Prepare for Sorrow: Pounding on the Door of the Soul

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This morning when I awoke,  I first read the essay below by Morton Kelsey from the Lenten devotional book Bread and Wine.

Only afterward did I read the news about the possible intentional crashing of a German airliner by an apparently rogue co-pilot, killing all 150 individuals on board while the captain was locked outside the cockpit, pounding on the door trying in vain to open it to prevent the destruction.   Imagining the fear and panic of all on board in their final minutes sits heavily on us all;  here is yet another reason to contemplate the darkness of the human condition as we move toward the reality of Good Friday next week.

May the souls of the tragic and innocent victims find rest in God; may we who are yet living answer the pounding on the door of the cellar of our darkened souls:

 

Scratch the surface of a human being and the demons of hate and revenge … and sheer destructiveness break forth.

    The cross stands before us to remind us of this depth of ourselves so that we can never forget. These forces continue to break forth in many parts of the world now, and many of us would like to forget how in some places in the United States we treat a person whose skin is black.

    Again and again we read the stories of violence in our daily papers, of the mass murders and ethnic wars still occurring in numerous parts of our world. But how often do we say to ourselves: “What seizes people like that, even young people, to make them forget family and friends, and suddenly kill other human beings?” We don’t always ask the question in that manner. Sometimes we are likely to think, almost smugly: “How different those horrible creatures are from the rest of us. How fortunate I am that I could never kill or hurt other people like they did.”

    I do not like to stop and, in the silence, look within, but when I do I hear a pounding on the floor of my soul. When I open the trap door into the deep darkness I see the monsters emerge for me to deal with. How painful it is to bear all this, but it is there to bear in all of us. Freud called it the death wish, Jung the demonic darkness. If I do not deal with it, it deals with me. The cross reminds me of all this.

    This inhumanity of human to human is tamed most of the time by law and order in most of our communities, but there are not laws strong enough to make men and women simply cease their cruelty and bitterness. This destructiveness within us can seldom be transformed until we squarely face it in ourselves. This confrontation often leads us into the pit. The empty cross is planted there to remind us that suffering is real but not the end, that victory still is possible…
~Morton Kelsey from “The Cross and the Cellar”

 

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Prepare for Joy: A Reflection of God’s Face

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“Save me from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared.”
~The Book of Common Prayer

It used to be that people feared a sudden, unprepared death,
because they feared meeting God sudden and unprepared.
Now, we only fear death —

because we don’t fear God.
Turn on any street corner, walk through any airport, sit on the edge of any hospital bed, and you can see the glorious wonder of it:
All the faces of humanity carry the image of God.
What if deciding to end a human life is somehow the desecration of God’s image?
What if a human life is not only a gift of grace right till the end – but is a reflection of God’s face right till the end?
~Ann Voskamp from “A Holy Experience” in a blog post about the death of her friend Kara Tippetts from breast cancer

Such hard news this week:
A plane goes down in the French Alps, killing unsuspecting travelers, some so young, who had no thought of meeting their God that day.
A wife and mother, who has known for months she was dying, prepared herself and her family and left this world on God’s terms, not of her own volition.

What is man that we are His reflection, His face mirrored in ours,
whether we are old and dried up and wrinkled beyond recognition,
or we are a floating conceptus, yet to implant and thrive?

It is not up to us; we are not our own, but belong, body and soul, to Him.

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Prepare for Joy: A God Who Weeps

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33 When Jesus saw her weeping,
and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping,
he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.

34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
John 11:33-36

 

Beauty, to the Japanese of old, held together the ephemeral with the sacred. Cherry blossoms are most beautiful as they fall, and that experience of appreciation lead the Japanese to consider their mortality. Hakanai bi (ephemeral beauty) denotes sadness, and yet in the awareness of the pathos of life, the Japanese found profound beauty.

For the Japanese, the sense of beauty is deeply tragic, tied to the inevitability of death.

Jesus’ tears were also ephemeral and beautiful. His tears remain with us as an enduring reminder of the Savior who weeps. Rather than to despair, though, Jesus’ tears lead the way to the greatest hope of the resurrection. Rather than suicide, Jesus’ tears lead to abundant life.
~Makoto Fujimura

 

Daily I see patients in my clinic who are struggling with depression, who are contemplating whether living another day is worth the pain and effort.  Most describe their feelings completely dry-eyed, unwilling to let their emotions flow from inside and flood their outsides.  Others sit soaking in tears of tragedy and despair.

Their weeping moves and reassures me — it is a raw and honest spilling over when the internal dam is breaking.  It is so human.

When I read that Jesus weeps as He witnesses the tears of grief of His dear friends, I am comforted.  He understands and feels what we feel, His tears just as plentiful and salty, His overwhelming feelings of love brimming so full they must be let go and cannot be held back.

Our Jesus who wept with us became a promise of ultimate joy.

There is beauty in this, His rain of tears.

photo by Nate Gibson from Higashi-Kurume, Tokyo

photo by Nate Gibson from Higashi-Kurume, Tokyo

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the “pink rain” of sakura blossoms in Higashi-Kurume, photo by Nate Gibson

 

Prepare for Joy: Sit Beside Me

bench…we all suffer.
For we all prize and love;
and in this present existence of ours,
prizing and loving yield suffering.
Love in our world is suffering love.
Some do not suffer much, though,
for they do not love much.
Suffering is for the loving.
This, said Jesus, is the command of the Holy One:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
In commanding us to love, God invites us to suffer.

Over there, you are of no help.
What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is.
I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation.
To comfort me, you have to come close.
Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.
~Nicholas Wolterstorff from Lament for a Son

I wondered if 7:30 AM was too early to call Margy. As a sleep-deprived fourth year medical student, I selfishly needed to hear her voice.   I wanted to know how she was doing; she was not sleeping well either these days. She was wearing a new halo brace—a metal contraption that wrapped around her head like a scaffolding to secure her degenerating cervical spine from collapsing from tumor growths. When she was fitted into the brace, she named the two large screw-like fasteners anchored into her frontal skull her “Frankenstein bolts”.   I had reassured her that with a proper white veil draped around the metal halo, she would be more suited to be Frankenstein’s bride.

Each patient I had seen the previous 24 hours while working in the Emergency Room benefited from the interviewing skills Margy had taught each medical student in our class. She reminded us that each patient had an important story to tell, and no matter how pressured our time, we needed to ask questions that gave permission for that story to be told. As a former nun now married with two teenage children, Margy had become our de facto counselor, and insisted physicians-in-training remember the soul thriving inside the broken body.

“Just let the patient know with certainty, through your eyes, your body language, your words, that you want to hear what they have to say. You can heal so much hurt simply by sitting beside them and caring enough to listen…”

Now with a recent diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer, Margy herself had become the broken vessel who needed the glue of a good listener.   She continued to teach, often from her bed at home. I felt compelled to visit her that day, maybe help out by cleaning her house, or take her for a drive as a diversion.

Her phone rang only once after I dialed her number. There was a long pause; I could hear a clearing of her throat. A deep dam of tears welled behind a muffled “Hello?”

“Margy?”

“Yes? Emily? ”

“Margy? What is it? What’s wrong?”

Her voice shattered like glass into fragments, strangling on words that struggled to form.

“It’s Gordy, Emily. He’s gone. He’s lost forever…”

“What? What are you saying?”

“A policeman just left. He told us our boy is dead.”

I sat in stunned silence, listening to her sobs, completely unequipped to know how to respond. None of this made sense. I knew her son was on college spring break, heading to Mexico for a missions trip.

“I’m here, Margy, I’m listening.”

“The doorbell rang about an hour ago. Larry got up to answer it. I heard him talking to someone downstairs, so I decided to try to get up and go see what was going on. There was a policeman sitting with Larry on the couch. I knew it had to be about Gordy.”

She paused and took in a shuddering breath.

“Gordy died last night as they were driving to Mexico. They think he was sleepwalking and walked right out of the back of the moving camper and was hit by another car. “

Silence.  Strangling choking silence.

“They’ll bring him home to me, won’t they?   I need to know I can see him again. I need to tell him how much I love him.”

“They’ll bring him home to you, Margy. He’ll come home.  And we will go see him together. ”

 

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Bedewed With Tears

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“The Snow-drop, Winter’s timid child,
Awakes to life, bedew’d with tears.”
–  Mary Robinson

 

The past few weeks have been particularly dark and dank.  February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us. Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.

I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine.   The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in,  not understanding that the alternative is  to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind.  To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight.  The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating.  I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I  put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.

It happened today.  Dawn broke bright and blinding.  I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the pink painted eastern light, soaking up all I could.  It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.

A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but  I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness.  I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow.  Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines. I wept to see them thriving there.

It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead,  now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile.  I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in tearful gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.

I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone,  I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come.

What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal,  I can do it for another.

(repost from 2004 — published in Country Magazine in 2007)

 

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What We Can Do

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There is so very little we can do,
Friends, for these beautiful children of ours,
They will come to grief and suffer and you
And I bow to darkness and evil powers.

The gentle boy who wrote poems goes
For a walk in January and does not return.
His mother and father search the woods. The snow
Is deep. All night their hearts burn

For him. He is found, hanging from a limb,
And the father carries the body of his son
Into the yard and tenderly lays him
On the step. Stephen, O darling one,

See how your parents’ hearts break for you.
There is so very little we can do.
~Gary Johnson

 

Our woodlot lies quiet this time of year.  There have been numerous wind storms that have snapped trees or uprooted them completely and they rest where they have fallen, a crisscross graveyard of trunks that block paths and thwart us on the trails.  Years of leaves have fallen undisturbed, settling into a cushiony duff that is spongy underfoot, almost mattress-like in its softness, yet rich and life-giving to the next generation of trees.

We’ve intentionally left this woods alone for over twenty years.  When we purchased this farm, cows had the run of the woods, resulting in damage to the trees and to the undergrowth.  We fenced off the woods from the fields, not allowing our horses access. It has been the home for raccoon, deer and coyotes, slowly rediscovering its natural rhythms and seasons.

It feels like time to open the trails again.  We’ve cut through the brush that has grown up, and are cutting through the fallen trunks to allow our passage.

We bought this farm from a remarkable 82 year old man who loved every tree here. After spending 79 years on this farm, he treasured each one for its history, its fruit, its particular place in the ground, and would only use the wood if God had felled the tree Himself.  The old farmer directed us to revere the trees as he had, and so we have.  When he first took us on a tour of the farm, it was in actuality a tour of the trees, from the large walnuts in the front yard, to the poplars along the perimeter, to the antique apples, cherries and pear, the filbert grove, the silver plum thicket, as well as the mighty seventy plus year old Douglas fir, Western hemlock and Red cedar trees reestablished after the original logging in the early twentieth century.   The huge old stumps still bore the carved out eight inch notches for the springboards on which the lumbermen balanced to cut away with their axes at the massive diameter of the trees.

He led us to a corner of the woods and stood beneath a particular tree, tears streaming down his face.  He explained this was where his boy had hung himself, taking his life at age fifteen in 1968.   The old farmer still loved this tree, as devastating as it was to lose his son so unexpectedly from one of its branches.  He stood shaking his head, his tears dropping to the ground.  I knew his tears had watered this spot often over the years.  He looked at our boys—one a two year old in a pack on my back, and the other a four year old gripping his daddy’s hand—and told us he wished he’d known,  wished there could have been something he could have done, wished he could have understood his son’s despair, wished daily there was a way to turn back the clock and make it all turn out differently.  He wanted us to know about this if we were to own this woods, this tree, this ground, with children to raise here so there would be something we could do to prevent this from happening again to one of our own.

I was shaken by such raw sharing and the obvious sacredness of the spot.   Though the boy lay buried in a nearby cemetery, a too-young almost-man lost forever for reasons he never found to express to others, it was as if this spot, now hallowed by his father’s tears, was his grave.  This tree witnessed his last act and last breath on earth.

We have left the woods untouched in our effort to let it restore and heal, and to allow that tree to blend into the forest again, surrounded by new growth and life.  We have told this young man’s story to our children and are reminded of the precious gift of life we all have been given, and that it must be treasured and clung to, even in our darkest moments.  This father’s tears watering this woods are testimony enough of his own clinging to life, through his faith in God and in respect to the memory of his beloved boy.

The old farmer and his wife now share the ground with their son, reunited again a only few miles away from our home that was theirs for decades.  Their woods is reopening to our feet, allowing us passage again, and despite the darkness that overwhelms it each winter, the woods bear life amidst the dying as a forever reminder.

And we will not forget.  It is so very little, but the very least we can do.

 

 

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The Shadows of a Moment

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I hated waiting.
If I had one particular complaint,
it was that my life seemed composed entirely of expectation.
I expected —
an arrival, an explanation, an apology.
There had never been one,
a fact I could have accepted,
were it not true that,
just when I had got used
to the limits and dimensions of one moment,
I was expelled into the next
and made to wonder again
if any shapes hid in its shadows.

Memory is the sense of loss,
and loss pulls us after it.

~Marilynne Robinson from Housekeeping

 

Winter weather has a way of exacerbating loss, reminding us over and over what it is we’ve lost and still waiting for — the sun’s warmth on our cheeks, the feel of cool breezes in our hair on a sweaty day, the presence of color when numbed by the sky’s constant weeping of whites and grays.  We keep waiting for that next moment, and then the next, looking for when we may settle down and stay, however briefly, content.

We are pulled through the shadows of each emerging moment, losing what we just had to mere memory:

Last night, my husband and I attended our children’s former high school’s winter musical production, as we had done for over a decade while our three children were among the actors and actresses on stage.  I sat in the audience for two hours, emerged in the music, the singing and the dancing, the beautiful costumes and sets,  allowing each wonderful make-believe moment to carry me to the next and the next.

Only after the bows had been taken, the applause and whistles quieted, and we made our way to the lobby to greet the performers, did I realize my loss.  My memory of our children overwhelmed me:  not as they acted a role in the lights and shadows of the stage, but after the production, in the lobby as themselves, albeit costumed and overly made up, greeting grateful audience members.  But where were they last night?  Not here, I realized through my tears, not where I was so used to seeing them stand a bit apart from the crowd, smiling and laughing, waiting my turn to hug them.

Gone and moved on to other roles and other stages, far far away.

They have each left the magic and the hard work of high school musical productions into the magic and hard work of real life.
And we are left waiting for each next moment, remembering and accepting, filling and emptying,  wintering within our hearts again and again.

 

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