One of my earliest memories from growing up in a Mennonite church is attending Sunday school and singing in the auditorium with all the children. One of my favorite songs was “Take My Life and Let it Be”: in the wong we asked God to take our hands, our feet, ours voices, our hearts. I think I liked the way, like so many kids songs, it talks about different parts of the body. And I like the grand gesture of giving our very bodies to Jesus, as a living sacrifice. These verses basically mirror the thoughts from our scripture from Romans 12: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
Today I want to talk about our bodies as a gift–the fact that they are a gift from God and that we are called to give our bodies as a gift, as a sacrifice, back to God. I was asked by your pastor to share a bit about a decision I made four years ago to donate a kidney, and how that relates to our faith in God. Why are we all called to give our bodies to God, and what does that mean?
I could start with Genesis, and talk about how our bodies are gifts from God, made by God. But today I think I will start with Jesus, and the fact that he had a body just like yours and mine. Jesus was born, a human baby, vulnerable and in need of protection. He grew up running around on the hills of Nazareth. He walked with his parents to Jerusalem when he was 12 years old. Like all the people in Israel at that time, he used his body to get around from place to place. It was dusty. His feet got dirty, he was tired, he was thirsty. The gospels are filled with stories where we see Jesus in the flesh. He touched people, he broke bread with people, he went to parties where they fed him and his disciples. He got so tired, he fell asleep in boats….our Saviour had a body just like ours.
Perhaps there is no other place in the gospels when we think more about Jesus’ body than during Holy Week. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, and he sheds tears. He shares a meal with his friends, he ties a towel around his waist and washes his disciples feet. In the Garden of Gethsemene, Jesus kneels to pray and sweats as he thinks about what lies before him.
Jesus knew what crucifixion meant because he had seen people crucified. Everyone had, it was a common form of exaction. He knew what awaited him. He was arrested, and put in chains, and slept in prison. He carried a cross uphill, and then he was nailed to a cross. A cross was torture. He was tortured to death. His body was buried and then on Easter morning, Jesus rose from the dead, his body was resurrected. We serve a risen Saviour, a Savior who walked with us and talked with us, who gave his body as a sacrifice for us.
And now as Christians we are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. What would Jesus do? We are to do likewise. What would Jesus give? What would Jesus sacrifice? Mennonites are good at sacrificing, at donating. I learned that from the time I was a little girl. I saw women in church bent over quilting frames, not making beautiful quilts for themselves but to send overseas to people in need. They were busy cooking up meals to serve large groups of people. The men and boys in my church spent their Saturdays doing newspaper drives and bottle collections. This was in the days before recycling. It was a way of re-using things that were going straight into the landfill. Why did they do such menial hard work, stooping over and picking up literally tons of what everyone saw as garbage? They felt called to do it, it was a gift of their bodies to Jesus…they raised money for missions and they helped the environment by keeping stuff out of landfills.
In my own family I saw my dad work at backbreaking physical labour. Usually he was a real estate agent, but I remember when times were lean for selling houses, he went to work in a factory where he had to lift heavy things all day long. He came home each night dead tired, but I know he did that work for us, his family, he wanted to provide for us. He wrecked his back doing that. I remember visiting him in the hospital, in traction. His body was given for us.
I don’t remember my mother, she died when I was four years old, but later when I had children of my own, I realized how she had worked to nurture me in her womb, she gave up space in her body to make space for me in the world, and there was a cost to her body to give birth to me.
Many people sacrificed for me as I grew up, not just my parents. When my mother died, we lived with my grandmother. Three girls, aged 5, 7 and 8 moved into her house when she was 74, and we lived there for four years. That was a lot of work for her to take care of us. My teachers sacrificed for me as well, they put their bodies into a classroom and used their mind to teach me things. People fed me and clothed me and educated me.
And the whole time I was growing up I was taught that we give to others because Jesus gave to us. We heard stories of people becoming missionaries, taking their bodies to far-away counties to help people who were hurting and spread the gospel. And people here at home took the money they made with the work of their hands and gave it away. “Take our silver and our gold…” we sang together. Every week the offering plate was filled by hardworking people who did not have that much money in the first place.
So that’s the background, that’s the way I was formed. As it says in Romans 12, “Love one another…contribute to the needs of others…show hospitality to strangers.” And everyone does this according to the gifts they’ve been given.
And so it wasn’t such a big leap for me, when the opportunity came, to make a decision to donate a kidney. God gave me good health, and so when I knew someone was dying because of bad health, and I can share my good health with them, it just seemed natural that I should do that. But how did this decision come about?
It all started on a beautiful day in February eight years ago, when my husband came home from the doctor’s office and told he me had a tumour on his kidney. This came as a blow out of the blue to our family since he was feeling fine and had almost no symptoms of any problems. And so that started us on the journey of having his kidney removed and starting to live with cancer.
I didn’t know anything about kidneys really before that morning, except maybe that they were kidney shaped and you need them to clean your blood! I knew that people who didn’t have kidneys or have poorly functioning kidneys need to be on dialysis, but that was the extent of it.
My husband’s diagnosis was life threatening, and we came face to face with the fact that he might die within the next few years (spoiler alert, he is alive and doing great, but of course we didn’t know at the time whether he would survive).
It was a huge shock for us, as any of you who have gotten a cancer diagnosis or have faced a life threatening illness know. I learned a lot about kidneys and I saw firsthand how you can have one kidney removed and it is not a threat to your health. Our bodies are built with may redundancies…we have two of a lot of things…two eyes, two ears, two lungs, two hands, two feet, and we can all live pretty well even if we lose one of something.
I am going to skip my husband’s story, that is his to tell, but just to say that I learned a lot. I learned it’s very hard to have a family member who is very sick, and I would have given anything if I could have stopped him from having cancer. But I couldn’t change that. And after a few months, I saw that he had a kidney removed, and that living with one kidney is pretty much the same as living with two kidneys. You only need one kidney to live just fine.
Fast forward to three years later. I was on a plane, and two women were sitting next to me. They knew each other, and one woman was sharing with the other, and I couldn’t help overhearing. Her nephew had asked her to donate a kidney to him, and she was telling her friend, “That is too much to ask, he is doing just fine on dialysis,” and she wasn’t going to do it.
Now I thought it would be rude to jump into that conversation, but I wanted to say to that woman, “He is not just fine on dialysis, you do not have good health on dialysis. People eventually die on dialysis…and you can live just fine with one kidney. If someone in my family asked me, I would do it. I would donate a kidney if someone asked me.” I came off of that plane with the clear conviction in my mind, if someone asked me to donate a kidney, I would.
A few months later, I came across an article in a magazine about how someone donated a kidney anonymously to someone they didn’t know. You see, kidney disease runs in families, and sometimes family members cannot donate to their loved ones, or sometimes family members are not in good health and can’t be donors. Suddenly I realized that I didn’t have to wait for someone to ask me to donate, I could just donate to someone in need. It was like suddenly seeing a door where you didn’t think there was a door. And I started asking myself the question, “Would I donate a kidney to a stranger?”
I thought about this for over a year before I did anything about it. I thought a lot about people whose partners are dying because dialysis is no longer working. They could be saved, all they need is a kidney. And I thought, I have been given the gift of good health, and I could share that, I could save their life by sharing.
I remember my husband Eugene reading me an obituary around that time. He likes to read the obituaries, I’m not sure if anyone else has that habit! It wasn’t the obituary of anyone we knew, but it read, “The last 32 years of Paul’s life were a genuine gift made possible by the generous donation of a kidney transplant from an anonymous donor. This allowed him to enjoy a fulfilling family life with his children and grandchildren.”
Thirty-two years is a long time! Most donated kidneys last ten to fifteen years. But I think, what would be the difference between dying when my kids were 3 and 5, and dying when they were 18 and 20. That’s a big difference. What a gift to be given extra years of life.
I have known people who have saved people’s lives. My friend was driving down a country road and came across an accident that just happened. A car was in the ditch upside down, with the wheels still spinning. He ran and dragged someone out of the crumpled car. I asked him, “Weren’t you scared the car was going to blow up and you would be killed?” And he said, “What was I going to do, just let someone in there bleed to death, of course I had to help!”
Another time I remember I was driving down a street in downtown Winnipeg late at night, and we saw a group of people, standing around two women on the ground fighting. One of them was banging the other woman’s head against the sidewalk. Eugene stopped the car in the middle of the road and jumped out of the car, and ran into that group and stopped the fight. He did it so fast, I didn’t have a chance to tell him, “Hey that’s dangerous, someone might have a knife, let’s just drive away and call the police!” He saw someone in danger and he went and saved them.
Those are stories of courage, courage to save someone’s life, and I think we all hope in a moment of crisis, we would have the courage to do that.
Donating a kidney doesn’t have the type of risk of those stories, where you really don’t know at all what’s going to happen. Donating a kidney is a very controlled process, a very slow process. Doctors assess your risk minutely, and they only let you be a donor if you are a very good candidate to have no complications.
When you want to donate a kidney, you have to make the initial call, they screen you, and then you have to go through a lot of tests where they decide whether you are a good candidate to be a donor. They do lots of blood tests, they ask you your medical history in extreme detail, they test you for every disease.
I remember when I finally went in to get the test results, the doctor started listing all the diseases that they knew I did not have, “You don’t have HIV, lupus, hepatitis, high cholesterol….” They named dozens of things I don’t have which basically confirmed what I have known all my life. I am healthy as a horse. God gave me a healthy body, I have been very fortunate, I have almost never been sick! The doctor told me I was a good candidate to donate a kidney.
Then I had to visit with social worker and a psychiatrist to find out why I wanted to donate and there I told them basically what I’m telling you here, why it was natural for me to donate because of how I was raised.
The nephrologist, a kidney doctor, talked to me about the actual surgery when you donate a kidney. He explained the risks, and the possible complications, so I knew what I was getting into, and he explained the benefits. He told me, there is no benefit for you. You don’t know this person, and you are perfectly healthy; there is no reason for this surgery. Then he said, “In my job, I meet really sick people all the time, and I know exactly how to save their life. I just don’t have enough kidneys to save them all. And some will die waiting for a kidney. They get too sick, and have to be removed from the donation list. So I know your donation will mean the difference between life and death for someone. I am really ”
This doctor, and the many other health professionals I met in the hospital, study for years and devote their lives to helping sick people. I think the doctors and nurses I met in the hospital are real heroes, who take their bodies to work every day, giving their lives to save lives. Organ donors provide the raw material, but it is the doctors who do the work to save the lives.
While the people in the health system were happy about my decision, it was a bit trickier to tell the people in my life about the decision to donate. My husband was very supportive and a bit worried. But he totally understood why I was doing it.
I made the decision to do the donation at the same hospital and with the same surgeon that he had for his kidney removal. We had trusted that doctor once, and now we would trust him again. Other people were just worried, not supportive. I had people tell me that I should save my kidneys for my own children in case they need them. Or “What if Eugene has kidney failure…he only has one kidney now, you should save it for him.” So I had to think about that. And I thought, why do we give anything away? Why did you put money in the offering plate today…you might need that money! Someone you love might need that money! You trust God to provide and I believed that too about giving away a kidney…I could trust God.
Some people were very supportive. I remember that Lydia Wichert from this congregation was very supportive. She only had one kidney, from the time she was a little girl I think, and she was over 90, and she was very encouraging of me to make the donation..
For me, donating was a big decision but it wasn’t that scary. As a family we had been through the operation before. We knew what removing a kidney meant. For my husband, the removal of the kidney was not the scary thing, the scary part was the cancer, would it come back or not?
I didn’t have cancer, and so this operation was just not as scary as what we’d been through before. I was healthy before the operation, and the doctors would not operate unless they were convinced that I could be healthy after the operation.
In the end I decided to enter a paired donation program. If you want to know more about that, ask me, but it basically means I was matched with pairs people who wanted to donate to each other, but they weren’t a match. By being an individual anonymous donor I helped make a bunch of matches line up, so that on the day I donated, four people got kidneys, four people donated.
The months as I prepared to donate my kidney were very joyful months for me. I can only compare it to the feeling I had when I was pregnant. I felt that I was giving life to someone, and I was very much at peace and joyful about that. The day I donated was a very hard day for me.
While I wasn’t scared in principle to have the operation, when you are lying on a stretcher outside an operating room, I admit I was completely petrified. And I felt very bad seeing the worry in my husband’s eyes when they wheeled me away. I don’t want to minimize how hard those few hours were, but it was over pretty quickly and then I was waking up in the recovery room.
It was painful to recover, but it was not unbearable. The operation was done laproscopically, which means they make small incisions and use cameras to take out your kidney, so you recover pretty quickly. I was off work for just over a month. My husband and many people in the community were very helpful in my recovery. My church, First Mennonite, went without their pastor for a month. That was their donation, they paid me even though I wasn’t working. I didn’t have any complications from the operation.
So it’s been four years since I donated my kidney. For me it was a spiritual experience to choose to do that, it was probably one of the most joyful things I’ve ever done in my life. In case you are wondering, I never met or heard from the person who I donated to. Sometimes that can happen with anonymous donations, someone can send a letter of thanks through the transplant office, but in my case it didn’t happen. And I think in some ways that’s better. What if I met the person I donated to, and they weren’t a nice person, would I have second thoughts about having given my kidney to them? I gave because it was the right thing to do. The Good Samaritan didn’t stop to figure out what kind of man had been beaten by thieves, he just stopped to help him.
And now I go through life wondering where my kidney is. Somewhere my kidney, my own flesh, my own DNA, is helping to keep someone alive. I meet people on the street and I wonder, am I a part of you? I could be anywhere–and that’s a good way to live in the world.
I think God is calling each of us to live generously, to sacrifice our lives for each other. We have been given so much, and all of it is a gift from God. I hope that my story today has helped you to think about your body as a gift from God and if God has given you good health, how can you share that with others?
When we are baptized, we become God’s completely. It’s tempting to think, “God, I’ll give you my thoughts, I’ll give you my money, but my body is mine, my health is mine.” It’s tempting to think that we deserve our good health, but it’s all a matter of genetics which we do not choose, and a lot of it has to do with the gift of being born in Canada in the 20th century, where there is good health care. God gave us the gift of good nutrition. We can’t take credit for any of this.
Many of us tithe our money, what might it mean to tithe our good heath? Maybe you can sign your donor card, so your body can be used after your death. Or maybe you can donate some of your healthy blood to help someone who has been in an accident. Or maybe you could think about bone marrow donation, or being an organ donor. Maybe like me on that plane, you can come to a place where you’ll say, “If someone asks me I will donate”
And God gives back! Our bodies are wonderfully made. When you donate blood, you don’t go around for the rest of your life with less blood, your body replaces that blood within a few weeks. When you donate a kidney, the remaining kidney grows in size to do the extra work. If you donate part of your liver, in two months, your liver will grow back to the same size it was!
A few people have said to me, “Oh, God gave you a special purpose, you were given a very special calling.” I really don’t believe that. There are starving people in the world, God wants them all to be fed. That call is always there from God to feed the hungry, and we open our hearts to that call and give to our MCC and Foodgrains Bank. It’s not a special calling for people to give to Foodgrains Bank, our hearts open to hungry people and we give.
In the same way, every year in Canada there are over 3300 people on the list waiting for a kidney. God wants every one of them to be saved. It’s just a matter of hearts opening. We have the technology, we have the expertise, these lives can be saved if donors come forward. If it was your loved one who needed a transplant, and you couldn’t donate to them, would you want someone to save their life?
I think we all want to live in a world where we save each other’s lives. That’s the kind of world Jesus came to tell us about, and he showed us exactly how to do it, he donated his body to us. We follow in his footsteps, “Take our lives and let them be, consecreated, Lord to thee.” I pray that God will open our hearts to the ways we can save each other with the gifts we’ve been given.
A sermon preached at
Vineland United Mennonite Church
by Carol Penner
February 5, 2017