A Prayer from Ukraine

In response to my previous posting, my long-time friend Gerd Decke, a retired pastor in Berlin, sent me a prayer he had received through a German church-relief agency from the office of the Reformed Church in Transcarpathia, in the western part of Ukraine. This is a historically Hungarian speaking branch of the Calvinist (Reformed) movement of the 16th century that has survived repeated changes in empire and government over the centuries. It has about 135,000 members in 103 congregations, with a bishop in Berehove, Ukraine. In the midst of their extremely difficult circumstances, this is a prayer offered by one of their pastors. The prayer was originally in Hungarian, then translated into German and now into English.

Prayer
(by Rev. Zoltán Laskoti)

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and enlighten us with your grace!

Our candles are burned and burned out, our batteries are dead, we have no reception and no internet – we pray until darkness envelops us.
We remember the times when water reliably flowed from the tap, light lit the rooms and the heating worked and we did not wake up in constant worry.

Our lives are full of discomfort and tension, Lord. Many of us are stressed. You can see it on their faces. Some seek comfort in alcohol. Many men are in despair. Their wives live in fear. Stay with us in the long nights, Lord, find the lost and forsaken and lead them back.

Our children sit in damp, dark basements during the air raids. In our churches we light candles and warm our hands by their flames. When we sing, many have moist eyes. Our eyes and souls are tired from the strain. We often listen gullibly to the gloomy news. We are afraid of winter and the cold. Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, for winter is coming!

We wait for you, Lord, as watchmen wait for the morning, as those who sit in darkness wait for the first rays of light. We wait for you to speak, to act, to guide us.

We hope in your promises and that they lose none of their power. We trust in you.

We thank you for the families that are brought together, Lord, grant that this need will bring people closer together and not apart!

Thank you that our time is in your hands and nothing – neither mighty nor powerful – can separate us from you. In you we trust, for you give us grace and salvation.

Stay with us through the long nights, Lord, and the night will end, it will certainly end. Amen

 

 

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Christmas in Ukraine

There are times in our individual lives, in the lives of communities and nations, and now even on this planet, when a catalytic flash seems to weld together our fitful and ambiguous struggles for justice with the divine intention for all of creation. For many of us, that moment, indeed that apocalypse, that revelation, is taking place in Ukraine. So that is where and how I hear the perennial Christmas story today. Here is how it comes to me as we make our way through the familiar rituals and events of this season.

 

In the darkened road we come upon a crater by a gutted building

where a baby wails among the dead.

Shrieking sirens drown the songs of Christmas

in the scream of missiles bearing down upon the town.

But we can still feel Herod’s fear and greed,

hear the little ones, defenseless, who will topple kings.

In the ruins of a shattered lie

the Word is crying out.

Beneath the golden onion domes lies a body made of wheat and sky

bleeding for us all.

In the burning tanks lie soldiers writhing in the ashes of a fallen empire

pointing speechless at the weeping mother praising God.

 

 

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In the Time of Grace

In the time of grace beyond three score and ten

a clearing opens up before me at the edge of woods

where I have made my fires, built my homes,

and gathered nuts and berries for my journey.

But in the clearing bright with sunlight

I have lost my way,

no towering oak to offer orientation,

no brooklet running down the hill to show the way to river and the sea.

The grass waves this way and that,

the breeze turns flower heads in manifold directions.

The grass receives my pathless footsteps,

thistle heads reach out to grab my shirt,

the ripening blueberries await the bear,

as I stand fixed on edge between the forest and the field,

between the sheltering trees and flowered meadow,

searching for the harvest still to come,

the company of home.

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Framing Anxiety

Anxious feelings pervade our lives these days. The impending climate catastrophes, the horrors of Putin’s war on the people and land of Ukraine, the Trumpists’ efforts to destroy our republic in the name of “saving” it, the inflation at the pump and in the grocery aisle. Anxiety in our stomachs and in our adrenal glands, sits like a ghost of hopes dashed by waves of history we didn’t see coming. We were riding high on the promises of progress, evolution, and technology. We thought that if we could only expand the sphere of democracy and choice we would choose the good or that the good was in our power. But it wasn’t and isn’t.

And so anxiety returns, not just as a miasma of our time but as the existential reality that has always been at the heart of being human, of facing an unknown future. What is it? It is always more than the fear that has a name and an object. It is a looming unnameable shadow that cannot be tamed by our purposes or understanding. It lies in that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach that feels like the mythic original Fall of all humanity.  Sometimes it arises in our dreams and nightmares as our deep consciousness tries to name it, wrestle with it, and take on the scars it seeks to inflict on our waking lives. More than the loss of agency we feel in rage, it is an emptiness in face of the unknown.  That is why some theologians, like Paul Tillich, put it at the core of their understanding of the human before God. Sometimes we English speakers turn to German and call it Angst, as if that would both grant it deeper meaning while objectifying it into another, more graspable world. But anxiety is by nature ungraspable. It is the deep apprehension that we cannot deal with the next moment, the next day, the next year—the future as hostile emptiness, a black hole devouring all possible futures.

Because anxiety is precisely a chilling sense of inadequacy before the future, it is the preferred weapon for those who would rule over us, claiming that only they can relieve us of this terrible burden. They turn anxiety into fear, which they can project onto an enemy that can be defeated. Rather than being intrinsic to the human condition, anxiety is projected onto an enemy force with distinct perpetrators—the ghostly Them—who can be cleared away for the sake of our security. The dictatorial savior is granted powers as extensive as the anxiety pervading our isolated lives. It is a power that always ends in ruin.

Manipulation of our anxiety is not the only ruinous path. We may also fabricate a tiny drama of cheerfulness around us. We can be more than nice, a smiley face on legs. We can even find a world that looks like nice, whether on the screen, the cruise ship, the casino, or the amusement park. We can create a world of make-believe to hide the anxiety from ourselves. We all resort to these crutches for the soul. But they cannot rebuild our legs so we can walk into an uncertain future with some sense of equanimity.

What then do the sages of the human spirit recommend? Wherefrom can spring an equanimity in the face of the future’s intrinsic unpredictability and menace? Appeals to God’s justice or loving purpose for all of creation threatens every inequality by which the richer world survives, thus dissolving the very props by which we seek to fend off our anxious feelings.  Neither can an ethical hope slay this dragon, for appeals to hope itself may only intensify a preoccupation with the untameable future. Even the vision of a benevolent Jesus or Mary filling our future frame still holds us captive to the breathlessness that threatens our very life. A coming Messiah still is swallowed up in the cloud of anxiety itself.

We have, though, the claims of the Now, whether in Jesus’s famous admonition to live like the resplendent lilies of the field (Matt. 6:25-34) or the mindful meditation of our Buddhist teachers. Being present in the moment, including the anxiety that may pervade that moment can open us up to the Life that is seeking expression through us at every moment.

In that moment, release from death-filled anxiety comes in the tangible help we might extend to someone with desperate need for food, for shelter, for comfort in the face of death, for a way out of addiction, itself born so often of anxiety. It is this work of charity, of human connection, of love in the classic sense, that we can find release from anxiety’s black hole.

And then there is the tree. Though we humans have learned to live on ice and rock and treeless tundra, it is to the tree that we return, for it is from the trees that we arose, whose wood has framed our lives on land and water, that has heated our homes, and provided fruits for us to eat, leaves to nourish land in turn, from which the wild extravagance of nature’s bounty grows. And in the tree’s steady, patient circles of annual renewal we find a framing for a life lived in anxiety about the next moment of uncertainty. And of course, there is more—in religious lore, artistic rendering, and even song. In clinging to the tree, even death on and in a tree, we find some harmony with ever resurgent life.

I find these days that the tree gives me a particular kind of immediate activity that transforms my anxiety into peace. For me, even more particularly, it is a turn to the material meditation of my woodcraft. In reworking wood from death to new life as a useful or beautiful object, I find a focus on the moment that is life-giving. In this craft I find a little path to reframing my anxiety as the emptiness of a bowl whose lines and looks evoke receptiveness, acceptance, and a circle of renewal. In building a table I am drawn back into the meals that give shape to human life and the conviviality of a common world.

I would love to hear what is the “wood” in which you also find a way out from the anxiety that plagues our lives so deeply, especially in these times of loss.

 

 

 

 

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