Pauses for Hope
a praxical theologian's modest collection
Life is Precious
I am searching for sites of collective mourning, confronted by the mountainous number of deaths from this unrelenting pandemic. 800,000 lives and the millions more intimately connected to them command a sea of tears, days and days of mourning. Yet, our hearts hardly have bandwidth to embrace adjacent sorrows because our own immediate spaces are taken up by an undecipherable sense of disorientation, distraction, depression.
I read the obituary of a 86-year old woman who died in Connecticut. I immediately loved her. “A sharp dresser who had a weakness for elegant hats.” A part of the Silent Generation, she spent her resilient life raising funds for domestic abuse survivors. I imagined the family raised by this marvelous woman and how, after this terrible season passes, they will gather and talk for hours about her captivating ways, her strength, her hat collection.
My mother taught me that friends’ weddings and funerals of their families are to be attended, without excuse. Life’s heights and depths are to be shared with one another. Among the two events, funerals are definitely not to be missed. I have quietly thanked my mother sitting in the back row of many memorial services that I almost decided I wouldn’t be able to make.
Maybe this is why I have been so confounded by the numbers of people who are dying alone and the unknowable number of those who are grieving in isolation, unable to lean on another, to weep together, to receive the consolation of friends who show up to be with us in the depths of loss. Without the rituals of remembrance providing shape and words to boundless grief, it is hard to know how to feel or speak about life so illusively missing.
I am weak to tears. These days my eyes well up at the thought of life so swiftly gone. I feel it is important to take time to say, to write out this statement: Life is precious.
Death is a part of our journey, and countless lives have succumbed to illness, violence, wars, and unnecessary tragedies long before this pandemic. Perhaps, it is the unfathomable concentration and global nature of deaths reported during this crisis that overwhelm our capacity to resolve what we hear and see with our hearts.
My seminary colleague and poet pastor, Andrew Taylor-Troutman, through his gift of words provides a place for my restless heart to weep with those who are mourning. I followed him to the edges of anxiety and followed him to the chapel where he stood under the elegant swags of purple, beside his friend, to share the burden of death, to bear reverent witness to life.
At the Edges
by Andrew Taylor-Troutman
In memory of GFY
When my best friend asked me to be
a pallbearer for his father’s funeral,
I replied Of course I will, I’d be honored
and felt the anxiety around the edges
as I wondered how far the virus had spread
and how many were unknown positives.
I slipped unnoticed into the narthex,
pumped the hand sanitizer three times,
then signed the guestbook with my own pen
and sat in isolation in a pew near the back.
As a distant organist played old familiars,
purple Lenten banners hung exposed in the air
and The Lord’s Table sat empty and sterile.
When the priest intoned, rise if you are able,
the coffin was wheeled down the center aisle
followed by my friend, hefting his toddler.
His older daughter halted beside my pew,
her face split into an infectious grin.
Service over, I joined the other pallbearers,
the wooden handle smooth and slick in my palm
as I stepped in formation to the hearse,
aware of the others around the coffin
and my friend standing in silent witness,
his hands on the heads of his children.
Smelling of hand sanitizer, I drove
in the slow line of blinking taillights,
my right hand over my beating heart.
At the Edges was originally published on March 25, 2020:
Let’s just stay here.
Why don’t we just live here?
I’ve said this to my spouse during many of our travels. Of course, I’ve suggested this in Bora Bora while on honeymoon. But, I have also imagined our relocated lives while on a bumpy car ride swatting away a thousand bugs across Kigali’s thousand hills.
The chances we have to break away from the routine tasks of our days offer us glimpses of rest, in another world, far from the ordinary demands of life. Whether it is sitting by a running brook in Yosemite or hiding away in a little café in the city, to just stay a little longer away may be a natural desire for all of us.
When troubles rise, when we are entangled in circumstances beyond our control, when heartache presses its weight on hope, we just want to get away from it all. We want to at least know there is relief ahead.
We sojourn through this little while of life looking for the next possible place where a little more peace might be found. We will each face our own piercing pains that crumble our strength to live this earthly life. Whether what we need for this moment is just a respite from the fatigue of our days or a mighty healing hope in the eternal place where we will meet Christ and meet one another again—anew—face to face, the Word in today's lectionary is for all of us, weary ones needing relief.
Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you will be also.
Like coming home to a splendid table prepared just for us, Christ prepares a place for each of us and all of us together. We will find rest from our journeys. We will not look for any other place.
Until then, we decide with faith to believe in God and believe also in the promises of Christ.
O wand'rer come
On Christ believe
Christ's grace by faith receive
Awake, arise and hear Christ's call
The feast is spread for all
O Love Divine, Fanny J. Crosby
The Dinner Table, Henri Matisse
I once met a man who memorized all 150 chapters of the book of Psalms. It was hard not to be impressed, but I tried. As a child of the Korean church Sunday school, I have ambivalent memories of Bible verse memorization contests that likened to an intensive spelling bee tournament. Trophies, medals, proud parents. Nervous kids.
Putting aside my childhood bias, I thought again about the actual process of committing all of the psalms to one’s memory. Reciting a verse morning by morning, practicing a phrase while eating lunch, whispering the entirety of Psalm 91 in those 3 am moments awake. How the words must have fallen onto this dear man’s heart, if not drilled right into it! Mostly, I thought about the reservoir of faith’s poetry hidden in this man’s heart. Its breadth, its depth. Like the deep ocean’s rich ecosystem creating and restoring life. Okay, I was impressed. And, I was inspired. I decided to begin memorizing poetry myself. I would carry within me gracious words, for ease of reach.
I received more than usual emails responding to a recent post on spiritual practice. I sense a general desire for more on this. What are your spiritual practices? was a common question. The first one is practicing poiesis. Basically, I read poetry, memorize it, recite it; feel it, steward it, teach through it. Sometimes the poetry comes from biblical texts, although I don’t have any plans on memorizing entire books of the Bible (of course, those of you who don't have Korean Sunday School memories keeping you, can certainly make such plans!).
Poiesis is thoughtful creating. Practicing poiesis is a spiritual practice for me because it creates in my heart worlds and insights, places and feelings, hopes and despairs beyond my own. It creates a connection to the web of human community. It connects me to land, deep ocean, vast sky. Living close to poetry rushes compassion to the reservoir from which my vocation draws. It is a part of my intentional living—spiritual practice, a disciplined expression of my desire.
From my practice, I share with you the first poem I memorized after meeting the 150-psalms fellow. Kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye, has shaped my beliefs about human nature and the divine. My profession of faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ shapes also my reading of Nye’s offering. I return to this poem often; it has been a quiet backdrop for the previous number of posts. And, it is poignant that many are turning to this poem during these troubling days.
May Kindness bless your journey.
May your journey be marked by poiesis of all kinds.
A brief foreword:
I heard the poet tell the story of being robbed on an overnight bus during her travel in South America many years go. One of the passengers was killed in this terrorizing event. She and her newly married husband lost everything in their possession. They sat on the side of the road, deplete and paralyzed. A local older man stopped on his way and asked if they were okay. He sat down to listen to their story, then said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” She wrote this poem.
by Naomi Shihab Nye
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
You must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.