Because many words have been written, poetry has spoken mourning, music has resounded hope, and prayers have given voice to deep lament — I offer these images.
In your moments of prayer and reflection, please join the people of the world who pray for the people of Ukraine. Perhaps this music will enhance your time of prayer and remind you of the tragedy of war and the finality of violence.
He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war any more.
I’m not sure I know what it feels like to have God “undo me with grace,” but I have learned how it feels to need more grace, to long for Spirit breezes to gently blow around me with winds of grace. I need grace for enduring illness, grace for being separated from my son and his family, especially my five grandchildren. I need grace when I’m angry or disappointed or heartbroken. I need grace when I feel like giving up and giving in. I need God’s grace — the grace of the Spirit — to help me live in this season of my life.
I read a provocative prayer today. It kind of grabbed at my heart, asking me what exactly is in my heart right now. It asked me what I’m struggling with. The brilliant writer of prayers, Diane Strickland, writes again and again in her prayer the words, ”Undo my life with your grace,” leaving me asking myself what might happen if God decided to undo my life, even through God would likely be merciful enough to undo my life with grace.
The truth is that those words so grabbed me that my prayer was, ”God, I think I need to let you undo my life.” Maybe I feel the need to re-do my life with string of second chances. Maybe I need forgiveness for regrets, release from memories of pain. Whatever it means to have one’s life undone by God, my heart responded, with longing, to this prayer.
O, my Creator,
In the injustice of my country I caught a glimpse of the bottom of the iceberg this week. I saw how my life lived above the waterline rests on wrong assumptions of privilege, great and small and many. I am cold inside. I don’t want to be cold inside.
Undo my life with your grace. Pick out the seams sewn by fear and mend the tears made by violence. Patch the holes that were always there from the start because I don’t know much about the rest of the world or how life works for others you love just as much as you love me.
Undo me with your grace. Shake out the fabric of me. Unfold and fold me anew. Reveal your image in there somewhere and surprise me with what You make of me when mercy prevails and justice leads and love accompanies us.
Undo me with your grace. I’ve lived a long time now, long enough to know there’s more to be if I can lay down what has mattered more than it needed to, and take up what I’ve barely used at all.
I don’t feel there’s so much wrong with me that we must start over. I feel there’s more of me somewhere that fits better for now and will make room for later. Release more gospel into my life and from my life. Warm me up again. Humble me with wisdom and truth and promise and hold me together with those same gifts.
Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.
“Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.”
As I reflected on those words, my thoughts ended up with this conclusion. I don’t need grace to extricate me or liberate me from all that is difficult, heartbreaking and oppressive about my life. But I definitely need Spirit wind to live my life.
I don’t need grace to rescue me. But I do need Spirit-grace that moves in my life with me, giving me life-saving and healing grace for each moment. I need Spirit because I have known her holy presence with me and I have learned to experience the wonder of being moved by wind wild and calm, her breeze blowing around me with both tender comfort and empowering promise.
With that kind of sacred promise, I can live into my life, not shrink from it or fear it. I can move into my life, whatever it brings, with Spirit’s blessing. That’s how she impels me to honor the grace I have received — by giving it away. Her winds have impelled me for many years to minister to God’s people, and I do not intend to stop now. My call from God was for life, not meant to expire when I retired or when my health failed.
I know that God gives grace for waning health and I have it on good authority that God gives “more grace when burdens grow greater.”* When I consider the grace that has so filled my life, I think of the story of Annie Johnson Flint who wrote the text of the hymn, ”He Giveth More Grace.”
Annie Johnson Flint, born in 1866, was an inspiration to all who knew her. This is just a tiny bit of her story. The fullness of Annie Johnson Flint’s story includes a life-long string of losses and difficulties. By the time she was six years old, she had lost her mother and father to illnesses and was adopted by a family named Flint. She loved poetry and dreamed of being a composer and concert pianist. After graduating from high school, Annie went on to become an elementary school teacher, but in her second year was afflicted with arthritis that steadily and quickly worsened. She lost her ability to walk, but she became a prolific writer of poems and hymn texts.
The many stories written about her stories tell how later in life she was unable to open her hands and could no longer write, yet continued to compose her on a typewriter using her knuckles. And that “she sought healing, but in the end she was thoroughly convinced that God intended to glory Himself through her, in her weak earthen vessel.”
The words of the hymn text she wrote, ”He Giveth More Grace,” reflect the many disheartening moments she experienced throughout her life. She died at the age of 66, leaving as her legacy so many faith-strengthening words, including these:
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labours increase; To added afflictions He addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.
When we have exhausted our store of endurance, When our strength has failed ere the day is half done, When we reach the end of our hoarded resources Our Father’s full giving is only begun.
Fear not that your need shall exceed His provision, Our God ever yearns His resources to share; Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing; The Father, both you and your load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, His power no boundary known unto men; For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
I have loved this hymn for years in spite of its masculine language. It moves me and uplifts me. It always reminds me of the infinite grace I have known in my life. I hope you will listen to this hymn as a part of your contemplative time.
*Diane Strickland is in her 33rd year as an ordained minister now serving in The United Church of Canada as retired clergy. She is a Certified Community and Workplace Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist-Therapist, and Critical Incident Responder, author and creator of trauma informed resources.
In Advent’s first week, I really want to feel that all is calm, but in the world that revolves around me, things are anything but calm. During this season of Advent — in the first week of Advent 2020 — hearts are not calm at all and nothing feels more appropriate to do than prayer and lament.
13,822,249 Coronavirus cases in this country. 272,525 deaths. And worldwide, 66,786,028 Coronavirus cases and 1,533,302 deaths.
Lament feels right. Calm does not. Lamenting during this season of waiting is not easy. The Psalmist offers us one of the Penitential psalms, Psalm 130 that begins with a cry to God from a place of deep sorrow, from “out of the depths.” The Psalmist also speaks to us of waiting:
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. — Psalm 130:5-6
I’ve been trying to wait this year, to practice meditation and prayer that emerges “out of the depths” of my soul. How else could it be when I hear the story of five children who lost both parents when Covid ravaged their family? How could I not cry out from the depths when my own family members and friends are suffering with this deadly virus? How could I do anything but Lament as I watch my friends and family suffering the ravages of this virus that has descended upon the world?
My deep prayers and laments, as well as my practice of meditation, has not been going all that well. It’s just too still for me right now, too quiet. Being still makes me impatient to do something. When I stop moving, my mind whirls and all I can think of is all the things I want or need to do.
This voice in my mind is hard to resist, because it seems so reasonable. When I consider the world’s suffering and see it so clearly in my own circle, being still feels like a sin. With the pandemic surging, the injustice we see everywhere, the suffering people who have profound need, how can I justify being calm — still, quiet, resting, breathing, waiting?
Into my place of anxiety and restlessness, the liturgical year invites me into the holy waiting of Advent. Into a culture that places productivity over presence, Advent invites us to believe that we need to be still. Into a culture that tells us if we don’t do it, it won’t get done, Advent asks us to stop working for a season.
Isn’t is an act of humility and trust to stop moving and fixing and tending and meddling, to sit still during Advent? Advent teaches us that there are forces at work beyond our own working, beyond our own dreams of repairing the world. The beautiful reality Advent wants us to know is that even when we stop, God still works. So we really can lay down our tools, set aside our pridefulness, and wait for the morning that God always brings.
In these Advent days, practicing stillness is more important than ever, because in this pandemic winter of 2020, everyone’s most important vocation is to be still and wait — at home and distanced from others. Whether we are essential workers, working from home, unemployed, managing our kids’ education, or some combination of these – we are all being called to be still and wait this winter. We are being asked to wait to hug the people we love. We are waiting for visiting our friends, waiting to eat at our favorite restaurant, waiting to fly to places we want to see, waiting to see the ocean again. We are waiting with hurting hearts to visit our families. We are waiting with aching souls to worship together in our sacred spaces.
Our stillness in this pandemic Advent matters more than it ever has. Yet, we wonder if we can survive it. We wonder if this interminable waiting will eventually make us give up, give in and just go out. Leave our homes. Disregard social distancing. Go visit our best friend in person. Go to church — inside the beautiful sanctuary we so miss — and worship God with loud singing.
In the waiting, in the stillness, how do we find the calm we long for? In the stillness, does God still work in us? We may not be so certain about how to answer those questions, but we do know that this stillness is exactly what will save our neighbors’ lives. This winter, the most important way that we can love our neighbor is to practice stillness.
This winter, we practice Advent as an act of love and an act of hope – hope that this too shall pass. The year 2020 will pass. The pandemic will ease, and we will someday see light emerge from of this dark time. Winter’s cold darkness is not forever. Winter always moves to spring. Night always turns to day. The solitude of Advent always gives way to the Immanuel, God with us of Christmas.
The Psalmist reminds us in poetic verse that the night will pass. “I wait for the Lord,” the poet sings, “more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.”
Julian of Norwich might remind us that “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” I am struck again, as always, by these words . “All will be well” is her golden thought. It is a provocative saying, as much in its calming, repetitive sound as in its assurance of a future reality beyond our grasp. In these days, it is a deeply grounding promise in the midst of a chaotic, painful world. Somehow, despite our current experiences, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.”
And yet, all is not well. We have a growing awareness that our current public health crisis will continue in waves, for God knows how long. Schools and businesses will struggle to prepare for the looming unknown. The economic situation is staggering. And the recent murders of black Americans are forcing yet another reckoning with systemic racism in this country. We yearn for calm while we nurse mixed feelings about how we can navigate this troubling time.
Julian would understand these mixed feelings. Julian lived in isolation during a pandemic — the Black Death. The Black Death (also known as the Pestilence, the Great Mortality, or the Plague) was the deadliest pandemic recorded in human history. The Black Death resulted in the deaths of up to 75–200 million people in Eurasia and North Africa, peaking in Europe from 1347 to 1351.
In 1373, at age thirty and so seriously ill she thought she was on her deathbed, Julian received a series of visions or “shewings” of the Passion of Christ. While Julian was struck down with the illness, she experienced the visions, which have been passed down to us as “The Revelations of Divine Love” or the “Showings.” For Julian, her revelation that “all will be well” was not calming or soothing, at least not at first. Instead it shocked her. By her own account, the Showings included the divine words “heavily” and “mournfully” and with “very great fear.” Lament perhaps.
“All will be well?” Her instant response was, essentially, how could this possibly be, given the reality of pain, suffering and human frailty we experience? Or in her words: “Ah, good Lord, how could all things be well, because of the great harm which has come through sin to your creatures?”
According to the final chapter of Showings, she then spent at least 15 years isolated in her cell, immersed in a deep struggle to comprehend the divine meaning of the words that had filled her spirit. Just imagine. Fifteen years contemplating that one line. In other words, she lamented, how can it possibly be that all will be well?
Through love, she concluded — not that fleeting feeling but the divine love itself, a power and an action that beckons and encompasses everything, even the enormity of human suffering. Without context, without the awareness of Julian’s life-long struggle and spiritual quest, her calming words — “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” — becomes mere platitude.
No, all is not calm in these days, at least in the world we can see. But all is calm in the places we cannot see, in our spirit depths and in our longing souls. Advent helps bring holy calm as we wait in the quietude God desires for us. Advent helps us practice stillness. Even when we are lamenting “the sufferings of this present time,” Advent teaches us to trust that the sun is always going to rise, that the night never goes on forever, that into dark, long periods of history — God comes. Every time.
On the starry, silent night we wait for, all is calm.
Struggles abound in this unwelcome COVID19 season we are experiencing. Most of us are touched by this virus in some way. We have struggled with so many life changes. I have watched strugglers of the soul work through the illness, others deal with the suffering and death of a friend or family member, often being unable to be with them at their death. Some parents are struggling with decisions affecting school for their children and teachers fear they will be unable to keep their students (and themselves) safe. Others long to see loved they have not seen in months of social distancing.
My circle of friends and family are feeling short on hope while they experience struggles of the soul. Yet, Herman Melville asserts that “Hope is the struggle of the soul.” I have been wondering what exactly that might mean. Perhaps hope gives us the courage we need to move boldly and full of hope into the place where the soul struggles, moving there with the assurance that the hope that led us there will also lead us to healing.
As I look closer at Melville’s words, I begin to see and understand that hope’s struggle eventually empowers us to break loose from the perishable things we hold on to — our wealth, our home, our “things” like cars, boats, RVs, whatever “things” we cherish. Looking at what this virus could bring, knowing that we are facing real life and death situations, cannot help but move our souls to throw off the things that don’t seem so critical anymore — perishable things we do not need. This thought prompts me to look at two of my favorite passages of Scripture.
For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors . . .
— 1 Peter 1:18-19 (New International Version)
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
— 1 Corinthians 15:54 (New International Version)
How do we get there? How do we get through the soul struggles that can bring us to our knees?
I don’t think there is a well developed plan or a series of definite steps to take. The path, the plan, will be unique to each struggler. But the soul struggles I have felt throughout my life have taught me to place hope where hope must be: in Comforter Spirit who hovers over me with her sheltering wings; in the Christ who lives in and through me guiding me as a good shepherd and empowering me to walk with courage in his footsteps; in the Eternal God who holds before me, always, my own eternity.
This is what is available to you as well as you lean into hope’s struggle of the soul and break loose from things that are not important as you bear witness to your own eternity.
May God make it so.
As you leave these words and move with hope into your soul struggles,
May the God of hope go with you and fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in God, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
— Romans 15:13 (New International Version)
I hope you can spend a few minutes in prayer and contemplation as you watch this beautiful, comforting music video, “Still with Thee,” with text written by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
I have been thinking today that this Holy Monday is the threshold into Holy Week, and that I am standing at that threshold in fear. It is true that this time of pandemic has brought a season of fear to many of us, as well as a time of heaviness, concern, confusion and lament. Just one year ago, on April 5, 2019, I posted the following thought.
Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something is more important than fear. The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.
— From the movie “The Princess Diaries” (2001)
I testify to the reality that courage really is deciding “that something is more important than fear.” None of us anticipated what 2020 would bring. It was simpler last Holy Week to write eloquent words about fear and courage. We could contemplate such thoughts far more comfortably than we can in this season of pandemic, the virus assailing the earth and the arrival of the season of Lent just to make sure we are all weighted down sufficiently.
I do not know about you, but I am experiencing these days as heavy. It feels heavy to me being confined to home. It feels heavy to be overly worried about my suppressed immune system since the transplant. It feels heavy to know that so many people all over the world are suffering with the coronavirus and that many have died. I just feel an oppressive heaviness. I feel as though the place we must be right now is a place of lament.
Who brought the world as we know it to such an abrupt halt? Is one purpose of this pandemic to make us stop and take time to heal our souls? Is another purpose a demand for us to be still and allow our stillness to begin to heal an earth rife with environmental destruction? Is it to tell our churches to stop, to re-think worship that is sometimes predictable, stale, spiritless? Is the pandemic’s purpose to teach us to cherish the community of faith we have taken for granted, as now community is somewhat lost to us?
There are so many things to lament in these days, for all of us. But I have not intruded on your time today just to write about my laments in this season, to tell you all about my heaviness and the heaviness of the world. I write on this Holy Monday in hopes that we will sit quietly for a few moments of contemplating passion and promise — the Passion that leads to Christ’s death and the Promise that always ends up with Christ’s resurrection, and ours.
Not only is the lament, the heaviness, the anguish and fear of death that surrounds us this year a global phenomenon, but the things that Christians normally do in Holy Week to create transcendent meaning are painfully denied us for now: our palms and crosses, our washing of feet, our sharing of the bread and cup. These powerful physical and sacramental expressions of our faith we always do together. We cannot do them together this year.
In some ways, though, we are humanly and globally more united now than we have ever been (by this virus), and yet more separated than ever (by our fear of it). It is as if we have crashed suddenly and directly into the emptiness and shock of Jesus’s tragic death, before we have even started the journey to Jerusalem with him. Let us not rush. Instead may we walk the way of Christ’s story this week, through the times of passion, to the moment Jesus died, and on to the glorious resurrection Rushing through Holy Week is like controlling the story.
Controlling the coronavirus “story” is also problematic because it isn’t just a story. We are in it, and for now none of us can get out of it. But the glory of the Passion story is that it also isn’t just a story. It is, as we Christians have to remind ourselves during this time, the final and ultimate story of “the struggle between life and death” and of life being triumphant in the extraordinary power and mystery of the resurrection.
God’s Son breaks the bonds of death and shatters the forces of darkness and sin. We must remember that holy mystery in these days. We must remind ourselves that, even when lamenting our separation one from another, Christ’s resurrection binds us together across the boundaries of time and space and even death itself.
And, wonder of wonders, the fear and anguish of COVID-19 reminds us of this same fact: that we belong together, in need and vulnerability and compassion and mutual belonging. We are one — both in death and in life.
In this Monday of Holy Week, the coronavirus story meets the Passion story. We may be lamenting the worship we will miss this Holy Week. We may yearn for the physical and spiritual comfort of the familiar traditions that the virus has stolen from us. We quake in fear at the pandemic itself. Yet during this time, we are being stretched in new and unthinkable ways, precisely by that fear and by the temporary loss of worship with our faith community. We stretch to consider afresh the core of our baptismal faith: that the resurrected body of Christ sustains us all, even in and through death itself.
I wonder how I will spend this very different Holy Week, as I am at home feeling alone on Holy Monday. I am lamenting the temporary loss of my worshipping community. You may be lamenting the same loss. As always, this holy day will lead us into the week and through the Passion of Jesus — his heart breaking for the betrayal of Judas, his moment of feeling that God had forsaken him. We face the Passion story reluctantly this year, already troubled and fearful. We may be afraid to add the story of the crucifixion to the loss the pandemic has also brought us.
But I will not leave us in this place, each of us isolated and lamenting. The very core of our faith — during Holy Monday and always — mystically unites us not only to Christ but to each other.
The coronavirus story will not supplant the story of Christ’s passion and resurrection. The virus will not have the last word, because even in its random cruelty, it may yet turn us back to the transcendent source and unity of our faith. In its scourge, it may open us up to the realization that we are the Body of Christ in this world, together, in radiant community that will endure. The circle of the faithful will not be broken, even by a worldwide pandemic.
O God, abide with us on this holy day
and through the pain of Holy Week.
Grant that our deep lamentations cease,
even as we walk with Jesus and hear again the story of his death.
Grant that our deep lamentations cease as we lift our faith and pray for an end to the pandemic
that harms our entire world.
Help,us, God, to endure what lies before us with hope, courage, patience and faith.
Because our faith tells us, God, that as the Holy Week story continues, our laments will be replaced by praises to God as we witness again the glory of the risen Lord.
Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!
This pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.
On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.
I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:
. . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.
The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .
According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.
But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”
So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.
What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.
Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)
What a time in the story of our lives! In my lifetime, I have never been personally affected by a pandemic. I have lived a little over seventy years without having this troubling and potentially deadly experience. My prayer is that once the pandemic of year 2020 has run its course, we will not have to live through another one for at least seventy years.
In the past few days, I have heard from students lamenting the loss of their senior year. I have commiserated with friends who feared for their elderly parents, especially those in nursing homes. I listened recently to a discussion about how we could possibly keep incarcerated persons safe from this virus. I have listened to friends and family express deeply held fears about how the virus might affect them and their families. I have heard almost daily from my adult son (an unprecedented number of calls in such a short time) who is worried about his parents and about his wife and their new baby to be born in early April. I have heard from friends my age who are quarantined at home fearing for their health. I have communicated with post transplant patients like me expressing their most intense fear because of their suppressed immune systems. As a recent transplant recipient myself, I completely understand their angst of being on immunosuppressant medications. Like them, I know I have no immune system right now.
There is no doubt that all over the world people are frightened. People of faith, however, know that faith is stronger than fear, God is stronger than despair and love is stronger than death. Of course, even though we might have great faith, we must admit that we don’t know what God will do or how God can protect us. That is not unfaith; it is the reality of our humanity. Oh, we can take the easy way out and proclaim words like, “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason.” But doesn’t the past suffering and pain of your life convince you that those words are not your reality?
One of my former seminary professors taught and preached often about the experience of Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane. Dr. Frank Tupper’s answer to the question about how a loving God could allow Christ’s suffering went something like this: “because before the foundation of the world God had chosen the way of self-limitation.”
Dr. Tupper also said some things that some people might consider blasphemy:
Ido not believe that God is in control of everything that happens in our world. Indeed, I would argue that God controls very, very little of what happens in our world. God chose not to be a ‘do anything, anytime, anywhere’ kind of God. In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.
In my mind, and through the crucible of my life, I believe that God wanted authentic and honest relationships with humankind that affirm both divine love and human freedom. God built that kind of relationship with me when, through every life storm, every time of despair, every disappointment, every fear, every loss — and through my life-threatening illness — God did not change any circumstance of my suffering, but God promised me a love that would not let me go, ever.
In these days, God is not stopping the dreaded Coronavirus pandemic. God is not stilling our current storm. God is not taking away our very real fear. God is not telling us, “Go on out to that social gathering, I am in control.” Instead God has promised us peace through the words of Jesus recorded in John 16:33:
These things I have spoken to you, thatin Me you may have peace.In the world youwill have tribulation; but take courage,I have overcome the world.
I pray that you will find peace in these troubling days and that your faith will be even a little stronger than your fear. I pray that you will not experience economic hardship and that you will have all you need. I pray that illness will spare you and those you love. I pray that your children will thrive even though their schools are closed. I pray that you will find ways to worship God even if the doors of your church are shuttered. Most of all, I pray that you will feel God’s love as a love that will never let you go.
The words of one of my favorite hymns express these thoughts so well:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.
O Light that follow’st all my way,
I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;
my heart restores its borrowed ray,
that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
may brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow thro’ the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
and from the ground there blossoms red,
life that shall endless be.
— Author: George Matheson, 1842-1906
Perhaps you would like to spend a few moments of quiet meditation listening to this beautiful hymn arrangement.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
― Mary Oliver
For some reason yet unknown to me, I am remembering those words today. At the same time, I have vivid memories of persons I loved — many of them through the years — who gifted me with “a box full of darkness.” Each time, it felt like anything but a gift. I accepted the boxes because I believed I had no choice. I reached out to take the boxes from people I loved and immediately discovered that it was the darkness I held in my hands. Unfortunately, the darkness in my hands was potent enough to engulf me, and for a good amount of time, the darkness was my constant companion. All around me. Above and below me. Darkness so deep that I could not begin to see the path ahead.
What would I do with these ominous gifts? How would I escape the deep effect they had on my soul? How will I cast off the heartbreak? In time, I was able to think beyond my initial acceptance of these boxes moving to the reality that they were given to me by persons I loved. These were loved ones who might ordinarily have given me gifts, but these gifts — these boxes — were filled with darkness! Why? What did these gifts mean?
I held on to the pain of those “gifts” for years, feeling anger on some days, or betrayal, or loss, or rejection. The experiences changed my life in many ways, and changed the very course of my life. Being a person who so values friendship and loyalty, I was left despondent and a bit lost. Okay, a lot lost!
Yet, the passing years actually did bring healing relief. I could not avoid the darkness that my loved ones gave me. I could not get around it, slip under it, or leap over it. It was just there with me, in my life, and feeling like it would be permanent. The boxes were to me a heart rending breach of covenant. And yes, I did experience despair in the darkness, and loneliness and lostness, and bitterness wondering how these gift boxes had such immense power over me.
When the darkness finally lifted, it brought me a brand new love of life. It gave me new courage and new excitement. It gave me an awakening! I experienced a holy transformation. I knew then that I could get on with my life, joyously, and moving forward following my dreams. So Mary Oliver knew something that I had to learn the hard way, over many years. Here’s what she wrote: “It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
And then there is this wise and wonderful postscript that Annie Dillard wrote about her writing. It applies to every vocation or avocation that we love, and it’s really about living life — all out!
One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes. (Annie Dillard from her book, The Writing Life)
Finally, James 1:2-4, a Scripture passage very familiar to us says it another way:
My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
So real and true it was when the people I loved betrayed me with a terrible “box full of darkness.” I had faith in each of them. I trusted them and held their love in my heart. My box full of darkness was indeed a trial and a testing of my faith. But the promise of The Epistle of James is there, in my face. It may just be a Holy Letter addressed directly to me. My challenge was to “consider it nothing but joy,” and to know that the testing of my faith most assuredly created endurance. Thanks be to God.
A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!
As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.
The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?
Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”
I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.
I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”
I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.
From the promises of Scripture . . .
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place. — Hebrews 6:18-19
From the depths of our souls . . . “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” — Psalm 42:11
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” — Psalm 130:5
“But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.” — Psalm 71:14
The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.
I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
The sages of the world came up with this wise saying: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over!” There are some similar sayings around, most notably one about the singing of a “fat lady.” But that one is not at all kind or sensitive! The point is that in life some things are never over. Grief at losing a loved one comes to mind, as does living with an incurable illness, losing a cherished relationship or any number of persisting, chronic, never-ending difficulties.
But the truth is, we are a resilient people, created by God who fully equips us for life’s calamities. We do not shrink in the face of loss. We know that weeping can last through a dark night, but the morning light may bring joy. We do not fear life’s dark times, because we know that our story is not over. There will be brighter days ahead. The brightest stars will give light in the darkest nights. Our resilient spirits will lift us up and, most importantly, God will be near right in the midst of our sufferings. It is not over! I am inspired by the thoughts of Ann Weems about this very thing:
IT IS NOT OVER
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
— Ann Weems
What profound truth: that those who wait for God watch “with their hearts and not their eyes,” listening — always listening — for angel words. We can find another take on that spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:
Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
— Isaiah 40:31
When I think that I have reached the end of my resilience, when I have become weary with my life’s tragedies and believe that it’s over, I want to be able to remember the words Ann Weems wrote, that “it is not over, this birthing, and that there are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”
Like you, I need newer skies now and then. And if God can throw stars into those new skies, all the better. Advent’s promise is that those stars of hope will appear just when I most need them.
May God make it so, and may we remember stars of hope and angel words whenever we celebrate the Christ Child born under the light of Bethlehem’s star. Amen.