Big Brother Danny

“What’s with the rocks?”

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

Rock #2 red: Humor

On May 5, 1983, when Karis was born, our twenty-one-month-old little boy lost his secure place at the center of our universe. Eleven days later, when Karis was hospitalized, he lost his mom. The doctors didn’t think Karis would live, so I wanted to spend every minute I could with her.

Once I tried taking Danny with me to the hospital. By the time I sorted out Karis’s lines and tubes and settled her into a stroller for a walk, Danny had disappeared! Frantically I pushed Karis through the hospital corridors, discovering that my curious little son had left chaos in his wake, unplugging cords, pushing buttons and twisting any dials he could reach. When an elevator opened he walked in and pushed those buttons.

I was desperately running with Karis in the stroller around each of the twelve floors in sequence when I heard an announcement over the hospital P.A.: “A little boy who says his name is Danny is looking for his mommy. He can be retrieved from security on the first floor.” When I found him, Danny was having a fine time conversing with the security officer. I’m quite sure he had not been looking for his mommy.

Clearly, when I was the only adult, taking Danny with me to the hospital would not work. Bouncing around from one friend of mine to another was very hard on my little boy. To give him some stability I finally put him in nursery school. Months later, Karis would sob “My Danny, my Danny,” as she sat weeping by our front door while Dave took him off to preschool.

Danny 2 Karis 6 months

Danny 2, Karis 6 months

Bringing Karis home from the hospital did not resolve things for Danny, who would never again be the center of our little family. Karis required care and attention beyond the normal needs of a two-month-old. One day I heard Karis, whom I thought to be napping, start to cry, and then my son’s voice, “Mommy! Baby crying! Mommy! Baby crying!” He had climbed into her crib and was jumping up and down on her tummy, ileostomy, central line and all.

The hardest time was the 45-minute sterile procedure each day when I needed to change her central line dressing and flush the catheter. I had to “mummify” Karis with only her chest exposed and then pin her to the mattress to immobilize her. I couldn’t have Danny in the same room with us while her central line was vulnerable. Danny ignored his toys, books, and Sesame Street in favor of pounding on the locked door of Karis’s room and crying. It was awful for all of us.

One day mid-procedure, the pounding and crying stopped. What a relief! Finally (I thought) Danny learned fighting was futile and he might as well entertain himself until Karis and I emerged. When I unlocked the door, however, not-yet-two Danny was nowhere to be found. Still in my pajamas and slippers, I put Karis back in her crib and searched the entire house—no little boy! I ran outside. Danny’s red and yellow plastic car was missing from our porch, an ominous sign. Sprinting down the street in my PJs yelling Danny’s name, I saw an elderly neighbor sitting in a rocker on his front porch. He didn’t say anything, just pointed down the hill.

I tore downhill one…two…three blocks, terrified at what might have happened to Danny when he reached the very busy street at the bottom. But there was no sign of him: no emergency vehicles, no policemen detouring traffic around a smashed little red and yellow car or smashed little body. My worst fears relieved, I looked up past the flow of traffic to the train station on the other side. There he was, my small blond son sitting in his little plastic car gazing attentively down the train tracks. He could not understand why I was upset. “Mommy, I just wanted to see the train!”

Danny, an early talker who could win arguments with me at two years old, made it very clear he was not pleased to have a little sister in his life, even when we were not involved with medical procedures. One day it was ten-week-old Karis who disappeared. I finally found her fast asleep beyond my reach under our double bed. Danny played nearby with a satisfied look on his face. “Can we take her back to the hospital now?” he asked me.

Once as I toweled Karis after her bath, Danny lifted his shirt, studied his own round smooth tummy, and said, “Mommy, when am I going to get my ileostomy?”

Though Karis initially brought frustration and confusion into Danny’s little world, he was the hero in hers. Her first distinguishable words, “My Danny,” and her unwavering adoration won him over. He became her greatest advocate. They were best buddies, soulmates. Although, years later, after their two younger sisters were born, Karis told Danny, “God should have made me the oldest. I would do a much better job!”


Karis and Dan after her first transplant


“What’s with the rocks?”

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

Rock #1 green: a lesson in trust (not in the book!)

As I approached Karis’s transplant ICU room, I could hear her yelling. “Don’t come in here! The bomb is about to go off! Please, listen to me! DON’T COME IN HERE! It’s OK for me, but I don’t want you to die! Please, please, don’t come in here!”

Karis’s yelling dissolved into whimpers and then outright sobs as the nurse in fact entered her room. But when Karis saw me in the doorway, she started yelling again. “Mom, stop! There’s a bomb in the wall that’s going off any minute! Please, please don’t come in here!”

I respected Karis’s wishes because I saw her doctor coming down the hall. “I know. I heard. I’m trying to figure out what to do. Clearly Karis can’t stay here.”

Karis’s mental break had a name: ICU psychosis. The medication for ICU psychosis wasn’t working. Neither were my fervent prayers. Karis had been in this ICU so many times that everyone knew her, and seeing her like this was upsetting the whole unit.

I sat down in the hallway outside of Karis’s ICU room so that I wouldn’t upset her further by going in. Leaving Karis alone with the degree of fear I knew she was feeling went against every one of my mother-instincts. The situation was entirely out of my control.

Sitting there, I heard Dr. C talking with the head nurse of 11 North, one of two transplant floors. He had decided to try something very risky, which involved major sacrifice on the part of 11 North nurses: move a critically ill patient to a regular floor. This story is told in more detail elsewhere, but within hours back on 11 North, Karis was back to normal mentally and emotionally.

The nurses were as thrilled as I was to have “their” Karis back. Not once did I hear them complain about the extra work she caused them. For weeks the other nurses on the floor absorbed the patient load, each one caring for five patients instead of four, with the head nurse pitching in with more direct patient care than she had done in years.

The day came when only one nurse was assigned to Karis. Then the extra equipment disappeared, piece by piece. The day came when the unit was back to normal, with Karis just one of her nurse’s four patients.

The day came when I felt like things were back under control.

But there’s more to this story and to the lessons in trust God wanted to teach me through it. One day Karis spoke to me, looking into my eyes so I would know how serious she was. “I don’t ever want to return to the ICU. I would truly rather die than return to the ICU. Mom, don’t let anyone ever take me there again.”

With Dr. C’s help, Karis expressed her desires formally, legally, including a DNR order. That meant if her heart stopped or she was no longer breathing, she did not want to be resuscitated. The order was entered into her electronic record and taped to the front of her chart and posted by her bed. And Karis relaxed, more at ease than she had been since this whole episode began.

Until—her father arrived on a visit from Brazil and her brother came from DC. They walked onto 11 North and into Karis’s room together. After the initial greetings and hugs, one of them caught sight of the “No ICU, DNR” order. And they went ballistic, blasting out of the room to find Dr. C.

I sat by Karis’s bed and held her hand while we listened to them yelling in the hallway. Until I couldn’t stand it anymore, and went out to try to intervene. To regain some control. To advocate for Karis. I heard Dr. C firmly state, “No, I can’t change these orders. They are Karis’s express wishes.” My husband and my son charged right past me on their way back to Karis. To tell her that her wishes were unacceptable. To tell her their wishes had to be respected. That she had no rights over her own life. That she couldn’t just choose to die. That we all, as a family, had fought too long and too hard to just give up.

Barely containing my outrage, I watched Karis quietly listen to her father and her brother. Touching them, physically and emotionally. Calming them down. Telling them how much she loved them. Telling them it was OK; she would change the order. That she hadn’t meant to scare them or hurt them. I watched these two strong and beloved men weep as she tenderly cared for them.

And when they left to get something to eat, it was my turn to sit there as she cared for me. As she told me that it was OK. That God was in control of how long she would live, of when she would die. That when it was time, his will would be done—not hers, not her dad’s or her brother’s, not mine or anyone else’s. She didn’t need an order or a piece of paper with her signature. She had the Lord. And so did our whole family, even if we weren’t able to feel it all the time.

It took me a long time to fully work through the trauma of this situation; to sort it all through, especially with my husband. To find the lesson in trust the Lord had for me. A lesson Karis had already learned, long since. He holds the whole world in his hands, from the small people to the strong ones. All of us are vulnerable. All of us need to know someone else is in control. Someone worthy of our trust.


“What’s with the rocks?”

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

Rock #1 gold: a miracle story (not in the book!)

After her first transplant in August, 2004 Karis went into rejection. This was expected, but treatment failed to turn it around. Four weeks after she had been diagnosed with “mild” rejection, we received sobering news. Now in severe rejection, she also had a dangerous virus in her intestine. She was balancing precariously on the rejection/infection tightrope. Treatments for these two conditions are opposite. The immune system must be suppressed to prevent or treat rejection, but we need our immune systems in order to deal with infection.

On Tuesday, November 2, Karis’s friend Tina talked the doctors into giving Karis a pass out of the hospital so she could vote. Karis said she wasn’t up to it, but Tina cajoled and encouraged her, and Karis finally agreed: out, vote, and back to bed, beyond exhausted. That evening she started coughing.

The next evening, Wednesday, a nurse appeared in her room saying Karis was to go down for a CT scan of her intestine. “I must be getting a cold. I’m having a little trouble breathing,” Karis told me. The nurse, concerned, hooked her up to oxygen. I remember Karis coughing, and the CT people turning up her oxygen.

The next morning, Thursday, Karis was taken on another road trip, this time for an endoscopy. She would be intubated, and a scope put down through her mouth to visualize the upper portion of her transplanted intestine. We didn’t know the surgeons were doing this to evaluate whether they should remove Karis’s graft. They had reached the end of their rejection treatment options and feared the viruses in her intestine would contaminate her blood, a dangerous condition that would be virtually untreatable with her immune system destroyed.

Karis and I had a lovely, cheerful conversation in the endoscopy waiting room. I waved as she was taken to the OR, saying “See you in about an hour, Sweetheart.”

A few minutes later, though, a doctor I didn’t know appeared in the waiting room, asking me to sign consent for a bronchoscopy while Karis was under anesthesia. For this, a scope would be inserted into her lungs, withdrawing fluid for culture. Alarm bells went off in my head, but the doctor was reassuring. “We just need to check out something that showed up on last night’s CT,” he told me. “This should only delay her procedure by a few minutes.”

Two hours later one of Karis’s transplant surgeons showed up, looking sober. “Let’s sit down in the conference room,” he said. Only someone who has been there can imagine the fear those few words instill in a mother’s heart. I was not prepared for what he had to tell me.

“Karis has inflammation and fluid in her lungs and they are very stiff, as if they are in crisis. We don’t know yet exactly what’s going on. She’s not breathing well enough on her own so we didn’t wake her up from the endoscopy. She’s gone straight to a ventilator in the ICU. And her intestine looks much worse. There are many open, bleeding, ulcerated patches. I advise you to call your family together—you can do it from here if you like—and then go to the ICU waiting room. There may be a moment when we can briefly let you see Karis. Also . . . if your pastor can come it might be good for you to make plans in case you need them.”

I had casually waved goodbye to Karis and that might be my very last communication with her??!!

After I contacted my scattered family and our pastor, the first waves of shock and panic rolled in. Dr. M allowed our pastor and me a few precious moments with Karis, to anoint her and pray for her healing. Then we started making funeral plans. But I was functioning on auto-pilot, with no idea how I would react if or when Karis took a major turn for the worse. By the time my children and husband arrived I wanted to be able to focus all my attention on them.

Our son Dan arrived first, driving from New York Thursday evening. The news from the ICU went from bad to worse. Antibiotics were having no effect at all. The pneumonia had gone from first symptoms to critical in 36 hours. There was now only a small area at the top of each lung that was not consumed by infection.

Friday morning Dr. M explained to Dan and me that they had transferred Karis from a normal ventilator to an oscillator. The oscillator shook Karis’s body to force oxygen into her lungs, but it only worked if she was in one position on her back. If they shifted or turned her body at all, her oxygen level dropped. The constant shaking of her body made every part of her care more difficult.

Dan left for the airport to pick up our daughter Rachel, flying in from Chicago. I called Dave in Brazil with an update. He and our youngest daughter Valerie would fly from São Paulo that evening, to arrive in Newark early Saturday and in Pittsburgh late morning.

Friday afternoon, Dr. M gave us a flicker of hope! Here’s what he explained:

Reviewing the CT performed Wednesday evening of Karis’s intestines, the transplant team noticed that the CT had also caught the lower portion of her lungs, showing nodules that looked like fungal pneumonia. Knowing Karis was at that moment undergoing endoscopy, they immediately ordered the bronchoscopy. The timing was a miracle: even an hour later, Karis was too sick to tolerate that procedure. But instead of growing fungus, as expected, the culture from her lungs was growing bacteria. They had been giving Karis the wrong antibiotics.

A second miracle was this: a doctor who rotated between labs at various hospitals happened to be on duty at our hospital that morning. This man, who had done his PhD research on Legionella, was probably the only person in Pittsburgh capable of recognizing this early that Legionella was the bacteria growing in Karis’s cultures. There had not been a case of Legionnaire’s disease in this hospital for twelve years. The head of infectious diseases had seen only one case in his entire life.

“What this means,” Dr. M said, “is that each hour Karis stays alive strengthens our tiny flicker of hope a tiny bit—our tiny hope that there will be time for the correct antibiotics to do their work against the Legionella.”

Why did he have to keep emphasizing the word “tiny”?! Hope was hope, and my heart was grabbing on and holding tight!!

As we absorbed this information about Karis’s lungs, Dr. M explained the other big challenge. Karis’s transplanted intestine was disintegrating, because they had stopped all immunosuppressant medication in order to treat the pneumonia. They had to get the graft out before Karis went into septic shock. But Karis was still dependent on the oscillator, and doing surgery on a shaking body was simply impossible.

We needed a magic window in the next two or three days, when Karis’s lungs were well enough to transfer to a normal ventilator but before she died from sepsis. That is, if she stayed alive long enough for antibiotics to work against the Legionella.

Valerie describes what was happening meanwhile in São Paulo, Brazil: “I was in PE at school running laps when I saw my dad walk onto the field. I ran over to find out why he was there and he grabbed my arm and told me he was taking me home. He was acting really weird but didn’t explain anything—he was completely quiet all the way home. Then he told me to pack a suitcase for myself and one for him; he was too upset to do it himself. I didn’t find out what was going on until we were on the way to the airport. When we boarded the plane we didn’t know whether Karis would still be alive by the time we landed in Newark ten hours later. That was the worst trip I’ve ever made.”

When Dave and Val’s plane touched down at Newark early Saturday we were able to give them good news: Karis was still alive! Dave and Valerie still had to fly from Newark to Pittsburgh, but with a little less anxiety than they had experienced on the long flight from São Paulo. That afternoon I heard the ICU doctor tell Dave he thought Karis had a chance of surviving.

Hour by hour with many others around the world, we kept vigil. Hour by hour word came that Karis was still alive. But getting her off the oscillator was just not happening. On 100% oxygen her blood gases began gradually to improve, but the nurses still could not alter her position in bed even a little without immediate decompensation. Her lungs were too compromised by the invasive Legionella. Every system of her body was impacted by the double threat of virulent pneumonia and runaway rejection. As her kidneys and liver began to fail, our tiny flame of hope was flickering.

Two days passed, then three—the outer limit the surgeons had postulated for finding the “magic moment” to attempt surgery to remove Karis’s disintegrating intestine. This surgery would be more difficult than the original transplant surgery, but they would have to do it as fast as possible to limit her time under anesthesia.

Finally, on Tuesday evening Karis was successfully transferred from the oscillator to a regular ventilator! Surgery was scheduled for 7:45 the next morning. Our family lined up in the hallway that connected the ICU to the surgical suite. The ICU double doors suddenly popped open and the medical team came through the doors RUNNING with Karis down the hall to the OR, one of them kneeling precariously on her bed pumping oxygen into her lungs as they ran. We barely had time to wave and yell “We love you, Karis!” before they disappeared.

And then it was waiting time again. We just moved from the ICU waiting room down the hall and around the corner to the surgery waiting room. The surgeons had given us no hope that Karis could survive such an invasive surgery, with her lungs, kidneys, liver, and intestine all in terrible shape. As the minutes ticked by, though, our hope increased, and seven hours later we were called to line up in the hallway again to watch Karis being rushed from the OR back to the ICU. Miraculously, she was still ALIVE!

Karis herself, deeply sedated, had no idea what was happening to her, or of the miracles that had preserved her life. For 74 days in the ICU, most of that time in induced coma, she battled one complication after another. When she was finally released from the coma, from the ventilator, and from the ICU, we were told she was the sickest patient ever to leave that ICU alive. Her reaction? “Mom, why were you so worried? Of course I didn’t die. God still has plans for me here!”

Two Minutes

“What’s with the rocks?”

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

Rock #1 red:

On a lovely spring evening in Wheaton, Illinois, Karis Joy was born full term, chubby, and perfectly healthy. A midwife handled the textbook delivery, inviting daddy Dave to cut the cord. Our obstetrician, available in case of complications, sat on the couch reading stories to our 21-month-old Danny. At 8:30 Dave settled Danny with Karis in the rocking chair and we delightedly watched his fascination as he explored the mystery of his brand new baby sister.

I cherish this winsome, joy-filled memory; the lull before a storm that was on nobody’s radar.

[However . . . Karis never passed meconium—the first stool after a baby is born.]

I put that phrase in brackets because it seemed like an “oh by the way,” hardly germane to the celebration of fingers and toes, chubbiness and baldness and bright blue eyes. [Did I really forget to mention the absence of dirty diapers when the midwife came to check up on us the next day?]

Saturday morning I felt so good that I went to a party, eager to show off our little treasure. While Karis and I reveled in the accolades of our friends, Karis started vomiting. Not just spitting up, no: this was bright yellow, with a force and trajectory unbelievable from such a small body. (There’s a reason it’s called “projectile” vomiting, a classic sign of bowel obstruction.)

On Sunday, I spiked a high fever and quickly became very ill, so ill I thought I was going to die—and hoped I would. I spent several days in the hospital.

Dave miraculously managed to track down my parents, who had just arrived in Florida from their missionary home in Guatemala. They were en route to Wheaton to attend my brother’s college graduation and his wedding a few weeks later. Mom caught the next flight to Chicago, while Dad drove north in a rental car following their planned itinerary.

IV antibiotics worked their magic. Three days in the hospital restored my life. I went home Wednesday feeling an emotional high I have not experienced before or since. I was giddy. The sky was sapphire, the grass emerald, the spring flowers and emerging leaves intoxicatingly lovely. My mother was a saint, my husband a hero, my children gorgeous, my little house a palace . . .

In my euphoria, I could not, could not, absorb the fact that something might be seriously wrong with my little daughter. She had continued “throwing up,” as Mom and Dave referred to her projectile bilious vomiting. Well, I gaily concluded, Karis must be reacting to the formula my mother had fed her while I was in the hospital. Surely once she got that out of her system her stomach would settle. At Karis’s one-week checkup the next day, I downplayed the situation, quickly agreeing with the doctor that “all babies spit up.” Mom failed to comment on the complete absence of dirty diapers. Karis had lost weight, of course, but all babies lose weight their first week of life. She still looked great, at least to me, and the doctor did not seem concerned.

[I know, I totally agree with you: it makes no sense that I was in such denial. I am a nurse, after all. Graduated with honors and all that.]

The weekend was surreal. Since I was home and well again, Mom rejoined my dad at their scheduled missionary meetings, leaving just Dave and me to clean up after Karis. She could hit objects several feet away. We kept our washing machine humming with the bedding, clothing, and even curtains Karis targeted with her “throwing up.” We scrubbed walls, floors, and furniture while we waited for her system to “settle down.”

Karis and I developed a rhythm. I figured out that if I let Karis nurse for two minutes, she promptly threw up. But if I stopped her after just one minute, she didn’t—at least, not immediately.

It is simply unbelievable that we plowed bull-headedly through that exhausting weekend without seeking medical help.

Mom and Dad arrived in Wheaton Sunday evening. Monday morning, May 16th, Dave went off to work and Dad came by take eleven-day-old Karis and me to attend my brother’s graduation from Wheaton College. Dad took one look at Karis, his first time meeting her, and said, in that Daddy-voice one daren’t disobey, “You are not going to the graduation. You are getting in your car and taking Karis straight to the nearest doctor.”

Startled into sudden, desperate clarity, I drove quickly to the nearest pediatric clinic and walked in clutching Karis and fighting tears. “My baby needs to see a doctor,” I told the receptionist, who informed me they didn’t take walk-ins. I stood there and looked at her, my voice flatly emphatic: “My baby must see a doctor now; she’s throwing up a lot.” (Almost I added, “My daddy said so.”)

Irritated, she responded, “All babies throw up. Maybe you’re not burping her properly.” I just stood there and looked at her. Finally she threw up her hands and walked to the back.

“All right, the doctor will see you. But just for a couple of minutes, because you’re interfering with the schedule of our patients.”

“Thank you. Two minutes is all we need.”

She glared at me as if I was nuts and walked us not to an examination room, but to the doctor’s office.

“So, what do you think is wrong with your baby?” he asked me sharply from the other side of his big desk.

“Doctor, in two minutes, I will show you.”

I nursed Karis while he sat drumming his fingers on the desk, his eyes fixed on the wall clock above my head. “Time’s up,” he announced.

I disengaged Karis and turned her around to face him. Right on cue, she projectile-vomited all over him, several feet away behind that big desk.

Instantly he was all action, dialing the hospital and yelling for the nurse while he swiped at the bright yellow milk dripping down his face.

I suspect Dr. White never forgot those two minutes that transformed him into our first medical ally.

Remember . . . and Tell!

Deuteronomy 32:7, 46-47 Remember the days of long ago; think about the generations past. Ask your father, and he will inform you. Inquire of your elders, and they will tell you . . .  Take to heart the words I have given you. Pass them on to your children . . . These instructions are not empty words–they are your life!

stones of remembrance

I’m making a temporary change to what I post on this blog. Last fall I traveled to various places in the US to share “Stones of Remembrance,” stories that are not part of the Karis book. Many people asked for the stories they didn’t hear at their particular event. So I’m going to post them here, one at a time, starting with the number 1s and going through in order to the 7s. There’s no particular logic to the order of the stories other than that they happened to get labeled with these numbers.

At the book parties, participants chose stones to select which stories would be told at that event. The red numbers indicate fun, lighthearted, family stories. The gold are miracle stories, and the green are lessons in trust that I learned (and continue learning!) through walking with Karis.

The idea came from Joshua 4. God performed a miracle similar to what he had done at the Red Sea. After Israel had crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land on dry ground, God told Joshua to choose twelve stones, one for each tribe, as “stones of remembrance.” Joshua told the people, “In the future your children will ask you, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then you can tell them, ‘They remind us of what God did for us.'” (Joshua 4:6-7).

Similarly, each of my stones reminds me of what God did for us. This is something you can do too! You can collect some stones, and number them, and for each one write down what God has done for you and your family. God wants us to remember and to tell–tell others how God has been involved in your life.

I would love it if, by the time I’ve posted my 21 stories, some of you have stories you would like to share about what God has done in your life and/or for your family. You’ll have a few weeks to start writing these things down, God’s wonderful works that should not be forgotten.

Later this week I’ll post the first story, red stone #1. Each of the red stones represents God’s grace in giving our family fun and joy, in the midst of and through and surrounding the challenges we faced. One suggestion: these stories were written to be read out loud, so you might want to try that.

I’m going to be using this time to write more stories of what God has done for me and for our family. I hope you will join me in remembering . . . and telling, to the glory of God and the encouragement of his people, while we still can. Our parents, and most of that generation, are gone now. We can no longer ask them, and so much has been lost to us. Let’s pass on to our children and grandchildren the strength of knowing that God cares and is involved in our lives!



But God knows all your needs

Matthew 6:26-27, 30b-32 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? . . . He will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith? Don’t worry . . . these things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.


Yesterday was a potentially historic and pivotal day for Venezuela, as across the country people poured into the streets in protest of the existing government and a 35-year-old declared himself interim president, with support of the abolished national congress, the U.S., and many other countries and organizations.

We don’t know yet what will happen next. I tend to get very anxious and worried about Venezuela and the well-being of our friends there. Why do you have so little faith? Your heavenly Father already knows all their needs.

I have completed my scheduled “book parties,” and my next goal in regard to the Karis book is to find a way to publish it in Portuguese and Spanish for our friends who speak those languages. I tend to worry about whether I’ll be able to find a publisher interested in translating and distributing Karis. Will I have enough money from sales in English if I have to pay for translating and publishing it myself? Again, I hear Why do you have so little faith? Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.

When I let these and other worries dominate my thoughts, I am behaving as an unbeliever. But my heavenly Father already knows all your needs, both my own and the needs of each person I am concerned about. He will certainly care for you.

But the Holy Spirit produces fruit

Galatians 5:19-23 When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear . . .  But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!

With this post in mind,  I tried to capture the bright red berries on this holly bush, flourishing in the middle of icy cold winter. I’m not sure you can see them very well, but they cheered my heart as I thought about Christina and her family.

With no warning, our friend Christina a few days ago suffered a ruptured aneurysm in her brain. She was beginning to show signs of recovery when she had a second stroke. She’s in the neuro ICU now in a coma as doctors work to stabilize her.

In the midst of all this, Christina’s husband has requested—and received—support from the church for another family doing vigil in the ICU waiting room. When I learned about it, this Scripture came to mind. I praise God for the Holy Spirit’s fruit so evident in Christina’s loving family.

Will you join us in prayer for our dynamic friend Christina, who works with the Sunday School and with a special needs ministry at our church? And for the family her husband has befriended?

Thank you!

But God chose me

Galatians 1:13-15 You know what I was like . . . how I violently persecuted God’s church. . . . But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by his marvelous grace.

Karis didn’t believe in accidents. She had such confidence in God’s sovereignty, power, and personal involvement in her life that that she thought there was a reason, a purpose, for everything that happened to her. She was always asking, “What does God want to do with this . . . “ hospitalization, crisis, pain, disappointment, loss, opportunity—you can fill in the blank.

Of course, Karis recognized that she sometimes caused her own suffering, by a choice to eat something she knew would make her sick, for example, and that the “purpose” of her pain in that case was to teach her better discipline. Sometimes she thought her “rebellion” was worth the pain, just to be able to savor a bit of what the rest of the world experienced without consequences. Often, though, it backfired. She wrote near the beginning of her first semester at Notre Dame:

Aug 30, 2001 After dinner I walked over and picked up a cone, filled it with frozen yogurt, and walked home. On the way to Welsh Fam [her dorm] I was asking myself why I had done that. I’m sick, going to be sicker. Why?

Oh, I was just angry, that’s all, angry at my elusive limits, terrified of this life I’ve gotten myself into. They keep on saying you can miss only three classes or you’ll flunk; if you get behind on the homework you’ll never catch up again.

Oh Lord, help me! I’ll never make it—how could I possibly? I have never in my entire life missed less than three classes a semester or gone without dropping behind. I’m in so much pain. But my body is not where the real pain is . . . You know that.

If Karis put herself into this passage from Galatians, she might say, “You know what I was like—how I sometimes did violence to my body, the temple of the Lord. It just shows even more clearly how amazing God’s grace is, that he chose me, even before I was born, to fulfill his purpose of showing his love to the people around me. It’s all about his grace.”

I have to admit I struggle with Karis’s perspective of God’s sovereignty. I know he can bring good out of any given situation. “But God . . . !” Humans can so hurt themselves and each other, though, and the consequences can be so awful, that I sometimes have trouble hanging on to the optimism and trust that seemed natural to Karis. I understand in my gut the temptation to end the suffering by one’s own hand. God’s “marvelous grace” sometimes gets hidden beneath the weight of trouble and sorrow. Karis encourages me to believe that grace does exist, and that it’s worth seeking, like hidden treasure.

“I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches. I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord, the one who calls you by name.” Isaiah 45:3

But God welcomes us, by David Schlafer

Matthew 2:1-15  . . . Some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.” King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this . . . The wise men went their way . . . When they saw the star they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts . . .

Can you think of a time when you felt clearly out of place? That’s not the same as being away from home. A needed vacation, a change in vocation—either can take us to new and strange, even scary places. But coping with a different place is not the same as feeling out of place. It is, in fact, quite possible to find yourself out of place without ever leaving home:

  • Older kids come over to play with your big sister, and suddenly you don’t have a playmate anymore.
  • You come into a room in your house to find people huddled in animated conversation. Everyone suddenly stops talking. They look up at you with “No Trespassing” signs on their faces.
  • You go back to your alma mater for a class reunion. All your old classmates have made a success of interesting careers. You are stuck in a job that’s going nowhere.

The circumstances can vary widely, but wherever you are, the feeling is the same: I really don’t belong here.  I am out of place.    

What is it that makes the difference between strange territory and alien territory? It’s not so much the place itself as the people that you find there. A fascinating new world can go suddenly flat if you are greeted with uninviting stares. On the other hand, the icy inscrutability of unfamiliar surroundings can melt in a heartbeat if you are met with a warm word of welcome. Part of what often encourages us to venture away from home, in fact, is the belief—or at least the hope—that we will find a word of welcome when we come at last to journey’s end.

Today we hear a story about some folks who do leave home and venture into a far country. A star that they follow seems to convey the impression that they will find a welcome in the land toward which they’re heading.

Wrong!  So much for putting your trust in stars! The wise men stand around in Herod’s palace feeling decidedly out of place. The formal courtesies—they create a chasm. The interest in their mission—it is feigned, forced—palpably hostile.

This is not what the wise men left home to find.

But—cut the King some slack—will you? His Excellency himself is doubtless feeling out of place as well. This unexpected visit can only underscore the anxiety Herod surely feels already. Being a king is not all it’s cracked up to be. “Uneasy is the head that wears the crown,” and Herod’s is uneasier than most. Is Herod selfish? Yes, indeed! Cruel and vicious? Absolutely! Is he powerful? That all depends on what you mean by “power.” Does he have cause to be uneasy? Oh, yes he does! Rome is not an easy-going overlord. Judea is not an easily ruled underling. Herod’s home is a throne on which he does not fit.

Herod is a man who is utterly out of place. Small wonder he makes everyone around him feel the same. Small wonder, too, that, in the presence of these strange visitors, the whole royal court feels every bit as out of place as it makes the wise men feel.

Well!  Nothing for them to do but pack it up, and head on out. This is obviously a dead end—a mission totally misdirected. They might as well go back to the familiar territory from which they’ve come. They probably should never have left home in the first place.

But NO! the star says. NO! And it proceeds to shine them through the final short leg of the journey toward the Welcome they’ve come a long hard way to worship.

When they arrive at last, do the travelers receive the welcome that they came for? Of course, they do!  I should hope they would! Who in their right minds would turn away visitors bearing gifts? Why shouldn’t the Holy Family welcome the wise men with open arms? Gold, frankincense, myrrh—these are very expensive presents!

Yes, the gifts are expensive, all right—and perhaps not only in the way that immediately comes to mind. The gifts these visitors bring come with a high cost to those who receive them—a cost of which those who bring the gifts can hardly have an inkling. But it is a cost, I suspect, that the family to whom they are given has already begun to sense. I can’t think the urgent call to leave for Egypt—a warning call that comes to Joseph in a dream right after the wise men leave—I can’t think that this call descends on him as a total surprise. After all, Joseph and Mary already know by hard experience what it is to be displaced.

Yet here is the irony of it all: it is these Displaced Persons who give the wise men welcome. To all external observations, if anyone should feel at home, Herod should. If anyone should feel out of place, the Holy Family should. And yet things are exactly the opposite of what it seems they should be.

Matthew’s Story of the Visit of the Magi vividly prefigures the life and teaching of the One whom the wise men come to worship. Matthew’s Gospel begins with a standard genealogy—fathers and sons, fathers and sons. But it contains four names that are clearly out of place—women’s names—women, who, through no fault of their own, would have been subjected to shaming and ostracism in their patriarchal cultures. Mary, whom Joseph takes to wife under analogously eyebrow raising circumstances, is in Good Company—the Company of God’s own Commonwealth Kingdom. Mary’s Baby Boy grows up, in Matthew’s telling, to teach in parable after parable, that the Commonwealth of God makes its home precisely where conventional wisdom would decree it totally “out of place.”

Mary’s Jesus Child offers wisdom, food, care, and healing with deliberately discriminating indiscriminacy. He shares His gifts without regard to gender, race, social status, religious affiliation, or political allegiance, even though (as Matthew quotes Him) He Himself has nowhere to lay his head.

Interesting, is it not, how those who know what it’s like to be displaced are frequently the ones who are most adept at making others welcome? Interesting, is it not, that those who cling for dear life to places they cannot hope to hold—these are the very ones who inflict on others their own sense of profound dis-ease? The moves folks make in the power games they play are almost always ploys to seize and secure a place that is forever slipping through their fingers.

Today we celebrate a very different kind of power move—a move in which the Lord of life does not cling to the prerogatives of His position, but gives them up, so that all who have been displaced, or made to feel out of place, are freed to find, in Him, a welcome. And if this welcome is as deep and wide and clear and strong as it claims to be, then even the Herods in our own hearts will no longer need to clutch their shaky thrones, because those thrones are not only insecure but utterly unnecessary.

On our horizons, out of nowhere, unexpected stars can sometimes blaze, calling us from the comfort zones and familiar surroundings of “Home, Sweet Home.” In a curious mixture of trust and trepidation, we follow the light these stars shed on a step-by-step journey toward the Lord of Life. We carry with us whatever gifts we may have to offer. And the One who has no place to lay His head spares no expense to bid us welcome.

That is a Welcome worth leaving home to find. That is a Welcome worth leaving home to share. And doing so, we may just find that, like the magi, we end up returning home “by another way.”

But God had a plan

2 Timothy 1:9 For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.

How are you at planning? This question makes me smile when I think of Karis. She made extensive plans, many of which she wasn’t able to follow through on.  But that didn’t keep her from planning her next adventure, outing, meal (though she could seldom eat, she LOVED planning crazy menus!), or project. Here’s an example from her journal:

Oct 13, 2008 I got out of the hospital yesterday [from a bowel obstruction] and was just walking down beautiful South Pacific Avenue  thinking of making cookies for each of the neighbors as a way of thanking them for their gardens and getting to know them. I’ll also go on Craigslist and E-bay to look for a better stationary bike. I want to participate in the Friday night group at Jay’s, as well as the women’s group and the Bible study on Wednesday at Alan’s. I’ll have to check out Refugee Services and RAND Corps and UPMC and the Post Gazette for jobs and work on my translation and my thesis and my novel that starts at the corner of Liberty and Gross and ends at the corner of Friendship and Gross Streets.

How many of these things was she able to accomplish? Virtually none of them. But she continued in ensuing entries to brainstorm how best to help slum children in Brazil, creation of a system of children’s libraries there, what was needed in order to revolutionize the Brazilian medical system, and her desire to comb old folks’ homes to capture people’s stories before they were lost.

Karis loved making things for people’s birthdays or Christmas, with all good intentions for completing them on time. Since so often she didn’t manage to do so, she celebrated birthday “weeks.” Sometimes she was able to complete her gift within the week. But eventually, birthday weeks turned into birthday months. Our family has birthdays in January, February, March, April, May, July, August, November, and December. That’s a lot of celebrating! Exactly the way Karis loved to live her life–celebrating each other all the time.

When I woke up this morning, thinking “Today is the tenth day of Christmas” (lords a leaping, anyone?) I realized I could pull a Karis: I could still say Merry Christmas to you, despite my plan to have said it much sooner. And Happy New Year! I hope you (and I) find time to celebrate God’s grace through Jesus every day of 2019! And I’m so glad that when God makes plans, he fulfills them! Even for Karis’s life . . .