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Hate doesn’t hold back anyone but you.  Let go of hate and fear and let God’s light shine through you!

Last Friday, we drove to Indiana in the rain. Not just any rain: This was a downpour, a thrashing, a blinding, ceaseless waterfall of rain — rain so heavy, you couldn’t see the car just ahead of you until you were this close. We could have pulled off the road — if we could have found an exit, and a safe parking lot, and if the rain might’ve abated (it didn’t, for two hours). Instead, we prayed.

My tongue was jumping around my mouth like there was a hot stone in it. Forget about eloquence — this was gut-level fear talking, a constant call for help. At one point, it looked as if a semi was about to run us off the road. I yelled, “Jesus!” — not as an expletive or an angry rebuttal, but as a child calling for her friend to stand by her side against a gang of bullies.

Prayer without ceasing: I ought to do it more often, and not just in panic situations. How could all of our lives be bettered from the consistent application of prayer?

My tongue
a wet, flopping thing
blind as a bird, just
out of the egg. Ungainly,
gutted by effort, exhausted,
still sings in my mouth.
In praise, my prayer
finds feathers,
flies.

Many years ago, when I was a young and naïve slip of a thing, my husband went out of town, leaving me alone in our townhouse. One evening during this trip, there came a knock on the door. More like a fusillade of knocking. And yelling. A man with a loud and angry voice demanded I “open the door right now!” and proceeded to call me a variety of ugly names.

I froze in fear. Should I hit the alarm button (which had gone off before without the neighbors doing a darned thing about it)? Call the cops? Hide? He was, after all, threatening to kick the door down.

Sherry! (or Sheila or Shelly…I forget)” he screamed. “I’m going to kill you if you don’t open this door RIGHT NOW!

“Sherry (or Sheila or Shelly) doesn’t live here,” I yelled back. There was a moment of silence.

“Okay,” came the voice from the other side of the door, and the man walked away.

Sometimes troubles come knocking on our door, and sometimes they threaten to kick it down. It can feel like the whole world is calling us a variety of ugly names. It can feel like we are powerless to prevent the nameless nastiness that is certain to come — soon. Any minute, it seems.

Maybe yelling at your difficulties won’t keep them from coming. On the other hand, like David facing Goliath or Daniel in the lion’s den, a little moxie couldn’t hurt. In fact, sometimes it’s all you need to power your way through a tough time. No one needs to know you don’t really have anything left in you to back it up.

Why? Because even if you are trembling in your boots, God isn’t. And God has your back. You may not be able to picture the other side of the mountain of woe that stands in front of you, but you will reach the other side. What’s there might not be any prettier, but once you’ve climbed one mountain, you will know the steps you need to take to climb the next.

So the next time life offers you lemons, don’t bother with lemonade. Just yell, “Sherry/Sheila/Shelly doesn’t live here!” at it. Refuse to engage that person who wants to draw you into a quarrel. Choose not to let someone else take advantage of you, even if you have to rely on bluster you don’t feel. Decide to forgive someone not because they deserve it, but because you do.

Most of all, don’t forget how deeply loved you are. God recognizes your sorrows and feels them deeply. Jesus, fully divine and fully human, understands what it is to fear, suffer, mourn. Even if the door comes crashing down, you’ve got an army behind you.

I’m sorry. I’m writing to you today, not knowing where (or even if) you are living. I hope you are. I hope things turned out well for you, that you got clean, had a family of your own, sought help for your demons. I was just a child then, and I suppose I didn’t know any better. But I’ve been holding this apology in for a long, long time.

I remember when your parents borrowed my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette player. You had recorded a message for them from Vietnam, where you were fighting. You were probably just a kid yourself. Then, you came home. Neighborhood gossip said you’d picked up a heroin habit during your tour of duty. I watched you sit outside, on your parents’ front lawn, in your green flak jacket and play your guitar. And I was terrified of you.

I thought you might kidnap me and force me to take drugs, and then I would jump out a window to my death like Art Linklater’s daughter did. I didn’t know she was actually sober at the time, that Linklater had lied about her death because suicides can’t be buried in Catholic cemeteries. I believed in “Go Ask Alice,” and the “Blueboy” episode of Dragnet, where kids who took drugs just once ended up dead or burbling idiots.

You were just a young man who had seen too much, too soon, and if you shot up or smoked pot to cope, who were we to judge? Heck, you may not even remember me. Let me remind you: I was the little girl who, on her way home from kindergarten class, caught sight of you and immediately began running, as if you were evil incarnate. I’m certain I looked frightened. And what had you ever done to me? I remember dreading that you might be outdoors, scared that I wouldn’t see you until too late. You were my childhood bogeyman.

Would it have changed things for you if I had stopped and smiled? If I’d listened to your music? Did you notice me, and if you did, did it hurt you? For a long time, I’ve been sure it did. For that, I am sorry. You fought for our country and came home to an atmosphere that was solidly set against you. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that you were just another kid trying to figure things out the best he could. I didn’t know how badly you must have been hurting, to use drugs as a coping mechanism. No one talked about PTSD in those days.

If you are out there somewhere, please hear me: Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’m sorry. I wish I had been kind to you.

Perhaps this apology means nothing to you or to anyone. But I needed to do it, for the good of my own soul. I’ve prayed for you many times since those days. Wherever you are, I wish you peace. Please forgive me.

 

Watching Religion & Ethics Weekly the other day, I saw a news story about President Obama addressing the United Nations General Assembly.

Some may disagree, but I believe that America is exceptional – in part because we have shown a willingness, through the sacrifice of blood and treasure, to stand up not only for our own narrow self-interest, but for the interests of all.”

Now, I’m grateful to have been born in this country. But at a gathering of all the (reasonable) countries in the world, is it really necessary to say, “We’re still bigger and better than the rest of you!”

It’s the same with world religions. Every one of them seems to think their God is bigger and better than anyone else’s.

When I was a teenager, I was baby-sitting my next-door neighbor’s kids. As she was leaving for the restaurant, one of them asked a very deep question that left her discombobulated.

Mama?” he asked, all wide-eyed innocence. “Who’s more powerful. Jesus or Shiva?”

She had a look on her face that spoke volumes. As in, I don’t want to talk about this to my seven and nine year old kids, but our family is Hindu, so…

Well, I guess… Shiva.”

Why Mama?”

God is a belief, honey. Nothing to do with your real life. Shiva is just the one that we believe in, that’s all. Right, Ruthie?”

I flashed back in my mind – a recent emergency appendectomy had left me “minutes from death” according to my surgeon, so I’d gotten right with God, right quick. I took the altar call at a local church, figuring I had to commit fully to God’s path and never look back.

So when my neighbor asked me to agree with her, I didn’t know how to respond.

God is a belief! Goodness gracious. At the time, I thought that if I said or thought the wrong thing, God would smite me down. I didn’t have a foundation of faith so much as a fixation on fear. If I’d been minutes from death in the hospital and had been given a second chance, clearly I should spend the rest of my life trying to toe the line so that I wouldn’t be denied entry into Heaven.

Luckily, the conversation petered out as the kids turned their attention to Scooby-Doo.

It would take me years before I realized that having faith wasn’t about staving off doom. It’s about living fully and embracing the positive. Light and laughter. Joy, not judgment. A sense of purpose and a sense of community.

We may pray in unique ways and call Him by different names, but, in truth, we all worship the same God. Holding on to hope in a world that dares us to believe is an act of faith in itself. As it turns out, there’s nothing bigger or better than walking the divine path with peace in your heart and hope for the future.

Fear stops the heart,

panic, the hands,

more efficiently than hypothermia.

Lord, there are snares concealed in the snow.

One snap at my ankle, and I freeze:

Lot’s wife, with a lower sodium content.

 

Blessed are they who carry anti-freeze in their veins.

I am not their kind.

Teach me to bear the cup

through Winter’s deepest chill.

To move forward, like Shackleton’s men,

even when the very whiteness blinds.

 

I just spent another night wakefully fretting. I know it’s bad for me. I know it does no good. But all the reasoning in the world doesn’t seem to stop me. Here’s the thing: I know it’s wrong not to trust God to take care of me. I know it’s a strike against my faith to worry. On the other hand, however: Where’s the line?

Which line? You may well ask. The line between what I can control, and what God will. I’ll explain. I’m going on a trip soon, and I’m fretting about it. Now, obviously, there are things I can and should do. I can’t just leave home and hope that God will provide for my pets. I have to hire a sitter, ensure there is plenty of food, make sure the house is clean and well stocked. These are things I should worry about. But at what point do I let go of what I can do and leave it up to God? At what point is my responsibility absolved? When does it start being pointless to plan and worry?

Perhaps this line is well delineated for most people. But for me, it’s fuzzy. Have I really done everything I can do? Have I come up short on the “God helps those who help themselves” side of the equation? That’s what keeps me up at night.

Is this a normal conundrum? How do you find the line? And what is the right amount of worry? You think about it. I’ll be in the kitchen getting myself some warm milk.

The theme this week seems to be fear. That’s an awfully large (and scary) grab bag for me to poke my hand into, metaphorically speaking. (Aside/deflection: Why don’t we all speak metaphorically more often? Life would be so much more literary. I would very much rather live in a poem than in a reality program, wouldn’t you, readers?) Thus, my contribution this week will be a prayer:

Fear

I can’t seem to pray it away.
It sits there, staring,
like something out of Stephen King.
What should I do with fear, Lord?

And you tell me:
“You are not alone.
I’ve seen it, too, in the garden,
after the Last Supper.
You are allowed to acknowledge it.
Just don’t let it tell you what to do.”

And I understand.

Lately, my prayer life had been a bit blah.  If, by blah, I mean pretty much nonexistent.  I was still praying for my friend who has depression, but that was about it.  A big part of the problem was that I was getting more than a little sick of myself and my same grumbles.  What was behind it all?

It isn’t easy when a pastor retires, especially when that pastor has been a part of the church for 20 years.  But that is the situation my church finds itself in.  First we will hire an interim pastor who will lead us as we seek a new pastor.  Searching for a pastor in hard economic times adds to the challenge.  Where will we find the money for her moving expenses?  Will we be able to meet his salary?  What if the manse allowance is more than we can afford?  And on and on and on.  Each and every one of us has a concern to add to the list.

I decided to take this list and my lame prayers with me to the local labyrinth.  There’s something about walking the winding path that seems to free things up and to enable me to pray.

Usually.

Unless I’m distracted.

This time around, I found it hard to focus.  A dog barked.  An engine whined.  Cars honked.  And one word kept popping into my mind.  Fear.  Fear.  Fear.

I know.  I know.  We can’t let ourselves be lead by our fears and that’s what most of these “concerns” about our future truly are.  Fears.  But knowing that and responding appropriately aren’t always one in the same thing.

Like these petals, sometimes God's Blessings are hard to spot as we walk life's path.

I took a deep breath and tried to relax as I rounded a turn in the labyrinth’s path.  I tried to be more open to the still small voice of God as my eyes slid over the landscape, including an iridescent patch of wet grass.  I kept walking as I slowly exhaled, worries tumbling through my mind.  Then I spotted another iridescent patch, and a similarly sized patch of red.  I realized that what I was seeing wasn’t dew but a handful of fabric flower petals scattered for a recent wedding.  I looked back and realized that I had overlooked dozens of these shimmering spots of color as I worried my way down the brick path.

How often do we do this?  Even in prayer, it is so easy to hold tight to our fears, missing the shining blessings that God has scattered around us if only we would calm our frantic minds, open our eyes and see.

Personally, this is why I need to walk the labyrinth when I pray or use my prayer beads.  It forces me to pray for a longer period instead of rushing through it. And the longer time I spend in the presence of God, the more calm I find and the more beauty I see.  Do it often enough, long enough, and I can actually spot a few of the blessings in the world around me and my fears seem somewhat less frightening.

–SueBE

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