We could have a long conversation about the potter’s messy hands, about the mud under his nails, about the strength of hands that look as if they are using every muscle to shape the pot. We would probably talk about the dynamic force of his hands that hold the pot lightly enough to form it, but controlled enough to avoid marring or damaging it.
In our conversation, we would probably remember the prophet Jeremiah’s encounter with a potter and the ways we have used that passage of scripture over the years. I don’t know about you, but my teachers and preachers used this text to teach me about the ways God can mold me into a worthy vessel that can hold enough faith and hope to get me through the hard times. Plus, being remolded would mean I was being ”obedient to God!”
We certainly do not want to use scripture out of its historical context, but another use of a scripture passage is to consider its imagery, its symbolism and its relevance to us in a given life situation. The following scripture, as translated in The Voice, contains a powerful section after verse 1 that tells us how God’s message comes through a prophetic drama played out at a potter’s wheel, and that there, the prophet sees an ordinary event from which he receives an extraordinary message.
1 The word of the Eternal came to Jeremiah
Now God’s message comes through another prophetic drama played out in a potter’s shop somewhere in the city. The prophet sees an ordinary event but receives an extraordinary message.
Eternal One:2 Go down to the potter’s shop in the city, and wait for My word. 3 So I went down to the potter’s shop and found him making something on his wheel.
4 And as I watched, the clay vessel in his hands became flawed and unusable. So the potter started again with the same clay. He crushed and squeezed and shaped it into another vessel that was to his liking. — Jeremiah 18:1-4 (The VOICE)
I cannot help but remember the many times throughout my life that this passage was interpreted as a potter (God) forming me. The message inevitably moved to the part where ”God is not pleased with me and is trying to remold me into a more worthy vessel for God’s glory.” Not the best biblical message we could glean from Jeremiah’s drama! Not only that, but I don’t much like the idea of the potter ”crushing, squeezing and shaping” me.
The best truth is that God does remold us in so many ways, gently and intentionally, so that we are always in the process of change and growth. In our case, the God who loves us just as we are, also holds us, as if in a potter’s hands. Though this passage does speak of serious remolding, it never indicates that the potter throws the damaged pot into the trash pile.
It is true that we are damaged again and again in this life, but God loves who we are, and like the potter, God gently remolds us along the way, creating of us the best we can be. God never throws us away, no matter how severe our damage — damage on the outside, visible to all; and on the inside, where the deepest damage rests, in the soul and spirit. Visible to no one, excruciatingly visible to us.
We can choose to be like clay in the potter’s hands, allowing a gentle God to remold us, repair our damaged life, and empower us to be new, remade. This sounds like hope to me, and grace.
This is Jeremian’s story, his vision. He sees it as an ordinary event that graces us with an extraordinary message. Jeremiah’s story is ours to ponder and to ask ourselves if there is any damage to us or in us. If you sometimes view yourself as damaged, seek help from someone you trust — a friend or family member, a therapist, a spiritual director, your minister.
And remember, the potter is always near for gentle remolding.
My cousins visited this weekend for the first time in months, a needed visit for all of us. We laughed and played and enjoyed one another. We talked a lot, too, into the wee hours. We talked about sweet memories, of course, remembering so many good and fun times. We talked about old boyfriends and childhood disagreements and family idiosyncrasies.
I think we talked most about aging and the physical and emotional changes it brings. We lamented it, of course, and wished it away. We cursed it just a bit, and tried in vain to find ways around it. In the end, we agreed that we can’t get around it, but just have to go through it. Right through the middle of it until the pathway ends.
Right smack dab in the middle of dialogue about age spots, edema, muscle pain and a plethora of bodily ills, we stopped, suddenly realizing that there must be more to the aging process than physical symptoms. Where is life’s meaning when we draw nearer to life’s end? How do we grow old held by the same grace that held us when we were children, young adults, middle aged?
I came across an intriguing word this morning in an NPR article. The word is Lastingness What an astounding word to ponder. Perhaps we should consider lastingness instead of aging. Various creative artists are the subjects of Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. Delbanco examines artists who either maintained or advanced their work past the age of 70 — from Claude Monet, to Giuseppe Verdi, to Georgia O’Keeffe. Because I am an artist, I was captivated by the idea of lastingness, especially when Delbanco told the story of Monet’s later years.
Delbanco writes that French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession. It was Monet’s failing eyesight that posed the greatest threat to his work. “He became more or less legally blind as we would describe it now,” Delbanco says. “So Monet compensated for, or focused on, the visible world in very different ways in his older age.” The works Monet created in his last years at Giverny are regarded as masterpieces.
In the last decades of his life, French impressionist painter Claude Monet focused much of his work on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. He continued painting well into his 80s, even after his vision had been clouded by cataracts.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Monet’s exquisite impressionist paintings eventually ended because of his cataracts. The poet Lisel Mueller has captured Monet’s cataract story brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the Monet was urged to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color. Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes around the streetlights in Paris and what I see is an aberration caused by old age, an affliction. I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels, to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don’t see, to learn that the line I called the horizon does not exist and sky and water, so long apart, are the same state of being . . .
I don’t know exactly what “lastingness” means, but I think it might mean seeing haloes glowing around street lights or the ”vision of gas lamps as angels.” I’m pretty sure it means learning to look at life as softened and blurred, banishing life’s sharp edges. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my writing or my art will have a lasting impact on the world. Maybe it means that I will pass on my wisdom to my grandchildren. Or that the child I helped recover from long-term sexual abuse will find happiness in her life. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my faith in God will carry me to the grace that is the end of life. That kind of “lastingness” brings a kind of peace to my aging, a grace that assures me that aging is much more than painful joints and aching muscles. “Lastingness” is holier than physical afflictions and I think it blurs and softens them until they are tolerable.
When I cannot find the right words, I can always count on Bishop Steven Charleston to write them.
I see more clearly, now that I am aging. Not with my eyesight, but with my soul. I see the fine detail of what I missed in younger years. I see the place of faith and forgiveness in my story. I see the possibilities of life in ways I never imagined. I was not blind in my youth, but my vision was limited to only a few seasons of seeing. Now I am an old man standing on a hill. I see more clearly. The universe stretches above me in infinite glory and the Earth spreads her shawl to wrap me in creation. Open the eyes of your spirit. Look out in wonder. See the fullness of the life you have received. See the promise of love walking in beauty before you.
Bishop Charleston’s words might just be the very best description of ”lastingness.” Maybe “lastingness” means that because I am aging, I now see not only with my eyesight, but with my soul. Maybe it means that now I can clearly see the fullness of the life I have received and the promise of lasting grace holding me close.
Even to your old age I will be the same, And even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; And I will bear you and I will deliver you. — Isaiah 46:4 —
I’m not sure I know what it feels like to have God “undo me with grace,” but I have learned how it feels to need more grace, to long for Spirit breezes to gently blow around me with winds of grace. I need grace for enduring illness, grace for being separated from my son and his family, especially my five grandchildren. I need grace when I’m angry or disappointed or heartbroken. I need grace when I feel like giving up and giving in. I need God’s grace — the grace of the Spirit — to help me live in this season of my life.
I read a provocative prayer today. It kind of grabbed at my heart, asking me what exactly is in my heart right now. It asked me what I’m struggling with. The brilliant writer of prayers, Diane Strickland, writes again and again in her prayer the words, ”Undo my life with your grace,” leaving me asking myself what might happen if God decided to undo my life, even through God would likely be merciful enough to undo my life with grace.
The truth is that those words so grabbed me that my prayer was, ”God, I think I need to let you undo my life.” Maybe I feel the need to re-do my life with string of second chances. Maybe I need forgiveness for regrets, release from memories of pain. Whatever it means to have one’s life undone by God, my heart responded, with longing, to this prayer.
O, my Creator,
In the injustice of my country I caught a glimpse of the bottom of the iceberg this week. I saw how my life lived above the waterline rests on wrong assumptions of privilege, great and small and many. I am cold inside. I don’t want to be cold inside.
Undo my life with your grace. Pick out the seams sewn by fear and mend the tears made by violence. Patch the holes that were always there from the start because I don’t know much about the rest of the world or how life works for others you love just as much as you love me.
Undo me with your grace. Shake out the fabric of me. Unfold and fold me anew. Reveal your image in there somewhere and surprise me with what You make of me when mercy prevails and justice leads and love accompanies us.
Undo me with your grace. I’ve lived a long time now, long enough to know there’s more to be if I can lay down what has mattered more than it needed to, and take up what I’ve barely used at all.
I don’t feel there’s so much wrong with me that we must start over. I feel there’s more of me somewhere that fits better for now and will make room for later. Release more gospel into my life and from my life. Warm me up again. Humble me with wisdom and truth and promise and hold me together with those same gifts.
Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.
“Undo me with your grace. Just a little bit more today, Spirit. Just a little more.”
As I reflected on those words, my thoughts ended up with this conclusion. I don’t need grace to extricate me or liberate me from all that is difficult, heartbreaking and oppressive about my life. But I definitely need Spirit wind to live my life.
I don’t need grace to rescue me. But I do need Spirit-grace that moves in my life with me, giving me life-saving and healing grace for each moment. I need Spirit because I have known her holy presence with me and I have learned to experience the wonder of being moved by wind wild and calm, her breeze blowing around me with both tender comfort and empowering promise.
With that kind of sacred promise, I can live into my life, not shrink from it or fear it. I can move into my life, whatever it brings, with Spirit’s blessing. That’s how she impels me to honor the grace I have received — by giving it away. Her winds have impelled me for many years to minister to God’s people, and I do not intend to stop now. My call from God was for life, not meant to expire when I retired or when my health failed.
I know that God gives grace for waning health and I have it on good authority that God gives “more grace when burdens grow greater.”* When I consider the grace that has so filled my life, I think of the story of Annie Johnson Flint who wrote the text of the hymn, ”He Giveth More Grace.”
Annie Johnson Flint, born in 1866, was an inspiration to all who knew her. This is just a tiny bit of her story. The fullness of Annie Johnson Flint’s story includes a life-long string of losses and difficulties. By the time she was six years old, she had lost her mother and father to illnesses and was adopted by a family named Flint. She loved poetry and dreamed of being a composer and concert pianist. After graduating from high school, Annie went on to become an elementary school teacher, but in her second year was afflicted with arthritis that steadily and quickly worsened. She lost her ability to walk, but she became a prolific writer of poems and hymn texts.
The many stories written about her stories tell how later in life she was unable to open her hands and could no longer write, yet continued to compose her on a typewriter using her knuckles. And that “she sought healing, but in the end she was thoroughly convinced that God intended to glory Himself through her, in her weak earthen vessel.”
The words of the hymn text she wrote, ”He Giveth More Grace,” reflect the many disheartening moments she experienced throughout her life. She died at the age of 66, leaving as her legacy so many faith-strengthening words, including these:
He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labours 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.
Fear not that your need shall exceed His provision, Our God ever yearns His resources to share; Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing; The Father, both you and your load will upbear.
His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, His power no boundary known unto men; For out of His infinite riches in Jesus He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
I have loved this hymn for years in spite of its masculine language. It moves me and uplifts me. It always reminds me of the infinite grace I have known in my life. I hope you will listen to this hymn as a part of your contemplative time.
*Diane Strickland is in her 33rd year as an ordained minister now serving in The United Church of Canada as retired clergy. She is a Certified Community and Workplace Traumatologist, Compassion Fatigue Specialist-Therapist, and Critical Incident Responder, author and creator of trauma informed resources.
The following story printed in the Daily Beast tells how the villagers of a small Afghan village rescued and saved the life of a gravely wounded U.S. Navy Seal. Their motivation? What motivated them was their culture of kindness and their respect of the ‘Pashtunwali Code’, which admonishes that hospitality, asylum, mercy and shelter must be provided for all who require it, friend or enemy.
Nearly eight-and-a-half years after Mohammad Gulab and his fellow villagers harbored and saved the life of a gravely wounded U.S. Navy SEAL, they say they are still proud of their courageous action and would do it again in spite of the disappointments and troubles that have followed.
In the face of point-blank Taliban threats to overrun the small village of Sabray in remote Kunar Province, along the porous and mountainous frontier with Pakistan, the villagers bravely protected, gave first aid to, fed, and clothed Marcus Luttrell, the wounded Special Warfare Operator, the only survivor of a four-man SEAL patrol. A village elder even secretly carried a note hidden inside his clothing—written by Luttrell and indicating the exact spot where he could be rescued—through Taliban lines at great personal danger. “I have no regrets for what my family, my fellow villagers and I have done,” Gulab tells the Daily Beast. “We knew what the Taliban’s reaction would be from the day we carried him in our door.”
Gulab and the other villagers insist that they saved Luttrell out of obedience to the ages-old ethnic-Pashtun tradition known as Pashtunwali. That ancient code obliges Pashtuns to help and protect anyone in need, friend or enemy. “We did not rescue Marcus for money or privileges,” Gulab says. “By rescuing and keeping him safe for five nights in our home we were only doing our cultural obligation.”
And Jesus told us, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Advocating for the Women of Afghanistan
The Taliban have been in charge of Kabul for 48 hours. Women have already disappeared from the streets.
As an advocate for women for many decades, I must share today the terrible plight of Afghan women as a result of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
In only 10 days, Taliban militants captured dozens of provincial capitals left vulnerable by the withdrawal of US and allied troops.
In only 10 days, the freedom of Afghan women was taken back 20 years.
In only 10 days . . .
The speed of the militants’ advance caught the people of Afghanistan off guard, especially Afghan women. Some women said they had no time to buy a burqa to comply with Taliban rules that women should be covered up and accompanied by a male relative when they leave the house.
To Afghanistan’s women, the flowing cloth represents the sudden and devastating loss of rights gained over 20 years — the right to work, study, move and even live in peace — that they fear will never be regained.
Burqas hang in a market in Kabul on July 31. The price has surged tenfold as women rush to cover themselves to avoid attracting the militants’ attention.
Over the last 10 days, a succession of Taliban victories over dozens of provincial capitals took Afghan women closer to a past they desperately wanted to leave behind.
When the Taliban last ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001, they closed girls’ schools and banned women from working. After the US invaded in 2001, restrictions on women eased, and even as the war raged, a local commitment to improving women’s rights, supported by international groups and donors, led to the creation of new legal protections. But gains for women were partial and fragile. In 2009, the Elimination of Violence Against Women law criminalized rape, battery and forced marriage and made it illegal to stop women or girls from working or studying.
Afghan women stand to lose 20 years of gains as the Taliban seize control.
According to an article by Mitchell Hartman published today, the situation is fluid and chaotic in Afghanistan, as the Taliban continue consolidating power over the country and the capital, Kabul. Afghans with connections to the U.S. Embassy or military over the past 20 years are still hoping to get out of the country. But many who stand to lose rights and jobs and possibly their freedom under a new Taliban regime are hunkering down, hiding, covering their tracks.
Especially women, and when it comes to women’s freedom to participate in society and the economy, people who’ve been observing the Taliban aren’t optimistic. “The Taliban are no friends of girls and women. And for many years they really had control over the country, girls education and women’s education was forbidden,” said Rebecca Winthrop, who co-directs the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. Winthrop helped get Afghan girls into new government schools after the Taliban fell in 2001.
But where the Taliban have taken control in recent years, Winthrop said, “we were seeing girls not being able to go past seventh grade – which is when they hit puberty; bombing girls schools; targeting female teachers.” In the big cities, many women have gone to university and entered business, government, academia and the media. But now “they’re literally finding safe houses where they can hide,” said Elisa Lees Munoz, who directs the International Women’s Media Foundation.
You and I may feel helpless, unable to find ways to ease the fear and desperation of women a world away. We cannot know their world, and we definitely cannot fix it. We are at a loss when we consider options that could help. And yet, the words of Jesus remain, imprinted upon our hearts . . . “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And we know that one important thing we can do is to pray for the well-being of every Afghan woman and girl. At least we can pray, and pray with a fervency that holds the power to change hearts and minds. We can pray even without words because the Spirit intercedes for us.
So as we pray, I want to share with you this moving prayer for Afghanistan written by my friend who always prays prayers from her beautiful and compassionate heart. It was published today on her blog, “Gifts in Open Hands.”
God of many names, the Generous, the All-Merciful, the Source of Peace,
we pray in thanks for Afghanistan land of pomegranates and grapes, birthplace of Rumi, and ‘I am the beggar of the world,’ landays of contemporary Afghan women.
We celebrate people – Tajik and Hazaras, Uzbek and Pashtun. We hear tabla, sitar, santur, tabur, flute, and watch the attan danced. We gaze upon art ancient and new – miniatures and the weaves of rugs, like no other in the world.
All earth opens its hands and receives the gifts of Afghans, and all the people pray, each in their own many names and words for safety of Afghans in these days – seeking evacuation in the airport moving quickly on the street, hiding in homes, wondering about schools.
For those who evacuate and for those who wait for what is next,
for those who are foreign nationals, and those bone-deep with history in the hills,
for faithful journalists still reporting, and medical facilities desperate for blocked supplies,
for Sikh and Hindu communities and their holy places,
for the welcome of Australia, and families across the ocean and near at hand grieving loved ones lost, life, body, mind in the long war.
for the afghan elder who has seen much and the child born today who will grow up to give a new gift,
we pray, O Compassionate, O Preserver. amen
— Maren C. Tirabassi
*Please take time to follow this link to a poignant, timely and very real story about the fears of Afghan women published by “Vanity Fair.”
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.
Psalm 27:14 ESV
Waiting is no easy thing. Most of us don’t really like it. We’re not good at it. We are impatient people. We want things to happen quickly. Isn’t it excruciating at times to wait when a traffic light stays red far too long, and no traffic can be seen anywhere! How often we have stood in a long, slow-moving line and frustratingly declared, “This is not worth the wait!”
The more important matter, though, is when the soul must wait, when our hearts must wait for pain to ease. When our hearts have to wait, when our souls have to wait in the silence of suffering, it’s almost impossible for us to bear. Yet the the words of the psalmist and the prophets echo through the ages:
For God alone my soul waits in silence;from God comes my salvation; God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress. I shall never be shaken.
Psalm 62:1-2 ESV
Those who wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:31 NKJV
Messages of hope, yes. Yet when we are suffering, when we are in pain or disheartened or in trouble, nothing really sounds much like hope. Waiting for pain to ease is difficult, even excruciating. I like the way Sue Monk Kidd offers insight about waiting in her book, “When the Heart Waits.”
I had tended to view waiting as mere passivity. When I looked it up in my dictionary however, I found that the words passive and passion come from the same Latin root, pati, which means “to endure.” Waiting is thus both passive and passionate. It’s a vibrant, contemplative work. It means descending into self, into God, into the deeper labyrinths of prayer. It involves listening to disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul, the denied and undiscovered, the places one lives falsely. It means struggling with the vision of who we really are in God and molding the courage to live that vision.
Sue Monk Kidd, “When the Heart Waits”
I cannot explain it better than that and I won’t try. My deepest self desperately grasps for these words, “listening to disinherited voices within, facing the wounded holes in the soul.” I cannot respond with any meaningful comments, but I will offer another insight about waiting for a God who covers us with pure, merciful, amazing grace.
GRACE. The Hebrew word is Hesed.
Hesed is a Hebrew word that means grace in all its fulness. Hesed is defined as compassion, mercy, love, faithfulness and most often, grace. But none of these words fully capture this Hebrew word that means grace. Hesed is not just an emotion or a feeling. It describes the way God lavishly pours grace upon us in our most needful moments.
And so we learn to wait for God’s outpouring of grace. Sometimes we wait impatiently. Sometimes we wait in anger. Sometimes we wait with a holy sense of peace. Sometimes we wait with hope, joyfully expectant. And sometimes we wait in silence, without words, disconsolate and cast down.
A number of years ago, I found myself nursing a disconsolate, cast down soul and spirit. I had been through a trying time in my life that I can only remember as one of deep sorrow. I remember one day when I sat down at the piano after reading Psalm 42. One particular verse of the Psalm reverberated in my mind. Over and over again, I heard the words, but I did not hear them read. I heard them sung, with a simple, but hopeful strength. I heard myself singing, a soul-song from somewhere inside me. I began to play what I heard, first the melody and rhythm, then the chords that arose from somewhere I could not pinpoint. It sounded beautiful, and it sounded like it was emerging from a sacred promise from God — unequivocally for me. This was my soul song:
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
Psalm 42:11 NRSV
I think I was waiting that day, though I was not sure what I was waiting for. I just know that I found hope again that day, if just for a few moments of holy music. And in my disquieted spirit, I sensed pure grace once again — grace, hesed — God’s infinite, matchless, amazing grace.
“Live in the moment.” It is a common admonition I have heard often. “Practice mindfulness,” is a more current admonition that points us to live in the present moment. We are urged to add mindfulness to our vast storehouse of spiritual disciplines. You might wonder what mindfulness means, so I found an answer from a trusted source.
Mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique. (psychologytoday.com)
It is an idea that seems so simple. Yet, resting in the present moment is not always simple. It can be very hard to do, often impossible to do. Sometimes we find ourselves hopelessly stuck in the past, suffering the soul bondage of its power over us. Dwelling in the past can cause us to languish about no longer having the joys we once enjoyed, the people we loved, the places we used to live, the “best job I ever had.” The past can also be a haunting place of reliving the past trauma, loss,disappointment or betrayal. Still, there must be an emotionally healthy place to put the past. Perhaps the difference in what we do with the past is a soul struggle between “letting the past have its place” and letting the past have its way.
I have often let the past have its way in my life as an ominous presence that reminds me of secrets and lies, violence, abandonment, anger and so many other experiences that threaten me through my memories. The critical question I must ask is how do I let the past have its place. What can I do to embrace my past and let it be a guide on my journey, not an oppressor as I walk my journey? I wonder sometimes if I can put the past in its place, no longer allowing it to wield power over my memories and torment my soul. I know It’s worth a try.
And then there’s the future to contend with, that time in life we think we can control although we have no idea what it might hold. The future is unknowable, something to try to envision knowing I cannot. The future can look to us as bright as the sun or as dark as the center of a cave. The future can be dreaming dreams or internalizing dread and fear. The thought that ”the future is taken care of” graces me with a picture of God knowing my future and preparing me to greet it with hope.
“Rest in the graceful arms of the present moment.”
The words bring to mind the many, many times I have sung the beloved hymn, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
What have I to dread? What have I to fear, leaning on the everlasting arms? Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms.
I think maybe feeling safe and secure, without fear and dread, is exactly what helps us live in the present moment — not rushing through this beautiful life, not missing the real and deep beauty of it. Yet, we persist in pushing our bodies to accomplish its daily tasks without cherishing the workings of the body — its breathing, its moving, tasting and seeing, hearing and enjoying the aromas that surround us. And most often, we fail to pay close attention to the longings of our souls and the promptings of our spirits — what makes us whole, what fills our hearts with joy, what God is saying to us. We simply do not pay close attention to how is God calling us to satisfy both our soul’s yearning and the world’s deepest need.
Like me, perhaps you do not always cherish the present moment enough — all of it — this present moment we have been given by God’s grace. Life passes through us and around us in every passing moment, and we miss it.
And yet, cherishing every moment — our present moment — might just make magic in our lives, filling us with serenity and peacefulness, with lightheartedness and laughter, even bringing us to the honesty of our sorrows and the cleansing power of our tears.
I, for one, want to be continually mindful of my life — every moment of it — in my body, my mind, my world, my soul, my heart, in my yearnings and my sorrows . . . in my dreams and in the deepest desires that fill me with hope.
I have been reflecting on a phrase I read this morning in Father Richard Rohr’s meditation— Uncreated Grace. It is an intriguing phrase and makes me wonder why I received it at this particular time and place on my journey. I have had a very long journey — many miles of life —- and, in fact, there have been many other forks on the path that seem more sacred places to contemplate uncreated grace. But here it is, today, brought to me at this place on my journey.
As I did some processing on this phrase, I thought of one of my dear friends from ages past, seminary days to be exact. Often, he would share his favorite quotes. This was one of them, an intriguing and thought-provoking quote. This quote always stayed in his favorites file. It hints at a long journey we all must take . . .
We shall not cease from exploration
and the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time.
— T. S. Eliot
We were always left with the question “What do T.S Eliot’s words mean?” Sitting in small groups, the seminarians discussed but never reached an answer, to the question. I imagine that, like me, some of them took the words along with them on their journeys, hoping to discover the meaning at some place of enlightenment on their path.
On my journey, Eliot’s words came to mind many times. Never quite discovering a finite meaning, I did discover infinite applications that touched my life in ways simple and profound. Most always, I came away from reflecting on the words to a better place inside myself and a better space in my world. Still, I wonder why these T.S. Eliot words were brought to my mind today.
The power in these words, I think, is that they are not a directive, not a call to mission, not words of piety, not gleaned from scripture. They are words meant to be understood individually rather than offering a universal message. I identify these words as an invitation, and so today I am left alone with them to intentionally create space for reflection and understanding.
When I do that, I hear many, many other words from different places — from scripture, hymn, poetry, prose and from within myself. It feels like a Spirit encounter, the presence of “another comforter” who will be with us forever, who will, as Jesus promised, “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you.”
Spirit teaches us and helps us remember. Spirit grounds us so that our circuitous journey will not frighten us. We are free to never “cease from exploration,” because we are comforted to know that we will “arrive where we started . . .”
And know the place for the first time . . .
When the journey leads us back to where we started, how is it that we “know the place for the first time?” I urge you to not take my interpretation as the correct one, because I believe that a “correct” interpretation comes from the soul of each person who chooses to explore. But here is an understanding based on my own musings . . . we can take what comes in our lives, or we can explore places on the journey — our encounters, our joys and sorrows, our events and calamities, our crises and emotions, our disappointments and betrayals, the chance and the wonder.
For me, there is no doubt that exploring all of these life events brings that sense of getting back to the beginning and truly knowing the place for the first time, not necessarily because the beginning place has changed, but that I have changed. The Spirit’s holy breath transformed me with gentleness again and again, transformed by the blowing of Spirit wind into my being.
Father Richard Rohr says that “the Holy Spirit is never created by our actions or behavior. It is naturally indwelling, our inner being with God. In Catholic theology, we called the Holy Spirit “Uncreated Grace.”
How I love those words . . . Uncreated Grace! Perhaps that’s what we all hope for in our explorations on the journey — that in us and through us, there is Uncreated Grace. If we present to the Spirit our selves as uncreated grace, I wonder if Spirit then creates grace within us again and again and again, all along the way. If we never cease from exploration, presenting ourselves as uncreated grace, the Holy Spirit will breathe on us and we will be transformed!
No wonder we know the place where we started for the first time! The place hasn’t changed, we have changed, transformed in our deepest places!
Thanks be to God and to the touch of Spirit breath. Amen
The Sixth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-five
December 6, 2019
The Day is here
and we made it to Bethlehem!
The time has come for kneeling
and we’ve seen the Child!
There is singing in the stable
and we want desperately to hold on to it . . .
hold on to the Star!
and the angels!
and the spirit of love!
How do we hold on
to the Christmas spirit?
Why can’t every day be Christmas?
The world mutters “Be realistic,”
and sometimes we church people mutter too.
On our way back from Bethlehem
sometimes we forget
what we’ve been warned about in a dream:
to return another way.
Once we’ve seen the Child,
we’re left holding hearts
wherein angels dance
and stars sing!
Once we’ve been to Bethlehem,
every day is Christmas!
— Ann Weems
I am holding, grasping tightly “the Star and the angels and the spirit of love.” My journey to Bethlehem is Advent’s gift. I walk the path with expectation and hope (even just a wee bit of hope some days), and I imagine the glory of the promised Child.
This year during Advent’s pilgrimage, I also walk the rocky path I call my transplant journey. I do hold on to hope as I travel the rough transplant path, and along the way I see tiny glimpses of hope. But not every day. Minute by minute I navigate symptoms and side effects and, on the worse days, my community holds hope for me when I can’t hold it for myself.
On the path — the path of both Bethlehem and transplant journeys — I see graces along the way: stars, angels, Bethlehem’s brightest star, the Child in a simple manger! It’s enough for me, the images that cry out “Hope!” It is holy ground, sacred space. Hope will get me there, sustaining me along the way, as God’s grace carries me.
And the poet’s words are true:
Once I’ve seen the Child, I’m left holding my heart wherein angels dance and stars sing!
An endearing Physician’s Assistant, Melanie, listened carefully to my symptoms, complaints, concerns and pains, taking very seriously every snippet of information I gave her. She responded with a well thought out remedy for each of my concerns. She was thorough in explaining how we would address every problem and she did so with humor and compassion. Melanie was obviously highly trained and impeccably qualified to treat transplant patients. She had many years of experience and could explain every symptom and prescribe a plan to address it. Her encouragement that the unpleasantness would pass over time was a boost to my courage. Her gift to me was increased patience and a renewal of my hope.
At the end of our session, Melanie offered a summary of the visit, a very descriptive, professional and astute summary. “You’re just having a rough patch right now,” she said, “Itchy, shaky and puffy!”
All of a sudden, I knew her words would be the title of my next blog post. “Itchy, shaky and puffy!” Perfect! Simple descriptive words — not just sterile clinical jargon — but extremely real and true. And that’s what my family and friends want most to know. What are you really feeling?
The truth is that, from the transplant itself, I am recovering well, and now with very little pain. But the effects of my high-powered immunosuppressant medications are playing havoc on my body and all its systems.
Itchy — enough to keep me awake through the night.
Shaky — along with weakness makes it hard to walk and even feed myself.
Puffy — I can’t even describe the pressure in my legs that feels like a balloon about to burst. Two times their normal size is not an exaggeration!
There you have it — a very real, true and human description of how I am faring post transplant. It is pure grace to be able to counter the simple description of my ailments with the simple words of encouragement from the Gospel of Luke:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
— Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When all is said and done, I am beginning to believe that I really will emerge from this transplant with a stronger faith and an everlasting hope, having learned how to trust God more fully and know in my heart of God’s healing mercies. Most of all, I want to get past this transplant with words of praise to God on my lips, like the Psalmist, declaring that my mourning has turned to dancing:
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.