Weep with Those Who Weep

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

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

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

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

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

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

― Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam

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

Make Room for the Unimaginable

C0F3E414-0365-4F43-890F-EAF928810C56Don’t you love skies . . . blues and purples, the sun’s brightness, the dark black of night, clouds and stars? It is good for us to look into the heavens and lose ourselves in the beauty of God’s creation, to make room for the unimaginable.

There is a beautiful poem in German by Joseph von Eichendorff, in which the poet says to God, “You are the One who breaks up above us those roofs that we so firmly build, so that we may see the heavens. And therefore I will not despair.”

We do build firm roofs that completely cover us, fences that separate us from neighbors, walls that divide us one from another. And we hear a great deal of talk these days about building a wall that is designed to keep people from other countries out. Visitors living in this country despair at the possibility of being deported. Even those who have been here for years and have followed all the rules.

There was a time when immigrants were welcomed here, encouraged to dream of better lives for their families. It was a time when their dreams brought them to a land of freedom, without oppression. My grandparents dreamed that dream when they came to America with my infant mother. And so life began for them here, among neighbors, in a safe and welcoming haven. My brothers and I are the products of that dream. 

So I am sad about the wall and hope in my heart that it will never be built. 

I am reminded of the Berlin Wall. It stood for 10,316 days, from 1961 until 1989. A guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin, it was sometimes referred to as the Wall of Shame. Over 100,000 people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall. More than 200 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but it stood solidly, forbidding passage. It was a blight on Berlin’s landscape that proclaimed absolute division. I remember the day of the wall’s destruction, June 13, 1990.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB shares a beautiful truth:

Build the walls so lightly that you are still aware that you have neighbors. And build the roofs so lightly that you can look through and see the stars.”

That kind of roof God does not have to break. If we build our life in that form, we are people of hope. If we build any more firmly . . . we should expect that God shatters it all, to make room for the unimaginable, so that we will see the stars.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.

Uncommon Commoners

 

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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.

Holy Wondering

7CD31664-E73F-4B6B-B168-4291D78B28DBWandering may well be a spiritual discipline. Many years ago, young Annie Morgan sang about it as she wandered in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. . . “I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”*

Wondering while we wander makes wandering a spiritual act. It is not merely aimless meandering. Nor is it rolling on pointlessly as if there is really nowhere to go. It is not wandering around in circles because we are hopelessly lost. It is more like a contemplative journey of discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien observed a truth about wandering. He said, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

We wander, most certainly, but might there be a purpose in our wandering? Suppose our wandering becomes a joy to us. Suppose we learn and grow as we wander about. Suppose our wandering leads us to a deeper relationship with God. Suppose in our wandering we do some wondering, looking up into the sky for new light and sparkling new thoughts that change our lives forever.

So I wonder . . . How are the stars set in their places? Apart from the certainties of astronomy, of course.

I wonder . . . Why does the sun rise every day, and then set in a wondrously painted sky at dusk making way for the rising of a luminous moon? Apart from the scientific explanation, of course.

Wondering is not about science at all. It is about discovery of beauty in most unlikely places. Perhaps it is about practicing mindfulness atop a majestic mountaintop, or contemplating life on the edge of the sea, or meditating in a forest filled with all manner of living things. It is about the exploration of the heart to know its deepest desires and longings. It is about looking into the soul, and there finding both the intense pain and the tender healing that completes a life.

A well known Christmas carol, “I Wonder as I Wander”* was first sung by young Annie Morgan, a destitute girl in Appalachian North Carolina. At a Christian fundraising meeting, Annie stepped out on the edge of the platform and stood before a crowd of people. Although she wore rags, unwashed and in shreds, she stood proudly. It is said that she smiled as she sang, “smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song the people had never heard.”

I wonder as I wander out under the sky . . .

I imagine that Annie, a girl living in poverty, wondered about many things as she wandered through the Appalachian mountains. She probably wondered about the stars in the sky, the rising and setting of the sun, the brilliant moon that lit the path before her in the night. I imagine she wondered about God and about the ways God might be present with her. I imagine she wondered about herself and about what would become of her. Like her, we wander through this life, mostly alone.

As this is my very own blog, I can freely change tenses to say with great certainty that, as I have wandered through many years, I have grown by myself, but not alone. For as I wandered, I learned to wonder.

So I highly recommend wandering for the sole purpose of wondering. Our wondering might well reveal the longing in our hearts. Our wondering might lay bare the pain hidden in our souls, but also show us the balm of healing that dwells there. Our wondering might open up a place within us to hold God, all of God, more completely than ever before.

I don’t know about you, but I plan to do even more wandering. And on the journey, I will pour myself into some holy wondering. Who knows what I might discover!

 

* “I Wonder as I Wander” is a Christian folk hymn, typically performed as a Christmas carol, written by American folklorist and singer John Jacob Niles. The hymn has its origins in a song fragment collected by Niles on July 16, 1933.

While in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina, Niles attended a fundraising meeting held by group of evangelicals. In his unpublished autobiography, he wrote of hearing the song:

“A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform and began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins…. But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.”

The girl, named Annie Morgan, repeated the fragment seven times in exchange for a quarter per performance, and Niles left with “three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material. In various accounts of this story, Niles hears between one and three lines of the song.

Based on this fragment, Niles composed the version of “I Wonder as I Wander” that is known today . . . His composition was completed on October 4, 1933. Niles first performed the song on December 19, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. It was originally published in Songs of the Hill Folk in 1934.

Looking into the Sky

C6F419F0-5C81-4A26-B890-76C7BCD762FCFor Christians around the world, the end of the Christmas holiday occurs on Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas. It commemorates how a star led the Magi, or the three kings or wise men, to the baby Jesus. Epiphany is about finding Jesus — again — in a fresh new way, looking into the light that has the power to change our lives.

In his homily on Friday before Epiphany, Pope Francis called on the faithful to be like the Magi, who, he said, continued to look at the sky, took risks and set out bearing gifts for Christ.

If we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a child. Those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.

Looking into the sky and taking risks is a way of life for women. We have found the need to look up, above the hurts of our lives. We have looked into the sky to escape misogyny, discrimination, disrespect and abuse. We have looked into the sky to search the heavens for hope when we have felt only despair.

It has not been for us just a flighty inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through fantasy. Instead our sky gazing has been a way to pour our souls into the kind of change that makes life worth living. We have dreamed improbable dreams. We have been wise. We have been brave and persistent. We have taken risks and defied whatever was holding us hostage. We have been determined emboldened and empowered.  We have been inspired and ennobled. We have changed our world.

Like the three Wise Men, we journeyed, wise women in search of the child that would more fully empower us. Our desire and longing led us, like a fire burning within, until we found the flaming star in the night sky. And there we found Jesus —  again. So we celebrated. We rejoiced, because Jesus wanted for us a new day, a new life of respect and well-being and inspiration and hope. That is epiphany. Amen.

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

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

Night Sky Wonders

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Eclipse, Comet, and a Full Snow Moon

Look up into to the heavens tomorrow night, February 10. You will see a trifecta of wonders: a full snow moon gracing the dark skies, an amazing lunar eclipse, and a few hours later, a spectacular view of Comet 45P. Indeed, there will be some lovely wonders to marvel at in the skies above.

To many this might just be a plain old full moon that happens to be in February. But for early Native American tribes, the full moon was much more than just a lovely novelty. Tribes kept tabs on time by observing the seasons and especially the celestial timekeeper known as the moon. They called the February moon a Full Snow Moon.

We humans tend to marvel at the lights in our skies. In some ways, looking into the night sky is a way we feel closer to God. In fact, throughout history, humans have looked to the heavens in their quest for God.

Seek him that made the seven stars and Orion, and who turned the shadow of death into the morning, and made the day dark with night: that calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the face of the earth: The Lord is his name.

– Amos 5:8

O Lord, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name in all the earth,
Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!
From the mouth of infants and nursing babes You have established strength
Because of Your adversaries,
To make the enemy and the revengeful cease.
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;

– Psalm 8:1-3 NASB

In 1981, Roman Catholic Jesuit, Daniel Schutte, wrote the words of one of our most beloved hymns,“Here I Am, Lord.”

I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin
my hand will save.
I, who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

Whatever gazing into the sky might mean to you, it may be inspiring to take a few minutes to look for the display on Friday night; to wonder at the beauty of the night sky; to pay homage to the God who made the heavens and the earth; to worship, for just a moment, the Lord of sea and sky.

A Star in the Night

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Look up to the skies.
Who created all these stars?
He leads out the army of heaven one by one
and calls all the stars by name.
Because he is strong and powerful,
not one of them is missing.

Isaiah 40:26 New Century Version (NCV)

The other night, I took a minute to look into the sky. What I saw was the sliver of a moon and the most sparkling star I have ever seen. Fred, bringing me down to reality, said, “That’s not a star. it’s a planet.” I dismissed his statement, continuing to look at the star and marveling at its light.

There are more than enough hard realities in this world, so I chose to see a star, a sparkling star that lit up the night. I allowed my imagination to win the moment this time. It was worth it, even for a brief moment.

The truth is that I really want to imagine what might be, to dream of what the future might bring my way. I discovered this when I was so ill, for it was during that time that I needed to learn to dream again. I was living a harsh reality. My only hope was to allow myself to dream of hope and healing and stars in the night. The thoughts of Bishop Steven Charleston give life to the idea of dreaming.

Dream on, even in this world of hard realities, even when the future seems to be clouded, dream on, let your imagination continue to see what might be, what could happen, what can be changed, dream on, for by your dreaming you are not hiding from some harsh truth, but giving yourself a glimpse of the alternative, giving those around you a star to see in the night, dream on, because your dream is hope, it is an affirmation of possibilities, a defiance of diminished life, a vision sacred and healing. Dream on, for from your dreams a new creation will be made.

– Steven Charleston

Look up to the skies.
Who created all these stars?

The answer? The same God of grace that brought me through my harsh days, prompted me to see a star in the night, and helped me dream again. Amen.

Looking into the Stars

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Photograph by NASA, The Hubble Heritage Team and the Westerland 2 Science Team

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” – Oscar Wilde

Students of the stars never run out of interesting information. Astronomers tell us that stars are not spread uniformly across the universe, but are normally grouped into galaxies along with interstellar gas and dust. A typical galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars, and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.

The photo above was taken to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hubble. The super telescope snapped this shot of the Gum 29 nebula and Westerlund 2, a ruby-colored cluster of about 3,000 stars.

Enough of the science. The important thing is how we experience the vastness and beauty of a starry night. Looking up at the stars causes us to lift up our vision, to raise our sight above the mundane things that earth sometimes gives us. The stars sprinkle our darkest nights with twinkles of light. In some ways, starlight brings hope in the midst of darkness. I love the poetry of Sarah Williams. This is what she writes in Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse.

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

Most importantly, the stars remind us of the enormity of the universe, while also reassuring us that as finite as we are, we are a part of God’s infinite creation.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

Psalm 8:3-5 New International Version (NIV)

Looking up into the stars is a wonderful way to spend a few moments of life. Don’t forget to look up into the sky.