Love the Stranger as You Love Yourself

My first mistake for this day — reading an article published in the Huffington Post written by journalist Rowaida Abdelaziz! Here’s the headline.

More than 5,000 people have contracted the coronavirus while in immigration detention centers, including more than 800 in the last week.

On a personal note, I must say that I’m very proud of my church’s ministries, especially our English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The teachers not only teach English, they also provide community for immigrants who often do not have family nearby, as well as many other acts of care and compassion. I could not help but give God thanks for our ESL teachers this morning when I read this headline from the Huffington Post. I can imagine our ESL teachers shifting into advocacy mode to do something about it. Not that any of them have the power to change the abysmal detention centers our government sponsors, but armies of advocates can and have changed circumstances of oppression throughout history

Back to the news article. Abdeaziz went on to further explain the treatment of immigrants:

Immigrants were given face masks only recently, but most of them are forced to reuse single-use masks without being allowed to wash them or receive new ones. Those held were not given soap or sanitizers and some were even exposed to pesticides and other toxic substances. 

And then we have the horrible reality of “caged children!” It’s a term I do not want to hear because it so deeply troubling to imagine. But children draw and thousands of them have drawn images of caged children. My mind tells me unequivocally, “Don’t look at the drawings!” My heart tells me, “You must look!” My soul tells me, “Spirit will be near as my Comforter when I do look!”

At heart, I have always been an advocate for children, a fierce one. For a very long time advocacy was my career. I cannot abide the ill-treatment of any person, but when I envision thousands of children in custody and in sorely negligent circumstances, it digs at me and pierces my heart like a Holy arrow sent from God. Denise Bell, a researcher at Amnesty International USA said this, “COVID-19 has revealed the fatal flaws and the negligent medical care that ICE has historically provided to people who are detained within its facilities.” Ms. Bell goes on to say, “What’s more disturbing is the carelessness, and I’d even say callousness, with which the government is treating people in its care and custody.”

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Despite global lockdown measures, ICE continued to detain, transfer and deport immigrants ― including thousands of children ― all of which has contributed to the spreadof the coronavirus nationally and globally. Foreign governments who accepted deportees said they brought the coronavirus back with them. 
Huffington Post, September 17, 2020


From a CNN article, “Pediatricians share migrant children’s disturbing drawings of their time in US custody.” Slide show above includes drawings shared by those pediatricians and other powerful images. https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/03/health/migrant-drawings-cbp-children/index.html


How can you and I become advocates for these children? To me, it feels like a mandate from a caring, compassionate God. It feels like a mission following the footsteps of Christ who said something quite profound in the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. 

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Matthew 18: 5-6 (GNT)


And then there’s this:

When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Jeremiah 29:33-34)

Jeremiah 2:33-34 (NRSV)


I need to make sure you understand that I know the drill: I cannot use Holy Scripture to bolster my opinions or take Scripture out of its historical context to prove a point. A learned Professor of Old Testament, James K. Hoffmeier, makes this stringent assertion, “Secularists and liberals, both political and religious, are typically loath to consult the Bible when it comes to matters of public policy. So it is somewhat surprising that in the current debate about the status of illegal immigrants, the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible is regularly cited in defense of the illegal.”

I get that. I am a liberal. I even graduated from seminary. I am not using Scripture to prove my point. Nor do I intend to exegete these texts in an effort to thoroughly understand the translation in historical context. I am just pondering these Scripture passages as inspiration, meditation and perhaps an aid in discerning a call from God to mission. To use the texts in this manner, all I really need to do is read the words and listen for God’s voice. Never in my life, all seventy years of it, has God whispered back to me, “My child, you did not translate that text correctly, nor did you place it in its historical context.”

So where does this leave me? I think it leaves me asking myself, “What will I do? What must I do? Where do I begin in demanding change? How do I call out to my government, imploring them to end this oppressive inhumanity? How do I demand that all of us, including ICE, respect the humanity and the sacred worth of the immigrants in our midst, especially the children?

I hope that you, too, will ask yourself these questions, listen for the voice of God and become a fierce advocate for justice and humanity. If then you sense a call to do something to change the worlds of caged children held in ICE detention centers, visit this website:

https://endchilddetention.org/

When Branches Are Flimsy and Songs Cannot Be Sung

I have a certain fondness for sparrows and the spiritual stories we have ascribed to them. That my blog is named “God of the Sparrow” is no accident. I have aspired many times in my life to live like the sparrow lives. I wanted my human, adult, mature and seasoned self to know, beyond any doubt, that God is watching over me. I do not live the simple, sparrow-like life I always hoped to live. But my unshakable faith has always told me that the God who watches over my every moment is also the God of the sparrow. I remember well the words written in the Gospel of Matthew . . .

So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 
— Matthew 10:41 NRSV

Such a comforting passage of Scripture! Yet, its message to us often pales in comparison to all the things that so frighten us. The state of the world that surrounds us in these days seems to have even more power over us than Matthew’s words about our value to God.

How is it that we are valuable to God when God does not act to protect us from all of life’s slings and arrows? Yesterday in my blog post I listed our world’s bad and scary things, so I won’t list them again today. But I will venture a prognosis that many, many people are suffering in many ways in this confusing season. I am one of those suffering people, feeling a bit of hopelessness in these days of racial unrest, coronavirus unsettledness and political divisions.

I heard a moving choral performance this morning. Its text lifted up my helplessness before me and turned it into a prayer so attuned to where I find myself.

God of the sparrow, sing through us
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace. 
Helpless we seek You, God our joy, 
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease. 

Jonathan Cook

I need the sparrow’s God to sing through me. Perhaps you do, too. I need that God-given song because my own music seems to have become quiet, my singing turned to mourning. (Amos 8:10) But this week, I took hold of that mourning. With strong intention, I spent most of one day this week singing my heart out. 

You need to know that I had to choose a day when my husband would be away so that I could sing loud, with abandon. Why did he have to be away? That’s a long story, but in a nutshell, my singing is awful these days. Probably my vocal cords have lost some of their youthful elasticity and, on top of that, I did not sing at all for more than a year. Serious illness took my music.

When I (literally) came back from the dead in 2015, I realized that I had lost so many of my former abilities. Singing was one of them. It felt strange to me when I realized I could no longer sing. My former life was filled with song. Since childhood, there was never a choir I did not join, never a solo I did not sing.

Acknowledging my inability to sing was difficult, just as my life after kidney transplant and this coronavirus is difficult. My isolation has been lengthy, most of nine months, and it is taking its toll on my spirit. Prayer has become both a burden and a grace to me. My singing was my prayer for so many years, and I really need my singing in these hard days. I need to sing my praises to God. I need to sing my lamentations. I need to sing like the sparrow who doesn’t worry about her vocal chords. I need to be like the sparrow who sits on her branch — without fear, without worry — because she knows that if she happens to light on a flimsy branch that does not hold her, her wings will lift her. 

The end of this story is that I need the God of the sparrow to sing through me once again — to sing through me in shadowy days, in times of trouble, in isolation, in fear, in hopelessness. That’s what God does, after all. In a troubled and despairing soul, God creates music, tucking it into every crevice, filling it with songs that can sing out both mourning and celebration. As an added bonus, I have it on good authority that God also turns mourning into dancing.

You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30 11-12 NRSV

So as you sing, dance to the new rhythms of your soul! Because you can!

Thanks be to God.

Please spend your meditation time today listening to this beautiful song with text written by Jonathan Cook and music by Craig Courtney. The video follows the text.

God of the Sparrow

God of the sparrow, sing through us,
Songs of deliverance, songs of peace.
Helpless we seek You, God our joy,
Quiet our troubles, bid them cease.
Alleluia.

God of the sparrow, God of hope,
Tenderly guide us, be our song,
God of affliction, pain and hurt,
Comfort Your children, make us strong.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

God of the sparrow, care for us.
Speak in our sorrow, Lord of grief.
Sing us Your music, lift our hearts,
Pour out Your mercy, send relief.

God, like the sparrow, we abide
In Your protection, love and grace.
Just as the sparrow in Your care,

May Your love keep us all our days.

Amen.

Mourning John Lewis — Celebrating His Life

John Robert Lewis
Laid to Rest on July 30, 2020

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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!

That Mysterious and Mystical Reality

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Watercolor art by Kalliope, Holy Ghosts

You might be thinking that both mysterious and mystical are the antithesis of reality. If you are thinking that, you might be wrong. So might I. But in my experience, life itself is a mysterious and mystical reality. That reality fills my spirit with hope in my darkest moments. Dark moments, hours of grief, dark nights of the soul, lamentations of the spirit — all have been part of my life journey. My pathways have often been rough and rocky. My life’s travel has often taken me to disconcerting forks in the road and confusing crossroads. I have known times of despairing and times of uncertainty — reluctance, despondency, angst, heartbreak, fear — “break-out-in-a-sweat times” that forced me into dangerous depths of anguish. For me, taking my own life was not something I could consider. Yet there was that one day — that span of just a few moments — when I was alone, afraid and very far from home.

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Japan’s Aokigahara Suicide Forest

One of the most thoughtful and intriguing movies I have ever experienced is The Sea of Trees. I was captivated by the film that tells the story of a despondent professor. After the death of his wife, he despaired of life and searched for a way to end his. His reflective, angst-filled search led him to Aokigahara, a forest in Japan known also as The Sea of Trees or The Suicide Forest. Aokigahara Forest has been home to over 500 confirmed suicides since the 1950s. It is called “the perfect place to die” and is the world’s second most popular place for suicide.

Don’t worry. This post is not about suicide. Rather it is about the people who loved us in life and continue to love us in death, those who watch over us in our times of deepest anguish. It is about the mysterious and mystical reality that between us and our loved ones in heaven, there is but a thin separation. Heaven and earth,” the Celtic saying goes, “are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter.”

To know that my sweet Yiayia (grandmother in Greek) and my Thea Koula might still be protecting me from harm and life disaster is soul-comforting for me. Perhaps the strength and hope I felt as I was chaplain to disheartened hospital patients came from them. Perhaps they sent me the staying power to comfort, protect and advocate for thousands of abused women and children. Maybe the deep grief of losing my brother to cancer was eased by their prayers from heaven.

I often wondered if my mourning of the loss of the life I knew — replaced by daily dialysis — was lightened by their loving presence with me in a horrible time. I wonder, Yiayia, were you watching over me on November 12th when I closed my eyes in the operating room to receive my kidney transplant? I wonder, Thea Koula, did your intercession save my life on those times when my life literally hung in the balance?

This life is not an easy one. No person gets through life unscathed. No one travels a path smooth and straight. Like me, you have more than likely walked on a rough pathway with stones in the road, dangerous curves and life-altering crossroads. Robert Frost wrote eloquently in his poem, The Road Not Taken, about someone standing at a fork in the road pondering a life-altering choice:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth . . .

Then took the other, as just as fair,
and having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear . . .

Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

My life is filled with “roads not taken,” some not taken by my choice, others thwarted by chance or fate or maybe even God. It is almost like traveling through a “sea of trees” that hide our view of the way ahead, causing us to lose our way. For my art today, I chose one of my watercolor paintings. A few years ago, I painted this “sea” of leafless trees against an ethereal, melancholy wash of color. Interspersed among the trees are ghost-like figures hovering. Actually I titled the painting Holy Ghosts. The painting was inspired by the words of a friend.

When the dead come to mind, they are like holy ghosts, as real as hope or faith, as tangible as trust and love.  – Ragan Courtney

This painting was never meant to be disconcerting or morbid. It represents just the opposite for me. It represents the souls who hover over me for protection, those with whom I shared love and life. It represents my aunt and my Yiayia and my brother because I am certain they protect me, pray for me, lift me up and cheer me on.

Who knows! Maybe my brother Pete, who died of renal cell carcinoma, hovered above me in a kind of holy kidney disease kinship and protected me when I was diagnosed with end stage renal disease in 2014. Maybe he prayed for me during my transplant surgery in 2019. I can, of course, never know that for sure. The veil between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is a mystery we simply do not understand. Our understanding does not reach that far, but what we feel in our spirit does reach that far.

In the end, my spirit senses that between us there is but a thin separation, that the spirits of my loved ones are are connected to mine, especially when I am disconsolate and in despair.

In the comfort of that mysterious and mystical reality, I can heal. I can rest. I can continue my journey of dangers, toils and snares. I can know the amazing grace that comes from sacred connections. I can know peace after sorrow. And so can you.

May God make it so. Amen.

 

“Crimson Contagion,” Grace and Eternal Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May God make it so. Amen.

 

 

“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!”

 

 

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.

A Million Seconds

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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.

Leaning, leaning,
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning,
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 Can Do This Hard Thing!”

I can do this hard thing, this recovery from a kidney transplant. But sometimes I need to shed some tears about it all. Tears do not come out of weakness. In fact, tears are the mark of power. Called “the soap of the soul,” tears can help diminish the angst my soul clings to so tightly. Unfortunately, I tend to fight back tears as if they will hurt as they slip down my cheeks. I also nurse the irrational desire to not let anyone see my tears. After all, someone might consider them a sign of my weakness.

Yet, God has another thought about our tears. God counts our tears, keeps up with them, gathers them up and stores them in a bottle. I can imagine the scene of a loving God gently catching every tear and preserving it as a precious elixir worth saving.

Still I avoid weeping at all costs, portraying a false, less-than-honest strength — especially if someone might see.

Today, I am so aware that if I could just cry, the hard time I am going through would feel easier. If I could cry, my tears would cleanse my heart and help minimize my physical, emotional and spiritual pain. If I could just let my tears fall, I would be reclaiming my power.

The truth is that I did not fully understand how hard it would be to endure a kidney transplant and the very, very difficult aftercare regimen. Nor could I have ever imagined the range of emotions I would experience. This is one of life’s hard things.

Last night though, a dear friend sent me a video of a song she chose just for me, just for this moment of my life. I had never heard the song before, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. A mesmerizing tune and simple lyrics written and performed by Carrie Newcomer, “You Can Do This Hard Thing” brought me to tears, tears that really needed to flow.

You can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
It’s not easy I know,
But I believe that its so.
You can do this hard thing.

My faith tells me that I really can do this hard thing, although most of the time I don’t feel that I can. The friends and family who surround me with love remind me that I can. My heart tells me I can do this, but my rational mind tries to convince me that I cannot. I am reminded by the hymn writer that grace for this hard thing comes from God . . .

God giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater;
He sendeth more strength when the labors increase;
To added afflictions He addeth His mercy,
To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

When we have exhausted our store of endurance,
When our strength has failed ere the day is half done,
When we reach the end of our hoarded resources
Our Father’s full giving is only begun.

So perhaps it does require our tears, our lament that humbles us before our God of grace. The writer of the Book of James seems to suggest that grieving and weeping brings God near and that our mourning actually strengthens us to live through hard things.

God gives all the more grace . . .
Submit yourselves therefore to God . . .
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you . . .
Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection.

— From James 4 (NRSV)

It doesn’t make much sense that mourning is a good thing, that flowing tears actually cleanse the soul. But I need to see things this way: Life brings changes — hard changes sometimes. Along with the miracle of my kidney transplant comes the end of one season of life and the advent of a new season of life. While I do celebrate the transplant and the ways it will be life-giving for me, I must also grieve the loss of my previous life that had become so comfortable, so easy.

I will call out to my buried tears. I will open up my heart’s pain, grieve my losses and let my tears fall freely down my cheeks. It seems to be the best way to make sure I can do this hard thing.

Holy Ground

470DF6B9-F261-497E-8A59-58EABE4E7898My friend, Buddy Shurden, shared an experience he had while serving his first pastorate near Ethel. Mississippi. He tells of his frequent habit of calling on Early Steed to pray. He wrote that Mr. Early Steed always began his prayer the same way, every time. 

“Lord, we come to you one more time from this low ground of sin, shame and sorrow.”

Buddy Shurden reflects on the term Mr. Early used, “low ground,” and adds, “Oh! If Early could see us now.”

Indeed. Low ground.

We are standing in the wake of waves of violence . . .

Fifteen pipe bombs mailed to two former presidents, a former secretary of state, a news outlet, and others;

Eleven worshippers killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in Mr. Rogers’ real-life neighborhood;

Maurice Stallard, 69, and Vickie Jones, 67, killed in a Kroger in Jeffersontown, Kentucky.

We are standing on pretty low ground these days. There’s no doubt about that. Yet, even in grief, with memorial vigils going on around the nation, we can still hear the faint voice of Mr. Rogers singing, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

And that resonates with us as we watch neighbors grieving alongside neighbors, Muslim neighbors reaching out to help their Jewish neighbors at Tree of Life, and the news outlet that was targeted with multiple pipe bombs speaking the names of the victims and telling bits of their life stories.

Maybe it feels like low ground we’re standing on these days. But if we look around, and listen, and watch while genuine love is being shared between grieving brothers and sisters, and friends who are grieving with them, we have to admit that this ground we’re now standing on might just feel more like holy ground.