Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Let my heart be broken...

"I remember the exact moment I stopped believing in God," she said, a trace of guilt in her voice. "It was on March 4, 2003...about two in the afternoon, a little after lunch," she said. "That was the day God took my grandmother."

These words were related by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House, an organization that shelters and aids homeless kids. He was quoting a teen he called Angela who had no father and whose mother had died when she was five. After her grandmother died in 2003, her older sister died, when Angela was but 17. I am quoting this story simply because I cannot quote the ones told to me by my patients in confidence. But the brutal pain of life's tragedies is not limited to an anonymous teenager in a fund raising letter. It is right here, in our midst, often masked behind faces trying stoically to go on in a world that seems impossibly empty. 

As I think back to my special posting for Easter, I contemplate my reference to "His victory over death" and wonder - how could I write such a thing in this world where death and suffering abound? Where is the victory? My lovely sentiments may seem to make some sense when we suffer the loss of a loved one who has lived out a full life, leaving their families the physical and emotional means to carry on. But so many deaths are not like that. What about the deaths of children? What about the deaths of countless innocents in natural disasters and wars? What about the death of someone so vital to our existence that we can no longer fathom the possibility of a loving God?

I wish I knew the answer to that. I truly do. But since I don't, let me share a spiritual experience from my own life that has kept me hanging on to faith even when it seems to make no sense to do so. This occurred on an ordinary day when I was in college, on 10/7/75, to be exact. I know the date because I wrote it in a journal. As I have related elsewhere, in my younger years, I was relentlessly pursuing (or perhaps pursued by) God, all the while questioning, believing, then doubting again. One day, some words came to me while I was sitting in my dorm room and I wrote them down. I do not remember the exact context, but I know that I was at a point in my professional growth were I was feeling deeply the horrible pain experienced by people I was sent to serve in my field work in social services. The words that came to me were these:

In My wounds shall be your stronghold.
No longer shall you be standing and watching My
   Passion from afar,
but you shall be right there,
   in My hands,
   in My feet,
   in My side,
   sharing in My most intense pain.
And only when you have come to understand
   the depths of My suffering
shall you come to share in the joys of My resurrection.
Be patient
   and endure with everlasting trust
   and inconquerable love.
I shall remain with you,
   and you with Me,
   now and forever.

As I reflect back, it seems that the appearance of these words in my life were an important part of learning who I was and who I was to be in relation to Him. I could be a believer who went to church on Sundays. I could be a kind person who lived a good life. Or I could enter into the suffering with Him. The notion of the crucified body was not just the corpse of a man executed 2000 years ago but it was a body made up of the suffering people around me. And I was being invited into the wounds, the most painful parts of that body. I was going to share in that pain. There was no other way.

My life has been process of saying yes to that invitation, often in ways that I have not anticipated. I had thought when I started out that I was just saying yes to being with others and sharing in their pain. I didn't know at the time that it also meant that I would have my own pain and others would come to share it with me. However, along the road of life, I have discovered that both parts are essential - for how could I truly be with you in your pain if I had no idea what it was like to suffer myself? The path to His victory, I have  learned, is not an easy and glorious one. It is one that is sometimes dark and without direction and sometimes so senseless that it makes you want to scream. But then you share the path with someone or they share it with you and there is a power in the love that makes everything else in life seem trivial. There is a strength and a beauty to the victory that goes beyond any accomplishment of this world. We only catch occasional glimpses of it. But it is real. I have experienced it, though not through any doing of my own.

My title for this posting is also the title of a book I came across in a used bookstore, some years after the above words came to me. It caught my attention. When I opened the book to understand its intriguing title, I read the full quote:

Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.

And so my heart breaks with you when you are in pain. And His heart breaks with you in your pain. But it is not a destructive breaking. It is the outpouring of the Gift. I do not understand it - but still I embrace it and every day keep trying to say yes.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gift

Some of the worst horrors our world has ever known occurred in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. And yet even there, the Gift was present. In 1941, in Auschwitz, there was an escape of one or more prisoners from the camp. As was the practice, the commandant in charge walked through the rows of prisoners, choosing ten to execute so that the prisoners witnessing this might be deterred from trying to escape. Of those selected to die, one was a farmer named Franciszek Gojowniczek, a man who had served in the Polish army. When chosen, he cried out in anguish for the wife and children he would never see again. But then something very unusual happened. Another prisoner, # 16670, stepped forward and offered to take his place - to die in his stead. And, amazingly, the exchange was permitted, so that #16670 died and Franciszek lived. However, the death of #16670 was not a quick or easy one. He and the other nine were placed naked in an underground bunker with no food or water, to slowly die of thirst and starvation. Nonetheless, prisoner #16670 led the condemned group in hymns and prayers, until over a period of 10 days, one by one the other nine died. However, even then #16670 remained alive, alert and serene until finally, he was given an injection of carbolic acid to ensure that his body would die. An eyewitness to his death reported that, "his face was calm and radiant". As for Franciszek Gojowniczek, he was liberated from the camps and lived on until the age of 94. However, he did not die until he had appeared many times around the world to bear witness to this story. One of those occasions, in 1982, was when Pope John Paul II recognized prisoner #16670, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, as a saint.

This story is but one of countless stories of the Gift made known in the midst of our broken world, whether made known in a way so extraordinary that it is recognized by churches and history books - or in a way so obscure that only one or two notice or experience it. One person in Auschwitz died in place of another; others, from other faiths and walks of life, simply shared with another a bit of bread that they desperately wanted for themselves. In our day-to-day world, the Gift may be made known in the sharing of time, a written word, a song, a picture, a kind touch or a glass or water. They may seem like ordinary gifts and yet they are somehow different...

As much as our culture makes a big show of gift-giving, with Christmas, birthdays and countless other occasions, many of us are uncomfortable with receiving gifts. I remember, as a young child, it always seemed easier to me to say a polite "No, thank you" when offered something as ordinary as a snack at a friend's house. "No, I mustn’t take something that is yours", I thought - and yet I don't really know why I thought that. I suspect that some of us may think that we are not worthy, feeling that some better or more deserving person should receive the gift.

Sometimes perhaps we are reluctant to accept a gift because we feel like we don't have anything to give back, "I'm sorry, I didn't get anything for you!" we cry, feeling that we cannot simply open our hands and receive. And yet other times, we may be afraid to accept a gift because we fear that there are strings attached, that somewhere beneath the surface of that gift there is going to be an expectation - or worse, an obligation that we didn't sign up for. It may seem safer just to take care of ourselves and our own needs, so that the giver will not have some claim on us.

So what is this "Gift" that I keep writing of? Quite frankly, I am not sure I know. Yet it is no accident, of course, that I am writing of it on Easter. Or perhaps I should say, that I am writing of Him. I remember that, through many of my early questioning and doubting years, I often pondered the question of what was so special about the suffering of this man, Jesus. Undoubtedly, he suffered and died - but certainly many other people have as well, some with deaths that appeared more excruciating and prolonged than his. A new awareness came to me only recently, however. And that is that if Jesus is indeed the Son of God, as Christians believe, his suffering was much, much more.

And herein lies the Gift. Perhaps, just perhaps, God, in Jesus, suffered not just once in time, but is suffering over and over as he chooses to join me in my suffering and to join you in your suffering and everyone else in theirs, now and throughout time. This would mean that he is not a God who watches our pain from afar, but one who out of love, suffers our suffering with us, taking us “by the right hand”. And in so doing, if we are willing, he leads us through to a new level of living where this outpouring of love transforms everyone and everything in its wake. This outpouring of the Holy is, I think, the Gift. It is the Hope we seek. It is the Love we seek. As we begin accepting the Gift, it changes us, gradually or in leaps and bounds, until one day we notice that the Gift is being given through us and we rejoice in our unworthiness... A gift becomes the Gift, as we see that all of the wisdom and hope and beauty and kindness is not from us but from the One who, out of love, has poured himself out. It is given to me and it is given through me. It is given to you and it is given through you.

I realized that I have run the risk of getting far too theological for those among us (all of us?) who are not sure what we believe.

The beauty of the Gift is that you don't have to know what you believe.

You do not have to be worthy.

You may feel too sad to go on.

You may feel full of rage.

You may feel abandoned by God.

You may feel confused.

You may have made horrible mistakes in your life.

You may feel that there is no one who loves you.

The Gift is still given.

And given ...



the next day

and in a year from now ...

It is always there,

waiting to be accepted

little by little

or all at once.

There is no Easter

unless Easter is every day.

I know that words and pictures and music do not make the difficulty of life go away.

But as you read this,

please know that you are not alone.

Finally, I invite you to pray or meditate or simply listen with an open heart to a beautiful expression of the Gift, a musical celebration of His triumph over death:

(The music that played here has been removed on 5/23/10, the end of the formal Easter Season, per my agreement with the copyright holder. If you have an interest in learning about Taize music and meditation, you may click on this link: http://www.taize.fr/en_article681.html)

(Thank you to the following people who, without knowing you, offered to share their glimpse of the Gift with you - at no charge and with no strings attached: Caroline Benken for the first two photos, Janis McGowan for the following four photos, and the Taize Community for granting permission to play their copyrighted music on this site through the Easter season - special thanks to Sabina for facilitating that...)

Friday, April 2, 2010


As I walked toward my church for Good Friday services today, a middle-aged, African American man approached me. His skin had the rough look of someone who has spent a lot of time outdoors and his eyes appeared not to have slept well in days if not weeks. There was a tear on his face, not quite dry. "Why has God forsaken me?" he cried out to me. "Doesn't God love me?" he pleaded to know, as I walked closer. "I have been homeless for 8 months. What have I done wrong?" As I stood and listened, I tried to just be present to his anguish. "Maybe I would be better off dead. I don't know why I was born," he exclaimed, peering into my face. "Does God love me?"

As he repeated his litany of questions, we talked a bit about the homeless shelters nearby. However, it was clear that the man was troubled and that he longed for something more - far more. Unlike many of the unfortunate who walk the streets, this man did not ask for money. He just wanted to know if God loved him - and, if so, why was he still homeless? I asked him his name. I told him that God does love him and that I was sorry that he was suffering so. I told him that I knew I could not solve all of his problems today, but asked if it would be all right if I gave him something. I gave him some money, purposely touching his hand as I did so, telling him that I hoped at least this would help today feel a little better. I told him that I would pray for him. He thanked me and I went on to church, feeling his spirit nearby as we commemorated the crucifixion of Jesus.

Let us hold this man, and the many thousands like him, deep in our hearts.