, I made my own rainbows, which is a pretty good mental picture of creating rainbow-like times in life.
It reminds me of part of Noah’s story told in the ninth chapter of Genesis. It’s about the covenant God made with Noah after the great flood had receded. You probably know the story well, but it bears revisiting.
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
— Genesis 9:12-17 NIV
I never see a rainbow without remembering the story of God’s covenant with Noah. I always remember that God made the rainbow a sign, the sign of a covenant promise.
What does that have to do with me and you? Maybe not much for some. But for some of us — those of us who want to see tangible signs of God’s promises — the appearance of a rainbow means that God still covenants with us, God still makes promises to us and God still keeps those promises. That is God’s grace to us — God’s hope, God’s light, the very peace that comes to us from God.
With that assurance, we are able to make our own rainbows. Yes, in these days we are covered with a terrible, deadly virus, along with the fear it causes us. But we also know that, in days past, we have faced life storms, dark times that threatened to destroy us. And yet, we survived — with scars from old wounds, to be sure — but we weathered each terrifying time and found our way to better days. To survive the worst times of our lives — times when dark, heavy clouds loomed over us — I’m pretty sure we found ways to make our own rainbows.
What does it look like to make our own rainbows? It looks like seeking out a comforting friend, making sacred space for nurturing your soul, owning heartbreak so that you can be open to the healing of your heart, naming in prayer the wounds and scars of your soul so that your spirit can be made whole.
It seems to me that this is what “making your own rainbows” means — being open to healing through whatever ways you find soul-nurturing. Rainbows are not a bad analogy for the living of these days. A pandemic threatens us. We cannot change that, but we can change our response to this dark time. I believe that we really can make our own rainbows. Maybe for me it will simply be the act of twisting the crystal ball in my kitchen window. But if that insignificant act reminds me of God’s promise to be with me, to be in covenant with me, then I think I can make it through another dark time.
I am confident that, if you listen, your soul will whisper to you and tell you how to make your own rainbows — during these troubling days and for all the troubling times you may face on your journey.
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.