Before we begin Advent’s journey on November 29th, I think we need start a few days early to create some peace for our souls — enough peace to open ourselves to Advent’s life-giving message. For you see, the Advent journey always has a particularand unique message for each of us. The message weaves through our spirit as Advent days move on, gently sparking tiny lights is us that open us up to beginning again, to dreaming again. Advent nurtures and caresses us until we can dream new dreams.
Since we saw Advent past, we have languished in the chaos of 2020. Held in bondage by a terrible pandemic, lamenting racial unrest and the violence that caused it, watching political rancor and division. This was the year of “I can’t breathe” and also the year when we found that we could not breathe. Nor could we dream, because the future was unknowable — not at all conducive to dreaming.
And yet, there remains this good word — Psalm 126:1:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
What does it look like to live as those who dream? The prophets, the psalmists, Mary, Elizabeth, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, the shepherds and the Magi—they were all dreamers. They received, discovered, and responded to God’s dreams for the world. In Advent’s journey, we travel step by step into the mystery and awe of God’s dreams and we pray that they will shape our reality.
Advent is for the dreamers in all of us — those who dream of a deeper connection with God and those who dream of a better world. Advent is for those who dream of comfort and also for those who have given up on their dreams. Advent is for those whose dreams have been crushed and for those who wisely teach us that dreams take soul time.
In this approaching Advent, perhaps we will dream alongside prophets and angels, Mary and the Magi. Perhaps we will seek and know God’s dreams for our world.
Will you pray with me?
In this Advent of expectation, God, draw us nearer to grace, that our songs of worship might echo in the hills and valleys of this journey and also through our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a sense of peace and silence and steady calm, that the hope within our souls might be the dreams we dream, the songs we sing, and the melody of our lives.
In this Advent of expectation, grant us a vision of a shimmering star in the night sky, that the path we follow might lead us from a stable to a glimpse of eternity. Amen.
I watched the news last night before bed. Not such a good idea! Halfway into the broadcast, I felt a pervasive sense of despair and became very nauseous. I’m feeling it again as I’m writing this. It was the very real and very current events that were so upsetting: hurricanes bringing destruction in Louisiana; California wildfires threatening yet again; protests after the tragic and unwarranted shooting of Jacob Blake; 17-year old Kyle Rittenhouse, who took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during protests, using a military-style rifle to kill two people; a president who is intent on meeting street protests with military violence; a president who gathers a crowd of supporters, not socially distanced and most not wearing masks; and the coronavirus hovering over it all to make situations even more devastating than they already are.
I turned off my bedside lamp and, in the darkness, pondered the news I had just seen. I could not sleep with the sorry, worry, desperation and helplessness I felt. There was not one thing I could do to change my world. My world seemed out of my control, engulfed in all of the events of our time. I wondered . . . how will we live with natural disasters, protests in the streets, killing, violence, military style weapons, police out of control, political rancor, a deadly pandemic and a seeming disregard for human life? How will I live with it? What can I do to change it? In these times, we see before our eyes people getting very sick, people dying alone in nursing homes and hospitals because of COVID restrictions, people isolated and lonely for months, people divided by political polarization, people being killed by police, people protesting for racial justice, people pushing back hard, enshrined in their white supremacy, people losing their homes, people fighting out-of-control wildfires, people losing their jobs, people tired from working with so many hospital patients, people afraid to go back to school, people feeling angry and frustrated, people feeling complete despair. Most of all, people are hoping beyond hope for better days ahead.
My mind thought of nothing of any consequence I could personally do to reverse all of this destruction and despair. My heart memory, though, remembered some things God instructed us to do long ago. God addressed instruction to, “my people who are called by my name.”
“I am called by God’s name,” I thought. “I know exactly what to do!” Of course, I could honor God by standing up for justice — engaging in political activism, contacting government officials to demand change or participating in peaceful protests. I could honor God’s creation by doing more to care for the earth. I could honor God by loving my neighbor and caring for those who have suffered loss.
People of faith have God’s marching orders that dispatch those called by God’s name to practice all manner of good works. And this we must do. But the critical admonition from God that my heart recalled last night is found in Second Chronicles 7:14. If you are called by God’s name, you will likely know these words well.
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (NRSV)
But wait, Second Chronicles 7:14 doesn’t apply to us. It was for Israel. Our Biblical interpretations must have a solid contextual underpinning. Right?
Of course, many Scriptures taken out of context have done great damage. The context of Second Chronicles is that when God brings judgment on God’s own people, Israel, as a result of their sins, that God would also heal their land. And God would re-establish their blessings when they would pray and “turn from their wicked ways.”
We may look around at all the destruction around us and say, “My sin did not cause any of this.” I don’t have military weapons. I didn’t shoot anyone. I don’t set wildfires, I always wear my mask in public. I certainly cannot stop the ominous storm surge of a hurricane.
True enough! Most of us didn’t sin by doing any of these things. Yet, we should remember two things: 1) While we did not commit those particular sins, we do not fully know the harm inflicted by other sins we may have committed; and 2) We cannot begin to know the transformative power of our sincere, repentant, intercessory prayer.
Instead of entertaining such deep and helpless despair, instead of feeling physically nauseous with worry, I think I will follow the admonition of the Chronicler who gave me God’s call to pray. Of course, the admonition in its historical context truly was for Israel, but if we intend to use the Holy Scripture to guide our lives, we cannot ignore a passage that begins with “If my people.”
Perhaps my prayers and yours will bring transformation, in our spirits and in our world.
My dear, long-time friend, former Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily, sent me this photo this afternoon. Mayor Jim is a hiker, a camper, a photographer and a naturalist. He loves the outdoors. He is a person of profound thought, and he spends a good amount of his time in thoughtful contemplation — on a lake or an Arkansas River, in a verdant valley or on a mountaintop. He frequently blogs on what he calls his “adventures,” and his blog is filled with thoughts about wherever he is and whatever beauty he has found. For Jim, every day is a new adventure, and his adventures hold sway over him. They change him in so many ways
One more thing — As a tribute to my friend, Mayor Jim, I want to introduce you to his Blog, which you may enjoy viewing at this link: Last Pair of Boots
His Blog, called “Last Pair of Boots,” tells a poignant story — of nature’s beauty, of God’s presence in it, of friendships, of Arkansas’ and America’s holy places, of worship and contemplation and prayer. Here’s what Jim says about naming his blog:
The name “Last Pair of Boots” came to me when my ten year old boots broke down and it occurred to me that at my age the new pair of boots might be my last pair. Metaphorically my boots represent the trails and travels of life.
This is such a thought-provoking description that fits Jim’s love of nature’s splendor. He also hints at endings, not in a melancholy way, but in words the reveal his life of contemplation and curiosity. Jim’s outings are hiking and wilderness camping, skiing, fishing, exploring, visiting every Arkansas State Park through his job as Arkansas Tourism Director, finding friendships in every small Arkansas hamlet, searching for Arkansas treasures,
finding God in all the places and faces.
I imagine he will hold all of these adventures in his heart now that he has finished his work as Arkansas Tourism Director this past December.
Congratulations, Jim, for your many years of service to the citizens of Little Rock and of Arkansas. Your wisdom, your love of nature, your unquenchable thirst for adventure and your unfailing commitment will remain as one of our enduring Arkansas’ treasures.
As I mused about Jim’s outings tonight, I asked myself about the places and times that created my contemplative times. They are few, too few.
For whatever lame reason, I do not take the contemplative times I need. I think that my kidney transplant on November 12th pushed me into a soul-need that beckons me to solitude, silence, contemplation, adventure — new things to examine in the stunning beauty of nature. It calls me out of the house and into the sunlight or under the stars of the night. It calls me to breathe in the fresh air of God’s creation and, with that breath, to take in the miracle of God’s presence.
Now that I’m retired and have time, I tend to fill my time with all manner of preoccupation. At times, I feel busy and frazzled and don’t really know why. Why am I unable to make enough time to spend in the mesmerizing beauty of nature, keeping silence in God’s creation? Why do I not spend time beside still waters, listening to the silence of a pond? What is wrong with my soul that it is rarely drawn to God’s quiet places, and my heart that does not often seek God’s presence in silent space?
I dare not answer those questions until I am prepared to make some life changes. But what I can do is to hold near these reminders of what God desires for me until I can change my life. These reminders might even inspire me to seek change:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother. (Psalm 131:1-2)
For God alone my soul in silence waits. (Psalm 62:1)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)
Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. (Lamentations 3:28)
To you, O God, silence is praise. (Psalm 65:1)
It is never a bad thing to offer God the praise of silence, to invite God into my contemplation and to allow God’s presence in my moments of prayer and meditation. The truth is that God has always been present with me. But my deepest desire is that I be present with God. As the Psalmist wrote, “My soul in silence waits.”
May those words become my words . . . and yours. Amen.
In each heart lies a Bethlehem,
an inn where we must ultimately answer
whether there is room or not.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we experience our own advent in his.
When we are Bethlehem-bound
we can no longer look the other way
conveniently not seeing stars
not hearing angel voices.
We can no longer excuse ourselves by busily
tending our sheep or our kingdoms.
This Advent let’s go to Bethlehem
and see this thing the the Lord has made known to us.
In the midst of shopping sprees
let’s ponder in our hearts the Gift of Gifts.
Through the tinsel
let’s look for the gold of the Christmas Star.
In the excitement and confusion, in the merry chaos,
let’s listen for the brush of angels’ wings.
This Advent, let’s go to Bethlehem
and find our kneeling places.
— Ann Weems
The words of Ann Weems this morning seem to call us to Bethlehem. Perhaps the call intends for us to remember more clearly the birth of the Christ Child, the incarnation of God. Perhaps this call wants us to focus more fully on what this Child’s birth really means for us. Perhaps the call wants us to find our kneeling places, those places that enable us to open ourselves to God’s presence in us, God’s call to us.
When, in your own kneeling place, have you responded to a call from God? Was it a call that would change your life? Was it a call that you could only answer by saying, “Here am I. Send me.”
Among all the meanings of Advent is a call to watch, to wait, to worship, to be full of expectation, to rejoice in the birth of the Christ Child and to offer our lives to God. Advent is a call to find our kneeling places.
So I am thinking today about the many ways God has called me through the years. Some of those calls became divine appointments for me. Some were hard calls, risky and frightening. Some were calls that I answered with an immediate “Yes!” There were calls that summoned me to find my kneeling places. One specific call is the one that emerged from my most impassioned, fervent kneeling place. It was the call that asked, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”
To respond “yes” to that call required extended time spent at my kneeling place. To respond “yes” to that call would alter the course of my life. Looking back, I can see that saying “yes” to that call call brought me life’s deepest sorrows and matchless joys. That call from God was to be transformative for me, transcending whatever I had imagined. I vividly remember that call, and from my kneeling place, I answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
“Here I am,Lord!” Those words from my heart would bring a plethora of emotions in the months that followed — through times of testing, disparagement, condemnation, criticism, disappointment, struggle, and eventually, peace. Thinking back to my ordination service brings a host of special memories: my friends and family gathered for the holy service; the church family that laid hands of blessing on me; my husband and my best friend singing words I remember to this day.
Here I am, Lord.
Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.
I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard my people cry,
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save.
I have made the stars of night.
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?
I, the lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame,
I will set a feast for them,
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them,
Whom shall I send?
— Songwriters: Anna Laura Page / Daniel L. Schutte; Based on Isaiah 6:8 and 1 Samuel 3
If you like, take a few minutes to view the video of this song, reflecting on the words and their meaning for you.
And so it was, from my kneeling place, I answered God’s call: “Here I am, Lord!”
The season of Advent calls us in a voice just as compelling to find our kneeling places . . .
to focus on Advent’s promises of hope, peace, joy and love,
to wait in anticipation for the birth of our Savior,
to lift our eyes and sing with the angels, “Hallelujah!”
An endearing Physician’s Assistant, Melanie, listened carefully to my symptoms, complaints, concerns and pains, taking very seriously every snippet of information I gave her. She responded with a well thought out remedy for each of my concerns. She was thorough in explaining how we would address every problem and she did so with humor and compassion. Melanie was obviously highly trained and impeccably qualified to treat transplant patients. She had many years of experience and could explain every symptom and prescribe a plan to address it. Her encouragement that the unpleasantness would pass over time was a boost to my courage. Her gift to me was increased patience and a renewal of my hope.
At the end of our session, Melanie offered a summary of the visit, a very descriptive, professional and astute summary. “You’re just having a rough patch right now,” she said, “Itchy, shaky and puffy!”
All of a sudden, I knew her words would be the title of my next blog post. “Itchy, shaky and puffy!” Perfect! Simple descriptive words — not just sterile clinical jargon — but extremely real and true. And that’s what my family and friends want most to know. What are you really feeling?
The truth is that, from the transplant itself, I am recovering well, and now with very little pain. But the effects of my high-powered immunosuppressant medications are playing havoc on my body and all its systems.
Itchy — enough to keep me awake through the night.
Shaky — along with weakness makes it hard to walk and even feed myself.
Puffy — I can’t even describe the pressure in my legs that feels like a balloon about to burst. Two times their normal size is not an exaggeration!
There you have it — a very real, true and human description of how I am faring post transplant. It is pure grace to be able to counter the simple description of my ailments with the simple words of encouragement from the Gospel of Luke:
Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
— Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
When all is said and done, I am beginning to believe that I really will emerge from this transplant with a stronger faith and an everlasting hope, having learned how to trust God more fully and know in my heart of God’s healing mercies. Most of all, I want to get past this transplant with words of praise to God on my lips, like the Psalmist, declaring that my mourning has turned to dancing:
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy on me;
Lord, be my helper!”
You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness,
To the end that my glory may sing praise to You and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever.
I have just reached a milestone — a million seconds. My kidney transplant started the clock on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Today it is a million seconds later. I will remember those million seconds as a time of fear and faith, laughter and tears, rest and painful sleeplessness. I will remember a million seconds filled with hard things, the pain of a large incision spreading halfway across my abdomen, and swallowing pills, lots of pills.
I may one day see those million seconds as hidden secrets, secrets hidden from me by pain and by my body’s struggle to regain some normalcy. I may in time look at those million seconds with glittering eyes and see them as the magic they were. But today I can just share with you what I experienced in a million seconds that began on a Tuesday — November 12th to be exact.
I will remember a million seconds of so many strange things happening to my body and the numerous assaults my body endured. I will remember a million seconds of awe in knowing that a kidney was removed from a living donor at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and hand carried by a doctor to me, to Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida — adistance of 1,115 miles “as the crow flies.”
I will remember a million seconds that began when my surgeon took a picture of the kidney, brought the photo on her phone to my room to show it to me, and said, “This is a beautiful, perfect kidney for you.” She planted that kidney, tucked it carefully inside me, took a photo of the incision and about five hours later came to my room to show me a picture she took on her iPhone of a large incision, impeccably sutured.
I will not forget those million seconds of the prayers of my friends, doctors and nurses caring for me and family members hovering over me with concern and relief.
I will not forget the hymn that came to my mind in the long, sleepless nights in the hospital — a million seconds of leaning on God’s everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
A million seconds have changed my life, while all the while, I was leaning on the everlasting arms. It was a million seconds of holy ground, sacred space. Yet I hardly noticed it as magic or miracle as the pain of my humanity took center stage.
Yes, I focused on suffering, physical pain, worry, concern, tears. Instead, I might have focused on the hidden secrets and witnessed the miracle of holy ground inside a hospital room. I could have had a million seconds of miracle, but instead I experienced a million seconds of the raw and real humanity of suffering. In some ways, a million seconds of transformation were lost to me as I invited unfaith into my room.
Transplant Day Four was a blur. There are no words to adequately describe the volume of information we had to digest just to know how to protect this new kidney. So with all the education we had to learn, both Fred and I are on overload. The pain continues, and hopefully the healing.
But hovering over all the physical and emotional pain are the prayers of the people — my people — my dear friends and family members who are holding hope up high so I can see it. Their love and their compassionate concern is grace for me.
I have few words of my own today, but this prayer shared by Joanna Harader speaks exactly what I need God to hear from me today.
This day may I know
Your health in my body;
Your enlightenment in my mind;
Your grace in my missteps;
Your patience in my frustrations;
Your inspiration where I am stuck
And your tranquility where I need to slow down and rest.
This day may I
Breathe each breath with gratitude,
See each color with wonder,
Hear the hum of the Divine beneath the noise,
Feel your solid presence with each step I take.
Let me live out of your joy
And within your power.
Rev. Joanna Harader serves as pastor of Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, KS, and blogs at SpaciousFaith.com.
On May 17th, I received some devastating news from Piedmont Transplant Center in Atlanta where I had been four years on the transplant list for a kidney. They abruptly placed me on the inactive list, which meant they would no longer be working to match a kidney for me. I was devastated. My friend told me recently that she feared I would give up on the process, but instead she watched me gather up my courage and move forward.
There’s a reason for that, something that empowered me to find another route on the journey that would eventually lead to a transplant. The reason? I call it surrounded by love and all that goes with that kind of love. I found it, I think, at a meeting of Baptist women ministers held at my house on May 17th. After the news from Piedmont, the last thing I felt like doing was hosting a gathering. But they came, a group of women I didn’t really know so well. One of them was a close and trusted friend. The others were friends I needed to know better.
As we enjoyed one another’s company, I avoided talking about my disheartening news, but eventually someone asked about my progress toward a transplant. I could have responded by sobbing uncontrollably. I could have simply said that the process toward a transplant is ongoing. Instead I took a deep breath and gave them the details.
Now you must know that each one of them is a trained and gifted minister, so they knew what to say and how to say it. But the end of the conversation caught me completely off guard. Everyone stood and they created a huddle with me in the middle. It was a hugging huddle — one big, comforting hug. Those moments were comforting, empowering, encouraging, full of grace. My friends mothered me and then they prayed for me, each one.
In those moments I was surrounded by love that has grown deeper with the passing days. From that huddle I was graced with the will to go on, and I did. On November 15, if all goes well, I am scheduled for a transplant at Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic.
All because I was surrounded by love, a love that I know will not let me go.