Wounds of the Soul

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Early morning comes to a green valley near Marshall, Arkansas.
Photo by Paul Barrows.

Hurricanes and earthquakes of the soul . . .

The lush vegetation of Puerto Rico has been replaced by broken trees, homes lying in ruins, a painfully barren landscape. “Hurricane Maria destroyed us,” said Edwin Serrano, a construction worker in Old San Juan.

Dominica was devastated. Thousands of trees snapped and were strewn across the landscape, leaving the island completely stripped of vegetation. Dozens of mudslides turned the sparkling blue-green sea to a murky, muddy brown.

At least 286 people were killed in Mexico City by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. A rescue operation at the city’s Enrique Rébsamen school resulted in the rescue of eleven children, but nineteen children and six adults were killed. Extreme urgency permeated the school as more than 700 rescue workers continued digging after two days without sleep, knowing that survivors would be able to last only about four days.

In a very real sense, nature turned on the survivors, leaving them despairing from disasters that created devastation in many forms. Destroyed cities, of course, physical injuries and homes left in the rubble, yes. But also wounds of the soul that are lasting and life-changing.

People who live through natural disasters live with a kind of violence, violence that is perpetrated randomly by nature. When one depends upon nature’s rhythms to provide sunlight and moonlight, rain and breeze, the predictable tide of breaking waves and calm waters, the suddenness of violent storms and earthquakes assault the psyche. Nature is usually a constant, comforting presence, but a natural disaster leaves those in its wake coping with an environment that resembles a war zone. Living in that kind of environment day in and day out causes behaviors similar to those identified with persons who suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

The assault by nature creates a chronic and debilitating state of fight or flight. To cope, survivors develop the ability to numb their feelings and repress intrusive memories. This leaves many of them with enormous anxiety, feeling that the world is no longer a safe place. While many symptoms of PTSD are evident, often the most frightening symptoms are those not readily visible, secret symptoms and reactions such as disorientation, memory lapses and night terrors. These symptoms are buried in the deep crevices of the psyche.

Wounds to the soul and spirit are caused by events that violate one’s most deeply held sense of safety and security, and it is important to address PTSD not as a “disorder,” but as a response, an appropriately normal response to an overwhelmingly abnormal situation.

So when we send positive thoughts, donate, and pray for the restoration of these ruined cities, we must also be intentional in praying for healing of the soul and spirit of every survivor. Long after buildings and homes have been repaired, survivors will live with a deep wound of the soul that can only heal with time, prayer, faith and hope, as wounded people learn to abide with the God who walks with us through every “valley of the shadow of death.” The Scripture can be a comfort in such times, and often the most familiar passages are the ones we lean on.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

– Psalm 23

Until that day when tender green shoots once again begin to fill the landscape in those devastated countries, may the wounded people walk through the green pastures of the heart and the still waters of the spirit with the Gentle Shepherd who restores the soul and leads to peace.

A Perfect World?

IMG_5924When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

– Buddha

Perfect is not a word I would use to describe the world. Ominous storms, wildfires, demonstrations of hate, violence, terrorism, threats of deportation, leaders devoid of compassion, homelessness, war, refugees seeking safe haven and shelter . . . This is just a partial description of the world we call our own. So perfect is but a dream. And yet, it is perhaps our calling to expend ourselves creating a more perfect world.

Today, my friend Elaine posted this passage on her wonderful blog, “The Edge.”

Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, so that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace.

– Baruch 3:14

The wisdom in these words prompted a time of contemplation for me. I pondered the refreshing possibility of finding “length of days, life, light and peace.” Sounds like getting closer to a perfect world.

In these unsettling days, that is the kind of world we long for, the kind of life we desperately want. And yet we find that at times we are crying out for peace, and there simply is no peace.

Baruch’s words present us with a task, a rather difficult task to be sure, but one that leads to the goodness of life we seek. Baruch’s wisdom calls for us to learn, to increase our ability for discernment. And most importantly, Baruch proclaims our critical need to discover where we might find wisdom, strength and understanding.

My world is filled with incessant voices — politicians, governmental leaders, media personalities, newscasts that include everyone who has an opinion on every possible subject. Certainly, I have the choice to turn off the news and listen to soothing music on Pandora. And I do that frequently.

But the state of the world is so volatile that I am compelled daily to be aware of what is going on. In fact, that is a part of my personal mission — to know what is going on and to respond by making my voice heard advocating for justice and compassion. Which is exactly the reason it is so important to “learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.”

So may we all create moments when we can silence the incessant voices and instead enter into quiet times of solitude, contemplation and prayer. That is what we can do for a very imperfect world that seems to be falling apart. In the process, we will more clearly hear the voices that lift hope high before us. In that holy space where hope abides with us, we will find “length of days, and life . . . light for the eyes and peace.”

Tikkun Olam is a lovely jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to heal the world, to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah and is often used when discussing issues of social justice, insuring compassion and care for persons who are oppressed.

Tikkun Olam! Heal the world! This is our highest calling.

Is it even possible to create a perfect world? Maybe not. But shouldn’t we envision it, work for it, pray for it, ennobled by God to return our world into the perfect creation of God?

May God guide us in making it so.

 

(Visit my friend Elaine’s blog at https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/contemplative2017-wisdom-4/)

 

 

What do you do when you’re tired, very tired?

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

For years, Steven Nawojczyk has been one of my heroes. Yesterday I posted on my blog one of his many beautiful photographs taken while enjoying nature with his delightful dog, Feebi. The two of them explore nature every day, taking in the extraordinary beauty of Arkansas. Steve has learned to immerse himself in the life-giving sights and sounds of creation. It is therapy, really, a time of re-creation for a person who spent his life as a public servant, immersing himself far too deeply in human tragedy.

In the early 90s, Steve was the county coroner in Pulaski County, Arkansas. He saw too much, felt too much, cared too much and investigated the deaths of far too many young people. Steve was the “face” of the 1994 documentary that gave Little Rock a years-long reputation as a haven for gangs — HBO’s “Gang War: Bangin’ in Little Rock,” While that star billing turned him into a sought-after public speaker and educator throughout the country, it didn’t make him popular in Little Rock city government.

When HBO came to town, largely because of Steve’s urging, Little Rock was a city with a problem. Gang-related killings had spiked the murder count to a record high of 76 — a higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles and New York. With the coming of crack and gang skirmishing to determine who would sell it and where, there were areas of where drugs could be purchased openly in the streets. Graffiti threats covered every wall, every bridge. Gang life had even spilled over into the suburbs, with white teens suddenly willing to do violence for their colors.

Steve Nawojczyk did not sit in his office in those days. Instead, he walked city streets, listening to gang members, hearing their life stories, holding before them the possibility of change and hope. But that kind of life commitment made him tired, more than tired.

Today, national media are again interested in the soaring murder rate in Little Rock, surmising that gangs are once again taking their place in the city. And they are calling Steve for interviews and information. This is, in part, Steve’s response to them:

ATTENTION MEDIA BOTH NATIONAL AND LOCAL WHO HAVE BEEN CALLING:

I am not doing any interviews or returning phone calls about the LR night club shoot-out nor the current status of gangs. I’ve been saying the same things about it since the early 90s when I was the county coroner . . .

I will address one question all of the reporters, even the one from CNN, seem to be leaving on my voice mail- “…how does this compare to the gang wars of the early 90s when HBO came to town?”

Here’s my answer- ask the leaders in LIttle Rock this question since almost every single one of them were involved in one way or the other back then.

The current mayor was the prosecutor. The current city manager was in the city manager’s office. The current prosecutor was the chief deputy prosecutor. Many of the city board were around then as were many of the same preachers that are still preaching the same sermons. So, they should have been working to understand this and work to prevent it from recurring for the last 20 plus years. At least you would think . . . No need to reinvent the wheel, dudes.

So, I’m retired and tired, very tired. Thanks for thinking enough of my opinion to call me. But I’m done with it all, I’m tending to other more important personal battles right now. Paz y amor.

Signed:
Steve Nawojczyk

So what does one do when they are tired, very tired? Again, Steve is our example.

Go out into the serene beauty of nature. Take in all that is right and good about God’s creation. Let the sunrise awaken your soul and the ripples of an Arkansas lake sooth your spirit. Let the weariness of the past fade into yesterday; let the present day give you strength; and lift your vision to the bright hope of tomorrow.

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Feebi

Steve and Feebi are restoring their souls in their daily adventures. They are opening themselves up to stunning sunrises and the gentle breezes of soul healing. So if you are tired, very tired, spend some time letting nature give you a fresh, new vision of the world.

And as Steve so often says, “Paz y amor.”

A Perfect Place to Die

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week — 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.  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/)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

▪️Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

▪️More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

▪️Each day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240 attempts by young people grades 7-12.

▪️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. At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, “O 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 —  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.  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 God’s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die — or to live — is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me “vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!” 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

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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. 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 heart’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 heart’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; 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– 1 Peter 2:9, NIV

We Can Overcome

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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. 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. I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart and 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

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

Mary has prepared Jesus’ body for burial, for death, and we know all too well where the road to Jerusalem leads. We know that 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 in 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

 

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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

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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 – 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 – 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.