End of Life Issues: Gratitude

Introduction:

My father-in-law, Jasper, was not known to be disclosing about feelings or reflections, so it came as a surprise when he asked me a question two weeks before his death at 91 years old. In doing so, he showed a side of himself that inadvertently showed a side of me. That was 12 years ago this month, and my husband, David, and I have been talking about the conversation I had with his father ever since.

In January 2009, Jasper was then the oldest man living in his rural village in North Carolina.  He was not dying or even ill when we sat together companionably in the sunroom of his home.  Without preamble he asked me, “Dona, why do you think God has me living so long?” 

I did not answer, thinking the question was rhetorical or a springboard to talk about what he was thinking. I was wrong.

“Dona, why have I lived so long?”

A question which he expected me to have an answer.  But who can ever know such a thing? I sent up a quick silent prayer that I might at least say something meaningful. But I was unprepared and therefore flustered by the significance of the moment.  I stammered out something about his wife needing his companionship and presence because she loved him.  Though true, I did not feel good about my answer.

After a pause, my father-in-law said, “I have a lot to be thankful for. I have been blessed.  I just wish that I had been more thankful earlier in my life.”

It was then and only then that I had an answer to offer.

“Maybe God has been waiting for you to come to that realization; to be thankful to him for what He has given you throughout your life.”

That was our last conversation.

My father-in-law was a very responsible and accomplished man.  If I can be forgiven for putting words in his mouth, he might say that he got caught up in the doings of business, family, civic responsibilities, and whatever else needed to be done to the extent that he neglected looking back and appreciating the gifts that came his way.

My neglect of gratitude was not so different from my father-in-law’s.  As I wrote in an earlier post (I like the New Metastatic Me), I once acted as if I would live forever.  Given that I was going to live forever, issues small and big needed to be dealt with urgently, intentionally, and continually until there was resolution. Too much chronic doing and too much worrying about what else needed to be done was set in motion by an unconscious attitude that things needed to go my way to make this long, long, long life I was destined for enjoyable and to my liking. A spirit of gratitude was being squeezed out of my life from a lack of reflection.

Why don’t we stop and be grateful before we face a life-threatening event (me) or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan (my father-n-law)? 

What is Gratitude?

Harvard Medical School publishes a very layperson-accessible newsletter on current research in human health and wellbeing.  In Praise of Gratitude, Harvard Health researchers noted that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity.  More specifically and functionally, gratitude is:

Gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Drawing from that helpful description, my working definition of gratitude is:

The act of recognizing and reflecting on a gift one does not deserve. 

And finally, the root word of gratitude is gratia (Latin) or grace.  The Bible describes grace as the unmerited favor of God towards you and me.

The Practice of Gratitude

Gratitude is to be deliberately practiced and cultivated. 

Within the Harvard Health article there are suggestions for the practice of gratitude.  I recommend you read them.  But within their list is an omission. Who should I be thanking when there is nobody to thank?

I can write my thank you notes to people who have blessed me or simply thank them in person but who do I thank for peace or joy or love? Who do I thank when I am “forest bathing” and the natural environment overwhelms me with its beauty?

I am thankful for the many who have blessed me and to them words of gratitude are owed but there are so many benefits I receive that are not people initiated. Who do I thank for the seasons’ beautiful effects on nature?  Who do I directly thank for warm showers, the fresh beautiful faces of children, the convenience and comfort that my resources afford me, or family and friends that delight me? Unless there is a cosmic personally invested Creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness or gratitude 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 is God’s will for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Get out and look at the wonder of creation. Be in awe and praise the cosmic Creator whose penchant for beauty is beyond comparison. Take time to be present to notice what delights you and benefits you and then thank God for his provision of great and small things . It will begin to transform you into a more loving and generous person. It will bring you closer to the Almighty One that loves you and rejoices when you are thanking him for in thanking Him that we begin to paradoxically release our grip on the things of this world and begin to set our affections on transcendent things which in turn blesses everyone.

In conclusion:

Thank you, dear readers and friends who have shown me extraordinary kindness and love in reading my posts, commenting, or reaching out with texts, letters, and calls.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

16246859 - golden retriever looking over a fenceI had not heard of  the FOMO acronym until recently. When I researched the mental health issues stemming from the “fear of missing out,” I started taking seriously its painful and stressful features. Chronically ill folks like me are obvious candidates for this anxiety but hardly the only ones. Social media has perpetuated this condition, and many suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety as the fear gives way to loneliness and feelings of exclusion.

I’m flying SOLO
A cancer diagnosis puts the breaks on life as one knows it. Initially the diagnosis brings with it a flurry of tests, appointments for treatment, explanations and protocols. There is much to do and consider. The medical environment becomes life’s new stage. Missing out on life submits to a higher calling of just trying to preserve life. But like most chronic diagnoses that have a grim prognosis eventually a routine is established. Treatments become the lay of the land, limitations are realized and conversations with friends and family become less centered on health issues. Life goes on. Everyone else’s life seems to go on. Stage 4 cancer folks as well as all those who struggle with serious chronic conditions are painfully aware of FOMO moments brought on by fatigue, breakthrough pain, hours and hours spent at the medical clinics, and medication side effects. But what is not so obvious is FOMO’s cousin – SOLO – my acronym for the Sadness of Lost Opportunities. There is much more I would like to do in this life: opportunities to help and advocate for the poor and distressed while joining with others who feel called to do the same; opportunities to continue to enjoy those whom I love; opportunities to share the truly good news of Jesus.

FOMO or SOLO rears its ugly head most often when I’m in the company of future planners which turns out to be everybody I know. Benign comments like, “next year I want a real tree not a fake one for Christmas“ (hmm… I wonder if I will be around next year) or a grandson saying, “I can’t wait to get a license when I’m 16.” (hmm… I can miss that one!) Living in the present with its conscious savoring of life’s beauty and meaningful relationships is suddenly tested. My relational bent becomes threatened. Sad thoughts break in and momentarily rob me of the joy of living in the moment.

Preparing for Death by Enjoying Life?
It’s been said that you prepare for death by enjoying the life you have. How does that work exactly when:

• Huddled, starving and freezing on the side of a mountain with other refugees in war-torn Syria?
• Having lost a young child?
• Feeling the fatigue and pain that are the signposts for a disease that will take your earthly life?

Yes, I am to live with gratitude. I list the things I’m grateful for nearly every day. No, I must not be bitter; constantly tasting the acrid bile of ‘being cheated.’ Yes, I must double down on the present. I am still useful, and I can serve others. But, enjoying this present life is not the way to prepare for death. I don’t even think it is doable. And it is not Biblical. (I Corinthians 15:32, 2 Corinthians 1:5, 4:12-18, James 4:13-14, Romans 8:22-25)

How do we prepare for death? Jesus provides the answer.

‘Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”‘ (John 11:25-26).

This life is not all there is. I’ve been made for heaven. Death will be a longed-for homecoming. Christ and the company of others who worship God will welcome me.

As I write this, I’m aware of how strange it sounds for the uninitiated and unconvinced but nonetheless it’s been trusted by millions through the ages and is currently finding its place in the hearts of many throughout the world. It’s because of this that I am brought back from FOMO. It’s because of this faith in the life to come that I don’t need to fly SOLO and can enjoy this present life’s moments.

So, I pray this prayer, a paraphrase of Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Colossi:

“Since, then, I have been raised with you Lord Jesus, help me set my affections on things above, where you are Jesus…… Set my mind on things above, not on earthly things. And Lord Jesus, encourage me with the promise that when you, who is my entire life, appear, then I will also appear with you in glory. Amen”
(Col 3:1-2, 4)

Intimate News

I made an unusual request of my oncology team. I told them that when I returned the following week to hear the results of the radiologist report and the status of cancer progression, I wanted them to tell David first. I would be in the waiting room to hear from him. He Patient to doctorwould sit with me and go over the results.  We might pray together, then we would go the clinic room together to have the results further explained by the team and have our questions answered.

Weird, cowardly, childish, weak, faithless, avoidant, dramatic, insensitive to my husband by putting him in this position? All those descriptors passed through my mind as the day approached. On the actual day, I decided to forget the elaborate scheme and face up to the news without preamble. But my husband gave me a word picture that took away the shame.

“Dona, you are going to have to eat the whole sandwich (the radiologist’s report) at some point but how you want it presented – open-faced, garnished, toasted – is completely up to you. You’re the one going through this. Do it the way that makes it most tolerable.”

And my team completely understood, or at least acted like they did.  As my lead doctor said,

“Dona is the one with cancer, not me.  We do it her way.”

Intimacy

So, what was going on, aside from fear? It is intimacy and trust – intimate knowledge coming through my most trusted person. I wanted news from the person whose life would be most affected by this personal and significant information and from the person who knows me better and loves me more than any other.

An example from a long-ago happy event:
Who was the first person I told when i discovered I was pregnant? Life changing information that only made sense to share with the person most invested in our lives together. And whose lives would change dramatically as a result? Mine and his.
Again, intimate personal information shared within the most intimate of relationships. It’s really (in my mind) not so different from news about a disease notorious for causing pain, disability and death. I wanted to hear it from my husband no matter what it was.
But fortunately, intimacy doesn’t stop there.

Intimacy with God

David’s intimate relationship with God was ultimately what I was counting on in anticipation of hearing news related to my survival. If the scan and test results were disappointing, then I trusted David to tell me the facts along with the crucial caveats and realistic encouragements that would calm my fears and reorient me once again to the hope I profess in Jesus in all and every circumstance of life. I imagined praying together in those moments – intimacy with God would always and forever be at the heart of my life’s purpose and hope, even in life’s major disappointments.

The obvious

What if there was no husband or one that was willing to participate in my plan? Or what if there wasn’t a substitute like a trusted pastor or friend who could lead me to “the shepherd of my soul”?  Would I have fallen apart? Fallen into a pit of despair of which I couldn’t climb out?

I don’t imagine so. And here’s why:  Betsy Ten Boom who died at Ravensbrück for her participation in hiding Dutch Jews during WW2 said,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

I cling to that with gratitude.

Thankful Postscript
My test results were encouraging: “Skeletal cancer stable, metastatic liver disease showed marked improvement.”

Of course, this begs the question, would I write this same post if the news was not good? I hope so, I pray so. Again,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”


 





 

 

Safe Havens

A group of Africans, fleeing persecution, showed me how I am safe in Christ, even amidst affliction.

safe haven pictureGun shots were heard in the distance and some of our guests became anxious.

Buffalo, New York is one of the safe havens for asylum seekers from all over the world fleeing political, religious and gang persecution.

Several weeks ago, 6 asylum seekers from different countries in Africa were our guests at our creek cabin in the Western New York countryside for a cookout, fishing, soccer, tennis (a first for them) and walking in the creek. They were visibly delighted for a beautiful country experience. But that changed when target shooting was heard in the distance. Some became immediately disturbed.

One asked, “Who has just been killed?” Another, “Are we safe here? In our countries when we hear gun fire someone has been killed. We came to this country to be safe – are we safe?!!”

These people had experienced unimaginable trauma and had to abruptly leave families, jobs and homes when their lives were under direct threat. So, I took a few minutes to reassure them that they were indeed safe and to explain that target shooting is a popular local hobby.

We resumed our festivities with other guests and the laughter and eating resumed. By the end of the evening each one wanted to give a speech of gratitude. Two African pastors asked the other Africans to surround me. Not knowing what to expect I was deeply touched by their eloquent and prayers on my behalf. I was overwhelmed by their love and their faith in Christ as they kept petitioning God to heal and bless “Mama!” Less the obvious is overlooked, these people had experienced every reason to be bitter and faithless but their steadfastness in the goodness of God was inspiring.

There are many geographic safe havens in this world (but not nearly enough) and I thank God that I live in Buffalo, NY; the city of “good neighbors.” Desperate people from all over the world have found a safe haven through the dedicated work of some city workers and non-profits.

There are also emotional safe havens.

I hope our asylum-seeking friends have found that as well through the kindness and help of many.
There are also spiritual safe havens. So, I trust that those fleeing religious and political persecution are experiencing freedom to worship and believe as they please.

About me:

Oddly enough there are times when I feel safe and secure within the reality of stage 4 breast cancer. It can be at church during the worship singing time when the collective praises to God fill me with joy. It can be times of family and grandchildren as well as friend gatherings where the good will and levity reminds me that I am loved.

It can be in bed at night when my husband reads the psalms to me and prays for me. Or it can be when my friends, Africans and others, surround me to pray. During those times, I just don’t feel safe, I know I am safe. Christ, my SAFE HAVEN, is reminding me that I am not alone or abandoned or without purpose even within affliction. My African brothers and sisters are exemplary testaments to that truth.

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Psalm 16:1

“You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; You encourage them, and You listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed.” Psalm 10:17-18a

“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know Your name will trust in You, for You, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek You.” Psalm 9:9-10

Scans: It’s that time again :(

Medical scans make known the presence of disease. That can be terrifying. But there is another kind of knowledge.

ct scanIt’s that time again. I have metastatic breast cancer and so every 3-5 months I have nuclear imaging (bone scan) and a CT scan (vital organs) to determine whether the cancer has progressed. I had the dreaded scans a few days ago and now I await my appointment with the oncology team to review the results.

The whole ordeal feels like entering enemy territory without defenses. My peace is rattled as I sense a power and authority to direct the course of my life. But this is ridiculous. Scans have no power and authority. They are not an enemy. Scans are, essentially, objective knowledge; knowledge of the presence of disease. Scans are a kind of friend but a friend I don’t like or trust to make me feel good. I want friends to tell me what I want to hear. Scans tell it like it is. There is no sugar coating the truth of my physical innards. They may or may not reveal a need for surgery, chemicals and/or radiation to eradicate the sometimes-silent killers – the terrorist cells of the inner space. They can reveal news of intractable corruption and devastation that medical science is powerless to stop. Who wants friends like these? I don’t but yes, I do, but not really. Yes, really, I do. (Terrifying ambivalence!) What to do with such a truth-telling no-holds-barred friend? How am I to get a good night’s sleep the day before such a “friend” encounter? How do I calm down a nervous system that has been designed to be alert to threat? How do I calm the raging mind storm as the machines move up and down the body exposing and objectifying me as they take pictures of bones and organs?

Spiritual application:
In the New Testament the word of God is described as a type of scan – a scan of the heart and soul. And it’s that scan that I truly need to pay attention to. God’s in charge and I am his charge.

“For the Word that God speaks is alive and full of power [making it active, operative, energizing, and effective]; it is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating to the dividing line of the breath of life (soul) and [the immortal] spirit, and of joints and marrow [of the deepest parts of our nature], exposing {and} sifting {and} analyzing {and} judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart.”
Hebrews 4:12

There are two types of scans that I have agreed to submit to. They both have authority over me. They both have knowledge of me. But as Lord Byron wrote long ago, “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”
According to Nicky Gumble of Holy Trinity Brompton in London there are different types of knowledge, and they are not all equally valuable. In French, there are two different words for ‘to know’. One (savoir) means to know a fact, the other (connaître) means to know a person. It is never enough simply to have knowledge of facts. To love a person, one must ‘know’ the person. Love resides in the ‘Who’ not the ‘What.’

Medical technology scans have authority in diagnosis that exceed my own, my doctors, my loved ones – anyone. They have a knowledge that transcends blood tests and feeling states. Scans are designed to guide a path of medical intervention. They don’t cause the problem; they expose the problems so that wise decisions can be analyzed and recommended.

But scans offer no hint to a meaningful existence beyond the body. Medical scans do not reveal corruption of the soul and a cure for it. Scans give no promise of redemption nor power for resurrection. Scans offer no love. And they certainly can’t inspire awesome wonder and respect. Christ fulfills all that and more.

So, this Thursday the door of the consultation room will open, my team will walk in, and my senses will be as alert as a gazelle listening for the approach of a lion. I will be comforted and loved by the faithful husband next to me, and by a medical team who truly care for me. And in that room the Holy Spirit (the Counselor, Comforter and Friend) will be present whether I sense His presence or not. I am known! I am loved! I will be ultimately loved and comforted no matter what

“Going from Life to More Life”

A sensitive but probing comment from a dinner companion caused me to consider anew the privilege and blessing in knowing your days are numbered.

i love dinner with friendsDinner with friends a few evenings ago led to a conversation not usually found on a list of social dinner topics. My last blog post generated comments and questions about living in appreciation of life’s moments without assumptions of endless tomorrows. As we discussed this post my host struggled to express a sentiment that he worried would offend for its insensitivity. Finally, it came out. To paraphrase,

“You, Dona, know your mortality on a visceral level, affording opportunity for deep reflection and insight into life, death, God, and eternity. Now, any of us here could die before you, but we would have missed an opportunity to think through these questions. Here comes the part which might offend – because of your awareness of the eminence of your death you are more blessed than us.”

My dear friend had made an insightful and totally sensitive comment. He would have never said this to a young adult or parent with young children. There is the fact that at 68 I have lived long enough to see children grow up and to have experienced a lot of life. I am old. Not-ready-to-die-old but living longer than the majority of the world.

So, I considered anew the significance of being able to live thoughtfully and gratefully. There is a strange privilege and blessing in knowing your days are numbered. You ponder more.

My latest pondering

For too long I have thought of eternal life as what happened after death and having nothing in common with life as I know it. A deeper examination of what Jesus says reveals a “nowness” to this eternal life.

And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.”
– 1 John 5:11

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
– John 5:24

So,

  • How do I live more fully into this eternal life promised by Jesus?
  • How can I already see myself in this ‘already-eternal-life’ so that the end will be, as my friend called, “going from life to more life”?

One of the ways I cultivate this “now-ness” was described in my last post. I nurture curiosity in as many things as I can realizing that this joy of learning and discovery are mere intimations of more to come. Second, when I laugh with and love those around me I resist the joy-snatcher demons that want to remind me that I won’t have this for long. Rather, I remember Jesus’ words, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” I now assume that this joy I experience is a glimpse of a completed joy to come. And finally, I think about Jesus who said that He was and is the light, the way and the resurrection; a spring of water that quenches all thirst for unfulfilled longings. He’s the real deal, the conduit to life eternal. He’s a joy to know and to know better.

(Caveat:  I’m not superhuman. I have my down moments as you might suspect but many days I live in the life of more life to come.)

A conversation with my grandsons somehow led to the telling of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. I took some liberties with the story and highlighted parts that I knew would intrigue them, like the tension and animosity between Jews and Samaritans at that time. I emphasized how Jesus would have no part of that nonsense. By the end of the story, the 9-year-old spontaneously commented, “that Jesus is a great guy.” Bulls eye hit! Hallelujah! Nothing more needed to be said, just letting that thought sit with him and with me. Jesus, a great guy, a great God who offers the eternal life now with all its evolutions, dimensions, progressive developments and for tastes of the new heavens and new earth to come.

We Have This Hope

Metastatic breast cancer is a serious chronic disease that can’t be cured and is nearly always fatal. I am hoping for the miraculous and whether that comes through medical research or from Divine intervention I will be shouting hallelujah!!!

The disease, like many diseases, forces life changing limitations that tempt many to disbelieve in a good God. But not all will go that path. There has been and will be those who will find their limitations wooing them to trust in a God who loves them.
I understand that for some skeptics, faith in God is a crutch. I disagree. Faith is not a crutch, it is a rescue gurney – a Stokes litter, an essential for which I need not apologize. A crutch would never carry the weight of my greatest limitation: a finite mind and troubled soul unable to locate the peace and joy I long for.

Today is Good Friday, the calendar day that Christians have honored for centuries. This is the historical transcendent event that provided rescue gurneys for all who would humble themselves to be carried. The story of a paralyzed man on an actual rescue litter in Luke 5:17-49 is worth a look as a way of testing what I’m about to write.

34_jesus-forgives-sins-and-heals-a-man-stricken-with-palsy_1800x1200_300dpi_3

A paralyzed man is so helpless that his friends lower him on a gurney through a torn-out roof top to put him before Jesus. His good friends went to this extreme because the crowd around Jesus was impenetrable. The moment arrives when friends and the crowd anticipate a healing miracle by Jesus.
But, Jesus does the unexpected. He pronounces the man’s sins forgiven, sending a shock wave among the religious whose theological understanding would see this statement as blasphemous, because, as they said, “Who but God can forgive sins?” Jesus, knowing their thoughts, challenges their thinking and hardness of heart. Jesus points to our greatest limitation, the disruption of our relationship with God through lack of love for Him which will eventually challenge our ability to love others, especially the unlovable. Then he gives the man the physical healing of mobility.

Good Friday celebrates the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Why are Christians “celebrating” such a tortuous event; decried by skeptics as morbid? But this horrific offense is not what we celebrate. We celebrate with somber reverence the display of extravagant grace and costly love done by the only one who could forgive sins, our greatest limitation.

So Happy Easter, dear friends. We have this hope. As Paul said , in talking about our mortality, “we do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and arose again.”

More on finding comfort in God

He hears me crying.

img_3385
One of my creek stone art creations

Mornings can be tough. I wake and face a day where side effects of treatment must be managed, including the worst of all, fatigue which challenges every movement. As I texted to a friend, yesterday, “This ‘whack-a-mole’ existence, the bane of all of us Stage 4 types, will be endless. Do I have the strength for this?”

And so I cry, and David hears.

The other day he encouraged me to read my posts from 2014-2016.
“I read them, Dona, and they are good and comforting. Perhaps you would receive comfort, too.”

I have taken his encouragement to heart so I am reading a few here and there (see companion piece that I wrote earlier on finding God’s comfort) but with some trepidation; fearing that that which was so real back then will not feel as real now that the diagnosis is so much harsher. And not only have I been reluctant to read my previous cancer blog posts, but I enter the cancer hospital feeling less familial with my fellow tribe of cancer sufferers. An unhealthy envy creeps into my psyche for all those folks who have cancer but are in the treatment for the cure. I was one of them in the “good old days of stage 3” but now metastatic singles me out, isolates me from the others or so it feels. It is as if I wish there was a clinic within the hospital with its own private entrance that was reserved for all stage 4 cancer patients. I imagine myself talking more with these folks, mining their thoughts and feelings, sharing something helpful with them and they with me. I’m thinking of joining a Stage 4 support group. Meanwhile, I am reading my earlier posts and breathing sighs of relief that it is still the comforting truth for me then and for me now.

As bleak, sad and angry as I can feel sometimes it always comes down to something that the apostle Peter said when many followers left Christ after He delivered a hard teaching. Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Peter, will you leave me, also?” Of which Peter responded, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Life as we all well know can be cruel, indifferent and unbearable at times. If not for us its no doubt been hard for people we know and love. And if somehow we and all our family and friends have escaped the vicissitudes of life, well, then just read news about places and people who struggle through unimaginable loss and suffering. Where do they all go when it gets tough? A lot die, no doubt, but did they die with hope? I don’t know and nor do I presume to answer for them but I have found no greater answer to my despair than what Peter said to Jesus.

“Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life”. (John 60:68)

When I am struggling with the demon of despair it’s the reality that Christ has the words of eternal life that throws me the life ring of hope and faith. There is something about the words of Christ and the words of his followers who wrote gospels and letters in a text we dandelioncall the New Testament that awakens something in me that feels alive, organic, true and full of conviction, promise and hope. The scriptures give me comfort in my grief but also the scriptures give me needed chastisement from time to time that feels oddly hopeful, too. The scriptures challenge me to think outside my pre-occupation with self – the mandate to serve and pray for the poor and others brings comfort.  The scriptures prompt me to think about the cosmos (I’m binge watching Netflix’s the “Fabric of the Universe”). The big bang of our big God excites and reassures. Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  I like contemplating the bigness and mysteries of God and His creation and I imagine his delight as humans are driven to discover and explore the grandeur of it all.

One of my favorite quotes from Jerome, one of the early Christian fathers, concerning the gospel captures wonderfully what these words of eternal life are like for me:

“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom.” ― Jerome.

I am more than fond of this Jerome quote. It is one of my favorites. I like to think that suffering when I am at my best moves me beyond treading water to  diving deep for those words of eternal life.

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.