Rough, Broken Roads

5E982E74-6C78-42E3-BA27-C642528A9C0CI 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
are impassable,
the bridges smashed, ports unusable.
Also those other paths —
electricity, telephone, Internet,
are gone as well.

And I went from that
flat-hand-on-the-newspaper prayer,
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
for these,
your children on the inside.

And so holy Valley-uplifter,
Rough-place-leveler,
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:

https://giftsinopenhands.wordpress.com/2019/03/21/10101/

 

 

On to a New “New Normal”

7519DB43-1B31-43A9-9528-84655345CC44I’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 instead of the 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.

 

 

Icons of God’s Presence

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Photography by Sister Macrina Wiederkher

“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.

B2904AA9-02C4-480E-B061-D174E9810346I 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.

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 “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.

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 — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

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 — 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.

We Can Overcome

Design

Young girls run frantically from the sound of a bomb, screaming, crying, confused, and terribly afraid. An evening of sheer joy listening to the music of Ariana Grande had turned into an evening of terror.

In a British music venue, a suicide bomb killed 22 people, some of them children. Eight-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos lost her life, and 59 other people were wounded, some suffering life-threatening injuries. Many others are still missing.

The response? Muslim men pray for victims of the attack at a mosque in Manchester. Police officers look at flowers and messages left for the victims. A Union Jack flag is lowered at half-mast in honor of the victims. Religious leaders hold a prayer meeting in central Manchester. Ariana Grande spoke about the attack: “broken. from the bottom of my heart, I am so so sorry. I don’t have words.”

Is this a portrait of the world we live in? Must we fear for our children and lament the lives they must live? Do we place our faith in a God we sometimes question when tragedies happen?

One of my favorite Scripture passages is also one of the most poignant laments in the Bible. It is found in the fifth chapter of Lamentations. The words express deep mourning and profound loss, leaving the writer asking God, “Why do you always forget us? Why do you forsake us so long?” The hurting people who had lost everything they cherished cried out . . .

Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

– Lamentations 5:15, NIV

Sometimes our dancing really does turn to mourning. All of us are acquainted with loss. Our world is a dangerous place, and tragedies like Manchester remind us of our vulnerability. So how do we live? How do we go on? How do people of God live this kind of dangerous life?

The musical group Hillsong sings “This Is How We Overcome.” The song, which is written by Reuben Morgan, echoes the celebration of the Psalmist in the fifth chapter of Psalms.

You have turned my mourning into dancing
You have turned my sorrow into joy.

The song continues with these words.

Your hand lifted me up. I stand on higher ground.
Your praise rose through my heart and made this valley sing.

They sing of the continual presence of God, even in times of deep mourning, profound loss, and grave danger. That kind of song speaks of our faith, a faith that still holds us and always picks us up when we have fallen. Our faith is our resilience.

We can overcome. Every time. Every time life circumstances assail us and steal our music, we persist. We sing. We dance. We praise a God who is eternally near. So let us persevere, always proclaiming the source of our strength.

The Rev. Michelle L. Torigian prays this prayer.

Let us resiliently resume our dancing.
Let us sing louder. Let us speak out voices with determination.

May it be so. Amen.

(Rev. Torigian’s prayer may be found at https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/05/23/tuesday-prayer-95/.)

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.