Rough, Broken Roads

5E982E74-6C78-42E3-BA27-C642528A9C0CI think often about roads, the roads that take people where they want to go, or not. I think with deep fondness about the terribly rough and broken roads we traveled in Uganda. The time was immediately after the horrific reign of Idi Amin that left the roads, and the entire country, in shambles. I remember the difficulty in traveling those rough, broken roads — washed out, bombed out, neglected for years.

I remember the fear of traveling those roads, the frightening military roadblocks, the pointed machine guns, the soldier’s demand for all that we carried in the vehicle and even the vehicle itself. I remember how some of our missionaries were left in the bush with their vehicle “confiscated” by the occupying army. I remember the roadblock murder of the dear Ugandan man who drove our mission’s supply truck.

I think of traveling a road in the middle of the night that led to my brother’s funeral, made rough by grief. I think of the rough road I traveled in leaving my home of 32 years for a new and unfamiliar place. I can never forget my rough road through serious illness and difficult recovery.

I think of roads that take people where they do not want to go — to war, to prisons, to rehabilitation centers, to the sites of natural disasters. I think about the roads in disaster areas that are simply gone.

I remember a song in a Christian musical of many years ago titled “Rough Old Roads.” It told of the rough roads Jesus walked. The song’s climactic moment gave us these words: “the road that was roughest of all to walk was the road that led to the cross.”

It is appropriate for us during Lent to recall the rough roads Jesus walked, rough for so many reasons: rejection, danger, soul temptation, angry crowds and lynch mobs, and ultimately the rough road that Jesus walked to the cross, to his death. To learn of his roads means that we get a glimpse of our own. The roads we all walk.

None of us can avoid walking the rough and broken roads that appear before us, but it is in traversing those roads that we learn who we are. Rough roads force us to take the hard and narrow way, and thus become who we must ultimately become. Roads can wind around so that we are lost, thus inviting us to take the risk of vulnerability required for an unknown and uncharted journey. Our roads teach and challenge us. When the road ahead of us is rough or broken, our commitment to stay the course results in wisdom. I call it wisdom from the journey. Our rough, broken roads make us stronger and more resilient. The rougher they are, the more we change and grow.

I could bore you with even more personal reflection about rough roads, but instead I want to share a moving poem written by Maren Tirabassi.* In the poem, she writes of broken roads and calls for a God who attends to all who find themselves on broken roads.

Here are Maren’s moving words:

I was praying this morning, God,
for all the people in Mozambique
and Malawi and Zimbabwe,
in the midst of the terrible losses
from cyclone Idai —
the deaths and injury and destruction,
the ongoing need for rescue

and I learned that the roads are broken.

I should have known —

the roads between towns
are impassable,
the bridges smashed, ports unusable.
Also those other paths —
electricity, telephone, Internet,
are gone as well.

And I went from that
flat-hand-on-the-newspaper prayer,
to the jail and my meeting
for spiritual care
and walked among others
with no access

and realized that journey
is not a parable for Lent
for these,
your children on the inside.

And so holy Valley-uplifter,
Rough-place-leveler,
I call you to attend
to all who suffer broken roads —

broken highways or heartways,
or sometimes minds that cannot
find a way out of whatever
dead end they are in,

and teach me to pay attention, too,
put my back against
every road block,
become an opener of the way home.

 

May God make it so. Amen.

 

*Maren served as a pastor in the United Church of Christ for thirty-seven years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is the author or editor of 20 books. You may read more of her creative and soulful writing at her blog, “Gifts in Open Hands” at the following link:

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/10101/

 

 

On to a New “New Normal”

7519DB43-1B31-43A9-9528-84655345CC44I’m getting to know myself. Again! Moving through life takes one through changes large and small. We slip past the small ones pretty much unscathed. But oh, those large ones! The large changes are another story altogether. Sometimes they cause us to miss a step or two. Sometimes they stop us right where we stand. Sometimes they throw us all the way to the ground. But they always get our attention.

Chronic illness is one of those ‘knock-you-to-the-ground” changes, especially when an illness happens suddenly. In a recent New York Times article, Tessa Miller shares how sudden illness changes one’s life and how chronic illness changes life forever. 

“Seven Thanksgiving ago, I got sick and I never got better,” Miller writes. She goes on to describe the conundrum of chronic illness. 

When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how much my life would change. There’s no conversation about that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness won’t go away but won’t kill you, so none of us know what “chronic illness” means until we’re thrown into being sick forever.

I can identify with the changes Tessa Miller describes. The onset of my chronic illness five years ago was sudden, unexpected and permanent. My kidneys failed — simple as that. And I entered into the unfamiliar world of daily dialysis, a world I never expected to be in. And, yes, it was life-changing.

Tessa Miller makes another very insightful point. She explains how, once you find yourself in the fog of the changes you’re facing because of a chronic illness, one change presents the biggest challenge – the change in your relationship with yourself.

There is no debate: when chronic illness disturbs the equilibrium of your life, your relationship with yourself changes. You grieve a version of yourself that doesn’t exist anymore, and a future version that looks different than what you had ever imagined.

Chronic illness can shatter career goals and life plans. You learn learn a “new normal” in their place. But the acceptance of a “new normal” comes after the trauma. And trauma does happen, trauma that necessarily calls for therapy, either formal or informal.

Emotional work definitely needs to be done, and emotional work around chronic illness can look a lot like grief therapy for a passing loved one. You lose your self, at least temporarily. Your self changes.

So make sure to spend some time looking for YOU. Intentionally. Being open to whatever you find in yourself. Practice seeing yourself as the person you are instead of the person you were. Looking in the proverbial mirror gives you an image of the new version of yourself. Get to know her. Celebrate her resilience. Above all, be patient as you get to know her. You may be surprised at how much you like and admire her.

 

 

Call a Blessing Down

 

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“Angels Blessing the Earth” by Suely Eloy

Bishop Steven Charleston writes, “Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it.”

I have listened this week to folk bemoaning the downward movement of the stock market that diminished their retirement savings. I have heard expressions of real fear about what the president is doing and might do. Many people seem despondent about children taken from their parents and placed in detention centers. People are angry that two young children have died there in the past couple of weeks. People are embarrassed about the way other countries now view America. Every day, there is another reason to feel concern, anger, fear,and many other emotions about what our nation has become.

And on top of that, we see the grief and pain of people all over the world. They face repressive governments in countries like North Korea, Syria, Equatorial Guinea, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen, Uzbekistan and the Central African Republic.

They have endured natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, volcanoes in Guatemala and Hawaii, the dust storm in India, the wildfires in California, flooding and mudslides in Japan, numerous earthquakes around the world. People are living in countries in the midst of wars that persist for decades.

They have witnessed with horror events like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school ahooting, the Waffle House shooting, the shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Capital Gazette shooting, the Jeffersontown, Kentucky shooting, the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, the Chicago Mercy Hospital shooting. All over the world, disasters — natural disasters and disasters caused by humans — have the power to bring us to our knees.

On our knees is perhaps the very place we must be. And as we fall to our knees to pray for our world, perhaps we might whisper the Hebrew phrase, Tikkum Olam, heal the world.  Perhaps we might repeat the prayer of Bishop Steven Charleston:

Help me call a blessing down, for I think our poor old world needs it, a blessing of peace, a blessing of the ordinary, a blessing of national life without chaos and personal life without fear. 

Help me pray a healing down, for I know how much we need it, a strengthening of the bonds between us, simple respect and patient listening, a new beginning for us all. 

Help me welcome the sacred down, the wide-winged Spirit, drawn from every corner of heaven, to walk among us once more, to show us again how it can be, when justice is the path and love the destination.

Amen.

 

 

Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.

 

Remembering

34E60DDC-AACB-4E7A-9C25-E72AE0E7C44D

“Shoes on the Danube Promenade” by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer.

I cannot let it go — the unconscionable tragedy against the worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. One week after eleven people were gunned down there, 100 people gathered on a cold, drizzly Saturday outside the still unopened place of worship for a “healing service.”

We gathered in Macon as well, to stand in solidarity, remember those who lost their lives, pray for their grieving families, and keep vigil with our Middle Georgia Jewish community. I do not know the capacity of Temple Beth Israel, but I do know that every pew was filled, people were standing along every wall and in every corner and flowing out onto the sidewalk. I was moved, as were many, by the outpouring of love and support expressed in the Macon Shabbat Service.

And so it should be. All of us must pay close attention to the stark reality that this was one of the deadliest attacks on Jews in United States history. To guard against this kind of violence, we  must link hands without considering race, ethnicity, religious tradition, gender, age, sexual orientation or any label that divides us. We must love our neighbor as we love ourselves. We must never forget the history that allowed hate and violence to harm various groups of people.

During WWII, Jews in Budapest were brought to the edge of the Danube, ordered to remove their shoes, and shot, falling into the water below. Sixty pairs of iron shoes now line the river’s bank, a ghostly memorial to the victims. It is one of many memorials erected to remind us, to ensure that we will never forget and never repeat such history.

May God make it so.

 

 

 

All Saints

05314FDF-2986-4602-8EF9-B1839FE693CEWe all need a glimpse of hope and comfort in these troubling days. Our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and we are shocked at this and other recent acts of violence and evil. So today, I share with you the writing of Jemma Allen* in hopes that you will find her words as compelling and comforting as I have.

This week in many liturgical traditions we observe All Saints Day, and perhaps All Souls. In some places there is an opportunity to say the names, to light candles for, to ring the bell for those we love but see no longer, parted from us by death.  

All Saints and All Souls compel us to look death squarely in the face,
to acknowledge our mortality, and the mortality of those we love,
and still to make our song: Alleluia!

This is a season where we boldly proclaim
that death is not the last word.
Death, and fear of death, does not hold the power
to determine how we will live.

We are the dearly beloved children of the living God,
we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection,
we are looking to a future where justice and mercy kiss,
where nations will not learn war anymore,
where the lion lies down with the lamb,
where all things are reconciled to God.

This is our hope.
It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish or mar:
not white supremacy,
not anti-Semitism,
not any kind of hatred,
not any system of domination,
not any disease,
not any heartbreak. 

And when we cannot hold that hope for ourselves,
let us lean into the hope we can hold together
as communities of life, as communities of resistance,
as hope-bearers and pilgrims on the Way. 

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Give rest, O Christ, to your servants, with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, our Creator and Maker;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

 – Russian Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed, Jim Cotter’s translation.  

 

*Jemma Allen is a priest in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and a counsellor and spiritual director in private practice.  She serves on the Board of RevGalBlogPals and counts the RevGal community as one of her communities of life and resistance.

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

Joy

102F7D81-F946-4E11-A42A-07566031DEABAs I often do, I found today, in my lengthy list of unread emails, a plethora of pleas to do something. Save the bees. Save the libraries. Save the children. Save the political candidate . . . and several other things that someone wants to save.  I care deeply about most of those things that need saving, like the libraries and the children and the bees. And I spend a fair amount of time worrying about them and praying for them to be saved.

But for this day, I am laser focused on saving myself, saving myself from the onslaught of various illnesses, from nature’s effects of aging, and mostly, from a life filled with worry where there should be joy.

Memories flood my mind with sweet, little songs from the past: “The joy of the Lord is my strength . . .”  (1)  “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart . . .” (2) Simple songs they were for us when as children we learned every word and took the melodies into our hearts to recall in the years to come.

And so today, I recall them, realizing that whatever may come, I have joy in my heart, and most of all, that I am leaning into the truth that the joy of the Lord is my strength. These were good and positive lessons to learn as a child, with simple music as the teacher. So today, I remember the songs, singing them silently as I write. Singing them aloud would most surely disturb the household. So I keep silent.

It can be a dangerous thing to keep silence, for in those silent times, there can be a flood of memories, thoughts, recollections, and the sacred space so essential to the spiritual life. Today’s sacred space brings these words to my heart:

The Lord is my strength and my shield;
in him my heart trusts;
so I am helped, and my heart exults,
and with my song I give thanks to him.

— Psalm 28:7 (RSV)

You are being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might, so that you might patiently endure everything with joy.

— Colossians 1:11(ISV)

Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

— Nehemiah 8:10 (NIV)

On top of my end stage kidney disease, debilitating fibromyalgia, diabetes, and an almost constant barrage of new diagnoses, I have one job really: to find ways of guarding the joy that makes its home in my heart, to patiently endure whatever comes with joy. I must trust that joy really is there in my heart. I must believe that joy is still a part of my faith. I must know that joy has been with me on my journey, every day, at every turn, over every mountain and through every valley.

I must guard my joy lovingly and persistently. And I must guard my heart, joy’s dwelling place. When new illnesses come along, new concerns, new challenges, new problems and new sorrows, perhaps the most important thing I can do is to guard my heart.

Along with the other passages of scripture that have entered my sacred soace today, there is another tiny scripture passage that has moved me over the years. The writer of the book of Proverbs begins chapter four with a list of life instructions, and for twenty-two verses, the writer admonishes the reader to be vigilant, to be careful, to hold on to instruction, to avoid the path of the wicked, etc. And then in verse 23, the writer of the everlasting wisdom of the Proverbs gives us one more tidbit of advice and advises us to pay attention to this one instruction, above all else.

Above all else, guard your heart,
for from it flow the wellsprings of life.

— Proverbs 4:23 

I am never 100% certain about the meaning of scripture passages, but this one feels very clear to me — guard your heart and the wellsprings of your life will flow from it. I think the wellsprings might be joy! Not such a simple message, is it, that we have “joy down in our hearts to stay.”

 

(1) The Joy of the Lord Is My Strength, written by Alliene Vale, ©️1971, Universal Music.

(2) Joy In My Heart, written by George William Cooke, 1925

Sitting Open-Handed Before God

71184739-B4D2-4F2F-897E-1EAD2C2A56EAWhat is it like to sit open-handed before God? To abide with a compassionate God who knows the grief we are carrying? To sit in the glowing presence of a God who, not only knows the deep angst of our nation, but who can also transform it?

Yes, many of us are grieving the current state of our nation. We see our nation’s pain, just as we see the pain of the world. Yet, we who are Christ-followers live with great advantage in this pain-filled world. Yes, we grieve the divisions in our nation and lament at the ways we seem to have lost our compass of compassion, mercy and justice. We feed those who already have abundant sources of food. We provide health care to those who can afford their own. We hold open the voting entrances for those who can get there with the proper credentials. But for the people who hunger, the families that are homeless, the elderly, the children incarcerated at our borders, the prisoners, the helpless, the marginalized . . .  well, for them, we offer prayers, if we think of them at all.

So what is our great advantage? It is that our faith can carry us into spiritual realms where hope is large and dreams are possible. It is that we enjoy access to spiritual community with an accessible God. It is the spiritual luxury of quiet contemplation that opens our hearts to the whispers of God. And yes, I did say whispers of God, for it is almost always a quiet voice that beckons us into a world of turmoil. It is a quiet God-Voice that rekindles our compassionate hearts, speaks to us through the noise of discord in our nation, and shows us the good path we must follow.

We need not despair or cry out in anger or disgust. We need not attack those who seem to be wrecking our country. We need not hate those with whom we disagree. We have the great advantage of only this life task: to be silent before God, to sit in God’s presence open-handed, to pray, to listen, to seek, and then to go.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, famously known as “the nun on the bus,” offers us a glimpse into one of the ways we can live as people of faith in a fractured nation. 

Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom. . . . So my contemplative practice is to attempt to sit open-handed and listen to the “wee small voice” that sometimes whispers ideas and ways forward.

Simone Campbell

Thanks be to God for the quiet whisper that guides us on the path ahead, the God-Voice that ordains us to heal our nation and comfort our world.

Whole Again

23A0B57C-5487-4E6C-B48B-C45552916C23So many people have been broken. I join them in their brokenness, for I, too, have been broken. Not just once, but again and again. So I know how it feels to look down in the dust at my feet and see the shards of a broken spirit. I know the emotional response I have when I sit on the ground examining the broken shards, and I know how I despair of the daunting  task of putting the broken pieces back together.

I know the fear of doubting that I will even be able to put them together again. I know the terror of believing that my broken life will forever be broken. I know the suffocating feeling of having been broken beyond repair, without hope, without the faith I will need to repair my own brokenness.

And then, we look at our world, lamenting its groaning in so many ways and in so many places around the globe. Ours is a world that seems broken into pieces. I often find encouragement in the Jewish concept known as Tikkun Olam, a phrase found in the Mishnah that means to heal or repair the world. While Tikkun Olam is used today to define social action and the pursuit of social justice, the phrase has ancient roots with origins in classical rabbinic literature. It means so much more than examining broken pieces and finding a “glue” that might possibly put them back together.

Rabbi Yitzchak Luria* pondered the world’s brokenness and came to believe that, even before time, something must have gone terribly wrong with the world. As he continued to mull it over in his mind, he proclaimed that the world had shattered. He taught that we are anointed to repair a world which he defined as “all that is eternal,” insisting that “at the very core of reality is G-d’s shattered dream, waiting for us to pick up the pieces.”

Things break. The world breaks. Dreams break. We break. Such is the reality we know. And yes, we can become disconsolate as we take on the task of putting the pieces back together again. But there is a higher truth, a more noble calling than just putting together broken pieces. It is the calling to make things whole again, to make the world whole again, to make your spirit whole again.

In Scripture, we find many stories of persons being made whole. Each one looks like a miracle. Remember the story of the woman who had suffered for twelve years?

A woman, who was very ill for twelve years, came behind Jesus, and touched the hem of his garment: For she said within herself, “If I but touch his garment, I shall be whole.”

Jesus turned about, and when he saw her, he said, “Daughter, be of good comfort; your faith has made you whole.” And the woman was made whole from that hour.

— Matthew 9:20-22

Surely it was a miracle that this woman received. But for us, miracles are rare. We are burdened heavily by the brokenness, usually without the benefit of miracles. So what is it around you that is broken? What broken shards do you have before you? A broken relationship? A broken faith community? A broken dream? Is your city broken? Your nation? Your world? Or it it your own spirit that lies in broken pieces at your feet?

I cannot promise you a miracle. Even so, you must pick up the broken pieces and get started. You may get a little help from the people in your life. Then again, they may offer no help at all. But I do know that you have within yourself all the strength you need to take what is broken, put the pieces back together and find yourself whole again.

She is a beautiful piece of broken pottery, put back together by her own hands. And a critical world judges her cracks while missing the beauty of how she made herself whole again.

— J.M. Foster

The Japanese art of repairing broken pottery is called kintsugi. Repaired with pure gold, the Japanese art embraces the imperfections of the broken object. The flaws are seen as a unique part of the object’s history, which adds to its beauty. The glistening gold cracks are seen as very lovely features of the pottery, and Japanese artists say that the pottery is even stronger at the broken places. 

And so are we!

* https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3593030/jewish/Fallen-Sparks.htm