Guest post from my husband: For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll

Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory

Preamble: I took note of Dona’s post, the Clarity of Ink where she contends that writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking and reins in anxious thoughts. So, I began to write about my worries and hopes for my wife who is living so valiantly with Stage 4 cancer. Dona suggested when I was ready I could guest-post on her blog. I’m a bit uncertain making this public. Writing is quite therapeutic, but it is likely only a help to me. Moreover, as I reread this post just before publishing, I realized there is much essential stuff not in it: what it means to trust and pursue God, the necessity of prayer, the hope for miracles, the need for a positive outlook, the understandable disconnection and feeling of helplessness that the lover has for the much loved sufferer. Well, perhaps those are the subject of future posts.

– Dave Eley

The atrium lobby within the Roswell Park Cancer Institute is what all good atriums should be – bright, airy, cavernous (4 stories), full of activity, welcoming – an excellent stab at normalizing the experience of entering an institution with a fearful name. RPCI has the practice of ringing a bell in the atrium each time a patient finishes their treatment regimen. Everyone scuttling through the lobby stops and applauds. The finish of a tough race in the fight against cancer. Victory for a person who has prevailed, with his or her team, over a great challenge.

roswell atruim
Winter concert in the Roswell Park atrium taken while I waited for Dona to finish a CAT scan

By in large, the bell rings for patients that have Stage 1-3 cancers. Dona was Stage 3 in 2014. In the words of Dona’s surgeon, “the horse was still in the barn.” Like others, she enjoyed the huge relief and encouragement that her cancer was quite possibly curable (see Dona’s post, The Bad News Ends Today ). But to survive, she endured a range of harsh treatments. With late-stage non-metastatic cancer, she got the full nine yards: surgery, uncomfortable surgical incision drains, subdermal medication port implant (actually quite a convenience), chemotherapy, hair loss (but she had a half-dozen great wigs), fatigue, infections (one landed her in the ICU), shingles, endless radiation which compromised my health from eating endless donuts while waiting for her in the hospitality suite. Yet, there was always an endpoint; a horizon to labor towards. At some point the bell in the atrium would toll and there would be the ‘victory dance’ of a person who has prevailed, with her team, over a great challenge.

Then there is the group for whom no bell tolls. This is the stage 4 group, or descriptively, people whose cancer has spread to distal organs. The horse is now out of the barn.  We discovered shortly before Christmas 2018 that Dona was now in this group – the ‘new metastatic me’ as she now calls herself.

Although a full array of treatment options can be marshalled to fight the disease, the cancer is not curable.  Simplistically speaking, medically, the treatment is whack-a-mole; like an endless fight against urban insurgency. Battles will be won but these folks must develop a new definition for victory over cancer.

Mission Objectives
Roswell Park’s vision is “to free our world from the fear, pain and loss due to cancer — one act of compassion, one breakthrough discovery, one life-changing therapy at a time — until cancer is gone.”  I love that: big, vivid, energizing, inspiring.  It holistically covers both the process and the objective. But it is the mission and vision of science and human endeavor. It is not complete for the incredible woman who is my wife that is now picking her way through the Stage 4 scree. (See: Nick, the barber, says, “Trust God, then your doctors.


Dona needed a new plan for metastatic cancer
I am a retired military officer. The sailor in me loves well-crafted mission objectives. The man-child in me wants to tamp down anxiety by doing something, ANYTHING.  So, shortly after Dona’s setback we worked together to draw up a plan of 3 parts:

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.

We will stay informed and be our best advocates. But it is a relief that this mission is mostly in the hands of the excellent, caring, encouraging Roswell Park team. There are new therapies today that were not available when Dona was first treated in 2014.  We are grateful.  We are maintaining a positive outlook.

2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it. 

Ordinary experiences are much more intense now.

Two weeks into a new treatment regimen, Dona developed incredibly painful mouth sores. That, coupled with a low blood cell count and worries about an infection kept her in bed and PJ’s most of the week; working on a blog piece titled, ‘Loneliness.’

Our daughter provided therapy and distraction when she asked me to pick up our two grandsons from school. Dona wanted in. She arrived at school armed with treats. She had purchased two bottles of flavored milk – chocolate and mint green. I told her not to present two different bottles of milk for the kids would argue over one in favor of the other. She said she knew which flavor each preferred. No problem. Once in the car kids began to argue, push and shove over the green milk. I smirked. I love being right. Dona demanded that we immediately return to Wegman’s to exchange the chocolate for another green. Though annoyed, I dutifully pulled into Wegman’s and Dona leaped from the car. The boys and I sat in the car for what seemed like less than a minute before she was back. We were startled at her speed. Each boy now had their own delicious bottle of green mint milk, or what the younger called booger-milk. The older boy, having more academic training, called it, mucous-milk. Much laughter. That was joy for us.
Not always, but sometimes suffering can make the little things, even silliness, seem so much more. At that moment joy was the vivid green of the ‘mucous-milk.’

I love my wife. Strong and courageous, longsuffering without being stoic. Looking for rays from a pale winter sun and finding them.

3. Think deep about eternity.
This, of course, is the endeavor of a lifetime. Much to think about and write here. Tim Keller has the jest it:

“Suffering takes away the loves, joys, and comforts we rely on to give our life meaning. How can we maintain our poise, and even our peace and joy, when that happens? The answer is that we can do that only if we locate our meaning in things that cannot be touched by death.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, (Dutton, 2013), p. 36

What then is victory over cancer?

The Apostle Paul writes:

“Then what is written will come true. It says,
“Death has been swallowed up. It has lost the battle.” (Isaiah 25:8)
“Death, where is the victory you thought you had? Death, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14)
The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But let us give thanks to God! He gives us the victory because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done.

– I Corinthians 15:54-56

‘Cancer can’t win’ is a frequently used banner for fundraisers. I Googled it. Most of the hits referenced Christian hope in the face of the disease. Many hits reproduced a poem written in the 1970’s by Robert Lynn for a friend. This poem was passed around pre-internet hand-to-hand as the words of an anonymous author and was eventually posted on line by people wanting to comfort friends and family. In the mid-2000’s, Lynn discovered his work had garnered over 160 million hits. It was time for a copyright!

CANCER IS SO LIMITED

Robert L. Lynn

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

For cancer is so limited—

It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the spirit.
It cannot cancel Resurrection.

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

© 2007 by Robert L. Lynn
Permission to publish the poem has been requested

 

Farther Along: New Song for the New Metastatic Me

I recommend you view and listen to the following on YouTube.  I know I’m milking the ‘New Metastatic Me’ theme. But NMM allows me so many liberties I never had before………..

Farther Along, sung by Josh Garrels. (YouTube)
https://youtu.be/IctD9l4F-ag

You know what I’m talking about. A song seizes you with an intimate knowledge of yourself. It comes out of nowhere. You weren’t looking for it and even if you were you wouldn’t have found it. It’s not your preferred genre of music and you were not familiar with the artist. It would never be recommended on your Pandora stations.  You listen to other songs on the album and you are disappointed. You want the emotional high to go higher, but it is not to be. Its locked up in just one song: a mystical combination of lyrics, voice, instruments, video images (YouTube version), timing in your life, and whatever else can’t be explained about music and its effect on the soul. So, this new song is comforting the “new metastatic me.”

we humans are sharers

There is always the risk in sharing something deeply personal that it will not be received with the same awe. I know better. I have had people recommend songs, books, articles, art work, movies, etc. that have been meaningful and soul-grabbing for them but I have not been completely on board with their enthusiasm.  But I get it. They can’t help promoting it and nor can I with this song. We humans are “sharers” at our core. We desperately need and cherish connection and never so much as when we are in the storms of life. This is not so surprising as I consider that we are the only created beings made in His image. The Maker of Heaven and Earth who is Love and the ultimate Sharer of love has instilled that aspect of his nature into us. His longing, if such an emotion can be ascribed to the “all-sufficient God within himself,” is for us to be sharers of love with him and extend it to others.

So, no apologies for sending this on to you and you likewise keep sending out your soul’s longings captured in whatever form they come to you. God may very well have something for one of his children to share with another of his children. He’s the ultimate sharing Being after all.

“For God so loved the world that He gave (shared) His One and Only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through Him.” 

– John 3:16-17

So, thanks Jessica for sharing and sending Josh Garrels’ ‘Farther Along’ to me. I am feeling its love.

The Man ‘With Nobody’ but Cancer

“At least you have somebody,” said the man leaving the cancer consultation room.

waitingWe were waiting our turn. This was one of several high anxiety medical appointments. We would be told the extent of the metastasis. Our daughter had offered to come with us and we gratefully accepted. To tap down the tension she was telling us the most recent knucklehead antic of one of our grandsons. We were laughing.

Shamefully, I didn’t notice the gentleman until those arresting words broke through the self-absorption and family comradery. I was speechless, literally. I said nothing to him. He walked by without receiving any personal acknowledgement. My husband and daughter felt it too; guilt for not offering some encouragement. David later told me that he thought of chasing the man down and saying something. But what was there to say?

“Sorry, man, that you don’t have a family or friend to be with you in a time like this?”

It was all so awkward, but my guilt was slightly assuaged by the justification that I was caught by surprise. But why surprised? Perhaps it was the surprise of a man’s spontaneous vulnerability to complete strangers. Or maybe it was the surprise of being shaken out of my consuming suffering to realize that I was part of a suffering humanity – no more or less special than anyone else; certainly not in the eyes of God.

Suffering is suffering for several reasons but one of its most devastating attributes is loneliness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me;” the memorialized words of our Savior God who too experienced the human condition of loneliness as he hung on the cross suffering an agonized death of pain, shame and abandonment.

loneliness-quote-by-mother-teresaHardly shocking are the numerous studies showing loneliness as adverse to physical health. More than depression or anxiety, loneliness predicts a lower mortality rate. People live longer who don’t report chronic feelings of loneliness. Consider the Roseto Effect; a 50-year study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of Italian immigrants who lived sedentary lifestyles, were overweight, had high alcohol consumption, smoked stogies (whatever those are) and were exposed to toxic particles through their work at the quarries. Bottom line: they lived way longer than the average person in the US during the 1950’s. Being a descendent of Italian immigrants I was happily prepared to read that it was genetics that brought their good fortune of longevity. However, family members of the Roseto residents who lived in neighboring towns were not beneficiaries of the same great health. So, what was it? As it turned out no one in Roseto owned a TV and nightly group dinners were a common occurrence. Researchers, after controlling for about everything, concluded that these folks were dodging the bullets of loneliness’s bad health effects because they did use technology to entertain themselves in isolation. They just had each other and consequently lived longer for it.

Loneliness is awful on many levels. And just to be clear I’m talking about a distressful emotional condition; people that feel lonely, not people who live alone. Background: I was the only child of a career military father and a working mom. Loneliness was the constant background noise of my existence, but I compensated by developing people skills. Actually, I perfected very sophisticated kid skills. “Hey, you want to play with me at my house? My mom has candy in big dishes all through the house. (She really did. I didn’t care about candy, but I knew greedy, candy-starved children did.)

I told myself that I would never marry anyone in the military service, thus putting my kids through the never-establishing-roots-anywhere-lonely-existence that I had. But falling in love breaks a lot of promises made to one’s self.

I’m grateful for family and close friends. And I’m grateful for each of my adopted church families. Over the decades as an adult I have lived in ten communities spread over 11 time zones. In each I have enjoyed and loved the commitment each little band of Jesus followers had for me and me to them before I had to geographically move on.

“Family” is one of the most used metaphors in the New Testament for describing the church; a perk that has never been missed on this only child as she traipsed around the world. As David, my daughter and I sat waiting to learn the extent of my metastasis my adopted family sat in the wings, praying for us, bringing food, visiting, comforting, and laughing with us as appropriate.

I hope, I pray that the gentleman ‘with nobody’ but cancer will find his family. I pray that an adopted family, a church, will find him. It is our scared responsibility, as the church, to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. This challenges me, within my own little church, to make sure when someone is facing a health crisis to ask,

“Who is going with you to your appointment? How about me?”

“At least you will have somebody.”

I like the new me – the metastatic me

In Flannery O’Connor’s controversial, dark short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a petty, conniving, vain, selfish grandmother is accosted by escaped convicts while on a road trip with her son, daughter-in-law and 3 grandchildren. She and her family (spoiler alert) are shot and killed by the cons. Near the very end, the grandmother shows elements of humility and compassion as she reasons with and even tries to comfort the lead killer, named ‘The Misfit.’ It doesn’t work. But after he shoots her, the Misfit claims, in a moment of perverse remorse, that the grandmother “would have been a good woman, if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I read it and immediately felt like I had been shot through (no pun) with a moment of painful clarity into human nature, or at least mine. I was just given a gift of insight and self-awareness. After all, Isn’t that what separates literary geniuses from the rest of the gifted writers. These geniuses give us images that expose us, enlighten us, humble us and, if we are lucky, transform us

Commentators believe O’Connor, a devout Catholic, makes two main points in this brutal short story.

One, the grandma and the Misfit are two sides of the same coin; deeply flawed sinners in need of the saving grace of Christ. O’Conner, a uniquely Southern writer, captures the essence of the ‘White Southern sinner’ of her time – full of pretense, false hospitality and graciousness that mask a deep suspiciousness and dislike of “the other,” and the willingness to use Jesus when convenient. The Misfit, more base in nature, lacks the pretense of the grandma. Neither measure up. All have sinned and fallen short.

Second, one traumatic event will not change your life necessarily for the better or forever.

I endured a great trial when I suffered through treatment in 2014 – mastectomy, chemotherapy, near-death infection, radiation. I was a better person through all that, or so I thought. I was gentler, less anxious and petty. I trusted God more and consequently enjoyed His presence more. In 2015, after treatment, I began to revert to my old self as i gained a false confidence that I was going to live mythically forever (to be explained). I don’t want to overstate this to make a point. I didn’t shoot a family along the roadside. I didn’t start manipulating and guilting my family, like the Grandma, to get my way. I hope I didn’t. But I did notice a subtle taking advantage of the grace of God and feeling a pressure to have my own way seeping its way back into my personality.

It is now 2019. I have Stage 4 cancer, which is not curable. In a sense I do have a gun to my head every minute of my life. And as a result, the petty vain things of this world are sloughing off faster than I can say Amazon Prime and faster than I can think up an endless list of what my husband should be doing for me  or faster than I can complete a critical or judgmental thought of how someone has disappointed me. I like the new me, the metastatic me. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a masochist. I don’t want this disease. I don’t want this. I will say it again so I’m clear, I don’t want this! Nor would I have chosen it in order to get to the new improved version of me. And I am not sure that I will continue to like this new me. It could get ugly and so could my mood. But now, I am kind of feeling good about myself-my gentler personality . When I am not in pain that is. Methadone helps with that.

Here is what I’m learning


…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
Flannery O’Connor


Much of life is not cherished when we live in the “mythical state of immortality.” I am seeing how much of life is lived carelessly, vainly, judgmentally, critically, trivially, selfishly and proudful. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. The myth that I live forever, physically; a myth we can’t help but believe if our strongest desire is to live for ourselves and for our own happiness or at the least for the happiness of our own little tribe. When I live in this state, I find that my opinions and sentiments are imbedded deeply in the soil of self-righteous indignation. Everything matters; from the inanest to the most profound. There’s little wiggle room to separate out the important opinions from the trite. It’s all emotionally equal and meaningful because it originates with me and I am the master gardener of this creation – my life. Along the way of this mythical immortal self becomes the thin skinned, gossipy, greedy, worried, envious behaviors that are so common that I hardly notice them as being anything, but the way life is lived by all.


‘Mythical immortality’ is the belief that other people die, I don’t.


But then – Kapow! – the gun is at the head and the myth evaporates: a nice doctor gives me not very nice news. I am sick, really sick and not going to be allowed to live within the mythical boundaries of forever future plans. Within minutes of the news, however, I am given an invisible blank memory stick and I begin to upload two files. First file: a list of all that I am going to be “cheated” out of.  Second file: what there is to be grateful for. It is easy to download what I might be cheated out of.  Its not so easy to do the other bit.

worshipBut here is the catch, what is there to be grateful for if I don’t have someone to say, ‘thank you’ to? Thank you to my husband for the endless times as he serves me selflessly and generously. Thank you to medical scientists and doctors who show compassion within their expertise. Thank you to my daughters and their spouses for their support and love. Thank you to my many friends who show me extraordinary kindness and love. But unless there is a cosmic creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning:


In everything give thanks; for this God’s will for you.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:18


Postscript:
1. Giving ‘thanks in everything’ is not the same as ‘there is a reason for everything.’ I should blog about this sometime.
2. There is a better way to be better without having a gun held to your head every minute of your life or to have metastatic cancer. I should blog about this sometime.

The Clarity of Ink

 


I’m on an unruly horse on a journey; an earthly journey that only God knows where we are headed. Only God knows and my blog posts will be my attempt to be ok with that.


penI have not written a blog post since the summer of 2015. Apparently, the absence of cancer in the following years anesthetized deep thinking. That was fine by me. I like to write but what I really like to do is talk and anybody who has met me can attest within 5 minutes that I like to talk and I can do so in a variety of formats: teaching, storytelling (my favorite), presenting sermons, sale pitches, chitchatting , joking, and just generally yucking it up. I’m an extrovert, obviously, so talking is not just fun; it’s a blood transfusion that keeps me feeling alive, energetic and vibrant.

However, it is discipline I need when a curve ball of life is thrown at me (is that the right sports metaphor? I don’t play basketball.) I need boot camp training to keep me focused on my values, to my higher nature, and to the best of what makes me a thoughtful human. Talking is necessary as the means of vital human connection but talking is not a discipline; not for me anyway. Writing is the spiritual discipline that keeps me grounded. And it has good science to back its claims to stress reduction and trauma healing. Several theories attempt to explain this. I prefer the one that describes the process of writing as forcibly imposing boundaries on thinking – boundaries of grammar, syntax and sentence construction. Grammar, and not even necessarily correct grammar,writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking reins in free-floating anxious thoughts that tend to run off into numberless rabbit trails causing untold feelings of misery, fear and confusion.

I’ve been counseled by family and friends to pick up the computer again to begin a phase 2 of this cancer journey (Stage 4, metastasis). For several reasons, I have been reluctant to write. Laziness stands out as the most obvious. It takes time and mental work to write even if it turns out to be therapeutic. Replacing tissues with word documents feels a bit cold and a betrayal to the tragedy and intimacy of suffering. Going public with written reflections can also feel egocentric or worse, a kind of romantic display of “look at me, a suffering cancer victim with big poignant thoughts.” Another reason to avoid the blog world is the fear that I will write something now in the early stage of metastatic cancer that will seem sentimental or naïve considering the later stages of this disease. But despite self-doubt and laziness I’m doing it. I hope some of you who read my blog posts a few years ago will join me as I try to make sense of the ‘new normal’ of living with metastatic cancer. By the way, some of my blog posts will be reworkings of earlier ones as they seem upon re-reading them to have held on to their relevancy. (See ‘Fear of Dying from March 15, 2014.) Also, I will invite guests to submit an article from time to time.

So, here am I on this unruly horse going on our journey; an earthly journey that only God knows where we are headed. And when I say, “only God knows,” I mean it literally and respectfully. Only God knows and this blog will be my attempt to be ok with that.

The Horse is Out of the Barn

Shucks, the horse just got out of the barn…..

On March 15, 2014horse-leaving-barn, I posted a blog titled, “Fear of Dying.” It described my anxiety while undergoing a CT scan to determine whether my breast cancer had metastasized. It had not. My worst fear was not realized. The “horse was still in the barn,” to use my surgeon’s phrase.

 

That was then, this is now. Shortly before Christmas 2018 we discovered that the breast cancer of 2014 had metastasized to bone and liver. This begins a new journey. The horse is out of the barn, cannot be returned (it is not curable), but can be chased around the pasture (it is treatable). I have been started on a promising new drug that was not available in 2014. My doctors are encouraging me, I’m feeling God’s peace. That does not mean I don’t have a fear of death or more accurately a fear of dying. But I’m learned that my worst fear, then or now, is not metastatic cancer. I’m learning what I only got a glimpse of in March 2014, that my worst fear – to be abandoned by God – can never be realized.

Here is an insert from that post almost 5 years ago; a time when the horse was still in the barn. It holds true today with that darn horse out of the barn.

“I can’t say with confidence that the fear of dying will never find its way back to me again or that the way out of it will be to always quote scripture but there is a scripture verse I am taking to the bank of heaven. It’s a verse that doesn’t depend on me to muster up a no-fear-of-dying feeling in order for it to be operative.”

In Romans 8 verses 37-39 of the New Testament the Apostle Paul writes,

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Race you have been trained to run

passing the batonHebrews 12:1-3

I heard a sermon by Earl Palmer,the former senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle years ago. I have since used parts of this sermon in several presentations, including a presentation to a group of young Christian Palestinians, Messianic believers and Norwegian Christians agreeing to meet and socialize together in order to better understand each other.

I will begin todays post by a question: if you call yourself a follower of Jesus do you realize you have been called to a race? And it is not just any kind of race.  You have been invited to participate in a relay race.

Several aspects of a relay race are helpful to our understanding of who we are.

start blocks in relay racePalmer points out that in a relay race the time and place are established and set by someone else. The starting blocks and the times of the race are determined by someone other than the runners.  And so it begins that way with each of us. None of us had a say as to when or where or to whom we would be born to. Feeling guilty that I was born in the West during the 20th century and not in some desperately poor country is a useless waste of emotional energy as is feeling resentful for the circumstances outside my  control that I wish were different.

So what happens when someone realizes that God determines the place and time of their existence?  If there is trust in the goodness of God and His love, a lot can happen that is healing and purposeful. Something spiritually powerful can begin to take root that belies historical distrusts and hurts.  The Holy Spirit shows up and begins to speak forgiveness and hope into the most recalcitrant personal or culturally loaded grievance.  As a follower of Christ understanding takes root that someone of holy splendor, power and love is ruler of you, me and of everything.  And He is at work which includes determining our time and place of existence to do a foreordained job. So, what is that job? The relay race metaphor can help with this.   It is not just the time and place of the race that has been given to us but also the baton.  No one brings their own baton to a relay race.  But if there is no baton then there is no relay race to run.

The baton? Well, it is the gospel of Christ. It did not originate with us but was handed to us to do what with? Well, to pass it on, of course.  Would it not be a ridiculous race if one of the athletes after having the baton passed to her, ran off the course, yelling, “I got it, I got it- I win!”  We in the crowd would be perplexed and distressed that the race had been corrupted, ruined or at least misunderstood and pointless. The gospel is good news to who? You, certainly but not only to you or me. To everyone it is good news whether it’s accepted and appropriated or not. But just like in a relay race, the baton doesn’t just float along like some low flying UFO. It is person handled –held on to with care, seriousness and determination to make sure it reaches its next destination-the next runner who grabs it to begin her part of the race – This is God’s race of bringing His rule to fruition.

Now, what do we bring to the race? What is it that is not assigned to a runner? The running shoes are unique to each of the runners in much the same way that each of us bring our unique gifts, talents and experiences to the race of God’s time sensitive growing rule of truth, love and justice. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) that Jesus told his audience made it crystal clear that God has expectations of us being invested in His kingdom growth investment plan.  we are to do something with our uniqueness and that something presupposes that God’s purposes are good and worth whatever the cost. “Thy will be done on earth as it in heaven”. Are we all equally gifted to perform in the same way? Not from the way I read the Jesus parable. Maybe some of us will come to the race with designer athletic shoes, others’ with off brand knock-offs and others might come to the race with worn down, worn out thrift shop specials. The question in the parable is not how snazzy your shoes are but whether you believe the race is well worth the demands. So, how can we all do this race thing with winning success?

“Running the race with perseverance keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 13:1-3) is our cheer, our call and our finish line. Is it really that hard if it doesn’t depend on the level of our abilities? Yes, it is! It’s really very hard. After all, it comes with training, sacrifice, pushing against all kinds of resistance and even occasional booing from watchers of the race.  But is it worth it to participate in the race? To quote the disciple, Peter, after Jesus asked him whether he was going to leave him like other disciples had left him, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Look around! Is there or has there ever been anyone else like Jesus? Are there any heroes out there like Jesus Christ?   Don’t even try to look for a hero within the Christian faith. There is none but Christ and that is why he is the only goal and prize well worth the call and cost of the race.

Looking for purpose…

Pre-script:  Dear readers, many of my posts reflect what kind of person I want to be or how I want to feel and think, not who I really am.  It fact one of the reasons I write is to help me define who I should be, not, unfortunately, who I am.  So, it this particular post comes across to you a bit lofty and high-minded then take what I just wrote into consideration.  At my best I’m only what Paul said, “not that I have taken hold of it yet…but,…I strain forward toward what is ahead.”  (Philippians 3:13)

I just moved from Alaska to urban Buffalo, NY.  I loved Alaska with its beauty, natural diversity.  I particularly loved the people of Juneau, my friends, my church.  As sad as it was to move it was still the right move.  I’m grateful.  Urban Buffalo has its own beauty.  I want to write about that in my next post.

However, leaving Juneau meant leaving my practice as a professional mental health counselor.  I boxed up my files and closed the office.  I said goodbye to an identity, a life-purpose that I had pursued for 17 years.  In the run up to the move I felt diminished.  I selfishly and myopically felt I had lost my purpose.

I’m looking for a re-purposed driven life (to misuse the title of the Rick Warren mega-seller).

I’m going to pray; or I’m going to try to pray.

I don’t mean “pray” to find purpose, I mean pray as a way of performing purpose. Some doing may ensue- maybe even a lot doing but I am hoping I learn a lesson: don’t make the doing my purpose.

Praying seems too passive for the able and active. A “purpose-driven life” must be filled with “acts of service” that make a tangible difference in the world; acts to bring about peace, justice, and the gospel to the world……bettering the lives of the people we are in relationship with, or bettering the lives of the under- resourced or broken heart-ed or the enslaved. Such would bring great meaning to a life. Would it not?


Praying is many times an activity that decorates what we really want to be about rather what we are to be about.

We all recognize the merits of the above as worthy of being purposeful.  But just praying? Hmmm… Praying is many times an activity that decorates what we really want to be about.  Praying as an end to itself is usually assigned to the elderly or disabled who can’t do anything else or to the helpless and distraught that feel tangible options are off the table or to orders of nuns or monks who have been called to a community of prayer.

Imagine someone asking you what your purpose in life was and “praying” was your answer. Imagine asking yourself what the meaning of your life was and you answer, “To pray.” I don’t know about you but that answer would sound, dare I say it, boring or presumptuous or as often has been said, “too heavenly minded to be any earthy good.” Yes, I want to pray and I want to do even more of it than I am doing but making that the purpose of my life? At the risk of repeating myself, it just sounds too mundane and maybe not even spiritual enough or maybe too spiritual and maybe even a little lonely and risky. Now, why would I say that?   Self-examination seems to indicate that I use more actions and less trust to carry me through the daily tasks at hand. How do I know that? Well, for starters I am aware of how little I invite Jesus into my comings and goings. I am aware of how little I engage him with my self-talk. I am a trouble shooter on a good day- a worrier on a bad day and in neither days is Jesus invited into the situation. It comes down to this:   Does praying really have efficacy?   Prayer as my purpose, no doubt, would be a dead end if I doubted the power behind it. Prayer would be a dead end if I brought to prayer my will of how things should go and Not God’s. Prayer would be a dead end if I listened too hard and long to the doers of this world and not the be-ers. Prayer would be a dead end if I believed myself unworthy or my concerns too insignificant to count.

I am comforted that in the gospel of Mark a distraught father asked Jesus to heal his demon possessed son.  Jesus told him to believe. And in sincere desperation the father cried out, “I believe, help me in my unbelief!”  Mark did not have to record that interaction. I am glad he did. It frees me up to be real with Jesus. “Praying as purpose” requires extraordinary faith, or does it? The father in this Jesus interaction certainly didn’t come to prayer with great faith but he came – to Jesus. Coming to Jesus is coming to prayer with little faith or with great faith. It’s coming with certainty or coming completely befuddled about God or about myself – maybe, especially about myself. So, I am allowed to be perplexed about a lot of things like the trinity or how free will and predestination work or why God doesn’t just put an end to this violent world and usher in his new earth and heaven. And I get to be perplexed about how praying actually can be so purposeful and powerful that it can be a person’s main purpose in life causing told and untold transformations in human institutions and in individuals.

I have become increasing aware of the myriad of internal dialogues which often lead to a disruption of faith and trust.  I am embarking on a new goal:  Inviting Jesus into the dialogues- literally- “Jesus, I am now inviting you into this desire, worry, concern, distress or happiness”.  I’m not sure but this may be part of the meaning of the apostle’s Paul’s words to, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

If prayer as purpose sounds too basic, mundane, weak, boring, then l suggest a word search of prayer in the New Testament.  Be astounded with the numerous references, circumstances, purposes and outcomes. But always remember it is the object of praying that holds the power and purpose. It’s Jesus, it’s always about Jesus –“the author and finisher of our faith”. He prayed, his followers prayed, and so should we. It’s a great purpose. It tells us who we are no matter what.

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.

Reality TV featuring, “The Lifestyle of My Better-Off Neighbors

Reality TV when it features the rich and famous can be great fun.  My scientific neighborhood study reveals why:  two people interviewed (myself and my husband) said that they were amused for the following reasons: they felt superior and smug for not needing all that fluff for contentment. And two, looking at yachts, sprawling spa mansions, haute couture fashion and cosmetic surgical work was easy on the eyes especially when being judgmental at the same time. Being Judgmental while viewing fluff neutralizes slothful use of time.

I realize that reality TV is routinely made fun of or thoroughly enjoyed by many. I wouldn’t know for I typically don’t watch TV because I am ‘a reader’. I don’t count Netflix streaming or DVDs, because I am too smart to bother with commercials. It’s true that once in a while I catch an episode of the rich and famous but hardly ever without being judgmental.

Recently, however, I thought of a reality TV show that might actually keep me glued to my seat while at the same time wishing I could get up and do almost anything else- Like offer to take Gus (my sister-in-law’s dog) for a walk and dispose of fresh dog poop so as to be neighborly.

So, speaking of neighbors this is my idea of a reality TV show.  Instead of viewing the acquisitions of the rich and famous my show would take the camera into the homes and lives of neighbors and peers. Reality TV would allow people of a particular economic class to voyeuristically view and compare the homes, possessions, body sizes, landscaping, vacation plans, hobbies, parties, friends, spouses, food choices, financial portfolios and children’s achievements of their neighbors who are roughly in their same economic class.

The first episode of my Reality TV show called “The Lifestyle of my better-off neighbors” would go something like this:

Producer Devin Jones, “Today we are in the home of the Kolwaspy’s. (The cameras move into the newly remodeled kitchen from the newly remodeled arctic entry.  We hear the couple talking about how they had received an unexpected inheritance from Lester’s great aunt twice removed who was from a fishing village in Iceland that Lester could not pronounce or spell.)

Cameron Kolwaspy: “We are so thrilled to have received this money. We were able to get some things done to the house that we have always wanted like this kitchen island, Swedish cabinets and stone counter tops.  I couldn’t be happier”.

Lester Kolwaspy, “Yeah, we were doing ok , saving money for the kids college but having to put some of the nicer things on hold;  but now, Whoopee, we are able to get  things we have always wanted. Yep, life couldn’t get much better.”

(At this point in the show, producer Devin invites the Kolwaspy’s into the studio to view an earlier shooting of neighbors who live further down the street whom they don’t know well.)

We are in real time, now, with the Kolwaspys who are viewing the earlier shooting of the Moore’s home.

Producer Devin: “The Moore’s home was designed by Lisa’s brother who maximized features of their one acre lot to create a facsimile of a Frank Lloyd Wright home that buts up against a national park. Stunning views from floor to ceiling windows span the back of this house.”

Lisa, “no one would know unless they came into this home how beautifully the house blends into the natural environment of the national park behind us”.  We are often asked by photo journalists of modern home magazines if they can photograph our home”.

Maury Moore, “Yep, a home assessor told us that this house is worth twice as much as any home in this neighborhood. It’s great that Lisa has such a talented and helpful brother.”

At this point, the cameras focus on the crest fallen Kolwaspy couple. Although subtle, the attentive viewer will notice that Cameron who previously had been stroking Les’s back has inched herself away from her husband as she begins to think of a national forest as a back yard.

Les is looking at Cameron as he says, “all that sunlight is still going to fade their furniture, and I don’t care how much that home is worth”.

Cameron turns away from Les and confides to the camera, “Les is a hardworking man and good provider, but sometimes I do wish he would think more long-term.  Five years ago he should have foreseen that the best lots in this development would be the ones adjoining the National Forest.”

The first episode concludes with Les advocating, at times with great intensity, the pros of taking out a second mortgage in order to build an air-conditioned bar-be-que pavilion.  Cameron thinks a better idea is to sell their house and ‘get back to nature.’ (I.e. build on a lot adjacent to the national forest.)

Music and lyrics of the show play softly in the background

Producer Devon: “Join us for the next episode of “Lifestyles of Our Better Off Neighbors” when the Moore’s and their son, Cane, go to their friends’ home, the Bragstons,  for a party celebrating their son,  Abe’s full scholarship to Princeton University.  Cane, himself is no slacker as he has just been accepted to the regional college.  So, see you next week at the Bragston’s home for Abe’s celebratory party.

Theological reflections:

The Ten Commandments meant for human flourishing are still relevant after 3,500 years. In case you have forgotten the 10th one.

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:1-17.

According to Webster, ‘covet’ implies strong envious desire.

It does not take a psychologist to imagine the negative emotions and behaviors that arise if coveting is not recognized and reined in.

Envying what your neighbor has starts with comparing yourself to your neighbor.   A recent study by a research team from UNC Chapel Hill demonstrated that if persons perceived themselves to be economically better off than their neighbors they expressed more fiscally conservative views. In other words, they were against adjusting tax schedules that moved towards greater economic equality. If someone perceived themselves to having less than their neighbors then their views reflected more fiscally liberal views that attempted to advance more economic equality. It is not my intent to promote more or less taxes.  I’m interested in what the study reveals about human nature.  The telling thing about this study was that the actual income of the participants was not a variable.  The perceived “better off” (“hmm… I am better off than my neighbors”) neighbor could actually be living below the poverty line and still be a fiscal conservative (i.e. against higher taxes to bring more economic equality).  The perceived less well-off neighbor (“hmm… I am worse off than my neighbors”) could none-the-less be in a very comfortable income bracket but curiously pro-tax for economic equality.  The individuals’ views were simply based on their perception of being better or worse off than their neighbors. http://psychcentral.com/news/2014/11/26/perception-of-wealth-influences-political-stance/77824.html

Is it possible that a selfish, envious bias is inherent in human nature?  We try to feel better about ourselves by comparing ourselves to others and this is the root of coveting and pride.

C.S Lewis expresses this aptly in Mere Christianity, “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man… It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest. Once the element of competition is gone, pride is gone.”

Comparing ourselves to others is not benign.  Apparently God was on top of these sinful human traits.  Ten ancient commandments still seem quite relevant.

Look at the video to see how Facebook has become our culture’s newest coveting trap. It will take only a few minutes to be entertained and uncomfortable at the same time. http://media.preachingtoday.com/mini-movies/52441/the-facebook-trap

Ok, so what are we to do about this. A few observations from my own life have helped from time to time. I wish I could say that this is an issue long ago dealt with but that would be breaking the 9th Commandment (don’t lie). The following have helped.

Remember the poor

Jesus in the gospels says a lot about our relationship to the poor and the Apostle Paul in Galatians 2:10 tells us to remember the poor. This may seem obvious and simplistic. But is it? The verb ‘to remember’ in this context is not some appeal to passive reflecting and memory testing. The “remembering” spoken of here is active and intentional for the betterment of the under-resourced. Most of us are so well sheltered from the poor with the busy-ness and priorities of our middle class lives that remembering the poor is anything BUT simple. We have to be intentional in remembering the under-resourced. I mean really intentional with what we choose to read, hear and think about – enough to eventually spend some of our hard earned money, creative energy and time. But it’s not as sacrificial as you might think. There is an emotional and spiritual pay off. When we remember the poor we grow in empathy and we grow in gratitude.  And when those two things happen we become more content people with less frowny faces.  And when we have less frowny faces we have less wrinkles and when we have less wrinkles we can feel superior to our more aged looking friends. See, what I mean? Comparisons are lurking around every corner of our life. Seriously, remembering the poor translates into more contentment and gratitude. And who doesn’t need more of that?

Believe in the Jesus revealed in the Bible – not some Jesus of your own making. If you put your trust in Christ you also get the Holy Spirit. Open yourself to listening to the Spirit. He is promised to us as our guide, teacher and counselor. It takes supernatural help to break our natural bent to selfish desires, self-interest and wanting to be better than others.  It is in our human DNA so we need interventions outside ourselves to break these strangleholds and that is the role of God, the Holy Spirit. When we are choosing to listen to that still small voice of the Spirit we are drowning out the dissonant loud voices of comparison dissatisfaction and perceived deprivation.

coveting cartoon

So dear readers my advice to you and to me is enjoy reality TV – no harm done, its TV! But let’s watch out for our own reality show.  Comparing  ourselves to others is not benign.  From time to time we may need a social media break and spiritual inventory.