A Living Hope

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When an eight year old child takes his own life after being viciously bullied, a mother is left in deep bereavement Β holding a deep sadness that will forever mark her life. Every day, life stories like hers come through on our news feeds. We hear them; we feel a moment of strong empathy; we move on to the next like task.

The reality is that any of us, all of us, may face the worse of life’s pain at any time. None of us is immune to tragedies that turn life upside down. Each of us will at times endure gale force winds that rearrange everything we hold dear.

As always, we are left to figure out how to navigate hard times, how to summon the faith we need to persevere. We must find within ourselves a living hope that cannot be destroyed. Only then will we be able to endure the difficulty life can hand us.

Often, I find wisdom and comfort in the words of Bishop Steven Charleston. This is what he writes about faith during difficult times.

It is hard. Life is hard. The losses, the sudden arrival of illness, the struggles within families, the pressure of a world trying to find a reason to hope. Spirituality that is sugar is no help in such a reality. Feel good philosophy cannot withstand the weight of what many of us have had to face. If it is to endure the gale force winds of chance, faith must be deeply rooted, anchored in trust, strengthened by courage, able to bend but never break. So here is a prayer for all of you living in the real world: may you find your faith as tough as you are and as resilient as the love that keeps you going.

– Steven Charleston

The good news is that God graced us with a resilient faith that perseveres when we endure trials, a living hope that can never fail. Thanks be to God.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you,Β who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.Β In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.Β These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faithβ€”of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fireβ€”may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

– I Peter 1:3-7

A Shadow of a Cross

 

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Moving through Lent brings us ever closer to the cross, to the events that mark the passion of Christ. For now, the cross is barely visible, just a shadow, but we know it is a part of this journey. We know that if Lent is genuinely a part of our faith journey, we will get to the cross and all that it means to us. On the way, we will participate in the passion of Jesus.

Marcus Borg writes about this kind of participation.

Imagine that it’s about participating in Jesus’s passion for the transformation of β€œthis world” into a world of justice and peace. Imagine that it’s about a passion to change β€œthis world.” What difference might that make for what it means to be Christian – and to be an American Christian?

Might our Lenten journey become more than forty empty days of observing this part of the Christian year? Might Lent become a deeply sincere expression of our devotion? Might we find along our Lenten path a renewed passion to transform our world?

God grant that we can experience a holy passion. It is not an easy road for us. Dietrich Bonhoeffer does not describe a Christ that is gloriously transported to heaven. Instead, he says this:

Christ is not gloriously transported from earth into heaven. He must instead go to the cross. And precisely there, where the cross stands, the resurrection is near. Precisely here, where all lose faith in God, where all despair about the power of God, God is fully there, and Christ is alive and near.

― Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter

The glorious miracle is that what we see now as a mere shadow of a cross becomes a clear vision of resurrection — Christ’s and ours.

Faith Restored

 

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Sometimes life has so assailed us that We cannot take another step. At such times, our faith shrinks and we can only manage to crawl out of that place of pain. Yet, it may well be that the times when we can barely crawl become the times of the most meaningful spiritual growth.

We cannot move forward on our own strength. We cannot get ourselves out of darkness and back into God’s light. We cannot rest in the faith that has always sustained us. We cannot feel hope. We cannot believe for ourselves.

I have been in such a place a time or two, fearing that I would never again be restored to my faith. I have been in a place where I felt I could not believe anymore. But I have heard some words that reminded me of my faith. They are strengthening words that I once heard from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Frank Tupper.

“When you can’t believe for yourself anymore, crawl to the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane and let Jesus believe the rest of the way for you.”

Thank you, Dr. Tupper. And thank you to the ever-abiding God who waits with us in hard times, for as long as it takes, until our faith is restored.

Making It All the Way Home

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“Close your eyes and follow your breath to the still place that leads to the invisible path that leads you home.”

~ St. Teresa of Avila

With aging, I have experienced an emotional and spiritual “returning home.” The years have brought a sense of well-being in some very real ways. It happens to us all, I think, as we follow the usual life paths of grief, loss, fear, hopelessness, and yes, joy. The difficult paths are the important ones, in fact. Each assault, each time of suffering, makes us seek who we really are inside.

In a conversation last night, I made this comment:

The passing years are taking some of my intensity away. I now see my younger self as a very different person than who I am today, looking back on the years in which I was driven to save the world. But I’m happy that the frenetic drive has lessened for me over the years. If I had not settled down, I think I would have died. And the kidney disease year had a profound impact on the person I used to be. I miss myself sometimes, but mostly I’m very grateful to have relaxed.

The beginning of a brand new year brings a pensive season for me, a time when I want to know myself, my real self. My self-assessment, then and now, reveals how I eventually made it through life’s chaos to the serene present. So I am happy that I made it all the way home to this place, this still and holy place that nurtures my life.

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)

 

The Darkness of Suffering

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I spent four years as a hospital chaplain, nine years as a pastor, and eleven years as a trauma counselor working with victims of violence. During those years, I learned a great deal about suffering. I observed it, empathized with it and prayed over it. I tried to discover ways to enter into the suffering with those who were drowning in it. But suffering with others is a complicated and difficult task. Feeling sympathy is easy. Knowing about a person’s suffering is easy. But entering into the suffering of others, being with them in their suffering, is very difficult.

The words of Gordon Cosby ring true to me:

Compassion is to know the pain and suffering of others. Not to know about the suffering and pain of others, but in some way to actually know that painβ€”to enter it, hear it, taste it, let it in. We talk about getting in touch with our feelings, and that is central to our freedom. The complementary step is to get in touch with the feelings of others. This necessitates getting into their frame of reference, their way of perceiving. Others’ way of seeing might seem wrong or distorted, yet it still is their experience of life…. In part, knowing that someone understands and feels our pain is the relief we need, even if nothing more can be done.

– N. Gordon Cosby
Source: Seized by the Power of a Great Affection

One additional lesson the years taught me: Suffering is much more than pain. Suffering is more than grief. Suffering is the deep-down and relentless assault of one’s soul and spirit. It is utter darkness. It is feeling alienated from the healing God. It is feeling completely alone in an abyss of unrelieved torment.

Medication cannot touch it. Sympathy cards, flowers and covered dishes cannot ease it. Only presence is effective, abiding presence with the sufferer, entering into deepest silence, being near to dry the tears that won’t stop, sitting vigil for as long as it takes.

May God give us the inner strength to suffer with those who suffer, to share with them the healing, renewing grace of a compassionate God.

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 shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon you.

– Isaiah 43:2