Uncommon Commoners

 

1B1EF9A9-9872-4163-9F93-36F39A9239F8

Terlingua, Texas. Astrophotography of the Milky Way over a field of Chisos bluebonnets.

As I write today, I think of all the ways we are ordinary extraordinary folk. We are complex at times, immersed in thoughts deep and weighty. In the next moment, we may well find ourselves acting like common, ordinary people that avoid deep thoughts at all costs.

We are divergent. We are a kind of paradox, common and uncommon all at once.

I recently saw the stunning photograph featured in today’s blog post. I was intrigued that a photographer was gifted enough to capture the juxtaposition of common flowering bluebonnets and the ethereal brilliance of the Milky Way. It is the kind of breathtaking image that makes me stop in my tracks, suspend time for a moment, and lose myself in the idea of earth and sky.

I studied the common bluebonnets and the uncommon Milky Way above them. And I wondered, “Is there something extraordinary in my ordinary life? Am I just a simple, common person? Or is there something uncommon that lives with the common in me? Inside me, in that place that even I do not fully understand, does common and uncommon grow together, entwined and twisted into one?”

As I pondered these questions that made little sense to me at the time, I read a piece written by my friend, Ken Sehested. I knew instantly that I would borrow one of his intriguing thoughts.

Uncommon commoner.

It worked for me. It defined me, the common part of me and the not-so-common part of me. You see, like most people, there is more to me than anyone can see. All of us can claim that. We are a people that can gaze skyward at the Milky Way while we sit on the ground in a patch of bluebonnets. We are a people of inner strength and resilience, the kind of resilience that makes it possible for us to endure whatever life throws at us and live to tell the story. We are a people with the kind of resilience that makes us uncommon commoners.

I know this because I have seen it time and time again up close and personal. I know this because I have stood at the bedside of a dying woman who was singing hymns of praise to God. I know this because I have kept vigil with a mother who witnessed her son being removed from life support after an accident, and as it was happening, she began to pray through her heavy sobs of grief. I know this because I walked out of the emergency room with her while she shared cherished, happy memories of the son she had just lost.

Uncommon commoners.

Ken Sehested made this so clear with these words.

What makes all of us commoners uncommon is when we experience the pain of trauma up close and personal, find the resilience to endure, take a hammer of righteous rage to that trauma and pound it on the forge of conviction that another world is possible, another way will open if we hold out, hold on, hold up, and hold over . . .

— Ken Sehested

Ah yes. We have seen, and we will see again, the pain of trauma. We will find within ourselves the resilience to endure. We will “hold out, hold on, hold up, hold over” because God has graced us with hope, enduring and abiding hope.

Life will always give us — uncommon commoners that we are — vivid fields of bluebonnets growing in the dirt and a sparkling Milky Way in the sky above. 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.

Guard Your Heart

FF412EF2-E311-4F00-9859-65D0582E5935A heart can break so easily. Life is filled with heartbreaking things, and no person is immune to heartbreak. Hurt from one’s children, the loss of a loved one, a marriage rife with anger, abuse by a trusted person, betrayal by a lifelong friend — all of these can leave a heart crushed.

How important it is, though, to find healing for our hearts, to find the healing balm that will ease the pain. We recall the comfort of Scripture that says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We lean on the everlasting arms that always hold us, we rest on the promise that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” (Psalm 147:3) and we hear again the tender words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

— Psalm 34:18

So we take these promises into our souls, and we give ourselves the time we need to heal our broken hearts. To be sure, the healing depends upon letting enough time pass for restoration to happen. Never do we heal on a swift timetable. The clock must move and the days must pass on our heartbreak. The weeks may well turn into months, even years. Yet we move ahead with confidence in our resiliency and faith in the Great Healer who abides with us for as long as it takes.

The final message is this: Be patient, but persevering, for the healing of your heart must be a life priority. Always guard your heart. Believe in the healing that will surely come. Know that your broken heart will mend as it rests in the hands of the One who heals every broken heart, every time, always.

Why is healing so important? It’s all about “the springs of life.”

Above all else, guard your heart,
For from it flow the springs of life.

— Proverbs 4:23

“Are you upset, little friend?”

D25377E5-4CFD-428B-91CC-ADAA40BFA492

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.

Me Too: Wounds of the Spirit, Scars of the Soul

95CD73CB-3B8E-44AB-B1F4-4057D76D838FFor weeks now, women have been making heart-rending declarations — “Me too,” they cry, as they reveal their experiences of past sexual abuse. As for me, I say, “me too.” Add my name to the mournful list of women who have endured the pain of sexual trauma.

I was sexually abused literally dozens of times, by many men. The abuse began when I was about four years old and continued throughout my years as a young child. Sexual abuse did not stop through my teenage years. And even as an adult I faced sexual violation. Never, not one time, was it consensual.

Questions always bombard sexual abuse victims:

Who was the man who sexually abused you?

It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me. You would refuse to believe that I was sexually abused by more than one teacher, by a coach, by a Baptist deacon, by a Baptist missionary, by an employer, by my father and several of his poker playing friends. You wouldn’t believe it because you know them to be “moral, upstanding men” who are a part of your community.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?

I did tell. I told many people about every act of sexual abuse I endured, naming every man who hurt me. But I knew all the while that people simply would not take my accusations seriously.

Didn’t you believe that telling might have brought these men to justice and have prevented them from abusing other children?

No, I did not believe those men who caused me suchbdeep hurt would ever face the consequences of their crimes, because most of the people I did tell simply did not believe me. The men were known and respected and no one wanted to challenge that.

Why did you wait so many years to tell?

There are several aspects to this question. First of all, as I said, I did tell certain people who didn’t believe me. Not being believed serves to silence a victim who just doesn’t want to be labeled a liar, an attention seeker, a trouble maker, or worse, an emotionally unstable person.

Secondly, and most importantly, the passing years never take away the pain for someone who has been sexually violated. Sexual abuse is something you never forget. After 55 years, I still remember the time of day, being called into the teacher’s office next door to the classroom, the way he smelled, everything he said and did, and exactly what I was wearing. He was a person I had looked up to and admired. But on that day, he inflicted a permanent wound of my spirit which would become a scar on my soul. Once again, I mourned the loss of my childhood, of the innocence of a young child.

In these days, newsfeeds are constantly reporting the allegations of victims coming forward to say “me too.”  The women have named their abusers — Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck, Roger Ailes, Lockhart Steele, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, John Besh. Roy Price, Chris Savino, and the list goes on to name perpetrators in present time and perpetrators from the past. I do not say this lightly, but I have wondered just how many men might be holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that their victim(s) won’t expose them.

Wounds of my my spirit, scars of my soul

The unspeakable wounds heal in time, but the soul’s scars remain. And every reminder through these many years — a smell, a memory, a color, a song, and the cries of the women who are saying “me too” and telling the stories of their abuse. All of these are triggers that bring back the sharp, stabbing pain of the old wounds from long past. That’s what I have lived with throughout my entire life— multiple assaults, multiple times, multiple men.

We can come forth and tell our stories. We can give voice to our spirit’s wounds, no matter how far in the past they may be. We can speak of our soul’s scars. But the reality is that we will be judged as women who have fabricated a false story of sexual abuse for some sort of personal gain.

How dare we ask why a woman would wait forty years to bring light to this kind of story! For since the day it happened, she lives with vivid memories, feelings of shame, fear of relationships, the disappointment of betrayal by someone she may have admired. There is a catch in her throat when she speaks of it, and there are tears, lots of tears along the way.

Wounds of the spirit, Scars of the soul

The writing of Saint Francis de Sales describes the depth of this kind of pain with this thought:

The soul is aware of the delicate wound . . . as though it were a sharp point in the substance of the spirit, in the heart of the pierced soul . . . This intimate point of the wound . . . seems to make its mark in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences . . . feels.

– Living Flame of Love 2.1

So is it any wonder that this kind of wound would leave a permanent scar on the soul?

I am deeply saddened, but also gratified, that so many women are speaking out. I hope beyond hope that their courageous stories will give light to a dark, dark sin that has destroyed so many people for so many years. I pray that we will have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to crush the societal culture of abuse and violence and in its place create safe spaces free of fear for every person, every child, every young girl, every woman.

At times, I really want to expose every single man that abused me. But I want peace more. I want a serene spirit and a quiet soul. I want to rest in a prayerful place where my heart can call out to a God that desires for us a world of peace, communities of care, homes that are havens of safety. I want to see God ennoble people of faith to wrap their arms around the hurts, pray for God’s light to dispel the darkness, and live out their sacred calling to be agents of a better, more excellent way. May God make it so.

 

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.

How Long, O Lord?

DesignThe mass shooting in Las Vegas leaves us enraged. And confused. And heartbroken.

Heartbroken describes us best as we find ourselves dealing with an inescapable and horrific truth that our world is not a safe place. Once we take that into our souls, we begin to live life as victims, refugees from all that is good. The television news is filled with the stories of heartbroken people whose loved ones were gunned down at a “fun-filled” event. As people of faith, our lives are interwoven with the lives of the victims and survivors of the Las Vegas tragedy. So yes, although we were not there and did not experience the massacre, we are heartbroken, too.

We are heartbroken because of lives lost. We are heartbroken because brothers and sisters must mourn the death of persons they loved. We are heartbroken because those that survived the Las Vegas shooting now live with relentless survivor’s guilt. We are heartbroken because a healthy family event filled with music violently lost its melody. We are heartbroken because violence reigns in the world. We are heartbroken because we do not have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to change the climate of violence through responsible weapon control legislation.

But we have been heartbroken before, far too many times. Orlando, Fort Hood, Killeen, Virginia Tech, UT Austin, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, among others. We have been heartbroken before, and nothing changed. Our broken hearts did not result in courageous spirits willing to persevere, persist and insist on creating change in our culture of violence.

Dan Hodges made this very sad statement in 2015.

In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. Gun control debate. Once America decided that killing children was bearable, it was over.

The facts, though, convict us of irresponsibility and refusal to effect change. The Guardian published a chart — America’s Gun Crisis in One Chart — that reveals the troubling truth: 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/oct/02/america-mass-shootings-gun-violence) The chart, updated on October 2, 2017, reports 1,719 deaths and 6,510 injuries.IMG_5997

People of faith lament and grieve, asking God for answers. Like the Prophet Habakkuk who prayed for help in a time of trouble, we cry out to God.

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, “Violence!” Yet You do not save.

Why do You make me see iniquity,
And cause me to look on wickedness?
Yes, destruction and violence are before me;
Strife exists and contention arises.

– Habakkuk 1:2-3 NASB

I would never presume to know the mind and heart of God, but I imagine that God’s answer to our question, “How long, O Lord?” might sound something like this.

How long, you ask. Long enough for you to stand courageously for what is right. Long enough for you to develop the political will to seek change through advocacy in the halls of Congress. Long enough for you speak truth to power, constantly and persistently until a new day of peace and safety dawns in your nation. Do not cry, “Peace, peace where there is no peace.” Instead cry out, “Change! Change! Change now, because God desires to comfort your broken heart and wills for you a world of safety, well being, and holy peace.”

May God grant us the courage and the perseverance to make it so.

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.

Out of the Darkness

Design

The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds
that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light . . .

– Excerpt from “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” by poet Malcolm Guite

Out of the bombing in Manchester emerge brokenhearted families — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children. We live in a brokenhearted world. We wonder what we might do with our broken hearts. Do we respond with anger, sorrow, disinterest? Do we chalk it up as just another tragedy that is inevitable in a world of terrorism and unbridled violence? How must we respond in a way that honors our faith in the Prince of Peace?

I certainly do not have answers to all the questions we may be asking in the face of this tragedy, but these things I know. We must stand firmly, always, for peace. We must speak boldly when our words might ease violence. We must pray without ceasing for a world without violence, and hope constantly for a world that is gentle and hospitable for every person.

Finally, as poet Malcolm Guite writes, we must raise our voices in the strength that comes after weakness. We must sing on, people of God, for our songs might just help bring the world out of darkness into God’s wondrous light!

. . . You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

– 1 Peter 2:9, NIV