Monday, March 24, 2014

A Meditation on Psalm 46

When I am battling my own fears, and the dangers of the world around me; when I'm not strong enough to bear the weight of myself, let alone the troubles of others; when I sink; when I forget to call your name, help me remember...

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
    though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
 though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

Be still and know that I am God.

My foundation shakes around me, as everything I thought I knew to be true and beautiful and safe comes crashing down. I hide my face, to hide tears, to hide fear, to hide weakness. Lord, when the world is in chaos, help me to see...

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
    God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Be still and know that I am God.

I am hopeless as I watch evil gather around myself, my loved ones, my world. Justice seems a fading dream; peace an empty platitude. When nothing is safe, when all I hear is the thunder of machine gun fire and the terrible silence of death, plant in me hope, and invite me to your side...

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
    see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields with fire.
 “Be still, and know that I am God!
    I am exalted among the nations,
    I am exalted in the earth.”
 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Be still and know that I am God.

God, you are my refuge and strength, a fortress in trouble, and a mighty hand who reaches down to heal the nations, who beats instruments of death into tools of life. Walk with me, guide me, comfort me, and forgive my despair when I have no hope left to cling. Help me to be still and know that you are God, that you are with me and will never leave me. Fill my heart with hope and my mind with peace so that I may walk always in your ways. In the name of Jesus our Savior: Amen.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Valley

It's been a tough couple of weeks for me, and I've been finding solace in music and Psalms. I heard a beautiful sermon on Psalm 121, "I lift my eyes to the hills, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth." The sermon talked about an image of a weary traveler looking up toward hills, not majestic hills like we might see in the rocky mountains with cars and GPS for safety, but hills where bandits are hiding and you're walking or maybe riding on a donkey hoping to God you don't get attacked or fall off the edge of the cliff. This image continued to follow me as I read through Psalm 23 this morning:

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff—
    they comfort me.

 You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me

    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    my whole life long.

 I've read or heard this Psalm a million times, for myself or others in hospitals or on their death bed, but this time I imagined myself here, a lonely traveler walking into a valley of unknown danger, bones crunching under my feet--human or animal?--and all sorts of scary places from which evil might pounce. Maybe I'm on a mission for somebody else's sake. Maybe I've felt alone, trying to be strong for the good of my friend, but in giving my strength to somebody else I feel vulnerable and unprotected. I look over my shoulder, twigs snapping left and right, and dusk is falling. I kneel down and cry because I don't know what else to do. Danger is everywhere. I'm afraid. I pray "help me, God. Please help me."

And then there is a hand on my shoulder, warm and gentle. It helps me up. I can't see the hand or who it belongs to, but it gently supports me, one hand on my back, the other on my elbow guiding me. I hear predators all around me, but they don't come to me. The hand guides me up the mountain and into a shelter. I sit at a table to eat, and my enemies are all around. Criminals and violent people sit across from me glaring, but the hand is there with me, and they are at a distance. The hand places a blessing on my forehead, and sends me off on my journey. I can feel the hand no longer, but the mark of the cross is upon me...

The Hebrew word that has been translated over and over as "follow" (radap) is actually better translated as "pursue." Following sounds passive, but pursuit is active. Even when I wander off into a dark place, or am tricked there. Even when bad people are grabbing at me or hopelessness is eating me from the inside, goodness and mercy isn't just following somewhere, but pursuing me like a dog chasing me. Goodness is breathing hard, panting, running after me to find me. Mercy is tracking my cell phone signal and catching up. I can't get rid of them because they pursue me endlessly.

Anne Lamott wrote that the two best prayers she knows are "help me" and "thank you" and I think she's right. I find it hard to pray sometimes because I feel like I need to be eloquent, but when I'm totally at the end of myself, I have no choice but to say help me help me help me, God. And because of the words of the Psalms, I know that God is already on the case. God isn't just passively observing us walk through trials, but pursuing us with single minded determination wherever we should wander. That's all I wanted to say today: God's love pursues you always even in the valley of the shadow of death. Whatever valley you are in today, be still and know that God is the Lord over all things, even death, and will never abandon you.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A small flicker in the darkness

The human eye is a pretty remarkable thing. It has different types of nerve cells that respond to various stimuli. Tiny microsaccadic eye movements are responsible for keeping an image on your retina at all times (if you hold your eye still with your finger, your vision will slowly darken). Different types of chemicals are released when your eye encounters different stimuli which results in different perceptions--movement, colors, light. Your cone cells can differentiate between hundreds of subtle shades--women can generally differentiate between more colors than men. But possibly the simplest part of your eye is one of the most interesting. Rod cells, which mostly hang out in the periphery of your vision, are responsible for detecting the difference between light and dark. In the dark, your eye releases a chemical which inhibits the rod cell from firing the signal that tells your brain "it's light here!" Then, when it actually is light, the cell stops being inhibited and releases a load of a chemical called rhodopsin. Believe it or not, scientists have actually studied the number of photons (light particles) that it takes to trigger the release of rhodopsin, and they have found that a receptor has to encounter about nine individual photons to trigger this chemical reaction. For scale, that's something like the light of a candle at about thirty miles away. That's incredible!

We're made to see light. After all, as creatures that evolved on the land, it became a distinct evolutionary advantage for us to be able to see small amounts of light. We might see the glimmer of the moon off a predator's eyes (or teeth or claws), for example, which would keep us from being eaten. Light is important for us on every physiological level. Psychologically speaking, people kept in the dark, or who experience long Norwegian winters, become depressed. That's because regular exposure to sunlight causes us to release endorphins and seretonin, which keep us from being depressed, and it also triggers our ability to sleep and wake up at normal hours. Furthermore, your body needs sunlight in order to produce vitamin D, which is vital for bone strength, muscle health, and immune response. People who don't get enough sunlight get a disease called Rickets that involved brittle bones and general illness. Spiritually, I like to think of light as something that keeps us healthy too. It nourishes us, it keeps us strong and happy; it gives us hope. We're creatures that really need light. It's vital to our survival.

 I've been following the events in Ukraine the last few weeks fairly closely because my husband in Ukrainian and my mother-in-law is still living there. Here is a summary of the events. Essentially, after the people successfully revolted against a corrupt dictator, Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, took it upon himself to "rescue" the Russian speaking minority in Crimea and the eastern portions of Ukraine by entering with all manner of troops and violating the sovereignty of Ukraine's borders. Sadly, this is not the only tragedy happening right now. The events in Syria continue to unfold and refugees fight for their lives, and Venezuela is undergoing a revolution of its own. We have been very scared by the events in Ukraine, particularly. It's pretty terrible to wait with no end in sight, and no idea what's going to happen. It's like stumbling around in an unfamiliar, dark room.

This morning we heard a sermon on Matthew 17:1-9, which is the Transfiguration of Jesus. Jesus and his pals go up to a high mountain and while there, Jesus is transfigured from an ordinary human to a heavenly being aglow with the light of God. He is literally glowing, signaling the disciples that he is, in fact, the Son of God. The preacher talked poignantly about how Jesus fills the whole world with his glow, illuminating even the most ordinary things. His images were beautiful, but I didn't feel like the world was very aglow. To be honest, I spent a lot of time yesterday with my husband feeling scared, alone, and lost, being afraid with and for him and his people. The world didn't feel alight at all, but dark and desolate. But then I started thinking about eyes, and how the human eye is so adept at sensing light that after a while, even a dark room starts to feel a little lighter. Your eyes start to adapt after a while, and soon you can make out shapes and the glow of your alarm clock is bright enough to keep you from stubbing your toe.

The writer of John's gospel calls Jesus the "light of the world." There are times when it seems unreal that Jesus could light up anything. After all, people are being oppressed. We have a Ukrainian exchange student in our church, and his host parents said that his friend lost a good family friend in the revolution. And that happens every day. Our hearts are often heavy with the evil that surrounds us and cuts us off from the nourishing light of Christ. Where is Christ in war? Where is Christ in death? The answer is that Christ is with us. Jesus hung on the cross and walked with his friends and disciples and experienced the sorrows of death and loss and pain and illness. And we are with Christ. Sometimes in the grave. When people are dying, when we are scared, we're in the grave with him, and we can't see and we're terrified. However, as Martin Luther King Jr. said: "Those of us who call the name of Jesus Christ find something in the center of our faith which forever reminds us that God is on the side of truth and justice. Good Friday may occupy the throne for a day, but ultimately it must give way to the triumph of Easter. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." In other words, we know Easter happened, and because we know Easter happened, we know it comes continually. God's kingdom can't be contained to one day, but is an event which came, which comes daily, and which is coming in fullness, and because of that, we know that Jesus Christ's resurrection breaks into our darkest times, even if it's just a pinhole of light in a sea of darkness and despair.

Sometimes the most profound hope is the tiny candle flame during the darkest part of the night. Christ is indeed aglow in all things, but where we really feel the warming, nourishing power of that light is in darkness. Christ comes into darkness and declares that even the night is his. The thing is, as Caesar's life was dated by Christ, the lives of good and evil must be subject to Christ, because all things are subject to Christ. That means that Vladimir Putin's knee must also ultimately bow at the name of Jesus, and so must dictators around the world, and perpetrators of violence in our lives. Lies must bow to Christ and be transformed into truth. Sin must bow to Christ and be taken away. Illness must bow to Jesus Christ and be made into wholeness and health. We are walking in darkness right now. We live in dark times. But we also know that Easter Sunday came and comes and will come. Your spiritual eye is capable of a remarkable feat of strength and hope, and that pinhole of light tells you that there is a future that is full not of oppression, war, or hate, but of justice, peace, and love. Even when you can't see it. Even when you're terrified. Even when you are crushed by the weight of the blackness of evil, the light of Christ is there promising redemption for you and for all. Amen.