“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!

microscopic magnification of coronavirus that causes flu and chronic pneumonia leading to deathThis pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.

On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.

I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:

 . . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.

The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .

According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.

But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”

So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.

What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.

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Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.; public domain; St. Quirinus of Neuss – for those affected by bubonic plague and smallpox; Edwin the Martyr (St. Edmund) — for victims of pandemics; St. Anthony the Great – Patron of those affected by infectious diseases

Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.

The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
(John 1:5)

In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

War!

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WAR  noun, often attributive
(1)  a state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between states or nations
(2)  a period of such armed conflict
(3)  a state of hostility, conflict, or antagonism
(4)  a struggle or competition between opposing forces for a particular end

In a time of turmoil across the earth, I am reminded of the many ways we long for peace and the many times we fail to achieve it. As I hear reports and human stories of the warring among peoples of many nations, I am also very aware of the wars that often rage within. War and peace are complex ideologies that spurn people to action — either action to plunder and kill or action that insists upon peace and tranquillity. The British peace advocate John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech at the Conference of the Peace Society in Edinburgh in the summer of 1853 to oppose the forthcoming war against Russia (the Crimean War 1854-56). 

What is war?

What is war? I believe that half the people that talk about war have not the slightest idea of what it is. In a short sentence it may be summed up to be the combination and concentration of all the horrors, atrocities, crimes, and sufferings of which human nature on this globe is capable . . . injustice of any kind, be it bad laws, or be it a bloody, unjust, and unnecessary war, of necessity creates perils to every institution in the country.   — John Bright (1811-1889)

Profound truth rests in Bright’s words, and it is a truth every person would do well to contemplate. At some point I recall seeing a provocative image on the poster for Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket. It was an image of the soldier’s helmet with a handwritten “born to kill” slogan . . . and a peace symbol, a provocative juxtaposition of reminding us that human beings have the capacity for both killing and peace.

Who can forget the words of the Prophet Isaiah?

And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

So why talk of war after Ash Wednesday and into Lent? Perhaps the subject of war occurred to me as I moved closer to this season of repentance and self-reflection. Perhaps I felt a need to consider the futility of war because of Ash Wednesday’s dictum, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

One who came from dust, and who anticipates returning to dust, must certainly feel a longing for peace, peace in the world as well as peace of the soul and spirit. Neither examples of peace are easily achieved. The machinations of war between nations, and the eternal quest for finding inner peace, are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps it is those persons who have a dearth of inner peace who seriously contemplate making enemies and making war. War flourishes, at times, when the cause seems righteous, while at other times, the cause is greed, lust for power and human depravity. Either way, the losses of war are enormous beyond imagining.

I have been intrigued by the writing of Sebastian Junger in his book War (published in 2010). He echoes the famous words of Winston Churchill:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

Junger also offers interesting insights into war:

The cause doesn’t have to be righteous and battle doesn’t have to be winnable; but over and over again throughout history, men have chosen to die in battle with their friends rather than to flee on their own and survive. 

The Army might screw you and your girlfriend might dump you and the enemy might kill you, but the shared commitment to safeguard one another’s lives is not negotiable and only deepens with time. The willingness to die for another person is a form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience of it changes a person profoundly.

Three Christian denominations have positions on war.

Roman Catholic
The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

The Southern Baptist Convention (Adopted on June 14, 2000)
Peace and War. It is the duty of Christians to seek peace with all men on principles of righteousness. In accordance with the spirit and teachings of Christ they should do all in their power to put an end to war.

The United Methodist Church (2000 United Methodist Book of Discipline)
We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as a usual instrument of national foreign policy and insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them; that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

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A map of Afghanistan with bullet holes at a school in the Kandahar Province. Photo by Bryan Denton for The New York Times

No doubt, this is probably more information on the deplorable subject of war than anyone needs to contemplate. And yet, war is not just “far off” in other countries where we can’t see it. “War” is all around us — in this divided nation, in the hate speech that is so prevalent, in the gun violence that takes lives, in violent acts within families, in racial division and the re-emergence of white nationalism. One can scarcely complete the list of the many ways war affects us, within us and around us.

We must remember that war is not only the catastrophic expectation of a nuclear bomb or chemical warfare, it is also a war that could raise its head in our communities, in our churches, even in our hearts, wreaking havoc on our souls. War is famine, homelessness, poverty, racism, family violence, child abuse, trafficking, homophobia and xenophobia. War is the destruction of humanity and all that we know to be right and just. The example of Jesus must be our guide and inspiration. No, Jesus did not explicitly warn against war, but he said so many things about peace.

The words of Jesus

Matthew 5: 38-48 (selected verses)
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also . . .

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven . . . For if you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Mark 12:28-31
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ‘The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The early Christians took Jesus at his word. They closely identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war and bloodshed; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their Christian commitment to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

Might we all do likewise!

What is critical for us is to fully understand that war among us or within us creates profound loss . . . always. The current political divisions are taking a toll on everyone. We no longer live in a time when political leaders held all the divisiveness. In these days,  fractured politics have reached communities, churches and even families. When support for political candidates creates deep separations one from another, we have reached a dangerous and divisive environment. When we live in such a divisive environment, we risk losing relationships with those who “don’t vote like we do.” What a senseless, unfortunate and tragic loss that creates  — breaches between friends, alienation among family members, rifts in communities of faith, deep schism in neighborhoods and communities.

Our spiritual intention must be a quest for peace, reconciliation, unity and respect. This is God’s intention for people of faith. This is God’s intention for the world, that nations, tribes, villages, cities — all the peoples of the world — shall not learn war anymore!

May God make it so, globally and personally!

“Unfriended!”

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A book written by Joe Battaglia


When a deep love leaves . . . deep sadness takes residence.

It happens — being unfriended or needing to unfriend someone. It happens not just on Facebook, even though Facebook participants probably coined the word “unfriended.” Unfriending happens in real life — my life and probably yours. When you really unpack it, “unfriended” is an unsettling word. There is even a rather despicable horror movie entitled “Unfriended.”

I sometimes wish we had never added the word to our vocabularies, yet it perfectly describes what we sometimes need to do. In the Facebook world, I have been unfriended more than once. I have also unfriended some of my Facebook friends. It was never easy, never done without some regret. On the other side, being the one who is unfriended is painful. Even on social media, we learned quickly when and how to divide ourselves from others.

Mourning the loss of someone you care about is a very real life response.

The sad reality is that Facebook unfriending closely imitates life. Sometimes I have needed to remove a person from my life. Maybe you have, too. If we are honest with ourselves about cutting someone out of our lives, we have to own the reality of mourning the loss of that friend or family member. The loss is very real. Harmony Yendys wrote this in her blog, The Mighty.com.

It’s OK to mourn the people you’ve had to cut off. Mourning is hard. It doesn’t matter if the person has passed away, is estranged from you or has chosen not to have contact with you. It. is. hard. Mourning can be more complicated when the person is still alive . . . since you cannot see them, speak to them, write to them, tell them about your day, your happy moments or your big achievements in life.

I would say I’m okay but I’m done lying.

8E74E7A2-55E8-4796-8CD6-613FB0F1E16DAmong the most painful separations are estrangements from living parents. I have experienced estrangement from a parent, a situation in which I found it necessary to remove that parent from my life completely because of abuse. The hard choice of removing my parent from my life was mine to make, but was most surely a hard choice with long-lasting effects on my emotional health. Those who must make such a choice suddenly feel orphaned and alone in the world. Over many years, I have known many people who have lost mothers and fathers with whom they’ve shared loving relationships — not through death but through purposeful estrangement. I know that the deep void this loss creates for them is devastating. The pressing question is, “Why don’t we talk about what it is like to feel orphaned by parents who are very much alive and well, but whom we have lost due to estrangement?”

The reason, I have found, is a sense of guilt about having removed a person from my life, becoming an orphan by my own choice. Of course, there are situations in which parents make the choice to become estranged from their children. Either situation leaves an orphan in its wake.

You are dead to me.

The truth is that there are few, if any, support groups for “orphans” like me. There are few instruction manuals or self-help books. We are the orphans who grieve in silence, feeling every bit as empty and abandoned as those who have lost their parents through death. Yet we have no outlet through which to mourn in a safe, nonjudgmental  environment. I hide my grief from others, fearing their judgment and their hurtful comments about how “blood is thicker than water” and how I should “forgive and forget.” And the best advice of all, the one that hurts the most and goes to the very core of the soul is this: “God is not pleased with your failure to love your parents or your refusal to ask forgiveness for it.”

Death does not solve the problem.

Monika Sudakov writes about her own experience:

When a parent dies, you receive the usual appropriate condolences. But when your soul has a deep need to remove a living parent from your life, you get nothing. Like so many people I have known, I sit with the guilt and shame, with the silence of my grief. So for now I continue to grieve, hiding behind my shame of feeling like there must have been something wrong with me . . . And hiding my grief from others for fear of judgment and comments about how blood is thicker than water and how I should just forgive and forget . . . I wish more people understood what this was like and would extend the kind of compassion and sympathy they do toward those who lose a loved one by death. I sit with the silence of my grief, empty-handed. No flowers, no cards, no phone calls, nothing. Just an orphan.

Empty-handed, except for the loss I hold in my hands

As for me, well, I am not completely empty-handed. I hold in my hands — if not in my heart — so many memories, sweet, bittersweet, and even horrific. Fortunately, I have grown old and grown up. Through the years, I have learned how to hold in my heart some of my few good memories. I remember my father praising me when for my accomplishments. I remember him being very proud of me. I remember learning to cook at his feet, and I remember those joyful midnight trips from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, singing all the way as was his custom. Yet I allowed those happy memories to be replaced by separation, tears, pain, repressed feelings and often anger. It was even more difficult to allow myself the good memories when my father was living. Harmony Yendys explains the feelings of most of us who feel this kind of grief:

Knowing they are still out there somewhere in this big ole world makes it sometimes hard to bear. We don’t know how they are doing, how life has changed for them, we don’t get to celebrate things with them anymore . . .  All of these feelings are completely normal. Beating yourself up for cutting a person out of your life for your better interest is not healthy and shouldn’t be a reason to let that person back into your life. I bought in to all the common philosophies like “love is stronger than hate,” respect your parents,” or “be the better person.” The problem with such philosophies is that they are one-sided. They leave no space for the truth. Sometimes we just have bad parents, friends, relatives or relationships. That doesn’t mean we cannot still love them! It just means we choose to love them from a distance.
Harmony Yendys

I hope the information I’ve shared today will lead to honest and meaningful conversations with trusted persons in your life. Such conversations can lead to healing from the past losses or the present ones. This post has taken us all the way from “unfriending” or being “unfriended” on Facebook to losing friends, parents, children, siblings, spouses and any persons we have lost from our lives. Do not be deceived, separation can be painful, even when separation is necessary for our well-being. People who cause a toxic environment for us must sometimes be removed from our lives. It’s never easy, either to “unfriend” a person or to be “unfriended” by them. It sometimes makes us face the pain of being alone in the world, or at least feeling alone. It whispers to us that our soul is at risk.

DFA4F768-78EA-451B-A39B-5EF15F89F904When your soul is at risk . . .

Know that when your soul is at risk, when your relationship with another person is toxic, chaotic and harmful — either overtly or insidiously — you may need to consider moving apart to a peaceful, more tranquil place. It is most important that you become a self-advocate and diligently seek resilience and serenity. Only enter into relationships that give you comfort and calm your spirit. Still, you live with the loss. The remedy for feeling the loss, feeling orphaned or feeling alone?

That is, of course, a very personal question with many possible answers. At the risk of seeming to offer a too simple or an unhelpful answer, I will share with you what has helped me in the times I have felt most alone — a passage of Scripture from The Voice translation of the Bible, selected verses from Psalm 139:1-16.

O Eternal One, You have explored my heart and know exactly who I am;

You even know the small details like when I take a seat and when I stand up again. Even when I am far away, You know what I’m thinking.

You observe my wanderings and my sleeping, my waking and my dreaming,
and You know everything I do in more detail than even I know.

You know what I’m going to say long before I say it.
It is true, Eternal One, that You know everything and everyone.

You have surrounded me on every side, behind me and before me,
and You have placed Your hand gently on my shoulder.

It is the most amazing feeling to know how deeply You know me, inside and out;
the realization of it is so great that I cannot comprehend it.

Can I go anywhere apart from Your Spirit?
Is there anywhere I can go to escape Your watchful presence?

If I go up into heaven, You are there.
If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, You are there.

If I rise on the wings of the morning,
if I make my home in the most isolated part of the ocean,

Even then You will be there to guide me;
Your right hand will embrace me, for You are always there . . .

For You shaped me, inside and out.
You knitted me together in my mother’s womb long before I took my first breath.

I will offer You my grateful heart, for I am Your unique creation, filled with wonder and awe. You have approached even the smallest details with excellence;

Your works are wonderful; I carry this knowledge deep within my soul.

You see all things; nothing about me was hidden from You
As I took shape in secret,
carefully crafted in the heart of the earth before I was born from its womb.

You see all things;
You saw me growing, changing in my mother’s womb;
Every detail of my life was already written in Your book;
You established the length of my life before I ever tasted the sweetness of it.

For those hurtful times of “unfriending”

C49083A2-34D3-45FF-8579-4C6FF1055F3BI pray today for each of you who have experienced, or are currently experiencing, the grief of separation and alienation from someone with whom you once shared love. I pray that you would enjoy relationships with persons faithful, true and kind. I pray for you a shared love that is pure — both given and received. I pray for you a persevering, faithful and gentle love that helps sustain and fulfill you. I pray, for you and for me, that we might have relationships with persons who help us become our best selves. I pray for genuine and life-giving friendships that grace us with full acceptance and understanding.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

Almost Magic!

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Photo by James Ronan,  FOAP/Getty Images

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.

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Photo by Danita Delimont/Getty Images

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.

 

 

 

Back to Arkansas

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Beautiful Hot Springs, Arkansas

My thoughts today take me away, out of this house, out of this state and back to Arkansas. It’s not so much about feeling trapped inside my house because of illness. It’s more about my need to heal, to experience something new, something of beauty that also feels like home. That place would be Arkansas.

Arkansas was most definitely not a place I would have chosen as my home when we accidentally moved there in 1982! It had to be an accidental move because neither Fred nor I knew anything at all about the state of Arkansas, a landlocked state that was constantly maligned by folks that have ever been there. At first, I detested being there, but after living there for 33 years, I grieved deeply when we left our Arkansas home in 2015. It made little sense really, that a born and bred Alabama girl would fall in love with Arkansas, but I did just that.

So today my mind slips away to my Arkansas home. With a lump in my throat, I travel to that beautiful state, lush with green and dotted with stunning lakes and the magnificent Arkansas River. I visit my son and my grandchildren in my imaginary travel, and my spirit somehow feels filled with what I needed today. I walk through what was my dream house and I visit the church I pastored for nine years. I stop by the hospital where I served as a chaplain and by Little Rock City Hall and the Pulaski County Courthouse where I spent much of my time advocating for abused women and children. I head to the banks of the Arkansas River that graces Little Rock and I gaze for a few minutes at the Little Rock skyline.

Why would I make this journey today of all days? I don’t feel well at all physically, and I really don’t feel up to this level of nostalgia. I don’t want to weep for a loss that still lingers with me. And yet, this experience is strangely comforting. It feels almost like opening my arms to a place I loved and allowing myself to feel the lump in my throat for the loss of it. It feels like making peace with the past — embracing it, mourning it, allowing it to comfort me and then walking back to my present home just a little bit healed.

This is what is needed for healing after loss. I am aware that when I stop smothering my regrets and my sorrow, I will have moved my soul and spirit to a new place, a better and healthier place and a place that is open to joy and a sense that all is right in my world. Healing doesn’t happen all at once. It takes some time and some intentionality. It takes walking right through the middle of sorrow until I get to the other side. It takes a sense of knowing when I am finally standing firmly on the other side of grief.

So I journeyed back to Arkansas today to find some joy and to take it back home with me. It was a worthwhile journey. I did return a little more healed. I have learned over many years and through many losses that my spirit knows how healing comes, but sometimes my mind gets in the way, blocking the healing I need. The sign of better times is when my spirit and mind join together to create healing. I think that’s exactly what happened for me today. My mind — my imagination — took me to the place I loved and lost, and while I lingered there for awhile, my spirit tended to the healing.

Thanks be to God for my mind and spirit and for God’s healing of wounds new and old.

Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it . . .
To regret deeply is to live afresh.

— Henry David Thoreau

 

 

Telling Our Stories

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Looking back at the passing year, I am deeply grateful for so many things. Among them is the circle of sisters who listen to my stories so many times and hold me in the light. They are my spiritual community. They “weave invisible nets of love.” They hear my stories with compassion, caring, love and genuine acceptance. They listen, and through their listening, they affirm my soul-place where my stories live.

We are our stories. Our children gain their sense of personhood when they hear their family stories and begin to tell their own. My sense of “me” is entwined with the stories about my parents, grandparents and great grandparents, stories that I have heard over many years and embraced. The stories are origin and memory, history and nostalgia, truth and myth, and as Rachel Held Evans wrote, the stories are a “cautionary tale.” The stories, at least as an adult, have made a place in my soul, teaching me who I am so that now I hold my stories in my heart.

It is sad when we are socialized to keep our stories close to the vest, when we are cautioned not to tell our stories to just anyone. After all, aren’t our stories personal information, meant to be private? That could be our choice, and it is true that telling our stories might make us vulnerable with another person.

But oh, the joy of finding spiritual community and, in community, to find safe and sacred space to share our stories! I have found such communities over the years. Sometimes the community was sharing with just one person. Other communities through the years were made up of a four or five friends. These days, my spiritual community is a cherished circle of caring and loving sisters.

In her final book, “Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again,” Rachel Held Evans wrote this about our origin stories:

The role of origin stories, both in the ancient Near Eastern culture from which the Old Testament emerged and at that familiar kitchen table where you first learned how your grandparents met, is to enlighten the present by recalling the past. Origin stories are rarely straightforward history. Over the years, they morph into a colorful amalgam of truth and myth, nostalgia and cautionary tale, the shades of their significance brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.

In many “particular moments,” I have shared some of my stories with my sisters, watching “the shades of the stories’ significance” emerge within me and with my community. My stories were “brought out by the particular light of a particular moment.” 

8B645361-2CE0-4762-B90F-D317010DA520Sometimes our stories are stories of sheer joy, but sometimes our stories are about loss, pain, heartbreak, fear or the devastating effect a particular traumatic event had on us. That’s when we hold our stories inside, fearing that telling would bring the pain back with a vengeance.

But when we protect our stories, holding them in a private place within us, we miss the healing power of being heard by another person of compassion, caring, acceptance and love. We also miss the pure joy of having been cared for by another person. That experience brings us to our spiritual center, healing old wounds of the soul and spirit; giving us the possibility of experiencing life without the pain of the past. That is God’s gift to us.

There is no better way to end the old year and begin the coming year than to tell our stories of the past, the memories we hold in our hearts, to accept God’s gift of freeing our hearts as we open ourselves to others. That’s a gift worth having! That’s a gift of grace that God wants us to have. That’s a gift that God offers us right now. If we are willing, God is able. Amen.

Old Year Ending ~ New Year Beginning


Of all sounds of all bells, the most solemn and touching
is the peal which rings out the Old Year.

— Charles Lamb

We do get rather nostalgic at the end of a year, on the cusp of a new year. Perhaps we have regrets from the passing year. Perhaps the old year brought losses and grief. Perhaps we have fear at the thought of what the year ahead might bring. Nostalgia just seems to go along with year end and year beginning. I have been known to get teary-eyed during the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” in spite of the fact that I had no idea what “Auld Lang Syne” even meant.

Robert Burns wrote “Auld Lang Syne” in 1788. The poem soon became a song that was traditionally used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. It was a ritual song that gave people a ceremonial way to express the discomfort of ending/beginning as well as to speak of the value of old friendships that should not be forgotten.

Another poem written by Robert W. Service (1874-1957) was entitled “The Passing of the Year.” Its seven poignant stanzas come across as a lament of the passing year, and yet the poet also expresses a juxtaposition between a somber response and an expression of fond farewell. Here are some excerpts:

My glass is filled, my pipe is lit,
My den is all a cosy glow;
And snug before the fire I sit,
And wait to feel the old year go.
I dedicate to solemn thought
Amid my too-unthinking days,
This sober moment, sadly fraught
With much of blame, with little praise . . .

And You, deep shrinking in the gloom,
What find you in that filmy gaze?
What menace of a tragic doom?
What dark, condemning yesterdays?
What urge to crime, what evil done?
What cold, confronting shape of fear?
O haggard, haunted, hidden One
What see you in the dying year?

And so from face to face I flit,
The countless eyes that stare and stare;
Some are with approbation lit,
And some are shadowed with despair.
Some show a smile and some a frown;
Some joy and hope, some pain and woe:
Enough! Oh, ring the curtain down!
Old weary year! it’s time to go.

My pipe is out, my glass is dry;
My fire is almost ashes too;
But once again, before you go,
And I prepare to meet the New:
Old Year! a parting word that’s true,
For we’ve been comrades, you and I —
I thank God for each day of you;
There! bless you now! Old Year, good-bye!

As for New Year’s Resolutions, the same poet wrote an expressions of regret in the year past and the resolve inherent in a phrase we know so well: “Just do it.”

RESOLUTIONS

Each New Year’s Eve I used to brood
On my misdoings of the past,
And vowed: “This year I’ll be so good –
Well, haply better than the last.”
My record of reforms I read
To Mum who listened sweetly to it:
“Why plan all this, my son?” she said;
“Just do it.”

Of her wise words I’ve often thought –
Aye, sometimes with a pang of pain,
When resolutions come to naught,
And high resolves are sadly vain;
The human heart from failure bleeds;
Hopes may be wrecked so that we rue them . . .
Don’t let us dream of lovely deeds –
Just do them.

Now that I have shared more poetry than you ever wanted to read, let me conclude with this thought: As a new year approaches, we greet it with all the regrets and losses and emotions of the old year still pressing on our spirits. That affects our attitude about the unknown year ahead, and when we look at the path that leads us into 2020, all we see is darkness. It is for us a journey into the unknown with no instructions for moving forward. We are sometimes not sure we even want to move into the new year.

That may be the very reason for the ball drop in New York, the champagne toasts with all the hugging and kissing, the elaborate party decorations including metallic pointy hats and horns blowing in the night. Maybe we celebrate so hard because we are so hurt, so filled with regret, so shamed, so afraid of the future. We stand at the gate of the new year holding all that we brought from the old one. Sometimes the burden we are carrying is a heavy, heavy burden to carry, but we simply don’t believe we can throw it off and start on the new year’s unknown path, unburdened and free.

Yes, we do leave all our memories behind in the year that has passed, and in the new year, we hope to realize fresh, new dreams. A wise person says that around us, we have those who love us and within us, we have all we need. But the most eloquent advice I know that addresses our old year/new year dilemma comes from yet another poet, Minnie L. Haskins:

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.

And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

“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!”

 

 

It Is Not Over!

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The Twenty-First Day of Advent
December 21, 2019

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,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which
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,
listening
always listening
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.

 

Dark Night or Advent Light

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The Second Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-One
December 2, 2019

THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT

The Christmas spirit
is that hope
which tenaciously clings
to the hearts of the faithful
and announces
in the face of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things still are possible,
that even now
unto us
a Child is born!

What could this beautiful poem titled The Christmas Spirit possibly have to do with my recent kidney transplant? At first glance, not much. But lingering on the poet’s words made some of them leap from the page for me. I have to admit that the words most piercing to me are these: “. . . all the dark nights of our souls.”

Guilt overwhelmed me after the transplant was complete. I was back in my room six hours after the surgery — barely awake, a little confused, exhausted, in pain and, they tell me, very quick-tempered. I yelled at my husband, something I may have done twice in 50 years of marriage. The truth is I was feeling covered with a blanket of guilt. The nurses, my surgeon, my family were all celebrating the transplant miracle. I was in pain, second-guessing my decision to even have the transplant in the first place and feeling guilty for not acknowledging the miracle everyone else saw.

For the next two days, every person on my transplant team who came to see me entered my room with a large smile and expressed one word, “Congratulations!” said with joy in a most celebratory voice. All the while, I was often weeping pain’s quiet tears. I stared at each congratulating person with a little bit of concealed contempt. In my mind, if not on my lips, was a response that went something like this: “Congratulations? Do you have any idea what kind of pain I am experienced right now? And have you had this surgery yourself? Save your congratulations for another day!”

The physical pain was very real and very intense. The soul pain hurt even deeper. Body and soul — the physical, spiritual and emotional — were so intricately fused together that it was all but impossible to isolate or separate them. Is this just physical pain? Is part of it emotional pain? Am I experiencing, heaven forbid, a spiritual crisis? I found no way to tell. For me, it was pain in all three parts of me and that made it almost intolerable.

For two nights, I did not sleep at all — awake all night, feeling alone, abandoned and in a wrestling match with my pain. As I went over and over in my mind all the reasons I had for getting a transplant, my thoughts morphed into a fairly clear “What have I done?”

It felt so much like a dark night of the soul as I grieved my aloneness and isolation, mourned the loss of my previous life and felt deep fear of the dark, unknown path ahead. And all of those points of crisis made me feel that guilt for not being grateful for the living gift of a kidney.

As Ann Weems’ expresses in the poem, “Hope tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithful and announces in the face . . . of all the dark nights of our souls, that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”

Twenty-one days separated from my transplant, I am able to attest that hope does cling tenaciously in my heart, that hope announces in the face of the dark night of my soul that with God, all things are still possible. And most importantly, “Unto us a Child is born!”

Into me a Child is born, and that presence empowers me to walk through my soul’s darkest night into the light that Advent brings.

Thanks be to God.