I continue to look at prayers that have pulled me through, which may help you in your journey. As I’ve mentioned before, going through the experience of loss both of my late wife’s long experience of slowly losing parts of herself to her Arnold Chiari Malformation, as well as of losing not just her but also several dear friends, I’ve hit moments where my own words would not form but as croaks and groans. I’ve learned the power of liturgy, the word of others gifted us by the Spirit in Scripture and the church.
Drawing from prayers in my own United Church of Christ or Congregationalist tradition, I’m sharing prayers that have helped me or others through both good and bad times.
Today’s prayer is another from the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ which I have found so meaningful not just in times of deep distress but also of joy, of waiting, of hope, and of fear.
These are taken from Psalm 46, as rendered in the Book of Worship:
God is our refuge and strength
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear
though the earth should cahnge,
though the mountains shake
in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
and though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth!”
The God of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
This is perhaps as a chaplain one of my favorite prayers to invite people to join me in praying whether through saying it together or just listening to it in silent meditation. So often the people I care for are in this liminal space Walter Brueggemann calls a time of “disorientation”. They live in moments in which all is quaking, shaking. The ground has fallen from beneath them. Up looks down, down looks up. Darkness has fallen upon all that has since lit their path. To me these words are a reminder of the place of stillness that exists in the midst of our every storm.
I felt this years ago when someone dear to me attempted her own life. I sat helpless by their bedside, so young I was barely a man. How could this be? I wondered. How can they not see the wonderful person, so dear to us all, they are? What pain can they face? All I could do was weep, pray, and hope.
I have since watched helpless as dear friends died slowly of illnesses, both physical and mental, and now spent three years watching the first woman whom I could ever truly call a soul mate slowly fade, bit by bit, into the shadows as one after another of her capacities past, until the day I found her laying still as a stone.
I would think it would get easier with each loss, but those of you who like me have fallen into the dark abyss, have had the storms rage up shaking your life to the core, … well you know, don’t you? Each time it is too much. Every single time. Each time your heart breaks and a part of you is never the same.
I tell you, when a dear friend got sick right after my late wife passed, I broke down in tears, and I said “Why? Why again? Please, don’t take another person from me, death. I can’t bear the four I’ve lost this year”. For me at least, each loss is a blow; each crisis a hurricane of feeling that shakes the tree limbs of my life bare.
This prayer though has been such a powerful reminder to me in each of those moments. Yes, the storm raises. Yes the ground quakes. Yes up is down. Down is up. And I feel like the world is a spinning top. I want to scream “let me off this crazy thing!”
And yet the Psalm tells me to stop. To be still, though the situation pushes and pulls me to move in its chaotic pattern. To listen. To be still.
I started before Kat’s health turned to begin a daily meditation practice, inspired by learning about meditation from Zen Buddhists and the Zendo in Pittsboro during seminary. Discovering that such meditation was not the sole property of our Buddhist and Hindu brothers and sisters, though they may have turned it to near science, but in fact central to the mystics of every faith, I dug deep and discovered Christian mysticism and meditation.
One practice that began to feed my soul was the practice of “breath prayer”. Breath prayer is a Christian mystical practice very similar to zazen in Zen Buddhism. In it a prayer or Scripture is used as a type of mantra which one focuses on as one breaths in and out. I found that this passage, Psalm 46, is a common breath prayer of mystics.
I began to use it in my own meditation practice after Kat’s first major neurological event which made her step aside from pastoring, landing her permanently in a wheelchair, and for some time causing aphasia (or “word salad”). I prayed it different ways, but the heart of it was repeating the following phrase: “Be still and know that I am holy. Be still and know that I am God”. After repeating it as breath prayer in a way that opens up my soul, I would then say “I am still & know that you are holy. I am still & know that you are God. I am still & know that I am holy. I am still & know that I am in you and you are in me, God. I am still & know that they are holy. I am still and know that they are in you, and you are in them God. I am still and know it all is holy; I am still and know it is all in you and you are in it all Oh God”.
For me, this reminds me each day, however tumultous the storm, that at its center is a place of peace. You know the Buddhists encounter the holy too, but most do not all talk of it as a Person or even God. For many strands of Buddhism, what Christians encounter as God Creator, Christ, and Spirit and Muslims as Allah with His 99 names, or even Jews as Hashem (literally “the Name”) who cannot be named aloud, many Buddhists encounter as Nothingness. This is not that they encounter nothing. But in their deep meditations they experience a quietude, a silence of all the raging noise of life. Their souls lay still. Their hearts lay quiet. And in the utter silence at the center of the raging of the world they find peace.
I feel that for me this is what this prayer gives me. I am told to “be still”, which is to cease my striving. I am told, as my dear Lutheran friend Sharon renders this, to “let go”. To stop the monkey mindedness of my life. To rest in arms far stronger and more compassionate than my own.
In the stillness I hear a voice like silence that calls me by my name. No, not the names the world gives me. Not even the name my parents gave me. But that name deep in my soul that I alone know. That name that tells me I am loved. From love I came, to love I return, and though all I may feel is pain and tragedy, in love I move and have being just I once moved and had being in the life-giving amniotic fluid of my mother.
In the quietude and stillness I see my life for what it is. That is the Holy Spirit opening my eyes and giving me revelation. For for a flashing moment I get a glimpse of life lived from the center, life lived in the stillness. And I see that the final word is not loss. It is not hurry. It is not chaos. It is peace, stillness.
Also by recognizing all in God, God in all, including me, those I worry for you, those I lose, I remember: we are held. We are whole. We are holy.
I remember tears falling from my eyes when I recognized they — my late wife, my lost rabbi friend, my other dear friend, a neighbor whom I cared for, all who passed — were holy and even now in God. It gave me room to recognize that though they are not with me, they too are here. Here, present to me in the communion of the saints, present in all the things that are holy. So that when I find the Nothingness, the Silence, the Stillness, where the heartbeat of God can be heard, I also am hearing their voices, seeing their faces. They are not lost to me any longer. And I am not lost to them.
To close this reflection, I want to share a poem that speaks to me of the gift this prayer offers. I hope it helps you open in your own way that love that offers rest in the center of all the flurry and pain that may rage around you this day.
Sometimes stopping can be the most work
When my monkey mind wants to jump,
Screeching for attention,
Climbing the ever growing vines of what-might-be, of worries & concerns
When my soul sets to scrambling upon the treadmill
Not just of tasks that must be done
Like patient visits,
Paperwork to be completed,
Yard to mow,
Laundry to fold,
And dishes to wash
But also the fear that buzzes
Like a swarm of bees in the distance
Fear that if I am not more
If I do not try harder
I will not make things secure enough,
will not be good enough
And for whom?
The dread angst which causes me to sit
Like a cat about to crouch, ready to spring from some shadow soon falling across the horizon.
Yet beneath it all I hear
The tap tap tap like a million dancers
Feet moving upon tin stage
Of cool spring rain upon the roof.
I smell the crispness of cloud bursts.
I hear a call to sabbath
In the twittering voices of small wild birds at rest upon my balcony railing
And with the chitter of squirrels at play within the overhanging tree branches
Like the babble of the brook I pass
While walking from my bus stop each evening
Where I shake the dust from my day’s work away
I hear them whisper
Be still and know…’
Quietly I breathe in the aroma of fresh coffee
And know deep in my heart
This is enough
This moment is enough
I am enough
And drink of my now full cup.
Your progressive redneck preacher,