I continue to look at prayers that pull me and others through, focusing on ones in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship, for I find in my moments of deep despair and vexing disorientation that I go through in loss, grief, and trauma that it is often in community in which I find God most present and while praying, working, laughing, crying with others that this often introverted guy finds healing.
Like in my last post, I turn now to a Scripture that I do think rightly can be used as a prayer though not one in which we speak to God, but as a doorway to opening ourselves up to look for and listen for God in our pain. It has long been one of my favorite passages to read in trial and has become even more meaningful since the passing of my late wife Katharine.
The words I focus on now come from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5:
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.
“For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. The one who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.”
This reading is far too profound for me to hope to cover in one post. But what I notice first is the way in which it points out that an inner reality can be born in us which transforms the outer. This is something I have seen again and again in my ministry. As a pastor who spent a lot of time among the poor and also the disenfranchised, I have always been struck by the depth of compassion and dignity those our society crushes under foot in its structures of power can exhibit. I think of gay men living in fear for their lives in rural parts of the south while I pastored there, areas where just a few years ago we all saw stories of black boys still getting lynched. These men who would still open their homes to the hurting, give of the extras they had to their neighbor, and forgive and love family members who had treated them so harshly, exhibited a treasure in their soul that far exceeds the persecution, affliction, and pain which society inflicted on them threatening to crush the clay jar in which their beauty was kept.
I think of in that same rural community people living hand to mouth who had more generosity than I see in my oh so comfortable Chapel Hill neighborhood. The other day my car wouldn’t start. I had to go all over to find anyone willing to give me a jump. We are so busy, so not wanting to be bothered, so locked into the 9 to 5 that earns the cash that we don’t see each other. But there, in a community in which people lived on a knife’s edge, if I flipped the hood of my car open all the neighbors would have shown up. And though people had very little, they gave what they had generously. I remember folks who gave all the neighbors the eggs their chickens produced, who only had turnips and greens they grew in their garden but made sure every neighbor got some. Seeing each other, seeing what can be done if so little, was a treasure and a beauty. Rather than the pressure of poverty in a struggling community crushing these people – and to be fair, it did crush some who fell into violence, drug addiction, and abuse of others out of their despair – these dear ones allowed it to break them open, developing hearts of compassion.
I see this as a chaplain now. Often people tell me “well I know you are going to be an inspiration and a help” when I get ready to take on the day with my job. That may be so; I don’t know. I find so often I leave inspired. I meet people facing and fighting unimaginable pain, with their lives on a knife’s edge too. Yet so many find hope, peace, inspiration. They are able to have the courage to keep their hearts open to deeper love and connection with those around them. They are able to see God in situations far darker than the ones in which I look up the heavens and say “Where are you?”
The reality is that this precious treasure this reading speaks of is always, ever there with each of us. Acts 17 tells us that the Creator Spirit is the One in whom we all live, move, and have our being. John 1 tells us that this One is the Light who shines in the darkest place but cannot be extinguished, the Light which shines on every single heart.
There is not a one of us that does not have God present with, in, under, and through us at all times. In our moments of pain our hearts do break. That is inevitable. But as we learn to be open to our feelings, open to our journey, open to our pain, open to those around us, this breaking open may find a different path than becoming broken, damaged, and powerless. Instead we can find, through our practices of spirituality and compassion, through being open and mindful to all we feel, a connection to that Shining Light deep within our lives and to where that Shining Light is glistening forth through others around us.
I saw this in my late wife. She went through such unimaginable pain in the last few years of her life. So often I would see her struggle to get up, to go about her life. Every day though she would find that one glimmer of hope, that one glimmer of joy, and seize it for all it was worth. And she would then go through her day, full of joy, reaching out in love and service to others, choosing to build beauty in the midst of pain.
I did not understand how she did it until she was taken from me in death. That has been a pain unlike any I have ever had or imagined. Many a day I woke with my heart so broken I could barely pull myself out of bed. Then I would remember, when I did not want to face the darkness of my day eclipsed by the absence of her loving presence those days I saw pain wrack her body and saw her look at me in the eyes and say “If I give up being around the people I love, doing the things I care about, my stroke should have taken me. I must find my joy every day, and live it” and I would remember her doing just that. I would find one thread, tiny and tenuous, yet sparkling with hope. I would grab hold of it and pull myself forward. I would too take time in the day to feel, to not shut off my pain, but also to remind myself there is joy, laughter, happiness, and hope even here.
I found my heart breaking open. I am not there yet – not yet out of this dark wood. I have my moments where it all comes crashing down, and I am lost again. But most days I do well. Most days I in fact am more open to life, to others, to love, to joy, than even before dear Kat passed. And when it all comes crashing down around me, as happens in grief, I also know: you can do it. You know what to do to not let the grief destroy you. You know where to turn for friendship and support, for hope for the day, for a reason to pull yourself up and as she did live.
Friend whatever pain you face, know: you have a deep treasure within, both the treasure of yourself and of the Almighty Spirit who fills all things. Together you can face this. You are never alone. If you will but open yourself this Loving One can guide you to the thread of hope you need, to the strength not to give up on life. And if you let this Loving One guide you, even with stumbling trembling step, you will find your brokenness that hurts so deep will not destroy you but instead open you up to others.
Let us be open to that healing journey together.
Your progressive redneck preacher,