Sunday, December 23, 2012

"Where are you?"

“Where are you?”

It’s a question we’ve been asking of God lately, especially since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. It’s an honest, heart-felt question. The question sounds a bit mocking, with a tad of derision. It’s not necessarily declaring a state of apostasy, but more of a natural reaction. Sometimes it just sounds good to ask the question even if we know the answer. But it doesn’t catch God off guard.

Especially since, He asked it of us first.

They were His first spoken words in the world’s newly realized fallen state, moments after the fateful bite of the fruit, or at least after just enough time to sew a few fig leaves together.

Adam and Eve were hiding in the garden and God asked, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9)

In His omniscience, God knew the answer. I’m certain He knew the whereabouts of Adam and Eve. But He asked the question, maybe just to get it down on paper for us to see, knowing that we’d be asking that question of Him, now that the world was in its fallen state.

And we have been asking that question ever since. Israel asked it. Psalmists asked it. Martha asked it. Even Jesus asked it.

I have asked it.

And I thought I’d use the occasion of the three-year anniversary of Dana’s passing to comment on that question.

I think the time I felt most abandoned by God was when we were in the slog of the fight. It seemed that any time we hit a juncture where things could take a turn for better or worse, a time when God could show His hand, it was then that things would turn for worse. In our short-sighted humanness it’s natural to feel that we’re on the wrong side of God.

But, in the cosmic scheme of things, we’re not the ones who moved. I think it’s because of the things we have to navigate in this fallen world that cause us to question the presence of God. It has broken my heart to hear people this past week ask, almost with a shaking fist, “Where is God?”

In my journey God has been extra merciful in reminding us of His presence. Rainbows in the sky, deer in the yard, and even a heart in the clouds. (You may want to search this blog for the key words in that last sentence to get geeked up on what’s come to be known as “God stamps.”) I say merciful because He has already told all of us in His Word that He is with us, that His Comforter is walking with us, that He will never leave us nor forsake us. And He told us those things in almost the same breath when He says that we will have trouble.

God saw it coming. And I think that’s why He asked the question first.

So these days, when I find myself asking that question of God, I want to ask it of myself. Where am I? I think that keeps me on a better track. Because the reality is, God is near. Always. Everywhere.

I want to leave you with a thought that’s more connected to marking three years than to the question “Where is God?” I remember about the second Christmas into the cancer recurrence fight (probably Christmas 2008) that Dana had a bit of a spooky thought. We were at a family gathering and she was picturing that gathering without her in the picture. With the threat of a serious illness, that picture can be more vivid. She was picturing all of us carrying on as if nothing had happened.

Those of us who are still here, fighting through the fallen world, know that nothing can be further from the truth. I have said this before: you can’t have known Dane for even a minute without having something change in you. We are all different.

As we reflect on three years on this earth without Dane, I might ask that you tap into that part of your personal DNA that was impacted by Dane. Keep it fanned and flamed.

And I think there’s something else going on that Dane would have no way of foreseeing. I don’t know about any of you, but we here have felt some kind of extra special encouragement that can only come from the Dana corner of heaven. There is more to tell, but suffice it to say I think Dane is having an absolute blast in more ways than one. More on all of that soon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Return to the Fire

Through a quirky chain of events, I returned to the scene of the fire last Friday.

If you’re new to this blog, a quick recap of what I mean by “fire.” It’s the pain and fear that come from losing the person on this earth who has been the closest to you, the person with whom you have shared what you both called “one of the top five loves of all time.” My recovery modus operandi in my journey of losing Dana has been to adopt the military strategy of running toward enemy fire; when soldiers see or hear enemy fire they run toward it. My MO has been to run toward the pain and not run away from it. (You may want to check out this blog post for more detail.) Last week I had the chance to see how the philosophy of running toward the fire was working out for me.

And here’s what I mean by quirky chain of events: This past summer I added to my plate the task of serving as interim pastor at Breiel Blvd. Church of God in Middletown, the church that brought me to Middletown in the first place as youth pastor many years ago. “Interim” means I serve until a new pastor is in place.

Serving part-time, my primary responsibilities with the church are teaching/speaking on Sunday and meeting with the staff (a blessed, great staff I might add) through the week. I’ve had on my radar the possibility of helping with the pastoral care component, including hospital visits, if the need were to arise and if I had the time. Last Friday, the need arose. I’m not sure I had the time, but I was compelled to make the time.

It’s ironic that I would voluntarily make the time because it hasn’t always been that way.

When I first came to Middletown to serve as youth pastor at Breiel Church one of my duties as a member of the pastoral staff was to help with hospital visits two days a week, Wednesdays and Fridays. I confess that as I navigated the calendar-packed, high-energy nature of youth ministry, hospital rounds did not factor as a favorite “to do.” And inevitably, the Wednesday I was launching a new series in our youth programming (our big night was Wednesday night, and series launches meant more detail to tend to than usual) was the day I’d not only have several people to visit in the Middletown hospital, but also someone in Dayton (north of Middletown) and Cincinnati (south of Middletown). Before I sound too gripey, I need to say that the moment I would arrive at the hospital room, I embraced that time. I certainly understood that this was some of the purest, most consistent ministry I would be doing every week. I enjoyed talking and praying with the folks and they seemed to be encouraged by my visits. But that didn’t keep me from grousing a bit on my drives to and fro.

I left that youth pastor position having never resolved the experience of blending hospital/pastoral care with youth ministry. I was compliant to the duty and respectful of the task, but I probably didn’t full on embrace the experience.

It was during Dana’s cancer fight years later, when I lived in a hospital room for a month as a caregiver, that I revisited that unresolved experience. As you might expect, my recent journey has left me heartbroken for what takes place in a hospital room. But I hadn’t really had a chance to act on that heartbreak and was even beginning to wonder if it was real.

This is why I felt compelled to make the time for the hospital rounds this past Friday. I needed to take the heartbreak for a test drive. But in doing this, I knew that meant running to the fire. I knew I would be walking through a particular set of doors. The last time I walked through these doors was when I was walking out of them and into an ambulette for the 4 mile ride home to hospice care. So when I said, “I’ll visit the hospital this Friday,” I was saying it through the nervous lump in my throat: What if the flood of memories, which were bound to be filled with details I had forgotten, would render me useless? What if I were to walk boldly through those front doors, get a whiff of hospital and hear myself say “nope,” u-turning to walk just as boldly out of those front doors, not even giving myself a chance to tap into the heartbreak? There were some unnerving unknowns. Of course, they were familiar unknowns. They’re the kind of questions you face every time you run toward the fire.

What I underestimated was how God could use the flood of memories, the “fire” you might say, to massage the heartbreak.

I should have known that God was up to something because the visit started rather ominously.

Wouldn’t you know that on this my first visit back to the hospital where Dana’s final spiral began there would be a parishioner to visit on “Fourth Floor North,” the floor where Dana and I spent a month treating her cancer’s final play, the floor where I learned how to define progress as three steps backwards and only two steps forward, the floor where I learned to squeeze as much hope as I could from the smallest morsels the fight would offer up. And just to be sure I didn’t miss a trickle of the flood that was to wash over me, fate would have it that when I walked past the nurse’s station to say hello to a friend, I ended up standing in front of the very room where it all took place.

Walking into the hospital wasn’t as difficult as I thought. It was as I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor when I was surprised at the first thing that started the flood of memories: the tile patterns in the floor. As a caregiver during a lengthy hospital stay you have many opportunities to stare at the floor. For me, it was usually when I was talking with family and friends on the phone. I would step out of the room to find a place where I could talk (and maybe cry) without waking up Dana (or alarming her), where I wouldn’t be bothering hospital staff at the nurse’s station or other caregivers in waiting areas (even though I was anxious and nervous, I was still loud).  My “step out” would usually take me to the elevator landing area: it had a big window with a spacious view and if anyone came by they were always passing through, never congregating. It was this area that I would talk and pace while on the phone. As I shared bad news, good news, and bad news with spin, the back channel of my mind would study the tile patterns in the floor: I like how they put a curve here; but it made for a tough cut of that tile piece; it was a good idea to change color tile at this break in the pattern; those are nice, warm colors; when I place the tip of my shoe in the corner of that tile it looks like a parabola from my geometry days; I wonder how Mrs. Hypes is doing; and now it’s an asymptote—the shoe line and tile line will never meet if you follow them to infinity. And on it goes.

I think it’s something your mind does (or at least my mind) to keep you grounded. It notices inane, ordinary things, things that have nothing to do with the fears you’re facing. It’s probably a bit of an escape mechanism, as in, wouldn’t it be nice if this was all you had to worry about? Seeing this forgotten but familiar tile pattern reminded me of the intensity of those days, the relentless monitoring of symptoms, the draining interplay of hope and reality, the constant nagging of the haunting question, “What if this is it?” Your mind will relish the smallest things for a break, including a cup of coffee. Every sip of coffee in that hospital stay provided me a two to three second mental break. It was a moment when I didn’t have to make a decision, or worry about an outcome, and I knew what I was doing when I took that sip. It was a moment that was the complete opposite of every other moment during the stay.

The folks I visited last Friday were dear friends from my time as youth pastor at Breiel Church. The visits were rich and full of good conversation, much of which centered around questions and comments like “Where’s your wife Jessica? I can’t wait to meet her!” Jessica, of course, is a favorite. These comments then led to the redemptive work that God is doing in all the experiences of our lives. And yes, it was impossible to be in any of these hospital rooms without my eyes doing a scan of the surroundings: the whiteboard with the day’s date, the futon that made into a more comfortable bed than you would expect (thankfully), the patient wristbands that increase in number as the stay lengthens in days (allergies, “fall risk,” DNR).

As I left the building I was also reminded of the first time I was in Middletown's new hospital, Atrium Medical Center, even before it opened. Every three years the hospital’s foundation hosts a gala. I wrote about the one I attended shortly after Dana passed…a gala she helped plan.(I posted about that here.) The gala preceding that was in 2007 and Dana and I attended. It also was the celebration of the opening of Atrium Medical Center and included a dessert reception inside the hospital at the close of the gala, which was held outdoors under a beautifully decorated giant white tent. Dana and I were one year into the cancer recurrence battle at the time. I remember standing in the atrium of Atrium and thinking, “This place is fresh and new, there has been no bad news shared with anyone yet, there have been no deaths in here yet. It’s a clean slate.” I think it was the slog of battling cancer that took my mind down the negative trail. Because you can also go down the positive trail, which my mind eventually did, as I thought, “This will also be a place where good news is shared: the surgery was successful; the scan is clear; it’s a boy (or a girl).”

I’ve learned that life happens somewhere between those two trails, a truth that might have been part of my compulsion last Friday as to why I wanted to MAKE time for the hospital rounds. The Bible tells us to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12). There aren’t too many physical places in this world that actually provide opportunity for both: rejoicing and mourning. A hospital is certainly one of them.

One more thought. The picture below is the floor of the elevator. When I realized the significant role the tile floor played in my hospital experience, I snapped this to document the tile formations that I had studied while riding the elevator several times a day during that September in 2009, wishfully overhearing hopeful conversations of short hospital stays and “heading home to recover.” The framing of the picture was completely random; I simply pointed my phone down and snapped. It was while studying the picture more closely that I noticed what I captured—a cross.  In all my trips up and down that elevator in the month of living at the hospital, I don’t think I noticed the cross formation. It was simply a tile pattern, a pattern I studied as a mental break on an elevator ride. But the cross was there the entire time, whether I noticed it or not.

This is when God began to do a number on me, when He used my experience in the “fire” to massage my heartbreak to help others in their own fireshowing me that the heartbreak is real and giving me clarity on how to use it. I think that the tile on the elevator floor depicts our role with each other: reminding each other that the cross is there whether we see it or not. Whether it’s good news or bad news; whether it’s a short hospital stay that leads to recovery or a long hospital stay that ends in death; the cross, a symbol of victory over suffering and triumph over death, is always there.
Whether I knew it or not as a youth pastor years ago making my obligatory hospital “rounds,” I was reminding people that the cross was there whether they knew it or not. It may not have been anything I said or did, but just the fact that I came as a representative of the gospel—the gospel that delivers peace and comfort and eternal hope.

So the next time I have an opportunity to visit the hospital, I will make the time. There’s one other thing about fire that we all know: it refines. Maybe that’s what running toward the fire is all about, or at least a big part of what it’s all about. The fire does more than massage the heartrbreak, it refines the heartbreak and helps clarify the path of redemption that emerges from the pain.

I’ll keep working on that.
Meanwhile thank you for your patience, not only for the length of this post, but for the length of time since the last post. I apologize for the dry spell. More soon!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Lossology 101

Loss comes in all shapes and sizes. We lose our keys. We lose our data. We lose our minds. We lose our tempers. We lose our innocence. We lose our money. We lose our jobs. We lose our security. We lose our loved ones.

I remember as a kid coming into my own realization that death seemed to come in threes. I’ve since learned that this is some kind of cultural phenomenon—more than folklore or an old wives’ tale. In fact, Google “death comes in threes” and you’ll see over 100,000 entries. Take away the quote marks and you’ll get over 1 million. It seems to hold true…unless it comes in MULTIPLES of three, as it seems to have been doing in my little circle lately.

Within a few short months I’ve lost a neighbor, a childhood friend, his mom, a cousin, a dear family friend, a colleague in youth ministry, and just this week, a fellow breast cancer fighter. All of this, of course, is layered onto the loss of Dana.

So I thought I’d use this rash of recent loss to dust off my blogger keyboard and get back to sharing some observations on the journey. My apologies for the dry spell. (It was never my intention to go such a long stretch; I'll blame it on lots of life transition.)

This brings me to tell you about Weezie, the dear family friend mentioned above, who passed away on April 1.

Weezie was my “second mom.” And my “second grandma.” And my “second aunt.” And as you would guess, my “first spoiler.” And she was my dear friend. She and her husband Arnold (whom I called Arkie, and still do to this day), having no kids of their own, “adopted” my sister Becky (whom I called Beck, and still do to this day) and me as their own, especially on Sunday mornings when Beck and I were church orphans while Mom played the piano and Dad directed the music and choir at the East Park Church of God where my grandpa (whom I called Grandpa, and still do to this day) was the pastor. We needed somebody to tend to us in the pew.

My folks and “WeezeAndArkie” were already dear friends (they took monster trips out west before us kids came along). We did Christmas’s together. They were Mom and Dad’s go-to overnight baby sitters. There were lots of outings, French fries after Sunday-night church, late-night ice cream runs, Thanksgivings, sing-alongs around the piano, and so much more.

And then Arkie, who had hardly been sick a day in his life, suddenly passed away from a heart attack.

On April 1, in fact, 37 years to the day, before Weezie passed.

Other than unexpectedly losing our dearly loved collie, Lassie (I know, I was not a creative “namer” as a kid) Arkie’s death was one of my first “aware” losses—a loss that I actually felt. My grandma (Dad’s mom) had passed away a few years earlier, when I was 8. I remember seeing Dad cry and thinking “this must be big.” My dad’s brother Paul passed away when I was in early high school, and that was probably the first death that scared me. If it could happen to Uncle Paul, who was the father of close cousins my age, it could happen to anybody. Including my dad. Or my mom.

I reached out to Weezie at the time of Arkie’s death with a letter, trying desperately to connect with her through the pain I felt from losing Lassie. From my current adult perch this action seems a bit precocious. But the consensus of adults in my life at the time was that the letter showed me to be wise beyond my years. I spoke of heaven, and the fun Arkie was having chatting it up with the Apostle Paul, and I invoked wisdom from one of my junior high teachers that we’re all dying, some just get there sooner. (I recently read the letter and I must admit, it was pretty good!). I think, though, without knowing it, I was tapping into something that God built into us: the ability and desire to comfort others out of our own pain.

My mom has long said, and I agree, that we were not wired for loss. With loss not being a part of the plan at the beginning, the ability to cope with loss was not hard-wired into our DNA. That’s why it’s so brutal. And it hasn’t seemed to have come any easier over the centuries. If I were to make a point against evolution here, I’d note that dealing with loss is something that we have not adapted to. Mankind has never gotten used to the pain of loss. So it seems that if the brain had any say at all as to what needs to adapt, it would be doing something about the pain of loss, even before it developed, say, toes.

We cannot live and escape loss. So why do we think that it shouldn’t happen to us? Loss will happen. This may not sound like much fun, but my firm grasp on that reality had a lot to do with staying upright in dealing with the loss of Dana, both in fearing that loss and in experiencing it. And here’s how, but it’s not a quick answer:

I’ve long been intrigued by a scene in the book of Acts. Acts records the exciting events that took place in the life of the church within a few decades of Jesus’ ministry. It laid the groundwork for how the church can model itself and it gave God’s people a great “heads up” on what to expect as they seek to be God’s people in a fallen world (and here’s a hint, it isn’t going to be easy). The events noted in this book were hand-picked by God for our learning pleasure. And right smack in the middle of all of this is a scene that seems to be one of the most unfair situations of all time. Check this out (and I tried to shorten it, but it’s just not possible):

Acts 12:1-11
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.  When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Festival of Unleavened Bread. 4 After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.
So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

6 The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7 Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.

8 Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9 Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10 They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him.

11 Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were hoping would happen.”

Did you notice that Peter was set free but James was killed?

Ponder that for a moment. Two men doing great work for God. Both men thrown into prison. Both men  undoubtedly on every church’s prayer chain. An angel delivers Peter, the kind of miracle we expect and pray for when things look impossible. But James is killed. Same prayers. Same God. Way different outcomes.

So the question I have to ask is, not so much, “why did James get killed?” But “why did God hand-pick this scene for us to see?” He must have wanted us to see that things are not always going to turn out like we’d planned. Or hoped. Or dreamed.

Maybe that’s why God has given a provision to help with loss. It’s like an escape hatch when things go wrong. It’s the same type of mechanism available to a forest devastated by fire—the seeds that germinate after intense heat. This helps replenish the forest. It’s depicted in movies when you see someone listening to a tape that says “if you’re listening to my voice something must have gone terribly wrong.” For us, the “terribly wrong” happened in the Fall in the Garden of Eden.  The escape hatch is the ability to share loss with each other. Sounds simple, I know; but stick with me. I think it gets more profound as we go.

First, we have this from 2 Corinthians 1:3-5.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 5 For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ.

This passage tells us of a few things we can count on. First: troubles and suffering. But secondly: comfort from God, which propels us to comfort others.

Jessica and I (editor’s note: if the phrase “Jessica and I” is throwing you, check out the last few posts) were recently talking about the different shapes of loss, in particular, the losses she had experienced in her life—not simply loss of life necessarily but loss of other things: scars, pain and hurt collected from paths taken and not taken, decisions made and not made.

Jessica shared that the night before she had spent a good amount of time with the pictures linked to this blog (the Shutterfly link). It contains a couple photo albums, mainly from buzzin-in-law Aaron—some photos from Dane’s visitation and some photos from “happier times” such as a couple beach vacations. Jessica said that she had seen the pictures before but this time she let herself study them and enter into the scenes.

As we talked and shared about our mutual losses we realized something had been happening in our relationship…something rather miraculous. We were actually both a little perplexed with the conversation in that we were chatting on subjects we had already talked on deeply—ground already covered, grace dispensed. But there was a different vibe and a new, surprising reason why we were covering the ground.

We were absorbing each others’ losses.

As you might expect, this doesn’t come easy. There is pain to share. There is grace to dispense and support to give. But it’s beautiful and I think it’s as close to heaven on earth as we can get. It takes sacrifice and love. And, of course, when you put these two things together, you get the best product from heaven that we get to enjoy on earth: sacrificial love.

This brings me back to the thing that has kept me upright in my journey: embracing the reality that loss will happen.  There is absolutely no reason why I should expect to be exempt from loss. And the sooner I embrace that, the closer I am to allowing someone, or Someone, to absorb that loss with me.

And I think this gets at the heart of why we are on this earth with each other: to absorb each others’ losses, no matter the shape or size of the loss. This action probably gets us as close to being like Jesus as anything else we can do. (By the way, if you’ve never read “The Ragman” by Walter Wangerin, Google it now and read it.) 

I don’t know about you, but I could use all the help I can get in being like Jesus. I figure absorbing loss of the people around me is as good a place to start as any.

When I was in the epicenter of my own grief, my good friend Bill said to me, “You know, we believers do not have a good theology on loss.” Maybe this little post can be an installment in Lossology 101.

If so, Day One in the syllabus might go something like this:
Day 1: Either find someone, or Someone, to help absorb your loss or be the one to absorb the loss of someone around you.

More soon. And I promise, it won’t be so long in timeframe, nor in length.

Thank you,