Remembering

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“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

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

“Therefore, I have hope . . .”

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The quiet beauty of Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.

I have been without hope at times, disconsolate, forsaken, wondering why my faith seemed to fail me. My struggle overcame my hope even as I listened desperately to hear the Spirit of hope. I heard nothing. Day after day, in the long dark night of my soul’s anguish, I heard nothing.

That’s the thing about hope. She doesn’t shout our her presence. She doesn’t get your attention in a loud, thunderous manner. Hope, it seems to me, is the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit that goes beyond your conscious mind deep into the depths of your soul. That is the only kind of hope that works, the only kind of hope that can comfort us in times of affliction. The Scripture offers a promise in the book of Romans: “By the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” 

The prophet Jeremiah speaks in the book of Lamentations with words filled with devastating pain. Certainly Jeremiah was a man of abiding and genuine faith. Yet, he suffered. Although it may not be our understanding, Jeremiah understood his times of anguish to be at the hand of the God he served. In hearing Jeremiah’s words of lament, we hear his loss of hope. Listen to this prophet’s heart.

I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;

against me alone he turns his hand again and again, all day long.

though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;

He has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked. He has filled me with bitterness . . . My soul is bereft of peace;

I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,  his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

— Lamentations 3: 1-3; 8-10; 17-24 (New Revised Standard Version)

To reassure the prophet, God did not shout out a proclamation of new hope. There were no loud, boisterous declarations. Instead, the prophet calls to mind the mercies of God. And as he calls God’s faithfulness to mind, his soul speaks of hope.

If you are a long-time Baptist, you may have sung an old hymn that speaks of the quiet presence of hope. The hymn, Whispering Hope,* promises a gentle hope that comforts us in a whisper. Here is a portion of that hymn.

Soft as the voice of an angel breathing a lesson unheard,

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word:

Wait till the darkness is over, Wait till the tempest is done,

Hope for the sunshine tomorrow, after the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh, how welcome thy voice, making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

— Septimus Winner, 1868

Hope with a gentle persuasion whispers her comforting word . . . To me, that sounds like the whisper of the Holy Spirit who, in our times of despair, in the times when we feel that we have lost all hope, brings her comfort, her assurance, her peace to us again and again.

May you hear the Spirit’s whisper when you need it most.

And may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 15:13)

Amen.

 

* If you would like to listen to a lovely arrangement of “Whispering Hope” sung by Hayley Westenra, or if you have not heard this hymn in a while, please visit this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zj3N9LE9FPs

 

 

 

 

A Life Breathtakingly Beautiful

 

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Art by Darlene Gibson-Piper

Life can be tricky. Life is a living thing just waiting to grab you and pull you down, or so it seems at times. Bad things do happen to all of us. Misfortune can suddenly engulf our lives and leave us, any of us, in a heap on the ground, heads bowed low.

I know all too well the stark reality of being brought low, but when I find myself face down in the dirt, I always recall one of the most comforting passages of Scripture.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

— 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (King James Version)

At this time in my life, I am thankfully on the other side of a very serious illness. But the year 2014 was a nightmare year for me and for my family. I spent a good part of that year in the hospital, at times leaning very close to death’s door. Much of that year, I spent in a mental haze not even knowing the loved ones caring for me. I was often very afraid, but one thought came to mind again and again.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
― Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith

So many people find themselves afraid and in despair. In the time it takes me to write this piece, five people in the U.S. will take their own lives. For every suicide, there will be 25 attempted suicides. Some people will suddenly and unexpectedly lose a job and plunge into financial ruin. Others will lose someone they love by death or divorce. Others will fall deeply into illness. Others will face the challenges of aging and lose their homes. Some will experience the terror of addiction. Every person — every person — will know the lowest depths of despair, an existence void of hope.

I love the writing of L.R. Knost. She is an award-winning author, feminist, and social justice activist, the founder and director of the children’s rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and the Editor-in-Chief of Holistic Parenting Magazine. Her writing is down to earth and uplifting, always filled with snippets of pure wisdom. This is what she writes about life.

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and awful it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

She is so spot-on about life, so thoroughly wise. She knows about muddling through the muck of life to the best part of it, the beautiful part of it. And that’s what we must do, muddle through until we get to the beauty. It is true that life doesn’t always get better. Sometimes the thing that breaks us down just lingers with us and keeps us on the lowest ground of desperation. Yet there is that life-giving, life-saving thing called grace, the gentle and persistent grace that is ever-present with us during every low season in life.

Here is the reality, the tried and true foundation of truth that keeps us moving forward after a difficult patch. Again, L.R. Knost describes it.

Life doesn’t always get better.
But you do. You get stronger.
You get wiser. You get softer.
With tattered wings you rise.
And the world watches in wonder at the breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

Going back to that wonderful passage in 2 Corinthians, we find this:

. . . We do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

— 2 Corinthians 4:16-17 (New International Version)

This is, indeed, a soul-healing life, utterly beautiful during the good times, but still heart-breaking and frightening at other times. You and I will pick ourselves up from the dusty earth again and again. We will most certainly rise to our feet for another day. We will find the gentle, persistent grace that holds us upright. We will not lose heart. We will make it to the breathtakingly beautiful part of our lives. Count on it!

Uncommon Commoners

 

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Terlingua, Texas. Astrophotography of the Milky Way over a field of Chisos bluebonnets.

As I write today, I think of all the ways we are ordinary extraordinary folk. We are complex at times, immersed in thoughts deep and weighty. In the next moment, we may well find ourselves acting like common, ordinary people that avoid deep thoughts at all costs.

We are divergent. We are a kind of paradox, common and uncommon all at once.

I recently saw the stunning photograph featured in today’s blog post. I was intrigued that a photographer was gifted enough to capture the juxtaposition of common flowering bluebonnets and the ethereal brilliance of the Milky Way. It is the kind of breathtaking image that makes me stop in my tracks, suspend time for a moment, and lose myself in the idea of earth and sky.

I studied the common bluebonnets and the uncommon Milky Way above them. And I wondered, “Is there something extraordinary in my ordinary life? Am I just a simple, common person? Or is there something uncommon that lives with the common in me? Inside me, in that place that even I do not fully understand, does common and uncommon grow together, entwined and twisted into one?”

As I pondered these questions that made little sense to me at the time, I read a piece written by my friend, Ken Sehested. I knew instantly that I would borrow one of his intriguing thoughts.

Uncommon commoner.

It worked for me. It defined me, the common part of me and the not-so-common part of me. You see, like most people, there is more to me than anyone can see. All of us can claim that. We are a people that can gaze skyward at the Milky Way while we sit on the ground in a patch of bluebonnets. We are a people of inner strength and resilience, the kind of resilience that makes it possible for us to endure whatever life throws at us and live to tell the story. We are a people with the kind of resilience that makes us uncommon commoners.

I know this because I have seen it time and time again up close and personal. I know this because I have stood at the bedside of a dying woman who was singing hymns of praise to God. I know this because I have kept vigil with a mother who witnessed her son being removed from life support after an accident, and as it was happening, she began to pray through her heavy sobs of grief. I know this because I walked out of the emergency room with her while she shared cherished, happy memories of the son she had just lost.

Uncommon commoners.

Ken Sehested made this so clear with these words.

What makes all of us commoners uncommon is when we experience the pain of trauma up close and personal, find the resilience to endure, take a hammer of righteous rage to that trauma and pound it on the forge of conviction that another world is possible, another way will open if we hold out, hold on, hold up, and hold over . . .

— Ken Sehested

Ah yes. We have seen, and we will see again, the pain of trauma. We will find within ourselves the resilience to endure. We will “hold out, hold on, hold up, hold over” because God has graced us with hope, enduring and abiding hope.

Life will always give us — uncommon commoners that we are — vivid fields of bluebonnets growing in the dirt and a sparkling Milky Way in the sky above. Thanks be to God.