A story in three parts

But God gives joy

Psalm 145:7 Everyone will share the story of your wonderful goodness; they will sing with joy about your righteousness.

Psalm 90:14-16 Satisfy us each morning with your unfailing love, O Lord, so we may sing for joy to the end of our lives. Give us gladness in proportion to our former misery! Replace the evil years with good. Let us, your servants, see you work again; let our children see your glory.

A couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of a small group meeting, the leader asked us each to share in one word what we were feeling. I surprised myself by saying “joy.”

Why is that worth telling you about? Isn’t that a fairly common experience?

Well, not for me, not at this time of the year.

Since 2014, the cold, dark, gray days have put a dragging sense of foreboding in the pit of my stomach. I know what’s coming. The constant struggle to keep Karis warm as she bounces in and out of the hospital. The quickly approaching end of November date the nephrologist gave us when Karis’s kidneys would stop functioning. Her increasing lack of strength and energy. Her most-of-the-night pre-Christmas conversation with Hildete, when she and Pastor Vandeir visited us from Brazil, about her death and how it would impact her family and all she had wanted to accomplish and her sense that the Promise and the Prophecy given to her at age 16 had not been fulfilled. The aborted trip to Florida when she developed a line infection the day before we were to fly. The wrenching I felt leaving her behind in the ICU. Her middle-of-the-night call, her hoarse voice barely audible: “Mama, please come.” The diagnosis of H1N1, swine flu. And all the events leading to her death in the wee hours of Feb. 5th, the roads so icy we couldn’t make it to the hospital for several more hours.

Every other year before this one, at this time of the year, I haven’t been able to shake the waves of grief associated with the holiday season. So, yes: for me, to realize I was feeling joy and anticipation instead of grief and dread was an amazing experience, this ninth year since it all happened.

My three-part story today is one of gratitude. The first part was the thirty years of life with Karis. The second part was the long grieving of living without her. The third part is the discovery that joy can take the place of grief. It’s such a hopeful feeling. I want to say to everyone grieving a huge loss, “Don’t despair! It may take a long time. Each person’s experience is different. But I know now it’s possible to reach the third part of the story, when tears flow out of deep joy and thankfulness instead of the deep pain of mourning.” I’m tasting the joy Karis herself feels now!

How can it be

But God finds joy in us

2 Peter 1:16-18  For we were not making up clever stories when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We saw his majestic splendor with our own eyes when he received honor and glory from God the Father. The voice from the majestic glory of God said to him, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy.” We ourselves heard that voice from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.

John 17:18, 22, 26 [Jesus prayed,] “Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world. … I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. … I have revealed you to them, and I will continue to do so. Then your love for me will be in them, and I will be in them.”

Shutterstock: Victoria_vector_art

Last Saturday, August 6, the Church worldwide remembered the Transfiguration of Jesus, another pivotal moment in his life when, as at his Baptism, God the Father reminded his Son that he loved him and found great joy in him.

So it seems fitting that we conclude our consideration of Peter’s writings by returning to chapter 1 of his second letter, when he recalls the impact of Jesus’ transfiguration on his own life. Peter was there! He saw the glory of the Lord revealed on that mountain. He must have recalled his own inept response, yet that was swallowed up into the wonder of this intimacy with his Lord. We saw with our own eyes … we heard … we were with him.”

After his baptism, the Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, where he was tempted. After his transfiguration, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, where he would be killed. In both moments of his life on planet Earth, Jesus carried as an anchor in his soul his Father’s love and his own deep resonance with his Father’s joy.

One of the greatest delights of my life is to walk into the home of either of my daughters and be met with cries of “Grammy! Grammy!” Talita does a little dance. Caleb runs to show or tell me something. Liliana stretches out her arms. And my heart responds with profound gratitude. “Thank you, Lord, that through these little ones you communicate your love and joy to me. I receive it with thanksgiving and wonder.”

There’s another side, though, to August 6. It’s also the anniversary of the first bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima. Greater even than the wonder of the love of children is the mystery that God still loves and claims his children even when they destroy one another. Even when they crucified Jesus. Even then, Peter tells us, God is patient, not wanting anyone to be destroyed but rather to repent (2 Peter 3:9). On the cross, Jesus said about those who were driving those horrid nails into his flesh, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

“Tis mercy all, immense and free. … Amazing love, how can it be.”

What socks are you wearing?

But God encourages  January 31, 2022

2 Corinthians 1:3, 4:6-7, 7:5-6 God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. … For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts … but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. … We faced conflict from every direction, with battles on the outside and fear on the inside. But God, who encourages those who are discouraged, encouraged us by the arrival of Titus.

Genesis 16:13 Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are El-roi, the God who sees me.”

At the memorial service yesterday, hidden inside my boots, there was a hole in my sock. A big one. Not at all attractive.

I may have looked decently put together, but I knew the hole was there. God knew too. He didn’t care about my sock, but he cared about what it symbolized for me, the hole in my heart. God saw. The same El-roi who appeared to Hagar in her wilderness. I feel her awe.

God, who encourages those who are discouraged, appeared to Hagar through an angel. He encouraged Paul through Titus. He comforted me yesterday through Jeanne. Her gifts of music unveiled to me the Presence of God with us, evoking the deep comfort of her ministry to us through Karis’s memorial, almost eight years ago.

In this marvelous way—tailor-made, it seemed, for me, though doubtless the beauty and power of worship touched each person there—God strengthened me to walk into this week. Joy and sorrow will blend somehow as I share in the happiness of my brother’s wedding while reliving both the grief and the solace engendered by Karis’s death.

But Jeanne’s ministry of worship yesterday also touched and softened a current grief. My dear friend Mary, whom God used to shine light into my darkness so many times through our years in Brazil, lies in a São Paulo ICU breathing through the support of a respirator, her lungs 75% consumed by Covid. Before I go to bed and first thing when I wake up, I check for news, entrusting her and her family many times a day to the mercies of God.

Yesterday, as the service guided us to think about Sharon free, well, and joyful in the presence of her Lord, I pictured Mary there with her. Both women poured out their gifts of worship and of intercession and counsel to bless and comfort and encourage many, many people. Both suffered huge losses in life; both lost dearly loved sons. Both, through the deep empathy engendered by their own suffering, shone light into the darkness of others. As Jeanne did for me yesterday, in a reprise of her ministry to me almost eight years ago.

Perhaps you have no hidden hole on your sole. Perhaps, though, you have a tattered place in your soul. Perhaps no one else knows it’s there. But God sees. He sees you. Through Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, he understands your fragility. Your fear. Your need. I pray he will touch the tender areas of your heart today with his comfort and healing and encouragement. As he did for Hagar. As he did for me.

Today, I’m changing my socks.

“… your feet shod with shalom” (Eph. 6:15)

Bittersweet Christmas

But God heard my cry for mercy

Psalm 31:5, 21-22 I entrust my spirit into your hand. Rescue me, Lord, for you are a faithful God. … I am dying from grief; my years are shortened by sadness. … In panic I cried out, “I am cut off from the Lord!” But you heard my cry for mercy and answered my call for help.

“It’s the hap-happiest time of the year …”

Well, no. Not for everyone.

The first Christmas after Karis died, I thought I would drown in grief. She loved Christmas so. I couldn’t bring myself to do the fun Christmas-y things: the tree, the decorating, the baking, the gifts. I wanted somehow to leap over not only Christmas but January, when Karis was hospitalized with a line infection and, unknown to us, H1N1, and February, with her death and memorial service and indescribable pain. I wanted to skip winter altogether. I wanted spring, with its hope of new life, with reassurance there was still reason to live.

Rachel and Valerie came to my rescue, though they were grieving too. They managed Christmas for our family that year. I didn’t realize how hard this was for them until Rachel mentioned it a couple of weeks ago as we discussed plans for this year.

Yesterday’s poem in Guite’s Waiting on the Word, number 28 of 131 poems published in 1850 as In Memoriam, is framed around the sound of Christmas bells. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote these poems across seventeen years, tracing his grief over the sudden death of his best friend. His pain is still raw, yet the last stanza carries a note of hope:

                             This year I slept and woke with pain,

                                           I almost wish’d no more to wake,

                                           And that my hold on life would break

                             Before I heard those bells again.

                             But they my troubled spirit rule,

                                           For they controll’d me when a boy;

                                           They bring me sorrow touch’d with joy,

                             The merry, merry bells of Yule.

“Sorrow touch’d with joy.” It’s an apt description of my first few Christmases after Karis’s death. Grieving is not speedy. If we try to skip over the pain, it won’t heal. The only way out is through.

This year, I find I can invert Tennyson’s phrase. “Joy touch’d with sorrow”—yes. That works. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for hearing my cry for mercy.

The joy candle, third Sunday of Advent Shutterstock: Roza Sharipova

But God gave joy in a time of trouble

Acts 8:1, 4-8, 26-39 A great wave of persecution began that day [with the stoning of Stephen], sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers were scattered. … But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. Philip, for example, went to Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. … So there was great joy in that city. … [Then God sent Philip to walk down a desert road.] He met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority … Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. … The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch ever saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.

“Karis my joy,” Dave used to call her, since we’d named her Karis Joy. And bringing joy to others delighted her.

“I wonder who God has for me in the hospital this time.”

Karis loved, loved, loved being home, having “a life.” So each time she had to be hospitalized she was bummed—if she was still conscious, that is. Usually, by the time we arrived at the ER, she had shifted into anticipation of who she might meet. Her dozens and dozens of hospitalizations were peppered with special encounters. As soon as she was well enough to be out of bed, she’d be out discovering who was there. Fellow transplant patients from a variety of nations, their children and other relatives, nurses, doctors, therapists—I could tell a thousand stories.

December, 2008 with one of Karis’s favorite doctors. She had been in the hospital for weeks. Finally we celebrated her homecoming, but the very next day she had to return, with bleeding from her intestine too severe to manage at home.

This attitude was not unique to Karis. Other patients also reached out, sharing life and encouragement. I remember Crysta’s little girl bringing Karis brightly colored and stickered cards. Angie shared a movie with us. Carissa brought modeling clay and books and what Karis called “intelligent conversation.” Some patients were one-timers, in Pittsburgh for special procedures. But the “regular” intestinal transplant crew, because most of them were long-term-care patients, became a family. Again, I could tell a zillion stories.

I’m smiling as I think about this. We laughed and wept, rejoiced and grieved for each other. Our nurses and doctors and therapists were wrapped into this community of love. Each loss—and there were so many—was cushioned within the blanket of comfort and understanding of others facing the same overwhelming challenges.

Karis had her eye out particularly for the international patients. With her five languages she could communicate with almost anyone, and the intestinal transplant world was truly a “united nations.” Everything we faced, they dealt with through the confusion of a foreign language and perplexing customs, far away from their usual support systems. Karis befriended them, in the hospital and out.


But God released him

Acts 2:23-24, 33 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 … Now he is exalted to the place of highest honor in heaven, at God’s right hand. And the Father, as he had promised, gave him the Holy Spirit to pour out upon us.

Imagine the joy, the song, the excitement! Hope renewed.

I tasted this joy so many times over the course of Karis’s life. The joy of life over death, even in the simplicity of IV fluids restoring warmth and color and consciousness to my daughter passed out from dehydration—how many times? Countless. Or seeing her rally against all odds when the doctors told us to call our family together to say goodbye.

But all that pales beside this joy, Jesus alive again! No wonder Peter was so excited he kept a crowd of thousands enthralled for a very long time, with about three thousand responding to his appeal. If you saw someone who was dead come back to life, wouldn’t you want to tell everyone about it?

Neighborhood deer ate my pansies down to the dirt. But they’re coming back! I was so excited to see this bloom today.

At the same time, we know Peter couldn’t and wouldn’t have preached this sermon had it not been for the filling of the Holy Spirit, the gift Jesus had promised his followers before he died. Right away we see some of the fruit of the Spirit in Peter. I love his quoting from Psalm 16:

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…

You have shown me the way of life,

And you will fill me with the joy of your presence.

How different these words are from the Peter of a few weeks before, defeated by his own betrayal of Jesus, ready to quit, to give up on Jesus’ call and return to fishing fish instead of men.

The Holy Spirit lets us know God is with us; we are not abandoned. And where the Spirit is present, there is joy, worship, hope, life—even in distressing circumstances. A joy and hope we couldn’t possibly manufacture ourselves.

Why didn’t Karis give up? Only because of the life and joy of the Spirit within her. The same Spirit in you and me, whatever circumstances we each face. Turn on praise music and dance! God is with you!

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead!

1 Corinthians 15:17-20 If Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 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.

On this last day of Easter season (Pentecost is tomorrow), we come to “the” chapter about the resurrection of Jesus, 58 verses of some of Paul’s most enthusiastic defense of our faith.

Valerie quoted from verses 42-57 in her blog post Feb. 5, 2014, the day Karis died. So of course that’s the first thing that comes to my mind as I re-read this chapter. The foundation of our confidence in the transformation of Karis’s weak, broken body into a body that will never die is Jesus’ own triumph over death, and his promises that we too will be raised to unending Life—our experience here just a shadow of the real thing. It’s why we can smile as we think of Karis now, in the joy of her victory over death, made possible by Jesus’ resurrection. It’s the joy at the center of the universe, the “deeper magic,” as C.S. Lewis described it.

Paul illustrates the transformation of our bodies with the analogy of what grows from a seed that is buried

But today what is on my mind is the hope we have for the many friends dying from Covid in Latin America and Brazil, more every day. Since our work is with pastors, those are the ones we primarily hear about from the safety of Pittsburgh. Hundreds of pastors across South America, caring for their people without PPE, without vaccines, and without adequate medical care, literally laying down their lives for their sheep (John 10:11).

I want to honor them today, even as we pray for their families and congregations and friends, left behind for now. They did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die (Revelation 12:11).

Because of our confidence in the resurrection, Paul says to us, Be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless (verse 58). And borrowing from chapter 16, verse 13: Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love.