Times Terrifying and Beautiful

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These days are terrifying and beautiful. After all, in times when we are harried with work responsibilities, we might just say, “I wish I was home in my pajamas!” So here we are at home — maybe in our pajamas — settled in, comfortable, rested, and maybe restless. At least some of us are settled in at home. Some of us are rested. Others, no doubt, find themselves restless. It makes me wonder if the opposite of rested is restless. So I turned to my trusted thesaurus to find out. It turns out that the antonyms — the opposites — of “restless” are peaceful, quiet, relaxed, settled, calm and unworried.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be an antonym of restless. That is, if a person can even be an antonym in the first place. I doubt it, but what I do not doubt is the existence of the kind of human resilience that can weather pandemics. Be assured that human resilience is not a “grin and bear it” state of being. Resilience is not merely being resigned to a situation or just sticking it out. Resilience is not passive acquiescence to challenging situations. Resilience resides in a soul that is able to persevere, to rest calmly through struggle, to abide in a state of mindfulness, to meditate on the goodness of God, to walk in the darkness until the light reappears.

I can certainly identify with the quote that has recently been going around: “And the people stayed home.” It’s striking that, in the midst of the fear and anxiety people feel in these pandemic days, many have recalled and published parts of this quote. Let us spend a few moments contemplating the quote in it’s entirety:

And The People Stayed Home

And the people stayed home. And read books, and listened, and rested, and exercised, and made art, and played games, and learned new ways of being, and were still. And listened more deeply. Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows. And the people began to think differently.

And the people healed. And, in the absence of people living in ignorant, dangerous, mindless, and heartless ways, the earth began to heal.

And when the danger passed, and the people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully, as they had been healed.

– Kitty O’Meara

To be clear, I am not suffering this pandemic as one who has contracted the virus. I am suffering the forced isolation, the inability to reach for someone’s hand, to touch a friend, to embrace my grandchildren. And I have not been isolated only because of this pandemic; I have been isolated from others since my kidney transplant on November 12. That’s a very long time to be separated from my community. Through that time, a friend or two visited me, but we could not touch one another or be in close proximity.

And now the coronavirus has isolated virtually everyone, and I suddenly realize that we’re all in this together. It makes me wonder what everyone is doing at home. And it makes me hope that at least a few of us are doing as Kitty O’Meara writes, “Some meditated, some prayed, some danced. Some met their shadows.“

On the idea of meeting our shadows . . .  I consider Lent to be a time of confession, a time of looking into my heart of hearts, my soul of souls, confessing my sins to God and receiving God’s mercy and pardon. I emerge from my confession with my soul cleansed. Only then am I ready. I am ready to steel my heart and set my face toward the journey with Christ to the cross. and then prepare my heart for glorious resurrection.

My confession today is that I have cursed my isolation rather than giving it to God and allowing myself to enter into a place of rest and re-creation, a sacred space that would heal the anxieties of my soul. I confess that I did not dance or pray. I did not rest or make art. But the pandemic changed my soul’s response to my isolation. I found that I was no longer in post transplant isolation, I was now in pandemic isolation and it felt very different to me. It felt dangerous and potentially fatal. It felt far-reaching, pervasive and rampant. It felt lethal, at least potentially lethal.

In the face of the pandemic’s imminent danger, my soul stopped its complaining and began its healing, my healing. It was the healing I needed all along, but now an ominous virus flipped a switch inside me. I did art again for the first time since the transplant. I sang, I prayed, I meditated. And I met my shadow and re-discovered the hidden place where fear reigns within me. That was not a bad thing. Rather, it was a good thing that said to me, “Do not give power to your hidden fear. Let your hidden resilience have the power and let it rise up within you. You will be healed!”

I believed those words — literally, as I hoped for physical healing after my transplant; and completely, body and soul, as I accepted the spiritual and emotional healing my soul craved. I want to leave you with a poem written on March 11, 2020 by Lynn Ungar.

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Blackdeath.   Wikimedia Commons

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love —
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar is a poet, and wrote this poem on March 11, 2020, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

 

 

 

 

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

A Picture of Good Hope

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Photo credit: A group of black medical students posed in front of the slave quarters on a Louisiana plantation for a powerful photo. (Brian Washington Jr./Doyin Johnson)


It happened in Wallace, Louisiana on December 18, 2019.

On that day, a group of Tulane University medical students posed in front of the slave quarters of a Louisiana plantation for a powerful photo. Sydney Labat, one of the students, said this in an interview on Good Morning America:

Standing at the Whitney Plantation in front of the slave quarters of our ancestors with my medical school classmates . . . We are truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I think I speak for myself and my classmates that it was an extremely humbling experience, to say the least. We would not be here without the strength and determination of those enslaved and their strength to live and to press on.

Labat speaks of the resilience of her ancestors and she credits her ancestors’ resilience for her ability to pursue an education. I shared the photo (above) because it represents the realization of dreams that many people might label “impossible.” But seeing Labat and 14 of her Tulane University classmates in their white coats looked to me like a portrait of the realization of dreams, persistence against all odds and an emulation of the determination of the ancestors Labat spoke of. This photo of the students was posted to Twitter and was liked more than 65,000 times.

I like the photo, too —  a picture of good hope.

I cannot adequately express my emotions about seeing the photo of these students. No doubt, it brought up my deep concern about the well-being of black children in this country and the many disparities they endure. I can not begin to lay out those disparities in a coherent way, but I can cite this troubling research.

Black adolescents and young adults are at higher risk for the most physically harmful forms of violence (e.g., homicides, fights with injuries, aggravated assaults) compared with whites. In addition, black adults reported exposure to a higher number of adverse childhood experiences than whites.Disproportionate exposure to violence for blacks may contribute to disparities in physical injury and long-term mental and physical health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30139709

A study regarding youth and suicide revealed an age-related trend in racial disparities in suicide rates in elementary and middle school–aged children. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed that suicide rates for black children aged 5-12 were roughly 2 times higher than those of similarly-aged white children. https://www.ajmc.com/newsroom/racial-disparities-seen-for-black-children-age-512-in-youth-suicide-

A significant amount of research has documented the overrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic populations — including African-Americans and Native Americans —in the child welfare system when compared with their representation in the general population.Although disproportionality and disparity exist throughout the United States, the extent and the populations affected vary significantly across States and localities. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/racial_disproportionality.pdf

This researched information is definitely not a picture of good hope. The research deepens my concern, but what troubles me the most is that my grandchildren are growing up in a raciallly and ethnically divided world. When we raised our son, we certainly experienced racial discrimination. It was painful for all of us, and I hope beyond hope that my young grandchildren will not face the evil of discrimination. But I know better! I do not want to be pessimistic about it; I want to be optimistic that my grandchildren will not be “judged by the color of their skin” and that they will know the freedom to live out their dreams.

Tulane University Medical Students

So these Tulane University Medical students have given me a gift — a picture of good hope. And the photo of these students also introduced me to another place of hope: the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.

73294CDC-A48F-4E27-ABE0-4DD30A9E02FFThe Whitney Plantation has restored buildings designed to encourage guests to enter the world of a Louisiana sugar plantation and to remember those who built and worked this property. Through an hour-and-a-half guided walking tour, a guide shows guests through slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, a detached kitchen and outbuildings, a 1790s owner’s house and memorials built to honor the enslaved.

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A stunning bronze memorial at The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana *

Guests learn about the lives of 350 people who were held in bondage on these grounds for over 100 years.

Visitors are able to view beautiful memorials built to honor over 100,000 people held in slavery in Louisiana.

Tickets for the tour are available at the Whitney Plantation’s website: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/

Information overload and emotional response

This blog post has included a bit of information and research. That’s the informational part. The truth is, though, that the harsh realities of divisiveness caused by racism, xenophobia and a host of other factors that divide us are not a part of the information we have. Instead, the realities of racism are part of our emotional angst. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we receive informational material with a yawn. We have heard so many statistics and seen so much empirical evidence in our communities and schools that we have become numb to it. We have heard so much about disproportionate minorities in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration that perhaps we just try to block that information out. But we cannot block out our emotional response.

The only thing that will get our attention is a soul understanding of the pain of racism. Only then will we become agents of change, persons of conscience and advocates for justice. For me, this is a calling from God who desires that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”

Consider these passages of Scripture.

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all.  — Colossians 3:11

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.  — Hebrews 13:1-3

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  — Leviticus 19:34

Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.  — Zechariah 7:9-10

You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.
— 
Matthew 5:43-44

May each of us listen carefully to the words of Scripture and allow those words to inspire us and may that inspiration compel us to end divisions that harm. May we be inspired to promote unity and justice. May we be inspired to paint a picture of good hope to guide our world.

* Photo credit: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/photo-gallery/

 

 

 

 

Almost Magic!

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Photo by James Ronan,  FOAP/Getty Images

Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”

Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G) 

These  trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.

A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)

As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.

You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.

In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.

There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)

Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . .
— Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)

And always, words from the Psalmist:

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)

I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)

These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.

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Photo by Danita Delimont/Getty Images

Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)

Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.

 

 

 

My Spring

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The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come . . .
Song of Songs 2:12

Now that February has brought the tiniest green shoots from the ground, I know that it brings a promise of flowers — yellow ones and purple ones — bright promises of the new life that emerges every spring. Perhaps I can take a deep breath now that I am exactly three months today past my kidney transplant. This day is a milestone for my immunosuppressed self, marking the time when my transplant team might tell me that I can possibly escape from my isolation and go out to see the signs of spring. I am making February my personal commemoration month, celebrating, contemplating, dealing with a few deep-set fears and deciding to take a microshift forward.

The beginning of this story was in February of 2014 when suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself in the emergency department of Baptist Health Medical Center with a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I faced a long illness that year that very nearly ended my life, three times during the 58 days I was hospitalized. When I didn’t die, I discovered that I could not walk, feed myself, name colors or even write my name. A kind and dedicated physical therapist helped me work for months after I returned home challenging me to regain those losses. For months, I was very weak, often confused and paralyzed by fear.

The only treatment available to me was dialysis, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Today though, February 12, is another February milestone that allows me to view my transplant three months ago today. Now that I am six years past it, I am looking back on that time that began in February of 2014, and I can see clearly the truths I discovered. I think they are important discoveries for me, of course, but also for anyone who must take an unexpected journey toward an uncertain future. So these are some of the discoveries that give me courage:

Fear takes on many forms and enters my psyche on its own terms.

Gratefulness floods over me at will through a kind word, a phone call, a connection with a friend, old or new.

Faith can be tiny in one moment and large in another, but either way, faith bears me up when I cannot move forward.

Hope constantly calls out to me to remember the source of my hope.

Patience with myself when I am not myself lifts me up, even when I feel physically weak and unable to do all the things I used to do.

These discoveries I know. I also know that, through it all, I have experienced periods of spiritual and emotional depression. Yet, those dark times were interrupted with times when my faith rose from within to comfort me and remind me of my “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 NASB) How wonderful to be able to see again the light of the Sun of Righteousness and to know that my slumbering soul can most surely rise from its lethargy like the stubborn crocus from the hard winter ground. It feels almost like rebirth.

Everything that has been dead through my winter is slowly waking up to new life, new vibrancy, a new season to grow and live and thrive. Along the way, I remember so much comfort from Scripture, thoughts of new life throughout the pages. This is but one:

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

— Song of Songs 2:12

So spring is near. My spring has come, bringing another season, another chance, another burst of hope. Thanks be to God.

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When I was a teenager, I was conscripted many times to “watch” my younger brothers. It was a loathsome task for me! Yet, occasionally the two of them were interesting to watch, especially through their superhero fascination. They seemed to favor the superheroes who could fly, like Superman or Batman (who could sort of fly, but was likely to perish when attempting to land). It occurred to me that in the scene I watched in the back yard, the two young guys looked much more like flight-challenged Batman!

One afternoon after school, the boys were outside playing. Through the window, I watched them as they donned their makeshift capes. Then — without a care in the world and believing that they really could take flight — they stood tall on wooden boxes and launched themselves, arms extended, looking up to the sky. They didn’t fly that day, but they believed, they dreamed. And they had great fun!

I also noticed during those days that I never saw girls stand on boxes with arms outstretched ready to launch into flight. I certainly never thought of doing it myself. But it made me wonder if girls had dreams like the boys did. That thought brought my mood low and, looking back on it, I think I might have felt a bit of heaviness and disillusionment. I didn’t believe I could fly, but rather that I would leap off the box straight into the ground with a thud that probably resulted in a skinned knee. As the years passed, I learned for sure that if women had dreams, they would not likely realize them in our reality, which was “a man’s world.” Dreaming, hoping, flying may not be possible for a “girl.”

When my son was growing up, we saw the motion picture, Space Jam, a terrific movie for son Jonathan, who was an avid Michael Jordan fanatic. No doubt, my 6’6” son wanted to “Be Like Mike.” In Space Jam’s soundtrack was the song, I Believe I Can Fly, a 1996 song written and performed by American singer, songwriter and former professional basketball player R. Kelly.  This mom was not very fond of R. Kelly, but the song he wrote literally moved me and filled me up with hopes and dreams for my son. R. Kelly’s message was a great one:

I used to think that I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
But now I know the meaning of true love
I’m leaning on the everlasting arms

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day (Night and day)
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly

See I was on the verge of breaking down
Sometimes silence can seem so loud

There are miracles in life I must achieve
But first I know it starts inside of me

If I can see it, then I can be it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it
I believe I can fly

believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
Oh, I believe I can fly ‘cause I believe in me . . .

I hope you will enjoy the video below, which I place here in honor of my son, Jonathan .

If God would grant me just one request, it would be that every boy — and every girl — would climb on their wooden box and believe in their souls that flying is possible. I would want them to stand tall, with hope and courage, dreaming their dreams and seeing the magic of watching them grow.

Holding Hope

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A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!

As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.

The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering  you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?

Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.

I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”

I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.

From the promises of Scripture . . . 
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place.
 — Hebrews 6:18-19

From the depths of our souls . . .
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”   — Psalm 42:11

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”  
— Psalm 130:5

But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”  — Psalm 71:14

The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.

I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

 

Old Year Ending ~ New Year Beginning


Of all sounds of all bells, the most solemn and touching
is the peal which rings out the Old Year.

— Charles Lamb

We do get rather nostalgic at the end of a year, on the cusp of a new year. Perhaps we have regrets from the passing year. Perhaps the old year brought losses and grief. Perhaps we have fear at the thought of what the year ahead might bring. Nostalgia just seems to go along with year end and year beginning. I have been known to get teary-eyed during the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in spite of the fact that I had no idea what “Auld Lang Syne” even meant.

Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788. The poem soon became a song that was traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It was a ritual song that gave people a ceremonial way to express the discomfort of ending/beginning as well as to speak of the value of old friendships that should not be forgotten.

Another poem written by Robert W. Service (1874-1957) was entitled “The Passing of the Year.” Its seven poignant stanzas come across as a lament of the passing year, and yet the poet also expresses a juxtaposition between a somber response and an expression of fond farewell. Here are some excerpts:

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise . . .

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?

And so from face to face I flit,
The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
Old weary year! it’s time to go.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!

As for New Year’s Resolutions, the same poet wrote an expressions of regret in the year past and the resolve inherent in a phrase we know so well: “Just do it.”

RESOLUTIONS

Each New Year’s Eve I used to brood
On my misdoings of the past,
And vowed: “This year I’ll be so good –
Well, haply better than the last.”
My record of reforms I read
To Mum who listened sweetly to it:
“Why plan all this, my son?” she said;
“Just do it.”

Of her wise words I’ve often thought –
Aye, sometimes with a pang of pain,
When resolutions come to naught,
And high resolves are sadly vain;
The human heart from failure bleeds;
Hopes may be wrecked so that we rue them . . .
Don’t let us dream of lovely deeds –
Just do them.

Now that I have shared more poetry than you ever wanted to read, let me conclude with this thought: As a new year approaches, we greet it with all the regrets and losses and emotions of the old year still pressing on our spirits. That affects our attitude about the unknown year ahead, and when we look at the path that leads us into 2020, all we see is darkness. It is for us a journey into the unknown with no instructions for moving forward. We are sometimes not sure we even want to move into the new year.

That may be the very reason for the ball drop in New York, the champagne toasts with all the hugging and kissing, the elaborate party decorations including metallic pointy hats and horns blowing in the night. Maybe we celebrate so hard because we are so hurt, so filled with regret, so shamed, so afraid of the future. We stand at the gate of the new year holding all that we brought from the old one. Sometimes the burden we are carrying is a heavy, heavy burden to carry, but we simply don’t believe we can throw it off and start on the new year’s unknown path, unburdened and free.

Yes, we do leave all our memories behind in the year that has passed, and in the new year, we hope to realize fresh, new dreams. A wise person says that around us, we have those who love us and within us, we have all we need. But the most eloquent advice I know that addresses our old year/new year dilemma comes from yet another poet, Minnie L. Haskins:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

Finding Simple Pleasures

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A Saturday of football — what a simple pleasure! I am a fan of certain teams (Roll Tide!), but I am definitely not a football fanatic. And yet, this morning while half-watching Sportscenter, I realized that watching with Fred, not having to focus that much, resting in the ordinary seemed like a simple pleasure.

There are many simple pleasures, of course, far more soulful than watching football — taking a walk in the splendor of nature, listening to birdsong, snuggling with your puppy, looking up at the night’s moon and stars, taking a walk on a labyrinth’s spiritual path . . . There are so many more simple pleasures in life, and most of them do not even require a trip to the grocery store. They cost us nothing, but their worth is priceless.

These are the simple moments that caress the soul, bring peace and calm to the heart and enliven a wounded spirit. These moments, and others like them, are the moments we desperately need, especially in times when we are burdened with the weight of the world, languishing in darkness.

I have learned some things about a wounded spirit: that woundedness happens to all of us; that “dark nights of the soul” happen to everyone at some time in life; that the wounded spirit does not always require sophisticated remedies; that a simple pleasure is sometimes all it takes to begin a healing journey.

The important factor is self-awareness, being mindful of the soul’s health, accepting the reality that healing will require us to self-intervene and that our intervention could begin with entering into a simple pleasure. One worthy New Year’s resolution is to intentionally identify the simple pleasures that feed our souls and then to allow a simple pleasure to enfold us in contemplation.

Normally, I would say “bah humbug” to New Year’s Resolutions that we make, break, and then feel guilty about for an entire year! But a resolution to discover the simple pleasures that give us life is one worthy resolution. So I challenge you to look and listen for the simple pleasures that are “you,” and to hold them near whenever you are experiencing a “dark night of the soul.”

“There comes a time when both body and soul enter into such a vast darkness that one loses light,” wrote Mechtild of Magdeburg. There comes a time when the soul “sinks down into the night.”

Her words are the words of one who knew spiritual journey and seasons of darkness. There is no doubt that at some time throughout your life, you will find yourself traveling the spiritual night. I do know this within my place of deep knowing: when I give myself to spiritual journeying, allowing myself the peace of a simple pleasure that calms my spirit, I realize that God always invites us beyond where we are.

God guides us on the spiritual journey that sometimes means winding through a dark wood. The darkness may frighten us, but it is a necessary part of the trip. When we panic in the darkness, we must try to understand that it’s a holy dark and that the idea is to surrender to it and journey through until we reach God’s light.

And then on to simple pleasures!372C6D47-6761-412E-AACF-420F5B1EE76D

God will be present beside us —- in the light of simple pleasures and in the soul’s dark night.

That is the gift, the grace, that God has freely given to us, and for that we give thanks.

The Year Behind Us

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Often one of the things we do as we approach a new year is to lament the old year. We take stock of our days, good and bad — and we disparage the bad far more than we celebrate the good. We spend moments of regret and self-recrimination for the things we left undone or for the things we did not do well. We spend moments blaming ourselves for things that were out of our control, and we critique our performance of those things we did control.

Perhaps we need to check ourselves if we find that we are reviewing the old year with too much reproach, regret and recrimination. It’s not a very good use of precious time. Instead, might we review the old year’s times of celebration — the days of joy, accomplishment, the days when our health was good and our hearts were strong, the days we survived calamity and dodged a few bullets.

Perhaps we should recall the times precious and poignant when our souls rejoiced in sweeter days we will remember with fondness. Perhaps we need to take stock of the ways we became stronger and found resilience in ourselves. Perhaps we need to celebrate the times we were gentle and kind, loving and compassionate. Perhaps we should count our friendships and the loving acts of those who love us.

Might we refuse to see the old year as a series of burdens and see it, instead, as a year that poured blessings on our lives. Is it possible that spending our reflections on the old year, seeing the grace it brought us, will enable us to believe in the grace that the new year will most surely bring?

It is true that this old year will end, for good or ill. Some might long to have it back, while others curse it as it leaves. This poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that speaks of “the burden of the year” reminds us of the ways we experienced the old year with both weeping and laughing. That is life’s reality that surely promises that the new year 2020 will bring us the twofold, paradoxical gift of fear and faith, despair and hope.

The Year
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 1850-1919

What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?

The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.

We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.

We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.

If you will miss the year behind, celebrate what it left you. If it took and demanded your very life-breath, curse it if you need to, and then accept the ways it strengthened you. May we all spend a few moments or a few hours reviewing the year behind us, and find there laughter and weeping, hope and fear. All were meant to teach and to guide and to create strength in us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.