Enter the Kingdom as a Child

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Sermon I preached at Wenatchee Brethren-Baptist Church on November 6, 2022.

Luke 18:15-17.

Scripture reading starts at 19:00, sermon at 20:33.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

The Part I Know

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We’re all grieving. I hope we’re all grieving. This isn’t “sad.” This is a tragedy, and an avoidable tragedy, not a tornado or a hurricane.

I’m talkjing about the slaying of nineteen children and two teachers in Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.

I just learned that police and an armed security guard were on the scene, outside the building, where parents begged them to go in and they did not. I know next to nothing about being a police officer.

Today, the debate rages over gun laws in the United States, and it should. We have not solved what happened at Columbine High School or Sandy Hook Elementary School. We haven’t made our schools more safe for our children. If I say more, someone will quickly tell me I know next to nothing about firearms. That is true.

Here is what I know, and why I am choosing to add my voice to this clamor, when my first impulse was to grieve quietly, pray for the families, and vote like our children’s lives depend on it.

I know something of what those parents are waking up to.

Let me be clear: I do not know how they feel. But I do know how this feels.

You can dismiss my political knowledge and any critique I might have about our laws. That is your right. I, too, believe in freedom, though I think some have lost track of what the word means and how it must function in our society.

I shared this reflection with my community: Today, this morning, after I dropped off our just-home-from-college 18-year-old at the bakery where she had her summer job last year and is back this year, on my drive home I was thinking and praying. I was thinking about those parents who have to wake up this morning and realize their child is really dead, that it wasn’t a horrible dream at all, and then wish they hadn’t woken up. Those first few—or many—days of waking up and realizing, as if it’s happening over and over, the reality that this baby is gone, just gone, and yet you have to keep going in the world.

And I’m praying for those parents, but even as I’m praying I’m thinking “nothing, no prayer, absolutely nothing makes this better.” And I believe in prayer.

This is a different place than anger. I feel that, too.

I have woken up like this. I have relearned that my child is dead. I have wished I could go back to sleep and not wake up. I have felt this impotent, bottomless rage. I have heard all the spiritual nothings, the mouthed soothings of those who would go back home to their live children and thank God they weren’t me.

In fact, I have spent years writing a book about my experience of grief, of surviving my child’s death, and, God willing, I’ll soon be able to offer that to the parents like me. And I pray that it helps, because it is all I can offer and cost me more than you can imagine–unless you know, personally.

So I will tell you that these abstract debates, these grotesque mockeries of the bereaved parents’ life-shattering sorrow, are an abomination.

After Isaac died–and he died inexplicably, even with world-class healthcare, so I do not know the horror when your baby is murdered–my world went dark. I could not experience God–with whom I’d hung out daily, hourly–for three years. It took me three years of screaming and thrashing and crying to find my way back to any form of faith again. I tell you three years now because I came through it, but at the time I didn’t know it would be three years. I assumed I would feel this way for the rest of my life.

Losing a child is an amputation, not a wound. “Healing” doesn’t mean things go back to normal; your arm doesn’t grow back. You learn to function without it. Your world is never the same. But unlike for an amputee, people can’t see what is missing. They move on. They expect you to move on. Sometimes they say things that amount to, “Just use both hands. It’s a lot easier that way.”

So this morning I’m praying for all these parents who have lost their babies, their child they birthed and fed and read to and loved. All the days-that-should-have-been torn from them. They’ll wake up tomorrow and for a moment they won’t know…and then their child will be murdered all over again, because our minds and emotions can’t make this shift and we keep getting cold-cocked with the pain and horror. Again. And again.

And again.

This, I know about. This, I survived, by the grace of God and the rawness of my screaming throat, by faithful friends, a very few who could stay close while I thrashed and cursed and lashed out, a wife who loved and loves me and who survived with me.

Job’s friends did not help. But they were all around me. They had many spiritual cliches to share. Some of them had good intentions. Some of them just couldn’t bear my anguish and needed me to tell them it was okay.

It was not okay.

So as a survivor of my baby’s death, as a vilomah, I cry out to God for these parents today, knowing that my prayers are futile to comfort:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

Matthew 2:18

Those babies, too, were murdered.

I’m praying for these parents to survive, to find their way through their loss–the smiles and birthdays and weddings and grandchildren stolen–their severed limbs, their months or years in the desert. Remember, they will be burying their babies this week or next…what is left of them, what can be found of them. Yes, I know that is horrific. Do you not understand that is my point?

Let this be real for you. Don’t distance yourself. Don’t numb yourself. Don’t get caught up in meaningless, intractable debates with those who cannot–or will not–grasp what the death of a child means.

Yes, pray for these grieving families.

Then fight like hell to keep this from happening again.

Beautiful Moments

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I’m a little stuck today. I have some discouraging thoughts circling around in my head. These are the thoughts that blind me to the good moments, the ones I talked about in my last post. These are the days I’m liable to shout “shut up!” when I’m in a room, alone.

Some of the thoughts are broad, public concerns: why are people defending racist views, like the “Great Replacement Theory,” that a murderer explicitly declared were his reasons for killing Black strangers in a grocery store in Buffalo? If I am sharing common cause with people doing evil, vile things, I need to rethink this cause…don’t I? How is that not obvious?

Some of the thoughts are just my usual head games. “Why am I not more this?”

“Jesus, I keep asking you for this same thing, why am I stuck? Are you answering this in some way I can’t see? Or just ignoring me?” ‘

But if you’re not paying attention to trees and how they sway in the wind then what are you even doing?

Yesterday, Sunday, my nephew Brennan, not yet two, came up to me in church. He didn’t speak a word. He simply reached up with both hands, as I was talking to a friend, and showed me his artwork. It was masterful, a multi-color series of lines, clearly drawn from the heart. He wanted me to see. He likes me. I don’t deserve for him to like me. I haven’t done anything to earn that.

Once, when Kim was visiting Brennan’s mom (who happens to be Kim’s sister), Brennan asked, “Uncle Mike?”

“I’m sorry, Brennan. He’s not coming tonight.”

And Brennan cried.

Last evening, we had Kim’s and Jeff’s birthday party, at the house of Brennan’s mom, who happens to be my sister-in-law. Brennan handed me a gift bag. I was confused.

Celeste, who more than happens to be Brennan’s mom, said, “We had presents for Kim and Jeff” (Kim’s brother, whose birthday happens to be the day before Kim’s) “and Brennan said, ‘Uncle Mike!’ So we made a present for you, too.”

Inside the gift bag was the art Brennan had showed me in church.

I’m going to frame it.

They’re All Just Moments

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Today, you get to come along for my thought process. And it’s Friday the 13th.

I’ll let you decide whether to be afraid.

A friend wrote, “Rode my bike to the food pantry today and just the breeze and sun shining and everyone caring makes me hopeful, if but for a moment.”

To which I responded, “They’re all just moments.”

Then I thought, “My gosh, I’m right! They are all just moments!”

My favorite painting in the world is A Sunday on the Island of Le Grande Jatte–1884 by Georges Seurat.* This painting, which lives in the Art Institute of Chicago, is  207.6 × 308 cm (81.7 in × 121.25 in). I’m 68 inches high myself. It’s an enormous work, taking up a whole wall. Seurat used a technique which subsequently would become known as “Pointillism.”

In layman’s terms, he created a scene –almost seven feet by over ten feet–composed of dots. This blows my mind. I have spent, cumulatively, literal hours in this particular room at the Art Institute, moving from one viewing position to another, slowly shifting from the vantage point at which the dots are dots to ones at which my brain registers these dots as a scene in Paris, a woman with a monkey and a parasol, a man reclined in the grass smoking a pipe.

Here’s my deep, dilettantish insight: the dots are the woman and the man and the monkey.

Okay, track with me. I’m a self-acknowledged dilettante of painting and fine art. But I take myself a little more seriously as a writer and, truth to tell, as one seeking to love and be loved, to be a Jesus follower. I don’t have pretensions that I’m excelling at the fine art of living; I am hopeful that, through living this life, I will help a few others believe they are loved.

Back to my thought process. Almost immediately after I had my “ah-ha” moment about moments, I read this quote:

May be an image of text that says 'sproutlett if you're not paying attention to trees and how they sway in the wind then what are you even doing'

First, I am a fervent fan of “sincere sarcasm.”** Sincere sarcasm allows those of us who want to spend our lives affirming others a tone we can employ which keeps the recipient from needing to fend off our encouragement. It also prevents our being dismissed–along with our message–for being too maudlin or sentimental. There is a time for a sincere compliment and a time for sincere sarcasm; the fine art of living that I practice knows the difference.

If I tell you, “You should pay attention to the trees and how they sway,” that won’t come across as strongly as this sincere sarcasm. Yeah, I know you’re doing some things with your life. You’re raising children and puppies and yourself. You’re working and taking risks and surviving trauma and playing the lottery of relationships. Good fucking luck to you. I think your courage is mind-boggling.

And also, if you’re not paying attention to trees and how they sway in the wind then what are you even doing?

Do you see?

They are all just moments. I can stop to look out our back window at the stunning dogwood tree that, for these few weeks in spring, explodes pink and dashes color into our lives. Those buds will fade and the rest of the year it will be a tree like other trees. I’m soaking up every moment of pink splendor. But the droopy evergreen next to it is also swaying in the wind, right now. Right now, out my back window.

They’re all just moments. The moment you hug your daughter. That moment you laugh with your friend. The moment I sit by Annalise’s bed in the Emergency Room. The moment I drop my grumpy teenager off at school and he murmurs, “Love you, Dad” before shutting the car door.

Clock Crimes-Story of the Day | Brian andreas, Story people, Prints

We are Pointilism in action. We are painting our lives with dots, with these moments joined together that make the big picture, yet if you freeze them and zoom in close, you can see as individual acts and words and thoughts. We imagine life is stretches of hours and years unbroken. Sometimes imagining the unrelenting ticking of the clock, the passage of time, feels frightening, even oppressive. But we created the construct of time and all agreed to it. It’s only real because we say it is.

Our lives are moments. That’s how we experience life, and therefore, I would argue, that’s what’s real. You know, really real. We count how many years old we are, but you we don’t experience “a year.” We experience a moment. We live a moment. I hope, I pray, that the moments you take reading my words will feel worthwhile, will even help you live your upcoming moments better, more full of hope, more conscious of grace.

I spend a lot of moments shuffling words around. Sometimes–okay, often–our dog Mumford will come up and demand that I rub his ears. I do it, even when I’m working hard or feeling brilliant inspiration, because I love Mumford, because Kim loves Mumford at least as much as she loves me, and most of all because if you aren’t paying attention to your dog and rubbing his ears, what are you even doing?

I’m not suggesting that we will stop looking ahead and simply live moment to moment, purely reactive to what comes our way. I’m saying that being more aware that we live moment by moment, even as we look ahead, is a good corrective for our over-balance. We don’t want to miss these moments.

Here are my takeaways. If they help, awesome. If you have others, please share them.

1)Breathe. Just breathe.

2)Don’t let yourself dismiss light simply because there is so much darkness. The points of light count, because the picture is composed of those points. Letting ourselves decide everything is such shit that there’s really no purpose can blind us to the moments, can rob us of the light around us. “The breeze and the sun shining and everyone caring” are real. “If but for a moment,” yes. True. But they are all just moments.

3)Here is the big one. Living Pointilism, taking in each moment of swaying trees and sipping coffee and even standing in line, teaches us to live well, to enjoy living rather than skipping over it for something we wish would come.

CS Lewis, in a letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, wrote

A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise.

As about the distant, so about the future. It is v. dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or so. Pray for me always.

I don’t pretend there aren’t horrors in the world. I know there are, more than I wish I did. You can’t unsee these things. We may give our lives for others–in fact, I suspect we will, one way or another–and (not “but”) we are meant to enjoy. We will do more good for everyone–our loved ones, our children, ourselves–if we do enjoy. Living in the moment helps us to enjoy our lives and, in fact, to notice our lives.

I believe paying attention to the swaying tree, to everyone (or anyone) caring, in this moment, is living. And is true worship of the God who is love.

*This Arts and Culture site is cool because the resolution of the picture adjusts. You can zoom in and see close up of the painting technique in detail. Try it! https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/a-sunday-on-la-grande-jatte/twGyqq52R-lYpA?hl=en

**My son Rowan and I probably didn’t coin this term, but we like to believe we did.

Hope, One Inch at a Time

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Someone I know is suicidal.

I want to help. I don’t think, “Oh, how could you possibly even consider such a horrible thing?” I remember how I felt when I was hopeless.

I can’t overstate the importance of hope.

Is there a way to give hope?

I’m asking the most serious question I can express in words.

When I get severely depressed, it feels like my chest is caving in. Crushing heaviness, an anvil smashing my lungs. Air sucked out of the room. I can stand in broad sunlight and feel nothing. Feeling nothing is much scarier than feeling anger or fear, at least for me. Prayer somehow becomes screaming at nothing, or worse, feeling the nothing so tangibly, the weight so oppressively, that any prayer at all is more than I can muster. Even “Help.”

So now my friend is making frightening choices. I am horrified, doubly so because I have too clear an idea of the mindset: to them, this obliterating soul crushing is not just today. It is always. This is not objective reality, but it is their reality.

Now you understand my question. Is there a way to give hope?

I’m not debating whether, objectively, life has hope. Nothing in this discussion should be abstract or theoretical. This is life and death, not academic.

The first thing I know is people must know they’re loved. Love and sunshine may not get through but they’re still true. Sunlight still carries vitamin D; whether or not I can experience it consciously, my body takes it in.

In one of the most difficult conversations of my life, I asked someone utterly dear to me if they’d ever experienced God’s love. They said, “Just because you experience it doesn’t make it real for me.”

I hated that lesson, because I didn’t want it to be true. I wanted to be able to make my loved one experience Jesus’ love as I had. But I couldn’t. I can’t.

“But Mike,” someone will object, “Jesus is the hope of the world! That has to matter.”

If you were going to make that same objection, take a deep breath, .

I can’t make God real for others. I can’t. Not with brilliant logic, not with flawless biblical exegesis, not with the most vulnerable and moving sermon. I can share every powerful story of God’s presence–and intervention–in my life. One of my most bitter fights with God is over why God (seemingly) won’t answer prayers when I’m begging for someone who feels this way, who has no sense of God’s reality. Like, “If you love everyone, how could this possibly not be what you want? I don’t freaking get it!”

I believe God loves us and I believe God came in person to tell us. Even many of those who don’t believe Jesus is God know Jesus spoke of love and resonate with that message.* My takeaway is we need to be told in person. We need to be shown in person.

Don’t imagine that just telling someone you love them will snap them out of depression. I’m not saying that. I’m saying the beginning of rediscovering hope is knowing we’re loved. Love and sunshine are real, even when we can’t feel them, and they do their work, even when we can’t discern it. When we’re feeling hopeless, we need to know we’re loved more, not less.

When we’re saying “I love you,” we also ask, “what can I do?” ie. “I love you and how can I show it right now?” Often, someone suffering depression will have no answer to that question. It’s still right to ask. Then follow with suggestions. “Can I bring/cook you a meal? Can I help with simple chores or tasks? Do you just need someone to talk to, or watch a movie with, or stare out the window with? Do you need a good book?” (Everyone needs a good book.)

Hope comes from believing things can be better, having things to look forward to, a reason to look ahead.

We’ve all heard–and maybe uttered–the bewildered, bereaved cry, “But they had so much to live for!

Yes, that’s how it looks from our perspective. It turns out our perspective isn’t their perspective.

I can’t make you see what I see or experience what I experience. If you don’t suffer depression, I try to explain it so you can have some compassion, if not empathy.

If you do, I want you to believe you are loved and there is hope. The best I can do is try to build trust with you so that when the time comes, and you tell me–or I find out–that you’re dwelling in Mordor, breathing sulfur and forgetting the sun, I can empathize. I won’t say, “But no! The sun is shining! Spring is in the air! Wildflowers everywhere!~ Just open your eyes!” Your eyes aren’t seeing what mine are. They can’t right now. Your perspective in this moment simply is not mine.

If we have trust, I can tell you, “I’ve had the world turn its lights out on me, too. It felt impossible–and meaningless–to hang in there. I didn’t even want to. But it got better. It can get better.

And no matter what, no matter what, I love you.”**

God told us in person. So will I.

PS Some people hesitate to say the word “suicide” for fear they will plant the idea in a loved ones mind. From a medical expert friend, that isn’t how it works. On the contrary, if we don’t ask the question, it’s harder to know when a serious intervention is needed. That’s the real risk.

*In fact, many who don’t follow Jesus point out that those who do claim to seem to have missed the “love” part of the message.

**This is the start, not the solution. Next steps may include calling a crisis line, medical intervention, prayer, counseling, possibly in-patient care if that is possible. I’m just addressing surviving today.

Hello ER, My Old Friend

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We were back in the Emergency Room last night. Last year, Annalise and I visited over a dozen times for a constantly re-dislocating shoulder. In December, Annalise underwent shoulder surgery and, after a couple or three return visits for pain management (doesn’t that sound benign?), rehab and physical therapy finally worked and we stopped being frequent flyers.

Until last night.

Annalise has given me permission to write, identifying perhaps more clearly than anyone else that “It’s okay, Dad; I know writing is how you process things.” It is. And I do. And being back in the Emergency Room was like, well, going back into the darkness with that old friend. You know the one.

Annalise went in with a partially obstructed intestine. But of course we didn’t know that. We knew Annalise was suffering horrible stomach pain that was spiking.

When I mention having a love/hate relationship, henceforth I will think of Emergency Rooms. We had a kind, efficient, compassionate nurse last night, who overheard us saying how much we can’t stand the ER. I apologized and he said, “No, I get it. No one wants to be here.”

Of course not. But more accurately, no one wants to have to be there. When one needs to be in the ER, then yes, one very much wants that option.

Today, Annalise is in a regular hospital room. We’ll be here “two or three or more” days while they discern if this obsctruction will require surgery. We are praying and hoping “no,” but as always, we want to get the necessary care, whatever that means.

This is the life of parents with offspring who have medical issues: 1)I want this not to be, but 2)It is, so I want the best medical care possible to deal with it. Sometimes that care causes misery in the short term. No, trust me, “misery” is not too strong a term. As Sting once sang, “it’s hard to tell the poison from the cure.” It can be. Sometimes the cure causes more pain before it alleviates pain. Sometimes the treatment forces more misery before it relieves misery.

There are, of course, obvious spiritual applications. I’m too exhausted to weave them in subtly. All of us human beings wish we didn’t have the “issues” that we have (let the reader understand), but we do, and they can sabotage, or altogether wreck, our lives. I don’t compare Jesus to an ER, but yes, some spiritual truth is not fun, not even close, and I would absolutely avoid it…except for the fact that it saves my life.

The spirituality that would prefer to omit sin altogether and see everything as good if we just look at it right has to find some way to account for how some things kill us. Some choices we make would kill us, physically or spiritually, unless we deal with them. I’m not talking about shame-based religion. I mean that some grace is like the ER. God, I wish I didn’t need this, but I do, so please let it work!

Back to Annalise. The ER has no view, which had literally never occurred to me–you’re not there for sightseeing–until I came up to Annalise’s hospital room. Oh, my gosh, it has a view. Springtime in Wenatchee is the best. The hills are green and remind me of Ireland. And there, up on the fourth floor, is a perfect view of these hills. In fact, as I studied them, I realized I was looking at one of the trails I hike regularly. We chuckled a little about how I could go hike it and Annalise could zoom in on the trail and I could wave. You don’t get belly laughs in the hospital when you are in barely-controlled pain, nauseous, and not allowed to eat or drink so the doctor can test if your body is kind of functioning or needs surgery, now. So we take our chuckles where we can get them. We’re grateful for our view, even when we sure as hell would prefer not to be in a hospital room and instead out hiking in those hills.

Another spiritual truth of our ER and hospital life: we look for bright sides, not to pretend that shitty things aren’t, but because positives are also true and it helps us to remember them. It helps us especially when everything feels miserable. Yes, it could be worse; if you can’t see that in a hospital, you’ll never see it.

Truthfully, one could argue Annalise has more than a a 22-year-old’s fair share of medical issues. Thursday night we were in the ER after Wednesday’s endoscopy. Yep, a day after a sugical procedure. Heck, Annalise had more than a lifetime’s fair share at birth, and way more so by six months. The list never seems to end, and honestly, I want to demand, “Give Annalise a break!” But getting stuck wallowing, even “justifiably,” in what feels like unfairness misses the point that we still have much to be grateful for, beginning with Annalise’s life. Again, I’m too tired to be anything but blunt: we did not leave the hospital with Isaac; we will leave the hospital with Annalise. Having seen worse, I’ll take this.

As I’ve told you before, Annalise is the Storm. I’ll close with this. We went into the ER about 9:30 PM. They decided to admit Annalise at around 1 AM, but it was well past 3 AM when we actually got a room. I have no idea how much sleep Anners got, but it couldn’t have been much. Visiting hours began at 9:30 AM, so I was back in the hospital, walking through the door about then (punctual me), to find Annalise on the phone. “That’s good,” I thought, “someone called to help cheer Annalise up. I’m all for it.”

Nope. I mean, yes, but also…the phone conversation was our mighty Storm helping a cousin with her college Spanish class. I sat and looked at that magnificent view through my sleep-deprived eyes and listened to my young adult in a hospital bed correcting Spanish-to-English translation.

And I chuckled.