Before we begin Advent’s journey on November 29th, I think we need start a few days early to create some peace for our souls — enough peace to open ourselves to Advent’s life-giving message. For you see, the Advent journey always has a particularand unique message for each of us. The message weaves through our spirit as Advent days move on, gently sparking tiny lights is us that open us up to beginning again, to dreaming again. Advent nurtures and caresses us until we can dream new dreams.
Since we saw Advent past, we have languished in the chaos of 2020. Held in bondage by a terrible pandemic, lamenting racial unrest and the violence that caused it, watching political rancor and division. This was the year of “I can’t breathe” and also the year when we found that we could not breathe. Nor could we dream, because the future was unknowable — not at all conducive to dreaming.
And yet, there remains this good word — Psalm 126:1:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
What does it look like to live as those who dream? The prophets, the psalmists, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the Magi—they were all dreamers. They received, discovered, and responded to God’s dreams for the world. In Advent’s journey, we travel step by step into the mystery and awe of God’s dreams and we pray that they will shape our reality.
Advent is for the dreamers in all of us — those who dream of a deeper connection with God and those who dream of a better world. Advent is for those who dream of comfort and also for those who have given up on their dreams. Advent is for those whose dreams have been crushed and for those who wisely teach us that dreams take soul time.
In this approaching Advent, perhaps we will dream alongside prophets and angels, Mary and the Magi. Perhaps we will seek and know God’s dreams for our world.
Will you pray with me?
In this Advent of expectation, God, draw us nearer to grace, that our songs of worship might echo in the hills and valleys of this journey and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a sense of peace and silence and steady calm, that the hope within our souls might be the dreams we dream, the songs we sing, and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a vision of a shimmering star in the night sky, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. Amen.
Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”
Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G)
These trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.
A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)
As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.
You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.
In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . . — Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)
And always, words from the Psalmist:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)
These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.
Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)
Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.
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?”
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 sages of the world came up with this wise saying: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over!” There are some similar sayings around, most notably one about the singing of a “fat lady.” But that one is not at all kind or sensitive! The point is that in life some things are never over. Grief at losing a loved one comes to mind, as does living with an incurable illness, losing a cherished relationship or any number of persisting, chronic, never-ending difficulties.
But the truth is, we are a resilient people, created by God who fully equips us for life’s calamities. We do not shrink in the face of loss. We know that weeping can last through a dark night, but the morning light may bring joy. We do not fear life’s dark times, because we know that our story is not over. There will be brighter days ahead. The brightest stars will give light in the darkest nights. Our resilient spirits will lift us up and, most importantly, God will be near right in the midst of our sufferings. It is not over! I am inspired by the thoughts of Ann Weems about this very thing:
IT IS NOT OVER
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
— Ann Weems
What profound truth: that those who wait for God watch “with their hearts and not their eyes,” listening — always listening — for angel words. We can find another take on that spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:
Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
— Isaiah 40:31
When I think that I have reached the end of my resilience, when I have become weary with my life’s tragedies and believe that it’s over, I want to be able to remember the words Ann Weems wrote, that “it is not over, this birthing, and that there are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”
Like you, I need newer skies now and then. And if God can throw stars into those new skies, all the better. Advent’s promise is that those stars of hope will appear just when I most need them.
May God make it so, and may we remember stars of hope and angel words whenever we celebrate the Christ Child born under the light of Bethlehem’s star. Amen.
The Sixth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-five
December 6, 2019
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 angels dance and stars sing!
The Fifth Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-four December 5, 2019
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
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, perhapsthis 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 thatthe 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.
And 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.
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
and those who left home
have returned, and even wars are halted,
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!
The Third Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-Two December 3, 2019
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.