A Baby Brother! Not for Me!

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Michael, the Archangel

This morning I was reading an interesting article about Michael, the Archangel. The headline read “Call upon the Archangel to stand guard over you . . . at night.” The article pointed out that we are the most vulnerable when we are asleep, unable to protect ourselves from harm. The Archangel Michael can protect us. The information, while interesting, was not all that earth shattering. But reading it brought to mind an unforgettable childhood memory.

As a child around the age of five, I didn’t think much of this particular day, but as an adult, I count it as one of my most cherished memories. On top of that, I now see it as an early childhood experience that shaped my view of God and began to prepare me for the vocation of ministry. But I must begin at the beginning to paint a picture of a precocious, spoiled five year old.

My mother was expecting a new baby, my first sibling. I was all in if the baby was a sister, but for some reason, I loathed the idea of a baby brother, which is exactly what I got. I was NOT happy! I remember it like it was yesterday. Yiayia (my grandmother) broke the news. I stomped my feet and declared that my mother could absolutely not return home with a boy baby!

Going on alongside my childish impertinence, the adults were experiencing a completely different reality. It appeared, in fact, that my baby brother would not come home and that his survival was doubtful. As in many Greek families, my brother’s dangerous situation remained “between us,” which meant my grandmother, my father and my two aunts, Eirene and Koula. At all costs, my mother was not to be told of the seriousness of her new baby’s health. And of course, nothing was to be said in the presence of five-year-old Kalliope, though that made no difference at all because my ears had always been finely attuned to family secrets and whispers. When adults spoke, even in hushed whispers, I heard.

So I knew, at least, that something was amiss, and if I am honest, I have to confess that I was glad I would not be having a brother in my world. Until the next day. As soon as I woke up, Yiayia washed my face, made me brush my teeth, and began to dress me. For reasons I did not yet understand, she was dressed in her church clothes and she pulled out a church dress for me. I knew it wasn’t Sunday, but I did not know that I was about to have a life-altering experience. Now you might think that a five-year-old cannot really understand a life-altering experience. But you would be mistaken. This life-altering experience has been lying in my memories for more than six decades.

Both dressed impeccably, we put on our winter coats and walked across the street and down the block to the bus stop. I was cold, ready for the bus to show up. Of course, I asked where we were going and why we were so dressed up. “Siopi! Min milas tora!” was Yiayia’s response. “Hush! Don’t talk right now!” Sensing the fear and grief in Yiayia’s mood, I sat quietly and didn’t say another word as the bus took us to downtown Birmingham. When we disembarked, I knew exactly where we were going, but I did not know why.

As we walked up the front steps at our Greek Orthodox church, I felt the warmth of the building easing the February cold. I was glad to be warm. I smelled the incense, comforted by the familiar fragrance. And I watched the flames of hundreds of thin white candles placed in a bed of sand as Yiayia lit another one, placed it in the sand, and made her cross. Immediately, I made my cross, too, three times, as I was taught to do.

The church was silent. With dim lights, it had never looked more beautiful. As we walked down the aisle through the nave, I looked to each side to see the stained glass windows. I looked up above the nave into the dome of the church where the icon of Christ, Ruler of All, looked back directly at me in a way that almost seemed eerie. I realize that we are going up the steps to the iconostasis, the wall of doors that each had an icon on them. I had never, ever been up those few steps. It was the place, I thought, where only the priest and the altar boys could be.

But up we went, and stood directly in front of the door bearing the image of Michael the Archangel. Finally, Yiayia spoke. “Your brother is going to die. We have to pray for him to St Michael, the protector of all. You pray too.

And so we did, Yiayia with a deep, reverent, desperate fervency that pleaded for the Archangel to save the baby, offering Saint Michael a promise in return for the baby’s life. As for me, I can only remember having a lump in my throat and trying not to cry. But tears streamed down my cheeks as we finished, and I made my cross three times.

We headed silently back to the bus stop to go home. The house was much quieter than usual, and I stayed quiet too, which was a huge feat for me. I didn’t say anything about not wanting my baby brother for a few days, which proves the cunning wisdom of a five-year-old. I played quietly in my room the rest of the morning, but the mood in the house lifted that very afternoon.

My father and aunts came home not many hours after our church experience and announced with unbridled joy that the baby was going to be fine. Yiayia made her cross three times and gave exuberant thanks to God and St. Michael the Archangel who heard our prayers, gave us a miracle, and saved the baby boy.

My mother did come home with the miracle baby, Andrew Michael (named after the Archangel who saved his life). I stood my ground, refused to hold him or look at him, and sternly pronounced that they should take him back and bring me a sister!

So much for my spiritual act of devotion in the church. On the other hand, isn’t that just the way God works with us? Planting spiritual experiences in us when we hardly take notice, knowing that we will hide them somewhere in our hearts for a later time in our lives. 

Thanks be to God.

 

 

Who will move this mountain?

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Who will move this mountain? I’m referring to the high, steep mountain that includes hundreds of processes that might eventually (possibly, probably) lead to a kidney transplant for me. So which is it, I keep asking myself? Is a kidney transplant possible? Is it probable? Is it a done deal?

I know with pretty much certainty that having a kidney transplant is never a done deal. The possibility of a kidney transplant for anyone is always tenuous. The possibility of having a donor is even more tenuous. I keep repeating the description offered by Piedmont transplant nephrologist, Dr. Christina Klein: “99% of people who call with interest in donating are screened out by phone and 50% of the people who do the full-day evaluation are screened out.” With deep gratitude, I can say that the person who has offered to be my living donor has passed through both of these screenings and has been accepted as a donor. It is no small thing for a living donor and a recipient to both be determined healthy enough for a transplant.

Piedmont Transplant Institute personnel spent the day yesterday testing me to determine if I’m still healthy enough for a transplant. They do a re-evaluation every two years for persons on the transplant list. It was probably the last re-evaluation I will have before a transplant surgery date is determined.

I said all of that to say that, as always, I think of God as the one who moves these kinds of obstacle mountains. I am standing at the base of a pretty big one this time, looking up at the peak and whispering to myself, “Impossible!”

But that’s not the end of the story, is it? For me, the story aways ends with sacred words that remind me who has the control, who it is that can move this mountain. Sacred words about moving life’s mountains can be found in all three Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Luke and Mark. The Gospel writers make multiple references that go to the question of who moves mountains, as told by Jesus in parable. Interestingly, Jesus never says, “God will move your mountain.” Instead the words of Jesus in the parables go something like this:

If you had faith even as small as a tiny mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it would go far away. Nothing would be impossible to you.

— Mark 17:20 (TLB)

What? Can this be true? That God does not move the mountain after all. That it has everything to do with faith, even my very small mustard-seed-like faith. Is it true that I am my own mountain mover? That nothing is impossible?

In reading this Scripture text that is so familiar, it seems that perhaps I am the one who can say to this mountain, “Move!” Without stretching this Gospel text beyond its original intent, I can affirm that its message is about faith, and that message is timeless. It can begin as a thought that Jesus expresses in parable and end up as a reality of faith that empowers my life and quickens my journey.

So stand with me at the bottom of this mountain. Look up at the mountain with me and pray that my mustard-seed faith will get me to the peak. I may very well receive the gift of a kidney transplant. It seems very possible at this point in my five-year journey. But whatever happens, my faith will be with me — sustaining me, guiding me, empowering me still for every future mountain that raises up before me.

For this faith that was born in me decades ago, thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Clothed in the Love of My Friends

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Tivoli Copenhagen Poster “Rare Masked Harlequin Boy” 1972 Richardt Denmark by Permild & Rosengreen

Tucked away in my memory, there is a charming tale of a young boy. I’m not sure from where I remember the story, but I have known a few versions of it for many years. It’s one of my favorite parables. The story introduces us to young Peter, who grew up in a very poor family. Peter loved going to school and playing with his schoolmates. 

On one particular school day, Peter noticed that his friends were laughing and chattering with excitement about the masquerade ball that was the yearly highlight of the town festival.

“I cannot wait for the ball,” Suzanne said excitedly. “I shall wear a beautiful costume of indigo silk, with a mask to match it.”

William said, “l’m wearing red, a bright shiny red.” 

And Victoria gave every detail of the gown of purple velvet her mother was sewing.

One after another, the excited children described the colorful costumes their mothers would make for them — green, purple, orange, yellow, pink, gold, silver. They told of the fine fabrics their fathers had purchased on their travels. Every mother had set aside the fabric for just this occasion.

One of the children noticed that Peter was not joining in on the gleeful conversation and walked up to him.

“Peter, what will you be wearing to the festival?” she asked.

“I’m not going to the festival,” Peter said, “I do not have fine clothes to wear and my family cannot buy cloth for a costume.”

“But you must come, Peter,” another friend said. And then others joined in.

Their mood changed from gladness to sadness, and since it was now a sad and somber time for Peter, he slowly started walking toward home.

After he left, the children talked among themselves, wondering what they could do to help Peter get to the festival. William, who had been thinking through the dilemma, finally spoke out.

“I know! I don’t need so much cloth for my costume,” William said. “I can cut a small piece from my costume and give it to Peter. Perhaps his mother can sew it into something grand.”

“Yes! I can do that too,” said another. And then another, until all the children joined in. So they devised a plan to help Peter get to the festival ball.

779892E8-E60E-4139-8F7D-BA79EABE8FFDThe next day William arrived at school with a twinkle in his eye. In fact, all the children had twinkles in their eyes as they went to find Peter. Each friend brought to Peter a small scrap of cloth they had torn from their costumes. One after another, they gave Peter pieces of cloth of every shape and size. Small scraps snd larger pieces, blue, red, yellow and purple — every color you could think of really.649A5787-671B-4447-9C81-453A595FB029

Peter was speechless, and if one looked closely, they might have seen a tear slide down his cheek. Peter took all the little pieces of cloth to his mother, who would take the scraps and do her magic with needle and thread.

The special day finally came, and the happy children arrived, each clothed in a bright, beautifully colored costume. When Peter arrived, no one recognized him at first, but there was a collective gasp in the room. He entered the room, tall and proud, wearing a black mask and a multi-colored, diamond patterned costume.

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It was Peter, they finally realized, in amazement!

“Look at the beautiful red on his costume. It’s the same color as what I’m wearing!” 

Another child said, “There’s part of mine!” 

And each of Peter’s friends shrieked with happiness when they saw their own pieces of cloth cut into diamond shapes and sewn together on his costume. It was stunning — from the gold brocade, to the shimmering red satin, to the verdant hue of the green taffeta, to the sparkle of the royal blue silk. All the children were happy about what they were wearing, but they were even happier about the small piece of cloth they had shared with Peter.F76CB1DF-9191-4D1D-8C0D-0727F57C7CD1

Peter thanked them, having to speak very loudly to be heard over their happy exclamations.

“Everyone is happy tonight,” Peter said, “but I am the happiest one of all, because I am clothed in the love of my friends!”

From that day forward, Peter’s friends called him “Harlequin.” And that’s the tale of how Harlequin came to be.

So what does this little tale have to do with anything. Last week, I happened to pick up a fluffy, white blanket that’s in our extra bedroom. I held it and remembered that my friend had brought it to me in the hospital when I was so sick. Her church had prayed over the blanket in a church service and sent it to me with love. I was in bed for a long time, and each time someone covered me with the blanket, I thought of the echoes of the prayers it held and the love of the friends who sent it to me. Like Harlequin, I was clothed in the love of my friends.

As I wait on a possible kidney transplant and wonder whether or not a transplant will be in my future, the one thing that comforts me is the love of my friends. The truth is that I am covered with an abundance of love. My friends from from all over the world are praying for me, breathing prayers for my well-being and my health, offering me “colorful pieces of fine cloth” in the whispered blessings they send to me. 

Last night, the depth of caring that friendship can offer became very clear to me when I received an incredible message from a friend of many years. The message was that he had begun the process of donating a kidney for me. Stunned by his announcement, emotions tender, I remembered all over again that I am clothed in the love of my friends.

For that, I am incredibly grateful.