In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapistโ€™s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of โ€œfaithโ€ or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkโ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, โ€œWhat is it all for?โ€ย 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed โ€œthe belly of the beastโ€ for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to โ€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.โ€

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Nearer, My God, to Thee

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While enjoying some quiet time on my new pergola swing, I listened to the hymn โ€œNearer, My God, to Theeโ€ sung by Brigham Young University’s male choral group, Vocal Point. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I was transported to a sacred place in those few moments. The hymn I had sung for so many years took on fresh, new meaning for me. It could be because of my aging, my illness, my need for a closer relationship with God. Perhaps the hymn spoke to me simply because I needed it.ย I have long loved this old hymn and its simple, but profound, message.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
Eโ€™en though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

Refrain:
Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams Iโ€™d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

There let the way appear, steps unto Heavโ€™n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy givโ€™n;
Angels to beckon me nearer, my God, to Thee.

Then, with my waking thoughts bright with Thy praise,
Out of my stony griefs Bethel Iโ€™ll raise;
So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee.

Or, if on joyful wing cleaving the sky,
Sun, moon, and stars forgot, upward Iโ€™ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

– Lyrics by Sarah F. Adams, 1805โ€“1848
Music by Lowell Mason, 1792โ€“1872
Published 1841, Hymn in public domain.

What makes this particular performance of the hymn so compelling is the inclusion of a counter melody. While a solo voice sings the words of “Nearer, My God to Thee” and paints a portrait of a life drawing near to God, the chorus sings a counter melody in Latin. The music is stunningly beautiful. The message reaches the depths of a soul in need of God’s presence. One listener described it like this:

So wonderful. It feels like angels paying a visit to earth with a hymn.

So I want to share with you the Latin text and the translation, which brings new meaning to the hymn.

In articulo mortis // At the moment of death

Caelitus mihi vires // My strength is from heaven

Deo adjuvante non timendum // God helping, nothing should be feared

In perpetuum // Forever

Dirige nos Domine // Direct us, O Lord

Ad augusta per angusta // To high places by narrow roads

Sic itur ad astra // Such is the path to the stars

Excelsior // Ever upward

Why, you might ask, am I writing a music review on my blog today? I suppose my words are an attempt to describe a need for the nearness of God. In times of grief, when sorrow overwhelms, when darkness is all we see, drawing near to a God of compassion is our healing balm and our highest hope. As I contemplate this truth, I am thinking of what was called the greatest disaster in maritime history โ€” April 14, 1912 โ€” the S.S. Titanic sank after striking an iceberg. As the ship disappeared into the vast ocean, Mr. W. Hartley, the ship’s bandmaster, led the band in playing “Nearer, My God, To Thee.”

I pray that, in whatever crisis you face, you will rest in the nearness of God. And I invite you to listen to BYU Vocal Pointโ€™s performance of this hymn:

 

Raising Cain

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“The Resurrection of Lazarus.” Oil on canvas painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1896ย 

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about โ€œpiddlinโ€™ around.โ€ I do it all the time, and when the dayโ€™s light comes to an end, I always wonder if I have done anything at all worthwhile.

Don’t get me wrong. I heartily approve of some piddlinโ€™ around in life. Especially holy piddlinโ€™ like getting quiet and getting in touch with God. Holy piddlin’ like sitting in silent contemplation can bring God close to me. Praying can take me to a special place for sensing Godโ€™s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlinโ€™ can be a very life-giving pastime.ย On the other hand, some of us God followers long to change the world, to face off against oppression, to do justice, to end wars . . . to do something of eternal meaning.

Our problem is that changing the world can be a heavy burden that we simply cannot carry around for long. The secret, I think, is a balance between pensive spiritual moments with God and those once-in-a-while moments of sparkling mission and calling, those moments when we rise courageously above ourselves and almost see miracles. Truth is, it is not a common happening for us to find ourselves raising anyone from the dead or healing someone who is suffering illness.

It seems that the best we can do is to say to God, โ€œI offer you, God, my silent devotion. And I offer you my willingness to follow your highest calling and your most extraordinary mission, wherever it leads and whatever the cost. Hereโ€™s my heart. Do with my life as you will.โ€

I very much enjoy the writing of Annie Dillard, and she has written eloquently on this very subject. Here’s what she writes.

There is always the temptation in life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for years on end… But I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous…more extravagant and bright. We are…raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

– Annie Dillard

I hope that you will find many of those sacred โ€œbe still, my soulโ€ moments with God. But I pray also that you will, along the way, have eyes wide open for those bright and extravagant miracle moments when it just might be possible to raise Cain or raise Lazarus.

A Perfect Place to Die

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Japan’s Aokigaharaย Suicide Forest

I watched a very thoughtful and intriguing movie last week โ€” The Sea of Trees. The film was captivating, telling the story of a despondent professor who despaired of life and searched for a way to end his life. His search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as the Sea of Trees or the Suicide Forest. ย Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

One might say that suicide is not the most uplifting subject for a blog. But suicide is a very real and present tragedy in the world. Consider these startling statistics reported by The Jason Foundation. (http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is the secondย leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธSuicide is theย second leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2015 CDC)

โ–ช๏ธMore teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined.

โ–ช๏ธEach day in our nation, there are an average of over 5,240ย attempts by young people grades 7-12.

โ–ช๏ธEach year, 30,000 Americans die by suicide. An additional 500,000 Americans attempt suicide annually. (http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/suicide)

Some people have found help through suicide prevention programs. Others choose to turn to 24-hour suicide helplines available around the clock to provide crisis intervention. (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/) Still others find that it is their faith that raises fresh hope within them and lifts their sight above the darkest of days.

There is a special kind of renewed hope when people who have been on the brink of taking their own lives share their stories of faith, the depth of faith that ultimately gave them the inner strength to live. Samuel Trevor Francis (1835-1925) told such a story of faith. He experienced a spiritual turning point as a teenager, contemplating suicide one night on a bridge over the River Thames. An unexpected renewal of his faith saved his life that night.ย At age 41, Samuel Trevor Francis recalled the faith that saved him and penned the words of the well-known Christian hymn, โ€œO the Deep Deep, Love of Jesus.”

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, spread His praise from shore to shore!
How He loveth, ever loveth, changeth never, nevermore!
How He watches o’er His loved ones, died to call them all His own;
How for them He intercedeth, watcheth o’er them from the throne!

O the deep, deep love of Jesus, love of every love the best!
‘Tis an ocean vast of blessing, ’tis a haven sweet of rest!
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, ’tis a heaven of heavens to me;
And it lifts me up to glory, for it lifts me up to Thee!

But let’s go back to where we began — ย the best place to die.

Many years ago, I looked for that place, a way out of many years of relentless, chronic pain. I traveled alone to Mayo Clinic to receive two weeks of specialized medical care and physical therapy. ย Perhaps a city very far from my home would be the best place to die. After an upsetting treatment at the clinic, I managed to make it to my hotel room. I took out all the bottles of prescription medication I had with me. The phone rang, and a friend distracted my focus from the tablets I had poured out in front of me. And through our conversation, with tears falling on my freshly-made bed, I learned something very life-giving about the depth of my faith, and most of all, about the depth of Godโ€™s abiding, ever-present love.

And so today I can say with strong assurance that the best place to die โ€” or to live โ€” is in middle of the deep, deep love of Jesus, a love that is for me โ€œvast, unmeasured, boundless, free!โ€ A love that restored hope in the midst of my despair. A love that was enough.

Today, as I silently sing “O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus,” the words of that beautiful hymn ring real and true. God’s love truly was underneath me and all around me, even on that cold and lonely night in Minnesota.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Pleading for the Future

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Attorney and prominent advocate for economic reform Clarence Darrow used a compelling statement as a part of his closing argument in the 1924 Leopold-Loeb trial in Chicago. โ€œI am pleading for the future,โ€ he said.

I am pleading for the future; I am pleading for a time when hatred and cruelty will not control the hearts of men. When we can learn by reason and justice and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving and that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

– Clarence Darrow
April 18, 1857 โ€“ March 13, 1938

Perhaps we should engage in some sincere pleading for the future in light of the recent and very disturbing news reports that describe our world as a precarious one.

A serious opioid epidemic is swamping hospitals, with government data showing 1.27 million emergency room visits or inpatient stays for opioid-related issues in a single year. (The Washington Post)

Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for nearly a year and a half, died Monday afternoon, days after he returned home in a coma. (The Washington Post)

Two “terrorist incidents” include reports of a van plowing into pedestrians on London Bridge and stabbings at the nearby Borough Market. (ABC News)

U.S. Representative Steve Scalise and three others were shot at a GOP baseball practice in Alexandria, Virginia. The shooter, James T. Hodgkinson, was killed by police after firing dozens of bullets during the congressional practice session. (NPR)

A suicide terrorist killed 22 people outside of an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. (Fox News)

To the God who knows the woes of our world, who is our refuge and strength, we do plead for the future. As Clarence Darrow wrote, “we have learned by reason and justice and understanding and faith that all life is worth saving and that mercy is the highest attribute of humankind.” So, in spite of the worldโ€™s troubles that threaten us, we persevere in faith, inspired by the Psalmist who speaks this good news.

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging . . .

Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress . . .

He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.

He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

He says, โ€œBe still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.โ€

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

– From Psalm 46

Light for a Dark Path

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Life can be a very dark path, frightenly uncharted. Inching through life often finds us hesitating in dark places, afraid to take even one step into an unknown future. The darkness can be daunting. Still, for me light has at times eased the darkness, and with even a tiny ray of light, I was able to move forward.

Brother Curtis Almquist writes of the grace-filled presence of beacons of light.

There have been people in our past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present . . . and we remember them because they help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted.

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

How fondly I remember and give thanks for the people who were beacons of light for me.

Yiayia, my beloved grandmother, who was my faithful and loving protector and whose energy nurtured me.

Thea Koula, my favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me and who brought joy and lightheartedness to my life.

Ethel, my forever friend, who was a constant beacon of light, always helping me find my way.

In the darkness, the light of faith endured and made the journey possible. Most certainly, the people in my life strengthened my faith and were for me a welcomed light for a dark path. And yes, I stumbled over more than a few nasty obstacles and rough spots. But even when I languished in the darkness of an uncharted path, my faith was enough. My faith was my brightest light.

I will be forever grateful for the beacons of light that helped guide me on the journey and for the enduring, constant presence of a faithful God.

The Lord will guide you always;
will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

Justice Is a Verb!

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Surely someone has written about the challenge of being a Christian in these days of political upheaval and societal angst. I need to read such a book. I need to be emboldened to live out my faith, not as a passive bystander, but as a change-agent that insists on peace and justice.

My close friend and colleague in ministry, Wendell Griffen, insists that justice is a verb. His life beckons us to live into what he calls “the fierce urgency of prophetic hope.” In his book of the same name, he asks people of faith to consider this question: “How can we speak of hope in a time of deep divisionโ€”a time too often defined by racism, misogyny, materialism, militarism, religious nationalism, and xenophobia?” *

My faith compels me to find ways to speak hope in these unsettled days, to speak truth to power when people suffer oppression, to care deeply about injustice. As I sit in my home dealing with the inevitable aging that marks my days, I think about the past to a time when advocacy was my passion. I remember ministry in the hospital, at the jail, in child sexual abuse forensic interviews, in courtrooms. I remember the energy of speaking for those who were suffering. I recall a life on the edge that made a difference in people’s lives.

But what about today? How does my faith ennoble me at this time of my life? What is my new normal in service and ministry? In what ways will my voice be heard proclaiming hope, justice and equality?

The following words are written by Dr. Cornel West in his book Democracy Matters: ย Winning the Fight Against Imperialism:

To be a Christian is to live dangerously, honestly, freely–to step in the name of love as if you may land on nothing, yet keep stepping because the something that sustains you, no empire can give you and no empire can take away. This is the kind of vision and courage required to enable the renewal of prophetic, democratic Christian identity in the age of the American empire. *

I believe there are still battles that I must fight. I believe that the vision and courage of youth remains. I believe that when God calls one to be a prophetic voice, that call is a permanent, lifelong call. My challenge is to keep stepping in the name of love, seeking to do justice, always knowing that God will sustain me.

And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your soul in parched places,
and will strengthen your bones;
and youโ€™ll be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Isaiah 58:11, ISV
* The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope, Wendell L. Griffen, 2017: Judson Press,
http://www.judsonpress.com/author.cfm?author_id=894

* Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, Cornel West, 2004: The Penguin Press

We Can Overcome

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Young girls run frantically from the sound of a bomb, screaming, crying, confused, and terribly afraid. An evening of sheer joy listening to the music of Ariana Grande had turned into an evening of terror.

In a British music venue, a suicide bomb killed 22 people, some of them children. Eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos lost her life, and 59 other people were wounded, some suffering life-threatening injuries. Many others are still missing.

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester.ย Ariana Grande spoke about the attack: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.”

Is this a portrait of the world we live in? Must we fear for our children and lament the lives they must live? Do we place our faith in a God we sometimes question when tragedies happen?

One of my favorite Scripture passages is also one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It is found in the fifth chapter of Lamentations. The words express deep mourning and profound loss, leaving the writer asking God, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” The hurting people who had lost everything they cherished cried out . . .

Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

– Lamentations 5:15, NIV

Sometimes our dancing really does turn to mourning. All of us are acquainted with loss. Our world is a dangerous place, and tragedies like Manchester remind us of our vulnerability. So how do we live? How do we go on? How do people of God live this kind of dangerous life?

The musical group Hillsong sings “This Is How We Overcome.” The song, which is written by Reuben Morgan, echoes the celebration of the Psalmist in the fifth chapter of Psalms.

You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy.

The song continues with these words.

Your hand lifted me up.ย I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart andย made this valley sing.

They sing of the continual presence of God, even in times of deep mourning, profound loss, and grave danger. That kind of song speaks of our faith, a faith that still holds us and always picks us up when we have fallen. Our faith is our resilience.

We can overcome. Every time. Every time life circumstances assail us and steal our music, we persist. We sing. We dance. We praise a God who is eternally near. So let us persevere, always proclaiming the source of our strength.

The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian prays this prayer.

Let us resiliently resume our dancing.
Let us sing louder. Let us speak out voices with determination.

May it be so. Amen.

(Rev. Torigian’s prayer may be found at https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/05/23/tuesday-prayer-95/.)

Beautiful and Terrible Things

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We live in a world where beautiful things happen every day. The dawn lights the dew of the night. The sun rises and warms the earth. The rain satisfies the thirsty ground. The foliage wears its lush green and the flowers bloom again and again.

Just in my own family new babies will soon be born. We will celebrate two high school graduations. Our young ones, just babies yesterday it seems, will begin college. To be sure, in the world beautiful things happen.

But terrible things will happen, too. A news story tells of an infant being found with almost a hundred rodent bites. An eight year old boy takes his own life. Syrian children are orphaned by war. The United Nations reports more than 14 million Yemenis are going hungry, 370,000 of them children. Certainly, inย this world, terrible things will happen.

I am comforted by these words from Frederick Buechner.

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.

The challenge to our hearts is to live in the world without fear, to live courageously, to live fully with hope and joy.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

– Isaiah 41:10

Chains

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Chains.

Some folks see a golden necklace with sparkling links. But others see chains as cruel symbols of enslavement. History records thousands of inhumane acts of enslavement. A review of history is about real people whose lives were oppressive, whose chains were heavy, whose slavery was permanent. We remember their lives with a sense of shame and we honor them with genuine repentance.

But we must also bring the reality of chains closer to home as we recall the times of our lives that held us in chains. Serious illnesses. Violent relationships. Troubled children. Careers that became personal enslavement. No, the chains that bound us were not made of steel. Instead, they were chains that bound our very being, holding us fast, oppressing our spirits.

In all of this, there is hope. It is the hope of God’s grace that empowers us to break free. I am reminded of one of my favorite Scripture passages.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

– Galatians 5:1, New International Version

Of one thing I am certain. God does not desire for us a life of enslavement, but graces us with the courage to free ourselves from all that holds us hostage. Life in Christ is not a life of chains. It is a life of freedom to live, to love, and to thrive. Though we may have been hurt by circumstances that left us in chains, our souls can never be chained.

Laurie Halse Anderson writes this in her brilliant novel series, Chains: Seeds of America.

She cannot chain my soul. Yes, she could hurt me. She’d already done so . . . I would bleed, or not. Scar, or not. Live, or not. But she could not hurt my soul, not unless I gave it to her.

Please listen to a beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone” sung by Noteworthy. ย https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=X6Mtpk4jeVA