How true it is that when we know nights of sorrow, when weeping is all we can muster, that daybreak does eventually come as it always has. And with the rising of the sun, perhaps our tears are replaced with at least some measure of inner joy.
The universe is wide and wondrous, full of love, full of grace, and sparked by freedom. Those three—love, grace and freedom—are the things we most need, all of us.
I offer you this meditation, praying that you are surrounded in love, that you know the grace that accepts every part of yourself, and that you feel the the freedom to run with the wind in wide and wondrous places, toward your dreams.
As you continue the quiet time you claim for yourself today, I hope you will be be inspired and comforted by this beautiful choral piece by the brilliant composer Elaine Hagenberg, ”All Things New.”
Poem by Frances Havergal and text adapted from Revelation 21:5-6
Light after darkness, gain after loss Strength after weakness, crown after cross; Sweet after bitter, hope after fears Home after wandering, praise after tears
Alpha and Omega Beginning and the end He is making all things new Springs of living water Shall wash away each tear He is making all things new Sight after mystery, sun after rain Joy after sorrow, peace after pain; Near after distant, gleam after gloom Love aftеr wandering, life after tomb
Some of us feel compelled to rescue the world, and we try to do it in so many ways. The ways we rescue may be simple or complex, close to home or global. We try to repair them all, from multiple interventions when our kids get in trouble at school to advocating for an end to the climate change that’s currently burning down the beautiful Greek island of Evia.
For me, it’s a given that I should rescue things and people. After all, I am a minister. Isn’t that what we do? I really do want to save the whole world from whatever ailments or tragedies are inflicted upon it — the earth itself and the people in it. The thought that writer and theologian Frederick Buechner writes about this makes so much sense to me: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” I suppose that my desire to change, rescue and fix could very well be my undoing, because the stark reality is that I — one person — can do very little that would make much of a difference.
That’s the overwhelming part. How can we watch the world’s great need and not answer our inner compulsion to repair it? When asking myself this kind of question, I always think of tikkun olam, which is a jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to perfect or repair the world.
The phrase tikkun olam is found in the Mishnah, a body of classical rabbinic teachings. It is often used when discussing issues of social policy, insuring a safeguard to those who may be at a disadvantage. In modern Jewish circles, tikkun olam has become synonymous with the notion of social action and the pursuit of social justice.
To those who, like me, have this inner desire to change things and fix things, I can not offer any easy answers, because I do not have any. There simply aren’t any. I’m fond, though, of this idea: do the next right thing. When faced with big needs and small ones, sometimes that’s all we know to do, the next right thing.
I think that’s okay. The “next right thing” is like following the light we have or following God into the pressing needs the Spirit shows us. One thing I have learned is that before any act of repairing or helping, there must be a time of waiting, a time when the soul finds a sacred pause and waits there for holy direction. Then, just maybe we will have discovered what we need to “save the whole world.”
I love the way that poet and author Martha Postlethwaite describes a way forward for us fixers. I also love the way she invites us to find “the song that is our life” and to open our hands to receive it. Her thoughts come through so powerfully in her beautiful poem, “The Clearing.”
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worthy of rescue. Creating a clearing.
“The Clearing” by Martha Postlethwaite
We probably can all agree with the song John Mayer sings that we’re “waiting on the world to change.” We need changes big and small for bees, elephants, giraffes, oceans, blue whales, sea turtles, polar bears, monarch butterflies and all things nature. And then we need to clearly see the humans who probably need help most of all. So many humans live lives of deep need through no fault of their own, suffering because they’re facing incredible hardships and personal tragedies.
Martha Postlethwaite would suggest that we clear away the forest of our life and wait patiently in the clearing until what she calls, “the song that is our life,” becomes crystal clear. With that song, we will find the place of the world’s great need that is calling out to us for help.
So be present and mindful in the clearing. May God help each of us open our hands to receive our song, and then go out into the needy world singing. Amen.
There was a time when I believed that I was invincible, with all the time in the world. Lately, though, I have thought a lot about how quickly time passes and about how I tend to constantly say, “I don’t have time.” I have also been thinking about healing. The reason for my healing thoughts could well be because at least two parts of my body reallyneed physical healing, and soon. I don’t have time to be incapacitated, or so I believe. I don’t have time for pain and I wonder if my two places of physical pain were of my own making. For instance, my wrist sprain — now an orangey ochre color from my knuckles to halfway up my elbow — that the doctor says will heal in 6 to 10 weeks is taking way too long to mend. 6 to 10 weeks is entirely unacceptable! Was my ungraceful fall in the kitchen due to my carelessness or my lack of mindfulness?
And then there’s the terribly painful throat invasion, allegedly identified as a cricopharyngeal spasm, that feels like choking with a large object stuck in my throat while something is tightening around my neck. Direct from Healthline.com: “Anxiety about the condition can aggravate your symptoms.”
Aha! Anxiety! Therein may be the source of many ailments. That, and a lack of rest, relaxation, quietness, peacefulness or mindfulness, all of which are highly touted methods of natural healing. Healing of the body, yes, but also the critically important healing of my heart, my mind, my soul and my spirit — emotional and spiritual healing. That healing is often harder than physical healing.
So I turned my thoughts, while suffering incessant physical pain, on the subject of emotional and spiritual healing. My thoughts raised the question of what exactly is the difference between the soul and the spirit, and how in the world would I heal there.
Here’s my attempt at an answer. Most of us would agree that we consist of body, soul and spirit. In fact, the Bible affirms the existence of all three:
May your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:23).
Our physical bodies are fairly evident to us, but our souls and spirits are less distinguishable. In the preceding scripture passage, the Greek word for soul is psuche (ψυχή), or as we might call it, “psyche.” This word “soul” implies our mind, our will and desires as evidenced by our personal preferences, choices, and emotional responses to life’s situations. Our soul is reflected in our personality. Our soul is our life.
“Spirit” is a completely different word. The Greek word for spirit is pneuma (πνεύμα). It refers to the part of us that connects with God and receives the breath of life from the Holy Spirit (Άγιο πνεύμα). Our spirit is our breath, the breath that animates and enlivens us from deep within. I like the way Theologian David Galston explains it:
The soul is life, and the Greek word is psyche. The spirit is breath, and the Greek word is pneuma. Natural confusion exists between the [meaning of the] spirit and the soul since both words, in their roots, mean breath. But for the Greeks, there were two kinds of breath: the kind necessary for life, the psyche, and the kind necessary for [our very breath], the pneuma. In modern English, we might distinguish the two as life and energy.
I often ask my clients, mentees and friends this question: How is your heart? They usually have an understanding of how their heart is and why. But ask these questions — How is your soul? How is your spirit? — and the answers don’t come as easily. I’m not sure exactly why, but I think that, for myself, it is that I am able to more easily know my heart. I am more in touch with it. On the many times throughout my life when I was brokenhearted, I knew how my heart reacted and why. When I am sorrowful, happy, excited, surprised or feel many other emotions, I can place my hand over my heart and feel is as if I have literally touched it, that my heart has told me what emotion is there.
As for my soul and my spirit, well, they are deeper in me. In the innermost places of me, my soul mourns and celebrates and holds all manner of emotions. In my innermost parts, my spirit lies quietly within me always waiting for the brush of Spirit wings, waiting in stillness for the breath that animates and enlivens and ennobles. There was a time when I would always find time for the healing my soul and spirit needed.
So in the dense forrest of all of the 700+ words I just wrote, what is the lesson? What is the message from God we need to hear? Believe it or not, it’s not complicated. Isn’t it just like God to send us an uncomplicated message that we immediately make complicated? God’s bottom line here is easy, simple, uncomplicated: “Guard your heart, your soul, your spirit . . . all that is within you.
From Joshua Now, vigilantly guard your souls: Love God, your God.
From Deuteronomy Keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life.
From Proverbs Above all, guard your heart with all diligence; for from it flow the wellsprings of life.
From 1 Thessalonians And the God of peace sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And that’s it. There was a time when I would write 700 more words to tell you specifically how to do that. But today, I am not going to tell you how to heal. The ways are individually unique and the paths are many. So I will leave you with just one path that you may choose to follow: the path that leads you deep within yourself to your sacred, quiet place and then implores you to listen for God’s whisper and wait for the breeze of the Spirit. Where? In a beautiful, peaceful place, under a starlit sky, in a quiet filled with sounds of music.
In these many months of pandemic, experiencing loss and lostness, loneliness and isolation, mourning and tears, may you find comfort in the words of poet, William Wadsworth, here turned into beautiful music by Elaine Hagenberg.
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind.
Complete text of anthem:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparell’d in celestial light, The glory of a dream.
The rainbow comes and goes, And lovely is the rose; The moon doth with delight Look round her when the heavens are bare; Waters on a starry night Are beautiful and fair; The sunshine is a glorious birth; But yet I know, where’er I go, That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.
Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find Strength in what remains behind.
Yesterday I noticed a dogwood tree in full bloom, the first blooming dogwood I have seen this year. The sight of it did my heart good, because it reminded me that some simple and beautiful things remain. They return every year. They mark a season. They grow, and their blooms become ever more vibrant, or so it seems.
The dogwood has its own story, a lovely legend that explains the tree’s qualities. The legend holds that the tree was once very large, like a Great Oak tree, and because its wood was strong and sturdy, it provided building material for a variety of purposes. According to the story, it was the dogwood tree that provided the wood used to build the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Because of its role in the crucifixion, it is said that God both cursed and blessed the tree. It was cursed to forever be small, so that it would never grow large enough again for its wood to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Its branches would be narrow and crooked — not good for building at all. At the same time, the tree was blessed so that it would produce beautiful flowers each spring, just in time for Easter. The legend says that God it is gave it a few traits so that whoever looks upon it will never forget.
The petals of the dogwood actually form the shape of a cross. The blooms have four petals. The tips of each of the petals are indented, as if they bear a nail dent. The hint of color at the indentation bring to mind the drops of blood spilled during the crucifixion.
Diana Butler Bass tells the story like this:
There’s an old southern legend that dogwoods grew in Jerusalem — and that one gave its wood for Jesus’s cross. Because of this, the dogwood was cursed (its short stature a ‘punishment’ for being the wood of death) but it also became a blessing. Blessing? For on each twisted branch burst forth petals of lightness and light.
So let’s leave the dogwood’s story and look at our stories — your story and my story. People often use the term “storied past.” Well, a storied past is something all of us have.
In talking with a friend a few days ago, I asked, “How is your heart?” She began to tell me her story, which was a long and winding one that included many mini-stories — happy ones snd sad ones — from her life’s journey. Toward the end of her story, she said, “I feel as if I am cursed by God.” That was her bottom line answer to my question, “How is your heart?” Hers was an honest, heartbroken response that instantly revealed that her heart was not all that good, but that was a critical part of her story.
If you and I are honest, we will admit that our hearts were broken and hurting at several places in our stories. Recalling our brokenhearted times is something we always do when we tell our stories, and it’s an important part of the telling. My story and yours is never complete if we leave out the heartbroken moments, for at those points, what feels like God’s curse almost always transforms into God’s grace.
If not for our heartbroken moments, the hurting places in our hearts might never “burst forth with lightness and light.” Our heartbroken moments change us and grow us. They set us on better paths and they embrace our pain with grace. Our heartbroken moments give us pause, and in that pause, we find that once again, our hearts are good. Our broken hearts are once again peaceful hearts — healed, restored, transformed, filled with God’s grace.
How is your heart? That is a question we would do well to ask ourselves often, because languishing with our heartbreak for long spans of time can cause our stories to be stories mostly of pain. Instead, stop right here in this post for just a few moments and ask yourself, “How is my heart?”
Your answer may well be your path to a contemplative, sacred pause that can become a moment of healing, a time for God’s grace to embrace whatever is broken in your heart and to transform it into love, light and hope. So don’t be afraid to look into your heart when pain is there. In looking, you may find reasons, many and and complex, that are causing deep pain and brokenness. You may also find the healing touch of the Spirit of God waiting there for you and offering healing grace — a Godburst of new hope.
May your story be filled always with times when your was light with joy and times when your heart was broken with loss, mourning, discouragement, disappointment. Both create your extraordinary story — the joyful parts and the sorrowful parts. So tell your story again and again to encourage yourself and to give the hope of God’s healing grace to all who hear it.
I remember a beloved hymn that is a prayer for the Spirit of God to “descend upon my heart.” May this be your prayer today.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King? All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind. I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling: Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear, To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh; Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame; The kindling of the heav’n-descended Dove, My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
I once preached a sermon entitled, “What Do You Say to a Broken World?” In this week, after our nation’s Capitol was breached and defiled, I have wondered if ministers who will stand before congregations in two days are asking themselves a similar question: “What will I say on this day to a broken world?”
A friend of mine is preaching this week. I am praying that she will have an extra measure of wisdom, because standing before a congregation while the nation is in chaos is not a responsibility to be taken lightly. My first feeling as I thought about preaching for this Sunday was relief that I was no longer a pastor with such a heavy responsibility, that I did not have to summon the wisdom to speak to a people with heavy hearts who need to hear of healing grace and hope. But my most intense feeling was envy, not hostile envy, but heart envy about my deep desire to speak Gospel Good News to people who need to hear good news. Still I envied my friend and wished that, this Sunday, I could stand before a congregation with wisdom, open my spirit and invite God to speak through me. It is a heavy responsibility and a sacred calling.
Dr. Greg Carey, Professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, wrote an essay this week entitled “Preaching When It’s Broken.” In the essay he says this:
God bless you, preachers who will address congregations this Sunday . . . Here in the United States, things are broken, most people know they’re broken, and we all need healing and truth.
For many of us, the invasion of the Capitol and the response to it by people we know, love and admire, brings this brokenness to the foreground. Since that terrible, violent day, I have heard dozens of interviews that expressed anger, frustration, contempt, indignation and all manner of raw emotion. I have also heard wise leaders express their resoluteness to lead this nation into healing, unity and hope.
Indeed, the questions about this Sunday’s preaching call us to attention: How do our pastors, our priests, our rabbis, our imams, our bhikkhus and bhikkhunis stand before their congregations offering comfort when our nation is so broken, so angry, so mournful in the face of violent acts? What will they proclaim? What will they preach? What will they pray? What will they sing?
Minneapolis Pastor and Poet, Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson, has given us a grace-gift with this poem entitled, “A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism.”
A Blessing for Grieving Terrorism
There is sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
a rush of power born by inciting fear in others,
a wave of victoryin causing enemies pain.
There is a push to solve the mystery,
to isolate the suspect and
explain the evil simply
to a safe distance from the anomaly.
There is a temptation
to skip the part that feels
near the suffering
that shares the sadness,
that names our shared humanity.
There is a courage
in rejecting the numbing need for data
in favor of finding the helpers,
loving the neighbor,
resisting terror through random acts of connection.
There is a sickness
with symptoms as old as humankind,
but so is the remedy.
From Rev. Meta Herrick Carlson’s book “Ordinary Blessings: Prayers, Poems, and Meditations for Everyday Life.” Used with permission.
So much truth in her words, so much wisdom “for the living of these days.” In her words, I feel all over again the desire of my heart, the impossible dream of standing in a pulpit this Sunday, speaking to a congregation that needs strength in the midst of adversity. I will not stand behind a pulpit this week, but I will pray for those who will stand in that sacred space. I will pray for them, the proclaimers, and I will pray for their hearers across this nation. I will lean on this beautiful prayer written by Reverend Valerie Bridgeman:
May God Strengthen You for Adversity
A blessing for today:
May God strengthen you for adversity
and companion you in joy.
May God give you the courage of your conviction
and the wisdom to know when to speak and act.
May you know peace.
May you be gifted with deep,true friendship and love.
May every God-breathed thing
you put your hand to prosper and succeed.
May you have laughter to fortify you
against the disappointments.
May you be brave.
When all is said and done, more important than what the “proclaimer in the pulpit” says is what the hearers hear. For in this time — when violence, riots, terrorism, pandemic and all manner of chaos is so much a part of life — those who listen need to hear a clear message of a God who dwells among us, a Christ who leads us, a Spirit who comforts us under the shadow of her wings. For hearts in these days are heavy, souls are wounded, spirits seek hope. And all the people want to believe that they do not walk alone through their present angst.
I pray that you know that you are not alone, that God’s grace-filled presence is with you and that “in God you live and move and have your being. As some of your poets have said, ‘We are God’s children.’” (Acts 17:28)
I pray that your heart will heal and be filled anew with hope. I pray that the wounds of your soul and spirit will heal and be filled anew with the peace of God. I pray that, when you listen in faith, you will hear the voice of God whispering in your ear, “You do not walk alone.”
I invite you to spend a few moments of meditation hearing the message of this music:
May you see God’s light on the path ahead
when the road you walk is dark.
May you always hear
even in your hour of sorrow
the gentle singing of the lark.
When times are hard
May you always remember when the shadows fall–
You do not walk alone.
The time for Donald Trump’s airtime is over! In my life, I have no available airtime for him, and I wish the media would follow my example. I’ve heard enough of his rants and tweets. I’ve heard enough of his incendiary speech. I’ve heard enough of his indiscriminate name-calling. I’ve heard enough of his lying. I’ve heard more than enough of his disrespectful, hate-filled, divisive rhetoric. More than enough!
My soul will no longer give Donald Trump airtime. Why? Because often my responses to hearing him were anger, disgust, self righteousness and even hate. And those emotions darken my soul. Those emotions do not belong in my soul at all, because they have a way of displacing love, compassion, gentleness, peace, hope, light and grace — all the good emotions that God plants in the soul through Spirit breath.
I think of the beloved hymn . . .
Holy Spirit, breathe on me until my heart is clean. Let sunshine fill my inmost parts with not a cloud between.
Breathe on me, breathe on me, Holy Spirit, breathe on me; Take Thou my heart, cleanse every part, Holy Spirit breathe on me.
— Words by Edwin Hatch, Music by B.B. McKinney
In these days of harmful politics, racial injustice, coronavirus fear and isolation, I need a Spirit-cleansing of my heart and soul. God has been ready to begin the cleansing for a while now. God has heard my repentant prayers admitting anger and hatred. God has waited patiently for me to embrace the stillness that can begin to heal my soul.
Stillness! Stillness longing for healing. Stillness whispering words of repentance. Stillness yearning for calm. Stillness seeking peace. Stillness waiting in solitude for the presence of the Healer of the Soul.
I’m going there — to that place of solitude where one can breathe slower, sigh deeper, listen attentively to the whisper of God and the breath of the Spirit. I’m going to solitude’s “luminous warmth” as John O’Donohue’s poem in which he describes the soul as the divine space.
There is a lantern in the soul, which makes your solitude luminous. Solitude need not remain lonely. It can awaken to its luminous warmth.
The soul redeems and transfigures everything because the soul is the divine space.
When you inhabit your solitude fully and experience its outer extremes of isolation and abandonment, you will find that, at its heart, there is neither loneliness nor emptiness but intimacy and shelter.
― John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom
Right now, in the midst of the disheartening mood of the year 2020, I am entering the solitude I desperately need so that I can experience my soul as the divine space it is.
Politicians, continue your rancor in loud and powerful voice! I will not hear you from my place of solitude, from my soul’s divine space. And as for you, Mr. Trump, I have no further airtime for you. I refuse to sit in front of my television for another minute, anticipating — hoping — that you will finally say or do something appropriate, beneficial, worthwhile, productive, compassionate or kind.
Instead, I will change the channel to more soul-healing television. In fact, I will leave the television altogether and go to a better place, higher ground where peace and silence and reverence and awe can begin the holy work of healing my soul. I am taking a sacred pause from my life that has been so anxious and worried and isolated. I will wait there in that sacred space where my “soul redeems and transfigures everything.” Thanks be to God.
This morning, I prayed a prayer of lament. Lament was the only prayer in my spirit. It is difficult to express the deep sorrow I felt yesterday when I learned that no charges were brought against the police who shot six bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body.
Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who had dreams of a bright career ahead. She and her boyfriend had settled in to watch a movie in her bedroom on that tragic night. Police came to her door and minutes later, she was fatally shot. Her death sparked months of protests in Louisville.
Yesterday, six months after the fatal shooting — six bullets — a grand jury indicted a former Louisville police officer on Wednesday for wanton endangerment for his actions during the raid. A grand jury delivered the long-awaited answer about whether the officers would be punished. No charges were announced against the other two officers who fired shots, and no one was charged for causing Breonna Taylor’s death.
For me, there was only lament. I imagine that for Breonna’s family, there was the deepest kind of lament. For her mother, lament was the only response she could express as she wept uncontrollably. And, even for the protesters who filled the streets, I believe there was lament.
Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains in his book, Prophetic Lament, that in the Bible lament is “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and suffering.” He goes on to say that it is a way to “express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering.” Racism has inflicted incalculable suffering on black people throughout the history of the United States, and in such a context, lament is not only understandable but necessary.
Perhaps white Christians and all people of faith have an opportunity to mourn with those who mourn and to help bear the burden that racism has heaped on black people. (Romans 12:15) — Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
In the end, many people see only the rage, anger, impatience, violence of the protesters. Can we also see their lament for Breonna, as well as for centuries of racially motivated murder — beatings, burnings, lynchings and murder committed by police officers?
People of faith — white people of faith — will we try to understand the rage of our black and brown sisters and brothers? Will we join them in righteous anger? Will we mourn with them? Will we lament when lament fills their souls and overflows in cries for justice?
We must, in the name of our God who created every person in God’s own image!
Last night, I heard an interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham on MSNBC. Her words were eloquent pleas for justice. She spoke about how persistent and all-encompassing racism is in our country and about the murders and the protests and the political rancor that fuels it. She acknowledged racism’s strong, unrelenting hold on this nation, a hold that is virtually impossible to break. And she said something I have said for a long time, “Racism cannot be reformed. It must be transformed.”
To me that means a transformation of the heart and soul that compels each of us to lament, to comfort, to speak truth in government’s halls of power, to stand openly against any form of racial injustice.
May God make it so.
Will you pray this prayer of lament with me?
O God, who heals our brokenness, Receive our cries of lament and teach us how to mourn with those who mourn. Receive even our angry lament and transform our anger into righteous action. Hear the anguish of every mother assaulted by violence against her child. Hear the angry shouts of young people as shouts of frustration, fear and despair. Grant us the courage to persist in shouting out your demand for justice, for as long as it takes. When deepest suffering causes us to lament, grant us Spirit wind and help us soar. If we resist your call for justice, compel us to holy action. May our soul’s lament stir us to transform injustice, in every place, for every person, whenever racism threatens, for this is your will and our holy mission. Amen.
I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:41 NRSV
Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.
How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.
I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.
God of the sparrow, sing through us Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. — Jonathan Cook
I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out.
You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.
When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.
Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her.
The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV
So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!
Thanks be to God.
Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.
God of the Sparrow
God of the sparrow, sing through us, Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. Alleluia.
God of the sparrow, God of hope, Tenderly guide us, be our song, God of affliction, pain and hurt, Comfort Your children, make us strong. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
God of the sparrow, care for us. Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief. Sing us Your music, lift our hearts, Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
God, like the sparrow, we abide In Your protection, love and grace. Just as the sparrow in Your care,
You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.
One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. 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.
Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”
To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.
I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?
This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, aboutsomeone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .
Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.
When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love. – Ragan Courtney
This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.
Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.
In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.
In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.
A friend sent me a lovely blessing today and I want to share it with you. These days, many neighbors and friends — people all over the world actually — have a new dream, a new calling to change the world. It’s an important dream right about now. Pandemic and protests — and all the causes lying underneath them — desperately need to change, and it will take huge dreams to change them. Trouble is, most people like me and you have only small dreams, a few small dreams that sometimes seem so insignificant. Certainly, they are dreams too small to change the big world.
But maybe not!
The message my friend sent me (actually she posted it on Facebook) reminded me that huge change can most certainly come from small acts. The message was today’s grace for me. So I share the message with you. It comes from The Cosmic Dancer* and is written by Scott Stabile.
She felt like doing her part to change the world, so she started by giving thanks for all of the blessings in her life, rather than bemoaning all that was missing from it.
Then she complimented her reflection in the mirror, instead of criticizing it as she usually did.
Next she walked into her neighborhood and offered her smile to everyone she passed, whether or not they offered theirs to her.
Each day she did these things, and soon they became a habit. Each day she lived with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness. And sure enough, the world around her began to change.
Because she had decided so, she was single-handedly doing her part to change it.
— Scott Stabile
Hope is tucked into these words, hidden there and bringing to mind that God highly values gratitude, acceptance, kindness and our smallest, powerful dreams. My dreams and yours can change a world filled with violence, hate, grief, fear and so many more hurts and harms.
There is a lovely Hebrew phrase, Tikkun Olam, that means “repair the world” or “heal the world.” The call of Tikkun Olam has always inspired me to more fully offer my life to be a part of the healing God desires for creation, for the earth’s protection and for kindness, equality and justice for all people.
Can we heal the big world with even the smallest acts of kindness and compassion? Doesn’t God whisper to us that we should begin healing the injustice, the violence, the hate, the fear, the mistrust and the deep divisions in the world? Doesn’t God inspire us to know the truth that our dreams are never too small? And doesn’t God promise to guide us and to lead us in following the compassionate footprints of Jesus until we see the world begin to change?
Resting in the grace of inspiration given to us by God, we truly can cast off the gloomy thoughts that our dreams are too small, too weak and too insignificant. And we can hide inside our hearts God’s promise that our dreams can become reality, that our tiny dreams really can change this big world. God will enlarge our smallest dreams if we offer them. We can count on it!
May each of us live “with more gratitude, more acceptance, more kindness” and may even our smallest dreams change — heal — the world.
* The Cosmic Dancer is a Facebook community that shares insights through art, poetry, dance and other “revolutionary rhythms.”