The Resurrection I’ve Seen

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Today was Easter.  Easter is a big deal.  We make a big deal of Easter.

It isn’t a big deal to a lot of people.  Easter for some people is no more than a day of candy, and for others it isn’t even that.  It’s just a day.

What’s the difference between Easter being a big deal and just a day?

There are a lot of easy answers to that question:

Knowing Jesus.

Being raised in a Christian culture.

Hearing the Gospel.

Intersecting with someone who has experienced God.

Experiencing God’s Spirit.

Being indoctrinated in the Christian faith.

 

The way you answer that question–or the answer you would pick from that list–probably indicates something about your relationship with Easter, as well.


 

Easter is Resurrection Day.  We make this the biggest day of the year, bigger than Christmas or Pentecost, because what we believe about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and ourselves and the world all hinges on this day.  They all hinge on the historical event that did or did not happen for which we claim this day.

A friend of mine who is a Christian told me recently, “I wonder if I believe this because I was raised with it.”  I think that’s a fair question to ask.  I don’t think it invalidates Christianity, but it is reasonable to consider whether, if you or I were raised in a Muslim country with four Christians among ten million people, would we have heard the Gospel?  Would we be Christians?

 If I’m honest, I then have to ask if I am the most difficult part of being a Christian for some other people.

The most difficult part, for me, of being a Christian is other Christians.  I will say that straight out.  If I’m honest, I then have to ask if I am the most difficult part of being a Christian for some other people.  I might be.  Sometimes I don’t believe what they believe or speak like they speak. Continue reading

My Friend’s Baby

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Yesterday, I watched a little girl in a box get covered with dirt.  She was two days old.  We tried to understand what happened to her, how she died, because we want to make some sense of what happened, to make our own evaluation of whether someone could have prevented her death.  Did she get good care?  Was there justice?  But we don’t know the answers to that.  We don’t know the answers to anything.

Our friends buried their baby and we stood with them and watched, because that was the only thing left we could do for them.   The grandfather of the child told us that she is not in that box; she is in God’s arms in heaven.  I believe that.  I believe our son is in heaven and their daughter is in heaven.  I can’t prove that to you.  You can believe that my belief is wishful thinking.

It’s a huge cemetery, much bigger than we realized.  It went on and on.  It’s simple and cluttered and crowded, mostly with wooden markers.  I read many children’s markers on the way to her grave.  It isn’t manicured, it isn’t laid out pristine in precision rows.  No one spent thousands of dollars to reserve a spot, to buy a casket, nor to chisel granite or marble as a reminder.

We surrounded the open grave.  They opened the top part of her tiny box so we could her face, embalmed and still.

Her father gives his kindness to everyone.  He always, I mean literally always offers his smile to me when I see him, and his smile is beautiful.  His smile is kindness and encouragement.  He used to work at our school but he changed schools, so I don’t see him every day like I did before.  He has been married for five years, and for five years they have hoped to have a child.  Then they learned she was pregnant, and carried that hope for nine months.  And then we were watching dirt cover the box.

I had never told my friend that our son died, because you don’t just bring that up in conversation.  But I told him as we walked back through the cemetery.  I don’t imagine it helped, because “help” is not a word that makes sense there.  Nothing makes it better.  There are no “right” words.  No words change anything.  But I wanted him to know I was with him, and that our friendship and our shared grief were why I stood out with there with him at noon on a Sunday, with his family, and his community.  Because there’s nothing you can do, but you still do what you can.

Somewhere out there, where I don’t and can never live, I have an 18-year-old son who plays with my 8-year-old boy.  He’s following his older sister, one year ahead, who’s in college already, figuring out where he wants to go, what he wants to do next year.  Though his little brother is blonde, he has brown hair like me.  Does he love to read and play ultimate?  Does he ignore us and roll his eyes and stay out late and drive us insane?  Is he going to use his passion and brilliance to make the world a better place, or just to make a lot of money?

In this world I live in, I still have the ashes of a baby boy in a tiny little box.  We’ve never felt like it was the right place to bury them.  The baby boy is in heaven, of course, and all my hope is there with him, but I still have the box.

That life and this life are what I recount to myself as I watch them shovel the dirt over that box and it disappears, as I watch the life here of that tiny girl disappear from her parents’ eyes, and all they will ever see of her here are reflections when they see children whose age she would have been, when they ask themselves “Would she have looked like that?” or “Is that how she would have laughed?”  I pray to God that my friends will have a child, a brother or sister to their little girl.  I pray that’s not the only time they will hold their own child here.

And I pray for the time when we will hold all our children again.

 

Fighting for Hope: Recovering from Addiction

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the-labours-of-alexander-1950 Rene Magritte

First, thanks for reading and for all the encouragement in response to my last few posts.  I often experience some inner backlash when I try to be that honest; hearing that it’s helping people makes the difference between keeping it up and gnawing on my spleen.

Part One addressed cynicism, Part Two depression, and Part Three overcoming our fears and naive faith to find hope in life’s depths.  Now we’re addressing addiction.

I’ve asked my friend, Dan Koenigs, to write this post.  Dan was two years ahead of me in high school.  We were casual friends then, each pretty messed up in our own ways.  Now we’re true friends, because we have the same hope in common.

Dan is changing the world.  This is how it happens, one day and one decision at a time.  Dan’s been sober for 24 years and works as a counselor for people with substance abuse issues.

If you think you are beyond hope, or doubt you can change the world, or have given up on ever recovering from your addiction, read Dan’s story.  Dan is a very good reason for hope.

onedayatatime


 

 Proverbs 20:1 “Wine is a mocker; beer a carouser…Those it leads astray won’t become wise.”

I have yet to meet an alcoholic who chose to be one.  This blog is not meant to be a discussion on the validity of the Disease Concept or a discussion on willpower.  Here is what I know: alcohol affected me at an early age in ways that I still have a hard time understanding.  Maybe it was my dysfunctional childhood, maybe it was the acceptance of underage drinking by my family, maybe it was a result of being sexually abused by a Catholic Priest at the age of 12, or perhaps it was indeed a genetic thing.

Here is what is important: I had my first real drink at the age of 12 or 13 and I learned early that I could drink and I forgot, forgot everything.  I would drink to forget the pain of being alone, the pain of being sexually abused, the pain of feeling like I was not accepted by others or the pain of not knowing who I was.

Relief drinking is what I was doing and like all addictions, the relief does not last long and then I would drink more.  I became good at hiding it or at least I think I hid it because no one seemed to notice that I was drinking on a regular basis.  At the age of 16 I was drinking more days than not. Continue reading

Identity, Value, and Trudging Home

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One of the most readily affirmed truths in Christianity is that we are children of God and all our value comes from that identity.  By that, I mean we recognize that God’s love and adoption of us as his children imparts our value to us.  Not our abilities, not our possessions, not our fame or fortune or friendships or degrees or social standing or accomplishments make us any more valuable in God’s estimation than we were to begin with, simply because he created us and adores us.


pronouns

I’m always wrestling with which pronoun to use, because “I,” “you” and “we” convey
monumentally different things, and I don’t always feel confident or qualified to move beyond first-person singular.  So I will start with the one about which I am certain.


 

I say these words easily but they are not yet true of me:  My only value comes from being a child of God.  Actually, they are true, I believe by faith.  But I don’t believe them.

Huh?  Yeah, I said that.  I believe in the truth of this statement, but I do not believe this about myself on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

Can I believe a statement is true if I don’t live by its truth?  Of course.  I believe that sin hurts us and if I avoided sin, I would spare myself oodles of suffering and misery.  Yep, I believe every word of that.  I don’t stop sinning, mind you.  But intellectually?  I’m all in.

And yet, and yet, we have to ask what we mean (oops, slipped into first-person plural) by “believe.” Does it mean, “I affirm this truth,” “I assent to this fact,” or does it mean, “I live by this knowledge and order my life accordingly?”

I believe that eating healthily all the time is the best thing for my body.  I don’t always eat healthily, but generally I try.  And sometimes I just gorge.  Mostly on holidays or special occasions when I’m calling it a feast day and just taking it off from eating more wisely and selectively.  Or when I’m depressed and think that eating junk food will cheer me up, which never works in the long-term but does make me feel a little better in the instant gratification time-frame.

Back to identity.  My conflict feels different to me than sinning or eating badly, because with those I know I’m wandering away from reason, but in the moment I’ve just decided a)I don’t care, b)the consequences are worth it, or c)I’ll swim in denial for a bit.

When I say, “Being God’s child alone gives me value,” I am speaking a truth that my head buys and my heart simply doesn’t.  So I know it’s true, but I don’t believe the truth I know.  In case you are not conflicted in this manner, I can recommend some wonderful higher mathematics sites that you might really enjoy.  But Paul who wrote Romans was.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

I had a leader of a mission trip I was on tell me that this is a passage for non-Christians and does not apply to Christians.  It may not have applied to him, but it still describes me and I’ve been a Christian for coming on 30 years now.

I would like to know and believe the truth about myself.  Heck, I would like to know, believe and live the truth about myself.  How cool would that be?  When I imagine what “God is faithful to complete the work he started” means, I picture this.  Consistency, across the board.  But today, I’m still all over the map, like the start of a Risk game when you’ve got one or two armies on each country spread out hither and yon with no pattern other than the random draw of cards.*

Today I received four compliments, seven insults, a few hugs, a nasty look, and an email thatstocksrisingandfalling might have been joking or else was a dagger camouflaged as humor.**  Does my value change like a volatile stock that bounces up and down as its shares are bought and sold?  Nope, it does not. I know that.  But those things impact me because some part of me believes that that’s exactly what happens.  Days where I can do no wrong, everyone sends sunshine my way, and my little goals in life seem to be getting accomplished, I don’t just feel happy–I feel more valuable.  That’s a confession.  I shouldn’t.  I know better.

• The things people say are largely, if not entirely, about them, not me.  Every compliment must be taken with a grain of salt and every insult should probably be taken with a salt lick.

• There are SO MANY variables going on with every interaction I have:  People are having skubula days, they are in crises I know nothing about, parenting is not working out for them today, they (like me) suffer from insomnia, they’re feeling lousy, etc, etc, etcetera.

• I can’t be a reliable witness to how others intend their words.  Oh, I can guess and speculate–and do, all the time.  But I’m no expert witness.  No case should be decided based on my evaluation of whether that tone you just spoke to me in was light-hearted, mocking, indifferent or dismissive.  I don’t know your intentions.  I’m doing my best to decipher them, but even after I guess I still don’t know whether I’m right.

That’s a tiny list of reasons I shouldn’t let my value rise and fall on my interactions with others.  I know all this stuff.  But if you, whom I love, or maybe like a whole lot, speak sharply to me or maybe don’t trouble to speak to me, I feel bad.  It might be legitimate for me to feel concern for you, or be troubled about the state of our friendship (or whatever we have), or even question whether I did or said something wrong.  But I feel bad about me.

Truthfully, my negative response ranges based on how important the speaker or ignorer is in my life.  And this is exactly why I should root my value in God’s view and only God’s view.

• God alone has the objective view.

• God isn’t having a bad day, pissed that his car won’t start, etc. x 3.

• What God thinks of me, in the end, matters the most…by a wide margin.

In the same sense that either God exists or doesn’t, I am either valuable to God or I’m not.  According to the Bible, God does and I am.  Both unchanging.

You may say, “Come on, Mike, those negative things might hit your emotions, but they aren’t really impacting how you see your value.  Right?”  Thus did I choose to write this from my very own first-person singular perspective.  You may love advanced equation websites and you may never have felt the Romans passage I quoted above applies to you.  If that’s genuine, awesome.  If that’s your version of denial…stay with me.  We’ll get there.

I’ve become convinced that these things hit my emotions so hard precisely because I still have them connected with my value as a person, or as a Christian, or whichever part of my identity gets bruised or coddled.  Going up is just as dangerous as going down because a)what goes up must come down (i.e. if I’m invested in praise I’m also invested in criticism) and b)feeling too good about myself apart from God’s value he has imputed to me runs me smack into pride.  Anything referred to as “the root of all other sins” is just as well avoided.


 

What now?  If you are going to jump into this boat with me acknowledge that you’ve been in this boat with me all along, I’ll shift to what we might do.

My value comes from God’s love, straight up, no chaser.  God loves me whether I spend tomorrow in the fetal position, accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God, or manage some middle ground betwixt.  God loves me whether I’m wallowing in my sin or loving him with all my heart and my neighbor as myself (he has a strong preference between those, largely for my sake, but his love doesn’t waver).  If God’s love for me stays consistent regardless of my own behaviors, it’s sure and certain not to change with others’ treatment of me, nor with any of the other things that tend to swing me with their lassos.

We need to internalize this truth.  We need to integrate it into our thought patterns and let it become the measure by which we evaluate every interaction.  I know, that might sound exhausting and a little unrealistic.  Am I really going to stop after every conversation and mentally compare it with the truth about God’s love for me?  But I’m pretty sure this is what some other folks already have built in.  That’s how it appears to function in my wife.

To get this truth internalized, we need to soak in it.***  Let it saturate us.  Make it the air we breathe and the chocolate food we eat.  Let it become the water we swim in.  Meditate, memorize, reread over and over every single day, passages that convey God’s love for you.  Pick your favorites.  I don’t care if that’s cherry picking.  If you struggle with the same kind of negative thoughts I do, you are already very clear on passages about judgment, sin, and failing.  God’s grace is greater.  Jesus died for us when we were enemies.  Nothing separates us from the love of God.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The next time you feel yourself plummeting due to someone’s words or actions, step back and hold up what they’ve said or done/your reaction to what they’ve said or done**** against the words that you’ve been ingesting.  Yes, they may even have spoken something true about what you’ve done wrong or need to repent of or do differently, but that doesn’t change who you are.  It doesn’t change how God sees you.

If you can, ask someone close to you to speak these truths to you when you can’t manage it for yourself.  This can be uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing.  It’s tough to let other people see how screwed up we feel.  But the right people can help us to believe what we struggle to accept about ourselves.

Pray.  God can change hearts, God can change minds, God can change our screwed-up wiring.  There’s a reason for each of us why we started believing untruths about ourselves.  Something happened in us that caused us to attach our value to other people’s responses or our own success or failure or whatever thing(s) we’ve hooked on to apart from God.  God can get into that sealed-off chamber in us and transform and redeem what’s in there.

I’m not saying it will happen like magic–“Presto!”–nor that it will be painless.  The truth will set us free, but first it will kick our butts.  Healing often hurts.   That’s the paradox, but it’s one we see in our physical bodies and everywhere in the world around us.  What I’m describing may require intensive prayer, or counseling, or a support group, or some other form of deeper work.  Sorry that sounds rough.  We agreed we are in the boat and leaving denial behind.*****

I am God’s beloved child.  

You are God’s beloved child.  

There are a whole bunch of other things we think we are, we’re told we are, and we’ve believed we are.  They’ve got to be dragged out into the sunshine.  The father who loves us gets the final say.  Do you think the prodigal son, while trudging home, believed the truth about himself?

rembrandt_prodigal

Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

We’re trudging home.

I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.

 

Footnotes:

*Sometimes we played random draw for countries and sometimes we took turns choosing them.  The latter better look a little more like strategic planning.  Maybe winning at Risk is the image of having God’s work in me completed, in which case the other colors are truly my enemies…not too bad of an analogy.  I think I’ll leave it there before it collapses with rolling the dice.

**I’m making these numbers up so that my problem-solving friends don’t try to figure out where they figure in.

***Some authors I highly recommend to help with this:  Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Joyce Meyer, Timothy Keller, Rob Bell.

****Because remember, we’re only interpreting their intentions through our own lenses.

*****I disavow any pun here.  If you thought it, it’s yours.

Fred

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I sat by his bed because there was nothing else left to do. He lay fetal, curled up tight into himself against the hospital bed railing. He looked like a caricature of himself. “Moon face” had taken over all his features and then worked its way down his body, bloating and distorting the man who had ridden his bike 3,500 miles from Alaska, who ran in 24-hour-races and called his friends derogatory names impugning their manhood if they couldn’t keep up with him at work.

He slept almost peacefully. He would moan and rub his face or brush at his I.V., but he never knocked it out. The morphine kept pouring into him, keeping him from agony and consciousness. His wife and her mother and his mother and I stayed by him in turns and recited stories about him. Half of them I heard for the first time there. He was crazy, certainly. His pain tolerance exceeded that of mere mortals. He had never turned away from anything, it seemed now, in his entire life, but rather grabbed everything by the throat and conquered it. But you can’t really grab death by the throat.

He had done the closest thing, I think. He had refused to blink, refused to wince or cringe or ever, even once that I witnessed, feel sorry for himself. In the last months he had swung from wanting to stay so he could raise his 3-month-old baby girl to wanting to die so he could be with God fully. Two months earlier he told me that he no longer “tried” to hear God’s voice; God now spoke to him direct and clear. “Just like I’m talking to you. Except he says better things.”

One of the things God said was to try the snake venom. His mother had heard about a clinical trial that treated brain cancer with snake venom by shooting it directly into the tumors. Reports from the first study were positive but the second study had sounded overwhelmingly successful. You always wanted to use the “M” word. At first, he had said no. “If God is going to heal me, I don’t want people to be giving credit to snake venom!” But a week later he said, “God told me, ‘Hey, Stupid. You need to do that!’”

Does God address you as “Hey, Stupid?” No, me neither. But I’m thinking now, after it all, that this doesn’t disprove either God’s existence or Fred’s hearing. Certainly God deals with each person differently, uniquely. I mean, if he really does know everything then of course he would.

But Fred needed to live one more month to make the next clinical trial. That’s what we all prayed for. Technically, he did. But he also needed to be strong enough to undergo the treatment. Instead, he was laying there waiting for his body to release him. The four of us prayed together, crying, laughing, reminding one another what he would say. We asked God to let him die quickly. After four months or nine months or nine years of praying for his healing, we asked God to…kill him. We call it “take him” or “release him” or even passively “let him die.” I’m not sure I can explain the difference now, not with God. I know the difference between my letting him die on his own and killing him, because I don’t hold life in my hands. One of the Psalms says, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”

Ten years ago, I screamed and prayed and watched while my infant son died. God did not heal him from his heart failing, shunting blood so that he suffocated while on one hundred percent oxygen. So many stupid things people told me about God, about my faith, how God trusted me and I should be happy and thank Him; it took me three years to recover faith and understand that God had not betrayed me and that most of my anger was at people who spoke untruth about God, not at God himself. But I still can’t explain the difference between God letting a baby die and causing a baby to die. And so with Fred. If God can heal and does not, God allows death. But if each of us lives because God sustains our lives, then when our lives cease… Yet this path has pitfalls. A man shoots another man through the heart: God does not pull the trigger, God does not end the life, other than choosing not to suspend the natural laws to stop the bullet or restore the heart. Fred had a malignant growth in his head that invaded and sowed destruction and finally… God didn’t stop this bullet, this tumor, and God did not restore Fred’s brain. Did he?

Nine years ago, Fred first discovered he had cancer. The doctors did not know how long it had grown there, because Fred had been suffering migraines and, eventually, blackouts, for how long? Fred wasn’t sure. They operated immediately. He lived five years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. He lived two years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. It came back six months later. They told him that operating again would kill him, that he had no more options, and that he would likely die in two weeks…with his daughter’s birth due in three.

We all prayed in a frenzy then. I am not consistent with my prayers—I am not consistent with anything—but I thought of Fred fifty to a hundred times a day and tried to pray every time, seconds at a time. What did it mean? Was God nudging me to pray, reminding me again and again? Why does God remind me to ask Him to do what He could do without me? I don’t know. I have less than no answers. But I know this: Fred lived four months. He watched his wife give birth to their daughter. He held up his daughter in front of the congregation and dedicated her to God. Fred and Naomi named her “Eva,” which means “life.”

Then we prayed and watched and waited for a miracle. For the first month, Fred worked. He didn’t have his previous energy, but he could still work on his house. I would come to check on him and find him laying hardwood or installing tile. Fred had bought a huge, run-down two-story house when he and Naomi got married, then gutted it. They lived that way for a year, until Naomi said, “Enough!” Then they fixed up a back cottage on their property and lived there while Fred continued to restore their home. He worked as a contractor, so he built other people’s homes eight, ten, twelve hours a day and then came home to work on his own. In his spare time, he did construction for non-profits and people who couldn’t afford to pay. I am writing this while sitting on the deck he built for us: he raised the money for materials, organized the work party, and put it together in two weekends. We worked alongside him but didn’t pay a dime (other than feeding the workers).

Fred could no longer keep that pace, but he still looked for ways to help. One of Naomi’s stories: the last walk around the block Fred took, the day before they hospitalized him, three days before he… Fred saw two homeless people who had taken up residence in an alley there. He knew them. He stopped to talk with them and told them to come by so he could get them warm coats. By the time they came, Fred had lost consciousness.

“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I “knew” that verse but Fred taught me what it means. He did not fear death for one moment. He knew, beyond hoping or thinking or even believing, simply knew that death meant He could finally be with God. All he wanted in his last months was to take care of his wife, be with his daughter, and tell people God wanted them. He hoped to be healed so that people could see God and have to deal with the miracle. Did he get a miracle? Was it less obvious than we hoped—Fred living another fifty years and raising a family—but a miracle nonetheless? He wanted to live so that he could do more work, because, he told me, “Once you’re dead, you’re done here.” But he wanted to die because the cancer was slowly taking away what he could do and he had endured so much pain—more than any of us comprehended, I’m now sure. His pain tolerance was ridiculous. But he didn’t want to die merely to escape the pain, but because it kept him from being who he was.

I miss him. He taught me more than anyone else has about true belief. I am a pastor and a father and I try to live my life fully in God’s presence and as part of Jesus’ Kingdom. But I do not have the faith Fred had, and walking beside him through his life, dying, and death showed me how much I say but do not yet believe.

Fred slept for hours while we stayed with him. Finally, first Naomi’s mom and then Naomi left to take a rest. I stayed with Fred’s mom and we talked more. Then Fred woke up. He groaned and mumbled and we finally understood that he needed to use the bathroom. The nurse came and he kept saying, “Just two minutes. I just need to go. Two minutes.” But his arm had an IV and his balance was no longer reliable to get to the bathroom. So she and I helped him stand and use a “urinal,” the equivalent of a bedpan. He laid back down and started swatting at his IV and said a few incoherent sentences. His mother asked the nurse to increase his morphine and the nurse did.

Fred asked for some food and managed a few bites of pudding before he started to drift off. I walked over to his bedside and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Fred.” He opened one eye. Then he saw me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re a good man.”

I caught my breath and started crying (again). When I could speak, I leaned in close to his face and said, “You’re a great man.”

He held my eye, and he smirked, and it was a true Fred smirk, my friend really there again for a moment, as if saying, “Yeah, right.”

Then he closed his eyes.

He died at 6:30 the next morning.