Despair, Fear, Hope, Life Journeys, Life pathways

When There Was No Road

Superior National Forest emcompasses much of the Northeastern corner of Minnesota and is bordered by Lake Superior to the east, Canada to the North. Hiking trail to Eagle Mountain

Hope is like a road in the country;
there was never a road, but when many people walk on it,
the road comes into existence.

Author, poet, critic and Chinese literary giant Lu Xun. (Lu was a pen name; his real name was Zhou Shuren.)

I have stumbled upon places where there was no road and no way to move forward. I am mulling over the poet’s affirmation that ”Hope is like a road in the country.” I know a little about hope, a little less about country roads, and even less about walking trails in a forest. I also know many, many people who hang on to hope through every narrow, rocky path they encounter. These hope-filled ones follow the path ahead of them and persist on their journey, in spite of the reality that the path is steep, arduous and sometimes not beaten down enough to walk on.

That’s the important thing about paths—that travelers might walk on one for years when it is barely passable, beating it down for smoother walking. It’s called a beaten path. I imagine you have walked some beaten paths.


Even I have walked a few, like when I was just a wee girl. The path for me was a short one, but nevertheless ominous. It went from my back yard to Miss Martha’s back yard next door. But wait! You must know that the path also led us to Miss Martha’s plum tree, filled with delicIous plums just waiting for my brothers and me to devour. We felt hope every time we got to the tree and began to shake it so that the plums would come tumbling to the ground. We hoped—until we heard Miss Martha’s shrill, frightening voice yelling, ”Get away from my plum tree!”

Because we so feared Miss Martha, hearing her loud voice chastening us made us run immediately home and into the house. We also knew she would tell our Yiayiá (grandmother), and we feared that too. Like Miss Martha, Yiayia could give rise in us the most daunting fear of all. We hoped for plums that day, but got fear instead.

Fear can be the enemy of hope, which brings us back to our path. The poet says to us that hope is like a country road. While reading the poet’s words, I imagine reaching a place where is no road and no way forward—a situation of facing a path without much hope. But there is hope after all! Because many people had walked on the path, it was eventually beaten down. Now the people could travel on with hope. There was an open way, a possible path. There was hope.

What’s the message in this parable-like tale? Just this. All of us walk a journey that leads us to pleasant places as well as to sorrowful and terrible places. No one can make the pilgrimage we call life without encountering rough and rocky roads and impassable paths along the way. They are the places that hold the power to steal our hope and leave us paralyzed.

I know how it feels to lose hope. I have known abuse, violence, illness, betrayal, loss, grief. And I have known it first hand, these things that took my hope. I can also bear witness that my hope has returned many times, just in time, but not before I had to struggle with the real, deep despair of absent hope. When I stood at the entrance of the way where there was no way, at the beginning of the path that was impassable and impossible, I often thought of this testimony of hope and faith found in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9; 16-17.

We are hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed;
we are perplexed, but not in despair;
persecuted, but not forsaken;
cast down, but not destroyed . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart.
Even though we are outwardly perishing,
the inner place in us is being renewed day by day.

For our light affliction, which is but for a moment,
is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.

Yes, you and I may feel cast down and almost crushed by the weight of the world. We may feel the strongest despair. But we must know that, even on this day of threats and pandemics, some of our paths will be smooth and passable. We will feel hope when we least expect it. Hope will surprise us and flood us with grace, directly at the juncture of our despair. A beaten path might appear before us today—right now—and invite us to travel from fear to hope.

May it be so for all of us.

Alone, “I Can See Clearly Now”, Darkness, Daybreak, Faith, God's love, God's presence, Hope, journey, Life Journeys, Life pathways, Light

Protection from Nothing

Sunrise at Collegeville Institute ~ Photography by Bryan Whitfield

God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!

Jim Finley

I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.

God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.

So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?

In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
(Hebrews 11:1)

To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:

Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .

Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?

What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?

We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.

I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”

The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.

If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!

I believe it by faith.

I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . .
I walk in footsteps of God’s love.

I see His footsteps in the way,
And follow them through darkest night,
Unafraid, I stumble not,
In the glow of perfect light,
I see.

I walk in footsteps of His love,
And find His light leads on before,
Then He gently turns to me,
Softly whispers, “trust Me more,
I walk.

Then as I follow in His way,
My path ahead will brightly shine,
For in His path of guiding light,
I find His footsteps first,
Then mine.

Aging, anxiety, Awareness, Beauty of Nature, Bishop Steven Charleston, Change, Faith, Forest, Grace, life, Life Journeys, Living Hope, Pondering, Spirit

Pondering a Soul in Transit

“A soul in transit.” What does that phrase even mean? It sounds a bit ominous to me, like something bad couched in flowery language. Maybe like words of a poem that make little sense because they point to something otherworldly. Perhaps it means something related to a soul that lives, gets old, and dies — in transit from birth to death and beyond. Pondering!

I’m not up for those thoughts right now, because I am in the troubling place of feeling old sometimes. It’s something like aging anxiety, I think. Feeling old should not be so surprising to me since I really am kind of old. But sometimes I feel old in a bad way, the way that sends negative thoughts through my mind. Thoughts like . . .

I can’t do much anymore,
I don’t feel well most of the time,
my joints hurt,
or even, I may die soon.

It is not helpful for my soul to entertain such thoughts, even though some of them are downright truth. Pondering! You have probably heard that “getting old is not for sissies.” It holds some truth, I imagine, for those of us who have come face to face with normal aging, aging that feels not so normal at all. But what about the great juxtaposition? What about the positive exercise that puts thoughts side by side so that we can see what is life-giving instead of what is troubling? For instance . . .

I am old. — I am wise.

I feel weak. — My spirit is strong and still vibrant.

My back aches when I exert myself. — I can still move.

So much for pondering juxtaposed thoughts. They may not be all that helpful, although re-imagining so that we recognize what is spirited and sparkling about ourselves can be very helpful. Still my words on this subject are pretty empty. I think I need assurance from someone else’s words, and I can’t help but turn to a very wise and insightful spiritual guide, Bishop Steven Charleston, whose thoughts are captivating, enlightening and filled with wisdom. And on top of that, the wise bishop is the one who offered up the phrase, “a soul in transit” in the first place.

We will not grow old, not in spirit. In mind and body, yes, we will age as all things age, all making the pilgrimage through time to find the place of sources. But in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience. It is what we were sent here to be and to do. Our spirit, a soul in transit, has a life outside of time. It will not grow old because it is on loan from a source more ancient than time itself.

Bishop Steven Charleston

Still pondering! I see more clearly that the “soul in transit” has “a life outside of time.” Eternal! That is what our faith has taught us for generations, for ages, always. But it is a truth that we can barely fathom, much less find comfort in. It’s not so easy to accept a truth that ultimately represents death, even if it includes that timeless and stunning place that is called eternity. The introductory words of 1 Peter give us a most glorious glimpse of eternity, a living hope.

May grace and peace be yours in abundance. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.

— 1 Peter 1: 2-5 NRSV


Pondering still as I ask, “what does it all mean for me, the words, the images?” I feel much like the Psalmist who said, “my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” (Psalm 131:1) And yet, I do search and struggle with the thought of aging, of what it means for me and of what comes next. I hear the words:

“. . . in our spirit, no, we will not grow old. The child that was us will run forever through the fields. The dreams we spun from the fine wool of cloud watching will forever lead us to the next wonder that awaits us. The love we knew, so quiet, so life giving, will always be there to lift us up and hold us close. The spirit of life is eternal. It does not diminish. It does not forget. It does not alter. The spirit within us is the sum total of our sacred experience.”

I hear the words, and the spirit of me understands, even if my mind does not. When I write, I ponder deeply. In my pondering this day, I am compelled to admit that I definitely feel the sting of aging. I am very human, after all! But I can usually move from anxiety to a good kind of awareness. That good awareness shows me that it is comforting to hold on tightly to the thought that the spirit is eternal, that my spirit is eternal. Dwelling on aging isolates me, but knowing in my heart that my spirit is eternal is a grace-gift that sets me free to really live.

I know from experience that pondering can be hurtful, leading me through all kinds of unpleasant scenarios. But sacred pondering, the kind that allows one’s faith to sit with a problem until it seems acceptable, can open the mind and heart to the eternal and empower us to see the plans for good that God has for us, “a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

So, after a time of sacred pondering, I am blessed with a fresh awareness. I can see more clearly God’s truth that my spirit will remain with my grandchildren, always. My spirit will hold on to the sweet love I have known. My spirit will immerse itself in the beauty of nature that has always been present. My spirit will run through the fields like a young person, and through the forests, it will love the trees I have always loved.

My body will do what bodies do, but my spirit will not die and will not grow old!

Thanks be to God. Amen.

“I Can See Clearly Now”, Beginning again, Bright Monday, Bright Week, Celebration, Change, Christ’s Resurrection, Community, coronavirus, Daybreak, Easter Monday, Isolation, journey, Joy, Lent, Life Journeys, Resurrection, Rev. Kathy Manis Findley, sunrise, Sunshine, Together

Bright Monday

Bright Monday Out of Darkness ~ Digital image by Kathy Manis Findley

Bright Monday is here! You might be wondering if “Bright Monday” is even a thing. It is, in fact. Just keep reading.

I suppose when you and I look back on all that we experienced throughout Lent — what thoughts we had, what emotions we felt, what we wrote or said, what we saw and heard, what was painful and what was dark — we might see our experience through many facets. We have had to look at our multilayered experiences alone for the most part, because many of us are still in full or partial Covid isolation. You know that isolation, the one that has made Lent 2021 even more somber, quiet and reflective than Lents past have been. Doesn’t Covid seem to do that — magnify the parts of our lives that are disheartening and make them worse? Being alone has been one of the hardships of this Lenten journey, at least for me. I was forced to look at my Lenten experiences alone, for the most part, and I discovered that making some journeys alone can be emotionally and spiritually detrimental to the soul.

Someday we would do well to look our experience of this past Lent together, with our faith community. Someday we shoukd gather up all of our memories of Lent 2021, look through them together and realize that some of them held pain and some of them held joy — all at once — pain and joy intermingled. Still, we have journeyed through the darker days of this Lent — each of us walking alone and separated at times, but walking together, side by side at other times. Together or alone, we have arrived today to Easter Monday, Bright Monday. We are here, “out of the darkness and into the light!” We are here in the light, together!

Practically speaking, what does happen on Easter Monday? You may be asking the same thing, and you may even say, “We’ve walked some hard roads through Lent, we have endured the darkness of Holy Week, we have celebrated Easter. But, come Monday, its all over!” You might be right. After looking at a few websites and a few religious websites, I learned that nothing happens today! Nothing happens on Easter Monday! But how can that be true? After the drama of Good Friday, the depression of Black Saturday and the pure joy of Resurrection Sunday, surely something remarkable must happen today.

Did you know that all over the world Christians celebrate this day. If we look at other religious traditions, this day is called “Bright Monday” and is it the first day of “Bright Week.” For Christians, Bright Monday is the first day of our renewed, restored and resurrected lives. It is also the first day of Jesus’s 40 days on earth before he ascended to heaven — the time in Christian history when Jesus appeared to believers, healed the sick, raised the dead, spread the word of God and set the believers on the path of becoming God’s Body and building God’s Church. How wonderful is that!

Looking back to the story of Jesus we have just told and remembered, I wonder what the disciples and other followers who loved Jesus would tell us about what happened on Easter Monday. Just imagine you are Mary or Peter or any of the other disciples. How would you feel? What would you be saying to others? Would you shake off the events of the last few days and just go back to work thinking,“Wow, that was some weekend!”

You would probably be stunned, confused, overjoyed, disoriented and asking yourself, “Did that really happen? Is this a dream? Is Jesus really alive?”

It was real on that first Bright Monday! All of it was real! It is still real on this Bright Monday! It is unbelievable Good News! Because of the empty tomb, because of Christ’s act of love in his darkest hour, Bright Monday can only be called a bright, sunlit and wonderfully sunshiny new day! We can see clearly now! Everything has changed!

Let us offer praise to the God of all things bright! Let us see ourselves standing in the light and warmth of the sun! Let us sing in the sunshine! Let us continue our Resurrection celebration into this Bright Week, because what was dark has now become bright!

Every good and perfect gift is from above. It comes down to us from the God of lights,
with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

James 1:17 (paraphrased)

You, my children, are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation,
God’s own people, and you will proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called you
out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

I Peter 2:9 (paraphrased)

Thanks be to God that you and I were called by God to come out of the darkness and to stand in God’s marvelous light!

Happy Bright Monday to you!

Song: “I Can See Clearly Now”
Artist: Johnny Nash

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

I think I can make it now, the pain is gone
All of the bad feelings have disappeared
Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

Look all around, there’s nothin but blue skies
Look straight ahead, nothin but blue skies

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone . . .

Comfort, Contemplation, Courage, Discernment, Discovering, Feelings, Freedom, God's presence, God’s promises, journey, Life Journeys, Meditation, Memories

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.

anxiety, Art, Comfort, Courage, Despair, God’s promises, grief, Hope, Life Journeys, Soul, struggle, Suffering, Transformation, Uncategorized

Hope and the Soul’s Struggle

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Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.

My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.

As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.

For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .

— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)

When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)

How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?

I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.

This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.

May God make it so.

As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,

May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)

Amen.

I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

anxiety, Community, Darkness, Death, Despair, discouragement, healing, Heartbreak, Indecision, journey, Lament, life, Life Journeys, Life pathways, Mystery, Restoration, Sorrow, Spirit, struggle, Tears, Thin Places, Yiayia

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.

IMG_5744
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.

 

Beginning again, Bravery, Calling, Challenge, Compassion, Courage, Dangerous and noble things, Discernment, Following Christ, Holy Spirit, Insight, Inspiration, journey, Kidney Transplant, Life Journeys, mercy, Passing years, Pondering, Questions, Repairing broken things, Spirit, Spirit wind, Urgency, Weeping

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

anxiety, Comfort, Community, Compassion, Emotions, Faith, Fear, God's presence, God’s promises, Grace, grief, healing, Irish Blessing, Isolation, Life Journeys, Soul

You Do Not Walk Alone

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Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.

— Joshua 1:9

Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.

In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.

It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.

What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.

The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.

One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”

Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.

Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.

So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.

I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.

Bible, Challenge, Comfort, Community, Compassion, Covenant, Emotions, Faith, Family, Fear, Friends, Friendship, God's presence, God’s promises, Isaiah, Isolation, Jephthah's Daughter, Judges 11, Life Journeys, sadness, Stories

The Sign at the Car Wash

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Every Monday morning my routine is the same: wake up early, go get weekly labs drawn.

I have memorized the routine and the route, so I rarely spot anything new or exciting along the way. Until today! It was at the car wash at the intersection just before we enter the ramp onto the interstate. Their colorful LED SIGN caught my eye. On the sign were words I had never seen on that sign before. The words?

Do not be afraid, for I am with you. Do not fear, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.

— Isaiah 41:10 NLT

Normally, I’m not a big fan of sacred scripture rendered in LED. It seems a bit sacrilegious to me. So why did it catch my eye today? And not only did it catch my eye, it reached right into my deeper place. It poked on my heart and grabbed my spirit today. As I mulled over this passage of scripture over the next few minutes, I determined that it was worth remembering, worth my time to dig a little deeper into what it means and why it captured my thoughts today.

It certainly wasn’t the setting or the art that illustrated it. The art, I recall, was bubbles! Just your everyday, predictable car wash bubbles! Not so inspiring. Yet the text lingered with me a while and, obviously, seemed blog-worthy.

So here I am in a place of just a little awe that I might have received a holy message this morning. I am in awe at receiving a word of comfort urging me not to be afraid and promising me the protection of the Most High God. The words were not, “God is with you.” The message given especially to me this day was, “I am with you. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up.”

And all of that on a car wash LED sign illustrated by bubbles!

Even in frightening days like these, days that have brought a deadly virus spreading across the world, we can bury this promise from God deeply within our hearts for the times we need it most . . . “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

Yes, I feel fear that the virus will come closer to home, as most of us do. I fear for myself, for my family, for my friends, for my church family. I fear because I know that if the virus does reach into my life, I must be separated from those I love. So all that remains is this comforting promise from God, “I am with you.”

Even for a hyper-religious person like me, that doesn’t feel like enough. I need my family close, and my friends, those who have comforted me throughout my life at different points on my journey. I think maybe all of us need that, even more in these days.

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Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.
  Albert Camus

My Sunday School class meets every Sunday night, religiously, because we need one another. Our relationship is a covenant between us and among us, and so we are never afraid to be vulnerable with one another and to tell the stories of where we are, how we feel, what we fear. Our stories are mostly about how we’re making it through days of isolation, what challenges us, what frustrates us, what causes us to worry, what we’re most afraid of . . . and our stories affirm two constants: 1) God is with each of us all along the journey; and 2) We are present with each other when our journeys lead us through times of faith and through times of fear.

My community — my sisters — often bring to mind the heartbreakingly beautiful story of Jephthah’s daughter from the 11th chapter of the Book of Judges. Jephthah’s daughter was in a place of deep mourning because her father inadvertently betrayed her. She was facing death, but before her time of death, she begged her father to give her time to go up into the hills with her sisters to mourn.

Grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept.

— Judges 11:37-38

Such a sad story! Like some of our own sad stories, stories we tell only to our special, safe people. This is a good day to remember and to give thanks for my sisters, those who are nearby and those with whom I share a deep connection across many miles and decades.

Today’s blog was a little bit about sad stories, yes! But it was even more about today — a good day for me to notice an LED sign with bubbles and the comforting message: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” There is hope in those words on the LED sign. There is comfort there, even if the words are among the bubbles!

I wish for you the peace of this same assurance, that you will know beyond any doubt that God walks with you on your most frightening pathways, and that your community of friends do, too.