How true it is that when we know nights of sorrow, when weeping is all we can muster, that daybreak does eventually come as it always has. And with the rising of the sun, perhaps our tears are replaced with at least some measure of inner joy.
The universe is wide and wondrous, full of love, full of grace, and sparked by freedom. Those three—love, grace and freedom—are the things we most need, all of us.
I offer you this meditation, praying that you are surrounded in love, that you know the grace that accepts every part of yourself, and that you feel the the freedom to run with the wind in wide and wondrous places, toward your dreams.
As you continue the quiet time you claim for yourself today, I hope you will be be inspired and comforted by this beautiful choral piece by the brilliant composer Elaine Hagenberg, ”All Things New.”
Poem by Frances Havergal and text adapted from Revelation 21:5-6
Light after darkness, gain after loss Strength after weakness, crown after cross; Sweet after bitter, hope after fears Home after wandering, praise after tears
Alpha and Omega Beginning and the end He is making all things new Springs of living water Shall wash away each tear He is making all things new Sight after mystery, sun after rain Joy after sorrow, peace after pain; Near after distant, gleam after gloom Love aftеr wandering, life after tomb
“Come, Ye Disconsolate” is one of my favorite hymns. You might ask why. In every person’s life, there are times of sorrow that fall very deeply into the soul. There is a sense in which deep sorrow communes with us like no other emotion. Being disconsolate can be a beautiful experience.
It is a beautiful word — disconsolate — a word full of depth and full of meaning. Yet, it is not a word we often use. It sounds a bit like an ”old” word to me, perhaps more widely used in decades past. The definition? According to Merriam-Webster, the word disconsolate means “cheerless.” I don’t find enough soul angst in that definition, but the word has many soulful synonyms.
Synonyms for disconsolate can be as heart-rending as the word itself: downcast, inconsolable, dispirited, desolate, crushed, despairing, destroyed, despondent, hopeless, heartbroken ~ comfortless
So many words, so full of sorrow. Still, I love the word disconsolate. It has been my companion on many a journey and, although I did not welcome it as an emotion, I learned to own it, which is surely the most important way to have full awareness of your spirit. The truth is, when one is disconsolate, it is an opportunity to imagine being wrapped tenderly with a soft blanket of hope. Wrapped completely, face-under-the-covers wrapped!
How can such a word remind me of a soft blanket tenderly wrapped around me? How can the soft cover be called a blanket of hope? I will offer one reason that is a personal story about my friend and colleague in ministry, Donna. When I was desperately ill with end stage kidney disease, Donna came to visit me in the hospital often. Many of those visits I can’t remember, but she came one day holding a gift in her hands. The gift was a fluffy, white crocheted blanket that her entire congregation had prayed over as they petitioned God to restore me to health.
Every time, from that day to this, that I covered myself with that blanket, I would think of Donna and her church members and their act of love and concern. I imagined them nearby and sensed their prayers becoming a part of my soul’s lament. They did not leave me comfortless.
Whenever I feel disconsolate, comfortless, it helps me to remember these words from the Gospel of John, one of the most beautifully poignant passages in all of scripture:
16 And I will pray to God who will send you another Comforter who will abide with you forever, the Spirit of truth; Sadly, the world cannot accept the Comforter, because it does not truly see her or know her. But you know her; for she dwells with you, and shall be in you.
18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you. 19 In a little while, the world will see me no more; but you see me: because I live, you shall live also.
25 These things have I spoken unto you while I am still present with you.
26 But the Comforter — the Holy Spirit — God will send in my name,
and the Spirit will teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, all the things I have said to you.
27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you: I do not give you peace as the world gives,
Instead I give you peace as if it were from God. And so, my beloved children, do not let your heart be troubled, neither let your heart be afraid. — Jesus, recorded in John 14: 16-19; 25-27, paraphrased
During the times I felt disconsolate through the years, I have always been able to rest under the comforting wings of the Spirit, the Comforter who is with me always. Yes, it is true that many times my heart was troubled and afraid. The words of Jesus did not always repair the state of my heart or diminish my fear. But the promise of Jesus — that I would not be left comfortless — soothed and strengthened my heart.
The words of this hymn held for me a depth of meaning that has spoken comfort and truth to my disconsolate spirit — every time — easing my suffering and leaving me with hope.
Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish; come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel. Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish; earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.
Joy of the desolate, light of the straying, hope of the penitent, fadeless and pure! Here speaks the Comforter, in mercy saying, “Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.”
Here see the bread of life; see waters flowing forth from the throne of God, pure from above. Come to the feast prepared; come, ever knowing earth has no sorrow but heaven can remove. Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
I have experienced the “joy of the desolate” many times. It is a joy that fills my heart, in spite of how deeply desolate I feel. As for what this all means during this Lenten season. For me, it means that a Lenten experience can help me see the ”light of the straying,” and that I will experience the ”hope of the penitent” and once again hear the words of the Comforter “in mercy saying, ‘Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot cure.’”
From this time forth and forevermore. Amen.
As you spend a few quiet moments during this Second Week of Lent, the following video of this moving hymn may give you peace and hope.
It’s part of human nature to sometimes want to hold on to the past, cling to the “good old days” and resist the change that moves us forward. Especially when days past were very, very good and prospects for the future are less good!
I, for one, find myself clinging to the past with all my might, looking at my past life as a full and exciting one and viewing my present as being a bit of an empty wilderness. I chalk it up to aging and retirement, but this sense of emptiness, sadness, is really more than that. I think it’s more about my ability to accept myself for who I am, who I will become in the future and, most of all, what I truly need in order to be at peace with myself and my world.
Our worlds change all the time, and change brings with it the question all of us must answer: Who are you in relation to this world you are now in? If before retirement I was a nonprofit executive and an advocate for victims of violence and abuse, who am I in retirement? When I no longer have to adapt to the leadership roles I used to be a part of, what “self” might I discover in these days of new things? When I no longer have to adapt to the role of pastor, what “self” might I find myself to be when there is no congregation to care for?
According to Isaiah, my go-to Prophet, God advises us not to remember “the former things” or “the things of old.” Instead God apparently makes a provocative statement and asks an even more provocative question:
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.
Do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18 NRSV
I definitely had not perceived it, that new thing! In fact, I have been languishing about losing my “former things” for the last six years, not able to make the most of my present and certainly unable to envision a bright future. It might surprise even those who know me best how deeply disconsolate I have felt at times. Six years of languishing is not a good way to live. I made a gallant effort to make the best of it, but these six years took a toll on me in most every way — physically, emotionally and spiritually. My closest friends have ridden out this storm with me, so they know what I’ve been dealing with in clinging so closely to my good past and not being able to live into a good present.
And what is this “new thing” that God speaks of? What does the way through the wilderness take me and where are the winding, refreshing rivers in the desert?
Two weeks ago, one of those close friends gave me a passage of scripture printed on a piece of paper. I received it in quite a serendipitous way. Neither of us chose the passage (Isaiah 43:18-19). It ended up with me in a very random manner. But as it spoke of former things, old things and new things, it got my attention so completely that I pondered it several times a day for a week or so. I didn’t obsess over it or look up its context or attempt to exegete it. I simply pondered it in my heart in the quiet times.
This scripture is truly a lovely God-promise, filled with a gentle, healing grace. I appreciated it for that. I also appreciated it because its words gave me the gift of sacred pause. And in the sacred pauses it gave me, I realized that the crux of this matter is not not how I react to change or how I survive it. What I discovered is that this is not about what I can do or should do when my world changes. It’s about who I am when my world changes.
With that in mind, maybe every time my world changes, I will still be the person of deep faith that I have always been. Maybe I will greet “the new things” with gratefulness, knowing that God has made before me a way in the wilderness and has provided cool, rolling rivers in the desert. And even when my soul longs for days gone by, perhaps I will know that I will see God’s light on the path ahead of me, even in the dark, even through the wilderness, even as I feel the inevitable sorrow of letting go of all the former things I so deeply cherished. Even then, I will know that I do not walk alone.
Yesterday I noticed a dogwood tree in full bloom, the first blooming dogwood I have seen this year. The sight of it did my heart good, because it reminded me that some simple and beautiful things remain. They return every year. They mark a season. They grow, and their blooms become ever more vibrant, or so it seems.
The dogwood has its own story, a lovely legend that explains the tree’s qualities. The legend holds that the tree was once very large, like a Great Oak tree, and because its wood was strong and sturdy, it provided building material for a variety of purposes. According to the story, it was the dogwood tree that provided the wood used to build the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Because of its role in the crucifixion, it is said that God both cursed and blessed the tree. It was cursed to forever be small, so that it would never grow large enough again for its wood to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Its branches would be narrow and crooked — not good for building at all. At the same time, the tree was blessed so that it would produce beautiful flowers each spring, just in time for Easter. The legend says that God it is gave it a few traits so that whoever looks upon it will never forget.
The petals of the dogwood actually form the shape of a cross. The blooms have four petals. The tips of each of the petals are indented, as if they bear a nail dent. The hint of color at the indentation bring to mind the drops of blood spilled during the crucifixion.
Diana Butler Bass tells the story like this:
There’s an old southern legend that dogwoods grew in Jerusalem — and that one gave its wood for Jesus’s cross. Because of this, the dogwood was cursed (its short stature a ‘punishment’ for being the wood of death) but it also became a blessing. Blessing? For on each twisted branch burst forth petals of lightness and light.
So let’s leave the dogwood’s story and look at our stories — your story and my story. People often use the term “storied past.” Well, a storied past is something all of us have.
In talking with a friend a few days ago, I asked, “How is your heart?” She began to tell me her story, which was a long and winding one that included many mini-stories — happy ones snd sad ones — from her life’s journey. Toward the end of her story, she said, “I feel as if I am cursed by God.” That was her bottom line answer to my question, “How is your heart?” Hers was an honest, heartbroken response that instantly revealed that her heart was not all that good, but that was a critical part of her story.
If you and I are honest, we will admit that our hearts were broken and hurting at several places in our stories. Recalling our brokenhearted times is something we always do when we tell our stories, and it’s an important part of the telling. My story and yours is never complete if we leave out the heartbroken moments, for at those points, what feels like God’s curse almost always transforms into God’s grace.
If not for our heartbroken moments, the hurting places in our hearts might never “burst forth with lightness and light.” Our heartbroken moments change us and grow us. They set us on better paths and they embrace our pain with grace. Our heartbroken moments give us pause, and in that pause, we find that once again, our hearts are good. Our broken hearts are once again peaceful hearts — healed, restored, transformed, filled with God’s grace.
How is your heart? That is a question we would do well to ask ourselves often, because languishing with our heartbreak for long spans of time can cause our stories to be stories mostly of pain. Instead, stop right here in this post for just a few moments and ask yourself, “How is my heart?”
Your answer may well be your path to a contemplative, sacred pause that can become a moment of healing, a time for God’s grace to embrace whatever is broken in your heart and to transform it into love, light and hope. So don’t be afraid to look into your heart when pain is there. In looking, you may find reasons, many and and complex, that are causing deep pain and brokenness. You may also find the healing touch of the Spirit of God waiting there for you and offering healing grace — a Godburst of new hope.
May your story be filled always with times when your was light with joy and times when your heart was broken with loss, mourning, discouragement, disappointment. Both create your extraordinary story — the joyful parts and the sorrowful parts. So tell your story again and again to encourage yourself and to give the hope of God’s healing grace to all who hear it.
I remember a beloved hymn that is a prayer for the Spirit of God to “descend upon my heart.” May this be your prayer today.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King? All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind. I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling: Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear, To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh; Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame; The kindling of the heav’n-descended Dove, My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
A passage of Scripture that encourages me every time I read it came up this week in my Advent devotional booklet entitled, “Those Who Dream.” The beauty of reflection I have found in this booklet has definitely awakened dreams in me. As I reflected on Advent Scripture each morning, God never failed to remind me that the world is in chaos in so many ways. In the year we will remember as 2020, people languished and lamented through a seemingly uncontrollable pandemic. Many people prayed, many died, many wept, and some were even able to dream.
The sacred text for this past Thursday was from the eloquent Prophet Isaiah. I have always thought of this Prophet as a realistic dreamer who never failed to paint a true picture of a world both evil and good. Isaiah had a way of proclaiming the deep need for repentance while also calling the people to dream of all that could be better and brighter. The bottom line for this Prophet was sin followed by repentance, what that would look like and what a world of righteousness would look like. Thursday’s prophetic and inspiring word was from Isaiah 61.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion — to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.
Isaiah 61:1-4 NRSV
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, ffor he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Isaiah 61:8-11 NRSV
Standing in the midst of a pandemic world with all the grave challenges before us, Advent sends us a message. The last good word in these proclamations from Isaiah tell us that our Lord will cause righteousness to spring up before us, before all nations. When righteousness has her way in us, then — and only then — will we dream again. Our dreams empowered with God’s anointing will bring the advent of righteousness.
After repentance! Only after repentance!
Look closely at Isaiah’s words and you will see anew that God has anointed us to bring good news to oppressed people, to hold in our arms those who are brokenhearted, to comfort the mourning people, to set free people who are bound with chains of their own making and finally, as the Prophet said, “to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
What Isaiah tells us after that is my dream for this Advent 2020: “They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
All around us are the ruins we have left behind from all that we have done to our world, collectively and individually. The politicians make war among themselves, increasing the chasm that divides them. The people put politics before unity and spew hate at one another. The white supremacists barrage our cities with evil. Some of our people protest the racial injustice they have long endured. Hungry people still wait in the cold for a morsel of sustenance. People who have no home shiver in cold porticos, in parks, under bridges. Violence with its many faces is ever with us. The Coronavirus ravages on. The teachers and parents languish in confusion and disappointment. The frontline health professionals fall in literal exhaustion. Our children ask us when life will be normal again.
Every year, I recall the text of one of my favorite Christmas carols, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The carol’s text, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day of 1863, is a poem in which he expresses the terror of peace evolving into a world of darkness, hate and war. Two years before writing this poem, Longfellow‘s personal peace was shaken when his wife of 18 years was fatally burned in an accidental fire. Then in 1862, during the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son joined the Union Army and was severely wounded in November of 1863 in the Battle of Mine Run. Longfellow’s words reach deeply into my soul and plant sadness there. Yet, the words are real and true about his world and perhaps, in some ways, his words are real in the world in which we live.
Till, ringing, singing on its way, The world revolved from night to day A voice, a chime, A chant sublime Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then from each black, accursed mouth, The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head ; “There is no peace on earth,” I said; “For hate is strong And mocks the song Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: “God is not dead ; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men!”
We do not fully understand the ways that Longfellow suffered when he wrote this poem. Yet, we might have an inkling that some of the words describe us, describe our world. In the end, when all is said and done, the carol proclaims that the bells are still ringing loudly and deeply, that God is not dead, nor is God sleeping. Instead God is speaking to us so that we will know, beyond any doubt, that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” And with that anointing, we will fulfill a covenant with God — the mission God has given us to pray and labor and dream God’s dream of repairing the ruined cities, the devastations of past generations, as well as the devastations we are seeing before us in this moment in time.
May God make it so. Amen.
An version of Longfellow’s carol was sung by The Carpenters many years ago. Here is the video:
This morning, I prayed a prayer of lament. Lament was the only prayer in my spirit. It is difficult to express the deep sorrow I felt yesterday when I learned that no charges were brought against the police who shot six bullets into Breonna Taylor’s body.
Shortly after midnight on March 13, 2020, Louisville police officers used a battering ram to enter the apartment of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old emergency medical technician who had dreams of a bright career ahead. She and her boyfriend had settled in to watch a movie in her bedroom on that tragic night. Police came to her door and minutes later, she was fatally shot. Her death sparked months of protests in Louisville.
Yesterday, six months after the fatal shooting — six bullets — a grand jury indicted a former Louisville police officer on Wednesday for wanton endangerment for his actions during the raid. A grand jury delivered the long-awaited answer about whether the officers would be punished. No charges were announced against the other two officers who fired shots, and no one was charged for causing Breonna Taylor’s death.
For me, there was only lament. I imagine that for Breonna’s family, there was the deepest kind of lament. For her mother, lament was the only response she could express as she wept uncontrollably. And, even for the protesters who filled the streets, I believe there was lament.
Theologian Soong-Chan Rah explains in his book, Prophetic Lament, that in the Bible lament is “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and suffering.” He goes on to say that it is a way to “express indignation and even outrage about the experience of suffering.” Racism has inflicted incalculable suffering on black people throughout the history of the United States, and in such a context, lament is not only understandable but necessary.
Perhaps white Christians and all people of faith have an opportunity to mourn with those who mourn and to help bear the burden that racism has heaped on black people. (Romans 12:15) — Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise
In the end, many people see only the rage, anger, impatience, violence of the protesters. Can we also see their lament for Breonna, as well as for centuries of racially motivated murder — beatings, burnings, lynchings and murder committed by police officers?
People of faith — white people of faith — will we try to understand the rage of our black and brown sisters and brothers? Will we join them in righteous anger? Will we mourn with them? Will we lament when lament fills their souls and overflows in cries for justice?
We must, in the name of our God who created every person in God’s own image!
Last night, I heard an interview with Brittany Packnett Cunningham on MSNBC. Her words were eloquent pleas for justice. She spoke about how persistent and all-encompassing racism is in our country and about the murders and the protests and the political rancor that fuels it. She acknowledged racism’s strong, unrelenting hold on this nation, a hold that is virtually impossible to break. And she said something I have said for a long time, “Racism cannot be reformed. It must be transformed.”
To me that means a transformation of the heart and soul that compels each of us to lament, to comfort, to speak truth in government’s halls of power, to stand openly against any form of racial injustice.
May God make it so.
Will you pray this prayer of lament with me?
O God, who heals our brokenness, Receive our cries of lament and teach us how to mourn with those who mourn. Receive even our angry lament and transform our anger into righteous action. Hear the anguish of every mother assaulted by violence against her child. Hear the angry shouts of young people as shouts of frustration, fear and despair. Grant us the courage to persist in shouting out your demand for justice, for as long as it takes. When deepest suffering causes us to lament, grant us Spirit wind and help us soar. If we resist your call for justice, compel us to holy action. May our soul’s lament stir us to transform injustice, in every place, for every person, whenever racism threatens, for this is your will and our holy mission. Amen.
I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:41 NRSV
Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.
How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.
I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.
God of the sparrow, sing through us Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. — Jonathan Cook
I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out.
You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.
When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.
Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her.
The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV
So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!
Thanks be to God.
Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.
God of the Sparrow
God of the sparrow, sing through us, Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. Alleluia.
God of the sparrow, God of hope, Tenderly guide us, be our song, God of affliction, pain and hurt, Comfort Your children, make us strong. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
God of the sparrow, care for us. Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief. Sing us Your music, lift our hearts, Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
God, like the sparrow, we abide In Your protection, love and grace. Just as the sparrow in Your care,
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.
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, aboutsomeone 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.
This morning I have no words. I have tears. I have sadness. I even have some anger that the people I love whose skin is not “white” are living in grief and frustration. I say only that injustice and oppression cling so close to my friends, today and in centuries past.
I hear my dear friends cry out for justice. I hear them using words to make sense of it all, and I hear their voices fall silent. Silent, with just these words, “I’m tired.” A dear friend posted the words on the left this morning. I want to see her face to face. I want to be together. I want to comfort her, hoping beyond hope that it is not too late for comfort.
I read this horrific headline this morning.
Prosecutors in Hennepin County, Minnesota, say evidence shows Chauvin had his knee on Floyd’s neck for a total of 8 minutes and 46 seconds, including two minutes and 53 seconds of which Floyd was non-responsive. — ABC News
Today I find myself deeply in mourning for the violence that happens in our country. I find myself trying to share in the grief of my friend and knowing I cannot fully feel the depth of it. Today I find myself unable to emotionally move away from it all. Today I contemplate George Floyd’s cry, “I can’t breathe.”
If there is any comfort at all, it comes as a gift of the artists pictured here. In an act of caring, they offer this mural at a memorial for George Floyd.
The names of other victims of violence are painted in the background. The words, “I can’t breathe!” will remain in our memories. Today we are together in mourning.
But tomorrow, I will celebrate Pentecost. I wonder how to celebrate in a time when lamentation feels more appropriate. I wonder how to celebrate when brothers and sisters have died violent deaths and when thousands of protesters line the streets of many U.S. cities. I wonder how to celebrate when protesters are obviously exposing themselves to COVID19.
Still, tomorrow — even in such a time as this — I will celebrate the breath of the Spirit. Tomorrow I will join the celebration that has something to do with being together, being one. To juxtapose the joyous celebration of Pentecost with the horrible picture of what we saw in cities throughout our country for the past few nights seems an impossible undertaking. What does one have to do with the other?
Perhaps they do share a common message. From those who protest, this message:
“We bring our broken hearts and our anger for the killing of our people, for the murders across the ages of people who are not like you. You treat us differently than you treat the people who look like you. For as long as we can remember, you have visited upon us oppression, slavery, racist violence, injustice. And we are tired. We are spent. We are beside ourselves with collective mourning. We can’t breathe!“
From those who celebrate Pentecost, this message:
“How we celebrate the day when the Holy Spirit breathed upon those gathered together, with gifts of wind and fire!
How we celebrate the story told in the 2nd chapter of Acts!”
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.
They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken.Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome(both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”
Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say.These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, last days, God says,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’” — Acts 2:1-18 NIV
The people did not, in fact, have too much wine. Peter made it clear that wine did not empower the people who gathered in Jerusalem — “every people under heaven” — to speak and understand as they heard every word spoken in their own language. That would be a start, would it not, if we could speak the same language and truly understand — people who have flesh-colored skin, and brown and bronze, and red and black . . . every skin color under the sun. If only we could understand each other.
And then, what if we could gather together, welcoming every person? What if we could truly gather together and wait for Spirit to fall upon us with empowerment like we have never known before? What if we allowed the Spirit to give us breath, together?
In the end, there is a tiny bit of joy in George Floyd’s tragic story. It is a joy much deeper than reality’s sorrow. The artists completed their mural, and in the very center near the bottom, they had painted words that express the greatest truth of all.
Can you see it behind the little girl? “I can breathe now!”
What if we welcome Spirit Breath that will change us? What if we embrace empowerment from the Holy Spirit to help us change our world? What if we end oppression and injustice, together? What if holy perseverance could inspire us to live and act in solidarity with our sisters and brothers, all of them?
What if we dare to give our soul’s very breath to help bring about Beloved Community, together?
May my God — and the God of every other person — make it so. Amen.
How long? How long will we have to feel imprisoned by social distancing? How long will we feel this loneliness? How long must we wear masks? How long until my children can safely visit their grandparents? How long until we’re past the danger of catching this virus? How long until life is normal again?
Most people I know had at least one bad day this week. At least three of us had a bad day on the same day, and I was not comforted to learn that two of my close friends suffered on the very same day that brought me suffering. It seems the longer we travel the journey of these distancing days, the more disheartened we become. We are ready to see our families and friends. We are ready to venture out of our secluded place and walk freely and without worry. We are ready to travel, to worship together in the same place and to celebrate with friends that the danger of Covid19 is over.
But it is not over. Not by a long shot. And what seems to be the second wave of the virus brings a second wave of emotion for us — a deep grief that we simply do not know when, or if, our lives will return to the lives we once enjoyed. Some of us can give our grief a name — sadness, anger, confusion, heartbreak, loneliness — maybe a combination of all of these names, and so many others.
Sadly, some people cannot name their grief. They will not! Instead they lash out in a kind of rage that hurts others. Call it domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, interpersonal violation that causes permanent trauma to the soul and spirit. Call it a tragic situation. It happens, in part, to people who refuse to look at their grief and allow it to turn into rage.
Other people who cannot name their grief turn it inward, deep inside themselves. These are the people who are suffering great emotional harm that can last for a lifetime. We can call it trauma, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress injury, etc. Whatever we call it, the grief that people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic seems to be increasing the probability of a widespread mental health crisis.
The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future. Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world. — U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
The more we watch our communities relax social distancing, the more we experience a visceral response that speaks to our fear, disappointment and confusion. I asked my Mayo Clinic doctor yesterday via video chat — “When can I get out?” Hoping beyond hope for an answer that meant release, I listened as he gave a thorough scientific, doctor-like explanation. His primary concern, of course, was my physical outcome if I should be exposed to the virus, but he also spoke about my emotional and social needs. In the end his answer was what I feared it might be: “You must take extreme social distancing precautions, at least until you are one year post transplant.”
That means November for me, provided all goes well with my kidney and with the level of safety in my community. I think my question to my doctor was a common one, “How Long?” Sufferers ask it often. With heartbreaking angst, sufferers in hospital beds ask — “How Long?” — as do persons near death, persons with painful chronic health conditions, persons who wait for mourning to ease, persons who search desperately for work, persons who suffer from unrelenting traumatic stress, persons in a far away place who just long to go home.
“How Long?” is a question of the soul for persons of faith and for persons without faith, for persons who believe in God and for persons who believe there is no God. All persons languish with that question on their lips. People who trust in God have asked the questions in the 13th Psalm for ages, every age with its own sudden catastrophe or its own long, enduring adversity. Every person asks, as did the Psalmist, “How long?”
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? — Psalm 13: 1-2 (NIV)
If you have been asking, “How long, O Lord?” during this pandemic, you probably know already that you will not receive easy answers. There simply are no easy answers. The current separations from family and friends are painful. The realities and risks of re-entering life as we once knew it are daunting. The irresponsibility of many people who move about without masks and closer to one another than 6 feet is troubling. The worry we carry about our safety and the safety of those we love is constant. And the heaviness of heart we are feeling is unrelenting.
So yes, you are probably asking God, “How long?”as I am. How in the world do we get to “rejoicing” during such a time as this? In these unprecedented days, it seems much harder to move ourselves all the way through Psalm 13 in order to get to a glorious utterance of praise, a declaration of trust, a rejoicing of heart, and even a song of praise to a God of “unfailing love.” The Psalmist seems to have made it all the way through the questions to a time of rejoicing and singing.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me. — Psalm 13:5-6 (NIV)
So ask your questions honestly. God can take whatever questions you ask. Go ahead and ask God, “How long?” But then allow God to restore your weary spirit, to nourish your soul and to make your heart long for something much greater than answers to your questions.
That’s what I want to do. Now if I can just muster up enough energy — and enough faith and hope — to do it.
May God make it so. For me and for you. Amen.
For your quiet time today, I invite you to use this meditative video as your prayer.