Today of all days, with the entire world embroiled in a real live pandemic, I will not write out of political bias. Instead, I want to open our eyes to some very troubling present realities. My focus is on the coronavirus pandemic in the United States and how circumstances have transpired, both on a logistical level and a human one. I read a Huffington Post article this morning revealing that last year the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a months-long exercise that showed that the nation was unprepared for a pandemic. The exercise, code named “Crimson Contagion,” had chilling similarities to the current real-life coronavirus pandemic. That fact got my attention!
This pandemic has taken a toll on so many Americans. Mothers are struggling with children being at home, some having to learn on the fly how to home school them. Families grieve the loss of loved ones who died from the virus. Older adults fear their increased vulnerability and their body’s inability to fight the virus. Immunosuppressed persons like I am are terrified to leave home and are incessantly washing their hands, wearing masks and using hand sanitizer. Many people have lost their jobs while businesses all over the country have shut their doors. Churches have suspended worship services and other gatherings indefinitely. That is merely a tiny snapshot of the human toll the coronavirus is taking.
On top of any list we could make describing loss, inconvenience or isolation, there is widespread, overwhelming fear that has made its way into our very souls. This is a pandemic that has descended upon all of us — real people with real fear.
I’ll get back to the human toll of this virus, but I want to say a bit more about the “Crimson Contagion” exercise, which involved officials from more than a dozen federal agencies. The Huffington Post described the “Crimson Contagion” scenario:
. . . several states and hospitals responding to a scenario in which a pandemic flu that began in China was spread by international tourists and was deemed a pandemic 47 days after the first outbreak. By then, in the scenario, 110 million Americans were expected to become ill.
The simulation that ran from January to August exposed problems that included funding shortfalls, muddled leadership roles, scarce resources, and a hodgepodge of responses from cities and states . . . It also became apparent that the U.S. was incapable of quickly manufacturing adequate equipment and medicines for such an emergency . . .
According to a New York Times report, White House officials said that an executive order following the exercise improved the availability of flu vaccines. The administration also said it moved this year to increase funding for a pandemic program in HHS.
But Trump’s administration eliminated a pandemic unit within the Department of Homeland Security in 2018. And weeks after the first real coronavirus case was diagnosed in the U.S., Trump submitted a 2021 budget proposal calling for a $693.3 million reduction in funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There you have it! In the throes of our real time pandemic, we hear of a “play-like” pandemic — a simulation conducted in 2019 that might have prepared us all, including our nation’s leadership. That didn’t happen, and those of us who have been in the world for so many years know the saying well: “Don’t cry over spilt milk.”
So we wipe up the milk that’s all over the table in front of us, and then we go about making our way through the dark, murky waters of this pandemic. We wash our hands, distance ourselves from others, stay at home, figure out how to handle our children who are now at home, cancel our travel plans, mourn those who have died, pray for those who are ill from the virus, grieve the loss of the life we knew before and pick up the pieces of what’s left.
What’s left? Well, what’s left is our ability to find ways to help our neighbor, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to reach out to the lonely, to love the children and to pray for one another without ceasing. We may have to learn to do those things by phone or online chatting, but we will find a way.
Those of us who are religious will pray without ceasing — imploring God to be merciful, asking various saints to intercede for us, lighting candles to express devotion and sitting for a moment in the flickering light that reminds us that God’s promise is about light overcoming the darkness.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
In the end, perhaps we will have discovered that, through this terrifying and expanding virus, that we have learned how to care more and to love deeper. Perhaps we will find that we have a more heartfelt capacity for compassion. For that, God will pour out grace upon our weariness and renew our eternal hope.
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:10 ESV)
May God make it so. Amen.
It happened in Wallace, Louisiana on December 18, 2019.
On that day, a group of Tulane University medical students posed in front of the slave quarters of a Louisiana plantation for a powerful photo. Sydney Labat, one of the students, said this in an interview on Good Morning America:
Standing at the Whitney Plantation in front of the slave quarters of our ancestors with my medical school classmates . . . We are truly our ancestors’ wildest dreams. I think I speak for myself and my classmates that it was an extremely humbling experience, to say the least. We would not be here without the strength and determination of those enslaved and their strength to live and to press on.
Labat speaks of the resilience of her ancestors and she credits her ancestors’ resilience for her ability to pursue an education. I shared the photo (above) because it represents the realization of dreams that many people might label “impossible.” But seeing Labat and 14 of her Tulane University classmates in their white coats looked to me like a portrait of the realization of dreams, persistence against all odds and an emulation of the determination of the ancestors Labat spoke of. This photo of the students was posted to Twitter and was liked more than 65,000 times.
I like the photo, too — a picture of good hope.
I cannot adequately express my emotions about seeing the photo of these students. No doubt, it brought up my deep concern about the well-being of black children in this country and the many disparities they endure. I can not begin to lay out those disparities in a coherent way, but I can cite this troubling research.
Black adolescents and young adults are at higher risk for the most physically harmful forms of violence (e.g., homicides, fights with injuries, aggravated assaults) compared with whites. In addition, black adults reported exposure to a higher number of adverse childhood experiences than whites.Disproportionate exposure to violence for blacks may contribute to disparities in physical injury and long-term mental and physical health. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30139709
A study regarding youth and suicide revealed an age-related trend in racial disparities in suicide rates in elementary and middle school–aged children. The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, showed that suicide rates for black children aged 5-12 were roughly 2 times higher than those of similarly-aged white children. https://www.ajmc.com/newsroom/racial-disparities-seen-for-black-children-age-512-in-youth-suicide-
A significant amount of research has documented the overrepresentation of certain racial and ethnic populations — including African-Americans and Native Americans —in the child welfare system when compared with their representation in the general population.Although disproportionality and disparity exist throughout the United States, the extent and the populations affected vary significantly across States and localities. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/racial_disproportionality.pdf
This researched information is definitely not a picture of good hope. The research deepens my concern, but what troubles me the most is that my grandchildren are growing up in a raciallly and ethnically divided world. When we raised our son, we certainly experienced racial discrimination. It was painful for all of us, and I hope beyond hope that my young grandchildren will not face the evil of discrimination. But I know better! I do not want to be pessimistic about it; I want to be optimistic that my grandchildren will not be “judged by the color of their skin” and that they will know the freedom to live out their dreams.
Tulane University Medical Students
So these Tulane University Medical students have given me a gift — a picture of good hope. And the photo of these students also introduced me to another place of hope: the Whitney Plantation, the only plantation museum in Louisiana with an exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people.
The Whitney Plantation has restored buildings designed to encourage guests to enter the world of a Louisiana sugar plantation and to remember those who built and worked this property. Through an hour-and-a-half guided walking tour, a guide shows guests through slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, a detached kitchen and outbuildings, a 1790s owner’s house and memorials built to honor the enslaved.
Guests learn about the lives of 350 people who were held in bondage on these grounds for over 100 years.
Visitors are able to view beautiful memorials built to honor over 100,000 people held in slavery in Louisiana.
Tickets for the tour are available at the Whitney Plantation’s website: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/
Information overload and emotional response
This blog post has included a bit of information and research. That’s the informational part. The truth is, though, that the harsh realities of divisiveness caused by racism, xenophobia and a host of other factors that divide us are not a part of the information we have. Instead, the realities of racism are part of our emotional angst. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize that we receive informational material with a yawn. We have heard so many statistics and seen so much empirical evidence in our communities and schools that we have become numb to it. We have heard so much about disproportionate minorities in the criminal justice system and mass incarceration that perhaps we just try to block that information out. But we cannot block out our emotional response.
The only thing that will get our attention is a soul understanding of the pain of racism. Only then will we become agents of change, persons of conscience and advocates for justice. For me, this is a calling from God who desires that we “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”
Consider these passages of Scripture.
In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. — Colossians 3:11
Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. — Hebrews 13:1-3
The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. — Leviticus 19:34
Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. — Zechariah 7:9-10
You have heard that it was said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy’. But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.
— Matthew 5:43-44
May each of us listen carefully to the words of Scripture and allow those words to inspire us and may that inspiration compel us to end divisions that harm. May we be inspired to promote unity and justice. May we be inspired to paint a picture of good hope to guide our world.
* Photo credit: https://www.whitneyplantation.org/photo-gallery/
Today, while minding my own business — and browsing the Better Homes & Gardens website — I stumbled across a stunning image of a tree. Those of you who know me, know that I have had a lifelong passion for trees. Trees, for me, are not only beautiful, they also take me often into a spiritual place. This morning while looking at the bark of the Rainbow Eucalyptus tree (Eucalyptus deglupta), my thought was, “This is almost magic! It can’t be real!”
Rainbow Eucalyptus trees look too beautiful to be real (but they are!) (BH&G)
These trees have an astounding multicolored bark that looks like it’s been decorated with a humongous paintbrush. They seem like something one might imagine, or see in a fantasy movie, or discover in a Dr. Seuss book. But they do grow naturally with a brilliantly colored bark. The Rainbow Eucalyptus, which grow 100 to 200 feet tall, are native to tropical regions like the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and even in the most southern parts of the U.S. “Though pictures of these trees are stunning, they don’t quite capture the awe of seeing them in person.
A real rainbow eucalyptus can stop you in your tracks, so if you have the chance to travel to see them, it’s well worth the journey. (BH&G)
As you would expect, I did some research to find places where I could see this magical tree in person. San Diego, California, is actually becoming a travel destination for seeing these trees. One can see them at Balboa Park, along Sports Arena Boulevard, at the San Diego Zoo, and in parts of Mission Bay. One can also see them in parts of Florida, Hawaii and Texas. So there really are a few places you can see a Rainbow Eucalyptus without needing a passport.
You might ask, “What’s so important about a tree that looks fake?” And that would be a good question. I’m not sure I have a coherent answer, but I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we find ourselves in places that feel “blah.” We’ve lost our sense of direction and maybe even our will to move forward in life. Those times can come to us because of grief, illness, family challenges, concern for our children, stagnancy in our careers, waning spirituality or simply feeling out of sorts. Hundreds of life circumstances can bring us to a lethargic or depressed place in life. It’s not a very good place to be, and most of us wonder how we got to such a place.
In those times (and there have been many) when lethargy got the best of me, I tended to search for a bit of magic. No ordinary remedy seemed adequate. I just needed some magic and I have discovered over many years that magic can be found in a myriad of places, beginning with some very hope-filled passages of Scripture.
There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy . . .
— Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (NRSV)
In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider; God has made the one as well as the other . . .
— Ecclesiastes 7:14 (NRSV)
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.
— Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NRSV)
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
— Isaiah 55:12 (ESV)
Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength . . .” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing . . .
— Nehemiah 8:9-12 (NRSV)
And always, words from the Psalmist:
You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
— Psalm 16:11 (NRSV)
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
— Psalm 27:13 (NRSV)
Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
— Psalm 37:4 (ESV)
These messages from the pages of the Bible bring me joy and a bit of relief from feeling down. Being lifted from depression, sadness, the doldrums and other similar difficult seasons of life can feel like magic, magic that can be found in lots of places — if we’re paying attention. The magic may be found in a forest with a verdant canopy of leaves we can see if we look up. It may be found in the laughter of a child or in listening to joyful songs, the rhythmic melody moving through the heart. Magic may be found in loving relationships, in a garden, in a place of prayer and contemplation. You and I might find magic in birdsong or in the cloud shapes we see in the morning sky. We can even find magic in the darkest of our nights — for 100 thousand million stars sparkle for us in the Milky Way — a gift from the Creator, shining out of the darkness.
Today, I found magic in the most unlikely place — in the bark of Rainbow Eucalyptus trees. At least it felt like almost magic! I happened upon this treasure of nature quite by accident, or perhaps it was by providence. Anyway, catching sight of this whimsical, majestic tree brought me the joy of remembering afresh the varied potpourri of the gifts of creation, coming from God, the Father/Mother of lights.
Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning.
— James 1:17 (NKJV)
Thanks be to God for unspeakable gifts of grace. Amen.
Now that February has brought the tiniest green shoots from the ground, I know that it brings a promise of flowers — yellow ones and purple ones — bright promises of the new life that emerges every spring. Perhaps I can take a deep breath now that I am exactly three months today past my kidney transplant. This day is a milestone for my immunosuppressed self, marking the time when my transplant team might tell me that I can possibly escape from my isolation and go out to see the signs of spring. I am making February my personal commemoration month, celebrating, contemplating, dealing with a few deep-set fears and deciding to take a microshift forward.
The beginning of this story was in February of 2014 when suddenly and unexpectedly, I found myself in the emergency department of Baptist Health Medical Center with a diagnosis of end stage kidney disease. I faced a long illness that year that very nearly ended my life, three times during the 58 days I was hospitalized. When I didn’t die, I discovered that I could not walk, feed myself, name colors or even write my name. A kind and dedicated physical therapist helped me work for months after I returned home challenging me to regain those losses. For months, I was very weak, often confused and paralyzed by fear.
The only treatment available to me was dialysis, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Today though, February 12, is another February milestone that allows me to view my transplant three months ago today. Now that I am six years past it, I am looking back on that time that began in February of 2014, and I can see clearly the truths I discovered. I think they are important discoveries for me, of course, but also for anyone who must take an unexpected journey toward an uncertain future. So these are some of the discoveries that give me courage:
Fear takes on many forms and enters my psyche on its own terms.
Gratefulness floods over me at will through a kind word, a phone call, a connection with a friend, old or new.
Faith can be tiny in one moment and large in another, but either way, faith bears me up when I cannot move forward.
Hope constantly calls out to me to remember the source of my hope.
Patience with myself when I am not myself lifts me up, even when I feel physically weak and unable to do all the things I used to do.
These discoveries I know. I also know that, through it all, I have experienced periods of spiritual and emotional depression. Yet, those dark times were interrupted with times when my faith rose from within to comfort me and remind me of my “refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. (Psalm 46:1 NASB) How wonderful to be able to see again the light of the Sun of Righteousness and to know that my slumbering soul can most surely rise from its lethargy like the stubborn crocus from the hard winter ground. It feels almost like rebirth.
Everything that has been dead through my winter is slowly waking up to new life, new vibrancy, a new season to grow and live and thrive. Along the way, I remember so much comfort from Scripture, thoughts of new life throughout the pages. This is but one:
The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
— Song of Songs 2:12
So spring is near. My spring has come, bringing another season, another chance, another burst of hope. Thanks be to God.
When I was a teenager, I was conscripted many times to “watch” my younger brothers. It was a loathsome task for me! Yet, occasionally the two of them were interesting to watch, especially through their superhero fascination. They seemed to favor the superheroes who could fly, like Superman or Batman (who could sort of fly, but was likely to perish when attempting to land). It occurred to me that in the scene I watched in the back yard, the two young guys looked much more like flight-challenged Batman!
One afternoon after school, the boys were outside playing. Through the window, I watched them as they donned their makeshift capes. Then — without a care in the world and believing that they really could take flight — they stood tall on wooden boxes and launched themselves, arms extended, looking up to the sky. They didn’t fly that day, but they believed, they dreamed. And they had great fun!
I also noticed during those days that I never saw girls stand on boxes with arms outstretched ready to launch into flight. I certainly never thought of doing it myself. But it made me wonder if girls had dreams like the boys did. That thought brought my mood low and, looking back on it, I think I might have felt a bit of heaviness and disillusionment. I didn’t believe I could fly, but rather that I would leap off the box straight into the ground with a thud that probably resulted in a skinned knee. As the years passed, I learned for sure that if women had dreams, they would not likely realize them in our reality, which was “a man’s world.” Dreaming, hoping, flying may not be possible for a “girl.”
When my son was growing up, we saw the motion picture, Space Jam, a terrific movie for son Jonathan, who was an avid Michael Jordan fanatic. No doubt, my 6’6” son wanted to “Be Like Mike.” In Space Jam’s soundtrack was the song, I Believe I Can Fly, a 1996 song written and performed by American singer, songwriter and former professional basketball player R. Kelly. This mom was not very fond of R. Kelly, but the song he wrote literally moved me and filled me up with hopes and dreams for my son. R. Kelly’s message was a great one:
I used to think that I could not go on
And life was nothing but an awful song
But now I know the meaning of true love
I’m leaning on the everlasting arms
If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day (Night and day)
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
See I was on the verge of breaking down
Sometimes silence can seem so loud
There are miracles in life I must achieve
But first I know it starts inside of me
If I can see it, then I can be it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it
I believe I can fly
I believe I can touch the sky
I think about it every night and day
Spread my wings and fly away
I believe I can soar
I see me running through that open door
I believe I can fly
Oh, I believe I can fly ‘cause I believe in me . . .
I hope you will enjoy the video below, which I place here in honor of my son, Jonathan .
If God would grant me just one request, it would be that every boy — and every girl — would climb on their wooden box and believe in their souls that flying is possible. I would want them to stand tall, with hope and courage, dreaming their dreams and seeing the magic of watching them grow.
A new year has dawned. We’re in it, ready or not! While we cannot control what 2020 brings to us, we can control the way we respond —- to times of joy, times of sorrow and all the times that are just ordinary. No doubt we will greet them all, ready or not!
As the poet reminds us, “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.” And so it is. But embracing something new is sometimes difficult. Sometimes our hope is small. Sometimes following our journey into an unknown future is frightening. If the year past still holds us in a place of suffering, if illness lingers with us, if depression and anxiety still rages in us, if persistent grief comes with us into the new year, it is difficult, if not impossible, to leave the past pain behind and embrace something new. So if you feel that you cannot leave past suffering behind you, this little message is for you.
The most important thing you can do is to honestly acknowledge the suffering and accept the fact that it will not leave you just because the new year has arrived. Spend some time contemplating your suffering, how it impacted you in the year past. Can you find any newness at all at the beginning of a new year? Is there some of the suffering you can see in a different light? Can you respond to it differently? Can you find a way to endure it that is better than the way you endured it in the past? Can you make a concerted effort to learn something from your suffering?
Still, if you are in the throes of suffering — physical, emotional or spiritual — the suggestions above can illicit the strong response, “You’ve got to be kidding! This way of looking at the same thing I’ve endured for years is simply impossible!”
I will be the first to acknowledge the truth of that response, but I must also ask, “What do you have to lose?” Even a change in your response to one place of suffering could bring a small change for you, a change ever-so-slight that has the power to offer you increased resilience and hope. It may be worth a try.
I think it’s important to repeat these wise words: “Live the year that lies ahead with energy and hope. Be strong, have courage. It is time now for something new.”
I suggest that, even if we are enduring suffering, we can greet the new year “with energy and hope.” Hope is always available to us, even when we cannot see it or feel it.
From the promises of Scripture . . .
“ . . . so that we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place. — Hebrews 6:18-19
From the depths of our souls . . .
“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” — Psalm 42:11
“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” — Psalm 130:5
“But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.” — Psalm 71:14
The Scriptures can be comforting to us. They can lift up courage in us and they can give us strength to face all of our tomorrows, but the place where hope really lives is within us. We can reach down for it, hold it close, and allow it to help us move forward. No matter what manner of suffering we hold, hope can guide us.
I leave you and your journey into 2020 with the wise words of Corrie Ten Boom:
“Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.”
The angels, the star, the kings and princes, the shepherds — all have moved away from us, taking their splendor with them. Does that mean that the movements and dances of Christmas have ceased? Perhaps.
But the reality that strikes a chord in my spirit every year is the thought that this is the very time when “the work of Christmas begins.” That may be the ultimate hope of Christmas. That might be the call from God that we cannot ignore, but instead answer, “Here I am, Lord. Send me.” No one ever spoke of the idea of the work of Christmas with more heart than Howard Thurman:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
…To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart.
— Howard Thurman
May the work of Christmas begin in us. Amen.
Please take a few moments to hear this song by Dan Forest, “The Work of Christmas.” You will be inspired.
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
The Advent Sunday of Love
Transplant Day Forty-One
December 22, 2019
TO LISTEN, TO LOOK
Is it all sewn up — my life?
Is it at this point so predictable,
that I don’t have time or space
for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings
or running to stables to see a baby?
Could this be what he meant when he said
Listen, those who have ears to hear . . .
Look, those who have eyes to see?
Oh God, give me the humbleness of those shepherds
who saw in the cold December darkness
the Coming of Light,
the Advent of Love!
— Ann Weems
I ask myself those Ann Weems questions often:
Is it all sewn up — my life? Is it so predictable, so orderly, so neat, so arranged, so right,
that I don’t have time or space for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings or running to stables to see a baby?
These are among the most important questions I might sit with for a while, pondering my answers. On this Advent Sunday when we light the Candle of Love, I suddenly realize that Advent is ending, bringing Christmas so abruptly, or so it seems. Am I ready, I wonder? Am I ready for the birth of the Child, “Love’s Pure Light?”
Have I prepared a place in my heart for the “pure unbounded love” we sing about in the beloved hymn, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling?” Was my life so preoccupied that I missed the gentle darkness of the Season of Advent and am now feeling pushed — shoved —into Christmas?
Love in a manger is too holy a gift to take for granted. Love in a manger offers us a gift that we must be prepared to receive, and Advent is our season of preparation. As the season ends, I cannot help but ask myself if I spent these days preparing myself, heart and soul. Did I pray enough? Did I spend enough contemplative time? Did I love my neighbor and care for the persons around me who had so many life needs? Did I create sacred, meditative moments in anticipation, preparing for Emmanuel to come into my life anew?
I’m afraid I must answer, “no.” Yes, I did reflect on Advent now and then as I wrote for my blog, but I definitely did not spend enough time in meditation, preparing myself to receive the Christ Child. I was completely preoccupied with creating my life’s new normal after my kidney transplant. New routines and schedules overwhelmed my mind. I spent virtually all my time adjusting to this new normal. Self-absorbed does not adequately describe me during this Advent.
I haven’t felt much holiness hovering around me. I didn’t have time or space “for listening for the rustle of angels’ wings.” Yet, the transplant itself was a season somewhat like Advent . . . filled with expectation, preparation, anticipation. With Bethlehem’s star shining through the darkest night, and hope — always hope.
And so it was for people waiting for kidneys to renew their lives. Advent offered us a look at journey, a journey that ended in celebration. Celebration came full circle yesterday when I learned that my transplant was a part of a chain of living donors and kidney recipients. The chain included 16 people — donors and recipients — which means eight people got new kidneys. Perhaps that felt to me something like “the rustle of angels’ wings.”
And then it dawned on me that the Christ Child was not born into a world where everything always worked perfectly, where everything was orderly and neat and planned out. The Christ Child was not born into a world where everything was sacred. He was not born into a perfect family, and the people around his manger were not always holy.
Maybe that’s part of what Advent gives us:
the grace to be genuinely who we are — on our holy days and on days we feel not-so-holy. Maybe Advent beckons us to ready ourselves and to prepare our hearts with humbleness so that we can see “in the cold December darkness . . .
the Coming of Light, the Advent of Love!”
The Twenty-First Day of Advent
December 21, 2019
The sages of the world came up with this wise saying: “It’s not over ‘till it’s over!” There are some similar sayings around, most notably one about the singing of a “fat lady.” But that one is not at all kind or sensitive! The point is that in life some things are never over. Grief at losing a loved one comes to mind, as does living with an incurable illness, losing a cherished relationship or any number of persisting, chronic, never-ending difficulties.
But the truth is, we are a resilient people, created by God who fully equips us for life’s calamities. We do not shrink in the face of loss. We know that weeping can last through a dark night, but the morning light may bring joy. We do not fear life’s dark times, because we know that our story is not over. There will be brighter days ahead. The brightest stars will give light in the darkest nights. Our resilient spirits will lift us up and, most importantly, God will be near right in the midst of our sufferings. It is not over! I am inspired by the thoughts of Ann Weems about this very thing:
IT IS NOT OVER
It is not over,
There are always newer skies
God can throw stars.
When we begin to think
that we can predict the Advent of God,
that we can box the Christ
in a stable in Bethlehem,
that’s just the time
that God will be born
in a place we can’t imagine and won’t believe.
Those who wait for God
watch with their hearts and not their eyes,
for angel words.
— Ann Weems
What profound truth: that those who wait for God watch “with their hearts and not their eyes,” listening — always listening — for angel words. We can find another take on that spoken by the Prophet Isaiah:
Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will mount up with wings as eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not faint.
— Isaiah 40:31
When I think that I have reached the end of my resilience, when I have become weary with my life’s tragedies and believe that it’s over, I want to be able to remember the words Ann Weems wrote, that “it is not over, this birthing, and that there are always newer skies into which God can throw stars.”
Like you, I need newer skies now and then. And if God can throw stars into those new skies, all the better. Advent’s promise is that those stars of hope will appear just when I most need them.
May God make it so, and may we remember stars of hope and angel words whenever we celebrate the Christ Child born under the light of Bethlehem’s star. Amen.