Look up at the sky and consider:
Who created these?
The one who brings out their attendants one by one,
summoning each of them by name.
Because of God’s great strength
and mighty power, not one is missing.
Why do you say, Jacob,
and declare, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Living One,
my God ignores my predicament”?
28 Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?
The One Who Lives is the everlasting God,
the creator of the ends of the earth.
The Living One doesn’t grow tired or weary.
Their understanding is beyond human reach,
giving power to the tired
and reviving the exhausted.
Youths will become tired and weary,
young men will certainly stumble;
but those who hope in the One Who Lives
will renew their strength;
they will fly up on wings like eagles;
they will run and not be tired;
they will walk and not be weary.
This passage will always have special significance to me. I still remember my late wife Katharine and I reading this passage and praying one morning, right before we got a knock on the door. Christi, the sweet daughter of our neighbor and friend Lori, came out tear-filled and upset. A bloodied and beaten puppy had shown up by her door, right on the edge of her property and ours. We were in Robeson County, one of the wilder and wilier places to live in North Carolina, and working (based on my late wife’s driving passion to see this happen) to try and birth an inclusive community of faith where folks regardless of race, gender, sexuality, disability, or class are welcome. But Robeson county was a hard place. There was crushing poverty from all the mills and factories that had moved out of the state after the Free Trade Agreements of the 1980’s and 1990’s allowed them to move to places like Mexico and parts of South America to build their factories. There was crushing poverty, with its linked drug abuse, alcoholism, and despair that birthed into domestic violence and threats to the vulnerable among the most destitute. There was also such beautiful, deep open-hearted love. People who had very little but would give everything they had out of love to help a friend, a neighbor. I still remember a man who lived across the way that every winter would offer anyone on our street to come and pick greens and turnip roots from his garden. He had little, but the little he had was open to all.
But one part of how this despair from crushing poverty gets expressed is violence. It was only a year ago that within walking distance from where I lived then a young black man was found hanging lynching style from a swing set in Bladen County. That is paradigmatic of the violence that exists in that rural community. Working some in mental health as a barely trained mental health tech while pastoring I saw the heart-breaking violence women received from their men, both husbands and partners, which even extended into the very threatened, living on a knife’s edge, lives of those in that community that lived in same-gender relationships. I remember helping some young people who had the violence of being expelled from their homes early when their parents found out they crossed the invisible boundaries the community built up – and loved outside their race or, worse yet, loved someone of the same gender. There is a violence in places of despair, where poverty is not just a cycle people try to break from, but all some ever know and hope for.
One expression of this in the depressed parts of the rural south is violence against animals. When we lived in Robeson County, my late wife became a crusader for caring for animals largely because we would find them beaten up and abandoned. She didn’t have the heart to let them die. Usually that beaten up came out of the animals being abused, having violence done against them in some way. It came through dogs that were treated harshly to make them “mean” and in the owner’s minds better able to hunt. It also happened in those who tried to teach dogs to fight each other, tearing each other apart for sport. I view these acts in retrospect as violence that is the expression of despair, of trauma, of feeling trapped in a life with no hope. But it was also so heart-wrenching to see.
Well this little dog that Christie had seen was just such a dog. We later found out he had been an accident. Someone’s prize female used for breeding fighting dogs had been left outside and a wandering dog of uncertain breed mixture had decided to find a mate. After that dog was run off, the deed was done and an odd mix of Mastiff, Chow, and Black Mouth Cur (a very similar breed to what Old Yeller was) was born.
The man tried to cut off the dog’s ears with shears to make him look like a pit bull, and only half did the dog. He tried to throw the pup in the ring anyway, to get his money’s worth. The dog wouldn’t fight at all. He didn’t have it in him.
So the man decided to get rid of him. He threw a chain around his neck, dragging him behind his truck. But this dog was quite the escape artist. He wriggled off, ears and neck bleeding, and ran like lightning as far as he could. (In fact to this day, he is an escape artist still. Oh, the stories I can tell!)
That is how he arrived between our two yards, beaten and in a puddle of blood, near dead.
Of course Christie said, living not in a home like us but a trailer park, she knew the management would have her and her momma’s hide if she kept him. Kat, of course, jumped to the rescue. “We’ve got this, hon. Don’t you worry a bit”.
Kat nursed him back to health. I would come home from my work at the mental health support organization to stories of all she was doing to get him back to health. Kat was in over her head, and so we prayed. God’s answer came in a young Muslim woman, a refugee from the wars we were waging in Iraq. She was studying veterinary medicine and came, expecting nothing in return, to simply offer freely the service of stitching up his ears, treating his infection. When Kat was living and still a preacher, she would often point to this woman whenever people began to bad-talk other faiths and Muslims in general, telling people “Yes there are Muslims who use their faith as an excuse to be harsh, to do wrong things, but we Christians do that too. You want to know what Islam looks like, when it’s really followed? It’s this lady who, barely knowing me, gave her love and care, freely helping me nurse this animal back to health. It is her friendship, her care, her service. We don’t get to paint people of other faiths as evil. There are good people, people of love, people who know God, in all religions”.
In this dog’s life we found the Scripture we read the day he arrived to be true. As Kat was nursing him back to health she was trying to train a German Shepherd to be her medical alert dog because already, those many years before she died, she saw her spina bifida was following the natural course of that illness. She was already losing, bit by bit, capacity. And she knew a trained medical alert and mobility assistance dog could so improve her quality of life and perhaps even the length of her days.
Initially this dog we took in, whom named Isaiah because he arrived as we read Isaiah in our family devotions, was terrified of everything. He would flinch at any touch. He would refuse to stand, cowering and moving around on his belly, in a military crawl. The slightest noise – even the movement of birds, led him to rush under tables. He was in fear.
Slowly he began to gain confidence. To walk with his head up. To not just accept a pet, but come to us for comfort. And then one day it happened.
This German Shepherd was either dumb as a box of rocks or, more likely from dog trainers I’ve spoken with, so willful it would be hard to easily win her over. It refused to do any of the service training. But Isaiah watched, looking intently at everything Kat did. And then he began to do it. It started when Kat told the German Shepherd, “turn on the light switch”. It glared at her like a defiant teenager. Then Isaiah walked up, slapped the light switch with his paw, sat down and looked up at her like, “See? I can learn”.
He became very quickly skilled at everything she needed. Until the day she died he stood by her side, helping her get in and out of her chair and alerting her to medical problems. The fact he slept quietly through her death in her life that fateful night shows me it was peaceful, a passing into the arms of the Almighty Lover of our souls not a painful passing for her. And Isaiah remains a comfort and joy to me now, though he does not have that work before him.
I saw in Isaiah the truth of this passage.
I am finding it for myself too.
In my wife’s recent passing, I spent around a month in great pain. Where I could barely bring myself to get out of bed. Where, though I forced myself to go out and connect with people, engage in activities that when I am myself bring me joy, and not simply roll over, each and every one of them was hard. I felt I was pushing through quicksand to simply do simple tasks, and even more so to really engage with others. Every moment I felt pressed down by a crushing despair.
Then something clicked.
One day the fog began to lift. I felt energy. I began to notice life. To see the birds. To hear music. To feel a drive to do.
Suddenly I was able to be there for myself, doing things I did not have energy to do to make my life work. Being there for people.
And I felt guilty at first to suddenly have this energy, energy to go to the gym, to focus on my passions, to be there for other friends and family.
Then I looked back at pictures of my late wife the last three years. And saw how much month to month her appearance changed. I saw what I think I had felt many a month: how it is not just that my wife died. But I watched her die for 3 long years die, caring for her every step. I remembered the sleepless nights. I remember worrying what capacity she would lose next. I remember listening every morning, wondering “is she breathing? Or is this the last moment?”
I found I am now no longer am I wracked with stress. I am having the energy to go to the gym, to write, to be with friends because no longer is all my energy into worrying about my late wife. She is fine. She is no longer suffering. Death has been swallowed up by victory, and her life has gone on in God. She is not dying anymore, but has entered into life in the next world.
I’ve begun to let go that sense of guilt, realizing she would want me to live. To her dying breath, wracked with pain and illness, she seized life and lived it to the fullest. Now every time I do my breath meditation & breath prayer I am deeply aware that I have breath. I have come to the place I believe that her life goes on somewhere, more beautiful and free than it could be with the growing limitations her Chiari created in her body, but not with breath. In Spirit, fully and completely.
As I do that breath prayer, now I recognize I have breath. To have breath means I have a duty. A duty to embrace life.
I now feel that I am beginning through Spirit, through friends, through my church community, through the changes occurring in my life, to like Isaiah begin to heal my wounds. I am beginning to feel God as my mothering eagle, lifting me up upon Her wings to fly, to soar. I am beginning to not feel as I have for so long, worn out and drained, but alive. I am beginning to feel I can run and not grow tired.
Wherever you are in life, I pray you taste, you see, the reality of this promise. Always, ever, in the center of your life is this Living One whose breath renews you. Who can lift you up on wings of eagles. Who can rescue your life as from the pit.
That Living One known by many names but to me as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit, is there for you and me. The depth of despair, loss, and pain is not God’s final story. As you let yourself open to life, to your world, and to the Living One who has conquered death and hell by taking it into Their very own life, you too can find your life begin to open up.
Let’s continue to open ourselves to this life and new beginning.
Your progressive redneck preacher,