Tuesday, December 28, 2010
Sunday, December 26, 2010
But, I’ve had something in the back of my mind as I’ve observed my own life this holiday season. In my typical way, it is an attempt to deconstruct myself (and maybe others . . . if the shoe fits) in an honest and psychological way. I will start with my conclusion and then go back and describe my mental journey that has brought me to this point.
The essence is the real miracle of Christmas is in the eyes and experiences of the children. But then we spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture that magic . . . and are perpetually disappointed.
I'm not saying what I’m about to say, in a bah, humbug way. I’ve spoken before how I see childhood as the ideal human state. It is glorious. It is so wonderful, that I have a hunch that when God recreates this universes, He will bring us back as imaginative, courious and eternal children. I think this is what Sir James Matthew Barrie was trying to capture in his concept of Neverland (as was Michael Jackson).
When you have children of your own, and when you have a lot of them like we did, that magic endures for a while. After all, you can re-live so many things through the experiences of your own offspring. But when THEY grow up, then the perpetual disappointment starts to ensue. But not to continue on a sour note, I think I did learn something this year, about priorities and I think that’s going to help me in the future to be more realistic about the holidays.
Another thing about Christmas is that it brings out the widest chiasm in married couples' culture . . . of course if that culture is different, as Denise and mine is. I’m not talking about “meta-culture” such as would exist between a person from West Virginia and someone from Pakistan. I’m talking about the more subtle forms, such as between one American family and another, which is exaggerated when you are from different areas of the country.
Denise’s Christmas heritage was about as Rockwellian as it gets. She grew up on a farm in the Midwest with five siblings and a grand ma just across the drive way. Having a Scandinavian heritage brought in many more traditions that defined that experience. Lutheran church life was also key to their holidays.
On the other hand, I had never even heard of Advent, until I was in college. My earliest childhood memories of Christmas were no less glorious than Denise’s but very different. I’m sure she wouldn't trade her Christmas history for mine (for a second) . . . nor would I for hers.
My earliest Christmas memories were very close to the movie A Christmas Story. Indeed, I begged for a BB gun every year, and like the movie, I was always told by my mom that I would shoot my eye out with one.
But as the youngest child, I saw Christmas disintegrate faster than most. When I was twelve, I became the only child at home. My siblings, and other relatives, would come to mom and dad’s for the celebration but there was a dysfunctionality in the air. It seemed that every Christmas one of my siblings was in some kind of crisis, such as a marriage falling apart. We additionally had the odd relatives coming who made the entire week seem like the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
There was uncle Hartsel, who was a TV evangelists with the Church of God. He spoke incessantly about his ministry, the End Times, and his sexual accomplishments as a young man (“bagging” the ten prettiest girls in town) . . . in that order. He also could not keep his hands off the young girls in the family, keeping at least one on his lap at all times as he rubbed his hands over their butt and thighs. Then there was my narcissistic Baptist aunt Marry. She saw herself as a cross between the Virgin Mary and the Queen of England. She had to be waited on hand and foot. She would also steal your kidneys if she could make a buck on them, but continuously look down her nose at us “little people” not meaning children but my entire side of the family.
But I digress.
This year, I saw the disappointment in Denise first and then thought through it for myself. She worked very, very hard this year . . . trying to capture that childhood Christmas. I think she was more determined than ever because she just lost her dad, who was always the center-piece of that memory. There are the decorations. This year’s tree . . . although late due to being out of the town for the funeral . . . looked like the cover of a Home and Garden magazine. She baked and cooked nonstop for the past two weeks. I could see in her the drive for normalacy . . . at least the normalacy of those Christmases past.
This year, however, I think her greatest disappoint was in me. I’m telling this from my perspective of course and if she would visit here she might disagree. But her ideal Christmas has all her adult children, well dressed and behaved, sitting on the same pew in church (her church) for Christmas Eve service. This is where the trouble began.
Between Denise’s busy work week and Christmas chores, we had only talked briefly about Christmas Eve service. I know that I was really looking forward to going to my new church’s service (and I haven’t looked forward to a Christmas Eve service in years). I also knew that it would very difficult for me to go to her church. As I mentioned in a previous post, it would be gut wrenching for me to be led by a spiritual guide who, the last time we had an encounter, he came to a very private family party (saying goodbye to my son who was leaving for college) and gave full vent to his rage, screaming at me while Denise and kids were cowering in the other room. It was very traumatic for me.
So I thought the choices were all of us going to my church, or Denise, and whoever wanted to, would go to her church.
Finally the time of decision came. I announced that I was going to my church’s 5:30 service, if anyone wanted to come to me. Denise expressed her great disappointment and anger, but she would not call it anger. She really expected that we would all go to her church.
I told her, “Denise, I’m willing to go to your church, but it would be a horrible experience for me.”
She said, “I’m not going to church alone as that would be a horrible for me?”
“Okay,” I said, “You take all the kids, who want to go, with you and I will go alone to my church.”
She did come to my church and I asked all the kids to come . . . for her, but I could tell that it was the crowning disappointment for her.
To me, I don’t care if the kids come or not. They are 18 to 24 years old now. I care deeply what they believe in their hearts. I would rather for them to honestly know God, and to never go to church or never dress up.
Then I reflected back on my past two Christmases and how disappointed I was. Last year, I thought what would be the best Christmas present I could think of for Denise. In my Christmas tradition it was all about presents. I got a car when I was 16, even though my mom and dad could not afford it. You might call it "present grandstanding." I guess I thought I could reproduce that feeling.
So, I figured that Denise would love a greenhouse. I started pouring the foundation around Thanksgiving. I cut all the support beams and laid them out in the shed. Then Christmas morning, as Denise was at work, the kids and I went out in the pouring rain and started assembling it. To make a long story short, I spent every waking second last Christmas season working on that greenhouse. As a matter of fact, I continued working on it for the subsequent three months . . . before it was finished. But I was so disappointed. I could not reproduce the same experience, which I had as a child. However, when I was out in the field building the thing I was away from my kids. Instead Iwas standing out in the rain and mud, building walls and putting up glass. Denise didn’t jump up and down over it like I had hoped. She told me that she had never asked for one, therefore all that energy was spent on myself.
The year before that wasn’t much better. We had a big snowstorm the week before Christmas (which is unusual for here). Our entire region was shut down. Then our water went out for ten days. I became obsessed with fixing it. It was a sad Christmas for me because I spent my days out digging ditches in the mud. Denise was very let down because so many of her plans were spoiled by the plumbing drought.
But this year, I think I have seen the light. You can not reproduce those memories. From now on my highlight is sitting around the table at the coffee shop and talking to my kids, getting deeper in conversation than I think I will for another twelve months. That's all that matters to me.
Thursday, December 23, 2010
Wednesday, December 22, 2010
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Tuesday, December 14, 2010
Friday, December 10, 2010
(Painting is one interpretation of Plato's Cave Allegory)
The moment was surreal to me. It was dark outside, except for the flickering light of a few kerosene lamps. It wasn’t quiet though. Inside the tent was a lively party. Some had carried bottles of Everest Beer over the pass, being chilled in the glacier-fed stream and were now popping the metal caps. We were crunching down on odd, shrimp-flavored, pink, fluffy chips from Kathmandu. Outside the tent the sounds were even louder . . . but not of the party mood. In a sharp contrast, outside I could only hear wailing and crying.
We had a patient come to us that day who was seriously ill with TB. Her family had carried her from a nearby village seeking the expertise of the American doctors . . . their potential savors. It reminded me of how the sick were carried by their families for miles to the feet of Jesus. However, rather than this woman (whom I would assume was in her early 40s) being miraculously healed by the great white doctors, she soon died under (and possibly because of) their care. The reason she died was that the IVs given to rehydrate her and to give her TB fighting antibiotics, over-came her frail heart and flooded her lungs. She died of congested heart failure soon after the sun had set over the towering snow-topped crags.
The two doctors, who were caring for her, bounced into our party tent with big smiles and an eagerness to join the festivities now that their medical vigilance was over. I felt a tremendous unease. They said, in what appeared to me to be a calloused flavor, “Eh . . . she would have died anyway. You know these people don’t have much of a quality of life to start with.” What kind of excuse was that?
I know that I may have mistaken the feelings and thoughts of the others tremendously, but I can speak frankly how I was feeling. I had this sense of the devaluing of the life of a brown person (speaking figuratively as one of the doctors actually had “brown skin”). A more appropriately term would be devaluing the life of the non-American, poor.
I sat in an emotionally-coerced muteness. I couldn’t stand the harsh dichotomy between the family in extreme grief at the loss of their mother, daughter, sister and wife outside, while inside the warm, well-lit tent was card playing, beer drinking and joke telling . . . in English, perfect American-English.
The shadows of the mourning party began to pass our tent. Since there was only one narrow, muddy path off that steep mountain, the party had to pass the wall of our tent by a matter of feet if not inches. It was a surreal moment. Everyone else seemed occupied with the card game as I watched the shadows move access the wall of our tent evocative of Plato’s cave allegory. There were short shadows of children walking and then the adults. You could see the faint outline of the body wrapped in a blanket being carried on the backs of the men. One I’m sure was her husband . . . one her father.
As the broken family passed by, the wailing and moaning began to drown out the card game. Angie, the medical student just to my right, said the most disturbing thing. “What’s wrong with these people? They must not take their Buddhism very seriously. Don’t they know that she might come back next time as a princess . . . or at least not in such poverty?”
Angie was fond of Buddhism herself as the typical American new-age practitioner. She taught a class in NYC on meditation and had superficially studied pop-pantheism.
Before I had a chance to say anything, Char, the one Nepalese among us said, “Oh, they are not Buddhist. Didn’t you see their crucifixes? They are Nepalese Christians.”
Angie’s eyes lit up, “Well that’s even worse. They must not be very good Christians to be crying like that. Don’t they live what they say they believe? Don’t they believe that she is in paradise now or Heaven?”
I turned to Angie, “Have you never lost anyone close to you? Have you ever seen anyone, whom you loved, die and felt the pain of that?”
She seemed to take it as a rhetorical question and never gave me an answer. Maybe it was too personal.
I added, “Well, I have. It doesn’t matter if they are in paradise today. You have loved them and been with them you whole life. Now, in the passing of a second, you will never hear their voice or feel their touch, their breath, their whisker burns or hugs. That is where the intense pain comes from. It would be the same pain if your loved one was taking off to Hawaii and you would never, ever see them again, exchange mail or talk to them. It is really painful. I’m a Christian and being so has only made my grief more acute when I sense the injustice of loss.”
Angie rolled her eyes. I excused myself from the group and went off to my own pup tent to be alone and to share in empathy with the bereaving crowd . . . who was now moving up the far side of the valley as a chain of rocking lamps against the black mountain side. The wailing echoed above the rushing river between us.
Schaeffer has also said that when you take the possible answers to of existence to their final conclusion, only the Christian philosophy truly allows you to clinch your fists and rage against suffering, injustice and death. None of which are natural, according to the way we were created. In the Christian perspective, they are all a horrible aberration. We stand side by side with God and cry . . . as Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus.
The pantheist must accept death as part of God. The evolutionary atheists must accept that death is as meaningless as life. Intense grief is only a chemical exchange within the limbic system, indistinguishable from pure pleasure.
Thursday, December 9, 2010
Everyone knows the story. Someone has a major tragedy in their life and then, as a result, loose their faith. Often it is the death of someone they loved. But it could be any major loss. The reason for that of course, is a false expectation planted by erroneous Christian thinking.
This misunderstanding of scripture goes like this. God loves you and if you are faithful to Him, He will build a hedge of protection around you and your family so no harm will come. What happens to the disillusioned is that they really feel in their hearts that they were faithful . . . yet calamity came anyway. It appears as a celestial betrayal. But God never promised this hedge to us. It is wishful thinking and a bit of egocentrism. Verses, which were intended for the nation of Israel in a particular time and place or for a particular prophet, are applied to us simpletons. I know I was hoodwinked with this misunderstanding and thus fell into spiritual chaos when shit started happening in my life.
But the point I wanted to make (before I got sidetracked by tangents in my typical way) is that this feeling of grief and the mourning of loss, especially the loss of someone you love, is one of the strongest testimonies of God’s existence. I will make my case in the following paragraphs. If this takes too long, I may have to continue with yet another posting.
In a lecture by Francis Schaeffer, titled Possible Answers to Basic Philosophical Questions, he lays out the case that when you boil things down, there are only a few options of beliefs about the universe.
The very first point of divergence is whether there is anything here at all. Only a scant few philosophers and writers have suggested that nothing is here so that discussion isn’t worth having.
The next major break, and one that has great proponents of each side, is whether the universe had a personal beginning (being created) or impersonal. Now, if you choose the impersonal, you have to be true to your position. It is where, out of absolute nothing, the universe sprang into existence without provocation. It was a random act with no intention behind it. Then from that point (which you might call the Big Bang) all that is now has evolved, first a stellar evolution, then a geological one and finally a biological one. That evolution was without intent except for the natural laws which dictated it. But the natural laws, including the laws of physics, quantum mechanics and biological laws, are all arbitrary.
On the other side, there is the personal beginning. On the side of the personal beginning there are two main options. First there is the pantheistic answer, which the universe itself is all part of god. Secondly, there is the monotheistic view, that God created the universe outside of Himself. Now of course you can further break down the points of divergence into the Judaist, Islamic and Christian views but that isn’t my point here. I’m just going to compare the non-personal beginning to the monotheistic one as they answer this problem of mourning. I will call the non-personal (strict evolutionary without a creative influence) as position A, and the Christian (or more general monotheistic view) as position B.
So, when you look at mourning from the A position, of course it must be the consequences of millions of years of biological evolution, especially the evolution of the human brain and precisely the limbic system of that brain. The only guiding force is increasing the odds of reproduction, or of surviving to the point of being able to leave as many offspring as possible. That is really the only biological force behind evolution and natural selection. There is not a “happiness” force, only biological reproduction. Atheistic evolutionist often cheat at this point and speak of “personal” terminology such as, “That’s the way the universe intended it for our enrichment.” That’s nonsensical.
Now, I believe that the human brain is unique in its ability to mourn. Yes, animals do have a maternal instinct where they do appear to mourn with the loss of a dependent offspring. I’ve heard cows bellowing (is that the right word?) after their calf has died or been taken away. I’ve seen the same with dogs and with whales (who have much bigger brains than us). I am not an animal expert of course, but I think it is dubious that animals mourn anything but the loss of an offspring. Even that mourning, I think, is more of a defensive calling to get the offspring to come back to their safety. Certainly you could explain the loss of offspring in evolutionary terms if you wanted.
I know that people would argue with me on this point. There are stories about dogs lying on their deceased master’s graves for months or years. I suspect that it is a much more primal than that. I sense it is the longing for the dog food, which that master had dispensed over the years, sort of a conditioning reflex.
I hate to take a morbid turn in this story but I think it is pertinent. I once shared an office with a podiatrist, Steve, who was also the county corner in Marquette County, Michigan. Oddly, being a corner was his hobby. He ran for the office as an elected official. It didn’t pay that well. But I could tell he had a passion for the job.
Steve used to bring me some of his corner’s textbooks, thinking as a medical provider that those photos and stories would be interesting. I didn’t find them so. Mostly they were about identifying human bodies in a variety of situations and looking for tale-tale signs of mischief.
There was one chapter, which caught my attention. It was titled something to the effect of, “Recovering Bodies in Homes with Pets.” In that chapter it described the invariable consequence of a person dying alone with a pet in their apartment or house. Simply put, the pet eats their masters . . . always. As soon as they are cold, and apparently dead, the pet starts to nibble. There is no mourning, no sense of awe at the remains of the loved one. The chapter had plenty of horrible photos to prove the point. So I think we often project our very, uniquely human, sense of mourning onto animals, when they work from far more basic sense of instincts of hunger and reproduction.
So my point is, humans are exclusively programmed for mourning the loss of someone who has died. But this special sense goes far beyond just mourning. It has to do with consciousness, self-awareness and what I would call the love of life and longing for eternity. Don Richardson calls it, “Eternity in their Hearts.” My good friend, Coco (my Saint Bernard) has no sense that she is getting older and will probably die within the next couple of years. Sure, she doesn’t like her joint pain. But I really don’t think she has a sense of death, dying or mourning. When her dear friend (fellow Jones pet dog) Sparky died, her only concern was his corpse was blocking her food dish.
I know that there are those within the A perspective camp who would argue this point. There is a lot that we don’t know about animals and their sense of consciousness. But no one would argue that humans are not unique in our level of awareness of life, and the love there of.
Schaeffer talks about this rise to consciousness among men (meaning mankind). It suddenly puts us in dissonance with the reality of the universe. Here we are, a people who longs for life and eternity both in ourselves and in those we love. Yet, the universe in which we live, dictates a different outcome. It creates an incredible tension, of which, mourning, grief, depression and severe longing is the consequence.
He (Francis Schaeffer) further points out, that if you approached this situation from a clean position A (when I say “clean” I mean, not counting the theistic evolutionist but the strict atheistic evolutionist), then we have evolved beyond what the universe dictates. While biological laws dictate that evolutionary changes (except for brief mutations which are destructive and self-limiting) increase our likelihood of reproduction. But this sense of eternity creates a tension that makes us even more discontent, and leads to a less likely change of reproduction.
Schaeffer describes it like a fish in a sealed in a closed aquarium (without any perching stones or even free air) that evolves to the point of developing lungs. That evolutionary change would be more harmful to the fish and make this less likely to survive. They will eventually drown.
From the position A perspective, we humans have evolved into a situation where we now have “lungs” in a universe where there is no free air. We long for eternity for ourselves and for the people whom we love. We ache, suffer and grieve when that eternity is interrupted.
I will come back and talk more about the position B perspective next time. It is more obvious where I’m going with this but once again I’ve run out of attention span.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
There are certainly differ ways for people to mourn, some more emotionally healthy than others. Of course I can not tell a person what is the best way for them. I do have a hunch that the Mediterranean/Arab cultures do it best and us northern European and Asian descents the worst.
I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing a few accidental deaths in my time in Cairo. One morning I was riding my mini bus on my ninety minute commute to Arabic school. The streets were always extremely chaotic and crowed. In between the old broken down buses were a river of cars, donkey carts, camels and thousands of pedestrians. To my right I happened to catch a tragic event. A man stood on the side walk holding the hand of his, about 7 year-old, son (one would assume it was his son) who was wearing the typical gray school uniform. You could see the dusty red school bus approaching quickly. Just before the bus pulled up beside them, and for reasons I can’t understand, the boy stepped into the street. Immediately the huge front tire ran right over him. There was no hope of survival as the boy was squashed flat beneath the tire. It was a scene seared into my mind forever.
To my surprise, the father didn’t run to the boy’s entangled body, but instead, began running down the street. He was screaming. He was pulling his hair out by the handfuls and he ripped his shirt entirely off and fell face down on the dirty sidewalk while he pounded himself in the face. It was an intense out-pouring of emotion with no reservations.
I find it perplexing to see how the Arab’s vent their emotions without hesitation. The reason it seems strange is their philosophical orientation. They are extremely fatalistic. Everything is done by God’s willing hand. Different from evangelicals, they don’t see God delivering a tragedy to teach them patience . . . but always in judgment. They have an omnipotent God, not a benevolent one. But despite that, they show their grief on their sleeves. I’m not sure if I understand how that works out. I do think that in Christian countries, we have learned to suppress our emotions because we want to appear spiritual.
With that said, I wanted to move on to my last point and that is the how the pain of death, in my opinion, testifies of God’s presence. I realize once more I’ve run out of time and attention span (mine and yours) and I will have to finish this up next time.
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
I’ve heard two perspectives on the John 11 passage preached from the pulpit. I will paraphrase each.
Jesus was busy and got word that His good friend was very sick. Jesus knew that it was serious . . . even terminal. But Jesus had work to do where He was, plus it was dangerous going back to Judea so He waited a few days.
As Jesus and His disciples approached Bethany, word came that His friend was dead and He was too late. Jesus said, “No problem. I can raise him even from the dead.”
He arrived at the tomb and His friend's sister was irritated that Jesus was too late.
Jesus shook His head and thought, these pathetic humans. They don’t have the faith to believe what I can really do. Then He cried over His frustration and grief about the silly humans’ failures.
Jesus heard that His friend, whom He loved dearly, was seriously sick. Jesus hated the effects of the Fall on the people He loved, especially sickness and death. It was one more battle Jesus wanted to fight.
But he was busy where He was and He knew that He would have to fight back the darkness in Bethany and redeem His friend from the grave.
When He approached Bethany, people came to Him to tell Him that His friend was already dead and had been dead for several days. Jesus felt grief because He understood the pain that death brings these people whom He loved.
He approached the tomb and the humanness of Jesus was overwhelmed with the grief of death and all the suffering, which death (authored by the prince of darkness) has brought to the world. Jesus began sobbing.
In my opinion, it is this second perspective, which is most correct. Jesus hates the Fall and its consequences. He hates death. He doesn’t intentionally use death as an instrument to bring good . . . such as to teach someone something.
This brings me to my last point . . . another slippery path up in the high places. This is where the one in anguish, reaches the conclusion that God was never there in the first place. How many people have walked away form God when their child dies or their spouse or a friend?
In my next, and final, post on this topic I want to describe why death, and its aftermath, is one of my most convincing evidences that God really is there.
Thursday, December 2, 2010
It seems to be an oxymoron to speak of the fact that death is a part of life. While I’m sure the intent of my notion is understood, of course death is really the antithesis of life. But I must put down some thoughts about it as this bad season, of death, has visited our family once more. A week ago today Denise’s father passed from living his days here on this earth. So the thoughts of death and the observance of a life gone have consumed—of course Denise—and all of us this last seven days, and many more to come.
It doesn’t seem right to be thinking on death during this glorious season where the center of our focus is the birth of God on earth. Even the early Church picked December 25th as the day to remember the birth of Christ, because it represented beginnings. Occurring just after the winter solstice, it was the rebirth of the light as the days were growing longer.
Yet, the theme of death has always been the kid-shadow to the holidays. I think for one reason, as I said before, that the holidays are those great buoys or roadside markers, which reveal to us the passing of our lives. With that, it is also a time that we always tend to remember many people, whom we have loved and with whom we have celebrated Christmas, but yet are no longer here.
Of course we all know that the holidays are the most depressing time of the year and I think part of that sadness (in the midst of joy) is that constant longing for the whispers from the past, the grand parents, the old friend and the parent. I can’t imagine the pain that Christmas brings to those who have lost a child, a child with whom they had celebrated glorious mornings of excitement and true joy and then to be hushed forever on this earth.
It also seems that more of the people whom we have loved have departed us during the holidays. I’m not sure why. I realized it could just be a psychological factor that makes it seem that way but, at least for me, it seems real.
I think of the people whom I’ve lost and the vast majority of them were taken away from me during the holidays. My Grandfather, the first person I lost, died one week before Christmas. I can still remember, and I think I was only eleven, finding my mother collapsed in the kitchen floor on Christmas Eve. She went it to check the turkey and never came out. We use to spend every Christmas Eve with him. Mom was lying on the floor, shaking and crying and saying over and over, “Do you realize that was my daddy we just buried . . . that was my daddy . . . that was my daddy. We will never have Christmas with him again.”
My favorite uncle died just after Thanksgiving. A couple of years later my close high school friend, Amanda, was killed the day after school let out for the Christmas break. It was her very first solo driving trip. She was only going to the store three miles away to buy eggs for Christmas baking. That Christmas of 1974 fell silent. It became the year without a holiday season. Three years later, my good, college, friend Owen took his own life about three days after Christmas.
Although my own father did not die at Christmas, I said my goodbyes to him then. I knew I would never see him alive again. It was surreal. How do you say goodbye to your fully vigilant father knowing that the next time you would see him would be in his open casket? It was horrible. I had driven from his house in Tennessee, back to Michigan many, many times and it was always full of tears . . . but that time the pain was unbearable.
But I have to think about death because it is always intrusive. There is never a better way or time to die. I’m not writing to be a downer to myself or anyone, but, like I said it is a part or anti-part to life.
I’ve seen death handled by Christians in a variety of ways . . . some more dysfunctional than others. I helped Barb, a good friend in college, and her mother celebrate her father’s death. When I used the word “celebrate” here . . . is wasn’t what you think. It was a true celebration. They were a deeply religious family and their gross misunderstanding of death made them think that the proper way for Christians to face it was in a loud party. There were no tears allowed. There were balloons, noise makers and the sort . . . to celebrate their father/husband’s sudden, and un-expectant, entrance into Heaven. It was as bizarre as it sounds. I don’t know how deep they had to dig to bury the pain but it had to go somewhere. I saw the same happen when a friend’s son was killed in a car wreck. The father and mother were so hell-bent in proving to the world that they were godly, they never shed a tear . . . at least not then.
But death is not a gift nor was it ever intended to be that way. It is not a happy ending and any time we try to put a positive face on it, it is the same as trying to say the Fall of man . . . had its good side. Death is an aberration. It is offensive. It is un-natural. It is not the grand finale or the relief from suffering . . . but the fulfillment of suffering . . . suffering gone wild . . . suffering triumphing—through temporally—over us.
An acquaintance of mine died a few months ago mountain climbing. He was an avid mountain climbing and truly loved it. He was also in his early seventies. So I must have heard a hundred times, “Well he died doing what he loved and that was nice.” Hell no it wasn’t nice! He fell a thousand feet to his horrible death. He must have been terrified on the way down. He had to have felt the pain of hitting the ground. But worst than that, he felt the pain in his heart during those few seconds of knowing that he was leaving the wife and children, which he loved, and the grand children, who he will not see grow up. Death is always bad. It is worse than bad. Okay, maybe if Hitler died in his youth it would have been a good thing. But only God knows that, and it still doesn’t sound right. I think Bonheoffer struggled with the same concept.
I have also heard of Christians who start to loose faith in the midst of the tragedy of death. The thinking goes, “How could have God allowed this?” It is the age-old question of, how can God be both loving and in control, yet this great pain has come to us? This is the slippery path in the high places were we can so easily stumble. We can fall to one side and blame God forever and either walk away from Him or become to Him a statue of cold marble. On the other side, we fall into the abyss of believing that God is the author of death. In that frame of mind we believe that God not only willed it, but designed it. Oddly, it dictates that God painstakingly formed each second of the suffering and catastrophe with his loving hands. Now that’s an oxymoron.
There is much more I want to say so I must continue this later. I will end with a passage from John 11, which I want to speak to when I’m back. Once again I’m sorry about the typos but I just got off a plane and I’ve had about three hours sleep.
The Death of Lazarus
1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
Monday, November 29, 2010
This segues into my experience tonight here on the west coast, far from removed, unfortunately from Denise.
I just returned from a men’s prayer group, which meets at the home of one of the men of my new church, Westminster. This is only my second meeting, outside Sunday morning, with my new church. It was a gift. I haven’t been in a group of men like this in many years and I was hungry. There were no lectures and no domination of the conversation by a single person. We seven men came, shook hands, sat down and did the work of prayer for ninety minutes. We prayed earnestly and honestly. I prayed for my wife and her family. One prayed about his grief of loss of a wife taken far too soon and now his wrestling with God over that unfortunate fact. I’ve been where he is (not loosing a wife, but having a great disillusionment), and I had to give him a hug. I felt quite comfortable there among strangers.
On Sunday I noticed an amazing thing. I’ve never been much of a Sunday morning church person. I had always looked for an excuse not to go to the service (which was rare). I don’t believe that the present concept of Sunday morning church is meant for everyone and I do believe that there are emerging forms from which many (maybe including myself) will be better suited. However, Sunday, I had a clear excuse not to go. My kids were with me and we were having a marvelous time at the coffee shop. Two of the three didn’t want to go. It would have been natural for me to stay. But, I actually wanted to go. I wanted to hear the classical choir, the pipe organ, the message about world peace and God’s mercy.
I reflected back on my decision to change churches a few months ago. I did the right thing. Those were/are good people at my old church. But I had come to a dead end. I think back through life and all the big decisions that I’ve made. Every single one had people who stood in opposition. That must be one of the cardinal sins . . . trying to block someone from making the right decision for their life. I hope that I’ve never done that.
All the media outlets today were talking of Wikileaks and their . . . well, leaks. As I’ve listened to the “cables” I had to chuckle about the absurdities of life. There are bad things about the release, especially when it comes to endangering the lives of people. However, the silly comments made by one diplomat about the other was what made me laugh. The reason is, the cables of course were expressing their true feelings . . . which they thought were private. So, I’m sure that the leaks were far closer to the truth than the “public statements” which the diplomats say. But quickly they are scrambling to put the best face on their very true statements. I just wish we could live on that level of truth.
Saturday, November 27, 2010
The first reason is that it stands as a marker for the passing of time. If September 22 has no meaning to you (for example no one's birthday) then there are no memories to conjure up by the date. But of course, Thanksgiving and such special days create an experience that is like holding a mirror in front of another mirror. If you align them just right you can see a tunnel of repetitive images dimming back the further you go.
The second trigger for life reflections is that the fact you have family around. As I’m typing here right now I am surrounded by three of my five kids and none of them live at home anymore. You can’t be around family without thinking of the past.
The last factor of the perfect storm is having time. In normal life I don’t have time to reflect much. I think that is why most people are addicted to busyness . . . because they don’t want to remember. If the old times were good, it is painful to know that they are gone forever. If they were bad, you want to forget them.
Pictured here are my aunt Helen (the smaller girl) and her big sister Rosa. Helen has been like a second mom to me. She lived with us for part of our life and was always very close. She is 82, lives with my 89 year-old mother now and she (my aunt) is in poor health. But recently I came across several photos of her and her big sister.
I never had the chance to meet Rosa. She, like her mom and other sister, succumbed to TB and die a slow and painful death in the 1930s (as teenagers). My aunt Helen watched each one disappear, almost literally. I don’t know how she has such a positive attitude on life with so many losses under her belt (many I haven’t mentioned).
Another marker this season is the fact that my father-in-law is quite ill. Denise flew home last night to be with him. He seems to have improved from death’s grips to being communicative again this morning. But one can not think about him without thinking about the memories of his better days. Denise of course has much more than I do. But I watch my dad die ten years ago and I know how it is to go through this.
But at times like this, as you sense your own immortality and the passing of time, you pause and ask, “Am I on the right path? Am I doing what I should be doing in life?” These are hard questions to answer. I’ve known men who asked them, then bought a Harley Davison and took off . . . literally, never looking back, never coming back to their families. My desire to do that right now is quite low . . . although when life was difficult a couple of times (a decade ago and before that, two decades ago), it was tempting.
But this brings me back to today and sitting her with my kids and cherishing ever second that we have. I can smell them, reach over and touch them and talk to them. Someday, they will be flying home to either my deathbed or my funeral. The time between now and then will fly by.
On a closing note, I stayed awake last night in my big empty bed. It is harder to fall asleep when Denise is not there. So I checked my e-mails and started to explore the world of the Internet. When I was forced, by a snow storm, to stay on the mainland earlier this week, I had the same problem with sleep. That night, I spent two hours studying the entire geological history of the earth. I never knew that they believe that they were three super continents, rather than just one.
Last night I went back and tried to catch up on Imonk a bit. I read Jeff Dun’s Saturday ramblings. Once again, he brought up Keith Wheeler, the guy who has been carrying a cross around the world for the past . . . I forgot, 10-15 years? So then I jumped to Keith’s web page and read his entire story and looked at all of his photos. I know that for the majority of Christians, Keith is a hero. I have some trouble with the story, especially when he joined forces with Benny Hinn to make a DVD.
In my opinion, I put Benny Hinn (in the spirit of Dante) in the inner most circle of Hell, as one of the most despicable people who are alive today. A year ago, my old church had a fall campaign using material written by Benny’s right hand man. I sent an e-mail to the entire church that I was having a very hard time taking the project seriously knowing that the author worked closely with Benny. There IS guilt by association. No one else in the church saw a problem except that I was being a trouble maker. But there were other things that Keith says that troubles me. I was going to blog on it today, but, to avoid sounding like the negative person again, I will just let it go. If you know me, I will simply say that Benny lives up on the 80-90th floor above reality. I had the sense that Keith lives on the 40th. I admire people down near the ground floor the most. I will let it rest at that because I may be alone in my perspective.
Speaking of Jeff, I guess he is one of those people who communicate via silence. He asked for my manuscript a couple of months ago. But if I e-mail him about it(and I have his private e-mail address now) he never responds. If I ask him a non-manuscript question, he immediately responds, so I know the address is good. But I’ve never understood people who use silence to communicate. I have no idea what that means. But after our disagreement over the nature of the call of God, I have a sense, like all other publishers and agents, we are not on the same page either.
Lastly, I added a new program on this blog. The most frequented posting appears at the upper right hand corner. It can change from day to day. This is an automatic function. I was a bit surprised when my very personal story about my anxiety appeared and stayed. It is the most read. I wonder what that means. It is not the posting that I would want most people to read because it does paint me in a bad light. But maybe it says something about a hunger in Christians to hear stories about other Christians that aren’t so successful.
I wasn’t planning on writing today, but I wanted to savor this moment in Starbucks with my daughter on my left, Ramsey across from me and Quentin sitting diagonally from me. I wanted to sit and savor their smells (between the smell of espresso) their voices and their presence.
Friday, November 26, 2010
I was talking to a really nice person this week and it started me thinking about another one of those great paradoxes of life. I know I’ve talked about “niceness” before, but usually in a negative light. I’ve described the “cult of niceness,” as some have called the Victorian age. Equally I’ve mentioned the façade of niceness that exist in many evangelical circles. But this time, I’m referring to real niceness, or so it seems.
In my old paradigm of spiritual life, I (like many Christians) believed that before I became a Christian, I had many not-so-nice traits. I attended many workshops a few decades ago on “developing your personal testimony.” In those workshops, we would go mining for those bad things which had plagued our non-Christian self. Sometimes we were encouraged (implied) to embellish them, in the spirit of a Mike Warnke, to highlight the contrast. Then, in our post-meeting-Jesus self, we would focus on how nice we’ve become.
But now I realize this line of demarcation is not so crisp and doesn’t not come down precisely where we would like to imagine. It seems to come down between people who have been born (or raised) nice, and those who were/are not.
I wish I were nice. But, I often get frustrated . . . more so than the average Christian, or so I think. I’m not downplaying what I mean. I don’t yell, scream or say hateful words to people. But things like plumbing problems frustrate me and I don’t hesitate to say I’m frustrated. It’s been a few years, but I’ve been known to scream and pound a leaky pipe with a hammer to vent that frustration. I would have done the same before I became a Christian. Maybe my threshold of “loosing it” is higher now . . . maybe a little higher.
I was describing my frustration this week to this nice person. It has been a rough five days and just got worse as I was typing this (just got word that my father-in-law is gravely ill. I will come back to that as I gather my thoughts but I will first finish this thought).
Earlier in the week, I left for work with the temps around 33 and a little drizzle. I’ve been so busy lately I haven’t watched TV where I could have heard a weather report. To make a long story short, the drizzle quickly turned to snow and I got snowed-in over on the mainland at my office for two days. Denise likewise got snowed-in at her job at the hospital on our island for the same 48 hours. During this time, the temps plummeted to 8 degrees (in a place that it rare is below 28 degrees) and set a new all time record.
When I was finally able to climb my way back up our little island mountain in my studded four wheel drive, I found our poor pets in panic (our neighbors had let them out once during the span). I had dog poop in the house, which I expected. What I didn’t expect is that our guest cabin’s pipes were all frozen and broken.
I didn’t expect it because they froze and ruptured a couple of years ago when we had a desperate friend gradually extend her “4-week” summer stay into a 20-month one. The cabin was never meant for winter use. After the pipes ruptured on her, I literally laid on my back in a 14 inch crawl space, in 30 degree mud, no light but my headlamp, for seven nights as I completely replaced the plumbing. I also carefully wrapped the pipes in electric heat tape and insulation, so that would never happen again. But now it has.
What really frustrated me was the dumb thing that the electric tape had become unplugged. I have no idea how. Maybe I did it. I don’t know. But now all that work seems ruined.
But this post is not really about that unfortunate incident . . . it is about the frustration I feel in those situations, and more so, how nice people seemed immune to. I’m only sharing about a difficult week to illustrate a much bigger picture.
The nice person was with me and I showed them the pipes. I simply said how frustrating the situation was. I showed emotion but didn’t raise my voice. Inside I wanted to kick the pipes as hard as I could. The friend was appalled. They could not relate how an inanimate object would ever upset me, even if it meant a huge amount of hard work and money to repair. In this season of being thankful, they pointed out how wonderful my life is right now. Four of my five children are home. I have plenty of food, cars that run and I live in a place which I’ve dreamt of living in for a long time. I really am thankful but I still get frustrated even with my abundance of blessings. Hey, many people in the world don’t have a roof over their heads and here I am being frustrated by my empty “guest cabin.”
This is how this posting is different from my previous ones. I think this friend was sincere. They really couldn’t relate. They almost never feel mad, frustrated, depressed or anxious (by their own confession and my observations). Yes they are a Christian, but I think they would be the same if they were a Buddhist or even an atheist.
The paradox is that the story doesn’t follow the narrative. “I was so bad . . . then I met Jesus . . . now I am so good.”
One of the things that shook my evangelical faith so deeply a couple of decades (besides the most godly man I had ever known, also turning out to be the most cruel) was my own failings. I had covered them over with Jesus Bondo for a long time. But the Bondo cracked. I knew in my heart that I wanted this missionary boss to die a painful death for what he had done to me and my family. What happened to the good, post-Christian Mike?
I know of several people whom have visited this blog and have likewise concluded that I’m not a nice person. I’m cynical, cruel and seem to always look at the dark side (I don’t see myself like that at all). The nice people, sincerely, only see the positive side of things and are never cynical. They only share praises for other people . . . including evangelicals.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
It’s really inevitable. The Church, sitting in a pool of culture, will eventually absorb some of that culture like the smell of smoked salmon sitting open in the refrigerator tainting the Jell-O. There is nothing wrong with that and in many ways can be a good thing. But it can also be a bad thing . . . depending on which part of the culture that is absorbed. The big problem is, while the first generation (the one doing the absorbing) may see it as innervations, by the time it gets to the next generation of believers, it is fused with the few simple doctrines of scripture and becomes an essential.
I was thinking about this last week as I listened to NPR’s Science Friday. The computer scientists and engineers behind the Microsoft’s Xbox’s Kinect described how they developed the system and what the future may hold.
Already the system, that is the system sitting on the shelf ready for Christmas, can recognize your face and match it to a data bank about you. It may soon be able to do that with your voice as well. Once the match occurs, the possibilities are endless. The software can record your voice and habits . . .and get to know you much better than you can imagine. In the future, your little Xbox, sitting in your living room, may be able to communicate to vendors (via the Internet) of your habits, wishes, vocalizations . . . so those vendors can tailor-make their products for you.
Not too far fetched, you could be sitting in your living room, Xbox off (or so you think) and you say something about needing to buy a new washing machine. Then, you go to check your e-mail and there is a letter addressed to you, offering you a “special” discount on a washing machine down at the local box store. It could happen, sooner than you think. It wouldn’t be big brother because in the five-page, 4 pt. font, contract (which you signed when you bought the Xbox) says that they can sell your information to the vendor.
Of course product placement has been around for quite a while. I remember when I first figured this out. I felt so deceived.
But to my point. I was listening to Christian radio this week again . . . in that dead zone between NPR stations. Sometimes I am positively surprised. But then I noticed some product placement. A sermon about a topic . . . then a commercial came on advertising about a book (written by someone totally different) on that same subject matter and I wondered what the relationship was (speaking of $$$$) between that pastor and the publisher? Of course authors are expected to market their own books, but paying a pastor to speak on a subject, just to get a book noticed (a book, which the pastor had nothing to do with) is different.
Someday, I predict pastors will sign on to “product placement” within their churches. It may start out simply as message from a publisher, “Preach about the gift of mercy this week, mentioned our new book “God Have Mercy, the Neglected Gift of the Spirit” and we will give you a gift card worth $100 of books at our online bookstore.” Now if your church has more than 500 people, the gift card might be $200. If you have a TV ministry, you might get . . . a new BMW. Then down the road, it gets a little more scary where it is more than product placement but thought placement. For example a pastor is asked to preach on the good idea of giving money to the Red Cross, then the Red Cross cuts him a check for the placement. Far fetched? We will see. As my Jewish friend David tells me (and he’s in publishing in Manhattan), “Mike, all human behavior boils down to money . . . just follow the money.” I disagree. I would say that 95% of human behavior boils down to me trying to make myself feel significant. Money is just one means to than end. Fortunately, in that remaining 5%, there is a little room for altruism.
It is Thanksgiving Eve and I need to get home. Sorry about the typos. Have a great day of rest and being with your family!
Monday, November 22, 2010
I heard an interview once with Rabbi Kushner (the author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People), I think it was on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He made a very remarkable statement.