Monday, July 29, 2013

Cancer and Questions Pt. 4: Holding the Tension

In the weeks following my mother’s diagnosis, I booked a flight to SC to be with my family as soon as possible. The plan was to help my mom transition from her recent operation and prepare for a round of chemotherapy. As of last night, the plan is to keep her company in the hospital-- which may be her home for the next month at least-- while a pending leukemia diagnosis hangs over all our heads. When everything can change with a phone call, I’m reminded early on that this is not the kind of situation where we can know what to expect today, tomorrow, or next month.

As I’ve prayed and reflected in preparation of a visit with my family, I’ve felt caught in the whirlwind of a thousand emotions, each unrelated to the last. But the main question that has plagued me is: do I put all my energy toward hope that my mom will be healed, or do I begin preparing myself for her death? It seems too early to give up, and yet too late to be in denial. Though I didn’t when the word was originally spoken over my father, I now know what cancer means. I’ve seen what it can do, what it has done. And yet, as a follower of Christ and a subject of His Kingdom, I know that even cancer is not too great for Him. I’ve seen what He can do, what He has done. Here on this plane en route to see my mom for the first time since her diagnosis, I find myself caught in the middle of these two realities, between one place and the next. Between Dallas and Greenville, between my past and my future, between hope and acceptance.

What I’ve realized in the last few weeks is that I desperately want to escape the tension and just land somewhere. Expecting—willing myself to believe—that my mom will be healed prevents me from facing that terrifying question: what if I lose her? It protects me from envisioning family holidays as a true orphan, or my siblings’ weddings without a Mom or Dad to pronounce their blessing, or the birth of my own first child without that Irreplaceable Person to hold my hand and my new baby with joy.

And yet, expecting—resigning myself to believe— that my mom won’t be healed prevents me from nurturing the hope that things might be different. It protects me from exposing myself to more pain by allowing myself to really feel how desperately I want to see her dance out of that hospital room. Bypassing the entire step of hope for healing protects me from the risky business of keeping my heart alive to what I want more than anything: for her to grow old and beautiful, for her to see the fruit of her life’s work in the unfolding lives of her children, her legacy.

The truth is, it is easier to live in denial: either of the real possibility of her passing or of the real possibility of her healing. It is much harder to remain in suspense. Like the clouds outside my airplane window—heavy with expectation but awaiting their appointed time to release—a heart that is alive through this battle with cancer is a heart that must expand. I must learn to hold both the real hope of healing and the real possibility of death in tension, until the appointed time. Any other approach would be to choose denial for the sake of my own safety.

To choose the tension is messier, riskier, and likely more painful. However, as a Christian, it is the only path I am given to walk. God’s Kingdom has broken into this world—He has declared His authority over things like cancer and death, and my mom’s healing would be only one of many evidences of that present reality. To deny the possibility of a miracle would be to deny the reality of God’s power here and now. And yet, God’s Kingdom has not yet come in fullness, so to deny the possibility of her death would be to deny the reality that the story isn’t over yet, and we are still awaiting—like the clouds—the appointed time when He will return to make all things new.

Until that time, I am called to the painful hope of an expanding heart, holding the tension.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Cancer and Questions Pt. 3: Mom

I've written a lot in the past few years about how my father's battle with cancer has shaped and influenced me. Suffering at a young age defined and solidified my faith in a God who proved not to fit inside the box I once imagined for Him: a God who is good, but not a puppet; who is Healer, but not a genie; who is victorious, but by a path I would not choose to take. It gave me categories to understand a God whose way to life is through death, for whom the way up is down, and whose very instruments of healing are the scars on His hands and side. 

But I admit: last week when I heard the news that now my mom has cancer too, I paused. Blinking, stunned as if caught in the light of an oncoming train, I wondered: is it still true? Does all that "God is good" stuff still apply? It might make a nice formula for surviving one nightmare, but does a second slap to the face render those pretty words null and void? How could He allow this to happen again? Why would He strike us down again, after we had just begun to gain confidence enough to put one foot in front of the other and move forward, after we had just begun to take the risk and live in the aftermath? 

As I've pondered, cried and prayed, the same two words kept recurring: How (could this happen)? and Why? And what I've realized is, I may never know. Four years in seminary-- or forty years of ministry experience-- will not provide me with the key to crack the code, the formula to explain the phenomena. Life is a mystery, and we are not promised answers. Nor are we promised protection from the complexity and pain of life in a broken world. It is utterly hopeless to believe that if I'm good, I'll be spared from reality, or if I figure out how to get "in" with God, He'll coddle me, preventing me from feeling the effects of sin. 

And yet, the longer I look upon Him, the more convinced I become that neither is He permitting these circumstances to "teach me a lesson" or "make me pay." This is not His way of playing the sadistic parent or the bad cop, manipulatively promising to make it all go away once we figure out what we're doing wrong or how we need to get our act together. It is utterly hopeless to believe that if I jump through the right religious hoops, I'll be given the key to crack the code, the formula to change the phenomena. Life is a mystery, and we are not promised answers. 

Even as I write these realizations, I wonder what my response to them ought to be. Apathetic acceptance? A Pollyanna face? Stoicism, depression, disillusionment? A lack of interest in a God who won't throw me a bone even when I play by His rules? In my confusion, I think of Jesus. He was God's own son, subjected to the most senseless suffering imaginable. God did not spare Him from the complexity of life in this broken world. Rather, He allowed Him to carry the weight of it. The end of His perfectly lived life was the Cross. 

In the face of His suffering, Jesus did not become disillusioned or doubt God's character, but He didn't pretend to be above it, either. He wept. He expressed His fear, His pain, His bewilderment to the Father. He stayed fully alive to the complexity of the whole experience, and didn't seek to detach Himself through some cold, impersonal formula. To the very end of His life, He remained honest and He remained in relationship. "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?" 

As I approach this season, that's what I want for my mom, my siblings, and myself: to remain honest and to remain in relationship. There isn't a secret formula out there that will somehow inoculate us to the pain of it all. There isn't a code to crack that will make the tragedy stop. And there isn't holiness in pretending it doesn't hurt like hell. It does, and that's precisely the point. If Jesus wept, so should we. Things are not as they should be, and things like cancer and death remind us of that reality. Our calling is not to try and explain it away or somehow detach ourselves from it, but rather to stay fully alive to it. And to follow the God whose path was to go through it. 

He doesn't promise answers, only Himself. And if I need reminding that He's not somehow above my pain, I simply need to reach out and touch the scars.  

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Beauty and Longing

This week, we are in Vail, CO. Our first technical "vacation" since marriage, it has been an almost overwhelming experience of fun, recreation, and beauty. I've had recurring realizations that "we don't have to do anything!" and "there's no schedule to worry about!" and "we're not in a hurry!" A week at this pace in and of itself is healing, but it's been matched by breathtaking views-- mountain, stream, sky-- that are like balm on a wound. 

On our first night in the mountains, I found myself spontaneously remembering poetic verse, reciting rhymes I had memorized as a child. Phrases like "O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!" and "I see the lights of the city gleam through the rain and the mist" have been appropriate to quote in this context where we find ourselves surrounded by such realities. But speaking these poems called to mind the context in which I originally learned them. Nobody made me memorize them; they weren't a school assignment or an extra-curricular project. It was simply the result of reading and re-reading them until they became a part of me. As I recited the lines aloud, I remembered loving them before I really knew what they meant; savoring and dwelling on them just because they carried a weight that compelled me. 

I realize now that my childhood love for poetry was a longing to connect with beauty before I even understood it. I couldn't have defined some of the words I learned, or explain what the metaphors or phrases meant, but I knew they were beautiful. I knew they conveyed a reality that captured my imagination and swept up my affections. I knew they meant something, something important. They hinted at a reality that was bigger than me, and I wanted to know it. 

In a very different way, the mountains create in me the same kind of longing. They whisper the same poignancy, that there is a Beauty I can't quite understand but already love. They powerfully remind me that there is Something Bigger that I long to be a part of; and that losing myself in it, I will be found. As I put this feeling into words, I realize it is The Word I'm referring to-- Jesus Christ. It is He who shines in all that's fair, He who calls me to Himself, He in whom I am lost and yet found. It is He who is the ultimate meaning behind the metaphor, the movement upon the mountain, the Beauty I can't quite understand, but can't help but love. It is He. 

This experience of Beauty is what ultimately led C.S. Lewis, a prominent scholar and writer, from atheism to faith in Christ. His reflections on it are famously recorded both in his autobiography "Surprised by Joy" and a shorter essay, "The Weight of Glory." Here is just one quote: 

"We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter...the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited."  

What kinds of beauty stir up longing in you? Could they be a signpost to the One who alone can satisfy that longing?  

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Exactly Where I Should Be

Last week, I wrote about the gospel as an impossible command: to follow Christ, no matter what. This past week, I've been thinking about the aspects of following Jesus that feel "impossible" in my life. One particular struggle I've been aware of for about a year now is my seeming inability to relax

It's evidence of grace in the first place that I've come to understand relaxing as part of what it means to be a Christian-- surrendering to Christ's lordship over my life, and so relinquishing my perceived control-- whether of my 10 year plan or my dinner menu for the evening. And it's evidence of grace that I've been convicted about it-- that I actually want the reality of Christ as Lord to so reorder the way I approach life that I no longer compete with Him for control. But in the process of unlearning the "old way" that I know so well-- the way of stressing out about everything-- and pursuing the "new way" of trusting Christ instead, I find myself fluctuating. Praying before bed but still lying awake at night worrying; asking the Lord to provide but still stressing out about what to get at the grocery store; acknowledging that I'm not defined by my performance but still obsessing over what others think of me. Sometimes it feels impossible to let go of this white-knuckled, lock-jawed way of approaching the world.

Sometimes I come to church uptight. Having tossed and turned the night before, or frantically scribbling a to-do list on my way in, or snapping at my husband needlessly, I then hop up front to help lead worship and I feel like a big fraud. Like exactly the kind of person who isn't really following Jesus without conditions. But this morning I realized: it's exactly because of those things that  I'm exactly the kind of person who belongs here. The first song we sang this morning starts with these words: 

Let no one caught in sin remain
inside the lie of inward shame
We fix our eyes upon the Cross
and run to Him who showed great love 

This song reminded me that church is exactly where I belong when in the midst of a struggle to trust Him, to relinquish control to Him, to surrender to Him. Because of His great love, my response to my failure in those things shouldn't be denial (stuffing down my feelings of guilt) or despair (feeling unworthy to really connect with God); rather, it should be to run to Christ. In doing so, I receive the very resources that sustain me in the journey: forgiveness to keep the weight of my failure from crushing me; grace to remind me I'm not only forgiven, I'm embraced; communal worship to encourage me that I am not striving alone; and the nourishing presence of Christ to energize me to keep moving forward. 

These freely given gifts remind me that there is hope for me-- that though the going is slow sometimes, I am learning how to live differently, freely, fully-- because I haven't been left alone to make it happen.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Doing the Impossible

For some reason, this whole keeping-up-with-my-blog thing is not going too well this month. So in the interest of keeping some kind of pulse, I'm going to share a post I wrote for our church this past week. It's a little different than the style I usually write for this blog, but it still fits the overall theme of "what Jesus has to do with everything":

Having grown up in an age of democracy, it always surprises me that Jesus did not try to convince people to follow Him. In fact, Sunday's gospel reading shows us that His approach was almost the opposite: when people expressed their desire to follow Him, Jesus said things like, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head.” It is as if He wanted to be very clear about what they were signing up for, and how difficult it would be. Our pastor summarized it well by saying, “The only way to enter the Kingdom of God is without conditions.” Jesus makes no “campaign promises;” we can’t follow Him in order to get ____________ (fill in the blank) or as long as ____________ (fill in the blank). He does not offer a formula, only Himself.  

The gospel is clear: Jesus is not a means to an end. We are called to follow Him for His own sake, not because of what we think He will give us. And we are called to follow Him without “looking back.” St. Augustine realized this, which is why he prayed, “Lord make me holy, just not yet.” There’s something right about this prayer—following Christ means choosing Him above all other loves!—and yet, the beauty of the Christian life is that we are not left to muster up the strength to do it on our own.

Think of the story of Lazarus. After being dead for days, Jesus approached his grave and told him to arise. He literally commanded the impossible. And yet, “nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Against all odds, Lazarus obeyed: he walked out of his own tomb! But the strength to do so did not come from Lazarus-- he didn’t simply will himself to become alive again. On the contrary: with the command of God also came the power of God.

Jesus is in the business of commanding the impossible. In the gospel, He commands us to follow Him, no matter what. If we’re honest, that is about as crazy as telling someone to “come forth” out of their own tomb.  However, with the command of God comes the power of God. So if you hear Jesus’ call to follow Him without “looking back”— to enter His Kingdom with no conditions—and you feel that you’re not quite able, don’t despair. There is help for you. The power that accompanies the command is strong enough to overcome any addiction, fear, idolatry, ambivalence; strong enough to overcome death itself.

When you think about following Jesus, what conditions are you tempted to make? "As long as ________, or in order to ________." What about following Him feels impossible to you right now?