Leaning into darkness

 

River

It is hard to believe that such peaceful place of quiet beauty can swallow a life. A hot July day, the first of the school holidays and youngsters kicking up their heels, their lives and the long lazy days of Summer stretching ahead of them. They could never have foreseen that the day would end in tragedy, with a 15 year old lad losing his life beneath the surface of this river. Today, four years on, I watch from a distance as they gather around his grave, my heart heavy for their grieving.

I can never forget. Days into my curacy, I was pitched headlong into this unfolding drama of loss almost from the first moments. Racing to the scene, talking to traumatised youngsters and worried villagers as we waited the many hours until the emergency services found and recovered his body. From the television interview to the funeral and beyond into the weeks, months and years of heartbreak and adjustment to loss that followed, it was my tender privilege to travel with the family and the community. The sudden tragic death of a teenager inevitably causes profound shock waves not unlike a major earthquake within the microcosms of family, village and school. Life can never be the same. It can only be slowly and painfully rebuilt.

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How I wish this was a rare, exceptional event, as no family should have to face this horror. Alas my heightened sensitivity has zeroed in on news reports over and over each summer of young lives lost by drowning. Innocent fun turning fatal in the blink of an eye. Over sixty children lose their lives in this way each year in the UK, and is the third largest cause of child deaths. In the last few weeks I have heard of at least four, one only yesterday. Five years old.

Sudden death of any cause has the same seismic effects on hearts and lives. Every day it seems we wake up to hear of yet more horrors and violent atrocities with communities and families ripped apart by terrorism and hate crimes. Each candle burning, each flower laid representing a precious individual gone from the lives of those who loved them. Grief that will go on – long long after the news focus has moved on. Worlds turned upside down. It is hard not to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

One of the most famous prophetic descriptions of Jesus comes from Isaiah 53, describing him as ‘A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief‘.  At its simplest, and from personal experience I know this to mean Love that sits with us in the dark. The darkness of grief and the darkness of unknowing. Watching, waiting, keeping vigil. Nail-pierced hands that hold ours. Tears that fall from God’s face.

Three years ago today, on the first anniversary of this young man’s death, I came across a timely prayer poem that spoke deeply to me and I offer it here. It turns out they are the lyrics to a song on an album called Take Heart by Velma Frye, co written with Macrina Wiederkehr.


LEANING INTO DARKNESS (M. Wiederkehr, V. Frye)

Draw me into the depths.
Take me down to the holy darkness to Love’s roots.
I lean into that darkness,
The darkness that surrounds me,
This nurturing room for my restless spirit.

Let me borrow your eyes, Beloved.
Then I shall see in the dark, though for answers I do not look.
It is enough to wait,
To wait in the holy darkness,
This nurturing womb for Love’s yearning.

Listening to the sound of silence,
And leaning into the song of darkness, I wait for You.
Waiting with purpose for who I will become,
Waiting without agenda for things I can not change,
I become one with the One I love,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me.

I keep vigil:
with my heart’s eternal questions, and with my deep longings.
with those places in my being where the light has grown dim.
with those whose hearts are tired, & with those whose hope is lost.
for those who sleep and for those who can not rest.
for those with fearful hearts, and for those whose hearts are angry.
for those whose courage is waning and for those whose strength is growing.
for those who suffer, and for those who keep vigil.

I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil. I keep vigil,

For I have seen too many stars,
Too many stars to let the darkness overwhelm me

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I am always so grateful for the gift of words or art that others offer, putting pain, blessing and healing into words or form that speak in a profound way. These gifts are often costly, self-sacrificial baring of souls. Someone who frequently does this for me is fellow priest, author and artist Jan Richardson  who blogs at The Painted Prayerbook. Her latest post, A Blessing when The World is Ending,  from her book Circle of Grace (which I can highly recommend along with her other work) seems to dovetail beautifully with the lyrics above.

Blessing When the World is Ending

Look, the world
is always ending
somewhere.

Somewhere
the sun has come
crashing down.

Somewhere
it has gone
completely dark.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the gun,
the knife,
the fist.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the slammed door,
the shattered hope.

Somewhere
it has ended
with the utter quiet
that follows the news
from the phone,
the television,
the hospital room.

Somewhere
it has ended
with a tenderness
that will break
your heart.

But, listen,
this blessing means
to be anything
but morose.
It has not come
to cause despair.

It is simply here
because there is nothing
a blessing
is better suited for
than an ending,
nothing that cries out more
for a blessing
than when a world
is falling apart.

This blessing
will not fix you,
will not mend you,
will not give you
false comfort;
it will not talk to you
about one door opening
when another one closes.

It will simply
sit itself beside you
among the shards
and gently turn your face
toward the direction
from which the light
will come,
gathering itself
about you
as the world begins
again.

—Jan Richardson
from Circle of Grace © Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.

I think all I can add to these is a heartfelt AMEN.

Transfiguration

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Jesus wanted to pray.  This wasn’t unusual. He was always praying. He would often leave us mid evening and set off by himself, and we’d see him again sometime the next morning. This time he wanted company.  It had been a long, busy day and to be honest, I could have done with my bed, but there was something about the way he asked that made it hard to refuse. There were four of us. Peter and John, Jesus, and myself.

I wasn’t sure where we were going. Only that it was up, and up, and more up. There was very little light, and it took all my concentration to keep following. I could just about see where I was putting my next step.  There was no conversation. We didn’t have the breath for that. It seemed to go on forever. If I was tired before I started, I was exhausted now. This praying stuff was hard work, and no mistake. Finally he stopped. I guess we must have been somewhere near the top, but I couldn’t really see.  It had been warm enough as we were making the effort of climbing, but after a few minutes of pause, I could feel the chill air and drew my cloak around me. Peter, John and I had flopped down to the ground very soon after stopping. I guess we were all feeling pretty much the same.

We have never discussed that night. In fact this is the first time I have told this story. The details are burned into my memory, together with a host of swirling emotions. I have gone over them many times in my mind, but it is hard to find the words to describe quite what happened.

Jesus remained standing, a little way from us. He was praying silently. I am afraid I was shaking my head to stay awake. Too tired to pray.  Too tired to think. My body and my brain were trying to shut down and it was all I could do to fight it.  He had wanted us with him for some reason, and I was trying to do just that, but losing.  I tried to keep my eyes focused on him, and listening for anything he might say.

I thought I must have started dreaming.  Either that or the thin mountain air was playing tricks with my brain.  Jesus’ face began to radiate with light as did his clothes. It was like he lit up from within. Brighter and brighter, until I was completely dazzled. Frightening didn’t begin to cover it. It is strange how overwhelming light can feel.  I don’t have a word that describes it adequately.  I thought I knew this man I had worked alongside, but this being, radiant with glory beyond imagining, splintered all my preconceptions.

All at once there were three of them. Three shining figures talking together. It was Moses and Elijah. Don’t ask me how I knew that, I have never been able to explain that to myself – but I knew without a shadow of doubt, that is who they were, the instant I saw them. Moses was speaking to him of the ‘Exodus’ Jesus was about to accomplish in Jerusalem. A deliverance that would eclipse the rescue Moses led, by a million miles. (At the time, I barely understood what they were talking about. I heard the words, but I couldn’t take them in. I see so clearly now they were encouraging him for his journey to the cross as ‘the Lamb of God’.)  Their conversation came to a close, and Moses and Elijah appeared to be turning to leave him.

Peter’s voice made me jump. Speaking too fast and too loudly, he gabled something about making shelters for each of them. I think he wanted this extraordinary moment to last longer- I am not even sure if he knew what he was saying. The words had barely left his lips when we were all enveloped in a cloud. Weather can change very quickly in the mountains, but this was like no cloud I had ever seen. I find it hard to explain it to you. It was terrifying. Like the cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert- we were engulfed in God. The sense of being in the Presence of the Almighty God was electrifying. I could barely breathe. I have never felt such an intense awareness of holiness. It made me want to lie flat on my face, but I couldn’t move.  To be honest, I didn’t know if I was still alive.

Then God spoke. Spoke to me- to us.  It sounded like thunder and yet felt like a whisper. I know that doesn’t make sense, but you’ll have to believe me. “THIS IS MY SON” the words were charged with such love and power “ MY CHOSEN”

I trembled from head to foot. “LISTEN TO HIM!”  As the sound died away, the cloud melted and Jesus was simply standing there. Alone. The same man that had climbed the mountain with us, looking very human and vulnerable, and yet everything had changed.

We didn’t speak. Couldn’t speak. Even Peter, for once, was completely silent. Awestruck. I was still trembling. The command to listen was still echoing in my ears and I was listening with every fibre of my being.  Jesus didn’t say a word, but his face and his eyes spoke volumes. The light no longer blazed from his face, but my heart was aflame.

Some months later I heard him describe himself to those listening to him as “the Light of the world” and that “those who followed him would never walk in darkness” and I was instantly taken back to that mountain. How it felt as I walked back down. As if I was carrying the Light I had seen.  I understood him even less than before, and yet I would follow him wherever he led, even if I didn’t know where he was going.  I had to follow him even into the darkness, as how else would I see? How else would I hear?

And to think I almost fell asleep.

All in a name


It was dark in the garden. It was dark in her heart. She had known plenty darkness before. The cold, eclipse of rejection. The pitch black of shame. The midnight of self hatred. But none like this. This was worse than all of those combined. Hope had been hammered out of her with the nails that they had roughly banged into his already broken, feet and hands. Even now, she didn’t know how she had stood there, and watched them do that to Him, except that she couldn’t tear herself away. The excruciating anguish of seeing his agony, and being helpless to do anything to help him, had torn her apart. That was Friday. A blur of pain and fire. Saturday she had been mute with grief, unable to think, or take anything else in. This morning she had forced her exhausted body to move. There was one more thing she could do for him.

This time, no one would see her, and criticize. No mocking words or sneers. She would pour her love  out for him for the last time. She would tenderly anoint his beloved, broken body with precious perfumed oils. This time, however, he would not smile at her. His scarred face would be still. His extraordinary eyes would be dull and closed forever.

She didn’t know how she was going to get past the guards, hadn’t a clue how she would move the stone with which they they had sealed his tomb. Nothing would stop her though. If it was the last thing she did, she would say her goodbye, and prepare his body properly for burial. That was the least she could do. What more had she got to lose?

Finding her way to the place she had seen his body hastily dumped, before the onset of the Sabbath, she was stopped in her tracks. They had taken even this last goodbye. Guards gone, the tomb gaping in yawning emptiness. They couldn’t even leave his body to rest in peace. Anger and confusion spurred her feet as she ran back to tell Peter and John of this final desecration. They ran too, looked and left. Unable to deal with themselves, unable to deal with her. She was left, and like at the foot of his cross, she couldn’t tear herself away, even though there was nothing to stay for. Nothing to live for. The tears flowed, as she wept for all that might have been. She had never known love and acceptance as this Man had showed her. Never experienced forgiveness and heartbreaking mercy that lifted her out of the dust, and breathed new life into her beaten down soul. She had watched him do it for so many others too, but now all that was gone.

The tomb was empty. The beloved body stolen, who knows where. She shuddered to think what they might have done with him. As if they hadn’t done enough. She looked again into the hollowed out space in the rock, wondering if she might at least gather his grave clothes. There were two men sitting in there, where his head and feet would have been. She couldn’t take in who they might be or why they were there. They asked her a stupid question.

Why are you crying?

WHAT ELSE DO YOU DO AT A GRAVE?!” she wanted to shout at them- “ isn’t it obvious?!”  “They have taken him away, and I have lost- everything”  She turned away – unable and unwilling to engage. Lost in her loss.

The sun was just rising, lifting over the city and bathing her in light. The light hurt almost more than the darkness. Another day. Another day he would never see. She folded in on herself.

There was a sound close by. A footstep. Suddenly concious of another person , who as she looked up, was standing in the brightness of the dawn. She could only see his outline, framed with light, and blurry with her tears.

Why are you weeping?”  the same question.

Gently and compassionately asked with a voice that sounded as if it cared about the answer.

Who are you looking for?” 

He could only be the gardener, but the question  reached right into her being. Right into the depths of her pain. Somewhere deep inside, in the darkness, there was the faintest glimmer of light.

If you know where he is, if you have moved him- tell me”  she pleaded. There was just a whisper of a chance she would find his body, after all.

He didn’t answer and she still couldn’t see his face, or read his expression. Silence. A pause in which the world turned, and her heart lifted towards hope, against herself.

Mary” 

No one else said it like that. No one else had ever put such unconditional love into the simple saying of her name. That beloved voice called her a second time out of a nightmare     of darkness, bringing her back to life.  It couldn’t possibly be – and yet it was. She had been looking for a corpse, and she had found a living Lord, who knew her, and called her by name.

Rabbouni!”   was all she had breath to say. She fell at his feet. The feet she had anointed with her tears; the feet she had seen hammered to the rough wood of the cross. Reaching out to hold them – she wanted to stay in this moment forever. Be sure it was real. That he was real. That her teetering mind hadn’t tipped finally, over the edge.

Gentle hands lifted her up. His smile was as wide as the sea, and the eyes she thought had closed for ever, twinkled with life and laughter. A name, a smile. A smile that reached out and found all the shattered pieces of her heart, and drew them together again, into a new whole.

Now go– and tell my brothers who you have seen”  he asked of her. Be the one to tell them I am alive. Be the Hope Bearer. Turn their lives upside down, as yours has been.

She didn’t hesitate. Carrying the good news- she ran with joy, in the glory of the rising sun, that was lighting up the world.

Creator God, you are there

In the deepest, darkness of night, and in the faintest glimmers of dawn, where Hope starts to shine, Creator God you are there.

I sang this lovely song, along with the college choir, at our Community Eucharist the other evening. We used it as an anthem, picking up the creation/re-creation theme in this weeks lectionary readings. (Genesis 1:1-2:3, Psalm 136, Romans 8: 18-25, Matthew 6:25-end.)

The words have  stayed with me. In both the beauty, and the pain- Creator God you are there, in the midst of us. In a week which has seen so much pain and heartache across the world, in New Zealand and Libya, particularly, they seemed to speak ( to me anyway) .

 

 

In the darkness of the still night

in the dawning of the daylight,

in the mystery of creation,

Creator God, you are there.

in the breath of every being,

in the birthing and the growing,

in the earth and all its fullness,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In the homeless and the hungry,

in the broken and the lonely,

in the grieving of your people,

Creator God, you are there.

in the tears and in the heartache,

in the Love through which we serve you,

in the anguish of the dying,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In our hearts and in our thinking,

in the longing and the dreaming,

in the yearning of our heartbeat,

Creator God, you are there.

In the love for one another,

in the sharing of our being

in receiving and forgiving,

Creator God, you are there.

 

In our joys, our hopes, our healing,

in awakening to revealing,

in your call and our responding,

Creator God, you are there.

In our prayer and in our service,

in our praise and in our worship,

in your love that is eternal,

Creator God, you are there.

 

The author of words and music, is Margaret Rizza, and you can listen to the song, by clicking on the link below: