Holding Hope

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A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!

As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.

The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering  you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?

Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”

I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.

I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”

I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.

From the promises of Scripture . . . 
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place.
 — Hebrews 6:18-19

From the depths of our souls . . .
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”   — Psalm 42:11

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.”  
— Psalm 130:5

But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.”  — Psalm 71:14

The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.

I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:

“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”

 

“Listening for the Rustle of Angels’ Wings”

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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Advent Sunday of Love
Transplant Day Forty-One
December 22, 2019

 

TO LISTEN, TO LOOK

Is it all sewn up — my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
so orderly,
so neat,
so arranged,
so right,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
Listen, those who have ears to hear . . .
Look, those who have eyes to see?
Oh God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds
who saw in the cold December darkness
the Coming of Light,
the Advent of Love!

— Ann Weems

I ask myself those Ann Weems questions often:

Is it all sewn up — my life? Is it so predictable, so orderly, so neat, so arranged, so right,
that I don’t have time or space for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings or running to stables to see a baby?

These are among the most important questions I might sit with for a while, pondering my answers. On this Advent Sunday when we light the Candle of Love, I suddenly realize that Advent is ending, bringing Christmas so abruptly, or so it seems. Am I ready, I wonder? Am I ready for the birth of the Child, “Love’s Pure Light?”486917B0-E862-4C44-895D-D08210690B48

Have I prepared a place in my heart for the “pure unbounded love” we sing about in the beloved hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling?” Was my life so preoccupied that I missed the gentle darkness of the Season of Advent and am now feeling pushed — shoved —into Christmas?

Love in a manger is too holy a gift to take for granted. Love in a manger offers us a gift that we must be prepared to receive, and Advent is our season of preparation. As the season ends, I cannot help but ask myself if I spent these days preparing myself, heart and soul. Did I pray enough? Did I spend enough contemplative time? Did I love my neighbor and care for the persons around me who had so many life needs? Did I create sacred, meditative moments in anticipation, preparing for Emmanuel to come into my life anew?

I’m afraid I must answer, “no.” Yes, I did reflect on Advent now and then as I wrote for my blog, but I definitely did not spend enough time in meditation, preparing myself to receive the Christ Child. I was completely preoccupied with creating my life’s new normal after my kidney transplant. New routines and schedules overwhelmed my mind. I spent virtually all my time adjusting to this new normal. Self-absorbed does not adequately describe me during this Advent.

I haven’t felt much holiness hovering around me. I didn’t have time or space “for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings.” Yet, the transplant itself was a season somewhat like Advent . . . filled with expectation, preparation, anticipation. With Bethlehem’s star shining through the darkest night, and hope — always hope.

And so it was for people waiting for kidneys to renew their lives. Advent offered us a look at journey, a journey that ended in celebration. Celebration came full circle yesterday when I learned that my transplant was a part of a chain of living donors and kidney recipients. The chain included 16 people — donors and recipients — which means eight people got new kidneys. Perhaps that felt to me something like “the rustle of angels’ wings.”

And then it dawned on me that the Christ Child was not born into a world where everything always worked perfectly, where everything was orderly and neat and planned out. The Christ Child was not born into a world where everything was sacred. He was not born into a perfect family, and the people around his manger were not always holy.

Maybe that’s part of what Advent gives us:

the grace to be genuinely who we are — on our holy days and on days we feel not-so-holy. Maybe Advent beckons us to ready ourselves and to prepare our hearts with humbleness so that we can see “in the cold December darkness . . .

the Coming of Light, the Advent of Love!”

 

 

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.

My Constant Friend

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Transplant Day Nineteen
November 30, 2019

Sleep would not come easily last night. It occurred to me that I would probably struggle all night to get to sleep, and I began to hope for the coming of daybreak. As I drifted slowly into sleep, I did what I often do on sleepless nights. I began to sing a hymn, under my breath of course, careful not to disturb Fred’s sleep. I began to sing a Gospel hymn Fred and I used to sing many years ago. In our church, or in concert at other churches, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” was one of the favorites every time we sang it. It was certainly one of my favorites and last night while experiencing a little pain, it came to mind that God was indeed watching over me and, as the hymn says, “Jesus is my portion, my constant friend . . .”

Of course, I also began whispering the Scripture text that inspired this hymn.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

— Matthew 10:29-31 New International Version (NIV)

And then the hymn:

Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the shadows come?
Why should my heart feel lonely and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion, a constant friend is he.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.

Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw still closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I sing because I’m happy.
I sing because I’m free.
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

I love learning the stories behind the hymns we sing. This is the writer’s story behind “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”

Civilla Martin was born in Nova Scotia in 1866. Her husband was an evangelist who traveled all over the United States. She accompanied him and they worked together on most of the musical arrangements.

In 1904 Civilla was visiting a very ill friend. Although discouraged and sick, her friend remembered that God was watching over each sparrow and would certainly watch over  her. She shared with Civilla the words in Matthew 10: ” . . . don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

Civilla was a poet and thought this would be a perfect idea for a poem. She jotted down the idea and by the end of the day, had completed “His Eye is On The Sparrow.” The entire poem was sent to a well-known composer of that day, Charles Gabriel. His lovely music has carried it all around the world in small churches and great crusades.

And then there is my story behind this hymn: that I learned it decades ago and sang it often; that it spoke comfort to me back then, just as it did last night when sleep would not come; that God has given me the gift I call hymn memory so that every time I need encouragement, the text of a hymn — usually every word of the hymn — comes to mind to comfort me.

For this gift, I give thanks to God. Daybreak did come this morning, but before that I was led by the message of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” into a restorative night of sleep. And I know this truth in all my deep places: “Jesus is my portion, my constant friend.”

I hope you will take a moment to enjoy this video of the hymn.

On Roses and Thorns

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Transplant Day Eighteen
November 29, 2019

There is always more than one way to experience an event, a setback, a difficult season of life. “Look on the bright side,” is a common admonition. Or “count your blessings.” Or “consider the alternative.” And that is just naming a few of the many pieces of advice people have offered me in the past few weeks. Problem is, I am at a time of life when I really don’t want to hear all the “good” advice. I have a retort, expressed out loud or just in my mind, that asks, “Have you walked in my shoes?”

Of course I know the answer to that — no one has walked in my shoes. No one knows how I feel, or how deeply I am languishing. No one understands well enough to give me positive admonitions. The truth is twofold: one) that other people are giving me positive affirmation because they truly care; and two) ultimately I will have to work out my own ways of coping and getting to the point of feeling positive again.

It’s a process, and not an easy one. It takes introspection, being gentle with myself and a good amount of positive self-talk. In a way, I am doing exactly what others are trying to do for me. I am contemplating the same positive advice others have given me. I get into my inner self and I think through positive admonitions and even simple platitudes designed to lift my spirit.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes not so much. It depends upon so many factors, at least for me. How is my pain? Do I feel worried or anxious? Do I feel as if my body is healing? Do I feel cared for? Are my medications playing havoc with me? Do I believe I can live with my limitations and restrictions? How close is my relationship with God? How positive is my outlook on life? How strong is my faith and do I feel hopeful about the future?

I read many years ago one of those simple platitudes designed to help create a positive outlook. 

We can complain because roses have thorns or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.

I copied it. I rendered it in calligraphy. I looked up its origin. As I contemplate it in the suffering of this post transplant season, I can’t help but believe that it must have affected me in some positive way because I have remembered it for more than 25 years.

So it’s essentially a choice I have to make — complain about the thorns or enjoy the roses. It’s not a bad life lesson to tuck into my heart and sit with for this difficult season of my life.

Oh, and by the way, most of the time when people offer me positive encouragement, I feel loved and cared for. I feel their compassion and the hope they lift up before me. I am grateful for that and for them.

Nearer, Still Nearer

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Transplant Day Seventeen
November 28, 2019

Sometimes an old hymn — a hymn the contemporary church has discarded from its worship — can eloquently speak to the heart. There are many hymns I call hymns of the heart because they touch me so deeply. In these days of recovery when I find myself away from home and separated from friends and family, a particular old hymn comforts me. One line specifically inspires and moves me — “Shelter me safe in that haven of rest.”

The hymn, “Nearer, Still Nearer” was written by Lelia N. Morris and published in 1898. Here are two stanzas of the hymn text.

Nearer, still nearer, close to Thy heart,
Draw me, my Savior — so precious Thou art!
Fold me, oh, fold me close to Thy breast;
Shelter me safe in that haven of rest;
Shelter me safe in that haven of rest.

Nearer, still nearer, while life shall last,
Till safe in glory my anchor is cast;
Through endless ages ever to be
Nearer, my Savior, still nearer to Thee;
Nearer, my Savior, still nearer to Thee!

Finding myself away from my communities of support, I feel the separation acutely. I feel the loneliness of “apart” time. I feel a breach of relationship and the loss of my covenant community. I know it is necessary to be near Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida for this month so that the transplant team can closely monitor my care. But I miss my home and my faith community and my friends and family, and even my stray cat. I feel isolated at a time when I most need their support and encouragement. And although I strongly feel their prayers from afar, the “afar” part is not so great. I feel vulnerable and I need to feel nearer to my people.

So this hymn that expresses nearness to God is for me a timely expression of my faith and a picture of my current reality. In your contemplative time today, may you be inspired by listening to this beautiful hymn.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCF2D98szaU

 

 

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“Nearer, Still Nearer”
Lelia N. Morris, pub.1898
Copyright status is Public Domain

Speaking of Joyful Things!

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Watercolor art by Rev. Kathy Manis Findley. Prints available at https://kalliopeswatercolors.wordpress.com/category/watercolor-prints/

I may not be able to speak of joyful things today. The physical pain I am experiencing is far too strong, covering me with just a little bit of despair. More than one of my good friends told me in the past few days that I am strong. I am not and, thankfully I don’t have to be because the friends that surround me are being strong for me. They are calling on the minuscule strength I do have and bringing it into view for me. They have told me joyful things when I could not name joyful things for myself. In the process of loving me, my friends call out to the joy and strength that is in me to make itself known. And on top of that, they allow me, without judgement, to be where I am and feel what I feel.

So although I may not be able to speak of joyful things right now, I know that you have already tucked joyfulness into the recesses of your heart. I may not have much hope to send to you today, but you have hope in abundance and it breathes over your spirit during times of courage and times of fear, times when you feel certainty and times when you feel disillusioned. Out of your stores of faith, you encircle me and breathe hope into my spirit . . . and strength and joy.

For that, I am most grateful. And I am grateful that when I am weak, God is my strength. When I am joyless, God covers me with joy. I believe this by faith (a smidgen of mustard seed faith) in those times when I cannot experience those comforts within me, times like this present time of struggle and recovery.

I’ll leave you with these words of comfort that you already know so intimately, words that I also know intimately, but that I need to hear anew today.

And God, the giver of all grace, who has called you to share His eternal glory, through Christ, after you have suffered for a short time, will make you perfect, firm, and strong.   — 1 Peter 5:10

For our light and temporary affliction is producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs our troubles.
   — 2 Corinthians 4:17

Though I cannot manage to speak of joyful things today, the writers of 1 Peter and 2 Corinthians most definitely can!

Thanks be to God.

Surprised by Light

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Transplant Day Seven
November 19, 2019

Today, I am singing in my mind a sacred hymn that often speaks hope to me. The
text was written by William Cowper (1731-1800) and the music by William Howard Doane (1832-1915). In the darkness of the past week, I have been surprised by light.

Sometimes a light surprises
The child of God who sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining,
God grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after the rain

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s’ salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow
Bring with it what it may.

Tomorrow can bring us nothing,
But God will bear us through:
Who gives the lilies clothing
Will clothe His people, too:
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And God Who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the fields should wither,
Nor flocks or herds be there
Yet, God the same abiding,
God’s praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

It is so true that “sometimes a light surprises the child of God who sings.” The surprise is almost magic. Surely the light is miracle, and I thank God for the miracle of this new day. The miracle, I think, is that I am able to look at this day in a way that leads to gratitude for life.

I am determined that this will not be a day I describe by pain, but that I would declare this day a day of healing. Today, I want to lean into healing, not suffering — faith, not fear. I am convinced that this is God’s desire for me.

There is no doubt that I have walked through darkness in the past week. It is also my truth that light really does shine out of dark places. My pondering light and darkness this morning brings up a Scripture text I have leaned on many times in my life. I love the New Century Version of this text.

God once said, “Let the light shine out of the darkness!” 
This is the same God who made his light shine in our hearts by letting us know the glory of God that is in the face of Christ.

We have this treasure from God, but we are like clay jars that hold the treasure. This shows that the great power is from God, not from us. 

We have troubles all around us, but we are not defeated. 
We do not know what to do, but we do not give up the hope of living. 
We are persecuted, but God does not leave us. 
We are hurt sometimes, but we are not destroyed.

— 2 Corinthians 4:1-11 New Century Version (NCV)

How accurately this text describes my past few days! How true it is that I have not known what to do about the pain and suffering, yet I refuse to “give up the hope of living.” This is as it should be. This is God’s desire for us — to never give up the hope of living and to cling to the good hope that light really does shine out of darkness.

Sometimes a light really does surprise us when we sing. Singing beats weeping every time. Singing drives out darkness. I have heard often that only light can drive out darkness and I believe that truth. In fact, when I find myself in the middle of darkness, I am convinced that darkness is precisely the place where I am able to see the light at its brightest.

Thanks be to God.