A Thanksgiving that Never Ends
By Rev. Dr. Noriel C. Capulong, Senior Pastor, Silliman University Church

For today, being thanksgiving even as it is also first Advent Sunday, I was requested by the worship committee to share my own kind of testimony that has made thanksgiving a very meaningful event for me. Many of you know already, that for ten years now, I have been a recipient of a transplanted kidney since Oct. 19, 2006 at the National Kidney and Transplant Institute. It is a long but now shortened, roller coaster type of story but, I will share with you some of my reflections on this truly life changing event for which I offer to God my lifelong thanksgiving and gratitude. I developed a chronic kidney failure condition way back in 1995 due to largely uncontrolled and ignored hypertension most probably because of the stress related to my work then as Dean of the Divinity School.

It was only when I collapsed and suffered vertigo with severe anemia that I had to go to the hospital and consult my doctor. There, my developing kidney problem was discovered. I went immediately to the National Kidney and Transplant Institute to really check with a nephrologist. After a series of laboratory tests, there I was told of the painful truth that I was living with just 25% of my kidney function and my chronic kidney failure is progressive and can no longer be reversed. My doctor told me that it could only be 3 years or less before I would need dialysis and an eventual kidney transplant.

Through a radical change of lifestyle and diet, religiously taking the prescribed medicines and at the same time, resorting to some alternative medication, like acupuncture, reflexology and some herbal supplements that I also tried, my condition, especially kidney function gradually improved.

My doctor however reminded me that all I could do is just prolong the life of my kidneys or postpone the end stage but I cannot escape the eventuality. In early 2006 I collapsed while doing a pastoral prayer at the Chapel of the Evangel. I had to be rushed to the NKTI. There, my doctor declared what I have been trying to avoid, “You have reached the end stage and you now need dialysis and even if you are having dialysis you also need to plan for an eventual transplant if you want to be healed.”

I felt my whole world collapsing then but I cannot let depression take over me. With so much help from my wife Becky and my brothers and sisters we were able to make plans, how and where to get started with dialysis and plan for an eventual transplant. I went through this twice a week, four hour dialysis procedure for six months.

At the same time, the family thought that we already have solved the problem of a kidney donor for the transplant. Our youngest sibling, Noli Capulong, immediately offered to be my donor. I was so happy and I started looking forward to the day of the transplant. Unfortunately, the week end before we would bring him to the NKTI for the necessary laboratory clearance and compatibility checks, he was shot and killed by a still unknown assailant.

Noli was a victim of the extrajudicial killings so rampant during those days. He was an environmental activist and a very devoted organizer of communities affected by the rising pollution in Laguna Lake due to the tons of toxic waste flowing into it from the lakeside factories and the increasing denudation of Mt. Makiling to give way to an exclusive subdivision.

I can’t describe how I felt at that time. It was a combination of deep anger, rage, frustration and somewhat falling into depression. But the flood of support from friends, relatives, fellow church workers, members of other churches, Catholic priests, sisters, even friends from abroad, with their prayers and assurances of solidarity helped so much in sustaining me during those times. And then a flood of offers to become my donor also came, a fellow pastor, a student of mine, a spouse of my student, a friend of my student, from Visayas, Mindanao and Luzon. I was overwhelmed and they really buoyed up my spirit and revived my hope.

Unfortunately, all of them failed in the initial laboratory screening. And so, we were back to zero. Finally, my surgeon talked to me about the possibility of having an outside donor who is offering his kidney for a fee. With no other choice, I gave it a try. One Muslim young man, only 21 years old then, married, with a new born baby but without any job nor income to feed his family turned out to be having an almost perfect compatibility with me. My doctor told me, “You are like brothers in your cross matching and tissue typing results.” Finally I have the chance to receive a new kidney.

The day before the procedure, my doctor visited me in my room and asked me, if he can have a mass said first before my transplant, aware of my being a pastor, he said, “I do sir, this every time I do a transplant. I always ask God to help me, guide my hands in doing the procedure.” I said, “By all means doc, by all means, go ahead. We all need God’s help and guidance in this very important procedure.”

Knowing now my surgeon as a God fearing doctor, I felt more at peace knowing that my life is in the hands of a doctor who allows God to lead him in saving the life of his patient. After being wheeled into the operating room, already sedated and feeling so groggy the anesthesiologist softly told me, “Sir, I will put you to sleep na ha.” At that moment, I thought, as I close my eyes, this may actually be the last time and I may never be able to open my eyes again.

Even with an earlier assurance from my surgeon that kidney transplants nowadays are almost routine and have a success rate of even more than 95% survival in the first 5 years. I still thought, “How about if I fall in the 5% who would not make it?” I little anxiety set in. But eventually I resolved to myself, “This is it Lord, if I live, thank you, if I die, its ok. But I know, if you so will it I can be healed, just like the prayer of the leper in our text. But it’s up to you, bahala na ka Lord. I can only trust.”

And then I really thought I was only out for a second or two and I opened my eyes and found myself in another room, the recovery room and I heard a voice, “Sir, it’s over. You have a new kidney.” We are bringing you to the ICU to closely monitor your new kidney.” In less than 24 hours I was transferred to my regular room and stayed there for the next 10 days.

Having the gift of life is itself a sacred gift and trust we should always care for and treasure well. And we have to live this life always in the spirit of thankfulness. The more so, if it is a gift of a second life, with a second chance to do things better, with a second chance to serve our creator, so as to make this life make a difference in the life of others. As I look back and reflect on this experience I remain still in great awe at this life renewing experience that I had just gone through.

This is definitely real amazing grace for which no amount of thanksgiving will be adequate! I just can’t imagine God using a young Muslim guy to provide for a gift of new life for a Christian pastor. But that’s precisely what happened. God can really work in many surprising and unexpected ways, that can transcend cultural and religious boundaries, all because of the mystery of God’s amazing grace.

In the end, we do not have to negotiate with God as if asking God to this and that and in exchange I will do this and that. No, God does not enter into a kind of transactional relationship with us. He only wants a relationship of trust, faith and obedience, just like what the leper declared, “Lord, if you will it, I can be made clean” as he also fell down on his face before Jesus. It is total surrender, submission to the will of God. God knows our every need and whatever is in our heart and mind. He knows our struggles and our pains, our idiosyncrasies, our secrets, our pride. But God certainly knows what to do with each one of us. But we can be assured, that God works and acts only in accordance with his restoring, healing love and his amazing, surprising grace. You will just be surprised and amazed.

Finally, we can only live each moment, each day, always in the spirit of thanksgiving that never ends, always finding something to be thankful for instead of always of looking at things to complain and be bitter about. Indeed, we are called to a life of thanksgiving as we also usher in the season of Advent, the season when God will soon reveal the most amazing act He had ever done, the season we should all the more be thankful, the season when God gave his greatest gift to all of us, the gift of the life of our savior Jesus the Christ. Amen. 

(This is a reprint.)