Friday, May 4, 2018

To My Daughter Hope Marie

To Hope Marie

I’ll confess up front, this is a different kind of a letter than the one I wrote your sister Rebecca a couple days ago—it’s more like an epistle.  How do I address the daughter I can’t see in the flesh?  You also celebrated your tenth birthday on May 2, but unlike your sister, we had no party, no cake, no pictures, to mark the passing of your milestone.  Hardly anyone, besides us, even mentions your name without prompting.  A vague shadow of your presence remains; it hovers over us, reminding us that someone is missing from this birthday celebration, and from every family celebration—and always will be.  We try to ignore the shadow as best we can, and focus on the light, but there’s no way to deny its presence completely. Sadly, all that we have that reminds us of your physical body are a few precious photographs of you in the NICU at Johns Hopkins, with your tiny body covered in tubes and wires. But a father never forgets his daughter; you live on in my memories. And so, on the tenth anniversary of your passing from life support to life eternal, I look back and reflect on the events that culminated in those 48 hours that changed me forever.  I wrote my thoughts down in a letter to you; although it seems maybe I wrote it for me, as much as for you.

I’ll certainly never forget all we did to make your life possible.  We wanted your brother Brady Benjamin to have a sibling.  Your mom had to go through IVF to have children, which was not easy for her.  Multiples can happen when one does IVF. It’s the risk one takes when multiple embryos are implanted, but this is what our reproductive endocrinologist recommended we do to give us the best chance to get pregnant. Our first IVF cycle resulted in only two embryos.  We’d implanted them both, and ended up pregnant with one child—your brother Brady.  So, in the end, after we prayed about how many embryos to transfer, we decided on two.  And this time we ended up with twins…  But here’s the thing, you and your sister were identical, which means you both came from the same embryo. I guess it goes to show, despite our human efforts to limit and control nature, God can still find a way if God desires.

After the initial shock of finding we were going to have twins wore off, we did our best to prepare, and everything seemed to be going well. The concern for identical twins that share a placenta, but have separate amniotic sacs, the way you and your sister did, is a condition called twin-to-twin transfusion (TTTF).  As I understand it, an imbalance in blood-flow between the babies develops during pregnancy, causing one twin to grow faster than the other, and placing both twins in jeopardy if not corrected—which is difficult and risky.  To guard against this concern, we had both your mom’s regular obstetrician and a perinatologist monitor you all constantly throughout her pregnancy. All seemed to go according to plan; the pregnancy went 35 weeks—which is considered full-term for twins. We went to the hospital that morning expecting to bring both you and your sister home.  The doctors had the same expectation; two bassinets were set up in our room at the hospital to receive our bundles of joy. The Noah’s Ark-themed nursery was ready at home, with two cribs set up. While we weren’t sure how to handle three children in the midst of our busy life, we trusted we would find our way, and tried to welcome the double blessing God had for it.

But of course, life had other plans.  It was anything but a routine delivery. On the outside you both looked perfect, identical copies of one another.  But it became evident almost from the moment of your birth, two minutes before your sister Rebecca, that on the inside, you were not well.  Subsequent scans revealed you had suffered catastrophic brain injury (essentially a stroke) sometime before birth. We will never know for sure—but medical science’s best guess is that, despite all that monitoring, TTTF was to blame.  You were the dominant twin, meaning you robbed blood from your sister, the donor twin, but in an ironic twist, this “dominance” placed you at greater risk for problems in utero.  You came out ruddy, almost purple, while your sister came out pale and anemic. It was almost a Jacob and Esau scenario, only you two were identical.  Rebecca spent a few days in the NICU, and then came home; you never came home.  

After two surreal days coming to grips with what was happening, your mom and I made the decision to remove life support. It was an excruciating choice for us, but to this day we believe it was the merciful choice for you.  I can only hope you understand. We didn’t want to see you suffer, darling Hope. Your quality of life would have been nil.  Loud, rattling, mechanical lungs breathed for you, but you never cried, you never opened your beautiful eyes.  Some of the best doctors in the world cared for you at Johns Hopkins.  They wouldn’t come out and say it, but your mother and I could read between the lines:  the likelihood was you were soon going to die, despite the medical science’s efforts to keep you alive.  If we had any doubts, the brain scans told us what remained unspoken.  Your beautiful body was but a shell.  Your spirit deserved to be free of those limits.  And we trust that it is as I write these words. We believe you now inhabit a new “body” free of the limitations of this life.

Ten years later, I remember all this like it was yesterday—and, most of all, I remember you. Maybe I go through a day or two not thinking of you consciously, but one never “gets over” the loss of a child. I have, however, moved on with living.  From early on we determined we would focus on life.  After all, we had your newborn sister to care for, and your brother was still a toddler, so those were pretty big motivators for us.  They forced us to focus on living when, some days, we would’ve rather curled up in the fetal position and cried. 

We’ve always tried to make sure that we remember you, and let your brother and sister know you were an important part of our story. We visit the place you are buried—and where your mom and I will one day rest—a few times a year, and always on this day (May 4), which we call Hope Day.  I this practice has been especially important for your sister, who has always been aware of your presence.  It’s been said identical twins have a special bond, and while I can’t claim to understand it, I think I am seeing it lived out. In some mysterious way, it seems to transcend the veil between heaven and earth. Becca has been feeling sad recently because you aren’t here, with her.  She clearly misses your presence. She even named a baby she received for her birthday Hope. We told her you would not want her to be sad. I think she understands that, but she still wishes you both could be having a birthday party together.  So do I.  

I too miss your physical presence in our life, Hope, but more than that, I miss what we don’t get to experience together.  In the face of Rebecca, we always see Hope; we see what you would have been physically as you grew.  However, unlike Rebecca, we don’t get to experience you as an individual or as your sister’s twin.  How would you and your sister have been the same?  How would you two have been different?  How would you have interacted with your brother? Would you and your sister have tried to pull the old “switcheroo” on your brother, or your parents at some point? As we watch your sister grow into a young woman, we grieve not only the earthly life you were denied, but also the experiences we all were denied because you didn’t live.  For example, someday, Lord willing, I will walk Rebecca down the aisle on her wedding day. I will never get that chance with you. Indeed, I think the whole world lost something because we lost our Hope.  

It’s funny the things that remind me of what I didn’t have a chance to experience.  I see a healthy set of twins with their parents, and I feel the tinge of envy for the experiences I was denied.  I want to stop them on the spot and interview them about what it’s like to have these two identical individuals living in their house.  And maybe it’s just because we’ve lost a twin, but gosh, it seems like multiple babies grow on trees.  I’ve seen more than one set of identical twins in the same place on more than one occasion.  I think: What is this God, sarcasm?

Sometimes I literally feel the missing weight of your presence.  Just the other night, for example, I was walking into the movie theater with Rebecca to see Infinity War.  As she often does (at least she still does it for now) she took my hand as we walked across the parking lot.  For an instance, I was aware of a weight imbalance.  I realized in that moment, had you lived, I would have a daughter pulling on both arms.  I wonder what that would have been like? 

How do I close a letter to the daughter not with me? This writer has tried to say something, but I feel like words always fall short of all this experience was—and still is.  I think what I most want to say is that your life—though it was brief—mattered immensely to us, and to many.  While I don’t believe God causes tragedies to happen,  I do think God uses all things for the good of those who love God.  I would never have chosen to lose my precious daughter.  Nevertheless, because I lost you, I experienced growth that might not have happened if you had lived. 

Who can say if I've been changed for the better
But because I knew you.
I have been changed for good.
For Good”, Idina Menzel

Thank you, my darling Hope, for the “handprints you left on my heart”.  Happy Hope Day.


Wednesday, May 2, 2018

To My Daughter Rebecca May As You Turn 10

Dear Rebecca May

Dancing as always been a thing for us.  When you were small, I would pick you up in my arms and twirl you around singing “Re-becca! Re-becca! Re-becca! …”  [Sung to tune of Mexican Hat Dance].  I frequently sang you a song by Plumb as a lullaby, promising that you would be “safe in my arms.” I still do it occasionally.  (It’s hard to live up that promise.  Ultimately, I know it’s God—not me—that keeps us all safe in His arms.)  A couple years ago, we even did a very special daddy-daughter dance together.  The lyrics of the song by Steven Curtis Chapman that we danced to said: “I’ll dance with Cinderella, while she is here in my arms. Because I know all too soon, the clock will strike midnight, and she’ll be gone.”

Well, it may not be midnight yet,  but it feels like its at least 11:00 PM.  The years go by fast!  Seems like just yesterday I was holding you in my arms as an infant.  The day you and your sister were born is etched in my memoryforever. But now I can barely physically lift you anymore.  We come to a milestone in your young life, as you turn ten years old. How is it possible both my children are in double digits? When did that happen?

Your mom and I are so thrilled to celebrate your big day.  We couldn’t be more proud of the young lady you are becoming.  You are so smart and doing well in school.  You are creative, always imagining and dreaming of who you might be.  (We’ll have to deal with the creative remnant scattered about our property.)  One day you are a rock star, another day you’re the mother of a growing family of American Girl dolls, another you are a NASA Astronaut.  Never stop dreaming.  Whatever you dream, with God’s help, you could become.  You may not do it all, but nevertheless you will persist. Of this, I have no doubt.  

Did you know the name Rebecca means “to tie” or “to bond together” or “to moderate”; also “captivating”, or we might say, “spellbinding”.  I think your name fits you well.  In the Bible, Rebecca was the wife of Isaac, and the mother of Jacob and Esau.  Jacob and Esau were bound together as twins, just like you and Hope were—and are, in ways I probably don’t understand. 

You bind together so much in your life Rebecca. You gather friends around you wherever you go. You also captivate those around you.  Your life carries a sparkle.  I see it when I’m with you, whether we’re working on math homework together or I’m watching you play softball, it’s fun to see the way you enjoy life.  Your laughter is contagious; your spirit it tenacious.  You live life to the full.  Never stop.

One website says, “Rebecca is the name reserved only for the genuine and best women on Earth. They are REALLY cute, beautiful, very smart, driven, have a wonderful and playful personality, and have this cute awkwardness about them. They are fun-loving, adventurous, silly, and always suspicious of everyone. Rebecca has the most amazing eyes ever.”  

I'd say that’s a pretty good summary of my girl! Especially the part about the eyes.  Your "baby blues" have distinguished you from early on.  Those gentle, kind, and loving eyes that can convey so much emotion.  The same eyes that flutter playfully at times roll disdainfully at others—just like your mom’s.  

The website went on to say: “Rebeccas can be confusing sometimes and they can make people go crazy sometimes, but in the end, it turns out everything they do that makes you go crazy just makes you like them just that much more. They're much more than meets the eye.”  

My darling Becca, you are indeed more than meets the eye. We often say you carry the spirit of two within you. By now you are keenly aware that you share this birthday with another. Recently, you told us you were sad because you miss Hope; even last night you were crying. I can only imagine the special bond you and your identical twin sister share even now. I wish Hope could be here to celebrate her birthday too. But I bet she is happy in heaven.  (I’m told parties here on Earth pale in comparison to the heavenly banquet.)  I think you listen to your heart, Hope will tell you to enjoy the day for both of you. 

Before long, some young man (probably more than one!) will tap me on the shoulder and ask if they can have this dance with you.  Then, in an instant it seems, the bell tolls, the stroke of midnight, and "you'll be gone".   Of course, when that time comes I’ll step aside as graciously as I can.  I'll have tears I'm sure, but I'll rejoice you've found a good dance partner for life's journey, and I'll reluctantly let them dance with my girl.  But they better take good care of you or they'll answer to big dad!

Beautiful Becca May, I hope you always remember that—after God—your dad was your first dance partner.   While I can’t hold you in my arms physically anymore, I’ll still do my utmost to keep you safe for as long as I am able.  Our relationship will grow and change, as it should, but I’ll always try to be there for you.  I’m sure God has a special destiny for you, and I look forward to seeing what you become. 

Your mom and I wish you the happiest of birthdays!


Thursday, April 26, 2018

Turning Overflowing Lives into Life Overflowing

There was an elderly woman named Virginia in one of our former churches who once said during a meeting, as we were listing things that required attention: When will it ever end?!  (She has sense passed, so I suspect maybe she now knows the answer to her question.)  But my wife and I often quote sweet Virginia when we're dealing with life’s seemingly endless “to-do” list, balancing jobs, children, ministry, and whatever else a given week brings that we didn’t plan for on Monday morning.   

On one hand, I think maybe the answer to Virginia’s question is: Never.  Now, I admit, that sounds a bit depressing at first; but think about it.  We’re alive, and life by its nature is dynamic and active. If we aren’t constantly moving and changing, we begin to decay and die.

But at the same time, I relate to the angst in that beloved saint’s question.  The struggle is real. I’m a task-oriented guy, and I too long to “complete the list” and be finished, with no more worries.  But it never seems to happen—this side of eternity anyway.  

Jesus once said to his followers: “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly”—John 10:10. Abundance conveys a sense of overflowing or filled. What was Jesus saying to them—and to us—through these words?  Jesus, being God, knew we’d all be living full lives.  In some sense, that’s the nature of life as a human being on this third rock from the Sun.  But I think he was promising something more than a full life; he was promising life to the full.  

Ask anyone how they are doing these days and before the conversation gets too far you are likely to hear: I’m very busy.  Very few people are bored these days, that’s for sure.  Life keeps us hopping to say the least as we seek to satisfy all the callings on our life:  e.g., spouse, parent, friend, church member, employee.  We’re all living full—if not overflowing—lives; but are we living life to the full? How do we find what Jesus promised he came to give his followers amid an ├╝berbusy life?  Can it be done, or are we destined to struggle with a nagging sense of unfulfillment all our days. 

I believe this is where call (or vocation) comes into the equation.  Yes, there are many calls placed on us, and we have a responsibility to respond to them.  However, there’s something unique that each of us was put on this Earth to do.  We can and will do other things out of necessity, or even out of choice, but we won’t feel fully alive until, in the words of Elrond from Return of the King, we “become who we were born to be“. The Elven Lord’s words resonate with those of the saints of Christendom.

“Our hearts are restless until they find rest in Thee”—Augustine
“The glory of God is a [human being] fully alive…’— Irenaeus

We find abundant living as we seek out who God created us to be—and once we discern it, we seek to become it, with all of our heart, mind, and strength.

I can speak with most authority of my own experience. I am fairly certain at this point that my call is to storytelling.  If you are reading this article, you most likely know that I like to write.  Some of you have even told me that you enjoy what I write.  Thank you for your kind words.   It’s always an encouragement to hear from others that what we think we enjoy doing is resonating with others.  

In an essay about vocation, Natalia Ginzburg once wrote: "Words are the only tools that some to fit in my hands.  When I've tried to do any other kind of work, it has been with discomfort and ineptitude to the point of comedy."  That certainly rings true with a guy like me.  While I envy what some “handymen” (I think of Neil and Phil at my church, for example) can do with a set of tools, it’s just not me.  When something breaks in my house, I usually have break down and call someone and pay them to fix it.  Like Ginzburg, the “tool” I seem to wield most efficiently is a pen—or, more often these days, a keyboard.   
So, writer’s write. Go forth and write stories… End of article. 

I wish it was that straightforward.  

Life is something of a paradox.  The very raw material that shapes me and the stories I write is the same substance that opposes my efforts, and makes it a challenging to “have time” to get the stories written.  

Nature itself seems to generate forces that resist unimpeded flows of energy.  In mechanics, there is friction, which works to slow an object in motion, and in electronics, there is resistance, which opposes flow of electrical current through a circuit.  My experience is that there is a similar “force” that opposes spiritual growth.   If you believe as I do, that there is an Enemy, who works counter to the interests of God, then it stands to reason that this entity is the ultimate source of spiritual resistance.  If it’s true that we are most fully alive—and living life to the full as Jesus intended—when we are living out our call, then our Enemy has a vested interest in us not achieving that state.  It should therefore come as no surprise that our endeavors to pursue our call would face stiff opposition, or resistance.  Things that at first seem like random acts that happen in life may in fact be intentional (coordinated) opposition from the Enemy of our Soul, who is threatened by what we will become if we were able to more intentionally focus on the pursuit of our call. Does what I describe here seem “over the top” spiritualizing of random events, or does it resonate with your personal experience?

Last year I took an online Spiritual Writing taught by a Catholic author named Jessica Mesman Griffith.  During one of the weeks, we discussed “Writing as Work and Vocation”.  In her lecture, Jessica shared about her own sense of being called to write. Her words resonate deeply with my own experience.  She talked about how she has known the call was there since she was very young.  So have I.  She said it wasn't until much later that she realized writing could be a spiritual calling. Me too.   

She also said in her lecture that even though she knows she is called to write, that doesn't mean it automatically happens without her putting forth effort.  “Writing for me even if it comes 'naturally' in that it uses an inborn, God-given facility and love for storytelling, requires single-mindedness."   

Jessica’s words here remind me of a Dallas Willard quote: “Grace is not opposed to effort.  Grace is opposed to earning.  Earning is an attitude; effort is an action.”   

Life owes us nothing; we don’t earn our call; we must put forth effort to achieve our dreams.

Fulfilling our call usually doesn’t just happen at random. The natural flow of life tends to drift toward disorder—and away from our destiny.  We need to take intentional action to move toward it—and expect to encounter resistance when we do.

As Jessica put it in her lecture: "Vocations are not necessarily easy to live into.  The one called to priesthood still enters the priesthood and does so at great personal cost.  So does the one called to Olympic athletics."  So true...  Pursuing our call—whatever it is, will be costly.  

Consider for example the call all believers have in common, the universal call to “carry our cross and follow Jesus”—Luke 9:23-24.  Jesus warns his early followers that following through on that call is going to be hard.   The road will rarely be easy, and followers need to “count the cost” before they commit to the journey—Luke 14:25-34.  And despite that warning from the start, when the going got tough, many followers turned back—although the Twelve were among those who persisted—John 6:60-66.  But on that fateful night in the garden when Jesus was arrested, even his closest friends denied him, betrayed him, and abandoned him, fleeing into the Jerusalem night.  Of course, that was not the end of the story; there was redemption after the resurrection, but in that difficult moment, following through with their calling to follow Jesus “to the end” proved too difficult—Mark 14:43-51.

Likewise, pursuing our individual calls will be difficult… but is also worthwhile. When I get in the flow of writing it’s hard to describe how it feels.  The Universe feels “right” for a while.  Time still flows around me but I can lose track.  (In fact, it’s happening right now as I write this article!)  For better or worse, I am completely absorbed in my world. But it’s hard to sustain that state for very long without some external call intruding—sometimes it’s literally a phone call from my wife.

.Jessica said that she frequently uses Ginzburg’s words to remind herself why she does what she does:  "My vocation is to write." Others have expressed to her that they benefit from what she labors to write.   I often try to remind myself of the same thing: My vocation is to tell stories through writing.  When I want to throw in the towel, I think of kind words from people (at my church) like Adelia, Lucy, and Nancy, and others, who say they like reading what I write—and even miss it when I haven’t written in a while.  It’s moments like this when I remember that my call to write not just for me. It benefits others—and ultimately my being more fully alive is to the glory of God. 

I am Facebook friends with Jessica.  I know she is raising two children just like me, and has daily challenges she has to deal with as she tries to be a writer.  She also has to pay bills, like I do.  She gets paid to do writing that requires significant amounts of her time and energy, but doesn't necessarily fulfill her as much.  Oh, how I relate to this! 

While the writing (and editing) I do for NASA “pays the bills”, and I find some fulfillment doing it, I am still left with that internal restlessness, a pervasive sense that there is something more God has for me—but with precious little time and energy to pursue my dreams.  There’s this constant struggle to “find time to write”, but then when I do take time to write, I feel guilty because I feel a bit selfish spending time writing, that I could have spent doing something “more productive”.  Indeed, it can be a vicious cycle! 

Jessica’s story serves as an inspiration for me, because despite resistance in her life, she has managed to overcome the resistance in her life and publish several books—and teaches Spiritual Writing courses.  Her story is uniquely hers—but elements of it are similar to my own.  She has turned spiritual writing into what she does for a living.  I would like to do the same thing.  I could see myself teaching classes in writing as Jessica does, but one must “earn” the right to do so by being a published author, and for now that dream remains elusive.  I know that with God all things are possible—but I know it’s going to require effort on my part too.  This is the growing edge for me, where the rubber is hitting the road and the resistance seems overwhelming some days.  The dream is real; the means to have it come true exists; but my willingness to “follow-through” and build a bridge between dreams and means via intention seems lacking.  

So this is a bit of my story, and the specific details of your story will be different.  But I have a hunch many of you might relate to this struggle to turn our overflowing lives into life overflowing. I think it's part of being human. Perhaps you get hung up at the same point that I do? Or maybe you have a different take?  Do you even feel God calls you at all, or is that just for certain special professions like priests and pastors?

May God help us persevere, despite the very real resistance, to become who we were born to be.  

Thursday, April 12, 2018

This is Not the End: One Woman’s Tale of Surviving—and Thriving—After an Unexpected Loss

I have recently read Sarah Burke’s book, This is Not the End: Reflections on Finding Hope During the End of the Marriage. While, as the title suggests, this book is most directly relevant to those who have experienced the loss of a marriage, I think her writing will speak to anyone who has experienced an unexpected loss of any sort.  It certainly spoke to someone like me, who has never lost a marriage—but has lost a child.  As Sarah says in the book: “Loss is loss is loss; the only difference is there’s yours there’s mine.”  

In the book, Sarah shares her experience of losing her marriage to her high-school sweetheart and “best friend” unexpectedly after over 13 years together, which thrust her into an unchosen journey on which she rediscovered the “story of her”, and found hope—and God—along the way, sometimes in surprising places.  She describes how she grieved her loss, began pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, and create new ones, as she moved forward into a new day with brand new hopeful possibilities.  Throughout the book, Sarah mixes in anecdotes from her own personal story with practical wisdom applicable, not just to loss of marriage, but to all types of loss. For example, when we experience loss, she encourages us to shift from asking the unanswerable question of, why, to for what purpose

One theme that Sarah drives home throughout the book is the idea of choosing to live well. Almost from the moment a tragedy happens, we have a choice as to how we respond.  In fact, Sarah describes it as making a series of positive choices in a “million tiny moments” that make up our life story—i.e., choosing almost minute-by-minute to become better instead of bitter.  From early on, she had a sense that “this would not be the end of her", and she set about making it a reality through self-care practices like exercise, journaling, prayer, and creating beauty.  She also explains how her children have been a huge motivating factor in her making good choices.  (I recall feeling similar after our loss; as much as we grieved and felt like we wanted to curl up and die when our daughter died, we had two other children that needed us to keep living.)  

One specific choice that Sarah made in the book that impressed me was to share only the details of her personal experience that we the reader needed to know to help us understand her situation and form connections to our own circumstances.  In doing so, I think she showed immense respect for her ex-husband. She had every reason choose the bitter path; she could have easily portrayed him as the sole villain of this story.  But over time she came to realize that it takes two to make a marriage—and it takes two to break one.  She chose what I consider to be the better path, keeping details about why the marriage ended more general, and focusing mostly on her own experience of the events that transpired.   I think others will benefit from that choice.  By the end, she seems even able to look back on the positive memories of their time together and feel grateful—no matter how her husband chose to reinterpret them.

Surely, as Sarah makes clear in her book, we will all have moments when we succumb to bitterness, for there is no denying the very real pain felt over such a tragic loss.  We need space to shed tears for what we have lost and to let ourselves feel whatever we feel.  We need people with whom we can be real.  However, hopefully our overall life trajectory is toward the better.  Sarah explains how she had to risk being vulnerable to others, and it was not necessarily easy, but it was only by doing so that she discovered God's grace through the kindness and compassion of others, and found she was "not the only one".  While her journey of grief was indeed unique and only she could walk it, there were others who have walked similar paths, and they could serve as guides if she allowed them to do so.  

The chapters I liked most come toward the end of the book, where Sarah discusses what here experience has taught her about Grief (Chapter 9) and Forgiving When You Can’t Forget (Chapter 10). Sadness, she reminds us, has its place in life, right alongside joy. Sorrow and love were comingled on the brow of the suffering Jesus, and the boundary between them in life can sometimes be very thin.  (This was certainly true of my personal experience of sudden loss.)   We must learn to welcome both into our lives—even when we didn’t invite the sadness. 

Regarding forgiveness, Sarah thought she had to forgive before healing could start.  Her experience taught her that it is “an inextricable part of the whole process of healing”.  Ultimately it is God who forgives, and forgiving sets the forgiver free from the burden of anger, hatred, and resentment, just as much as it frees the person forgiven of the burden of their sin against the forgiver.

Then comes what might be the most powerful chapter to me: No More Sacred Cows (Chapter 11). In this chapter, Sarah shares some very practical advice to married couples, that she has clearly learned via the “school of hard knocks”.  She explains how she naively assumed her marriage was a sacred cow.  Other marriages might struggle and fail, but hers would be different. After all, she and her husband were “best friends”, so they would surely rise above any challenges they encountered together.  Sadly, she had to find out the hard way that she was wrong.  Her partner changed, but she didn’t notice.  They were no longer on the same page.  Frankly, it seems to me that he was in a different book!  But by the time she figured that out, it was too late to save her marriage.  She reflects on the “red flags” she either didn’t notice or chose to ignore.  Her rumination provides a font of wisdom for those fortunate to be happily married.  In short, she reminds us to cherish our marriage and never take it for granted.  Both partners must be willing to fight for it each day.  (In her case, her husband ceased to be willing to fight for their marriage.)  We should find reasons to celebrate one another.   We also need to trust our instincts when something is “not right”, and have the courage to have the difficult conversation with our spouse, as opposed to staying quiet in an effort to “keep the peace”. 

Sarah’s tale reminds us that loss is a unique journey while at the same time it is a universal experience.  

There were moments where I read a passage describing some aspect of Sarah’s experience of losing a marriage and it resonated with my own experience of losing a child—as some of my many margin notes can attest. Overall I enjoyed reading This is Not the End…, and I recommend it to any who want to learn to live well after an unexpected loss.  I hope that it speaks to in your unique tale of loss as it did to me in mine.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Easter: The Lenten Journey Ends... The Journey to Galilee Begins

I had a wonderful Lent and Holy Week experience.  After beginning Lent with a community Ash Wednesday service on Valentine’s Day at another United Methodist church in our community, our church (Good Shepherd UMC in Waldorf, MD) spent six weeks in worship intentionally journeying closer to the cross via prayer.  In successive weeks, we looked at prayer in the context of community, sacrifice, service, transformation (discipleship), and perseverance.  We also invited people to participate in the practice of prayer both individually and corporately.  In lieu of our regular 11 AM Adult Sunday School class I normally attend, two of us committed to be present in the Chapel each week during Lent, for any who wanted to come and pray.  Each week we had at least two—and wherever two or more are gathered, Christ promises to be there.  (And he’s there when we’re praying on our own too!) 

To start out Holy Week, on Palm Sunday, we considered the prayer of Hosanna—God save us—which can be both a joyful and anguished prayer.  We thought about the cries for salvation in our world today, including the voices heard at the March for Our Lives the day before, where thousands of young people waved banners and shouted out to be saved from the constant threat of gun violence in our society. The service began with joyful songs of “Hosanna”, but by the end the mood had shifted.  We ended with a much more subdued call to “Lead Us to the Cross”, foreshadowing the events of the coming week.

We next gathered as a community on Holy Thursday to reflect on scenes form the Last Week of Jesus’ earthly life. This year, we focused on the Upper Room and eavesdropped on some of the conversation around the table on that fateful night, just before Jesus was arrested. We got insight into what might have been going through the minds of Peter, James, John, and Judas, as they sat and listened to Jesus speak.  We stopped to ponder how we are like the disciples, who would soon betray, deny, and abandon Jesus, their teacher and friend. We watched as, much to Peter’s astonishment, Jesus stooped to wash his dirty feet, willingly doing the task even the lowest servant tried to avoid. We contemplated the kind of King who conquered not by a sword, but by a towel—and ultimately by dying on a cross. We saw Judas depart the fellowship, slipping away into darkness, as the others wondered: Where’s he going?  

Then on Good Friday, we picked up where we left off the night before.  There was a Cross Walk, which this year began at an elementary school near our church (Arthur Middleton Elementary).  Given how much it is needed right now, with a shooting at Great Mills High School in neighboring St. Mary’s county having occurred less than a week earlier, we wanted to take time to intentionally pray for our schools. Then, like the army outside the city of Jericho, we literally marched around the school in prayer asking God’s Spirit to bring down “walls” of division—as only God can.  As we walked, I thought of song lyrics:
I soften my heart like clay on a wheel; your hands hold me firm in the spin.
Your grace is a powerful force I can feel; the Kingdom of Heaven within.
And it will change the world by a rugged cross. an empty tomb… a bridge across
All barriers keeping us apart.  I open up my heart. 
—“I Open My Heart”, Brian McLaren

We then walked from the school up the corner of one of the main roads through Waldorf (Smallwood Drive) lifting high the cross as a visible symbol of God’s Presence in our community.  We stopped at the intersection to pray for all churches (and other faith communities) to work together to confront the complex issues that our community struggles to adequately address. It was inspiring to see several of our youth taking time to come, and not only to come, but to choose to participate in carrying the cross.  

Along the way, I saw a sign that said: “Hidden Entrance”.  I thought it was somehow a fitting message for Good Friday.  The cross seems such an unlikely entry ramp the Kingdom of God, yet by willingly submitting to it, Jesus opened the door for all to smoothly merge into life with God.  

It is one of life’s great ironies that often the gateway to new life is only found after we pass through death—with no guarantee of what waits for us on the “other side”, but with a firm promise that God has been where we are, and will be with usthrough it all. 

Our mid-day procession continued down Smallwood Drive, ending at the sanctuary of Good Shepherd, where we gathered for a time of informal worship.  We heard the three clergy that participated read the Passion story from Mark’s Gospel.  Then, we were invited into a time of individual prayer at the altar with “Jesus Remember Me” playing softly in the background.  

We returned to that same sanctuary on Friday evening, where our youth led us on the final leg of our journey to the cross.  There were a series reflective readings, dramas, and music to help us enter into and meditate upon Jesus’s final moments of life, right up to when he said, “It is finished!” and gave up his Spirit.  The Roman Centurion, the Pharisee, the Thief on the Cross, and Barabbas pondered together how Jesus died for my sin, your sin—our sin.  We were reminded that: By his wounds, we are healed…We departed in silence.  
Then came Holy Saturday. This is the day we Protestants aren’t always quite sure what to do with.  We don’t have a formal Easter Vigil at Good Shepherd, like some churches. However, this year our family did our own informal vigil as, after a busy day that included baseball and softball practices for the kids, and sermon preparation for my wife, we went to a local theater (the Port Tobacco Players) in La Plata, MD, to attend an evening performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar”.  It wasn’t the whole Bible story like the Easter Vigil; nevertheless, it was an interesting way to get a modern musical interpretation of the Gospel story as we awaited the coming day.  (And, as it happened, we got an encore production of the same show on live TV Sunday night!)

Then, finally, Easter Morning was here!  There is no Sunrise Service in our community, but we still rise early to have time for our family’s morning Easter basket tradition before church.  Then it’s off to church—like most every Sunday for the Wards. But this wasn’t just any Sunday; it was Easter.  When I walked into church and saw the sanctuary, which had been stripped bare two days ago when I last saw it, with only a crown of thorns on the altar, now fully decorated, with white paraments on the pulpit and lectern, festive banners adorning the walls, and purple and yellow pansies lining the altar (no Easter Lilies due to allergy sensitivities), I experienced a sense of exhalation.  The strife is o’er the battle done the Lenten Journey is finally done.  Alleluia! 

From the “Easter Glory” introit to kick things off, to “He Lives!” at the end of the second service, it was a truly great day of worshipping the Risen Lord. I don’t know if Sunday’s worship would have impacted me the same, had I not been there for all the events of Holy Week leading up to this moment. I doubt it…  I don’t know if it mattered that I had had voluntarily chosen to fast from Friday evening until Sunday morning, after having done so on the six Fridays of Lent.  I also don’t know if engaging in prayer for six weeks made a difference.  I‘d like to think those practices had an impact, but I know the practices themselves aren’t the point—I engage in them to create space for God to work as God chooses, and when God chooses. All I can say for sure is that Easter touched me this year in a way that maybe it doesn’t always, and I’m grateful for that. 

We met my parents for lunch after church and had a nice meal together.  And then we came home and engaged in a time-honored tradition among clergy (and their families) once Easter Sunday is done: Relaximus maximus.  The responsibilities were now finished and we could finally exhale…  And exhale we did; and soon we were doing so repeatedly—which quickly led to extended contemplation of our inner eyelids.  

Proclaiming new life—resurrection—seems to demand a great deal of energy.  Once Easter is done, we feel emptied spiritually, and in need of rest.  

Those that have been active participants in the events of Lent and Holy Week know well the feeling I describe.  The Monday after Easter is usually a day of well-deserved rest for clergy. Likewise, the Sunday after Easter tends to be a day of rest for laity   We call it low Sunday because it is marked by a pronounced drop in church attendance. Frankly, many clergy plan a vacation day for the Sunday after Easter.  

Theologian N.T. Wright argues that the weeks following Easter is the last time when the Church ought to be “on holiday”.  Wright says, “Is it any wonder the world doesn’t take much notice if Easter is celebrated as the one-day happy ending tacked on to 40 days of fasting and gloom?” He says that Christians should be as joyful and celebratory in the days following Easter as we are penitent and contemplative during the season of Lent leading up to it.[1] While I think ole “Tom” is fighting a somewhat uphill battle here to turn the tide of years of tradition of “taking off” the Sunday after Easter, I also think he has a point.  While taking some time to exhale following a busy Holy Week is more than justified, we need to remember that a while the Lenten Journey ends on Easter, another journey is just beginning—and if we want to find the Risen Lord, we will have to keep walking.  

Such was the case for the first followers of Jesus. Their journey didn’t end on Easter. No, it was really just beginning.  The next step of their journey is implied in the cryptic message the angel gives to the women who first discover the tomb is miraculously empty: 

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here. … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told youMark 16:6-7

Surely, the disciples were tired too, after all they had been through in the Last Week—and in the last couple years walking the road with Jesus.  They didn’t necessarily understand yet the implications of all that was happening on Easter.  Waking up the morning after, they must have wondered if it was all a dream:  Was Jesus really alive out there somewhere?  They weren’t sure, but they wanted to find out, and that meant they would have to keep walking—to Galilee. 

The disciples’ summons is our summons. If we want to see the Risen Lord, we too must continue the journey to “Galilee” where he waits for us.  
 Along the way, Jesus appeared to the disciples on several occasions: e.g., on the Road to Emmaus [Luke 24:13-31]; in a locked room in Jerusalem [Luke 24:36-49 and John20:19-23]; to doubting Thomas [John 20:24-28]; at the lakeshore while several of them were fishing [John 21:1-14]; and to Peter, for his “restoration” [John 21:15-24].  The lectionary for the Easter Season touches upon some of these encounters.  The 50-day post-Easter journey ultimately leads us to Pentecost—the day we celebrate the “birthday of the Church”, when the Holy Spirit comes with power to the believers gathered in Jerusalem.  But that story is for another day…

For now, enjoy a well-deserved rest this week if you so choose.  Take some time to exhale, then come back renewed to join us as on our post-Easter journey at Good Shepherd (or wherever you worship). I pray that, like the disciples, we too will have our own memorable encounters with the Risen Lord in the weeks ahead.  Maybe, like those disciples long ago, we’ll encounter Jesus along the way, in some places we never expected to find him.  We might even struggle to recognize him at first as they did.  But as we walk with him, and especially when we sit down to break bread with him, our hearts are strangely warmed, and our eyes are opened.  It begins to dawn on us that it is indeed the same Jesus we knew and loved before the crucifixion—and yet he is different somehow...  We can't quite put our finger on exactly what is different... All we can say for sure is that resurrection seems to have changed him... us... everything...

[1]See N.T. Wright,Surprised by Hope(Harper One, 2008) p. 256.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Saving Today

In the climactic scene of the movie Wonder Woman, a plane filled with deadly gas is about to be unleashed on London.  Thousands of innocent civilians will die unless someone acts heroically.  The only way to stop it is to get onboard and pilot the aircraft to a high altitude where it could be safely detonated.  There was clearly no coming back from this mission.  Captain Steve Trevor knows this; he volunteers anyway.

Steve was the pilot and spy who crash-landed his plan on Themyscira—the hidden island of the Amazons—thereby setting the plot of the movie in motion. At one point earlier in the film, he said, “My father told me once, he said, ‘If you see something wrong happening in the world, you can either do nothing, or you can do something’. And I already tried nothing.”  Steve was tired of doing nothing.  This was his moment to do something—and he wasn’t going to miss it.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women] to do nothing.Edmund Burke

Steve Trevor is an inspiration to me because he shows what I wish I was more often.  I look at the news headlines and quickly get overwhelmed by all that is going “wrong” in our world.  I struggle to know where exactly God would have me act. I long to do something—anything—that would make a difference. But too often, I become frozen in fear of “doing the wrong thing”. My “not knowing exactly what to do” becomes a convenient excuse for me to do nothing.  Indecisiveness is to me the same as mud is to a car.  My wheels are spinning furiously but I can't seem to move forward or backward.  I'm stuck!

At the same time, Steve is planning his final mission, Diana (a.k.a., Wonder Woman) is busy battling the individual she thought was the war-God Ares, whom she assumes was responsible for starting the war.  When she finds out about Steve’s plan, however, she wants to take his place.  After all, she’s the “super hero”; Zeus created the Amazon women to protect mankind.  Oh, and Diana also happens to have fallen in love with this particular man during the movie.  
“Steve, whatever it is, let ME do it!”
“No, it has to be me.”
“I can save TODAY.  You can save the WORLD.”
Steve’s final line to Diana contains wisdom for us all as we struggle to know where exactly we should act. Sometimes the feeling that we can’t save the whole world leads us to hunker down and wait for a “super hero” to fly in and make things right, or to rescue us and take us away to a better place. However, this scene reminds us that the heroes we wait for are already here.

Yes, Jesus is the “super hero” of God’s Story.  He’s the one that has saved, is saving, and will save the world.  But “everyday heroes” like you and me are the ones that “save today”.  The things we do now count toward the eternal future God is building.  When it comes to service, today is the only time we can act.  We can’t change the past and we can’t know with certainty what the future will bring—but we can act today.  

Each time we act to serve, stand up for justice, or enrich the beauty in this world, and each time we share God’s love with others, we move a little closer to the mark.  For Christians, our mark is Jesus.  Colossians 1:15 calls Jesus the image of the invisible God, and 1 John 4:8 describes God’s very essence as love.  So, another way of saying it, is that our mark is love. 

At the very end of Wonder Woman as Diana reflects on her experience she says, “…Now I know. Only love can save this world. So, I stay. I fight, and I give... for the world I know can be. This is my mission, now. Forever.”   

Christians have a similar mission—or calling.  We believe there is a world God is making, and that we take part in its construction.  Our prayers, our dreams, and our actions help create it. When I sing the chorus of “A Million Dreams” from The Greatest Showman, I often sing:
I think of what this world can be.
When God’s vision becomes reality.
A million prayers are what it’s gonna take.
A million dreams for the world we help create.
This world in which we live is more than our eyes can see.  We live in the now as we anticipate the not yet.  Every act of love we do today helps to make that invisible Kingdom of God (i.e., the range of God’s influence) spread a bit further and become more solid and real in our world.  We know that, as a favorite praise song puts it, “When it's all been said and done, all my treasures will mean nothing.  Only what I've done for love's reward will stand the test of time.”  That’s why we love; that’s why we serve; that’s why we give—and yes, that’s why we die whether metaphorically or literally, if that’s what it takes.  This is our mission now.  Forever.

So, where does God call you to “save today”?  

What gets in the way of you responding to that call? What has you stuck—unable to move forward or back?  What holds you back from loving more, serving more, giving more of yourself for others?  Do you fear what it would cost you to do something?  Is it just easier to do nothing?

Lent is a good time to contemplate these kinds of deeper questions. Ask God to help you strip away obstacles that block you from drawing closer to God and to others.  Perhaps it’s a good topic to discuss with a trusted friend, or a small group.  Maybe you can hold each other accountable to taking some concrete action(s) during Lent to do your part to help “save today”.  After all, doing something—anything—is always better than doing nothing.

We cannot save the world Lord—that’s your job, but we can—and we must—our part to save today.  Part of how the world is saved is through the actions of ordinary heroes, ordinary disciples of Christ faithfully and sacrificially serving you day after day over countless years.  Help us each find the place you call us to serve, where our great passion and the world’s great needs meet.  Forgive us where we have been reluctant to follow your call for fear of what it might cost.  You model sacrificial service when you kneeled to wash the feet of your disciples. Make us willing to follow your example, to surrender ourselves for the greater good of the world, knowing that the greatest love is the one that lays its life down for friends.  We thank you for your goodness and your grace.  We praise you and give thanks for all you are.  In the names of the Trinity.  AMEN

To My Daughter Hope Marie

To Hope Marie I’ll confess up front, this is a different kind of a letter than the one I wrote your sister Rebecca a couple days ago—...