Mercies and Blessings

IMG_6014Like many of you, I have experienced dark nights of the soul. I have faced illness, betrayal, disillusionment and loss. I have faced the dark side of life more than a few times. In the midst of those times, I found the courage of faith, the gift of hope, and the promise of Scripture.

If you have known me through the years, you may know that one of the New Testament passages that gives me strength is in the fourth chapter of Second Corinthians. The following words are part of that chapter.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

– 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16-18 18 (KJV, NIV)

The passage speaks of “wasting away.” When I was so ill for all of 2014, I can honestly say that I believed I was wasting away. It was a frightening emotion, one that I would rather not hold in my memories. But my memories of that time also include mercies and blessings, blessings of gradual healing, blessings of compassionate and competent health care, blessings of being surrounded by a loving faith community, blessings of my husband’s devoted care, blessings of hope and faith in a God whose mercies covered me in so many ways. Clearly, my blessings came through adversity.

Today while listening to Pandora, I heard a song that touched me with its faith-filled lyrics.

. . . What if Your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if the trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?

What if my greatest disappointments or the aching of this life is the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy?
What if trials of this life — the rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are Your mercies in disguise?

– Written by Liz Story • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group

I learned that through serious illness, the fear was greatest at night. The nights were the hardest. But I also learned that what I had read so many times was true — God’s mercies are new every morning.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

 

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Suffering

IMG_5915For whatever reason, several people I know are currently going through an exacerbation of fibromyalgia. I am one of those people dealing with debilitating pain right now. Fortunately, the pain cycles usually pass over time. But when the pain is raging, it slaps us in the face with a significant challenge.

The truth is that chronic pain is much more than just physical pain. It is physical and emotional suffering. Quite often, it is also spiritual suffering. In the years I served as a hospital chaplain, I learned so much about what people experience when they are ill. The most important lesson I learned is that there is a very real difference between pain and suffering.

Experiencing chronic pain most often goes far beyond physical pain. Pain is the actual physical /physiological response to an injury or illness. It is rooted in the body. But all too often, it is accompanied by debilitating suffering. Suffering is how the brain perceives pain based on past experience and future expectations and fears. It is rooted in the mind, even in the spirit.

Suffering asks “How long can this pain last? Will I feel this way forever? What have I done to deserve this? Has God forsaken me? Does God care about my suffering? Am I going to die?”

It is true that sometimes our suffering questions are irrational, but pain that has permeated the mind and spirit causes a very deep fear, a feeling of disorder, a sense of terror, and constant questioning. It takes an act of the will to keep suffering at bay, but it can be done. Deepak Chopra speaks of pain and suffering in many of his teachings.

Many people confuse pain with suffering. Pain is not the same as suffering. Left to itself, the body discharges pain spontaneously, letting go of it the moment that the underlying cause is healed.

Suffering is pain that we hold on to. It comes from the mind’s mysterious instinct to believe that pain cannot be escaped or that the person deserves it . . . It takes a force of mind to create suffering, a blend of belief and perception that one thinks one has no control over. But as inescapable as suffering may appear, what brings escape is not attacking the suffering itself but getting at the unreality that makes us cling to pain.

– Deepak Chopra

Is it easier said than done, modifying the beliefs and perceptions that accompany pain? To be sure, it is difficult. But suffering people find a number of ways to accomplish it: yoga, meditation, prayer, and for people of faith, leaning on the strength of their religious practice. In a very real sense, we can create within ourselves the kind of healing that rises above physiological pain.

Perhaps it sounds simplistic, but while in the throes of physical pain, I am often able to find a measure of relief by meditating on the truth of Scripture, not just reading it, but abiding in it, letting its words penetrate my spirit, opening my heart to its comforting truth.

Psalm 42 has been called a Psalm for the fainting soul. The Psalm is the voice of a spiritual believer who is enduring deep depression, who is longing for the renewal of the divine presence, who is struggling with doubts and fears, yet holding on to hope. The Psalm twice repeats this comforting refrain.

Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I again will praise him, my help and my God.

– Psalm 42: 5, 11

In the final analysis, people of faith really do have the ability to endure chronic pain while avoiding suffering. Perhaps we cannot stop physical pain or reverse the source of the pain. Perhaps we do not have the power to heal ourselves from physical pain when physiological realities are at play in our bodies. But our faith assures us again and again that we do have the power to end suffering at its source — suffering of the mind, the heart, the spirit, the soul.

If you are in physical pain, my prayer is that your faith will quiet the questions of your mind, that your inner strength will calm the anxiety of your spirit, that your depth of hope will strengthen your heart, that your soul’s resilience will transcend your suffering. This is the ultimate healing.

May God make it so.

On Being a Mystic

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A breathtaking sunset over Arkansas’ Mount Nebo photographed by Josh McCray.

Some Christians tend to be frightened by the word “mysticism.” The word “mystic” raises irrational fears based on a misunderstanding of mysticism as a part of the Christian’s spiritual experience. So what exactly is a mystic? A mystic is simply one who has moved from mere belief systems to an actual inner experience with God.

That brings us to the sticky concept of belief systems. Christians definitely have belief systems, sometimes rigid and judgmental belief systems. The reality is that there is never a shortage of persons spouting out their beliefs, beliefs that are often based on systems of fake religious piety.

A life lived in the spiritual realm of God is much, much more than a set of rigid beliefs. Spirituality is much more than what we think or what we say. Spirituality is who we are, our inner spirit, our soul that dances to the rhythms of the God who dwells within us.

Richard Rohr understands the inner spiritual experience.

Until people have had some mystical, inner spiritual experience, there is no point in asking them to follow the ethical ideals of Jesus or to really understand religious beliefs beyond the level of formula. At most, such moral ideals and doctrinal affirmations are only a source of deeper anxiety because we don’t have the power to follow any of Jesus’ major teachings about forgiveness, love of enemies, nonviolence, humble use of power, and so on, except in and through radical union with God. Further, doctrines like the Trinity, the Real Presence, and the significance of Incarnation itself have little active power. They are just “believed” at the rational level.

– Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Any of us can believe at the rational level. We can easily formulate a set of personal doctrines, doctrines that often hold us captive to self-righteousness and rigid relationships with others. To be truly free is to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to rest in the presence of God, to follow Christ into places of deep need, to give ourselves over to inner spiritual experiences.

When we live in the comforting place of the mysticism of spirituality, we will not find in ourselves a judgmental spirit that uses our beliefs to denigrate those whose beliefs differ from ours. We will not find in ourselves the need for the criticism and condemnation that results in divisions.

What we will find within ourselves is the ability to love as Christ loved, the longing to bury our souls in the gentle grace of God, the deepest desire to transform the world around us and thus create the “beloved community.”

So I, for one, want to be a mystic. I want to live in the very center God’s spiritual realm, to be moved by the Spirit, to scatter the love of Christ in all the places I walk.

May God make it so.

Life’s Darkest Place

IMG_5929Sometimes, the heart cries out in anguish, “Comfort me, God, in this my life’s darkest place.” There are times when all of us find ourselves in the midst of darkness. Almost despairing, we hope beyond hope for a new dawn. We speak our prayers, often with groanings too deep for words. We look deeper within, hoping that in the depths of our spirits, we will find an enduring faith. We turn to the comfort of Scripture.

If I had to choose one passage of Scripture that has been for me a source of constant comfort, I would turn to Second Corinthians.

In times of betrayal, I turned to this passage. In times times when I felt persecuted, I turned to this passage. In serious illness, I whispered the words of this passage in the deepest darkness of the night.

We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed . . .

For all things are for our good, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

For which cause we faint not; but though outwardly we may perish, inwardly we are renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works within us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

So we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporary; but the things which are not seen are eternal.

– From II Corinthians 4 (paraphrased)

I can only imagine how many survivors of the recent natural disasters have spoken the words of this passage, prayerfully and with hearts disconsolate. I can imagine many of them crying out from what feels like life’s darkest place. The hymn writer expresses so eloquently the presence of hope for all of us who find ourselves languishing, inviting us to bring our sorrows to the mercy seat of God.

Come, ye disconsolate, where’er ye languish,
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel.
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heav’n cannot heal.

– Thomas Moore, 1816

May those who are disconsolate this day find consolation in the lavish grace of God. May those who languish find respite in God’s never-ending mercy. May those who are suffering in what feels like life’s darkest place experience the brilliance of a new dawn. Amen.

 

Wounds of the Soul

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Early morning comes to a green valley near Marshall, Arkansas.
Photo by Paul Barrows.

Hurricanes and earthquakes of the soul . . .

The lush vegetation of Puerto Rico has been replaced by broken trees, homes lying in ruins, a painfully barren landscape. “Hurricane Maria destroyed us,” said Edwin Serrano, a construction worker in Old San Juan.

Dominica was devastated. Thousands of trees snapped and were strewn across the landscape, leaving the island completely stripped of vegetation. Dozens of mudslides turned the sparkling blue-green sea to a murky, muddy brown.

At least 286 people were killed in Mexico City by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. A rescue operation at the city’s Enrique Rébsamen school resulted in the rescue of eleven children, but nineteen children and six adults were killed. Extreme urgency permeated the school as more than 700 rescue workers continued digging after two days without sleep, knowing that survivors would be able to last only about four days.

In a very real sense, nature turned on the survivors, leaving them despairing from disasters that created devastation in many forms. Destroyed cities, of course, physical injuries and homes left in the rubble, yes. But also wounds of the soul that are lasting and life-changing.

People who live through natural disasters live with a kind of violence, violence that is perpetrated randomly by nature. When one depends upon nature’s rhythms to provide sunlight and moonlight, rain and breeze, the predictable tide of breaking waves and calm waters, the suddenness of violent storms and earthquakes assault the psyche. Nature is usually a constant, comforting presence, but a natural disaster leaves those in its wake coping with an environment that resembles a war zone. Living in that kind of environment day in and day out causes behaviors similar to those identified with persons who suffer from PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder).

The assault by nature creates a chronic and debilitating state of fight or flight. To cope, survivors develop the ability to numb their feelings and repress intrusive memories. This leaves many of them with enormous anxiety, feeling that the world is no longer a safe place. While many symptoms of PTSD are evident, often the most frightening symptoms are those not readily visible, secret symptoms and reactions such as disorientation, memory lapses and night terrors. These symptoms are buried in the deep crevices of the psyche.

Wounds to the soul and spirit are caused by events that violate one’s most deeply held sense of safety and security, and it is important to address PTSD not as a “disorder,” but as a response, an appropriately normal response to an overwhelmingly abnormal situation.

So when we send positive thoughts, donate, and pray for the restoration of these ruined cities, we must also be intentional in praying for healing of the soul and spirit of every survivor. Long after buildings and homes have been repaired, survivors will live with a deep wound of the soul that can only heal with time, prayer, faith and hope, as wounded people learn to abide with the God who walks with us through every “valley of the shadow of death.” The Scripture can be a comfort in such times, and often the most familiar passages are the ones we lean on.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

– Psalm 23

Until that day when tender green shoots once again begin to fill the landscape in those devastated countries, may the wounded people walk through the green pastures of the heart and the still waters of the spirit with the Gentle Shepherd who restores the soul and leads to peace.

The Promise of Daybreak

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Pierce Creek Public Boat Landing, Mayflower, Arkansas. Photo by Steven Nawojczyk.

Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.

– Ephesians 6:13 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

– Isaiah 58:10 New International Version (NIV)

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A friend recently described this time in history as “days of despair.” She talked about “a veil of darkness” that has covered our world. I have thought a great deal about her comments and have spent time pondering the kind of fear people might be feeling. Certainly, the natural disasters we are experiencing are causing feelings of great unease. Floods and fires, mighty winds and life-changing storms have left millions of people despairing. They have experienced loss of life, loss of their homes, loss of belongings, loss of their place in community. Perhaps some of them doubt the promise of a dawning day that brings back hope.

Add to that the far too frequent expressions of hate, xenophobia and racism that exacerbate distress. Clearly, there is enough fear and despair to go around in these unsettling days. After many years of acceptance and belonging, the young people we call DREAMERS suddenly feel the fear of losing all that they have worked for, including the country that has been “home” to them since they were children.

So how do disconsolate people move forward when a sense of despair holds them captive? How do people in the midst of fear and grief believe that a new dawn will break their current darkness? How do they hold on to their faith in the God who cares deeply for them, protects them, holds them close?

Can we join hearts and hands and stand courageously against injustice, standing with those who have been marginalized, believing that we will overcome the “evil day” that threatens us?

One voice throughout history declares with certain, living faith that, whatever we face, we shall overcome. I do not even need to mention his name because we hear his voice clearly during every trial. These are his words:

We shall overcome because Carlisle is right. “No lie can live forever.”

We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right. “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right. “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future and behind them unknown stands God within the shadows keeping watch above his own.”

We shall overcome because the Bible is right. “You shall reap what you sow.”

With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1966

These days of darkness and division will pass. These days of dim uncertainty will pass. We shall overcome despair. As it always has, the breaking dawn will drive out the darkness of night. Hope will again rise within us as we embrace the promise of another glorious daybreak.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

A Holy Mission . . . A Possible Mission

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A post card created by the Syracuse Cultural Workers                                            commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Beloved Community.
When Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of “beloved community” he was describing the ultimate goal of non-violent activism for peace and justice — a global community of caring where poverty, hunger and in justice are no more.

As a person of faith, how do I respond to injustice? Where do I find the impetus, the courage, to confront evil? How do I go deeply into my soul to find the inner strength to stand against that which is wrong in the world? How do I work to help realize the dream of a beloved community? How do I meet the challenge of so holy a mission?

Brian McClaren recently wrote about what he saw and experienced in Charlottesville. A part of his article includes a straight-up call to people of faith.

All of us, especially people of faith, need to proclaim that white supremacy and white privilege and all other forms of racism and injustice must indeed be replaced with something better – the beloved community where all are welcome, all are safe, and all are free. White supremacist and Nazi dreams of apartheid must be replaced with a better dream – people of all tribes, races, creeds, and nations learning to live in peace, mutual respect, and neighborliness. Such a better world is possible, but only if we set our hearts on realizing the possibility.

– Brian McClaren

Oh, how we long to experience “the beloved community.” How we long to see our dreams of peace become a reality. Yes, we do set our hearts on realizing these dreams. Yet, we still feel the reticence of fear and inadequacy. We still tend to hide inside of our religiosity, the kind of religiosity that prevents us from responding to God’s call to wage peace. The Apostle Paul spoke to the religious people of his time. His words are instructive to us.

Paul stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else . . . For in him we live and move and have our being.”

– From Acts 17:22-28

Therein lies the answer to my questions of inadequacy and urges me to go beyond my own “objects of worship.” Paul’s prompting urges me to move outside of my own religious temple into a hurting and warring world. How can I find the will and the courage?

In God I live and move and have my being. That makes every holy mission a possible mission.

May God make it so.

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 therapist’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 “faith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the dark—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, “What is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed “the belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to “stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

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 “Nearer, My God, to Thee” 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. I have long loved this old hymn and its simple, but profound, message.

Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee!
E’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 I’d be nearer, my God, to Thee.

There let the way appear, steps unto Heav’n;
All that Thou sendest me, in mercy giv’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 I’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 I’ll fly,
Still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, to Thee.

– Lyrics by Sarah F. Adams, 1805–1848
Music by Lowell Mason, 1792–1872
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 — April 14, 1912 — 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 Point’s performance of this hymn:

 

Raising Cain

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

As someone born and raised in the south, I know a lot about “piddlin’ around.” I do it all the time, and when the day’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 piddlin’ around in life. Especially holy piddlin’ 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 God’s touch. Listening to sacred music opens my soul to the whisper of God.

Piddlin’ can be a very life-giving pastime. 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, “I 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. Here’s my heart. Do with my life as you will.”

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 “be still, my soul” 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.