If you know about labyrinths, you might get this. People often ask me what a labyrinth is or what it’s for. Truth is, you can’t fully understand a labyrinth by definition, nor by reading about it. You won’t get the significance of a labyrinth by what I write here, no matter how eloquent my writing may be. To know a labyrinth, you have to walk one, or trace the circuits of a finger labyrinth, or trace the path on a sand labyrinth and feel the sand under your fingers.
As a part of spiritual direction, many folk tell me that a labyrinth looks like a maze to them, and they fear they’ll get hopelessly lost, unable to make it out. That sounds a lot like life to me. Isn’t there always fear that we’ll get lost on this journey we call life? After we’ve made a few wrong turns in life, we are often fearful of living it. Afraid our wrong turns will end badly. Afraid we’ll get lost.
The truth of the labyrinth is that it is a clearly marked path that will lead you in—to the center—and then lead you out by the same path. Perhaps that’s why it has been called “the sacred path.”
If you know me or follow my blog, you already know that my life has been made up of many curves, turns, twists, dead ends and crossroads. At times, it has felt unnavigable, a dangerous and unpredictable journey. Yours has probably felt much the same. I have learned a few good lessons along the way, though, lessons that I hope will stick with me.
The one overarching lesson is that I can neither predict, nor control my path. The twists and turns will appear before me, and I will walk through them. The curves will seem treacherous at times, and I will lean into them hoping to stay firmly on the road. I will stop in my tracks at the dead ends and simply turn around and start over. The crossroads? Well, they have their own precariousness, danger. The crossroads demand a decision. The road I choose could make a world of difference, good or bad.
It’s enough to make life frightening! And it does. Life is frightening, especially for those of us who need to control our pathways. Here’s where the labyrinth offers me so much comfort. It is a pre-created path in and then out, and when I follow it’s path, I am reminded of one of the core beliefs of my faith: that God has laid out a path uniquely for me. Whether I follow it or not is another part of my faith. I get to make that decision.
When I walk a labyrinth or even trace its circular pathways with my finger, I am aware of a guiding hand, a Comforter beside me, and the peace of knowing the path was created for me. I feel Spirit winds and hear the holy voices of thousands of years of Wisdom whispering into my ear.
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I am intrigued by the words I read this morning in a community chat about God’s love. I’m not sure which part is more compelling to me: that ”God’s love protects us from nothing!” or that God’s love ”sustains us in everything.” The truth is I have experienced both in my life. I imagine you have as well. The circuitous journey we call life leads us through rocky paths, crises of every kind, dark and dense places that make us feel lost, daunting mountains to climb, roads we take that take us to dead ends, roads to nowhere.
God did not protect me from any of the real-life crises that came my way—abuse as a child, a serious eye disease in Africa, the loss of my youngest brother, the fire that almost destroyed our home, the kidney disease that almost killed me at least three times, the years of dialysis, the miraculous, but very hard, kidney transplant. I assume God kept watch over all of it, but God did not protect me from it. God did not spare me from the traumatic events that marked my life.
So I have to ask questions, honest questions, about how God’s love really affects my life. How do I experience God’s love? How do I sense it in my spirit? Do I really believe that God loves me, especially in my life’s dark times? Do I believe that God should spare me from every life danger?
In my experience, God’s love is elusive, intangible, difficult to hold onto. At times, I don’t sense it at all. At times there are no holy ”everlasting arms” holding me until my darkness turns to light. The only way I sense it at all is by faith, the faith that is ”the substance of all things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
To understand this love thing fully, I think I have to read the rest of that chapter in Hebrews, where we find a litany of what important Bible people did by faith. You may remember the list: “By faith, Abel; By faith, Moses; By faith, Jacob: By faith, Sarah: By faith, Rahab . . .” Many more are listed, each having done some great thing by faith. This chapter, though, presses hard on the things that can happen to the faithful ones. Listen to this part:
Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two,[l] they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised . . .
Oh, my! They did everything right. Their faith was commendable. Yet, they did not see the promise they expected, the great and good things that would come to them because they were faithful. In the end, did they hold on to their faith—without experiencing their reward? Without seeing God’s promise?
What do each of them—Moses, Abraham, Josua, Rahab and the rest— have to do with us? Was their faith like ours? Were their challenges and obstacles like ours? Did they feel void of God’s love like we sometimes feel? Without the promise the expected, did their faith still hold?
We can only speculate about all those questions. But we do not have to speculate about our own faith. We know it. We live with it—when it is strong and when it falters. Did our faith, and God’s love, protect me from every hurt and every harm? I have to answer, ”No.” Yet, the opposite statement—God sustains us in everything—has been real and true throughout my life, in sunshine and in shadow.
I have not known where I was going or where I would end up most of the time, but I kept walking even in my soul’s dark times. The journey has had its rough passages. The journey has most definitely lead me through the dark. Yet, I have also experienced the sunrise that always comes, day after day without fail. And as for God . . . well, God’s love has been present, covering me in the warmth of the love that would not let me go, not by sparing me every hard time, but by “sustaining me in everything.”
The beautiful sunrise image at the beginning of this post points me to the thought that God’s love is a little like the sunrise—a calming light, a gentle light, forever dependable. I have yet to experience even one day without a sunrise. The photo also graces me with the image of footsteps in the snow. Look at them. They are the footprints of someone walking alone, and in truth, we all walk our journeys alone. I imagine, though, that we also depend upon the invisible footprints of the God who leads us on the path.
If we see God’s holy footsteps at all, we see them by faith. That will always be true, that by faith, we ”see” the footsteps that go before us. Only by faith can we claim the ”evidence of things not seen.” So when all is said and done, I believe this to be true: God’s love protects us from nothing! Yet… sustains us in everything!
I believe it by faith.
I hope you can spend a few quiet moments listening to this beautiful choral arrangement. Pay close attention to the words. This is just one sentence among other words of assurance . . . I walk in footsteps of God’s love.
I see His footsteps in the way, And follow them through darkest night, Unafraid, I stumble not, In the glow of perfect light, I see.
I walk in footsteps of His love, And find His light leads on before, Then He gently turns to me, Softly whispers, “trust Me more, I walk.
Then as I follow in His way, My path ahead will brightly shine, For in His path of guiding light, I find His footsteps first, Then mine.
After about five years of co-teaching my Sunday School class, known as the Voices Class, I have had an insight, a rather critical insight. Teaching this class, in particular, has been a gift for me and possibly for the other class members. We have bonded in important and meaningful ways. Most importantly, we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2) and most definitely, we weep with our sisters who have found themselves weeping along the journey. (Romans 12:15)
And what a journey it has been for our class. We began with a lovely Lenten study titled, “Praying with Your Pen,” which took us into the wonderful world of contemplative writing. Such a spiritual disciple leads into all manner of emotional and spiritual discovery, not all of which is positive. The study was emotionally and spiritually taxing at times, while being life-giving for us all.
We then studied a three-month series of biblical women who faced various hardships and later revisited that study for an additional seven weeks. As we followed the journeys of these biblical women, we found kindred spirits and grace for our own journeys. But the lives of the biblical women were harsh, harsh enough to bring up in us an examination of the harshness we have encountered. So this study was a difficult one as well.
Other Lenten and Advent studies through the years kept us in a contemplative, and often melancholy, space where we learned so much about ourselves, our faith and our relationship with God and with each other. We followed Christ Sophia for a while, as we considered the feminine nature of God, and as we followed her, we uncovered spiritual layers in us that have long been touched by Spirit Wisdom.
All of our studies along the way took us to tender places within, places where spiritual maturity occurs and faith deepens. A deepened faith, it seems, was especially important as we entered the pandemic that separated us from each other, at least physically. We adapted valiantly and immediately, and our class continued via virtual Zoom meetings. The meetings, that regularly lasted two hours or more, seemed to ensure our sanity as we navigated pandemic lifestyles that we certainly did not choose. Suddenly, the day to day living became harder, school more complicated, safety measures all-encompassing, family isolation straining. Figuring out this new way to live became draining beyond belief.
That, too, we navigated together, holding one another in the light, learning to find church in uncommon places and keeping each other gathered close, covered in the love each of us brought to our circle. Gathering close to each other was critically important as we lost friends, church members and close family members to this pandemic. Apart from the pandemic tragedies we watched, our class was brought low by other illness and deaths of persons close to us.
So a few weeks ago, my soul cried out, “Enough!” Then I asked myself, ”Where is our joy?” We’ve got the ‘weep with those who weep’ part, God. Can we just move on to the ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’ part?”
Where is our joy? That’s the part of faith I cannot discern, because right now, it’s just too far away. Still, I asked myself the question.
And I answered myself immediately. It’s in our hymns! Our joy is in our singing.
So the Voices Class started a new study titled,
Singing Theology: Hymns & the Formation of Faith OurWorship, Hymnody and Theology
A delightful study it has been for us, as we explore how hymns express the theology of a particular Christian community or tradition. Searching deeply into one hymn each week, we have asked: how does the hymn’s theology shape and form our faith, our belief, our mission and our action? “As the church sings, so she believes,” writes Beth Bowers. We had discovered in this new study an informative, important—and fun—exploration of song!
Hymns We Have Studied Each Week . . .
Here is our joy, in the hymns we sing — in their rhythms and their melodies, their thoughts and words. Hymns express our faith, our longing, our petition, our awe, our need, our regret, our grief, our testimony, our theology, our conviction and the deepest joy of our hearts. May it always be so!
My life goes on in endless song Above earth´s lamentations, I hear the real, though far-off hymn That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife I hear its music ringing, It sounds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
While though the tempest loudly roars, I hear the truth, it liveth. And though the darkness ’round me close, Songs in the night it giveth.
No storm can shake my inmost calm, While to that rock I´m clinging. Since love is lord of heaven and earth How can I keep from singing?
When tyrants tremble in their fear And hear their death knell ringing, When friends rejoice both far and near How can I keep from singing?
In prison cell and dungeon vile Our thoughts to them are winging, When friends by shame are undefiled How can I keep from singing?
Songwriters: Eithne Ni Bhraonain / Nicky Ryan / Roma Ryan
Sometimes some things don’t work! Like today as I am trying to insert the image for this post. It’s a watercolor painting I did a couple of years ago titled “Grays.” I don’t remember what was gray about that day or why I felt surrounded by gray, but I know that something was troubling about the day.
Like today! No, it’s definitely not gray outdoors. No gray skies above while the sun is shining brightly. Yet, I feel the “gray” closing in on me today, and for the past few days. News of the world’s hurt certainly has something to do about it. I can’t bear to hear of the spike in Covid cases, the danger of the Delta variant, exhausted health care providers gasping for relief, maltreated children at the overcrowded migrant center in Fort Bliss, Texas. I can hardly bear to hear another report about my friend who is very ill or about another friend I spoke to this morning who lost two love ones this week.
It feels gray in me right now. I think the gray feeling has a lot to do with the chat I had with my nephrologist at Mayo Clinic this week. He was beyond concerned about our current pandemic situation for his transplant patients. Of course, I am one of those patients. He was adamant that we immunosuppressed patients must begin isolating again immediately.
So again, the outlook for me is bleak. Not only am I one of his patients who are on high doses of immunosuppressant medications, but also I am one of the people for whom vaccines are not very effective. So while the general vaccinated public is around 90% protected from the virus, we are 50% (or less) protected. My doctor ordered an antibody test and, sure enough, it revealed that I have zero antibodies, which means I am not protected from Covid and that I can infect others.
I think that means retreating again from public gatherings — from stores, from groups of friends, from medical offices, from church. The time I was so looking forward to — seeing my grandchildren — is now a more distant possibility. All of that looks pretty darn gray to me!
I know in the depths of my soul that there are no simple answers for the gray times, the times when I am disconsolate and despondent. I know that I cannot change every adverse circumstance of my life. I know, too, that we cannot always change our soul’s response to those difficult circumstances. Sometimes, the “gray” of despondency simply has its way in me, and I cannot pull myself up and out. Sometimes I feel as if I am in a desert wilderness, and although streams of water may be there, I do not find them.
In such times, I have found that my ability to hold on to my very self comes directly from the Spirit, who is my sure and certain comforter. And I have learned that, while Holy Scripture and contemplative space do not always mysteriously rescue me or magically change my circumstance, I receive the peace and strength I need to live.
Jesus said to them: “I must leave you, butI will ask God, and our Mother snd Father God will give you another Comforter. This Comforter will stay with you forever. She is the Spirit, who reveals all that is true and real about God. . . . So when I go, you will not be left all alone . . . I leave my peace with you. I give my peace to you. So do not let your hearts be troubled. And do not be afraid.”
John 14:1, 16-18, 27 (my translation)
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
May you find that Spirit wind is moving gently within your spirit, and may God be the strength of your heart forever. Amen
In my normal outings, I frequently ride with my husband past the Magnolia Court Motel. It’s the one with a gas station in its courtyard where a pool used to be back in the 50s. It’s not a place you would want to stay on your vacation. In fact, I doubt anyone goes there for a vacation. Still, it’s always at capacity, because people live there. It’s not in the safest part of town. Magnolia Court itself is not safe. I know that because TV news frequently reports that homicides happen there.
For the past five years, I have seen a dingy, old, light brown car in front of the last unit of Magnolia Court, closest to the street. The same brown car, day or night, is in its parking space. I don’t think the car ever moves and I have wondered if it needs repairs. I assumed that the owner of the brown car didn’t have a job, because the car never moved. I hoped, though, that the owner of the brown car worked an 11 to 7 shift somewhere. I wouldn’t have known that, because I would never go past Magnolia Court at that time of night. Not in that neighborhood!
For five years, I never once mentioned that car to my husband. For five years, I silently looked at the dingy brown car and wondered who was in the motel room. Who was he or she? I always thought it would be a male, so let’s go with that. Why is he living there? Does he have a job? Is he young or old? Does he need food? Is he ill or disabled? Does he have friends or family? What does his room look like? Is it decent or dirty? How does he feel about his life? Does he know about Jesus and God? Is he okay?
My next thought was, “I would never go up to his door at Magnolia Court, knock on it and ask him if he’s okay or if he needs anything or if he knows about Jesus.” Just as quickly, my thoughts switch from the man (or woman) with the dingy brown car at the Magnolia Court to these hard questions . . . What could I do, as a Christian, to see if this man needed help? How could I help? What would I do? And what do the answers to those questions say about my faith?
I don’t know, of course, but I imagine that in a similar situation, Jesus might have gone straight to the inn and checked on the people. Finding out how they were doing might have led him to heal one, encourage another, give another a basket of food or do all the blessing-kind-of-things Jesus always did.
Last week, we drove by Magnolia Court. The dingy brown car was not parked in its place. I looked around the Court to see if he had changed rooms, but the car was not there. I felt my heart quicken and my mind rushing through scenarios of what might have happened to the man in the end room of Magnolia Court. I was sad. Guilty. After about ten minutes, I managed to move on with my day and not think too much about the man.
Today, we again passed by Magnolia Court, twice! The car was gone. The man was probably gone too. I never saw him. I never checked on him. Why would I? Who would do that sort of thing in the violent, unsafe world we live in?
I don’t want to be trite about things like faith, but honestly, I really did wonder “What would Jesus do?”
“WWJD” might be an old, overused, trendy slogan, but for me this is just being concerned about a man I never saw.
I don’t have any idea what Jesus would do, but I suspect he may have done lots of things, including something similar to what he did with the tables of the money changers. You see, turning over those tables was about doing what is just and right. Jesus might have turned over some tables or lamps or nasty mattresses at Magnolia Court Motel, because it is a place of violence, drugs, and all manner of things that harm people.
I felt my heart quicken and my mind rushing through scenarios of what might have happened to the man in the end room of Magnolia Court. I was sad. Guilty.
Kathy Manis Findley
I have to wonder now, probably will always wonder, what became of the car at Magnolia Court and, more importantly, what became of the man who lived in a room at Magnolia Court Motel. As far as I can tell, he never left his room until the day he left. My thoughts of him over five years of trying to eavesdrop on his life yielded nothing for him. For me, it became an examination of just exactly what kind of faith I have and in what ways am I willing to go out into a world of need where God’s people live in shadows like Magnolia Court. It became a self-examination that prompted me to ask myself, “What do you intend to actually do when you proclaim yourself as a Jesus follower?”
So this is not a morality tale to urge you to examine your faith. It is for me. I am the one who needs to examine my faith, to ask what Jesus would do and then to admit what I will or won’t do. As for the old, dingy, brown car and the man who owns it . . . well, I did do one thing that Jesus would do. I blessed the man I never knew, whispering under my breath as we passed by this morning, “May God go with you and give you peace.”
This is one of my favorite Christian songs. It brings me to tears every time I hear it, especially on the day of my ordination in 1992. As the words were sung that day in a duet by my husband and best friend, my heart sang, “Here I am, Lord.”
I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .
So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. — Matthew 10:41 NRSV
Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.
How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.
I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.
God of the sparrow, sing through us Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. — Jonathan Cook
I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out.
You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.
When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.
Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her.
The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.
You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever. Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV
So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!
Thanks be to God.
Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.
God of the Sparrow
God of the sparrow, sing through us, Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. Helpless we seek You, God our joy, Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. Alleluia.
God of the sparrow, God of hope, Tenderly guide us, be our song, God of affliction, pain and hurt, Comfort Your children, make us strong. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.
God of the sparrow, care for us. Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief. Sing us Your music, lift our hearts, Pour out Your mercy, send relief.
God, like the sparrow, we abide In Your protection, love and grace. Just as the sparrow in Your care,
I think often about roots — current family roots, ancestry roots and roots in my life that were created from various communities. I can’t help but recall the very first church we served in Arab, Alabama. My husband, Fred, was the minister of music and I was (unofficially) counselor and guide for our youth group. The young people of that church surged into our hearts and, along with most of their families, became a very close community — a deeper bond than even family. I thought my heart would literally break into tiny pieces, and I grieved the loss of leaving them for years.
I was sure that I would never form that kind of bond with anyone ever again. But I did, time and time again, in new places with new people — Alabama, South Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky and Uganda, East Africa. Every time, deep roots of friendship would reach deeper — reaching Into the soil, reaching toward each other, tangled and intertwined in love. And every time when we pulled up roots to move on to places God was calling us to go, I grieved in the very depths of my soul. Here’s the picture: digging up a tree and pulling it out of the soil is not easy with roots so twisted and connected. Pulling up a plant or a tree does not destroy its roots, but often injures and damages them. I freely admit that this post is not really about trees and roots. It’s about belonging, forming attachments, community, love. Yet, it’s about more than belonging; it’s about walking away from your belonging, moving away, losing the relationships that mean so much to you, feeling the disconcerting feeling that comes from injuring the roots of your beloved community. A poignant quote by Beryl Markham explains the emotions of pulling up roots.
I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way. Leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance. ― Beryl Markham, West with the Night
“The future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.” There it is: our fear of a future that holds new experiences and new people. For sure, moving forward truly is formidable. But when all is said and done, it seems that the best way to live is to cherish the roots we have every single day, every moment. Love them. Nourish them. Rest in them. And in some future time in your life, when you must pull up roots and move away, go ahead and grieve your loss, but also let yourself grow deep, spreading roots in another place.
With faith and hope, throw off the fear and uncertainty of an unknown future and plant yourself in a new garden. For there, you may well flourish again, grow deeply with a new community, form new attachments. You may even stumble over a life serendipity and find yourself in a place where you love all over again.
Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.
In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.
I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.
All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
— Psalm 73:14 NIV
Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.
I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.
Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.
I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.
As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?
I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.
After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.
Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
— Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV
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.
For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.
— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV
For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heartand my portion forever.
—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV
This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heartand my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abidingfaith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.
So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?
Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.
As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.
* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.
*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain
Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.
— Joshua 1:9
Sometimes our reliance on Scripture fails us. We still believe. We still hold on tightly to our faith. We still delve into Biblical promises that we find throughout Scripture. Yet, the trappings of our faith seem to fail us. We feel alone, walking life’s journey alone.
In the past many weeks, several friends and former clients have shared with me intense feelings of being alone. Some of them are not physically alone, but others are. From every one of them, I hear the inner cries of aloneness. They have thought through what might be the source of their despondency and, without exception, all of them believe that the isolation of the coronavirus is causing their distressing feelings.
It’s not helpful, of course, to remind them that they do not walk alone. It does not help to assure them of my presence with them, even if separated by miles and circumstances. It does not help to tell them that they are surrounded by a community of faith. It does not help to tell them that their circle of friends will always walk with them in solidarity and comfort. It does not help to recite to them endless Bible promises that declare God’s abiding presence.
What they feel in their spirits supersedes any spoken assurance I could give, because aloneness is very real, very pervasive in the throes of this pandemic. It’s about many things: actual separation from friends and family; fear of contracting the virus; loss of normal routines of daily living; loss of employment; heavy responsibilities for aging parents; deeply held fears of the virus harming their children; pervasive uncertainty about the future. This list could continue for several lines of writing.
The isolation, the fear, the uncertainty — all of it is simply taking a significant toll on so many people. One effect is that sinking feeling of being alone.
One of my long-time friends said this to me last week as we chatted online: “Kathy, I am in this house with my family, so I should be grateful. But why do I feel so burdened, so despairing and, in the deepest recesses of myself, so completely alone?”
Of course, her words broke my heart. In years past when she was in crisis, I would simply go to her. Today I cannot do that. Even if we were not in this shelter-in-place situation, I could not go to her now. I am in Georgia and she is in the UK. Chatting online, talking by phone and Zooming will just have to do. That’s the best we can do.
Fortunately, I am learning a new pastoral care skill: how to be fully present with someone who is thousands of miles away. I am learning that compassionate care has no boundaries. I am learning that, if I am willing to enter into a soul-to-soul conversation with another person, we can be truly in one another’s presence. I think it’s a grace gift from God specially sent to us in these days of pandemic.
So if I can find my way into my friend’s person’s soul-space, in spite of miles of separation, she tells me that she does not walk alone anymore. And suddenly, by God’s grace, I do not walk alone either.
I must share with you a beautiful video I watched in our church’s virtual worship experience last Sunday. Please spend a few contemplative moments listening to the words from an old Irish blessing and watching the serene images. May it bring you peace and remind you that you do not walk alone.
In my kitchen window hangs a small faceted crystal ball. It’s purpose is to hang in the sunlight and make tiny rainbows in my kitchen. When I open the blinds in the morning, the facets on the ball do their job.
I see about eight small rainbows on the floor — just tiny, insignificant rainbows on the kitchen floor. That’s it!
My first response is, “That’s all you got?”
I had hoped for more, like refracted rainbows all over the kitchen. The little ball hanging in the window apparently needed some human help. So I twisted it several times. When I let it go, the little ball’s gift to me was dancing rainbows, not only on the kitchen floor, but also all over the walls of the kitchen, dining room and living room. Now that’s more like it!
It suddenly occurred to me that I could let the ball just hang motionless in the window, settling for the few rainbows on the floor, or I could twist it and see rainbows in motion creating a celebration all around the walls. So this morning, I made my own rainbows, which is a pretty good mental picture of creating rainbow-like times in life.
It reminds me of part of Noah’s story told in the ninth chapter of Genesis. It’s about the covenant God made with Noah after the great flood had receded. You probably know the story well, but it bears revisiting.
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
So God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant I have established between me and all life on the earth.”
— Genesis 9:12-17 NIV
I never see a rainbow without remembering the story of God’s covenant with Noah. I always remember that God made the rainbow a sign, the sign of a covenant promise.
What does that have to do with me and you? Maybe not much for some. But for some of us — those of us who want to see tangible signs of God’s promises — the appearance of a rainbow means that God still covenants with us, God still makes promises to us and God still keeps those promises. That is God’s grace to us — God’s hope, God’s light, the very peace that comes to us from God.
With that assurance, we are able to make our own rainbows. Yes, in these days we are covered with a terrible, deadly virus, along with the fear it causes us. But we also know that, in days past, we have faced life storms, dark times that threatened to destroy us. And yet, we survived — with scars from old wounds, to be sure — but we weathered each terrifying time and found our way to better days. To survive the worst times of our lives — times when dark, heavy clouds loomed over us — I’m pretty sure we found ways to make our own rainbows.
What does it look like to make our own rainbows? It looks like seeking out a comforting friend, making sacred space for nurturing your soul, owning heartbreak so that you can be open to the healing of your heart, naming in prayer the wounds and scars of your soul so that your spirit can be made whole.
It seems to me that this is what “making your own rainbows” means — being open to healing through whatever ways you find soul-nurturing. Rainbows are not a bad analogy for the living of these days. A pandemic threatens us. We cannot change that, but we can change our response to this dark time. I believe that we really can make our own rainbows. Maybe for me it will simply be the act of twisting the crystal ball in my kitchen window. But if that insignificant act reminds me of God’s promise to be with me, to be in covenant with me, then I think I can make it through another dark time.
I am confident that, if you listen, your soul will whisper to you and tell you how to make your own rainbows — during these troubling days and for all the troubling times you may face on your journey.