Daily devotional (repost): Trauma, Grief, and Divine Grace

Psalm 88 is a prayer from a point of utter dejection. The woman or man speaking feels trapped, as if dead on the inside. They feel no more alive than the person they see being buried in the grave. They feel trapped by their pain and loss, perhaps numbed from trauma.
There have been very few times I felt like that, like one sitting on the edge of falling into the deepest night, with no hope from rising.
Yet I’ve also seen it more than I’d like in the eyes and stories of those who’ve experienced abuse or trauma, people sharing with me how it was like the light of the sun was extinguished for them and their loss or traumatic experience made them feel hollow inside, like a shell of a person.
This Psalm shows us this experience, though it feels utterly isolating and unique, is not new. If you are feeling so traumatized, alone, dejected, or depressed, God inspired others to write out prayers from that same point of view. Someone thousands of years before felt a very similar numbness and despair, and enough people could resonate with it that it was put in your Bible. So know though you may feel alone you are not.
grief patternI think it is important to note the Psalmist does not end in hope. Often when people are in this experience of disorientation and loss our temptation as friends and family is to push them out of it, to have them count their blessings, to do something to get them out of it. But as anyone who has been through such a time can tell you, it is not as simple as that. There is a point you are able to begin to do that, as healing comes. But there is a point that all you can do is sit in dust and ashes and weep; and sometimes even that is too much. To try to push someone out of their grief and pain before they are ready can be hurtful to them, deeping their experience of isolation and rejection. We need to be patient and present with people where they are, accepting them taking their own pace, acknowledging that they are worthy of our love and companionship in their deep darkness. When we face this darkness in our own lives, we also must be patient realizing it is not time for self-judgment or condemnation. We might want to say “you should already be past this” but we each heal in our own time.
The hope I see in this passage is three-fold.
sitting at tomb 2First it does paint a way forward. In such suffering, we must accept ourselves and brokenness, our disorientation, without judgment. That such an experience is in Scripture suggests that even in that moment of seeming god-forsakenness and meaningless pain, we are not alone. God is all about us, even though unseen due to the all-enfolding darkness as thick as wool hanging out us. We need not be pushed to pretend we feel or see it when in that moment, but the presence of this Psalm in Scripture tells us that, which means we can know that the pain is not the only word. As we go through our process of healing, a sense of meaning or life-giving wisdom can grow from such a dark place. It is not a sign we are irreparably broken even though it may feel that way.
This path forward is shown, secondly, through the person speaking and writing this prayer. Though every temptation may be to isolate, and they may feel totally estranged from all about them even in a big crowd, this Psalmist does reach out – to God, and to the praying, worshipping community of which she or he is a part. Those who have gone through such dark times know this is no easy thing, but a heroic act of courage on the Psalmist’s part.
friendsA part of what this Psalm teaches us is that even in the experience of life-numbing trauma and heart-stopping loss, we are not meant to go it alone. It will take courage to reach out and not all can stand with you during your pain, but it is worth it to reach out – to God through prayer, ritual, journaling, meditation, hymns, church. But just as importantly, since in your numbness and loss it may still feel you are hitting a ceiling to the heavens, reach out to others. Find friends and family to talk to, or just be with rather than being alone. Reach out to people at your church, particularly your pastors, deacons, or parish nurse. Reach out to support groups for those facing your trauma or loss. Reach out to trained counselors who can help you learn the steps to navigate your journey. And even use writing, music, art, poetry, blogging, to express privately your own pain.
Finally, remember you are not alone. As I mentioned, the fact this Psalm is in Scripture is an acknowledging that even in these moments where God cannot be seen or felt due to the depth of our pain, God is present though hidden by darkness. The Christian Gospel adds a level to this, by teaching us in the apostle’s creed that Jesus “descended to hell”. This means whatever hellish heartache we face, we can know Jesus is already somehow mystically present even if, by definition, each hell we face is that place in which God feels absent and we feel forsaken.

Daily devotional (repost): Making Room For Grief

1 Samuel 16:1-13. I have always focused on David’s call to be king in this passage before, but now I’m struck by God’s words to Samuel — “How long will you grieve for Saul…?” Even thesaints of old grieve! God recognizes Samuel needed to grieve. Sometimes we feel like grief is something we need to push through. I remember hearing a coach say to me as a kid, “suck it up”, and a relative tell me “big boys don’t cry”. Yet God seems to recognize Samuel needs to sit with and face his grief some. Samuel can’t just ignore the pain, nor just shut out the tears. Eventually, God sees that grief patternit is time for Saul to return to his work again as prophet active in the world, but it sounds like God recognizes a part of that work of prophet is to grieve. All the great prophets from Jeremiah to Jonah, from Micah to Moses, even to the One we call not just prophet but Word made flesh, our dear Jesus, grieved. They each wept salty tears of pain and loss. I need that reminder: to not forget grieving loss is a part of my task as a person of faith, and that also (like Samuel) it is only a part of my task. I must both make room to grieve and make room to be busy and active with God’s work in God’s world. How do you handle that balance in your times of loss or pain?

Song of the South: Stand Up

I recently went with my sister to hear Steel Wheels, and was touched by the words of one of their songs, “Stand Up”.  The words touched me especially as I think both about the three griefs I’m juggling — of the anniversary that day of the death of my late wife, of the dog that recently passed, and an expected breakup from a beautiful relationship I found this summer that ended right on the heels of my dog Isaiah dying, a week before the anniversary of Kat’s passing — and about the way our country is being pulled between the extremes of exclusion and embrace of the least of these and minorities.  To me this song powerfully reminded me that I am called to stand in those moments, not to let my pain at losses or the worry about the future lead me to stop moving forward with I am called to do.

That call in my heart reminds me of two things.

First a moment when my late wife, nearing the end, was in great pain.  I had mentioned to her on that oh so painful day us stopping our plans to watch my nephew.   She gave me that look we all know in long-term relationships which says that there is an argument you did not know you were having and that you already lost it.  She told me, “I am in pain every day.  The day I can no longer even in my pain do the things I love, enjoy the things that matter to me, I pray God take me home.   Every day I must my find my thread of joy, grab hold of it however thin it seems, and live my joy”.  In moments of deep heartache I have remembered that ever since, remembering that this breath in my lungs is a call to life.

Also I remember a prayer I literally pray everyday over patients on my hospice line:

“O God, who is nearer to us than the air that we breathe, and the sunshine that warms us from the autumn’s chill breeze, whose word to us is love.  Your love is what birthed us into this world, and it is to your love we all shall return.  Your love gives us the strength to stand in all of our days, on days when our hearts burst with joy, pleasure, and delight that nearly floor us; on the days in which our hearts break, crushed by sorrow, heartache, and pain that make our knees knock and legs tremble.  And when we cannot stand on our own, oh God, it is your love that lifts us up, like a child in their mother or father’s arms, carrying us.”

This song reminded me that ever, always, there is such a lovingkindness surrounding me and shaping my days.  In their own ways the three relationships I grieve — with my late wife, with my long-time dog who passed, and even with this short but beautiful first romance since becoming single — I felt and experienced some of this love in ways that awakened me in new ways to this big love which ever surrounds me so that I might stand.  May this song and its words help you stand whatever fears and struggles haunt your days.

 

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

With no status, no power, no women, no men
With it all stripped away, where will you stand

With no profit, no weapons, no money in your hand
With it all stripped away, where will you stand

Stand up, in the early morning
(stand up) Stand up when there is no warning
(stand up) Stand up when the storm is rising, all around

With no color, no creed, no bible to defend
With it all stripped away, where will you stand
When this world (this whole world) turns violent, when there’s no side left to win
With it all stripped away, where will you stand

Stand up when the wind is blowing
(stand up) Stand up when the tears are flowing
(stand up) Stand up when justice calls and you hear the sound

So when your quiet, alone, and this day has met its end
With it all stripped away, where will you stand
With it all stripped away, where will you stand

(repost) Glory Bower.

So, I did not keep up with writing on the blog the last few days as I’d hoped.   I was dealing with a few losses: first and foremost, this weekend was the first anniversary of my late wife, Katharine Leigh, passing suddenly and in her sleep.   Also right on the heels of this, my long time dog Isaiah who had been Katharine’s service dog passed and the first real romantic relationship I had since Katharine’s passing ended abruptly.

So, dear readers, bear with me if I take a while to get back to regular writing.

Thinking about the anniversary of Kat’s passing and how I deal with these other smaller, yet significant, griefs I was reminded of a recent poem I wrote that reflects my perspective on grief.  Hope it blesses you all!

Micah

 

Glory Bower

candle under bushel

Behind eyes a fire sparks,

Its light shining out to all who will look

Like a candle glowing behind glass

At times brilliant

Flickering lively with unrestrained joy

Other times as dim

As the sun through the clouds

That reflected on Uncle Earl’s

Tiny irrigation ditch

When Paul and I sat fishing

Until the light faded

across a horizon surrounded by long-leaf pine.

 

Yet even in this dim glimmer

One witnesses

the shining brightness

Genesis calls forth on our first day,

The fire and cloud which lie before our every moment

Guiding us when we wake to ground covered in manna thick as snow

And when we spin circles, lost in winding wilderness way

 

Until

That moment I often witness,

while speaking the words

“Into your hands, Oh Lord,

We commit their spirit”

When, so often, I see it fade from their eyes

Their body slacking and going still.

 

Always that moment makes me feel a gentle shudder

Something like a breeze blowing through my soul.

 

At times I believe the light of such bright souls

Are ever gone in that moment,

Leaving my heart torn asunder

Like those trees out back

Shredded by Hurricane Fran.

I am inconsolable, bereft.

 

In other moments

I feel the light does not dissipate

But spreads,

As the lamp’s light

Whose color one does not witness directly

But rather finds in the many hues it reveals

In all it illuminates.

 

My heart is not less torn asunder then

But in the cracks left behind

I glimpse doorways beyond the veil.

I see more clearly all around me

And myself

Knowing the light of that seeing

Is the same brightness I saw before

Shining in their now dim eyes.

Encountering Christ in Another’s Story

I have been talking about how important it is to not just look for Christ to be present in the stories of those who are like you, but also those very different from you, even those who make you uncomfortable or whom you might encounter as threatening or an enemy. This is by no means an easy task.

How to begin?

I’ve already shared about the importance of learning to embrace yourself in all your imperfections and failings, trusting in the goodness and grace of God to be for you before you have done anything deserving or beside anything you might have done that you deem undeserving. To fully embrace yourself as perfectly imperfect (or as Martin Luther liked to say “simul Justus et pecator”, simultaneously justified or embraced by God while also sinner) is necessary to be able to embrace others in all their imperfection, hurtful pasts and equally harmful choices, as ones who, like you, can bear the image of Christ in a unique way.

I wanted to share a few practices that help me as I look and listen for the presence of Christ in the lives of those I minister to as a chaplain. At times these people are not very religious, or in their faith have very different (at times diametrically opposite) values and beliefs than I do. Sometimes these folks are very easy to see good and light in, but other times they may be a bit prickly or even downright hostile. Some have lived lives with exemplary values, leaving a crop of positively influenced lives. Some have lived out in their personal lives choices and life-scripts handed to them that leave them and those in their wake deeply damaged. In all of these cases, when I practice the spiritual discipline of looking for Christ within them and their stories, I am able to embrace them as loved, accepted, and embrace by God. When I do this, I am able to begin to watch and listen to their lives and almost without fail can see the living presence of Christ, whether acknowledged by that name or another, even when not acknowledged at all by them.

I find that often my work as chaplain is helping them also recognize this living presence, in whatever language and terms their belief system, values, and life journey enables them to do so.
Here are some practices that help me:

1. Don’t lump people together as “just like them”, yet also acknowledging the ways their unique identities have situated and shaped them.

2. Have a “not knowing” approach

3. Look and listen for what wisdom has shaped their lives from the start

4. Look for where life, freedom, wholeness, beauty has been birthed at key points in their life story

5. Sit with them, listening to the silence and pain of their story with the same awe you would listen to the cry of birds or crickets, yet with deep empathy and humility

6. Look for what strength allows them to rebound, find life anew in the midst of such experiences of loss, trauma, or struggle.
In future posts, I hope to explore each of these practices and perspectives in depth. What I want to do now is give you two images that guide my approach when I am at my best in living out these principles in my work as a chaplain.

The two guiding images to me are Moses in Exodus 3 and Mary the sister of Lazarus & Martha in Luke 10.

In Exodus 3, when Moses witnesses the sacred fire which burned the bush in the wilderness yet did not consume, he took off his feet, sat, and listened. He was on holy ground. Earlier, I suggested that our deepest selves, where the light and presence of Christ is made known, can be seen as Matthew Fox suggests, as the light and fire Meister Eckhart speaks. Fox summarizes Eckhart’s words as follows: “spark of the soul”, saying that “hidden in all of us is .. something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light that glows incessantly and something like a burning fire which burns incessantly” – the fire is which connects us with “nothing other than the Holy Spirit” (Original Blessing 5).  

To sit in the presence of one as they delve the depths of their deepest selves is to witness a fire that burns but does not consume, a light that shines that cannot be snuffed out. It is, just as Moses in the wilderness, a moment in which you stand on holy ground. Take off your shoes. Sit down. Watch and behold. Such moments are not about you. They are not about me. They are encounters with the holy, whenever they break out – not just in career ministry moments but in all of our deepest relationships, in every part of our lives.
Martha and Lazarus’ sister Mary scandalizes her sister Martha and likely others in their community by putting away the ascribed work of housekeeping, cooking, and serving food to simply sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Jesus. This is choosing to embrace Jesus not as a simple houseguest but as a teacher from whom she can learn the way to life. To sit at a teacher’s feet in the Judaism of Jesus’ day is to embrace becoming their student that you may also now engage in a new pattern of life their teaching entails and, if you can find that new way of life, to share it with others. Mary glimpses this man is not just a man of Nazareth, son of a carpenter, but in fact one in whom the Christ, the living Wisdom that shapes our days and guides our lives, has taken on flesh and blood. She must stop her normal pattern of life, pause the busyness that has driven her to this point and drives those around her, and be present to listen and learn.

In each person we encounter this same living Christ is present shaping, leading, and guiding their lives. Whether in work in an official ministry of the church such as pastor, chaplain, Sunday school teacher, youth leader, potluck organizer, or simply in our own relationships with those close to us or anyone we encounter in our lives, if we have the opportunity to look and listen for their deepest selves with them, we like Mary are about to encounter the great Teacher. We must be willing to sit at that Teacher’s feet as the Christ speaks, guides, and reveals Christ’s self to us in another’s story and deepest longings, fears, and hopes.

I can say that I am not always good at this. There are times in my work I am soul-tired, my heart breaking form the pain I witness and the pain of my own life. There are times I am distracted, busy with many things. It is even harder in my personal relationships when the words my family or friends, my neighbor, that person who rubs me the wrong way every day, or even one I love dearly, can make it so easy to be focused first and foremost on what joy or pain I get from my experience. But when I can remember these examples, hearing their call, what a difference it makes! When I can choose to be Moses or Mary if but for a moment, I never fail to encounter some new truth, new wisdom, new light changing the way I see myself and others. Often changing my whole way of looking at life and the world.

These, too, can make a difference in your relationships and work, as you learn with me how to be one who looks and listens for the Christ in others.

Let us engage this important journey together!

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

Psalms and the Shape of Our Lives

jewish-praying-5798727

Not only do the Psalms reflect the fullness of our inner landscape, the breadth of our emotions, as part of who we are not to be feared but instead places in which we can find Christ already at work and present, it also paints a picture of the shape of our lives.

Walter Bruggemann, United Church of Christ minister and theologian, beautifully paints this picture in his The Spirituality of the Psalms.  In this work, Bruggemann argues that the Psalms are structured around the shape of human life –orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.  The psalms taken on this shape in response to the people of the book, Israel, experiencing a journey of life in the holy land, exile, and return to rebuild their community again after exile.  This movement anticipates the story of Jesus in which he lives, is crucified and buried, and rises again on Easter morning.

tree of knowledge

Psalms of orientation reflect our experience of knowing life as making sense, where right and wrong are clear, and we can trust our lives as safely held by God and others.  Such psalms reflect an innocence, idealism, and naiveté that is good in its time and place.  Yet the pain, heartache, and sorrow of life often shatters such an experience.

Psalms of disorientation reflect the experience of utter alienation with ourselves, God, and others that happen when the rules and doctrines with which we guide our lives fall apart.  Anyone who has gone through deep loss due to the death of one you love, to disease, to a career falling apart, knows exactly what this is like.  Many of the psalms express just such an experience and, as one in grief or trauma does, rail out with anger, despair, questioning, and sadness.   Such psalms often accuse God, or beg God to punish those who hurt them.  Others cry out in despair, many full of hopelessness, for rescue.

grief

Psalms of reorientation come as one, in the midst of such suffering, has found the light of God’s presence again.  Sometimes this comes through healing, deliverance, and rescue from the situations one faces.  Other times it is through a change of perspective in which the experience of pain becomes a teacher, the heartache a kind of training in a new way of life.   In either case, these prayers reflect a return to a life that makes sense, yet which carries within it not naiveté but a depth of meaning.  At times one even returns to faith claims and values which sounded empty in one’s time of disorientation but not suggest a depth and meaning one could not have known beforehand.

In my passing through the grief of losing my late wife, I can see myself having moved through these phases of life.  An innocence of new love.  The feeling my life and very self had torn apart and the road-map I had found with God to traverse life was no longer a guide.  And now, a sense of again being on journey with God on a life-giving path, but with lessons my pain has taught me and deep gratitude for life itself.

The fact that such a breadth of human experience are reflected in the Psalms suggests that whether you are a point where the world makes sense and God appears in God’s good heaven, at a point where life seems to be unravelling and Jesus on the cross did you feel you must cry “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?”, at a point in which you only see darkness and hell, a point where you are rebuilding your life, or a point of renewed meaning and purpose, God is present there.  You can embrace this full experience – of joy, of pain, of renewal, of heartache, of love, of loss – as a place where God is present.  Whatever feelings that come to you – and even numbness, anger, heartache – can be teachers to you as you learn to embrace that experience as including in it the presence of God.

Ironically, the Psalms, from which Jesus’ words “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” came, suggest even our experience of not being able to feel or sense God’s presence is a place in which God dwells.  Such dark nights of the soul, if we will sit with them, can on the other side of our pain, become schools of deeper compassion and spirituality.

This also teaches me when I must sit with people in their pain not to push them too quickly to joy, nor when one is celebrating to too quickly burst their bubble by dragging them down to what I think is reality.   Often the best way to help another is to enter into their world, whether it be joyful and celebratory or deeply heartwrenching.

In my work as a chaplain, often this means holding one’s hand and listening without judgment to a person’s helplessness.  As a friend it may be sitting with someone as Job’s friends did, while they sit in the ash-heap, patiently accepting their screams of anguish and anger as a holy place for them, while refusing to condemn them or answer their questions as Job’s friends sadly did.

It means accepting that where another is may be exactly where they need to be.  My role is to join them there and, as possible, open my eyes to where God is in this experience.  As I sit with them and listen, trusting God to be present, my simple presence can help them awaken to the fact that God is there.  And as I point whether by words or simple actions to this reality, I can help them see what I am seeing – the nearness of God in their experience even of God-forsakeness.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah