"...With the sting of the whip on my shoulder
With the salt of my sweat on my brow
Elohim, God on high
Can you hear your people cry:
Help us now
This dark hour....
Hear our call
Lord of all
here in this burning sand
There's a land you promised us
Deliver us to the promised land..." Stephen Schwartz
After Tuesday's post, and my obsession with singing "When you believe…" for the last few days, our family just had to watch "Prince of Egypt" again. So, fair warning, you may see a host of pieces in the coming weeks inspired by Prince of Egypt lyrics. The music from that movie and the Moses-related stories behind them have a way of weaving through my prayers once I start singing them as I go about my day doing laundry, taking calls, and listening for the voice of God.
Clara asked a question the other night during a rather difficult scene towards the beginning of the movie where the Egyptian taskmasters are whipping the shoulders of a "grandpa" Hebrew slave. I don't remember the exact way she put it, but it boiled down to how he could pray to God in the middle of being beaten.
I have had the privilege of learning something about praying in the midst of great pain. And I really do mean that it has become a privilege, because it has sent me deeper and deeper into the kingdom of heaven and away from being informed by the senses about what I am capable of doing or thinking at any given moment. It has taught me that there is nothing that can stop me from…well, simply being me.
Whether the pain has been the physical agony of cancer, the emotional ache of a failed relationship, the social anguish of rumors and gossip, or the economic torture of a shattered economy, I have learned that I am capable of finding peace, hearing God's whispered assurance right in the midst of pain's screaming.
Some time ago I wrote a post called "Screaming Has No Authority" about a critical moment of awakening for me regarding the impotent and inarticulate voice of pain. But today I am cherishing my childhood and how it gave me a mental model for finding deep inner peace in the midst of pain's persistent doggedness.
Most readers know that I am the oldest child in a family of ten. Growing up was a noisy affair. By the time I reached high school all eight children had been born and we were living in a small carriage house on a large estate. There were ten of us in 1,100 square feet of living space. Excluding our one small bathroom and the laundry room on the unheated back porch, we were sharing about 850 square feet. If you do the math you can see that, at any given time, we each had no more than 85 square feet of space to call our own. That translates into a rectangle the size of an 8-1/2 by 10 foot king-size bed….for everything…eating, sleeping, playing the piano, doing homework. Thank goodness we loved each other…a lot.
This was all fine and good when we were sitting at the kitchen table at dinner time and all engaged in the same activity. But when it was time to do homework, read a book, or write a paper, it was impossible to find a quiet corner to accomplish critical tasks.
I remember being in junior high school and crying bitterly in my mother's arms. I hated being me. I wanted a new family that was smaller and quiet. I wanted to be a good student and it was impossible to study in the noisy, chaotic space we called home. My brothers were playing with Tonka trucks on the kitchen floor, my sister was practicing a dance routine with the record player blaring, another sister was talking on the telephone, and the baby was banging wooden spoons on empty pots and pans.
My mom smiled and told me that getting a new family probably wasn't going to happen. This was the family I had been given and if I was going to be a good student I would have to figure out how to do it right in the middle of our home. I don't think I surrendered to anything like giving up my dream of a quiet family and a spacious house that night. I probably just went to my bedroom, crawled into my bottom bunk and sulked. I knew I wouldn't even find any quiet there, since another sister was probably already in the other bunk practicing outloud for a spelling test.
But I did stop thinking that a magic escape hatch would suddenly appear, or that somehow we'd get a bigger house where I'd have my own bedroom and desk. I realized it was going to be me at the kitchen table in the midst of a noisy family….or bust. And bust wasn't an option if I wanted to go to college.
By high school I had mastered using the chaos and noise as a way of going deeper and deeper into place of focused concentration. The louder it got, the better I got at zeroing in on the task at hand where I would exist in a bubble of inner silence, displacing the distractions of noise and activity with a transfixed focus that was unassailable.
This rolled over into my spiritual practices. The noisier the environment, the more focused my thoughts and the deeper my prayers. I have been able to find the inner stillness I needed to pray in the middle of a Paul McCartney and Wings concert in Boulder's Folsom Field packed with 50,000 screaming fans, and in the midst of a hurricane-like storm while sailing the shipping channels off the Chesapeake Bay on a motor-less 42 foot schooner…sheets screaming and halyards banging.
For years I wondered why God didn't just send me a quiet family to live with, or a quiet space to study and pray. But I've stopped that questioning. The first time I experienced unrelenting chronic pain, I knew what a treasured childhood I'd had and how it had taught me to find peace. I could go deeper. I could leave the screaming of agony outside the bubble of my inner silence and focus on the feelings of love, joy, gratitude, and peace that were so much deeper...more grounded...within my heart. I could appreciate those feelings, nurture them and watch them grow larger and larger in me until they burst through the thin film-like membrane of pain and all that was left in me…and around me…was the power and presence of peace asserting itself, the only truth of my being.
So this is why, when Clara asked me about the Hebrew grandpa who was being beaten and yet could still sing out his prayer to God, I smiled. Perhaps it is part of our spiritual DNA as members of the tribe of humanity - the "Children of Israel" -something practiced and spiritually evolved in us through years of slavery in Egypt, that allowed Elijah to hear the still, small voice of God in the midst of the earthquake, wind and fire...that allowed Jesus to sleep soundly in the middle of stormy seas and refuse the vinegar and gall from the summit of the cross...and that sustained Stephen, Peter, Paul, Matthew, Ghandi, Elie Wiesel, Corrie Ten Boom, and Mandela as prisoners of war, oppression, torture, and deprivation.
Perhaps there is an inherent awareness in each of us of a place...a land.. so "vast, calm and measureless" pulling us deeper and deeper toward a core tranquility when the senses scream. It calls to our hearts, piercing the darkness like a lighthouse, drawing us to a safe harbor in the midst of a storm. Perhaps it is this deep inner serenity, our consciousness of good, an awareness of love...the unassailable certainty that we are more than the screaming voice of pain, materialism, doubt, self, and fear says we are...that really is the eternal story of our lives.
Perhaps we are giving birth to this deeper self in those moments of pain and discomfort...giving birth to an understanding of a self that cannot be separated from God, a self that cannot be imprisoned, tortured or oppressed by Pharoah, or fear, or fire, or Pharisees. Perhaps we are ever, and only, the self that sings:
There's a land you promised us,
to the promised land…"