In the Presence of God

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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.F40CF356-14B8-489C-A6CE-0DC8F34C0B95

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.”

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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.

— Psalm 139:1-10 ESV (paraphrased)

A Safe and Gentle Presence

D10C41D6-4875-479D-B4BC-40762C72FD3CIf 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.

23E0BDA9-6047-4A1B-AE2A-131CC85D8385Now 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.

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She wept a river of tears
holy water, sent to soften the sharp edges of sorrow
a gentle hollowing out, carving new chambers in her heart
a hallowed vessel . . . 
Kate Mullane Robertson

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.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

Something Unexpected!

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Photo by Steven Nawojczyk 

Every once in a while, something unexpected shows up. It may be a nice surprise that lightens a burden, like receiving a kind note or getting a phone call from a friend. It may be a sudden light that breaks the darkness we’re experiencing or a melody that lifts our spirits. It may be a little beauty in the middle of an ugly place. It may be a touch of color in a patch of gray. 

That’s what struck me about the photo at the beginning of this post. The creative photographer, my friend Steven Nawojczyk, must have noticed something bright and beautiful in the middle of a bramble of deep green foliage. It was unexpected — the brilliant, white flowers that bloomed there. No one planted them in that thick brush. They just appeared. Unexpected!

But we know all too well that an unexpected event is not always a good one. The surprises that break into our lives sometimes harm and hurt. My family experienced it this week: a nasty fall on Sunday that resulted in my very sprained, swollen and bruised knee; my cousin falling a few days later and injuring both legs; my son dealing with serious illness; my husband Fred spending all of last night in the ER.

Unexpected! And not-so-good unexpected!

So sometimes the thought of not-so-good unexpected can create fear in us. Of course, we know that our finest plans sometimes fall through. Our projects implode. Our dreams meet the toughest resistance.

Doesn’t it seem as if our “plans” are lightning rods for the unexpected? When our plans crumble underneath us, we sometimes question the very faith that has always, always sustained us.

Now there is no Biblical text for every life occasion, and picking out a text to prove a point or to make us feel better is not the best way to approach the Bible. And yet, our sacred Scripture does speak to the unexpected happenings of life. This time, it’s the wise prophet Jeremiah who offers the word of hope.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

 — Jeremiah 29:11 New International Version 

A hope and a future! What more do we need? For me, white flowers unexpectedly blooming in the bushes and brambles will just about do it.

Thanks be to God.

 

 

What If?

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Sometimes blogs express grief or anger, indignation or angst, fear or struggle. But today, this blog, must express joy, relief, hope and gratitude. If you saw my last post about my week-long medical evaluation at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, you know that my hope was that I would be approved for a kidney transplant.

Today, I received the phone call from Mayo letting me know that I am now on the transplant list and ready for a kidney. It was a phone call that rekindled my hope. It brought instant joy and a sense of relief. And then there’s gratitude, that the God who holds the universe holds me, too. 

Through the fear and struggle of 2014, through these five years of daily dialysis, God has held me in arms of love and care. I do not know if fear and struggle are over. Transplant surgery is an ominous thought at times. Strong, immunosuppressant medication for life is an ominous thought at times. My body rejecting the kidney is an ominous thought. There are dozens of “what ifs!” But I try to always look at “what ifs” through this empowering lens:

There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,

And you ask 
“What if I fall?”
Oh, but my darling,
What if you fly?

― Erin Hanson

What if I fly? What if I take the “wings of the morning?” What if I soar? What if the Spirit Wind blows across my life?

What if?

 

 

 

 

A Life Milestone

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I’m pretty sure it’s not cool to get emotional about having a medical evaluation. But I did. I passed a life milestone yesterday when I completed my week long medical evaluation at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. Getting to an actual kidney transplant is a long journey, five years, ten years, people wait even longer.

I arrived exhausted and holding on to a fair amount of cynicism, barely able to believe that I might actually get a kidney transplant some day. As is my custom, I have trusted God along the way for the best outcome for me, most of the time. But five years of dialysis — every single day for eight hours a day — can wear down one’s hope. Five years of waiting on a transplant list with thousands of other waiters can test one’s faith. 

About a month ago, I had a very bad experience with my first transplant center. It took me to a very low place of feeling that I had been devalued by the caregivers who had known me for almost four years. I was on the transplant list, but there was virtually no communication with me during those years. And just as we were about to turn a corner with a transplant actually in view, they abruptly took me off of the active transplant list. It became very clear that the process with this particular transplant center would probably not lead to a transplant for me anytime soon. I was emotionally devastated, but more importantly, I no longer felt comfortable placing my life in their hands. So I gathered up all my emotional baggage and took it with me to Mayo Clinic. I did not expect what happened to me there. 

We turned in to the Mayo campus on a road framed with lush, spreading trees. Palm trees were interspersed among the large trees and plants covered the ground. The landscape was made even more beautiful by a large pond with a fountain sending water into the air. It reminded me of the Living Water that quenches our thirst forever. I looked up and saw the words, “Mayo Clinic” and suddenly felt a sense of being home, of being in a place with people who would care for me. A silent tear slid down my face and I felt very full, the lump in my throat extending into my chest.

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The week was full of appointments and medical tests, beginning with the transplant nephrologist, Dr. Mai, who is one of the most compassionate and personable physicians I have ever met. He took a complete history, examined me thoroughly and answered ever question we had. 

 

I must say that every single employee at Mayo Clinic was professional, pleasant and kind. It was an atmosphere of caring and compassion. It was a busy place that never felt rushed. They pulled off a “medical miracle” of a sorts, scheduling about thirty appointments for me and never being off schedule for even one of them. 0DDE1816-F2F2-491F-9AFA-ADD27234EEA7

There are places throughout the buildings to stop and rest, many of them filled with the sounds of soothing classical music. It is a place that values art, which you will find in every nook and cranny. And then there is the atrium for meditation, a space closed off from the rest of the clinic. When you enter, a large flowing fountain makes the only sound you will hear. In that silent place, the lighting is dimmed and there are comfortable places to sit. A beautiful altar-like table draws your focus.

After the full week of tests, scans, blood draws and consultations, we were back with Dr. Mai who patiently explained every test result. He was encouraging about the kidney transplant and said more than once that I needed a transplant as soon as possible. “But what do I know?” he said. “I’m just a regular doctor. The surgeon is the one who will tell us if a transplant is possible.”E9B0C9D8-E46A-40EA-A66E-B0117A8E3D14

Then we moved to our very last appointment with the transplant surgeon, the one who would hold my fate in her hands. I feared this last appointment and worried about it throughout the week. The surgeon would have the last word. 

How delighted we were to meet Dr. Perry, a rather young woman who obviously knew her craft. She looked over all the scans and examined the potential site of the incision. After a lengthy Q & A, she sent us on our way. She had the final word, the last words of the week. “Let’s get you a kidney!” she said enthusiastically, and all the hope I thought I had lost rose up inside me. AE0AB32B-2F0E-4485-9F88-D2EC33057A80

When we drove away, I felt incredibly sad to be leaving that caring place. The lump in my throat came back and I was filled with gratitude, confident that God had chosen Mayo Clinic to help me take back my life.34233289-31E0-49AE-9D02-0D6B98DC5AD7

A Balm for Hurting Souls

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On this Monday, prayer seems difficult to me. It feels as if I need it so much, yet cannot seem to connect with the holy. I need a quiet place, a place of peace and serenity. I need a personal retreat that enables me to touch all that is anxious within me. I need a place that can help me reach into the palpable anxiety just below the surface. I need a place that calls forth my tears so that, without fear, I can let them fall. I need a place that helps me to get to that lump in my throat that lingers with me. At my retreat, I need a person with spiritual insight and wisdom to gently guide me to my emotional and spiritual place of longing.

For many reasons, this kind of retreat is not possible right now, so I carry on. That’s what most of us have to do day in and day out, struggling to touch the holy and falling short of that. And then, on occasion, we are graced with a touch, a word of hope, a friend who understands, a prayer that reaches the heart. Today, I received that prayer from Anne Fraley. It is “a balm for hurting souls,” a word of hope. I hope it lifts your spirit as it has lifted mine.

Blessed One,

who colors our days with the glow of fireflies and the roar of the ocean,

carry us this day on the breath of your love.

Invite us into the nooks and crannies of delight,

where dreams are born and disappointments released.

Tend the bumps we suffer at the hands of the careless and the words of the thoughtless, and soothe the rough patches we inflict on others.

May our prayers resonate with the needs of the world, and our hearts connect to those who hunger for companionship.

May our song bear the imprint of all who seek you, and our chorus be as balm for hurting souls.

In all things, help us to weave the thread of love and light through the worlds in which we move, and raise our voices with joy to proclaim your name.

Amen

 

Anne Fraley is rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in South Windsor, CT. A life-long dog-lover, she escapes the demands of parish life volunteering for animal rescue groups. She occasionally succeeds at reviving her blog at reverent irreverence. Her prayer today is published at https://revgalblogpals.org/2019/06/24/monday-prayer-214/

 

 

Blue Skies and Gentle Breezes

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Blue skies and gentle breezes. That’s Macon most of the time. Oh, and you have to factor in the gnats, the annoying gnats that we have because we live on the gnat line.

And there really is a such thing. Look it up. (http://southofthegnatline.blogspot.com/p/gnat-line-101_28.html) 

You will find that not only is the gnat line a real thing, but that it also sits directly on top of Macon, Georgia. No one told me that before I moved here.

Still, there are blue skies and gentle breezes this morning. For a few seconds, I am fully in the moment, fully aware of the blue skies over me and the warm breeze that points my mind to all that is good, to all the things about nature that we can count on.

Gnats notwithstanding.

In some ways, it’s a picture of life —the beauty of blue skies and gentle breezes, right along with the persistent aggravation of gnats buzzing your face. Certainly, life is like that for me. There are every day graces accompanied with aggravations, challenges and sometimes troubles. Life brings days of deep mourning sometimes and times for gladness at other times. 

Most thoughts these days take me to the very real possibility that I will receive a new kidney. The thought of it is both exhilarating and terrifying. I would not be me if I did not have the troubling thought that I might die in the middle of surgery. Or that I might contract a lethal infection and die of that. Or maybe I’ll be be compromised from the procedure and not recover.

On the other hand, maybe I’ll thrive with a new kidney. Maybe I will feel better than I have felt in five years. Maybe it’s true that I’ll live longer. Maybe life will begin again, fresh and new and full of possibilities. I love this message from the writer of Ecclesiastes.

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (New International Version (NIV)

What a good and gracious thought! The promise that as we are enjoying life, joy will be in us through whatever “toil” we face. Struggle, trouble, travail — we experience all of these in life, right along with the joy.

So as I contemplate a kidney transplant, I might just think of it as one of life’s “toils” that, by God’s grace, will be accompanied by joy. 

I think I can do this. After all, “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Blue skies and gentle breezes all the way!

Pesky gnats notwithstanding!

 

 

Mine Is a Lonely Road

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Into the Blue, Painting by db Waterman

Mine is a lonely road on a journey of one. 
To be sure, I have a dear, dear life partner
And a family
Friends all over the world.

Yet, I am making this journey all by myself.

All around me, friends are working, vacationing, writing, preaching

All those things I long to do 
Simple things, but out of my reach.

In the meantime, I am dialyzing for hours every day
Willing myself to eat less, much less
Focusing on healthy 
Exercising through pain

And waiting for a kidney transplant.

Friends are still working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things I long to do, still out of my reach.

Waiting for an organ transplant is lonely.

No one I know is doing the same thing.
But everyone knows someone who had one
And died
Or did poorly
Or maybe they even did great
But I never hear much about them.

Waiting for an organ transplant is lonely.

I cannot help but second-guess myself
Why the risk?
Hard decision.

A Good decision about a dangerous thing takes time
Maybe years
Info rattles around in your head for a while
Moves on as it discerns the rhythm of your spirit
Then listens for the whisper of God
And at last finds its rest in your heart

And then you know.

Friends are still working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things out of my reach.

They stop their busyness long enough to give me counsel
Everyone knows someone who had a transplant
And died
Or did poorly

And so they tell me that
With all the medical details they know
And mostly they don’t know

But I am holding the good decision in my heart
The right decision 
The one with all the risks
Just like life
Full of risks.

Mine is a lonely road.

But I am ennobled to move forward in good hope
My mustard seed faith is enough
I leave them in the dust
All those who are working, vacationing, writing, preaching
All those things out of my reach.

I  leave them in the dust
All those who knew someone who had a transplant
And died.

Because I am not moving toward death.
I am moving toward life
And light.

Alone.

Still lonely.

Determined to persevere
Until the road ends.

Through These Dark Hours

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Unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul.

What do I do through these dark hours? How do I endure them, the lostness, the fear, the spiritual suffering? How do I make my journey and avoid the dark hours that overwhelm me along the way?

Dark hours are a part of our living, a part of our journey. They cover us — even those who are most religious and devout — like an ominous black cloud. Dark hours bring us fear, dread, a lack of hope. Dark hours steal the joy of our faith.

The term “dark night (of the soul)” describes a spiritual crisis in the journey with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross in his poem, “The Dark Night.”

In her letters, St. Teresa of Calcutta described how she endured a dark night of the soul from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief.

St Thérèse of the Child Jesus wrote of her own experience of the dark night, as she found herself doubting the existence of eternity. She struggled and suffered through a prolonged period of spiritual darkness, declaring to her fellow nuns: “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into..!”

Examples of the experiences of those we look to as spiritual patrons of the faith do not really enlighten our own faith journeys. We walk our own spiritual paths, always hoping for the best, always striving to experience the holy along the way. And we hope beyond hope that we will not have to endure the suffering of dark hours.

The truth is that dark hours are required on the journey. We cannot walk around our dark hours, moving them aside like the sticks and brush we can so easily move off of our path. Our only option is to keep walking, to stay the course and to embrace the journey just as it is.

As I look back to take stock of my own journey, I see the the dark hours as powerful reminders of struggle and spiritual crisis. As I examine the past, I can say without hesitation that the dark hours were times I do not want to experience again. I can feel the intense pain of them, even now, the formidable affect of them on my spirit. The thought of them brings on a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach that makes me want to quickly move on to the next life metaphor I might use in this post.

And yet . . . And yet, how clear it is from this vantage point that I endured my dark hours and emerged stronger, better, with faith intact and with a living hope to take with me on the rest of the journey. From the cloud of dark hours, I learned that I could believe again, hope again, move farther into my journey with joy — even unrestrained joy — because of God’s grace that gave me strength.

There is probably no writer that inspires me more than Bishop Steven Charleston. He has taught us how to live in his many writings over the years. In this piece, he shows us the way through our dark hours in these beautiful words:

Let us dance through these dark hours, while others crouch down, seeking shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow, let us give them a sign they can see, a message made of music and motion, two dancers spinning light out of darkness, a waltz in an air raid shelter, unafraid, unbound, unleashed from this earth, rising with every step, a dance to lift the human soul. Let us dance so others can dance, dancers from every direction, standing up to join us, music filling the sky, a revolution of unrestrained joy, an invitation to believe again, to hope again, to be free again, dancing through these dark hours, as if dancing was all that we were born to do.

To be sure, I have felt the pressing urge to “crouch down” many times, “to seek shelter from a worried world, hiding in the shadows, afraid to hope for tomorrow.” But in the end, through dark hours I learned to dance.

Dance then, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he . . .

It’s a good way to live.

It’s a good way to give witness to the world of our living faith and unrestrained joy!

Amen.

Who will move this mountain?

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Who will move this mountain? I’m referring to the high, steep mountain that includes hundreds of processes that might eventually (possibly, probably) lead to a kidney transplant for me. So which is it, I keep asking myself? Is a kidney transplant possible? Is it probable? Is it a done deal?

I know with pretty much certainty that having a kidney transplant is never a done deal. The possibility of a kidney transplant for anyone is always tenuous. The possibility of having a donor is even more tenuous. I keep repeating the description offered by Piedmont transplant nephrologist, Dr. Christina Klein: “99% of people who call with interest in donating are screened out by phone and 50% of the people who do the full-day evaluation are screened out.” With deep gratitude, I can say that the person who has offered to be my living donor has passed through both of these screenings and has been accepted as a donor. It is no small thing for a living donor and a recipient to both be determined healthy enough for a transplant.

Piedmont Transplant Institute personnel spent the day yesterday testing me to determine if I’m still healthy enough for a transplant. They do a re-evaluation every two years for persons on the transplant list. It was probably the last re-evaluation I will have before a transplant surgery date is determined.

I said all of that to say that, as always, I think of God as the one who moves these kinds of obstacle mountains. I am standing at the base of a pretty big one this time, looking up at the peak and whispering to myself, “Impossible!”

But that’s not the end of the story, is it? For me, the story aways ends with sacred words that remind me who has the control, who it is that can move this mountain. Sacred words about moving life’s mountains can be found in all three Synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Luke and Mark. The Gospel writers make multiple references that go to the question of who moves mountains, as told by Jesus in parable. Interestingly, Jesus never says, “God will move your mountain.” Instead the words of Jesus in the parables go something like this:

If you had faith even as small as a tiny mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move!’ and it would go far away. Nothing would be impossible to you.

— Mark 17:20 (TLB)

What? Can this be true? That God does not move the mountain after all. That it has everything to do with faith, even my very small mustard-seed-like faith. Is it true that I am my own mountain mover? That nothing is impossible?

In reading this Scripture text that is so familiar, it seems that perhaps I am the one who can say to this mountain, “Move!” Without stretching this Gospel text beyond its original intent, I can affirm that its message is about faith, and that message is timeless. It can begin as a thought that Jesus expresses in parable and end up as a reality of faith that empowers my life and quickens my journey.

So stand with me at the bottom of this mountain. Look up at the mountain with me and pray that my mustard-seed faith will get me to the peak. I may very well receive the gift of a kidney transplant. It seems very possible at this point in my five-year journey. But whatever happens, my faith will be with me — sustaining me, guiding me, empowering me still for every future mountain that raises up before me.

For this faith that was born in me decades ago, thanks be to God.