Something Unexpected!

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk 

Every once in a while, something unexpected shows up. It may be a nice surprise that lightens a burden, like receiving a kind note or getting a phone call from a friend. It may be a sudden light that breaks the darkness we’re experiencing or a melody that lifts our spirits. It may be a little beauty in the middle of an ugly place. It may be a touch of color in a patch of gray. 

That’s what struck me about the photo at the beginning of this post. The creative photographer, my friend Steven Nawojczyk, must have noticed something bright and beautiful in the middle of a bramble of deep green foliage. It was unexpected — the brilliant, white flowers that bloomed there. No one planted them in that thick brush. They just appeared. Unexpected!

But we know all too well that an unexpected event is not always a good one. The surprises that break into our lives sometimes harm and hurt. My family experienced it this week: a nasty fall on Sunday that resulted in my very sprained, swollen and bruised knee; my cousin falling a few days later and injuring both legs; my son dealing with serious illness; my husband Fred spending all of last night in the ER.

Unexpected! And not-so-good unexpected!

So sometimes the thought of not-so-good unexpected can create fear in us. Of course, we know that our finest plans sometimes fall through. Our projects implode. Our dreams meet the toughest resistance.

Doesn’t it seem as if our “plans” are lightning rods for the unexpected? When our plans crumble underneath us, we sometimes question the very faith that has always, always sustained us.

Now there is no Biblical text for every life occasion, and picking out a text to prove a point or to make us feel better is not the best way to approach the Bible. And yet, our sacred Scripture does speak to the unexpected happenings of life. This time, it’s the wise prophet Jeremiah who offers the word of hope.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

 — Jeremiah 29:11 New International Version 

A hope and a future! What more do we need? For me, white flowers unexpectedly blooming in the bushes and brambles will just about do it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

What If?

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Sometimes blogs express grief or anger, indignation or angst, fear or struggle. But today, this blog, must express joy, relief, hope and gratitude. If you saw my last post about my week-long medical evaluation at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, you know that my hope was that I would be approved for a kidney transplant.

Today, I received the phone call from Mayo letting me know that I am now on the transplant list and ready for a kidney. It was a phone call that rekindled my hope. It brought instant joy and a sense of relief. And then there’s gratitude, that the God who holds the universe holds me, too. 

Through the fear and struggle of 2014, through these five years of daily dialysis, God has held me in arms of love and care. I do not know if fear and struggle are over. Transplant surgery is an ominous thought at times. Strong, immunosuppressant medication for life is an ominous thought at times. My body rejecting the kidney is an ominous thought. There are dozens of “what ifs!” But I try to always look at “what ifs” through this empowering lens:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask 
“What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?

― Erin Hanson

What if I fly? What if I take the “wings of the morning?” What if I soar? What if the Spirit Wind blows across my life?

What if?

 

 

 

 

Lonely In a Crowd

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Being lonely in a room full of people can be disconcerting. You might call it “lonely in a crowd.” Not such a great place to find yourself! In these days of waiting to be transplanted, I find that this is precisely where I am, lonely in a crowd. Not alone, just lonely, as if being where I am emotionally is a place where no one has ever been before. No one I know is with me on this massive, nationwide transplant list!

People call it a “wait list,” and that is actually a very good name for it, because all you can do when you’re on it is wait. No one ever reassures you that your name has not been accidentally removed. No one gives you a magic beeper that you keep until you hear that glorious beeping that means they have a table for you. No one says, “Thank you for waiting. One of our representatives will be with you shortly.” No one tells you anything at all. It’s just a wait list and all you can do on there is wait.

The result is that being on a huge, invisible, impersonal list is a lonely place to be. As I sat in church on Sunday, with a fairly large congregation in fact.  I realized that we were gathered together but we were not really with each other. I looked all around me and thought, “I don’t know these people and they don’t know me. In a few minutes, we will all leave here, and I will have emotionally connected with no one.”

It made me sad, and all the more lonely. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I could make a concerted effort to engage more fully with the worshippers that surround me each Sunday. I could will myself to go deeper into conversations than, “How are you? I’m fine, thank you.” Surely there is another appropriate thing to say after such customary and gentile greetings. Whatever it is, I don’t say it. Therefore, I depart from the church a little bit lonelier than when I came. 

I left my church in Little Rock when we moved here to Macon, Georgia, almost five years ago. Leaving New Millennium Church was heartbreaking. I grieved for the good people of New Millennium for almost two years. I served as Minister of Worship there before I got sick. My mission was to plan worship each Sunday for a congregation that already knew how to worship. When New Millennium people took my plans for prayers and hymns and litanies, they lived into them freely and fully as they worshipped, and what emerged from the people was somewhere between pure exuberance and holy reverence.

And one more thing. It can truly be said of New Millennium that no one could leave there lonely. The people of the church had a way about them, almost like they collectively gave a perennial hug that expressed this truth: “God is with you, and I’m with you, too.”

I remember well the Sunday we sang this familiar hymn with a wonderfully comforting text.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He:
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.

“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting in 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;

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.

A congregation can always sing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” but New Millennium Church really SANG this song — with empathy, with joy, with a special kind of conviction that forced you to believe its message. Indeed it is a message worth believing, worth taking into your very soul, all the way into that loneliest place.

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 numbered.

 — Matthew 10:29-30 New International Version (NIV)

Yes, I am lonely. Sometimes even in the presence of people. Sometimes even in church. But I have a couple of choices: I can make a real effort to insert myself into the lives of the people around me. OR I can just accept the reality of the lonely place I am in right now and rest in it, with the assurance that, like the song says, God really does watch over me.

In your quiet time today, perhaps you would like to hear this beautiful song. I invite you to watch this video:

Lost

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When our Jonathan was a toddler, we took a trip to the mountains of North Carolina. Not a child who ever liked his car seat, his reaction on this trip was far worse than usual with a great deal of squirming, fussing and whining. All of a sudden, he cried out in a panicked voice, “I don’t know where my home is!”

Aha! That was the emotional issue at play here. Jonathan had lost his sense of home and the safety and comfort his home gave him. All of us lose our sense of home at times, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally. From experience, I can attest to the fact that losing home is a trauma. Years ago, a house fire destroyed parts of our home and many of our belongings. We were displaced for months waiting on the house to be restored and live-able, and in that time, I experienced a great deal of unease and anxiety.

And then there’s the fear of getting lost, for me an irrational fear that simply comes over me at times. It’s a feeling of panic when I feel as if the people and places that mean “home” for me are out of my reach, and I am impossibly and hopelessly lost. For instance, the simple joy of walking in a corn maze terrifies me. So I suppose I must admit to having a phobia just as real as the one Jonathan had when he lost home. 

Some of the most beautiful, comforting words in all of scripture are the words of the Psalmist in the 139th Psalm. I can almost imagine these words coming from a person who knows what losing home feels like. His message to us, and even to himself is this: “It is not possible for me to be lost. No matter where I travel — from one end of my world to other worlds far away — I am not lost. For there is One who holds me fast.”

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.

Amen.

 

 

 

The Cross in the Garden

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Although I have a very small yard, I do have a tiny garden beside my tiny front porch. This morning the jasmine in the garden is in full bloom filling the air with sweet jasmine perfume. The tiny water feature is making gentle water sounds that relax and heal, as rippling water tends to do. A bird is splashing around in the birdbath, the flowers are blooming, and the ferns are swaying in Macon’s gentle breeze. A large iron Celtic cross leans on the tallow tree, always reminding me where my faith comes from.

Now there is an issue with the iron cross in the garden. It falls over all the time. No matter how deep I place it in the soil, it falls over. Being an ardent tree lover, I refuse to nail the cross to the tallow tree. So it continues to fall over and I continue to prop it up.

Perhaps, as a symbol of faith, it’s appropriate that the cross falls over. My faith falls over all the time, and just as I continually prop up the cross in my garden, the Creator props my faith back up every time it falls.

I think of the Psalms where we read so many words of God’s help and protection as in Psalm 118.

I was pushed hard, so that I was falling,
but the Lord helped me.

The Lord is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

— Psalm 118:13-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

 
Like the cross in the garden, I might fall over a time or two on my journey. That’s okay, because I know a God who props me up, holds me up, lifts me up, raises me up!

Thanks be to God.

Inner Warrior

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I got in touch this week with my inner warrior. She was in me all along, in a deep place inside, just waiting for the summons that I needed her. If you have read many of my blog posts, you know that I have been terrified at the thought of having a kidney transplant. For almost five years, the frightened part of me was able to put the transplant possibility away, tucked in a place inside that kept it off my mind. When I did consider transplant — like the times when my nephrologist told me that it was by far the best treatment for me — I reasoned that it was not something I was willing to do.

Why would I want to change anything? Dialysis has been good to me and, most of the time, I have felt well. So I have struggled with the transplant decision, but at the same time, I went through the medical evaluation that kept me on the transplant list. My nephrologist has insisted for years that I would feel better and live longer with a transplant. I remained unconvinced, and then I participated in a webinar that pushed my decision. The physician who was presenting said something that got my attention. He said that patients with end stage renal disease must be on dialysis, and dialysis is essentially end of life care that includes palliative care. If a patient has an illness that cannot be cured, such as end stage renal disease, he explained, palliative care keeps the patient as comfortable as possible by managing pain and other physical challenges, and by providing psychological, social and spiritual support. He went even further by saying that patients who stop dialysis live about two weeks on average.

I have been on the transplant list for five years, and in that time there has been no movement toward a transplant. The last time I went to the transplant center to update my medical evaluation, they told me that a transplant was not likely to happen in the next two years. I was okay with that. Nothing to get anxious about. The transplant decision was not going to happen in the near future. 

And then, out of the blue, I hear from an old friend who tells me he is contemplating the possibility of being a living donor for me. That was March 12. As of Monday, April 15, he had completed the thorough donor evaluation at Piedmont Transplant Institute in Atlanta, and by Wednesday of that week, Piedmont had called me in for testing.

My heart began to race this week and has continued, on and off. I would describe my current state as much, much more than anxious. I texted this week with a friend of mine and shared my fears. She told me about her multiple back surgeries and about how frightening surgery was for her. Then she said this: “I was really afraid before each back surgery, but I somehow dug down deep to a warrior place inside of me.”

Oh my! How well she described my current emotional place! I am certain that, indeed, there is a warrior place inside me. I reached it this week after the racing heart episodes eased up a bit. It is a surprise to me that now I find myself in deep peace, with a sense of calm. Not always have I been able to let God take control of my path. I am a person who will do almost anything to stay in control, to the point of fairly powerful wrestling with God for the proverbial reins of my life.

Not this time. This time, in this season of my life, I have taken a hands off approach, replacing my tendency to hold tightly to the reins with a sense of trust that has covered me like a soft blanket. I have thought in the last few days of the many passages of scripture about trust, but the one that stands out is the simplest one, the short one that we learned to recite as young children.

What time I am afraid, I will trust in you.

— Psalm 56:3

I am certain that there is a warrior place deep inside me. It brought me out of my year of life-threatening illness in 2014. It pushed me to get stronger. No doubt, it will be in play as I move closer to a kidney transplant. I am grateful that my friend reminded me this week of that deep, down warrior place. But I am also comforted in the assurance that, along with my inner warrior, there is in me a heart that can still trust God.

It’s the Gospel Truth!

8832BB06-FEB5-4DAA-A86D-F8C351B53CA6I was born and raised in the South and spent most of my life in the Bible Belt. In the Bible Belt, one can hear many sayings, expressions and idioms. One of the idioms I seemed to hear continually over the years was, “It’s the Gospel truth!” Always as an exclamation. 

I learned that in life there is truth and there is Gospel truth. I learned that we need both. For instance, in my life at this moment, there is the truth that I am afraid. And there is also the Gospel truth that God watches over me through my fear. 

Sitting on the cusp between daily dialysis and the possibility of a kidney transplant, I entertain varied thoughts and feel disparate emotions. One of them is definitely fear. Thankfully, I feel relatively well physically on most days, but my body never lets me forget that I’m sick. People who know say that a transplant would change my life, that I have become so used to being ill that I don’t know what feeling really well is like. I don’t know about that.

What I do know is that the idea of a transplant is both frightening and enlivening. I also know that it may or may not happen. So I tamp down my emotions, tuck away my fear and basically try not to think about it. Where I am these days is in the place of; 1) not knowing and 2) knowing that God knows. 

As I contemplated this today, I remembered a Gospel song I used to sing back in the day. I have not thought of the song in years, but today its melody ran through my mind over and over. Many well-known musicians have sung it, but the voice I remember most clearly is the voice of Mahalia Jackson.

Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home,
When Jesus is my portion? My 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,
For 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 . . .

In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is sending his disciples out into the world. The Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10, begins with these words: 

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness. 

In the rest of the chapter, Matthew tells us that Jesus gives his disciples many instructions as he sends them out. Most importantly, he instructs them not to fear. 

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.  (Matthew10:29-31 NIV)

Transplant or dialysis for the rest of my life? I don’t know which it will be, and that’s the Gospel truth! I do know that I am afraid, but whenever I fear the future, I am often reminded that I am never outside of God’s care. It is a good thing, an important thing, to know that to God, I am worth more than many sparrows. It’s the Gospel truth!

I thought you might enjoy hearing a contemporary arrangement of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” performed by Lauryn Hill and Tanya Blount at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=k7Pk5YMkEcg

I Can Face Tomorrow

Enlight272Yesterday was not my best day. All day long challenges got the best of me — health challenges, schedule challenges, even bad haircut challenges. My sister of the heart, Donna, said I was cranky. My husband, Fred, said I should chalk it up to Ash Wednesday. Martie, my dear Little Rock friend, said that yesterday was the first day of Mercury in retrograde and that I should do my best to survive until it’s over on March 28th.

I’m not so convinced of any of those explanations, but I’ll let it be for now. Today is a new day, a day in which I have chosen peace for the beginning of my Lenten journey. Typically, the way I find peace is through music. So Pandora is on my sacred music station today. It would be an understatement to say that the music has lifted me today and has almost made yesterday’s fiascoes a dim memory.

As I listened, a song from my past brought sweet memories. Years ago, before I learned to renounce masculine pronouns to refer to God, I was inspired greatly by these words: “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” We sang this Gospel song often to remind us of hope, of perseverance, of God’s faithfulness and of Christ’s resurrection. Today, those words and that melody on Pandora reminded me of those exact things. In spite of masculine pronoun referring to God, the music moved me as it has always done. The message has not changed. God has not changed. My faith in Christ has not changed. Thanks be to God!

Here’s my truth as I follow my Lenten path, the abiding truth: “Tomorrow” for me seems murky, with the path ahead unknown and somewhat disconcerting. I do not know if I will receive a kidney transplant or live on daily dialysis for the rest of my life. I do not know what tomorrow promises.

But this is as it has always been — before illness and after. I never knew what tomorrow would bring, even in those days when I thought I was fearlessly and fully in control of my life. So it feels like a Lenten testimony of my faith to say that I do not know what tomorrow looks like for me. Leaning into the reality of the unknown future, I feel embraced in the consoling truth that “because He lives, I can face tomorrow.”

Of this, I am confident. Resting on this promise, I can move onto the Lenten path before me with refreshed hope and renewed faith. Amen.

Around the Bend

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk

I wonder sometimes what I might find around the bend. “Around the bend” is an apt metaphor for the twists and turns of life’s pathway. No matter how long I have traveled my journey, no matter how much life wisdom I have gained, I never, ever know what what’s around the bend.

The pathway before me can frighten, even while I strain to see as far as I can into what lies ahead. The bend is sharp most times, and the angle hides my view. As I age, fear on the journey looms large, for I am completely aware of the dangers I might encounter around the first bend, and the next, and all the bends that are ahead of me. And yet, I am constantly graced with flashes of hope and faith whispering that what is ahead of me could be even better than what I have left behind.

The beautiful photo above by Steven Nawojczyk is a gift of calm waters bending in a gentle flow at the foot of a mountain, lightened by the golden rays of the sun. The image makes me believe that whatever is around the bend is lovely, peaceful, comforting, safe. And that is exactly what God would want me to believe, and woukd want us all to believe. I cannot help but think of the Psalmist’s affirmation that God “leads me beside still waters.”

In so many comfort-filled passages, the Psalmist offers sure and certain comfort. Hear the Psalmist’s words . . .

Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup; you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
   Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure . . .

You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

— Psalm 16:1, 5-6, 8-9, 11 (NIV)

And hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah . . .

Even to your old age and gray hairs, I am he, I am he who will sustain you. 
I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  

— Isaiah 46:4 (NIV)

And so “around the bend” is not so frightening after all. In God — “who makes known the path of life” —  there is comfort, safety, protection, constancy, and even joy. Thanks be to God.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.