Few words have been written that are more thought provoking than these words offered by Julia Wright. Ponder them. Reflect on them. Take a few moments to consider where you are in these words.
How long? How long will we have to feel imprisoned by social distancing? How long will we feel this loneliness? How long must we wear masks? How long until my children can safely visit their grandparents? How long until we’re past the danger of catching this virus? How long until life is normal again?
Most people I know had at least one bad day this week. At least three of us had a bad day on the same day, and I was not comforted to learn that two of my close friends suffered on the very same day that brought me suffering. It seems the longer we travel the journey of these distancing days, the more disheartened we become. We are ready to see our families and friends. We are ready to venture out of our secluded place and walk freely and without worry. We are ready to travel, to worship together in the same place and to celebrate with friends that the danger of Covid19 is over.
But it is not over. Not by a long shot. And what seems to be the second wave of the virus brings a second wave of emotion for us — a deep grief that we simply do not know when, or if, our lives will return to the lives we once enjoyed. Some of us can give our grief a name — sadness, anger, confusion, heartbreak, loneliness — maybe a combination of all of these names, and so many others.
Sadly, some people cannot name their grief. They will not! Instead they lash out in a kind of rage that hurts others. Call it domestic violence, child abuse, sexual abuse, interpersonal violation that causes permanent trauma to the soul and spirit. Call it a tragic situation. It happens, in part, to people who refuse to look at their grief and allow it to turn into rage.
Other people who cannot name their grief turn it inward, deep inside themselves. These are the people who are suffering great emotional harm that can last for a lifetime. We can call it trauma, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress injury, etc. Whatever we call it, the grief that people are experiencing as a result of this pandemic seems to be increasing the probability of a widespread mental health crisis.
The COVID-19 virus is not only attacking our physical health; it is also increasing psychological suffering: grief at the loss of loved ones, shock at the loss of jobs, isolation and restrictions on movement, difficult family dynamics, uncertainty and fear for the future. Mental health problems, including depression and anxiety, are some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.
— U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres
The more we watch our communities relax social distancing, the more we experience a visceral response that speaks to our fear, disappointment and confusion. I asked my Mayo Clinic doctor yesterday via video chat — “When can I get out?” Hoping beyond hope for an answer that meant release, I listened as he gave a thorough scientific, doctor-like explanation. His primary concern, of course, was my physical outcome if I should be exposed to the virus, but he also spoke about my emotional and social needs. In the end his answer was what I feared it might be: “You must take extreme social distancing precautions, at least until you are one year post transplant.”
That means November for me, provided all goes well with my kidney and with the level of safety in my community. I think my question to my doctor was a common one, “How Long?” Sufferers ask it often. With heartbreaking angst, sufferers in hospital beds ask — “How Long?” — as do persons near death, persons with painful chronic health conditions, persons who wait for mourning to ease, persons who search desperately for work, persons who suffer from unrelenting traumatic stress, persons in a far away place who just long to go home.
“How Long?” is a question of the soul for persons of faith and for persons without faith, for persons who believe in God and for persons who believe there is no God. All persons languish with that question on their lips. People who trust in God have asked the questions in the 13th Psalm for ages, every age with its own sudden catastrophe or its own long, enduring adversity. Every person asks, as did the Psalmist, “How long?”
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
— Psalm 13: 1-2 (NIV)
If you have been asking, “How long, O Lord?” during this pandemic, you probably know already that you will not receive easy answers. There simply are no easy answers. The current separations from family and friends are painful. The realities and risks of re-entering life as we once knew it are daunting. The irresponsibility of many people who move about without masks and closer to one another than 6 feet is troubling. The worry we carry about our safety and the safety of those we love is constant. And the heaviness of heart we are feeling is unrelenting.
So yes, you are probably asking God, “How long?”as I am. How in the world do we get to “rejoicing” during such a time as this? In these unprecedented days, it seems much harder to move ourselves all the way through Psalm 13 in order to get to a glorious utterance of praise, a declaration of trust, a rejoicing of heart, and even a song of praise to a God of “unfailing love.” The Psalmist seems to have made it all the way through the questions to a time of rejoicing and singing.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
— Psalm 13:5-6 (NIV)
So ask your questions honestly. God can take whatever questions you ask. Go ahead and ask God, “How long?” But then allow God to restore your weary spirit, to nourish your soul and to make your heart long for something much greater than answers to your questions.
That’s what I want to do. Now if I can just muster up enough energy — and enough faith and hope — to do it.
May God make it so. For me and for you. Amen.
For your quiet time today, I invite you to use this meditative video as your prayer.
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,
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 Coming of Light, the Advent of Love!”
The Seventh Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-six
December 7, 2019
There are those who scoff at miracles.
I don’t know what they make of the birth of the Child.
For that matter,
I don’t know what they make of the birth of any child.
There are those who laugh at dreams.
so they’ve never heard an angel’s voice,
nor seen any unusual light in the night’s sky,
nor felt the yearning to set out in search
of new life.
There are those who do not see the Star.
I wonder where it is they go
when everyone else sets out for Bethlehem.
To those of us who believe,
into every night is born a Star.
— Ann Weems
I do not want to be one of the ones who miss seeing the Star. It’s important, especially when I am so focused on transplant recovery, that I make my way to Bethlehem this Advent. In her poem, Ann Weems writes that some people have never heard an angel’s voice nor seen any unusual light in the night sky. She laments that some people have never felt the yearning to set out in search of new life.
Advent 2019 finds me feeling at least a small yearning to set out in search of new life. Circumstances have left me no choice, really, because ahead of me, a new life is all there is. The old life is over and, with a new kidney to protect, I am facing a new life head-on, like it or not. It won’t be an easy life, but embracing new life seldom is. It is always a change and a challenge, asking for my best effort.
I fear it, as folks most always do when embracing a new life. And I am going to need some help — from my friends, my family and my faith community. I am going to need the singing of angels and the light from Bethlehem’s Star. I am going to need to believe — really believe — because not believing may leave me stalled on the path to Bethlehem. In believing, there is hope, hope that embraces the longing for new life. Hope that hears the singing of angels. Hope that looks up into the night sky and sees the Star.
There is no doubt about it — in believing, there is hope.
Ann Weems offers the grace of one last promise:
“To those of us who believe, into every night is born a Star.”
The Fifth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-four
December 5, 2019
I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent
and flings the Star into the December sky,
laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth;
and the angels, hearing the laughter of God,
begin to congregate in some celestial chamber
to practice their alleluias.
I wonder if there’s some ordering of rank among the angels
as they move into procession
the seraphim bumping the cherubim from top spot,
the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back
until they get the knack of it.
(After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating
at the same time can’t be all that easy!)
Or is everybody — that is, every “soul” — free to fly
wherever the spirit moves?
Or do they even think about it?
Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come,
this multitude of heavenly hosts.
Perhaps they come,
winging through the winds of time
full of expectancy
full of hope
that this year
perhaps this year
the earth will fall to its knees
in a whisper of “Peace.”
— Ann Weems
This year for me is unlike any other year, not at all like Advents of my past. This Advent for me is not at all ordinary. It is an Advent that finds me in a bit of suffering, a bit of pain and, most of all, crying out for peace.
The poet asks: “What might it look like if the earth fell to its knees in a whisper of ‘Peace?’” We are always full of expectancy, full of hope that during some Advent, perhaps this year’s Advent, we will finally hear the earth whispering “Peace.”
From the place I find myself today, I look for that Peace. Recovering from a kidney transplant and trying to live into a new normal, what I need most is peace. Peace after a life upheaval. Peace after a physical trauma. Peace that might help restore my emotional and spiritual self.
I do so want to fall to my knees in a whisper of “Peace.” But probably not today. Not until some parts of me heal a little more. It’s not always an easy thing, falling to my knees, even in the best of times. Today, though — far from home and family, separated from my friends and my faith community — most things are not easy.
I will remember these recovery days as a season of harsh medications, pain, swelling, itching, tremors, instability and anxiety. But there is another part of my memory that remembers that the Apostle Paul wrote some words that have always spoken deep peace to me. He wrote of being “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”
And then his most comforting words of all: “We do not lose heart. . . for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (From 2 Corinthians 4)
Walking through those words of hope, I think I can make it another day. Even in my darkness of a difficult recovery, perhaps I can gather up my courage and perseverance and walk a few more steps. Yes, this is a hard time.
And yet, I still believe that, in some mysterious way, God comes to the edge of Advent and flings the Star into the night sky, maybe many stars. I can still envision God laughing with joy as starlights illuminate the darkness. And I can almost hear the singing of angels practicing their alleluias.
It is Advent, after all!
The Fourth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-three
December 4, 2019
IN DECEMBER DARKNESS
The whole world waits in December darkness
for a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug!”
and chase away the carolers
have been looking toward the skies.
The one who declared he never would forgive
and those who left home
and even wars are halted,
as the whole world looks starward.
In the December darkness
we peer from our windows
watching for an angel with rainbow wings
to announce the Hope of the World.
— Ann Weems
In this season of my life, it would be easy to snarl “Humbug!” and move on to ordinary, tedious, plodding daily living. It’s hard to look starward when pain is your nightly companion, sticking much too close in the darkness of night, the darkness of life. My words this morning are not Advent-inspired words. They are, pure and simple, a factual and real assessment of where I find myself. My most pressing question? How do I get from “Humbug!” to Hope?
It will require an extra measure of faith, patience and perseverance. It will require my willingness to welcome a new normal. It may call for a little extra weeping, a bit more courage, a wide-open soul and maybe even a few angels to illuminate the way ahead.
To be honest, I have to say that on top of my physical pain is my incessant emotional pain that whispers, “You are not okay!” over and over and over again. I know this is not very Advent-like. This view of my current health and well-being is most definitely not Advent-like. But instead of my constant post- transplant complaints and consternations, I want to look for the star in the night sky. I want to listen for the hope-filled sound of the heavenly host singing “Alleluia!” I want to be standing in awe of angels with rainbow wings.
All of this descriptive information is about my current emotional/physical/spiritual space. I know that I don’t want to stay here in this dark place. I know it’s a temporary, necessary time of moving into healing and wholeness. Still, it often feels like darkness. Much more like “Humbug!” than Hope!
So from this dark place, I will myself to look starward, even briefly. I will see past the December darkness. I plan to peer out of my transplant-veiled windows, watching for an angel with rainbow wings announcing the Hope of the World!
May Spirit make it so.
Transplant Day Fifteen
November 26, 2019
Today will be a better day it seems. Excruciating pain has lifted for the most part. Yet, I am still facing enormous challenges — getting control of my raging blood sugar readings, reducing the swelling that is very uncomfortable, dealing with frequent changes to my medication dosages that are so necessary to prevent my body from rejecting its new kidney, eating the right foods and NOT eating the things that are strictly forbidden, adhering to a stringent regimen of washing all food properly, lathering on hand sanitizer every time I possibly can, wearing sunscreen at all times and never, ever forgetting to wear my mask.
Fortunately, I am married to a caregiver who is the “spreadsheet king” and he has my every move on his spreadsheet, including times and dosages of about 20 medications taken every day — 38 pills, 6 liquids and 6 injections. Three to four times Every week, we have appointments at Mayo Cinic starting at 6:15 am and sometimes continuing into the afternoon. It is making us very tired and overwhelmed, exhausted. There is not one thing about our lives that has not changed.
So I would not be honest if I did not admit my worries, my obsessiveness, my overthinking, my fear, my vivid imagination about all that could go wrong and my wondering what will happen tomorrow, the next day, and all the days ahead.
It is the best advice, I think, to set my focus on two words — just breathe. Just breathe, and have faith that everything will work out for the best. And it won’t hurt to ponder and lean on the many promises of God’s care and grace. These are but a few:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.
Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.
2 Corinthians 5:7
For we walk by faith, not by sight.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
It can only harm me to be worried and anxious, frightened and overwhelmed, concerned about what the days ahead will look like. It seems to me that I should just breath, all the while leaning on the everlasting arms.
On another note, please pray for me as I recover from my kidney transplant. I am so grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often felt so frightening and is now a very difficult and stress-filled recovery time. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. Your donations have helped us with the expense of staying in Jacksonville, near Mayo Clinic, for this month of post transplant care. If you can contribute or if you would like to read more of the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is also set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, uncovered medications and medical equipment, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link
Transplant Day Thirteen
November 24, 2019
I have been offered a blessing. From a stranger.
I met this kind person through a group of clergywomen called RevGalBlogPals. She is a spiritual director from British Columbia. Through the RevGalBlogPals Facebook group, she happened upon parts of my transplant journey in my blog posts. She began praying for me. Then she offered me the gift of spiritual direction as I pass through this complicated time in my life.
It has been several years since I worked with a spiritual director, so I was very humbled and thankful to hear from her. These were the words of lovingkindness she wrote to me in our first session.
May you feel the gentle touch of Spirit in this session.
May you know that I am holding you in healing Love.
May you be reminded of your worth and strength…
As you rest.
~ This is spiritual direction when pain does not allow for words.
On the day I received her message, it was so true that pain did not allow for words. The assault on my body was unspeakable on that day. I remember when many years ago my husband’s cardiologist came into his hospital room a few days after his heart surgery. The cardiologist said this: “Let’s look at this terrible thing we’ve done to you.”
His words resonated with me post transplant when, in the throes of struggle and pain, I definitely was looking at the terrible thing they had done to me. I could not quite see a brighter, pain-free future. I could only focus on the physical systems that were in complete disarray after the transplant. It did not help when medical staff told me it was all normal. The way I was experiencing it all was far from normal.
I wondered if I would ever live “normal” again. Or if perhaps I would live into a new normal of life after receiving a transplanted organ. I was not sure, and definitely not confident, that all systems would levelize into something I could tolerate. My spiritual director’s wisdom knows that to have physical normalcy, I must also seek emotional and spiritual normalcy. That would mean healing wholly — from the outer visible body to the inner invisible one. It would mean transformation. It would mean living my life while watching constantly and diligently for any sign that something was physically wrong.
When my spiritual director suddenly appeared, I knew that she would help me explore my spiritual state, entering into community with me and pointing to the healing I could not yet see.
Thanks be to God for the beloved community she has offered me, community that forms in unexpected places, in unexpected times, just when I needed community the most.
Transplant Day Twelve
November 23, 2019
I have just reached a milestone — a million seconds. My kidney transplant started the clock on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Today it is a million seconds later. I will remember those million seconds as a time of fear and faith, laughter and tears, rest and painful sleeplessness. I will remember a million seconds filled with hard things, the pain of a large incision spreading halfway across my abdomen, and swallowing pills, lots of pills.
I may one day see those million seconds as hidden secrets, secrets hidden from me by pain and by my body’s struggle to regain some normalcy. I may in time look at those million seconds with glittering eyes and see them as the magic they were. But today I can just share with you what I experienced in a million seconds that began on a Tuesday — November 12th to be exact.
I will remember a million seconds of so many strange things happening to my body and the numerous assaults my body endured. I will remember a million seconds of awe in knowing that a kidney was removed from a living donor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and hand carried by a doctor to me, to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida — a distance of 1,115 miles “as the crow flies.”
I will remember a million seconds that began when my surgeon took a picture of the kidney, brought the photo on her phone to my room to show it to me, and said, “This is a beautiful, perfect kidney for you.” She planted that kidney, tucked it carefully inside me, took a photo of the incision and about five hours later came to my room to show me a picture she took on her iPhone of a large incision, impeccably sutured.
I will not forget those million seconds of the prayers of my friends, doctors and nurses caring for me and family members hovering over me with concern and relief.
I will not forget the hymn that came to my mind in the long, sleepless nights in the hospital — a million seconds of leaning on God’s everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
A million seconds have changed my life, while all the while, I was leaning on the everlasting arms. It was a million seconds of holy ground, sacred space. Yet I hardly noticed it as magic or miracle as the pain of my humanity took center stage.
Yes, I focused on suffering, physical pain, worry, concern, tears. Instead, I might have focused on the hidden secrets and witnessed the miracle of holy ground inside a hospital room. I could have had a million seconds of miracle, but instead I experienced a million seconds of the raw and real humanity of suffering. In some ways, a million seconds of transformation were lost to me as I invited unfaith into my room.
And by the way, a million seconds is 12 days.
I’m getting to know myself. Again! Moving through life takes one through changes large and small. We slip past the small ones pretty much unscathed. But oh, those large ones! The large changes are another story altogether. Sometimes they cause us to miss a step or two. Sometimes they stop us right where we stand. Sometimes they throw us all the way to the ground. But they always get our attention.
Chronic illness is one of those ‘knock-you-to-the-ground” changes, especially when an illness happens suddenly. In a recent New York Times article, Tessa Miller shares how sudden illness changes one’s life and how chronic illness changes life forever.
“Seven Thanksgiving ago, I got sick and I never got better,” Miller writes. She goes on to describe the conundrum of chronic illness.
When I was diagnosed, I didn’t know how much my life would change. There’s no conversation about that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness won’t go away but won’t kill you, so none of us know what “chronic illness” means until we’re thrown into being sick forever.
I can identify with the changes Tessa Miller describes. The onset of my chronic illness five years ago was sudden, unexpected and permanent. My kidneys failed — simple as that. And I entered into the unfamiliar world of daily dialysis, a world I never expected to be in. And, yes, it was life-changing.
Tessa Miller makes another very insightful point. She explains how, once you find yourself in the fog of the changes you’re facing because of a chronic illness, one change presents the biggest challenge – the change in your relationship with yourself.
There is no debate: when chronic illness disturbs the equilibrium of your life, your relationship with yourself changes. You grieve a version of yourself that doesn’t exist anymore, and a future version that looks different than what you had ever imagined.
Chronic illness can shatter career goals and life plans. You learn learn a “new normal” in their place. But the acceptance of a “new normal” comes after the trauma. And trauma does happen, trauma that necessarily calls for therapy, either formal or informal.
Emotional work definitely needs to be done, and emotional work around chronic illness can look a lot like grief therapy for a passing loved one. You lose your self, at least temporarily. Your self changes.
So make sure to spend some time looking for YOU. Intentionally. Being open to whatever you find in yourself. Practice seeing yourself as the person you are instead of the person you were. Looking in the proverbial mirror gives you an image of the new version of yourself. Get to know her. Celebrate her resilience. Above all, be patient as you get to know her. You may be surprised at how much you like and admire her.