Daily Devotional: Learning to Listen for the Creator Not Simply to Speak

listenI continue to look at prayers of encouragement that my worship tradition in the United Church of Christ holds up as guides for those struggling, as I did in the death of my wife, in their Book of Worship.   One set of words held up by them which has always been an encouragement to me, even as a little boy, and which I regularly read with patients and families in my work as a chaplain, comes from the Gospel of John.

The Book of Worship includes the following excerpts of John 14 as words of meditation and encouragement: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.

“In a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

 

A final thought I want to share about this prayer stems from how, even as I write about this prayer, a part of me recoils. “Prayer? How is this a prayer? We aren’t saying anything spiritual practice prayerto God”. Growing up I never would have thought of such words as prayer. I had this idea that prayer was speaking to God: addressing God. But this is not necessarily all prayer needs to be known as. Prayer is more than a laundry list of requests to God or even our crying out about all our pains.   Which is why it is so meaningful to me that words of God’s addressed to us, not just words we are intended to address to God, are a part of a prayer-book in a denomination that proclaims boldly “God is still speaking. Never put a period where God has placed a comma”.

In actual fact, prayer is opening our awareness to God. This can include pouring our hearts out, raising our complaints just as in relationship to those flesh and blood people close to us we do the same to draw close. But drawing close to another is also opening our eyes to them. Seeing them as fully as we can. Hearing their heart, their cries, their voice.   It can be listening for their voice. Or sitting silent, wrapped in their arms.

So prayer is also listening for the still-speaking God. It is opening our awareness to God. It is delighting in that of God in our lives and in our world.

called and ignoredOne of my favorite spiritual authors, Father Richard Rohr, writes about prayer in his book What the Mystics Know:

‘We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already totally in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining every breath we take. As we take another it means that God is choosing us now and now and now. We have nothing to attain or even learn.   We do, however, need to unlearn some things.

‘To become aware of God’s presence in our lives we have to accept what is often difficult, particularly for people in what appears to be a successful culture. We have to learn to accept that human culture is in a mass hypnotic trance. We’re sleepwalkers. All religious teachers have recognized we human beings do not naturally see; we have to be taught how to see. . . That’s why the Buddha and Jesus say with one voice, “Be awake”. Jesus talks about “staying watchful”…, and “the Buddha” means “I am awake” in Sankrit. Jesus says further, “If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light” (Luke 11:34)

mindfulness-quote-jon-kabat-zinn‘Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence. The full contemplative is not just aware of the Presence, but trusts, allows, and delights in it.’

Prayer is then opening up ourselves to God, the God who has gone before us, who can take us by the hand and show us the way into the good future prepared for us by the living Christ.

Such openness renews our vision even in dark moments. It enables us to see more than we did before, seeing our lives and the lives of others in a new light.

To me this change of vision that listening for and hearing God speak can bring has long been beautifully pictured by the words of the Casting Crowns song “The Voice of Truth”. When I stop and listen in my pain and fear for the quiet whisper of God through prayer and meditation, so often I hear wisdom emerge like this song describes:

Oh what I would do to have

The kind of faith it takes

To climb out of this boat I’m in

Onto the crashing waves

 

To step out of my comfort zone

Into the realm of the unknown where Jesus is

And He’s holding out His hand

 

But the waves are calling out my name

And they laugh at me

Reminding me of all the times

I’ve tried before and failed

The waves they keep on telling me

Time and time again. ‘Boy, you’ll never win!’

‘You’ll never win!’

 

Chorus:

But the voice of truth tells me a different story

The voice of truth says, ‘Do not be afraid!’

The voice of truth says, ‘This is for My glory’

Out of all the voices calling out to me

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

 

Oh what I would do to have

The kind of strength it takes to stand before a giant

With just a sling and a stone

Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors

Shaking in their armor

Wishing they’d have had the strength to stand

 

But the giant’s calling out my name

And he laughs at me

Reminding me of all the times

I’ve tried before and failed

The giant keeps on telling me

Time and time again. ‘Boy you’ll never win!’

‘You’ll never win!’

 

Chorus:

But the voice of truth tells me a different story

The voice of truth says, ‘Do not be afraid!’

The voice of truth says, ‘This is for My glory’

Out of all the voices calling out to me

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

 

But the stone was just the right size

To put the giant on the ground

And the waves they don’t seem so high

From on top of them lookin’ down

I will soar with the wings of eagles

When I stop and listen to the sound of Jesus

Singing over me

 

Chorus:

But the voice of truth tells me a different story

The voice of truth says, ‘Do not be afraid!’

The voice of truth says, ‘This is for My glory’

Out of all the voices calling out to me

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

 

I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth

 

= =

 

May you learn, together with me, how to quiet the noise of life and listen to the quiet whisper in your life and soul where this voice of truth echoes true.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

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Daily Devotional: Encountering a Still-Speaking God In this Present Moment

gethsemane prayerI continue to look at prayers of encouragement that my worship tradition in the United Church of Christ holds up as guides for those struggling, as I did in the death of my wife, in their Book of Worship.   One set of words held up by them which has always been an encouragement to me, even as a little boy, and which I regularly read with patients and families in my work as a chaplain, comes from the Gospel of John.

The Book of Worship includes the following excerpts of John 14 as words of meditation and encouragement:

“Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.

ucc book of worship“In a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Yesterday I talked about the most basic meaning of this prayer I learned as a child: a hope of heaven as pure gift, open to all, and how such hope has carried me and others in our times of deep vulernability and loss. Having done that, I want to explore another aspect of this prayer.

Particularly that this prayer is not about heaven, not really. It speaks to even more in our lives, both in times of struggle and of hope.

I say that because when Jesus talks about going to make a home with them, Jesus never really says it is in heaven. In fact his going to the Father’s house and coming back again in context is Jesus’ going to the cross to die and coming back risen on Easter morning.   Some folks, myself included, have no problem with the idea this going and coming described here includes Jesus going to the other world through death and need not require easter iconJesus return in any resuscitated or transformed body but might just be Jesus appearing in a way the disciples can discern from the other world. This can be just as true if Jesus simply demonstrated to them in some spiritual way as often happens through the grieving encountering their beloved dead who have passed making themselves felt after death, in a way they know Jesus is risen, his life and guidance continuing on. Though some, including me, have no problem with such a reading of John, this is not really what the text says in John.   In John Jesus is pictured physically dying and appearing risen and that is how He comes back. Such imagery has very little to do directly with the next world which Christians call “heaven” at all, although you can definitely see how it applies in the way we talked about last time to our fears about death and the life after.

This making a home with them Jesus talks about seems instead to have more to do in the Gospel of John with the giving of the Holy Spirit, by whose presence wherever we go, This icon of the Trinity draws on the feminine images used in Scripture for the Holy Spirit, as a reminder that women as well as men can bear the image of God.whatever situation we face, we are not alone. But in the experience of Spirit in, with, under, through, and all around us we can sense the full presence of God with us in each present moment even before our journey through death to the next world. For me, meditation is a key way that I open myself up this awareness.

Because of this when I use this Scripture as a prayer with patients and families, I like to frame it so that it is clear that in every experience we have, Jesus goes before us. This includes the experience of death but oh so much more! Jesus goes preparing us for whatever lies around the corner for us, so that we can know that even if darkness, pain, and despair lay ahead they are never the whole story.   For also around that corner is love. Is companionship. Is one who can guide us through our dark days. Let alone when unexpected joys and opportunities lie around the corner. For then still Jesus is the One present showing us how to make the most of them. Every moment we face Jesus is already there through the Spirit, waiting to greet us.

This is a part of the promise of the Holy Spirit who will be with us, leading us into all truth.

The tradition of Christianity in which I am part, whose prayer book I use, has an oft-repeated statement: “God is still speaking. Do not put a period where God has placed a comma”. It is from this prayer of Scripture that this bold theological claim is made.   From verses with a very child-like reading comes a deep challenge to be open to putting aside childish things.

In our lives, God is always, ever present if we but open our eyes. God is always, ever speaking if we will but listen with our whole hearts open.   And there is not a situation we face individually or collectively in God’s good world in which we need feel alone, without guidance.

This change in seeing the world which the Holy Spirit makes possible if we are open, in each present moment, is beautifully pictured to me by the Peter Mayer song “Holy Now”:

“When I was a boy, each week

On Sunday, we would go to church

And pay attention to the priest

He would read the holy word

And consecrate the holy bread

And everyone would kneel and bow

Today the only difference is

Everything is holy now

Everything, everything

Everything is holy now

 

“When I was in Sunday school

We would learn about the time

Moses split the sea in two

Jesus made the water wine

And I remember feeling sad

That miracles don t happen still

But now I can’t keep track

Cause everything’s a miracle

Everything, Everything

Everything’s a miracle

 

“Wine from water is not so small

But an even better magic trick

Is that anything is here at all

So the challenging thing becomes

Not to look for miracles

But finding where there isn’t one

 

“When holy water was rare at best

It barely wet my fingertips

But now I have to hold my breath

Like I’m swimming in a sea of it

It used to be a world half there

Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down

But I walk it with a reverent air

Cause everything is holy now

Everything, everything

Everything is holy now

 

“Read a questioning child s face

And say it’s not a testament

That’d be very hard to say

See another new morning come

And say it’s not a sacrament

I tell you that it can’t be done

 

“This morning, outside I stood

And saw a little red-winged bird

Shining like a burning bush

Singing like a scripture verse

It made me want to bow my head

I remember when church let out

How things have changed since then

Everything is holy now

It used to be a world half-there

Heaven’s second rate hand-me-down

But I walk it with a reverent air

Cause everything is holy now.”

This sense of opening up to the awareness of God in the present moment, not just in some bye and bye, is something I’ve experienced too in my times of loss. I can think of two times where I faced the possibility of opening up my heart in new ways, to new experiences, and I was struck with such deep survivor guilt I didn’t feel I could. I could not see clearly the path ahead, nor what way was right. So I turned to meditation.

For me meditation has become what I do at the gym. As I run on the machines, I breathe deep. I listen to my breath. I feel it in my body. I feel every muscle pump, the blood flow. everyday-life-21And then I slowly with each breath and each move of my body join in breath prayers, slowly noticing each word and it meaning. As I did this both days, a deep awareness hit me. The experience resembled what I used to call “The Lord speaking to me” in my charismatic days in which I believed in a direct speaking of God through the Spirit. I’ve now seen so many times my thought of what God was saying was so flawed and that of others, I’m very critical of such language. As Karl Barth said of our experience of God in Scripture, we never heard God directly but only as mediated through something else.   In my experience of God breaking through with insight in my mediation, that awakening or enlightenment always comes out of my own unconscious, my own creativity, my own inner wisdom – all of which is touched by drives, folly, skepticism which can veil whatever insight God is giving. But both days I had a flash of an inner wisdom that I believe the still-speaking God I know as Holy Spirit but who is known by many names broke through.   And in following the first bit of wisdom, I saw my life open up to new possibilities, to new hope. The second piece I didn’t want to hear. I fought it. I resisted it. And my life got more difficult until I relented, I let go, I trusted. And then it opened up again.

The God who goes before us in Jesus and the Spirit is always there to give us wisdom, whether through inner wisdom breaking forth through meditation and prayer, or wisdom through the words of others and lessons of experience. If we will but quiet down in our own way and pay attention we will find God is still speaking to our situation.

This is true as well with the wider world of problems our communities face. We are too quick to raise our voices as if we know the answers to other’s problems. The first and last listen 2conversations I had with my late wife, which formed a frame on our relationship together, was about this same theme. In our first conversation she spoke about how as Christian studying to be a preacher at a Christian school she was so discouraged at how these good Christians wouldn’t listen to people that did not fit their mold, be they of other faiths, of other backgrounds, be they gay, but instead insisted to them who they were and what their lives ought to be. “Shouldn’t we let them tell their own story, and listen first without judgment?” she said. Our last conversation before she laid her head down on her pillow that final time was the same. She shared about an approach to ministry – narrative leadership – in which you let others stories define them. You let those stories speak in all their beauty and challenge, so that people find their own wisdom.   “That’s exactly what I’ve always been saying. Why do we try to determine for others who they are and how they must live. Why don’t we trust them to be able to hear and know their own story?”   Her words show the way to listen for the still-speaking God in our situations of community challenge and crisis. Let’s put aside our preconceived ideas about others, and let their lives speak to us. Let us listen together for the echoing voice of truth which resounds through all our days.   And we will find God speaking through each other.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: Eyes Like a Child Embracing the Life to Come as Pure Gift

spiritual practice prayerI continue to look at prayers of encouragement that my worship tradition in the United Church of Christ holds up as guides for those struggling, as I did in the death of my wife, in their Book of Worship.   One set of words held up by them which has always been an encouragement to me, even as a little boy, and which I regularly read with patients and families in my work as a chaplain, comes from the Gospel of John.

The Book of Worship includes the following excerpts of John 14 as words of meditation and encouragement: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.

“In a little while, and the world will see me no more, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also. These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; not as the world gives do I give you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

As a child I always heard this reading as being a promise of heaven.   Jesus went ahead of us through his death and resurrection, ahead into the next world.   He promises that not tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecthrough any amount of good works of our own, not through our own religiosity or acquiring insights into the deep questions of life – or failing to acquire these things – but by pure gift alone, Jesus has paved away where we can know there is room for us at peace, embraced by love, in the next world that awaits us after death. This is all, of course, very true. It is a part of the message of the Christian faith, which paves our days with hope in the darkest moments.   It buoys me here as I write, on the eve of the third month since I said farewell to my late wife.   I know through that childlike way of hearing this prayer of promise that, yes, that day three months ago was not the end for my late wife. I have had my brushes up with the next world as so many in grief have, where I could sense her presence and life going on beyond the heartache of seeing her body emptied of life.   But even without them, this promise heard as I heard it with the ears of a child reminds me – somehow mysteriously, wonderfully, she yet lives.   It reminds me too of the four others who have died this past year, three of whom died of illnesses I was hopeless to prevent. Two of those I now grieve, just as I did with my late wife, were ones I watched on powerlessly as their illnesses robbed them of life. I can know through the childlike reading of this promise and prayer that they, too, have been ushered into the next world, embraced by the loving God I see embodied in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

I think often when I read these words of prayer to patients and families this is exactly how they hear it – with the ears of a child.   It is easy to scoff at such simple faith. To be Bedilia 9 heavenfair, in my pain I have. Just the other day a dear friend tried to encourage me, letting me know that another side of my grief is coming in which so much that looks dark, painful, like a cruel joke played on me by some petulant child, will seem different. I will see an order, a meaning, or at least a new beginning being ushered out of these labor pains of loss.   I scoffed.   I railed.   I could not bear to hear those words – though I know there is great truth in them.   But such childlike promises to me ring hollow in the face of the waves of pain, anger, and anguish that sometimes well up in me unbidden, unexpected, even on my best of days.

And yet I remember being stuck, lost in a sea of trauma and grief. Where people took me by the hand and made sure I ate. Made sure I got to bed and woke up in the morning. Where, like a child, I could barely function. I remember needing someone to take me by the hand. I remember needing words given to me because my own words came out as groans and mumbles when I tried to pray.

In such moments, one needs the words of children. That innocence of faith can give you just enough space to stand.

I see this with the most hardened people in the face of loss, of trauma, of death, of illness, in my work as chaplain and before it as pastor. In our desire to be reasoned and griefintellectual, to look the complexities of our faith square in the eye, we can forget that sometimes we all need to feel held by arms stronger than our own. We all need to know it is not all up to us. We need the simple easy words that can let us keep going, one foot in front of the other, when it feels like each step is excruciating. When it feels like we are wading through thick quicksand to get ahead.

I remember when working as chaplain resident on a psychiatric floor, talking to one of my supervisors about a patient to whom I was regularly providing pastoral care. I was trying to help them sort through some issues deeply personal in how they related which they brought up, yet vexed by how to do it when their own emotional state was so fragile.   I remember my supervisor turning to me with eyes of compassion behind his glasses, saying “But Micah, that’s like trying to get a man to run a marathon with a broken leg. How can you first help his leg heal?”

Sometimes we progressive Christians with our desire to unpack God, to de-construct the things which are broken and not totally true, can forget – that is heavy lifting. There is a time for it. It is a holy task. But sometimes people simply need to know they are not alone.

Of course this prayer speaks beyond the simple into something deeper. I want to talk about that in a later post. But before I could, I thought that sharing the simplicity of this prayer was important.

An important part of our spiritual life is learning to embrace ourselves both in vulnerability and in strength, to make room for when we are like children. To make room for others in their vulnerability.

Some years ago I wrote a poem about this need in myself, called “Recovery Festival”. I share it with you so perhaps it helps you learn to embrace and make peace with your moments of weakness and that of others.

 

Recovery Festival

Like trumpets of war I heard rough southern drawl

echoing across the pine wood skin

and a fist hammering the untarnished face

of a podium in a storefront southern church.

“Are you saved brother?” he cries,

“The altar is open. Come on down,

we have room for more”.

I remember hearing that cry

amidst thirty verses of “Just as I Am”

feeling my heart pulled like metal scrap to lodestone

though to me it was already clear

Jesus I knew

and Jesus knew me.

 

Yet I found myself

feeling damaged

broken asunder

like glass upon pavement

now adrift on rainbowed pool of oil,

beautifully tragic beyond all cleansing,

by that preacher’s siren song.

 

That was not the day I gazed deep

beneath what others saw,

plunging beneath the waters

salty with tears

and cold with fears

that lay beneath

the splintered mirror

of my soul.

 

It came far later

amidst momma’s scattered boxes,

crates of jewels and receipts

gathering dust

after her manic shopping sprees

revealing my content, as well as their own–

my memories of hiding

little and alone

from the rising tide

her waves of emotion brought

the feeling of hands covering my ears

from shouts that rose

like the rhythmic shaking

of military bombs on Fort Bragg streets

when daddy lifted cups of “special punch”

to his not quite ever parched lips.

 

That salty wetness

rising from my own tears

was my baptism

which cold and crisp

against my skin

woke me anew.

In that moment I knew myself,

and began a long journey to wholeness.

 

His echoing shouts of salvation,

Gospel truth be known,

now taste like ash on my tongue.

His calls causing me to recoil

carrying still with them

the lingering smells of brimstone

hanging like a sulfurous cloud

calling me to my imminent end.

 

I find instead

beneath the wreckage in my soul

piling high as some abandoned lighthouse

rising just like those paint brushes, glue sticks, and cut fabric

borne of her creative projects dropped mid-stroke

and get rich quick schemes gone wrong.

 

Beneath an edifice that feels as high as the long-leaf pine,

I find

shuddering

squirming

miraculously alive

a sparkling treasure as yet unseen

more precious than the fabled gold

I am told

pirates left hidden off Carolina coast.

Shining like such

long-lost piles of coins

found resting

upon Ocracoke or Hatteras beach

lit by summer sun on Atlantic waves

I find him,

radiant and shining —

a baby boy

somehow untarnished amidst the pain,

unbroken as when he emerged

aglow with the Spirit’s bright fire,

Her original blessing still upon him

like dew resting on the cool grass

of Appalachian hillside in spring.

 

That plunge beneath

one fateful April morn

led me to this fated find

the treasure of myself

not shattered beyond all fixing

like he with thunderous voice proclaimed

but

myself as I was before being broken,

as when Spirit breathed me forth

glistening with the starry hues

of divine essence

my only swaddling clothes

floating into daylight from Her

like some glistening bubble lifted on wind

from sudsy tub.

 

So, keep your words of salvation, sister.

I’ll go with recovery anyday,

recovering who I am

and have always been

in my Maker’s eye

as I learn

to make true the maxim

that “the eye with which I see Godde

is the eye with which Godde seems me”

 

= =

 

May you experience such grace and healing in your dark moments.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

 

Daily Devotional: Where is God in My Pain? Where Am in Yours?

all saints 2I continue to look at prayers my church, the United Church of Christ, suggests as prayers in times of crises and trial in our Book of Worship.  My reasoning is that the more I go through the up’s and down’s of life, the less I feel a need to relate to God in simply the personal relationship, the “me & Jesus we got our own thing going”, way of the evangelicalism of my childhood.  There is a part of that approach which is very helpful: the deep mysticism I learned among the charismatics with whom my faith first woke up.  A sense that God is intimately involved with me, surrounding me by love, and ever open for me to be deeply vulnerable by removing every mask I wear in public, simply boldly coming as myself to God.  A freedom to be truly me, truly alive, in the present moment.  That is still so life-giving and something only emphasizing the corporate nature of our prayer, the ways in which we are a part of a tradition bigger than ourselves, can lose sight of if not balanced by the personal connection with the Sacred.

But I focus on these received prayers, prayers that people who lived long before I was ever thought of in this earthly sphere, prayers that helped people resist martyrdom and great cloud of saints behind preachermayhem, death and dismemberment, disease and dictators, time out of mind because I have found when the world spins out of control, moving beyond what I understand, my own words fail me.  I have found that there are times in life I cannot speak my own words, for my own words come out as a sputter.  Though there are mystical practices that help me when I am beyond words (for instance, though I would not describe myself as charismatic, I do still at times speak in tongues – a practice I experience as a way of opening one’s self up to communication with God beyond words when words fail), ultimately even being open to the mystical requires a certain energy that in my darkest moments I lack.

I have found to be true what is true for most of the patients I care for on my hospice line as a chaplain, and in looking back I now realize was often true of those in similar situations when serving as a pastor: what people long for in crisis is not usually the flush and excitement of some new experience of the Sacred.  What they want is the tried and true way, the path that was familiar whose steps they know but, now, in the midst of these moments in which the boundaries between life and death, beginning and ending, weakness and strength, us and others, begin to fade, appear in a new revolutionary light.

And so I have learned through my losses and the losses of others the value of liturgy to 8-1_tabernacle-entrancehold life up, to give it space for meaning.  In his book The Phoenix Affirmations, Rev. Eric Elnes suggests in a section on worship that the role liturgy has whether it is the repeated prayers, practices, and rites of corporate worship or the personalized practices we engage in as a part of the way our faith community teaches us to pray, to medidate, to serve is like a container or path on which we can meet the holy.  The holy which flows from the Holy One is everywhere present, illusive like the wind, unable to be bottled any more than we can bottle sunlight, and yet also alive like lightning.  Elnes suggests the horrifying stories in Leviticus of people approaching the ark of God, which represented God’s presence in the world for Israel, in a non-reverent way only to be struck like one caught in a lightning storm or in a lava flow dead, serve the purpose not so much of telling us what God is like – for a God who smites us for not saying the right words hardly is a God good enough to be worthy of our worship – but to picture metaphorically our need for regular patterns of prayer, silence, meditation, connection with others.   Our received practices —  whether they be singing the old Gospel hymns, praying Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer, the Daily Office, the liturgy of our favorite church each Sunday, the many ways we might take communion, or even our daily walk up the creek with our dogs — all create pathways through which we can walk to encounter the Holy.  To glimpse its glory.  To become through such experiences new and renewed people.

And so I turn again to one of the prayers of Scripture included in my church’s Book of Worship which is offered to give words for those seeking hope.  This prayer is adapted from Isaiah 63:

“The Spirit of the Holy One is upon me,

Because the Holy One has anointed me

To bring good news to the afflicted;

God has sent me

To heal the broken-hearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives,

And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;

To proclaim the year of God’s favor,

And the day of our God’s vengeance;

To comfort all who mourn;

To grant to those who mourn in Zion

A garland instead of ashes,

The oil of gladness instead of mourning,

The mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;

The planting of the Holy One,

That God may be glorified”.  Amen.

My first thought on reading this passage is, why does my church think this prayer is a prayer for the struggling and suffering?   I jump to this thought every time I read this text in such moments because of how deeply I have been formed by the Gospels and the holy spirit like windChristian story.  In Luke 4, Jesus appropriates this text for Himself at least in the minds of the story-teller who writes Luke.  Jesus is pictured there as the embodiment, the very fulfillment, of this prayer.  And so my first thought is to see this text as a description of my Jesus: the One so uniquely anointed by Spirit.  The one whose purpose is to bring good news to afflicted people.  To heal the broken-hearted.  To proclaim liberty to the captives.  To open up prisons and places of oppression so the once-oppressed can go free.  To transform grieving into mourning.  I find myself thinking of the many ways Jesus did this in the Gospels.  And to be honest, so often when I am grieving and in pain I find those stories, though pretty and important, so far removed from my life.   For Jesus was in Nazareth long ago, and here I sit – broken, heart shattered, tears in my eyes.

Where stood Jesus as I sat by the hospital bed of one dear to me who tried to take their life?  Or of my dear friend who died painfully of AIDS complications last year, whose griefhusband lost his mind from grief?   Where was Jesus as I slowly watched my late wife die of Chiari Malformation, and as I woke to see her not breathing?  Where is he in the people standing at borders south of our country, and all over Europe, crying out to be let in so they can be safe from danger?

In a literal way, those situations sure do seem far removed.  The man Jesus is not strolling into those circumstances, speaking the words “be healed”, “your faith has saved you”, and sudden miraculous things occurring.   Often such places in our life are dark and alone.

And yet this imagery does speak, doesn’t it?

It helps to remember that Isaiah did not know of Jesus, the man of Nazareth.  Sure we have a sense in the Christian community that the ancient prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Micah all were looking for an anointed Messiah to come riding in to rescue the people.   And though there is some limited truth to that, by and large they viewed these texts as descriptions of their own mission.

The author of this section of Isaiah, possibly Isaiah himself but more likely a later student of Isaiah or Isaiah’s prophecies, is probably describing their own personal sense of mission.  Whereas earlier in the book of Isaiah, the message was one of judgment.  Of hard words.  Of certain disaster unless people turn from their ways, now the tragedy has come.  The people are heart-broken.  And this prophet feels God telling them that people need to know: I am not the God of unrelenting anger.  I am not the God of rejection and judgment.  I am not as far off as I feel.

jesus healing blindAnd so they proclaim healing.  Liberty.  Freedom.  They let people know as they cry out “Where is God?” that there, there, there, there is where the Living God dwells.  In those places in which healing is coming in the midst of disease & brokenness.  In those moments in which alienation and isolating fear break open into deep community, reconciliation, and friendships that are borne unexpectedly, the Living God is at work.

I can relate with this one myself.  I have not had the crushing despair of the destruction of my nation that the people this prophet addresses has faced.   But I do know what it is to wake up feeling as if my world has been destroyed, as if all I live for has fallen aside like a tree crashing down in a summer storm.

In such moments it can be hard, almost impossible, to see God as present in my life.  I have had moments of darkness in my life that I looked all about me but could not see or feel God’s presence because my grief and loss was so bad.  Then, I looked and a friend was there lending a shoulder to cry on.  A neighbor was bringing a covered dish.  I found a moment of hope and peace.  And I could see just enough of God to get through.  I could see God as present in that healing, that community breaking forth, that becoming alive to one’s life again.

God is always, ever present there and in those places.  This is a good reminder to me both as a caregiver and a sufferer.  At times when we go through great ordeals it can feel wrong to embrace the goodness breaking out in our lives.  I remember the day I began to feel good after a long dark night in my life after my late wife passed.  I began to have energy, passion for my life again, even notice other women.  I felt like I was betraying her.  But then in quiet moments I could sense a whisper in my soul – “Live”.  Whether that was the voice of my dear departed wife from beyond, the call of the Almighty, or the cry of my own soul, chooselife greenthat voice calls me to embrace life.  At least after the death of my late wife, embracing life has been scary.  I find myself afraid to open up, afraid to connect, afraid that I will be rejected by others.  I think that I carry with me not just a feeling of being abandoned by friends when I began to do queer-affirming ministry, which I have spoken about here, but also a feeling of being abandoned by how suddenly my late wife was gone.  It makes it hard for me to open up, to trust.

But God is where life is.  God is where connection happens.  God is where oppressions end, freedom breaks out.  Going to those places where life can be found, and opening to them even when they hurt, is how healing comes.

It reminds me of one of my favorite lines from Regina Specktor’s song “On the Radio”, which says, “ “No, this is how it works / You peer inside yourself / You take the things you like / And try to love the things you took

‘And then you take that love you made / And stick it into some
Someone else’s heart / Pumping someone else’s blood

‘And walking arm in arm / You hope it don’t get harmed / But even if it does / You’ll just do it all again”

The call to life is the call to an openness, to not let the cynicism of our pain lead us to close the door to love, to hope, to new beginning.  It is so easy to choose that path, but its end is further pain.   And being open to life will yes bring heartache.  But I have to believe that ache can, like the ache of muscles after working out in the gym, grow our hearts.  Make them strong and whole.

 

A final thought on this prayer is this:  if the anointing can be a reference to the prophet and to Jesus, to me it suggests a different way of looking at Jesus and His role.   Early on unity_in_the_body_of_christ1when I first read these words, I imagined Jesus as this unique man, the sole human to really be so anointed by Spirit, to truly be God as man with men & women to dwell, Jesus Our Emmanuel.   But the more I walk this spiritual journey, the more I reflect on Scripture, the more I wonder.   I no longer believe that what made Jesus fully God and fully human was in fact some accident of his birth – being born of a set lady or family, or his mother’s sex life (or, as tradition suggests, lack thereof).  I think instead those elements of the Gospel story are just icing on the cake added to highlight what was truly unique of Jesus – his own lack of uniqueness.  Jesus was fully human, fully experiencing the range of human feeling, pain, heartache, temptation, joy, success, failure.   And not by denying his humanity, but by fully embracing it on a level most of us can hardly imagine, Jesus discovered God.  God fully present in every nook and cranny of who he was.  In every aspect of His life.  In every person he encountered.  God.   And so Jesus found Himself to be in fully being human, fully encountering and reflecting the Divine.  If this is the case, and I think it is, then God coming in Jesus is not God highlighting some uniquely special person but revealing to us that what is true for Jesus is true for us.  God showing us we can encounter the Sacred not by flying from our lives, but embracing them in all their complexity, pain, and messiness.

Each of us have God present fully in every nook and cranny of our life, every experience, every trial, every person we encounter.   To be fully human is to fully embrace each aspect god-dwells-in-me1of our lives and of others as places baptized in Sacred fire, places where the Living God is brimming to overflowing like a river after torrential rain.   Learning to no longer push aside who we are, how we feel, what we need – and to no longer push that aside in others – is the path to Divine encounter.  It is learning to discover God as present within ourselves, our lives, our worlds.

To me the vision of life such spirituality evokes is beautifully pictured by the “New Creed” developed by the United Church of Canada, and used by many Congregationalist churches like my own:

“We are not alone,

we live in God’s world.

 

“We believe in God:

who has created and is creating,

who has come in Jesus,

the Word made flesh,

to reconcile and make new,

who works in us and others

by the Spirit.

 

“We trust in God.

 

“We are called to be the Church:

to celebrate God’s presence,

to live with respect in Creation,

to love and serve others,

to seek justice and resist evil,

to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen,

our judge and our hope.

 

“In life, in death, in life beyond death,

God is with us.

We are not alone.

 

“Thanks be to God.”

 

Embracing this reality, that we too can grow to deeper union with God not just despite our sufferings, but like Christ through them — in our brokenness of body and poured out-ness of life — is a wonderful mystery and gift.

We need not fear, but can trust.  We also can find ways to take our pain to let us be shaped in ways that allow us, like Jesus, to in our own small way become avatars of God, mirrors of this Sacred light that shines on every heart, so that others around us can as we redeem our experiences of pain, find the joy, hope, life, healing, courage, community, deliverance from oppression, that the life of God blowing into our lives through others around us has helped us find.

Let’s continue this journey together.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: We Don’t Face Our Falling Shadows Alone

ucc book of worshipI continue to work through prayers of Scripture and the church I use from the United Church of Christ Book of Worship in my own work as a chaplain, many of which have I have found personally helpful in my own dark times.

I turn to a Scripture now included in the same section in the Book of Worship that, too be honest, I rarely if ever directly read while sitting with patients.  It tends to be one I read as I approach holy week in my own life.  I almost skipped it but yesterday I talked at length about this story with a patient who was full of fear about his own death, wondering and struggling over what lay ahead of him.   I realize in doing so that though I rarely directly talk about the death of Jesus in its grim details by quoting Scripture, I do in fact use that story as a lens to help those hurting find peace, hope, and comfort in their own pain and fear.  I do so for myself and have.

The section of the passion story the Book of Worship includes in its Scriptures and prayers of comfort is a version of Luke 23, verse 33 and 39-43.  It follows below:

three crossesAnd when they came to the place which is called the Skull, there they crucified Jesus, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left.  One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ?  Save yourself and us!”  But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?  And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your reigning power.”  And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

 

The recent interchange with a patient is one I have often with others.  They face into death and are overwhelmed by fear.  They know in their minds and hearts that their life both now and forever is in God’s hands.  They trust there is a life after, and that Jesus waits to usher them into paradise.  But they have these two thieves in the hillside of their soul.  One railing against what is happening, frightened and mocking.   Surely this is the end.  Surely the words of faith are only fairy tale stories we tell children.  Surely this is a joke, a mockery, a fear.   So doubts riddle them.  They want to cling, though clinging bring them and others pain, to this world.  Yet part of them, like the other thief, says “I know.  I know there is more.  I know Christ goes before me”.

I can relate with this myself, not as one having faced my own death but as one still coming to grips months later with the death of my dearest and deepest love.   On the one hand, I know that she has been taken out of the suffering of her body, the pain that wracked her days.  I know that somehow, somewhere, she goes on, alive in some new way in all the things that are holy, alive like the saints in glory.  I have even had moments that I felt that brush of loving presence which reassured me that, yes, Micah, I am still here.  My life has gone on in a new way and yours must as well.   But that death was not the end for me.

sitting at tomb 2And yet I still have moments I rail.   Last night I spoke to a friend, admitting, I have moments I am so angry.  Like this thief I want to rail at the Creator and say “Are you not the Christ?  Could you not have saved her?”  I got to watch her as a young, young man, grow rapidly old before my eyes.  When we stood atop that mountain in Los Angeles County, we promised to be there til death we part.  And I thought in my naïve young view of the world we would grow old together.  She grew old before me, experiencing the pain only far older people usually face, ailments I may not know until late, late in life.  She got me by her side in her autumn years.  And I helped make her last few years good.

But I cannot pretend I don’t feel cheated.  I cannot pretend I don’t throw my hands in the air and say “Why?  What did I do to deserve You taking her from me?  Why do I not deserve to have her with me, as I grow old?”  I feel as if a great unfairness has happened to me, and as if I was robbed by God.

This may sound like lack of faith, just as the patients I know who struggle with fear, question, and uncertainty about the ending journey that lays ahead of them, seem so often to those in their families to be struggling with lack of faith.

gethsemane prayerBut if you read the wider story of the passion – not just this snippet in the prayer book – you find Jesus, too, struggled.  He cried, so hard it is like his tears and sweat were drops of blood.  He prayed long and hard for God to take this cup from him.  He did not want to face his death.   He did, with faith, strength, and courage.  And though we can point to many places in the Gospels where Jesus seems to get why it is happening and to be trusting, we can also point to places where he says things like “My God, My God, Why Have you Forsaken me?”   This back and forth my patients experience between deep certainty and hope on the one hand, and fear, confusion, questioning, trying to fight what is coming on the other, is not wrong.  It is human.  And they are in good company, as are you and me, when such moments come.  For Jesus walked that lonesome valley before us.  He too went through this.

black sacred heart of jesusYou know when I first began the Christian journey so many years ago, I had this idea that in Jesus God did something utterly unique. I thought of Jesus as someone, something, more than me.  More than human.  A Superman of sorts in holiness.  But this is not really what the Gospels say or the early church taught.  Jesus is fully Divine by being fully human.   In Jesus somehow the Sacred presence comes to rest in our world by fully entering it.  Jesus is holy not because he has pulled away from the messy, complicated, painful, and dirty things that make us human.  He is Sacred because in some way He has learned to fully embrace and live out those things.

This means, as the early church fathers and mothers often said, that the glory of God is in fact a human being made fully alive.   And what God becomes, God heals.  So that every nook and cranny of our human lives, even the most angst-filled, painful, confusing, heart-wrenching are places lit with Sacred glory, diving light. Jesus has gone ahead of us into our darkest moments, even death itself, so they may be transformed into paths to Paradise.

So our doubts, fears, pains, anger at God, questioning, are not in and of themselves a turning our backs on God.  For God has already been there.  In Jesus the Sacred presence has filled every place heartache, pain, loss, despair, rejection could ever find itself.

In those seemingly lonely moments we can know, we are not alone.  For the Christ is present there, in that moment that feels broken like bread and spilled out like emptied cup .

I’ve found in being with the dying a beautiful old Gospel song that, once I got past some of the language of substitutionary atonement, came to picture for me the hope that Christ has gone before us into these lonely valleys, even into death itself, so transforming them from places of abandonment and despair, into deeper encounter.  I share it with you here:

 

When I come to the river at the ending of day
When the last winds of sorrow have blown
There’ll be somebody waiting to show me the way I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

Often times I’m weary and troubled and sad
When it seems that my friends have all flown
There is one thought that cheers me and makes my heart glad
I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
Though the billows of trouble and sorrow may sweep
Christ the Saviour will care for his own
Till the end of my journey my soul he will keep and I won’t have to cross Jordan alone
I won’t have to cross Jordan

I won’t have to cross Jordan alone Jesus died all my sins to atone
In the darkness I see he’ll be waiting for me I won’t have to cross Jordan alone

 

May you sense you are not alone whatever darkness or pain you face.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Daily Devotional: A Love That Embraces, Saves, and Sets Free to Wholeness

good shepherd 4I continue, as I look at prayers that have carried me and others through trying times, to look at Psalm 23.

Since a lesson I learned in grief was the value of prayers grounded in community and tradition, I draw on the rendering of this prayer in my own tradition, the United Church of Christ, as placed in our Book of Worship.  This Book of Worship includes two versions of this classic Psalm.  The first attempts at inclusive language:

“Holy One,

You are my Shepherd,

I shall not want;

You make me lie down

In green pastures.

You lead me

In paths of righteousness

For your name’s sake.

 

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff

They comfort me.

 

“You prepare a table

Before me in the presence

Of my enemies;

You anoint my head

With oil, my cup overflows.

 

“Surely goodness and mercy

Shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in your house forever.”

 

The second version they provide is more traditional.  I actually prefer the inclusive language version myself, but as I find patients with dementia and other cognitive impairments often are helped by the familiar, I tend to use this more traditional version when praying with patients:

“The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want;

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me

Beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me

In paths of righteousness

For his name’s sake.

 

“Even though I walk through

The valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff,

They comfort me.

 

“You prepare a table

Before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.

 

I mentioned the great intimacy that our Creator Spirit shows for us in this prayer the last time I wrote on this psalm.  This continues to be an important aspect of this prayer.

So often throughout our lives and specifically in times of trial, we can feel not only God but everyone around us is distant.  I know after the loss of my late wife Katharine that I felt that.  It felt like when I could croak the words for prayers that they either hit a ceiling lost in fogmade of iron, or drifted away unheard.  I felt alone and adrift in the world.  And initially even when I was surrounded by loving people, I experienced it as through a fog.   Even after, old fears emerged that if I continued to reach out, to lean on those in my life, I would be abandoned.  They would grow tired of my constant pain and anguish, my fears and uncertainties, and I would wake up alone again, lost in the dark wood of my grief.

Though much of these fears came out of experiences in my life where just such a thing happened – where in the midst of difficult times when I needed friends, my friends I had thought I could lean on couldn’t handle where I was at – I find that in reality experiencing such fears is pretty common in pain.   Even in a crowd, we can feel so alone.  Even with people near at hand, we can feel isolated.  For while they can laugh, smile, go on with their lives, we who are grief-stricken, traumatized, or overwhelmed can only feel the pain and seemingly all-embracing darkness and chill.

No wonder the composer of this Psalm goes out of her or his way to paint a picture of a God intimately involved in us, both in moments of peace and pain!  God is not just distantly looking on, untouched by our suffering.  God rather comes right down there with us, right alongside where we are.  God gets down in the muck and the mud with us.

The Psalm makes me think of a dog I used to have when I lived out in rural North Carolina.  rescued dogThis dog would get a sniff of something in the air and have to run.  We tried to teach him to stay by our side, stay in the yard.   Yet he would go Houdini, sneak under our legs out the door and be gone.  One night he did not come home.  We heard a gunshot.  I was heartbroken.  I searched all over the neighborhood, through the woods and thickets.  Finally I saw him, whimpering and sad, in the fetal position under some boards.  He was terrified, trembling, hiding in fear.  He got into someone’s yard who didn’t like dogs, who shot him right in the tail.  I carried him in my arms like a baby back home.  We took him to the vet and nursed him back to health.

That personal love, personal touch, is the heart of how the Creator Spirit present in all things relates to us.  Like a Mother cannot forget her child, but will go high and low to find tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecthat child, will sacrifice time and energy to show it love, so our God is always, ever with us.  Always, ever present surrounding us with love.

As I think about this image, I think of two representatations of this which resonate with me.  One is the image of God as Mother or Sister teacher we see in Proverbs when God is pictured as Lady Wisdom going in search of lost ones.  Some years ago I wrote a poem about this side of God, the Sacred Feminine who goes in search of the wandering ones to bring them home to the path of life, the path of wisdom:

 

lady wisdom 4Found

Voiceless from the pain

a choked whisper catches in my throat

one word: “Save!”

 

I have fallen upon gravel road

night dark about me

body aching

knees bloodied

alone

blanketed by frigid shadows

 

lady wisdom 3Howling voices cry out

“Failure! Liar! Cheat! Scum!”

from eyes aglow dripping crimson

and glistening teeth

hot air on my neck

wind like wolves panting for blood.

 

My eyes shut, terrified

Muscles stiffen, jaw clenches

body and soul ready for the final blow.

 

lady wisdomThen a voice, like the fall of rose petals

afloat in spring breezes

whispers melodic in my ears

“Child, you are safe”

 

A gentle grip lifts me

eyes flickering in shock

glimpses of luminescent limbs holding me tight

relax my rigid frame.

I know no more.

 

My eyes open in my father’s house

safe and secure,

the rosy fingers of morning caressing me awake

the din of night now long forgotten.

 

Looking down, I am bandaged,

still broken but healing.

Safe by her caring hands.

 

lady wisdom 2“Sister Spirit, who are you?”

I cry, as tears of joy drip

thick as summer storm.

Over the tumult of my cries

a sound like silence echoes

those gilded halls,

and in the whispering winter winds

I could almost swear I hear a name:

“Wisdom”.

 

Yet this intimacy of love for us is not desiring us to remain the hopeless child, in need of constant care and rescue.   Rather like a mother does what she must to teach her child how to stand on its own, how to thrive in this world, hoping to see it succeed, so the goal of Good Shepherd for us is that by use of the intimate care of the rod and staff to help us learn how to be faithful to our path, so that we know how to walk faithfully as life leads us forward, without endless wandering.

 

To me this is what the imagery in the end of the Psalm picturing us arriving at the table of the Lord, in the home of God, with a steady and secure place to stand.  This security is borne from our learning the lesson of such deep love, the lesson.  It is becoming full-grown in God, mature and whole.

 

I close with the following song, which invites us into this intimacy of care by our Creator which our Psalm describes:

 

 

Wandering the road of desperate life
Aimlessly beneath the barren sky
Leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

So afraid that you will not be found
It won’t be long before your sun goes down
Just leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

Hear me calling
Hear me calling
Just leave it to me- I’ll lead you home

A troubled mind and a doubter’s heart
You wonder how you ever got this far
Leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

Vultures of darkness ate the crumbs you left
You got no way to retrace your steps
Just leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

Hear me calling
Hear me calling
You’re lost and alone
Leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

So let it go and turn it over to
The one who chose to give his life for you
Leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

Leave it to me
I’ll lead you home

Daily Devotional: You are Never Abandoned in the Darkening Maze

good shepherd 3I continue, as I look at prayers that have carried me and others through trying times, to look at Psalm 23.

 

Since a lesson I learned in grief was the value of prayers grounded in community and tradition, I draw on the rendering of this prayer in my own tradition, the United Church of Christ, as placed in our Book of Worship.  This Book of Worship includes two versions of this classic Psalm.  The first attempts at inclusive language:

 

“Holy One,

You are my Shepherd,

I shall not want;

You make me lie down

In green pastures.

You lead me

In paths of righteousness

For your name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil;

For you are with me;

your rod and your staff

They comfort me.”

 

“You prepare a table

Before me in the presence

Of my enemies;

You anoint my head

With oil, my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy

Shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in your house forever.”

 

The second version they provide is more traditional.  I actually prefer the inclusive language version myself, but as I find patients with dementia and other cognitive impairments often are helped by the familiar, I tend to use this more traditional version when praying with patients:

“The Lord is my shepherd,

I shall not want;

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me

Beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

He leads me

In paths of righteousness

For his name’s sake.

 

“Even though I walk through

The valley of the shadow of death, I fear no eveil;

For you are with me;

Your rod and your staff,

They comfort me.

You prepare a table

Before me in the presence of my enemies;

You anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life;

And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”.

 

Two things stand out about this prayer as I reflect on it now, both from my role as caregiver when I have been chaplain, pastor, and spouse caring for a dying wife; and also in my role as grieving, heart-broken child of God for whom the way ahead is a darkening maze:  First, how it describes both leading and being led.  Secondly, the deep intimacy it describes between our Creator Spirit and us.  Today I want to focus in on the leading and being led and hopefully in a later blog look at the intimacy between Creator Spirit and us.

When I woke in the darkening wood of grief, having found my wife’s body still as a stone mutedone crisp fall morning, I found myself unable to think, speak, or make coherent decisions that made sense.  The trauma shattered my usually fairly confident and self-assured identity.   I found in those dark moments the hands of others, the voices of my family and friends, helpful in ploddingly moving forward.

I find in my work previously as pastor and now as chaplain this experience of being numbed, shell-shocked, and adrift in life in the face of unimaginable loss is common to all of us.  You may say to yourself “I will never be one of those poor souls, so shaken and uncertain”, confident in your comfortable life that nothing can so disturb you.  But it will.   As certain as the sun rises in the morning, each of us will be struck by grief, loss, horror, and pain.

The Buddhists have a beautiful reminder of this in their faith: the image of the lotus flower.   Well-meaning Western folks who are not Buddhists often embrace its image as of lotusserene innocent beauty.  But if you listen to and talk to any really informed Buddhist who deeply practices their faith, you will find this is as false as it can be.  For to the Buddhist, the beauty of the lotus, seemingly innocent and pure, must always be held together in one’s awareness with what allows the lotus flower to blossom and grow.  And what is that?  Rot.  Decay.  Waste.  Death.  Which reinvigorate the soil, making it fertile for life.   The beauty of new life must be held together with the pain and tragedy of death and decay.  They are inseparably linked.

Every faith really has such imagery.  A good friend, Nola, beautifully blended this image of the lotus with the Christian picture of the crown of thorns, red with blood, on a gorgeous tattoo on her arm.   She told me that she had it drawn when married to a lady who was a deeply spiritual Buddhist, and it expressed how on this truth both her Christianity and her then wife’s Buddhism touched: that we acknowledge in our best moments that pain and suffering, loss and tragedy, are not meaningless.  Rather the beauty of new life in Easter, the joy of love in relationship, the serenity of faith pictured by the lotus, cannot be had easter lily crown of thornswithout the risk of loss.   As C. S. Lewis said in his classic THE FOUR LOVES:  “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

The beauty we love in life all comes with that cost – it will at some point be linked with deep heartache.  The only way to avoid the darkening wood of pain and grief is to close one’s self off to love, thus never truly living.

When we find ourselves, as I did, as all one day will, in this darkening wood, in this maze of loss, we are promised we are not abandoned.   But One, the very One of life, is with us.   We need not fear.

I think this message of this prayer alone is what makes it such a source of encouragement to so many in times of pain.  It is why I prayed it so fervently on days words otherwise would not come at the loss of my wife, and why I carried a stone with its words dear friends I grew up with gave me in my pocket which I would cling to when I felt I could not stand.  These words remind us we are not ever alone.

I see as people pray this prayer, them discovering its truth.

helping hands 1They open their eyes and find friends and family taking them by the hand, helping them move one step forward at a time.  They open their eyes and find others whisperings words of hope and promise.  They find themselves not alone.

When they find fall down, they find others around them who can lift them up.

When I hit the wall of grief that I thought would shatter me, I was shocked to find myself with friends, family, church members, co-workers who would not let me collapse in the grief.  Who helped me get through, bit by bit.

I even found dogs, with their furry faces and wet noses, prodded me out of the darkness of my room into the light of day.

The image of Shepherd is an image of companionships that leads.

Yet it is not one that takes over for you.    The Shepherd invites you  — Walk with me.  Let me lead.  Let me guide.

Because the goal is not to keep us mindless and numb, broken in our pain, but to help us find the strength to move our feet, to see the sky, to embrace life.

Ultimately in the Jewish and Christian faiths, God is not some puppet-master holding complete sway on our lives, but a partner on our journey.  This God invites us to be co-creators, co-redeemers, of our lives and our world.   God will help us come to a bright future, help redeem us from every exile and oppression.  But as Moses had to lift up his staff, as Jesus had to march to his cross, as Elijah had to stand down the oppressive monarchs, so we must take up our own lives.  We must be willing to little by little realize that the God who leads us does not just lead from outside, but from deep within.  And in that place deep within where the Spirit of God shines forth in our every darkness, we have power to shape our lives.  We have an inner wisdom to show us our path.   And together with that God, we can mend our lives.  Mend our world, and transform it into life.

May we find this together this day and all our days.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah