An ever expanding vocabulary

It’s amazing how learning a simple word or two can drastically change your experience of life.  I’m sure at some point or another we have been around a child who has learned to speak the word “no”.  Soon every encounter or exchange is coloured by this word as the child learns, by practice, what the word means and when they can and cannot use it.  By the end of this stage parents and loved ones are at their wits end and the child’s world is forever changed by his or her knowledge of a simple two-letter word.

From there the child rapidly absorbs countless words with each new word adding to the child’s ability to understand and articulate their experience of the world around them.  As adults the speed at which we learn new words slows to such a slow trickle that when a new word (or words) comes our way that significantly impacts our life experience, we can distinctly remember the time and place where we learned it.  Many of us remember, for example, that fateful day more than ten years ago where we first heard the words “Al Qaeda” and when we heard the word pair “nine eleven” in a whole new context that would alter Western Civilization as we know it.

Yesterday I had one of these experiences where I learned two new words that have changed my experience of life:  “Wegener’s Granulomatosis”.

Wegener’s Granulomatosis is a rare auto-immune disease in which the immune system attacks medium and small blood vessels in the body.  The primary areas that are affected are the lungs and kidneys and chronic renal failure is one of the potential outcomes of the disease.  Wegener’s Granulomatosis can be fatal, it is incurable, and it is treated by suppressing the immune system with some pretty heavy duty and toxic drugs.  The disease is notoriously hard to diagnose, is quite rare, and it typically hits white men in midlife.

This word was painfully added to my vocabulary when I received a phone call in which I was told that my beloved Uncle Tim has been diagnosed with it and is currently fighting for his life in the hospital.

Wegener’s Granulomatosis.  It is bizzare that these two words that meant nothing to me 48 hours ago now make my heart ache and the room spin as I type them out in this blog.  Just like the child who interprets everything through the lens of his or her newly discovered knowledge of the word “no”, Wegener’s Granulomatosis has become the lens through which my day is experienced:  it provides a heaviness that cannot quite be escaped and it impacts my ability to focus on any one particular task for a long stretch of time.  My life was simpler and it was a whole lot better before I knew these words.  Yet even in the midst of my own troubles I know that my experience pales in comparison to the way the words Wegener’s Granulomatosis have impacted my uncle’s immediate family:  his wife, two young adult girls, and his father and mother.

What I also know however is that seeing all of life through the lens of one or two words is a passing phase.  Even as the child adds words to his or her vocabulary and does not remain in the “no stage”, so too will my uncle’s family and I emerge from this experience with a more complete vocabulary.  New words like “immunosuppression” –the treatment strategy for WG—are already being added to the family lexicon.  As a family we will also learn that old, familiar words have more depth to them then we could ever imagine.   Words like trust, hope, life, perseverance, battle, prayer, family, love, and thankfulness are already starting to take on new levels of meaning in my own imagination.  This list of words reminds me that life cannot be defined by one or two words alone—even words as big and as scary as Wegener’s Granulomatosis.

I know that my uncle’s life has been forever changed by these two words.  No amount of wishing or praying can every bring him, me, or his family to that place where those words were not a part of our vocabulary.  My prayer and hope however is that we will soon get to that place where his life is not defined solely by them.  I know that in his journey with this illness that his God is with him, that his wife and girls are with him, and that the rest of his relatives like me are with him and that we will all do whatever we can to allow him to experience life faith, hope, joy, and love even in the midst of his illness.  My prayer is that these words will continue to define him far more than Wegener’s Granulomatosis ever will.  Get well soon Uncle Tim.  Our prayers are with you.

In memory of “the master” of hospitality: A Tribute to my Grandma

Image

Love and hospitality.  These are the two virtues that lie at the heart of the Christian faith.  The benefits and importance of love are immediately obvious to us but hospitality?  Why is this virtue so important in the life of faith?

The human heart has some basic needs:  the need to feel loved, the need to belong, the need to feel safe, and the need to know that someone is in our corner—that is to say we need to have an advocate.  Offering hospitality meets each of these needs.  When we bring someone into our home what we are saying is welcome, come and eat with me, you belong to me, and I will watch out for you and protect you for as long as you are under my roof.  Hospitality fills the holes of the human heart.

Image

A classic scene of Grandma’s hospitality

You may have picked up on the theme of hospitality that runs right through the 23rd Psalm, the ancient poem that we began our service with.  In that poem we see that God supplies perfect hospitality.  We see the theme of welcome and safety:  “you have prepared a table before me…”, we see advocacy:  “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for you are with me”, and we see belonging/feeling at home “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever and ever”.  This is a story of God’s hospitality.  And we see this story repeated over and over again in the scriptures; it is the story of a God who is aware that the human heart is not complete and so time and time again he offers his hospitality and says:  come with me my beloved child, you belong to me, I will never leave you, I am always on your side.

The story of God’s hospitality is incredibly comforting to us especially when times are tough, when life seems bleak, and when our sorrow is overwhelming.  Part of the reason why it is so comforting is because we are told that it is bigger and more powerful than death.  The great hope of faith is that God’s care for us is so great and our lives so sacred that he is not content to simply let us die.  Rather God invites us to experience everlasting life as guests at his table.

Image

One of Grandma’s banqueting tables with her husband Keith

See the Biblical image of heaven is not one of clouds and harps but rather is of a great banquet to which all are invited.  God’s gift to humanity is to offer them a place where the food and drink are never in short supply; it is the everlasting table that we can keep coming back to time and time again.  Heaven is the ultimate act of God’s hospitality.  I love this image because it brings so much comfort when we think about Grandma.  I can’t think of anything more fulfilling to our dearly departed then the idea of being a part of a never ending feast where she belongs, where she feels safe, and where she is loved.

I share the image of hospitality this afternoon not only to provide comfort to us in the midst of our grief that Grandma is in a place of rest and comfort but also to bring tribute to the amazing woman she was.  You see Grandma understood the great truth about hospitality.  She knew that practicing this virtue transforms people as they experience what it means to belong and be loved.

Image

Two recipients of Grandma’s hospitality: me and my wife Whitney

I know that she knew this because I was a recipient of her transformative hospitality in the summer of 2008—the same summer Whitney and I got married—when I was working for Kirkbride Painting, the company that was hired to paint the exterior of each house in “The Terraces”. Grandma opened her house for me every working day for my lunch break.  When I walked in the door the kettle would be on and a pot of earl grey tea would be made.  I would often eat my lunch plus some of the contents of her fridge, and she would eat a raw onion sandwich with a heavy dose of salt and pepper.  When I look back on that summer I realize that something incredible happened over the course of those several months.   It was then that “Fran” became my “Grandma”.  All of us who have had the privilege of having wonderful grandmothers will know that beyond the designations “mom” and “dad” there is no title as revered as “grandma”.  “Grandma” denotes a strong sense of closeness.  “Grandma” signifies a deep belonging.  “Grandma” means you are loved.   “Grandma” means there is always someone in your corner.  When Fran became “Grandma” I knew that I had gained an advocate.  Someone that I knew cherished me, respected me, and loved me.  Since that time I’ve always felt like I was a part of the family.

Had we the time we could hear similar stories from everybody here about how they experienced the transformative power of hospitality in their relationship with Grandma.  Her kindness, generosity, and willingness to always open her door to visitors has left us all changed for the better.  My hope for all of us is that as we go from here we will remember this and that we will honour this by carrying her legacy forward by becoming people who practice the art of hospitality.  My hope also is that all of us will be comforted by the hope that Grandma is a cherished guest now at God’s banquet table.