Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, 2013

What becomes of them, the wise, the visionary, the passionate,
After they have been made legend, source of tales for schoolchildren,
Cause of national holidays?
What becomes of their passions, their faith, their beliefs?
Where do their dreams go to fade into public speeches?
Where do those who shared their dreams find strength to move?

Are we not still bound, still subject –
Not to kings but to political and corporate power,
Decisions that can ruin lives made far above us
In the mists of wealth and brute strength?
Are we not still terrorized by angry forces
Mangled in the pits that power creates?
Are we not still bigots, afraid of what we cannot understand?
Are we not still slaves to forces that we dimly see and cannot resist?
Are we not still devoted to self-defense, rejection, aggression, hatred?

Where are the dreams we had – freedom, equality, justice, love?

I still remember that black day of a dark April in a dreadful year of destruction,
Remember endless waves of shock and horror and despair.
Most of all fear.  Who were we, that such death could happen?

We are who we are, corrupt, self-serving, frightened.

On this particular day and others like it, we speak of heroes and martyrs,
People who lifted us to our higher selves for a moment.
We make them legends, forgetting who they were.
We speak of them as from a distance, safe from the fire of their dreams,
Safe from their righteous anger, their all-consuming love.
We are diminished from vision to revision to television.

We are who we are, divided, self-centered, judgmental, afraid.

On this particular day, we watched a half-African man –
Fit symbol of our contentious melting-pot of a nation –
Celebrate his second inauguration,
Knowing that his dreams, too, are thwarted and defeated
By powers beyond his control, or ours.

Those powers are us, writ large.
We are who we are, suspicious, angry, uncertain, terrified.

And yet we remember hope, and love, and dreams, if distantly.
We remember passions spurred by generosity and grace,
Indignation and anger fuelled by thoughts of justice,
Purpose without defense.

We are who we are.
Perhaps the buried dreams will rise again.

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The Griefs and Gifts of Being Alone

Family-oriented holidays are difficult times for people who are alone.  Anyone who has lost a close family member or a dear friend knows how hard the first holidays are without that person’s presence.  Fortunately, most people have other family members to help them through those times of remembering and grieving.

People who are now single through death or divorce, but who have children and grandchildren, still have family and a strong connection to coming generations.  But that connection is much weaker for those who are widowed or divorced and childless, and those who have never married.  People who don’t have close family members to be with in those times of loss carry an extra burden of grief.

This came home to me with special poignance recently, when an older friend died.  She and her family had generously shared many special holiday times with me.  Of all the friends we had in common, I’m the only one who has no children and grandchildren.  Our friends’ primary relationships are with their families.  My primary relationships are with my friends.  The loss of such a close friend is hard.

For those who are alone, daily life is quite different from the lives of people with family.  We have work to do and friends to see, but many of our hours are passed in silence.  No one shares the burdens and tasks of everyday life; if we don’t cook or clean or shop or pay bills, it doesn’t get done.

We may have learned how to be alone without being lonely, but we still can feel the lack of intimate companionship.  We feel the lack of physical touch, and the lack of the warmth of another presence in our lives.  If we are sick, there is no one to bring us a glass of water or take us to the doctor.  If we are unhappy, there is no one to share our thoughts or cheer us up.  If we are joyful, there is no one to laugh with us.

The blessing in being alone is the room it can make for God.  In stillness, the presence of God is easier to feel.  People with families may have to work much harder than we do to find that stillness.  When there is no human person to share joys and sorrows, it can become very natural and simple to share them openly with God.  God is with us all, all of the time, but it may be easier for those who are alone to be conscious of that presence.

What we need in our aloneness is complex and difficult to define.  Some of us need support and encouragement in dealing with health problems or the burdens of financial problems or even poverty, problems that are especially hard for people without families.  Some of us need fellowship in doing things that people with partners take for granted – going to movies and concerts, eating out, social gatherings, hiking in the woods.

Some of us are hungry for spiritual growth in directions that are more difficult for persons with family responsibilities to take.  We may not be as interested in building intimate relationships with human beings as we are in building intimate relationships with God.

When we find one another, we are blessed by a feeling that we are not so peculiar, after all.  When we find one another, we have a lot to share.  We need better ways to find one another.

Healing Heart

Healing is the acceptance of our own suffering and our own joy.  When we turn our minds to blame and recrimination, we block any healing.  When we accept the circumstances of our situation, recognize our losses and mourn them, we open up a space for the presence of God in the midst of our suffering, a space for healing.

 

Prayer in Pain

Dear Lord, I’m hurting.
The pain goes on and on,
And nothing done for me can ease it,
And nothing takes my mind from it for a moment.
My body is all pain, and my mind follows.
Dear Lord, be with me now.
I’m afraid, and I can’t stop crying.
Lend me a little of your strength,
Reach down from the cross
To these hands that helped put you there.
Forgive me, for I know not what I do.
Dear Lord, I think of that pain
You suffered on the cross for me –
Surely I can bear this little pain
Since you bore such a greater pain
For my soul’s sake.
Let your outstretched arms sustain me.
Dear Lord, be with me now.

 

What Comes Next?

The year is drawing toward winter. Most of the leaves have fallen, and browns have begun to dominate the landscape.  Grass is still green, and some of the bushes, but the seed heads of the ornamental grass and the brown stalks of flowers and weeds promise the end of the year.  Spring, with its renewal of life, is a long way away.  The message is that everything ends.  Life is ephemeral.  Death is universal.  We all die.

A month ago, one of my closest friends passed from a full and vigorous autumn into a brief winter and death. She was 87 and ready to go, but her death has been a major loss for me.  This post is in her memory.

My friend talked occasionally about death. Some of our friends would speak with great confidence of heaven, of reunion with family and friends, of everlasting joy.  She used to say – and I firmly believe – that we don’t know what comes after death.  We have no idea.  We don’t have a clue.  But whatever happens, it’s God’s doing, so it’s all right.  We don’t have to worry.  We don’t have to speculate.  We don’t have to strain our puny human imaginations to envision what might be.  Whatever we may imagine, it will probably be wrong.  And because whatever comes next is God’s doing, it will be good, just as this life, in spite of all its suffering, is good.

Human beings have always speculated about life after death – some, like the ancient Egyptians, so fervently that they became obsessed with the afterlife they imagined and devoted a great deal of time and energy to its enhancement. Others imagined – still imagine today – an afterlife filled with all the material and emotional blessings of this life, or all the torments and suffering for those who have displeased God.  Yet others are convinced that our spirits return to new life, like the seeds of the grass in the spring.  And of course, because life after death is so unreasonable, rational people often argue that there is no life after death.

There seems to be a continuing strong desire to believe that this life is not all there is, and that the person/entity/soul continues in some form after death. Perhaps all our ideas of life after death spring from a desperate desire to believe that somehow the self – the identity, the soul, the consciousness – doesn’t just disappear from creation.  When Christians (and others) talk about joyful reunions in heaven, is that simply a denial of the frightening thought that all that I am, all that I think and feel and do, could simply be snuffed out, like a burned-down candle?

When the body dies, the elements of which it is composed eventually return to the earth and reappear in other bits and pieces of the world. The calcium in my body might show up in a piece of limestone, or in a rabbit’s teeth.  Those elements are physical.  They are not all there is to what I think of as me.  But still, they are part of the me, and that connection is so strong that humans have often tried to imagine what sorts of physical bodies they might have after death – a perfect, pain-free body in heaven; the original body carefully preserved by mummification or sealed coffins; reincarnation as another human being (or cat or bird or insect).

The part of the me that is more than my physical body is even harder to imagine ending.  How can the world continue if I’m not around to observe it?  I don’t want to accept the obvious fact that the universe did without me for a very long time and will do without me quite well at some point in the not-so-distant future.  And perhaps my consciousness will continue in some fashion, though probably not in any fashion I can imagine.  Or perhaps the part of me that belongs to God – soul, spirit, identity – will simply be reabsorbed into the Being from which it came, and I will continue only as a small speck of that universal conscious connectedness I glimpse from time to time and call God.  And if that’s the case, then that’s God’s intention, and that’s all right.

Is my friend laughing?

A Sacred Paradox

Fire and Flood

The floods of time
Are like a river, raging
Past boulders and snags
In a frenzy of foam and spray,
Then pouring, implacable,
In deep torrents through narrow valleys.
We are borne along, helpless,
Like flecks of foam thrust back and forth,
Crushed to nothing on a rock.
But the voice of God is in that river,
Thundering out of the deep currents
And over the boulders with the foam.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you.
You are mine.

The fires of loss
Are like a flame in forestland,
Starting small, a spark, a smolder,
Then growing, flaring, leaping
From branch to branch, grasping,
Consuming all it touches –
Here a nest of unborn birds,
There a bear cowering in its den.
Capricious, wayward in its greedy growth,
It skips a tree, passes over a glade of flowers,
Or pauses to devour a stand of oaks, acorns and all.

And loss is like that,
Striking here and there,
Taking one and leaving another whole,
Until, at last, all is consumed in loss,
Love, beauty, work, health, understanding, all
Burned away to ash and dust.
But the voice of God is in that flame,
And the light of God is in that fire,
Burning at the heart of being.
You are mine,
Whom I created for my glory.

Hanging On

There are times in our lives when all we can do is hang on – and when hanging on takes all we have in us.  The death of a child or a spouse is one of those times.  The unexpected end of a career is one of those times.  The death of a marriage or other important relationship is one of those times.  And in such times, all we have is what we have left.  And we don’t know that that is enough.

As we work through the disbelief, the anger, the hurt, the grieving, we may think we know what we need – escape, oblivion, retaliation, vengeance, something to get us through and out the other side as painlessly as possible.  But it’s not a matter of what we think we need.  It’s a matter of what God knows we need.

What we have is what is left after loss.  We have the love that is still with us, even though it may not be the love we thought we couldn’t live without.  And the love we have – love of friends, family, colleagues – God’s love, above all — is enough, even when we don’t believe it is.

The work we have to do has to be done.  The grieving.  The working through anger.  The acceptance of broken hopes, abandoned expectations, a changed texture to our daily lives, a diminished reality, a loss of identity.  It’s all there.  It’s all real.  Our task is to work through it all.  And if we allow God to use the dreadful, dismal, overwhelming experience, we come through it all and we are transformed.  And we find out who we really are.

The important thing is the hanging on.  One day at a time.  One step at a time.  When we can’t find hope to hang on to, or a sense of purpose, or any joy at all, what is it that we hang on to?  God.  It’s that simple.  And that difficult.