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

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.

Giant Sequoias

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 Over the (U.S.) summer, I got to visit Shadow of the Giants national recreation trail.

We had our every-four-year All Staff Gathering up above Oakhurst, CA, which is within walking distance of Shadow of the Giants, where Giant Sequoias grow.  They were stunning.  Well, both my fellow missionaries in Servant Partners and the Sequoias were stunning, for different reasons, though from the same cause (if you follow me).  All Staff Gathering is like a tiny little foreshadowing of Heaven for me.  None of us are fully redeemed, of course, and I’m pretty sure actual Heaven will make me laugh at my comparison, but worshiping God with a bunch of people who have done crazy things to live the Gospel and have mind-bursting stories to tell about how God has shown up in their slums and in their lives is officially one of my favorite activities in the world! Being around passionate, ridiculous, hilarious Jesus followers makes me want to be more like Jesus.  I’m pretty sure that’s the point.

Sequoia_trees

I could go on with stories about the All Staff time.  I won’t, but if you see me, I probably will.  Sequoias, though.  Sequoias grow 270-300+ feet tall, weigh four million pounds, and live for 2,000 to 3,000 years.  I mean, from when Jesus Christ was born to a thousand years before that.  They are a sermon aching to be preached.  Over their lifetime, they grow and spread 60,000,000 (MILLION) seeds, of which perhaps 5 to 6 germinate and grow to be 100+ years.  But they are nearly impermeable to fire, which was borne out by their scars from fires (how many over 3,000 years?) which ran 25 or 30 feet up–but had no real impact at all.  They did no damage.  But the Giant Sequoia actually needs fire to help it’s seeds germinate and to clear the forest floor of other trees which otherwise take over and suppress sapling Giant Sequoias.  Anyone see parallels?  Anyone else considering all the kicking and screaming against hard situations and emotional turmoil, through which God actually brings something deeper to life in us?  Maybe those times, rather than killing us, are crucial to our growth?  Or that God needs to burn away the competing things in our lives before they choke out the crucial growth, the great growth he has planned for us.  Okay, maybe that’s just me.

As I said, Giant Sequoia seeds are tiny, and it takes millions and millions of them, over a vast number of years, with fire, to have a few trees grow.  But when those trees do grow–colossal.  Immense.  Breath-taking.  In His parable, Jesus describes all the seeds that will not grow to bear fruit, but “Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:8) Walking in the Giant Sequoia grove and being able to touch them was simply an act of worship for me.  How do I become a follower of Jesus who can stand when the fire comes and not be burned down?  How can I learn to keep loving others and planting the 60,000,000 tiny seeds from which only a few may grow–but those may become breath-taking, jaw-dropping, world-changing.  How do I learn to believe in God’s goodness, his purposes coming about, through the fire?

That’s probably enough tree talk.  It moved me.
(Originally published on the Servant Partners Blog)
(Photo: “Sequoia trees”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sequoia_trees.JPG#/media/File:Sequoia_trees.JPG)