Debbie Kohler – Scripture Reflection
Downstairs, in my counseling office, are three pieces of art: a plaque with these words from Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, “Bidden or Not Bidden God is Present”, a wall decal that announces, “To heal is to restore the memory of wholeness” and a framed gift card that simply says, “Breathe”. I love each of these messages. They help create the sacred space and safe holding environment I desire to offer anyone entering the room. Each image provides a touchstone of hope when darkness overwhelms.
People come to counseling with practical problems, emotional pain and spiritual hungers—a crumbling relationship, a mood or anxiety disorder, the sense of being stuck in unfulfilling work, an inner emptiness and dissatisfaction with life in general. As we talk about their thoughts, feelings and behaviors, we often discuss practical steps—strategies for improved communication and conflict resolution, exercise and possible medication for mood disorders, assertiveness training for greater self actualization and journaling to tap into the sometimes quiet and other times loud tapes playing in our heads. We spend a lot of time in the presence of intense emotion. While exploring their concerns, and working with therapeutic interventions, a deeper longing sometimes arises. They may not express it just this way, and they may or may not use religious words fundamental to the person of faith—nevertheless, the questions remind me of Job’s wrestling. St. Francis of Assisi frames the questions this way: “Who are you, God?" and “Who am I?”
They are at the very foundation of Job’s encounter with God. His questions arise from confusion over the nature of God and what it means for Job to be in relationship with the Transcendent. Who is this God? How does God act in the world and in our individual lives? How does God relate to God’s creation? Job’s well-meaning but misguided friends present a God of judgement who imposes penalties for sinful behavior? His friend’s arguments create tension within Job. He knows he has done nothing to offend God. He wants to understand why these tragedies came into his life.
In times of suffering do you find yourself asking “why” questions of God. Or perhaps, standing in God’s stead, telling God what you think needs to be done? Have you walked away from God in protest over unfulfilled expectations? I have a confession to make…and it’s kind of embarrassing. I recall a time when I was much younger and in the midst of deep personal suffering. I railed at God proclaiming, “I can do a better job of running this world than you God!” Whew…talk about egocentricity and hubris. God didn’t strike me down. God didn’t abandon me. God waited patiently for my return. It wasn’t necessary to come back in sackcloth and ashes…only with the humility that opened me to receive God’s grace.
Today, I’d like to share a small part from three different journeys of existential suffering. Each story illustrates a little bit of the amazing and complex lives we’ll be talking about. While I’ve altered details to protect anonymity, the circumstances of spiritual renewal remain true to their experience.
One person with whom I worked shared an event that reminds me of Job and the questions we’re considering today. “Who are you, God?” and “Who am I?” Deeply wounded by family abuse, as well as cultural threat and exclusion, in a moment of intense suffering they confessed, “When I was at my lowest, most desperate place, when I could take no action on my own behalf, God clung to me. And that’s what kept me alive.” Wow! God embraced this person in the center of a physical, emotional and spiritual storm. And that embrace gave them enough strength to endure pain and begin moving toward life.
In this moment of transformation that individual awakened to the God of love…God who is present with us in our brokenness. God didn’t condemn them. God didn’t change cultural circumstances to make life more comfortable. God clung to them…and continues cliniging, and loving them into healing and wholeness whatever the external circumstances. The relational exchange between a broken human being and the always-present Divine shined a sliver of light into the darkness. It opened space for the healing to begin.
Some words from Leonard Cohen’s song, “Come Healing” that Kathy and Jack are weaving through our service today:
Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
Of cruelty or the grace
Oh, see the darkness yielding
That tore the light apart
Come healing of the reason
Come healing of the heart
O troubledness concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
The broken heart above
A second person wrestling with the existential suffering we’re focusing on today. She’s a counselor in a treatment facility for young girls (ages 11-18) coming out of human trafficking. She’s not much older than the girls she serves. The daily stories of human degradation and physical and sexual abuse torment her sense of righteousness and personal security. Like some of us, she wrestles with a cultural system that puts greater emphasis on power, prestige and wealth than on the plight of human suffering. While a person of faith, she doesn’t talk a lot about God. But in her times of despair, when her suffering is greatest, she picks up a pen and writes poetry. Her words remind me of the Psalms—often filled with confusion and righteous anger. Frequently, through the expression of her feelings, her questions and her doubts, a glimmer of light breaks in and the darkness begins to fade. Hope is borne, and she recognizes the deep meaning of her work while also learning to care for her own emotional and spiritual well-being.
Again from ‘Come Healing’:
And let the heavens falter
Let the ear proclaim
Come healing of the altar
Come healing of the name
O, longing of the branches
To life the little bud
O, longing of the arteries
To purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb
I journeyed with another person through clinical depression. They used a metaphor to describe their despair. “It’s like walking around with a dark cloud hanging over my head; I have little hope of seeing the sun again.” Slowly we stripped away layer upon layer of covering. Eventually we came to recognize grief over the tragic death of a three year old sibling. “Where was God when my brother died? Why did God allow this tragedy to happen?” Inquiries that came from the long repressed inner pain of a five year old child.
Grieving was complicated by well intentioned family members, who from within the storm of their own grief told the child, “God wanted your brother and took him to heaven” and “He’s in a better place.” Unfortunately, that created more worries for the little girl. “If God took my brother, when will He take me?”
Week after week we wrestled with questions surrounding life’s impermanence. Week after week of tears, and periods of feeling God absent. Eventually the questions subsided and the person felt into her sadness. She journaled, drew pictures, followed her dreams and did active imagination. She talked about her loss with a few trusted friends and she continued praying.
Two steps forward, one step back… again and again. Progress was slow, but over time the darkness began to lift. The sight of a tiny green plant growing out of a crack in the sidewalk cement, seasons of the year replicating the cycle of life and death, a mental image of her brother being birthed into God’s welcoming arms…all experiences that she described as spiritual awakenings. All occurrences that enabled the light to begin shining in her life once more.
These are not tales where the fairy godmother waves her magic wand and life’s challenges suddenly disappear. These are stories of lives given strength, courage and hope, by God’s grace, to live again.
Oh, and that person whose brother died? That was me. My healing journey was blessed by a skilled pastoral therapist who walked with me through the grief. And the slow work of God?…the transformative healing that came and continues unfolding?…that awakened in me the call to become a pastoral counselor and spiritual director.
Let us close with the poem read at the beginning of the service by Quaker teacher, social activist and spiritual writer, Parker Palmer.
Everything Falls Away
Sooner or later, everything falls away.
You, the work you’ve done, your successes,
large and small, your failures, too. Those
moments when you were light, along-
side the times you became one with the
night. The friends, the people you loved
who loved you, those who might have
wished you ill, none of this is forever. All
of it is soon to go, or going, or long gone.
Everything falls away, except the thread
you’ve followed, unknowing, all along.
The thread that strings together all you’ve
been and done, the thread you didn’t know
you were tracking until, toward the end,
you see that the thread is what stays
as everything else falls away.
Follow that thread as far as you can and
you’ll find that it does not end, but weaves
into the unimaginable vastness of life, Your
life never was the solo turn it seemed to be.
It was always part of the great weave of
nature and humanity, an immensity we
come to know only as we follow our own
small threads to the place where they
merge with the boundless whole.
Each of our threads runs its course, then
joins in life together. The magnificent tapestry—
this masterpiece in which we live forever.