Holding Hope

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The Sixth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-five
December 6, 2019


HOLDING

The Day is here
and we made it to Bethlehem!

The time has come for kneeling
and we’ve seen the Child!

There is singing in the stable
and we want desperately to hold on to it . . .
hold on to the Star!
and the angels!
and the spirit of love!

How do we hold on
to the Christmas spirit?
Why can’t every day be Christmas?

The world mutters “Be realistic,”
and sometimes we church people mutter too.

On our way back from Bethlehem
sometimes we forget
what we’ve been warned about in a dream:
to return another way.

Once we’ve seen the Child,
we’re left holding hearts
wherein angels dance
and stars sing!

Once we’ve been to Bethlehem,
every day is Christmas!

— Ann Weems

I am holding, grasping tightly “the Star and the angels and the spirit of love.” My journey to Bethlehem is Advent’s gift. I walk the path with expectation and hope (even just a wee bit of hope some days), and I imagine the glory of the promised Child.

This year during Advent’s pilgrimage, I also walk the rocky path I call my transplant journey. I do hold on to hope as I travel the rough transplant path, and along the way I see tiny glimpses of hope. But not every day. Minute by minute I navigate symptoms and side effects and, on the worse days, my community holds hope for me when I can’t hold it for myself.

On the path — the path of both Bethlehem and transplant journeys — I see graces along the way: stars, angels, Bethlehem’s brightest star, the Child in a simple manger! It’s enough for me, the images that cry out “Hope!” It is holy ground, sacred space. Hope will get me there, sustaining me along the way, as God’s grace carries me.

And the poet’s words are true:

Once I’ve seen the Child, I’m left holding my heart wherein 04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9angels dance and stars sing!

Thanks be to God!

 

 

Sometimes God Flings Stars!

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The Fifth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-four
December 5, 2019

THIS YEAR

I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent
and flings the Star into the December sky,
laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth;
and the angels, hearing the laughter of God,
begin to congregate in some celestial chamber
to practice their alleluias.

I wonder if there’s some ordering of rank among the angels
as they move into procession
the seraphim bumping the cherubim from top spot,
the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back
until they get the knack of it.
(After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating
at the same time can’t be all that easy!)
Or is everybody — that is, every “soul” — free to fly
wherever the spirit moves?
Or do they even think about it?

Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come,
this multitude of heavenly hosts.
Perhaps they come,
winging through the winds of time
full of expectancy
full of hope
that this year
perhaps this year
(perhaps)
the earth will fall to its knees
in a whisper of “Peace.”

— Ann Weems

This year for me is unlike any other year, not at all like Advents of my past. This Advent for me is not at all ordinary. It is an Advent that finds me in a bit of suffering, a bit of pain and, most of all, crying out for peace.

The poet asks: “What might it look like if the earth fell to its knees in a whisper of ‘Peace?’” We are always full of expectancy, full of hope that during some Advent, perhaps this year’s Advent, we will finally hear the earth whispering “Peace.” 

From the place I find myself today, I look for that Peace. Recovering from a kidney transplant and trying to live into a new normal, what I need most is peace. Peace after a life upheaval. Peace after a physical trauma. Peace that might help restore my emotional and spiritual self.

I do so want to fall to my knees in a whisper of “Peace.” But probably not today. Not until some parts of me heal a little more. It’s not always an easy thing, falling to my knees, even in the best of times. Today, though — far from home and family, separated from my friends and my faith community — most things are not easy.

I will remember these recovery days as a season of harsh medications, pain, swelling, itching, tremors, instability and anxiety. But there is another part of my memory that remembers that the Apostle Paul wrote some words that have always spoken deep peace to me. He wrote of being “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”

And then his most comforting words of all: “We do not lose heart. . . for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (From 2 Corinthians 4)

Walking through those words of hope, I think I can make it another day. Even in my darkness of a difficult recovery, perhaps I can gather up my courage and perseverance and walk a few more steps. Yes, this is a hard time.

04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9And yet, I still believe that, in some mysterious way, God comes to the edge of Advent and flings the Star into the night sky, maybe many stars. I can still envision God laughing with joy as starlights illuminate the darkness. And I can almost hear the singing of angels practicing their alleluias.

It is Advent, after all!

“Humbug!” and Hope!

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The Fourth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-three
December 4, 2019

IN DECEMBER DARKNESS

The whole world waits in December darkness
for a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug!”
and chase away the carolers
have been looking toward the skies.

The one who declared he never would forgive
has forgiven,
and those who left home
have returned,

and even wars are halted,
if briefly,
as the whole world looks starward.

In the December darkness
we peer from our windows
watching for an angel with rainbow wings
to announce the Hope of the World.

— Ann Weems

In this season of my life, it would be easy to snarl “Humbug!” and move on to ordinary, tedious, plodding daily living. It’s hard to look starward when pain is your nightly companion, sticking much too close in the darkness of night, the darkness of life. My words this morning are not Advent-inspired words. They are, pure and simple, a factual and real assessment of where I find myself. My most pressing question? How do I get from “Humbug!” to Hope?

It will require an extra measure of faith, patience and perseverance. It will require my willingness to welcome a new normal. It may call for a little extra weeping, a bit more courage, a wide-open soul and maybe even a few angels to illuminate the way ahead.

To be honest, I have to say that on top of my physical pain is my incessant emotional pain that whispers, “You are not okay!” over and over and over again. I know this is not very Advent-like. This view of my current health and well-being is most definitely not Advent-like. But instead of my constant post- transplant complaints and consternations, I want to look for the star in the night sky. I want to listen for the hope-filled sound of the heavenly host singing “Alleluia!” I want to be standing in awe of angels with rainbow wings.

All of this descriptive information is about my current emotional/physical/spiritual space. I know that I don’t want to stay here in this dark place. I know it’s a temporary, necessary time of moving into healing and wholeness. Still, it often feels like darkness. Much more like “Humbug!” than Hope!

So from this dark place, I will myself to look starward, even briefly. I will see past the December darkness. I plan to peer out of my transplant-veiled windows, watching for an angel with rainbow wings announcing the Hope of the World!

May Spirit make it so.

Star-Giving

The Third Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-Two
December 3, 2019

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STAR-GIVING

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .
Brilliance in a package,
something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
something that would never snuff out or tarnish,
something you could hold in your hand,
something for wonderment,
something for pondering,
something that would remind you of
what Christmas has always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.

But stars are only God’s for giving,
and I must be content to give you words and wishes
and packages without stars.

But I can wish you life
as radiant as the Star
that announced the Christ Child’s coming,
and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood
beneath its light.

And I can pass on to you the love
that has been given to me,
ignited countless times by others
who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.

Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star.

— Ann Weems

This poem by Ann Weems called me to think about gifts, about giving gifts and receiving them, about learning how to cherish the gifts we receive, even those gifts we fail to recognize as gifts. My husband, Fred, tells stories of delightful Christmas parties at his country church — a full pot luck meal, tables lined with deserts of every kind, a decorated cedar Christmas tree and, of course, the gift exchange. He tells about wondering what gift he would receive days before the party and how the party-goers seemed to bring the same gifts every year: chocolate covered cherries, socks, a Claxton fruitcake, ear muffs, puzzles, home-canned jelly, ornaments, maybe even a knit toboggan from the Dollar Store. As for Fred, he always hoped for the cherries.

The party was mostly about the gifts — humble, simple, inexpensive, cherished. In thinking about gifts, the idea of cherishing gifts seems important. After all, if one can cherish a Claxton fruitcake, it would be easy to learn to cherish other gifts. Ann Weems expressed like this:

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .Brilliance in a package, something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans or in the pocket of your being.

Something to take out in times of darkness, something that would never snuff out or tarnish, something you could hold in your hand, Something for wonderment. . .

My attention went directly to “something for wonderment.” A kidney from my living donor is a gift for wonderment, to cherish. My new spiritual director who found me through an online group of female clergy is a gift for wonderment. My compassionate, tireless caregiver during this trying recuperation is a gift for wonderment. My friends and family — constantly caring, constantly praying — is a gift for wonderment. I can cherish those gifts.

Still, cherishing the gifts you receive is not a given. It’s not always easy. Let me offer an example. I had a phone conversation yesterday with a new friend who is also a kidney transplant traveler. Though every transplant recipient is unique in the way they adjust to life after a transplant, the two of us shared some definite commonalities. Both of us spoke of physical pain — his about 15 years ago; mine current, constant and debilitating. I could closely identify with much of what he told me he experienced. He spoke of his lack of faith in the immunosuppressant medications, a lack of trust in decisions doctors made during his year of follow-up care, and even very little hope that having a transplant was a wise decision.

We also talked about gifts for wonderment, gifts to cherish, gifts we should cherish, but sometimes cannot. A kidney transplant — especially when you are in the throes of recovery with a 9 inch incision held together with 33 metal staples — doesn’t always feel like a gift.

The last thing my new friend said about our kidney transplants is this:

“It’s a gift! It’s a miracle!”

Most assuredly, a kidney transplant is a miracle and a gift of wonderment, a gift to be cherished. Much like the stars in Ann Weems’ poem —- “brilliance in a package, something to take out in times of darkness, a gift of wonderment, something like God’s gift of stars.” Such a gift is radiance, light breaking through our darkness, a gift to be cherished.

I think I’ll try to be visionary enough, present enough, hopeful enough to catch one of God’s stars to hold in my hand and to keep until I need them most.04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9

Amen.

Dark Night or Advent Light

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The Second Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-One
December 2, 2019

THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

The Christmas spirit
is that hope
which tenaciously clings
to the hearts of the faithful
and announces
in the face of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things still are possible,
that even now
unto us
a Child is born!

What could this beautiful poem titled The Christmas Spirit possibly have to do with my recent kidney transplant? At first glance, not much. But lingering on the poet’s words made some of them leap from the page for me. I have to admit that the words most piercing to me are these: “. . . all the dark nights of our souls.”

Guilt overwhelmed me after the transplant was complete. I was back in my room six hours after the surgery — barely awake, a little confused, exhausted, in pain and, they tell me, very quick-tempered. I yelled at my husband, something I may have done twice in 50 years of marriage. The truth is I was feeling covered with a blanket of guilt. The nurses, my surgeon, my family were all celebrating the transplant miracle. I was in pain, second-guessing my decision to even have the transplant in the first place and feeling guilty for not acknowledging the miracle everyone else saw.

For the next two days, every person on my transplant team who came to see me entered my room with a large smile and expressed one word, “Congratulations!” said with joy in a most celebratory voice. All the while, I was often weeping pain’s quiet tears. I stared at each congratulating person with a little bit of concealed contempt. In my mind, if not on my lips, was a response that went something like this: “Congratulations? Do you have any idea what kind of pain I am experienced right now? And have you had this surgery yourself? Save your congratulations for another day!”

The physical pain was very real and very intense. The soul pain hurt even deeper. Body and soul — the physical, spiritual and emotional — were so intricately fused together that it was all but impossible to isolate or separate them. Is this just physical pain? Is part of it emotional pain? Am I experiencing, heaven forbid, a spiritual crisis? I found no way to tell. For me, it was pain in all three parts of me and that made it almost intolerable.

For two nights, I did not sleep at all — awake all night, feeling alone, abandoned and in a wrestling match with my pain. As I went over and over in my mind all the reasons I had for getting a transplant, my thoughts morphed into a fairly clear “What have I done?”

It felt so much like a dark night of the soul as I grieved my aloneness and isolation, mourned the loss of my previous life and felt deep fear of the dark, unknown path ahead. And all of those points of crisis made me feel that guilt for not being grateful for the living gift of a kidney.

As Ann Weems’ expresses in the poem, “Hope tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face . . . of all the dark nights of our souls, that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”

Twenty-one days separated from my transplant, I am able to attest that hope does cling tenaciously in my heart, that hope announces in the face of the dark night of my soul that with God, all things are still possible. And most importantly, “Unto us a Child is born!”

Into me a Child is born, and that presence empowers me to walk through my soul’s darkest night into the light that Advent brings.

Thanks be to God.

    

Into This Dark and Silent Night

The First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019

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INTO THIS SILENT NIGHT

Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
just then
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.

— Ann Weems

All of us find ourselves in dark places — when the darkness is thick, when we are immersed in silence, when we try our best to make our weary way but the way ahead is veiled.

How disconcerting it is when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path. I have been in that kind of place, and I imagine you have as well. It’s dark when you lose a loved one; when you relocate to a different, unknown place; when you must be away from those you love and who love you back; when a divorce brings you grief and uncertainty; when your children are in trouble; when you suffer an illness or endure a major surgery or treatment. The list of dark seasons of life is endless, personal, hiding in the depths of our wounded places.

We feel a deep kind of despair that does not seem to lift. We hold inside us invisible wounds of the soul and spirit that cannot be healed quickly or easily. Healing of the soul is a long, slow process but it does happen as time brings healing grace. Still, we experience the darkness at a time when the world around us is trying to rush us ever so quickly into Christmas. It is to our benefit if we can hold back and let the darkness call us to places we have never been. Gayle Boss expresses it like this:

Advent, to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray — all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called “the one thing necessary”: that there is One who is the source of all life, One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.

I wonder if in this Advent season I can let my “bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark?” I wonder for all of us, will we let Advent be a time of waiting, a time of hoping without knowing, a time of emptying so that we can be filled with God’s Presence? Will we take time to allow the Advent darkness to do its work in us? Because the beautiful hope of Advent is that while we are waiting, lingering in its darkness, just when we realize we cannot see our path “is when angels rush in, their hands full of stars.

Amen.

Stitched Together

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At the moment, I am literally stitched together after a kidney transplant. I know everyone likes to tell how many stitches they have, but I can’t give you that detail because I can’t see my incision well enough to count them. It’s just as well. Those stitches don’t matter all that much. They certainly don’t matter as much as being stitched together by song lyrics, book quotes, adventures . . . and moonlight. What matters most is that I am pieces of all the places I have been and all the people I have loved.

For my Sabbath yesterday, I played hymns on Pandora. As I listened for hours, I heard music that reminded me of places I have been over the years, from the single traffic light in Reform, Alabama to the rugged beauty of the Mountains of the Moon in Uganda, East Africa. And I heard hymn texts that reminded me of people I have loved, from beloved seminary professors to people I served as pastor. I sang along much of the time, singing hymn texts that ranged from “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” to “I’ll Fly Away,” and everything in between.

The hymns portrayed the story of my faith with Gospel songs that marked my conversion and my early years to the Great Hymns of the Church that expressed my faith in my later years. I could see myself singing in many different choirs, as a pastor leading congregational singing, as a worship leader at national gatherings, as a missionary in a mud hut and even as a teenager sitting on the back row of the church, inappropriately close to my boyfriend.

Each hymn I heard yesterday reminded me of those times and told the story of my faith journey. Indeed, I envisioned myself as one who truly is pieces of the places I’ve been and the people I have loved along the way. For at least a few hours, I was able to lay aside my physical pain, forget about my surgical stitches and give thanks that I am stitched together by hymns and people and adventures and hope on my journey of faith.

Being a part of a community of faith is one of God’s gifts to us, stitched together with sacred threads that remind us continually who we are. Being stitched together as a faith community is beautifully described in this passage from the book of Acts.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.

— Acts 2:42-47

Interesting — and one of God’s very special gifts — that when we are stitched together, we discover that we are whole.

Peace on Earth?

40423F94-5BC6-4413-84AC-3413C238897B“Dozens of institutions across the country 
received email threats Thursday afternoon, 
prompting evacuations and sweeps of buildings.” (CNN)

This troubling news juxtaposed with the words of the music playing as I work. 

“Peace on earth, good will to all people . . .”

“The glories of His righteousness and wonders of his love . . .”

“All is calm, all is bright . . .”

It is a contrast for us. The songs of peace, hope and joy sung during this season are in conflict with the acts of violence and hatred we see in the world. And thus we are conflicted. As people of faith, we search for our place in being agents of change. We believe that our faith calls us to scatter love wherever there is hate. But we don’t know how.

We are powerless and paralyzed, and the songs of the season just make it more pronounced. I remember singing the compelling words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem that eventually became a carol:

“And in despair, I bowed my head. ‘There is no peace on earth,” I said. ‘For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.’”

For now, peace on earth is elusive. The email and bomb threats have been sent to places throughout the country: Pennsylvania, Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco, Utah. Threats were also emailed to locations in New York City and Atlanta; the Charlotte News & Observer and the Raleigh News & Observer newspapers in North Carolina; and to three sites in Miami.

Over these terrible signs of hate, we have no control. But we do have control over what we will allow into our hearts. To be sure, we should be informed by the events in the world. We should be persistent in raising our voices in the face of hate, denouncing it, and praying for its end. But we must not choose to dwell completely on the violence all around us. We can give our souls a break from the harsh reality bynfinding ways to meditate on the peace and love of God. Even when hate triumphs, we have full access to the Prince of Peace who will visit us and dwell in our hearts. 

Still . . . “Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth . . . “

These words are as true today as on the day they were penned on Christmas Day, 1863. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells” during a time of personal despair and in deep concern over the American Civil War. The poem was set to music in 1872, and Longfellow’s references to the Civil War are prevalent in some of the verses that are not commonly sung. This is the entire text of Longfellow’s poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play, 
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom 
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South, 
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said; 
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

What the poet concluded is truth: “to God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail . . .”

May God make it so.

 

 

Tender Mercy

E8260192-9BC4-47D0-B6F8-7DECCE4828F0Such is the tender mercy of our God,
who from on high
will bring the Rising Sun to visit us,
to give light to those who live
in darkness and the shadow of death
and to guide our feet
into the way of peace.

Luke 1:78-79 (NRSV)

There is no better time to breathe in these words from sacred Scripture: “the tender mercy of our God.” What we see around us compels us to cry out for the tender mercy of God — for the people who are living with agonizing need at our borders, for children taken from their parents, for families running from the effects of tear gas, for the changing of the climate and its devastating fury on communities, for people losing their lives because of gun violence, for young black men incarcerated for small crimes with long sentences, for people suffering through illness and poverty and homelessness. 

Cover them, God, with your tender mercy.

There is still more in this Scripture. Some translations say “The Dayspring from on high has visited us.” But in this New Revised Standard translation, we hear words that remind us anew of God’s tender mercy. Moving words that remind us of our hope in the “Rising Sun who has visited us!”

Tucked in this brief text is the divine reason for the visit. The words are not ambiguous at all, not hard to understand, not veiled in mystery. The Rising Sun’s visit has brought “light to those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death.” And finally the Sun has shone “to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

And so we live in the light of this promise, knowing that the Rising Sun will visit us again and again, whenever darkness covers us with the struggles of life. God will not fail. In our times of difficulty, no matter how serious they are, we will feel — fresh and new — the tender mercy of God who will most assuredly send light to us when we find ourselves in life’s darkness, when we need to be guided in the way of peace.

That is the message of Advent.

Advent’s Invitation

ABA52B53-DF36-418D-BD71-FE6891967598What is Advent’s invitation to me? What does this season want to  teach me? What will I see in a new way as a result of Advent’s opportunities for reflection? So many questions!

“Wait,” the wiser ones tell me. “Wait for it.“

“This is the message of Advent — endure the dark places of this season knowing that the Messiah is coming again to bring light to your world and to your heart. Just wait.”

So it seems that Advent is not for impatient folk, the ones who want to get on with it, to get on to the lighthearted joys of Christmas. Advent’s call to ponder, to be mindful of the moment, and to wait catches the busy ones off guard. Our souls sing the adagio strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the mellow hopefulness of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” while feeling in our waiting hearts the great need to belt out “Joy to the World.”

What exactly is Advent’s invitation to me? What is it that Advent promises that makes waiting worthwhile? What is it that this season has for me to learn?

These are questions I cannot answer, at least I cannot answer them at this moment. My hope is that if I am faithful in the waiting and the pondering, the answers of Advent will become clear to me. Until then, it is just one of those life mysteries that eludes me. 

In the meantime, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a wise word about it all

Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.

— Barbara Brown Taylor

Wait for it!