I watched the news last night before bed. Not such a good idea! Halfway into the broadcast, I felt a pervasive sense of despair and became very nauseous. I’m feeling it again as I’m writing this. It was the very real and very current events that were so upsetting: hurricanes bringing destruction in Louisiana; California wildfires threatening yet again; protests after the tragic and unwarranted shooting of Jacob Blake; 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, who took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests, using a military-style rifle to kill two people; a president who is intent on meeting street protests with military violence; a president who gathers a crowd of supporters, not socially distanced and most not wearing masks; and the coronavirus hovering over it all to make situations even more devastating than they already are.
I turned off my bedside lamp and, in the darkness, pondered the news I had just seen. I could not sleep with the sorry, worry, desperation and helplessness I felt. There was not one thing I could do to change my world. My world seemed out of my control, engulfed in all of the events of our time. I wondered . . . how will we live with natural disasters, protests in the streets, killing, violence, military style weapons, police out of control, political rancor, a deadly pandemic and a seeming disregard for human life? How will I live with it? What can I do to change it? In these times, we see before our eyes people getting very sick, people dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals because of COVID restrictions, people isolated and lonely for months, people divided by political polarization, people being killed by police, people protesting for racial justice, people pushing back hard, enshrined in their white supremacy, people losing their homes, people fighting out-of-control wildfires, people losing their jobs, people tired from working with so many hospital patients, people afraid to go back to school, people feeling angry and frustrated, people feeling complete despair. Most of all, people are hoping beyond hope for better days ahead.
My mind thought of nothing of any consequence I could personally do to reverse all of this destruction and despair. My heart memory, though, remembered some things God instructed us to do long ago. God addressed instruction to, “my people who are called by my name.”
“I am called by God’s name,” I thought. “I know exactly what to do!” Of course, I could honor God by standing up for justice — engaging in political activism, contacting government officials to demand change or participating in peaceful protests. I could honor God’s creation by doing more to care for the earth. I could honor God by loving my neighbor and caring for those who have suffered loss.
People of faith have God’s marching orders that dispatch those called by God’s name to practice all manner of good works. And this we must do. But the critical admonition from God that my heart recalled last night is found in Second Chronicles 7:14. If you are called by God’s name, you will likely know these words well.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (NRSV)
But wait, Second Chronicles 7:14 doesn’t apply to us. It was for Israel. Our Biblical interpretations must have a solid contextual underpinning. Right?
Of course, many Scriptures taken out of context have done great damage. The context of Second Chronicles is that when God brings judgment on God’s own people, Israel, as a result of their sins, that God would also heal their land. And God would re-establish their blessings when they would pray and “turn from their wicked ways.”
We may look around at all the destruction around us and say, “My sin did not cause any of this.” I don’t have military weapons. I didn’t shoot anyone. I don’t set wildfires, I always wear my mask in public. I certainly cannot stop the ominous storm surge of a hurricane.
True enough! Most of us didn’t sin by doing any of these things. Yet, we should remember two things: 1) While we did not commit those particular sins, we do not fully know the harm inflicted by other sins we may have committed; and 2) We cannot begin to know the transformative power of our sincere, repentant, intercessory prayer.
Instead of entertaining such deep and helpless despair, instead of feeling physically nauseous with worry, I think I will follow the admonition of the Chronicler who gave me God’s call to pray. Of course, the admonition in its historical context truly was for Israel, but if we intend to use the Holy Scripture to guide our lives, we cannot ignore a passage that begins with “If my people.”
Perhaps my prayers and yours will bring transformation, in our spirits and in our world.
One might have been able to hear church bells ringing this morning, eighty times,
in cities and towns across America, to pay homage to his eighty years of life.
Later, the headline read, “Three living presidents came together to honor Congressman John Lewis at his funeral today in Atlanta, Georgia.” Yes, three presidents spoke words of mourning, and celebration today — President George W. Bush, President William J Clinton, President Barak Obama. President Jimmy Carter sent his words to be read. So four living United States Presidents honored John Lewis today. A fifth living United States President did not.
Eloquent words were spoken by so many today at Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which has been known best because of its most famous pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We heard stories, memories, words marked with laughter and tears from friends and family members of John Lewis — Rev. Dr. Bernice King, an activist and Martin Luther King Jr.‘s daughter, civil rights pioneer Xernona Clayton, James Lawson, an activist, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, our three living presidents and many others.
Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders. When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made. And through all those years, he never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me and Michelle and our family. We will miss him dearly.
— President Barak Obama
Americans live in a country that is better today because of John Lewis. John always looked outward, not inward. He always thought of others. He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope. John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity, and he believed in America.
— President George W. Bush
John always kept walking to reach the beloved community. He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget, he developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters. When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist. He lived by the faith and promise of St. Paul: “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we will reap if we do not lose heart.” He never lost heart. He fought the good fight, he kept the faith, but we got our last letter from him today on the pages of the New York Times. Keep moving. It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us our marching orders: Keep moving.
John Lewis was many things, but he was a man, a friend and sunshine in the storm, a friend who would walk the stony road that he asked you to walk, that would brave the chastening rods he asked you to be whipped by, always keeping his eyes on the prize, always believing none of us would be free until all of us are equal. I just loved him. I always will. And I’m so grateful that he stayed true to form. He’s gone up yonder and left us with marching orders. I suggest since he’s close enough to God to keep his eye on the sparrow and on us, we salute, suit up and march on.
— President Bill Clinton
We come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed. When this flag flew there, it said goodbye. It waved goodbye to John. Our friend, our mentor, our colleague. This beautiful man that we all had the privilege of serving with. — Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi
That’s when I cried, as I did many times during the four hours I watched this morning, bearing witness to his life, holding vigil at his glag-draped casket I had watched all week. There is no doubt that moving words were uttered today in that holy place where Beloved Community gathered to mourn John Lewis, but none were more full of heart that the words of Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock:
We have come to say goodbye to our friend in these difficult days. Come on, let the nation celebrate, let the angels rejoice … John Lewis, the boy from Troy, the conscience of the Congress. His deeds etched into eternity, he loved America until America learned to love him back.
From 1 Corinthians 15:51-55
Behold, I show you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?
From Revelation 14: 12-13
Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus. And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds will follow them.”
From the works of William Shakespeare
When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.
I cried today, but I laughed a lot, too. I sang a little and — though I did not rise to my feet to dance in celebration of his life well-lived — I still celebrated more than I mourned, because that’s what John Lewis would do. In the end I laughed out loud at the image of mourners dancing their way out of the sanctuary, following the casket, and being glad that John Lewis loved dancing to the music of “Happy Feet!”
Why don’t we all dance our way to Beloved Community!
May God make it so!
Rest in Peace, John Lewis. Rest in Celebration. We got this!
The Passage of Scripture that I contemplate on this Good Friday, and on most every Good Friday I can remember, is found in the Book of Isaiah.
He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
— Isaiah 53:3-7 NKJV
For me, Good Friday holds so many memories. I remember vividly trekking through the woods to find a thorn tree for our crown of thorns; finding just the right tree for Fred to cut down for building our cross; draping cloth on the cross; decorating our church’s Easter Chrismon tree; finding candles blooming dogwood; and finding fabric — Lenten purple, Good Friday black and Resurrection white.
Good Friday also holds for me many memories of worship — so many years leading worship as a pastor, leading worship during my time as minister of worship, leading services in our hospital chapel, holding sunrise services in our community. Honestly, after so many years, they all run together, and I only remember snippets of the times of worship that were most meaningful to me.
There is one memory that is so clear to me that it stands out above all others. I remember it in detail and I believe that this memory shaped my best thoughts about meaningful worship. I was only a young girl, but my grandmother (Yiayia) gave me authoritative instruction about how I should devoutly observe Holy Week. That usually meant going to church every day of Holy Week, but always, it meant Good Friday worship at our Holy Trinity + Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Birmingham.
I wondered then about why the day when Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion was called Good Friday. The son of God was flogged, insulted and ordered to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. According to Mark’s Gospel, he endured the torment of crucifixion for some six hours from the third hour, at approximately 9 am, until his death at the ninth hour, corresponding to about 3 pm.
It’s difficult to see what is “good” about Good Friday. I studied on the name Good Friday and learned some interesting information. The day was called Long Friday by the Anglo-Saxons and is referred to as such in modern Danish. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that some sources see its origins in the term God’s Friday. In German the day is called Karfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday. In our Greek Orthodox faith, the day is known as the Holy and Great Friday in the Greek Orthodox liturgy.
In truth, that terrible Friday is called Good Friday because it eventually leads us to the Resurrection of Jesus, his victory over death and finally the celebration of resurrection, the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations. According to the Baltimore Catechism, Good Friday is good because Christ “showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing.” Yes! But I must paraphrase that quotation to say “Christ showed His great love for us all, and purchased for us every blessing.“
Sometimes, we tend to rush headlong past the darkness of Christ’s passion, wanting a quicker path to the glorious resurrection. Which is where I begin with my childhood memories of Holy Week. Like most Orthodox Christians, my grandmother made sure we observed Good Friday with fasting, prayer, cleanliness, self-examination, confession and good works. We did not do any chores on Good Friday because we were to honor the day of mourning. I remember that our Good Friday meant a strict fast, no food all day. My Yiayia made up a mini fast for me that included small meals and just a little juice, always calling attention to the food she did not give me because I was fasting. What a teacher and spiritual guide Yiayia was to me! The long day of fasting went on.
On Great and Holy Friday our Orthodox Church commemorated the death of Christ on the Cross. We had to go to church first thing in the morning. In this service, our priest, Father Sam, raised up Christ’s Cross very high and then took it around the church three times. We kneeled the entire time and I wondered if everyone’s knees were hurting like mine were. Anyway, Yiayia had given me instructions. “Kneel correctly and don’t look around until the Cross passes our pew. Then look at the Cross and pray to be forgiven of your sins just like the thief on the Cross who confessed.” I didn’t think I had any sins, but I did it anyway. Father Sam finally finished walking around and took the Cross to the front of the church. Then Yiayia nudged me to move and, along with everyone in the whole church, we went to the Cross and kissed it. I wasn’t a great fan of Vespers so early in the morning, but we had to be there to see the unnailing of Christ from the Cross.
Before I knew it, we were on our way back to church, even though I had plans for Friday afternoon. I felt something a little like sadness, I think, when Father Sam and several other men took Jesus from the Cross and placed him in a tomb. What I most remember was wondering why Father Sam was sprinkling the tomb with rosewater and then sprinkling all of us. The sweet smell of roses filled the sanctuary. At the end, we went behind Father Sam in a procession with the entire beautiful structure that was supposed to be the tomb of Jesus. It was like a funeral procession and it was sad. The older ladies in black clothes wept again. I think I felt a tear roll down my face, too. I think my tear came because Father Sam’s chants that day were the saddest, most sorrowful music I had ever heard.
The problem with all of it, I thought, is that we still had to fast all day and all the next day. I didn’t like that part very much, but as a dutiful child, I ate and drank the sparse morsels and juice that Yiayia served me without a single complaint. At least outwardly! Inside, I complained constantly and literally felt like I might starve.
And then it happened! In the dark of night, 11:00 pm, we went to the church — the most special liturgy of our church. Last minute instructions from Yiayia? “Sit up straight, kneel when I kneel, say all the prayers, no talking to your friends, no looking around to see who came, no crossing your legs, and don’t fall asleep” (even though we might be there until 1 am). if I broke any of those rules, Yiayia quietly, but forcefully, pinched my leg.
Father Sam took us first to the Passion of the Christ and his final moments on the cross. I remember having a bit of child like impatience with the very lengthy and heavy service. Yet today, I would give anything to sit up straight, legs uncrossed next to my Yiayia. I had no idea what was going on, but I was again stricken by the tears and the crying of the older ladies wearing black. I know now that they came there to mourn the death of Jesus. At that time, I just felt sad and kind of in awe in hearing their expressions of mourning.
As the liturgy neared midnight, the sanctuary went dark and we sat in complete darkness for what seemed to me like an hour. Father Sam took light and gave it to those who were holding candles as he sang: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead,” and all the people join him in singing the hymn again and again.
Father Sam then led the entire congregation outside the church. We had begun the procession to the tomb. I was so short in a crowd of taller people that I was unsure what was going on.
I did know that on the way to the tomb all the adults were solemn. But somehow I remembered that Father Sam would read the Gospel that gave us the Angel’s statement: “He is Risen; He is not here.” (Mark 16:1-8)
Then came the breathless moment — always the breathless moment — as the people waited for our priest to start the hymn of Resurrection. We sang with him this hymn, our most beloved hymn of Resurrection. “Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs!” We sang it over and over again, holding our candles on a cold, dark night, facing the doors of our church
I remember Father Sam, holding the Paschal candle in his left hand, turned to face the wooden church doors and knocked three times on the closed doors with his hand-cross, saying in a loud voice, “Where is the King of glory?” Everyone responded, “He is not here for he has risen from the grave!”
This was the the high point of worship, but . . . We still had to sit quietly in the pews to hear the sermon of St. John Chrysostom. I was tired and very sleepy, but at long last, our Lenten exile had ended. The fasting was over. The penitential prayers were finished. The stone from the tomb was rolled away and we knew without any doubt that Christ had risen! He had risen indeed!
Today, wherever you are — near your loved ones or apart — know that the fear, anxiety and isolation of this virus will end. Let all of us pray for those who are ill; for the families that have lost loved ones; for medical professionals, chaplains, first responders and the hospital employees who clean and sanitize every area; for the scientists who are working to develop testing and vaccines; for the governors of every state; for those having financial difficulty; for churches facing financial struggles and for ministers who are creating worship alternatives; for all those to whom this virus is an enormous threat because of age, weakened immune system and health issues; for parents who must teach their children at home and for children who wonder where Easter is this year.
This has been a Lent to remember because it included the separation of families, schools and faith communities. Of all the Lents that have passed, I imagine we will remember this one. When we do, I hope we will remember all the compassionate deeds, all the new ways of being community and all the ways we have loved one another. After all, the command to love one another came from the Christ who faced betrayal, sorrow, death and ended his story with resurrection. That’s what all of us, people of resurrection do — suffer all of life’s slings and arrows and still end up resurrected — to newness of life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
And thanks be to God for my Good Fridays, then and now. Amen.
I am including a video of the song, “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris for your Good Friday meditation time.
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!
This 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.
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.
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)
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.
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 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
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
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 faithfuland 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.
Let’s take back our world! Let us join hands and, in the power of community and holy resolve, reclaim our world from white supremacists, racists and violent actors that threaten our people.
If not us, who? If not now, when?
After the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that killed 20 young children, British journalist Dan Hodges wrote that the gun control debate in the U.S. was over. This is what he wrote: “Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
The shootings that occurred this week offend us in a very deep place. You see, we are followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace. We are the people of God who know that thoughts and prayers and compassionate sentiments won’t end this kind of terroristic hate.
The El Paso shooter told law enforcement that he wanted to shoot as many Mexicans as possible. His manifesto, which he posted on the 8chan online community included details about himself, his weapons and his motivation. He described the El Paso attack as a “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” and proclaimed that he was defending his country from “cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
Most certainly, these words from an obvious white supremacist should offend every follower of God. His evil intent is also an offense to God. In response to such evil, perhaps we will raise our voices continually and persistently, without becoming weary. Perhaps we will resolve to take back our world, proclaiming God’s word in the darkness of evil just as the prophets did. Like them, perhaps we will persist tirelessly and with a holy resolve, for as long as it takes to end the evil that arises from racism and white supremacy.
Perhaps our prophetic action will mirror that of the writer of Lamentations who wrote, “Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children.”
I tell my story best when I tell the stories of the people that God has placed in my life. Quite often, my heart recalls beautiful memories of a people that became an important part of my life. They are a people who touched me beyond measure when my husband and I served as missionaries to Uganda, East Africa.
The Ugandan people captured our hearts quickly and completely. We saw the great need and set about our work in village after village, doing whatever we could to promote self sufficiency and good health. We worshipped in their churches and learned about the amazing resilience of their Christian faith. Perhaps we helped make their lives better in small ways. There is no doubt that the Ugandan people made our lives better in big ways. It was so many years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The two of us stepped off of a plane in the Nairobi airport to begin a new life. As very young missionaries, we had no idea what we would face in the days to come.
Getting to Uganda from Kenya was a long, dusty ride through the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Through bush country and savannah, through banana groves and rain forests, through tea plantations on the mountainsides and the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we were getting acquainted with this continent.
The terrain was ever-changing, and the way was marked by the majestic beauty of elephants, giraffe, cape buffalo, gazelles, flamingos and Ugandan crested cranes.
The most moving sight of all was the people, barefoot and downtrodden, wearing rags and carrying heavy water containers. Yet, the sight of women at the banks of a river dipping their water jugs to carry to their families was a portrait of beauty and community. In spite of the toll the war had taken, these women retained their pride and dignity, and their joy. They wore basutis (native Ugandan dresses) of many vibrant African colors. In spite of the fact that their basutis were torn and tattered, they caught the rays of the equatorial sun and were bright with the greens, oranges, burgundies blues and yellows that mirrored the Ugandan landscape. The women stood together in the river, at times laughing and talking to one another, and at other times singing, in spite of their ominous sociopolitical world.
Their country had all but been destroyed by the evil dictator Idi Amin, who orchestrated the genocide of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. Churches were burned to the ground, schools pillaged, roads were in shambles. Children were left orphaned in a country of widows. Their faces showed the wear of grief, their bodies the mask of mourning.
They were why we had come, sent by God to comfort a grieving people. The days ahead found us digging water wells, distributing agricultural tools and vegetable seeds, giving out books, bibles, blankets and sewing supplies, bringing in simple medicines and vaccines.
I can never think of the Ugandan people without recalling Lamentations 5, a scripture passage that was read in a church service to describe the plight of the people. As the reader read through her tears, the entire congregation wept, mourning so many losses. I offer the text here in its entirety:
Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.
We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.
Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.
Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music.
Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
— Lamentations 5, New International Version
That worship service in the Church of Uganda (Anglican) sanctuary was unlike any I had ever experienced. The people wept freely and openly, grieving the loss of husbands, children, parents. Once described as “the pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, Uganda was a land of incomparable natural beauty that now had been ravaged by war.
As the reading of the scripture in Lamentations came to an end, one woman with tears flowing down her cheeks began to sing and dance. The congregation joined her, singing with great fervency, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you on wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he.”
The aisles of the sanctuary filled with dancing and weeping all at once.
Their mourning had turned to dancing. The inner joy of a people was not, and could never be, destroyed. Their hearts, so filled with the music of their faith, could not be silenced. They could sing. They could dance. Even through their tears. That is the music of abiding, persistent faith.
How grateful I am to God for choosing us to enter into community for a time with these wonderful people.
As people often say, things come and go. Today the resurrection came, so clearly in our worship service and especially in our Sunday School class. When we are gathered in community, the sharing of our lives becomes resurrection for us all. So for us resurrection came, but it did not go.
It remains in the resurrection stories we share and in the ways we bear witness to the grace-full acts of God. The stories around the circle were about places of darkness and death and about the resurrection that always follows. For some, physical health reaches a dark place and we pray for the resurrection to come in their lives. For others, emotions around fear are on the surface and we pray for the resurrection to overcome the fear. Still others grieve for friendships that feel like the end, and we pray for the resurrection they need. Others mourn the loss of friends to death and, as we pray for the healing of those left behind, we also rejoice in the promise of resurrection for those that leave their earthly life.
Death comes in myriad ways. But resurrection comes, every time, to shatter death’s darkness in ways that seem like mighty wonders and wondrous acts of God. Ready or not, resurrection comes to us and makes its home in us. We are resurrection people because we made the choice to proclaim to the world that Christ is risen!
The Scripture gives us so many stories of resurrection. Sacred texts allow us to look into the lives of many people who have looked at death and have come through it to resurrection. And in our own lives, we can bear witness to the glorious reality that we know the One who is “the resurrection and the life,” that because we believe in the Christ, we will never die. (John 11:25-26)
As you enjoy Easter and lean into the resurrection that never leaves you, think on these Scripture texts:
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
— John 20:11-18 (NRSV)
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
— 1 Peter 1:3-7 (NRSV)
With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.