Friday, December 23, 2016

Hope from a Squiggly Line

Some thoughts on loss and comfort on this, the 7-year anniversary of Dana’s passing.

Earlier this month I volunteered to write an Advent devotional for our church and was assigned a snippet out of Psalm 103. It goes something like this:

Praise the Lord, my soul; my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. (Psalm 103:1-5, NIV)

I stumbled over the phrase “heals all our diseases” because the obvious retort to that declaration is, “No, He doesn’t.” So, what gives? Is David, whose name is in the byline, using figurative parts of speech that point to eternal “ultimate” healing? Is he writing while on a spiritual high and over-promising on behalf of God? Or does this simply mean the Bible can’t be trusted? None of these seem likely in that all other benefits from God in this passage are very literal and are for now: forgiveness, redemption, love, mercy, and good. And David himself had been around uncured diseases: the lameness of Mephibosheth as well as the loss of his first son. Yet he still writes that the Lord “heals all your diseases.” There is obviously something deeper in play here.

Well, here’s what I got. I’m seeing the “something deeper” as two things, and they are two things that God is most jazzed about all through Scripture: 1) ultimate healing in heaven; 2) helping us out until we get there.

But first a confession. I’ve never been comforted by the concept of “ultimate healing,” as in when someone passes away from disease and we say, “Well, now she is healed.”

It’s true. Our loved one is healed. But also gone. I’ve viewed, maybe unfairly, the idea of “ultimate healing” as just a convenient way to give God an out for not delivering a miracle. I didn’t find much comfort in that. My exercise with this psalm has helped me find comfort in that. In fact, I literally found it in the form of a squiggly line in Psalm 103 in Dana's Bible.

For me, the New Testament message blurs the lines between mortality and immortality, between temporal and eternal. Our personal eternity begins at the point of believing in Jesus. Death, having lost its sting, then simply becomes the moment we step out of our mortality and keep walking with nothing but immortality, like when your boot gets stuck in the mud and your foot slips right out. From God’s perspective, it’s that simple. But after millennia of existing in our fallen state, we’ve gotten very attached to our mortality. It’s all we see, and quite frankly, all we know.

You’ve heard me speak of God stamps—those moments in my journey when it was mercifully obvious that God’s hands were all over my experience. In a post titled “Lessons Learned Along the Trail…and Journey” I wrote about a stamp that brought great comfort to me and has since brought comfort and encouragement to many others. The penultimate point of that stamp was me, while at a mountaintop cabin in Montana, hearing words from Dana from her perch on the Other side (I’ll let others figure out the conveyance mechanism on that: Angels? God? Holy Spirit?) saying to me that it didn’t matter how bad life gets. It didn’t matter how sucky her cancer battle was. It didn’t matter the pain I was feeling. She had seen where this all goes and could resolutely say “It…IS…worth it!” The ultimate point of that stamp (and I humbly encourage you to read the post if you haven’t) came a couple days later while hiking a trail when I found myself having the EXACT same conversation with hikers about a boring trail leading to a glorious overlook. I was on my way down and they were on their way up. They asked, “Is it worth it?” It was comedic timing. Yes. The glorious overlook was worth the boring hike.

It’s all about the glorious end. The thing is, it’s actually frustrating that this truth seems to shape God’s modus operandi. He knows where this is all headed and He knows it’s going to blow our minds. This is likely why He seems slow and even silent when we think He should be loud and miraculous. Yes, He may perform a miracle. But He gets more excited about the glorious end. We, naturally, would like the miracle.

So what about now? How can this “It’s Worth It!” theology help when we are fighting all our diseases and everything else that a fallen world can throw at us? The prospect of the glorious end isn’t all that comforting or motivating and quite frankly we have many God-given blessings to enjoy right here and now. Thankfully, and mercifully, God does more than say, “Just wait. You’ll see.”

I think this is the second thing in play that jazzes God up in Psalm 103. He helps us get by until we get there. When we are in the pit, God climbs in with us. Further, He redeems the experience of the pit. I remember thinking while in the pit of the cancer fight that, while I’d rather not be in the pit, I’m going to take advantage of the perspective and take a look around, knowing that I would see things and experience aspects of God that I would not have seen or experienced otherwise. We’re told in Philippians that there is great fulfillment in joining in the fellowship of suffering with Jesus, that we find a depth of intimacy we would not otherwise have experienced. I have found that to be true. I am also experiencing the fruit of redemption. In fact, one of those fruits is finishing up her oatmeal while sitting in her high chair as I type. She’s even thrown some fruit on the floor to help emphasize the point.

At the moment our friends and family members seem to be experiencing more than their fair share of fallen world these days. We have young friends fighting new cancer battles, dear friends in a marriage that’s falling apart. We have several friends, neighbors, and family who have experienced tragic loss in recent months, most recently our dear sweet Erin, Jessica’s cousin, whose husband Mike stepped out of his mortality just this past Tuesday after a 2-year battle against cancer.

There is reality in the notion that God loves to help us through this fallen world, and there is truth in the notion that God can’t wait for us to see what’s waiting for us. When Dana and I were in the final weeks of care-giving, I began to read the book of Revelation to her, about a chapter a day. It was her favorite book of the Bible. Each chapter brought salve and comfort to anxiety-filled days. We could feel God’s hands and were mercifully reminded of His presence through all the God stamps we were collecting. About midway through the book I had a haunting thought: What’s going to happen after we read the last chapter? It has such a final “Amen!” On Tuesday, December 22 Dana was more interactive than usual so I read two chapters. They happened to be the last two chapters of the book. The next morning she passed away. In Revelation 21 Dana heard these words:

‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

That sounds an awful lot like “He heals all your diseases.” Leave it to the book of Revelation to tie it all together. To give us comfort in the pit, and hope for the future.

As I was seeking insight on the absoluteness of “heals all our diseases,” and trying to push through my own bias against “ultimate healing” in writing the Advent devotional, I consulted several commentaries, and in a last-ditch effort for some insight, I dug out Dana’s Bible (her “brown” Bible that she often mentioned) to see if she had any comments on that phrase, particularly in light of fighting a disease that threatens life. When I turned to that psalm, my eyes landed on the picture you see nearby. The only notation in that psalm, a squiggly penned line under “He heals all our diseases.” I have no idea when she noted that phrase. Was it pre-cancer? Was it during cancer recurrence? I did have a couple clues. The fact that it was squiggly, and not a neat straight line (she usually used a straight-edge) coupled with the fact that she made no notes with the line (she always noted why something stood out) indicates to me that she underlined this phrase in the final months of fighting her disease—when she was too worn out to care about the details of neatness and comments. (The dates you see noted of ’04 and ’06 were read-throughs she had done, with a straight edge, and making notes.) She was pinning, or actually penning, her hopes on healing. I may never know, this side of heaven, which healing she most had in mind when she squiggled that line. In a nod to the blurred line between mortality and immortality, it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that on December 23, 2009, she stepped out of her mortal shell and into immortal glory.

She left her diseased boots sticking in the mud. She was healed. Of all her disease.

I’m glad I found that squiggly line. It reminded me of God’s presence in the pit. It assured me, even convinced me, of the beauty in ultimate healing.

I don’t know what you’re facing at the moment, but I hope you find a squiggly line that gives you blessed assurance in the hope of heaven where the sting of death is gone.