Weep with Those Who Weep

AD620082-4B5E-47C6-B2B0-0D553454614BWhat a caring and compassionate ministry it is to sit beside someone who is grieving and remind them of God’s grace. In recent days, I have wept for and with so many friends who are grieving for what they have lost because of the Florida hurricane. To be sure, there were losses in Georgia and in the Carolinas, but the devastation in and around Panama City was catastrophic.

Hordes of compassionate people traveled to Florida to help. They will clean up debris, repair or rebuild homes that sustained damage, do electrical work, provide help in the shelters, share their hearts and God’s heart, and stand beside families as they pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Mostly, they will weep with people, and that’s what will help more than anything else.

Author Ann Weems paints a sparkling vision with her words that speak of the “godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” But then she tells of a deafening alleluia arising from the souls of those who weep and from the souls of those who weep with them. From that weeping, Ann Weems tells us what will happen next. “If you watch,” she writes, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.”

I like to think that the caregivers who traveled to Florida did a lot of weeping with those who needed it and that they stayed near them long enough for them to “see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies one by one.” When all is lost — when you learn that your loved one has died or you stand in a pile of rubble on the ground that used to be your home — seeing the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies would be for you a manifestation of pure and holy hope.

Without a doubt, Florida is experiencing “the godforsaken obscene quicksand of life.” Their memories of this devastating time will be cruel and long-lasting. They will remember better days, neighborhoods that once thrived, schools that were destroyed and friends who are trying their best to recover. But what grieving people will remember most is the care someone gave them and the loving compassion of strangers who became forever friends. I am reminded of the words of poet Khalil Gibran:

You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.    Romans 12:15

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”

These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.

So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most. 

Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.

And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.

How Do You Live When You Know What’s Coming?

ABD2C8E4-5AA9-49EC-B771-A85BCDFBBD90How do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus might have asked himself that question when the crowds were shouting “Hosanna!” and making a big deal of the fact that he was riding into town on a donkey. The Gospel of Mark tells the story well.

Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.

Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

— Mark 11:8-11 New International Version

So how do you live when you know what’s coming? Jesus went to the temple as was his custom and then set off to Bethany with his disciples. He knew what was coming, yet he did nothing very earth shattering. He sent his disciples into the city to prepare for for the Passover meal they would share. They ate the meal together, Jesus told then they would all desert him, and each one declared that they would never do such a thing.

They did. But life went on as life does. The Gospel then continues the sorrow-filled story as Jesus goes on with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane.

. . . And Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”

He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated.
And said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.”

And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.

Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.”

So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Then they laid hands on him and arrested him.

— Mark 14:33-46 New Internation Versioned

So now life is earth shattering for Jesus. How do you live when you know what’s coming?

Right now in deep Lent, this is a question we probably should ask. I don’t know about you, but as for me, I know what’s coming, at least some of what’s coming. There’s aging and illness, separation from children and grandchildren, the inevitable loss of loved ones, waning energy and more loss of independence. It happens to persons of a certain age. What’s coming for me includes things that are not so positive.So how do I live when I know what’s coming?

The preacher in me wants to offer a religious platitude that minimizes the troubling reality and lifts up abiding hope. The preacher in me wants to proclaim with a great deal of passion that all will be well. The preacher in me wants to declare that whatever happens to me, God will be glorified.

How do I live when I know what’s coming?

Right smack dab through the middle of it! Living strong in the face of fear. Holding tightly to hope. Summoning my inner courage. Standing steady through the winds of change, depending on the inner resilience that has always sustained me. That’s how I live in the days I have left in this world.

But, by the way, there really is a religious word that upholds and sustains me. The preacher in me is still alive and well, so I can proclaim with great certainty the comforting truth I find in my favorite passage of scripture

You have searched me, O God,
and you know me. You know whenI sit down and when I rise;

You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways . .

You hem me in behind and before, you protect me, and you lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful, too lofty for me to comprehend.

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.

If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there shall your hand guide me and your right hand will hold me fast.

— Psalm 139:1-10 New International Version (paraphrased)

With that sacred promise and with the strength that has grown in me over many years, I really do know how to live when I know what’s coming. Thanks be to God.

14,000 Shoes

965E6AF4-46EA-445B-91E0-003F05D3284214,000 shoes placed to tell a very, very sad story.

14,000 shoes laid out so that we will never forget our history.

Seven thousand pairs of children’s shoes were lined up on the southeast lawn of the U.S. Capitol building today in memory of every child who has died due to gun violence.

The 7,000 shoes in the “Monument for our Kids” installment represent every child that was killed by gunfire since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“We are bringing Congress face to face with the heartbreak of gun violence,” said one of the activists, Oscar Soria. “All of these shoes cover more than 10,000 square feet.”

Though most of the shoes were collected in a two week period, some of those were donated by families that lost their children to gun violence.

May God grant that we never forget this national grief. May our collective mourning bring lasting change.552D1FD3-63EF-4301-8FD9-FEE605FA755D

A Prayer for Protection

Hear us, O God, protector of children.
Hear our prayer of penitence, our confession that we have failed to keep our children safe.
Hear our cries, as we shed tears of mourning for each child we have lost to gun violence.
Hear our cries of grief as we recall every danger that our children face.
Hear our voices shouting, “Enough!”
Hear our voices of commitment that make a sacred promise that we will do what must be done.
And most of all, God, ennoble us to holy action, and make us protectors of children.
We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

“Are you upset, little friend?”

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Charles M. Schulz

These days, I find myself in the very center of worry and discontent. I feel vulnerable, out of place in a new place I never expected to make my home. The problem is, I think, that I have not really made this place my home, and that reality has left me unsettled. I left forever friends behind when we moved here. I think the reason for my worry, my occasional despondency, even my fear, is that I feel alone. I recalled this week the well-known lyrics of a Carole King song from the seventies.

When you’re down and troubled
And you need a helping hand
And nothing, nothing is going right
Close your eyes and think of me
And soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.

You just call out my name
And you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again;
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you have to do is call
And I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, yeah.
You’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow;
Keep your head together
And call my name out loud, yeah
Soon I’ll be knocking upon your door . . .

It is a frightening state of being facing worry or illness or aging or loneliness, finding yourself disconsolate at times, and alone, without a loyal friend. But we have a mystical, magical force that leads us through the dark nights of the soul every time, without fail. I’ll name it faith.

A dear friend who just faced some devastating news reminded me of a deep-down, rock-solid truth about faith when she wrote, “My faith is bigger than my fear.” And that’s how we live a life filled with times of worry, aloneness, days of grief, fear, and sometimes mourning that engulfs us hard and long.

No person escapes such times, for they are an inevitable part of life. So we meet hard times face-to-face, up close, and we survive. We are, as the Bible says, “troubled on every hand, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair . . . cast down, but not destroyed,” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)

To be sure, we are left with scars of the soul and spirit. Yet we live on, knowing that after times of despondency, we are stronger than we were before. There is no deeper consolation than the words of Scripture proclaimed by the Prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they shall not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned,
Nor shall the flame scorch you.

— Isaiah 43:2

I hang on Isaiah’s words, and I have rested on them so many times when sadness overwhelmed me and fear had its way. These Isaiah words are enough, more than enough for my disconsolate times.

But then I happened upon just the right message of consolation for me in this particular time of my life. And I found it in a most unlikely place. It’s a delightful little message of real and true comfort that speaks so sweetly to me, and perhaps to all of us who need a friend and an extra boost of encouragement in a time of worry.

Are you upset little friend? Have you been lying awake worrying? Well, don’t worry . . . I’m here. The flood waters will recede, the famine will end, the sun will shine tomorrow, and I will always be here to take care of you.

― Charles M. Schulz

Amen.

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called “the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas, while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years. The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

Wounds of the Soul

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

Hurricanes and earthquakes of the soul . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

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

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

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

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

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

– Psalm 23

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

A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence — a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of “Baptist,” the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a “beloved community” in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.” One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of “faith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the dark—in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, “What is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed “the belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to “stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

We Can Overcome

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Young girls run frantically from the sound of a bomb, screaming, crying, confused, and terribly afraid. An evening of sheer joy listening to the music of Ariana Grande had turned into an evening of terror.

In a British music venue, a suicide bomb killed 22 people, some of them children. Eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos lost her life, and 59 other people were wounded, some suffering life-threatening injuries. Many others are still missing.

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester. Ariana Grande spoke about the attack: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.”

Is this a portrait of the world we live in? Must we fear for our children and lament the lives they must live? Do we place our faith in a God we sometimes question when tragedies happen?

One of my favorite Scripture passages is also one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It is found in the fifth chapter of Lamentations. The words express deep mourning and profound loss, leaving the writer asking God, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” The hurting people who had lost everything they cherished cried out . . .

Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

– Lamentations 5:15, NIV

Sometimes our dancing really does turn to mourning. All of us are acquainted with loss. Our world is a dangerous place, and tragedies like Manchester remind us of our vulnerability. So how do we live? How do we go on? How do people of God live this kind of dangerous life?

The musical group Hillsong sings “This Is How We Overcome.” The song, which is written by Reuben Morgan, echoes the celebration of the Psalmist in the fifth chapter of Psalms.

You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy.

The song continues with these words.

Your hand lifted me up. I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart and made this valley sing.

They sing of the continual presence of God, even in times of deep mourning, profound loss, and grave danger. That kind of song speaks of our faith, a faith that still holds us and always picks us up when we have fallen. Our faith is our resilience.

We can overcome. Every time. Every time life circumstances assail us and steal our music, we persist. We sing. We dance. We praise a God who is eternally near. So let us persevere, always proclaiming the source of our strength.

The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian prays this prayer.

Let us resiliently resume our dancing.
Let us sing louder. Let us speak out voices with determination.

May it be so. Amen.

(Rev. Torigian’s prayer may be found at https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/05/23/tuesday-prayer-95/.)