It Is Not Over!

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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,
this birthing.
There are always newer skies
into which
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,
listening
always listening
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.

 

“I Am Not a Stranger to the Rain”

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The Eleventh Day of Advent

December 12, 2019

THE CHILD IS BORN AGAIN

Each year the Child is born again

Each year some new heart
finally hears
finally sees
finally knows love.

And in heaven
there is great rejoicing!
There is a festival of stars!
There is celebration among the angels!

For in the finding of one lost sheep,
the heart of the Shepherd is glad, and
Christmas has happened once more.

The Child is born anew
and one more knee is bowed!

Ann Weems

Advent promises us angels and stars. And a Child — an extraordinary Child —who is the incarnation of God born into our world. How glorious this is adventure of Advent, year after year, a journey that brings us to angel celebrations and “a festival of stars.” We can count on it. We wait for it with great anticipation. We delight in the season. Advent candles flicker, gently illuminating the darkness until we light the Christ candle. Indeed the Child is born anew! And oh, how we love the songs of the angels, the festival of stars and the brightest star of all that shines on a stable!

But there are nights, even during Advent, when stars are hidden from our sight. Clouds begin to gather and the stars dim. The clouds thicken and the stars, even the brilliant Bethlehem star, disappear. The rains come, gentle at first, and then come down upon us with an unsettling force.

Rains do fall on the lives of all of us. Stars are hidden during seasons of rain and there may even be a startling clap of thunder here and there. Rainy seasons can be times of mourning the loss of a loved one, grieving the end of a relationship, lamenting the reality of a health crisis, worrying about your children or your aging parents. Rain falls on all of us, “the just and the unjust, those who do good and those who do evil.” (Matthew 5:44)

I am reminded of a beautiful song from the Stephen Schwartz musical, “Children of Eden.” The song offers wisdom that reminds us that we are not strangers to the rain: “I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain, but I am not a stranger to the rain.” The song goes on to say something profound that we might take to heart:

I’ve learned not to tremble
When I hear the thunder roar,
I don’t curse what I can’t change . . .

Here are the lyrics to the song followed by a video.

Shed no tears for me
There’ll be rain enough today
I’m wishing you godspeed
As I wave you on your way
This won’t be the first time
I’ve stayed behind to face
The bitter consequences
Of an ancient fall from grace
I’m a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain

Orphan in the storm
That’s a role I’ve played before
I’ve learned not to tremble
When I hear the thunder roar
I don’t curse what I can’t change
I just play the hand I’m dealt
When they lighten up the rations
I tighten up my belt
I won’t say I’ve never felt the pain
But I am not a stranger to the rain

And for the boy who’s given me the sweetest love I’ve known
I wish for him another love so he won’t be alone
Because I am bound to walk among the wounded and the slain
And when the storm comes crashing on the plain
I will dance before the lightning to music sacred and profane

Oh, shed no tears for me
Light no candle for my sake
This journey I’ll be making
Is one we all must make
Shoulder to the wind
I’ll turn my face into the spray
And when the heavens open
Let the drops fall where they may
If they finally wash away the stain
From a daughter of the race of Cain
I am not a stranger to the rain

Let it rain.

 

 

If we get to a point in our lives where we can say, “let it rain,” we will have found the strength to refuse to curse the things we cannot change. Then we can truly live, free from our need to control the things in life we simply cannot control. As the song says, “when the storm comes crashing on the plain, I will dance before the lightning to music sacred and profane.”

So let it rain and let us dance! And let us delight in Advent’s festival of stars, in the celebration of the angels, in the brilliance of the star of Bethlehem!

Amen.

 

 

Holding Hope

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The Sixth Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-five
December 6, 2019


HOLDING

The Day is here
and we made it to Bethlehem!

The time has come for kneeling
and we’ve seen the Child!

There is singing in the stable
and we want desperately to hold on to it . . .
hold on to the Star!
and the angels!
and the spirit of love!

How do we hold on
to the Christmas spirit?
Why can’t every day be Christmas?

The world mutters “Be realistic,”
and sometimes we church people mutter too.

On our way back from Bethlehem
sometimes we forget
what we’ve been warned about in a dream:
to return another way.

Once we’ve seen the Child,
we’re left holding hearts
wherein angels dance
and stars sing!

Once we’ve been to Bethlehem,
every day is Christmas!

— Ann Weems

I am holding, grasping tightly “the Star and the angels and the spirit of love.” My journey to Bethlehem is Advent’s gift. I walk the path with expectation and hope (even just a wee bit of hope some days), and I imagine the glory of the promised Child.

This year during Advent’s pilgrimage, I also walk the rocky path I call my transplant journey. I do hold on to hope as I travel the rough transplant path, and along the way I see tiny glimpses of hope. But not every day. Minute by minute I navigate symptoms and side effects and, on the worse days, my community holds hope for me when I can’t hold it for myself.

On the path — the path of both Bethlehem and transplant journeys — I see graces along the way: stars, angels, Bethlehem’s brightest star, the Child in a simple manger! It’s enough for me, the images that cry out “Hope!” It is holy ground, sacred space. Hope will get me there, sustaining me along the way, as God’s grace carries me.

And the poet’s words are true:

Once I’ve seen the Child, I’m left holding my heart wherein 04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9angels dance and stars sing!

Thanks be to God!

 

 

Sometimes God Flings Stars!

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The Fifth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-four
December 5, 2019

THIS YEAR

I wonder if God comes to the edge of heaven each Advent
and flings the Star into the December sky,
laughing with joy as it lights the darkness of the earth;
and the angels, hearing the laughter of God,
begin to congregate in some celestial chamber
to practice their alleluias.

I wonder if there’s some ordering of rank among the angels
as they move into procession
the seraphim bumping the cherubim from top spot,
the new inhabitants of heaven standing in the back
until they get the knack of it.
(After all, treading air over a stable and annunciating
at the same time can’t be all that easy!)
Or is everybody — that is, every “soul” — free to fly
wherever the spirit moves?
Or do they even think about it?

Perhaps when God calls, perhaps they just come,
this multitude of heavenly hosts.
Perhaps they come,
winging through the winds of time
full of expectancy
full of hope
that this year
perhaps this year
(perhaps)
the earth will fall to its knees
in a whisper of “Peace.”

— Ann Weems

This year for me is unlike any other year, not at all like Advents of my past. This Advent for me is not at all ordinary. It is an Advent that finds me in a bit of suffering, a bit of pain and, most of all, crying out for peace.

The poet asks: “What might it look like if the earth fell to its knees in a whisper of ‘Peace?’” We are always full of expectancy, full of hope that during some Advent, perhaps this year’s Advent, we will finally hear the earth whispering “Peace.” 

From the place I find myself today, I look for that Peace. Recovering from a kidney transplant and trying to live into a new normal, what I need most is peace. Peace after a life upheaval. Peace after a physical trauma. Peace that might help restore my emotional and spiritual self.

I do so want to fall to my knees in a whisper of “Peace.” But probably not today. Not until some parts of me heal a little more. It’s not always an easy thing, falling to my knees, even in the best of times. Today, though — far from home and family, separated from my friends and my faith community — most things are not easy.

I will remember these recovery days as a season of harsh medications, pain, swelling, itching, tremors, instability and anxiety. But there is another part of my memory that remembers that the Apostle Paul wrote some words that have always spoken deep peace to me. He wrote of being “troubled on every side, yet not distressed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.”

And then his most comforting words of all: “We do not lose heart. . . for our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (From 2 Corinthians 4)

Walking through those words of hope, I think I can make it another day. Even in my darkness of a difficult recovery, perhaps I can gather up my courage and perseverance and walk a few more steps. Yes, this is a hard time.

04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9And yet, I still believe that, in some mysterious way, God comes to the edge of Advent and flings the Star into the night sky, maybe many stars. I can still envision God laughing with joy as starlights illuminate the darkness. And I can almost hear the singing of angels practicing their alleluias.

It is Advent, after all!

“Humbug!” and Hope!

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The Fourth Day of Advent

Transplant Day Twenty-three
December 4, 2019

IN DECEMBER DARKNESS

The whole world waits in December darkness
for a glimpse of the Light of God.
Even those who snarl “Humbug!”
and chase away the carolers
have been looking toward the skies.

The one who declared he never would forgive
has forgiven,
and those who left home
have returned,

and even wars are halted,
if briefly,
as the whole world looks starward.

In the December darkness
we peer from our windows
watching for an angel with rainbow wings
to announce the Hope of the World.

— Ann Weems

In this season of my life, it would be easy to snarl “Humbug!” and move on to ordinary, tedious, plodding daily living. It’s hard to look starward when pain is your nightly companion, sticking much too close in the darkness of night, the darkness of life. My words this morning are not Advent-inspired words. They are, pure and simple, a factual and real assessment of where I find myself. My most pressing question? How do I get from “Humbug!” to Hope?

It will require an extra measure of faith, patience and perseverance. It will require my willingness to welcome a new normal. It may call for a little extra weeping, a bit more courage, a wide-open soul and maybe even a few angels to illuminate the way ahead.

To be honest, I have to say that on top of my physical pain is my incessant emotional pain that whispers, “You are not okay!” over and over and over again. I know this is not very Advent-like. This view of my current health and well-being is most definitely not Advent-like. But instead of my constant post- transplant complaints and consternations, I want to look for the star in the night sky. I want to listen for the hope-filled sound of the heavenly host singing “Alleluia!” I want to be standing in awe of angels with rainbow wings.

All of this descriptive information is about my current emotional/physical/spiritual space. I know that I don’t want to stay here in this dark place. I know it’s a temporary, necessary time of moving into healing and wholeness. Still, it often feels like darkness. Much more like “Humbug!” than Hope!

So from this dark place, I will myself to look starward, even briefly. I will see past the December darkness. I plan to peer out of my transplant-veiled windows, watching for an angel with rainbow wings announcing the Hope of the World!

May Spirit make it so.

Star-Giving

The Third Day of Advent
Transplant Day Twenty-Two
December 3, 2019

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STAR-GIVING

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .
Brilliance in a package,
something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans
or in the pocket of your being.
Something to take out in times of darkness,
something that would never snuff out or tarnish,
something you could hold in your hand,
something for wonderment,
something for pondering,
something that would remind you of
what Christmas has always meant:
God’s Advent Light into the darkness of this world.

But stars are only God’s for giving,
and I must be content to give you words and wishes
and packages without stars.

But I can wish you life
as radiant as the Star
that announced the Christ Child’s coming,
and as filled with awe as the shepherds who stood
beneath its light.

And I can pass on to you the love
that has been given to me,
ignited countless times by others
who have knelt in Bethlehem’s light.

Perhaps, if you ask, God will give you a star.

— Ann Weems

This poem by Ann Weems called me to think about gifts, about giving gifts and receiving them, about learning how to cherish the gifts we receive, even those gifts we fail to recognize as gifts. My husband, Fred, tells stories of delightful Christmas parties at his country church — a full pot luck meal, tables lined with deserts of every kind, a decorated cedar Christmas tree and, of course, the gift exchange. He tells about wondering what gift he would receive days before the party and how the party-goers seemed to bring the same gifts every year: chocolate covered cherries, socks, a Claxton fruitcake, ear muffs, puzzles, home-canned jelly, ornaments, maybe even a knit toboggan from the Dollar Store. As for Fred, he always hoped for the cherries.

The party was mostly about the gifts — humble, simple, inexpensive, cherished. In thinking about gifts, the idea of cherishing gifts seems important. After all, if one can cherish a Claxton fruitcake, it would be easy to learn to cherish other gifts. Ann Weems expressed like this:

What I’d really like to give you for Christmas is a star . . . .Brilliance in a package, something that you could keep in the pocket of your jeans or in the pocket of your being.

Something to take out in times of darkness, something that would never snuff out or tarnish, something you could hold in your hand, Something for wonderment. . .

My attention went directly to “something for wonderment.” A kidney from my living donor is a gift for wonderment, to cherish. My new spiritual director who found me through an online group of female clergy is a gift for wonderment. My compassionate, tireless caregiver during this trying recuperation is a gift for wonderment. My friends and family — constantly caring, constantly praying — is a gift for wonderment. I can cherish those gifts.

Still, cherishing the gifts you receive is not a given. It’s not always easy. Let me offer an example. I had a phone conversation yesterday with a new friend who is also a kidney transplant traveler. Though every transplant recipient is unique in the way they adjust to life after a transplant, the two of us shared some definite commonalities. Both of us spoke of physical pain — his about 15 years ago; mine current, constant and debilitating. I could closely identify with much of what he told me he experienced. He spoke of his lack of faith in the immunosuppressant medications, a lack of trust in decisions doctors made during his year of follow-up care, and even very little hope that having a transplant was a wise decision.

We also talked about gifts for wonderment, gifts to cherish, gifts we should cherish, but sometimes cannot. A kidney transplant — especially when you are in the throes of recovery with a 9 inch incision held together with 33 metal staples — doesn’t always feel like a gift.

The last thing my new friend said about our kidney transplants is this:

“It’s a gift! It’s a miracle!”

Most assuredly, a kidney transplant is a miracle and a gift of wonderment, a gift to be cherished. Much like the stars in Ann Weems’ poem —- “brilliance in a package, something to take out in times of darkness, a gift of wonderment, something like God’s gift of stars.” Such a gift is radiance, light breaking through our darkness, a gift to be cherished.

I think I’ll try to be visionary enough, present enough, hopeful enough to catch one of God’s stars to hold in my hand and to keep until I need them most.04E87215-AC50-4CC9-B2F4-6612E56D0CB9

Amen.

Into This Dark and Silent Night

The First Sunday of Advent
December 1, 2019

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INTO THIS SILENT NIGHT

Into this silent night
as we make our weary way
we know not where,
just when the night becomes its darkest
and we cannot see our path,
just then
is when the angels rush in,
their hands full of stars.

— Ann Weems

All of us find ourselves in dark places — when the darkness is thick, when we are immersed in silence, when we try our best to make our weary way but the way ahead is veiled.

How disconcerting it is when the night becomes its darkest and we cannot see our path. I have been in that kind of place, and I imagine you have as well. It’s dark when you lose a loved one; when you relocate to a different, unknown place; when you must be away from those you love and who love you back; when a divorce brings you grief and uncertainty; when your children are in trouble; when you suffer an illness or endure a major surgery or treatment. The list of dark seasons of life is endless, personal, hiding in the depths of our wounded places.

We feel a deep kind of despair that does not seem to lift. We hold inside us invisible wounds of the soul and spirit that cannot be healed quickly or easily. Healing of the soul is a long, slow process but it does happen as time brings healing grace. Still, we experience the darkness at a time when the world around us is trying to rush us ever so quickly into Christmas. It is to our benefit if we can hold back and let the darkness call us to places we have never been. Gayle Boss expresses it like this:

Advent, to the Church Fathers, was the right naming of the season when light and life are fading. They urged the faithful to set aside four weeks to fast, give, and pray — all ways to strip down, to let the bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark, to know what Jesus called “the one thing necessary”: that there is One who is the source of all life, One who comes to be with us and in us, even, especially, in darkness and death. One who brings a new beginning.

I wonder if in this Advent season I can let my “bared soul recall what it knows beneath its fear of the dark?” I wonder for all of us, will we let Advent be a time of waiting, a time of hoping without knowing, a time of emptying so that we can be filled with God’s Presence? Will we take time to allow the Advent darkness to do its work in us? Because the beautiful hope of Advent is that while we are waiting, lingering in its darkness, just when we realize we cannot see our path “is when angels rush in, their hands full of stars.

Amen.

Transplant Day Two

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Image credit: Starry Night Over the Rhône (detail), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Musé


November 14, 2019
Kidney Transplant Day Two

What I can say definitively about Day Two of my kidney transplant is that it was infinitely better than Day One! Sometimes a little mayhem comes right on the heels of miracles. So it was with me. The hard days of recovery are not over, but life’s hard days never are.

So here’s my plan, hatched out of a little touch of Day Two despair. 

Today was very rainy today in “sunny Florida.”

Tonight the sky is dark without a star in sight, and I am reminded that physical darkness can so easily twist and turn into something much worse — emotional and spiritual darkness. 

I don’t need to get to that place. I am counting on your prayers to help me remember that stars are still in the sky even on the darkest nights. We simply cannot see them for a time. 

Sarah Williams has written some wonderful words in her book, Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse. These two lines have led me through many a dark night.

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.

As I lean again into the poem’s message, I’ll remember that Transplant Day Three is just minutes away.

Make Room for the Unimaginable

C0F3E414-0365-4F43-890F-EAF928810C56Don’t you love skies . . . blues and purples, the sun’s brightness, the dark black of night, clouds and stars? It is good for us to look into the heavens and lose ourselves in the beauty of God’s creation, to make room for the unimaginable.

There is a beautiful poem in German by Joseph von Eichendorff, in which the poet says to God, “You are the One who breaks up above us those roofs that we so firmly build, so that we may see the heavens. And therefore I will not despair.”

We do build firm roofs that completely cover us, fences that separate us from neighbors, walls that divide us one from another. And we hear a great deal of talk these days about building a wall that is designed to keep people from other countries out. Visitors living in this country despair at the possibility of being deported. Even those who have been here for years and have followed all the rules.

There was a time when immigrants were welcomed here, encouraged to dream of better lives for their families. It was a time when their dreams brought them to a land of freedom, without oppression. My grandparents dreamed that dream when they came to America with my infant mother. And so life began for them here, among neighbors, in a safe and welcoming haven. My brothers and I are the products of that dream. 

So I am sad about the wall and hope in my heart that it will never be built. 

I am reminded of the Berlin Wall. It stood for 10,316 days, from 1961 until 1989. A guarded concrete barrier that physically and ideologically divided Berlin, it was sometimes referred to as the Wall of Shame. Over 100,000 people attempted to escape and over 5,000 people succeeded in escaping over the Wall. More than 200 people died trying to cross the Berlin Wall, but it stood solidly, forbidding passage. It was a blight on Berlin’s landscape that proclaimed absolute division. I remember the day of the wall’s destruction, June 13, 1990.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB shares a beautiful truth:

Build the walls so lightly that you are still aware that you have neighbors. And build the roofs so lightly that you can look through and see the stars.”

That kind of roof God does not have to break. If we build our life in that form, we are people of hope. If we build any more firmly . . . we should expect that God shatters it all, to make room for the unimaginable, so that we will see the stars.

The Hands that Made the Stars

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Comfort in the magnificent Arkansas skies. Photography by Steven Nawojczyk.

As I write on this day, I am aware that many friends are in the throes of darkness and despair. Some are facing devastating medical diagnoses. Some are yearning to have a child and are going through difficult medical procedures. Some are grieving for a family member in trouble. Some are waiting with hope for a cure for a disease that is bringing them to their knees. Others are enduring harsh medical treatments, hoping their lives will be saved. Many of them are at the point of losing all hope.

It hurts me deeply every time I am at a loss for comforting words. A little part of my heart breaks because I know I cannot “do something” to ease the suffering. And so I search for my own comfort as I search for ways to hold my friends in the light. As always, I am led to Scripture, not for easy answers, miraculous cures, or an instant panacea. I peek into the Bible to find words that will lift up hope in the middle of dark days and darker nights.

Often the words I find point me to the skies, as if gazing into an expanse beyond imagination might open my eyes to a radiant and holy hope. In truth, the words of Scripture do point me to hope. 

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Look up into the heavens. Who created all the stars? He brings them out like an army, one after another, calling each by its name. Because of his great power and incomparable strength, not a single one is missing. O Jacob, how can you say the LORD does not see your troubles?

Have you never heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of all the earth. He never grows weak or weary. No one can measure the depths of his understanding. He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless.

— Isaiah 40:26-29

From the Psalmist:

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers — the moon and the stars you have set in place — what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?

— Psalm 8:3-4

And so whoever you are, whatever pain you are carrying, know that the hands that made the stars are holding your heart.