Breath Prayer for Comfort

I have written a number of times about the Jesus Prayer on my blog.  It truly deserves more reflection from me as it has become my that... my staff for it supported me long before the wounds I have since taken.  But the form of prayer it has given birth to is equally important and something I feel called to share on in the days ahead.

But today I am starting with the image and prayer above.  It was birthed while I was praying the Jesus Prayer and the cry for mercy which I wrote about recently.  As I prayed, there was another longing I began to sense in my soul which needed expression, it needed a word.  It came from a totally different breath prayer from a few weeks before: comfort.

Having just done a funeral and spent time with the stories of so many other caregivers, I was worn down.  Weary.  Maybe even a bit battered as well.  Ever been in that place?  Maybe from a relationship?  A situation at work?  A conversation at home?  The isolation of family who have excluded you?  Yeah, I suspect many have been there in different ways.

The beauty and solace (another rich word) of praying a breath prayer is in the repeating of it.  No, not like that of the pharisees that Jesus condemned for you don't do it out on the street corner.  You ponder it.  Chew it.  Savor it.  Like hot tea or a coffee or cider.  And you do it as many times as you need it.  Silently or out loud.  In the moment you need it.  Mercy.

Facing the Filter of Grief

I had breakfast with one of my best friends the other day.  Waffle House is always a great place for really deep conversations because somehow, that is where our best ones seem to happen lately.  It was in that conversation that we came to agree that suffering is a great filter, straining out everything, sorting what really matters in our lives from the...other stuff.

What I am finding is there are personal traits, protections, and boundaries that also get filtered in this.  There are things I did not even realize were present.  I have learned stereotypes of clergy behavior still exist.  For instance, I’ve always been amazed how people seem to think it is inappropriate for clergy to hunt.  

But suffering, pain, and grieving don’t just filter things, they also lay bare, open and gaping wounds.  And the platitudes of religious jargon and stereotypes are the very things which act, not as the soothing balm of Gilead but more like the BLAM! of Thor’s hammer on the soul.  A few years ago, I listened to one pastor of a north Georgia mega-church quip that “bad things happen because you’ve taken Jesus off the throne of your heart.”  Really?  It is that simple?

In a text (quickly approaching in Lent) from Luke’s gospel, Jesus addresses the tragic events surrounding the collapse of the Tower of Siloam and the deaths of eighteen people (Luke 13:1-9).  Most commentators agree the point Jesus is making is we are ALL equal in our sinfulness; it is a universal condition.  We are all guilty of taking Jesus “off the throne of our hearts.”  

Jesus instead focuses on our universal need to repent and then he goes further.  In the parable of the fig tree included, we are hit with an inconvenient truth: God is slow to punish.  Time is always running out for us but God, Jesus says, is in no rush to pound on us but is waiting and working to bring us to repentance.

One of the un-noted parts of this however, is the underlying theme of our mortality.  Human beings seem to want a cut and dry understanding of who is “in” and who is “out” of heaven.  We would like this issue to be cut and dry.  It is is we who would rather not talk about death or to deny our mortality.  Twenty seconds of viral video footage is “enough” to make our mark.  If we’re remembered for this, at least we were remembered.

The more we try to give meaning to our lives, our suffering, our pain, our grief, and ultimately, our deaths, we rob ourselves of what God says about us: we are worth the very life and love of God’s Son:

God loved the world this way: He gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him will not die but will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.  (John 3:16-17 GW)

More to the point, the focus of Jesus’ coming is NOT condemnation… SURPRISE!!!  Nope, it is out of LOVE and the desire to SAVE.  The love mentioned though, is a sacrificing love, what Michael J. Gorman calls, a “cruciform” love: God’s love is known by the self-sacrificing nature.

But as Gorman writes that the paradigm Jesus’ death-resurrection creates offers us in this new life a new hope hope but “hope, therefore, is inextricably tied up with humiliation and suffering (pg 319, ibid).”  We just want hope with nothing messy and we don’t get that promised to us.

Even though Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jesus still wept (John 11).  I think Jesus grieved, not for the death of Lazarus but the reality that Lazarus would know death twice and so would Mary and Martha.  Hope is tied up with suffering.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ work on the stages of grief, was and remains,
a helpful piece of work for us in the caregiving field.  As a pastor, I often am called upon to help people with this reality.  But my journey with my wife’s cancer and terminal diagnoses and living with my two teenagers has made something really clear: it is painfully messy.

We don’t really grieve in a simple bell curve.  We grieve all over the place.  When you are a caregiver in a long-term situation with family, then you grieve, literally, everywhere: in the car, in conversation, in the pulpit, watching Netflix, out hunting, basically anywhere you are is a cause for grief.  

Yes, I hope but my hope is tempered by the suffering and humiliation which comes from a culture and society which make grief and tears out to be a sign of weakness.  But for the Christian, for me, what I am learning is there really is a different culture available to us; the Kingdom of God is most real to me IN the humiliation and pain because the promise of resurrection IS hope.  

Here is where my filter breaks down though.  I am in the acceptance “arena” about the terminal diagnoses of my wife.  I am facing and having the conversation with God and my kids of preparing to be a single parent.  This IS NOT about lacking hope - this is the reality and it is directly tied to the suffering which I have come to know and live with everyday.  

Pastor and author, Ron DelBene’s observation is we should never, “...hold onto what we think is the wholeness of God.  In the end, it is always more than we expect (“Into the Light, pg 126).”  The hope of resurrection is for the believer, a true reality which ought never be dis-counted from the process of suffering, death, and grief.  We do a disservice to others by robbing them of the hope which we really have - one day, there will be an end to suffering and death.  

Just stop spiritualizing and demythologizing and deconstructing.  Let’s try being honest for a change about what the Bible and Judeo-Christian teaching has made clear for centuries - God did make a way to overcome sin, to make us whole again and make the way open to heaven and paradise.  Jesus Christ is the way and this is my hope in these days of facing reality.

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