I 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 through 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 fair, 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 intellectual, 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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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,