Yesterday I noticed a dogwood tree in full bloom, the first blooming dogwood I have seen this year. The sight of it did my heart good, because it reminded me that some simple and beautiful things remain. They return every year. They mark a season. They grow, and their blooms become ever more vibrant, or so it seems.
The dogwood has its own story, a lovely legend that explains the tree’s qualities. The legend holds that the tree was once very large, like a Great Oak tree, and because its wood was strong and sturdy, it provided building material for a variety of purposes. According to the story, it was the dogwood tree that provided the wood used to build the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Because of its role in the crucifixion, it is said that God both cursed and blessed the tree. It was cursed to forever be small, so that it would never grow large enough again for its wood to be used as a cross for a crucifixion. Its branches would be narrow and crooked — not good for building at all. At the same time, the tree was blessed so that it would produce beautiful flowers each spring, just in time for Easter. The legend says that God it is gave it a few traits so that whoever looks upon it will never forget.
The petals of the dogwood actually form the shape of a cross. The blooms have four petals. The tips of each of the petals are indented, as if they bear a nail dent. The hint of color at the indentation bring to mind the drops of blood spilled during the crucifixion.
Diana Butler Bass tells the story like this:
There’s an old southern legend that dogwoods grew in Jerusalem — and that one gave its wood for Jesus’s cross. Because of this, the dogwood was cursed (its short stature a ‘punishment’ for being the wood of death) but it also became a blessing. Blessing? For on each twisted branch burst forth petals of lightness and light.
So let’s leave the dogwood’s story and look at our stories — your story and my story. People often use the term “storied past.” Well, a storied past is something all of us have.
In talking with a friend a few days ago, I asked, “How is your heart?” She began to tell me her story, which was a long and winding one that included many mini-stories — happy ones snd sad ones — from her life’s journey. Toward the end of her story, she said, “I feel as if I am cursed by God.” That was her bottom line answer to my question, “How is your heart?” Hers was an honest, heartbroken response that instantly revealed that her heart was not all that good, but that was a critical part of her story.
If you and I are honest, we will admit that our hearts were broken and hurting at several places in our stories. Recalling our brokenhearted times is something we always do when we tell our stories, and it’s an important part of the telling. My story and yours is never complete if we leave out the heartbroken moments, for at those points, what feels like God’s curse almost always transforms into God’s grace.
If not for our heartbroken moments, the hurting places in our hearts might never “burst forth with lightness and light.” Our heartbroken moments change us and grow us. They set us on better paths and they embrace our pain with grace. Our heartbroken moments give us pause, and in that pause, we find that once again, our hearts are good. Our broken hearts are once again peaceful hearts — healed, restored, transformed, filled with God’s grace.
How is your heart? That is a question we would do well to ask ourselves often, because languishing with our heartbreak for long spans of time can cause our stories to be stories mostly of pain. Instead, stop right here in this post for just a few moments and ask yourself, “How is my heart?”
Your answer may well be your path to a contemplative, sacred pause that can become a moment of healing, a time for God’s grace to embrace whatever is broken in your heart and to transform it into love, light and hope. So don’t be afraid to look into your heart when pain is there. In looking, you may find reasons, many and and complex, that are causing deep pain and brokenness. You may also find the healing touch of the Spirit of God waiting there for you and offering healing grace — a Godburst of new hope.
May your story be filled always with times when your was light with joy and times when your heart was broken with loss, mourning, discouragement, disappointment. Both create your extraordinary story — the joyful parts and the sorrowful parts. So tell your story again and again to encourage yourself and to give the hope of God’s healing grace to all who hear it.
I remember a beloved hymn that is a prayer for the Spirit of God to “descend upon my heart.” May this be your prayer today.
Spirit of God, descend upon my heart; Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move. Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, And make me love Thee as I ought to love.
Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King? All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind. I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling: Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear, To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh; Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, One holy passion filling all my frame; The kindling of the heav’n-descended Dove, My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.
I want to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings. 
I am continually inspired by Mary Oliver’s poetry, today by her phrase, “as though I had wings.” In the past six months or so — since my kidney transplant — I have felt a little wing-less. Not so unusual, because a transplant — before, during and after — is a rather big deal, like a super colossal deal! If I ever thought the enormous physical challenge would be the surgery itself, I was wrong. I think I deluded myself on that. The aftershocks of the surgery proved to be enormous and enduring. Hence, my lack of wings.
Everywhere, one can see eloquently expressed promises of wings. You and I can “mount up with wings as eagles” or “take the wings of the morning.”  There is even a wing promise that God will “raise you up on eagle’s wings.” 
I know the promises and I love them, but I also love how poet Mary Oliver brings it all down to where I live — on shifting sands in an ever-shifting world. She expresses it like this: “I want to think again of dangerous and noble things . . . to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.” 
All of a sudden, I have a critical assignment, something I must do myself and for myself. It seems to me that I must start by focusing on my mind, thinking again of things noble and dangerous. Then I must allow my mind (my will) to move through my heart and soul, to the very center of my being, because there is the place inside me where dangerous acts are weighed and noble acts can become resolve. In one of the common phrases of my faith — an admonition I heard in church over and over again — a pastor or teacher would say, “count the cost.”
Here’s where I am honest. So I must admit that doing noble things has seemed impossible for me in the past few years. Prior to my illness, my life was a constant journey of determining the danger of noble things and doing them anyway. I miss the life of being a pastoral presence to a dying patient. I miss keeping vigil in the ER family room with grieving parents mourning the death of a child. I miss offering a memorial service for a dear congregant and friend. I miss comforting victims of sexual assault as police officers question them, sometimes brusquely and accusingly. I miss trauma counseling with persons who have endured horrific emotional and physical trauma. I miss forensic interviewing even the youngest child victim of abuse. I miss standing firm as a court advocate for child victims of sexual abuse. I even miss being thrown out of the courtroom by a persnickety judge who did not appreciate the intensity level of my advocacy.
I miss it all. It was dangerous. All of this work was dangerous and it was noble. I could do it because of wings — the wings God gave me when I determined I would do dangerous and noble things and do them with urgency.
What about now, this season of my life? What am I doing that’s dangerous and noble? Should I even expect to be able to face danger at my age, with my physical limitations? Last night, a friend listened to me list all the things I cannot do when very intently she interrupted me and asked, “Kathy, what can you do?” She continued, as she so often does, “Your life is not about the things you can’t do. It’s about the things you can do!”
She nailed it. Perhaps she even nailed me, albeit with some gentleness. So I have to sit awhile with that provoking question: “What can you do?” I have to sit with that question with God close by to guide me and Spirit near to remind me of Spirit-wind and Spirit-fire. I am not precluded from Spirit-wind because of age or Spirit-fire because of physical limitations. It is up to me to discern what I need in my life right now. Will I be satisfied with what I have done in the past and let myself off the hook? What dangerous and noble things will I take on?
I cannot help but think of so many nurses and doctors who are caring for persons with COVID19 — how they enter the ICU knowing that a deadly virus is there, believing that they could take the virus home to their families. Dangerous and noble! Somehow, Spirit-wind is raising them up for the task.
I wonder if you have thought about this for yourself, considering the cost of doing dangerous and noble things. Have you considered that the things you are already doing — feeding the poor, caring for the sick, taking a meal to an elderly person sheltered alone in her home — are all dangerous and noble things? That you show mercy to others as you go? That you weep for a broken world with so many broken people in it? That you share in Christ’s compassion?
“Dangerous and noble things! Afraid of nothing as if we had wings!” 
I’ve given all of this a lot of thought and I think we might get our wings after we have made the determination to give ourselves to noble things, no matter the danger. I think we get wings when we move to the urgency of Christ’s compassion, when our rhythms begin to emulate the rhythms of God. I think we get wings when we have determined in our hearts and souls to act — after we have counted the cost and have said “Yes!”
Again, the eloquence of the poet may most fully express my deepest longing and yours.
I want to be improbable beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings . . .
What I want in my life
is to be willing
to be dazzled—
to cast aside the weight of facts
and maybe even
to float a little
above this difficult world. 
May God make it so for us.
1 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
2 Isaiah 40:31
3 Psalm 139:9
4 “On Eagles Wing’s” composed by Michael Joncas
5 Starlings in Winter, a poem by Mary Oliver
6 Mary Oliver, Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
7 The Ponds, a poem by Mary Oliver
The Passage of Scripture that I contemplate on this Good Friday, and on most every Good Friday I can remember, is found in the Book of Isaiah.
He is despised and rejected by men,
A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him;
He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.
Surely He has borne our griefs
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten by God, and afflicted.
But He was wounded for our transgressions,
He was bruised for our iniquities;
The chastisement for our peace was upon Him,
And by His stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
We have turned, every one, to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
— Isaiah 53:3-7 NKJV
For me, Good Friday holds so many memories. I remember vividly trekking through the woods to find a thorn tree for our crown of thorns; finding just the right tree for Fred to cut down for building our cross; draping cloth on the cross; decorating our church’s Easter Chrismon tree; finding candles blooming dogwood; and finding fabric — Lenten purple, Good Friday black and Resurrection white.
Good Friday also holds for me many memories of worship — so many years leading worship as a pastor, leading worship during my time as minister of worship, leading services in our hospital chapel, holding sunrise services in our community. Honestly, after so many years, they all run together, and I only remember snippets of the times of worship that were most meaningful to me.
There is one memory that is so clear to me that it stands out above all others. I remember it in detail and I believe that this memory shaped my best thoughts about meaningful worship. I was only a young girl, but my grandmother (Yiayia) gave me authoritative instruction about how I should devoutly observe Holy Week. That usually meant going to church every day of Holy Week, but always, it meant Good Friday worship at our Holy Trinity + Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Birmingham.
I wondered then about why the day when Christians commemorate Christ’s crucifixion was called Good Friday. The son of God was flogged, insulted and ordered to carry the cross on which he would be crucified. According to Mark’s Gospel, he endured the torment of crucifixion for some six hours from the third hour, at approximately 9 am, until his death at the ninth hour, corresponding to about 3 pm.
It’s difficult to see what is “good” about Good Friday. I studied on the name Good Friday and learned some interesting information. The day was called Long Friday by the Anglo-Saxons and is referred to as such in modern Danish. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that some sources see its origins in the term God’s Friday. In German the day is called Karfreitag, or Sorrowful Friday. In our Greek Orthodox faith, the day is known as the Holy and Great Friday in the Greek Orthodox liturgy.
In truth, that terrible Friday is called Good Friday because it eventually leads us to the Resurrection of Jesus, his victory over death and finally the celebration of resurrection, the very pinnacle of Christian celebrations. According to the Baltimore Catechism, Good Friday is good because Christ “showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing.” Yes! But I must paraphrase that quotation to say “Christ showed His great love for us all, and purchased for us every blessing.“
Sometimes, we tend to rush headlong past the darkness of Christ’s passion, wanting a quicker path to the glorious resurrection. Which is where I begin with my childhood memories of Holy Week. Like most Orthodox Christians, my grandmother made sure we observed Good Friday with fasting, prayer, cleanliness, self-examination, confession and good works. We did not do any chores on Good Friday because we were to honor the day of mourning. I remember that our Good Friday meant a strict fast, no food all day. My Yiayia made up a mini fast for me that included small meals and just a little juice, always calling attention to the food she did not give me because I was fasting. What a teacher and spiritual guide Yiayia was to me! The long day of fasting went on.
On Great and Holy Friday our Orthodox Church commemorated the death of Christ on the Cross. We had to go to church first thing in the morning. In this service, our priest, Father Sam, raised up Christ’s Cross very high and then took it around the church three times. We kneeled the entire time and I wondered if everyone’s knees were hurting like mine were. Anyway, Yiayia had given me instructions. “Kneel correctly and don’t look around until the Cross passes our pew. Then look at the Cross and pray to be forgiven of your sins just like the thief on the Cross who confessed.” I didn’t think I had any sins, but I did it anyway. Father Sam finally finished walking around and took the Cross to the front of the church. Then Yiayia nudged me to move and, along with everyone in the whole church, we went to the Cross and kissed it. I wasn’t a great fan of Vespers so early in the morning, but we had to be there to see the unnailing of Christ from the Cross.
Before I knew it, we were on our way back to church, even though I had plans for Friday afternoon. I felt something a little like sadness, I think, when Father Sam and several other men took Jesus from the Cross and placed him in a tomb. What I most remember was wondering why Father Sam was sprinkling the tomb with rosewater and then sprinkling all of us. The sweet smell of roses filled the sanctuary. At the end, we went behind Father Sam in a procession with the entire beautiful structure that was supposed to be the tomb of Jesus. It was like a funeral procession and it was sad. The older ladies in black clothes wept again. I think I felt a tear roll down my face, too. I think my tear came because Father Sam’s chants that day were the saddest, most sorrowful music I had ever heard.
The problem with all of it, I thought, is that we still had to fast all day and all the next day. I didn’t like that part very much, but as a dutiful child, I ate and drank the sparse morsels and juice that Yiayia served me without a single complaint. At least outwardly! Inside, I complained constantly and literally felt like I might starve.
And then it happened! In the dark of night, 11:00 pm, we went to the church — the most special liturgy of our church. Last minute instructions from Yiayia? “Sit up straight, kneel when I kneel, say all the prayers, no talking to your friends, no looking around to see who came, no crossing your legs, and don’t fall asleep” (even though we might be there until 1 am). if I broke any of those rules, Yiayia quietly, but forcefully, pinched my leg.
Father Sam took us first to the Passion of the Christ and his final moments on the cross. I remember having a bit of child like impatience with the very lengthy and heavy service. Yet today, I would give anything to sit up straight, legs uncrossed next to my Yiayia. I had no idea what was going on, but I was again stricken by the tears and the crying of the older ladies wearing black. I know now that they came there to mourn the death of Jesus. At that time, I just felt sad and kind of in awe in hearing their expressions of mourning.
As the liturgy neared midnight, the sanctuary went dark and we sat in complete darkness for what seemed to me like an hour. Father Sam took light and gave it to those who were holding candles as he sang: “Come ye and receive light from the unwaning life, and glorify Christ, who arose from the dead,” and all the people join him in singing the hymn again and again.
Father Sam then led the entire congregation outside the church. We had begun the procession to the tomb. I was so short in a crowd of taller people that I was unsure what was going on.
I did know that on the way to the tomb all the adults were solemn. But somehow I remembered that Father Sam would read the Gospel that gave us the Angel’s statement: “He is Risen; He is not here.” (Mark 16:1-8)
Then came the breathless moment — always the breathless moment — as the people waited for our priest to start the hymn of Resurrection. We sang with him this hymn, our most beloved hymn of Resurrection. “Christ has risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs!” We sang it over and over again, holding our candles on a cold, dark night, facing the doors of our church
I remember Father Sam, holding the Paschal candle in his left hand, turned to face the wooden church doors and knocked three times on the closed doors with his hand-cross, saying in a loud voice, “Where is the King of glory?” Everyone responded, “He is not here for he has risen from the grave!”
This was the the high point of worship, but . . . We still had to sit quietly in the pews to hear the sermon of St. John Chrysostom. I was tired and very sleepy, but at long last, our Lenten exile had ended. The fasting was over. The penitential prayers were finished. The stone from the tomb was rolled away and we knew without any doubt that Christ had risen! He had risen indeed!
Today, wherever you are — near your loved ones or apart — know that the fear, anxiety and isolation of this virus will end. Let all of us pray for those who are ill; for the families that have lost loved ones; for medical professionals, chaplains, first responders and the hospital employees who clean and sanitize every area; for the scientists who are working to develop testing and vaccines; for the governors of every state; for those having financial difficulty; for churches facing financial struggles and for ministers who are creating worship alternatives; for all those to whom this virus is an enormous threat because of age, weakened immune system and health issues; for parents who must teach their children at home and for children who wonder where Easter is this year.
This has been a Lent to remember because it included the separation of families, schools and faith communities. Of all the Lents that have passed, I imagine we will remember this one. When we do, I hope we will remember all the compassionate deeds, all the new ways of being community and all the ways we have loved one another. After all, the command to love one another came from the Christ who faced betrayal, sorrow, death and ended his story with resurrection. That’s what all of us, people of resurrection do — suffer all of life’s slings and arrows and still end up resurrected — to newness of life.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
And thanks be to God for my Good Fridays, then and now. Amen.
I am including a video of the song, “Lamb of God” by Twila Paris for your Good Friday meditation time.
The Fourth Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-three December 4, 2019
IN DECEMBER DARKNESS
The whole world waits in December darkness
for a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug!”
and chase away the carolers
have been looking toward the skies.
The one who declared he never would forgive
and those who left home
have returned, and even wars are halted,
as the whole world looks starward.
In the December darkness
we peer from our windows
watching for an angel with rainbow wings
to announce the Hope of the World.
— Ann Weems
In this season of my life, it would be easy to snarl “Humbug!” and move on to ordinary, tedious, plodding daily living. It’s hard to look starward when pain is your nightly companion, sticking much too close in the darkness of night, the darkness of life. My words this morning are not Advent-inspired words. They are, pure and simple, a factual and real assessment of where I find myself. My most pressing question? How do I get from “Humbug!” to Hope?
It will require an extra measure of faith, patience and perseverance. It will require my willingness to welcome a new normal. It may call for a little extra weeping, a bit more courage, a wide-open soul and maybe even a few angels to illuminate the way ahead.
To be honest, I have to say that on top of my physical pain is my incessant emotional pain that whispers, “You are not okay!” over and over and over again. I know this is not very Advent-like. This view of my current health and well-being is most definitely not Advent-like. But instead of my constant post- transplant complaints and consternations, I want to look for the star in the night sky. I want to listen for the hope-filled sound of the heavenly host singing “Alleluia!” I want to be standing in awe of angels with rainbow wings.
All of this descriptive information is about my current emotional/physical/spiritual space. I know that I don’t want to stay here in this dark place. I know it’s a temporary, necessary time of moving into healing and wholeness. Still, it often feels like darkness. Much more like “Humbug!” than Hope!
So from this dark place, I will myself to look starward, even briefly. I will see past the December darkness. I plan to peer out of my transplant-veiled windows, watching for an angel with rainbow wings announcing the Hope of the World!
The Second Day of Advent Transplant Day Twenty-One December 2, 2019
THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT
The Christmas spirit
is that hope
which tenaciously clings
to the hearts of the faithful
in the face of any Herod the world can produce
and all the inn doors slammed in our faces
and all the dark nights of our souls
that with God
all things still are possible,
that even now
a Child is born!
What could this beautiful poem titled The Christmas Spirit possibly have to do with my recent kidney transplant? At first glance, not much. But lingering on the poet’s words made some of them leap from the page for me. I have to admit that the words most piercing to me are these: “. . . all the dark nights of our souls.”
Guilt overwhelmed me after the transplant was complete. I was back in my room six hours after the surgery — barely awake, a little confused, exhausted, in pain and, they tell me, very quick-tempered. I yelled at my husband, something I may have done twice in 50 years of marriage. The truth is I was feeling covered with a blanket of guilt. The nurses, my surgeon, my family were all celebrating the transplant miracle. I was in pain, second-guessing my decision to even have the transplant in the first place and feeling guilty for not acknowledging the miracle everyone else saw.
For the next two days, every person on my transplant team who came to see me entered my room with a large smile and expressed one word, “Congratulations!” said with joy in a most celebratory voice. All the while, I was often weeping pain’s quiet tears. I stared at each congratulating person with a little bit of concealed contempt. In my mind, if not on my lips, was a response that went something like this: “Congratulations? Do you have any idea what kind of pain I am experienced right now? And have you had this surgery yourself? Save your congratulations for another day!”
The physical pain was very real and very intense. The soul pain hurt even deeper. Body and soul — the physical, spiritual and emotional — were so intricately fused together that it was all but impossible to isolate or separate them. Is this just physical pain? Is part of it emotional pain? Am I experiencing, heaven forbid, a spiritual crisis? I found no way to tell. For me, it was pain in all three parts of me and that made it almost intolerable.
For two nights, I did not sleep at all — awake all night, feeling alone, abandoned and in a wrestling match with my pain. As I went over and over in my mind all the reasons I had for getting a transplant, my thoughts morphed into a fairly clear “What have I done?”
It felt so much like a dark night of the soul as I grieved my aloneness and isolation, mourned the loss of my previous life and felt deep fear of the dark, unknown path ahead. And all of those points of crisis made me feel that guilt for not being grateful for the living gift of a kidney.
As Ann Weems’ expresses in the poem, “Hope tenaciously clings to the hearts of the faithfuland announces in the face . . . of all the dark nights of our souls, that with God all things still are possible, that even now unto us a Child is born!”
Twenty-one days separated from my transplant, I am able to attest that hope does cling tenaciously in my heart, that hope announces in the face of the dark night of my soul that with God, all things are still possible. And most importantly, “Unto us a Child is born!”
Into me a Child is born, and that presence empowers me to walk through my soul’s darkest night into the light that Advent brings.
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.
What does it mean to be in the presence of God? How do we get there? How do we rest there long enough for our souls to be restored?
Had I ever been able to answer those questions, I imagine my life would have been different — fuller, gentler, more peaceful. But like many people who work to achieve inner peace and a spirituality with staying power, I have struggled around the prize, never quite being able to grasp it.
I have used all of the tools available to me — my bible, my bookcase full of contemplative writing, my labyrinth, my hymnal, my writing, my art, my prayer. The list goes on, and I go on, still struggling to find God’s presence.
The worse thing I can do is to cast blame on myself for a small spirituality and an even smaller faith. Truth is, I think I do have spirituality and faith. Faith has lifted me up through many difficult times. Faith was present when fire destroyed part of our home. My faith held when I was forced to close the doors our nonprofit. My faith carried me through sudden kidney failure. Faith showed up every time I wept bitter tears of grief and mourned my life losses. My faith was present with me when I thought I was dying and when I left my home of 32 years, my son and my grandchildren.
My faith held. My anchor gripped God’s solid rock. I picked myself up every time and moved on with hope. Yet, this thing we call “the presence of God” has eluded me. I mostly can’t experience it or feel it or sense it as a reality.
I guess it gets back to faith, doesn’t it. For it is faith that whispers to us, “Know the presence of God. If you cannot sense it, know it. If you cannot feel it, believe it anyway.”
The book of Jeremiah offers this comforting advice: “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.”
And then I can always fall back on Richard Rohr wisdom:
“We’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness.”
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it.
You hem me in, behind and before me,
and you gently lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
I cannot begin to understand it.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If you know me well, you will know that I have a love affair with trees. I always have, ever since I was a little girl playing among the protruding, gnarly roots of the enormous, beautiful magnolia tree in our yard. I would stay there for hours sometimes, finding under the tree’s canopy my own personal and private hiding place. Though it was ill advised, the tree endured carvings in its trunk without complaining even once. That tree had multiple carved hearts, each with an arrow and the names of boyfriends that came and went.
Today I was reminded how much I love trees when I received a mailing from the Arbor Day Foundation asking me to complete a survey, which I promptly did. As a token of appreciation for completing the survey, the Arbor Day Foundation will send me a calendar, a tree book and ten free trees.
It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, dreaming of having ten new trees in my yard, but of course, knowing that the free trees they send me will be five inches tall. No matter. I’ll plant them and nurse them and hope for the best.
I was also prompted by the Arbor Day Foundation to wonder about state trees. Fred and I tried to guess a few, but eventually resorted to Wikipedia for a list. Interesting list, ranging from common trees like the ubiquitous pine all the way to more exotic-sounding trees like Utah’s Quaking Aspen, Pennsylvania’s Eastern Hemlock and Arizona’s Blue Palo Verde.
Now that you’ve had a lesson on state trees that you did not ask for, I will tell you what’s up with me and trees. The lifelong connection happened when I was just a little girl. I lived with an abusive father who made my home a very unsafe place. Other forms of violence were prevalent as well: shouting and abusive language, threats of physical harm and a violent uncle that came with a gun and broke into our house by smashing the glass in our front door.
I was a child of fear, constant fear, and so I found hiding places under our trees, two huge magnolias, an even taller pecan tree, and even under the branches of Miss Martha Tebshereny’s plum tree. An occasional plum was a bonus!
Here’s the best truth: that it is incredibly powerful that out of a troubled childhood, I brought happy memories. I brought with me into my adult years images of safety; moments of playfulness; an appreciation of nature’s beauty; the taste of fresh figs, plums and pecans; a lovely collection of magnolia cones; the treasure of memories and an abiding love of trees.
There was healing under the weeping branches of those trees. There was hope. I think it was Holy Ground.
That’s something for which I am very grateful. I am grateful to a loving and compassionate God, who, I am quite sure, met me a few times under one of those childhood trees. God, who knows how important it is to protect children, and graced me with a safe and gentle presence. Because of that, I made it out of a home filled with violence to a better, safer world.
This morning I was reading an interesting article about Michael, the Archangel. The headline read “Call upon the Archangel to stand guard over you . . . at night.” The article pointed out that we are the most vulnerable when we are asleep, unable to protect ourselves from harm. The Archangel Michael can protect us. The information, while interesting, was not all that earth shattering. But reading it brought to mind an unforgettable childhood memory.
As a child around the age of five, I didn’t think much of this particular day, but as an adult, I count it as one of my most cherished memories. On top of that, I now see it as an early childhood experience that shaped my view of God and began to prepare me for the vocation of ministry. But I must begin at the beginning to paint a picture of a precocious, spoiled five year old.
My mother was expecting a new baby, my first sibling. I was all in if the baby was a sister, but for some reason, I loathed the idea of a baby brother, which is exactly what I got. I was NOT happy! I remember it like it was yesterday. Yiayia (my grandmother) broke the news. I stomped my feet and declared that my mother could absolutely not return home with a boy baby!
Going on alongside my childish impertinence, the adults were experiencing a completely different reality. It appeared, in fact, that my baby brother would not come home and that his survival was doubtful. As in many Greek families, my brother’s dangerous situation remained “between us,” which meant my grandmother, my father and my two aunts, Eirene and Koula. At all costs, my mother was not to be told of the seriousness of her new baby’s health. And of course, nothing was to be said in the presence of five-year-old Kalliope, though that made no difference at all because my ears had always been finely attuned to family secrets and whispers. When adults spoke, even in hushed whispers, I heard.
So I knew, at least, that something was amiss, and if I am honest, I have to confess that I was glad I would not be having a brother in my world. Until the next day. As soon as I woke up, Yiayia washed my face, made me brush my teeth, and began to dress me. For reasons I did not yet understand, she was dressed in her church clothes and she pulled out a church dress for me. I knew it wasn’t Sunday, but I did not know that I was about to have a life-altering experience. Now you might think that a five-year-old cannot really understand a life-altering experience. But you would be mistaken. This life-altering experience has been lying in my memories for more than six decades.
Both dressed impeccably, we put on our winter coats and walked across the street and down the block to the bus stop. I was cold, ready for the bus to show up. Of course, I asked where we were going and why we were so dressed up. “Siopi! Min milas tora!” was Yiayia’s response. “Hush! Don’t talk right now!” Sensing the fear and grief in Yiayia’s mood, I sat quietly and didn’t say another word as the bus took us to downtown Birmingham. When we disembarked, I knew exactly where we were going, but I did not know why.
As we walked up the front steps at our Greek Orthodox church, I felt the warmth of the building easing the February cold. I was glad to be warm. I smelled the incense, comforted by the familiar fragrance. And I watched the flames of hundreds of thin white candles placed in a bed of sand as Yiayia lit another one, placed it in the sand, and made her cross. Immediately, I made my cross, too, three times, as I was taught to do.
The church was silent. With dim lights, it had never looked more beautiful. As we walked down the aisle through the nave, I looked to each side to see the stained glass windows. I looked up above the nave into the dome of the church where the icon of Christ, Ruler of All, looked back directly at me in a way that almost seemed eerie. I realize that we are going up the steps to the iconostasis, the wall of doors that each had an icon on them. I had never, ever been up those few steps. It was the place, I thought, where only the priest and the altar boys could be.
But up we went, and stood directly in front of the door bearing the image of Michael the Archangel. Finally, Yiayia spoke. “Your brother is going to die. We have to pray for him to St Michael, the protector of all. You pray too.
And so we did, Yiayia with a deep, reverent, desperate fervency that pleaded for the Archangel to save the baby, offering Saint Michael a promise in return for the baby’s life. As for me, I can only remember having a lump in my throat and trying not to cry. But tears streamed down my cheeks as we finished, and I made my cross three times.
We headed silently back to the bus stop to go home. The house was much quieter than usual, and I stayed quiet too, which was a huge feat for me. I didn’t say anything about not wanting my baby brother for a few days, which proves the cunning wisdom of a five-year-old. I played quietly in my room the rest of the morning, but the mood in the house lifted that very afternoon.
My father and aunts came home not many hours after our church experience and announced with unbridled joy that the baby was going to be fine. Yiayia made her cross three times and gave exuberant thanks to God and St. Michael the Archangel who heard our prayers, gave us a miracle, and saved the baby boy.
My mother did come home with the miracle baby, Andrew Michael (named after the Archangel who saved his life). I stood my ground, refused to hold him or look at him, and sternly pronounced that they should take him back and bring me a sister!
So much for my spiritual act of devotion in the church. On the other hand, isn’t that just the way God works with us? Planting spiritual experiences in us when we hardly take notice, knowing that we will hide them somewhere in our hearts for a later time in our lives.
I tell my story best when I tell the stories of the people that God has placed in my life. Quite often, my heart recalls beautiful memories of a people that became an important part of my life. They are a people who touched me beyond measure when my husband and I served as missionaries to Uganda, East Africa.
The Ugandan people captured our hearts quickly and completely. We saw the great need and set about our work in village after village, doing whatever we could to promote self sufficiency and good health. We worshipped in their churches and learned about the amazing resilience of their Christian faith. Perhaps we helped make their lives better in small ways. There is no doubt that the Ugandan people made our lives better in big ways. It was so many years ago, but I remember it as if it happened yesterday. The two of us stepped off of a plane in the Nairobi airport to begin a new life. As very young missionaries, we had no idea what we would face in the days to come.
Getting to Uganda from Kenya was a long, dusty ride through the most beautiful places we had ever seen. Through bush country and savannah, through banana groves and rain forests, through tea plantations on the mountainsides and the deep waters of Lake Victoria, we were getting acquainted with this continent.
The terrain was ever-changing, and the way was marked by the majestic beauty of elephants, giraffe, cape buffalo, gazelles, flamingos and Ugandan crested cranes.
The most moving sight of all was the people, barefoot and downtrodden, wearing rags and carrying heavy water containers. Yet, the sight of women at the banks of a river dipping their water jugs to carry to their families was a portrait of beauty and community. In spite of the toll the war had taken, these women retained their pride and dignity, and their joy. They wore basutis (native Ugandan dresses) of many vibrant African colors. In spite of the fact that their basutis were torn and tattered, they caught the rays of the equatorial sun and were bright with the greens, oranges, burgundies blues and yellows that mirrored the Ugandan landscape. The women stood together in the river, at times laughing and talking to one another, and at other times singing, in spite of their ominous sociopolitical world.
Their country had all but been destroyed by the evil dictator Idi Amin, who orchestrated the genocide of 100,000 to 500,000 Ugandans. Churches were burned to the ground, schools pillaged, roads were in shambles. Children were left orphaned in a country of widows. Their faces showed the wear of grief, their bodies the mask of mourning.
They were why we had come, sent by God to comfort a grieving people. The days ahead found us digging water wells, distributing agricultural tools and vegetable seeds, giving out books, bibles, blankets and sewing supplies, bringing in simple medicines and vaccines.
I can never think of the Ugandan people without recalling Lamentations 5, a scripture passage that was read in a church service to describe the plight of the people. As the reader read through her tears, the entire congregation wept, mourning so many losses. I offer the text here in its entirety:
Remember, Lord, what has happened to us; look, and see our disgrace.
Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to foreigners.
We have become fatherless, our mothers are widows.
We must buy the water we drink; our wood can be had only at a price.
Those who pursue us are at our heels; we are weary and find no rest.
We submitted to Egypt and Assyria to get enough bread.
Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment.
Slaves rule over us, and there is no one to free us from their hands.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives because of the sword in the desert.
Our skin is hot as an oven, feverish from hunger.
Women have been violated in Zion, and virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes have been hung up by their hands; elders are shown no respect.
Young men toil at the millstones; boys stagger under loads of wood.
The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music.
Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head.
Woe to us, for we have sinned!
Because of this our hearts are faint, because of these things our eyes grow dim for Mount Zion, which lies desolate, with jackals prowling over it.You, Lord, reign forever; your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return; renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
— Lamentations 5, New International Version
That worship service in the Church of Uganda (Anglican) sanctuary was unlike any I had ever experienced. The people wept freely and openly, grieving the loss of husbands, children, parents. Once described as “the pearl of Africa” by Sir Winston Churchill, Uganda was a land of incomparable natural beauty that now had been ravaged by war.
As the reading of the scripture in Lamentations came to an end, one woman with tears flowing down her cheeks began to sing and dance. The congregation joined her, singing with great fervency, “Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance said he. And I’ll lead you on wherever you may be, I am the Lord of the Dance said he.”
The aisles of the sanctuary filled with dancing and weeping all at once.
Their mourning had turned to dancing. The inner joy of a people was not, and could never be, destroyed. Their hearts, so filled with the music of their faith, could not be silenced. They could sing. They could dance. Even through their tears. That is the music of abiding, persistent faith.
How grateful I am to God for choosing us to enter into community for a time with these wonderful people.