From Insanity’s Bondage to Creativity’s Freedom

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INSANITY
 

Not a word we are fond of. Nothing inspiring about the word. And when the word insanity is more than just a word, we shudder in its grasp. Insanity brings its own bondage, stealing one’s freedom to live, confiscating one’s creative expression. Insanity can be a complete, all-encompassing mental breakdown, even bordering on madness, OR it can be a state of being that most of us have experienced — irrationality, instability, disorientation, mania. Many people (noted scholars) have mused that “the definition of insanity is the most overused expression of all time.” (Salon.com)

Remember the declaration about “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?” Yes, I know you remember that definition, probably have said it yourself in an exasperating moment!

Where am I going with these bizarre introductory words?

I’m actually going to a place you may not expect. I’m going to the rush and swirl of color in one of my favorite paintings, A Starry Night by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh. The painting draws me in — into the little village with its steepled church, into a sky filled with sparkling stars, into the glorious luminance of the crescent moon, into the swirls of blues and whites and yellows. I have pondered many times what sort of mind and soul could have created a painting like this one.

The story behind A Starry Night is the unnerving story of Van Gogh. A few months after experiencing a mental breakdown on December 23, 1988 that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear, Van Gogh voluntarily admitted himself to the Saint-Paul-de-Mausole Lunatic Asylum. During the year Van Gogh stayed at the asylum, his prolific output of paintings continued and he produced some of the best-known works of his career. A Starry Night was painted by around June 18, the date he wrote to his brother Theo to say he had a new study of a starry sky.

A Starry Night was the only nocturnal painting in the series of views he saw from his bedroom window. In early June, Vincent wrote to Theo, “This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big”. Researchers have determined that Venus was indeed visible at dawn in Provence in the spring of 1889, and was at that time nearly as bright as it could be. So the brightest “star” in the painting, just to the viewer’s right of the cypress tree, is actually Venus.

Too much information? Probably, but here’s my point that is not really about insanity at all. Rather, it’s about breaking free from bondage and taking back my life. You see, sometimes the sight of a big, bright morning star can replace whatever fear or angst I am feeling. Sometimes looking into the deep of a starry night can carry me to resplendent places. Sometimes even my slight insanity can transport me to my deepest expressions of creativity.

For me, insanity is my incessant scurrying around with too many things to do, a kind of mania. That frenzied scurrying is of my own choosing and therefore, leans a little too close to self-imposed insanity. I wonder if instead of that scurrying life of bondage, I could make time for moments of thought that would enable me to say something like what Vincent Van Gogh said from his asylum: 

“This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star — the brightest star — which looked very big!“

Contemplate for a moment the insanity of a life encumbered — filled to overflowing with too many things to do — compared with a life of stargazing that might just awaken fresh and bright creativity in you.

As for me, I’m heading toward a spiritual transformation — a life of sacred pauses, a stargazing life, a grace-filled re-awakening!

I hope you are, too.

When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

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,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

Hemmed In!


There are large scale, widespread forces that can trap thousands of people, even millions. Dachau, Katrina, earthquakes, tsunamis, wildfires, natural disasters all over the world and the Coronavirus of 2020. Enormous, catastrophic events can trap people. COVID19 has literally trapped me inside my home. I have to admit, the isolation has taken a toll on my spirit. No visitors! No visits with friends or family. No trips! No haircuts! I have been trapped at some level since my kidney transplant in November. Just at the March milestone that would have allowed me to break the isolation of the transplant, I was even more fully trapped by the infectiousness of this pervasive, unrelenting virus.

Being trapped for so many months has raised up in me feelings of loneliness, isolation, powerlessness, despair, anxiety, even abandonment. And yet, often there is something very good in the center of something very bad. It has been so for me. Yes, I feel trapped in the pervasive power of the coronavirus, but I also sense the arms of God and the embrace of Spirit hemming me in even further. Such a grace-gift it has been to me, as if God has said, “l am hemming you in, and in this space you will hear me clearer and sense me more fully.”

God’s words were truth. Hemmed in, my mind flourished, my heart leapt and my soul entered spaces of calm. I felt enhanced awareness! Even awakening. I saw nature in a different way and basked in the beauty of the rising sun. The sound of the hummingbirds’ trill and the rapid fluttering of their translucent wings were sounds meant just for me. I began to write and paint, to listen more carefully to God’s voice, to allow my spirit to overflow with Holy Spirit. To my hemmed-in call from God, I was compelled to answer, “Here I am, Lord!” When I finally answered God, my hemmed-in place became Holy Ground — a very good place to be that feels more like a holy mystery than a state of being.

Was this pandemic a good thing for me and for millions of people? Absolutely not! But trapped in its dark cloud, God hemmed me in further in ways I am just now beginning to understand. I can say with all honesty that being hemmed in by God has been grace to me.

If I could even begin to choose a favorite Psalm from among the many that inspire me, I would choose Psalm 139. In its weaving of words, there are many passages that are full of comfort. From childhood, I memorized a lot of Scripture and throughout Psalm 139 I memorized several snippets that I often call to mind. One verse that I did not memorize is verse 5: “You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me.”

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.

— Psalm 139:1-5 NIV

I deplore the coronavirus and what it has done to so many people. I deplore the ways it was able to trap me, physically and emotionally. But the virus, with all its ominous, far-reaching force could not trap me spiritually. That was God’s work — hemming me in so that my spirit could rise to fresh, new heights of spiritual consciousness. Being hemmed in by our Creator has been grace for me in these days of isolation. It has become a transforming sacred pause. For in my hemmed-in space, the Creator helped me create — from my mind, from my heart, from my soul. Thanks be to God.

Our Smallest Dreams Can Change the Big World

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Art by Catrin Welz-Stein, from The Cosmic Dancer Facebook community

A friend sent me a lovely blessing today and I want to share it with you. These days, many neighbors and friends — people all over the world actually — have a new dream, a new calling to change the world. It’s an important dream right about now. Pandemic and protests — and all the causes lying underneath them — desperately need to change, and it will take huge dreams to change them. Trouble is, most people like me and you have only small dreams, a few small dreams that sometimes seem so insignificant. Certainly, they are dreams too small to change the big world.

But maybe not!

The message my friend sent me (actually she posted it on Facebook) reminded me that huge change can most certainly come from small acts. The message was today’s grace for me. So I share the message with you. It comes from The Cosmic Dancer* and is written by Scott Stabile.

She felt like doing her part to change the world, so she started by giving thanks for all of the blessings in her life, rather than bemoaning all that was missing from it.

Then she complimented her reflection in the mirror, instead of criticizing it as she usually did.

Next she walked into her neighborhood and offered her smile to everyone she passed, whether or not they offered theirs to her.

Each day she did these things, and soon they became a habit. Each day she lived with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness. And sure enough, the world around her began to change.

Because she had decided so, she was single-handedly doing her part to change it.
— Scott Stabile

Hope is tucked into these words, hidden there and bringing to mind that God highly values gratitude, acceptance, kindness and our smallest, powerful dreams. My dreams and yours can change a world filled with violence, hate, grief, fear and so many more hurts and harms.

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Tikkun Olam Together provides cultural learning opportunities for mothers and  daughters’ grades 6-9 as they work to improve the world – Tikkun Olam.

There is a lovely Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam, that means “repair the world” or “heal the world.” The call of Tikkun Olam has always inspired me to more fully offer my life to be a part of the healing God desires for creation, for the earth’s protection and for kindness, equality and justice for all people.

Can we heal the big world with even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion? Doesn’t God whisper to us that we should begin healing the injustice, the violence, the hate, the fear, the mistrust and the deep divisions in the world? Doesn’t God inspire us to know the truth that our dreams are never too small? And doesn’t God promise to guide us and to lead us in following the compassionate footprints of Jesus until we see the world begin to change?

Resting in the grace of inspiration given to us by God, we truly can cast off the gloomy thoughts that our dreams are too small, too weak and too insignificant. And we can hide inside our hearts God’s promise that our dreams can become reality, that our tiny dreams really can change this big world. God will enlarge our smallest dreams if we offer them. We can count on it!

May each of us live “with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness” and may even our smallest dreams change — heal — the world.

 


* The Cosmic Dancer is a Facebook community that shares insights through art, poetry, dance and other “revolutionary rhythms.”

 

 

 

Leaving Our MAGIC Behind

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Ugandan Washday at the River. Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley

When life moves on — from twenty to forty to seventy — you take into your inner place the ominous idea that if ever there was magic in your life, at some point, you left it behind. You know what I mean. The magic of your first love. The magic of the birth of your child. The magic of the time when you believed you could accomplish anything and everything you set your heart on. The magic that you actually did accomplish that thing, that sparkling thing that made you stand tall and celebrate yourself.

You might be wondering what in the world set my mind on life-magic this morning. I think it might have been carryover from my musings on yesterday’s blog post. But mostly, it came from reading a novel by one of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd. This is the passage that captivated me, captured me as if it were some sort of sacred scripture.

There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.”

My mauma was shrewd. She didn’t get any reading and writing like me. Everything she knew came from living on the scarce side of mercy.. She looked at my face, how it flowed with such sorrow and doubt, and she said, “You don’t believe me? Where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?”

Those skinny bones stuck out from my back like nubs. She patted them and said, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”

I was shrewd like mauma. Even at ten I knew this story about people flying was pure malarkey. We weren’t some special people who lost our magic. We were slave people, and we weren’t going anywhere. It was later I saw what she meant. 

— Sue Monk Kidd, from her novel, The Invention of Wings

Part of why these words so thoroughly captured me is in the very first sentence that mentions the place I so love, Africa. And even though the words don’t really have all that much to do with Africa, I found myself transported, walking among the banana trees in East Africa — Fort Portal, Uganda to be exact. Walking into a village brimming with people, and oh, the children! So many glimmering eyes, wide smiles and glowing dark faces that expressed everything from sheer delight to excruciating sorrow, and everything in between.

That was in one of my former lives, and pure magic it was! Because when you are able to make a child smile with a sweety (a piece of hard candy), there’s magic in that moment and it is a moment you carry through your day and through the rest of your life. Maybe that’s the grace of growing older — that you carry with you moments of magic from every place you have been, from every soul who touched your life so deeply.

In Sue Monk Kidd’s words, the magic was being able to fly, probably meaning to soar into the clouds above your troubles and woes. It hit me in my deep place, that the Ugandan people we came to know and love did soar into the clouds. Indeed, they left the agonizing hardships of life on the dusty earth below as their wings lifted them up, higher and higher to where life’s pain was replaced by pure exhilaration.

Back on the earth, in their world, not much was very exhilarating. Life was the same, predictable day after predictable day that disheartened them with hunger, malnutrition, thirst for clean water, oppression, soldiers with their machine guns and all the commonplace bad things that formed their lives. But there were better things too, like lush banana groves and children singing; like the music of drums at dusk; like the shimmering embers from their cooking fires rising into the night sky and reminding them that the day’s toil was not so bad when family could still gather together around a centering, comforting fire. There was magic in all of it. It was the magic of surviving war and embracing the loved ones who were still alive. It was the magic of celebrating the extraordinary lives of loved ones who had died and knowing that generations would move forward carrying the family’s magic into the future. It was the magic in their remembering, remembering the holy words they had hidden in their hearts . . .

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord,
“plans for well-being and not for trouble, to give you a future and a hope.”

— Jeremiah 29:11 New Life Version (NLV)

Maybe you, like me, have forgotten that we brought our magic with us to this day from the scenes of our past, from the happenings and the people we have known. This kind of magic never leaves one’s spirit. This kind of magic is holy mystery, really. It is tucked away within us for the times when we most need to take wing. Still, it does take some courage on our part, some brave resolve that we can lift up our heads and embrace “a future and a hope.”

No, we have not left our magic behind! It waits in us for a moment when we are languishing, when we feel sorrow or discouragement, fear or desperation — for a time when we feel disconsolate. It is in that moment we fly, by the grace-filled mercy of God, on the wings of the morning,* forever lifted above the troubles of the world.

I need that sometimes. Don’t you?

 


For your meditation time, I share with you this beloved hymn, “Come, Ye Disconsolate.”*


* Psalm 139:9

* “Come, Ye Disconsolate”
Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872)
Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)

You Do Not Walk Alone

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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.

On Making Your Own Rainbows

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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.
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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!

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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

EAB02D98-3E58-48CF-B77D-1C2426E32954I 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.

May God make it so for you and those you love!

Be well and stay safe.

— KMF

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Uncreated Grace

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I have been reflecting on a phrase I read this morning in Father Richard Rohr’s meditation— Uncreated Grace. It is an intriguing phrase and makes me wonder why I received it at this particular time and place on my journey. I have had a very long journey — many miles of life —- and, in fact, there have been many other forks on the path that seem more sacred places to contemplate uncreated grace. But here it is, today, brought to me at this place on my journey.

As I did some processing on this phrase, I thought of one of my dear friends from ages past, seminary days to be exact. Often, he would share his favorite quotes. This was one of them, an intriguing and thought-provoking quote. This quote always stayed in his favorites file. It hints at a long journey we all must take . . .

We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.

— T. S. Eliot

We were always left with the question “What do T.S Eliot’s words mean?” Sitting in small groups, the seminarians discussed but never reached an answer, to the question. I imagine that, like me, some of them took the words along with them on their journeys, hoping to discover the meaning at some place of enlightenment on their path.

On my journey, Eliot’s words came to mind many times. Never quite discovering a finite meaning, I did discover infinite applications that touched my life in ways simple and profound. Most always, I came away from reflecting on the words to a better place inside myself and a better space in my world. Still, I wonder why these T.S. Eliot words were brought to my mind today.

The power in these words, I think, is that they are not a directive, not a call to mission, not words of piety, not gleaned from scripture. They are words meant to be understood individually rather than offering a universal message. I identify these words as an invitation, and so today I am left alone with them to intentionally create space for reflection and understanding.

When I do that, I hear many, many other words from different places — from scripture, hymn, poetry, prose and from within myself. It feels like a Spirit encounter, the presence of “another comforter” who will be with us forever, who will, as Jesus promised, “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”

Spirit teaches us and helps us remember. Spirit grounds us so that our circuitous journey will not frighten us. We are free to never “cease from exploration,” because we are comforted to know that we will “arrive where we started . . .”

9889AA3B-16BB-4F9F-9B56-D883A74A49AEAnd know the place for the first time . . .

When the journey leads us back to where we started, how is it that we “know the place for the first time?” I urge you to not take my interpretation as the correct one, because I believe that a “correct” interpretation comes from the soul of each person who chooses to explore. But here is an understanding based on my own musings . . . we can take what comes in our lives, or we can explore places on the journey — our encounters, our joys and sorrows, our events and calamities, our crises and emotions, our disappointments and betrayals, the chance and the wonder.

For me, there is no doubt that exploring all of these life events brings that sense of getting back to the beginning and truly knowing the place for the first time, not necessarily because the beginning place has changed, but that I have changed. The Spirit’s holy breath transformed me with gentleness again and again, transformed by the blowing of Spirit wind into my being.

Father Richard Rohr says that “the Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”

How I love those words . . . Uncreated Grace! Perhaps that’s what we all hope for in our explorations on the journey — that in us and through us, there is Uncreated Grace. If we present to the Spirit our selves as uncreated grace, I wonder if Spirit then creates grace within us again and again and again, all along the way. If we never cease from exploration, presenting ourselves as uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit will breathe on us and we will be transformed!

No wonder we know the place where we started for the first time! The place hasn’t changed, we have changed, transformed in our deepest places!

Thanks be to God and to the touch of Spirit breath. Amen

Telling Our Stories

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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.” 

8B645361-2CE0-4762-B90F-D317010DA520Sometimes 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.