An Angel-Filled Advent

 

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The Twentieth  Day of Advent
December 20, 2019

With a brief update on my transplant journey 


ANGEL-FILLED ADVENT

Wouldn’t it be wonderful
if Advent came filled with angels and alleluias?
Wouldn’t it be perfect
if we were greeted on these December mornings
with a hovering of heavenly hosts
tuning their harps and brushing up on their fa-la-las?
Wouldn’t it be incredible
if their music filled our waking hours
with the promise of peace on earth
and if each Advent night we dreamed of
nothing but goodwill?
Wouldn’t we be ecstatic
if we could take those angels shopping
or trim the tree or have them hold our hands
and dance through our houses decorating?
And, oh, how glorious it would be
to sit in church next to an angel
and sing our hark-the-heralds!
What an Advent that would be!
What Christmas spirit we could have!
An angel-filled Advent has so many possibilities!
But in lieu of that
perhaps we can give thanks
for the good earthly joys we have been given
and for the earthly “angels” that we know
who do such a good job of filling
our Advent with alleluias!

— Ann Weems

I love the idea of an angel-filled Advent. It sounds like mystical, magical Advent and, most assuredly, an angel-filled Advent does have so many possibilities!

Reality is a very different state for us and, even in Advent, we whisper the word “impossible”. We live with “impossible” in our hearts and deep within our souls where all the pain lives, and all the disappointments, all the grief and all the impossibles. “That’s life,” the sages say, the wise ones who have lived every circumstance and held on their shoulders all sorts of mourning.

And so it is with me and with you. We hold mourning and utter, “This situation is impossible!” During Advent as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, the pain is deeper in us, the losses pierce our hearts, the life challenges seem impossible. When we mourn the loss of a loved one during this season, the mourning hurts more and the loss goes deeper. When we grieve because we struggle with serious illness, the grief is more intense. When we live in fear for our children, the fear is stronger. It is in those circumstances that we ask in frustration, “Where are Advent’s angels? Where is their music?”

I hope you will take a few minutes to enjoy John Rutter’s arrangement of “Angel’s Carol.”Here are the lyrics:

Have you heard the sounds of the angel voices ringing out so sweetly,
ringing out so clear?

Have you seen the star shining out so brightly
as a sign from God that Christ the Lord is here?

Have you heard the news that they bring from heaven
to the humble shepherds who have waited long?

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels sing their joyful song.

He is come in peace in the winter’s stillness,
like a gentle snowfall in the gentle night.

He is come in joy, like the sun at morning,
filling all the world with radiance and with light.

He is come in love as the child of Mary.
In a simple stable we have seen his birth.

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing ‘Peace on earth.’

He will bring new light.
He will bring new light to a world in darkness,
like a bright star shining in the skies above.

He will bring new hope.
He will bring new hope to the waiting nations.
When he comes to reign in purity and love.

Let the earth rejoice.
Let the earth rejoice at the Saviour’s coming.
Let the heavens answer with the joyful morn:

Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Gloria in excelsis Deo!
Hear the angels singing, ‘Christ is born.’

As for me, what kind of mourning am I holding this Advent season? What kind of pain, disappointment, loss am I feeling? I feel worry, of course, about my kidney transplant. When Mayo Clinic called yesterday insisting that I return immediately, I was concerned. My blood levels were dangerously high and I was experiencing a great deal of discomfort. The doctor ordered immediate ultrasounds of my kidney and right leg looking for pockets of fluid or blood clots. I am hopeful that both tests will come back with the word “normal” stamped on the report. In spite of the things that seem “impossible,” I hang on to hope.

That’s what Advent does — fills us with hope that begins on the First Sunday of Advent when we light the Hope Candle.

So to those questions about mourning, pain, disappointment, worry and fear, I have no adequate answers. No matter how much I want an angel-filled Advent and Christmas, I see no way out of the “impossible” seasons of life, but Ann Weems might:

. . . perhaps we can give thanks
for the good earthly joys we have been given
and for the earthly “angels” that we know who do such a good job of
filling our Advent with alleluias!

May Emmanuel — God-with-Us — make it so. Amen.

“I Can Do This Hard Thing!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— From James 4 (NRSV)

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

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

Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.

 

All Saints

05314FDF-2986-4602-8EF9-B1839FE693CEWe all need a glimpse of hope and comfort in these troubling days. Our thoughts and prayers are with our brothers and sisters of the Tree of Life Synagogue, and we are shocked at this and other recent acts of violence and evil. So today, I share with you the writing of Jemma Allen* in hopes that you will find her words as compelling and comforting as I have.

This week in many liturgical traditions we observe All Saints Day, and perhaps All Souls. In some places there is an opportunity to say the names, to light candles for, to ring the bell for those we love but see no longer, parted from us by death.  

All Saints and All Souls compel us to look death squarely in the face,
to acknowledge our mortality, and the mortality of those we love,
and still to make our song: Alleluia!

This is a season where we boldly proclaim
that death is not the last word.
Death, and fear of death, does not hold the power
to determine how we will live.

We are the dearly beloved children of the living God,
we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection,
we are looking to a future where justice and mercy kiss,
where nations will not learn war anymore,
where the lion lies down with the lamb,
where all things are reconciled to God.

This is our hope.
It is a hope that no power can destroy, tarnish or mar:
not white supremacy,
not anti-Semitism,
not any kind of hatred,
not any system of domination,
not any disease,
not any heartbreak. 

And when we cannot hold that hope for ourselves,
let us lean into the hope we can hold together
as communities of life, as communities of resistance,
as hope-bearers and pilgrims on the Way. 

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Give rest, O Christ, to your servants, with your saints,
where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.
You only are immortal, our Creator and Maker;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth we shall return.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

 – Russian Orthodox Kontakion of the Departed, Jim Cotter’s translation.  

 

*Jemma Allen is a priest in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and a counsellor and spiritual director in private practice.  She serves on the Board of RevGalBlogPals and counts the RevGal community as one of her communities of life and resistance.

14,000 Shoes

965E6AF4-46EA-445B-91E0-003F05D3284214,000 shoes placed to tell a very, very sad story.

14,000 shoes laid out so that we will never forget our history.

Seven thousand pairs of children’s shoes were lined up on the southeast lawn of the U.S. Capitol building today in memory of every child who has died due to gun violence.

The 7,000 shoes in the “Monument for our Kids” installment represent every child that was killed by gunfire since the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.

“We are bringing Congress face to face with the heartbreak of gun violence,” said one of the activists, Oscar Soria. “All of these shoes cover more than 10,000 square feet.”

Though most of the shoes were collected in a two week period, some of those were donated by families that lost their children to gun violence.

May God grant that we never forget this national grief. May our collective mourning bring lasting change.552D1FD3-63EF-4301-8FD9-FEE605FA755D

A Prayer for Protection

Hear us, O God, protector of children.
Hear our prayer of penitence, our confession that we have failed to keep our children safe.
Hear our cries, as we shed tears of mourning for each child we have lost to gun violence.
Hear our cries of grief as we recall every danger that our children face.
Hear our voices shouting, “Enough!”
Hear our voices of commitment that make a sacred promise that we will do what must be done.
And most of all, God, ennoble us to holy action, and make us protectors of children.
We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

Me Too: Wounds of the Spirit, Scars of the Soul

95CD73CB-3B8E-44AB-B1F4-4057D76D838FFor weeks now, women have been making heart-rending declarations — “Me too,” they cry, as they reveal their experiences of past sexual abuse. As for me, I say, “me too.” Add my name to the mournful list of women who have endured the pain of sexual trauma.

I was sexually abused literally dozens of times, by many men. The abuse began when I was about four years old and continued throughout my years as a young child. Sexual abuse did not stop through my teenage years. And even as an adult I faced sexual violation. Never, not one time, was it consensual.

Questions always bombard sexual abuse victims:

Who was the man who sexually abused you?

It doesn’t matter. You wouldn’t believe me. You would refuse to believe that I was sexually abused by more than one teacher, by a coach, by a Baptist deacon, by a Baptist missionary, by an employer, by my father and several of his poker playing friends. You wouldn’t believe it because you know them to be “moral, upstanding men” who are a part of your community.

Why didn’t you tell anyone?

I did tell. I told many people about every act of sexual abuse I endured, naming every man who hurt me. But I knew all the while that people simply would not take my accusations seriously.

Didn’t you believe that telling might have brought these men to justice and have prevented them from abusing other children?

No, I did not believe those men who caused me suchbdeep hurt would ever face the consequences of their crimes, because most of the people I did tell simply did not believe me. The men were known and respected and no one wanted to challenge that.

Why did you wait so many years to tell?

There are several aspects to this question. First of all, as I said, I did tell certain people who didn’t believe me. Not being believed serves to silence a victim who just doesn’t want to be labeled a liar, an attention seeker, a trouble maker, or worse, an emotionally unstable person.

Secondly, and most importantly, the passing years never take away the pain for someone who has been sexually violated. Sexual abuse is something you never forget. After 55 years, I still remember the time of day, being called into the teacher’s office next door to the classroom, the way he smelled, everything he said and did, and exactly what I was wearing. He was a person I had looked up to and admired. But on that day, he inflicted a permanent wound of my spirit which would become a scar on my soul. Once again, I mourned the loss of my childhood, of the innocence of a young child.

In these days, newsfeeds are constantly reporting the allegations of victims coming forward to say “me too.”  The women have named their abusers — Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, George H. W. Bush. Ben Affleck, Roger Ailes, Lockhart Steele, Michael Oreskes, Mark Halperin, John Besh. Roy Price, Chris Savino, and the list goes on to name perpetrators in present time and perpetrators from the past. I do not say this lightly, but I have wondered just how many men might be holding their breath, hoping beyond hope that their victim(s) won’t expose them.

Wounds of my my spirit, scars of my soul

The unspeakable wounds heal in time, but the soul’s scars remain. And every reminder through these many years — a smell, a memory, a color, a song, and the cries of the women who are saying “me too” and telling the stories of their abuse. All of these are triggers that bring back the sharp, stabbing pain of the old wounds from long past. That’s what I have lived with throughout my entire life— multiple assaults, multiple times, multiple men.

We can come forth and tell our stories. We can give voice to our spirit’s wounds, no matter how far in the past they may be. We can speak of our soul’s scars. But the reality is that we will be judged as women who have fabricated a false story of sexual abuse for some sort of personal gain.

How dare we ask why a woman would wait forty years to bring light to this kind of story! For since the day it happened, she lives with vivid memories, feelings of shame, fear of relationships, the disappointment of betrayal by someone she may have admired. There is a catch in her throat when she speaks of it, and there are tears, lots of tears along the way.

Wounds of the spirit, Scars of the soul

The writing of Saint Francis de Sales describes the depth of this kind of pain with this thought:

The soul is aware of the delicate wound . . . as though it were a sharp point in the substance of the spirit, in the heart of the pierced soul . . . This intimate point of the wound . . . seems to make its mark in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences . . . feels.

– Living Flame of Love 2.1

So is it any wonder that this kind of wound would leave a permanent scar on the soul?

I am deeply saddened, but also gratified, that so many women are speaking out. I hope beyond hope that their courageous stories will give light to a dark, dark sin that has destroyed so many people for so many years. I pray that we will have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to crush the societal culture of abuse and violence and in its place create safe spaces free of fear for every person, every child, every young girl, every woman.

At times, I really want to expose every single man that abused me. But I want peace more. I want a serene spirit and a quiet soul. I want to rest in a prayerful place where my heart can call out to a God that desires for us a world of peace, communities of care, homes that are havens of safety. I want to see God ennoble people of faith to wrap their arms around the hurts, pray for God’s light to dispel the darkness, and live out their sacred calling to be agents of a better, more excellent way. May God make it so.

 

Stars in Our Darkened Skies

IMG_6048In these tumultuous days, so many people are grieving. And for them, the skies above are dark, starless, devoid of any promise of hope.

In California, wildfires that are still burning have been called “the greatest tragedy that California has ever faced.” At least 40 people have died and more than 200 people are missing. An estimated 217,000 acres have burned, more than 5,700 structures have been destroyed, and approximately 75,000 people have been evacuated. Evacuees are returning home to a heartbreaking new reality.

The Las Vegas mass shooting reminded us that any community, any event, any neighborhood can become a place of grave danger.

In the September earthquake in Mexico, 255 people died. More than 44 buildings were completely destroyed and another 3,000 were severely damaged, forcing thousands of people to evacuate and leaving countless more mourning their tragic losses.

The 2017 hurricane season has been catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey killed 75 people, mostly in Texas, while Irma killed 87 people in the U.S. and its territories. As of yesterday, 48 people have died in Puerto Rico as Hurricane Maria left so many people without shelter, clean water, electricity or hope.

At least 500 people are believed to have been killed or seriously injured in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, in one of the most lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years. The death toll from yesterday’s attack, which was caused by a truck packed with several hundred pounds of explosives, stood at 276 today as more bodies are removed from the rubble spread over an area hundreds of miles wide.

Perhaps some people feel abandoned by God, lost in their grief, not knowing where to turn. Perhaps some people look upward to find comfort and find instead a starless sky that speaks only of sadness and loss. Words of consolation seem empty. Sermons are never enough comfort. Sometimes prayers are not enough either. And yet our faith offers us the image of one who comforts and who understands our deepest sorrows. This comforting presence is beautifully portrayed in the poetry of Ann Weems. These are her words.

In the quiet times this image comes to me: Jesus weeping.

Jesus wept,
and in his weeping,
he joined himself forever to those who mourn.

He stands now throughout all time, this Jesus weeping,
with his arms about the weeping ones:
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’

He stands with the mourners, for his name is God-with-us.

 

‘Blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted.’

Someday. Someday God will wipe the tears from Rachel’s eyes.

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,
there is a deafening alleluia rising from the souls of those who weep,
and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God
putting the stars back in their skies
one by one.

– From Psalms of Lament, Ann Weems

If we have anything at all to share with the thousands of our brothers and sisters who mourn today, it is this image of a weeping Christ who “was acquainted with grief” and who always — always — puts the stars back in our darkened skies, one by one. That is hope. Amen.

How Long, O Lord?

DesignThe mass shooting in Las Vegas leaves us enraged. And confused. And heartbroken.

Heartbroken describes us best as we find ourselves dealing with an inescapable and horrific truth that our world is not a safe place. Once we take that into our souls, we begin to live life as victims, refugees from all that is good. The television news is filled with the stories of heartbroken people whose loved ones were gunned down at a “fun-filled” event. As people of faith, our lives are interwoven with the lives of the victims and survivors of the Las Vegas tragedy. So yes, although we were not there and did not experience the massacre, we are heartbroken, too.

We are heartbroken because of lives lost. We are heartbroken because brothers and sisters must mourn the death of persons they loved. We are heartbroken because those that survived the Las Vegas shooting now live with relentless survivor’s guilt. We are heartbroken because a healthy family event filled with music violently lost its melody. We are heartbroken because violence reigns in the world. We are heartbroken because we do not have the moral, ethical, spiritual and political will to change the climate of violence through responsible weapon control legislation.

But we have been heartbroken before, far too many times. Orlando, Fort Hood, Killeen, Virginia Tech, UT Austin, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, among others. We have been heartbroken before, and nothing changed. Our broken hearts did not result in courageous spirits willing to persevere, persist and insist on creating change in our culture of violence.

Dan Hodges made this very sad statement in 2015.

In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. Gun control debate. Once America decided that killing children was bearable, it was over.

The facts, though, convict us of irresponsibility and refusal to effect change. The Guardian published a chart — America’s Gun Crisis in One Chart — that reveals the troubling truth: 1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2017/oct/02/america-mass-shootings-gun-violence) The chart, updated on October 2, 2017, reports 1,719 deaths and 6,510 injuries.IMG_5997

People of faith lament and grieve, asking God for answers. Like the Prophet Habakkuk who prayed for help in a time of trouble, we cry out to God.

How long, O Lord, must I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, “Violence!” Yet You do not save.

Why do You make me see iniquity,
And cause me to look on wickedness?
Yes, destruction and violence are before me;
Strife exists and contention arises.

– Habakkuk 1:2-3 NASB

I would never presume to know the mind and heart of God, but I imagine that God’s answer to our question, “How long, O Lord?” might sound something like this.

How long, you ask. Long enough for you to stand courageously for what is right. Long enough for you to develop the political will to seek change through advocacy in the halls of Congress. Long enough for you speak truth to power, constantly and persistently until a new day of peace and safety dawns in your nation. Do not cry, “Peace, peace where there is no peace.” Instead cry out, “Change! Change! Change now, because God desires to comfort your broken heart and wills for you a world of safety, well being, and holy peace.”

May God grant us the courage and the perseverance to make it so.

Out of the Darkness

Design

The heart that broke for all the broken-hearted
Is whole and Heaven-centred now, and sings,
Sings in the strength that rises out of weakness,
Sings through the clouds
that veil him from our sight,
Whilst we ourselves become his clouds of witness
And sing the waning darkness into light . . .

– Excerpt from “A Sonnet for Ascension Day” by poet Malcolm Guite

Out of the bombing in Manchester emerge brokenhearted families — mothers, fathers, grandparents, children. We live in a brokenhearted world. We wonder what we might do with our broken hearts. Do we respond with anger, sorrow, disinterest? Do we chalk it up as just another tragedy that is inevitable in a world of terrorism and unbridled violence? How must we respond in a way that honors our faith in the Prince of Peace?

I certainly do not have answers to all the questions we may be asking in the face of this tragedy, but these things I know. We must stand firmly, always, for peace. We must speak boldly when our words might ease violence. We must pray without ceasing for a world without violence, and hope constantly for a world that is gentle and hospitable for every person.

Finally, as poet Malcolm Guite writes, we must raise our voices in the strength that comes after weakness. We must sing on, people of God, for our songs might just help bring the world out of darkness into God’s wondrous light!

. . . You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

– 1 Peter 2:9, NIV