This week a friend reminded me that Nightbirde, the lovely singer who got famous last year on America’s Got Talent with her original song “It’s Ok” passed away from her struggle with cancer. She was 31 years old.
I watched her performance there again on Youtube and it moved me, partly because her circumstances were really not ok. And that’s what her song is actually about – that it’s okay not not be ok. Her husband of 5 years left her when she got her second diagnosis a few years back. She didn’t know how she could fight for her life alone, with this heartbreak. She realized she had to forgive him, in order to heal in any way, physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
Her faith in Jesus guided her through the suffering. As I looked into her story, I found out that before she was diagnosed, she had stopped pursuing music for 3 years because she felt like it had become an idol in her life and was hurting her relationships. And then she got diagnosed with breast cancer, after that sacrifice, and was like, what the heck God?! I gave up my dreams to focus on you and this is what I get?
But during her treatment, she felt like God was saying to her, I want you to look me in the face. And what she realized when she looked God directly in the face, often on the bathroom floor, so sick she couldn’t move for months on end, is that she was LOVED beyond anything she could do to earn that love, beyond any love she had ever known before.
She was able to forgive her husband who left her, partly inspired by the little allegory I keep telling you about: Hinds Feet on High Places. In that story, the main character runs into a beautiful little flower growing out of a rock, and finds out the flower’s name is “Bearing the Cost,” or “Forgiveness.” This flower had been displaced, by no fault of her own, but decided to put roots where she got left, and was watered by drops that fell on the rock and became every bit as beautiful as she was meant to be. Nightbirde realized that she didn’t need to wait for “the other person” to apologize or understand. She could bloom where she was planted in these terrible circumstances. She recalled the parable that Jesus tells about the weeds, where he instructs his disciples not to pull them up, because they might pull up the good crops with the weeds. Her message became that if you try to avoid the hardship in your life, you’ll probably pull up the good work that God is doing there, too.
She wrote in a blog post: “Maybe we missed it—what God showed us when he first introduced himself: that he will crawl into the dirt to be near us.” And she chose her stage name because she dreamt about birds singing in the darkness for three nights in a row. In other blog posts she wrote:
“I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead he let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. And for 40 years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, he sent them mercy bread from heaven…
When it comes to pain, God isn’t often in the business of taking it away… He is more of a giver than a taker. He doesn’t take away my darkness, he adds light. He doesn’t spare me of thirst, he brings water. He doesn’t cure my loneliness, he comes near. So why do we believe that when we are in pain, it must mean that God is far?
I am still reeling, drenched in sorrow. I am still begging, bargaining, demanding, disappearing. And I guess that means I have all the more reason to say thank you because God is drawing near to me. Again. Again. Again. No matter how many times he is sent away.”
I’m telling you all this not to glamourize suffering (there is nothing glamorous about it) but to offer the seed of possibility that lent holds: that letting God and others in to what we’re going through will lead to transformation. The cross is humanity’s bathroom floor, and Jesus meets us there this season, bearing the cost, grieving with people of Ukraine and all those who are oppressed. Being open and seeking God in our suffering, which is often called confession, enables us to be more in solidarity with one another and to experience how God is in solidarity with us.
So I want to invite us this week to open our eyes to grief and suffering instead of pushing it away like we naturally want to do… I know this might sound very counterproductive and melodramatic after two years in a pandemic and tons of social and relational upheaval. But I want to propose to you that letting ourselves feel it (instead of just trying to move on) might help us come through it transformed, like Jesus. Our patient awareness might help reveal what matters in it, like Nightbirde’s family said after she died, “Grieving is the soul’s way of saying this mattered.” Getting in touch with our need might help us look into the face of God and see how much we’re loved and valued. If we can resist the urge to pull up the weeds of hardship in our lives, the crops of goodness that are growing there too might come to maturity.
I’m getting into the plant metaphor that is our guide this Lent. I hope it expands our imaginations about who the Holy Spirit is and how she works and what she might be able to do with our grief and suffering, in ways that we literally can’t see right now at the beginning of the journey.
Our worship leaders are inviting us to paint mycelium networks all over these brown fabric panels in the room, coming out from the cross. (If you don’t know about mycelium, don’t worry, I just learned about it a few months ago when my son got into foraging for mushrooms.) Mycelium is this microscopic network of fungus that creates healthy soil. It breaks things down into nutrients that can be transferred from one plant to another. The mushroom is just the fruit of the bacteria that is a vast and powerful NETWORK that is woven all throughout the soil, to the tune of 8 miles in every square inch! You might have heard of this called “the woodwide web,” because mycelium actually helps trees communicate with one another and assist each other. Mycelium can carry distress signals and then respond by sending more nutrients to other plants and trees that need it. The biggest trees could never survive without these little tiny networks that provide sustenance and connection. You can see how mycelium looks like lung passageways too, or blood vessels. This is the stuff of life, which is also the stuff of change and transformation.
Another way to see mycelium at work is in a compost pile. Composting is a way to turn food scraps into rich soil for new things to grow. The food scraps are mixed with other organic material, like straw, and twigs, and grass clippings, and mycelium starts to grow in this mix to break down the food scraps into fertile soil, powerful enough to break new seeds open so they can germinate and take root and become fresh food.
The nature of the power here, that I want us to note, is in death and decay. This is the upside-down truth of the spiritual life, too. The form of the thing has to fundamentally CHANGE in order to produce new life. This is the hard part for us humans. For a seed to break open in the ground, the seed has to “die.” Jesus said, “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it will produce an abundant harvest.” He was talking about himself and everyone who follows him. Our hard outer shells have to break open to release the potential energy of who we’re meant to become. Mycelium helps to do that gently, but powerfully, in the earth, and we could compare it to the power of the Spirit in our lives, working through us together.
This is our invitation to Lent. Realizing that the Spirit connects us, and allowing her to gently break us open to change, so we can become the fullness of who we’re designed to be. We could simply start by admitting that it’s okay to not be okay, and nurture a tiny willingness to let God work in our hardship and not avoid it. Recognizing our sadness and frustration, as well as our hope and longing. The apostle James says “confess your sins to one another to be healed.”
The Holy Spirit helps us gently, like a mycelium network, but it’s still uncomfortable, especially for us Americans, and especially for those of us with more social privilege than others. Who wants to admit that you’re not okay? Not me. I was trained to be okay, to keep the whole system running. And the older I get, the more I realize how oppressive and unnecessary that was. Jesus has a new way in mind that isn’t a system, it’s a life where we get to be fully human. Breathing and changing, allowing the Spirit to keep transforming us as we cooperate with grace. After all, we are organic, too! One of my favorite Jesus-followers, paleontologist Tielhard de Chardin wrote this great little note about this spiritual process of transformation we’re in, individually and together, based on how it works in the earth:
Above all, trust in the slow work of God. We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay. We should like to skip the intermediate stages. We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability and that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you. your ideas mature gradually – let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.
Our church has been in a real process of transformation over the past year and a half. Our founding pastors retired at the same time we felt a deeper call to racial justice. The process has not gone as I have anticipated. It has been very difficult. But God keeps calling me to a deeper surrender to the process of his Spirit moving in our Body. It really is the process that the apostle Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians – that the parts of the body that have received less honor must receive greater honor so the whole body can heal and work together. Centering the voices of BIPOC, LGBTQIA, and disabled persons among us connects us in a new and necessary way. Recognizing and tending to the suffering in our own body allows us all to be more fully human.
We could think about the invitation to Lent like bringing ourselves to God’s compost pile, acknowledging our need for the Spirit’s healing work. We could compost our grief and suffering instead of hiding and avoiding it in the regular garbage, where it’s instantly out of sight and out of mind.
Do you know what happens when you put food scraps in the regular trash? They not only don’t get a chance to break down and regenerate into new food, they get stuck between layers of plastics and other non-organic matter that produces methane that harms the atmosphere. The quick fix really doesn’t work, which can be compared to our avoidance and resistance to letting God see and help us metabolize our pain.
We have 40 days to make a proverbial compost pile of our grief and sin to see what God can do, slowly and gently, to make us soft and fertile for new life. I hope the plant metaphor helps to remind you that this is a natural process; even though it’s uncomfortable and difficult (dirty and stinky, if you go with the metaphor), we’re made for it. Jesus died and is risen, so this transformation process won’t stay in the grave with us either. It will make something new of us.
Let’s take it one gentle step at a time, being gentle with ourselves though as God is toward us. I saw an older woman jogging in FDR park the other day, and she was hobbling along so feebly, with such tiny, painful-looking steps that I felt so much gentleness for her. And God said to me something like, “Rachel, that’s how I feel about you and your process. Here you are being so hard on yourself, but I have the same feeling of gentleness and compassion for you as you do for that lady.” Can we trust in God’s heart for us this Lent, enough to acknowledge what we want and need? Like Nightbirde discovered the suffering face of Christ in her own, you are each seen and loved with an immoveable Love that can bring us through changes.
God, in all that is not ok, meet us this season. Show us your face, on the bathroom floor or wherever. Help us not avoid our suffering or the suffering of others. Help us to see and accept ourselves and others in deeper, fuller ways, connected by your Spirit who is working to transform us into nourishment for the world.