Sunday, November 27, 2011

Incalculable Prayers

I always appreciate when people take the dilemmas in life by the horns and wrestle with them, especially when the opponent is the most daunting of all: God (think of Jacob literally and Job spiritually in the Old Testament).  That's a hard wrestling match, but an important one. 

 In the Presence of Mine Enemies is a book about the kidnapping of Martin and Gracia Burnham.  The Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group connected with Bin Laden, kept them in a Philippine jungle for about a year. Martin did not make it through the ordeal. Here is an excerpt about prayer from Gracia's memoir:

     "Six or so men praying six morning a week for fifty-three weeks - that's more than nineteen hundred prayers.  Add to that the intercessions of all the Burnham and Jones family members, our supporting churches across ten states, the entire New Tribes family of some 3.100 missionaries in the twenty-five nations. all those who logged in to the website... Martin's and my pleadings with God day and night.  The total is incalculable.

   I don't doubt the truth of 'Ye have not because ye ask not' (James 4:2).  But it sure doesn't seem to apply in this case; we all asked God over and over and over for protection and see release.  No one can say that our petition was inadequately brought before the Lord...

    Obviously, the answer lies not in the number of prayers or the particular wording used in those prayers.  There has to be another factor in the mix. So what is it?

    Perhaps it's useful to notice that while the verse in James says fervent prayer 'availeth much,' (5:16) it does not say it 'availeth everything.'  Why?

     Because the Abu Sayyaf - and all of us - still retain the power of personal choice, the option of standing stubbornly against the will of God.  And that obstinate stance is, apparently, something an almighty God is not willing to bulldoze.  Of course, he could have fired heavenly lasers into [their] brains...But that would have made them puppets instead of independent human beings with free will of their own, for which they will be eternally responsible....

   Apparently, God runs into this impasse time after time.  Having granted the human race a measure of self-determination, he would be hard-pressed to steamroller it when people misuse it." 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Craving The Desert

     Bruce Feiler, who is neither Christian nor a practicing Jew, decided to read the first five books of the Old Testament as he traveled to the stories' historical locations in the Middle East.  Among other things, he kept revisiting the impact of the geography in his understanding of events in the Bible. His perspective on the desert is worth noting: 

"The first lesson of the desert: By feeling uneasy and unsure, by fearing that you're out of your depth and therefore might falter, by feeling small, and alone, you begin - slowly, reluctantly, maybe even for the first time in your life - to consider turning somewhere else. At first that somewhere else is someone else: Moses, Aaron... You eventually grow wary of the flat and easy, the commonplace and self-reliant. You begin to crave the depth, the height, the extremes. You begin to crave the fear."

     This makes sense to me.  I view the Old Testament as a record of physical pictures (or foreshadowing) of what we now experience as spiritual realities.  I have experienced the "deserts" of my life - hard times in marriage, fears that came with Vincent's diagnoses, my father's death - exactly how Mr. Feiler describes his experience of the desert. Those are the places where I was small, alone and experiencing God more clearly than ever before. 
      I even understand what he says about fear.  You crave it not because you like fear, but because it means you are grappling with an situation in which the stakes are high.   I don't fear falling off my couch, but I do fear falling when I am fixing my roof.  The fear is not the point; it is merely a gauge for the weightiness of the situation.
   Perhaps the modern horror trend is simply a distortion of the craving for fear.  In a world that often seems "flat and easy," people crave the extremes.  Here's the difference between simple horror and real fear: A healthy fear reminds us of our need for a savior, while an unhealthy fear robs us of any hope of being saved.  
    The desert is not meant to rob us of hope, but to remind us that the greatest answer for our lives is not found in ourselves. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Vincent's Slow Miracle

On Saturday, Sheila brought six-year-old Vincent home from a party and said to me, "Do you realize it was just a year ago we weren't sure this would ever happen?" I had forgotten; she was right. 

From as far back as I can remember, Vince always struggled with any kind of boundary. When he was one and two years old, he could not sit in his car seat for more than 10 minutes without screaming. Trips to Meijers were too long for all of us. We seldom traveled.

We took a chance when he was almost two and flew South for Christmas to see family. He screamed there and back. I was physically ill for a week after our "vacation." That summer, he began to run onto the road outside our house and stand on it, I guess just waiting for cars. We fenced in the rest of the backyard and locked the doors of the house, but he still snuck out. A policeman brought him to our door once; we had no idea he was gone. How many times over the years did I say to people, "My goal is to get him through this next year alive"? I wasn't joking.


He refused to color inside lines (not a joke). He wouldn't go outside during the winter until he was five, because hats and gloves were too restrictive (he still sheds his socks and shoes at a moment's notice).

He had no concept of why boundaries or any sort existed. He had no idea that they were meant to protect him.

Two years ago, we had Vincent tested for autism. At the time, both his teacher and I saw enough symptoms that we decided a test was in order (he was watching trains for hours; standing in a corner and flapping his hands when upset, etc). The initial test suggested he had Fragile X Syndrome. I should have known better than to look that up online. It was not a diagnosis full of hope.

The second test showed he was not on the autism spectrum, but was instead "developmentally delayed." I could have told them that. (My favorite moment in this whole process was reading how Vincent got tired of all the tests and crawled under the table, so two adults went under the table with him to finish the test).

This diagnosis was actually good news. One well meaning person said she was "praying against the spirit of diagnosis." I had not been aware there was one, and I appreciated her concern, but the reality was that I was relieved. Sheila and I knew something was wrong; we just didn't know what. Now we did. With the right diagnosis comes the proper cure.

A year ago, Vincent was splitting time at two schools because of his developmental delay. In the mornings, he went to class with about 20 other kids with a similar diagnosis. When he would go to the Christian school where I teach in the afternoons... it didn't go as well. About the time he completed the DD class and was declared "normal," we had to pull him out of school all together and put him into daycare.

How quickly I have forgotten how sobered we were.

Just 5 months ago, at a crowded museum in Gatlinburg, I dedicated my entire museum-going experience to watching him. I lost him three times. The third time I utterly, completely lost track of him, and in a panic started looking in the closest room. He was sitting there watching TV, with no idea how disastrous the results could have been.

This "unboundaried" existence has not always translated into "plays well with others." He could not comprehend social boundaries any better than physical ones. He would just take stuff from kids, and sometimes hit them, and didn't seem to really care what they thought of him.

On the other hand, he was amazingly energetic and outgoing, constantly laughing and talking. Most adults who experienced him in small doses thought he was a hoot, but his peers, his parents, his brothers, and his teacher got both barrels.

This has not been a life without joy. Vincent is hilarious on his good days, and he loves people and activity. I have a collection of things he has said that crack me up no matter how many times I read them.

This year, he started real school. We spent the first couple weeks on pins and needles, but nothing major blew up. Then, he won an award for something in chapel - I don't remember what, but frankly, it doesn't matter.


Then he started talking about having friends - they were peers, and they liked him. One classmate told his mom, "Vincent drives me crazy. But he's my best friend."

Vince started actually doing homework without having a meltdown.

He tried some foods he never tried before.

He told real jokes.
He played Monopoly and did not make up his own rules.

He fished our goldfish out of the pond to play with them (wait..that's a different list...)

He sat through a whole movie at the theater, unlike the time I literally chased him around the perimeter of the State Theater in Traverse City one unforgettable Saturday morning while Braden calmly watched "The Secret of Nimh."

He colors recognizable pictures.

He gets invited to parties by genuine friends.
He goes; he does not try to open the birthday kid's present.

He does not get into a fight or disappear from the backyard.

He keeps his fingers out of the cake until the appropriate time.

I know a lot of people face tremendous challenges with their kids that make our experience pale in comparison. My point is only to note something that may be common to all of us: after so many years of praying for a change, how easy it is to overlook the slow miracles that God provides.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Grief's Untold Stories

      I just read an interesting book called Grief's Untold Stories, by D.L. Starkey.    I have written on my personal journey of grief after the death of my father, but  I have not tried to tackle the stories of others.  Starkey does just that.  He is a hospice chaplain (among many other things), and his book recounts nine particular deaths that occurred in the course of his ministry. 
    Lest this sound depressing, it's not.  Each story was unique in the way in which the silver lining of hope finds a way through the cloud of grief.
    - A chess playing cancer patient whose terminal illness was "the best thing that ever happened to me."
    - An eight-year-old leukemia patient who was so looking forward to heaven that her last words were, "I can't wait!"
    - Tex, who died on the operating table, but lived to say, "I''ll never be afraid to die again."
    - Jennifer, whose mother was comforted after her death when she found a school assignment in which Jennifer had drawn Heaven in response to the prompt, "Where do you want to live when you grow up?"
     - Gus, who at age ninety-two asked God to take him home, and whose request was dramatically granted. 
    In some ways, it was hard to read.  The book does not minimize the impact of death.  On the other hand, when I was finished, I felt oddly at peace.   It was a great reminder that if I allow the stories of others to fill in the gaps in my experience, I can learn more about the ways in which the God I serve reveals Himself to the world.   


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

April is the Cruelest Month

After visiting an area of Japan that was devastated by the March 2011 earthquake, Makoto Fujimura had this to say to Belhaven University students:

"As I was driven back to Tokyo… the Zao mountain range appeared beyond the clouds, with cherry blossoms in full bloom, enchanting the villages tucked away in the crevices between the mountains. It was hard to see scenes of such beauty—the trunks of the trees, with their wet-darkened bark—when the disaster was freshly etched in my mind. Thousands were still unaccounted for. My heart felt numb, and the beauty I saw seemed cruel.
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

So begins T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, published in 1922. April is indeed cruel with the lilacs or the cherry blossoms at the peak of their beauty, invading the "memory and desire" of our ravaged hearts. We are awakened to horrors and terrors, but nature does not wait until we stop grieving. It moves on, as does the world, without empathy or knowledge of what really happened. My visit to Japan echoed Eliot's lament: beauty and trauma are forced to dwell together.
Today, you begin a new journey, and for you it is a bright April, full of hope. But we must also remember that for many April has been the "cruelest month." We must learn… to engage our creativity within the harsh confines of our broken world and the wide spaces of creating the 'World That Ought to Be.'"

Sunday, November 13, 2011

No Journey At All

    I watched Father of Invention with my wife this past weekend.  Kevin Spacy plays a businessman/inventor who spends more time with his career than his family, and ultimately loses them both when one of his criminally negligent “fabrications” results in a 10 year jail sentence.  When he gets out of jail, he moves in with his daughter as he tries to get his life back together.

     Other than the fact that a lot of the characters and situation were both shallow and false, one issue that bothered me was the constant advice to his daughter to forgive him. This doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but the movie presented it as, “You need to get over all the years and years of neglect and emotional abuse and just move on now as if nothing happened.”  When his daughter’s roommate needed some advice when she find out her parent’s are divorcing, Spacey’s character told her basically to get over it immediately. 

   I think that’s bad advice. That’s not forgiveness; that’s denial.  Denial about what happened, about what she (and Spacey's daughter) felt, about what the ripple effect had been and would be in life. 

     A life in which we are not supposed to fully embrace the entirety of our experiences in not a good life.  Ultimately, the goal IS to move beyond anger, despair, grief and resentment, but a quick journey is often not a journey at all.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Blessing of Dissatisfaction

     From a recent article by S.M. Hutchens in Touchstone Magazine entitled "Mother Teresa's Light":
 Mother Teresa was, as far as I believe anyone can judge, a Christian of the very highest order... a person in whom the desire for the person and life of God was maintained through a life of the most intense and single-minded devotion - yet she was never granted in this life what she sought.  She sought Jesus, and he never came to her as she desired, but was present principally in his absence.... and yet she remained (and this is the greatest of all her glories)  faithful to her calling to the end. 
     The profound importance of this witness needs continual emphasis among Christians whose measure of the reality and quality of spiritual experience is essentially of how satisfying it is to them, how good it makes them feel, how much they are delivered from their various distresses by what they take to be the grace and power of God.  It is not that this grace and power are not present to satisfy the desires of the spirit and the appetites of the body - they are, to be sure.  But one crosses the threshold of error when these graces become invariably  regarded as signs or measure of happiness...
    In each of his temptations, the Son of Man was offered gratification, in this life, of the deepest desires of body and spirit, and yet he refused them, insisting that they come to him only in the Father's time and something like present happiness for "the joy set before him, enduring...the cross."
   This will be a good life, but it will be a life based on faith and hope.  
This means we shall not live it, or leave it, satisfied.

A faith that is never tested is not faith at all, no more than patience can be patience if there is never any need to wait.  A life that is never at some point hopeless is a life in which hope can never be fully appreciated.  There is a reason faith and hope need to "abide" (1 Corinthians 13:13):  we will need them until the day we die, so that we can navigate a world that is often full of doubt and despair.

   And it will still be a good life, because faith and hope will be my companions, and they will remind me that one day I will be home, and all will be well. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

God's Healing for Life's Losses

Here are some notes from a seminar at New Hope church, taught by Dr. Bob Kellemen, author of “God’s Healing For Life’s Losses.”

In suffering, God is not getting back at you. He is getting you back to himself.

We need to climb in the casket with other people who are hurting.

Candor is courageous truth-telling about life to myself in which I come face-to-face with 
the reality of external and internal suffering.”

We can be disappointed with God, or without God.

To diminish suffering is to refuse to need God.

Suffering is God’s primary way of uprooting our self-reliance.

If God allowed bargaining/work to work to get us out of grief, no one would ever surrender to God. He thwarts our attempts to manipulate him.  Even as we cry out, we have to ask ourselves if we have a pure heart: “What is our motivation?”

Our prayer is often for God to change our circumstances or feelings.  Instead, we should cry out for strength to serve and glorify Him in the presence of suffering.

Comfort of God in the presence of suffering: a presence that empowers me to survive scars and plant the seeds of hope that I may yet thrive.

There is a difference between surviving and thriving.  Sometimes, it’s okay to just survive as part of the process of moving forward. 

Faith does not demand the removal of suffering; faith desires endurance in the suffering.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Gorillas and Zombies: What does it mean to be human?

watched a movie and a TV show this past week that were loaded with worldview messages.  Both had a serious statement to say about what it means to be human, but ended up in remarkably different places.

The movie was a lighthearted family comedy, Zookeeper. It was basically an apologetic for the idea that animals are not only sentient, but emotional and intelligent.  As the animals teach him how to be an alpha male, Kevin James, the bumbling zookeeper, becomes a better man and a fine catch for all the ladies who are mysteriously attracted to him.  I kept expecting Christopher Hitchens to walk into the zoo and say, as he says at the beginning of his debates, “My fellow primates…”

This anthropomorphism is not new.  After the movie “Babe”, the pork industry took a hit. Seriously.  Entertainment has the power to change how people view the world, and that cute little pig put the idea in a lot of young minds that pigs are very much like us.  Cute movie; wrong message.

No wonder so many nations are passing laws that increasingly give animals the same rights as humans. ABC News has noted, “some legal reformers would like to see the legal definition of "persons" expanded to include chimpanzees…” Recently,  Spain gave 'human rights' to apes, joining Switzerland, Germany and other EU nations in the race to broaden the definition of personhood.  

Here’s the problem:  When we treat things that are not human as if they are human, we become very confused about what it means to be human.  And when we become confused about our own nature, we are in trouble.  

On the other hand, there is the AMC drama  The Walking Dead.  I don't like the comics, but the show addresses some pretty deep philosophical issues, not the least of which is the question of  (once again) what it means to be human. 

One of the key tensions in the show revolves around the fact that the Walking Dead are former friends, relatives and neighbors of the living.  They sure look a lot like they did before, and have at least some sentience, awareness, and consciousness.  So….how do you treat someone who sure looks human, but might not be anymore…or might be… (The end of season one suggested at least a minimum of brain function).  

Because the stakes are so high, the Living at times have to kill the (un)Dead to protect themselves.   It’s interesting, though: the more callous the characters become toward the Walking Dead, the more hardened they become toward the living.  It’s as if committing violence against even a shadow of humanity kills a person’s soul bit by bit. 

By showing this dilemma, the show makes an important point:  When we treat things that are human as if they are not human, we become very confused about how we ought to treat other humans.  And when we become confused about how we ought to treat others, we are also in trouble. 

If Zookeeper is correct, the definition of "human" apparently ought to be blurred; if The Walking Dead is correct, that line should never lose its clarity.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pixar's Preachers: Worldview in the Movies

A couple friends and I have been discussing the impact media has on our view of reality.  It had been a while since I had read up on the idea of the medium being the message, or the view that all entertainment contains messages both overt and covertand the belief that the most impactful messages are the ones the story assumes about the world.  Even shows about nothing are about something.
    In the course of catching up on my entertainment philosophy, I ran across this interesting article called "The Hidden Message in Pixars' Films" over at Discover Magazine:

Popular culture is often dismissed as empty “popcorn” fare. Animated films find themselves doubly-dismissed as “for the kids” and therefore nothing to take too seriously. Pixar has shattered those expectations by producing commercially successful cinematic art about the fishes in our fish tanks and the bugs in our backyards. Pixar films contain a complex, nuanced, philosophical and political essence that, when viewed across the company’s complete corpus, begins to emerge with some clarity.
Buried within that constant  and complex goodness is a hidden message...

What if I told you they were preparing us for the future? What if I told you Pixar’s films will affect how we define the rights of millions, perhaps billions, in the coming century? Only by analyzing the collection as a whole can we see the subliminal concept being drilled into our collective mind...

An entire generation has been reared with the subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep. As history moves forward and technology with it, these issues will no longer be the imaginings of films and fiction, but of politics and policy. But Pixar has settled the personhood debate before it arrives. By watching our favorite films, we have been taught that being human is not the same as being a person. We have been shown that new persons and forms of personhood can come from anywhere....

   A generation raised with "subconscious seeds of these ideas planted down deep."  I couldn't agree more. This article may or may not be correct about Pixar, but I think the assumptions about media and entertainment are true.  

     Every song is a sermon. 
     Every movie is a message.