“Have mercy on me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.”
Some years around my birthday, I flip through the Bible, hunting for meaning in the chapters that reflect the age I am turning. This has gotten trickier as time spins on. There are now only two books in the Bible for which this still works: I have more years than even Jeremiah has chapters! Psalms has become my birthday go-to, for obvious reasons.
When I turned 57 last December, I flipped directly to the book that has spoken my heart with tuning-fork accuracy through the years. Once again, the Psalm resonated true, and I found myself reflecting on disaster, refuge, and those who seek it. I have been haunted by recent images of the ruins of Aleppo. Suffering on a grand scale is being played out even as I type, half a world away. One brain-searing image showed a river of refugees engulfed in grey rubble, exposing more pain and loss than I can fathom. How can I wrap my mind around one’s entire world literally crashing in ruins at her feet? The sheer magnitude of the crisis makes it convenient to distance myself, thereby discounting the individual lives of the children, women and men who stare out from the photograph. Yet each pair of eyes represents a name, a story, a family, just as surely as I do.
Similar photographs from Time magazine haunted me in 1994. The same forced homelessness, this time on African soil: miles of Rwandan refugees wandering a barren landscape, striving merely to survive. Should a family member be found in the melee, it would be an unexpected gift. I had no way of knowing when I studied those images as a young mother of three, that years later I would come to befriend, and be mentored by one who survived the perils of this genocide. I know no one who has suffered more; yet the tacit strength, wisdom and generosity of my Rwandan friend remains a testament to beauty forged in suffering. She graces each soul she meets on her journey.
Another image of excruciating suffering comes to mind: Emmett Till’s beautiful boyish face, disfigured in his coffin, killed by raging racism. His mother was certainly a refugee, searching for a home in a bizarre and vile land. Her world crashed in ruins when her fourteen year old returned home from his trip south in a casket. How was Mamie Till able to sit through her son’s trial, watch his murderers go free, all the while spewing vitriol at her? How did she pick up the pieces, go on to live a life of beauty, triumph and forgiveness, teaching young black men in the city of Chicago for over a decade?
What makes one soul able to arise from desolation to grace, while another understandably breaks into fragments of their former self? Exactly how does a person go about mining beauty from suffering? I wrestled with these questions during one particularly severe season of suffering, when my bone marrow was unable to save my beloved sister’s life. Nineteen years later, we still try to make sense of the death of this brilliant soul, mother of five young children. I may never know the answer, but I must continue to wrestle, for suffering and beauty are as certain as the seasons. Above all, the image of Christ on the cross haunts me. Born a refugee, Jesus experienced excruciating, unjust suffering. I imagine Jesus the God-Man. peering out from his own torment on the cross; at me, at each harrowed human soul. And as his human eyes meet mine, they re-humanize me, each one of us, providing a way through the darkness. I may wrestle with this angst as long as I have birthdays. And as long as I wrestle, I will take refuge in the shadow of the Most High.
Cold, barren days and long nights of January can provide their own kind of suffering. This easy, hearty soup offers the perfect antidote for such a season.
“Have mercy on me, O God, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” Repeat, as needed.
Research indicates that serving others is one of the best ways to release dopamine in the brain, providing a more positive outlook. In times of suffering, sending a card to someone, visiting a nursing home or calling a shut-in can be meaningful to both giver and receiver.