As I begin to return to journaling on Scripture, since I am still writing in my own grief journal at the loss of my wife, I think it is fitting for me to work through prayers of Scripture & liturgy that have carried me through.
I have had many days I could not meditate. I could not pray. Where words would not come. Sometimes I found Christ present to me in the voice, hands, ears, love of other people who could be physically present demonstrating love to me. Sometimes I could find the connection by returning to the ancient words of Scripture as my own prayers, and those of the liturgy as well.
So I begin not by turning to the Daily Office as in days past, but to those prayers of Scripture & liturgy which have given me strength. I begin with Psalm 139, which has been a Scripture that spoke volumes to me since my childhood. As a child, a rendition of this was regularly played as a hymn in my parent’s church. It wove these words into the tapestry of my soul, so that whenever I felt alone or lost in life, these words returned to me.
They also are significant because any many ways, with the exception of the ending call for vengeance, they so reflect the faith that my wife Katharine had. Her faith was not in some abstract God out there, distant from us. Hers was in the God made known in the nearness of friendship, the intimacy of love, the joy of children, the sweat and tears in serving the hurting and crying out for injustice to end. Her God was a God on the move, yet ever with us. Her faith was borne out of the struggle as to whether or not God had ever been with her in the knitting together of her body, heart, and soul in a world that considered people like her who were different mistakes.
I had this psalm as the text read at my wife’s memorial and our pastor, the Rev. Dr. Jill Edens, gave a moving and appropriate message from this text.
Since it is so long I want to reflect on in discrete parts, a little every day, after praying the prayer myself.
If Rev. Dr. Edens had not pointed at that my dear Kat never would have wanted to omit troubling parts of Scripture – such a true statement about her faith – but to struggle with them in honest, I would have decided to leave off the closing few verses which are a call for vengeance. But I will also include them in my prayer time and in my devotional journal.
I begin reading,
“O Living One, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Living One you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.”
If you pay attention, you can tell from the start I have taken one liberty with this text. I changed the English word “Lord” to “Living One”. This is something I do normally when I pray this psalm and other prayers anyway. “Lord” speaks to God as king, and is an image of God as male nobility. But usually that is not what the Hebrew word translated “Lord” speaks about. At times it is Adonai, God as noble ruler, the leading male of the universe. That metaphor spoke volumes to Israel when its own kingship fell, its nation crumbled, and it became both colonized by other lands and many of its people exiles. There was no king, no nation, in a physical sense. But God remained the one who was the center of their community, calling them to a different pattern of life, one built not on conquest but out of deep compassion for the hurting, deep reverence for all life even animals & plants, and in solidarity with a God they revered known for setting free slaves, fighting for the oppressed, and letting go of captives. Clearly with how many prayers and hymns to Christ as “King”, “Lord”, and similar titles still in use in Christian churches, this image is strikingly significant. God as our Adonai.
But more often than not, Lord is from the untranslatable Hebrew word that transliterates into YHWH and at times Jehovah. What does that mean? Well, we don’t fully know. But it is a form of the word “to be”. It shows up in connection with two descriptions of God. First, when Moses experiences God breaking in , real and living, as presence like fire upon the mountain the vision or theophany of the burning bush. In that exchange, Moses asks God what name God has. For the many gods of Egypt each have names, names used to call them forth. Names signifying what their power and role in the universe ought to be.
God’s answer is most interesting, as recorded in Exodus 3:
14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Here the name “LORD” is capitalized to let us in on the fact it is this untranslatable word YHWH or Jehovah. God describes it as meaning that God is the One who is. And it is this God who is who sends Moses forth. In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures this seems to be connected with the ongoing critique Jewish prophets have not just against other nations but against Jewish people as well for choosing to create a plethora of gods, all with different functions, to be worshipped alongside this God known as the God who is. They would make fun of how people would carve images of stone, gems, rock, wood, and set up that image in their how as an image of a god of fertility, or rain, or harvest, or home, or warfare. They would say this clearly is not a god. We don’t make images of the God Who Is, because the God who is, who is real, who is living, cannot be fully pictured or described. And all these blessings you seek in these gods you can imagine, carve images of, and control really are gifts of the God who truly is and no one else. So you are really making up things, make belief gods, so you feel like you can control things you can’t. What you need to do is lay aside your make believe and get to know the God who is, the God really lives and is not dead stones, dead dried wood, or dead human ideas.
To me the term Yhwh or Jehovah is the way of positively saying this. We worship a God who cannot be imagined, who cannot be put into any box. A boundless God. The God who is living, not dead. The God who is not buried in our doctrines, our theology, our rules, our rituals. Sure, such pictures of God in poetry and art (including the Psalms) can picture a part of who this God is, but not God’s fullness. God is wild and vibrant like life itself, and cannot be controlled. So I prefer to call this God “the Living One” myself.
It also gets to a key way this God is found in the Psalms and in Scripture: in life. This is the God whose Spirit moves over the places where death reigns, and new life is born. God’s Spirit greens the earth, causing crops to grow, children to borne, and even the death to rise to a new form of life in resurrection mystery. This God breaks forth, laying aside every chain that keeps people from fully living. We see this God in the addict who lays aside slavery to addiction, in the traumatized person who finds healing that enables them to engage life again.
For me God as the Living One has been an important way of understanding where God is in my time of grief.
I saw God so much in my late wife, who in the midst of illness, disability, pain, and discrimination chose life. I remember one day when the illness that killed her, Arnold Chiari Malformation, caused her to have mind-wracking blinding pain, and she had to sit down and cried. I remember our nephew, then 3 ½, was going to come over. He was full of energy and loved his aunt Kat so much. But he’d want to cuddle. He’d want to wrestle. OK, he is southern, y’all. He wanted to wrassle. He wanted to play. All of these things would cause her unimaginable pain. And I told her, “Darling, my brother and sister in law will understand. Let’s just not do it today.” My wife glared. She gave me that look, which said “Honey, you aren’t winning this”. She said “Micah, you have to understand. I am always in pain. If I have to stop the things I enjoy because of that, the stroke should have taken my life. He will only be this young so long. He only has so much time he can enjoy this. I must choose my joy, every day. And that is what I will do”.
And that amazing woman did it. She laughed. She gave him her winning smile. She cuddled. She wrassled. She played with that boy. And then when he would step away, I would see. I would see the smile drop, and oh the pain in her eyes! But she really meant the smiles and laughter. It was no act. She found her joy every day, to the day she died. In that she encountered and lived out the presence of the One who Lives and in whom all Life comes. For life is not just breathing. It is smiling, laughing, seeing the sun, hearing the birds, playing with children. She never lost that. Not once, despite all of her pain.
For me, calling out to the Living One is my way of saying, I will choose this full life. I know that God is where you are. In life. You let me breathe. And though I cannot always understand why her breath left her that night, I have mine. She would want me to choose Life in it. To find my joy, even when the pain in my heart is unspeakable. I must find and choose Life.
And so I try. Some days I miss it. Some days I hit it. Some days are great, wonderful, and good. Some are awful. None are easy without her.
The other part of this passage, this section of my prayer, that so resonates with me, is that the Psalmist is hemmed in. God’s hand is ever upon them. God knows them inside and out. They are safe.
When Kat passed and I walked in on her dead, my world turned inside out. I have some periods I cannot remember and I am not upset about that. I understand that is what trauma does. Our body knows when the pain is to much, and hides it from us until we heal enough to face it. And so that time is a blur.
I made decisions I do not remember. Said things I cannot recall. Somehow my family arrived, my preachers blessed Kat’s body. I remember Pastor Jill saying “don’t let him drive now. Someone look out for him”. And they did. I don’t remember how but I ended up at my brothers. He and my sister in law fed me. They made sure I went to bed and woke up. A couple I am friends with took me to their house and did the same.
I could barely speak at times. And words came hard. Tears came easy. I remember finding myself one day in a grocery store, not remembering how I got there or why. And that was one of my better days.
I was hemmed in with these good people God put in my life who were God to me. Their love. Their friendship. Their words of encouragement. Their eyes and ears to make sure I took care of myself those days. They were God to me.
Those days I could not pray, not really. I would try to meditate and become lost, confused by the roaring noise of my pain. I could only pray those times I could bring myself to say words like these that someone else wrote, someone else before me prayed.
But God heard. For God knew my heart, even when I did not. God knew my mind, even when I did know know myself. God heard every heart cry. As one of the prophets says, God saw every tear and bottled them, treasuring each drop.
I am not in that dark day any more, though the days are still not easy. Now I can begin to feel and sense what I could not then, that a hand is upon. That eyes are seeing me. That my life is not tumbling out of control, as it felt then. That though it feels at times like unending night for me, morning is shining on the horizon. And I will get there.
I hope my sharing of my journey through grief, and the words that have helped me help you whatever griefs and traumas you face.
Know you do not have to figure it out. You don’t have to know the words or know the way. There is a Living One with you always. And though that One may be hard to see, you are not abandoned. I’m living proof.
And I sure ain’t whistling Dixie here!
Your progressive redneck preacher,