I continue looking at prayers of Scripture & the church which have given me strength during the immeasurable loss of my grief. I return to Psalm 139. It continues,
“Where could I go to get away from your spirit?
Where could I go to escape your presence?
8 If I went up to heaven, you would be there.
If I went down to the grave, you would be there too!
9 If I could fly on the wings of dawn,
stopping to rest only on the far side of the ocean—
10 even there your hand would guide me;
even there your strong hand would hold me tight!
11 If I said, “The darkness will definitely hide me;
the light will become night around me,”
12 even then the darkness isn’t too dark for you!
Nighttime would shine bright as day,
because darkness is the same as light to you!”
I remember as a child the rendering of this psalm sung in the church of my childhood. These lines lended themselves in my childhood imagination to imagine one haunted by God. As I heard its words sung, I imagined it being such by someone who like Jonah was trying to flee from the Sacred presence. If only I can get under from under that all-seeing gaze, I imagined someone saying. I will then be free, free from this fearful terror.
Of course, for what it’s worth the picture of God presented at the church I attended then most often was God as fearful judge, keeping count of all we’ve done wrong, just waiting for the right moment to pounce on us unawares. No wonder I imagined the psalmist wanting to flee, to escape, to hide from this all-seeing eye!
When I came to know God personally in my own life, I encountered God as love. I encountered the One who is a constant source of support. I discovered the truth behind the words of the old Gospel hymn –
“What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.
“Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
“Are we weak and heavy laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
thou wilt find a solace there.”
My own experience of God when I found a God near to me personally was that of constant, unswerving friendship. God was the One I could lean on in all my trials, come to with all pains and heartaches. This was a different image. This was a promise I would not be forsaken, but ever cared for.
Both ways of reading this psalm have been a part of my journey.
I did and at times do feel haunted. There is not a place that I can turn that does not carry painful memories. Everywhere I go, I see my late wife’s haunting absence like a shadow over all that I see. This is why it took a week to even lay down in my bed, for the image of her body laying still as death, breathless and cooling in the autumn morning air, was blazened on my mind every time I walked in there. This is why I could not clean my house for nearly two weeks. Her things were mixed in with everything, everywhere. To touch them, to lift them up, to sort her things as cleaning required me to do was to confront her absence. Was to remember that morning I found her dead. Each time it is like a part of myself was ripped apart.
I feel it even now, this ever-present absence. I can be out with friends, laughing and enjoying life, yet in the back of my mind her absence is felt. All it takes is a sound like her footsteps, a noise like her laughter, the smell of her brand of perfume, and I am a wreck. I could travel a thousand miles and her absence, my loss of her, would chase me wherever I would go.
And yet I also experience a living presence of her, moments that her nearness is astonishing. It is not just that moment when I saw a flash of vision of her dancing upon the altar as the priest recognized that all who have died in faith are present with us at the table of communion each Sunday. It was not just that. It was also when, while walking the dogs, they chased deer, just as a family of deer made me sit in the road on my way home from toasting her with friends, and deer flanked my brother’s car that one night. My Ojibwe two spirit friend tells me that deer are seen in his culture as protectors of family, of mother love, of care, and that they feel such appearances of animals at time of death are in fact sent by the spirit of one’s beloved departed to show they are ok, they are still present but in a new form, and they are still loving & caring.
I see it in the tickets to a game in Charlotte that led me to be with someone the weekend my wife had passed, a month later, so that I did not fall into despair but found human connection, a friend to carry me. My wife won those tickets for me, and in a way continued to care for me after her passing.
I see it in how I saw hamsahs everywhere in the time surrounding my wife’s passing, leading to the memorial. A hamsah is a hand of a holy woman. Every faith has one it seems. In Christianity, it is the hand of one of the Marys. In Judaism, the hand of Mirium who is Moses’ sister. In Islam, the hand of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad. In pre-Abrahamic faiths they often were the hand of the goddess. These brightly colored hands picture the feminine power of God, the mothering love found in the greening of the earth with life, childhood, protection of family, care for the hurting, and expressed beautifully in such women of faith. Before my dear friend Rabbi Jernigan passed my late wife Kat found a hamsah on the ground by our car, looked all over for whose it might be, and found no one. Rabbi Jernigan said “Well, that’s why! God sent it to you” and then blessed that hamsah for Kat, telling her what it meant and why she was the perfect bearer of such a gift. Seeing these everywhere is a reminder that my late love embodied this womb-love of God and has returned to it.
I see it in small miracles. She is not gone, but yet still present in a loving way, with all the things that are holy.
This being hemmed in by my wife’s presence both in the loving presence and the fearful abence, none of which I can flee, is a reminder when I pray this. What I experience as what I cannot flee also is an invitation to notice that God is also present in every place. As much as I can feel Kat’s presence in these sending of reminders of her love, of something somewhere caring for me and those she loved, that is also a sign-post that God is loving. God is present. I am not alone.
There are times I feel so desolate and abandoned. And yet my life is God’s hands. I am not forsaken.
As the psalm reminds me even when the darkness comes crashing in, yet God’s hand holds me. God’s light sheds on my path. I can make it through for I am never alone.
Friend, I do not know what grief you carry or what pain burdens your heart. But know you are not forgotten. You are not abandoned. One walks with you in mothering love, in protective care, holding you up when you feel you will falter, and lighting the way in the encroaching darkness.
Together with that One, you and I can get through.
In God’s peace,