A Perfect Place to Die

IMG_5744

Japan’s Aokigaharaย Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week โ€” The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest. ย Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is the secondย leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is theย second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธMore teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

โ–ช๏ธEach day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240ย attempts by young people grades 7-12.

โ–ช๏ธEach year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night.ย At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, โ€œO the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began — ย the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy. ย Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of Godโ€™s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die โ€” or to live โ€” is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me โ€œvast, unmeasured, boundless, free!โ€ A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Reconciliation: The Heart’s Repentance

IMG_5630

The long and arduous presidential campaign left behind a fractured nation. The political parties displayed unprecedented enmity between Democrats and Republicans. The citizenry followed their lead, and the result was broken relationships among friends and even within families. My own family exchanged sharp and hurtful words during the campaign, words that continue to affect our relationships.

We have made enemies of other nations. Some among us have made enemies based on race, culture, gender, national identity, religious practice, sexual orientation. And we remain divided and hostile, with no apparent desire to reconcile.ย And yet, we desperately need true reconciliation.

The Biblical concept of reconciliation suggests the presence of spiritual, divine intervention that creates reconciliation in the hearts of those who are estranged. Reconciliation assumes there has been a breakdown in a relationship, but through the heartโ€™s repentance, there is a change from a state of enmity and fragmentation to one of harmony and fellowship.

It is going to require the heartโ€™s repentance to restore a climate of unity, mutual respect, love and peace. Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in America, offers these insightful thoughts about reconciliation.

Reconciliation isn’t just singing Kumbaya and everyone being nice. Reconciliation is about the hard work of working through our differences, maybe acknowledging them and not changing them, necessarily. Working through our differences, honestly and with integrity, and sometimes repenting of where our differences or my differences or yours has actually hurt relationship and not helped the human family.

Shall we just leave everything as it is? Shall we allow the distance to continue between us and those we have lost because of our differences? Shall we accept a fractured world and the divisiveness that now assails us? Or shall we instead commit ourselves to the holy work of reconciliation?

Our sacred calling is to restore peace within the human family, creating a world that can nurture our children and grandchildren, striving for genuine reconciliation among those from whom we are estranged, restoring peace and a community of love, transforming fractured and hurting humanity. This is what God implores us to do.

. . . This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;ย that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

2 Corinthians 5:18-19

 

Out of the Darkness

Design

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, Godโ€™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

We Can Overcome

Design

Young girls run frantically from the sound of a bomb, screaming, crying, confused, and terribly afraid. An evening of sheer joy listening to the music of Ariana Grande had turned into an evening of terror.

In a British music venue, a suicide bomb killed 22 people, some of them children. Eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos lost her life, and 59 other people were wounded, some suffering life-threatening injuries. Many others are still missing.

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester.ย Ariana Grande spoke about the attack: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.”

Is this a portrait of the world we live in? Must we fear for our children and lament the lives they must live? Do we place our faith in a God we sometimes question when tragedies happen?

One of my favorite Scripture passages is also one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It is found in the fifth chapter of Lamentations. The words express deep mourning and profound loss, leaving the writer asking God, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” The hurting people who had lost everything they cherished cried out . . .

Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

– Lamentations 5:15, NIV

Sometimes our dancing really does turn to mourning. All of us are acquainted with loss. Our world is a dangerous place, and tragedies like Manchester remind us of our vulnerability. So how do we live? How do we go on? How do people of God live this kind of dangerous life?

The musical group Hillsong sings “This Is How We Overcome.” The song, which is written by Reuben Morgan, echoes the celebration of the Psalmist in the fifth chapter of Psalms.

You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy.

The song continues with these words.

Your hand lifted me up.ย I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart andย made this valley sing.

They sing of the continual presence of God, even in times of deep mourning, profound loss, and grave danger. That kind of song speaks of our faith, a faith that still holds us and always picks us up when we have fallen. Our faith is our resilience.

We can overcome. Every time. Every time life circumstances assail us and steal our music, we persist. We sing. We dance. We praise a God who is eternally near. So let us persevere, always proclaiming the source of our strength.

The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian prays this prayer.

Let us resiliently resume our dancing.
Let us sing louder. Let us speak out voices with determination.

May it be so. Amen.

(Rev. Torigian’s prayer may be found at https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/05/23/tuesday-prayer-95/.)

The Balm for Our Heartbreak

IMG_5138

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 Jesusโ€™ body for burial, for death, and we know all too well where the road to Jerusalem leads. We know thatย 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 inย 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.

When I Die: An Epitaph

 

IMG_4963

When I die, give what’s left of me away
to children and old men that wait to die.

And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother walking the street beside you.

And when you need me, put your arms around anyone
and give them what you need to give me.

I want to leave you something,
something better than words or sounds.

Look for me in the people I have known or loved,
and if you cannot give me away,
at least let me live in your eyes and not in your mind.

You can love me best by letting hands touch hands,
and by letting go of children that need to be free.

Love doesn’t die, people do.
So when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.

– Epitaph By Merrit Malloy

In celebration of the life of Elizabeth Scott Hankins . . . Libby

June 16, 1993 – March 17, 2017

 

Still Moving Toward Resurrection

design
So here we are on this Lenten journey again, hoping that this time something will be different. We’re hoping that some great light will blind us for a brief moment and shake us out of the mundane lives we live. We’re still hoping that the remedy for the death of a soul is resurrection.

I found myself uncomfortably described in a meditation entitled “Living Lent” written by Barbara Cawthorne Crafton.

We didn’t even know what moderation was. What it felt like. We didn’t just work: we inhaled our jobs, sucked them in, became them. Stayed late, brought work home โ€“ it was never enough, though, no matter how much time we put in.

Suddenly we saw it all clearly: I am driven by my creatures โ€“ my schedule, my work, my possessions, my hungers. I do not drive them; they drive me. Probably yes. Certainly yes. This is how it is.

When did the collision between our appetites and the needs of our souls happen? Was there a heart attack? Did we get laid off from work, one of the thousands certified as extraneous? Did a beloved child become a bored stranger, a marriage fall silent and cold? Or, by some exquisite working of God’s grace, did we just find the courage to look the truth in the eye and, for once, not blink? How did we come to know that we were dying a slow and unacknowledged death? And that the only way back to life was to set all our packages down and begin again, carrying with us only what we really needed?

We travail. We are heavy laden. Refresh us, O homeless, jobless, possession-less Savior. You came naked, and naked you go. And so it is for us. So it is for all of us.

Still Moving Toward Resurrection. . .

Amen.

Safe in God’s Care

enlight1

There are times when I need to draw close to God and stay there. There are moments that define us, and sometimes they are seasons of despair when prayer is the only thing to do. I have been through those hard seasons many times and found a way to reach out to God. I wanted to stay there, near to God’s heart of compassion, near to God’s glory, safe under God’s sheltering wings.

Peter, James and John found themselves on a high mountain with Jesus. Glory filled the place and the story tells us that Jesus became “as bright as a flash of lightening.” They wanted to stay there. Wouldn’t you? Peter, James and John were in the glow of the glory of Jesus. Peter spoke up and said, “We need to stay here, Master. Let us put up three shelters for you, Moses and Elijah. Let’s just stay here on this holy mountain.”

The story begins with Jesus praying in private with his disciples. He asked them, โ€œWho do the crowds say I am?โ€

They replied by telling Jesus that some people were saying he was John the Baptist; others were saying he was Elijah. Others were saying that Jesus was one of the prophets of long ago who had come back to life. But Jesus wanted them to answer the question, “Who do you say I am?โ€

As he often did, Peter answered for the group. โ€œGodโ€™s Messiah.โ€

Then Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone, predicting his imminent death and telling them that they would suffer as well. But then we get to the redeeming part of this story, the part that looks past the suffering and reveals the glory. Here is the Transfiguration text from the Gospel of Luke:

About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, โ€œMaster, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three sheltersโ€”one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.โ€

– Luke 9:28-33 New International Version (NIV)

Without a doubt, the disciples of Jesus were about to enter one of those difficult life seasons. They would be tested to their limits, and would find themselves longing to draw close to Jesus once again and rest in that place of safety.

Mary Austin relates a story told by pastor and theologian Jennifer Bailey. (https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/02/21/narrative-lectionary-glory-then-guts-luke-928-45/). In a time of deep distress, Jennifer recalls the depth of her pain. This is how she describes her experience:

I folded into myself: my arms wrapped tightly around my knees and found their rest on my heaving chest . . . As I opened my mouth to cry out to God, as I often do in moments of hopelessness, no sound emergedโ€ฆRocking back and forth on the cool linoleum floor, I finally uttered the only words that I could find, โ€œI donโ€™t feel safe. I donโ€™t feel safe.โ€

Like a gust of wind, I could suddenly feel the soulful presence of my ancestors surround me, holding me and bearing witness to my pain. Then I heard my mamaโ€™s spirit whisper gently, gently in my ear, โ€œBaby, we ainโ€™t never been safeโ€.

Jesus proclaimed the hard truth that there is no safety for those who follow him. Yet we live on, knowing that sometimes seasons of pain will engulf us. But also knowing that we are safe in God’s care, that God is faithful and present with us always.

Yes, sometimes I need to draw close to God and stay there. I hope I’ll have the wisdom and the will to stay there long enough.

My Healing Days

img_4571

If I say, โ€œSurely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,โ€
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

– Psalm 139:11-12 NIV

I am drawn to light, to brightness and color. Dark shadows and muted hues can cause melancholy in me. And in those times, I try everything I can do to fill my day with brightness. It is a healing balm in troubling times.

In 2014, I spent most of the year very ill and in the hospital. As I recuperated at home, I found that I had no energy to surround myself with brightness and color. I did not notice it really, until my sister-in-law came to Little Rock for a visit. A seasoned decorator, she began to transform my surroundings in little ways. She and my brother also insisted that we relocate to Macon, Georgia so that we could be near enough for them to help Fred with my care.

They prevailed. We moved. Our belongings arrived at our new place (a place we had never laid eyes on) before we arrived. My family unpacked all our things, set up the house, and my sister-in-law filled the place with flowers, candles, and all kinds of beautiful things. We arrived late at night. When we walked into the house, it was filled with good smells, brightness and color. It looked like a Southern Living decorator house.

In that brightness and color, lovingly created by my family, I began to heal and get stronger. My days became day’s of calm. I was able to take my intense focus off of my illness and instead aim my gaze toward God. There was healing power in that, a transformative power that strengthened my spirit. The words of John Muir provide a lovely description of my healing days.

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless . . . days, days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.

– John Muir

How grateful I am for the thousand windows open to God. How grateful I am for the love and care of my family, for the light, color and brightness that fills my life. How grateful I am for these healing days.

Our Reply to Violence

img_4338

We have experienced some difficult days following election 2016. Violence was a part of the process, at least a violence of words. And violence takes its toll on the human spirit. The Southern Poverty Law Center has tracked 892 hate groups operating in the United States. The civil rights organization has also cited over 300 cases of hateful harassment or intimidation in the United States since Election Day.

For me, few things have helped ease the struggle of my spirit. The one thing that has helped the most is music. I have found myself singing hymns to myself several times a day and have been comforted by the familiar melodies and sacred texts.

Music has that kind of healing power for so many people during times of trial. Protestant Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out among the Christian leaders during the Nazi era, for he was one of the few to actively resist the racist actions of the Nazi regime. He said this about music.

Music… will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.

In the days that followed the assassination of President Kennedy, there were many heart-wrenching musical moments, like the New York Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony. During that dark time, music director Leonard Bernstein gave an unforgettable speech at Madison Square Garden. His remarks include these words:

This sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather it will inflame our art … This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly, than ever before.

May it be so … that music is our reply to violence.