Emotions, Faith, Illness, Isaiah, Psalm 73, Questions, struggle, Uncategorized, Unfaith

Musings on Unfaith

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Unfaith! Such an unsettling word that may well describe where we sometimes find ourselves! I am certain that unfaith applies to me, to the times when my soul is troubled, to the seasons when my faith becomes small. Unfaith most definitely takes over in my heart at times, and in those times, my journey is a struggle. So I battle against unfaith, all the while simply wanting to understand it. This is my truth: I fight unfaith, praying to be rid of it, writing down my emotions around it, reading my Bible when I cannot live with unfaith another minute. My skirmish with unfaith often leads me to the words of the Psalmist.

In yesterday’s struggle with unfaith, I happened upon Psalm 73. It is a rather lengthy Psalm, as Psalms go, and it spends a great deal of time describing wicked people. I rushed through it, I think, because I was searching for inspiring words about unfaith and because I all already know a lot about wicked people. I can, in fact, describe wicked people almost as passionately as does the Psalmist. On top of that, my description of wicked people often includes some choice and inappropriate words.

I plowed on through the Psalm when, out of the blue, one particular verse “hit me upside the head!” (That’s southern slang!) Verse 14 came much too close to my soul. It described my emotions and showed me myself.

All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.

— Psalm 73:14 NIV

Oh my! There it is: a succinct statement that so fully reflects what I had been feeling for the past week. It is unpleasant to read, as if it is stating my disconcerting reality and then forcing me to ask myself a question I would rather avoid. Still, I dare to ask myself — “So what are you going to do about your current state?” — knowing that I will likely not have an immediate answer nor a reassuring one. Sometimes I think that all of my feelings and responses come from my unfaith.

I should give you the backdrop for my Psalm 73 experience. I have felt unwell for several days — unrelenting fatigue, deep muscle aches, shortness of breath, trembling, hand tremors and several other troubling symptoms. The reality is that since my kidney transplant in November, I have been plagued with less than perfect health and a very compromised immune system.

Last week, my immunosuppressant medication dosage was increased, something I always dread because I know the distress that usually follows. This time, the side-effects seem worse than they have ever been. I struggle with the reality that so many parts of my body are just not working normally and despair is one of my recurring feelings, despair that, on most days, I have to fight against.

I have learned that I can fight against despair and that often I must. Despair does a number on the soul and spirit, on the place where my emotions live. So, yes, I can fight it, but the fight is exhausting. I can stand courageously and face off with despair. At times, I can even rise above it, but the encounter leaves me deep-down weary.

As for my spirit? Well, my spirit constantly searches for God’s comfort, for holy relief and answers to my questions. I try to attend to my spiritual health, as well as my emotional and physical health, often without much success. I sometimes experience God as a comforter who is far away. I do not often hear God’s voice, and I am not one to beg God for healing. Is all of this struggle because of my unfaith?

I have shared far more confession and self-revelation than anyone needs to hear. I do it because sometimes I believe that release might come if I can give voice to my pain and discouragement, if I can own my weariness and tell my story. Telling is not a quick-fix miracle cure, but telling another person how I feel gives me an extra measure of strength and resolve. And telling all of you who read my blog always means that many of you will offer prayers for me.

After sharing with you that I sometimes feel distant from God, this morning I caught an unexpected glimpse of God. It was just a tiny glimpse, though it was also a comforting, healing glimpse. I caught a glimpse of God in the place I find God most often — through the words of the Prophet Isaiah. The Book of Isaiah is my go-to place when I find myself so weary that I feel as if I cannot take another step.

Selected passages from Isaiah 40 and 41:

Do you not know?  Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:28-31 NIV

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you; 
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand
and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.

— Isaiah 41:10,13 NIV

For some reason, I felt an urging to read Psalm 73 again. As I read it again, I found a clear and enduring declaration of God’s presence that rings so true to me on my best days.

Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
 and my portion forever.

—Psalm 73:23-26 NIV

This is the spiritual place I want to be — the place where I know that God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever — in spite of pain, in spite of discomfort, in spite of uncertainty, in spite of the life reality that my questions will not always have answers, in spite of my unfaith. I am convinced that unfaith is always with us like “a thorn in the flesh,” an ever-present oppressor, a silent demon that steals into the soul. But I am even more certain that, along with unfaith, there is pure and true faith. Perhaps we cannot know abiding faith without also knowing the disconcerting seasons of unfaith.

So these are my musings about unfaith, prompted by a Psalm. Isn’t that just like God, though, offering me a grace gift by gently guiding me through a Psalm that reaffirms God’s protection? Isn’t that like God, to freely give me reassuring grace? Isn’t it just like God, to give me the gift of presence, a gift freely given to me even when I doubt, even when I am struggling with a season of unfaith?

Thanks be to God for the epiphany that, in my heart and soul, faith has most assuredly come, though bringing unfaith with it. Thanks be to God for this insight: that growing in faith means descending into my unfaith for as long as it takes for its oppressive darkness to give way to God’s wonderful light.

As I walked through this part of my faith journey, I could not help but remember the words of a hymn that declares that we are held by a firm foundation and, through words spoken by God, promises us protection, strength and grace.

* Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed,
For I am thy God, and will still give thee aid;
I’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.

When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

In your quiet time, spend a few moments hearing this hymn as you worship with the congregation of First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*Author: George Keith 1787; R. Keen, 1787
Source: Rippon’s A Selection of Hymns, 1787
Copyright: Public Domain

anxiety, Christ's Passion, Christ’s Resurrection, Comfort, Community, Courage, Faith, Fear, God's presence, Heartbreak, Hope, Isolation, Loss, Pandemic of 2020, Psalms, Resurrection, struggle, Sunday of the Palm and Passion

In a Shaken Time . . . The Unshakable

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I have written often about times when I have been shaken to my core, the hard times and the seasons of angst. Not because hard times have been a constant in my life, but because in the middle of them, I have found a Divine Constant that sustained me at times and saved me at other times.

As we approach the Sunday of the Palm and Passion, we remember the journey Jesus traveled.

. . . the great crowd that had come to the festival heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, shouting,“Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” (John 1:12-13 NRSV)

Yet, before the day is done, the Gospel of John tells us how troubled Jesus was as he spoke about his death.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. (John 1:27-28 NRSV)

As we recall Christ’s passion, we cannot help but recognize our own — and the passion of our families, friends, neighbors scattered throughout the world. Each of us, no matter where we are, are covered with the fear of a pandemic we can not begin to understand, the virus that knows no boundaries. It goes where it will, infecting those exposed to its microorganisms and leaving fear and anxiety in its wake. We are shaken to the core.

Those who are infected, or have watched as their infected loved ones battle the virus, cry out for mercy, for grace and for comfort. They are in search of the Divine Constant, a “very present help,” who keeps vigil with us offering a comfort that surpasses our ability to comprehend it. There is no better description of divine comfort than the words of the Psalmist in the 46th Psalm that tells us to take heart, hang on, fear not.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.

The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.

“Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”

The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

At the very beginning of the Cold War in 1952, Harry Emerson Fosdick spoke to students and faculty at the Pacific School of Religion. After acknowledging the very real fear and uncertainty in the world at that time, he spoke these words: “The highest use of a shaken time is to discover the unshakable.”

Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time! Oh, that we might find it alone — isolated in our homes, in our prayer closets, in the breeze and beauty of springtime! Oh, that we might find the highest use of this time in community — in all the ways we are striving to create holy community despite our isolation.

Yes, we are shaken right now, but again the Psalmist has the last word of divine comfort and hope.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted
and saves those who are crushed in spirit.
(Psalm 34:18 NIV)

As I look around, hearing from those closest to me and also hearing the stories of people around the world, I witness signs that we are indeed discovering the unshakable in this shaken time — the unshakable in ourselves, the unshakable faith we hold in our hearts, the unshakable spirit within us and the Unshakable Constant God who pours grace upon us when we most need it.

May each of you stay safe and healthy. May you wave your palms and witness Christ’s passion still believing in the resurrection that will dawn upon our lives again. May you find the unshakable within you and hold the Unshakable God near you.

For a time of prayer and meditation, you may be inspired by listening to this beautiful arrangement of the hymn, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

 

 

Determination, Dreams, Greta Thunberg, Helena Morrissey, International Women’s Day, Malala Yousafzai, Perseverance, Persistence, Sarah Hesterman, Sarah Tenoi, struggle, Stubbornness, Tenacity, Women

On Rearranging Things: 2020 International Women’s Day

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March 8 — 2020 International Women’s Day

Commemorating 2020 International Women’s Day seems important. It is important to me to pause on this day, because I am a woman who has struggled for equality. My female friends and colleagues have had similar struggled.

In the past weeks we have watched one woman after another end their candidacies for president of the United States. Senator Elizabeth Warren commented that Americans still may not be able to see a woman in the role of president. She said it with obvious sadness and with a catch in her throat, displaying the disappointment of many women and girls. Those of us who are older lament that we will not see a woman as president in our lifetimes, while little girls, teens and young women were hoping beyond hope for evidence in 2020 that dreams are possible. Lily Adams, granddaughter of the late Texas Governor Ann Richards, said this on Thursday night in an MSNBC interview: “Women have to run faster to get half as far.” How true that is!

6ABA8DA9-32CD-49DC-B9A7-BEB584D83D27International Women’s Day gives me an opportunity to celebrate women who are all-in, working tirelessly for equality, justice and positive change and constantly rearranging things. This years theme is “If you can see her, you can be her.” It is an appropriate theme for women who struggle daily to be seen and respected as equals.

In these days, we are seeing, right before our eyes, so many stunning examples of women who champion various causes.

FC5FBE11-6734-47C6-A38E-933B9D902D1FSarah Tenoi
Activist Sarah Tenoi is leading the charge against female genital mutilation (FGM) in Kenya.

 

92066DDD-0F40-4E55-98AD-AB30B1A9D94BMalala Yousafzai
In 2012 at the age of 15, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by the Taliban in Pakistan. The assassination attempt was a response to her stand for the right of girls to gain an education after the Taliban banned them from attending school.

 

DD465146-0702-479F-A8E9-67C6EAEF42D3Helena Morrissey
Helena Morrissey is a British businesswoman and mother of nine who is helping to change the face of British boardrooms.

 
6E324393-F712-4FE2-AD26-04DC9FEE1425Sarah Hesterman
As the founder and acting president of Girl Up in Qatar, Sarah Hesterman works with the UN to provide young girls with education in developing countries. Hesterman hopes that providing greater opportunities will allow girls to grow up with more self-confidence.

D50E2B31-E103-4C36-8BE9-9A07B452E4AFGreta Thunberg
Greta is a Swedish environmental activist on climate change whose campaigning has gained international recognition. She is known for her straightforward speaking manner through which she urges immediate action to address the climate crisis.

“We can’t just continue living as if there was no tomorrow, because there is a tomorrow,” she says, tugging on the sleeve of her blue sweatshirt. “That is all we are saying.”

It’s a simple truth, delivered by a teenage girl in a fateful moment in our time. (Time Magazine) 

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In the early years of my career as a graphic designer and then through my years of ministry, I was often accused of being aggressive. Now you need to understand that “Aggressive” would be the last word I would have used to describe myself. But like many women, I often found myself biding my time, playing the game of acting “ladylike” around my male colleagues, and choosing my words and my demeanor carefully when I wanted to make a point.

That was Stage 1 of me.
Stage 2 of me is the one that was labeled aggressive. Those who know me well would say that there is not an aggressive bone in my body. And that is true (unless I have to defend my child or my grandchildren). But I can be as aggressive as I need to be when injustice rears its ugly head or someone I love needs defending. Stage 3 of me has learned to be respectfully assertive. “Respectfully assertive” behavior helped to open doors that once were closed to me. That’s a good thing.

But here’s the caveat — as other women have, I have been compelled to learn how to be aggressive/assertive along a continuum, examining my situation and wisely choosing what my aggressive/assertive level should be at any given moment. The continuum looks something like this . . .

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Like many, many women, I know that in order to effect positive change in the world, positive assertiveness is key. It’s all a matter of being self-confident enough to step up even if others criticize, speak out even when others try to silence you, persevere even when your detractors try to stop you from moving forward, hold on to your dreams even when dream-less persons tell you that your dreams are impossible.

My path to ordination was riddled with people around me telling me that ordination for a woman was impossible. At that time, there was only one ordained Baptist woman in the state of Arkansas and she was ordained in another state. My ordination process required enormous change in almost every person and institution around me. That change was not pleasant for anyone. It went on for months with lots of chaos and no resolution in sight. At the time, I thought I had only two choices: to abandon my desire for change or to stay in the struggle until change happened. I faced off with criticizers, silencers, discouragers and dream-less persons. Perseverance won that time!

My ordination quest was only one of many situations in which I had to fight for positive change. So I was almost always on the bad side of someone, and most unfortunately, I earned a reputation of being persistent, stubborn, insistent, resolved, Tenacious, determined, single-minded, resolute, uncompromising, annoying, troublesome, unconscionable and — wait for it — aggressive. I actually like most of those labels!

During a particularly discordant struggle with Little Rock city government about advocacy programs have for young people, a friend and mentor, who was the city’s Director of Community Programs, shared with me a Sierra Leonean Proverb that turned out to be an incredibly practical piece of wisdom. I immediately framed it and put it in my office so that I could see it often. She gave me that proverb in the late 90’s and, to this day, it is visible and prominent in my space.

She who upsets a thing should know how to rearrange it.
— a Sierra Leonean proverb

I seemed to upset lots of things in my lifetime. Often, I had no idea how to rearrange them. So I want to tell you about a woman who achieved what seemed impossible in her life and rearranged many things — discrimination, injustice, racism. She definitely upset things in her workplace, in the people around her and in NASA’s algorithms for space travel. She also rearranged those algorithms and helped send our astronauts into space.

625274F6-C5B5-47FD-A72E-3B8A4BEC9983Today I celebrate and remember Katherine Johnson, famed NASA mathematician and inspiration for the film “Hidden Figures.” She died a few weeks ago at 101 years of age. For almost her entire life, her brilliant work in American space travel went unnoticed. She was a pioneering mathematician who, along with a group of other brilliant black women, made U.S. space travel possible. And no one noticed for decades.

In fact, her work went largely unrecognized until the release of “Hidden Figures,” a film portrayal of Johnson’s accomplishments while the space agency was still largely segregated. Only the film, which was released in 2017, resulted in international recognition of Katherine Johnson’s genius.

Interestingly enough, her talent was evident early on. Her natural aptitude for math was quickly evident, and she became one of three black students chosen to integrate West Virginia’s graduate schools. After graduating from high school at age 14, Katherine Johnson enrolled at West Virginia State, a historically black college. As a student, she took every math course offered by the college. Multiple professors mentored her, including W. W. Schieffelin Claytor, the third African-American to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics. Claytor added new mathematics courses just for Johnson, and she graduated summa cum laude in 1937 at age 18, with degrees in mathematics and French. She started her career as a teacher but had her sights set on mathematical research.

Following an executive order that prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industry, Johnson was hired at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor. She was one of several black researchers with college degrees hired for the agency’s aeronautical lab through the initiative.

Johnson was part of NASA’s Computer Pool, a group of mathematicians whose data powered NASA’s first successful space missions. The group’s success largely hinged on the accomplishments of its black women members. Katherine Johnson was tasked with performing trajectory analysis for Alan Shepherd’s 1961 mission, the first American human spaceflight. She co-authored a paper on the safety of orbital landings in 1960, the first time a woman in the Flight Research Division received credit for a report.

In 1953 she worked in the facility’s segregated wing for women, but was quickly transferred to the Flight Research Division, where she remained for several years. But midway through the ’50s, the space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union began to intensify. So did Katherine Johnson’s career. Without the precision of “human computer” Katherine Johnson, NASA’s storied history might have looked a lot different. Her calculations were responsible for safely rocketing men into space and securing the American lead in the space race against the Soviet Union.

After the release of the book “Hidden Figures,” which was published in 2016 and turned into a film the following year, officials lobbed heaps of praise on Johnson and two other black women mathematicians in the agency’s Computer Pool, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson. NASA renamed a facility for Johnson in February 2019. A street in front of NASA headquarters in Washington was renamed “Hidden Figures Way” for the three women in July.

In November of 2019, the three women — plus engineer Christine Darden — received Congressional Gold Medals for their contributions to space travel. Vaughan and Jackson received theirs posthumously. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine called Johnson an “American Hero who helped our nation enlarge the frontiers of space even as she made huge strides that also opened doors for women and people of color in the universal human quest to explore space.”

President Barack Obama honored Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pivotal work in American space travel. Yet, Johnson’s work was still minimized and unrecognized by her male co-workers. Around her NASA workplace in the 1960s, she and her colleagues were known as “computers in skirts.”

I saved for last the best story of all! In 1962, John Glenn actually demanded Katherine Johnson’s help before his orbit around Earth. He was skeptical of the computers that calculated his spacecraft’s trajectory, so he told engineers to “get the girl” and to compare her handwritten calculations to the computer’s.

“‘If she says they’re good, then I’m ready to go,'” Johnson remembered Glenn saying. She gave the OK, and Glenn’s flight was a success.

Not to be flippant about the 2020 democratic presidential nomination process, but here’s a good message to send to whichever white guy gets the nomination: “When you are choosing your running mate, ‘get the girl!’”

And to all the women who hold up far more than half the sky, I honor you on this International Women’s Day and cheer you on toward your dreams and toward your mission of rearranging the world.

 

 

Advent, Angels, Bethlehem’s Star, Christ’s Birth, Christmas, Darkness, Fear, Grace, Hope, life, Mary, merry-go-round, Sacred Worth, Skies, Soul, Stars, struggle

“My Soul Felt Its Worth”

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The Twenty-Third Day of Advent

December 23, 2019

I think Advent may be asking me to take stock of my soul. Advent may also be beckoning to me, calling me to listen to my life. The fact is I don’t have to listen so intently these days because my life is shouting at me. Life is urging me to live in sacred space, at least for a few moments every day. Life is challenging me to contemplative prayer and times of meditation that will give me strength — to heal, to thrive, to let go of my worries, to attend to my soul, to rest in my sacred worth, to enjoy a deeper faith and to live into hope.

The thing is: I am not really experiencing Advent very deeply, and I am not listening to my life. I often feel as if I’m on a merry-go-round searching for a way to get off safely and land in a good place. I am completely preoccupied with life things, those overwhelming tasks and thoughts and worries and hopes. I could list them: 

recovery from my kidney transplant

concern about my son’s illness and his hospitalization last night
and the fact that they released him with no solutions

hopes that my grandchildren are growing up healthy and happy
and the pain of living so many miles from them

hoping that the new year will bring good tidings to us all

longing for the world to sing, “Peace on earth, goodwill to all!”
and really mean it.

I wonder what Mary worried about on that dark night in Bethlehem. Was she able to look above while this extraordinary, frightening thing was happening to her? Could she look above while she was in labor, in pain? Did she weep — tears of joy or maybe tears of anxiety? Did she despair of being in a strange place in a cold stable? As a young girl of devout faith, did she manage take a few moments to look up into the starlit darkness and see that brightest star shining on the stable? Did she hear, did she listen, to the singing of the angels? Did she listen to her life?

Listening to one’s life may well be the best thing we could do for ourselves. I have a suspicion that most of us don’t do that kind of deep listening, listening that opens us to holy possibilities. There is a beloved song that we have probably heard every year at Christmas. In its verses we find two very profound lines. The hymn writer wrote unforgettable words that made it seem as if he knew well how hard life can be.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

—- “O, Holy Night,” Writer, Adolphe Charles Adam, who wrote this Christmas carol Minuit, chrétiens! (1844), later set to different English lyrics and widely sung as “O Holy Night” (1847).

The soul felt its worth! What a thought to aspire to and eventually to know that my soul can feel its worth. I have a feeling that Advent might be calling me to listen to my life, to open myself to the song of angels and the light of Bethlehem’s star, and that in listening, my soul would begin to feel its worth.

Theologian, Fredrick Buechner, says it like this:

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because, in the last analysis, all moments are hidden moments and life itself is grace.

It would indeed be a precious Christmas gift for my heart to know that “life itself is grace,” and that in life’s grace that God gives, I would know beyond all knowing that my soul feels its worth.

Amen.

Advent, Angels, Bethlehem’s Star, Christ’s Birth, Comfort, Despair, Emotions, Fear, God’s Gift of Stars, Grace, grief, healing, Hope, Loss, Love, Mourning, New Normal, Questions, Resilience, struggle, Tears

“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!”

 

 

Advent, Angels, anxiety, Bethlehem’s Star, Calamity, Challenge, Christ Child, Christ’s Birth, Covenant, Darkness, Despair, Emotions, Exhaustion, Fear, God’s Gift of Stars, grief, Hope, Loss, Newer Skies, Resilience, Skies, Stars, struggle, Suffering

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.

 

Advent, Angels, Emotions, Fear, grief, Hope, Music, Sorrow, struggle, Suffering, Tears

An Angel-Filled Advent

 

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The Twentieth  Day of Advent
December 20, 2019

With a brief update on my transplant journey 


ANGEL-FILLED ADVENT

Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if Advent came filled with angels and alleluias?
Wouldn’t it be perfect
if we were greeted on these December mornings
with a hovering of heavenly hosts
tuning their harps and brushing up on their fa-la-las?
Wouldn’t it be incredible
if their music filled our waking hours
with the promise of peace on earth
and if each Advent night we dreamed of
nothing but goodwill?
Wouldn’t we be ecstatic
if we could take those angels shopping
or trim the tree or have them hold our hands
and dance through our houses decorating?
And, oh, how glorious it would be
to sit in church next to an angel
and sing our hark-the-heralds!
What an Advent that would be!
What Christmas spirit we could have!
An angel-filled Advent has so many possibilities!
But in lieu of that
perhaps we can give thanks
for the good earthly joys we have been given
and for the earthly “angels” that we know
who do such a good job of filling
our Advent with alleluias!

— Ann Weems

I love the idea of an angel-filled Advent. It sounds like mystical, magical Advent and, most assuredly, an angel-filled Advent does have so many possibilities!

Reality is a very different state for us and, even in Advent, we whisper the word “impossible”. We live with “impossible” in our hearts and deep within our souls where all the pain lives, and all the disappointments, all the grief and all the impossibles. “That’s life,” the sages say, the wise ones who have lived every circumstance and held on their shoulders all sorts of mourning.

And so it is with me and with you. We hold mourning and utter, “This situation is impossible!” During Advent as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the pain is deeper in us, the losses pierce our hearts, the life challenges seem impossible. When we mourn the loss of a loved one during this season, the mourning hurts more and the loss goes deeper. When we grieve because we struggle with serious illness, the grief is more intense. When we live in fear for our children, the fear is stronger. It is in those circumstances that we ask in frustration, “Where are Advent’s angels? Where is their music?”

I hope you will take a few minutes to enjoy John Rutter’s arrangement of “Angel’s Carol.”Here are the lyrics:

Have you heard the sounds of the angel voices ringing out so sweetly,
ringing out so clear?

Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?

Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness,
like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night.

He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.

He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth.’

He will bring new light.
He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.

He will bring new hope.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations.
When he comes to reign in purity and love.

Let the earth rejoice.
Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming.
Let the heavens answer with the joyful morn:

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, ‘Christ is born.’

As for me, what kind of mourning am I holding this Advent season? What kind of pain, disappointment, loss am I feeling? I feel worry, of course, about my kidney transplant. When Mayo Clinic called yesterday insisting that I return immediately, I was concerned. My blood levels were dangerously high and I was experiencing a great deal of discomfort. The doctor ordered immediate ultrasounds of my kidney and right leg looking for pockets of fluid or blood clots. I am hopeful that both tests will come back with the word “normal” stamped on the report. In spite of the things that seem “impossible,” I hang on to hope.

That’s what Advent does — fills us with hope that begins on the First Sunday of Advent when we light the Hope Candle.

So to those questions about mourning, pain, disappointment, worry and fear, I have no adequate answers. No matter how much I want an angel-filled Advent and Christmas, I see no way out of the “impossible” seasons of life, but Ann Weems might:

. . . perhaps we can give thanks
for the good earthly joys we have been given
and for the earthly “angels” that we know who do such a good job of
filling our Advent with alleluias!

May Emmanuel — God-with-Us — make it so. Amen.

Advent, Angels, Belief, Faith, Fear, Godburst, Skies, Stars, struggle, Surprise

GODBURST

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The Eighth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-seven
December 9, 2019

GODBURST 

When the Holy Child is born into our hearts
there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God burst into our lives.

— Ann Weems

It seems to me that there is no other way to thrive after a kidney transplant than by allowing God to burst into my life. Certainly, God was already in my life, and has been for many years, but this “Godburst” is a different sort of divine entrance. Godburst enters powerfully, often suddenly and without warning. It is always surprise when God plans a divine appointment, unimaginable surprise.

The other side of a Godburst requires that I intentionally give God access and admittance. It is just as Ann Weems describes it when she tells when to expect the encounter between me and God. Something happens —  “the Holy Child is born into our hearts” — and as a result, I begin to believe deep within my soul that I really can face the challenges and difficulties ahead.

Still, I feel fear deep-down-inside. I fear the after effects of the transplant. The fear is in my mind in the daylight and often consumes my heart in the night. Friends ask me what I most fear, but I am hard-pressed to isolate just one fear. I think about all of them: an increased risk of infections, uncontrolled diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, abdominal pain, hair loss, swollen gums, bruising or bleeding more easily, thinning of the bones, mood swings and an increased risk of certain types of cancer, particularly skin cancer. And I cannot yet shake the thought of acute rejection of the kidney and the use of high powered, harsh immunosuppressant medications to prevent that rejection.

This fear has been my constant companion for many months, but since the transplant, the fear has been imminent, deeper and more severe. So last night I determined to try to get a handle on it by listing every fear that feels so ominous to me. I knew it would be a difficult endeavor, but I hoped for even a little easing of the fear.

I’m not sure it addressed the fear that much. What it did do is send me all the way back to the foundation of my being, to the source of my strength. It called my attention back to Godburst, where Ann Weems reminds me how it might look when it happens:

there is a rain of stars
a rushing of angels
a blaze of candles
this God has burst into my life.

With that kind of holy entrance into my life, I think I might just be strong enough to move into the unknown and risky future. Maybe unafraid. Or at least I could be free of the deep fear and anxiety that seems so present right now. Isn’t that a perfect picture of experiencing Advent?

In the end, after making and contemplating the list, I still may not believe strongly enough that Godburst will happen for me. But I believe that my faith will sustain me. I believe that the God who knew me before I was even born will know me still — today and forever.

I believe that Godburst is a deeply personal and powerful encounter between me and God. And I have no doubt that it can change my life!

Advent, Angels, Comfort, Courage, Darkness, Emotions, Faith, God’s Gift of Stars, healing, Hope, Humbug, Kidney Transplant, Light, New Normal, Patience, Perseverance, Skies, Soul, Stars, struggle, Weeping

“Humbug!” and Hope!

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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
has forgiven,
and those who left home
have returned,

and even wars are halted,
if briefly,
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.

Advent, Bethlehem’s Star, Darkness, Emotions, Faith, God’s Gift of Stars, healing, Hope, Miracles, Stars, struggle, Trust

Star-Giving

The Third Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-Two
December 3, 2019

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STAR-GIVING

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .
Brilliance in a package,
something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
something that would never snuff out or tarnish,
something you could hold in your hand,
something for wonderment,
something for pondering,
something that would remind you of
what Christmas has always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.

But stars are only God’s for giving,
and I must be content to give you words and wishes
and packages without stars.

But I can wish you life
as radiant as the Star
that announced the Christ Child’s coming,
and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood
beneath its light.

And I can pass on to you the love
that has been given to me,
ignited countless times by others
who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.

Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star.

— Ann Weems

This poem by Ann Weems called me to think about gifts, about giving gifts and receiving them, about learning how to cherish the gifts we receive, even those gifts we fail to recognize as gifts. My husband, Fred, tells stories of delightful Christmas parties at his country church — a full pot luck meal, tables lined with deserts of every kind, a decorated cedar Christmas tree and, of course, the gift exchange. He tells about wondering what gift he would receive days before the party and how the party-goers seemed to bring the same gifts every year: chocolate covered cherries, socks, a Claxton fruitcake, ear muffs, puzzles, home-canned jelly, ornaments, maybe even a knit toboggan from the Dollar Store. As for Fred, he always hoped for the cherries.

The party was mostly about the gifts — humble, simple, inexpensive, cherished. In thinking about gifts, the idea of cherishing gifts seems important. After all, if one can cherish a Claxton fruitcake, it would be easy to learn to cherish other gifts. Ann Weems expressed like this:

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .Brilliance in a package, something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans or in the pocket of your being.

Something to take out in times of darkness, something that would never snuff out or tarnish, something you could hold in your hand, Something for wonderment. . .

My attention went directly to “something for wonderment.” A kidney from my living donor is a gift for wonderment, to cherish. My new spiritual director who found me through an online group of female clergy is a gift for wonderment. My compassionate, tireless caregiver during this trying recuperation is a gift for wonderment. My friends and family — constantly caring, constantly praying — is a gift for wonderment. I can cherish those gifts.

Still, cherishing the gifts you receive is not a given. It’s not always easy. Let me offer an example. I had a phone conversation yesterday with a new friend who is also a kidney transplant traveler. Though every transplant recipient is unique in the way they adjust to life after a transplant, the two of us shared some definite commonalities. Both of us spoke of physical pain — his about 15 years ago; mine current, constant and debilitating. I could closely identify with much of what he told me he experienced. He spoke of his lack of faith in the immunosuppressant medications, a lack of trust in decisions doctors made during his year of follow-up care, and even very little hope that having a transplant was a wise decision.

We also talked about gifts for wonderment, gifts to cherish, gifts we should cherish, but sometimes cannot. A kidney transplant — especially when you are in the throes of recovery with a 9 inch incision held together with 33 metal staples — doesn’t always feel like a gift.

The last thing my new friend said about our kidney transplants is this:

“It’s a gift! It’s a miracle!”

Most assuredly, a kidney transplant is a miracle and a gift of wonderment, a gift to be cherished. Much like the stars in Ann Weems’ poem —- “brilliance in a package, something to take out in times of darkness, a gift of wonderment, something like God’s gift of stars.” Such a gift is radiance, light breaking through our darkness, a gift to be cherished.

I think I’ll try to be visionary enough, present enough, hopeful enough to catch one of God’s stars to hold in my hand and to keep until I need them most.04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9

Amen.