Monday, March 31, 2008

What do we mean when we speak of God?

I had a letter from a friend who confessed he was “annoyed at the Almighty ” because a person who had offered to donate a kidney was found, due to one of the many tests made before a donation can be okayed, to have a medical condition that precludes giving up one of her kidneys.

This letter promoted me to think once again about what we mean when we speak of God. What, in a particular person’s use of the word, is he/she talking about?

This has been on my mind for nearly half a century, since I read Maxim Gorki’s memoir of his early years, Childhood, in which the reader hears his vivid account of his grandparents in prayer in the icon corners of their adjacent rooms.

We find grandfather praying to a God whose everlasting work it is to punish people, a God who welcomes all updates that come his way regarding who is in need of punishing and appreciates advice about what form that punishment might take. Grandfather’s God is more the deity of hell than of heaven.

Meanwhile grandmother’s prayer reveals her as a person whose God is mercy beyond mercy, though she is alarmed enough by her husband’s volcanic god to think she may need to pray that God will please ignore her husband’s advice. Thus she sometimes brings into her prayers an explanation of what prompted this or that person to behave badly.

As I think about the donor who in the end can’t make the donation she wanted to, I find God in the midst of the prospective donor’s act of readiness to give away part of her body for the well-being of another. That in the end it turns out there is a medical reason why this action would not be prudent is not, for me, the heart of the story nor a revelation of the capriciousness of God, a creator who toys with us as cats toy with mice and birds before administering the fatal bite.

Neither have I an attraction to another popular image of God -- God the Divine Baby-Sitter, whose job it is to keep us from driving off the edge of road. For better and (not or) for worse, we bear the awful weight of having to hit the brakes ourselves. Often we fail to do so, and the results can be truly catastrophic.

Another way of putting it: God calls us to be peacemakers but never forces anyone to be peaceful.

(The photo for this posting is a stone carving of Christ with Adam found on the ceiling of the cathedral at Chartres. Double-click to see it in higher resolution.)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Biking again

We haven’t done any recent postings about Nancy’s recovery from her playing the role of Magnet Lady last month, and being such a powerful magnet that she made a car collide with her, but just two days ago she was on her bike again for the first time since the accident.

She has reached the point of being able to walk without worrying that, if she’s not careful, her right knee might “pop out.” This means that the bands that are part of the knee’s complex architecture have tightened up nicely.

Re the kidney-transplant: One of the surprising things has been how various comparatively minor health issues that I thought were unrelated to my kidney illness have cleared up since the transplant. I learned about the latest as result of my semi-annual dental check-up this week, the first since the transplant. Our dentist, Mario Voogt, took one look at my teeth and was astonished. “Your gums are really in better shape! Much firmer!” The only new factor in my life that accounts for the improvement is the kidney transplant.

(Photo: Two young women on one bike, one steering, the other peddling, seen as I was crossing the Canadaplein -- Canada Square -- adjacent to Alkmaar’s cathedral. Double click on the image to enlarge.)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

on the road about a hundred years

Nancy writes: "This fire truck came zooming down the Kanisstraat this morning, contained in a large box mailed to us from California by our brother-in-law, Charles Berrard, who had found it while clearing out my parents’ former house in Pacifica. Boy, does this bring back memories. My grandparents were Dutch immigrants, unlettered Ellis Island immigrants. My grandfather worked in Ridgewood, New Jersey, as an odd-job man, and one of his customers had given him this fire truck. It must be a hundred years old at least. They kept the fire truck in their basement, next to the coal chute. It was the only time I've ever seen a house that still had coal in it. I remember thinking that it was a very old toy when I was little, 50 years ago. I remember playing with it in my grandparent's house in Ridgewood. It had belonged to my father when he was a boy."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Saying "thank you" with an icon

Yesterday was an important day in our kidney transplant saga -- a day for saying “thank you.” We did this by giving a newly-painted icon to our parish, St. Nicholas of Myra Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam, a community which in so many ways gave us support through the long period of my kidney illness. On the day of the actual transplant, the church organized a special service of prayer.

The icon is of four saints, all of whom died in Nazi concentration camps toward the end of World War II. They were involved in a work of dangerous hospitality during the occupation of Paris. They saved the lives of many people, especially Jews. How many were rescued, no one knows, but it is at least a number in the hundreds.

In the photo you see our rector, Fr. Sergei Ovsiannikov, presenting the icon after the liturgy. St. Maria Skobtsova, who founded the house of hospitality and is the best known of the four, stands on the left. On the right is Fr. Dimitri Klepinin, the priest who was her main partner in the community’s work. Also note, on the raised edge of the icon, the smaller figures of two other co-workers who also became martyrs: St. Ilya Fundaminsky, on the left, and St. George Skobtsov, on the right.

The icon is the work of John Reves, an American living in Austria. John has been our guest the last few days, having come to Holland to hand deliver the panel and to be present for its reception by the parish.

For detailed photos of the icon, see those just added to this folder of Mother Maria-related images on our Flick site:

For an essay (“Saint of the Open Door”) summarizing the work started by Mother Maria Skobtsova, see:

For links to other texts by and about her and this amazing community, see this page:

It happens that one of the grandchildren of St. Dimitri Klepinin, Tania, is married to one of the clergy of our parish, Deacon Hildo. Tania and Hildo have recently had their first child, named Maria, after Mother Maria Skobtsova.

The thanks we expressed in our church yesterday is not only to the members of our parish but to everyone who in some way, through prayer or caring thoughts or practical assistance, have helped carry Nancy and me through these last few years and especially through the transplant itself. I hope in time we can make a card of the icon and send it to all the people we want to thank.

(Double-click on the photo to see it enlarged.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A Donor Match Over Small Talk and Coffee

It is always encouraging to discover new kidney donor stories. Here’s one that was in yesterday's New York Times [Photo: Annamarie Ausnes, left, will receive a kidney from Sandie Andersen, who works at the Starbucks coffee shop that Ms. Ausnes frequents.]

* * *

New York Times / / March 4, 2008

A Donor Match Over Small Talk and Coffee

By William Yardley

Tacoma, Wash. — Annamarie Ausnes is known for holding up the line at her favorite Starbucks here, carefully counting out her coins to pay for her "short drip, double-cupped" daily jolt. Over the years, Sandie Andersen, a friendly barista behind the counter, might have rolled her eyes once or twice but she has also taken these morning moments to make conversation, to make friends.

"She reached over the counter and said, 'I'm a blood match,' " Ms. Ausnes said last week, recalling the conversation.

Ms. Andersen said, "We both stood there and bawled."

Turns out, Ms. Andersen had made Ms. Ausnes a special offer, off menu. On March 11, the two women are scheduled to go into surgery at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle. If all goes well, when they come out Ms. Ausnes, 55, who has polycystic kidney disease, will be the new owner of Ms. Andersen's left kidney.

Ms. Andersen, 51, has worked at Starbucks for more than four years. She said she had taken the job for the good corporate health benefits, which her husband's job does not provide. Her husband, Jeff, did not realize his wife would also be providing health benefits.

"My husband said, 'Next time someone comes in and says they don't feel good, don't give away another body part,' " Ms. Andersen said.

Ms. Ausnes, an administrative assistant for student government at the University of Puget Sound, said she had been buying her morning coffee at this Starbucks, at North Proctor and 26th Streets, for three years. She has known for nearly two decades that she has a kidney disease, but her kidney function has declined significantly recently.

Last year, after tests showed that family members could not provide her with a transplant, it became clear that dialysis and a wait of some years for a donor were inevitable. Ms. Ausnes never mentioned this during her daily exchanges with Ms. Andersen.

"It looked like dialysis was coming close and I just said, 'Annamarie, you never know where a donor's going to come from,' " recalled Wanda Ryan, the transplant coordinator at Virginia Mason who is handling her case. " 'Keep telling people your story.' "

In November, not long after that conversation, Ms. Ausnes stopped into Starbucks as usual, but this time Ms. Andersen noticed that her customer was glum. Ms. Ausnes finally told her the news, and the response was instantaneous.

"I'm going to get tested," Ms. Andersen said.

And she did. Blood type O? Yes, a match. Negative cross-match under the microscope? Yes, perfect. The six elusive DNA markers? One of six was alike, not ideal, but good enough.

So there they were that morning last fall, crying over the counter while the coffee line grew longer.

Both women expect to be in the hospital for about a week then to be out of work for up to six weeks. Howard D. Schultz, the chief executive of Starbucks, called both women and told Ms. Andersen "how proud I am to have someone like you working for our company."

She joked about Mr. Schultz's recent, well-publicized emphasis on having employees make a "human connection" with customers.

Ms. Andersen, who has done missionary work in Mexico and helped dig mud out of houses in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said this latest gesture should not be viewed as unusually magnanimous. People should give freely of themselves, she said, and they do more often than is noticed.

Ms. Ausnes will undergo regular monitoring and testing and will need to take medication regularly for the rest of her life to prevent her body from rejecting Ms. Andersen's kidney, according to Ms. Ryan, of the hospital. Ms. Andersen, who was interviewed extensively by the hospital to make sure she was physically and mentally stable, should be recovered in six months, charged only with keeping a slightly sharper eye on her basic health and diet.

Ms. Andersen said, "I asked my surgeon, 'Will I be able to snowboard afterward?' He said, 'Do you snowboard now?' I said, 'No, but I'm hoping to.' "