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 β€œthe 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,Β 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.Β 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 β€” always β€” puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

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On Loneliness

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Photo of an Arkansas dawn by Steven Nawojczyk

I have always hated feeling lonely. Being alone meant sorrow for me, and in my younger years, I did everything I could to avoid spending time alone, trying to keep loneliness at bay. The more people I could have around me, the more alive I felt.

And then I began to experience the deep loneliness one can experience even when surrounded with people. That is to me the most painful loneliness of all β€” being lonely in a crowd, suddenly coming face to face with my emptiness, discovering that no one is ever truly present with me.

Growing older has taught me that being alone is actually life-giving. Sometimes being alone brings the kind of silence we need to draw closer to God, hearing the sacred whispers that reach the depths of the soul. Silence can bring a more intense awareness of the bursting life all around us, the rise and fall of the cicada’s song in the summer, the sweet music of birdsong, the delightful sound of fluttering hummingbird wings, the silence of the night broken only by the sounds of katydids and crickets.

I recently read these words from the children’s fantasy novel, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.

― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

It truly is beautiful . . . being alone with silence complete enough to listen and to truly hear. It is one thing to be alone, but quite another to be alone with God. Being alone with God is being in the silent, sacred place where the soul meets its creator. It is finding the quiet, holy place of falling into the arms of a God who abides and protects. It is coming near to the β€œmercy seat” where disconsolate seekers bring their wounded hearts. It is sitting in the place where we learn that β€œearth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” *

I have learned, even in my loneliest times, that there is abiding truth in the words of philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich.

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone; solitude expresses the glory of being alone.

Being alone taught me that, even when not one human soul is around me, I am never truly alone. And I rest my hope in these words, β€œIn life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen and amen.

 

β€œCome, Ye Disconsolate,” Lyrics: Thomas MooreΒ (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas HastingsΒ (1784-1872); Music: Samuel WebbeΒ (1740-1816)

Please enjoy this beautiful hymn presented by the Baylor University Men’s A Cappella Choir at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mNqzhfB4y1I

Out of the Darkness

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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

Forged from Light and Fire

 

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Like most people, I have experienced sorrow. At times, I have felt sorrow bury into my soul so deeply that I felt as if I could not move beyond it. And I have experienced the shattering of my heart. Such times are inevitable in the cycle of life. Eventually the pain refines us and leaves us stronger than before.

We have critical choices along the way. We could choose to remain in despair. We could choose to let the past pain define our future. We could move ahead taking regret along with us. Or we could dare to dream of hope. We could walk once more in the light of healing. We could open our hearts to a brighter future, leaving the pain of the past behind.

We could take the wise and hope-filled advice of Bishop Steven Charleston.

Let the longing night alone, as shadows recede before the brightening sun, for what has past still sleeps, and will always sleep, in a land too distant for you to return. Leave sorrow beside the door, resting in a corner quietly, and step over the threshold of regret, to walk once more beneath an open sky. Today is the future you have made, a world waiting for you to define it, as honest in expectation as your own hope, as real as you dare to dream it. You were not fashioned from despair, but forged from light and fire, crafted to breathe mountain air, a child of such a long line, even angels cannot name it.

I, for one, choose to lean into a living hope, a hope that is beyond any pain and greater than any grief. Yes, I am forged from light and fire, graced by God to endure and persevere. Thanks be to God.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials.

1 Peter 1:3-6, New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 

My Dance

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I love the lyrics of the song sung by Garth Brooks, “The Dance.”

“Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance.”

Yes, life is fraught with pain, but we take it along with the joy. The two go together, are inseparable. And if you choose to avoid the pain, you will miss the dance. Joy and sorrow come together, and those who know the greatest joy are those who also knew great sorrow.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”

But I say unto you, they are inseparable.

Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.”
― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

The dance is filled with both joy and sorrow. Bishop Charleston describes the dance:

The dance is not over, even if the night grows long, even if others have left the floor, for as long as the band plays on, as long as music fills the air, the spirit within me will move, move in time to the sounds of life, to the rhythms of change. I age but I do not grow old. My dance goes on, and when I have no ground beneath me, I will dance on air.

Stronger than My Sadness

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I am stronger than my sadness. Because of that, I don’t dread sadness so much anymore. I just take it in as a part of living. Some days for me are just sad days. Yesterday was one of those days – Mother’s Day – and I spent it without my child or my grandchildren. So I figure it was most appropriate to feel sad.

I have learned, though, that sadness passes and brighter days are just around the next bend. That reality keeps me going and reminds me that I can take whatever comes in this thing we call life. Life brings all sorts of emotions, happiness, joy, pride, elation, peace, excitement, and yes, sadness too.

I love the poetry of Khalil Gibran who wrote “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

 

And when I am sorrowful, I always return to Gibran’s writing on joy and sorrow:

The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,the more joy you can contain.

Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?

And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.

When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

And that’s that! I am stronger than my sadness.

Gentle Hands

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Sadness and sorrow . . . frequent companions. There is no escape from times of sadness in this life. We feel like victims of sad times that are difficult to navigate. Sorrow assails us at times, unrelenting in its sway over us. Yet, we do not have to let sorrow have its way. We have the resilience to overcome our days of sadness. Most importantly, we have a God who is always with us as we suffer. I have pondered this quote and allowed the words to penetrate my spirit.

We are not alone in our sadness or our sorrow. There is a quiet spirit that shares our deep emotion, aware of our feelings, our hopes too fragile to even acknowledge for fear they will disappear like smoke, our longings held tightly in the silence of our worry. We are not alone, for a presence stands beside us, there, if only we will trust it, reaching out in whispers eloquent of a love that will never leave us, no matter how hard the path ahead. We are not alone, and never will be, for the one who gave us life holds that life, in hands as gentle as they are strong. –Β Steven Charleston

I am content to rest in those strong, gentle hands, knowing I am not alone, knowing that God’s love will never leave me. When I am in the silence of my worry, I am confident of the hands that hold me close. Thanks be to God.