Life Is a Gift

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Today I read an inspiring blog post written by my long-time friend, Guy Sayles. He recalls his medical diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma three years ago and describes the experience of β€œvivid remembering of hard days of treatment.”

Around the same time, I entered a time of serious and unexpected illness which led to a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I spent most of 2014 in the hospital, literally fighting for my life on at least three occasions. My husband was terrified. Mercifully, I knew nothing of the urgency of what was happening to me.

Guy Sayles writes of a reality that I completely understand when he says, β€œThe first two years of my having Multiple Myeloma were so challenging that I didn’t expect to be alive now. That I am is sheer and surprising gift to me.” (http://www.fromtheintersection.org/blog/2017/8/8/its-all-gift)

For me, it was not so much that I expected imminent death, but throughout my long period of recovery and rehabilitation, I never expected to be able to care for myself again. That I now am able to live a relatively normal life is most certainly a gift of grace I never expected. Healing and recuperating was much like a resurrection for me. I got my life back.

So my constant question to myself is what will I do with this gift of life? I am inspired by the way Mary Oliver asks this question in her poem, The Summer Day.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I am compelled to answer that question, to use the gift of my life as a gift to others. To care for people with compassion. To do justice where oppression reigns. To make peace in the face of violence. To scatter hope in the places where despair has taken hold.

I hope you will truly hear the way Guy Sayles expresses this.

The awareness which gently and repeatedly washed over me was, β€œLife is gift and my response may, can, and should be gift-giving.”

And my calling is to lavish gift-givingβ€”to share freely and fully whatever I manage to harvest. There’s no need now for barns and bins, for storing up for another day, or for worrying about markets and prices. β€œFreely you have received,” Paul said, β€œfreely give.”

These days, I aspire, in every dimension of life, to this the wisdom Annie Dillard offered to writers:

β€œOne of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now . . . something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water . . . The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is shameful, it is destructive. Β Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”Β (The Writing Life, pp. 78-79)

Amen and amen. May God make it so.

In the Dark

 

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I was asked recently to write about faith and chronic illness. The request prompted me to recall the year I lived in the dark, the year that I was so seriously ill. It made me think about the losses I have experienced since the diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. It reminded me of the freedom I have lost because of the eight hours I spend on dialysis every day.

The truth is that, in 2014, I thought I was going to die. The greater truth is that I did not die. In fact, I slowly grew physically stronger. Spiritually and emotionally, I descended into grief and despair and somehow managed to emerge with fresh hope and deeper faith.

It was a grueling process learning to write again, practicing with the occupational therapist’s endless pages of ABCs over and over until I began to form legible letters. It was hard learning to walk again, regaining the strength and balance I had lost. It was hard being unable to cook, to care for the house, to bathe myself, to browse the web, to do all the simple things I used to do so easily.

To be sure, it was a dark time of frightening uncertainty and doubt. I mourned for the life I once enjoyed. But in time, I discovered an unexpected grace: that spiritual transformation often happens in the dark. The writing of Richard Rohr offers a way to describe this time of my life. This is what he writes.

We seldom go willingly into the belly of the beast. Unless we face a major disaster . . . we usually will not go there on our own accord. Mature spirituality will always teach us to enter willingly, trustingly into the dark periods of life, which is why we speak so much of β€œfaith” or trust.

Transformative power is discovered in the darkβ€”in questions and doubts, seldom in the answers . . . Wise people tell us we must learn to stay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning. That is the dark path of contemplative prayer. Grace leads us to a state of emptiness, to that momentary sense of meaninglessness in which we ask, β€œWhat is it all for?” 

– Richard Rohr

It was indeed β€œthe belly of the beast” for me. And as Richard Rohr writes so eloquently, I needed to learn to β€œstay with the pain of life, without answers, without conclusions, and some days without meaning.”

Here’s the outcome. Smack dab in the middle of the darkness I experienced, there was God. There was grace. There was transformation. And there was renewed life. Thanks be to God.

Light for a Dark Path

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Life can be a very dark path, frightenly uncharted. Inching through life often finds us hesitating in dark places, afraid to take even one step into an unknown future. The darkness can be daunting. Still, for me light has at times eased the darkness, and with even a tiny ray of light, I was able to move forward.

Brother Curtis Almquist writes of the grace-filled presence of beacons of light.

There have been people in our past who have been beacons of light, and whose life still shines into the present . . . and we remember them because they help us find our way and know our place in life, which is otherwise so terribly uncharted.

– Brother Curtis Almquist
Society of Saint John the Evangelist

How fondly I remember and give thanks for the people who were beacons of light for me.

Yiayia, my beloved grandmother, who was my faithful and loving protector and whose energy nurtured me.

Thea Koula, my favorite aunt, who was like a mother to me and who brought joy and lightheartedness to my life.

Ethel, my forever friend, who was a constant beacon of light, always helping me find my way.

In the darkness, the light of faith endured and made the journey possible. Most certainly, the people in my life strengthened my faith and were for me a welcomed light for a dark path. And yes, I stumbled over more than a few nasty obstacles and rough spots. But even when I languished in the darkness of an uncharted path, my faith was enough. My faith was my brightest light.

I will be forever grateful for the beacons of light that helped guide me on the journey and for the enduring, constant presence of a faithful God.

The Lord will guide you always;
will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.

– Isaiah 58:11 NIV

Covenant and Grace

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Recently I experienced a perceived misunderstanding with a close family member. It was mostly in my mind and I was hesitant to bring it up and talk through it. But this was a cherished relationship and I knew I had to do everything possible to preserve it. The end result was a loving and understanding conversation that led to genuine growth in our relationship.

We speak often of the word “relationship.” Less often, we use the word “covenant,” but that’s the term God urges us to live into. Hear these words about covenant written by Henri Nouwen.

When God makes a covenant with us, God says: “I will love you with an everlasting love. I will be faithful to you, even when you run away from me, reject me, or betray me.” In our society we don’t speak much about covenants; we speak about contracts. When we make a contract with a person, we say: “I will fulfill my part as long as you fulfill yours. When you don’t live up to your promises, I no longer have to live up to mine.” Contracts are often broken because the partners are unwilling or unable to be faithful to their terms.

But God didn’t make a contract with us; God made a covenant with us, and God wants our relationships with one another to reflect that covenant. That’s why marriage, friendship, life in community are all ways to give visibility to God’s faithfulness in our lives together.

– Henri Nouwen

That is so true. Covenant is not a contract. Covenant is deeper than a relationship. Covenant is grace. If I had considered my relationship with my family member a covenant, our interaction might have been clearer, more intentional, more committed, and filled with more grace.

So I intend to work on creating covenant relationships in my life. It’s God’s best way. It’s the way of grace.

“Life for Me Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair”

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The First Sunday during Lent finds me nursing a tension headache. The week of Fred’s testing caused no small measure of stress. A sense of fear overtook me. My Lenten journey, though, reminds me that this is appropriate, an expected part of life. For the Lenten walk is nothing at all if it does not reflect life’s journey itself . . . filled with times of darkness, fear, grief, uncertainty — all the human emotions that so assail us.

I am reminded of the brilliant poem written by Langston Hughes.

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floorβ€”
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall nowβ€”
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

– Langston Hughes

How true it is that “life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” But God has walked with me along the way, pouring grace upon grief. Thanks be to God.

Morning Mercies

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Every new morning reminds me that I have been given a gift, another day to live, another chance to make a difference in my world, another day to love and grow and enjoy. Not so long ago, I lived some days of fear. Each dark night brought a sense of dread, and I allowed myself to believe that another morning would not dawn. I was afraid to let myself sleep, and did not expect to make it through the night.

Obviously, I was wrong. Fortunately, I got beyond those dark times and willed myself to believe in hope and new dawns. But the process of finding hope again was no easy task. It took time, prayer, and talking about my feelings with a trusted friend. It was a process that required persistence. Most of all, it required getting re-acquainted with God’s grace and faithfulness. I learned to find hope again in each morning’s new mercies.

The writings of Steven Charleston were a part of my process toward hope. These words gave me an extra measure of strength.

Here is the hand of morning, coming so quietly to part the curtain, letting in the first light, welcoming the wide-eyed day into the sleepy corners of our lives. A new beginning is the miracle that awaits each one of us. We are the people of new beginnings, each one of us, brought here by more mornings than we can count, fresh chances from an older life, a turn of events, a change of mind, an unexpected friend, how many different mornings have we seen? You and I are made of morning, set free by the new light, forever being welcomed into a life that is just beginning.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

Now I expect mornings again. I fall asleep these days with new hope that morning will come. As for all of us, new days are not guaranteed. We live with that reality, but we do so without fear and with faith in the faithfulness of God. The beloved hymn says:

Great is thy faithfulness . . .
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed, thy hand hath provided.
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.

The Scripture says it this way:

Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

– Lamentations 3:21-23 New International Version

Thanks be to God.

The Mists of Autumn

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The story of Autumn tells of early morning mists that blanket the vibrantly changing trees. It reminds us of a kind of melancholy that anticipates the cold winter months. The sight is a masterpiece lasting for a short time, until the sun breaks through.

It’s also a picture of life that necessarily includes misty, melancholy seasons. Yet the sun breaks through, brightening our existence and reminding us of constant change. We live through the mists, always knowing that eventually the sun will rise upon us.

Until the warmth of the sun returns, we have companions beside us, willing to lead us by the hand until we can see the path clearly again. It’s called the grace of presence that proclaims that we are never alone. Life’s mists will come, but we will walk on with hope and with companions who walk with us until daybreak.

And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand.

– Acts 13:11 King James Version (KJV)

Grace

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Day two of grief and confusion. Day two of desperately seeking grace in the midst of grief. Day two of mourning a deeply personal loss.

It was a stunning upset, leaving us with President-elect Donald J. Trump. Despondency barely describes what I’m feeling. Fear may be even more descriptive. I do not feel despondent over being on the losing side of the election. For me, it is not about winning or losing. I do not feel anger or resentment against my brothers and sisters who voted for Trump.

But I do feel disenfranchised in my own country. I feel like I’m a part of a country I don’t understand. I feel like my hopes and dreams are no longer important. I feel like there is a powerful leader over me who will crush my dreams without a thought. I feel like the ground beneath me is shaking. Yesterday I read these words written by my friend, Julie Pennington-Russell.

In 1952, at the threshold of the Cold War, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the uncertainty and chaos in the world at that time, he spoke these now-famous words: β€œThe highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

So this, for me, is a shaken time. I feel a cloud of uncertainty and chaos. I fear the days ahead. I am grieving, yet looking for a smidgen of grace in it all. That’s all I can do. And I lean into the encouraging words of Bishop Steven Charleston.

Now comes the hard part. As this new day dawns, joyful for some, sad for others, we face a single question: how will we walk together when our paths seem so different? There is a word for it. Grace. May we have the grace to be humble in victory and hopeful in defeat. May we have the grace to overcome our fears. This is the hard part, the time of seeking the common good, not for ourselves alone, but for those younger lives watching us. May our first step be made in prayer, spoken in different ways but with a shared appeal: give us your grace, dear God, to care more for one another than for winning.

– Bishop Steven Charleston

Abundance!

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I certainly have days of feeling down, but the truth is that I am blessed with abundance. I am covered with an abundance of love. In early September, my husband and I will celebrate forty-seven years of marriage, a marriage overflowing with love and completely free of discord. My love for my grandchildren is unmatched. And I have the love of a close family who cares for me every day. Friends from all over the world are praying for me. So it’s no exaggeration to say that I am clothed in the love of a wonderful family and a host of friends.

I am also covered with an abundance of peace. My husband and I often marvel at the sheer peacefulness of our home, the quiet neighborhood, the good neighbors we have, the comfortable house we live in.

And I am covered with an abundance of grace, cared for by a faithful God who has continuously poured grace on my life. Day in and day out, in good days and in not so good days, God has blessed me with more grace than I deserve.

Abundance of love, abundance of peace, abundance of grace. Who could want anything more!

“God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” — 2 Corinthians 9:8

We Walk by Faith, Not by Sight

A photo by Gian-Reto Tarnutzer. unsplash.com/photos/rZsqmXfM3qQ

At times, it’s difficult to see clearly. It’s as if a mist is hovering over your path and you’re not sure which way to go. You certainly cannot see what’s up ahead. You’re left with taking one step at a time toward a shrouded destination.

We humans like more clarity than that. We like to see where we’re going and we like to plan ahead and plan well. But the reality is that life’s journey is about valleys of shadow and mist-covered paths. If we move ahead at all, we move with faith in someone bigger than we are, someone who knows what’s ahead and will not leave us comfortless.

So when the path is long and steep, when obstacles are in the pathway, when the mist blocks our way ahead, we can follow the God of grace who has always been with us on the journey. The more difficult the journey, the more grace God gives us.

I have loved the hymn by Annie Johnson Flynt (1866-1932), “He Givith More Grace” for so many years. β€œHe Giveth More Grace” is based on 2 Corinthians 12:9, β€œAnd he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upom me.”

Annie Johnson Flint lost both of her parents by the time she turned six years old. She was later adopted by a couple who had no children of their own. As a young teenager, it was discovered that Annie had severe Rheumatoid arthritis. She quickly began to live with a great deal of pain, and was soon crippled by the disease. She loved composing music and playing the piano, but her arthritis soon prevented her from doing so, and she began writing poetry, much of which was later set to music. As she grew older and her hands became more crippled, she typed with her knuckles on an old typewriter, penning some of the most beautiful poetry ever written.

He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

When we face difficulties, we are not alone. God’s grace covers us, we walk ahead by faith and we are given the presence of the Holy Spirit.

He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight.

2 Corinthians 5:5-7