But God released him

Acts 2:23-26 With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him. But God released him from the horrors of death and raised him back to life, for death could not keep him in its grip. King David said this about him: “I see that the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me. No wonder my heart is glad, and my tongue shouts his praises! My body rests in hope.”

I’ve written before on this blog about 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: Though we grieve for our beloved ones who have died, we have hope! “. . . For since we believe that Jesus died and was raised to life again, we also believe that when Jesus returns, God will bring back with him the believers who have died.”

Our hope for being with our beloved ones again is rooted in Jesus’ resurrection! Because Jesus is alive, “He will wipe every tear from their [our] eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:4). Through releasing Jesus, God will one day release us all from the curse of death that came through the fall (Genesis 2:17). Isn’t it cool how Easter links the very beginning (Genesis) to the very end (Revelation) of Scripture?

Following a February surgery in 2009 that set off severe rejection, the doctors told us at Easter time to gather our family because there was no hope for Karis’s life. But God gave her back to us. Three weeks later, May 2, Karis wrote in her journal, still in the hospital but out of ICU!:

Worship. How can I express this, even remotely? The thrill, the awareness of You so visceral. I want to share this. That which You whisper in the dark to me I want to declare on the rooftops.

I want to learn about this Earth and her many peoples and their histories and geographies—the different smells of her many airs . . . I want to learn to see her more and more through Your eyes, Father. To hear her groans and to be for her people the fragrance of hope.

Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have hope, no matter our present circumstances or what the future may bring. That’s how our Father sees us, with hope, because he knows the end of our story, individually and collectively, is abundant life. Breathe in that fragrance. Let your soul absorb its healing balm.

But Christ has been raised from the dead!

1 Corinthians 15:17-20 If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless . . . And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

Did you have a nice Easter?

That question would normally think of Easter Sunday. In liturgical traditions, though, Easter began on Sunday, but it lasts fifty days, until Pentecost, June 9. Fifty days to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ! I want to consider during these weeks some of the implications of this biggest “But God” of them all. After Pentecost I’ll go back to posting the rest of the Stones of Remembrance.

At our church here in Pittsburgh, the 6:00 a.m. Easter vigil is one of the highlights of the entire year. The service begins in total darkness. The last time we’ve been in this space was Good Friday, after the “stripping of the altar” at the Maundy Thursday service, when all decorations were removed from the church, leaving it bare. The pastor walks up the dark aisle singing “The light of Christ” while candles are lit behind him. When all the lights come on halfway through the vigil, we are rewarded not only by an explosion of glorious praise music and the sunrise shining through the stained glass, but by flowers everywhere, with all of the normal accoutrements back in place. It’s a breathtaking celebration of Resurrection glory.

Our first few years in São Paulo we attended a church that didn’t have an Easter sunrise service. Since this was a cherished tradition for us, we decided to have our own. We lived a few blocks from one of the city reservoirs (called a represa). The six of us (Dave and I and our four small children) would make our way there while it was still dark, spread a blanket over the dewy grass, and shiver together, singing Easter songs as the sun rose. Then we enjoyed an Easter breakfast picnic.

The delight of these events was somewhat marred by what was revealed around us as it grew light. One year I actually took pictures. Holding the camera at the right angle, the scene was lovely:

Represa - Lite

Lowering the camera just a little, though . . .

Lixo - lite

Not quite the same impact as the experience at Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh. And yet, there’s a parable here. The light of Christ reveals what’s true in our lives, so we can face it and offer it to him to clean up—which is too big a job for us, but he can do because he conquered sin on the cross! We go to him as we are, and as he brings new life to us, we can extend it to others.

Two remnants of my childhood come to mind. One is the song “Brighten the corner where you are.” The other is my mother’s training: “Always leave a place better than you found it.” I find that a renewed challenge to myself this Easter season. Not just in terms of ecology—though that is VERY relevant to living out Easter, as the resurrection reverses the original curse and takes us back to the Genesis mandate to tend the garden—but in terms of order, and peace, and hope, and joy.

By the way, that area by the represa? It’s been transformed into a lovely park! Loide, one of my best friends in São Paulo, presented a proposal to the city that was accepted and has transformed that little corner of the megalopolis. It’s another part of the parable . . . I’ll be there next week, and will try to remember to take a photo for you.

But we see Jesus

Hebrews 2:9  But we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Last night at our Maundy Thursday service we sang one of my favorite communion songs, “Behold the Lamb.” Take a few minutes to listen and see, with the eyes of your heart; share in the Bread of Life:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=481xyHUrwQA

Last night we read a portion of Psalm 78. Verses 19-20 and 24-25 were poignant for Karis and me through the many years of our “wilderness,” trying to figure out how to nourish a body with a malfunctioning, non-functioning or, from November 2004 until January 2006, completely absent intestine:

Can God set a table in the wilderness?

True, he struck the rock, the waters gushed out, and the gullies overflowed;

But is he able to give bread or to provide meat for his people?

 

. . . He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven.

So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough.

 

What is your wilderness? What is your hunger? Take it, as I will, to the cross today. See Jesus, tasting death so that we can drink life. “He drained death’s cup that all may enter in to receive the life of God. So we share in this Bread of Life, and we drink of his sacrifice, as a sign of our bonds of grace around the table of the King” (verse 2 of “Behold the Lamb”).

But Jesus spoke of the temple of his body

Taking a Holy Week break from the Stones of Remembrance.

John 2:18-22 The Jewish leaders then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” [Chasing the merchants out of the temple].  Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  The Jewish leaders then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the Scriptures and the word which Jesus had spoken.

Like me, you probably watched in horror yesterday as flames engulfed the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. What a tragic, dramatic, incomprehensible introduction to Holy Week.

The ashes of Notre Dame Cathedral heartrendingly illustrate for us John’s record of Jesus’ words comparing his own body to the temple in Jerusalem. How ludicrous to imagine rebuilding the Cathedral in three days! Jesus’ boldness in comparing his body to Herod’s temple tells us that his resurrection is just as impossible.

His accusers later used their own version of these words to condemn Jesus before the Jewish high council and to mock him on the cross (Matthew 26:60-61, 27:40). They had no idea Who they were mocking; no understanding that the fullness of God actually indwelt this broken, beaten body they had destroyed. That death could not hold the Author of Life. That there was at work a deeper magic from before the dawn of time, to borrow from C. S. Lewis.

All four of the Gospel writers slow down the narrative when relating Jesus’s last days, and that is exactly what we are called to this week: to slow down our own frenetic lives to walk with Jesus to the cross, through the emptiness of Saturday, and then to allow the glory of Easter morning to astonish us once more. It occurs to me today that I did exactly the same thing in Karis, All I See Is Grace, paying extra attention to the details of Karis’s last days with us. And I can well imagine that for everyone who visited or worked in the Notre Dame Cathedral last week, that privilege has taken on entirely new dimensions. I can imagine each one thinking and saying, “I was there . . . I didn’t know . . . !”

This week is the time we slow down long enough to remember. To walk with Jesus. To open ourselves to new comprehension of what it all means. To identify with those who love him, around the world and through all time. To say with Karis, “All I see is grace.”

 

One day at a time

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.” 

Rock #5 green: Miracles

There was a time in my life when I could easily think about the future: imagine possibilities, make plans, dream dreams . . .

But when I found myself in survival mode not just for days or weeks, but for months that stretch into years, I found I couldn’t do that. My husband Dave would say things on the phone or by email like, “I have these goals for the next five years,” or “Next year let’s” do such and such, and I would stare blankly, as if he was speaking a foreign language. It was all I could do to imagine getting through that day. It was hard even to imagine tomorrow.

In the middle of life and death crises, which came around all too unpredictably and too often, my world narrowed down even further, to getting through this hour, or these minutes. For these minutes, Karis is still alive. God hasn’t taken her yet.

To help you understand this, let me describe a not-unusual day. Karis wakes up smiley and perky, describing to me all that she wants to do today: the friends she wants to call or visit, that new coffee shop she’s been longing to try, the birthday gift for a child in the hospital she wants to finish making, the passage from the Qur’an she wants to study and translate and compare with Scripture before she next sees her Arabic-speaking friend, what she wants to make for dinner and the shopping list it has generated . . .

By lunchtime all we’ve accomplished is getting her through her physical therapy routine, her bath, her bandage changes, her morning pills and IVs, and moved her from her bedroom to the living room couch, where she needs to rest after all the exertion of the morning. She talks to a friend on the phone, and I hear them making plans that I can’t imagine will ever take place.

Then she falls asleep, and over the next couple of hours I see her skin change from pale to flushed and damp. A hand on her forehead confirms she’s spiking a fever, but I need to measure it with a thermometer before I call her transplant coordinator. And I know what Cindy will say: bring her in; I’ll set up the admission.

On the way to the hospital I get a call from Dr. Costa: “Take Karis directly to the ICU.” “Why?” “Just do it.”

How does this man know?? By the time we reach the hospital Karis is struggling to breathe. There is already a transporter waiting for us at the emergency room, but triage takes her blood pressure: 60 over 40. They rush her away, and I follow to the ICU waiting room more slowly, knowing I will have a long wait while they stabilize her. I sit and pray. I thank God for Dr. Costa’s intuition. I thank God for nurses and doctors who know Karis well and love her. I know she’s in the best possible hands, not just medical hands, but God’s hands.

I’m not surprised when the ICU doctor emerges to tell me Karis is sedated and on a ventilator. I can go in and “see” her for a few minutes. It seems to be pneumonia, but there is suspicion of a central line infection as well. They’ve used pressors to stabilize her blood pressure, but she does seem to be septic. They’ll cover her with broad-spectrum antibiotics until they know what they’re actually treating.

I go in to “see” Karis long enough to wipe her sweaty forehead and pray for her and thank her nurses for their care. Then they need me out of the way, so I return to the waiting room to ponder whether I should call my husband in the midst of ministry in Brazil. I settle on an email, to him and to my other children. I decide to wait on posting on Karis’s prayer blog until I have something more positive to say.

I suddenly remember the friends who planned to come see Karis at home this evening, and call them to cancel. Before long my phone starts ringing: my other kids, friends who had already heard through the grapevine . . . My son, “Mom, I’ll get there as soon as I can, but you ought to phone Dad.”

The ICU nurse calls me in to go through Karis’s current medication list, which doesn’t completely match what’s in her computer. Dr. Costa comes by and I ask him, “How did you know?” “It was just a feeling,” he says, “because she spiked such a high fever so quickly.” “What are you thinking?” I ask him. “It’s too soon to tell, but I am very concerned—there’s too much going on all at once.” “She was perfectly fine this morning.” “I know—I saw her vital signs. Why don’t you go get something to eat, and then check back in. We’ll page you if we need you.”

I can’t tell you how many times this type of scenario repeated itself: going from fine to critically ill within hours. This was life with profound immunosuppression, necessary because of the mismatch between Karis’s graft and the two other immune systems present in her body. One step forward; two steps back. Stable to scary with no warning. It happened often enough that I became hypervigilant, like a child in an unpredictably abusive family. How could I make plans, or think concretely about the future?

One day at a time. One hour at a time. Holding on to God’s presence and his promises through the scary times and the more stable times. Clinging to Scriptures like Lamentations 3:20-27, which became my anchor:

I will never forget this awful time . . . yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” The Lord is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him. So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. And it is good for people to submit at an early age to the yoke of his discipline.”

The discipline for me was this: to trust God for this day, this hour, and leave tomorrow with him. I thought a lot about the Israelites in the desert, dependent on God’s manna each morning. God gave them just enough for one day. If they gathered more than that, in anxiety over whether there would be provision for tomorrow, the extra would spoil.

God gave me just enough faith for one day, sometimes one hour at a time. It’s easy to understand the concept, but for me, it was hard to live into. I wanted more. I wanted to gather manna for tomorrow, to have margin, to have some sense of control over what might happen next. But that simply didn’t work. I had to walk and breathe and learn to relax into his provision for today, for now. His mercies new every morning.

After months and years of doing this, like any discipline, it becomes a habit—a habit I’ve found hard to break. It is easier now for me to think about and plan for the future, like making a plan for my book trips this fall. But I hold everything very loosely. God may have something different in mind; something I’m not able to see right now. Whether things run smoothly or there are unhappy surprises, I know I am dependent on my Father for his provision of what I need—one day at a time.

“Miracle” houses, in São Paulo and Pittsburgh

“What’s with the rocks?”

“Do you have a few minutes? Pick a rock and I’ll tell you a story.”

#5 gold: Miracles

Our first year in São Paulo, 1990, we lived in an apartment near our mission office. This was handy for Dave, but difficult for the rest of us. From a big house and yard in the quiet town of Port Huron, Michigan we were suddenly plunged into skyscrapers, never-ending traffic, a small living space on the ninth floor of a huge building, elevators, underground parking, and three levels of security just to enter our new home. The rent was more than we had expected, and no matter how I pinched pennies (or rather, cruzeiros, at the time), for the first time in our marriage I could not make our ends meet.

Worst of all, though, was the hour-plus bus ride to school through traffic and fumes over bumpy pot-holed streets. It was a rough kindergarten beginning for our five-year-old Rachel, who threw up on the bus almost every morning. I determined we should buy a house, to get out of paying the exorbitant rent, and that it should be a spacious house in a real neighborhood, within a ten-minute walk from PACA, our children’s school. Dave’s brother agreed to loan us money for a down payment. I figured out we could spend $39,000.

When I found a realtor and described what I wanted and how much money I had, he laughed. “Lady, what you want simply doesn’t exist. And in Brazil right now, you can’t buy a house on credit. The economy is too volatile. You’ll have to buy with cash.”

The realtor was right. The type and location of house I wanted cost at the time over $200,000. The “houses” we could afford were tiny cracker boxes that made me claustrophobic just walking into them.

The realtor didn’t believe I could only spend $39,000. We were Americans, and in the common Brazilian perception, all Americans are rich. He kept calling me, wanting to show me more houses of the $200,000 variety. Finally I said, “Don’t call me again until you have found my house—the one I described to you, close to PACA, for the money I have.”

I went back to prayer, trying to be happy with our apartment, and with always having to send extra clothes for Rachel to change into each morning when she arrived at school.

About six months later when I answered the phone, my realtor said, “I found your house. But it’s not a house; it’s a palace!” The location? A ten-minute walk from PACA. The price? They were asking $39,000, if we could pay in cash and in dollars. Dave’s brother secured a loan for us in the U.S. for the full amount, which we were able to pay off in two years with the money we no longer had to spend on rent.

We moved in on June 19, 1991, exactly one year from the day we arrived in Brazil. (That day, the electricity was out in São Paulo so we had to hand carry everything down nine flights of stairs—but that’s another story!) We lived in this miracle house with four bedrooms, four bathrooms, a dining room, an office, etc. for the rest of our time in Brazil. It was large enough to host any number of people, and our personal ties to that neighborhood are still strong. I could talk for a long time about all that God did there, but instead I’ll fast forward twenty years to Pittsburgh, where again I found myself looking for a house I was told did not exist.

 

Left: Rachel, Karis (holding her dog Buddy), and Valerie with neighbors and PopPop Kornfield in the street outside our house in São Paulo (the house is on the left). 

Middle: A neighborhood Christmas party in our living room, late 1990s.

Right: Teens in our home for Karis’s 15th birthday party, May 5, 1998.

This time we needed a house with at least one bedroom and one bathroom on the main floor. We wanted to be within fifteen minutes of Karis’s hospital, with no tunnels and no bridges to slow us down in emergencies. We had a small inheritance from Dave’s parents to use as our down payment. Based on that we figured we could spend at most $120,000. Our realtor and everyone we talked to in Pittsburgh about what we were looking for told us there was no such thing.

I went back to prayer. For a whole discouraging year I looked at houses and apartments, finding nothing that would work for us. Meanwhile, Karis was becoming more and more debilitated, and maneuvering her up and down the stairs to our flat was becoming frighteningly difficult for me. Something had to give!

I watched the multi-list like a hawk. One Monday morning while Karis was still asleep I saw a house newly posted, just a mile uphill from our apartment, in a neighborhood called Stanton Heights. I jumped in our car and drove there. The For Sale sign wasn’t even up yet. I walked around the house, thinking, hmm, this actually looks like there’s more to the ground floor than just a kitchen and living room. Boldly I walked up and rang the doorbell. “There are two bedrooms and a bath on the main floor,” the woman told me. “Thanks! I’ll call my realtor,” I yelled back to her as I ran to my car and back to Karis.

My realtor couldn’t show me the house until Wednesday afternoon. When we drove up, she informed me we had to wait for a few minutes because someone else was seeing the house. My heart sank. Someone else might buy “my” house?!

I hardly cared about seeing more than the main floor of the house, so anxious I was to get back to the realtor’s office to make an offer. They countered, but by Friday afternoon we had a signed agreement. The owners of the house were in shock—they had expected to spend the whole summer trying to sell their house.

GardenParty

Friends at Karis’s Garden Party, in the back yard of our house in Pittsburgh

The price for us? $117,000. Ridiculous. Much smaller houses in our new neighborhood were selling for significantly more money. The distance to the hospital? Exactly fifteen minutes most days—though at two or three or four in the morning we could do it in eleven minutes, faster than waiting for an ambulance.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with all my heart!