A Holy Thread

Enlight137Years ago, I served The Providence Baptist Church of Little Rock as their pastor. In those days, 1992, I was the only ordained woman who was a Baptist pastor in the state. Because of the strong and vocal disapproval and disdain from Baptists in Arkansas, my ministry at Providence was a lonely nine years.

I had just experienced months of open animosity from the Arkansas Baptist State Convention as I went through a hard, hard ordination process. Threatening phone calls were just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. And I was hurt, almost broken, from the experience. But that story is a blog post in itself that I will save for another day.

I was given a rare gift, though, in the people of Providence โ€” a congregation of deep love and unwavering support. They were a courageous people, each having come to Providence from other Baptist churches to live out their faith. They took a risk to join Providence. Many convictions led them to do so, the role of women in the church, the inclusion of all persons, the re-visioning of the idea of โ€œBaptist,โ€ the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a โ€œbeloved communityโ€ in our city.

I will always remember Ethel, one of our deacons and a dear mother-figure for me, who gave me constant encouragement. She would say to me almost weekly, โ€œTie a knot in the rope and hang on.โ€ One of the times she said that, I was experiencing a particularly difficult time. I responded that what she was calling a rope felt much more like a thread.

I often recall those years with a mixture of joy and pain. In those years, many of us were grieving the loss of the denomination that had long nurtured us. We mourned for the loss of our seminaries, our beloved professors scattered in a deliberate and abusive diaspora. We mourned the loss of our Foreign Mission Board and worried about our missionaries around the world and the people they ministered to in towns and villages, plains and forests.

What I can say is that the pain slowly faded and healing covered us. I can also say with firm certainty that there was always a thread to hold on to, a thread that represented hope. I am inspired by the writing of William Stafford, who must know something about the thread we grip so tightly.

Thereโ€™s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesnโ€™t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you canโ€™t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop timeโ€™s unfolding.
You donโ€™t ever let go of the thread.

– William Stafford, The Way It Is: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press: 1998), 42.

Oh, what a comfort it is to hold on to the thread that never changes, even as everything around us changes constantly. What a comfort it is to find that sacred thread and to hold it tightly through all manner of life tragedy. What a comfort it is to move through change, suffering, loss, the many threatening events of life, and to feel the holy thread in your hands . . . constant, unbreakable, given to us by a compassionate God who always knew that our pathway would be scattered with stumbling stones and ominous boulders.

Thanks be to God for the holy thread. Hold it tightly.

Life Is a Gift

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Today I read an inspiring blog post written by my long-time friend, Guy Sayles. He recalls his medical diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma three years ago and describes the experience of โ€œvivid remembering of hard days of treatment.โ€

Around the same time, I entered a time of serious and unexpected illness which led to a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I spent most of 2014 in the hospital, literally fighting for my life on at least three occasions. My husband was terrified. Mercifully, I knew nothing of the urgency of what was happening to me.

Guy Sayles writes of a reality that I completely understand when he says, โ€œThe first two years of my having Multiple Myeloma were so challenging that I didnโ€™t expect to be alive now. That I am is sheer and surprising gift to me.โ€ (http://www.fromtheintersection.org/blog/2017/8/8/its-all-gift)

For me, it was not so much that I expected imminent death, but throughout my long period of recovery and rehabilitation, I never expected to be able to care for myself again. That I now am able to live a relatively normal life is most certainly a gift of grace I never expected. Healing and recuperating was much like a resurrection for me. I got my life back.

So my constant question to myself is what will I do with this gift of life? I am inspired by the way Mary Oliver asks this question in her poem, The Summer Day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I am compelled to answer that question, to use the gift of my life as a gift to others. To care for people with compassion. To do justice where oppression reigns. To make peace in the face of violence. To scatter hope in the places where despair has taken hold.

I hope you will truly hear the way Guy Sayles expresses this.

The awareness which gently and repeatedly washed over me was, โ€œLife is gift and my response may, can, and should be gift-giving.โ€

And my calling is to lavish gift-givingโ€”to share freely and fully whatever I manage to harvest. Thereโ€™s no need now for barns and bins, for storing up for another day, or for worrying about markets and prices. โ€œFreely you have received,โ€ Paul said, โ€œfreely give.โ€

These days, I aspire, in every dimension of life, to this the wisdom Annie Dillard offered to writers:

โ€œOne of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive. ย Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”ย (The Writing Life, pp. 78-79)

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

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

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

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

– Richard Rohr

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

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

A Perfect Place to Die

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Japan’s Aokigaharaย Suicide Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Light for a Dark Path

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

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

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

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

What Is Holy Is Not Tame

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“So tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” โ€“ Mary Oliver

I love that question! And even at my age, I love being able to answer it. Even with a serious illness hanging over me, I have plans for my one wild and precious life. The passing years, in fact, make life even more precious. My goal for life is not only to make it precious, but to also make it wild . . . one last wild ride that takes in the magnificent world around me!

My goal is to have experiences that can be described with words similar to the words of Bishop Charleston:

I have seen the Spirit moving behind the gathering clouds, with wings the color of rainbows. I have watched the light of creation split the sky, as angels pound the drums of heaven. What is holy is not what is tame, what is divine is as wild as a desert rain. Love is not a timid breeze, but a storm of change, sweeping the comfortable before it like leaves, blowing the dust off our ordered lives, challenging us to dare the elements of our own vision. What is holy is not what is tame, so when you stand to pray, stand facing the wind.

I agree that what is holy is not tame at all. So blow through my life, refreshing breeze. Rearrange me, storm of change. I am standing facing the wind with great anticipation!