Jesus, the Crying Judge

15 + 6 = 17_revOn March 15, 2015 the Buffalo News published a story about an arranged Indian wedding that ended with the bride walking away from the wedding festivities before the final pronouncement of marriage. Her reason? The groom could not correctly answer the question: “What is 15 plus 6?” When he replied 17 she called off the marriage.  She judged him as uneducated and there was no convincing her otherwise. The bride’s family came to her defense and accused the groom’s family of misleading them regarding their son’s educational status.  According to the local police, who were called by the groom’s family, the incident caused ‘quite a flutter.’  Matters were finally settled when the respective families returned the gifts and jewelry exchanged prior to the wedding.

Both funny and sad, this story is fascinating with its layers of cultural and societal expectations gone awry.  It is an eastern drama that leave us westerners bemused and confused.  Or does it?  If we distill this story down to one of humanity’s basic concepts we should not be surprised by such an outcome.  There is judgment and there are tests to pass in this world in every time and in every place under the sun. Judgement is part and parcel of our interactions with each other despite our modern protests of “don’t judge me,” “don’t judge me,” and “don’t judge me”.  “You don’t have the right to judge me.”  We know how the refrain goes because each of us have either said it, felt it, or been accused of it.

So, does anyone have a right to judge?  And a related question: If someone has the right to judge does it follow that there will there be a judgement day? I think so and apparently Jesus cried out about it. Text reference can be found in the Gospel of John, chapter 12, verses 44-50

If you have been a follower of my blog it will come as no surprise that I am impressed with the articulation of faith and culture presented by the pastor and writer, Tim Keller. I credit his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering, “ as instrumental in helping me through an intensive 9-month cancer treatment last year.  Recently, I have been listening to podcasts of Keller’s sermons from his six thousand member church in Manhattan.  One message, given on February 18, 2015, called, “Accepting the Judge,” I found very provocative as he explained the need for judgement.  To tease you into listening I offer the first two of four propositions that he makes.  Here are the first two: 1) Why we need a judgement day; 2) Why we can’t have a judgement day.  If I listed propositions 3 & 4 they would spoil the sermon for you so listen to the podcast here.  (Click podcast on lower left of the page.)

Post script:  After listening to the podcast I would appreciate your comments.  I won’t publish them but would like to work them into future posts.

Confessional post script: I first wrote this post with the following: “The groom could not correctly answer the question, what is 12 plus 5?  He answered 17 and then she walked out of the wedding ceremony.”  I caught my error before I posted.  I’m grateful the only question asked me at my wedding was, “Do you take this man to be your husband?”

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One Journey, Two People: Part 3

My two most recent posts set the stage for a conversation with my husband about his baby boomer angst. Read One Journey, Two People: Part 2 and Part 1 before you judge David’s navel gazing (his words, not mine).

Simply put, he described himself as content a few years back, even to a place where he could “leave this life for the next tomorrow without regret.”  Although far from ready to quit and head for the golf course in his twilight years, a life suddenly interrupted would not be one of ‘I-wish-I-had’s’.  He felt satisfied about his contribution and life’s purpose.  He felt at peace.  An even better description would be shalom; a Hebrew word normally translated as peace but meant to be more – a state where everything is where is should be; a whole and complete existence.  We have all had those fleeting moments when our since of joy or contentment was so complete that we could ‘die this very moment happy.’  To my way of thinking that captures the essence of shalom.

My cancer diagnosis wasn’t the catalyst for Dave’s discontent.  Although often a tremendous strain, providing physical and emotional support to someone you love provides tremendous meaning and purpose.  But he has found himself often flummoxed and pained by not being able to reassure a wife whose fear and angst could be impenetrable at times.  His feeling of inadequacy in being my comforter brought out some deeper stuff.

We both knew that something else was going on.  I agreed to do some research on middle life angst but my findings were not very satisfying to him or me. Previous post explains.

Through this process David has done his own work.  He listed the components of the problem in typical bullet point format.  He felt this angst might be brought on by the following:

  • Loss of influence, insider status or being needed. (This is in part due to his age. Younger people are taking the reins of responsibility and leadership as they should.  Another factor is that at this point in our lives we do not stay in one geographical location long enough to built the connections that can make a difference.)
  • The grand adventure might be over. (Throughout his life David has worked hard to place himself in situations where he could generate stories to tell the grandchrisk-takingildren.  And he does have some great stories that he would love to tell you about.  These opportunities are now mostly in the past.)
  • But still busy. To use a David phrase, “I’m in a rat race in the wrong race.”

David realizes these feelings are not as negative as they might indicate on paper. To his mind, most of the time his world is one of satisfaction and opportunity. He is doing a reasonably good job navigating the transition from the back side of a career peak with its mantle of influence and insider status to one that involves more of a support role. But every so often, and these days more often than he wants, he feels those bullet points as forceful shots across the bow.

Of course, he sees this trap and realizes he must reintegrate himself emotionally into the grand purposes of God.  I say emotionally because he has always put mind and feet to loving God and people.

At this point I have to resist the desire to write something original.  Ego says, “Dazzle David and my readers with my unique insights.”  Common sense says, many wise ones have tread this road before.  If I really want to be helpful then capture their insight.  To quote CS Lewis from Mere Christianity, “Even in literature and art no man who bothers about originality will ever be original whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring two pence how often it has been told before) you will nine times out of ten become original without ever having noticed it.”

So, with that caveat be prepared to hear from a few wise folks who have articulated insights with clarity and spiritual maturity that make sense to David and me.

The Problem:

Tim Keller from his book, “Counterfeit Gods,”

“How can we break our heart’s fixation on doing “some great thing” in order to heal ourselves of our sense of inadequacy in order to give our lives meaning? Only when we see what Jesus, our great suffering servant, has done for us will we finally understand why God’s salvation does not require us to do “some great thing.” We don’t have to do it because Jesus has. Jesus did it all for us and he loves us – that is how we know our existence is justified. When we believe in what he accomplished for us with our minds, and when we are moved by what he did for us in our hearts, it begins to kill off the addiction, the need for success at all costs.

The gospel does not work directly on the emotions or the will. The gospel asks, what is operating in the place of Jesus Christ as your real, functional salvation and Savior? What are you looking to in order to justify yourself? Whatever it is, it is a counterfeit god and to make a change in your life you must identify it and reject it as such.” Tim Keller, page 174 of counterfeit gods.”

The Process

In the book “The Sensation of Being Somebody”, the late Dr. Maurice Wagner, gives a formula for a rock solid self-concept. “God plus me equals a sense of being a somebody.”  He explains that dependence on status, performance and appearance – attributes that many times come out of insecure attachments or over attachments in our childhood – are our default for feeling significant but they end up “biting us in the butt” (Dona’s words).  They are fleeting and unreliable in taking us through life’s challenges and natural aging processes of loss and deficits. They are also dependent on others to justify ourselves as significant. Others, are people like ourselves-imperfect who will eventually die, disappoint or both.

Dr. Wagner gives an explanation for the Trinity that is psychologically unique. From God, the Father we get our sense of belonging as we submit to the Creator of us all; from Jesus Christ we get our sense of acceptance as we embrace the forgiveness he offers and from the Holy Spirit we receive our sense of competence as he leads, teaches, counsels and redirects.  Belonging, Acceptance and Competence are the building blocks of a healthy self-concept and we get them all in relationship with the triune God who is perfect, permanent and predisposed to carry us through all of life’s stages, disappointments and losses into a forever life of ultimate significance and wonder.

So, how do we absorb the above in a tangible way that makes for the closeness with God that we are longing for?  We (David and me) need help to move from intellectual assent and understanding to a heartfelt sense of what truly validates us and makes us feel known and loved by God. Tim Keller tells us what the problem is and what needs to be believed and understood. The late Dr. Wagner tells us the anatomy of true self-worth and significance as found in the trinity.  But, there is another leg to this three legged stool which still needs to be addressed. Part 4 of “One Journey, Two People” is coming next as David and I need to further digest a book by Dr. Curt Thompson called, Anatomy of the Soul.

One Journey, Two lives: part 1

No regrets 

“At this point in my life the thought of dying does not bother me that much.  I feel that I have lived a fairly faithful life (to Christ), a full life; accomplished a few meaningful things that have made a difference and been blessed beyond anything I deserved or earned.  I don’t want to die, but I think I would depart without regrets.”

This sentiment was not expressed by me, the recent cancer survivor, but by my husband about 4 years ago.  But recently some of his reflections seem to modify that original statement.

The lyrics of a song in one of David’s iTunes playlists by John Mayer, “Stop This Train,” has made me wonder whether he has had a change of heart.

Stop this train
I want to get off and go home again
I can’t take the speed it’s moving in
I know I can’t but honestly won’t someone stop this train

So scared of getting older
I’m only good at being young
So I play the numbers game to find a way to say that life has just begun
Had a talk with my old man
Said help me understand
He said turn 68, you’ll renegotiate
Don’t stop this train
Don’t for a minute change the place you’re in
Don’t think I couldn’t ever understand
I tried my hand
John, honestly we’ll never stop this train

Long journeys

Today, an eleven hour car drive from Buffalo to Hampton Roads, Virginia prompted the question I had been meaning to ask.

“Hey David, here is what I have noticed in the last several years… You were once content and now, not so much … Am I off or on track and do you care to talk about it?”

Long car rides or walks are the business for relationship talks and/or philosophical musings. They are better in some ways than the prescribed, “sit across the table from one walkinganother and talk.” There is something about movement of two bodies in close proximity to each other that feels safe, purposeful and engaging. Looking ahead together as opposed to looking at each other allows spoken thoughts to be free of the distraction of disconcerting facial expressions.

”Why are you looking at me like that?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know but your eyes did a weird thing when I said…”

Expectations are high when sitting across the table (excluding sit down meal times) to have ‘the talk.’  A contrived setting has been established for a limited time to reach a resolution, solve a problem, or discuss a serious topic.  The pressure is on and so is the stress that there could be a misstep. Long distance journeys are not limited on time and have just the right amount of boredom, leaving room for the spontaneous and reflective.

We can all probably think of some piece of literature or a movie where people on a journey together make observations of life, people, and relationships. The topics range from the sublime to the ridiculous to the evil.  A pastor once quoted someone as saying, “all good stories begin and end with a journey.”  I would add that if that journey is accompanied with other individuals the possibilities of new insights and revelations are heightened, deepened and possibly breathing lessonshealing. Many books (here are a few from my recent reading list) verify such insight:  “Peace Like a River” by Leif Enger (a family’s journey of discovery) and Pulitzer prize winning, “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (a married couple’s long car journey revealing the meaning of a long marriage with its ups and downs).  But lest I sound naïve, people on journeys together can also prompt the ridiculous, mischief and evil, i.e.…  “Dumb and Dumber”, “Thelma and Louise”, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Natural Born Killers” to name a few.

Easter-Road-To-Emmaus1Jesus on the road to Emmaus appearing to two disciples (Luke 24:13-35) is an example of the sublime. The gospel reports that on that journey the post resurrected-Christ walked and talked incognito to the two unnamed disciples, giving time to answering questions and explaining deep scriptural truths that revealed His true nature and life’s purpose.  “Didn’t our hearts burn within us as He talked,” exclaimed the two after Christ disappeared from their midst.  That journey changed them forever.

Back to David and Dona’s 11-hour care drive journey:

“You are insightful, Dona, up to a point.  It is not about fear of dying but contentment.  I have more discontent than 4 years ago.  Not a big deal but something is going on.  In fact, it is part of the reason I have asked you to blog about late middle age baby boomer insecurity. I was hoping that you could do a little research and then enlighten me to what may be going on.”

So, I am taking his challenge and will do the research for next week’s blog.  For now, I will stop writing and make sure I am not wasting a journey’s relationship discovery possibilities.

read this-its inspiring

In my last post I promised an article by Todd Billings which inspired the telling of my mild story in comparison.  The following is the article with the link.

Inhttp://www.christianitytoday.com/behemoth/2014/issue-10/deadly-healing-medicine.html?utm_source=gallireport&utm_medium=Newsletter&utm_term=13341127&utm_content=319474811&utm_campaign=2013

Incurable cancer.

I could hardly believe it when I heard the diagnosis. My wife and I had just celebrated our tenth anniversary, and our lives were spinning in joyful commotion with one- and three- year-olds at home. Initial testing brought back some worrying results. I had researched the possibilities, and I didn’t sound like a likely prospect for this cancer. The average diagnosis age is about 70; I had just turned 39. But here it was: an active cancer that had already been eroding the bones in my skull, arm, and hip.

With the Psalmist I cried out, “Heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in deep anguish. How long, Lord, how long? Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love” (Ps. 6:2b–4).

What was this “healing” for my bones and soul? The cancer has no cure, but it can be fought with special treatment. This treatment to extend my lifespan was not going to come through a gentle pill. Ready or not, I was in the midst of a battle. I needed strong medicine for healing to come. Within a week I was on a chemotherapy and steroid treatment as part of a five-month preparation for this strong medicine: a stem cell transplant.

I soon discovered this was not a regular transplant—replacing a sick organ with a healthy organ, or infusing health-filled medicines into my body. Quite the opposite. Receiving this “medicine” involved taking a lethal poison. First I had stem cells gathered from my blood. Next I received an intense form of chemotherapy derived from mustard gas, a World War I chemical weapon. These toxins attacked both healthy and cancerous cells in my bone marrow; they would definitely have killed me if there were not a way to revive me. My white blood count dropped close to zero, leaving me with virtually no resistance to infection. You can’t live like that. And yet, the only way to heal was to infuse this poison into my blood.

In the third step, the healthy stem cells taken earlier were infused back into my body. At first, they just float around, but the doctors hope that after a number of days, “engrafting” will take place: the healthy stem cells start helping the body produce an immune system again. Because this procedure so compromises the immune system, I would remain hospitalized for a month at a cancer lodge designed for avoiding infection, followed by several more months of quarantine.

The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.”

During my transplant process, I was kept under close watch by doctors and nurses as my white blood cell count plummeted. The heavy toxins were infused into my body from dark bags labeled “hazardous drug” and “high risk med.” As my white counts fell, I experienced bouts of sharp pain, nausea, heavy fatigue, and discouragement. The doctors referred to the final bottoming out of white cells as “the valley.” During this time, I was walking through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4, ESV). The doctors brought me down the path of death, for the path of death was the only way to healing.

Thankfully, engraftment eventually started to occur; slowly the healthy blood cells joined my body in recreating my immune system.

No Engraftment = No Life

Engraftment is a horticultural practice: uniting a branch to a plant in such a way that the branch is incorporated into the plant, becoming a part of the plant itself. In my case, before the stem cell transplant, I had to sign a consent form indicating my understanding that if engraftment did not occur, I could die. Because of the death-dealing powers of the chemo, the consent form probably could have used a simpler formula: no engraftment means no life.

Engraftment evokes biblical imagery, of course. In Romans 11:13–24, Paul uses rich horticultural imagery from the Old Testament to speak about how Gentile believers have been graciously grafted into the people of God. In the Gospel of John, Christ himself speaks about how he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, who can bear fruit only by abiding in him (15:1–8). For “apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5, ESV). No engraftment means no life.

As I lived through my ordeal, my eyes were opened anew to what it means for sinners like us to receive deep healing from God. We don’t just need a vitamin; we don’t just need a bandage to cover a flesh wound. We need strong medicine—we need death and new life united to Christ in order to be healed. Far too often, I have acted as if the gospel were a self-improvement plan to strengthen a muscle, to heal a small wound, to enhance my success. But the gospel is about losing our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, tasting death to the old self in order to experience true life and healing. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Our hope is not in ourselves, but in our engraftment—our union with Christ. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

There is no way to healing apart from death. This is a reality for all of us. God’s gospel medicine is not a light massage or an energizing pill. We cannot have only resurrection, skipping over our union with Christ in his death, our death to the old self. We desperately need healing. And the Great Physician provides this in mysterious ways.

As Martin Luther notes, even our “spiritual trials, sorrow, grief, and anguish of heart” are “the medicines with which God purges away sin.” This purging actually restores true human health. This medicine may feel like poison, and it does involve a kind of death, but it is actually coming to life in Christ. For when we cry out for “healing” we are crying out to a crucified and risen Lord who brings us life by uniting us to both his death and his life. That is strong medicine, indeed.

J. Todd Billings is Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. This article has been adapted from his forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, February 2015), with permission.

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Also in this Issue

Images and Infusions pointing to spiritual truths

An Image of hope in crisis:

My story:  Half way through chemotherapy I found myself in an acute medical state that would require a rapid response team in the hospital to revive me and three days in the hospital to stabilize me.  Monitoring and intravenous products were needed: antibiotics, hydrating fluids and 3 units of whole blood.

My husband’s story:  “When I brought you into the hospital because of a shocking 104 degree temperature, you were conscious, lucid and chatty.  But while the intake nurse took your vitals you suddenly became unresponsive.  The rapid response team was paged over the hospital PA and within a minute a seeming chaos of a dozen or more people gathered around you.  It was like one of those ER movie scenes where the door closes in the face of the panicked family member who is left in the lobby alone and fearing the worst.  Within those lonely powerless moments, I had a God given image: Christ was in the corner of the room with His arm stretched out over you and all those attending to you.  It was reassuring.”

“Lo, I am always with you even to the ends of the age.”  Matthew 28:20b

“I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  Hebrews 13:5b

“Even if it were possible a mother could forget her nursing child, I will never forget you.”    Isaiah 49:15b

An image of restoration:

Back to my story:  Later in the hospital room as I looked up at the IV pole with a unit bag of blood hooked in its place I thought of all the people who gave their blood for future needy unknown recipients. I was grateful.  Much later, I realized that the blessing of my medical emergency was those 3 units of whole blood.  I had not realized how bad I felt during the past two months of chemo.  That whole blood was a ‘miracle’ of rejuvenation.  I could now face the remaining two months of infusions.  And predictable to someone who thinks “Christian-ly”, my thoughts went to the One who gave His blood that we might have life. The New Testament makes it clear that like a blood donor, Christ’s blood was willingly given for life. In some transcendent and mysterious way that death and giving of blood was meant to secure forgiveness, life and hope.   Christ’s ‘blood shed for me’ was always a reality but it was not quite the obscure reality it once was for the ‘new fortified’ (3 units worth) Dona.

David needed an image for comfort in crisis; I got an image for restoration.  They both were God-given, but our knowledge of the promises of God in scripture provided the brush strokes for these pictures.

It’s not always a crisis that proves the reality of God’s love and presence.  But often an intense emotional experience can give us biblical insight into a reality that is bigger than ourselves.  Cosmic truths reach deep into our personal stories and transform them.

What about you?   Could you go back and revisit a crisis or ‘intense period’ in your life?  What biblical metaphor, image or teaching does the crisis highlight that makes the God of the universe relevant to your finite human dilemma?  And, if appropriate, could you share it in the comment section of this post?

Next week’s post will be someone else’s article, an excerpt from J.Todd Billings’ forthcoming book, Rejoicing in Lament (Brazos Press, copied with permission).  His cancer story will challenge us with the truth of God’s “engrafting.”  It is a seriously moving and insightful story.

 

Living the New Normal

I finished cancer treatment over two weeks ago and have returned to my home in Juneau, Alaska.

I left Alaska in January of this year with a vision of myself as a healthy woman with exciting plans of seeing family and friends on the east coast and then a two month ministry in the Middle East; a routine that has gone uninterrupted for the last 8 years.  On February 26th those plans were profoundly interrupted with a sudden diagnosis of stage 3 breast cancer. For those of you who have walked this path or cared for someone who has, you know the common expressions: “Everything changed in a moment’s time.  The rug was suddenly pulled out from under me.  I went from living a life to surviving for a life, and etc…”

David, who likes the country western star Alan Jackson, shared the lyrics from the song Jackson wrote and recorded for Denise, his wife of 33 years, after she had completed her cancer treatment:

Ain’t it funny how one minute your whole life’s looking fine

And a short few words later it all just comes untied?

You can’t believe you’re looking at what was always someone else,

Now it’s staring right there at you, yesterday you couldn’t tell. (1) 

Once the shock was processed then came the emotions: some sadness, some anxiety and some frustration, guilt and worry.

Then the anger starts to surface, lookin’ up, askin’ why

Then you realize He (God) probably wants the best the same as I.

But there were two other emotions that couldn’t be laid to rest.  They would show up in unexpected ways and times.  Gratefulness and humbleness were two friends that would visit uninvited so I began looking for them in unexpected places and, seeing them often, would greet them by name.  Calling a thing by its name whether that thing is a person or abstraction carries its own blessing and power.  Why are we embarrassed when we can’t Grateful humble_revremember someone’s name when we see that person?  It’s because we intuitively know that saying the name out loud will validate that person as significant and valuable in relation to us. “Oh wow, you remembered my name!” Of course I did because you made an impression on me and I gave you enough care and consideration to file your name away.  Unspoken thoughts perhaps, but none the less operating to create meaningful relationship.  Well, it happens much the same way with abstractions.  You name an abstraction in relationship to yourself enough times you will begin to feel its connection and power in your life: love, kindness, endurance, thankfulness, to name a few. The New Testament has a list and refers to them as the fruits of the Spirit.  (Galatians 5: 22-23, Colossians 3:2-17)  If you have read even a few of my previous blog posts you will see these two not-so-now-abstract feelings pop up a lot.

More Alan Jackson:

And the seconds turn to minutes, and minutes wouldn’t last

And the hours, days, and weeks and months, seem endless and too fast

And the blessin’s poured from Heaven, like the rain on that first spring.

But now, there is a new challenge in my life.

The treatment protocol for my particular cancer is complete.  Now there are new thoughts, feelings and behaviors.  I’m learning to live “the new normal.”  I like to compare this state with how I felt when I had my first baby.  Lots of attention from medical staff during pregnancy, delivery, birth and the few days in hospital and then, “voila”, the release into the world with my new human responsibility to figure out how to do this thing of living with baby without the hand holding.

Now, I don’t want to overdo this analogy because in reality there is support after birth and there is support after cancer treatment.  After all, there are the checkups and the knowledge that if anything goes haywire I can pick up the phone and say, “help,” and I will get it.[2]

But since being home I have experienced some trepidation of my future health possibilities, some crankiness and anxiousness reserved for the person who deserves it the least.  (You husbands out there will be happy to know that he doesn’t take it lying down.  He emailed me one of my own past blog posts the other day as a reminder of, hmm… I am not sure but I think it was a clever way to say, “Hey, be nice” or “be true to your blog post”.  Fair enough.)   Now, all of the above reactions are not uncommon for cancer patients and survivors.  There are plenty of studies out there to point to an handholding revincrease of depression in cancer patients after treatment so it does not surprise me that I may be having a few ups and downs since being done with treatment and realizing my cancer care providers are a couple thousand miles away. But, I am now having to learn to live this “new normal” and start fine tuning my radar for gratefulness and humbleness in many different places and circumstances and when finding it, start naming it.  I need these and other “fruits of the spirit” to wash over, overwhelm and subdue the fearful musings and emotions about an unknown future.   The hand holding treatment days may have come to an end for now but the Spirit didn’t go away.  The Holy Spirit is with me reminding me that there is a boatload of gratefulness to be named out loud.

So, I’m going hunting in new territory and I won’t be alone.

 

(1) ‘When I Saw You Leaving’

Writer: Alan Jackson
Copyright: Tri-angels Music, Emi April Music Inc

[2] Help for those of us of the middle class, that is.  It should be like that for everyone but sadly we know it isn’t. And that is not because no one is willing to help. In many places there are those willing to lend a hand.  The problem many times is that the marginalized have a lack of confidence and trust in the system to get what is needed. But then again there are many places in this world where those willing to help are few and far apart. This is all grist for future postings.

 

The Storyteller

It is gratifying to tell a story to a sensitive 4-year old. The stories don’t have to be particularly interesting with complicated plots, characters or climaxes. They sometimes don’t even have to be stories at all – just mere observations told with some real or feigned flair. But nonetheless they are received with appreciation and interest.
“Oh, look Marlon (my grandson), there’s a guy smoking a pipe. You don’t see that much anymore.” “Why,” said Marlon. “I don’t know. But my dad used to smoke a pipe but then he stopped smoking it when he learned from the doctor that it was bad for his health.” Health and/or moral lessons can be sneakily introduced this way. That story got retold to his parents later on when I wasn’t there. Too bad, because Marlon got the story understandably mixed up as he thought that I said his dad had smoked a pipe. My son-in-law had to tell him that ” Nonna was mistaken”. Shucks! I had to retell the story with emphasis on my dad, not his. By that time, Marlon was hardly interested in the retelling of a story that only included a change in proper names.

Sometimes my stories generate sympathy and compassion for almost nothing. “Hey Marlon, yesterday, I saw a guy carelessly throw trash out of his car onto the street. Boy, that wasn’t nice, was it?” “Why”, said Marlon. “Well, because we all need to work together to make our roads and communities clean and nice places to live.” Later, Marlon said, “Nonna, I’m sorry that you had to see someone litter from their car.” I was impressed that my non-story had such an impact even while feeling a tad guilty that my litter story had not nearly the emotional impact on me as my grandson assumed it had. Shame on me.

Storytelling is hot at the moment
There are books, seminars and workshops on Storytelling. It appears that we are all desperately in need of hearing a good story or, better yet, to be able to tell one. The goal is to create stories that are interesting, arresting, and even life changing. Libraries, clubs and shows advertise upcoming storytelling events. Good communication and sermons must include stories to hold the interests of its audience. That audience can sometimes be just one person like your spouse or child. This current trend has a way of making Storytelling sound like it’s the newest tool for good communication. It is almost as if before now, we were only communicating in treatises and legalese or worst yet, in grunts, texts and tweets. But Storytelling is hardly new. We have been telling stories ever since we humans have been sitting around camp fires rotisseriz-ing our wild drumsticks. We are hardwired for stories. Oral storytelling has been the ancient way of entertaining and efficiently teaching the younger generation of what was important for group cohesiveness and how to stay alive in a world rife with dangers.

We still do it.

I unfortunately got the “tell scary life stories gene” in spades as my daughters can testify. They are able to retell every, “once there was this person, and they did something and then something really horrible happened to them so watch out” story I ever told them. I am working on suppressing this anxious gene expression for the sake of my grandchildren. In fact, I am hoping to be able to tell them some of Jesus’ stories in winsome and engaging ways. And hopefully, like Jesus, I won’t do my Aesop’s fable-lesson- type-thing at the end of the story to make sure they get the point. Rather I hope to let Jesus’ parables do their own mysterious workings in my grandchildren’s hearts and minds; informing their understanding of God’s love and what He wants of them.

I have been attending to the parables of Jesus for several decades. I am often surprised how freshly they communicate God’s ways and wisdom. ” The prodigal son” (Luke 15) is a personal  favorite  when I am tempted to feel that God  doles out love and acceptance based on performance rather than faith in His love and sacrifice. My latest appreciation of this parable follows, thanks to Kenneth Bailey.

A very incomplete recap of Jesus’ story of the “Prodigal Son”
The story begins with a young adult son or teen who asks for his share of the family inheritance – a request that was unheard of in first century Palestine. The request amounts to a “you are taking too long to die so give me my inheritance now.” Jesus’ audience would have perked up immediately with this story’s beginning as it would have belied the cultural norms right from the get- go. A son behaving in such a way would have been punished but surprisingly the father grants his request and off the son goes to a “faraway place where he proceeds to squander his inheritance on wild riotous living.” Jesus then describes the son’s descent into self-inflicted poverty. Alone and starving the son remembers the stability and comforts of home and decides to take a chance and return. He, too, knows his culture’s expectations of how to treat such a flagrantly disobedient son. But he is desperate.

Jesus’ first century listeners would have assumed the ending to this morality drama. The father who is also a wealthy landowner and by implication a leader and one of the guardians of the community’s stability  would have the son killed, banished or, if inclined to show mercy, treated as an hired servant with no claim to a son’s status or affection. The latter is what the son is hoping for as we listen to his internal dialogue being practiced on his journey back home.: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son: make me like one of your hired servants.” (Luke 15:18-19)

And why not? There needed to be an ending that would help keep the community intact. After all, youth listening to a story like this would need to know that if you break the community’s rules , you could expect to be an outcast. How else would the long held traditions of elder respect and compliance be upheld? How else was a community going to be protected from chaos, corruption, and possible extinction unless the father or community elder did not exact the rules of tribal community survival?  Bringing the erring son to justice was certainly what the Jesus-listeners would have expected.. But no, this is not how this story would end. Jesus, no doubt, surprised his listeners with an ending of unimaginable love, forgiveness, and humility. “But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him. He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:20)

I like imagining the father hiking up his long robe to run ( older men in the Middle East don’t run. it is beneath them and invites shame) all the while thinking, “Who cares what the village thinks of me. Let the community be disgusted with my disregard to the village’s rules and let them think I am no longer worthy of their esteemed opinion and respect. I only care that I have my son back and I am going to throw a party!” To add more intrigue to this story, Jesus introduces a third character. The self-righteous follow-the-rules older brother who upon hearing of his loser brother returning and being thrown a party by their father is abhorred and resentful. He complains bitterly to his father for what he sees as an injustice of indulgence and favoritism. The father tries to woo the older son with love, as well. “Don’t you see? You had the benefit of always being with me and enjoying the comforts of home, while your brother was playing the fool and ended up almost starving to death, you had a stable life with friends and beef steak anytime you wanted it.”

Bailey, a theologian and Middle Eastern scholar who I credit for elucidating Jesus’ parables with exciting insights, calls this parable and other parables, metaphoric and deeply theological representations of God’s, “costly demonstration of extravagant and unexpected love.” He states says that this kind of love that only God can offer is for “the law breaker (younger son) as well as for the law keeper (older son in the story).” They both need it and so do we regardless of which brother we identify with.

Read, ”Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes,” by Kenneth Bailey.

Personal application
Is a story told to first century Palestine relevant for us? Well, it depends if you feel a need to be accepted and loved beyond your capacity to be deserving of such love. And it depends on whether or not you believe in a God whom you have let down no matter how little or hard you have tried to be good and self-justified. If you feel such a need as I do then this parable is a tear jerk-er of good news. And for sure it is much better and has more emotional impact than stories of people smoking pipes or even of litter bugs.

What a dead rat on a grill taught me about caring for people

Since being diagnosed with breast cancer in February David and I have been living in Buffalo, NY. Daughters, grandchildren and a cancer institute two miles from the apartment we rent year around made the decision to settle in for the duration of treatment. Adding to those blessings has been the small urban Buffalo Vineyard Church that we attend.

A debriefing session was held after church today about the Friday evening barbecues that the church hosts in Buffalo’s urban west side during the summer months. This urban church is small in number but its members, mostly younger than 35, have big hearts and active mission to the people in their urban community.

We sat outside after church eating snacks while discussing the usual questions posed during a debrief of a major church initiative:  “What went well, what needs to be improved upon, what lessons did we learn for next year, and how did anyone see God at work?”

I shared my story and Maryanne said, “Dona that can be the title of your next blog post.”  I have taken her up on it because among other things rats can be great ice breakers of which I will explain shortly, but first I will share another time when a rat played an important role in a social setting.

Senegal World Vision trip 2005

Eight of us were eating in a restaurant in a small town near villages we were visiting.  Our church in Juneau Alaska was partnering with World Vision and village elders to bring clean water to an impoverished area serving a couple thousand people.  As we were eating our meal a huge rat darted past the door keeper.  Women screamed, maybe some men, too.  Some folks jumped on chairs and others like me were in denial saying ridiculous things like, “That’s not a rat. It’s too big. It’s probably a gopher.”  The rat was frantically running underneath tables and chairs trying to avoid the door keeper whose powerful legs finally won the day when he soccer- kicked the “gopher” rat across the room, through the door into the dusty dirt road from where he came.  The room erupted with applause, cheers and high fives as we witnessed this great athletic feat by our door man.  We laughed, told our versions, commiserated with the other patrons of the restaurant about their versions. Met new people. It was one of the highlights of the trip.

West Side Buffalo, June 2014

The grills were being prepared as adults from the community were coming and sitting on folding chairs and children were running around waiting for the food to be cooked and offered.  Many folks from the church had their barbecuing tasks to prepare for and others like me were sitting around trying to get to know some people who were coming to this weekly event.  I set my sights on a group of three women who seemed to know each other well as they talked about things in the community of which I knew nothing about.  But being the talker that I am (not even chemo can take that away from me) I ventured into their space and introduced myself and they did likewise.  They asked me if I went to the church that was putting on the barbecue.  I no sooner said yes, then they told me that they had seen a dead rat on one of the five grills that was getting ready to be fired up. In fact, they emphatically told me that the grill had been leaning on the side of the church for two days with the dead rat on it for both days; and someone needed to do something about that grill.  I had the distinct feeling that that someone was meant to be me.  Two reactions came up immediately. The first was laziness.  I didn’t want to do anything about it because I figured a grill heated up to over a 1000 degrees would kill any left-over dead rat-ness. I said as much but they were not impressed and seemed annoyed.  “Someone needs to wash that grill with hot soapy water,” the women said again and again. I knew that someone was meant to be me.  My second reaction was disgust.  I didn’t want to get that close and personal with a grill that had been the resting place for a dead rat for two days. I wanted to shoot back by using my cancer card, “You do it, I’m in cancer treatment and don’t need this”. But I knew that this was not the way to make new friends.

After cleaning the grill with hot soapy water, the women invited me back over to their circle with a, “You did good, girl!”  We all warmed up to each other.  Finding out I had cancer they told me encouraging stories about family members who got cancer and were treated wonderfully at Roswell Cancer Institute before they died ( hmm…..not the most encouraging of outcomes) but I knew for them the question of life or death was not the point  of the experience.  It was that their loved ones and they by virtue of proximity to their loved ones were treated respectfully and lovingly at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. They wanted me to be encouraged by such an important truth: how we are treated by strangers whose job is to care about us is the point.  I was so glad for hot soapy water and the presence of mind to finally show that I cared for what they cared about. This was my story of how God was at work, even through a dead rat.

Galatians 6:9 “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up.”

The Waiting Room

I have a friend who was quoting an elderly relative to me once. The relative lived in a nursing home. The quote went something like this: “Sometimes I imagine that while I am living here I am in one of heaven’s waiting rooms.” I think we would all have to admit that she had to be one of the most positive and optimistic women we have ever heard. There are a lot of ways that this post could thematically be approached based on that one comment but I want to talk about waiting rooms.

The nature of waiting rooms
I usually do not mind waiting rooms if I am not hurry to be somewhere else after the appointment. Being a people watcher and communicator waiting rooms afford me many possibilities of entertainment. Admitting however that cell phones have changed the human interaction potential in waiting rooms, I still find the scene unusual enough to be interesting. I imagine myself sitting like an obedient dog with tail wagging and tongue hanging out hoping some human will pay attention to me and rub me behind my ear. I don’t just start talking to anyone. I look around, size up the mood of the waiting room crowd and wait for an opening and then off to the races I go. It is amazing what you can learn from people’s stories or opinions. And if you know me, you know that I am not short of my own.

The Phlebotomy waiting room
Last week I walked into the Phlebotomy waiting room to have blood drawn. It was crowded. Every seat was taken but there was one left for me. I sized up the mood. It was grim and motivated me to send up a quick prayer on behalf of my fellow cancer patients who needed what I needed – encouragement – before seeing their oncologist, surgeon, or oncology radiologist. All ages were represented but everyone looked old. You know how not smiling or talking makes the lines around our mouth droop down so we either look sad or mad? Well, if you did not know that – you know it now. If you are over 50 and don’t want to look 70 then smile more often. It makes everyone look younger. I ought to know. I have had deep laugh lines since realizing I wasn’t going to be young forever. My children and even my husband would say at times, “What are you mad about?” This was not fair as my only fault was that I was not smiling and not smiling apparently made me look like I was mad when I was just feeling and looking neutral, or so I thought. I have defended myself enough that I no longer get those comments.

Well, anyway, back to the scene in the phlebotomy waiting room where I was among the most isolated looking and silent group of individuals I had seen yet in a waiting room since my cancer diagnosis. 15 minutes into my silent wait something changed and it happened so quickly and dramatically that I had to ask a woman later on in the day who had been there whether she noticed what I noticed. She didn’t hesitate to agree that something odd was at work. Here is what happened: A woman walked into the waiting room and the man next to me noticed that there was nowhere for her to sit. He got up out of his seat and said for her to sit down in his seat. She was several feet from him so the interaction was heard and witnessed by all of us. She said, “That is alright, I have been traveling in a car to get here for two hours and don’t mind standing”. This older gentleman was having none of it. He insisted and she capitulated. The moment she sat down, the gentleman’s name was called to have his blood drawn. And it was at that moment that the entire waiting room burst into laughter. Why? I am not sure. Maybe these folks and I included were unsuspectingly waiting for an uplifting moment to bring us out of ourselves. The sweet irony of this man’s good deed seemed to earn him a surprising reward or a dispensation of grace- He no longer had to wait. He was called and in!  Ok, that was cool enough for this sad looking group but it wasn’t the end of the story. As soon as the laughter died out, strangers started talking to each other. I mean everyone was talking except for one cell phone engrossed person. People were talking to those next to them and to those across from them and the conversations were animated and prolonged. The buzz in the room solicited a comment from the receptionist: “Hey, is there a party going on in there?” she yelled from a room close by. I remained detached for a short while as I tried to understand this phenomena objectively. Questions of psychological and spiritual nature were being raised but before long I, too, wanted to be a part of these human connections.

What to make of the waiting room transformation
“And God said, Let us make humanity in our image. God made man and then announced that it was not good for man to be alone, so he made a helper suited to the man and he made them male and female; both made in the image of God.” God, Himself, is community, Father, Son and the Holy Spirit and apparently does not want us to be alone. We are wired to belong to each other. A spark of the Holy Spirit is what I believed happened in that waiting room. Isolation gave way to community and we were all better off for it. Encouraged, uplifted and hopeful is what we experienced and all of that without one of us having yet to see or hear from our doctors. God bless our doctors and what they do but at that moment we didn’t need them.

Forgetting Cancer

For 6 months my invasive breast cancer was always before me. First, there was the diagnosis and the anxiety of waiting for various test results.  Then there was the mastectomy with the pain of the surgery and the discomfort of the lymph node drains.  Four months of chemo beset me with nausea, fatigue, and a compromised autoimmune system that at one point landed me in the hospital for three days.

Grim Realities Helped Me Forget Cancer

But when chemo was over I got a 3-week reprieve before radiation therapy. I was feeling pretty well; almost normal aside from the fact that I was missing a breast and had to decide each day which wig or scarf to wear to cover my hairless palette.  So I used the break to visit elderly parents in another state. David, my husband, had to return to Alaska for over a week to keep his business going so I was on my own as I scrambled frantically to “fix” my parents’ needs before I left to go back to Buffalo for radiation.    A combination of guilt, sadness and frustration with my limitations in fixing their limitations would begin the process of cancer-forgetfulness.

My parents, being house bound, watch a lot of TV……CNN, Dr. Phil, Judge Judy.   I normally keep up with news through radio and the web.  I was not used to seeing the CNN images of conflict, terror and extreme hardship from around the world.  As I tried to process the suffering of the Gaza and Israeli conflict, the ISIS reign of terror, and Ebola crisis in West Africa I was unconsciously strengthening the process of cancer-forgetfulness.  Even watching Dr. Phil and Judge Judy every weekday with my folks provided distractions from my current health despite of my temptation to be critical of media exploitation of these human messes.

Now all this might sound a bit grim.  There I was dealing with cancer treatment yet distracting myself with morbidity and tragedy. But I could not allow my situation to keep my head in the sand about the tremendous suffering happening in this world.  If I did I was at risk.  My situation with its potential for corrosive self-absorption would end up robbing me of empathy for others. Now, I am not speaking to those who suffer severe pain or those in late stages of a terminal illness.   Nor am I writing about those in the midst of anguished grief for the recent loss of a loved one. What I am addressing is the threat of self-absorption that can come from dealing with a serious health challenge, robbing of an identity other than the illness, itself.

Taking time to think helped me to forget cancer

There was  something else that was going on that aided my cancer-forgetfulness for those weeks; something upbeat and something I will need to continue whether I am  busy with obligations or not.  I took time to think in the midst of parent care.  Each morning before I hit the ground running I would find a quiet place in the home of my gracious hosts to read, pray, write and think. My thoughts were being reoriented to life’s meaning and purpose. The essential Christian doctrines of faith I held had to be thought through deeply if I was going to find the peace I was looking for.  God, Jesus, sin, human nature, salvation, the world and God’s plan for the world, hope, faith, love, and service to others were the grist for the mill of my soul’s peace. It always came down to, “Do I really believe what I believe?” and if so, “What’s the big sweat?”  God is in control and I can trust Him.   And eventually gratitude found its way into my thinking as I thought of family and friends that spanned the world who were not just blessing my life but blessing the lives of so many others.

(Tim Keller talks about this in his book, “Walking with God in Pain and Suffering”).

Being in awe of the sacrificial service of others helped me forget cancer

AsIDP CHILDREN IN NARUS_cropped I spent time thinking something else happened. I would read or hear stories about people who were doing extraordinary acts of service because of their compulsion to serve Christ.  Some of these people I knew through my Juneau church’s partnership with ministries abroad.   Pastor Saphano, the Sudanese pastor of a poor struggling church in southern Sudan, who manages to house and feed over 250 orphans and refugee children from the civil war.   Hannah who currently pastors a church in Amman, Jordan for Syrian and Iraqi refugees but once was the pastor of the Baptist church in Gaza.  He continues his ministry in Gaza (see an interview with Hanna here) by providing aid to hundreds of Gazans as well as most recently opening his home in Gaza to 100 frightened refugees of the Israeli/Hamas conflict.  David and I have stayed in that home and it is hard to imagine 100 people staying there. There are thousands of people like them who are servicing in lands of great conflict and suffering with sacrifice and love.  When I take the time to reflect on such things I begin to forget cancer.

Thinking more, not less, helped me forget cancer

I read or heard once that perhaps God commanded a day of rest (Sabbath) in the Ten Commandments because he knew that if humans were left to themselves they would never stop in their frenetic work to eke out an existence in order to think through the big questions of life. Taking time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life will bring many back around to Him with a growing awareness of how life is meant to be understood and experienced.  This reflection cannot always be done perfectly, that is for sure, but nonetheless, this type of reflection builds an appreciation that this life is not all there is.  It is a reminder of the promise that He is with us through the tough and good stuff whether we feel it or not.

I am back in Buffalo now.  I’ll be reminded of my cancer every week day morning for the next 6 ½ weeks of radiation therapy.  But I can still practice the discipline of thinking about the big picture; making sure I find the time to remember who God is and who I am supposed to be with cancer or without.