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.

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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?

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

Song of the south: Merry Meet

Here is another poem based on my experience of renewal on pilgrimage to Appalachia for the Wild Goose Festival.

I would love to hear about your experiences of the thin spaces in life.  I hope my words invite you to both those experiences and bearing witness to them to others.

Your progressive redneck preacher,

Micah

 

Merry Meet

Dance-of-the-TrinityO Three-fold dancer,

how you dazzle

all my imaginings

here atop sun-lit peak,

your rhythms wrapping me

in life

newness

awareness

emerging from within

the all surrounding womb of life.

O grace beyond all seeing,

when I but grasp

your slender thread,

letting it lead me,

laying aside who I am,

how I find not just you

but myself again

and deep within that soul,

now made clear as crystal,

Daily Devotional: Finding Shelter, Perspective, and Mother Love in Life’s Storm

raven rockPsalm 61

This is a very evocative Psalm, using rich imagery to call upon God for protection and care.

The psalmist prays for God’s protection, sheltering, at a time that not having such protection could mean a shortening of their lives. It is not clear what this threat is, but to me some language suggests warfare and battle. It makes me think of times in my own life in which trials seem to fly at me like arrows, leaving me tired from seemingly dodging crisis after crisis.   The images used are such powerful ones for such times in our lives:

God’s protection is pictured like an enormous rock one might hide under. Where I went to college, in the town nearby was a park called “Raven Rock”, which had a rock so big that hikers could either perch atop it and see the whole surrounding area or hide beneath it, sheltered from the storms.   God is invited to reveal God’s self as that sheltering presence beneath which the Psalmist can rest, secure that the storms of life might not subside but though they batter down hard, she or he can rise unscathed.

rain on tin roofI do not say unchanged, for I think of all the times I have been caught in a storm and had to seek shelter. I think of when my friend Cecil and I were caught in a sudden downpour and ran under a nearby shelter, when my wife new to NC was caught with me under a storm so strong I could not see the road so we had to sit arm in arm waiting it out, and I think of times storms hit when I was hiking or at the beach. That experience of sitting under unexpected shelter, waiting through the surrounding storm safe with another always changed me. It caused me to stop and realize both my smallness and my significance to God and to whomever I was (and theirs to me) as I was seemingly eclipsed by the enormous sound of rain, thunder, and lightning. I think that speaks to the reality of God as rock shelter. When we seek out and find God as the shelter in our storm, God does not take away the trials but surrounds us so we can face them unscathed but not unchanged. For coming out the other side of our trials, we find ourselves having a new perspective but on our smallness in the face of life and also our significance. We also find ourselves taking stock of who is significant, feeling the preciousness of those near us in that moment, both those of flesh and blood but also our divine companion, the living Christ.

Yet the language of rock is not just here the language of shelter. It is also the language of perspective. “Set me on the rock who is higher than I”.   I think again of carolina sunrisestanding on top of Raven Rock, and seeing the whole landscape as far as the eye to see. I think of hearing daddy sing “I’m on top of the world, looking down on creation” as we sat atop Mount Mitchell seeing the hills, valleys, and mountains of NC and Tennessee wrapped in cloud.   The psalmist does not just pray for shelter but also for perspective, to placed in God in such a way that it is as if she or he can for that moment stand on top of the world, looking down on creation, so that they may see their life and their path from a new perspective.

This is what happens when the sacred breaks through into our lives. We begin to see, if but for a moment, the way in which God infuses all that is with sacred worth, the way in which God like a weaver woman weaves the many strands of life into new & beautiful patterns although at times in waystangle yarn that at first feel painful and uncertain.   I remember moments of praying, seeking God to give me new eyes, and finding hope, encouragement, a new sense of direction, and yes sometimes challenge to change.   One memory that stands out to me is praying for God to deliver me from a certain situation some time ago, and having the thought hit me, a thought I believe God sent, that God was and would be with me but God could not deliver me from that situation. I had gotten myself into it, and God was going to be with me while I learned what I must by learning to work together with God to right it, though it would be a long and painful journey.   Looking back it is one of the best answers from God I got in prayer. It’s a journey I’ve not finished but it helped me lay aside my childlike picture of God as cosmic parent come to the respect for an understanding of God as sacred partner who empowers me to become a co-creator of my own future, who often (to paraphrase the youth in the confirmation class I helped teach this year) does not do it for us, but shows us how to begin to mend our lives and worlds ourselves by God’s power.

I wonder – what experiences have you had of God breaking through, and you walking away with a new and different perspective?

Another image that is given is of prayer as seeking to live in God’s house. The psalmist clearly had in mind a specific location – perhaps the tent of meeting which book of ezekiel 2traveled with the people of God throughout their wanderings as a reminder of God’s presence, or perhaps later in Israel’s history, the temple in Jerusalem. This image again speaks to God as sheltering presence. Another psalm talks about how at the house of God, not only do humans find home but even the birds do as they build their nests, laying their eggs, and raising their young in the shadow of God’s altar.

A common practice in the Biblical days was for a beleaguered soul to rush into the sanctuary and grab ahold of the horns of the altar, as a way of seeking sanctuary. While they held those horns, it was considered a blasphemy to strike out at them.

In prayer the psalmist is seeking to not just figuratively grasp hold of the horns of the altar for momentary safety but to make their safe home in the house of God. I think that to me this speaks of coming to envision all of their life, wherever they reside and whatever they face, as being just as much a place of sheltering peace and also a place in which they look up and around and recognize the divine presence.

I have seen people do this in their lives – turning a hospital waiting room into an altar of God, where they and their families open themselves up to prayer, to solace, and to what light may shine in such darkness. I’ve seen home-makers and work-a-day folks who turned their 9-to-5 toil into a time in which they encountered the sacred in the work they did, the people they encountered, and even if they never voiced the word “God” related to others with the love and compassion that showed God dwelt in them.

We can always live in and radiate the grace of God, wherever and whomever we are.

The final image that stands out to me is the image of being sheltered by the wings of God. This is explicitly a feminine image for God. If you’ve ever raised birds you’ve BroodySpirit3seen it. When Kat and I raised chickens in our back yard in rural NC, I remember the wonder of seeing a large mother bird with tiny black dots – her chicks – darting in and out of her wings.   Her wings sheltered them from weather, from storm, and from predator.   And anything that got near those wings experienced her fierce protectiveness in a bite from her beak or a slash from her claw.

This image reminds us of the fierce love of God for us, and is an extension of other images of shelter.   It also reminds us God’s love may be life-giving but it is not soft. A mother bird will bite or slash if an intruder goes for her chick, and she will also peck at chicks about to go into the wrong path where disaster lies.   We are reminded we are love beyond limit, that God is fiercely protective of God’s own, but that love will not always be comfortable.

This reminds to try and avoid attacking what may be one of God’s chicks. Recently a very openly self-avowed Christian publicly transitioned from the assigned gender of male to their felt gender of female. People publicly attacked, and attempted to shame and humiliate them, questioning their relationship with God. If God is like the protective mother hen, this is not good, for who but God has right to peck at this precious child of the Creator. “Judge not,” the Lord says, “lest you be judged”. We are warned of God’s protective love and how the judgment we pour out on another of God’s children will inevitably come back upon us if we continue down that path, pressed down, shaken together, running over.   Remembering God’s protective love of others we need to abandon all judgmentalism, and seek instead compassion so that, instead, is what we sow and experience coming back to us in life.

This image also suggests we need to lay aside the health & wealth fallacy that if we love God, it will go easy for us. No the mother bird is constantly loving in a hard way that challenges the chicks to learn to thrive, survive, and ultimately (in birds of flight) soar through the skies. God may in fact not choose to answer your prayers for comfort here and now not because God does not love you and want your best, but because seeing all your possibilities, God wants here and now you to be challenged so that you grow, so that in the future you can be ready for a time to soar.

A final thought on the image of God as our sacred mother. This does mean that any attempt to argue God is male or masculine to the exclusion of the feminine is a distortion of the Bible’s message. Consistently in Scripture all the persons of the Trinity and God in God’s full God-head are depicted in masculine and in feminine terms. In fact they are not just depicted in human terms, but in terms of animals and forces of nature. Our attempt to box God into any image we find, whether in our lives or nature, is idolatry.   Ultimately God is present in all things, and able to be imagined and experienced symbolically in as many different ways as there are creatures on the earth, among the stars, in the seas, and in the heavens.   God coming flesh and blood as the man Jesus was not to show us that God is man and not woman but instead that just as a mother throws her lot in with the child growing in her womb, so that her future is bound up in its future & its future in hers, so God has thrown God’s lot in with all people and all creatures so that God’s future is inextricably woven in with theirs. This means that in all that live, move, and have being God can be experienced and found. There is not a person who lives or creature that exists that cannot in some way teach us about God and represent God to us if we learn to be open to the sacred as found in all of life.

May the mother and father of all embrace you in each moment, and fill you with an awareness of Her and His presence in all things.

It’s Not Me, It’s You: My Break-Up Letter to the United Methodist Church

We talk about how people are turning away from mainline Christianity, and wonder why. This author gives one answer, although they in fact turn toward a forward-looking Christian community. It is such desire for a Christianity of love, acceptance, and grace that’s why I moved from evangelicalism to progressive Christianity, and through progressive Christianity to the United Church of Christ. What is your journey? — Micah

Welcome to the Goose Chase

Dear United Methodist Church,

Six years. Six long years I have been a Methodist. I have to give you credit, you were better than the cult Southern Baptist Church I was raised in. More open-minded. More accepting of science. More empowering to women. You gave me a forum for blogging and the belief that church CAN be a place where different people with different flavors of belief can come together to worship in harmony. (Sort of.)

You have your good qualities, absolutely. I’m not saying you’re bad, I’m just saying, well, you’re on a serious struggle bus and I am not down for the ride anymore.

I’ve been queer my whole life. Not a choice, not a personal decision, not a “lifestyle.” It just is what it is. And you know, at 25 years old, I don’t have a problem with it anymore. The vicious lying dogmatic institution church I…

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