Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called β€œthe greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas,Β while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years.Β The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always β€” always β€” puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

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Loss

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Fred and I talked recently about the year I was so sick. He said something I’ll never forget: “I thought I was going to lose you.” His words made a deep impression on me. I have known loss and the grief that comes with it. And I ached for Fred, knowing that he looked at loss squarely front of him and could not escape it.

None of us will get through this life without experiencing loss. So we have to find a way to face off with it and walk away stronger. James Taylor’s song “Fire and Rain” speaks of loss.

Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus, You’ve got to help me make a stand.
You’ve just got to see me through another day.
My body’s aching and my time is at hand and I won’t make it any other way.
Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end.
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend,
but I always thought that I’d see you again.

It is so true that turning to God eases loss and gives us the support we need to make it. We have several things going for us: faith, resilience, strength, courage, and a God who is ever present. With those things in place, we can face loss and come away from it whole.

Dance Then, Wherever You May Be

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Some people just know how to endure grief and difficulty. While many of us cave in the midst of grief, others thrive, meeting their dark moment with unconquerable inner joy. Such were the people of Uganda in the terrible years of Idi Amin’s reign of terror. He was a monster bent on genocide and on destroying the country that was called “The Pearl of Africa.”

For eight years, Amin carried out mass killings within the country to maintain his rule. An estimated 300,000 Ugandans lost their lives during his regime. Aside from his brutalities, he forcibly removed the entrepreneurial Indian minority from Uganda, which left the country’s economy in ruins. Schools were gutted. Churches were banned. Wildlife was destroyed by poaching. Amin’s atrocities were graphically accounted in the 1977 book, A State of Blood, written by one of his former ministers after he fled the country. Now a country of widows and orphans, Uganda suffered greatly.

At the end of Amin’s reign, my husband and I moved to Uganda to help with the country’s long recovery. We worked with villages digging water wells, distributing seeds, fertilizer and gardening tools, bringing in medicines, vaccines and protein supplement, and offering books, bibles and sewing supplies.

During that time when grief was still very acute, we worshipped at St. Andrews Anglican Church in Jinja, Uganda. Expressing their faith, the congregants also expressed their intense emotions of grief and loss with tears, prayers, and testimonies. One congregant read the following prayer from Lamentations 5:

A Prayer for Mercy

Remember, O Lord, what has happened to us.
Look at us, and see our disgrace.
Our property is in the hands of strangers;
foreigners are living in our homes.
Our fathers have been killed by the enemy,
and now our mothers are widows.
We must pay for the water we drink;
we must buy the wood we need for fuel.
Driven hard like donkeys or camels,
we are tired, but are allowed no rest. . .

Murderers roam through the countryside;
we risk our lives when we look for food.
Hunger has made us burn with fever
until our skin is as hot as an oven.
Our wives have been raped on Mount Zion itself;
in every Judean village our daughters have been forced to submit.
Our leaders have been taken and hanged;
our elders are shown no respect.
Our young men are forced to grind grain like slaves;
boys go staggering under heavy loads of wood.
The old people no longer sit at the city gate,
and the young people no longer make music.

Happiness has gone out of our lives;
grief has taken the place of our dances.
Nothing is left of all we were proud of.
We sinned, and now we are doomed.
We are sick at our very hearts
and can hardly see through our tears. . .

But you, O Lord, are king forever
and will rule to the end of time.
Why have you abandoned us so long?
Will you ever remember us again?
Bring us back to you, Lord! Bring us back!
Restore our ancient glory.

Good News Translation

The people were on their knees in prayer, some crying silent tears, others wailing out their grief. One woman began to sing and quickly was joined by the whole congregation.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the lord of the dance, said he
And I lead you all, wherever you may be
And I lead you all in the dance, said he.

In the midst of their tears, they sang this joyous tune, and then, all over the building, they began to dance. That is the way they endured their unspeakable grief and loss. That is how they embraced life after a time if deathly evil . . . with singing and dancing.

“You have turned my mourning into dancing; you took off my sackcloth and clothed me with a garment of joy.” – Psalm 30:11

Healed of Sad Memory

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The anniversary of my brother’s death was in late March. I did not allow myself to emotionally mark the actual date, and that was probably a mistake. The loss has hovered over me since the day I chose to largely ignore it. And there is a cloud of sadness over my head. Pete was our baby brother, and he certainly did not leave us in the right order. He was the youngest, so he should have outlived his two older siblings. But that was the thing about Pete. He didn’t follow rules and expected practices.

I survived his death emotionally. My brother and my cousin also survived it. His young wife and his two beautiful daughters did too. But there was a special kind of love that made it possible to survive. Pete loved lavishly and graciously. It is that kind of love that still watches over us and heals us of the sad memory. It is God’s love that carries us beyond the sadness and brings us into the light of hope. The words of Steven Charleston describe it perfectly.

What gracious love is this, that watches over us without ceasing, that allows for our frailty, that lifts us up when we have stumbled, never wavering in hope for us, never despairing at our shortcomings, but believing in us, defending us, calling forth our better nature, until we are healed of sad memory, restored to live in the fullness of our life, set free from the snares of what can harm us, to be who we were made to be, long ago, by this same gracious heart, the one that formed us before the first dawn, and that will carry us safely beyond the golden light.

This blog post is for Pete, and is dedicated to Shelli, Kristen and Kaitlyn.