Life on the Life Raft: Riding the Waves

I sat with a family who were lost in their grief. The patriarch of the family had died suddenly, and they were a long way from home. There was little I could say, or do, and I knew it. So I just sat. Handed tissues. Listened. Prayed silently. And waited. It was a very long night of grief and tears…

Months later, I still remember this family. Their heartache was so palpable and raw; they were vulnerable and hurting. I helped with practical questions, calling the Embassy of their homeland, and then speaking with a detective who was processing their case. I arranged for something for them to eat and drink. I went home in the morning, more than ready for my pillow and some tears of my own.

When I processed the experience with a mentor, I couldn’t put it into words. I used words like adrift, lost, hopeless, fearful, and sad. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t get past thinking about this family’s loss because though there were aspects of their grief that I had not personally experienced,  I felt the depth of that emotion through them. I couldn’t say, “I know how you feel,” (terrible phrase! don’t ever say it!) but I did sit with them in mourning.

This September, I visited the National Portrait Gallery and saw a painting that gave me a mental picture for this experience. Katie O’Hagan created a self-portrait of her personal journey through, as she puts it “great personal upheaval.”

I painted Life Raft in 2011, during a time of great personal upheaval. During this period, I came to truly understand, for the first time, the vital role that art plays in my life. As most of the solid ground I had depended on seemed to erode away, my art emerged as the only thing keeping my head above water. I woke up one morning with this image in my head. I built the raft myself and spent the next couple of months completing the painting. It’s a very literal image, and I felt quite exposed and not entirely comfortable making it at first. Now I see it as something positive to come out of a bad situation. It also marked a turning point in my work, as it has led to a move toward more personal paintings, beyond the straightforward portraiture I was doing before.

katieohagan
Katie O’Hagan’s art is featured here.

There are several aspects of this painting that have helped me be a better chaplain.

  • I see the rough seas – this “great personal upheaval” can unseat the unwary. It is treacherous and seems unending.
  • I see an incomplete process – none of us are “finished” with remembering and grieving loss.
  • I see courage – to stay afloat while doing the difficult work of re-building.
  • I see exhaustion – the process of finishing the course of grief is tedious and, quite honestly, necessary.
  • I see determination – without a doubt, the artist’s intention is to make it safely “ashore.”

I reflected on this experience as I was walking my labyrinth this morning. I remembered the story of Zechariah… how in a moment of “lostness” he considered God faithful and equal to his situation. Even a situation brought about by his own doing!

Zechariah and Elizabeth were related to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Elizabeth conceived John (much to the disbelief of many, including Zechariah!) He expressed his doubts to the Angel Gabriel  and was silenced by God for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy! (Doubtless there were other things he had said and done which grieved the heart of God, but Scripture does not tell us.) In those months spent in silence, I think Zechariah had the opportunity to watch God work instead of doing work “for” God. He was given a gift of time — to pray, to repent, to listen.

The story of John the Baptist’s parentage, and his future intersection with his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, is a wonderful story and part of many Advent readings. But the response of Zechariah, once John is born, is not. In his Spirit-inspired prophecy (Luke 1:68-79), he lists all the wonderful things God has done and will do, ending with this glorious promise:

78 Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.

Luke 1: 78-79  NLT

There are times that we are in that place of darkness and grief, in the shadow of death. In God’s tender mercy, the promised Light into our personal hellish darkness will come. The promise of God’s Presence — personally, tenderly, faithfully — in times of doubt and grief is something we can cling to. The people of God spent many years in a dark wilderness. With eyes of faith, Zechariah realized what was “about to break.”

Self-imposed silence or God-imposed silence — it isn’t easy! For persons who are struggling, the prospects of a resolution seem just as remote as ever. That’s why I have learned as a chaplain to stop talking and listen. I come alongside, not live in their grief. I have learned that the euphemisms that people say to try and help others in times of grief are seldom helpful and often hurtful. To the person in upheaval, stranded on a life raft, all the suggestions are just words. If they had a paddle, they would use it. They do not. They rock along, in the grey shades of loss, worry, anxiety and exhaustion.

As I took in Ms. O’Hagan’s painting, it came to me. Perhaps the best thing I can do as a chaplain, is ride the waves — and keep my eyes on the shore.  Together, companions in upheaval, we’ll make it through, eventually. Whatever rocks my boat, or yours, may we know and feel God’s guiding Presence. For truly, it is about to break upon us.

Blessed be.

What I learned building a labyrinth

It's DONE!
It’s DONE!

I finished the labyrinth this week. It took several hours as I dug and chiseled enough dirt out of the way to inset the bricks. I left the paths au naturel with just the usual weeds, grass and dirt. It’s nestled in a part of the back yard that is sheltered by trees and bushes on two sides, and six foot fencing on the other. Now it’s just the finishing touches. As I worked on it, I reflected on what I was learning…

PERSISTENCE

Busted tools! The rocks! The roots! The gnats and mosquitos! The heat! More than once I wanted to scrap this idea and call it a flower bed. But I kept going. 100 bricks to go. 75  bricks to go. 25 bricks to go. And then it was done!

Like so many things in my life, it is this slow process, tedious as it is, of sticking with the plan until it’s done. And then the results speak for themselves.

BEAUTY

windchimeI saw beauty around me every day. Not just in the flower beds, but in the patterns of sun and shade on the grass. Of the gnarled beauty of a tree trunk. Of the sounds of a downy woodpecker tap-tap-tapping its way down a tree about five feet from me. The wind chimes humming in a gentle breeze. The riot of colors in wildflowers growing along the fence. The sound the wind makes through the leaves. The squirrels chittering and scolding as they dash around, always keeping this errant human in view. The way a rabbit hops when they aren’t in a hurry. The keening of a hawk overhead — and the sudden vanishing of wildlife in response!

None of these were particularly earth-shattering. It was the simple process of taking the time to notice them. It is a by-product of walking slowly, listening and hearing the slight tugs on my attention, and letting all the other “stuff” that clutters my life and my calendar sit to one side, if only for a few moments.

FORGIVENESS

Rocks at the start of the labyrinth
Rocks at the start of the labyrinth

I have faced some obstacles lately. Each one is there for a reason, even if I don’t quite see why. They are memorialized by the pile of rocks at the start of the labyrinth, rocks that I uncovered as I inlaid the bricks.

Why does this rock pile represent forgiveness to me? I had to see each rock for what it was – An event. A moment. A person. An imperfection. I dug them out, tossed them in the pile and moved on. I recognized the obstacle for what it was – something to overcome, learn from and then leave behind.

I didn’t catalogue them: “You ROCK, you! You were under brick number 47!” Nope, I don’t remember where each individual rock came from in the spiral. They join the pile of The Forgiven.

Forgiveness is hard when there’s no context or reason. A couple of times a specific event or job prospect came to mind — one where I was, I felt, unfairly judged as lacking. I didn’t belabor it. I didn’t carry the rocks with me, moving them from brick to brick. (That is a lot of what unforgiveness is!) I was supposed to set the offense aside… and press on. Walk forward. Breathe. Pray. Forgive. Release. Move on.

Some of these events have made me cry with frustration, “WHY ME??”

I’m learning that it really has nothing to do with me. It’s more about living with and among imperfect people who are very much like me.

HUMILITY

I can bend (cheap) steel!
I can bend (cheap) steel!

I started building this labyrinth with the wrong tools. Or not enough of the right ones. I had to fess up and buy a new trowel. And I had to go find a better shovel for digging into the packed clay and evening out the soil.

This was something I couldn’t hide. I went about it the wrong way and had to learn from my mistakes.

But I also learned that a companion to humility is compassion, or perhaps forgiveness of self. Giving myself room to try again, to admit mistakes, to find better resources.

That doesn’t work just for bricks, but for everything in life.

THANKFULNESS

Recognize your predecessors
Recognize your predecessors

This is a fun one. I found what could be an arrowhead. (It might not be.) It reminded me that the land where our house is built was a plantation. There’s fencing embedded in the trees along would could have been a road. There’s an old apple orchard that extends across several yards. And there were some brick-shaped rocks that could have been part of the fill dirt.

My predecessors include my ancestors, my mentors, my professors and teachers. People who are a “lap ahead” in the journey. I thought about how much I had been given because of their generous investment in my life.

It’s something to pay forward. Gratefully.

JOY

There have been days where I haven’t been very happy, but I have had joy. Learning the difference has been important for me, whether it’s building a labyrinth, or taking on life, one day at a time. I’d love to say that all of my questions and issues are resolved by walking the labyrinth. Ah, well… no. But I have gained so much. If you’ve ever like to come take a walk, let me know. It’s a lovely corner of God’s earth.

A WORK IN PROGRESS

There’s more I want to do to finish the labyrinth. I have votive holders I want to set in place, and a banner to hang. Somewhere there needs to be benches. And some kind of central focus. There’s landscaping and planting to do as well.

All in good time.

As it is, it’s lovely. And so am I. And so, incidentally, are you.

Our back yard.
Our back yard.

In the margins…

From Martha at RevGals:

What do the margins of your Bible reveal about your life with God?

RevGals would love to hear your story about the margins of your Bible.

By Wednesday, blog or email a story or a photo sharing: a prayer answered, a lesson learned, a Bible passage illuminated by your drawing, a date remembered, a sermon started, a transforming moment, a personal practice you do in the margins, an A-HA! that happened.

I was a writer and doodler in the margins. In books that I read. In my textbooks (once I purchased them, not borrowed them!) And in my bible.

In seminary, we were allowed to use a non-study Bible for our Greek and hermeneutics classes. Any notes we made in the margins were OK, just not the extensive text notes of other scholars. There’s a rainbow of colors and lines connecting phrases and progressions in the text. I still refer to them when I’m studying or preaching from the book of Mark. 🙂 These days, I tend to use my E-bible as I study and write color coded notes in text links (it’s one the reasons I like the YouVersion app, because my notes are there right where I need them.) Usually these notes are the logical, structural, intellectual kind of notes.

But sometimes my written notes are not what help me see the works of God in my life and in others.

It was on a silent retreat that I had a clear image that has stayed with me, throughout the seasons of ministry. This particular day it was a cold, windy February day. There was some lingering snow on the ground and the sky had a heavy overcast. I walked around the property at Dayspring, alone with God. I had heard some disappointing health news for some friends. Their tears were heavy on my heart. I was trying to write them a note, but had little success in coming up with anything other than “life sucks sometimes but God is good.” (I could wrap my head around the first part, but the second part didn’t fit. No way. No how.)

I walked back to the main Lodge, cold and slightly grumpy. I fixed myself a cup of tea and sat down at a large picture window, looking out over a small stream, some bent vines and bare trees. It was stark and grey. There were wisps of grasses along the banks of the stream, poking through the snow cover. I knew the promise of spring was there. It just wasn’t time.

“Lord, I’m just not getting it. What do I say to these friends?”

At that moment a male cardinal flitted in a sat on a branch nearest the Lodge. He sang and sang, a bright spot in a sea of browns and greys. I watched him flit from branch to branch. I smiled as he seemed to play in the brambles, dipping down to the stream for a drink.

On the table in front of me was my open Bible and some art materials. I was reading in Jeremiah 17, because that was the text for the week. I got the contrast between the wicked and the faithful. But for my friends, it seemed as though what they were going through was a horrible, terrible punishment. They were in the barren wilderness. They felt abandoned in a desert of pain and suffering. I went back to the text…

5 This is what the Lord says:
“Cursed are those who put their trust in mere humans,
who rely on human strength
and turn their hearts away from the Lord.
6 They are like stunted shrubs in the desert,
with no hope for the future.
They will live in the barren wilderness,
in an uninhabited salty land.
7 “But blessed are those who trust in the Lord
and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
8 They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
9 “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
and desperately wicked.
Who really knows how bad it is?
10 But I, the Lord, search all hearts
and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
according to what their actions deserve.”

Jeremiah 17, NLT

Suddenly the picture in front of me made sense. They are like trees planted along a riverbank,with roots that reach deep into the water. Such trees are not bothered by the heat or worried by long months of drought. Their leaves stay green, and they never stop producing fruit.

They were hurting. They were sad. They were afraid. But they were clinging to their hope in God to get them through. The circumstances truly did suck. But God was with them.

I began to sketch and this picture appeared…

Jeremiah 17:7-8a
Jeremiah 17:7-8a

Hope is a tangle of brambles, bare tree limbs and half-dead grass. Hope is also a cardinal singing in the coldest of winter mornings, because spring is coming.
Hope. I can live there.

A Prayer in a Song: WORN

I heard this song on my way home from my chaplain duty hours this morning. It touched me and reminded me that I can always pour out what is on my heart and mind and God hears and comforts me.

I pray tonight for someone who hurts deeper than you and I can ever imagine, for people who love this person and wonder how this much hurt can come into one life. And I pray, especially, for those who are working as  doctors and nurses and chaplains this night, that they will bring healing, on the Spirit’s Wings.

Be blessed…

WORN

Tenth Avenue North

I’m Tired I’m worn
My heart is heavy
From the work it takes
To keep on breathing
I’ve made mistakes
I’ve let my hope fail
My soul feels crushed
By the weight of this world

And I know that you can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart
That’s frail and torn
I wanna know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause I’m worn

I know I need to lift my eyes up
But I’m too weak
Life just won’t let up
And I know that you can give me rest
So I cry out with all that I have left

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart
That’s frail and torn
I wanna know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause I’m worn

My prayers are wearing thin
Yeah, I’m worn
Even before the day begins
Yeah, I’m worn
I’ve lost my will to fight
I’m worn
So, heaven come and flood my eyes

Let me see redemption win
Let me know the struggle ends
That you can mend a heart
That’s frail and torn
I wanna know a song can rise
From the ashes of a broken life
And all that’s dead inside can be reborn
Cause all that’s dead inside will be reborn

Though I’m worn
Yeah I’m worn

When the walls fail…

Eight years ago, the levees failed in New Orleans, and Katrina’s storm surge all but swallowed a city. We watched news reports and saw President George W. Bush tour the area in a helicopter. We listened to the frustrations of people camped in the SuperDome, without electricity or plumbing. We saw inadequate response from FEMA. In the weeks and months that followed, many traveled to the area to rebuild churches, schools and homes.

Yet, if you travel in that region, you will see the “bones” of a time “Pre-Katrina.”

Somehow, despite early warning systems, despite the logic of building at (or in some places, below sea level), we continue to build places to live, work, eat and worship on the coastal plains. (I should point out that I regularly enjoy the peace and quiet of one of these homes… so I’m not condemning anyone.)

There are times that we can see walls about to fail. Especially in the arena of world politics, we see the match-to-a-powder-keg situations that make us catch our breath. “Dear Lord, may it not be.”

As Syria is about to explode in anger and war. As the death toll rises in Egypt. As Iran and Iraq and Pakistan remain riddled with gunfire and IEDs. We watch a world that is on the verge of eruption and harp on the unimportant.

What matters? Health, education, food and safety for families across the globe. Safety and security to worship in a place and manner of their choosing.

In a Star Trek Next Generation episode, Captain Picard was trying to communicate with the Tamarians, a people who communicated exclusively in metaphor and cultural inference. Frustrations abounded as human and Tamarian talked past each other.

How like our world scene this is…

Lt. Commander Data: Their ability to abstract is highly unusual. They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mytho-historical accounts.
Counselor Deanna Troi: It’s as if I were to say to you… “Juliet on her balcony”.
Doctor Beverly Crusher: An image of romance.
Counselor Deanna Troi: Exactly. Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. It embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes. It’s how they communicate, and it’s how they think.
Commander William T. Riker: If we know how they think, shouldn’t we be able to get something across to them?
Lt. Commander Data: No, sir. The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language, but none of the vocabulary.
Doctor Beverly Crusher: If I didn’t know who Juliet was or what she was doing on that balcony, the image alone wouldn’t have any meaning.
Counselor Deanna Troi: That’s correct. For instance, we know that Darmok was a great hero, a hunter, and that Tanagra was an island. But that’s it. Without the details, there’s no understanding.

And that is exactly what I see in Syria…. and Egypt. And in the racial tensions and misunderstandings of our own country. If we only understand grammer and none of the syntax or vocabulary, we have no hope of truly communicating.

We speak of political peace when people are seeking power and dominance. The way of Christ is one of peace through faith, in spite of circumstances. We should not be surprised when the levees fail, when the wall fall, and when people turn on each other, each scrabbling to hold on to high ground.

Can we find a way through these moments of political injustices and persecution? Can we advance a way of peace that does not exist through the realm of ego and anger? Not by our own attempts. No, we need the work and power of God, watching, shepherding, guiding, and diffusing our “first response” – war – to the way of peace.

Oh Lord, may it be.

23 Jesus answered, “Whoever loves me will keep my word. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Whoever doesn’t love me doesn’t keep my words. The word that you hear isn’t mine. It is the word of the Father who sent me.

25 “I have spoken these things to you while I am with you. 26 The Companion, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and will remind you of everything I told you.

27 “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I give to you not as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.  (John 14, CEB)

The Urgency of “NOW” – Reflections on The March on Washington

Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963 from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm
Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial, August 28,1963 from AmericanRhetoric.com

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

from the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago today, the March on Washington converged on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I was oblivious in many ways to the tension and racial struggle of the nation at the time. I was living with my family in South Carolina, and attending school in a segregated school district. There were “white buses” and “colored buses.” It didn’t seem right, but that’s how it was. When I would talk to my parents about it, they would stress that it was absolutely positively WRONG. But that was the way the schools were run.

We moved back to Ohio in the early 1970s when my dad got a new job. Columbus was not a bastion of progressive thinking, but the schools had some kind of “balanced” attendance policy. My high school was integrated, at least in name. But at lunchtime, there was a clear segregation at the tables. You learned.

The year we moved north, the South Carolina schools were implementing forced integration. In response, some families pulled their children out of public schools and put them in “white flight” schools. Parts of the Carolinas are recovering from this ragged, raw, forced integration. And parts are still defensive.

In seminary, I had occasion to talk with my fellow students from the South about their experiences. We were poles apart. One African-American man shared that he had to work for ten years to save up enough money to go to college. Seminary took another ten years, and he eventually was awarded a scholarship. His insight and understanding of the human struggle for freedom and acceptance taught me more than any textbook. Another student, who already had a PhD in education, shared about her fears for her sons when they went to a big-city university. She said, “I still have to worry about them getting pulled over for just DWB!” (“Driving While Black”)

These memories and more came to mind as I listened to the speeches and the musical selections on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I didn’t make the trek downtown today, but I had kept the marchers, the leaders and all those listening in my prayers. It is an event that will be talked about for some time.

There were two moments that struck me as I watched this afternoon unfold –

First, there were two former presidents on the dais with President Obama. Presidents Carter and Clinton lended their statesmanship to the event. But both former Presidents Bush (G.W. and G.H.W.) did not attend because, according to reports, they were unable to travel. (We won’t talk about the fact that the younger Bush made it to Southern Methodist to watch a football practice… but not to Washington.) But sadly there were a lot of political figures who did not come to the Mall. Members of Congress and Senators were conspicuous by their absence. In a time of political gridlock, it is important to remember that Leadership does not consist of only doing what you want in the name of justice and equality, but considering and responding to the struggles and needs of others, particularly if these look and sound different than your own.

Second, I was struck by the reminder by President Obama that we are all “marchers” in this effort for Freedom. This is an excerpt from his speech: (the full text is here)

That tireless teacher who gets to class early and stays late and dips into her own pocket to buy supplies because she believes that every child is her charge — she’s marching. That successful businessman who doesn’t have to, but pays his workers a fair wage and then offers a shot to a man, maybe an ex-con, who’s down on his luck — he’s marching.

The mother who pours her love into her daughter so that she grows up with the confidence to walk through the same doors as anybody’s son — she’s marching. The father who realizes the most important job he’ll ever have is raising his boy right, even if he didn’t have a father, especially if he didn’t have a father at home — he’s marching. The battle-scarred veterans who devote themselves not only to helping their fellow warriors stand again and walk again and run again, but to keep serving their country when they come home — they are marching. Everyone who realizes what those glorious patriots knew on that day, that change does not come from Washington but to Washington, that change has always been built on our willingness, we, the people, to take on the mantle of citizenship — you are marching.

Marching means pressing on. Even when you hurt. Even when you are tired. Even when you are not convinced you are going in the right direction. Even when you not sure anyone is listening (a common fear of bloggers!) You keep marching, talking, sharing, blogging — because the job is not done.

I have a lot of hope today. Hope because I am choosing to see the best in the world around me. I believe that God takes willing hearts and changes the world, one event, one decision at a time. It’s not easy. But we keep going.

A fellow RevGal posted this quote today, and I thought it summarized beautifully the process to show the unending, unswerving March towards equality and justice.

Hope has two beautiful daughters.
Their names are anger and courage;
anger at the way things are,
and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.

-Augustine.

Amen. So may it be. Thanks be to God.

Always is what you miss…

Beverly Beckham said it well:

I wasn’t wrong about their leaving. My husband kept telling me I was. That it wasn’t the end of the world when first one child, then another , and then the last packed their bags and left for college.

But it was the end of something. “Can you pick me up, Mom?” “What’s for dinner?” “What do you think?”

I was the sun and they were the planets. And there was life on those planets, whirling, non stop plans and parties and friends coming and going, and ideas and dreams and the phone ringing and doors slamming.

And I got to beam down on them. To watch. To glow.

And then they were gone, one after the other.

“They’ll be back,” my husband said. And he was right. They came back. But he was wrong, too, because they came back for intervals — not for always, not planets anymore, making their predictable orbits, but unpredictable, like shooting stars.

Always is what you miss…

…Saying goodbye to your children and their childhood is much harder than all the pithy sayings make it seem. Because that’s what going to college is. It’s goodbye.

It’s not a death. And it’s not a tragedy.

But it’s not nothing, either.

To grow a child, a body changes. It needs more sleep. It rejects food it used to like. It expands and it adapts.

To let go of a child, a body changes, too. It sighs and it cries and it feels weightless and heavy at the same time.

The drive home alone without them is the worst. And the first few days. But then it gets better. The kids call, come home, bring their friends, fill the house with their energy again.

Life does go on.

“Can you give me a ride to the mall?” “Mom, make him stop!” I don’t miss this part of parenting, playing chauffeur and referee. But I miss them, still, all these years later, the children they were, at the dinner table, beside me on the couch, talking on the phone, sleeping in their rooms, safe, home, mine.

 

I am so proud of our daughters. They are bright, shining, competent and caring. They are trying new skills, new languages, new responsibilties. We cheer them on from the sidelines in this move from “parenting” to “coaching.” They are indeed missed — but they are where they need to be. It’s where we have prayed them to be for all these years. And instead of me being the “sun” I know that GOD smiles down on them, cherishing them, guiding them and always, always watching over them.

Thanks be to God.

— See the complete column by Beverly Beckham at Boston.com