To Feel the Hem of Heaven

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Your days are short here; this is the last of your springs.
And now in the serenity and quiet of this lovely place,
touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of Heaven.
You will go away with old, good friends.
And don’t forget when you leave why you came.

~Adlai Stevenson, to the Class of ’54 Princeton University

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I was eight years old in June 1963 when the Readers’ Digest arrived in the mail inside its little brown paper wrapper. As usual, I sat down in my favorite overstuffed chair with my skinny legs dangling over the side arm and started at the beginning,  reading the jokes, the short articles and stories on harrowing adventures and rescues, pets that had been lost and found their way home, and then toward the back came to the book excerpt: “The Triumph of Janis Babson” by Lawrence Elliott.

Something about the little girl’s picture at the start of the story captured me right away–she had such friendly eyes with a sunny smile that partially hid buck teeth.  This Canadian child, Janis Babson, was diagnosed with leukemia when she was only ten, and despite all efforts to stop the illness, she died in 1961.  The story was written about her determination to donate her eyes after her death, and her courage facing death was astounding.  Being nearly the same age, I was captivated and petrified at the story, amazed at Janis’ straight forward approach to her death, her family’s incredible support of her wishes, and especially her final moments, when (as I recall 54 years later) Janis looked as if she were beholding some splendor, her smile radiant.

”Is this Heaven?” she asked.   She looked directly at her father and mother and called to them:  “Mommy… Daddy !… come… quick !”

And then she was gone.  I cried buckets of tears, reading and rereading that death scene.  My mom finally had to take the magazine away from me and shooed me outside to go run off my grief.  How could I run and play when Janis no longer could?  It was a devastating realization that a child my age could get sick and die, and that God allowed it to happen.

Yet this story was more than just a tear-jerker for the readers.  Janis’ final wish was granted –those eyes that had seen the angels were donated after her death so that they would help another person see.  Janis  had hoped never to be forgotten.  Amazingly, she influenced thousands of people who read her story to consider and commit to organ donation, most of whom remember her vividly through that book excerpt in Readers’ Digest.  I know I could not sleep the night after I read her story and determined to do something significant with my life, no matter how long or short it was.  Her story influenced my eventual decision to become a physician.  She made me think about death at a very young age as that little girl’s tragic story could have been mine and I was certain I could never have been so brave and so confident in my dying moments.

Janis persevered with a unique sense of purpose and mission for one so young.  As a ten year old, she developed character that some people never develop in a much longer lifetime.  Her faith and her deep respect for the gift she was capable of giving through her death brought hope and light to scores of people who still remember her to this day.

Out of the recesses of my memory, I recalled Janis’ story a few years ago when I learned of a local child who had been diagnosed with a serious cancer.  I could not recall Janis’ name, but in googling “Readers’  Digest girl cancer story”,  by the miracle of the internet I rediscovered her name, the name of the book and a discussion forum that included posts of people who were children in the sixties, like me,  who had been incredibly touched by Janis when they read this same story as a child.  Many were inspired to become health care providers like myself and some became professionals working with organ donation.

Janis and family, may you know the gift you gave so many people through your courage in the midst of suffering, and the resulting hope in the glory of the Lord.  Your days were short here, but you touched the depth of truth and touched the hem of heaven.
~~the angels are coming indeed.

We who have been your old good friends,  because of your story,  have not forgotten how you left us and why you came in the first place.

For excerpts from “The Triumph of Janis Babson”, click here

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The Angles of Winter

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Long yellow rushes bending
above the white snow patches;
purple and gold ribbon
of the distant wood:
what an angle
you make with each other as
you lie there in contemplation.
–  William Carlos Williams, January Morning – XII

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For the past eleven days, millions of us wake reluctant to contemplate the headlines:

At what cross purposes are we now?
What right and left angles have been sharpened in the night?
What blowing snow covers a multitude of sins, hiding what we know lies beneath?

And when, O God,  will a naked and merciless January yield to the more welcoming light of Your spring?

 

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Perfectly and Completely Rotten

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O lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
                 rotten
hardly a contour marred–

                 perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
                 aside perfect
in every detail! O lovely

                 apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
                 mantles that
unspoiled surface! No one

                 has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
                 rail a month ago
to ripen.

                 No one. No one!
~William Carlos Williams “Perfection”

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“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:
I am.
Sincerely Yours,
G. K. Chesterton.’

That is the attitude of someone who has grasped the message of Jesus.”
~Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God (New York: Dutton, 2008)

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No one of us escapes the rottenness that lies not-so-deep beneath our shiny surface.  We are full of wormholes allowing the world inside to eat us alive.

We are the problem and the problem is us. That is why we need rescue by a Savior who is the one good apple among a barrel of contagiously bad apples. We are so tainted, it takes Someone who truly is Perfect to transform us from the inside out.

We’ve elected someone who is emphatically a reflection of who we are — bad and rotten and more than willing to spoil the barrel with his history of immoral and unethical behavior, his contentious and profane words, his complete lack of humility and his unwillingness to admit his flaws.

May we hang on to hope that our dis-united states will once again survive an imperfect leader, just as we’ve survived the other rotten apples we’ve placed over us.

We get exactly what we deserve in a President and no one should be celebrating that today.

May we fall to our knees, weeping and grateful, that Christ, who is the Leader of all in His Kingdom, will grant us a grace and sanctuary we emphatically don’t deserve.

Now that would be reason to celebrate.

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North Brooklin, Maine
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
Sincerely,
[Signed, ‘E. B. White’] from Letters of Note

A Heart Full of Grace

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We have a new definition of greatness: it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve.  You don’t have to have a college degree to serve.  You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve.  You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve.  You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve.  You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve.  You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.  in a February 1968 sermon:  “The Drum Major Instinct”, A Knock At Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

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No matter how big a nation is, it is no stronger that its weakest people, and as long as you keep a person down, some part of you has to be down there to hold him down, so it means you cannot soar as you might otherwise.
~Marian Anderson, American opera singer at two presidential inaugurals, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and US State Dept. Goodwill Ambassador

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Dr. King’s words and wisdom in his sermons spoken over fifty years ago continue to inform us of our shortcomings as we flounder in our flaws and brokenness, persisting in our resistance to serve one another out of humility, grace and love.

Perhaps today we can unite in our shared tears:
shed for continued strife and disagreements,
shed for the injustice that results in senseless killings,
shed for our inability to hold up one another as a holy in God’s eyes.

We can weep together as the light dawns on this day, knowing, as Dr. King knew, a new day will come when the Lord God will wipe tears away from all faces — all colors — just as He created them.

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As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression.
In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged.
And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air
– however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.
~William O. Douglas

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Be careful whom you choose to hate.
The small and the vulnerable own a protection great enough,
if you could but see it,
to melt you into jelly.

~Leif Enger from Peace Like a River

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Do you know why this world is as bad as it is?
It is because people think only about their own business,
and won’t trouble themselves to stand up for the oppressed,
nor bring the wrong-doers to light.
My doctrine is this,
that if we see cruelty or wrong that we have the power to stop,
and do nothing, we make ourselves sharers in the guilt.
~Anna Sewell from Black Beauty

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…if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavage in broken community. I can only close the gap in broken community by meeting hate with love. If I meet hate with hate, I become depersonalized, because creation is so designed that my personality can only be fulfilled in the context of community.
Booker T. Washington was right: “Let no man pull you so low as to make you hate him.”

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

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In Dazzling Darkness

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Deep midwinter, the dark center of the year,
Wake, O earth, awake,
Out of the hills a star appears,
Here lies the way for pilgrim kings,
Three magi on an ancient path,
Black hours begin their journeyings.

Their star has risen in our hearts,
Empty thrones, abandoning fears,
Out on the hills their journey starts,
In dazzling darkness God appears.
~Judith Bingham “Epiphany”

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…the scent of frankincense
and myrrh
arrives on the wind,
and I long
to breathe deeply,
to divine its trail.
But I know their uses
and cannot bring myself
to breathe deeply enough
to know
whether what comes
is the fragrant welcoming
of birth
or simply covers the stench of death.
These hands
coming toward me,
is it swaddling they carry
or shroud?
~Jan Richardson from Night Visions –searching the shadows of Advent and Christmas

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Unclench your fists

Hold out your hands.

Take mine.

Let us hold each other.

Thus is his Glory Manifest.
~Madeleine L’Engle “Epiphany”

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All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
~T.S. Eliot from “Journey of the Magi”

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The Christmas season is a wrap, put away for another year.
However, our hearts are not so easily boxed up and stored as the decorations and ornaments of the season.

Our troubles and concerns go on; our frailty a daily reality.
We can be distracted with holidays for a few weeks, but our time here slips away ever more quickly.

The Christmas story is not just about light and birth and joy to the world.
It is about how swaddling clothes became a shroud that wrapped Him tight.
There is not one without the other.

God came to be with us;
Delivered so He could deliver.
Planted on and in the earth.
Born so He could die in our place
To leave the linen strips behind, neatly folded.

Christmas:  an unwrapping that frees us forever.
Epiphany: the evidence the Seed has taken root in our hearts.

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Preparing the Heart: What is Coming Behind the Crocus

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This is why I believe that God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders. The miracles that have already happened are, of course, as Scripture so often says, the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise.

…To be sure, it feels wintry enough still: but often in the very early spring it feels like that.  Two thousand years are only a day or two by this scale.  A man really ought to say, ‘The Resurrection happened two thousand years ago’  in the same spirit in which he says ‘I saw a crocus yesterday.’

Because we know what is coming behind the crocus.

The spring comes slowly down the way, but the great thing is that the corner has been turned.  There is, of course, this difference that in the natural spring the crocus cannot choose whether it will respond or not.

We can. 

We have the power either of withstanding the spring, and sinking back into the cosmic winter, or of going on…to which He is calling us.

It remains with us whether to follow or not,  to die in this winter, or to go on into that spring and that summer.
~C. S. Lewis from “God in the Dock”

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And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

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You, who are beyond our understanding,
have made yourself understandable to us in Jesus Christ.
You, who are the uncreated God,
have made yourself a creature for us.
You, who are the untouchable One,
have made yourself touchable to us.
You, who are most high,
make us capable of understanding your amazing love
and the wonderful things you have done for us.
Make us able to understand the mystery of your incarnation,
the mystery of your life, example and doctrine,
the mystery of your cross and passion,
the mystery of your resurrection and ascension.
~Angela of Foligno (1248-1309)– prayer

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Preparing the Heart: Overcome by Light

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Rather than “we shall overcome”, today is the day we shall be overcome by the Light in the darkness of the world.

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Nativity by N.C. Wyeth

Christmas hath a darkness
Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
Brought for us so low.
~Christina Rossetti “Christmas Eve”

 

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Illustration by Linda Richardson of “Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti

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You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12

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…the deepest darkness is the place where God comes to us.
In the womb, in the night, in the dreaming;
when we are lost, when our world has come undone,
when we cannot see the next step on the path;
in all the darkness that attends our life,
whether hopeful darkness or horrendous,
God meets us.
God’s first priority is not to do away with the dark but to be present to us in it.
~Jan Richardson

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