The Hard Way Forward

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Rev. Kathy Manis Findley
The Hard Way Forward

A sermon preached in virtual worship for New Millennium Church
Little Rock, Arkansas
October 11, 2020
Scripture: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106 (selected verses)

Have you ever come to a point in your life when you had to take the hard way forward? You had no other choices! In fact, the phrase “the hard way forward” paints a an unvarnished picture of these tumultuous days, and the paints on the artist’s brush are dark and foreboding.

What a journey 2020 has been! I have often called it a journey of lament — a journey that has forced us to be in places we never wanted to be and to see things we never wanted to see. 

We look around and watch people in shock and dismay — disillusioned and despondent. So many have been personally touched, even ravaged, by the deadly coronavirus, while others are overcome with fear of it. We have witnessed evil, racist assaults; watched police brutality and murder on our television screens; we have grieved over wildfires that threaten to swallow up forests, animals, homes and lives; and over it all we have felt contempt for the reprehensible leadership of an incompetent, insensitive, egocentric, self-serving president. I think it’s safe to assume that many people in this broken nation feel hopeless and heartbroken.

I often ask: 
God, are you still leading us on this hard journey?  Or have you forsaken us?
Do you have some kind of plan we do not yet see?

These months for so many people have definitely been a hard way forward. As we try to put one foot in front of the other on this journey, perhaps we can imagine ourselves walking with the people of Israel.

So let us listen and hear the Word of God in Holy Scripture

From Exodus, Chapter 32, (selected verses):

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said, “Come, make us gods who shall go before us.”

“As for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 

Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 

So the people took off the gold rings and gave them to Aaron. He took the gold, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and the people said, 

“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before the calf and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” They rose early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices; and they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose up to carouse. [my word choice]

(Now the scene changes locations.)

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people have acted perversely . . . they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it. I have seen how stiff-necked these people are. Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But Moses implored the Lord, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

And from Psalm 106 (selected verses):

O give thanks to the LORD . . . for God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Both we and our ancestors have sinned; we have committed iniquity, have acted wickedly. They made a calf at Horeb and worshiped a cast image. They exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass. They forgot God who had done great things in Egypt, wondrous works in the land of Ham, and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

Therefore he said he would destroy them — had not Moses stood in the breach before him, to turn away his wrath.

This is the word of God for the people of God.

The story of the Israelites reminds us that our kindred sojourners also traveled some rough paths. The text gives a glimpse of just one snippet of their journey. We see the Israelites on their wilderness pilgrimage, complaining, as they often did — and as we often do.

Apparently, Moses who had just received the ten commandments, stayed on Mount Horeb for a long time, patiently listening as God engaged him in a presentation of all manner of laws, rules and instructions. It took awhile — 40 days and forty nights, a very long time. And the Israelites started complaining about it to the one Moses left in charge — Aaron.

What has become of Moses?

What would he eat on that mountain, anyway?

This Moses, that brought us out here in this mess — where is he?

And then their fateful request to Aaron:

You are the one who is here with us now — make us something we can see. Make us something that will lead us forward, and we will follow it.

Now you probably remember that the Israelites had complained before:

Why did you bring us out of Egypt? To kill us with thirst?
Why have you led us into this forsaken, dangerous wilderness? To kill us with hunger?

Their complaints may sound a bit like our own complaining during the terrible months of pandemic, racial unrest, political rancor, and all manner of upheaval. 

Hey God! Are you planning to obliterate this coronavirus, or not?

Are you still with us, God, or not? 

Have you brought us to this season for some purpose? 

Like the Israelites, we sometimes lose sight of our leader — the God that would give us the courage to move. We are left as a wandering, unsettled people that simply cannot see our way forward.

As Wendell asked in last Sunday’s sermon, “Shouldn’t God do something?”

Shouldn’t a God of enduring, everlasting love do something?

Now remember — we are in good company with several holy bible people. The prophet Isaiah, for one, who asked:

“How long, O Lord
And God actually replied to him:

Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant,
until the land is desolate and ravaged,
until the land is utterly forsaken.

Not so reassuring!

The Psalm singer asked, too, in Psalm 94.

How much longer will the wicked be glad?
How much longer, Lord?
How much longer will criminals boast about their crimes?

They crush your people, Lord; they oppress those who belong to you.
They kill widows and orphans, and murder the strangers who live in our land.

Who stood up for me against the wicked? Who took my side against evil?

If God hadn’t been there for me, I never would have made it.
The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling!
Your love, God, took hold and held me fast.”

Like those holy bible people, we ask — in our impatience and fear — “How long, O Lord? 

And even as we ask, we have a wee inkling that God’s love is still holding us in safe arms of grace. George Matheson was a Scottish clergyman and theologian who lived in the late 1800’s. He was blind by the age of 18. Matheson wrote something quite profound about God’s love — the text of the hymn, “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go.” The hymn text formed in his mind during a “dark night of the soul” he experienced, a deeply emotional and spiritual crisis. He tells us about it in his own words.

My hymn was composed in the manse on the evening of the 6th of June, 1882. Something happened to me which was known only to myself, and which caused me the most severe mental suffering. The hymn was the fruit of that suffering. It was the quickest bit of work I ever did in my life . . . the whole work was completed in five minutes, and it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this one came like a dayspring from on high.

In a time of emotional anguish, God’s creative grace rose up in George Matheson and he wrote about the kind of divine love that would never let him go. I think we owe Rev. George for reminding us about God’s unwavering love. The hymn text is most assuredly Gospel Good News that people throughout the centuries have desperately needed to remember

As you and I walk this journey, we need to know that God’s love will hold us fast, but sometimes we don’t know it. Like George Matheson, we could use a visit from the Dayspring from on high!

In truth, we need assurance — that no matter how hard the way forward, God’s love will not let us go. Threatened by a deadly virus, God’s love will not let us go. In our most disconsolate moments, God’s love will not let us go. When we courageously stand up to denounce racism, white supremacy, police violence and all manner of evil that surrounds us, God’s stubborn love will never let us go!

But that kind of love also places before us a holy mission undergirded with the foundational principle that evil cannot be reformed, it must be transformed — transformed within us before it can be transformed in the world, and transformed in the way described by Dr. King:

Only through an inner spiritual transformation do we gain the strength to fight vigorously the evils of the world in a humble and loving spirit.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the Israelites and their golden calf, or the psalm singer who sang something about God’s steadfast love enduring forever, or the idea that someone might possibly stand in the breach for us.

My friends, each of us are traveling through these days with at least some fear and anxiety. It is a hard way forward, and as some clever people have said, “The light at the end of the tunnel is probably a freight train!” 

Still, we are inheritors of the hope and grit of so many others who have journeyed hard roads before us — walking, marching, sometimes crawling — at times standing tall, at other times falling face-down in the dust of a hard rocky ground. We have navigated perilous roads and turbulent waters in this season. Yet we walk on, just as those who walked before us and who walk beside us.

I recently saw a news report about a little girl walking with her family among crowds of protesters. She stops at a makeshift memorial to George Floyd. As she pauses there, we can read the sign she carries — a hand printed cardboard sign that says:

My daddy plays with me. My daddy reads to me.
My daddy tucks me in at night. Please don’t kill my daddy.

The little girl walks on with her family.

Tamika Palmer walks on too, tears flowing freely. Tamika Palmer, Breonna’s mother, vows she will never stop walking forward towards justice for the daughter she lost.

It strengthens us to remember those who walked before us in years past and those who walk with us today who are those sparkling examples of hope and grit: Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Oscar Romero, Fannie Lou Hamer, Prathia Hall, Greta Thunberg, Rev Dr. William J. Barber, II, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King,Jr., Dorothy Day, Bishop Michael Curry, Nelson Mandela, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Jr,. US Representative John Lewis, Rev. Pastor Judge Wendell Griffen and countless others whose names we revere, as well as so many whose names we do not even know.

Walking, marching, protesting, advocating, praying, writing, speaking, weeping — throughout centuries and to this very time. Compelled by prevailing, persisting injustice, they walk on — we walk on —taking the hard way forward.

So having eavesdropped on a people constructing a golden calf to worship, will we allow their story to call our attention to our own idols? Those idols we have made for ourselves out of our own Egyptian gold?  “Idols” might just be the next sermon point, if I used sermon points!

It’s tempting to mistake our own creations for our God. It’s tempting to shape our self-made idols into an image that soothes our anxiety, feeds our anger and our egos, and convinces us it will demolish whatever is evil around us. I don’t know about you, but I can get obsessed at times. My tasks, my work, my advocacy sometimes rise up out of my obsessions. I don’t like that, but have to admit the truth.

So I have to ask myself: Is my work to dismantle injustice part of God’s call and my holy mission, or have I made it my idol?

Whatever that thing is that we have made from Egypt’s gold is not our god. That thing we idolize may symbolize strength and power. It may personify bravery. It may embody rebellion or protest. But as close as we draw to it and place it at the center of our lives, we must understand that it will not lead us to transformation, just as the Israelites’ golden calf could have never led them to the land of promise. 

Instead it will shackle us in our impatience, audacity and self-importance. It will shackle us because of our insistence on following our own way instead of God’s way. 

Here is another honest confession:  It is tempting for me to let hate become my idol, to allow my desire for retribution to goad me into facing off against injustice with hate. But God’s way is always love. 

Is it possible that our idol is our hate for people, people who may actually deserve it like white supremacists, neo-Nazis, violent police officers, men wielding projectiles and tear gas, corrupt politicians and leaders? Do we rise up against such people with hate as our weapon, while all the time, God calls us to love our enemies!

The hard way forward is the way of higher ground that invites us to turn away from the idols created by our lesser angels and walk forward in the persistent love that will never let us go. 

The hard way forward knows the pain of fear and doubt, but still chooses to follow cloud and fire through the desert-landscape and on to freedom. The hard way forward is to live into God’s abiding, never-ending love.

For you see, seekers of justice who marched the hard way before us faced firehoses and dogs because they longed for holy transformation and because they trusted that God’s love would not let them go. Seekers of justice protesting in the streets of Louisville and in other cities in these hard days face tear gas, police brutality, violent government intervention because they long for holy transformation and because their faith whispers to them, “God’s love will not let you go.”

You and I, in whatever ways we are dismantling injustice, MUST take the hard way forward — facing censure, criticism, indifference, ridicule, disrespect, even violence, because we long for holy transformation and because deep-down, we believe in our hearts that God’s love will never let us go.

That hard way forward is the path to transforming injustice! Doing the same things we’ve done the same way we’ve done them might bring some manner of reform. But we must not settle for reformation. We must set our eyes on transformation. 

One last caveat: the change we seek may never be realized even if we are brave enough to take the hard way forward, because the saved up baggage we carry weighs us down — the anger we hold on to, the hatred we feel, the impatience that makes us volatile, the fear that besets us, the hostility we refuse to let go of. Isn’t it time for you and me to kneel before God, confess our sins and accept the healing grace that wipes away our tears and transforms us into a new creation?

Kneeling at the altar of repentance, we will stand up straight and tall and brave — and most importantly, forgiven — and we will take the hard way forward, knowing in our souls that we cannot just act to reform evil, we must resolve to transform it. 

So let us bravely and confidently take the hard way forward, knowing that God is standing in the breach on our behalf and that the Dayspring from on high visits us, giving light when we walk through the darkness and the shadow of death, and guiding our feet into the way of peace.

Let us take the hard way forward, proclaiming from the depths of our being that no matter how dark and difficult and long the journey is, God’s love will never let us go. Amen.

I invite you now to spend a few moments of reflection and prayer as you listen to a benediction of choral music in the video below. May you listen in the music for the whisper of God, for Christ’s blessing of grace, for the brush of Spirit wings. 

And as you leave this time of holy worship, persevering on the hard way forward, may the God of love go with you and fill you with gentle peace through every tribulation, so that your soul may rise up in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

What Do I Do with My Feelings?

How are you feeling today?

“Fine” is almost always the answer because usually the one who asked the question doesn’t really want to know all about how we feel. Not really. So we answer with a word — “fine.” Just “fine.” After all, we don’t often want to reveal our true feelings to anyone, and on top of that, telling them how we really feel would take more time than either of us want to spend on the conversation.

There may also be another reason for responding with just the word “fine.” Sometimes we don’t know how we’re really feeling. Some people are too busy with life responsibilities to consider how they feel. Others know there are deep feelings inside themselves, but they too are too busy to feel them. Still others sense dark, foreboding feelings in their deepest place, and they will not risk the emotional repercussions they might face by lettings their feelings rise into their consciousness. In Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina, the dialogue asks, “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?” Perhaps at that point — the seeming impossibility of telling another person how we feel — is where you and I find ourselves.

What happens when you refuse to allow your deepest feelings to enter your consciousness?

The question on the left is a very good question, even a crucial question. What does happen in us when we simply refuse to allow our feelings to come to the light os acknowledgment. The answer is at the very center of our quest for emotional wellness. We start, as the image above instructs, at owning our deepest feelings. Owning means to look at our feelings honestly and without fear. Owning means making no excuses for feelings. Owning means not blaming our feelings on others. Owning means holding our feelings in high esteem and acknowledging how they came to be. Owning means accepting our feelings, embracing then and honoring them

I was so deeply hurt that I just hold it inside until it becomes so unbearable I think I will snap.

He made me feel invisible and I just can’t let go of that feeling. I still feel invisible after all these years.

She made me so angry and I am letting that anger rage inside me and it will not go away. I don’t dare express it or let it surface.

Owning our feelings means being willing to truly “see” them, even when seeing them frightens us or creates in us a sense of dread. We sense we may experience a season of dread that the feelings will hurt us, again and for a long time. We fear what we will see. There is some truth in the fact that we tend to live into our “false self,” the self that is external and often shows little resemblance to our internal self. Contemplation is internal work. For those of us who believe in God, something divine happens when we are immersed in contemplating our hidden feelings — this thing that happens is that God meets us there, at the very moment when a buried feeling begins that awful hurting. I think of the words of promise in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah 29:11.

For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.

I cannot help but find comfort in the presence of God in my life’s most painful times, and honestly, I have to say that some of those painful times were a part of contemplation and, through contemplation, beginning to own my down-deep feelings. The wise words of Thomas Merton are both instructive and provocative.

Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self . . . We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden . . . We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality . . . God begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self.
Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

In finding pieces of my hidden, true self, I also found release from harmful feelings, hurtful memories and oppressive people I held on to. Finally, after contemplation, we find the ability to share our feelings — the real ones — with the people we trust to hold them sacred and to help us better understand them. At the moment when I understood my feelings — where they came from; why I was holding on to them; who caused them; what would happen if I let my feelings rise from my depths to the light of day — that was the moment I felt free. I could live again as my best self. I could love myself, my real self. And I could be my best self. Not a small thing! A turning point in my life!

I hope you will spend some time studyIng the Feelings image above. I invite you to look at the seven feelings in the center and to then move to the outer circles. If I feel sad, for instance, the next expansion of the circle further clarifies what “sad” means for me, i.e. lonely, vulnerable or depressed. The outer section may reveal to me that I was victimized or abandoned, grieving or isolated.

Continue to contemplate your hidden, unspoken feelings. Learn to look at them and “own” them without fear, and know that God will meet you at the point of your deepest pain and that you are God’s own creation — cherished, loved, comforted and protected by a God who will never let you go. 

As a part of your contemplative moments, I hope you are strengthened by this arrangement of the  hymn, “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” Play it before you begin your meditation time and let its message clear your mind and comfort your soul.

That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

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.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

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, about someone 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.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

As Though I Had Wings

 

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I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings. [1]

I am continually inspired by Mary Oliver’s poetry, today by her phrase, “as though I had wings.” In the past six months or so — since my kidney transplant — I have felt a little wing-less. Not so unusual, because a transplant — before, during and after — is a rather big deal, like a super colossal deal! If I ever thought the enormous physical challenge would be the surgery itself, I was wrong. I think I deluded myself on that. The aftershocks of the surgery proved to be enormous and enduring. Hence, my lack of wings.

Everywhere, one can see eloquently expressed promises of wings. You and I can “mount up with wings as eagles”[2] or “take the wings of the morning.” [3]  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” [4]

I know the promises and I love them, but I also love how poet Mary Oliver brings it all down to where I live — on shifting sands in an ever-shifting world. She expresses it like this: “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things . . . to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.” [5]

All of a sudden, I have a critical assignment, something I must do myself and for myself. It seems to me that I must start by focusing on my mind, thinking again of things noble and dangerous. Then I must allow my mind (my will) to move through my heart and soul, to the very center of my being, because there is the place inside me where dangerous acts are weighed and noble acts can become resolve. In one of the common phrases of my faith — an admonition I heard in church over and over again — a pastor or teacher would say, “count the cost.”

Here’s where I am honest. So I must admit that doing noble things has seemed impossible for me in the past few years. Prior to my illness, my life was a constant journey of determining the danger of noble things and doing them anyway. I miss the life of being a pastoral presence to a dying patient. I miss keeping vigil in the ER family room with grieving parents mourning the death of a child. I miss offering a memorial service  for a dear congregant and friend. I miss comforting victims of sexual assault as police officers question them, sometimes brusquely and accusingly. I miss trauma counseling with persons who have endured horrific emotional and physical trauma. I miss forensic interviewing even the youngest child victim of abuse. I miss standing firm as a court advocate for child victims of sexual abuse. I even miss being thrown out of the courtroom by a persnickety judge who did not appreciate the intensity level of my advocacy.

I miss it all. It was dangerous. All of this work was dangerous and it was noble. I could do it because of wings — the wings God gave me when I determined I would do dangerous and noble things and do them with urgency.

What about now, this season of my life? What am I doing that’s dangerous and noble? Should I even expect to be able to face danger at my age, with my physical limitations? Last night, a friend listened to me list all the things I cannot do when very intently she interrupted me and asked, “Kathy, what can you do?” She continued, as she so often does, “Your life is not about the things you can’t do. It’s about the things you can do!”

She nailed it. Perhaps she even nailed me, albeit with some gentleness. So I have to sit awhile with that provoking question: “What can you do?” I have to sit with that question with God close by to guide me and Spirit near to remind me of Spirit-wind and Spirit-fire. I am not precluded from Spirit-wind because of age or Spirit-fire because of physical limitations. It is up to me to discern what I need in my life right now. Will I be satisfied with what I have done in the past and let myself off the hook? What dangerous and noble things will I take on?

I cannot help but think of so many nurses and doctors who are caring for persons with COVID19 — how they enter the ICU knowing that a deadly virus is there, believing that they could take the virus home to their families. Dangerous and noble! Somehow, Spirit-wind is raising them up for the task.

I wonder if you have thought about this for yourself, considering the cost of doing dangerous and noble things. Have you considered that the things you are already doing — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, taking a meal to an elderly person sheltered alone in her home — are all dangerous and noble things? That you show mercy to others as you go? That you weep for a broken world with so many broken people in it? That you share in Christ’s compassion?

“Dangerous and noble things! Afraid of nothing as if we had wings!” [6]

I’ve given all of this a lot of thought and I think we might get our wings after we have made the determination to give ourselves to noble things, no matter the danger. I think we get wings when we move to the urgency of Christ’s compassion, when our rhythms begin to emulate the rhythms of God. I think we get wings when we have determined in our hearts and souls to act — after we have counted the cost and have said “Yes!”

Again, the eloquence of the poet may most fully express my deepest longing and yours.

I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings . . .

What I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world. [7]

May God make it so for us.

 



1 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
2 Isaiah 40:31
3 Psalm 139:9
4 “On Eagles Wing’s” composed by Michael Joncas
5 Starlings in Winter, a poem by Mary Oliver
6 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
7 The Ponds, a poem by Mary Oliver

The “Soul’s Insistent Yearning”

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I have come to know Ash Wednesday as the time to draw nearer to my “soul’s insistent yearning.” That can be a frightening prospect, so I always approach Ash Wednesday with a bit of reticence, meeting the day with the self-awareness that I am trying to keep my distance from my “soul’s insistent yearning.” Being closer to one’s soul can well be a disconcerting proposition, but a necessary one. Ash Wednesday presents me with entry into the season of Lent.

I cherish Lent’s forty days, actually, always expecting change to happen in my soul and spirit. And yet, the prospect of repentance, renewal, transformation — and ultimately a personal resurrection — always disquiets me.

83D4AF68-A9AD-40EC-9D26-F0787CFE6D7BHow will I spend Ash Wednesday?

How will I approach the day
that will open the gate of Lent before me?

I have always thought of Lent as a spiritual journey we take alone, a solitary season of introspection and self-reflection during which we contemplate our own spiritual well-being and our relationship with God. For me, Lent has often been alone work.

So I make my Lenten journey into my alone places. I will know that God will abide with me, comforting me in my self-reflection, in my penitence and in my repentance. I will be mindful this Lent of my need to reach into my soul in search of places needing healing, constant and long-time wounds of the soul and spirit. I will search for the traces of my sinfulness, finding in my heart the will to seek sincere penitence, the sad and humble realization of and regret for my misdeeds. I will move beyond penitence to repentance as I resolve to change and to experience transformation.

How will I spend Ash Wednesday?

In whatever way I am able, I will receive ashes on my forehead imposed in a sign of the cross. I will recall the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I will utter as my prayer, the words of Scripture, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

As for the actual ashes, I have often wiped them off while in public. I never knew why, just that I was uncomfortable when others saw the cross of ash on my forehead. Perhaps I needed to keep my spiritual practice to myself, or hide the reality of my search for repentance. Years ago, I came across these words, spoken by Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM:

We can feel a little funny with ashes on our foreheads, but for Catholics, that’s how we mark the start of Lent. Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we are sinners. They don’t say we are perfect, only that we’re willing to try. They don’t say we’re models of religiosity, but they do say we belong. In today’s world of loners and isolates, that says a lot.

~ Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, RSM

7FA58B58-0019-4809-B3B9-F956F3B06D7BThe essential truth, and gift, of Ash Wednesday is its call to come to terms with ourselves before God. Ash Wednesday says what so much of modern culture denies, namely that we are forever deceiving and justifying ourselves about our sinfulness. So on this day, when we contemplate our sins, when we pay attention to the ash on our foreheads, when we enter into Lent’s forty days, we must make prayer our utmost spiritual intention. So I pray we might embrace our Christian community that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent, as all the while, we lean into our “soul’s insistent yearning.”

In that spirit of prayer, I hope you will take with you into Lent with this beautiful prayer from Rabbi Naomi Levy:

The rabbi in me would like to offer a prayer for you.
I pray you will learn to see you life as a meaningful story.
I pray you will learn to listen to your soul’s insistent yearning.
I pray you will learn to believe you can transform your life.
I pray you will learn to live and shine inside your imperfect life
and find meaning and joy right where you are.
Most of all I pray you will uncover a great miracle: your extra-ordinary life.

~ From Hope Will Find You by Rabbi Naomi Levy

Most importantly, pray yourself into Lent in the few days we have before Ash Wednesday. Seek God’s heart and seek the depths of your own heart and your “soul’s insistent yearning.” May you know God’s presence as you begin your Lenten journey.

Walking Peacefully

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People say walking on water is a miracle,
but to me walking peacefully on earth is the real miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Those words ring so true, but how does one realize “the real miracle?” “Walking peacefully on earth” is much harder than it sounds, much more challenging than it ought to be, at least for most of us. Some have poetically said that walking on earth is our pilgrim journey, and I believe that many people feel that they are walking a pilgrim journey.

In his book, The Pilgrim Journey: A History of Pilgrimage in the Western World, James Harpur asserts that we are now in a new era of pilgrimage and asks: “Why is pilgrimage coming back, especially in a time when many people are questioning traditional religion?” Harpur’s answer is that in these days, there seems to be a deep longing in humans for this form of spiritual practice.

As for me, pilgrimage and journey are very real descriptors of my life. I have often set out on one journey or another, not knowing where to go, only that my soul needs the journey. I am captivated by Harpur’s book, by his tracing the history of why countless people through the ages have embarked on spiritual pilgrimages, by his many stories of pilgrimage through the ages and by his examples of why journey is so relevant to today’s pilgrims. Harpur writes:

If that is done, the destination — a shrine, a holy mountain, or a house of God — will signify not the end of the journey, but the start: a gateway into a new way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.What is essential is that the journey, by whatever means it is accomplished, gives the pilgrim enough time to expose himself or herself to the possibility of a sacred metamorphosis.

Nothing seems more important to me than seeing my life afresh “with spiritually cleansed eyes.” But getting there is a long process, a journey.

3BCA9FAD-8CD2-4B6A-B300-6609E1318379Walking peacefully on earth requires my full resolve and my desire to reach that place in life. Wouldn’t any of us want to experience transformation and the freedom to be? Wouldn’t any of us want to experience a sacred metamorphosis?

Certainly, it is a long process, a long journey. There are many steps along the way that each person must determine in order to persist on the pilgrimage. There are divergent paths and rough roads and thorny ways and threatening obstacles. Though choosing the path is personal, the graphic at the top of his post illustrates a set of steps we could possibly choose for ourselves. If I chose to take those steps, it would look like this:

First, I must learn to cry again. Crying is very hard for me, as if I dared to cry, my crying might go on forever. Yet, crying is a part of cleansing the soul, and as the quotation says, there is an importance to flowing and finally letting go. Secondly, I need to accept that within me, there is fire and that I must not be afraid to let it burn. I think I must face the flame, adapt and re-ignite my inner fire. Thirdly, I must to open myself up to refreshing air — observe it, breathe it, focus and then decide whatever I need to decide.

The quote also says “remember that you are earth” and ground yourself, give, build and heal. Finally, “remember that you are Spirit” and care for your inner core so that you can connect, listen, know yourself and be still. It’s quite a lesson — a new way of seeing myself — and perhaps it is the way I must journey if I want to walk peacefully on the earth. In these days when peace is in short supply, when nations refuse to beat their swords into plowshares, when political rivals use hate speech against one another, it is so important that peace dwells within my soul.

In the end, all of us long for what James Harpur calls sacred metamorphosis. We all want to realize the miracle of walking peacefully. We want to walk peacefully in our souls. We want to walk peacefully with others. We want to walk peacefully in our families. We simply want to walk peacefully — hand in hand with God and moved by Spirit. We want the choice to walk or to be still, to run or to leap, to breathe or to hold our breath when we kneel before wonder. We want to have the freedom to speak and shout and sing and dance . . . and truly live. That is the miracle!

 

Lingering . . . In the Presence of God

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I have observed, at this year’s beginning, as in past years, that humans are more introspective than usual. It may begin with intentions or resolutions for the new year. What I observe is that people are revisiting the past, trying to reinterpret it, digging for the meaning the past held for them and trying to find ways to heal the wounds of the soul theyp have hidden inside them for a long time. Those woulds live in us so long that they become scars, hardened in our spirits and thus more difficult to heal.

Until we have done this spiritual and emotional inner work, we are hesitant, unwilling to move into the future. So we linger in the present and re-live the past. Usually what we  revisit are past sorrows and losses, past disappointments and perceived failures, past pain that continues to pierce the soul. Seldom do we revisit past joys, because joy does not pierce like sorrow does.

It is a positive thing to linger in life review at the beginning of a new year. Just as the year is new, all of us hope that in the work of lingering, we will find newness in ourselves. The work of introspection is important for our well being and we have so many choices about how to strengthen ourselves, body and spirit. Many people use self-counseling, which may include searching their deep selves through personal contemplation and prayer. Others engage in spiritual direction, life coaching, trauma therapy or counseling. Still others tend to their souls through silent contemplation, labyrinth walks, yoga, nature walks, strenuous exercise, reading scripture, self-help books or poetry, and singing hymns or listening to music.

I want to suggest one other form of self-counseling that is unfamiliar to most people — working with Healing Runes as a part of your quiet time. Your first question probably is, “What are Healing Runes?” I want to begin by sharing an invocation written by Ralph H. Blum from his book, The Healing Runes.

Invocation

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out.

In your prayers, invoke God’s Presence.
In your aspirations, stay mindful of the Presence.
In your meditations, breathe in the Presence.

Above all, let the Presence be reflected in your attitude,
For surely then God will sing in your thoughts,
Speak in your voice and shine through your acts.
Let the Presence of God be the medicine
To heal your life, lift your heart and renew your spirit.

Practice the Presence of God in all ways,
Both in your coming in and your going out. Amen

To answer the question, a Healing Rune is a tool that provides a way of deepening  reflection and stirring the soul where we find life meaning and buried emotions. There is an interpretation of each healing rune in the book, The Healing Runes, written by Ralph Blum and Susan Loughan. They offer interpretations presented in graceful and sensitive language that allows the reader to take to heart what is appropriate for their own meditation and leave the rest.

A4B9545F-D3B1-40D5-AC08-23DF8FD547CAThe book adapts the sacred use of Runes as an alphabetic script used by the ancient Germanic and Norse peoples, creating a tool that could be helpful in the healing of body, mind and spirit.*

I suggest that we not fear the Healing Runes by considering them to be some sort of pagan artifact or something that seems like magic. They are more like mystery, something to guide our reflection and introspection. I suggest the we see Healing Runes as one way to guide us deeper into ourselves and into the presence of God, the ultimate healer of our souls.

I would like to choose a Healing Rune for us from my bag. Its meaning may not mean anything to you or to me. It may not open up any places in your soul that need attention. Or it may awaken us to a wound that we need to give some reflective time, some time for healing.

328A8B00-83F2-418F-BFC5-29960E0C06C7The Rune I have randomly chosen is the Rune of Trust. It is the Rune of restoration that calls for the rebuilding of belief in yourself, in your life and in your relationship with God. For some, drawing this Rune asks you to show trust in a present situation. For others, it calls for embracing the changes you are facing with trust and wisdom. In relationships of the heart, remember that I love you and I trust you are two stones for crossing the same stream. Most importat is that you ask your soul if Trust has something to teach you or somewhere to lead you.

Thomas Moore writes, “We separate, each from the other, the sicknesses of body, emotion, meaning and connectedness.” The soul must be moved, touched and healed, and that is why we linger at the door of our pain, trying every way we know to reconcile it, heal it, eliminate it (or just blast it with a sci-fi laser gun!) Thomas Moore has a better remedy than a sci-fi laser gun, a much more informed remedy:

I am convinced that all healing ultimately comes from a shift in deep imagination, grounding our own lives and anchoring our decisions in the very quick of the heart . . . not just relief from anxiety, but profound gifts that signal the presence of soul — intimacy, pleasure, beauty, love and piety.

As you and I explore what hides in our souls as this new year beckons us, may we not be afraid to linger directly in the presence of our fear or woundedness. Instead, let us consider that we are lingering in the comforting presence of God, in the gentle protection of Spirit. It is safe in that sacred space of Presence, safe enough for us to unearth whatever lies deeply in us and allow it to surface into the healing light.

God may be gently, lovingly calling us to do that work of healing and, in that introspection, to reveal our truth — the truth that will set us free!

 

* The Healing Runes, Ralph H Blum and Susan Loughan; Preface by Thomas Moore; St. Martin’s Press:New York, New York; ©️1995 by Ralph H. Blum.

“Wise Women Also Came”

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Art: “Wise Women Also Came” by Jan Richardson

Women’s Christmas! What Is That?

There is a custom, rooted in ireland, of celebrating Epiphany as Women’s Christmas. On January 6, Epiphany brings the Christmas season to a close. Called Nollaig na mBan in irish, Women’s Christmas originated as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to celebrate together at the end of the holidays, leaving hearth and home to the men for a few hours. 

Whether your domestic commitments are many or few, Women’s Christmas offers a timely opportunity to pause and step back from whatever has kept you busy and hurried in the past weeks or months. As the Christmas season ends, this is an occasion both to celebrate with friends and also to spend time in reflection before diving into the responsibilities of the new year.

Epiphany might be for you an invitation to rest, to reflect, to contemplate where you are on your journey. Epiphany reminds us of the wise persons who traveled to welcome the Christ Child and who returned home by another way. Perhaps we might consider turning our attention toward questions about our own journey. Epiphany brings us The Wise Men, The Three Kings. But did others also make the journey, following a brilliant star? Were there other travelers whose names we don’t know?

Jan Richardson tells about an experience she had years ago when she was beginning to find her artist soul. She sat down to create a collage to use for Epiphany. She began to imagine who else might have made the journey to welcome Jesus. In her soul, a trio of women began to take shape, carrying their treasures to offer the Child. She named the piece Wise Women Also Came.

I love the idea that three wise women made that journey and saw the Christ Child. There are so many accounts in the Scriptures about women having no rights, no protection, no ability to speak. Many of their names are not even recorded. Even in this day — 2020 — we have been socialized to keep silence in meetings or gatherings. We may even believe that our opinions are not important enough to speak out loud. We shrink back into what is determined to be “our place.” Maybe not all the time, but we have to admit we’ve done it sometimes. It’s all about how much we value ourselves and how much we believe others value us.

But shrinking back behind the scenes and quashing our voice has significant consequences — that our vision will not be given, our inspiration will fail to inspire, our dreams will be lost, our influence will not flourish, our wisdom will not be spoken. And our world will suffer for it, losing our passion for a world that needs passion.

Imagine with me that three wise women made the incredible journey to see the Child. Imagine the gifts they might have brought. Imagine what social constraints they might have broken to go on this journey of a lifetime, and the courage that motivated them. Imagine whether or not you could take such a journey, forbidden by your society, yet moving ahead on the path. Imagine your bravery and your resolve, your your sense of adventure, your hopes and your dreams.

So let’s accept two challenges in the days to come:

To celebrate Women’s Christmas with our friends and also to spend time in personal reflection before diving into the responsibilities of the new year.

To find our voices and our wisdom. To claim our courage, our strength and our passion. And even if others scoff at us, to follow our dreams.

The world needs us!

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.

“There Is Room and Welcome There for Me.”

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The Eighteenth Day of Advent

December 18, 2019

On the third Sunday in Advent, I was confined to home, unable to make my way to the manger. In every Advent season, I am strengthened in finding my place around the manger of the Christ Child. I find myself there because being near the manger moves me to contemplate the significance of Emmanuel, God-with-us. Being near the manger in spirit is holy ground, sacred space that stirs me to deeper faith. The hymn text writer Jaroslav Vajda also placed himself at the manger, searching for its significance in his life. In drawing close in spirit to the manger, he penned the text of the stirring hymn, Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.

Jaroslav Vajda penned the hymn text in 1986, seeking to place himself in spirit at the humble manger bed and there, review the implications of such a visit for himself and for all human beings. He believed that visiting the manger in order to ponder the significance of Immanuel,”God-with-us” in the flesh.

Being homebound after a kidney transplant, I missed my church’s service of Lessons and Carols. That service is always a time of deep and sacred worship for me, and I very much regretted missing it this year. In missing the service, I also missed the choir’s singing of Where Shepherds Lately Knelt, a hymn that has in the past moved me to tears. I invite you to contemplate the following text and to listen to the Anderson University Men’s Choir singing the hymn.

Where Shepherds Lately Knelt

Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred:
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.

In that unlikely place I find Him as they said:
sweet newborn Babe, how frail! and in a manger bed:
a still small Voice to cry one day for me,
a still small Voice to cry one day for me.

How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled?  With pounding heart, I stare:
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me,
a Child, a Son, the Prince of Peace — for me.

Can I, will I forget how Love was born and burned
its way into my heart — unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

This beautiful hymn places me at the manger, near the Christ Child. And in that place —in the presence of God — I begin to understand who I am and what I feel about my faith. 6EB80210-20A6-47B8-BD83-1B6AA6BBAE12I contemplate the shepherds who drew near to the Child following the light of a strange star. I imagine that whatever faith they had, no matter how small, brought them to their knees. Pilgrims who lived on the land, they found their way to the manger and, in adoration, knelt before this Child, in this manger, on this night.

I am but a pilgrim in half-belief on a journey led by a fragile faith. Yet, something within me compels me to keep returning to the manger, again and again. And I find myself in true worship, strangely stirred, in adoration of the Christ Child under the brilliance of Bethlehem’s star. The cry of my spirit as I look at Christ, the Savior, while standing before the manger is so perfectly described by this hymn:

I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
But there is room and welcome there for me…

Can I, will I forget how Love was born,
and burned its way into my heart unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me…”

Near the manger this advent, I discover that, indeed, “there is room and welcome there for me.”

For the Advent stirring of my fragile faith . . .
For newborn Love, born beneath Bethlehem’s star, thanks be to God. Amen.