Shadows

Luke 1:47-55  – The Third Sunday of Advent – for December 15, 2013

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…” (Luke 1:47)

DespairI can’t read.

I can’t write.

But I can listen . . . and remember.

I left my home and village to come to this place. Here, my family welcomed me, and their presence—along with food, shelter and other kindnesses—has made me feel safe.

Except, I don’t feel safe.

Alone at night, I light a lamp. Then two. Then three. But it’s not enough. I could light a thousand more flames and this room would still feel shrouded in darkness that has nothing to do with the night.

My mind is troubled.

And yet my soul sings with joy.

How can this be? How can I lay awake, unable to sleep, thoughts racing about all the doubts I have, all the terrible things that could happen and all of the ways the future will never be what I want and still I feel . . . confident?

I repeat the words I remembered and treasured:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.

I do not speak them above a whisper, for I don’t want to wake the rest of the house. It’s enough these three lamps might be seen, might cause my cousin Elizabeth to come in and ask me again—for the hundredth time—how are you doing? Is there anything I can help with? Are you sure you’re fine?

Of course I’m not fine.

She knows that. If I were fine, I wouldn’t be here.

I repeat the ancient words again. The priest back home, who probably didn’t know I’d been secretly listening as he read from the wrinkled scroll in the synagogue, called them Hannah’s prayer. Did Hannah know how to read? Did Hannah know how to write? Like me, did she feel foolish or useless? Or did she only know how to trust God and believe that her child Samuel would be the one that God sent?

I repeat Hannah’s words again. Continue reading →

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Where Are Your Candles?

Photo on 10-10-13 at 6.35 PMThe mystery woman appeared early on a Sunday morning.

This was years ago, but it’s one of those peculiar memories that randomly resurface, still prompting me to sigh and scratch my head.

I stood in the sanctuary behind the pulpit, jotting reminder notes for the upcoming 8:30am worship celebration. Peggy, the accompanist, softly rehearsed the music she’d soon play. Somewhere in another building, Wally—the weekend custodian—was probably arranging chairs in classrooms or emptying trash. It was like most Sunday mornings before the choir arrived to warm-up and the congregation gathered for worship.

Then she walked in.

Never seen her before. I’d been at the church long enough to know (almost) everyone. On a typical Sunday I could forecast the arrival time and order of the regulars, and also who would show up, like clockwork, right after the prayer of confession was finished. I could even confidently predict who’d leave before the benediction. Some people don’t wait for the pastor to send them out into the world.

She wandered through a side door, well dressed but not over-dressed, and slowly circled the room. In the simple rectangular sanctuary, her journey didn’t take long.

Was she a visitor, having miscalculated how long it took for the drive to an unfamiliar church? Maybe she planned to meet a friend and had arrived first? Or perhaps she had a flat tire and needed help?

She walked down the center aisle toward me.

I greeted her. “Good morning.”

“Where are your candles?”

I reacted with a blank stare.

Then, in order to get closer to her, I left my notes on the pulpit and stepped down from the chancel area to the sanctuary floor. With both of us at the same level, I said something brilliant like, “Candles?”

“To light,” she said. “Where are your candles?” Continue reading →

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Was He An Angel?

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16  – The 15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, September 1, 2013

“. . . for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Where angels tread . . .
Where angels tread . . .

Andy*, the Harley-Davidson riding, Missouri-born ICU nurse, entered my mother’s room and gently asked her to lift her head. He flipped her pillow.

“Always good to have the cool side,” Andy said.

Until a few days before, I didn’t know Andy.

And, for the most part, I still didn’t.

Was Mom’s intensive care nurse a stranger?

Was he an angel?

In the Christian Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews cautioned, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

Did I show the Harley-owning nurse enough hospitality; did I thank him enough while he cared for my mother? No, I never invited him for dinner, nor did I—as someone might in Biblical times—wash his feet after a long day’s journey or (in today’s world) bring him a Starbucks Grande Caffe Mocha. And yet my thanks were authentic and I made every effort to learn names of the ICU nurses, and to show them respect, and to keep each one within my prayers.

Of course, maybe it’s not fair to think of Andy as “angelic” because I witnessed him turn a patient’s pillow. But his actions were sweet, kind and appeared to my weary eyes to be extraordinarily thoughtful.

What does it mean to be “angelic?”

As I write these words in the middle of August and in the middle of anguish, Mom is non-responsive in a comfort care room at a Sacramento-area skilled nursing facility. On the last day of July, she visited a doctor—another stranger—for more tests, and more attempts to discern the reasons for her bloated stomach, indigestion and constipation. By July’s final moments, she had been handed over to an oncologist’s care—yes, a stranger—and he immediately sent her to the hospital. An “unsettled stomach” was (likely) ovarian cancer.

More in-the-hospital tests were taken. Two days after admittance, Mom faced life-saving surgery to unblock her colon. Without that surgery, she’d rapidly die a miserable death, or so said the stranger who was a surgeon. If the operation succeeded, she might recover enough to eat “normally” and have a quality of life for . . . Continue reading →

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