Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Two years ago President Jimmy Carter made a bold and very public statement by removing his membership to the Southern Baptist Church.  For years he tried to encourage dialogue concerning what he saw as a “…repugnant..belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men” and went on to say that it only excuses “…slavery, violence, forced prostitution, and national laws that omit rape as a crime”. (Source: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2009/07/20/jimmy-carter-leaves-church-over-treatment-of-women/)  Jimmy Carter, in my opinion, took the proper steps.  He prayed about the situation, and then opened dialogue with the Christian community over this issue.  At some point he decided that the dialogue would go nowhere and so he stepped away.  The question here is, at what point do you decide that dialogue fails and the right step is to step away? 
The same can be said when trying to help someone with an issue they have.  At what point do you have to make the decision that you have done all you can and now it is time to step away?  In fact, this can be a struggle with many areas of our lives from relationships to a job.  After so many attempts at trying, sometimes it just makes sense to step away.
Several years ago I was employed in the death-care industry.  I was hired in to a management position because of my skills in team building and improving processes.  I did what I was hired to do but continually encountered walls purposely put in my way to set me up to fail.  A year of on-going conversations only yielded more walls.  One day, after careful prayer and consideration, at 5:00 p.m. I left that job.  I know I left it in good hands and that the staff would continue to move forward. I knew the families we worked with would not be affected.  I knew it was the right thing to do – I simply stepped away.
Many years ago I found myself in an important turning point in my career in full-time church ministry.  Seated in the front row of more than 5000 pastors from around the country, I listened as Andy Stanley said, “sometimes, to be effective in ministry, God needs you to step aside.  But because of our own humanity we oftentimes refuse to see what we really need to do.  That’s when God steps in and rips you out of ministry.”  I know that I had to step aside and begin exploring a new calling in ministry in order for God to continue the work He started through me.  I had to explore other options – step out of my comfort zone and search new ways of being in ministry.  It was a painful journey but one that I am most pleased to have walked.
Jesus asked his disciples to wait for him and keep watch while he went a short distance away to pray.  When Jesus was done he came back to find them asleep.  How frustrating that must have felt.  How lonely that must have made our Lord.  He spent three years teaching, encouraging, training, and lifting up these men and they still didn’t get it.  So what did Jesus do?  He rebuked them.  He said, “You mean to tell me you couldn’t wait just a little while?”   He explained to them that things are going to happen around them if they continue with this behavior – he said, “Stay awake before you fall in to temptation”.   He then simply stepped away – and returned to praying. Jesus, in this one act, teaches us the importance of correction and prayer.   
We are only human and as such we have limitations.  Our minds create an image of God only to the extent of our human understanding and our minds.  Our minds can only take so much and our humanity only brings us so far.  Our humanity is what keeps us from experiencing the Holy.  Our humanity is what keeps us from growing in Christ.  Our humanity is what keeps us from making the same bad choices, the same bad decisions as we did yesterday and probably will do tomorrow.  Our humanity is what causes us to fall asleep when the Lord asks us to be awake and alert.  Our humanity is what causes us to continually sin, that is, to continually grow the space between us and God. 
Of all the characteristics of being human, which one(s) are the loudest in your life?  Which one(s) keeps you from staying awake?  Which one(s) keeps you a safe distance from the Holy?  Which one(s) will you begin working on today before God decides to rip you away from them?  Because when God does decide to tear you from it, you’ll probably go kicking and screaming all the way.  Make the decision today that God is waiting for you to make.  Change.  We cannot grow if we do not change.  Change equals growth.  Growth equals a closer relationship to our Creator.  A closer relationship with our Creator equals closer and more meaningful relationships with our fellow humans.
Having the courage and strength to step away can actually mean that you are stepping closer to the Holy and closer in to the person you are meant to become.  Standing up for what your heart believes is truth will, indeed, bring you closer to the person you are meant to be.  When we step away, in truth, we step closer to the Holy.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Come Sweet Death, Come Sweet Repose

The perceptions and understandings of life after earthly-death is as varied as the ways we die.  A simplified understanding of the various understandings of afterlife can be summed up by the following:
EASTERN RELIGIONS (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism) = Reincarnation
WESTERN RELIGIONS (Judaism, Christinity, Islam) = Bodily Resurrection
But that is only an elementary summation as there are thousands of different beliefs of what happens after this earthly life is over.
By the 2nd century BCE, the idea of disembodied soul-survival and future bodily resurrection from the dead are present in Judaism.  These ideas eventually worked their way in to Christian and Islamic theology during the Common Era.
No one knows.  It is a truth just as it is true that everyone will die.  My mother knew and accepted her on-coming death although she did not want to and she fought it till the end.  She had a fear of death that many people share.  Regardless of your faith tradition and upbringing, there is an element of unknown when it comes to our death. 
J.S. Bach’s song entitled “Come, Sweet Death, Come Blessed Rest” is a song for solo voice found in his compilation called 69 Sacred Songs and Arias.  It is a musical adaptation of the composer’s idea of the journey from this life to the next.  Years ago Virgil Fox composed an historic arrangement of Bach’s work and played it on New York’s Riverside Church organ.  His version is agonizingly slow and very heart wrenching.  In 1946 Leopold Stokowski created the orchestral version of the piece which opens with all strings muted except for a solo cello that plays the melody line.  Bach wrote this selection to demonstrate his view of death as something not to be feared but rather as a sweet ending to the sadness and hard life he knew on earth.  It is an incredible song of faith and a lesson to be learned and shared. 
It was a fear of death and dying that prevented Hamlet from committing suicide after pondering, “To be, or not to be? That is the question.”  It is this same fear that causes many people to not think about or consider their own death.  Preplanning their funeral and making financial arrangements for one’s eventual death can be a scary process.  Fear of the unknown is a natural human instinct.  My mother was fearful of what lies beyond but at the end she accepted the fact that she was going to leave this life and there was nothing she could do about it. She was lucky.  She was able to say good-bye, able to process for a short period of time and resolve issues from her life.  She was able to reconcile relationships and finalize some of her wishes. Many of us will not be so lucky.
So why not start today?  I’m not suggesting you make unreasonable or foolish decisions but maybe allow yourself to live a little more than you are today.  Buy a better bottle of wine, have a fine steak once in a while, and eat mac n’ cheese off of the good china. 
The great American humorist, Erma Bombeck is quoted as saying, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, "I used everything you gave me." 
Perhaps my favorite quote regarding death comes from the author of the hugely popular 1970’s book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull; “Here is the test to find whether your mission on earth is finished. If you're alive, it isn't”. 
Regardless of our viewpoints on the end of life and what happens after we leave this journey on earth, we should decide to live today.  We should embrace the idea that our work is not done.  We were given talents and a purpose and we should continue to fulfill that purpose every moment we can.  Embrace each new day as a gift and work hard to make that day the best day you have had to date.  Take the opportunity to help others see the same.  More importantly, take time today to define your mission in life and then spend the rest of your days bringing that mission to fruition.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Really? Don't Bother.

Willing to do something and doing something are sometimes at opposite ends of the spectrum.  I know many people who are willing to make a sacrifice for family but when it comes down to actually doing it, it never gets done.  There is an old saying that goes, “when all is said and done, nothing said was ever done”.  We put so much lip service to good deeds and selfless acts but we never get it done.

As I was walking my mom down the hall one day at the hospital, her arm on one arm of mine and my other arm pushing her chemo IV, I noticed several nurses watching me.  As mom got to her destination I waited patiently outside the door for her.  One of the nurses came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, “When I am old I pray that one of my children will be just like you”. 

I’m not writing this to toot my own horn.  I know I am making a lot of sacrifices for both my parents but it is the right thing to do.  My parents sacrificed their lives to raise us and continue to make sacrifices for us.  The whole reason they live in this state is to be close to their kids.  I seriously do not understand why so many people are hurting and dying and yet their own family won’t sacrifice time away.  One lady told me the other day that her son had that week off but had projects at home he wanted to get done so she has been taking a cab to her chemotherapy treatments.  I almost cried in her presence.  What project can be so important that it takes priority over your own mother?  His mother is dying, hurting, tired, sick and scared to die.  He was probably painting a room or cleaning out the garage.

As I walked Mom back down to her room we passed an elderly lady in her room, all alone, reading a book.  Mom motioned for me to stop.  She walked purposely and every step caused her pain.  She was unable to see out of one eye and the other eye was losing sight because of a tumor behind it.  Her mouth was so dry and inflamed with thrush from the chemo that it was hard for her to talk.  Yet she needed to stop and say something to this lady.  She slowly turned to face the lady and said, “Do you mind if I interrupt you for a moment?”  The lady put down her book and said, with a smile, “not at all”.  Mom said, “I wanted to stop and encourage you to keep fighting.  Don’t ever give up and give this cancer as much hell as it has been giving you”. 

Mom did not have other priorities at that time except to encourage and support a total stranger in her fight for her life even while Mom was fighting for hers.  And yet this woman’s family made her take a cab to her chemo.  It breaks my heart to think of anyone having to walk this journey alone.

There is so much more happening in the life of someone who is dying than what people see passing in the hallways of the clinic.  The support can’t stop.   You cannot schedule your support of someone.  You cannot pencil in time to spend with a dying loved-one if they truly are one that is loved.  The sacrifice of time is daily and many times hourly.  You must hide any frustration you have.  You must work through the feelings of guilt that overcome you when you are upset that you have no time for yourself.  You must work extra hard and use extra energy inside you to hold their hand, walk them across the floor, cut their finger nails, and yes even help them with some of life’s most private and embarrassing tasks.  You just do it and you do it without complaining because the time you take today to spend with a dying person is time you will never get back.  You can reschedule your room painting, your coffee with friends, your spring cleaning, your me-time because the dying cannot.  Their schedule calendar does not go out as far as yours.  They don’t have the luxury of time.  They don’t have it to waste and yet some of us have the audacity to feel that visiting the sick and dying more than occasionally is a waste of time.

Jesus said ‘as you do to the least of these, you have done it to me’.  When you visit the sick, feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty – Christ said it is as if you are doing it to Him.  What a humbling vision but do not be fooled because Christ is not fooled.  Doing it on your schedule, at your convenience, on your terms – is not giving.  It is courtesy-charity.  It is weak, it is shallow, it is transparent, it is fake and it is insulting.

As Christ was walking and the blind man came to him to be healed, do you think Jesus thought, “Oh no, not now, please…I have so much to do”?  What if Mary had decided, “This really isn’t a good time”?  What if Noah, after hearing the Lord’s instructions and figuring the timeline, decided he really had too much of his own stuff to do and couldn’t build this ark-thing that God wanted? 

The blind man would still be blind and would have lost his faith in Jesus.    Noah and his faithful family would have been lost along with thousands of animals. 

Who in your life is being placed on the back burner?  Who in your life is not high on your priority list?  Who in your life needs you but you are inconvenienced by that need?  Who do you know for whom life’s clock is almost out of ticks?  Who do you know, while your train still has many miles to go on your journey, whose life-train is about to come to its final stop?  Will you be there for them to bid them a fond farewell from this life?  Will you hold their hand and ignore the smell of death?  Will you kiss their cheek that is ever so close to their parched, dry lips and their stale breath?  Will you hold their glass and straw so that they can taste the blessed coolness of the moist water on their tongue?  Will you guide the spoon gently and patiently to their lips as they taste the broth that is their meal?  Will you put feet to Christ?  Will you be Christ’s eyes, hands and ears?  Will you show the love that Christ would share were he physically in our presence today?  Or do you have to check you schedule first?  I’ll wait – but the dying, they can’t wait.  Thanks anyway.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Love Them During Their Earthly Hours

In the Book of John, Chapter 11, we find the shortest verse in the entire Bible.  It simply says, “Jesus wept”.  The chapter talks about his dear friend, Lazarus.  Jesus is away when Mary and Martha send word for Jesus to come quickly, for their brother and his friend was dying.  Jesus asked where they laid him and they pointed the way and even as Jesus knew he was going to raise him from the dead, Jesus cried.  Jesus probably cried for both mourners and the joy of raising Lazarus. 

What strikes me the most in this story is the realization that Christ knew exactly what the mourners were feeling.  God knows when we suffer and he knows the turmoil in our hearts.  When the scripture tells us that those who mourn will be comforted, the comfort comes from the realization that God knows our pain.

My mother passed away on March 1, 2012.  I still can not believe she is gone and am just now in the midst of the grieving process.  All around me are people who are mourning and struggling with their feelings.  Some are overly sensitive and others are on an emotional roller coaster.  Still others are quiet and withdrawn while some lash out in ugly anger at others.  Regardless of HOW we mourn our comfort can be found in realizing that God KNOWS, first-hand, what it means to mourn.

The loss of my mother is devastating and has wrinkled my heart for the rest of my life.  I was honored to be at her bedside when she entered life eternal and trust that she is in God’s care.  As I work through the loss of this amazing woman, my mother, my hero, the brightest star in my sky, I continually marvel at the moments of peace that overcome me.  The tears flow from my eyes with remarkable ease and just as quickly the waves of comforting peace.  I’m not sure how to respond to either outward sign of emotion.  But I know from where my strength and comfort come. 

My strength comes from God as does my comfort.  I am comforted in the knowledge and belief that Mom is free from the earthly pain that she bore, not only the cancer, but other ailments through the years.  I am comforted and strengthened through my faith in God, Christ and Holy Spirit working together to comfort and welcome my mother to life eternal. 

The issues of this world seem so much smaller and insignificant in light of our mortality.  What will it take for YOU to decide that life is too short to argue over the little things, to spew hate from your mouth or written word, and to grumble and complain about things outside your control?  Have you expressed how much you love someone and in the same breath berated them to others? 

On my mother’s death bed she said to me, “how is it that one person can feel as much love as I do right now?”  She knew that she was loved.  The outpouring of support and love was evident as many people came in to visit, some came to pray, some brought food for family, many flowers were given, and the electronic greetings and concerns were almost too much to keep up with.  But she KNEW because people went out of their way to tell and how her.  People don’t know until we tell them.  Go now and tell someone exactly how important they are to you – now – do not wait.  And should the day come that you mourn their loss, know that God has you in His arms, in His care, and He knows, first-hand, what you are going through and He will not leave you and He will see you through this.