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.

 

 

 

 

 

War!

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WAR  noun, often attributive
(1)  a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations
(2)  a period of such armed conflict
(3)  a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism
(4)  a struggle or competition between opposing forces for a particular end

In a time of turmoil across the earth, I am reminded of the many ways we long for peace and the many times we fail to achieve it. As I hear reports and human stories of the warring among peoples of many nations, I am also very aware of the wars that often rage within. War and peace are complex ideologies that spurn people to action — either action to plunder and kill or action that insists upon peace and tranquillity. The British peace advocate John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech at the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh in the summer of 1853 to oppose the forthcoming war against Russia (the Crimean War 1854-56). 

What is war?

What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable . . . injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country.   — John Bright (1811-1889)

Profound truth rests in Bright’s words, and it is a truth every person would do well to contemplate. At some point I recall seeing a provocative image on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. It was an image of the soldier’s helmet with a handwritten “born to kill” slogan . . . and a peace symbol, a provocative juxtaposition of reminding us that human beings have the capacity for both killing and peace.

Who can forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah?

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

So why talk of war after Ash Wednesday and into Lent? Perhaps the subject of war occurred to me as I moved closer to this season of repentance and self-reflection. Perhaps I felt a need to consider the futility of war because of Ash Wednesday’s dictum, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

One who came from dust, and who anticipates returning to dust, must certainly feel a longing for peace, peace in the world as well as peace of the soul and spirit. Neither examples of peace are easily achieved. The machinations of war between nations, and the eternal quest for finding inner peace, are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps it is those persons who have a dearth of inner peace who seriously contemplate making enemies and making war. War flourishes, at times, when the cause seems righteous, while at other times, the cause is greed, lust for power and human depravity. Either way, the losses of war are enormous beyond imagining.

I have been intrigued by the writing of Sebastian Junger in his book War (published in 2010). He echoes the famous words of Winston Churchill:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

Junger also offers interesting insights into war:

The cause doesn’t have to be righteous and battle doesn’t have to be winnable; but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive. 

The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is not negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.

Three Christian denominations have positions on war.

Roman Catholic
The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

The Southern Baptist Convention (Adopted on June 14, 2000)
Peace and War. It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The United Methodist Church (2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline)
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

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A map of Afghanistan with bullet holes at a school in the Kandahar Province. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

No doubt, this is probably more information on the deplorable subject of war than anyone needs to contemplate. And yet, war is not just “far off” in other countries where we can’t see it. “War” is all around us — in this divided nation, in the hate speech that is so prevalent, in the gun violence that takes lives, in violent acts within families, in racial division and the re-emergence of white nationalism. One can scarcely complete the list of the many ways war affects us, within us and around us.

We must remember that war is not only the catastrophic expectation of a nuclear bomb or chemical warfare, it is also a war that could raise its head in our communities, in our churches, even in our hearts, wreaking havoc on our souls. War is famine, homelessness, poverty, racism, family violence, child abuse, trafficking, homophobia and xenophobia. War is the destruction of humanity and all that we know to be right and just. The example of Jesus must be our guide and inspiration. No, Jesus did not explicitly warn against war, but he said so many things about peace.

The words of Jesus

Matthew 5: 38-48 (selected verses)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . .

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The early Christians took Jesus at his word. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war and bloodshed; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their Christian commitment to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

Might we all do likewise!

What is critical for us is to fully understand that war among us or within us creates profound loss . . . always. The current political divisions are taking a toll on everyone. We no longer live in a time when political leaders held all the divisiveness. In these days,  fractured politics have reached communities, churches and even families. When support for political candidates creates deep separations one from another, we have reached a dangerous and divisive environment. When we live in such a divisive environment, we risk losing relationships with those who “don’t vote like we do.” What a senseless, unfortunate and tragic loss that creates  — breaches between friends, alienation among family members, rifts in communities of faith, deep schism in neighborhoods and communities.

Our spiritual intention must be a quest for peace, reconciliation, unity and respect. This is God’s intention for people of faith. This is God’s intention for the world, that nations, tribes, villages, cities — all the peoples of the world — shall not learn war anymore!

May God make it so, globally and personally!

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.

On Being Soft

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Lent for me was quiet this year. I was sick through most of it, and I spent it pretty much alone, except for the sweet presence of my husband. I didn’t write much. I didn’t paint or craft anything. I was just quiet, and as the forty days passed, I was aware at times of being led by still waters.

Still waters was a spiritual and emotional space I discovered after I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease and throughout my lengthy hospital stays in 2014. So today, I am thinking about some life-sustaining words that were a part of my recovery —  the words of the Twenty-third Psalm, my own version of it.

The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing. I have around me and within me everything that I need.

The Lord invites me to stop and to lie down in lush, green meadows.
He leads me beside still waters, 
He restores and refreshes my soul.

He guides me along good and safe pathways for his name’s sake. And for my sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, 
the valley of death’s shadow,

I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.
Your grace and your care comfort me.

You prepare a place for me, even in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with the oil of gladness.

My cup overflows.

Surely your grace and and your love will follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell with you forever.

We know the words of this Psalm far too well. We skip past it as a common text we memorized when we were young. We recite it easily. But the Psalm came to life for me during my year-long illness. It was in my heart, and often on my lips, during long, sleepless nights in the hospital. I experienced the Psalm’s comfort as never before.

As we near the beginning of Holy Week, my thoughts are of the resurrection that comes after the passion, for Christ, yes, but also for me. I’m not thinking of “us.” My thoughts tonight are focused on me, how I experienced my illness in 2014 as my own kind of passion, the passion of confusion, grief, worry, fear. I experienced an expansive and disconcerting view of my mortality, and I did not take to the stark reality of it.

I cannot, of course, even begin to compare my passion to the passion of Christ. Yet in some tender way, I experienced suffering. Palm Sunday comes this Sunday, and in Christian churches everywhere, the people of God will celebrate Christ’s “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem. We will raise our palm branches and shout “hosanna,” as well we should. But Palm Sunday moves us abruptly into the week of Christ’s passion, every pain-filled, grace-filled moment of it. We must not skip that part.

But back to my own passion story, the one that happened the year I thought I was going to die. First you must know a bit about me before the illness. I was persistent and stubborn, a fierce advocate for abused women and children. I did not flinch in a courtroom. I did not shrink when I faced-off with an abuser’s defense attorney. I did not cower standing between a woman and her batterer. I searched the nation to find legal advocacy for abused women and their children. I stood my ground against court-ordered child abuse that would consistently place children in the custody of an abusive parent. I railed against a system that refused to protect children. I was hard. 

The illness came and went over the course of a year. I did not die. Resurrection did come to me, in bits and pieces, slowly, but with the certainty of faith. I was no longer hard. I was movable, malleable, able to be blown about with good and gentle, life-giving breezes. We settled into a new home in a new state, and mostly, I embraced it over time. I fed hummingbirds, listened more deliberately for birdsong, and discovered the way of mindfulness.

When I recovered — slowly — from my illness, I remember the feeling of being soft, though I was not sure what that meant for me. Most certainly, God granted me the patience to move into my resurrection, to embrace it in God’s time, and to wait for it gratefully.

My family said that I emerged from my illness with a change in personality. I was quiet, they said, not like me at all. Inside myself, I knew that they were right. I felt the change. I sat in my own quiet for months. And even now I sense a quietness that wraps me softly as if it were a warm, light blanket. It’s a good place for me, this soft, warm, comforting place.

It’s a good place to continue my resurrection, to learn more about what it means to be soft. As it often happens, I stumbled upon this quote as I wrote this piece. I love the thought it expresses. It resonates with my soul.

Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let the pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.

— Iain Thomas

These days, I am sensing that a kidney transplant is imminent for me. So to go through that process, I will lean even more into my soft side. That will be a good emotional and spiritual space for me. Soft! Soft facing change and fear. Soft facing uncertainty and new, scary medications. Soft facing the hope of a healthy kidney bringing me a new beginning, a resurrection.

May God continue to lead me beside these still waters. It’s a good place for me to greet resurrection.

 

 

 

 

Rough, Broken Roads

5E982E74-6C78-42E3-BA27-C642528A9C0CI think often about roads, the roads that take people where they want to go, or not. I think with deep fondness about the terribly rough and broken roads we traveled in Uganda. The time was immediately after the horrific reign of Idi Amin that left the roads, and the entire country, in shambles. I remember the difficulty in traveling those rough, broken roads — washed out, bombed out, neglected for years.

I remember the fear of traveling those roads, the frightening military roadblocks, the pointed machine guns, the soldier’s demand for all that we carried in the vehicle and even the vehicle itself. I remember how some of our missionaries were left in the bush with their vehicle “confiscated” by the occupying army. I remember the roadblock murder of the dear Ugandan man who drove our mission’s supply truck.

I think of traveling a road in the middle of the night that led to my brother’s funeral, made rough by grief. I think of the rough road I traveled in leaving my home of 32 years for a new and unfamiliar place. I can never forget my rough road through serious illness and difficult recovery.

I think of roads that take people where they do not want to go — to war, to prisons, to rehabilitation centers, to the sites of natural disasters. I think about the roads in disaster areas that are simply gone.

I remember a song in a Christian musical of many years ago titled “Rough Old Roads.” It told of the rough roads Jesus walked. The song’s climactic moment gave us these words: “the road that was roughest of all to walk was the road that led to the cross.”

It is appropriate for us during Lent to recall the rough roads Jesus walked, rough for so many reasons: rejection, danger, soul temptation, angry crowds and lynch mobs, and ultimately the rough road that Jesus walked to the cross, to his death. To learn of his roads means that we get a glimpse of our own. The roads we all walk.

None of us can avoid walking the rough and broken roads that appear before us, but it is in traversing those roads that we learn who we are. Rough roads force us to take the hard and narrow way, and thus become who we must ultimately become. Roads can wind around so that we are lost, thus inviting us to take the risk of vulnerability required for an unknown and uncharted journey. Our roads teach and challenge us. When the road ahead of us is rough or broken, our commitment to stay the course results in wisdom. I call it wisdom from the journey. Our rough, broken roads make us stronger and more resilient. The rougher they are, the more we change and grow.

I could bore you with even more personal reflection about rough roads, but instead I want to share a moving poem written by Maren Tirabassi.* In the poem, she writes of broken roads and calls for a God who attends to all who find themselves on broken roads.

Here are Maren’s moving words:

I was praying this morning, God,
for all the people in Mozambique
and Malawi and Zimbabwe,
in the midst of the terrible losses
from cyclone Idai —
the deaths and injury and destruction,
the ongoing need for rescue

and I learned that the roads are broken.

I should have known —

the roads between towns
are impassable,
the bridges smashed, ports unusable.
Also those other paths —
electricity, telephone, Internet,
are gone as well.

And I went from that
flat-hand-on-the-newspaper prayer,
to the jail and my meeting
for spiritual care
and walked among others
with no access

and realized that journey
is not a parable for Lent
for these,
your children on the inside.

And so holy Valley-uplifter,
Rough-place-leveler,
I call you to attend
to all who suffer broken roads —

broken highways or heartways,
or sometimes minds that cannot
find a way out of whatever
dead end they are in,

and teach me to pay attention, too,
put my back against
every road block,
become an opener of the way home.

 

May God make it so. Amen.

 

*Maren served as a pastor in the United Church of Christ for thirty-seven years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is the author or editor of 20 books. You may read more of her creative and soulful writing at her blog, “Gifts in Open Hands” at the following link:

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/10101/

 

 

Together Through Lent

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Watercolor art by Kathy Manis Findley. The watercolor — “Together” — represents the spiritual covenants we share with one another, bonds that strengthen our faith. 

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 always been alone work. But what if it wasn’t? Suppose I experienced Lent with my community — the close community of people with whom I share my spiritual life.

I cannot help but recall the story of Jephthah’s daughter as told in Judges 11. When she faces a terrible crisis that will result in her death at the hands of her father, she makes only one request of her father. “Do what you must do, only grant me this one request: Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my sisters.”

So she will take this journey up into the hills with her sisters — to mourn, to reflect, to pray. She will not make this journey alone. She makes the journey with the sisters who surrounded her in life and now in death. They climb up into the hills together.

Lent’s forty days represent the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring the temptation of Satan and preparing to begin his ministry. He was there alone, and most often the Lenten journey is a time for reflecting alone. But I think that perhaps there is spiritual benefit in making a Lenten journey together, in community, joining together through invisible rhythms of friendship and caring.

As I make my Lenten journey this year, in my mind I will take my community with me. There into my alone places where God comforts me in my contemplative moments, in my repentance and in my penitence, I will be more mindful this Lent of my spiritual circle of friends. I will make a covenant with them in my mind and heart. I will send them positive thoughts as they make their Lenten journey and I will pray for them intentionally and faithfully.

It will be a together Lent, inspired by the sisters who went into the hills with Jephthah’s daughter where they spent a season of grief in community, together.

I hope that, together, we might embrace a sense of community as one of our Lenten spiritual disciplines, that we might journey together for these forty days, praying for one another, seeking together the serenity, the reflection and the transformation of Lent.

In that spirit of prayer, I leave with you this beautiful prayer written by 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

I Can Face Tomorrow

Enlight272Yesterday was not my best day. All day long challenges got the best of me — health challenges, schedule challenges, even bad haircut challenges. My sister of the heart, Donna, said I was cranky. My husband, Fred, said I should chalk it up to Ash Wednesday. Martie, my dear Little Rock friend, said that yesterday was the first day of Mercury in retrograde and that I should do my best to survive until it’s over on March 28th.

I’m not so convinced of any of those explanations, but I’ll let it be for now. Today is a new day, a day in which I have chosen peace for the beginning of my Lenten journey. Typically, the way I find peace is through music. So Pandora is on my sacred music station today. It would be an understatement to say that the music has lifted me today and has almost made yesterday’s fiascoes a dim memory.

As I listened, a song from my past brought sweet memories. Years ago, before I learned to renounce masculine pronouns to refer to God, I was inspired greatly by these words: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” We sang this Gospel song often to remind us of hope, of perseverance, of God’s faithfulness and of Christ’s resurrection. Today, those words and that melody on Pandora reminded me of those exact things. In spite of masculine pronoun referring to God, the music moved me as it has always done. The message has not changed. God has not changed. My faith in Christ has not changed. Thanks be to God!

Here’s my truth as I follow my Lenten path, the abiding truth: “Tomorrow” for me seems murky, with the path ahead unknown and somewhat disconcerting. I do not know if I will receive a kidney transplant or live on daily dialysis for the rest of my life. I do not know what tomorrow promises.

But this is as it has always been — before illness and after. I never knew what tomorrow would bring, even in those days when I thought I was fearlessly and fully in control of my life. So it feels like a Lenten testimony of my faith to say that I do not know what tomorrow looks like for me. Leaning into the reality of the unknown future, I feel embraced in the consoling truth that “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”

Of this, I am confident. Resting on this promise, I can move onto the Lenten path before me with refreshed hope and renewed faith. Amen.

Tending to Yourself through Lent

5C466354-43F2-463A-9C04-1ACD2A85CE01Do you ever just get tired of tending to yourself? I suppose that’s not a relevant question for a general audience. It is, however, a very relevant question for those of us who are aging and/or have chronic illnesses.

I am in those categories: aging and ill. My life changed, as many of you know, in 2014 when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease. That means my choice was dialysis for the rest of my life, a kidney transplant, or the unmentionable alternative which, very honestly, is death. I am told that without either dialysis or transplant, a person would be looking at two weeks.

So I tend to myself with all the medications, the medical appointments, the processes, the prevention measures — every day. Sometimes it feels like all day. Without a husband who is an indispensable care partner, I would be sunk. To be honest, my needs require both of us to be constantly attentive, and it is exhausting.

Still, I tend to myself, and I do sometimes get tired of having to. But I tend to myself largely without complaint and with unspeakable joy for the grace of being alive, of enjoying my family, my grandchildren, my creative pursuits and my “one wild and precious life” as poet Mary Oliver would call it.

Tending to myself is not just being sure to address my physical health needs. It is even more important to me to tend to my spiritual well-being. One of the things that means for me is choosing a spiritual path for my Lenten journey. I have just one day to choose. Today is Ash Wednesday, an important day for penitents. “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return” is Ash Wednesday’s message. And then we must begin our Lenten spiritual path.

I have to be honest by admitting that I have not yet chosen my path. It won’t be giving up chocolate. It won’t be as much giving as it will be receiving grace on the journey. So as I have contemplated what I will do, I have gathered some resources that I will share here.

I hope you will tend to yourself through your Lenten journey, and I pray that Lent’s forty days will find you walking your sacred path. Breathe deeply. Reflect on your life. Pay attention to your heart. Attend to your soul. Count your gifts. Speak your prayers. Consider Christ’s journey to the cross. Listen for God’s whisper. Receive the grace that comes to you.

All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
— Ecclesiastes 3:20

A FEW RESOURCES YOU MIGHT USE DURING LENT:

  • First of all, I would like to share with you the joy of walking a labyrinth or using a finger labyrinth during the days of Lent. 9889AA3B-16BB-4F9F-9B56-D883A74A49AE

You might find a labyrinth near you in a church, a park or at a spiritual retreat center. You can search at the labyrinth locator website listed below. You may also invest some creative time by making a finger labyrinth like the one pictured. Instructions  are at a link below.

Walking the labyrinth is a spiritual discipline that invites us to trust the path, to surrender to the many turns our lives take, and to walk through the confusion, the fear, the anger and the grief that we cannot avoid experiencing as we live our earthly lives.    — The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress

Walking the labyrinth clears the mind and gives insight into the spiritual journey. It is a form of walking meditation that can enhance and deepen awareness of God. Labyrinth prayer is a contemplative spiritual discipline on a simple marked path. It is based on the ancient practice of pilgrimage. 

On a pilgrimage, a pilgrim intentionally (1) leaves the world, journeying away from the noise and distractions of life, (2) eventually arrives and rests with Christ, and (3) returns home to live more deeply in God’s presence.

The labyrinth invites us to release, receive and return. Walking the labyrinth is not a newfangled technique to jumpstart your spiritual life. It is a slow, quiet, meditative practice that has historically attended to the desire to make a journey toward God. Laid in the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France around 1220, the labyrinth has been used by pilgrims for centuries.

When you experience the labyrinth, you must give yourself to the path, leaving behind the noise and hurry of life. Just as you would pack simply for a pilgrimage, you offer your load to God as you begin your prayer journey. You move slowly toward the center and toward God. 

At times you are close to the center. Further along the path, you may be farther from the center. This represents the reality of the spiritual journey. As you walk the labyrinth, you can see the center, but you can’t see how exactly you will get there, Sometimes you find you are making surprising turns that seem to take you farther away, not closer. However, if you stay on the path, you will get to the center. Then, you will follow the path from the center and move “into the world” to do justice and love mercy. Labyrinths can be a walking meditation, a spiritual practice or simply an opportunity to calm the mind and enjoy peace, quiet and reflection. 

For resources on the labyrinth, visit https://www.gracecathedral.org/our-labyrinths/

To find labyrinths, visit The Labyrinth Society’s website: https://labyrinthlocator.com

For instructions on making a finger labyrinth, visit https://heatherplett.com/2015/01/make-finger-labyrinth-also-piece-art/

  • Living Well Through Lent 2019:
    Practicing Forgiveness with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind

    Living Compass offers a daily email devotional throughout Lent. You will receive forty-seven daily emails, one for each day of Lent, plus Easter. The emails will begin on Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019. If at any point you no longer want to receive the emails, you can unsubscribe at any time.  https://www.livingcompass.org/lent”>https://www.livingcompass.org/lent</
  • And my personal favorite, LIFT EVERY VOICE

PrintLift Every Voice is a Lenten resource from 2016 that is still relevant in 2019. It addresses America’s original sin of racism through the lens of Ignatian spirituality and includes daily readings. From Ash Wednesday through Easter Sunday, voices from throughout the Ignatian network will lament racial injustice in our communities and reflect on how the Gospel calls us to repent, pray, and act in solidarity with those affected by an enduring legacy of systemic and personal racial discrimination. https://ignatiansolidarity.net/lent-2016/

Hallelujah!

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Those of us who are Jesus people should take note that there are only two days left for “Hallelujahs!” Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that marks two significant things: first, Jesus begins his journey to his crucifixion; and second, we, if we choose to, will join Christ’s journey by traveling our own spiritual journey through the forty days of Lent.

Each of us finds his or her own spiritual path through these Lenten days. Some might enter into a time of self-reflection. Others want to realign their lives to a clearer focus toward God. Some choose to give up things while also taking on life-giving practices. Still others focus on repentance, and others intend to rid themselves of distractions and selfish desires. Some of us just need to take these Lenten days to breathe, slow down, contemplate life, listen for God’s whisper.

How we spend our Lenten days may include prayer, fasting, meditation, Bible reading, taking focused labyrinth walks, service to others, reading poetry, and many other disciplines that can draw us closer to God. 

In two days, some of us might choose one of these Lenten disciplines. But until then, we can fill our hearts with hallelujahs as we contemplate the many life graces we have received. So today, I want to proclaim “hallelujah!” for a caring and loving husband . . .

for a family that is present for me when I need them, 

for a place to live that is more than just a house, 

for a church family that is community for me, 

for my medical care team who take such good care of me, 

for friends from afar who make the effort to continue to build our friendship in spite of the many miles that separate us, 

for friends nearby who listen and love and care, and then listen some more. 

Hallelujah!

Hallelujah for all of that. And Hallelujah for a good and graceful God who gives us life and breath!

Hallelujah!

So I invite you to shout out a few hallelujahs for all the graces of your life. And after the hallelujahs, may you take your journey through a Holy Lent, and on the journey, find quiet joys and a peaceful path. Amen.

 

 

I invite you to listen to a beautiful arrangement of Michael Cohen’s “Hallelujah” performed by Pentatonix here:

Resurrection People

C1D1BB39-1AD2-4D57-8ED7-8464718B35D8On Resurrection Sunday, I cry joy-tears — every time, without fail. For me, holding on to my emotions on Resurrection Sunday is impossible. After going through Lent, after hearing again of the betrayal Jesus experienced, after witnessing the suffering and execution of Christ, after acknowledging anew that Christ’s sacrifice was for the whole world and for me, I celebrate Christ’s resurrection. And when I do, I just cry.

But on Resurrection Sunday 2018, I wept with a heavy heart and a flood of memories. I thought of Easters past and the people of God with whom I celebrated. All of those precious friends now live miles away, others live in heaven. I was their pastor, and that is as holy a relationship as I can describe.

I walked with them through joy and tragedy, through days of health and days of illness, through crushing family problems, through death and divorce. But through every devastation, we celebrated Resurrection Sundays in our beautiful monastery chapel, in our little country church in small town Arkansas, at an altar on a lakeside, in the baptismal waters. We celebrated our covenant, our deep friendship, and gave thanks for the grace that gifted us with those relationships.

We were a fun and creative group. With some of them, I cut and stitched and glued and appliqued huge banners proclaiming, “Christ Is Risen!” With others, I burned palm branches for Ash Wednesday. With others, I lifted up the wooden cross onto thevaltar of the church sanctuary. And with others, I wandered through the woods searching for dogwood blossoms to adorn the wooden cross. I most fondly remember a circuitous and hilarious trek through the forest with Ethel.

Ethel was a true jewel, one of a kind. Never would you find a more loyal and loving parishioner than Ethel, who will always be known as the persevering founder of our church. She refused to let it fail. She was persistent and feisty and determined. And because of her, the church still stands firm, even now that she is gone.

But getting back to our trek in the forest, I have to say that Ethel was one of those unstoppable “elderly” people. She could barely walk at times because she suffered with a muscle disease that weakened her legs. But she pushed her way through the forest that day, leading me, pushing aside the limbs, vines and thorns, and dauntlessly creating our path over rocks and depressions in the ground. We were looking for a thorn tree . . . you guessed it . . . to use in making a crown of thorns.

Eventually we found a perfect thorn vine with angry-looking three-inch thorns on it. We carefully hauled it through the woods, trying to avoid getting stabbed by one of those sharp thorns. Then we put it in a bathtub full of water to soften it. When we began to bend it into a crown shape, we both sustained painful thorn wounds. Never to be deterred, Ethel managed to shape and finally fasten the two ends together, and the prickly vine became the crown of thorns that we used for many years.

When we placed it for the first time on the Good Friday cross during the church service, I wept. Many of us wept. We were like that because we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah.

He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.

Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.

But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth . . .

— Isaiah 53:3-7, KJV

We knew that after the suffering, the resurrection would most surely come. Through the passion and emotion of Good Friday, we wept. But we wept even more when the stark cross flowered on Easter morning, when we lit the Christ candle, when the black shroud was removed, and when we draped the cross in glistening white cloth.

So on Resurrection Sunday 2018, while singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,”I wept with tears of gratitude, gratitude for the people of God through the years who made my Easters such sacred experiences of worship.

Ethel, Barbara, Johnnie, April, Bo, Michael, Stan, Dianna, Eric and Emily, Ann, Sister Bernadette, Gail, Noah, Wendell, Pat, Joyce, Suzette, Deborah, Cindy, Barbara Fay, Regina, Tonya, Vallory, Leroy, Mary, LaVante, Shirley, Ken, Steve, Jenna . . .

So many names! So many others. My memories of them brought me to tears on Easter Sunday. I saw them in my mind and remembered our shared times of worship. They are Resurrection people all, people who know how to proclaim Christ’s resurrection with passion, devotion and celebration. For all of them, today I give thanks.