In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of β€œfaith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkβ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, β€œWhat is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed β€œthe belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to β€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

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

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

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

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

There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In articulo mortis // At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires // My strength is from heaven

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

In perpetuum // Forever

Dirige nos Domine // Direct us, O Lord

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

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

Excelsior // Ever upward

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

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

 

Out of the Darkness

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The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds
that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light . . .

– Excerpt from “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” by poet Malcolm Guite

Out of the bombing in Manchester emerge brokenhearted families — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children. We live in a brokenhearted world. We wonder what we might do with our broken hearts. Do we respond with anger, sorrow, disinterest? Do we chalk it up as just another tragedy that is inevitable in a world of terrorism and unbridled violence? How must we respond in a way that honors our faith in the Prince of Peace?

I certainly do not have answers to all the questions we may be asking in the face of this tragedy, but these things I know. We must stand firmly, always, for peace. We must speak boldly when our words might ease violence. We must pray without ceasing for a world without violence, and hope constantly for a world that is gentle and hospitable for every person.

Finally, as poet Malcolm Guite writes, we must raise our voices in the strength that comes after weakness. We must sing on, people of God, for our songs might just help bring the world out of darkness into God’s wondrous light!

. . . You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

– 1 Peter 2:9, NIV

A Living Hope

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When an eight year old child takes his own life after being viciously bullied, a mother is left in deep bereavement Β holding a deep sadness that will forever mark her life. Every day, life stories like hers come through on our news feeds. We hear them; we feel a moment of strong empathy; we move on to the next like task.

The reality is that any of us, all of us, may face the worse of life’s pain at any time. None of us is immune to tragedies that turn life upside down. Each of us will at times endure gale force winds that rearrange everything we hold dear.

As always, we are left to figure out how to navigate hard times, how to summon the faith we need to persevere. We must find within ourselves a living hope that cannot be destroyed. Only then will we be able to endure the difficulty life can hand us.

Often, I find wisdom and comfort in the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. This is what he writes about faith during difficult times.

It is hard. Life is hard. The losses, the sudden arrival of illness, the struggles within families, the pressure of a world trying to find a reason to hope. Spirituality that is sugar is no help in such a reality. Feel good philosophy cannot withstand the weight of what many of us have had to face. If it is to endure the gale force winds of chance, faith must be deeply rooted, anchored in trust, strengthened by courage, able to bend but never break. So here is a prayer for all of you living in the real world: may you find your faith as tough as you are and as resilient as the love that keeps you going.

– Steven Charleston

The good news is that God graced us with a resilient faith that perseveres when we endure trials, a living hope that can never fail. Thanks be to God.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,Β who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.Β In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.Β These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faithβ€”of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fireβ€”may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

– I Peter 1:3-7

Troubled Souls

If you are a Greek Orthodox Christian, you will very likely be in church on this Holy Tuesday. I remember it well when as a child I attended the Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church every single day of Holy Week. But most church doors will not be open tonight. Candles will not be lit. Scripture will not be read. Hymns will not be sung. It’s only Holy Tuesday, after all.

Let us read one of the lectionary scriptures for this day, John 12:20-36, the passage in which Jesus predicts his death.

Now there were certain Greeks among those who came up to worship at the feast. Then they came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, β€œSir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip came and told Andrew, and in turn Andrew and Philip told Jesus.

But Jesus answered them, saying, β€œThe hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor.

β€œNow My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? β€˜Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify Your name.”

Then a voice came from heaven, saying, β€œI have both glorified it and will glorify it again.”

Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, β€œAn angel has spoken to Him.”

Jesus answered and said, β€œThis voice did not come because of Me, but for your sake.Β Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself.” This He said, signifying by what death He would die.

The people answered Him, β€œWe have heard from the law that the Christ remains forever; and how can You say, β€˜The Son of Man must be lifted up’? Who is this Son of Man?”

Then Jesus said to them, β€œA little while longer the light is with you. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you; he who walks in darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” These things Jesus spoke, and departed, and was hidden from them.

– John 12:20-36 New King James Version (NKJV)

If we skip Holy Tuesday, we will fail to hear Jesus speak these words: “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me . . . Now My soul is troubled, and what shall I say? β€˜Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose I came to this hour . . .”

If we skip Holy Tuesday, we won’t hear Jesus confess that his soul was troubled. And perhaps we will dismiss the moments when our own souls are troubled. It is a critical part of Holy Week for us to experience troubled souls. It isa part of our journey to the cross.

So let us rest into Holy Tuesday and experience the agony of troubled souls. Let us feel deeply. Let us worship fully. Let us move on with Jesus to the hill of Golgotha, grieving, mourning, troubled.

The Balm for Our Heartbreak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Psalm 36: 5-9

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

Prayers in the Night

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Remembering Libby Scott Hankins and Celebrating Her Life

Libby died at noon on March 17 at age 23 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. Diagnosed with the disease at age 2, she lived a full and productive life. She was just months from graduating with a degree in special education from the University of West Alabama, where she was homecoming queen and captain of the cheerleading squad.

Libby had a double lung transplant last year, but had to return to Duke University Medical Center in February. On February 25, Libby was moved to ICU because of AMR-antibody mediated rejection. Her body fought against the rejection and the many serious complications she was experiencing until March 17 when she lost her battle against cystic fibrosis.

In her final weeks, more than 50,000 people prayed and kept vigil for her day and night. Those people are now continuing their prayers for Libby’s grieving family and friends, believing that “God heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 14)

On Wednesday, the celebration of her life will be held at the stadium in Gordo, Alabama. Her mother and father will likely re-experience their loss. When night falls, their minds may be flooded with memories. Mourning might well overcome them in the darkness of the night. Those 50,000 friends will keep watch as they did during Libby’s final struggle. They will fervently pray for her parents through the night, all night,Β until the light of morning.

This prayer is for Libby’s family:

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who watch or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.

Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary,
soothe the suffering,
give grace to those who mourn;
and all for your love’s sake.

Amen

To Sing Again

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60,072,551 Americans are celebrating, singing songs of victory. At the same time, 60,467,601 of us cannot sing at all. We are silenced by grief after a divisive and troubling presidential election. Many of us are afraid, some are angry, others are despondent. And all around us, people celebrate.

How will we get through this time? How will we ever again feel that America is our home? When will we again lift our eyes after being bowed down in mourning? I have no easy answers. I only know that these words of the Psalmist describe my deepest feeling.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
β€œSing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Psalm 137:1-4

It is my sincere prayer that on some day in the future we will pick up our lyres, lift our eyes to the heavens, stand tall, and sing again.

Grace

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Day two of grief and confusion. Day two of desperately seeking grace in the midst of grief. Day two of mourning a deeply personal loss.

It was a stunning upset, leaving us with President-elect Donald J. Trump. Despondency barely describes what I’m feeling. Fear may be even more descriptive. I do not feel despondent over being on the losing side of the election. For me, it is not about winning or losing. I do not feel anger or resentment against my brothers and sisters who voted for Trump.

But I do feel disenfranchised in my own country. I feel like I’m a part of a country I don’t understand. I feel like my hopes and dreams are no longer important. I feel like there is a powerful leader over me who will crush my dreams without a thought. I feel like the ground beneath me is shaking. Yesterday I read these words written by my friend, Julie Pennington-Russell.

In 1952, at the threshold of the Cold War, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the uncertainty and chaos in the world at that time, he spoke these now-famous words: β€œThe highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

So this, for me, is a shaken time. I feel a cloud of uncertainty and chaos. I fear the days ahead. I am grieving, yet looking for a smidgen of grace in it all. That’s all I can do. And I lean into the encouraging words of Bishop Steven Charleston.

Now comes the hard part. As this new day dawns, joyful for some, sad for others, we face a single question: how will we walk together when our paths seem so different? There is a word for it. Grace. May we have the grace to be humble in victory and hopeful in defeat. May we have the grace to overcome our fears. This is the hard part, the time of seeking the common good, not for ourselves alone, but for those younger lives watching us. May our first step be made in prayer, spoken in different ways but with a shared appeal: give us your grace, dear God, to care more for one another than for winning.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

The Darkness of Suffering

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I spent four years as a hospital chaplain, nine years as a pastor, and eleven years as a trauma counselor working with victims of violence. During those years, I learned a great deal about suffering. I observed it, empathized with it and prayed over it. I tried to discover ways to enter into the suffering with those who were drowning in it. But suffering with others is a complicated and difficult task. Feeling sympathy is easy. Knowing about a person’s suffering is easy. But entering into the suffering of others, being with them in their suffering, is very difficult.

The words of Gordon Cosby ring true to me:

Compassion is to know the pain and suffering of others. Not to know about the suffering and pain of others, but in some way to actually know that painβ€”to enter it, hear it, taste it, let it in. We talk about getting in touch with our feelings, and that is central to our freedom. The complementary step is to get in touch with the feelings of others. This necessitates getting into their frame of reference, their way of perceiving. Others’ way of seeing might seem wrong or distorted, yet it still is their experience of life…. In part, knowing that someone understands and feels our pain is the relief we need, even if nothing more can be done.

– N. Gordon Cosby
Source: Seized by the Power of a Great Affection

One additional lesson the years taught me: Suffering is much more than pain. Suffering is more than grief. Suffering is the deep-down and relentless assault of one’s soul and spirit. It is utter darkness. It is feeling alienated from the healing God. It is feeling completely alone in an abyss of unrelieved torment.

Medication cannot touch it. Sympathy cards, flowers and covered dishes cannot ease it. Only presence is effective, abiding presence with the sufferer, entering into deepest silence, being near to dry the tears that won’t stop, sitting vigil for as long as it takes.

May God give us the inner strength to suffer with those who suffer, to share with them the healing, renewing grace of a compassionate God.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you: when you walk through the fire, you shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon you.

– Isaiah 43:2