We followed up on the comments and reflections on our last post made by Nikki, friend and blog follower.
Three years ago, Nikki and Peter watched their home burn to the ground. Nikki writes:
“It was such a small fire. We thought the volunteer fire dept would come quickly and put it out with minimal loss. 911 told us to stay outside and wait for them. We were obedient. When they arrived, they couldn’t get the water going from truck.
We could have grabbed so many things. Something I’ve struggled with, so I appreciate your blog!
I’m reminded of my first thoughts after our fire that took every possession to our name: many fleeing Europe during WWII had to leave in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their back. A suitcase would surely give them away. In this small but significant moment in space and time I related, and they were my comrades.
Digging through the ashes of our home I found this part of our Nativity. It was such a sign of blessing to me.
Three years and State Farm Insurance has lessened our trauma. Reading about these Afghan refugees, their statements of gratitude and the service provided has again brought focus on what’s most important.
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.
At 716 Ministries, we just finished an intense, 3-week training course designed to help 18 Afghan evacuees, recent arrivals in Buffalo, adapt and succeed within the American work culture. It was delivered in three languages – English, Dari, Pashto – to a diverse collection of farmers, soldiers, engineers, medics, professors, mechanics, government officials, taxi drivers. We heard their stories. Some came with their families; some, tragically, for their temporary safety, left wives and children behind. All left behind their material possessions, or at least what could not be carried in a small bag.
What is the one thing you’d take if you had to leave your home, your country immediately?
I asked several students what they brought with them; what they packed of their identity.
One woman, a professor, had 15 minutes to pack and flee to the Kabul airport. Other than essentials, she took her perfumes. She told me, “My fragrances are part of me, they are part of how I think of myself.” I get it. Her colognes reminded her of her essence.
One man – farmer, corporal, citizen-soldier – proudly showed me his laminated wallet-sized certificates of recognition from the US Army, attesting to his contributions to various military deployments. Operation Eagle, Operation Red Dagger, Operation Achilles. He played these cards out before me as if presenting a winning poker hand, a royal flush or inside straight.
I am grateful for smart phones. A person with a smart phone can flee a country with the family photo albums intact. Children, moms, wives, husbands, handshakes with US military special forces. One man, a mechanic, showed me a short video of his fancy footwork on the soccer field, dribbling around two opponents. For some reason, this made me sad. The bright red and yellow football ensembles, the shouting and clapping, the joy of a peaceful summer afternoon on the field with friends in Afghanistan.
On the last day of class, we conducted mock job interviews. We brought in eight potential employers and let the students rotate amongst them, practicing and refining their pitch. This is the highlight of all our courses, where students grow in confidence with each successive interview. One student, an engineer, forced to leave his family behind and currently disabled with a distressing and, as yet, undiagnosed nerve injury, told an interviewer, “I left much behind, but one thing I brought with me was a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and a hope for a better tomorrow.”
There is a common thread amongst the things these Afghan evacuees brought with them from the Kabul airport to a US military processing facility in Virginia, and ultimately to Buffalo: a reminder of their personal dignity.
Did Mary take the perfumes (frankincense and myrrh) with her when she and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod? (Thank you, Egypt, for your hospitality.) During his family’s exile, what did Joseph look to for dignity and hope to deal with the fear, anguish, sense of powerlessness, boredom, lack of community and meaningful work, heavy responsibility?
Pastor Acher Niyonizigiye, a former refugee from the Burundi civil war of the 1990’s, wrote, “We often see the Nativity (Advent) as a celebration of comfort and innocence. In Europe and North America, Christmas is often a time to think of coziness. Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”
Dona and I are big fans of coziness and comfort. But during this Advent season we are grateful that in our cozy little corner of western New York, we could be a part of one of the organizations providing some measure of comfort and safety for our new neighbors. I do not want to over-compare myself to Joseph and Mary, or even the strength and resilience of the Afghans I met, but I do pray that at life’s inflection points along the journey through this fallen world I will, like Joseph, ‘get up’ and do what the Lord commands (Matthew 1:24 & 2:13), or, like Mary, be the Lord’s servant and embrace the small role I am given in the Kingdom (Luke 1:38).
I read the paragraphs above to Dona. After appropriate encouragement she said, with the insight and clarity I depend on, “You are missing the most important part.”
Advent (arrival or ‘the coming’) is a season of expectation. There are some parallels between the Christian season of Advent and the arrival of the Afghan evacuees and their attendant expectations for a better life. But for Christian believers there is so much more. At Advent we look back at the birth of Christ and ahead to the return of Christ. Faith in the reality of the past and hope in the reality of the future combined. The Nativity is a big deal. But we, who embrace the Jesus story, see the return of Christ and our resurrection as the ultimate deal. With the Second Advent, poverty, missed employment opportunities, anguish, powerlessness, family separation, disease, terror, war, even death will be no more. We will be done with this fallen world.
As I reread the last paragraph I thought of our own uncertain future, Dona and I. This month, my brave and lovely wife entered her 4th year of struggle against metastatic cancer. Six different therapies to date, this last one the most draconian: chemical infusion each week, hair loss, nausea, fatigue. There are lots of tears shed by us both, but yet, and yet, we experience the joy of the reward of the ultimate deal. I can say confidently and without false bravado that Dona has a ‘peace from God that surpasses all my understanding.’ And I feel it, too. (Philippians 4:7)
Now, how to proclaim this good news, the Gospel, winsomely, humbly, and authentically to our Afghan neighbors, indeed to all our neighbors?
Four Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God, published in July 2015, remains my most popular post. Nearly every day that post will get several visits. I’m not sure why. I am an obscure blogger buried in the internet. Perhaps the title bubbles up near the top when someone Googles ‘comfort from God.’ I wish I could generate this popularity for my other posts so advertisers for cancer yoga pants and pink ribbon nightshirts would flock to me. But seriously, I suspect tens of thousands of people trawl (not troll) through the web every day, desperately looking for some comfort, some solace from God. I have a heart for these people. On occasion, I am one of them.
As I lurch from one cancer therapy to the next, struggle against one quality-of-life-diminishing side-effect after another, and, consequently, am painfully reminded of my mortality daily…….I MARVEL at the ways God gives me comfort. I keep a running list in my head of how he meets me more than halfway. In thinking about these comforts, which are often subtle, I can see why if I am not alert, I may miss them.
I miss the comfort because it does not come according to my timetable.
I miss the comfort from God because it comes through means I take for granted.
I miss the comfort because I do not realize my suffering is an opportunity to serve others. (The service is the comfort.)
I miss the comfort because I am just too fatigued or lazy to draw on the resources of the church family.
God’s comfort is not according to my timetable
Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer since 2018, there is not a visit to my oncologist since then that I don’t feel like the sword of Damocles hangs over me, ready to drop. In the run up to the appointment, I am always praying for encouraging news about the level of tumor markers or the results of scans. And then I pray that I would feel God’s presence and that I would have courage to face what is in store as I wait for news. I am follower of Christ, so I know that my relationship with him comes alongside suffering and comfort. None of us are exempt from this reality but when I suffer, I want that comfort on my timetable, not God’s, for that usually requires waiting. I’m tempted to question God’s love because the waiting feels like an answer: “no comfort for you today and maybe never.”
Antidote: In such times I resort to writing. It is therapeutic to get my complaints and worries down on paper. This is a practice that I encouraged my clients to do with excellent results. The benefits of writing down thoughts, feelings, experiences, grievances have been researched and validated repeatedly. There are biblical precedents for this as well. The authors of Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations aired their complaints to God. Read Psalms 42 and 43 for a blueprint on how to record our grievances. And note the end of these Psalms. End our complaints in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the past and therefore a hope for the future. I often do this as an act of faith, even though I don’t always “feel” it.
God’s comfort comes through means I take for granted so it is not recognized as his comfort.
Many times, I ignore the steady stream of God’s comfort coming my way. I’m looking instead for a spectacular deliverance that takes away all the disappointments, dread, and angst that cancer brings.
“God! Where is your comfort?”, I ask as tears well up upon hearing not so encouraging medical news. Then, upon later reflection, I realize that God’s comfort is always present. David, my husband is always with me, bearing with me the emotional toll of this cancer – a comfort that I assumed as insignificant compared to some dramatic show of comfort from God that would prove he cared about me. I am the recipient of comfort that comes by way of family, friends, church community, and good medical care. It is not good to ignore these obvious God-comfort sources just because they lack a spontaneous, spectacular, supernatural intervention.
Question: What brings you comfort? Who brings you comfort? Can you tie these comforts back to God? If so, then practice the habit of thanking God out loud, as well as thanking those who are God’s ambassadors of comfort to you. Do both often. It will become a habit which will prepare you emotionally and spiritually for when the really hard times come. You will be blessed and comforted in the process.
God’s comfort can come through my comfort of others
2 Corinthians 1:4
“He comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Bible makes it clear that our suffering can act as a refining fire for developing character in us as well as producing benefits for others. Our suffering and subsequent comfort from God gives us street cred in helping those who are suffering likewise.
I am touched when people reach out to me for encouragement and comfort. Many times, these people have a less severe cancer diagnosis and prognosis than I have but cancer is cancer and scares the heck out of anyone regardless of the severity.
For nearly 15 years I spent most of every winter working in the Middle East; teaching and coaching women in the practice of good mental health. These Arab women had very hard lives; harder than I could imagine. However, the moment I disclosed my cancer diagnosis (stage 3 back then) I could sense that my audience was touched and had warmed up to me. It was as if this ‘weathy’ American woman was not so privileged after all. On some level I was included into the fellowship of suffering women. The playing field was leveled, and they expressed encouragement by what I taught. I was blessed by playing a part in their comfort.
Helping others releases God’s comfort not just for others but for us as well. Helping others triggers the release of “feel good” hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine which gives a mood boost.
‘Dragging myself’ to church brings comfort
The kindness and love of the church family brings tremendous comfort. This comfort is ordained by God. If we are not a part of a church community we miss out. Being amongst the fellowship of believers in general, and being prayed for in particular, is one of this life’s spiritual, emotional, and physical means of receiving God’s comfort.
Metastatic cancer treatments offer no cure but rather cancer management with the latest targeted drugs and procedures to prolong life as long as possible. The disease as well as the side effects of treatments can feel endless. “Whack a mole” is what my husband has coined it. One rough symptom is dealt with and right behind it comes another. I’m tired, physically. More seriously, I feel like I am tiring out my church family with frequent prayer requests to address the latest physical trial. I am tempted to stifle the prayer requests, ignore my church community, and rely on ministrations of the medical community to see me through till the end.
This past Sunday and I considered not going to church sporting my newest symptom, Bell’s Palsy. My husband was delivering the sermon, so I ended up going to support him. By the end of the service, I was drawn compelled to ask for prayer by from a couple of people. Instead, eight or nine people gathered around me, laid hands on me, and prayed gently and compassionately. A flood gate of tears was opened but by the end I marched to my car with a lighter step than I had had for a while.
The elephant in this blog post
What happens when comfort gives way to death which we know happens a lot with cancer? Again, depending on your confidence in the reality of the risen Christ, there is yet an ultimate comfort. It’s a tough one to internalize but nonetheless it is expressed too many times in the New Testament to be ignored and its crucial to living faithfully in Christ during this life. This life is not all there is. We must think of and dwell on this. But be warned! if you think or talk too much of eternal life or heaven or resurrection you will be dismissed as a flake or someone who has their heads in the clouds. Don’t be dissuaded. Contemplating the reality of heaven is a wellspring of hope for a future where all things are made just, good, and beautiful. It is here that you will find the comfort you need to live courageously and generously. For relentless sufferers, death in Christ is the best comfort of all! God’s comfort never, never, never lets us down. It is only in forward thinking that I ultimately find comfort. There is sufficient comfort in this life to give us joy within sorrow and hope within disappointment. But eternal life is where “every tear will be wiped away”, not before. For now, we fight the good fight of faith.
A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.
– Proverbs 14:30
Envy is poison to our souls, and we will be betrayed and even destroyed by it if it gains solid purchase in our character. The fall out of unbridled and unrepentant envy includes relationship difficulties, missing out on joy and peace, cynicism and lack of trust towards neighbors, friends, and family. Worst of all, envy is incompatible with love. If we are carried along by envy, we will end up feeling alone without God’s loving presence and the presence of others. We will be miserable.
Envy is a natural human behavior
We are inclined to envy. We want what certain others have. Seeing the good things that others have and aspiring to reach their level of achievement is okay. This is simply observing and following healthy role-models. But healthy aspiration is derailed when:
We are unwilling to submit to what is needed to achieve a good thing, or
We feel it is not FAIR that others have what we want, or
We do not want others to have what we want and do not have, or
We are tempted to think that God does not love us like he does others.
“It’s not fair!” How often have we heard children cry and complain about what seems to them is a fairness issue among their siblings when things are not going their way. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit to times of struggling with fairness and envy. Perhaps your friend’s children are excelling academically, athletically, or whatever, you are hoping this would be your own children’s life trajectory, but it is not happening. Your understandable concern begins to needle you as you COMPARE your children to others and, this is the most vexing part, you begin to hope the other children will fail!
My mother-in-law used to tell me, “Never brag about your children. You will be placing them on a pedestal that other mothers will want to push over.”
Lord have mercy.
Envy and jealousy are not the same
Though the words, envy and jealousy, are used interchangeably, there is a difference.
Jealousy is an emotional response to being afraid of losing someone or something we consider ours. It is typically accompanied by feelings of exclusion and abandonment. When the Bible describes God as a jealous god, it means God does not want to share the affections of his people with idols of wealth, power, or false gods.
Envy is an emotional response to wanting something that someone else has. It is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another (Webster). Envy quickly devolves to coveting (10th Commandment) when we want to rob the other of what they have..
Lord have mercy on us.
Envy is diabolical
It is listed as a vice that God condemns. It appears in narratives throughout the Bible. Satan envied God and enticed Eve into sin. Cain envied his brother and murdered is brother Abel. Envious magicians devised a plot to have Daniel thrown into a den of lions. Religious leaders who envied the popular appeal of Jesus orchestrated his crucifixion.
Envy blooms when we compare ourselves to others like us
We do not envy billionaires and celebrities. We may admire or ridicule them. We may daydream about what it would be like to have their beauty, wealth or status; But we do not judge ourselves against them.
Nor do we envy the materially poor.
We become discontented when we COMPARE ourselves with friends, families, and neighbors of similar status.
I once counseled a woman in the Middle East who was mistreating her son especially around homework time. Her initial complaint was around her son’s grades. She wanted advice on how to motivate him to excel. But a subsequent session revealed that it was envy of her sister whose children were excelling that was the root cause of her abuse towards her son and the root cause of his lying about his homework. No wonder he was anxious around his mother and wanted to avoid the predictable yelling and slapping.
I have metastatic breast cancer. I have had family members and friends who had breast cancer detected at an early stage and consequently treatment did what it was supposed to do: cure them of this dreaded disease. Have I been tempted to complain that it is not fair that I wasn’t cured? You betcha! I shudder to think that if I allowed this brooding to bloom, I could actually reach a point where I could wish we were all struggling against metastatic cancer.
Lord have mercy.
Practical steps to fight the green-eyed monster
To beat back destructive envy or to keep the seed from germinating, try these strategies.
Use thought experiments help manage envy
A thought experiment is a hypothesis, story or procedure that is invented to examine its consequences.
Einstein devised his theory of special relativity (time slows down for objects traveling fast) through a thought experiment decades before it could be proved through measurement.
My personal thought experiments sometimes help me combat my vices. I imagine that even with metastatic breast cancer I feel well enough to visit a refugee camp. I meet people who have lost loved ones and endured unimaginable terror and grief and continue to fear for themselves and their families. I listen to their tragic circumstances and then I speak:
“Hey guys, what about me? I have metastatic cancer and you don’t. That is not fair!”
Sounds ridiculous, right?
But this ridiculous thought experiment helps me manage feelings of envy and unfairness when I start comparing myself to people like me socially, whose breast cancer was caught early, allowing treatments to cure them.
Speak blessings and compliments to others
Since my late 30’s I realized that envy could be a spiritual downfall for me, so I consciously decided to speak blessings to the person I was tempted to envy. Example: I am in somebody’s lovely home which has all the features I would want in a home including its placement in a beautiful environment. Instead of entertaining covetous or envious thoughts I speak to the fortunate person of how beautiful their home is and how blessed they are. Yes, I even gush in relation to the strength of the power of envy in a particular situation. And, I complement people about their children, grandchildren, ministries, careers, physical appearance, and also about their good health outcomes that I could hope were mine.
Bottom line: It works! (Most of the time.)
Love and envy cannot co-exist. The antidote to envy is love expressed in gratitude to what God has blessed us with and a love for others, rejoicing in God’s blessings towards them; realizing that Gods gifts are inexhaustible.
I keep a running list of God’s blessings. I recite them when I’m not feeling so blessed.
Read and study scripture
The Scriptures are inspired by God and are useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives.
– 2 Timothy 3:16
None of us like to be judged but if we are overly committed to this position, we will not read the scriptures with conviction. And, there is always grace when judgment does its convicting work in us of exposing wrong-doing or wrong-thinking. Thank God for grace!
Comparing ourselves to others erodes healthy self-esteem. When we study the scripture our perception of reality is expanded. We are loved by God and called to fill a particular purpose in this life. When we realize this, we stand at the cusp of transcendent self-esteem with has more power and encouragement than we could ever get from worldly gains.
Take the long, eternal view
It is not only gratitude to God that cuts into envy. Ultimately, having the long eternal view of our lives reassures that God’s blessings will be ours forever no matter what happens in this life. Believing and anticipating an afterlife with Christ is a deterrent to envious feelings. When we realize that we do not have to scratch and claw our way to the desired life we want; when we realize this life is not all there is; when we realize that the point of our lives is to serve God and others; then we hold the weapon against vices like envy that threaten to consume us with resentment, hatred, and bitterness.
I have not mastered these strategies, but over years I have gotten better at recognizing envy and parrying envy’s thrusts to my soul. Many times, maybe even most of the time, I feel authentic happiness for others’ good fortune AND I am more aware of Gods blessings and love for me.
Not a bad trade off…….even with metastatic cancer.
We asked you to offer up hard questions designed to uncover what we are really about. They spanned the range from the eternal to the minute-to-minute.
Earlier, we (my husband, David, and I) wrote a post about questions we should ask ourselves but don’t. The reasons we do not ask these questions vary; they could be busyness, belief we will live forever, or simply just a lack of humility. Whatever the reasons, we need to stop occasionally and ask ourselves those hard questions about what we are about. These questions fall between the philosophical, ultimate questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?).
We asked you to offer up your questions and – WOW – you did. As we reviewed the questions, we saw certain categories (essential/ultimate, self-assessment, relationships, change-agent, worry/anxiety) and grouped them accordingly. These categories, by themselves, are worth thinking about.
So, here they are. Personally, I (David) am going to take up a notebook and try to journal through them over the next several weeks.
Thank you, reader-thinkers, for contributing.
Life’s essential, ultimate questions:
We call these the 1st order questions. We noticed several of you could not pass by these. Note the comment on the second bullet…..
Who am I? Why am I alive now?
Where will I spend eternity? As one responder noted, “It is only with this settled that I feel I have the correct perspective to look on this present life and to be able to respond to James 1:2, to “consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
How and why was the universe created?
If we live in the universe, are we not aliens just living on our home planet?
Self-assessment and self-awareness questions:
What is my greatest pleasure in life and is it appropriate?
Am I longing for life in the New Heaven and Earth with God, or am I too content to pursue a comfortable life now?
Quick, without reflection or over-thinking, who are my idols?
If I wrote a letter to the Younger Me, what would I say? (If you’re between 18 – 34 years old write your letter to a ~16-year-old you. If you’re 35 or older, write your letter to a ~20 – 30-year-old you.)
To whom am I looking for my deepest satisfaction? Is that working?
What baggage am I carrying that I don’t need because it steals my joy?
Am I action-oriented, or reaction-oriented?
What am I pretending not to know?
Am I doubting my doubts? Or, has my skepticism run full-circle?
Am I content with my financial situation? If the answer is “no’” then the next questions might be, Will my concerns about my financial situation be important 10 years from now? (They might.) Or, what are my concerns about my financial situation telling me about my relationships, fears, priorities, self-image?
Is my identity in Christ and not my occupation, bank account, status?
What deeper questions are my emotions raising? (We need to listen to our emotions; not obey them, not deny them. Listen for the questions of the soul they are raising. Am I angry? Why am I angry?)
Related to the question above, one responder offered this question-to-next-question process:
What does that say about my desires? …relationships? …commitments? …expectations?
What does God think about this?
What should I do in response?
Which came first, the chicken-salad sandwich or the egg-salad sandwich?
Daily review questions:
When I think of my first and last thoughts of the day, am I pleased with those thoughts?
What did I do today that was eternal?
What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
Did I point anyone toward God today?
Have I moved into the opportunity to share my faith (the hope that I have) authentically, with gentleness and respect for the hearer? 1 Peter 3:15
Should I put my device down and make pancakes for breakfast?
Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?
Relationship questions, both with God and others:
Do I need to be forgiven? Am I forgiven? How do I know I am forgiven?
How am I doing supporting those closest to me? Is there anything I can do this week to better support them?
What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
What do I hope the end result of this conversation to be? What space can I make for God in this conversation? Am I expecting God to show up on this conversation – to change both him/her and me?
Thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, who are the people in my life I feel too important to help in their need? (These could be people I don’t like, people who don’t like me (imagine that) and people who probably will never be able to give anything more than a thank you. They can be people whose religious and cultural backgrounds are different than mine. Maybe their language is different, their values different…..people I have to make an effort to enter into their world.)
What difference will my life have made in those I love?
Are there broken or unhealthy relationships (spouse, family, friends) that are within my power to mend? As another respondent put it: What relationships do I need to ask or give forgiveness?
Have I passed up an opportunity to tell someone I love them? To whom do I need to say, “I love you”?
Looking towards the months or years ahead:
What does God want me to know or experience before I die? What has God told me to do that I have not done?
What should I risk doing with whatever years I have left?
What is the thing I am most afraid of? (It seems to me that to identify and name it is the first step towards taking away its power over us.) If I was not scared what would I do?
Do I have a signature dance move? Why not?
Questions for making changes in 2021, or any year:
What are the spiritual disciplines I need to cultivate to keep me connected to God?
What are the practices of self-care I need to attend to my body and nurture my soul?
What core relationships do I need to support me on my journey?
What are the gifts, passions, and burdens within me that God wants me to express for the blessing of others?
Questions dealing with worry and anxiety:
Will it matter in 10-20 years?
If you were dying would you worry about this?
How important will this be in 100 years? (The responder noted that this is similar to another question above but “making sure that I will be dead before I reflect on this so that it is not just the older self looking back but the one who has now entered into eternity.”)
Does __________ really matter? (Insert anything, relationship, situation, worry, anxiety-maker into that sentence.) But, does ___________ REALLY matter?
In a previous post I described how a diagnosis of metastatic cancer inexplicitly sparked curiosity, wonder and questions about the cosmos. I started listening to podcasts and reading interviews with prominent scientists describing the physics of the universe and the surprises from new discoveries about how the cosmos works.
I am not alone in my interest. Conferences, books, and on-line debates indicate a surge of fascination with cosmology – particularly new observations, theories, and philosophies – among average intellect people like me as well as the scientific heavyweights. And popular culture is on to the cosmos. Sci-fi movies and books paint stories of quantum field irregularities creating portals and wormholes through time or into multiple universes filled with doppelgängers and other mind-bending craziness.
One dominate serious discussion across cosmology, physics and theology over the last 20 years is the fine-tuning of the universe. In the late 20th century scientists started to describe how the universe is extremely sensitive to changes in physical constants. If one of the constants is changed even by a tiny bit, the world will look vastly different – it will generally have no suns, no chemistry, and – therefore – no life. This is known as “fine tuning.” It is as if there are a large number of dials that have to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits for life to be possible in our universe.
If you are looking for examples of esoterica, you have found them in these ‘dials’ – physical constants. Allow me to state two of many which, because they are almost incomprehensible to me, I copied nearly verbatim:
Omega (Ω), commonly known as the density parameter, is the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. It is the ratio of the mass density of the universe to the “critical density” and is approximately 1. If gravity were too strong compared with dark energy and the initial metric expansion, the universe would have collapsed before life could have evolved. If gravity were too weak, no stars would have formed.
Lambda (Λ), commonly known as the cosmological constant, describes the ratio of the density of dark energy to the critical energy density of the universe. Λ is on the order of 10−122. This is so small that it has no significant effect on cosmic structures that are smaller than a billion light-years across. A slightly larger value of the cosmological constant would have caused space to expand rapidly enough that stars and other astronomical structures would not be able to form.
And the list of physical constants that must be fine-tuned goes on and on. From constants, like above, required for stars to exist to those tuned for intelligent life. I do not understand any of these ‘dials’ except that it is extremely unlikely that all of them are tuned precisely to create the conditions for intelligent life. Interestingly, that is a point on which most secular scientists, theologians and philosophers agree. Of course, their explanations differ. Currently, the four main theories are:
Fine-tuning is an illusion: Once we discover more fundamental physics an explanation will present itself.
Multiverses: Our universe is just one of many, maybe billions. If each have different physical constants, we should not be surprised to find our universe hospitable to intelligent life. (This is also a theory for creation. If the universe just popped into being – something out of nothing – then other universes have an equal chance of appearing.)
Alien simulation (my personal favorite): Aliens developed a simulation fine-tuned for us to exist. Earth and all that effects earth is a laboratory and we are the rats within it.
And, of course, God created the universe and fine-tuned it for intelligent life.
It is odd that there are brilliant physicists who would rather think up farfetched theories to explain fine-tuning rather than be in awe of the FINE-TUNER that created the universe’s inherent physics that allow us to exist. Occam’s razor indicates that the simplest explanation, the answer that requires the fewest assumptions, is preferable. Which theory requires the fewest assumptions for fine-tuning? Billions of other universes coexisting with us? Alien simulation? Or, a creator-God? Theologians and some astrophysicists and cosmologists have no problem with divine fine-tuning and in fact are delighted by its implications. There is a God.
As a serious illness looms over my life, as metastatic cancers find a way to mutate and work around tumor-killing drugs, I am tempted to despair. Cancer acts and feels frighteningly powerful and almost god-like with attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. At times like this I need something MORE powerful that happens to be benevolent, merciful, transcendent, and eminent. Thinking of bigger realities works to belittle the cancer bully and grow the great hope that the Fine-Tuner of the universe has no rivals, not even the great fearsome cancers of this world. There is hope and reassurance that the great Fine-Tuner of the cosmos loves me and purposes me to further his love in this world and the next. Cancer is no rival to this fact alone! Hallelujah.
Summary: The hard questions of life fall between the philosophical 1st-order questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?). In this post we list five of the ‘hard’ questions.
Note: This post is a companion piece to my last post. My husband, David, and I have written it together.
Warning: We expect a reaction to this post. It will be so much better if you contribute to it. See our request at the end.
(Dave) When my father was in his eighties I asked him how he approached the end of life. A bold, may be even insensitive question which he took well. Jasper’s response was succinct, immensely practical, and somewhat fatalistic.
“I’ll hang on till something happens.”
(Dona) But years later, when we had our last conversation, he was more reflective, hopeful, and life affirming. He asked me, “Why have I lived so long?” His conclusion? To learn gratitude.
“I am a living paradox — deeply religious, yet not as convinced of my exact beliefs as I ought to be; wanting responsibility yet shirking it; loving the truth but often giving way to falsity. . . . I detest selfishness but see it in the mirror every day.”
Bill Clinton (written when a teenager)1
(Dave) For 25 years, Richard Leider interviewed more than 1,000 senior citizens, asking them to look back over their lives and talk about what they have learned. These seniors were successful in their jobs, having retired from leading companies after distinguished careers.
Leider writes, “Almost without exception, when these older people look back, they say the same things – things that are instructive and useful for the rest of us as we make decisions going forward in our lives.
First, they say that if they could live their lives over again, they would be more reflective. They got so caught up in the doing, they say, that they often lost sight of the meaning. Usually, it took a crisis for them to look at their lives in perspective and try to reestablish the context. Looking back, they wish they had stopped at regular intervals to look at the big picture.”
(Dona) Facing mortality or a deep crisis can set the stage for questioning the meaning of life, build depth in spiritual reflection and self-examination.
In a recent article for TIME, Jamie Ducharme reports that “the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have spurred a collective reckoning with our values, lifestyles and goals—a national existential crisis of sorts.”
Why don’t we stop and look at the big picture before we face a life-threatening event or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan? Is it Leider’s seniors, who got too caught up in the doing to catch the meaning? Or, another reason, which I wrote about in an earlier post: ‘mythical immortality’; the belief that other people die, I don’t.
Whatever the reason: busyness, belief we will live forever, or simply just a lack of humility, we need to stop occasionally and ask ourselves those hard questions about what we are about. So, we (Dona and Dave) have drawn up a list of life questions, the questions we don’t ask ourselves but should. These questions fall between the philosophical 1st-order questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?).
Here are our top five, but we want to hear from you, too.
(Dona) First on my list would be the question my father-in-law asked me two weeks before he passed, “Why have I lived so long?” Notice, again, that he had moved from just “hanging on till something happens”, to asking, essentially, “What does God want you to know or experience before you die?” And, of course, this is a question for any age; the earlier the better.
(Dave) What are you pretending not to know? I love this question posed to Jason Nazar. He writes, “This was perhaps the most powerful question I was ever asked (by my best friend). All possibilities open up when we stop deceiving ourselves.” When we get really serious about this question then we start asking really serious questions about the meaning and purpose of life. The corollary question is, “Are you doubting your doubts?” For example, if I doubt God exists, have I seriously examined that doubt or am I just using ‘doubt’ to sidestep or avoid the hard work of researching and facing the issue head-on?
(Dave) Are there broken or unhealthy relationships (spouse, family, friends) that are within your power to mend? This is my least favorite question. Easy to answer, difficult to act on because of the risk. But many books written, and movies produced around this theme testify to its importance.
(Dona) If you were dying would you worry about this? I devoted a post to this two years ago when I learned my cancer had spread. When I thought I would live forever everything mattered; from the inanest to the most profound. There’s little wiggle room to separate out the important opinions and worries from the trite.
(Dave) If you were not scared what would you do? (Another question from Jason Nazar.) “Use the rocking chair test. What would your 90-year-old self, looking back on your own life, advise you to do in the moment?” We are not talking about bungee-cord diving here. (Although if you want a little levity then check out the video below of fearless grandmas taking great risk.) Referring back to Leider’s interview with seniors, he found they would, first, be more reflective, and second, take more risks. My father told me late in life that he wished he had not been afraid to take risks in pursuing some of his entrepreneurial ideas….in other words, spend more time at the office, not less. I am so grateful for all the time my dad spent away from the office and with me when I was young, but I got the point. Is there an opportunity out there waiting that requires effort and risk to pursue? I have a close friend who at 72 spends much of his waking hours developing entrepreneurial programs at a charity providing work readiness training in under-served neighborhoods. The effort great and there is risk, but the reward is great. That is life.
Grandmas taking risks!!
Okay, it is your turn. Please share some of your life reflection questions in the comment bar or send me an email email@example.com .
Footnote 1: Bill Clinton wrote this reflection for an essay in high school. Regardless of what you think of the 42nd president, this is a pretty unflinching look in the mirror for a teenager.
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.
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.
It is not possible to prove Christianity based on answers to prayer, because skeptics can always explain them away as coincidence. But as former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I don’t, they don’t.” The cumulative effect of answered prayer is to reinforce our faith in God.
But what about unanswered prayer? Most of us have heard that God answers every prayer: no, yes, not yet. I used to be satisfied with that insight. Now I am not. My husband will tell you that is cold comfort for the sufferer and those watching a loved one suffer. Yet, David and I persist in prayer, even when God seems silent.
The apostle Paul tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)
Nicky Gumble, Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church, London, comments, “It is interesting that Paul does not say that when you bring your concerns to God, God will give you peace by explaining or resolving every situation you bring to Him. Instead, he suggests that the peace of God in your heart and mind is somehow more likely to satisfy you and ease your fears than if He fixed or explained everything immediately.”
What is the use of praying if the desired health results are not forthcoming?
Four cancer and prayer stories:
Story 1: Praying with and on behalf of a friend
Three of us went with our friend who was stricken with ovarian cancer to an unusual healing prayer service in the hopes of a miracle. She later died. We would do it again for it is the right and loving thing to do – to offer our time, our awkwardness, our companionship, and our prayers in her time of need.
Story 2: A prayer of healing not answered but changed the course of three generations
A friend of mine is named after an uncle he never met. The uncle died of cancer as a boy but not before being prayed over by a nurse who told him about Jesus. The boy’s encounter with Christ compelled him to tell his family about Jesus and to pray for them. His father would become a Christian and study to be a pastor along with the support of his family. Generations were changed by the prayers of the young boy and his nurse.
Story 3: Sincere prayers that warmed the heart of a sincere skeptic
A friend and neighbor had a child with leukemia. The father of this child was an adamant atheist but upon witnessing the praying community of his wife’s church he was led to place his trust in Christ well before it became apparent that his daughter would survive the cancer.
Story 4: When a fallen world works against our most fervent prayers and noblest of intentions
For the followers of my blog you may recall the story of Audra and Jeremy who were in process of adopting an Indian orphan with Downs Syndrome. The long and costly adoption process was nearly complete. Jeremy and Audra were awaiting the green light to travel to India when little Hank developed leukemia. Bureaucracy and structural indifference, international adoption difficulties, and a pandemic delayed and delayed again Hank from coming home to Buffalo. Audra and Jeremy were undaunted. They wanted him with them more than ever. Doctors were contacted in Buffalo and were ready to treat him as soon as he arrived. A specialist even contacted an Indian provider to advise on how to treat Hank for leukemia in the interim. A missionary couple residing nearby in India were ready to travel and care for Hank during the transport to NY. And, of course, many, many Buffalo prayers were offered up for Hank and his adoptive parents. Yet, on July 16, 2020, Hank passed away, never having been held by his adoptive family.
I do not know why Hank died and left two heartbroken parents. Who can explain why two faithful Christians were happily willing to spend the rest of their lives caring for a child with Downs Syndrome. If ever there was a contest for whose prayers are worthy to be answered no doubt Audra and Jeremy would be top contenders.
This story raises some troubling questions:
Why would God call a family to open their hearts and home to a forgotten child to only be heartbroken months later?
Why were prayers not answered on Hanks behalf?
What was the point of all the money spent, all the anxious waiting, all the praying?
Four ways unanswered prayer works
I have suggested some hints in the stories above. Let me be more explicit.
Connection to God: Prayer connects us to God. Communion with God through prayer offers peace and strength. Praying releases emotions and thoughts to the authority of God who is the “Father of all mercies and the source of all comfort.” Being assured of His reality, presence and love can happen in prayer especially if we are asking for spiritual resources in the midst of suffering and disappointments. There is joy and comfort that comes from such awareness and a “peace that transcends all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7). This peace happens even if our prayers for healing are delayed or denied.
Connection to others who are praying for our difficulties breaks the stranglehold of cancer loneliness and gives way to comfort and much needed companionship.
Witness to the world: The local church in prayerful response to the suffering of its members and those outside its doors strips it of a superfluous club mentality and creates a genuine place of acceptance and emotional safety for sufferers. We all know crazy faith-healer stories and the ridicule their often misplaced, insensitive prayers have generated. But I have been a Christian a long time and I can attest that when the skeptical world sees the genuine prayers and love offered up by a church on behalf of a stricken person they are impressed; even without a miracle of healing. The two childhood-leukemia stories I described above – one with a good outcome and one not – are cases in point.
Courage: Praying reminds us of the sufferings of Christ and the suffering of the faithful, past and present. It emboldens us to face our challenges and mortality with grace and faith regardless of the desired temporal healing being asked.
So, these are the reasons I pray and find comfort when others pray for me against this yoke of metastatic breast cancer. If I am blessed with complete healing I will love Him for all his benefits. If I am not healed and succumb to this disease at a time way before my choosing I will love him and give thanks for all His benefits for all of eternity.
Post script: after telling others of Hank’s death with tears and frustration Audra concluded with this: “thank you for all the prayers on Hank’s behalf ” ( no bitterness and no retreat from the dependence on prayer ).
Consistent, restorative sleep has eluded me for over 20 years. Therefore, an image so often talked about in the New Testament – falling asleep in Christ – has come as an unexpected comfort.
“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.”
“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all-natural graces, sleep.”
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandma.
Not yelling and screaming, like the people in her car.”
I love to sleep but for the last 20 years consistent, sound sleep has remained tantalizingly out of reach. So desperate for sleep at times I have found myself looking on with envy at homeless folks asleep on benches. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I immediately discussed sleep with my oncologist. I assumed that cancer worries along with cancer treatment would be the end of sleep for good.
Sleeplessness in any degree is one of humanity’s great annoyances. Internet searches (not good sleep hygiene to do at night) are endless in describing and suggesting ways to recover our bodies’ routine and therapeutic need for the sandman’s nightly visits. Why he refuses to come and satisfy some of us is anybody’s guess. But for sure we cannot do well emotionally or physically without sleep. Twenty years of insomnia has left me wanting to strangle the sandman. Going for stretches without sustaining sleep has at times been as emotionally painful as my struggle with metastatic cancer.
Worrying about endings
A few people with metastatic cancer might not entertain thoughts about how dying might go for them. I am not one of them. Like the confession of the late Billy Graham, I too am not afraid to die as I have confidence in Christ receiving me, but I do worry sometimes about how I may die. I am like most people who would vote to die unsuspectingly at an incredibly old age at the end of a productive, meaningful life while SLEEPING!
To Fall Asleep in Christ
I recently landed on a book, Dying Well, by John Wyatt. The author, a British medical consultant and devout Christian, has witnessed many people in the last stage of their lives and offers insightful, encouraging, and very practical suggestions for believers facing death from illness or old age. This book is for anybody who is eventually going to die. Yes, we all should push the pause button of our busy lives to think how we would like our endings to go before the end is close.
Wyatt’s chapter describing what it means to “fall to sleep in Christ” was particularly comforting. To “fall asleep in Christ” is the term used in the epistles for the believers’ death. Jesus in the gospels and the apostle Paul in his letters describe the death of a believer as residing in a state of sleep awaiting their new eternal life. The early Christians understood something about this image of death. It is one of the reasons they had the courage and hope to withstand all manners of persecution and death. At death, the believer is, as in sleep, unconscious and unresponsive but none the less a person fully alive, being held safely by the love and power of Christ.
I have known the biblical expression for believers’ death for decades but never has the term meant so much to me as it does now; nor has it provided such hope and reassurance as it does now. Falling asleep in Christ to be woken up to the most glorious reality of all is my great hope and desire. I love sleep, I long for it and when I awake having had a good night of sleeping, I am exhilarated. So now as the pesky death and dying thoughts resurface so does the gentleness of the sleep metaphor. Is this pie in the sky thinking to make the reality of dying easier to swallow? No and yes! No, it is not the pie in the sky. The truths of scripture and God’s love for me did not originate with me and will not end with me. And yes, life after death has been the great Christian hope for people from all over the world for centuries. As Paul said, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ we of all people are to be most pitied.” (I Cor 15:19) According to John Wyatt, we can deduct from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 that “Jesus experienced the full reality of death so that we might fall asleep,” never having to know abandonment from God’s loving presence. Hallelujah! My imagination has taken a turn from the dreaded to the blessed! Falling asleep in Christ means resting in peace to be woken up by the lover of our souls at the culmination of history.
“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.”