No Exceptions

Before retiring as an evangelism consultant with the Baptist State Convention of NC, one of Don McCutcheon’s many duties was to lead an intensive three-day “Intentionally Evangelistic Churches” seminar for pastors and other church leaders.  In the very first session of the seminar Don would make a provocative statement: most churches exert significantly more effort praying to keep Christians out of heaven than praying for ‘lost’ people to find it.  Don would then elaborate, reminding attendees of the typical church prayer meeting or prayer list.

That point caused me to rethink the way I guided students to pray, but it also caused me to more closely examine the church’s attitude towards death & dying.  Revisiting a number of scenarios over the years, my single-person assessment concluded that so many of us are stuck between being afraid of death and being arrogant towards death.  I’ll try to explain.

We’re all going to die.  That’s revolutionary insight, huh?  We all know we’re going to die.  Sometimes we even say it out loud.  But, when sickness and death visit our families they can catch us by surprise.  We become panicky and desperate.  It angers us.  It’s easy to nod our heads and say “amen” when the preacher tells us, “God doesn’t promise us tomorrow.”  When we’re forced to live that out firsthand, we want it to apply to everyone else and not ourselves.

One of the biggest bluffs among Christians is to say “I’ll pray for you.”  It’s unfortunate that prayer – for many – is reduced to a ritual during corporate congregational gatherings or before meals.  I look back now at numerous occasions when prayer requests were being shared during a church gathering and someone would offer, “We need to have a SPECIAL prayer for ________.”  What makes their request special?  Usually because it involves somebody who is important to THEM who is very sick.  I realize in hindsight that such a statement reveals at least two things about the person making it.  In general, he or she doesn’t realize how special ALL prayer is (or should be).  More specifically, the person probably isn’t offering much in the way of sincerely praying for anyone else’s concerns.

I can recall several situations over the years when a family would lose a member who was well into their 80’s.  Some of them were closer to turning 90 than having turned 80 and had enjoyed remarkably healthy, productive, and fruitful lives.  When sickness set in, so did the family’s desperation.  They’d burn the phone lines up to get prayer chains started in every congregation possible.  Every conversation would start with and be dominated by the theme, “Please pray for _____, it’s not looking good.”   When the person’s earthly life was no more, I’d witness family members go into prolonged and sometimes overly dramatic bouts of being angry at God or questioning God.  I have literally asked people on a couple of occasions, “How would you want circumstances to play out differently so that you wouldn’t be mad at God?”

When we personally encounter death in a way that people label “premature” or “tragic,” faith is really tested.  When winters of grief are ushered in by these storms, it doesn’t mean God loves us less than the next family that seems to have everything always working out perfectly.  It doesn’t mean that we’re being punished.  It simply means God doesn’t make exceptions.  For any of us.

We’ve all heard some version of this statement: “I don’t understand why God would take such a good person when there are so many mean lying cheating stealing jerks in the world.”  I get the deep, dark emotions from whence that thinking originates.  I really do get it.  Nonetheless, there’s an element of arrogance attached to a statement like that whether it’s intended or not.  We’re ignoring the fundamental theological truth that none of us is “good” (I refer you to Romans 3:10 and Romans 3:23).  We’re also asserting that someone else deserves to die more than our loved one, another family deserves to grieve more than we do.

Let me be clear on a few things.  I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t pray for those who are sick or dying; we absolutely should.  I’m not saying that we’re wrong to not understand God’s ways or His timing.  I’m saying this: the less humble our attitude is towards death now, the more humbled we will be when it visits our house.  Death reminds us of our mortality, it robs us of our connections, it can change our circumstances.  Those are humbling – even troubling – realities.  When we’ve already accepted that me and my family aren’t exceptions to the rule, we don’t have nearly as far to fall emotionally when it’s time to grieve.

This post hasn’t been a waterfall of encouragement, has it?  Stick with me, the end is better (and the next couple of posts will have a much more positive tone).  Someone recovers fully from a horrific accident.  Cancer is about to claim another life before a 180-degree turn occurs.  A patient elects to undergo a surgery that he may not survive, and two weeks later he’s stronger than he’s been in months.   These things happen and we’re quick to exclaim, “God is so good!”  And He is.  But He’s also the same good God when the accident victim doesn’t recover, when the cancer doesn’t go into remission, when the patient doesn’t survive surgery.  That same good God loves us, unconditionally and always. Believe that, and there’s always at least one daffodil trying to bloom for you.

 

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Normal, But Not Natural

DISCLAIMER #1: I hold to an evangelical Christian worldview.  As such, my posts will reflect that worldview intentionally and unapologetically.  My words are more likely to appeal to readers with a similar worldview, though I would hope the message will resonate with folks from a variety of perspectives.

DISCLAIMER #2: The purpose of this blog isn’t to advise anyone how they should grieve;  I’m not that smart.  If I can help someone to grieve well, to make sense of their confusion, to overcome some emotional struggles, to see the daffodils on a cold & gray day . . . then I’ve succeeded.

Today’s post is the first in a short series that I’m informally calling “A Theology of Grief.”  My hope is that this series will help folks to have a strong, true foundation on which to build their grief.

Some years ago I was watching a stand-up comic on television (I wish I could remember his name in order to give him full credit).  Part of his material was on childbirth, but he wasn’t speaking in a vulgar or graphic way. Instead, his delivery had the vibe that “labor and delivery are always great comic material for a man, especially when half of the audience is male!”  He was musing about women who eschew epidural medication in favor of “natural” childbirth when he offered the funniest line of his entire show.  To paraphrase he said, “Ladies, you’re squeezing a watermelon out of a tomato.  There’s NOTHING ‘natural’ about that, TAKE THE DRUGS!”

I’ve shared that perspective a number of times with my friends who are expectant parents, not to advocate a medical opinion but just because it’s funny.  Recently, that line from a stand-up comedy routine has become to me a symbol of a theological truth: grief isn’t natural.

Before you stop reading and your blood pressure escalates, allow me to clarify.  Grief is “normal” in the sense that everyone deals with a wide-range of emotions in the wake of losing someone near to them.  However, grief isn’t “natural” because death wasn’t part of God’s created order.  In His original plan, life was meant to be forever and fellowship with God was meant to be unbroken.

For those of us who have spent a fair amount of time in church, the first two chapters of Genesis are more than familiar.  Then the third chapter of Genesis happens.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the consequences were many and significant.  Humanity was messed up.  The relationship between people and God was messed up.  Creation itself was messed up.  The greatest consequence of all was death, spiritually and physically.

There aren’t any loopholes or exceptions to the consequences of sin, none of us are immune to the pain caused by death.  The sooner we can accept this “no exceptions” reality, the sooner we will find peace in our grief (and in many other areas of our lives).  It’s the truth that takes what isn’t natural and makes it normal.  If we’re building a foundation on which to grieve, then this truth is the hard level ground underneath.

In your lowest moments of mourning, has it ever occurred to you that all of your negative emotions are magnified simply because death is contrary to God’s created order?  When you allow yourself to separate from those emotions, there’s an arrangement of daffodils waiting to be seen there.  God never wanted us to die.  More than that, God knows our pain.  We lose people, He lost everybody all at once!  When you look at it from an eternal and heavenly perspective, our grief pales in comparison to His.

A postscript that may not apply to everyone but will to many:  If the crux of your grief is simply that you loved someone so deeply and you miss them so terribly, then the yard of your life is already blooming with beds of daffodils.  Sometimes we’re just leaning against the massive oak tree of sadness and it obstructs us from seeing the blessings that are there.  It’s liberating when we get to a place where we can be more joyful over the time we had than sad or angry over the time that’s no more.  If you’re striving to make it to that place, I’m praying God will provide the strength and perspective you need to step back from the tree.   I’m praying for YOU to thrive in the midst of the daffodils that are already thriving around you.

If God allows even a sentence out of anything I write to minister to you, I LOVE to hear about it.  Leave a comment or send an email to searchingfordaffodils@gmail.com.]

 

“SOMEDAY” IS TODAY

I’m between jobs, and “between” has lasted longer than I expected.  It’s becoming more difficult not to be anxious about what might be next while I’m seeking the next season of life.  As a vocational minister, one struggle among several is that I’m not currently making a significant contribution to the Kingdom.  Wrestling through that struggle, I’ve been confronted by the reality that I’ve been running from one of God’s calls on my life for a while now.  That’s the call to write.

I recognized a long time ago that God gave me the gift of words.  I’ve also known for a long time that I wanted to write, but never pursued it seriously for various reasons.  “I’ll write someday,” I’d think.  Over the past few days, a burden has settled in my mind and heart.  I almost feel like God is telling me that – until I quit running from this call to write – the next season of life will be on pause.

If God is indeed calling me to write, then what can I write to make a meaningful contribution to His kingdom?  If there’s been an area of ministry in which I’ve felt especially competent, it’d be grief.  I don’t have any more education in counseling than the typical pastor has obtained.  I haven’t gained any more experience than the next minister.  God has simply given me an ability to be calm and comfortable during those times when a life on earth is no more (or soon will be no more).  And, He’s given me words for those times.

Some of my most beautiful and meaningful experiences have been around a patient’s death bed or in walking with a family through the process of grieving.  My circumstances over the past year have given me a new perspective.  My mom died on March 19,2015, after a sudden and short battle with cancer.  Her loss has presented any number of emotional challenges in the months since, yet I’ve been able to hold to the same truths that I’ve offered to other families in their grief.  I’ve been genuinely surprised at what a comfort that dynamic has provided.

My family now lives in the house that my mom called home from 1971 until she went to the hospital on March 6, 2015.  Working in the yard was a passion for her.  Every time I walk outside, reminders of her are always in sight.  Mom had favorite flowers in every season, and daffodils were winter’s winner.  She was a warm-weather lover, and daffodils are a harbinger that spring is on the way even if today’s air is bitterly cold.  Daffodils are a visual respite for anyone who loathes winter.  Much more than usual, I’ve been looking forward to the daffodils blooming this year.  Yesterday they finally made their appearance.

The winters of life aren’t governed by the calendar.  At some point all of us go through grief like it’s a miserable season that won’t end.  At some point we’re all searching for daffodils, figuratively if not literally.  We walk through dark times needing the hope of a small bright burst from the cold ground to remind us, “This won’t last forever.”   Daffodils are sticky notes on our hearts, lest we forget that the same God who takes away is the same God who gave what was taken in the first place.

“Searching For Daffodils” isn’t the most masculine sounding title for a blog.  Then again, I’ve never been confused with ‘macho’ (and the overwhelming majority of blog readers are female anyway)!  Sooner or later, we’re all seeking joy to replace sadness. We’ll eventually need peace to prevail over discontentment, for hope to fill the emptiness. We’re all searching for daffodils.  Is it possible that a blog can be an occasional vase of flowers on someone’s table of life?  If I don’t start, then I’ll never find out.  If I’ll write “someday” then someday is today.