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 โ€œthe greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.โ€ 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,ย 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.ย The death toll from yesterdayโ€™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 โ€” always โ€” puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

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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. โ€œHurricane Maria destroyed us,โ€ 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 Rรฉbsamen 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 natureโ€™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 โ€œdisorder,โ€ 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 โ€œvalley of the shadow of death.โ€ 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 โ€” 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 โ€œBaptist,โ€ the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a โ€œbeloved communityโ€ 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, โ€œTie a knot in the rope and hang on.โ€ 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.

Thereโ€™s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesnโ€™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 canโ€™t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop timeโ€™s unfolding.
You donโ€™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 therapistโ€™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 โ€œfaithโ€ or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkโ€”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, โ€œWhat is it all for?โ€ย 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed โ€œthe belly of the beastโ€ for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to โ€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.โ€

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.ย 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.ย I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart andย 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/.)

Still in My Heart

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My new church home, First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia. ย The memory of New Millenium Church of Little Rock will remain a part of my life, still in my heart.

Yesterday marked a milestone for me. After being in Macon for almost two years, I joined the First Baptist Church of Christ. Why such a delay in finding a new church home? I have asked myself that question many times.

The delay wasn’t about the new church. I was attracted to that church instantly, and it is a good place for me to grow spiritually. My extreme hesitation was about my previous church, New Millennium Church in Little Rock.

Some of the most life-giving days of my ministry were spent serving with New Millennium as Minister of Worship.ย But there was much more about New Millennium that captured my heart. For you see, the grace-filled, loving people of New Millennium kept vigil with me during my very serious year of illness. They prayed me to health; they brought food for us every week; they brought communion to my living room when I was still too weak to move.

I grieved for almost two years after leaving my pastor, friend and colleague in ministry, Wendell Griffen. I grieved the loss of the people of New Millennium, and I simply could not open my heart to another congregation. It was most certainly an emotional attachment, a deeply spiritual attachment that I simply could not bear to replace.

The page did turn for me. I opened my heart to a new people on Sunday. They welcomed me with joy and love. But New Millennium will still be in my heart, probably forever.

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart . . .

– Philippians 1:3-7 New International Version (NIV)

Holy Ghosts

 

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“Holy Ghosts” ย Watercolor by Kathy Manis Findley

I’m not afraid of ghosts. While I was a hospital chaplain, I regularly visited a woman who was slowly recovering from a serious illness. During one of our visits, she shared with me this story.

When I pray at night, my daddy comes into the room. Now daddy has been dead for years, but still he sits with me, especially at night. I can’t really explain it, but here’s right here with me, talking to me, comforting me . . . like a holy ghost.

I think she explained it very well. I have heard similar stories from other patients, and I believe with them that the space between us and our departed loved ones is a thin veil, a sacred veil. I recently saw the following quote attributed to Reagan Courtney. “When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.”

A few months ago, I painted a watercolor entitled “Holy Ghosts.” It was dedicated to those I have loved and lost, those who hover over me with abiding love, consolation and protection . . . my dearest friend, Ethel, my brother Pete, my grandmother, my Aunt Koula.

The painting is not meant to be scary or morbid. It is just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over us for protection, those with whom we shared love and life. For you see, love does not end with death. Love is too powerful for that. And who says we cannot continue to experience love through the sacred veil that only slightly separates us from the holy ghosts that remain a part of our lives?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

– Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV

Resilient and Renewed

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Losses are a part of life’s journey. Aging brings with it frequent news of friends facing illness and even death. That cannot help but remind us of our own mortality. And yet, as I remember the joys I have experienced through the years, I also remember the losses, the times of disappointment and grief, the times of despair and pain.

Looking back, it is clear to me that the losses made me stronger. The losses made the most profound changes in me. The losses drew me closer to God’s grace and strengthened my faith. Bishop Steven Charleston writes that we come through life storms resilient and renewed. His words are so true.

Yes, the long shadows can surround us, no denying that, and yes, the losses in life are painful, leaving memories like scars within the heart, but no dark corner is the sum of our being, no hurt more lasting than love, for we are made of stronger stuff than flesh and bone, and have proved that more than once, by coming through the storm with flags flying, spirits sailing before the wind, resilient and renewed, curious creatures seeking the open sea, refusing to surrender to sorrow, but racing over the waves, high above the dark water, free souls on the path to hope, on the way to healing, the light before us shining.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

No doubt, long shadows will surround me again. My prayer is that, just as I have in the past, I will come through the storm resilient and renewed.

Broken Pieces

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Broken places. We’ve all got them.

There is no way to get through life without a broken place or two. But being broken isn’t the worst thing. We can put ourselves back together in time. We can heal at the broken places of our lives. We can accept the wounds we have experienced and know that because of them, we have grown stronger and wiser. We can courageously embrace the life history that made us who we are, and see our cracks as beautiful.

The alternative is to let our past define us, to get stuck in our brokenness and refuse to get beyond the hurt. Ernest Hemingway expressed it well in A Farewell to Arms (1929). “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

Kintsukuroi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The art is based on the understanding that the repaired piece is more beautiful for having been broken. What a wonderful philosophy to apply to our own brokenness. How wonderful to believe that we are better for having been broken.

She made broken look beautiful
and strong look invincible.
She walked with the Universe
on her shoulders and made it
look like a pair of wings.

โ€• Ariana Dancu

Ordinariness

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Life can be as ordinary as a field of common clover, all three-leaf. I sometimes get tired of ordinary. I grow weary of passing days with 24 ordinary hours, day after ordinary day. Nothing exceptional marks the days and nights. They just pass, making me wonder if I’m wasting them.

In my younger years, I had the ability to make extraordinary things happen. Not in these days. These days, it seems that my most noteworthy accomplishment is to thrive in the midst of ordinary days.

I would be lying if I said I did not miss the extraordinary days of my life. And I would be lying if I said I am not still trying to reach the extraordinary realm in some way. The truth is I am trying. I am struggling to find meaning in my present days and to cherish every day as a gift. By the way, now and then in that very ordinary field of three-leaf clover one spots a sprig with four leaves, and suddenly it is not so ordinary. It has been estimated that there are approximately 10,000 three-leaf clovers for every four-leaf clover. Even so, people still look for them and known records for finding that rare four-leaf clover have reached as high as 160,000.

Still, I make peace with ordinariness. And as I do, I pay close attention to the words written by Lindsey O’Connor.

“Sometimes mystery defies what our head knows and we feel God reach down into the ordinariness of nightly ritual and speak to our heart with a whisper.โ€

โ€• Lindsey O’Connor, The Long Awakening, a Memoir

Even in the ordinariness of ritual, I can say that God reaches down and speaks to my heart with a whisper. It is those holy moments that sustain me. An an occasional four-leaf clover.