Glaciers, Mountains, Fireweed and My Wife

This vantage point for the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is one of the most photographed views in Alaska.  This spot, which I could see from my office when I served in the Coast Guard, offered insight and reassurances as I watched my wife deal with metastatic cancer.

In the foreground is the muskeg meadow; wet, nutrient-rich, verdant, home to vast clumps of fireweed, Alaska’s state flower.  In the background, framed by the glacier, are the Mendenhall Towers; mountain peaks rising 1.3 miles straight up from near sea level.  These are young mountains, exposed as the vast icefield encasing them began to recede in the 1700’s.  First scraped clean by the ice field and continuously swept clean by snow, ice and wind, these peaks have little of the life of the fireweed meadow they preside over.

So different – the fireweed meadow and the rock pinnacles – yet no one would argue successfully that the meadow is more beautiful than the peaks, or vice versa.

The meadow produces; the peaks stand in testimony.  The fireweed meadow shows Alaska’s nurturing hand; the peaks show signs of Alaska’s harshest nature: hurricane force winds, snow and ice.

Like fireweed, many of us bloom because we happened to take root in the most accommodating and nurturing of soils.  Like the Mendenhall Towers, some of us are scraped clean by the harshness of life, whether it be our environment, disease, or tragedy.

Turning the comparison of the meadow and the peaks slightly in another direction, I can write that nearly all of us start in the bloom of youth and over time evolve to a form more pronounced, bearing the marks of the ice and wind of this world, still beautiful as God’s image bearers, but deeper, more complex, weathered and polished.

I watched Dona deal with a serious cancer since early 2014.  Most cancer sufferers are described as ‘fighting cancer’ or ‘enduring a long struggle with cancer.’  I appreciate the spirit and determination those descriptions signal.  But Dona did not fight her cancer, she let her oncologist do that.  Dona seemed to maneuver her cancer, somehow positioning the disease at a place where she could learn, grow, even flourish.  With each setback – a disappointing scan or lab report, a quality-of-life diminishing side-effect – I saw Dona maneuvering, adjusting, and finding a way to grow a little higher, like the Mendenhall Towers of Juneau; perhaps scraped and scoured a bit, but nonetheless ultimately towering over her disease.   

Where does this come from? 

As much as I would like to give her full credit I cannot.  I was with Dona for 43 years.  This is a new spirit.  She has always had many attractive traits: thoughtful, kind, empathic but, also, a relentless planner, troubleshooter; dedicated to seeing peril around the corner and making big plans to counter the threat.  Once she stored $2000 in a box after reading a report that cyber-terrorists could easily shutdown the electric power grid, making banks and ATM’s inoperable.  But once she faced her worst and most real crisis, she became less anxious, more relaxed, less out to prove something to herself.  When scan reports were not good, Dona took the news with courage, dignity, grace, humility; always encouraging and thanking her health care providers.

And she liked her ‘new metastatic self’.  She wrote about it on more than one occasion. 

I would not call this new outlook serenity.  A more serene person would have done less on-line shopping.  It was not stoicism either.  We were still quite anxious during each visit to the hospital.  As we waited for our oncologist to enter the treatment room, I would read her dumb jokes from the internet as a disruption. 

I am still struggling to define and understand the change.

Recently, I have described this change as Dona’s confidence in God’s big plans for her future.  Fear revolves around our thoughts about the unknown future and our imagining the worst of that which is unknown.  But she was convinced that she had a future, and it was a good one.  We prayed for a miracle of healing, for longevity.  That is not granted, but no matter, we still have a future, and it is glorious.

Tim Keller writes, “We are future-oriented beings, and so we must understand ourselves as being in a story that leads somewhere.  We cannot live without at least an implicit set of beliefs that our lives are building toward some end, some hope, to which our actions are contributing. We must imagine some end to life that transcends.”[1]

But that is not the whole story.  Hope and faith are essential, but we need some external help.  If it depends only on our personal resolve or insight we are back where we started – some of us succeed through a gift of temperament or fortitude, some not.

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 5:2b-5; 8:35, 37-39

It can only be the Spirit of God that vitalizes life, communicates God’s truth, and reassures of his eternal plan for us through the grace of Christ. 

What was great about this external strength was that when hardship came, I did not worry that Dona would not be able to endure it because it did not depend solely on her. I trust I will be able to draw on that same strength.

I so deeply miss her.

Dave Eley


[1] “Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical” by Timothy Keller.

This is Mortality, this is Eternity

By Dave Eley

On December 22, 2022, the day before the Great Buffalo Blizzard, we agreed with the oncologist to stop Dona’s cancer treatment and enroll her with Hospice.  Focus will be on comfort at home.  We feel okay about it. She will likely live longer on Hospice than on aggressive treatment. 

I’ll provide updates through https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/donaeley

Dona sleeps most of the day but is in no pain. Praise God. Although a bit confused at times and very weak, there is a calm and focus that must only come from the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding….guarding her heart and mind in Christ Jesus.” 

Medical science and technology have given us 8 great years and, according to Dona, some of her best years. (Seriously, see ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me. ) We are grateful to have been the recipient of a dozen or more cutting edge or proven treatments, (which worked well until wily cancer cells morphed and found a workaround) developed by the best researchers and engineers the world has to offer, and delivered by compassionate surgeons, doctors, technicians, and nurses.  But over time treatment has taken a toll.  Modern medicine has its limits. 

When the best efforts of our medical clinicians are overwhelmed and consumed by disease what is left?  For the Christian, it is the hope of the resurrection.  What does that look like?  Perhaps it is like the discovery of a masterpiece that was hidden when painted over with an inferior work of art.  As the later work flakes away due to time and the elements the earlier original is revealed, something beautiful and totally different.  Or, perhaps it is as simple as Jesus’ parable of the house built on a rock that leaves the home intact when the winds and rains come. (Matthew 7)

Dona with grandson #4 on Christmas Day 2022 after the Great Buffalo Blizzard

It is that underlying beauty, strength, and solid foundation that is now so evident in my wife. Yesterday, I told Dona, “When my time comes, I hope I can also face my mortality directly, look it square in the face without flinching.  But I think I will be frightened.”

She gazed at me for a minute, I was beginning to think she had drifted off, and then she said, “When your time comes God will give you grace and strength. But for now, you need to quit with the chipmunk cheeks.”

She was alluding to two posts she wrote early in her cancer journey.  The chipmunk cheek image is from John Piper, who writes:

Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day (Exodus 16:4).

God’s grace is like manna. God gives us “a day’s portion every day.” This is why Jesus taught us to pray for our “daily” bread, not “next week’s” bread.

We need to quit being chipmunks. We don’t need to try and stuff our cheeks with today’s manna, anxiously storing up fuel for the nasty winter we imagine around the corner. God doesn’t give us grace for our imaginations, he doesn’t give us grace for our chipmunk approach to life. (Emphasis mine.)

As Dona later reflected,

The hardcore truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?”

Me, apparently…….God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles.  And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.”

So, as Dona says, I’m going to quit (try to quit) being a chipmunk and train myself through repetition, reminding myself of eternal truths, look for joy each day, and trust tomorrow, both for my life and especially for by wife’s, to the hand of God, who transcends our mortal limitations.

This is mortality, this is eternity.

What is Disappointment-Worthy?

In an earlier post, I described how the ‘pre-cancer me’ had too many concerns, strong opinions, and preferences. I was living life poised to be disappointed at every turn. Disrupted travel plans, bad hair days and minor slights were all felt too deeply! It took metastatic cancer to bring more clarity, balance, and self-control to disappointment. I had gotten lazy, neglecting the hard work of self-examination, and taking control of my emotional reactions to disappointments. I like the new me, the metastatic me.

View from my balcony in
St Augustine, FL

My current disappointments are few or less intense because there are less things of this world that mean that much to me. I am vacationing and being with family in St Augustine, Florida. I write positioned to see the smooth coastline, hear the waves breaking, smell the sea breeze, and feel the sun warm my brittle bones. So heavenly and peaceful. But I am feeling increasingly detached from this experience as well as many others that have given me pleasure. This does not feel like a bad thing as I’m experiencing more peace of mind than I have been accustomed.

Anhedonia is a mental condition which describes a pervasive lack of interest in those things that use to give pleasure and enjoyment. It is a core symptom of depression.

As a retired mental health therapist, I have asked myself whether I am experiencing a symptom of clinical depression. Certainly, cancer sufferers have more depression than others. No one would be surprised to hear I was struggling with depression. But I am not. I have received a blessing amidst existential suffering.

“Set your mind on things above and not on things on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden in Christ.” (Colossians 3)

…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame….consider this…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Hebrews 12:1b – 3)

Do not get me wrong, I feel pain, loss and sorrow. I am not cultivating a Buddhist mindset that sees all suffering originating from and sustained by human attachments. I WANT to be attached to those I love, and I want to enjoy the beauties all around me in this world. I am not numb to disappointments, rather I am having fewer of them because I’m learning through this disease what is ‘disappointment-worthy’.

There also seems to be a supernatural aspect to this ‘screening’ of life’s disappointments. I call this something, “training for eternal life”.

The apostle Paul in the letter to the church at Colossi exhorted the congregation “to set their affections on eternity with God.” Why? Because God wants to bless us. I am going to die, and you are going to die. So, as the author of Hebrews puts it, while we are enjoying this life it is a mercy to fix our eyes on Christ, the author, perfecter and finisher of our faith, and then we will not lose heart or grow weary as we soldier on, training to enjoy the eternal life ahead of us.

I can only think of one disappointment that would have devastating effects for me and for you. The absence of the presence of God due to unbelief or to poor teaching and training would make coping with incurable cancer unbearable.

Where do we go with this?

Continue to be disappointed, even heartbroken over the losses, travesties, and tragedies of life both for us, our loved ones, and for the countless, nameless sufferers throughout this broken world. To do so is to have the heart of God motivating us to call to out to Him for relief and rescue. But leave the disappointments from assaults on ego, the frustration of inconvenience, the slights and criticisms from others on the junk heap of the worthless and inconsequential.

Disappointments are not so bad if we allow them to whittle away at the vain and useless, and cling tenaciously to the grand promises of God – a future where God promises to make every injustice and injury right in the end!  The scriptures say God promises that every tear will be wiped away; all tears, not just the tears of heartache and loss, but the tears of anger, frustration, and petty disappointment. 

Can I get an Amen?

Challenges to Feeling Comfort from God

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.

  1. I miss the comfort because it does not come according to my timetable.
  2. I miss the comfort from God because it comes through means I take for granted.
  3. I miss the comfort because I do not realize my suffering is an opportunity to serve others.  (The service is the comfort.)
  4. 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.

Does facing incurable cancer scare the hell out of you?

I’ve always been interested in theological discussions and debates concerning the nature of hell among evangelical theologians. I have my “hard and fast” opinions about this serious matter but that won’t be the topic of this post. Sorry, for anyone out there who thought this was going to be a very provocative diatribe from an untrained non-seminarian theologian who admits to having strong opinions that she’s accustomed to changing. If you are interested, a report by the Evangelical Alliance Commission on Unity and Truth Among Evangelicals (ACUTE) called ‘The Nature of Hell’ outlines the differing opinions in clear and concise language.

Philosophical thoughts about cancer and mortality are frequent speculations. Recently, I looked for studies about what people with incurable cancer thought about hell. My cursory search didn’t turn up much, but I did come across a website for people voicing their thoughts about their diagnosis of terminal cancer. Hell was not a major topic, but one comment written over a year ago was difficult to read and generated a lot of responses from other sufferers. The commenter began with the following, “I have been told that I have 4 months to live and I am so afraid I am going to hell.” The responses were quick, empathic, and supportive. This woman’s heart-wrenching, brutally honest attempt to explain why she was in this frame of mind included her offenses to her family and specifically to her young daughter since her diagnosis. She felt conviction over the mess she had made of her life before diagnosis. But the real source of her anguish was the angry lashing out and jealousy towards healthy family members and friends.

I was moved by two observations. The first observation was the compassion extended by terminally ill responders who were compelled to try to make this woman feel better. Why were these fellow sufferers so compelled to help? Speaking from my own experience, there seems to be enough suffering to the illness as well as the grief of anticipated losses without added dread of future condemnation and alienation. That is unbearable. Like the others I was touched and wanted her to be at peace.

The second observation concerned the content of the responses. They ranged from:

1. On one end, “Forget about it, hell is a human construct that started in the middle ages by the church to secure their control and power over people,” to the other end,

2. A detailed lengthy comprehensive gospel presentation which was actually good if the sufferer could take it all in, to

3. The middle majority, which encouraged the writer to seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with those she admitted to hurting.

These posts were over a year ago. This woman may not still be alive, and the site did not show her response to the comments her original plea generated. Did she find peace? I hope so. If I had responded a year ago, I like to think I would have written:

“None of us are good enough to meet the holy standard of God. None of us. Thus, God himself in Jesus appeared 2000 years ago with a mission for securing our forgiveness. By simply trusting in his sacrifice by faith we are found perfect and acceptable before a perfect and holy God. Nothing is more liberating for the guilt-ridden. I know this. Then Christ fills our heart with gratitude and out of this grows the humility and courage to trust God to ask forgiveness from those we have offended.”

I hope she took the best of the advice and received the grace through Christ who forgives it all. I can’t imagine that if she sought her family’s forgiveness that she did not receive it from them. If she  did not, well, peace with God trumps all to secure her peace for eternity.
A recently composed hymn, “His Mercy is More,” says it beautifully. It was inspired by a sermon by John Newton, the creator of “Amazing Grace”.

“Our sins are many, but His mercies are more: our sins are great, But His righteousness is greater: we are weak but He is power.”

– John Newton

The Race you have been trained to run

passing the batonHebrews 12:1-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking for purpose…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music and lyrics of the show play softly in the background

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

Theological reflections:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember the poor

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

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

coveting cartoon

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The View

I am about to sell my home of 19 years in Juneau, Alaska.  I will no longer own the spectacular view that has been my website’s cover picture ever since I started blogging in March 2014. The Gastineau channel, Mt. Roberts, city of Juneau and the cruise ships that grace the harbor 5 months of the year are not my possessions but the picture window, showcasing a breathtaking scene of  beauty, has been mine. But I sense an encroaching disquiet coming from a desire to own something of beauty that is threatening to steal my gratitude and perspective.

I am moving back to my 600 square ft. cozy rented apartment in Buffalo, NY and happy to do so.  But I’m wistful as I sit in my living room writing this post. As my eyes shift from the computer screen to the scene outside my window the realization that I will no longer have the privilege of feasting my eyes on this particular changing scene of beauty feels surreal.

Years ago I  occasionally dreamed I was washing dishes in another home looking outside its window above the sink. In the dream I was continually asking myself, “How did it happen that I am here and not in Juneau, looking out my picture window? How did I give up such beauty?” Waking up was always a happy relief. “Yay, it is all still MINE.”

Anyone feeling sorry for me yet? I hope not.  In fact, I may have annoyed some of you. “Spoiled Brat” would not be too far off the mark.  Who in this world gets to live in a modest 1964 home with its accompanied price tag and enjoy a multi-million dollar view? Not many middle class folk. Oh yeah, there are many, many desperately under-resourced people of the world who have exquisite views from their ramshackle homes but they are also at risk of devastation brought on by tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes,  earthquakes, floods, malnutrition, disease, exploitation and violence.

A view from a middle class home cannot be separated from social economics. Being economically comfortable allows me the luxury to gush over the view I own.

Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong in being middle class, owning things or lucking out with a fabulous view. Far from it! I want to be genuinely grateful for this undeserved gift of beauty for 19 years and be grateful for my cozy little rented buffalo apartment that I will be moving back to. I should be emotionally on top of this.  I have been schooled as a follower of Jesus for several decades so I believe it when the gospels have Jesus saying something to this effect, “Stop worrying about what you are going to own and what ‘views’ you will enjoy because your life is worth so much more than that stuff and your Heavenly Father knows what you need and how to get you through the good stuff without greed, pride, selfishness, entitlement and hoarding  and the bad stuff without despair and abandonment.” (Matthew 5:19-34 paraphrased by me).

My pseagulesoint of self-criticism is that there is an emotional dysfunction revealed in the words, “mine” and “I need to own it.”  It is not the the-in-your-face greed of those seagulls in ‘Finding Nemo’ who perched on the piling keep calling out, “mine, mine, mine, mine.”  There is something more seductively deceiving and greedy going on here. Something that can bring on a case of “perspective amnesia” in no time.   When I was in the midst of 9 months of treatment for stage 3 breast cancer, my little attic apartment was a sanctuary of peace and hope. View,” shmiew” who cared? Certainly not me. I was not longing for my Juneau home view. I was glad to be getting treatment for a life threatening disease from a major cancer institute only two miles from my apartment while being near my children, grandchildren and a small group of believers who prayed for me and cheered me on, as were the dear friends from Juneau and elsewhere. And less I forget, my husband was with me and I mean, really with me!  I was enjoying a view on love and some heavenly treasures. Matthew 6:19-21 bears quoting: “Do not store for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Six months later and two good post cancer treatment checkups are “ clouding “the view on love and “clearing”  the view from my Juneau home with more magnificence and enticement  than I have ever remembered and even more so now that I am selling it.  The soon “not to be my view” is taunting me with regret, sadness and loss. “Who am I if I don’t own this?”  “What will make me feel special?” “How will out of town guests be drawn to visit if the vacation package does not include this place?” This is stupid thinking.  As I write these thoughts down they get stupider by the second.  (Here is a therapy tip:   When you write down disquieting thoughts their significance is opened up to a debate. The false reasoning is exposed.  You, then make sure you win the debate with more reasonable thoughts).

Here is a useful verse to reflect on: Psalm 39:4 “Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.”  Happy verse? Probably not. Liberating one? Most definitely. Life being fleeting doesn’t conjure up a fleet of possessions meeting me at my glorious eternal home. So, meanwhile, it will be best to keep a view of love in perspective.  And with a detached gratefulness say goodbye to a view from a home I owned and enjoyed for 19 fleeting years.