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.
I think I may have lost my music, and I’m not sure exactly when I lost it, or how. I can probably get away with blaming it on the coronavirus. After all, choirs cannot really sing right now, at least not safely.
The coronavirus has stolen so many things from us all — important things and things that are not so important. For me, one of the stolen things that affects me deeply in my soul is music.
When I hear music, the melodies and rhythms often reach into my soul. Music is my muse. Losing my music is one of my most troubling losses. I know, of course, that I can listen to Pandora or Spotify. Or I can listen to quality music on National Public Radio and find hundreds of concerts on YouTube.
What I am missing most is being inside my church sanctuary listening to the music of the pipe organ and anthems from our choir. Part of it may well be that I’m missing the people who offer their gift of music every week. Part of it is probably nostalgia when I contemplate the decades I spent singing with choirs and other groups. Part of it is missing my many years as a soloist. Part of it is missing my last ministry position as minister of worship at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas. Part of it is having to leave my piano when we moved in 2015. Part of it, I am certain, is that I can’t really sing anymore, at least much of the time. After my illness in 2014 and its very long recovery, I lost my voice. This was such a profound loss for my soul.
For some reason, all of this was on my mind this morning when I had a serendipity moment. I received an email with a brief thought for the day. I receive it every day, but today it happened to include a passage of Scripture closely related to my present thoughts. This is what it said:
But now, get me a player of music, and it will come about that while the man is playing, the hand of God will come on me and I will give you the word of God: and they got a player of music, and while the man was playing, the hand of the God was upon him.
— 2 Kings 3:15
Haven’t we all heard someone singing and playing music when we were touched and changed? All creativity and beauty in this life are but a small reflection of the master musician, our Creator. Listen with your heart and be glad.
— John Gaudreau
Music can be our soul’s joy or our heart’s expression. Music can lift us from sorrow’s depths and raise us to higher planes of grace. Music can be our most lavish praise to God. Music can open our spirits and create in us expressions of gladness, even in times of trouble. May God make it so. Amen.
Let me end without any more words, just music. “Listen with your heart and be glad” and hear this beautiful anthem, “Through Love to Light” with text written by Richard Watson Gilder, 1844-1909.
Through love to light! O wonderful the way That leads from darkness to the perfect day; From darkness and from sorrow of the night To morning that comes singing o’er the sea! Through love to light! through light, O God, to Thee, Who art the Love of love, th’ eternal Light of light! Amen.
When a deep love leaves . . . deep sadness takes residence.
It happens — being unfriended or needing to unfriend someone. It happens not just on Facebook, even though Facebook participants probably coined the word “unfriended.” Unfriending happens in real life — my life and probably yours. When you really unpack it, “unfriended” is an unsettling word. There is even a rather despicable horror movie entitled “Unfriended.”
I sometimes wish we had never added the word to our vocabularies, yet it perfectly describes what we sometimes need to do. In the Facebook world, I have been unfriended more than once. I have also unfriended some of my Facebook friends. It was never easy, never done without some regret. On the other side, being the one who is unfriended is painful. Even on social media, we learned quickly when and how to divide ourselves from others.
Mourning the loss of someone you care about is a very real life response.
The sad reality is that Facebook unfriending closely imitates life. Sometimes I have needed to remove a person from my life. Maybe you have, too. If we are honest with ourselves about cutting someone out of our lives, we have to own the reality of mourning the loss of that friend or family member. The loss is very real. Harmony Yendys wrote this in her blog, The Mighty.com.
It’s OK to mourn the people you’ve had to cut off. Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard. Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive . . . since you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life.
I would say I’m okay but I’m done lying.
Among the most painful separations are estrangements from living parents. I have experienced estrangement from a parent, a situation in which I found it necessary to remove that parent from my life completely because of abuse. The hard choice of removing my parent from my life was mine to make, but was most surely a hard choice with long-lasting effects on my emotional health. Those who must make such a choice suddenly feel orphaned and alone in the world. Over many years, I have known many people who have lost mothers and fathers with whom they’ve shared loving relationships — not through death but through purposeful estrangement. I know that the deep void this loss creates for them is devastating. The pressing question is, “Why don’t we talk about what it is like to feel orphaned by parents who are very much alive and well, but whom we have lost due to estrangement?”
The reason, I have found, is a sense of guilt about having removed a person from my life, becoming an orphan by my own choice. Of course, there are situations in which parents make the choice to become estranged from their children. Either situation leaves an orphan in its wake.
You are dead to me.
The truth is that there are few, if any, support groups for “orphans” like me. There are few instruction manuals or self-help books. We are the orphans who grieve in silence, feeling every bit as empty and abandoned as those who have lost their parents through death. Yet we have no outlet through which to mourn in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. I hide my grief from others, fearing their judgment and their hurtful comments about how “blood is thicker than water” and how I should “forgive and forget.” And the best advice of all, the one that hurts the most and goes to the very core of the soul is this: “God is not pleased with your failure to love your parents or your refusal to ask forgiveness for it.”
When a parent dies, you receive the usual appropriate condolences. But when your soul has a deep need to remove a living parent from your life, you get nothing. Like so many people I have known, I sit with the guilt and shame, with the silence of my grief. So for now I continue to grieve, hiding behind my shame of feeling like there must have been something wrong with me . . . And hiding my grief from others for fear of judgment and comments about how blood is thicker than water and how I should just forgive and forget . . . I wish more people understood what this was like and would extend the kind of compassion and sympathy they do toward those who lose a loved one by death. I sit with the silence of my grief, empty-handed. No flowers, no cards, no phone calls, nothing. Just an orphan.
Empty-handed, except for the loss I hold in my hands
As for me, well, I am not completely empty-handed. I hold in my hands — if not in my heart — so many memories, sweet, bittersweet, and even horrific. Fortunately, I have grown old and grown up. Through the years, I have learned how to hold in my heart some of my few good memories. I remember my father praising me when for my accomplishments. I remember him being very proud of me. I remember learning to cook at his feet, and I remember those joyful midnight trips from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, singing all the way as was his custom. Yet I allowed those happy memories to be replaced by separation, tears, pain, repressed feelings and often anger. It was even more difficult to allow myself the good memories when my father was living. Harmony Yendys explains the feelings of most of us who feel this kind of grief:
Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore . . . All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life. I bought in to all the common philosophies like “love is stronger than hate,” respect your parents,” or “be the better person.” The problem with such philosophies is that they are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have bad parents, friends, relatives or relationships. That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance. — Harmony Yendys
I hope the information I’ve shared today will lead to honest and meaningful conversations with trusted persons in your life. Such conversations can lead to healing from the past losses or the present ones. This post has taken us all the way from “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook to losing friends, parents, children, siblings, spouses and any persons we have lost from our lives. Do not be deceived, separation can be painful, even when separation is necessary for our well-being. People who cause a toxic environment for us must sometimes be removed from our lives. It’s never easy, either to “unfriend” a person or to be “unfriended” by them. It sometimes makes us face the pain of being alone in the world, or at least feeling alone. It whispers to us that our soul is at risk.
When your soul is at risk . . .
Know that when your soul is at risk, when your relationship with another person is toxic, chaotic and harmful — either overtly or insidiously — you may need to consider moving apart to a peaceful, more tranquil place. It is most important that you become a self-advocate and diligently seek resilience and serenity. Only enter into relationships that give you comfort and calm your spirit. Still, you live with the loss. The remedy for feeling the loss, feeling orphaned or feeling alone?
That is, of course, a very personal question with many possible answers. At the risk of seeming to offer a too simple or an unhelpful answer, I will share with you what has helped me in the times I have felt most alone — a passage of Scripture from The Voice translation of the Bible, selected verses from Psalm 139:1-16.
O Eternal One, You have explored my heart and know exactly who I am;
You even know the small details like when I take a seat and when I stand up again. Even when I am far away, You know what I’m thinking.
You observe my wanderings and my sleeping, my waking and my dreaming,
and You know everything I do in more detail than even I know.
You know what I’m going to say long before I say it.
It is true, Eternal One, that You know everything and everyone.
You have surrounded me on every side, behind me and before me,
and You have placed Your hand gently on my shoulder.
It is the most amazing feeling to know how deeply You know me, inside and out;
the realization of it is so great that I cannot comprehend it.
Can I go anywhere apart from Your Spirit?
Is there anywhere I can go to escape Your watchful presence?
If I go up into heaven, You are there.
If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the morning,
if I make my home in the most isolated part of the ocean,
Even then You will be there to guide me;
Your right hand will embrace me, for You are always there . . .
For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.
I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;
Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.
You see all things; nothing about me was hidden from You
As I took shape in secret,
carefully crafted in the heart of the earth before I was born from its womb.
You see all things;
You saw me growing, changing in my mother’s womb;
Every detail of my life was already written in Your book;
You established the length of my life before I ever tasted the sweetness of it.
For those hurtful times of “unfriending”
I pray today for each of you who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, the grief of separation and alienation from someone with whom you once shared love. I pray that you would enjoy relationships with persons faithful, true and kind. I pray for you a shared love that is pure — both given and received. I pray for you a persevering, faithful and gentle love that helps sustain and fulfill you. I pray, for you and for me, that we might have relationships with persons who help us become our best selves. I pray for genuine and life-giving friendships that grace us with full acceptance and understanding.
The Second Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-One December 2, 2019
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
The Christmas spirit
is that hope
which tenaciously clings
to the hearts of the faithful
in the face of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things still are possible,
that even now
a Child is born!
What could this beautiful poem titled The Christmas Spirit possibly have to do with my recent kidney transplant? At first glance, not much. But lingering on the poet’s words made some of them leap from the page for me. I have to admit that the words most piercing to me are these: “. . . all the dark nights of our souls.”
Guilt overwhelmed me after the transplant was complete. I was back in my room six hours after the surgery — barely awake, a little confused, exhausted, in pain and, they tell me, very quick-tempered. I yelled at my husband, something I may have done twice in 50 years of marriage. The truth is I was feeling covered with a blanket of guilt. The nurses, my surgeon, my family were all celebrating the transplant miracle. I was in pain, second-guessing my decision to even have the transplant in the first place and feeling guilty for not acknowledging the miracle everyone else saw.
For the next two days, every person on my transplant team who came to see me entered my room with a large smile and expressed one word, “Congratulations!” said with joy in a most celebratory voice. All the while, I was often weeping pain’s quiet tears. I stared at each congratulating person with a little bit of concealed contempt. In my mind, if not on my lips, was a response that went something like this: “Congratulations? Do you have any idea what kind of pain I am experienced right now? And have you had this surgery yourself? Save your congratulations for another day!”
The physical pain was very real and very intense. The soul pain hurt even deeper. Body and soul — the physical, spiritual and emotional — were so intricately fused together that it was all but impossible to isolate or separate them. Is this just physical pain? Is part of it emotional pain? Am I experiencing, heaven forbid, a spiritual crisis? I found no way to tell. For me, it was pain in all three parts of me and that made it almost intolerable.
For two nights, I did not sleep at all — awake all night, feeling alone, abandoned and in a wrestling match with my pain. As I went over and over in my mind all the reasons I had for getting a transplant, my thoughts morphed into a fairly clear “What have I done?”
It felt so much like a dark night of the soul as I grieved my aloneness and isolation, mourned the loss of my previous life and felt deep fear of the dark, unknown path ahead. And all of those points of crisis made me feel that guilt for not being grateful for the living gift of a kidney.
As Ann Weems’ expresses in the poem, “Hope tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithfuland announces in the face . . . of all the dark nights of our souls, that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”
Twenty-one days separated from my transplant, I am able to attest that hope does cling tenaciously in my heart, that hope announces in the face of the dark night of my soul that with God, all things are still possible. And most importantly, “Unto us a Child is born!”
Into me a Child is born, and that presence empowers me to walk through my soul’s darkest night into the light that Advent brings.
Today is our day of giving thanks, intentionally. Not that we should fail to give thanks every day, it’s just that today is the day we give communal thanks. Whatever community we are a part of joins hearts in expressing gratitude. There has been no shortage of calls to thanks giving from faith communities, neighborhood groups, classes, cities . . . and the list could go on and on.
“What are you thankful for?” is the common question. But I was inspired yesterday by a message from a member of my Sunday School class who posed three questions. The questions gave giving thanks a fresh meaning for me and lifted me up from Thanksgiving Day humdrum to a time of genuine contemplation about what I am truly thankful for. These are the words of her message:
Three things I invite you to consider about gratitude: what we are grateful for, what we hope to be grateful for one day, and what we are grateful for that was borne out of hardship or pain.
I am stopped in my tracks by the third question: “What are you grateful for that was borne out of hardship or pain?” Sitting in this place — post transplant — this question gave me great pause. Under the cloud of very real physical pain, I have had many moments of doubt about my decision to have a kidney transplant. Her question forced me to contemplate that in a deeper way, considering my physical pain as well as my emotional and spiritual pain.
First, it caused me to hope beyond hope that after this pain and hardship, I will be grateful for my decision. Secondly, it caused me to recall and relive the many times of pain throughout my life and the gratitude that followed. There was sadness in this contemplation and mourning for the losses I have experienced in my life. As I revisited the times of pain in my past, recalling them one by one, there was a Scripture passage from Psalm 91 that kept repeating itself in my mind.
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
nor the plague that destroys at midday . . .
No harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
For that divine protection, I can give deep thanks for, over my lifetime, I have found refuge under God’s wings time and time again, safe from the terror of the night.
I think often about roads, the roads that take people where they want to go, or not. I think with deep fondness about the terribly rough and broken roads we traveled in Uganda. The time was immediately after the horrific reign of Idi Amin that left the roads, and the entire country, in shambles. I remember the difficulty in traveling those rough, broken roads — washed out, bombed out, neglected for years.
I remember the fear of traveling those roads, the frightening military roadblocks, the pointed machine guns, the soldier’s demand for all that we carried in the vehicle and even the vehicle itself. I remember how some of our missionaries were left in the bush with their vehicle “confiscated” by the occupying army. I remember the roadblock murder of the dear Ugandan man who drove our mission’s supply truck.
I think of traveling a road in the middle of the night that led to my brother’s funeral, made rough by grief. I think of the rough road I traveled in leaving my home of 32 years for a new and unfamiliar place. I can never forget my rough road through serious illness and difficult recovery.
I think of roads that take people where they do not want to go — to war, to prisons, to rehabilitation centers, to the sites of natural disasters. I think about the roads in disaster areas that are simply gone.
I remember a song in a Christian musical of many years ago titled “Rough Old Roads.” It told of the rough roads Jesus walked. The song’s climactic moment gave us these words: “the road that was roughest of all to walk was the road that led to the cross.”
It is appropriate for us during Lent to recall the rough roads Jesus walked, rough for so many reasons: rejection, danger, soul temptation, angry crowds and lynch mobs, and ultimately the rough road that Jesus walked to the cross, to his death. To learn of his roads means that we get a glimpse of our own. The roads we all walk.
None of us can avoid walking the rough and broken roads that appear before us, but it is in traversing those roads that we learn who we are. Rough roads force us to take the hard and narrow way, and thus become who we must ultimately become. Roads can wind around so that we are lost, thus inviting us to take the risk of vulnerability required for an unknown and uncharted journey. Our roads teach and challenge us. When the road ahead of us is rough or broken, our commitment to stay the course results in wisdom. I call it wisdom from the journey. Our rough, broken roads make us stronger and more resilient. The rougher they are, the more we change and grow.
I could bore you with even more personal reflection about rough roads, but instead I want to share a moving poem written by Maren Tirabassi.* In the poem, she writes of broken roads and calls for a God who attends to all who find themselves on broken roads.
Here are Maren’s moving words:
I was praying this morning, God,
for all the people in Mozambique
and Malawi and Zimbabwe,
in the midst of the terrible losses
from cyclone Idai —
the deaths and injury and destruction,
the ongoing need for rescue
and I learned that the roads are broken.
I should have known —
the roads between towns
the bridges smashed, ports unusable.
Also those other paths —
electricity, telephone, Internet,
are gone as well.
And I went from that
to the jail and my meeting
for spiritual care
and walked among others
with no access
and realized that journey
is not a parable for Lent
your children on the inside.
And so holy Valley-uplifter,
I call you to attend
to all who suffer broken roads —
broken highways or heartways,
or sometimes minds that cannot
find a way out of whatever
dead end they are in,
and teach me to pay attention, too,
put my back against
every road block,
become an opener of the way home.
May God make it so. Amen.
*Maren served as a pastor in the United Church of Christ for thirty-seven years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire and is the author or editor of 20 books. You may read more of her creative and soulful writing at her blog, “Gifts in Open Hands” at the following link:
I’m getting to know myself. Again! Moving through life takes one through changes large and small. We slip past the small ones pretty much unscathed. But oh, those large ones! The large changes are another story altogether. Sometimes they cause us to miss a step or two. Sometimes they stop us right where we stand. Sometimes they throw us all the way to the ground. But they always get our attention.
Chronic illness is one of those ‘knock-you-to-the-ground” changes, especially when an illness happens suddenly. In a recent New York Times article, Tessa Miller shares how sudden illness changes one’s life and how chronic illness changes life forever.
“Seven Thanksgiving ago, I got sick and I never got better,” Miller writes. She goes on to describe the conundrum of chronic illness.
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how much my life would change. There’s no conversation about that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness won’t go away but won’t kill you, so none of us know what “chronic illness” means until we’re thrown into being sick forever.
I can identify with the changes Tessa Miller describes. The onset of my chronic illness five years ago was sudden, unexpected and permanent. My kidneys failed — simple as that. And I entered into the unfamiliar world of daily dialysis, a world I never expected to be in. And, yes, it was life-changing.
Tessa Miller makes another very insightful point. She explains how, once you find yourself in the fog of the changes you’re facing because of a chronic illness, one change presents the biggest challenge – the change in your relationship with yourself.
There is no debate: when chronic illness disturbs the equilibrium of your life, your relationship with yourself changes. You grieve a version of yourself that doesn’t exist anymore, and a future version that looks different than what you had ever imagined.
Chronic illness can shatter career goals and life plans. You learn learn a “new normal” in their place. But the acceptance of a “new normal” comes after the trauma. And trauma does happen, trauma that necessarily calls for therapy, either formal or informal.
Emotional work definitely needs to be done, and emotional work around chronic illness can look a lot like grief therapy for a passing loved one. You lose your self, at least temporarily. Your self changes.
So make sure to spend some time looking for YOU. Intentionally. Being open to whatever you find in yourself. Practice seeing yourself as the person you are insteadofthe person you were. Looking in the proverbial mirror gives you an image of the new version of yourself. Get to know her. Celebrate her resilience. Above all, be patient as you get to know her. You may be surprised at how much you like and admire her.
“Sunrises anoint my soul. They are quiet prayers, icons of God’s presence.”
These are words written by my friend, Sister Macrina Wiederkher. Her words resonate with our times as we hold in the light our brothers and sisters in Florida. Their loss is immeasurable, and although we know that loss of home is not as tragic as loss of life, it is a deeply felt emptiness to lose your home and all its contents.
So many are in that heartbreaking place today, and when the night falls on this night, they will not know the safe security of home. We have only a small awareness of their heartache, but God is fully aware of all they have lost. God knows their grief and their fear, their uncertainty of the future. Sometimes all we can count on is that God knows our deepest sorrow and anoints our souls when we need it most.
Our comfort is this: that after every storm, there is a calm. When ominous, dark clouds of destruction fill the skies, we can know with certainty that the sunrise will come.
I believe my friend who tells us that sunrises anoint our souls . . . like icons of God’s presence.
And I believe it for all of the Florida folk who have lost so much.
In 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 “the 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, 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. 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.
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 — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.
Years 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 — 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 “Baptist,” the desire to create a covenant with like-minded brothers and sisters, the quest to build a “beloved community” 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, “Tie a knot in the rope and hang on.” 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.
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’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 can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’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.