Saturday, November 9, 2013

Elk Envy

I will try to be brief. But this story—or “God stamp” actually—was a long time in the making.

It started shortly after Dana and I began the fight against her recurrent breast cancer which was diagnosed in August 2006. The story became an official “God stamp” just this past fall, six years later.  (For backstory on "God stamps," you may want to click to this post, or search for "deer" or "rainbow" on this blog.)

In the second year of battling recurrence, it became clear that this round of breast cancer was not going away easily, if at all. As we settled into the slog, Dana began reading a book by John Eldredge with her good friend Kay. Eldredge is a writer, teacher, counselor who touches a great deal on what some might call the “chick-if-i-cation” of the church—asking men, who are of the hunter/gatherer nature, to share emotions and sing, etc., things guys are not inclined to do, unless they are talking about football or cheering with 50,000 other fans.

In this particular book (I am still searching for the exact book, Eldredge, a prolific writer, has written many) Eldredge told a story about taking his son elk hunting. In recounting the story, he told of what a great father/son bonding time he had envisioned for this particular experience. But as the hunting excursion wore on, they hadn’t seen one elk. So Eldridge began to pray. He prayed that they might run across an elk, justifying the request by reminding God of the terrific bonding experience it would be. And, lo and behold, near the end of the hunting day, an elk sauntered across their path. Boom. His son got his elk. Eldridge, then, went on to use that story as an illustration for prayer.

This caused Dana to respond in an email to Kay: Oh that’s just great. I am praying against cancer, in hopes of living, and I am getting nothing. He prays for an elk, in hopes to kill it, and God comes through for him.

To which Kay responded, in her usual poignant way: Dana, you have elk envy. Don’t have elk envy. Just because God answers prayer one way doesn’t mean He is going to answer your prayer the same way.

Which is true. Very true. Undeniably, biblically, and theologically true.

So, “no elk envy” became one of our bumper sticker phrases (Kay actually needle-pointed the phrase, and a facsimile of an elk, into a pillow case) throughout the cancer fight, and as best we could, we made it the framework for our praying.

In the fall of 2009 the battle took a hard turn. The cancer spread in a way that affected Dana’s cognitive and motor capabilities. So, not only did she transition into a bedridden condition, but in what was probably the cruelest turn in the fight, Dana lost her ability to communicate, or more specifically, to express. Her communication was simply “yes” or “no” responses to questions and occasionally she phrased a sentence or two.

Here’s why it was cruel. Our ability to communicate and express is what attracted us to each other in the first place, and it’s what eventually placed us into what we called “one of the top five loves of all time.” We loved making each other laugh. We loved sharing and processing together. Dana was invigorated by the art of writing and expressing. It was in the DNA of her personality. And now, as we were moving into the most challenging era of our marriage, we were doing it with one-word answers to life’s most difficult questions and high-stakes dilemmas.    

While we were in, what I’ve labeled, “hospice mode,” Dana and I would touch on the subject of heaven, but she was not comfortable in making that a topic of conversation. We had long said that if one of us got to heaven before the other, then heaven was not going to be all it was cracked up to be. And we’d both said, in our more expressive moments, that neither of us will give the other permission to “go.” We would both be hanging onto the leg of the other.

Knowing Dana was not comfortable with the subject of heaven, I concluded, whether rightly or wrongly, that talking about heaven might create more fear and anxiety than comfort and assurance—pulling together info from our conversations from our expressive days and mixing that with Dana’s one-word answers to my questions about the subject. Yet, here we are, approaching our ultimate goodbye and Dana’s big hello, with scant ability to communicate.

And so, you plow through on your own, navigating the high-wire balancing act that care-giving forces upon you: protection vs. reality; the presence of hospice and palliative care vs. the appearance of throwing in the towel; the desire, and need, to enter into end of life conversation vs. creating fear.

It’s an impossible balance, and you do the best you can.

During hospice mode those were the tensions occupying my mind which was in a constant state of whirring and spinning, like the whirring and spinning you hear in your computer from time to time. Only my whirring and spinning never wound down. There was no CTL+ALT+DEL keyboard sequence.

That November our friends Randy and Kay came to visit from Montana. Yes, the Kay with whom Dana shared the John Eldredge book, which by now had been two years prior. Dana knew they were coming. As soon as they walked through the door, before anything else was said, Dana piped up, “No elk envy.”

I am not sure there has ever been a better placed, better prepared phrase in all of history. If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, it was a “timshel” moment. For in that phrase, Dana told all of us that she knew the seriousness of the situation. And perhaps most importantly, she told us all, especially me, that she was okay with that.

In that phrase she showed humor, expression, connection. I laughed. I cried. But mostly, I sighed heavily—a deep-body sigh. It’s not that it made anything easier, but I was able to feel, ever so slightly, that we were in this thing together. It was a boost I needed as we navigated the final days, which, it turned out, would be just around the corner from Randy and Kay’s visit.

But here is where the story takes a turn toward God-stamp status. Last November, Randy took their 12-year old son Ben elk hunting for the first time on the ranch where they live in Montana. I know. Elk hunting. Father and son. It was the first season that Ben was age eligible to hunt elk. They saw a few elk throughout the day but never had a clear shot. Then, by late afternoon they tried one more area. Three elk finally walked out into the open. Ben set up and took one shot. Boom. Ben got his elk. Randy would later note, being a fittingly proud dad, it was a “perfect lung shot.”

And we all knew this was more than Ben’s first elk.

It was a near-perfect repeat of the scenario that generated our prayer chant “no elk envy”—a father-son elk hunting excursion. Extraordinarily, Ben saw and killed an elk at pretty much the earliest possible moment—the first shot he took on the first day he hunted of the first year he was eligible to hunt.

I don’t know if there’s much theological backing for this (and it’s not the first time I’ve pushed through the limits of theology in this whole journey), but I have taken this as a divine imprimatur—a God stamp—on a couple levels: number one, that yes, indeed, Dana’s declaration of “no elk envy” on Randy and Kay’s visit stands as a window into her thinking that she knew how bad things were, and she was okay with that. Secondly, and more importantly, our prayers are to have the flavor of “no elk envy.”

That’s huge. And it goes against our nature.

Just because God does not move or answer prayers the way we want or hope or expect doesn’t mean that God is any less good than when He does answer prayers the way we want or hope or expect. This, though, is a tough nut to crack. Just look at the prayer request lists of any church. First, our requests take on the flavor of a Christmas list, stating things that we want. Then, when things do turn out the way we want, we heap on the praise (“God is good!” we will say). When they don’t, the flavor is a little different (“Keep praying!” we will say).

Why is this? Do we oversell how God will intervene in our lives thus creating an expectation God never expected us to have? The only fail-safe promise we have from God is that He will be with us. But, because of expectations we’ve created, we’ve worked ourselves into a corner where God’s presence doesn’t really matter—we would rather have our way than His presence.

When I look at how Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), I can only find two personal items we can expect from God based on our requests: 1.) our daily sustenance; 2.) to be lead away from temptation.

So how is it that we are brazenly disappointed when things don’t go our way? Maybe it’s because we see in the gospels people asking for healing and Jesus heals them, so we think we should get the same treatment. But isn’t this classic “elk envy”? To quote our friend Kay: Just because Jesus answered one prayer one way doesn’t mean He will answer our prayers the same way.

Curiously, when I started writing this blog post—a post on the subject of our desires versus God’s ways—while in California with Jessica and her family, I received news that my mom was rushed to the hospital with chest pains—a first for her. Of course, I prayed like crazy for my own desires and wishes—that everything would be okay—and gave a patronizing nod to “God’s ways.”

Nice test, God.

Isn’t that just like Him? I knew that writing about prayer was likely to bring on a test, but I didn’t think it would come so quickly. For the record, mom did not appear to have a heart attack (God is good!) and will undergo some follow up tests this week (Please keep praying!).

The timing of Mom’s hospital run feels like a gentle nudge from God that says: Make sure you’re not giving the impression to not pray like crazy for desires and wishes (especially since we see a fair amount of Scripture telling us to do just that). I guess though, that the point where we get off track is the expectation we place on the results. Scripture does tell us to bring our desires and requests to God, but the healthy attitude seems to ask that we not base our opinion of God on how He honors our desires and requests. If things do not go as we hoped, we will naturally be mad, sad, hurt, disappointed and myriad other emotions. I think this is healthy. Where it gets less healthy, or even unhealthy, is when these emotions morph into mindsets of bitterness or skepticism or into a thinking that God is not on our side, which, candidly, is what Dana and I were thinking throughout much of the recurrence battle. By reminding ourselves of “no elk envy” we stayed out of a dangerous hole.

From my perspective, the less God’s people freak out over things not going our way, the more we show an observing world that we trust God’s ways. The issue of suffering is a big sticking point for those who are testing the waters of Christianity but have yet to jump in. Our reaction to suffering, or more poignantly, our reaction to things not going our way, displays whether or not we believe what Scripture says about suffering, chiefly, that we will experience it. And it displays whether or not we believe, and even appreciate, God’s fail-safe promise that He will be with us in the suffering.

To train myself to think and pray this way, I may adopt a new phrase for the close of my prayers, “No elk envy.” It may not be as poetic as “Amen,” but it forces me to think “Your will be done” and actually mean it.

Thank you for observing this journey with me.


Follow-Up Note: My mom’s follow-up tests all went well and things seem to be okay with her heart. Also, I received a note from Randy and Kay saying that Ben’s first elk hunting excursion this season was unproductive, adding a little more credence to last season’s divinely-timed, God-stamped elk.

Bible Follow-Up: In taking the observations of this journey to a next level, I've created a bare-bones Bible experience to accompany this post. It's an opportunity to explore, and even evaluate, some of my biblical assertions. You can get it here. (By the way, we need a new word for "devotional" or "Bible study." Right now "experience" is all I got, but I know we can do better.)