Sitting Open-Handed Before God

71184739-B4D2-4F2F-897E-1EAD2C2A56EAWhat is it like to sit open-handed before God? To abide with a compassionate God who knows the grief we are carrying? To sit in the glowing presence of a God who, not only knows the deep angst of our nation, but who can also transform it?

Yes, many of us are grieving the current state of our nation. We see our nation’s pain, just as we see the pain of the world. Yet, we who are Christ-followers live with great advantage in this pain-filled world. Yes, we grieve the divisions in our nation and lament at the ways we seem to have lost our compass of compassion, mercy and justice. We feed those who already have abundant sources of food. We provide health care to those who can afford their own. We hold open the voting entrances for those who can get there with the proper credentials. But for the people who hunger, the families that are homeless, the elderly, the children incarcerated at our borders, the prisoners, the helpless, the marginalized . . .  well, for them, we offer prayers, if we think of them at all.

So what is our great advantage? It is that our faith can carry us into spiritual realms where hope is large and dreams are possible. It is that we enjoy access to spiritual community with an accessible God. It is the spiritual luxury of quiet contemplation that opens our hearts to the whispers of God. And yes, I did say whispers of God, for it is almost always a quiet voice that beckons us into a world of turmoil. It is a quiet God-Voice that rekindles our compassionate hearts, speaks to us through the noise of discord in our nation, and shows us the good path we must follow.

We need not despair or cry out in anger or disgust. We need not attack those who seem to be wrecking our country. We need not hate those with whom we disagree. We have the great advantage of only this life task: to be silent before God, to sit in God’s presence open-handed, to pray, to listen, to seek, and then to go.

Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, famously known as “the nun on the bus,” offers us a glimpse into one of the ways we can live as people of faith in a fractured nation. 

Finding a way to not vilify or divide into “them” and “us” in today’s federal politics goes against . . . current custom. . . . So my contemplative practice is to attempt to sit open-handed and listen to the “wee small voice” that sometimes whispers ideas and ways forward.

Simone Campbell

Thanks be to God for the quiet whisper that guides us on the path ahead, the God-Voice that ordains us to heal our nation and comfort our world.

Through the Fire

892264FE-E803-4E0E-B598-C7503D77F674Sometimes life hurts.
We suffer. We heal. We move on.
But sometimes life hits back. Harder.
Lethal in its cruelty.
Shattering us into a million glittering shards
of pain and loss and anguish.
And we suffer, too broken to heal,
to become what we once were.
— L.R Knost

How deeply I know that feeling of brokenness. I am personally acquainted — well acquainted — with the lethal cruelty that life can present. To heal the past requires that I pay close attention to the spiritual and emotional places within me in the present, to make sure I am healthy and whole right now. Only then will I find the strength to invite the pain of the past into my psyche so that I can face off against it.

I have learned through the years that it is not a good option to leave past pain where it is, to let it occupy the place within me it has claimed. This writing by L.R Knost is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen on healing from past pain.

Healing is not a straight and narrow road
that leads from darkness to light.
There’s no sudden epiphany to take
us from despair to serenity, no orchestrated
steps to move us from hurting to healed.
Healing is a winding mountain road with steep
climbs and sudden descents, breathtaking views
and breath-stealing drop-offs, dark tunnels
and blinding exposures, dead ends and
endless backtracks, rest stops and break downs,
sheer rock walls and panoramic vistas.
Healing is a journey with no destination,
because healing is the journey of every lifetime.

Indeed, “healing is the journey of every lifetime.” The reality is that the only way to heal from the pain of the past is to walk directly through the center of that pain in the present. Does it feel safer to just let the pain continue to smolder in the dark parts of myself? Of course it feels safer. It feels terrifying, in fact, downright terrifying.

But the dark places in me will never heal spontaneously. I have to conquer the fear and open up to the possibility that God’s Spirit can breathe life back into those embers of pain snd rekindle the fires of unhealed hurts. So as I sit cautiously at the very edge of the fires of past pain, I cannot help but recall the comforting words of the prophet Isaiah.

When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.

— Isaiah 43:2 New International Version (NIV)

And so many times, I have found deep comfort in singing the beloved hymn, How Firm a Foundation.

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.*

Text: Attr. to Robert Keen, ca. 1787.
Music: Attr. to J. Ellis, ca. 1889

So the flames aren’t there to burn me. The flames are there to light my way through pain to healing. At times, I have approached those flames with courage and confidence. But at other times, I met the flames with terror.

Courage or terror — it didn’t matter really. I just walked through it just as I was, and as I did, the hurt transformed into hope. I had wounds, for sure, and lasting scars. But the scars tell a story of the battles I won and the battles I lost, and most importantly, the scars tell the story of a human who survived. So, in spite of fiery places of past pain, we learn to live as L.R. Knost says

. . . with the shards of pain and loss and anguish forever embedded in our souls,

and with shaking fingers we piece together the bloody fragments of who we were into a mosaic grotesque in its stark reality,

yet exquisite in its sharp-edged story of the tragic, breathless beauty of a human who survived life.

And we move on, often unaware of the light glittering behind us
showing others the way through the darkness.

This is a resilience we can be thankful for, a perseverance we can cherish, a strength straight from a present and faithful God that will ever — forever — sustain us. Amen.

 

* Hear the entire hymn, How Firm a Foundation, at this link:
https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G0S62se1hAE

When Your World Ends

66A9AA3C-258F-40E7-AB87-32000E79567EMy adult son is a master at denial. He can get very upset over a situation, but before you can blink, he has moved on as if it never happened. To be honest, I have often envied that part of his personality. As one who tends to brood over life’s challenges and problems, I would love to just be able to blow things off.

There is no chance of that happening for me. I think that this brooding part of me emerges from the trauma I have experienced over the years. My world has ended many times, or so it seemed. Yet, there has been a positive aspect of my brooding: that I have learned to sit with an issue for a while, dissect what has happened, feel the depth of hurt, and reflect on the depth of the emotional assault I’m experiencing. Blowing off pain just doesn’t work for me. Denial is not my way.

Denial never makes hurt go away. Denial never even diminishes hurt. So be warned. Blowing off pain is a path to internal disaster. As difficult as introspection can be, I am grateful that I am able to deeply feel the feelings I feel, to let the hurt wash over me, and finally to emerge better and stronger. Feeling the depth of my heartaches has served to disempower them and, most importantly, to enable me to harness my inner power to be free.

This, I believe, is the path that takes us beyond despair. This is the path that lets us own our heartbreak and then leave it behind to move into a fresh, new day. I am strengthened by the words of poet Nayyirah Waheed.

feel it.
the thing that you don’t
want to feel.
feel it and be free.

the thing you are most afraid to write, write that.

it is being honest
about
my pain
that
makes me invincible.

i don’t pay attention to the
world ending.
it has ended for me
many times
and began again in the morning.

To sit with your pain, to touch the heart of your hurt . . . that is what makes you free. And that freedom will be for you this miracle . . . when your world ends, and it may end many times, it begins again in the morning.

Thanks be to God.

 

Guard Your Heart

FF412EF2-E311-4F00-9859-65D0582E5935A heart can break so easily. Life is filled with heartbreaking things, and no person is immune to heartbreak. Hurt from one’s children, the loss of a loved one, a marriage rife with anger, abuse by a trusted person, betrayal by a lifelong friend — all of these can leave a heart crushed.

How important it is, though, to find healing for our hearts, to find the healing balm that will ease the pain. We recall the comfort of Scripture that says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We lean on the everlasting arms that always hold us, we rest on the promise that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” (Psalm 147:3) and we hear again the tender words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

— Psalm 34:18

So we take these promises into our souls, and we give ourselves the time we need to heal our broken hearts. To be sure, the healing depends upon letting enough time pass for restoration to happen. Never do we heal on a swift timetable. The clock must move and the days must pass on our heartbreak. The weeks may well turn into months, even years. Yet we move ahead with confidence in our resiliency and faith in the Great Healer who abides with us for as long as it takes.

The final message is this: Be patient, but persevering, for the healing of your heart must be a life priority. Always guard your heart. Believe in the healing that will surely come. Know that your broken heart will mend as it rests in the hands of the One who heals every broken heart, every time, always.

Why is healing so important? It’s all about “the springs of life.”

Above all else, guard your heart,
For from it flow the springs of life.

— Proverbs 4:23

Wounds of the Soul

IMG_5942

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.

A Perfect World?

IMG_5924When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

– Buddha

Perfect is not a word I would use to describe the world. Ominous storms, wildfires, demonstrations of hate, violence, terrorism, threats of deportation, leaders devoid of compassion, homelessness, war, refugees seeking safe haven and shelter . . . This is just a partial description of the world we call our own. So perfect is but a dream. And yet, it is perhaps our calling to expend ourselves creating a more perfect world.

Today, my friend Elaine posted this passage on her wonderful blog, “The Edge.”

Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding, so that you may at the same time discern where there is length of days, and life, where there is light for the eyes, and peace.

– Baruch 3:14

The wisdom in these words prompted a time of contemplation for me. I pondered the refreshing possibility of finding “length of days, life, light and peace.” Sounds like getting closer to a perfect world.

In these unsettling days, that is the kind of world we long for, the kind of life we desperately want. And yet we find that at times we are crying out for peace, and there simply is no peace.

Baruch’s words present us with a task, a rather difficult task to be sure, but one that leads to the goodness of life we seek. Baruch’s wisdom calls for us to learn, to increase our ability for discernment. And most importantly, Baruch proclaims our critical need to discover where we might find wisdom, strength and understanding.

My world is filled with incessant voices — politicians, governmental leaders, media personalities, newscasts that include everyone who has an opinion on every possible subject. Certainly, I have the choice to turn off the news and listen to soothing music on Pandora. And I do that frequently.

But the state of the world is so volatile that I am compelled daily to be aware of what is going on. In fact, that is a part of my personal mission — to know what is going on and to respond by making my voice heard advocating for justice and compassion. Which is exactly the reason it is so important to “learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.”

So may we all create moments when we can silence the incessant voices and instead enter into quiet times of solitude, contemplation and prayer. That is what we can do for a very imperfect world that seems to be falling apart. In the process, we will more clearly hear the voices that lift hope high before us. In that holy space where hope abides with us, we will find “length of days, and life . . . light for the eyes and peace.”

Tikkun Olam is a lovely jewish concept defined by acts of kindness performed to heal the world, to perfect or repair the world. The phrase is found in the Mishnah and is often used when discussing issues of social justice, insuring compassion and care for persons who are oppressed.

Tikkun Olam! Heal the world! This is our highest calling.

Is it even possible to create a perfect world? Maybe not. But shouldn’t we envision it, work for it, pray for it, ennobled by God to return our world into the perfect creation of God?

May God guide us in making it so.

 

(Visit my friend Elaine’s blog at https://theedgeishere.wordpress.com/2017/09/08/contemplative2017-wisdom-4/)

 

 

Wounds of the Soul

image

The past and its memories can be harsh. Especially for those who have experienced great hurt. I call such hurts wounds of the soul.

After the injury ceases its pain, after the scars heal, the wounds of the soul remain. They remain forever as a reminder, not only that I was hurt, but also that I survived. I have learned not to be enslaved by my wounds. They remind me that I was stronger than the thing or the person that tried to hurt me.

How does one heal the wounds of the soul? You don’t heal them. They never go away. They remain on the soul as badges of courage and reminders of strength and perseverance. They happened in the past, of course, but they make me more mindful of the glories of the present moment.

“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”

– Thich Nhat Hanh
In spite of the soul’s wounds, I am filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love. There is a part of me that is grateful for the wounds that stay with me. They make me stronger. They make me resilient. They make me wise enough to not be hurt again. I want to always remember that the soul is able to endure the wounds. The soul’s memories will always mark the time of the hurt and hold it for safekeeping. The soul will bear its wounds with grace, thankful that they make us the person we are meant to be.

I often ask myself the question “Who would you be without the wounds?”

Dance Then, Wherever You May Be

image

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

Healing Waters

image

I have spent the past two years healing from end stage kidney disease. That does not mean I’m cured. But it does mean that I’m healed enough to have regained my strength and a semblance of normalcy in my life. My dialysis takes eight hours each day, but it has become an accepted part of my “new normal.”

Do I wish I had healthy, functioning kidneys? Of course I do. But I have embraced healing that is my reality, and it’s not a bad life. I have learned that beyond any doubt that the physical, emotional and spiritual parts of me are inextricably interconnected. Genuine healing occurs when all three are well balanced. This kind of healing has its way with the illness, and in very significant ways, thwarts the disease process. I am blessed to experience healing. It is as if God is leading me into healing waters that begin a process of being made well, in the Spitit, the soul, the mind and the body. Healing is not a noun, it is a verb, and it is a continual process within me.

Until God completes that miracle process, I rest on these words:

“Healing doesn’t mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls my life.” – Akshay Dubey

My Weight in Their Hands

image

I worshipped at my home church yesterday. What a blessing it was to be with the people that prayed and nursed me through the most serious days of my illness! In many ways, they played a role in my eventual return to health. And it is such a blessing to know that they will also pray me through my eventual kidney transplant.

They are what Christ’s Community is all about. New Millennium Church became a true faith community for me during my darkest days. They prayed. They brought meals. They stayed in close touch. They believed in my healing. They were as Toni Morrison describes in this passage:

“They encouraged you to put some of your weight in their hands and soon as you felt how light and lovely it was, they studied your scars and tribulations…”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved

And so, with my weight in their hands, I began to get myself back, physically, emotionally and spiritually. They were, for me, the reality of miracle. Today, I am healthy enough to be considered a candidate for a kidney transplant. Through that process, I know that New Millennium will pray.

“I give thanks to God upon every remembrance of you.” – Philippians 1:1