"Praise bright blue skies
and dark rain clouds.
Lift happy voices
upon the morning air.
Murmur sweet words softly
in the evening breeze.
Be present in all things
and thankful for all things."
Although we know that Lent is much richer of an experience than giving up a favourite food for 40 days, sadly, the image that keeps coming to mind for me today as I try to focus inward, the image that keeps getting stuck in my mind, is that of a donut! Let me explain...
A donut was used as a visual aid during a recent children's Sunday School lesson that really resonated for me, and not just because I have a wild sweet tooth, but because it was so simple and made so much sense. To reduce the metaphor to one line, we were asked to think about the ways that we often become focused on the hole in the donut, or the things that we don't have, rather than looking at the entire donut and seeing the things we do have; basically talking about gratitude.
I share this because I appreciate Lent as a season of prayer, fasting, and acts of love, but I have also come to appreciate Lent as a season of gratitude and renewal. As Maya Angelou wrote, being "present in all things and thankful for all things."
This past October, 2015 I spent four days in hospital on oxygen due to a severe case of pneumonia that had filled my right lung and then spent several weeks slowly recovering as I was still quite ill. I had, without a medical doubt, touched mortality. I smelled it, I saw it, and I felt it. It was not pretty. In fact, it was downright terrifying. I can't honestly say that in the pinnacle moment of touching death that I was at peace. Not while thinking about my husband and two young children whom I desperately wanted to share much more life with. There were no easy answers, maybe no answers at all, about why this happened to someone "so young and healthy" as everyone kept saying.
I think we all, to some degree, live under the pretense that we have control; control over our health, control over our decisions, control to some extent over our futures. I was sharply reminded that this is for the most part a deluded way of thinking. Time and time again, hospital staff were flabbergasted when asking me about any predisposed conditions that might have led to my situation. There were none and I wasn't in the age category typically assumed of the illness that was crippling my body. It was as though the doctors needed a neat and tidy answer to pin point such a rare and unexpected occurrence, but there was no medical explanation. The humbling reality, however, is that suffering exists and no one is immune to it.
I would be lying if I said that I was grateful for the experience of this illness, the hospital stay, the many tangible and intangible losses that resulted, or that despite my best efforts, both of my children and my mom ended up contracting pneumonia.
What I am grateful for are the ways in which suffering can be transformed into something powerful that connects us yet again on a deeper level with our loved ones and with Christ. I am grateful for the graces that have been with me at different times through this whole ordeal and for the ways in which God's presence has been made known. Gratitude met me about mid-stay during my time in hospital, as I was slowly inching my way with my IV pole from the bathroom to my bed when I spontaneously felt the need to stop and pray. It was a simple prayer, something like this: "God, I know you are with me and that you have control over my life and the number of my days. Thank you for sparing my life. Please heal me".
I am forever grateful for the quick and competent care of the ER hospital staff who helped to bring me back from the brink. I am deeply grateful for the kindness of a particular PSW, a particular nurse and a particular doctor - all three of whom showed me great compassion at a time when I really needed it. Or through the phenomenal amount of prayers, love, and practical support that were provided for me and my family by my Campus Ministry team here at King's, friends and family.
I am also grateful for the scripture that was with me, particularly during my hospital stay, the 23rd Psalm. It's so familiar and yet worth being reminded of again and again. To me it's a Psalm about fear and the fragility of life but even more about strength in God's renewal of life. It's about the whole donut. It's a Lenten prayer about gratitude.
Psalm 23 (NASB)
"A Psalm of David.
The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil, for You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life,
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
I have been reminded that there are no easy answers to the questions of life's sufferings and maybe it's not about answers. Maybe it's about knowing that what God does promise is to be Emmanuel, God With Us - walking with us and at times carrying us through particular seasons of life.
This coming March 31st, 2016 our King's College Chamber Choir, which I have the fortunate opportunity to be part of, under the direction of our conductor Janet Loo, will be performing two Requiem settings. This being my first experience with requiem pieces, I never knew how fortifying and even grounding it could be to sing about death, especially after my experience this past fall. I think it's because I know, more than ever before, that although death is a natural part of life that may come earlier than we expect or wish it to, it doesn't end there...death never has the final say...there is always resurrection and rebirth.
As you continue your own Lenten journey of reflection, I want to leave you with a lovely short video just released earlier this year. It was created by the Salt Project
and is called Lenten Prayer.
Melissa Page Nichols MSW, RSW