About Joe

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A Year Ago Today

One year — sometimes it feels like a lifetime, other times it feels like it’s only been a day. Either way, it’s been a year too long without him.  I wish I could say that it’s gotten easier, but I think that would be a lie for all of us.  There are still those days when I need to talk to him and try to call. There are still those days where it’s hard to believe that he’s actually gone. Not a day goes by that he isn’t missed deeply. Although it might not seem like it yet, this post is an update and an encouragement.

We’ve all changed. I know I have. I knew everything would, but I didn’t realize how much losing someone so influential and so a part of me would change things. I went through the greater part of the year feeling like its all on me. When things got tough or I was having a break down, I couldn’t call him. When I was excited because I graduated or because I was heading off to college, he wasn’t there. When I had a question about school or needed advice, I couldn’t ask. When all I wanted was to hear his voice in a phone call or receive one of his cheerful texts, I knew the phone wouldn’t buzz.

I didn’t want to tell anyone at college either. How do you put that on people? Even when you do, they don’t get it. They didn’t know him. They hardly knew me. They would never know him. I had this new perspective, too.  I look at life completely differently now. I’ve found that having fun is difficult, even at college where it’s supposed to be the time of your life — especially at college.  Many times, I found myself indifferent and apathetic. I was not satisfied or content. I never thought or imagined that mere existence would be so hard — especially with God.

Even the better moments were (and still are to some extent) bittersweet. I see how fleeting they are — moments become memories too soon.  It seems like just yesterday Dad and I were going on a drive, laughing, talking, or just hanging out.  While everyone else seems to live in the present, I sit back and close my eyes, trying to hold on, knowing it will be gone in moments.

So I went through my days, trudging and fighting.  I knew I had blessings in my life: a wonderful roommate, great friends, support back at home (amongst many other things). I knew that compared to most people in the world, my life was (and is) pretty great. But it was hard to appreciate these things when, like I said, mere existence seemed so hard. Now I wasn’t in the depths of depression or going off the deep end. I wasn’t angry with God or turning my back on my faith — not at all. I was just in this fog, this haze. I couldn’t focus on anything. I was restless. I was so tired. Then, one day, I just said I can’t do this anymore, I cannot live life like this. Something needed to change. I realized that a lot was on me now.  Part of it was that my dad wasn’t there to encourage my relationship with God. The thing is, going to Jesus was really hard. It reminded me that Dad was gone more than anything in the world. I don’t like to feel those deep, heart-wrenching emotions. To cry and cry because I miss him. No, I would much rather avoid all that — ignore it.

And then, I heard Him, His voice, gentle and prodding: Show up. I wasn’t sure if it was Him…”Show up? What does that even mean?” It wasn’t long before the meaning became apparent. I didn’t feel like I could be invested, focus, or meet God, so I wasn’t even trying. I wasn’t showing up.  He was asking me to just show up every day, and He would meet me, like He always does. So I did. I showed up every day for an hour. It had been a long time since I had done that.  In my weak faith and faltering trust, I didn’t really have high expectations.

To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to help. If there’s one thing I know, it’s that these things can take a lot of time. It had been a long time since I had invested in my relationship with God actively. Yet, God is so, so faithful. He knows what I need, always.  Within a few days, a new contentment began to infuse my daily life as He gave me eyes to see His blessings. He told me It’s okay. That’s what I had been longing to hear. It’s okay that I’m really not okay! It’s okay that I miss him. It’s okay that I don’t have motivation. It’s okay that that I just can’t do it. It’s okay that I can’t focus on anything — that I’m restless.

So then, after a month or so, I was brought to this blog.  I hadn’t read the posts yet. Dad was alway so hurt I wouldn’t read them, but I just couldn’t. Not while he was sick. Not once he was dead. It was too fresh, too hard. It brought it all back and it made me think. I didn’t like to think much anymore. So the first time I read it, I was a wreck. I couldn’t get through the first one because endless tears would pour out. So I waited and went back to it a week later. It was a little better then. And so I worked through his posts in this fashion.  It’s funny because I feel like I’m still getting to know him. I re-read the posts over and over and learn more every time.  He teaches me about Jesus — about His love for me and about the kind of love I want to have for Him.

So God has been there the whole time, walking beside me, and He began to reveal this reality to me at a heart level.  He says blessed are the grieving, for I shall bring them comfort, and He is faithful. I just had to BE there to receive that comfort. My time with God was completely different now…but that’s another story. He told me everything I needed to hear, even when it wasn’t what I wanted to hear.  But I think one of the greatest things He showed me was that my dad’s death and his sickness were not about me. It wasn’t even about him.  I cannot begin to verbalize how freeing that was.  I didn’t have to be scared to tell people or scared about whether or not they would understand because that wasn’t the point. While reading my dad’s blog, I began to realize that this was his legacy.  He didn’t die too soon.  He died in God’s perfect timing, and for once I can say: It’s okay. That sounds harsh. It doesn’t make it hurt less, not at all.  But it’s an important truth.  It’s one my dad would have wanted me to voice.  It’s okay.  It’s okay because this isn’t it.  It’s okay because there is so, so much more. It’s okay because life is about more than times of comfort and times of suffering. I guess what I realized is that at the end of the day, having my dad back would make things a lot easier, but having him wasn’t what has ever made me okay.  No, it’s only Jesus. It’s always Jesus. What’s beautiful is that that is something God used my dad to teach me — not just with his life, but through his death.

I won’t ever stop missing him. I know it won’t ever be easy to live life without him. I know that’s something anyone can relate to who has lost someone they love. I know there will still be days when I am a complete mess. There will still be moments where I will lose all clarity and truth. This blog post wasn’t supposed to be so much about my own experience as about how much this blog has blessed me these past few months. Hope was redefined for me on an experiential level in the past year — I’ve found that Jesus can fill my heart even when it aches, even when it’s breaking. I am overcome.

~Mallory

Day 226: Eternity

My dad passed tonight near 10:00. It’s hard to find words to express what an amazing man my dad was.  I think you just had to know him. He was the best dad, friend, and teacher I’ve ever known or seen. He lit up a room whenever he walked in. One of his friends put it perfectly when she said that “he had a way of making people — everyone he encountered — fall in love with him” (paraphrased). Really, my dad had a way of making every person he interacted with feel special and cared for.

I think it’s so easy when you lose someone so special to so many people to be angry with God. It’s so hard to understand.  I can’t see all the ways that God is using this situation in my life or in other people’s lives, and that can be frustrating. Yet, even experiencing the peace and strength God gives in such hard circumstances is so awe inspiring. The love shown to my family and the support in these past few months has been so amazing — we have experienced God’s love at a new level and in new ways.

Moreover, I think of what my dad would say and do in this situation.  I think about his life in the midst of his death. I’ve never seen someone love Jesus so much and, more than that, be so dedicated to growing in relationship with Him.  My dad was such an encouragement to so many people to grow in their relationships with God — to get to know Him on a personal level.  He wanted everyone to know the God he so desperately loved (as you can see just from reading his blog posts), and the God he knew so desperately loved him. He taught so many powerful lessons in his life to many different groups of people about Jesus. Yet, I think the way he lived his life — his Christlike love, his fun-loving spirit, his integrity and character, and the way just talking to him made you feel cared for — pointed people to God in a way words never could.  I know that my dad’s close relationship with God and the amazing man he was are inseparable.

When he was diagnosed, he said all he wanted to do in this situation was to glorify God and point people towards Christ.  Through all his pain and suffering, he never once complained or doubted God.  He would come down from an excruciating experience with pain and ask us to pray and praise God that it was not worse — to praise God for His goodness and love.

To be completely honest, words fail me. Words do not do my father justice.  How much more words fail to describe my Father in heaven.  My family and I grieve heavily at our loss. I don’t think I will ever miss anyone as much as I will miss my dad, my Ray. But we rejoice in the knowledge that that he is now reunited with Jesus and finally realizing the depths of His love for him. We look forward to eternity.

~ Mallory

Day 131 — May Your Heart Soar!

“God does not need us for anything, yet it is the amazing fact of our existence that he chooses to delight in us and to allow us to bring joy to his heart.”  W. Grudem, Systematic Theology (emphases omitted).

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With school back in session I found myself, for some reason, thinking about Christian Communicators of America (CCA) speech and debate tournaments.  At these tournaments, children ages 5 to 18 participate in a variety of rigorous, age-based speech/debate competitions, including limited preparation events such as extemporaneous speaking, where they are objectively judged by adults.  Top performers earn awards.  At the end of the tournament, each competitor receives the judges’ written scores and critiques of the competitor’s personal performances.  The debaters also receive oral critiques immediately after most rounds.  (You can learn more at www.ccadebate.org.)  My family has been involved with CCA for roughly eight to ten years.

At each tournament, I am endlessly amazed at the courage, talent, skill, and accomplishment I am privileged to witness during every round, no matter the age group.  And if I know anything during the competition rounds, I know this:  I’m glad I’m not the one on that platform (in front of everyone) who has just two minutes to prepare a five-minute, well-reasoned, critical analysis of an obscure quotation, or the person who has three minutes to construct a sound, thoughtful, seven-minute apologetic regarding a theological quandry, or the student who has a couple of minutes to prepare an eight-minute rebuttal to a thoroughly researched, persuasive position regarding the need to reform, e.g., federal regulation of agricultural production.  Yes, I’m glad it’s not me up there in those events!!  I mean, it takes me at least ten minutes just to make a wise, well-informed selection from The Cheesecake Factory menu (and that was before my cancer diet ☺)!

And the competitors can be so impressive, so knowledgable and articulate, so well-informed, that I often need to remind myself that they are not adults.  Indeed, there is a real temptation to begin silently critiquing these mature 14-year olds as if they were Charles Krauthammer on the Fox News Panel of Experts, rather than who they really are:  kids taking a couple of days “off” to engage in an extra-curricular activity.

As I watched and judged several of the competitions at the March 2012 tournament in Akron, Ohio, I could not stop thinking about “vulnerability”.  In fact, I contemplated it for several weeks afterward.  Vulnerability.  The dictionary tells us that to be “vulnerable” is to be assailable, or susceptible to injury or attack, as with a “vulnerable” military position.  But the vulnerability we’re talking about in a CCA tournament is not the strategic vulnerability of an army brigade, but the tender vulnerability of a child’s heart.  For when a child stands, alone, and speaks in a quiet room in front of his or her peers, grown-ups whom they respect and admire, and strangers they do not know — all of them “judging” the performance to a degree — the child is particularly susceptible to arrows that strike at the heart.  Arrows in the form of unduly harsh comments and even careless, off-handed remarks.  And as we all know, arrows that strike the heart of a child (even an 18-year old child) can shift things deep inside, shift fundamental beliefs about identity and worth.  Wounds that can last a lifetime — particularly if the arrow is launched, even inadvertently, by a parent or highly-respected adult.

Now, any one who finds himself in this “arena” surely can take comfort from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous observation:

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

But that sentiment is difficult enough for a man to take to heart, let alone a child.  Thus, judges, parents, and other audience members at CCA (and similar) events are not merely observers of these children, but they are, necessarily, stewards over their hearts.  Yes, every time a competitor stands alone on that stage, or at that podium, that child is, in a very real and immediate sense, offering his or her heart to those of us who watch and critique and comment.  And, to that extent, whether we realize it or not, whether we like it or not, we become stewards in every sense of the word.

And what are the unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) hopes and desires of the children in this regard?  That we will take this stewardship role seriously:  that we will proactively protect and nurture their hearts; that we will be there to provide “pre-op” triage and/or “post-op” encouragement and ministering, if and when the need arises; that we will endeavor to be discerning and loving as we guide and direct them and help them process their experiences; and that all of our efforts will be seasoned liberally with wisdom and compassion.  I think John Eldredge very effectively captured what this “seasoning” should look like, at least in part, when he described the tenor of a wise and compassionate man (which I also cited in an earlier blog post):

What he offers, he offers with kindness, and discretion, knowing by instinct those who have ears to hear, and those who don’t.  Thus his words are offered in the right measure, at the right time, to the right person.  He will not trouble you with things you do not need to know, nor burden you with things that are not yet yours to bear, nor embarrass you with exposure for shortcomings you are not ready yet to overcome, even though he sees all of that.  For he is wise, and compassionate.

So what does all of that have to do with “Walking With God Through Pancreatic Cancer” (which, after all, is the title of this blog)?  Well, I recall that the very first thing — the very first thing — that hit me when I found out I had pancreatic cancer and that I might die soon, was regret.

Deep, deep soul regret that I had said “no” to God so many times.

Not from the standpoint of “uh-oh, I should have been better so I don’t go to hell” — because salvation is not something we somehow earn by being good enough.  Instead, my deep soul regret concerned how I had handled the heart of my Abba Father, the heart of my Savior, the heart of the Holy Spirit.

Over the years I’ve grown to see that God’s heart is one of utter longing — longing for His children to draw near to Him and fall passionately in love with Him.  It almost saturates the pages of Scripture.  His “heart yearns” for His children (Jer 31:20), and He is “crushed“ and can “no longer bear it” when His love goes unmet (Ez 6:9; Jer 44:22).  He “begs” His chosen people, His beloved children, to turn their hearts from the things of this world, unto Him (1 Pt. 2:11).  His ardent longing, moreover, does not waver even when a beloved child of His chooses to crush His heart:  “Behold, I will allure her, will bring her into the wilderness and speak comfort to her. . . . And it shall be in that day, says the Lord, that you will call Me “my Husband,” . . . I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me, . . . I will betroth you to Me . . .” (Hos 2:14-20).  On and on it goes throughout Scripture, as He openly, unashamedly bares His soul, declares the passionate longing of His heart:  “O that their hearts would be inclined to Me” (Deut 5:29), “O that my people would listen to me, walk with Me!” (Ps. 83:13).

Indeed, the Greek word “charis”, which we translate “grace” throughout the New Testament, has a much richer aspect than we often ascribe to it.  “Charis” communicates that the Lord is freely extending Himself to you.  More precisely, the picture of “charis”, grace, is a picture of God freely reaching and inclining Himself to you because He longs to bless you, to be near to you.  And so, the point of “charis”, grace, is not so much that God longs to give you something, but that He longs to give you someone — Himself.  “Grace is God drawing us sinners closer and closer to himself” (J. I. Packer).  Or, as my Pastor once said, “Grace in its simplest definition is God running after you!”  And of course the pinnacle expression of God’s heart, His longing, His passionate pursuit of you and me, is the Cross, where Jesus gave up His life so that through Him we could live in intimate communion with the God who loves us.

And so here we have God hiding nothing of His heart toward us, laying it all on the line.  Throughout Scripture God is, in effect, baring His heart, telling me, and telling you, “Look, here is My heart.  No mind games, no tricks, no hiding, no sheepishness, no you-go-first.  Here . . . here is My heart.  I — Abba, Jesus, the Holy Spirit — I long for you, I yearn for you, I am reaching out to you, I’m leaning into you, I’m inclining all of Me to you.  Always!  And I’m longing — longing — for you to just grab hold of Me and hug Me.”

You see, the one, true, awesome God has a heart that aches for me.  For meAnd for you . . . you!  And it aches because He, by His choice, has made Himself vulnerable.

Vulnerable.

 Susceptible to being hurt.

Yes, the Lord makes Himself vulnerable when He bares His heart, when He cries out to you and to me:  “O that your heart would be inclined to Me!  O that you would walk with Me!”  And, when our hearts fasten elsewhere, our Savior unashamedly tells us He is crushed, that He cannot bear it, that His heart yearnsAnd yet He nonetheless continues, unwaveringly, to fiercely pursue us, to put His heart at deeper and deeper risk!!  Think of it!!  How utterly vulnerable is our Lord — the great I AM – to you and to me, in all of these things!  Is it not too much to take in?!

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“Most of us forget that our Shepherd is looking for some satisfaction. . . . He longs for love – my love.”  W. P. Keller, A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23.

 

Now, it’s easy for me to understand a child’s vulnerability, and to long to do something about it, to address it, to make sure his or her fragile heart is not hurt, not wounded.  I take that stewardship opportunity seriously.

I “get” that.

But, truth be told, over the years I somehow began to forget that God, too, has a heart.  A heart that He made vulnerable to me (and you!!).  A heart that aches for me (and you!!).  And I would forget — and oftentimes ignore — that I could hurt Himbadlyright there, in His heart.  For some reason, I just didn’t seem to “get” that truth in my heart, and so I found myself being very cavalier about “little” sins and “small” omissions.  I even found myself feeling non-chalant about “big”, ongoing sins that I just couldn’t shake, as if somehow those sins didn’t matter, that they were no big deal, since it was so hard to overcome them.  In other words, in all of it – all of it – I acted as if, somehow, God’s heart didn’t matter.  As if the greatest, most magnificent stewardship opportunity I had, was nothing to me.

Of course, what I should have done was gaze upon my Abba, my Dad, my God, and reflect upon the longing of His heart for me – His longing to spend time with me.  His longing for my heart.  Yes, gaze upon my God and pray that I would grasp, deep, that He made His heart vulnerable to me – dust, vapor, a speck in the universe.  And instead of hurting Him badly, right there, in His heart, what I should have done was say to Him, to my magnificent Savior and King, “I choose You” — unto the satisfaction of His heart’s longing.  Yes, I should have said to Him,

Be Satisfied.”

For in “charis”, grace, the Lord is offering Himself to me . . . and that is precisely what He wants me to offer back to Him:  myself.  He yearns for me to offer myself to Him.  You see, the Lord doesn’t expect me – or you — to try hard in our own strength to act like Jesus, to “be good”.  In that sense, He doesn’t want even the smallest thing from me, or from you. No!  He wants me.  And He wants you.  Just to be with Him.  Just to be with Him.  And when we go to Him like that, when we spend time with Him just to spend time with Him, when we seek Him amidst the “mundane” of life, when we draw near to Him from the mountaintops of our joy and our successes, when we set aside selfish plans and join Him where He is walking, we are saying to Him, to His heart, “Be Satisfied.”

No, the Lord doesn’t expect us to try hard in our own strength to act like Jesus.  But as we draw near unto the satisfaction of His heart, He will more and more touch us, shape us, deeply.  And our hearts will more and more reflect His.  Yes, by His “charis we will grow, naturally, from the inside out, not to act more and more like Jesus, but to be more and more like Jesus. . . .

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One Hundred Thirty-One days ago, on May 2, 2012, at the moment I first considered that I might die soon — very soon — nothing mattered more dearly to me than that I had, so many, many times, hurt my Abba-Father in His heart.  That I had so often, so cavalierly, said “no” to the longing of my Savior’s heart for me — His longing to talk with me and hear my heart telling Him “I love You”.  His yearning to (metaphorically) see me excitedly running toward Him, hold me in His arms, feel my arms around His neck, walk hand-in-hand with me on His “rescue path” of obedience.  His desire to love and minister to others through and with me.  In the moments when death first became real to me, those regrets are what mattered most to me.  Regret for having broken His heart so cavalierly, so frequently, so callously, when instead I could have said to my Beautiful God,

Be Satisfied.”

And so I share this with you, trusting that it is the wise and compassionate thing to do, because I want you who have trusted Christ as your Savior to know this now, while you are in the midst of making your own choices.  Right now, it may seem to you that there are decades on the horizon.  And from that perspective, how you choose to handle God’s passionate longing for you really may not seem to matter too much.  I “get” that, because I lived that.  But I want you to know — to know deep — that there will come a day when those very choices (that may seem unimportant to you today) will matter dearly to you.  My beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, there will come a day when you will care, deeply, how often, how much, and how passionately, you pursued — and requited — your Savior’s love for you, and gave yourself over to the One who saved you unto eternal life.  And by God’s grace at work in your heart in the days, years, and decades (God willing) leading up to that moment, may your reflections (unlike mine) be encouraging to you, and not be cause for painful regret.

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 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  God, Gal 5:1.

 

But my greater longing for you is that your love for Christ, and your gratitude for what He has done for you, will soar(!) in that moment.  Yes:

SOAR!

You see, although my fiercest initial reaction to the stunning “revelation” of my mortality was regret – as I said, in those initial moments my regret “mattered most to me” — two things subsequently happened.  First, as the days of my life continued to roll by, and the freshness of my regret began to fade, I began to fall back into a number of my old, selfish, callous ways – and, truth be told, it didn’t take me long to do so.  And so, despite the heart-wrenching insight the Lord had given me on the threshold of eternity, I still hurt Him in many ways, right there, in His heart.  (Which I am extremely ashamed to admit.)  And I do so daily.

For I am fallen.

I am not Jesus.

And I can not live like Him by trying to act like Him.

But, mercifully, a second thing happened to me after I was overwhelmed with regret.  I ultimately remembered that what truly matters most is Jesus.  Not my failures toward Him, but Him.  For on the cross, Jesus “was made sin”, accursed of God (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal 3:13).  On the cross, Jesus’ soul – His very soul — was an offering for sin (Is. 53:10).  An offering for my sin.  And because Jesus, on the cross, became my sin at a soul level, He was wholly separated from the Father and the Holy Spirit for the first (and only) time in eternityYes, because of me, Jesus hung on the threshold of eternity accursed, utterly forsaken, having been made sin at a soul level.

Consider those moments that Jesus experienced!  It’s an incomprehensible horror.  Entirely beyond our ability to reason.

Why would Jesus — God the Son — go through this?!  Why???

Love.

He loves me, and it was the only way – the only way (Mt. 26:39) — that I would be able to have an abundant, eternal life here on earth, and one day enter into heaven — into the presence of a thrice-holy God — despite my abject failure to live perfectly sinless, entirely sin-free.  Yes, Jesus lived a perfect, sin-free life, and then gave it, gave Himself, as a sacrifice for me.  And in so doing, He took upon Himself the death that I deserve (Rom 6:23) — all the while knowing full well the entirety of every sin that I would ever commit (including all my future sins)Every hurt that I would ever inflict upon His heart.  Yes, Jesus lived the perfect life, and then died a sacrificial death, so that I, by believing that truth, by believing in Him, could have abundant, eternal life, with Him, the Father, and their Spirit:  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).  And the exact same things are true for you, as well.  (How about re-reading the previous several paragraphs using the pronoun “you” instead of “I” or “me”, and “your” instead of  “my” ☺?)

Yes, Jesus did that for me (and for you), because He loves me (and you).  (As my daughter Mallory puts it, if you ever doubt His love for you, just look to the cross.)  And there was no other way (Mt. 26:39; Jn 3:18)!!

So when I fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail and fail.  And fail and fail and fail some more.  Again and again and again and again and again.  When my Beautiful Savior shows me His heart, shows me His longing for me, shows me that I can either hurt Him in His heart or say to Him “Be Satisfied” – and I nonetheless choose to hurt Him — my failures are not what matter most.  No, for Jesus saw all that – and held all of it upon Himself at a soul level — at the time He made His choice, on the cross, to die for me so that I could live with Him forever.  And thanks be to God(!!):

That’s what matters most!

Yes, His love for me (and for you), expressed ultimately on the cross, is what matters most.

So, on the day when your mortality becomes really real to you (whenever that may be), may you be able to say with the apostle Paul, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Rom 7:24-25.  Yes, on that day, may you look upon your failures, but then meditate upon your Savior, Jesus the Christ, staked to the Cross by those failures.  And may you know, believer in Christ – know, in your heartthat He chose to die for you knowing every sin you would ever commit, and that “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  No, there is no condemnation for you.

And may your heart then soar!

SOAR!!

Indeed! May your heart now soar in this truth!!  In the freedom for which Christ has set you free!

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

In closing, let me ask you this, given all we’ve just considered:  would you give yourself to Him, even now?

If you are already a follower of Jesus, would you pull aside, move aside, lay aside, set aside whatever you are doing, right now, and simply lie down and quietly give yourself over to His embrace?  No words, no prayers, no petitions, no thanksgiving, no worship.  Just:  lie down and let Him hug you – yes, let Him wrap His arms around you and hold you.  Rest, in His arms.  Give yourself, if even for a moment, to Someone who is deeply in love with you.  And satisfy the longing of His heart, just to hold you in His arms; in a sense, perhaps, a “mark this” moment from you, to Him.

If you are not yet a follower of Christ, but would like to become one, and find rest in Him, freedom in Him, would you simply tell Him that?  Tell Him that in your own words.  And then reach out to someone you know who is a dedicated Christian, or contact my pastor, Paul Wides, at paul.wides@ccchapel.com, so that you can be helped along as you begin to walk with God through the rest of your life(!).

Day 125 — Comfort

(This blog-post is in many ways a continuation of the prior post (“Day 99 – Presence”).  Since that post was woefully long, I decided to cut it “short” and pick it up in this next post.  A part of the Day 99 introduction is repeated here, but other than that I’ll assume you’ve already read the Day 99 post and are familiar with that material.  I’ll also assume you’ve read “Day 59 – His Voice.”  Finally, discussions of pain are pertinent to the particular time in question.  My pain has been much reduced, and the most current status can be found at the “Med Status” page.)

My struggle with pain began in earnest well over a month ago, and steadily deteriorated through mid-August.  (See the “Med Status” page for most recent developments.)  There are, of course, varying degrees of pain, and as it became more and more apparent that the battle with pain was entering new challenges, I began to explore how I could draw near to the Lord in the midst of pain.  I did this because, as the pain grew, it became abundantly clear to me that it separated me from the Lord.  So I needed to prepare myself as best I could to draw near in the midst of great pain, should it continue to increase in its severity.

As that study unfolded, I experienced a night that, thus far, has been the worst of the worst.  That night was Sunday night / early morning Monday of July 22/23.  With regard to that night, I wrote this in the prior blog-post:

[I]n my moments of greatest pain, relentlessly on my feet (or sometimes restlessly kneeling for a moment or two), hour upon hour upon hour, from pre-midnight to after dawn, pacing, moving, without any relief whatsoever, exhausted but unable to rest, I cried out to God in barely audible whispers, unable to muster more than a few syllables at a time.  Spiritually, no longer able to praise Him.  Mentally, no longer able to pray through James 1:2-4 (“[C]ount it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [perseverance].  But let patience [perseverance] have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing”), Romans 5:3-5 (“[W]e also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”), or 2 Cor 4:16-18 (“[W]e do not lose heart.  Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”)

No, all I could do was say the name of “Jesus”.  Over and over and over again, as I paced and stepped, kept moving, in pain, holding my hand lightly upon my lower abdomen, trusting He knew my heart, my need, and the prayer held within my whispers, “Jesus. . . . . Jesus. . . . . . Jesus.”

But as the pain continued that night, things deteriorated further.  Much further.  Soon enough I could no longer bring myself to even whisper the name “Jesus”.  Not because I was physically incapable, but because I realized that my prayers had become accusations.  For in the depths of my being I could only, in those moments, manage to see insult (agonizing pain) heaped upon injury (cancer), salt smeared liberally into raw, open wounds.  My attitude toward God became “isn’t enough enough already?”, and expressed itself in tones that became increasingly bitter and angry.  Even as I spoke the name above all names, my mind accused Him.  “Jesus” (where are You!?) . . . “Jesus” (why are You letting this happen to me?!) . . . “Jesus” (why won’t You help me?!).  I silently pleaded with my Father, confused and growing hostile, as to how and why He could stand by and allow even more misery to be heaped upon me, hour upon hour:  “But You’re my Dad,

my Father

where are You? 

Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?

Why won’t You help me?  

Spiritually, those were perilous moments.  Moments where bitterness could have been embraced and the heart hardened against God Himself.  My defenses were anemic, my emotional state fragile.  The pain was so severe, and that’s right where I focused:  the pain, the pain, the pain.

Though I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, a spiritual battle was raging, “[f]or we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Eph 6:12.  The evil one had a toehold over me — the rising bitterness and anger, the bile — and was fighting for more:  a foothold, a stronghold, deep inside of me.  The battle was fierce!  I felt so alone(!), and with each epic twist of pain it became easier to coddle anger and resentment against my Lord.  I became less and less capable of fighting as I spiraled further and further into an abyss.  I needed someone to fight for me.  But who?  Who?  Who would fight for me?

My King and my Savior.

Yes, He whom I accused.

For unbeknownst to me God was raising up His army even as I was surrendering ground under siege, gathering bile:  “Email, Duane to Joe.  9:50 a.m. July 23.  Re:  checking in.  Joe, I prayed for you at 3:30 this AM.  Why?  Because I had gotten up . . . Nothing more sophisticated than that.”  (Emphasis added.)

Who would fight for me?  The kingdom of God and God Himself!  Prayers were being offered and answered on my behalf in the very moments I felt forsaken and alone.  Even as I paced my blackened basement with accusations hurtling toward my dear sweet Savior and Abba Father, He raised up prayer warriors on my behalf and fought so that His voice, His love, would move me, His son.  Of course, I didn’t know that.  I didn’t see it or hear it or sense it in any measure.  But somehow, somehow, I realized God, Truth, was all I had.  My only hope.  And in the darkness my mind slowly, laboriously began to turn, Titanic-like in its lumbering clumsiness, to search for truth.

“What is true?” I silently asked myself.

The battle raged.  The abandonment seemed so very real.  My will was weak, the pain relentless.  In the midst of the misery it was beyond hard to focus, let alone claw my way to right thinking.  I felt like Jon Krakauer struggling to ascend Everest:  “The wind kicked up huge swirling waves of powder snow that washed down the mountain like breaking surf, plastering my clothing with frost.  A carapace of ice formed over my goggles, making it difficult to see.  I began to lose feeling in my feet.  My fingers turned to wood. . . .  I had to stop and draw three or four lungfuls of air after each ponderous step.  Then I’d take one more step and have to pause for another four heaving breaths – and this was the fastest pace I could manage.”  This should not have been surprising to me!  Our battles with spiritual forces are fierce.  And, as John Eldredge puts it, “[i]n the midst of battle you will often feel confused, disoriented, perhaps overwhelmed, troubled with self-doubt.  You will certainly feel the spirits that are present. . . . [So] set your face like a flint.  It will clear, eventually, and you will again feel the presence of God and who you truly are [in Christ].  In the midst of it, war is chaos.” Well said, for that is right where I found myself — confused, disoriented, overwhelmed.  Choking amidst the backdraft of chaos, asking

What is true?

“What is true?

I’d been through this “what is true?” drill dozens of times before – times when God seemed distant and uncaring and unloving.  I can’t begin to number the times I’ve written “What is true?” in my journal, and then penned Scriptural truths about who God is, His heart toward me, and who I am in Jesus.  Anchoring myself to truth amidst hurricanes of lies (“God has cast you off”; “How could God love someone like you?”; “why would God want to talk with you?”; “you’re not His son – you’re headed to hell”; “He is punishing you”; etc.).  A way to regain center, become grounded (as John Eldredge might say), in the midst of a spiritual “wilderness”.

But this time it was different.  The unyielding pain had taken too great a toll.  I couldn’t focus long enough to identify truths, let alone embrace them and regain my center.

And yet, God was working in me “both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  Fighting for me; strengthening and enabling me to consider truth.  Truths about who God is and His heart toward me.  Scriptural truths about God that I’d experienced in quieter, gentler times, in fragrant, sun-drenched moments perfumed by Christ Himself.  Truths that seemed so, so distant from my black basement outpost, where I was teetering on the cusp of disillusionment.  I could only focus for a moment or two, in the most vaporous, fleeting fashion, but that was enough.

Where are You?  Suddenly I remembered the dolphin (see “Day 99 — Presence”).  The sentiment was clear:  “I am right here with you.  I have never left you, nor will I ever leave you.”

Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?  “The revelation will come when it’s time.”  Truth from the Ocean Grande, from Brandywine Falls and my kitchen, from “our” corner of the family room. (See “Day 59 – His Voice” and “Day 99 – Presence”)

Why won’t You help me?  “I am giving you all I can give you.”

(Perhaps this last point requires an explanation, and I’ll offer a brief one here.  God is perfect in every way.  He loves me perfectly.  He is perfectly true and good and merciful.  He is perfectly generous.  Etc., etc., etc.  He fathers me perfectly.  And as He perfectly fathers me He always provides perfectly.  In that sense, He gives me all He “can” give me in every situation.  For example, upon becoming a Christian I waited over six years to experience God as my Abba-Father (see “Day 99”).  Why did He have me wait six long years to experience such intimate sonship!?  Well, for whatever reason, He couldn’t perfectly father me (with perfect love, mercy, goodness, generosity, etc.) and at the same time give me that particular gift.  For whatever reason, He couldn’t be perfectly true, perfectly faithful to Himself, His character, and His kingdom, and at the same time bless me with that revelation.  Why not?  I don’t know.  It doesn’t matter.  For all I need to know is that, in any given circumstance in my life, He always gives me everything He “can” give me — His son whom He loves.  Charles Spurgeon puts it this way:  “[w]hen the veil is rolled up, to the astonishment of all God’s creatures, it will be seen that He did the best, the wisest and the kindest thing which, all things considered, could have been done and, therefore, though I cannot yet understand all His dealings with the sons of men, yet I believe that they are right and I will praise His name for His lovingkindness!”  And again, “as rich as God is in glory, so rich is He in giving.  He never demeans Himself in the mercies that He gives.  He gives according to His rank and that is the highest conceivable. . . . The fact is, Brethren, God gives gloriously.”)

So God, in His infinite grace, compassion, and mercy, in His perfect fathering of me, responded that night to my ugly, bitter accusations (Where are You?  Why are You letting this happen to me?  Why won’t You help me?).  And although His actions and His heart were (as always) loving and good and beautiful, I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my experience in those moments.  I was in pain, and those moments were not intimate moments for me.  As C.S. Lewis puts it, “Pain hurts.  That’s what the word means.”  And so the questions plaguing my heart necessarily were answered in quick-hitter, almost mono-syllabic efficiency.  Nothing fancy.  No long soliloquies.  No epic, experiential oneness with God.  Just heart triage on the battlefield.  If I had to pick appropriate background music for those moments I would think more in terms of the pulsating mania of a brutal car chase than the swelling crescendo of a romantic first kiss.  I felt like I was hanging on for dear life by my fingernails — even the few words and images I had the capacity to assimilate were almost deafened by the pain and suffering.  (Of course, it wasn’t me hanging on for dear life — it was my Savior clutching me all the while.  Jn 10:28-29.)  It was all I could do to steer away from bitterness and anger, and face toward God.  An intimate experience?  No!  Not at all!   Chaos.

Finally, after sunrise, the pain began to ebb away to the point where I could sit down and try to sleep, sitting upright on the basement couch, my head lying against pillows stacked head-high to my right.  And so the trial inched to a close as sleep mercifully enveloped me, ushering me into peace and rest.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

As I said, in the weeks leading up to July 22/23, I had been studying how to draw near to the Lord in the midst of pain.  And up to that point, my trek had ambled through the writings of Spurgeon, Tozer, George Whitefield, C. S. Lewis, Timothy Keller, J. I. Packer, Wayne Grudem, and others.  Much of what I had found struck me, forcibly:

  • Eternal perspective:  “You will find the Spirit to be in sharp opposition to the easy ways of the world. . . .  He will be jealous over you for good.  He will take the direction of your life away from you.  He will reserve the right to test you, to discipline you, to chasten you for your soul’s sake. . . . . Yet the flesh will whimper under His yoke and cry out against it as a burden too great to bear.”  A. W. Tozer (emphasis added).
  • The coming Holy Spirit:  “The value of the stripping experience lies in its power to detach us from life’s passing interests and to throw us back upon eternity.  It serves to empty our earthly vessels and prepare us for the inpouring of the Holy Spirit.”  A. W. Tozer.
  • Ultimate purpose here on earth.  “[T]he work of grace aims at . . . an ever deeper knowledge of God, and an ever closer fellowship with him. . . . How does God prosecute this purpose?  Not by shielding us from assault by the world, the flesh and the devil, nor by protecting us from burdensome and frustrating circumstances, nor yet by shielding us from troubles created by our own temperament and psychology; but rather by exposing us to all these things, so as to overwhelm us with a sense of our own inadequacy, and to drive us to cling to him more closely.  This is the ultimate reason, from our standpoint, why God fills our lives with troubles and perplexities of one sort and another:  it is to ensure that we shall learn to hold him fast.”  J.I. Packer (emphasis in original).
  • Future restoration and glory.  “I think we need something more than knowing God is with us in our difficulties.  We also need hope that our suffering is “not in vain.” . . . The Biblical view of things is resurrection – not a future that is just a consolation for the life we never had, but a restoration of the life you always wanted.  This means that every horrible thing that ever happened will not only be undone and repaired but will in some way make the eventual glory and joy even greater. . . . All will be healed and all might-have-beens will be. . . . [Some people] say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into glory. . . . [And so this] is the ultimate defeat of evil and suffering:  It will not only be ended but so radically vanquished that what has happened will only serve to make our future life and joy infinitely greater.”  Tim Keller (emphasis in original) (borrowing, in part, from C.S. Lewis).
  • Divine rescue.  “God, who has made us, knows what we are and that our happiness lies in Him.  Yet we will not seek it in Him as long as He leaves us any other resort where it can even plausibly be looked for.  While what we call “our own life” remains agreeable we will not surrender it to Him.  What then can God do in our interests but make “our own life” less agreeable to us, and take away the plausible sources of false happiness.”  C. S. Lewis.

Tremendous sentiments, consistent with Scripture, all of them.  And yet, truth be told, all I wanted on July 22/23 was for the pain to go away.  To end!  The sentiments that seemed so powerful when I was sitting at my kitchen table during bright summer days counted for nothing when the salvos were launched and the pain actually hit.  For that night I was focused not on “Eternal perspective” or “Ultimate purpose here on earth”, but on “the pain, the pain, the pain.”  I mean, look at my accusations:  Why are You letting this [severe pain] happen to me?  Why won’t You help me?  Where are You?  The underlying cry in all of that was:  “Rescue me from this pain!  Take this pain away!  NOW!!”

I looked back the next day and wondered, “what was the victory in all of that?”  Indeed, “was there a victory?”  It sure didn’t seem like it to me.  True, my faith ultimately did not fail, but that seemed so hollow to me at the time.  I wanted more — more than just cowering in pain and crying out to God to end it.  I thought of Paul and Silas, beaten with rods, chained . . . and singing hymns(!).  Acts 16:22-25.  They experienced joy amidst pain.  For them, there was singing and praise and worship while imprisoned in a dungeon, racked with fresh, open wounds.  A far, far cry from my personal experience the previous night.

I began to search the Scriptures, and landed at 2 Cor 1:3-11.  Verse 3 reads as follows:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation. . . .”  What immediately took my breath away was the tiny preposition “in”.  “In.”  That two-letter word launched from the page and landed smack between my eyes.  “In;” meaning, “in the midst of”.  Whereas, in my mind, comfort from pain meant removal of pain, God was showing me, telling me, that He would comfort me in the midst of the pain.  That He would comfort me during the pain.  And surely, as God comes and personally ministers to and comforts me, in close communion, drawing from the riches of His glory, joy will follow.  How could it not?  For as David testifies, “in Your presence is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11).

But how to get there?  As I shared earlier, in my experience pain breaches and interferes with intimacy.  So how can I, or anyone, get to that place of experiencing the comfort of God in the midst of pain?

Some days later, the pain came again, this time during the afternoon.  Not the “worst of the worst,” but pain enough to drive me to my knees.  I headed to our bedroom, alone, and knelt down.  Leaning against our bed I simply told my Abba, “Lord, I trust You. . . . I trust You. . . . I trust You.”  Over and over again.  In the pain I couldn’t really muster much more, but somehow I knew it was enough.  For I knew those few words conveyed the world of my heart — my heart’s deepest cry of faith and love.  Of trust in who He is and His heart toward me.  No bitterness.  No anger.  No questions.  Tears flowed, born not of pain, but of the Holy Spirit at work within me amidst the sacrifice of praise (Heb 13:5).  God silently confirming that those moments on my knees were good and right and true.  Not because of who I am in and of myself, but because of the King of kings mercifully working within my deepest places.

(Working, too, through His kingdom.  For here is the text message I got from a brother in Christ several hours later:  “Hi Joe, felt a super urgent need to pray for you all today about 12:45.  How are things?”  God, yet again, raising up intercessors on our behalf, in the midst of tremendous trial!!!)

But He knew I needed further consolation, further healing.  There was a hurt deep within me, a doubt that was festering.  Doubt concerning my heart toward Him.  Doubt planted by the evil one on July 22/23 alongside the bitterness and anger.  Doubt that remained, putrid and cancerous, even as the foul bitterness and anger were washed away by the soundbites of truth I was able to assimilate amidst the chaos of battle.  I was hardly conscious of the rancid tumor, yet my Father saw it slowly eating me from within, and was ill content to let it further malign me.  And so, the words “I trust You. . . . I trust You. . . . I trust You” still fresh upon my lips, He took His holy salve and, through the words of Charles Spurgeon, spoke encouragement deep within my soul:

Paul [, when writing 2 Cor.,] was sore beset in many ways, yet he could say, and he did say, “Blessed be God.”  Job was greatly tried and sorely bereaved, but he still said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”   And as long as we can keep the blessing of God to the front, it is a sure sign that whatever the adversary may have been able to take away from us, he has not taken away our confidence, which has great recompense of reward and, whatever he may have crushed, he has not crushed our heart!  He may have surrounded it with bitterness, but the heart itself is not made bitter — it is a fountain that sends out a stream of sweet waters, such as this utterance of the Apostle, “Blessed be God”.  (Emphasis added.)

Oh how I needed to hear those words!  My heart – my faith — had not failed . . . and it was a tremendous victory!  For on the night of July 22/23, “the devil’s purpose was to make me “curse God and die” (Spurgeon).  And though bitterness and anger had swept upon me like a foul wind, yet in the end, by the grace of God, the Author and Finisher of my faith, Emmanuel (God with us), I still could lift up my voice in loving trust.  Trust!  Tears again welled up as my Father showed me who I am in Christ.  No, my faith had not failed(!) – a wonderful and mighty blessing from a wonderful and almighty God.

And notice the devil’s wiles in this!  First he planted the seed of doubt regarding the depth of my heart for God.  Then when the evidence of victory through faith (the true depth of my heart) came to the fore, he undermined it.  (“So what if your faith did not fail!  What kind of a hollow “victory” is that?!”)  And once I agreed with him, and even adopted those thoughts as my own, the malignant wound was left in place to fester.  So God took me to my knees once again, showed me the faith that He instilled and maintained even through that horrific night, and then showed me what a lasting and wonderful victory it was.  Showed me that His gift of faith (Eph 2:8) is a fragrant aroma, rooted deep within me, that delights my King!

With that addressed, my Abba Father then ministered further to my heart, for He likewise wanted me to know that those moments in my room, those declarations of trust, unto tears, were His answer to my pursuit of – my cry for – His comfort.  That those moments were guided and directed by Him, for me.  For in that same sermon, Spurgeon spoke of “one of the shortest and surest recipes for comfort [in the midst of pain and difficulty]:  begin to praise God. . . . If you are in trouble and do not know how to bear it, divert your thoughts by praising God! . . . There never was a heart that waited and wanted to praise God but the Lord soon gave it opportunities of lifting up Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to Him.  It shall never be said that we were ready to praise God, but that God was not ready to bless us!  So, dear Friends, praise God and He will bless you!”

Yes, my Savior and my King had handed me His personal invitation into experiencing His comfort in the midst of pain:  Praise!  Indeed, as C.S. Lewis puts it, “[i]t is just here [amidst pain and suffering], where God’s providence seems at first to be most cruel, that the Divine humility, the stooping down of the Highest, most deserves praise.”  Not praise for the pain, but praise during the pain.  Praise that my Abba, my Savior, my Holy Spirit is my only hope, my true hope (Jn 6:68-69) – and He is mine(!); that He is jealous over me for good; that He is my Dad who loves me and longs for my best; that He is the King of kings, deserving of all my trust; that He is drawing me – the apple of His eye(!) (Ps17:8) — to Himself; that moment-by-moment He gives me all He “can” give me; that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory (2 Cor 4:17); that He has prepared a place for me; that one day He, He, He Himself(!) will welcome me into heaven (Ps. 73:24); that one day I will be cresting heaven’s hill and see my God and King running to me – to me! (Lk 15:20); that one day I will run across the field to Him and throw my arms around His neck and hug Him and kiss Him, be experientially one with Him(!), unfettered from the world, the flesh, and the evil one; that one day all my suffering will be redeemed; that one day — and then forevermore(!) — I will explore our redeemed universe with my Savior and King, and those I love.  Yes, Spurgeon’s sermon was my Savior’s call to praise Him, unto deep, abiding comfort.

And then, to further usher my heart into praise, the Lord pointed me to Psalm 100:

Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands!
Worship the Lord with gladness;
Come before His presence with singing.
Know that the Lord, He is God;
It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise.
Be thankful to Him, and bless His name.
For the Lord is good;
His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endures to all generations.

The generosity with which the Lord ministered to me through this experience is too much to take in.  The creativity.  The relentlessness.  The simplicity.  The heart and soul.  It’s just too much.

And yet He was not finished.  For the Lord then condescended to confirm this “praise message” not once, or twice, or even three times.  But four and five times over — independently(!!!) impressing similar praise messages upon my wife (Scripture’s patterns of praise/gratitude leading to blessing), my mom (praise Him, inviting His kingdom rule into our circumstances unto entering into His presence), my sister (prepare the fields of our hearts for a cloudburst of blessing, through breakthrough praise with lifted hands and lifted voices), and my mom’s prayer-warrior friend (praise Him — pressing through, pressing through, pressing through to the realm of His glorious presence).  Stunning!!  Beyond belief!!  Within the span of a few days God independently called each of us – unbeknownst to the others! — to praise Him, however that looks in the ebb-and-flow of each of our lives.  And the cherry on top?  In the midst of praising the Lord, my sister – like me — was led to Psalm 100!

Whew!  Is He not breathtaking?  For He is the God of the universe – the God of all creation – and yet He condescends to reach out, with genuine care and concern, to each of His sheep.  Yes, “He calls His own sheep by name and leads them out.  And when He brings out His own sheep, He goes before them; and the sheep follow Him, for they know His voice.”  Jn 10:3-4 (emphasis added).

That we heard His voice is beyond doubt.  And certainly His cry in the midst of this backbreaking trial is unmistakable:  “Praise Me!  Take your eyes off the trial, off the storm, and praise Me!  Look to Me, behold Me — unto praise!  Look not away!  Press through!  Yes, breakthrough(!!!) — into My glorious presence.”

And notice, His call is not for His benefit, but for ours:

“Praise Me and receive My comfort!” (2 Cor 1:3-4)
“Praise Me and know My presence!” (Jas. 4:8)
“Praise Me and watch the blessings overflow!” (Neh 8:1-12)
“Praise Me and experience My glory!” (2 Chron. 5:13-14)

And so our Good Shepherd steadfastly is calling us to Himself as we walk through the valley of the shadows of death.  Calling us to Himself through the conduit of:

Praise!  Praise!  Praise!

Nothing complicated.  In the ebb and flow of active life, praise Him.  Set apart in my room, praise Him.  In the quiet of my heart, praise Him.  Whether praying or singing, in whispers or in tears.  Whether corporately with family and friends, or off by myself simply speaking those three words, “I trust You.”  Whether praying around the kitchen table, or singing side-by-side with my wife and daughters:

I was sure by now
God You would have reached down
And wiped our tears away
Stepped in and saved the day
But once again, I say “Amen”, and it’s still raining

As the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain:  “I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

I remember when
I stumbled in the wind
You heard my cry to you
And you raised me up again
My strength is almost gone
How can I carry on
If I can’t find You

But as the thunder rolls
I barely hear You whisper through the rain:  “I’m with you”
And as Your mercy falls
I raise my hands and praise the God who gives
And takes away

And I’ll praise You in this storm
And I will lift my hands
For You are who You are
No matter where I am
And every tear I’ve cried
You hold in Your hand
You never left my side
And though my heart is torn
I will praise You in this storm

Casting Crowns, “Praise You in This Storm”.

Yes, I asked my Abba-Father, “How do I experience Your comfort in the midst of pain,” and He answered me, with clarity and confirmation, with heart and grace.  With the love of a father.  A simple answer, from a perfect Father.  No equations.  No semester-long course.  No twelve-step program.  No charts or graphs.  Just two syllables.  Two syllables expressing the cry of His heart, for my best.

“Praise Me.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

In the midst of pain, am I there yet?  I am sorry to say, no.  I don’t praise-Him-unto-experiencing-His-comfort whenever pain strikes.  Not yet.  And my heart has never “soared” amidst pain.  In fact, pain often takes me — suffering, quiet, and distant — to my room, where I can be alone.  For if I can’t glorify God in the midst of pain, it seems best to be alone with Him.

But He is at work in me.  I am headed to the hospital today (Tuesday) for serious complications related to my gall bladder, which may need to be removed.  I have also been told that the cancer in my pancreas and in my liver has grown.  Sobering news, indeed.  News we received four days ago, Friday, on the cusp of sharing the holiday weekend with my brother visiting us from New York, my mom visiting us from Pennsylvania, and my eldest daughter home from college.

And we – my mom, my brother, my family and I – strengthened and upheld by God, drew near to Him, each in our own way, heartfully, in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23-24), unto praise.  And so the weekend was not ruined by the doctor’s report.  No, we were comforted by God.  There was laughter and joy and celebration.  Would we have preferred better news?  Of course!  Was there an ever-present “reminder” that I may be gone in six months?  Yes!  Did that impact the weekend?  Of course it did — to a slight degree.  But the overarching tenor of the weekend was one of peace and joy and love.  Of celebration, for we were together(!).  And it was good.  A good and perfect gift from the Father of lights who does not change (Jas. 1:17).  But even beyond that, we could celebrate with peace and joy and love because our hope — our eternal hope — is in Christ.  And we are assured that one day we will be together, celebrating for all of eternity in a redeemed universe, in the midst of our Savior and King.

I told my wife the other day I just couldn’t imagine being on the threshold of eternity without this assurance, this hope.  If all we had to hope in was whether the test results came back good, then Friday would have been a doomsday scenario.  If all our hope was pinned on me living an extra 15 years, the weekend would have been filled with angst and gloom and hopelessness, instead of laughter and song and hope.  I can’t imagine how hard, how impossible, that kind of a life would be.  By its very nature, that type of reliance upon good fortune and good health inevitably yields hopelessness.  Maybe not today, or next year, or next decade.  But it is inevitable.  For there’s just no getting around the truth that each man is appointed once to die (Heb 9:27).

“Praise Me, and be comforted.”  It’s still so very hard for me to do that in the midst of serious pain.  But in other ways my Abba-Father — God Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth — is mercifully and compassionately reminding me that comfort follows praise.  For when I am confronted with my very real mortality, I find myself contemplating, with grace and thanksgiving, who He is, His heart toward me, and who I am in Christ.  When death seems to inch closer and breathe upon me, I consider that my tombstone inevitably will read 1960 – 20xx — and realize, to the praise and glory of my Savior, that whether the “xx” is 12 or 42 really doesn’t make all that much difference.  For the truth is that one day I will be cresting a hill to see my God and my King running to me – to me!  And yes, one day I will run to Him and throw my arms around Him and hug Him and kiss Him and know Him so intimately.  And one day – one day — to the praise of His glorious name, I will either be in heaven to welcome my loved ones into eternity, or I will be welcomed into eternity by my loved ones.  Those who also know Him, who look to Jesus as their Savior.  Their one true hope.  The only true hope.

And for these things I praise(!) Him.  Yes, praise Him!  Even when — no, especially when! — death stares me in the eye.  And as I do this, as I praise Him, I find my soul is quieted, refreshed.

Comforted.

And in that way, through those experiences, my Abba-Father is gently encouraging me, preparing me, strengthening me, to praise Him even in the midst of pain, which currently is so very hard for me to do.

May it be so, my King.  May it be so!  To the glory of Your name!

Day 99 — Presence

(The following blogpost was written over the course of several weeks, which have been exceedingly difficult with respect to pain.  Please see the “Med Status” page for periodic updates in this regard.)

“The gift of presence is a rare and beautiful gift.  To come unguarded, undistracted, and be present and fully engaged with the one whom we are with.  Have you noticed in reading the Gospels that people enjoyed being around Jesus?  They wanted to be near him – to share a meal, take a walk, have a lingering conversation.  It was the gift of his presence.  When you were with him, you felt like he was offering you his heart.”  John Eldredge.

“Jesus said to him, . . . “If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; and from now on you know Him and have seen Him. . . . He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”  Jn 14:6, 7, 9b.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  Heb 13:8.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

It’s 4:00 in the afternoon and as I type this I am in pain.  More so than usual for daytime.  Much more.  Stabbing pain on both sides of my lower ribcage region; dull, heavy pain in both flanks of my back.  Unusual in its severity for this time of day.   The bitter taste at the back of my throat is a brief reminder that I’ve just swallowed my third vicodin for the day, to go with the timed-release morphine that is constantly flowing through my blood, 24/7.  I only get six vicodin a day and I usually have the much-needed luxury of docketing all of those until nighttime, which has always been the most difficult (read:  painful) portion of each 24-hour cycle.  I taste, again, the bitter smudge of vicodin at the back of my throat.  Tonight I’ll get to take three vicodin, at best — half what I’ve needed in the past.

At this level of pain I can’t lie down – every position aggravates and thus heightens the pain in some area or another.  I discovered I can sometimes fall asleep sitting, however, and so when this level of pain strikes at night I sleep as best I can sitting up, migrating from room to room, chair to bed to couch to chair to floor, to get “comfortable” enough to doze off, if even for 60 minutes at a time.  Sleep an hour, wonder hither and yon throughout the house, looking for relief, and sometime later catch another merciful hour of precious sleep, an hour when the pain fades from my consciousness. . . . With a couple of recent exceptions, I haven’t slept more than two or three hours during any given night over the past two weeks.

But that torso/flank pain isn’t the worst.  Not by a long-shot.  The worst, the dreaded, for me, is agonizing lower abdominal pain that keeps me desperately pacing, usually in the dead of night. Although I have horrible lower abdominal pain quite a bit, the pain at this dreaded level has only happened twice.  When it comes, it is unyielding, constant.  Cycling throughout the night from horrible to tremendous to agonizing.  I have prescription meds for the abdominal pain, but they don’t even begin to touch these bouts.

Late Sunday night / early morning Monday of July 22/23 was the worst of the worst.  And in my moments of greatest pain, relentlessly on my feet (or sometimes restlessly kneeling for a moment or two), hour upon hour upon hour, from pre-midnight to after dawn, pacing, moving, without any relief whatsoever, exhausted but unable to rest, I cried out to God in barely audible whispers, unable to muster more than a few syllables at a time.  Spiritually, no longer able to praise Him.  Mentally, no longer able to pray through James 1:2-4 (“[C]ount it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience [perseverance].  But let patience [perseverance] have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing”), Romans 5:3-5 (“[W]e also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us”), or 2 Cor 4:16-18 (“[W]e do not lose heart.  Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day.  For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”)

No, all I could do was say the name of “Jesus”.  Over and over and over again, as I paced and stepped, kept moving, in pain, holding my hand lightly upon my lower abdomen, trusting He knew my heart, my need, and the prayer held within my whispers, “Jesus. . . . . Jesus. . . . . . Jesus.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Years ago I was staying at the Four Seasons Ocean Grande resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on a business “retreat” with the hundred or so other tax attorneys I worked with at a large, international law firm.  During a stretch of mid-afternoon free time I found myself settling into a warm deck chair on the small, private balcony of my room, eager to delve back into a copy of Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny.  I quickly found that if I positioned the chair just right, I had a pretty decent view of the narrow beach fronting the Atlantic Ocean which, for its part, reached far back to the horizon.  Not that I cared all that much.  Although I was happy to have the backdrop, I was never one to be captured by nature.

Although my lukewarm response to nature didn’t bother me on that particular day, it had bothered me deeply for many years.  Previously my wife and I had occasion to ski at Banff, Canada, she being a black diamond expert, and me resembling Bambi on ice (well, not quite that good).  As we were driving along the base of the Canadian Rockies on our way to the store to stock up on groceries for the week, I realized after just a few short moments that I had seen enough.  “I feel so shallow right now,” I confessed to my wife. “Here we are in the midst of the beauty and grandeur of the Canadian Rockies – the Canadian Rockies of all places! – and after thirty seconds I’m completely bored with the view.  I should be deeply moved — awestruck.  At the very least I should not be bored of it after thirty seconds.  I mean, if I am really connected with the Father, shouldn’t I be awestruck by the beauty of creation?  I feel so shallow — so . . . ungrateful.”  And I did.  How could I be so disconnected from my Lord’s spectacular handiwork?  So utterly unmoved?  “How can I be here with You and not be moved be You?”, as the song goes.

And that aspect of my character bothered me for years.  But over time I became resigned to it, and then, ultimately, ok with it.  I decided the Father had designed my heart to connect with Him in different ways.  I figured He determined, for whatever reason, that I wouldn’t bond with Him in that fashion.  My oldest daughter, Megan, by contrast, connects with Him most intimately, it seems, through nature.  And I love that about her relationship the Lord.  Actually, I think that somehow, through the Lord allowing me to so appreciate Megan’s love of nature, I finally became ok with my lack thereof, was finally able to just let it go.

In any event, another reason the view from the Ocean Grande balcony wasn’t much of an issue at that moment was that I was almost fatally near-sighted (a condition that has since been corrected through surgery).  So in order to read, I had removed my glasses and hung them from the collar of my shirt, just under my chin, at which point the ocean was no more than the sound of waves rolling in from a blurred expanse of blue.

As I settled into the chair and read the next line or two of Liberty and Tyranny it dawned on me that I sat not on the chair I previously had brushed clean, but on its soiled twin.  Which meant my white shorts were crushing up against any manner of organic detritus that had blown to rest there.   Not good for someone who packs light.  I jumped up and made a sudden, arcing brush of my hand against the seat.  But the jerk of my body sent not only the dusty debris flying off the chair – but likewise launched my glasses off the balcony and onto the soft, untrodden grass several stories below.  I stared down toward the lawn several long moments, as it took more than a reasonable amount of time for it to register that, yes, in fact, my glasses had fallen off the balcony and I was now essentially blind.  Did that really just happen?  Yes.  Are my glasses really on the ground?  Yes.  Yes they are.

I cautiously made my way down to the hotel lobby, quietly wondering about instances like this:  why are they allowed in our lives; what does God do with such things?  I was uncharacteristically (for me) bemused by it all, the humor of the situation in which I unwittingly found myself.  With the help of a robust, good-natured bellhop, I found the eyeglasses a few minutes later.  Not a scratch.  The bellhop kindly advised me that the best way back to the room would be to swing around the beach side of the hotel.  As I walked along the beachfront I came upon a lawyer-friend who was kicked back on an over-stuffed lounge chair, absorbing the ocean scene.  We chatted a bit before I started back to the room, intent on getting back to the book.

“This really doesn’t do it for you does it?” he asked, meaning the scenery.  (My friend and I are close brothers in Christ who, at the time, met at least weekly, and so we knew a fair amount of the ins and outs of each other.)  “No,” I answered matter-of-factly.  We were both quiet.  I looked back out toward the horizon for a few moments.  “What do you see, anyway?”  I asked him, looking back, square into his eyes.  “I mean, why is this so meaningful to you?”  The faintest vapor of a long forgotten wistfulness was beginning to rise in me again.

“It’s just that it’s the untouched work of God,” he answered.  “The handiwork of God, untouched by man.  And it’s just so beautiful.  So restful.”  And all of a sudden my Father graciously reached down and miraculously opened my heart to this facet of Himself.  For an instant it wasn’t “just” waves rolling in by rote, one after another after another.  It wasn’t just various shades of blue blending together.  It wasn’t just clouds unceremoniously ho-humming across the sky like I’ve seen and ignored countless times before.  The sheer romance of it all gently unfolded inside my heart.  The textures, the hues, the gentleness, the peace.  The Hand and the Heart of it all.  The elegant romance.  For the first time it wasn’t “just nature”.  It was Him, it was His voice, His touch, unwrapping within me a gift of love that He has been cascading all about me with every fragrance of each passing season.  My Father, embracing me.  Again.  Why would He choose to bless me with that revelation in that particular moment, at that particular place, in that particular circumstance?  I have no idea.  It doesn’t matter.  It’s a gift.  And I embrace it.  Embrace my Abba Father — my Dad, my Pa — who loves me.

I remember the first time I came to experience God as my Abba Father.  For years I had been quietly sitting with Him each morning for a solid thirty minutes before I made my way to the gym.  And for years I had been asking Him why I didn’t love Him — and why I didn’t feel His embrace.  My time alone with the Lord felt like time alone with the wall.  And as I longed for His embrace year after year, I found myself wondering more and more if that were really even possible.  And the answer that more-than-occasionally wafted my way was that He was waiting for me to spend more time with Him.  That if I really wanted to know Him, if I really wanted to experience His love for me, I had to invest in the relationship more seriously.  That He is a treasure and I must pursue Him as a treasure.

For years I shrugged it off, and so for years He waited, silently pursuing, gradually and graciously allowing my heart to grow more and more desperate for Him.  And after years of saying “no” to Him – when my heart was finally prepared in ways I still don’t comprehend – He pointed out in His gentle, winsome way, without condemnation, that I was investing an hour each day in work outs at the gym but only half that time dedicated to knowing Him.  (Ironically, I was driving to the gym at 5:30 in the morning when He relayed that particular missive to me ☺.)  And so I decided in that moment that my morning time with Him each day would not be less than one hour.

And once I made that decision, and by His grace kept to it, our relationship began to flourish.  Over time I began to realize that there were many, many occasions where that one hour point was a touchstone of sorts – that as the second hand quietly swept past sixty minutes the Lord’s revelation began, the intimacy deepened, the still quiet voice was spoken and received.  So much so that an hour easily would turn into ninety minutes and more often into two hours, two and a half hours, because I couldn’t bear to leave our time together for what inevitably would be a world of distractions from being with Him, only Him.  And so it is to this very day (or was, until my health precluded it).

(Note:  I am not suggesting that a person must have an extended amount of personal time set aside with the Lord each morning in order to draw near to Him.  Each person is designed to draw near to God in a fashion that is unique to that person.  There are some common denominators, of course, like prayer and Scripture, but the details and recipes are as varied as fingerprints.  Some excellent resources to pursue your design in that regard are:  Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines; John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted; Adele A. Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook; A. W. Tozer, The Purpose of Man (Chapter 12).  It was an incredibly freeing day for me when I realized the tremendous variety of avenues that existed for delving into a relationship with the Lord!)

From that point, and for years afterward, my morning time traced a comfortable, well-worn pattern.  I’d pitch camp in a quiet corner of the family room hours before dawn.  Stocked with Charles Spurgeon’s “Morning and Evening” devotional, my journal, the Word, and a small palate of different colored pens, I’d sink back into a stuffed chair, set my feet up on an ottoman, and settle in for an extended time set apart with my God under the soft glow of small lamp.  A cup of thick, black French Roast alternately warming my hands and waking me up.

During our time together on the morning of June 18, 2004, as I was sitting in the chair, God, for the first time, opened my heart to Him as my Father.  I can’t explain the how’s or why’s or what’s of those moments.  All I know is that one moment, God was “just” God, and then, all of sudden, triggered by I-don’t-even-know-what, my heart somehow knew Him as my Father.  An experiential sonship written, without words, upon my heart.  Over six years into my walk with God as a Christian and, in a single, wondrous moment, God went from a God who is a Father, to God who is my Father, my Dad.  An experiential sonship by which my heart cried, “Abba-Father.

I can only describe experiences like this as moments of heart-understanding.  Truth and reason understood by the mind that the Holy Spirit then plants squarely on the heart.  As A. W. Tozer puts it,

[w]hen the Spirit illuminates the heart, then a part of the man sees which never saw before; a part of him knows which never knew before, and that with a kind of knowing which the most acute thinker cannot imitate.  He knows now in a deep and authoritative way, and what he knows needs no reasoned proof.  His experience of knowing is above reason, immediate, perfectly convincing and inwardly satisfying.

Not surprisingly, my Abba Father moved without delay to memorialize this foundational revelation.  For, the very next morning, before I could even take a few sips of coffee as we settled in together in “our” corner of the family room, He had this to say to me through Morning and Evening’s June 19 morning entry (emphasis added):

Life, comfort, light, purity, power, peace; and many other precious blessings are inseparable from the Spirit’s benign presence. . . . He descends upon the chosen as upon the Lord in Jordan, and bears witness to their sonship by working in them a filial spirit by which they cry Abba, Father.

Yes, those were the very first words that I heard spilling from His heart as I sat with Him that pre-dawn morning.  My Abba, my Father in heaven, aching to confirm for me that 24 hours earlier He had, by His Spirit, touched deeply within my heart, had sealed Himself as my Abba.  My God in heaven moving immediately to confront doubt even before it could begin its venomous whispers.  The Sovereign King holding me in those moments and confirming the pinnacle sentiment on His heart toward me:  that I am His son, one of His chosen, and He is – He is — my Father, my Dad.  My Abba Father who loves me with an everlasting love.  Jer. 31:3.

And, oh, the ever-surprising facets of His love!

In July 2010, my family went to Marco Island, Florida to visit Diane’s father and her brothers and their families.  This is pretty much an annual event.  For a week or two three families descend upon my bachelor father-in-law, who welcomes us with wide-open arms.  His home goes from sedate to sixty in one fell swoop, pedal to the metal for 10 days or so, and then the locusts leave, giving him six months to a year to recover.  Been doing that for 25 years.

Our family loves(!!) those trips for any of a dozen or more reasons:  family, boating, swimming, beaches, great food, great times.  Relaxation and refreshment.  Lots of memories-in-the-making, and lots of late, late, late nights.

Now, I’m not much of a late-night person, so I’m typically not involved too deep into those thrice-late nights.  Which means I have several hours or so at the beginning of most days to hang out, one-on-one, with the Lord, often sitting on the private dock just outside my father-in-law’s home.  I recall one such morning when the mid-summer air was warm and lightly fragrant as I settled into a comfortable deck chair and wrapped myself into the scenery.  The peach and lavender horizon was already giving way to crystal blue, promising another stellar new day.  A lone seagull meandered its way toward the not-too-distant mangroves, searching for the perfect spot, it seemed, to celebrate a pair of pelicans alternately soaring and plunging for breakfast.  Now and again a gentle breeze peacefully rustled the palm fronds overhead, off to my left, as the tide lapped lazily, rhythmically against the breakwall underfoot.  I sipped my coffee, breathed deep.  Relaxed.  From time to time the occasional reddish egret glided past, just out of reach, each press of its wings making a faint, razor-like sound that I had never noticed before.

Typically, I love restful, simple opportunities like this (or, better yet, entire weekends!) – times set aside and spent one-on-one with the Lord, ultimately immersed in Scripture. Theologian Dallas Willard likens these to long, hot showers:

 [I]ntensity is crucial for any progress in spiritual perception and understanding.  To dribble a few verses of chapters of scripture on oneself through the week, in church or out, will not reorder one’s mind and spirit – just as one drop of water every five minutes will not get you a shower, no matter how long you keep it up.  You need a lot of water at once and for a sufficiently long time.  Similarly for the written Word.

(Emphasis in original.)

But the morning of July 29, 2010 was not a typical “Marco morning” of solitude with the Lord, for I was in the midst of a “wilderness” period.  Indeed, the entire summer was a vast, seemingly endless wilderness for me in my walk with the Lord — a period when the Lord seemed very distant from me.  Uninvolved, unconcerned.  A period when the flame in my heart was doused, its embers barely glowing.  My relationship with the Lord seemed lifeless, without heart.  Dusty.  At best, I talked to Him, not with Him.  For all the while He seemed so very silent.  Yes, even as I became more familiar with some dark places within me, I was met with . . . silence.  Consider these excerpts from my journal during those months, including my time at Marco:

  • Abba, Father, I don’t understand why I am so unplugged from You.  I have no heart to praise and worship You.
  • Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit, I am so unsettled and down. . . . I feel so alone and so corrupt, so unchanged deep.  Pride, fear, foolishness, a lack of love from You, in me.
  • My dear Abba, Father, my heart seems dead to You; unrepentant, unloving, ungrateful, unmoved.  That to me seems to be the deepest truest part.  The part of me that comes out when my defenses are down.  I am weak and have nothing to offer You, though You are good and deserving of all my love. . . .
  • My heart fails. . . . [I feel] dead inside to You.  [You seem] superfluous to me.  A genie to me – unreal and burdensome.  My motivation is selfish and fearful.  Help me.
  • My dear Father in heaven, I feel so apart from You.  Please tell me why.
  • [After contemplating creation.]  Now Father I feel as though I must worship You not because I am in awe but because it’s right and good by Your estimation and I would be a bug if I don’t.  Like it’s expected so I better do it.  Meet me there I pray.  Because I want to be in awe of You and spontaneously-praise-You-because-I-am-bursting-to-do-so.  You deserve that from me, but I can’t give it to You.  I’m sorry.  Help me, I pray.
  • I see You as a hard King, despite Your gracious way with me repeatedly, a King who is growing fed up, and I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, . . . but [I’m] too entrenched in and hugging the world to want to change, to dance around You.  I am lukewarm, half-hearted.  I see You as superfluous.  I tolerate you.  That is a deep sentiment within me, toward You.  Show me that You are great.  Open my eyes to Your majesty.

So in the midst of this wilderness I found myself on the dock at Marco, one-on-one with the Lord, welcoming a new July day.  My journal reminds me I was hunkered down with Scripture, delving into the characteristics of God’s delight and His love, as best I could in my spiritual wilderness.  “Your love is,” I brainstormed, in fits and starts, “a delighting love, . . . a jealous love, . . . a selective love, . . . an awestruck love. . . .”  The list developed slowly, for I just couldn’t sustain any lengthy focus.  “. . . An unhurried love, . . . an honest love, . . . a personal love. . . .”  I kept finding my mind wandering down any number of trite and meaningless trails, before coming back to His love. “. . . .An experiential love, . . . a passionate love, . . . an all-knowing love.”  Meditation turned into movie possibilities or lunch options, but then veered back on track.  “. . . A consuming fire, . . . a pursuing love, . . . a giving love.”  Contemplation turned into heavy breathing (with perhaps some light snoring).  Prayer became empty thoughts of nothing.

So there I was.  Sitting on the dock.  Mind wandering.  Totally distracted and seemingly apart from God in the midst of a spiritual wilderness.  Trying to lean into the Lord but off in my own little world.  Glassy-eyed.  Entranced by nothing, oblivious to everything.  And then, all of a sudden, an enormous bellowing, blowing, other-worldly noise blasted from directly underneath my feet:

“WHHOOOOOFFFSHHH!!”

My heart bounded directly from chest to throat as my body seemingly launched a good two feet into the air, fueled by streams of adrenaline suddenly rocketing through my veins.  What was that?!?!”  My mind raced as I peered over the dock at the murky water, which at high tide was little more than an arm’s length from my feet.  “What was that?!”

Right on cue a solitary dolphin rather nonchalantly surfaced, just off the dock, and idled a few feet from me, exposing little more than its blowhole . . . which it promptly cleared (again!) — “WHHOOOOOFFFSHH!!” – before quietly dipping back into the intercoastal, thank you very much.

I love the ways He loves me (and you!)!  Think of the all the arrows my Abba-Father had in His quiver as my mind hopelessly roamed away from Him, my atrophied heart in tow.  He could have snapped me to attention in any number of ways.  Perhaps lay on some guilt along the way (which, by the way, He never does to His children).  So what did He choose to do in those moments, as I floundered in the wilderness?  He pulled a prank!  How hilarious!  To paraphrase my friend Dave, I can just see Him in heaven, calling some angels over, smiling – no, beaming – as my mind wandered for the ump-teenth time that morning.  I picture a broad grin filling His face, a light-hearted shake of His head as He says, bright-eyed, to His gathered angels, “Well, there he goes again ☺ . . . .  mind wandering all over the place. ☺  Yep, that’s my boy.  OK.  Watch this, watch this.  This is gonna be great!”

WHHHOOOOOFFFSSSHH!!

Our Father’s heart is so continually stunning, is it not?!?!  The sheer, unbridled, playful love in all of this is so disarming, so enchanting, so inviting!  This bit of slapstick was my Abba Father’s creative, loving, winsome way of reminding me of a truth I had read years before, penned by Pastor Reggie McNeal:  “God is patient in the wilderness.  He uses the experience to sculpt [a person’s] heart.  We see the wilderness as something to avoid or to spend as little time in as possible. . . . [But] God uses wilderness trials, even the devil’s wiles, as tools in his heart surgery. . . .”  Yes, of all things – of all things(!!) — my Abba-Father used the foghorn-blast of a dolphin’s blowhole amidst the utter stillness of a coastal dawn to let me know, in my wilderness trial, that He is the God of all creation and He is with me – yes, delights in me –though I cannot see Him.  That although He’s silent, it’s going to be OK.  That He knows I’m in the wilderness, but it is purposeful and right for me to be there, for reasons I do not know.  But He knows, and He’s there.  And it’s OK.

Another facet.  I added it to my list (possibly having read it earlier, I believe(?) in a Ransomed Heart newsletter):   “Your love is . . . a playful love.”

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

An unplanned afternoon walk on the beach scripted by my Father (in the most unlikely fashion!), an early-morning drive to the gym, the pre-dawn solitude and silence of “our” quiet corner, a dolphin amidst a wilderness daydream.  Markers – Ebenezers (1 Sam 7:12) — of His presence in my life.  There is no god like our God!  For “the gift of presence is a rare and beautiful gift.  To come unguarded, undistracted, and be present and fully engaged with the one whom we are with.”  An offering of the heart.  Yes, He offers His very heart!

Intimate, cherished memories of my walk with the Lord.  Memories, it seems, from a long time ago. . . .

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

All I could do was say the name of “Jesus”.  Over and over and over again, as I paced and stepped, kept moving, in pain, holding my hand lightly upon my lower abdomen, trusting He knew my heart, my need, and the prayer held within my whispers,  “Jesus. . . . . . Jesus. . . . . . Jesus.”

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Our great forefathers of the faith testify that suffering is a path to deeper intimacy with the Lord, but, to date, I really haven’t experienced much of that.  I am trying to understand this concept, to learn how to draw near in especial ways in the midst of ongoing pain and suffering.  And there have been some wonderful revelations and experiences in that regard.  But thus far I would have to say that I am awaiting heart-understanding of those things — the Holy Spirit’s “illumination of my heart”.  And so, overall, the suffering has suppressed my daily intimacy with the Lord.  Indeed, between pain and fatigue and protocols and tests and trips to doctors, I find it harder to draw near to the Lord than at any time since my decision to give Him at least an hour each morning.

I guess this struggle with intimacy doesn’t really surprise me at this point.  I recall a teaching many, many years ago that went something like this:  some folks figure there will be plenty of time to draw near to the Lord when they fall ill.  That then, when they “need it most”, they’ll draw near.  But the teaching continued:  the problem is, when you’re sick, it will be so much harder to draw near because you just won’t feel like drawing near.

In some ways that is my life right now – the life I’ve had during the past month.  Although I have been home almost all day every day for the past four weeks, I’ve been in too much pain or experiencing too much sickness to passionately draw near.  Gone, for now, are the hours-long “showers” of conversation and heart-shaping.  Gone, for now, are long, intimate mornings in “our” corner of the family room.  And I cannot tell you how much I miss these times with the Lord!  How I miss being with Him in this fashion, pouring over Scripture to gaze into His face and hear His voice speaking to me.

This unmet longing suggests that there’s something more at play than not feeling like drawing near, not wanting to.  No, as a believer, my deepst, truest heart pants after His heart.  Ez. 36:26.  The problem is not that I lack the desire.  Rather, the problem is that I can’t truly draw near like I used to because in the midst of the pain I can’t give my Abba Father the gift of my undistracted, fully engaged presence.  The pain is too much.  I long to give Him that gift, but the pain distracts and precludes full engagement.  So intimacy has suffered.  And make no mistake:  there is no word I know of to describe the depth of my sadness at this turn of events in my walk with the Lord.  An experience far beyond the “mere” wildernesses I have lived through.

And so, just like a piercing sore throat makes me appreciate what it’s like to swallow smoothly, effortlessly, without even noticing, this “valley of the shadow of death” is making me appreciate more and more what it’s like to draw near to the Lord in the midst of carefree good health.  I long to sit with Him, fit and robust.  To walk outdoors during this magnificent summer and breathe in His presence with the freedom of vibrant, physical strength, instead of stepping gingerly out onto our back deck in sobering pain and weakness.  To thoroughly immerse myself in His presence for hours, instead of snatching distracted scraps of time here and there.

Oh how I long to give Him the gift of my presence.  Unguarded.  Undistracted.  Fully engaged.  Nonetheless, I am endeavoring to learn what it means to draw near to the Lord in suffering and pain.   I trust that that is possible — and expect it to even be beautiful somehow.  But at the moment I deeply appreciate, in subtle ways I never have before, the precious opportunity that good health affords to draw near to the Lord, to hear His voice, to experience His presence, His heart.  To know Him, unto life.  Jn 17:3.

Shortly after my cancer diagnosis, one of my band of brothers drew a parallel to the story of the paralytic whose friends lowered him through the roof of the house where Jesus was teaching, in the hopes that Jesus would heal him (Lk 5:17-26).  My Christian brother’s words were prescient, for at this point I am, in many ways, like that paralytic – the man who cannot come before the Lord (at least not like he used to) — and I am looking to prayer warriors (thank you!!) to lower me before Him, to bring me into His presence, for healing and ministry.  For despite my history with the Lord, and my passion to draw near to Him, my pain and sickness has been a stalwart roadblock that I generally have not been able to overcome these past several weeks.  I do have isolated moments of intimacy with Him (thanks be to God(!)) — Jesus was experientially with me as I rested my head sideways against the pillow the other night sitting up in bed — but nothing like before.

I have experienced, now, both good health and bad, and I now understand, like I’ve never understood before, that the blessing of good health is a treasure.  A wonderful, blessed treasure.  And at the moment, I don’t seem to possess that treasure.

Do you?

Do you possess the treasure of good health?

For, like all such treasures, it is meant to be shared and enjoyed with the Lord.  Shared and enjoyed, above all, by giving Him the rare and beautiful gift of your presence.

Unguarded.
Undistracted.
Fully engaged.
Presence.

And it is a gift He aches for you to give Him, for only you can give God the rare and beautiful gift of your presence.  Only you(!) — whatever that may look in your life, based on God’s perfect design of who you are and how you are made to connect with Him (see resources noted above).

And yes, it may involve rearranging your life a bit to create the necessary space, the “margin”, to draw near.  But to the extent your “life as usual” must go, it will be replaced by something – no, Someone — far, far better (Dallas Willard).  For even as He yearns to receive the gift your presence, so too does He give you the incomparable gift of His presence (Mt 28:20; Heb 13:5) – unguarded, undistracted, fully engaged(!!).  His heart, one-on-one.  Always.

Yes, He has “unplanned” walks He longs to take with you, quiet corners where He is waiting, even now, for you, playful times He has in store for you, words of love He aches to whisper to you, messages from His Word meant just for you, and feelings and experiences He longs to impress, without words, upon your heart.

Deep is calling unto deep, reaching for the rare and beautiful gift of your presence.  And this is the moment to answer that call.  Now.

Now.

For who knows what next year, next month, next week, or even tomorrow, may bring. . . .

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I paced and stepped, kept moving, in pain, holding my hand lightly upon my lower abdomen, trusting He knew my heart, my need, and the prayer held within my whispers, “Jesus. . . . . . Jesus. . . . . . Jesus.”

For in those moments, that was all I could do.

Day 70 — God of All

As I headed to Brandywine Falls for my time away with the Lord (see “Day 59 – His Voice”), I made an unscheduled “pit-stop” of sorts.  I drove to a bend in the Cuyahoga River that has particular significance to me in my walk with the Lord, born of an earlier pit-stop I made there on Monday, August 29, 2011.  That first pit-stop occurred shortly after I finished teaching a weekend retreat last summer (“At Rest in the Heart of God”) for two of my daughters and six of their friends.

The morning of August 29 I was on my way to work in downtown Cleveland and decided to head through the Cuyahoga Valley.  As I meandered my way down into the valley, a particular bend in the Cuyahoga River came to my mind and I felt as if, perhaps, the Lord might want me to stop there, to enjoy a moment with Him.  And as the river came into view I noticed a light mist hanging just above the water line, upstream of the bend, and wondered whether the Lord had something to say to me through that mist, that image.

I felt rather strongly as if I should head over that way — and slowed down almost to a stop at the entrance to the parking area near that bend – before deciding to just skip it and head on into work.  But as soon as I made that decision I sensed a deep sadness in the Lord, as if He was impressing upon me, with the utmost sincerity of heart, that He really had wanted me to stop there to be with Him.  I kept driving, but as each tenth of a mile clicked by my sense of the Lord’s sorrow continued to build until, about ½ mile away, I just couldn’t stand that feeling anymore.  So I turned around and headed back to the bend. When I got there I pulled into the empty parking lot and parked facing the river, which sits about twenty or thirty feet lower than the parking area.

I got out of the car and walked over to a sizeable flat rock that overlooks the river, and from there scanned the scene.  I remember the graceful, lilting limbs of a slender white birch reaching toward a vibrant blue sky, just off to my right.  To my left, upstream, I once again saw the mist hanging just above the water, rising here and there about six inches, maybe a foot or so.  Nothing unusual there, but I asked the Lord, as I often do, “what do You want to say to me in this Lord?  What do You have for me here?”

Silence.  Nothing.  I closed my eyes and tried to give myself over more purposefully to hearing from the Lord.  Nothing.  I listened to the sounds of the river, the breeze, the quiet movement of birch, limb and leaf.  Nothing.  After a time I opened my eyes again, and decided there would be nothing for me in the mist, so to speak, this day.  (Perhaps a “mark this” moment?).

The river below me was moving slowly, and my mind turned to still waters, green pastures, restoration of soul.  I closed my eyes again and breathed deep, the smells of late summer filling my senses.  My mind turned to the girls on the retreat, and I prayed through Psalm 23 for them, fervently, and then prayed that the truths of the retreat would go deep for each one, according to their hearts’ truest needs as known only by the Lord.  As I prayed I sensed the Lord’s delight with the retreat, that the weekend was good and right, that He was pleased.  And, yes, I sensed His good pleasure even with me (Ps. 18:19), His son. Oh, how welcomed were those moments by the river!  How needed(!!) were those moments.  Moments of peace and assurance.

Moments of soul restoration.

After a while I opened my eyes, intending to leave, and there, before me, directly in front of me, reaching from the river 20 or 30 feet below and up another 30 feet or more beyond toward the sky, and stretching about 20 feet or so wide, was a well-defined, vertical column of mist.  Not moving with the river, but stationary in front of my eyes.  I was dumbfounded.  “Can this be?” I wondered.  “Is this You, Lord?”  I stared in disbelief.  The pillar of mist stayed for about 15 seconds, and then, just like that, it was gone.  I looked upstream and down for anything else like it.   Nothing.  I waited another five minutes for anything like it, any where on the stream within my sight.  Nothing.

I continued to stand in disbelief.  Not disbelief that I had seen what I had seen, but disbelief that it really was God speaking to me in this fashion.  I hesitated to believe.  Surely this was God, I thought, and yet surely such a feat must be somehow explainable wholly apart from Him, right?  Any meteorologist worth his salt could explain away the pillar of mist with a wave of the hand and perhaps a chart of two, couldn’t he?

Perhaps.  But perhaps not.

And even so, what if a meteorologist could explain a single, solitary 15-second pillar of mist standing stationary over a moving river?  What about the initial sense, as I had meandered my way down to the valley, that the Lord wanted me to go to that very spot on the river, and then the impression that perhaps He had something to say via the mist?  What about the undeniable tug upon my heart as I had approached and then passed by the bend?  And the deepening sense of the Lord’s sorrow that relentlessly had pulled me back to that very spot — at just the right time, at just the right place, to witness this 15-second event?  These things cannot be denied, not by me, for I lived through them, personally experienced them.

No, the absurdity for me would be to deny, through disbelief, that the God of all creation could orchestrate all of this for a son whom He loves.  And to deny, through disbelief, that He would orchestrate all of this for His son, to deny that He would condescend to speak to me, to my heart, in an especial way, through the very creation that He rules.  For to know Him is to know not only that He could, but that He would.  And to be there that morning is to know that He did.

No, as I stood on that rock on August 29 my Father showed me the reason His heart grieved so deeply when I chose to press down on that gas pedal and go on my way — when I chose to press down on His whisper and accelerate into the workweek, saying “no” to His invitation to be with Him, just Him, in solitude and silence, if even for a few minutes.  For He was inviting me to a remote place, free of distractions, at a particular moment in our walk together, to show me His presence in my life, to bare His heart, in yet another intimate way.  To speak of His approval and pleasure and delight and then weave those sentiments into the fabric of my heart through the romance of His creation.  An experience, a love note, meant only for me, His beloved, in those solitary, unhurried, still and quiet moments.  A gift, an embrace, from my Abba, my Savior, my Holy Spirit, that He longed to give me –

and that I would have missed entirely . . .
not even knowing what I had missed

had I stayed my course to arrive in downtown Cleveland 20 or 30 minutes earlier.  Living – rushing – through the morning, the day, in my timing, in my way, as I am so often wont to do.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

The recent morning I headed out to Brandywine Falls for purposeful time away with the Lord, for His counsel with respect to our treatment options, I ran to the basement to grab some ice for my coolers.  I have been journaling with the Lord for 10 years or so, and a couple of those journals were lying on a table by the downstairs refrigerator.  My journals contain not only prayers to the Lord, but notes from Bible meetings I regularly have with brothers in Christ; extensive notes from my meditations upon and study of Scripture; excerpts from books, devotionals, reference tools, and even long-ago sermons of our forefathers; and notes from sermons at my church and elsewhere.

As I closed the freezer door I sensed that I should grab those two old journals and bring them along on the retreat.  (I should say, I sensed again that I should grab those, because I had felt a niggling of sorts for a few days that I should bring them.)  I picked up the old journals and stuffed them into my computer bag.

As I drove toward the falls I called my brother, who wanted to pray with me before my time away.  I told him about John 10:40 serving as the basis for this trip (as described at “Day 59”), and that I would be heading somewhere special.  He asked if it was the place with the mist, and I said “No . . . but . . . change of plans . . .  I’m going to stop there first, on my way to [the falls].”

When I arrived at the parking area near the bend in the Cuyahoga River, I was disappointed to see the lot was pretty much full – disappointed, that is, until I noticed that the parking space directly in front of “my” flat rock was vacant.  I pulled in and set up an old camping chair in the grass by the rock, memories of August 29 flowing and wafting all around me.

As I sank into the chair I held my face up toward the blue, noonday sky and let the sun warm my face for a minute or two before I looked out across the river, to the thick line of trees across the way.  I had a strong sense of the Lord’s presence, His pleasure.  That this was good and it was right.  And for a brief moment my heart was overtaken — overwhelmed — by His presence. . . . My Abba Father welcoming me into His arms, His embrace, as I settled into our time together.

One of the first verses the Lord planted on my heart (along with John 10:40) upon hearing the cancer diagnosis was Ps 46:10:  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  And as I sat before the river that verse again came immediately to mind.  There is a great deal packed into those words, which have been translated from the original Hebrew text.  In part, “be still” means, variously, relax, let go, cease from your own efforts, become helpless, sink into.  The word “know” means to ascertain by seeing; it has an experiential component.  In other words, ‘be still, and see, experience, that I am God.’

When that verse came to my mind I accepted it as a prompting from the Lord, and tried to clear my mind and just let go of everything.  To be “still”, to empty myself and sink into the Lord.  But as my time by the river continued unfolding I sensed the Lord telling me “no”.  That that was not how I was to “be still and sink in” in those moments.  No, instead, I was to leaf through those two old journals that I had thrown into my computer bag and camp there, because, unbeknownst to me,

those two journals contained all I needed for the retreat.

All the “work” had already been done.  All the sermon messages I needed were there.  All the Bible study and meditation I would need had been recorded in those pages.   All the excerpts and quotes that I would need — from books and blogs and other extra-Biblical materials — were taped and stapled onto those pages.  All the “heavy lifting” had already been done.  All I needed to do was look over those journals with my “new” eyes – the eyes I now had in light of the cancer diagnosis, and in light of the focused questions that were on my mind.  Yes, all that was left for me to do was simply relax, with Him, and “ascertain by seeing” that He is God.  Ps. 46:10.  For He had been preparing me for this retreat even when those journals were penned, though I did not know it.

And so that’s how our retreat together unfolded.  Whether relaxing in the shade by a softly-flowing river, or lying in the quiet fragrance of an out-of-the-way meadow, or sitting aside a woodburning stove, my rocking chair creaking against the pine planks of a two-room cabin, I restfully, peacefully, settled in and spent time with my Abba and read through those journals, cover-to-cover, with my new eyes, taking notes as further guided and counseled by the heart and voice of the Holy Spirit.  And all the Biblical principles I needed – all the Biblical principles I needed – were right there, laid out before me from an earlier season of my life by my Abba, my Father, my King, my God of all, who is like no other (Is 46:9).

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Remember how that particular bend in the Cuyahoga River is special to me because of that August 29 morning of intimate prayer with the Lord, the sense of His delight, the appearance of the pillar of mist?  Well, in the midst of my unscheduled, impromptu visit to that bend in the river on my way to the Brandywine Falls retreat, the Lord underscored the miracle that happened on the morning of August 29.  For, sometime in the past, I had transcribed Psalm 99 onto pages 8 and 9 of the first “everything-you-need-is-right-here” journal, and at the very top of page 9, front and center, I had written, in turn, Ps 99:7:

“He [God] spoke to them in a cloudy pillar. . . .”

And the Hebrew word for “cloud”? . . . It also means “heavy mist”(!).

Yes, as I sat by the bend my God and my King was once again telling me, reminding me, underscoring for me that, indeed, “He spoke to [me] in a pillar of heavy mist” on August 29.  I can almost imagine Him winking as I read those words in the journal, because His reminder came even as I began leafing through those journals with an ever-increasing amazement and wonder at the incomprehensible majesty of who He is.  For every bit as much as He orchestrated the mist, that entire morning of August 29, to further capture and captivate me with His majesty and His heart, I realized, as I read over those old journals, that He had orchestrated the ebb and flow of my studies with Him, my conversations with Him, my very life with Him (Ps. 139:16), to confirm in a whole new way His majesty and sovereignty over all things.  To show me, again, that He alone is God, that He alone rules and reigns.  And to personally and powerfully remind me, in the midst of my cancer, that He, God Almighty, who alone rules and reigns, has an epic concern for my well-being.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Experiences like these catch me off-guard, because I just don’t expect God to do things like this.  And this reaction helps me realize that I don’t really “get” that He is God (Is. 45:3-5), and I don’t really “get” how much He truly does love me (Eph 3:18-19).  And there is a deep and beautiful wonder, a penetrating excitement to that — to the ever-expanding realization that I — we — have the utter privilege of drawing continually nearer to the God of all, who is forever beyond our ability to wholly comprehend.  And that for all of eternity we will be coming to know and appreciate more and more of His infinite facets, with greater and greater depth and clarity, for knowledge of Him, this Treasure, is inexhaustible.  Yes, these experiences point me ever more dearly to Him, make me pant more and more for Him.  And serve to remind me that the more I relax, the more I cease from my own self-efforts, take my foot off of my own accelerator and sink into Him, the more I will see Him, experience His heart, in endlessly new and expanding ways . . . unto falling ever more deeply in love, with Him.  Ps. 46:10.

Day 59 — His Voice

I went away recently for a couple of days, to be alone with the Lord, to hear from Him and be guided by Him, be guided by His Word, with respect to the treatment options that we were facing.  I didn’t know what that would look like — there is no Bible verse that says, “Here is the medical treatment approach you take to defeat advanced pancreatic cancer”.  All I did know is that my Father, My King, had called me to be with Him, alone, and had placed upon my heart a deep, deep longing to seek Him, to seek His face, in solitude and silence.

“When you said, ‘Seek My face,’ my heart said to You, ‘Your face, Lord, I will seek.’”  Ps. 27:8.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Earlier this year the Lord had me camp at John 10:40:  ”And He [Jesus] went away again beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed.”  I recall it was the sheer poetry of the verse – the utter restfulness of it all — that first caught my attention.  In a book (the Bible) that necessarily condenses its prose and invites the reader to delve deep into the text, led and taught by the Holy Spirit, this verse seemed to meander along quite unconcerned with word count.  “And He went away again beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed.”  In the peaceful pacing of those words, I heard my Abba-Father’s voice, His heart, calling to me, drawing me close.  And so I drew near, and stayed with Him there for a period that extended for days, a week, two weeks, and more, during the month of February.

But even after all that time, I had the sense that I was missing something.  There was a missing piece, something that I couldn’t quite latch onto.  A key piece, it seemed.  Sometimes the Lord will do this with me.  He will bring me to a verse simply to say “Mark this.”  He will make a verse or a passage stand out to me, and I will sit with it and meditate upon it — sometimes for a day, sometimes even for weeks — before I understand that now is not the time for His full revelation to me.  The point is, He is saying to me “Mark this.  One day I’m going to bring you right back to this verse to speak to you, but now is not the time.  Right now, I’m just saying ‘Mark this, remember this day, this moment, these words, because when the time comes for Me to speak to you more fully in this verse, I want you to know – to know, in an especial way – that it’s Me.’”

*   *   *   *   *   *

I vividly remember watching the sun rise one morning with my God and King at Brandywine Falls — a small, rather out-of-the-way waterfall near my home.  The Lord had invited me to do that with Him — propelled me to do that with Him (but that’s another story ☺) — one fall morning years ago.  That morning was a particularly intimate morning for us, and I’m sure it is written on my heart for all of eternity.  But for now I want to share just one small thing that happened that morning.  It was something I didn’t quite “get” — a “mark this” moment.  I saw a single leaf falling from a tree.  It variously lilted and tumbled and turned as it meandered its way from oak to stream.  Then another.  A single leaf, twirling quickly, its descent a bit more rapid before it settled abruptly upon the grass below.  Then another, its dance and its resting place altogether different.  And another, then another.  On and on, amidst the quiet of stream and breeze.  So restful.  So peaceful.  And I remember wondering “Lord, what are You saying here?  What do you have for me here?”  But there was nothing more.  It was a “mark this” moment.

Several months later I was sitting by the fireplace before dawn, after a fresh snowfall of four, maybe five, inches.  A peaceful Saturday was promised ahead as I warmed my hands against the soft glow of orange coals, certain the rising sun would soon unveil trees and shrubs gently wrapped, branch and twig, in delicate white.  My family slept soundly, safely upstairs.  For me, there was

solitude and silence.

God and me.

Alone, together . . .

He waiting to unwrap for me His gift of an untouched snowscape, and me excited to cherish that gift, that morning, with Him.  I set aside my journal and reached for some split cherry to keep the fire apace, wondering what Scripture to open, asking Him for guidance.  I had been longing for quite some time to meditate upon His voice, as described by the Psalmist, but I always got the sense that the timing wasn’t right.  From time to time I would move in that direction, but each time I sensed a soft, unspoken resistance of sorts, and so I would set it aside to wait for Him.

That morning, our wait was over.  For as I sat with the Lord, staring into the fire, seeking His guidance, I was surprised (and pleased!) when I sensed Him encouraging me to explore His voice.  I hadn’t asked, but it was time.

I had forgotten which Psalm it was, but recalled that I scrawled “HIS VOICE” in big letters on that page of my Bible so I would be able to find it when the time came.  I leafed through the Bible and found those block letters aside Psalm 29, settled in close to the fire, and began meditating upon His voice as revealed through David’s poetic heart.

3The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
The God of glory thunders;
The Lord is over many waters.
 4The voice of the Lord is powerful;
The voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
5The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars,
Yes, the Lord splinters the cedars of Lebanon.
 6He makes them also skip like a calf,
Lebanon and Sirion like a young wild ox.
 7The voice of the Lord divides the flames of fire.
8The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
The Lord shakes the Wilderness of Kadesh.
 9The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth,
And strips the forests bare;
And in His temple everyone says, “Glory!”

(Psalm 29:3-9).  For a time much of the Psalm was hidden from me.  I struggled.  I saw the sheer power and majesty of the Lord, but not much more.

“What do you have for me here, Lord?  Teach me, I pray.”

I meandered my way through the Psalm again.  Glory, thunder, power, majesty, breaks, splinters. . . .  As I came to verse 9 I pictured the Lord’s thundering voice just absolutely blasting a forest bare, in an instant.  BOOM!  Done!!

But in that moment my heart replayed a solitary, lilting leaf balleting its way, restfully, gracefully, toward the ground, quietly nestling into its place beside a gently flowing stream born of Brandywine Falls. . . . My Father unfolding for me the meaning of that long ago “mark this” moment:

“That is how My voice strips a forest bare.”

I thought back to Brandywine Falls — and suddenly I saw the quiet beauty, the sheer romance of it all.  There was no rush. . . . It was not frantic and hurried. . . .

It was slow –

– so slow that I didn’t even realize, as I sat by the falls, that He was stripping an entire forest bare, right in front of me, all around me, in those very moments.

By His power, by His might, He was accomplishing much(!) — transforming an entire forest(!!!) — but His voice, His heart in that, was subtle . . . it was thoughtful . . . and gentle . . . and creative . . . and romantic . . . and soft . . . and enthralling. . . .

And with that the Lord began to unfold His Psalm (Ps. 32:8; Ps. 94:12; Is. 45:3).  As I delved into the original Hebrew text the Word spoke to me of my King (v 3-6) and my Father (v 7-9).  A King who is almighty, full of majesty, in control.  And yet a King who is my Father, who searches out and speaks to my deepest heart with love and compassion and understanding.

My Abba-King.

And then, in those pre-dawn moments, “glory”, “thunder”, “power”, “majesty”, “breaks”, “splinters” somehow became not so much words or concepts, but poetry that my Lord laid upon my heart.  And even as my heart – my heart – knew Him as Omnipotent King in those moments, my heart likewise knew that those gently falling leaves expressed the voice of Someone in love.  That, yes, this King – the King — was so very much in love even with me.  My heart knew, felt, without words:

 God.

Loves.

 Me.

My heart broke within me.  I quietly, tearfully, moved down from my rocking chair, onto my knees — and before the warmth of the small fire, my heart trembling with love, gave myself, all of me, over to my God, my Father, my Love.

 *   *   *   *   *   *

May 2, the day we received the initial cancer diagnosis, seems like a long time ago.  And yet, in some ways, it was yesterday.  I remember we — Diane and I — returned from the Cleveland Clinic and stood together in the kitchen, talking.  During our conversation I recall there was a pause, a lull.  Silence.  For a moment, neither of us had anything to say. . . .

And amidst that quiet my Father silently spoke to me:  “And He went away again beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed.”

My mind, in seconds, recalled and replayed the context of the verse that I had bathed in for most of February.  Jesus had just been thrown out of Jerusalem, run out of the city He loved, by the people He loved.  Though He had tried for months to romance them – healing, forgiving, teaching, ministering, loving – they wanted Him dead.  He would not go back to Jerusalem until He returned for Passover, for His crucifixion, three months later.

In John 10:40, Jesus’ world was listing all around Him, and He knew He was three months from His death.

And in those very moments 2,000 years ago, the Father asked Jesus to come be with Him in a particularly intimate place – the place where Jesus was baptized.  The very place where, three years earlier, the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ even as His Father openly declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” For Jesus, a place of emotion and assurance and heart, where scent and sight and sound resonated, deep, with memory and meaning.  And it was a remote place, a restful place, of solitude and silence.  A place to detach from the world, and sink into the Father.  A place of refreshment, focus, fulfillment, and call clarification.  A place to breathe deep, with eyes and heart and ears and hands heavenward.

“And He went away again beyond the Jordan to the place where John was baptizing at first, and there He stayed.”

As my Abba-Father spoke those restful, poetic words to me on May 2, I understood, I knew.  They shared not only His heart toward Jesus, His call to Jesus when Jesus’ world was listing and death drew near, but they likewise expressed His heart toward me, His call to me, as my world listed, as death (so I was told) drew so very near.  I realized, then, that the missing piece, in February, the part of the text I couldn’t “get”, was me.  The Lord brought me to that verse in February because He knew May 2 was coming.  That a day was coming when I would need to know – oh how very, very much I would need to know – that He was there.  With me.  For me.  Holding me, calling unto me.  In love with me.  Yes, He knew how much I would need Him.

Oh how much – how much! — I need Him.

And so He took the time, over the course of several weeks in February, to take me, His beloved, deep into that verse and, ultimately, to say to me, “Mark this.  One day I’m going to bring you right back to this verse to speak to you, but now is not the time.  Right now, I’m just saying ‘Mark this, remember this day, this moment, these words, because when the time comes for Me to speak to you more fully in this verse, I want you to know – to know, in an especial way – that it’s Me.’”

Yes, in those moments on May 2 I knew my Father was calling me, even me, to our special place, to Brandywine Falls.  A place, for me, of emotion and assurance and heart, where scent and sight and sound resonate, deep, with memory and meaning.  A remote place, a restful place, of solitude and silence.  A place to detach from the world, and sink into the Father.  A place of refreshment, focus, fulfillment, and call clarification.  A place to breathe deep, with eyes and heart and ears and hands heavenward.

And so, in mid-June I found myself there, alone with Him, in answer to His call, listening to His voice speak to me again, from Scripture and from sermons, through nature, and quietly in my heart. . . .

Oh, how much, how very much, I need Him.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Psalm 92, I believe, captures my heart right now, as I reflect upon the moments I just recorded here, and contemplate and cherish His greatness, His goodness to me, His eternal lovingkindness toward me:

 It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
And to sing praises to Your name, O Most High;
To declare Your lovingkindness in the morning,
And Your faithfulness every night,
On an instrument of ten strings,
On the lute,
And on the harp,
With harmonious sound.
For You, Lord, have made me glad through Your work;
I will triumph in the works of Your hands.
O Lord, how great are Your works!
Your thoughts are very deep.

Ps 92:1-5.  (Amen!)

I can’t even begin to comprehend the depth of His thoughts toward me, the depth of His heart for me, every moment of every day.

As He unfolded an autumnal ballet before me, He knew of an intimate fire quietly lighting and warming a room for a man who longed to know His voice – to know Him – more dearly.  And so, even as He passionately embraced me atop the early morning falls, He silently whispered to me of a time when He would satisfy, more fully, that yearning of my heart.  Unashamedly baring even His own heart’s desire for that moment by the fire.

And in the midst of a February winter, that heart – His heart – seemed to break for me even as He romanced me with poetry, with restfulness, and poured Himself out with compassion and mercy, so I would be assured of His care and provision, His love, on that fateful, second day of May, when my world would be listing, when death would seem to be drawing near.

What more is there to say?  Words fail me.  This is my God.  This is His heart.  The heart of my Abba-King.  He is deeply concerned — for me.  Deeply romantic — towards me.  Deeply in love — with me.  Unashamed of His feelings for me, dust, a man who deserves nothing, but who is worth everything, to Him.

And here, really, is the point of all this:

 This is your God.

I certainly hold no special claim(!!) upon His heart that He does not offer and shower upon you!  For Someone is deeply in love with you.  Yes,

He is deeply concerned — for you.
Deeply romantic — towards you.
Deeply in love — with you.

Unashamed of His feelings for you, dust,
a person who deserves nothing,
but who is worth everything, to Him.

I don’t know where this life finds you at this moment.  Perhaps on the cusp of a celebration, or gazing upon waves rolling in from the ocean, or setting aside your guitar.  Perhaps beside a campfire, or preparing for a nap, or baking.  Perhaps in an airport headed home.  Or away.

Perhaps you’ve just walked into your kitchen, holding a mortal diagnosis in your hands for the very first time . . . .

I don’t know.

But I do know this.  Wherever this finds you, God’s heart toward you is the heart of Someone deeply in love, and He is calling to you even now(!) . . . saying to you, His beloved, “Seek My face”.  For that is His heart.  He does not try to hide it, as all of Scripture attests  — and will attest, for all of eternity.

May you hear Him, hear His voice.  And may your heart say to Him, “Your face Lord, I will seek.”

Day 36 — Unhurried

While traveling back from Chicago a couple of weeks ago on the Interstate, we pulled into a rest stop for a break and some bottled water.  As I was checking out at the convenience store counter a man walked up beside me to check out next.  He looked to be in his 60s, but it immediately struck me that perhaps he looked 10 years older than he really was.  He had the look of a hard life.  Black, unkempt hair atop a deeply wrinkled, leathery face, mostly covered with scratchy gray stubble.  His dark eyes seemed tired, like life had been fighting against him far too long.  He wore a thin, dingy grey tank top, soiled, that fit loosely upon once-muscular shoulders.  On his left bicep I noticed a dark blue tattoo that, I suspect, meant something to him long ago.  As I stepped aside with my change he ordered generic cigarettes with a raspy, pack-a-day voice and firmly set a once-crumpled ten dollar bill against the counter, beneath his open palm.

“Why not him?” a silent voice inside me asked.

This question had risen up inside me before, and it’s ugly and black and mean.  It’s asking “why doesn’t this guy have pancreatic cancer instead of me?”  It’s filled with judgmentalism and darkness.  Standing at the counter, fitting my change into my wallet, my mind quickly fleshes out the thought in a rapid staccato:  “he obviously hasn’t taken care of himself;”  “he’s ordering cigarettes for Pete’s sake;” “he’s probably been smoking for 40 years, 50 years.”

“Why not him?”  It’s a question that surprised me the first time it entered my mind.  And, of all places, the first time it happened was at the Cleveland Clinic when I was headed for a biopsy to confirm my doctor’s 99.9% certainty that I had cancer.  The absurd irony of that does not escape me:  many of the people I begrudged were sick themselves, perhaps mortally so.  But as we headed to and then from the biopsy, walking the wide passage ways of the Clinic, I noticed resentment rising up against strangers who had lived long lives, and found myself wondering “why not them” as out-of-shape passers-by came into view. After a time, my mind thankfully was pointed to John 21, the passage where the resurrected Jesus explains to Peter that he (Peter) will be martyred later in his life.  Peter then asks Jesus whether the disciple John will also be martyred, and Jesus answers, “If I will that he remain till I come [i.e., if I will that he never die], what is that to you?  You follow Me.”  That helped.  A lot. “Yes, what is it to me, Lord?  I need only follow You, trust You, be with You.  Focus my mind, my heart, there, I pray.”  As we headed toward the Cleveland Clinic parking garage, John 21 reoriented my thinking.

And I fully expected it to be the end of the brief skirmish I had just had with minions of the evil one.  For make no mistake, that is what it was.  These types of dark and evil thoughts are born of hell, and we are tempted to cultivate them and cherish them in our own minds, deep inside ourselves.  If we do adopt them and agree with them, embrace them, as I had at the Clinic, those missives from hell transition from temptation to sin.

After the Clinic, I found that these missives came against me from time to time, but each time Jesus’ words — “If I will that he [be well], what is that to you?  You follow Me” — were enough to rescue me.  Enough, that is, until the interstate convenience store counter, where my mind suddenly embraced the arrows, bringing self-pity and then, as I stuffed change into my wallet, self-recrimination.  As I moved away from that convenience store counter and made my way toward Diane, I repented (again) and sensed the Lord (again) reminding me, with love, with compassion, “what is it to you if I will that he be completely healthy.  You follow Me.”

I tried to put this brief experience behind me, and frankly thought it was rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things, given all the other ongoing sin issues in my life(!).  Any yet it bothered me that the arrow found its mark once again.  Was this really an issue for me?  Did I truly begrudge strangers their health?  I honestly didn’t feel like I did, and yet I couldn’t deny that the arrows had found their mark more than once.  So what was going on here?  I was bothered by it all and yet, as I said, it somehow didn’t seem like such a big deal to me in the grand scheme of things.

A week or so later, driving across the Valley View bridge south of Cleveland, the memories of those skirmishes surfaced in my mind again.  “I don’t want to think that way, ever” I silently prayed to the Lord, envisioning the man at the convenience counter.  As I crossed the midway point of the bridge I sensed my Father asking me a question:

“Would you rather that he have pancreatic cancer instead of you?”

*   *   *   *   *

Looking back at that moment, that question, I marvel at the tack our Father took.  His love, His grace, His compassion.  How He deftly handled this issue, which “somehow didn’t seem like such a big deal to me.”  By tweaking my question (“Why doesn’t he have pancreatic cancer instead of me?”) into another question (“Would you rather that he have pancreatic cancer instead of you?”), He cut to the heart of the matter and made me see the utter depravity of it all.   The striking soullessness of it all.   I finally grasped, viscerally, just how black those thoughts were.  A desire, in the blackest possible sense, to deprive someone of something I wanted (good health) so that I could have it.

As I continued across the bridge, my heart immediately responded, on its own, passionately, earnestly, to His question.  There was no thinking on my part, no contemplation.  Just reaction.  Heart.

“Would you rather that he have pancreatic cancer instead of you?”

“No!  No way, no how, Lord.  How could I ever — ever — wish this, what I’m going through, upon someone else?  No Lord.  No.  I would never wish to be free of pancreatic cancer if it meant any other person would have it instead.”  I sensed Him healing my heart in that moment, and it seemed (and seems) as if that question, those arrows, will never again hit their mark.

Later, as I reflected on those moments on the bridge, they brought to mind a portion of John Eldredge’s rather poetic description of a wise and compassionate man:  “What he offers, he offers with kindness, and discretion. . . .  [H]is words are offered in the right measure, at the right time, to the right person.  He will not trouble you with things you do not need to know, nor burden you with things that are not yet yours to bear, nor embarrass you with exposure for shortcomings you are not ready yet to overcome, even though he sees all of that.  For he is wise, and compassionate.”  There are, of course, many different facets to compassion, but I see these particular facets in how my situation was handled by our Abba, our perfect Father.  Those dark arrows from hell found their mark in me more than once for a reason.  There was something deep in me — for how long I do not know! — that desired to hold onto those particular arrows, to grasp and cultivate those thoughts.  And until I was crossing the Valley View bridge, I did not see the utter hatefulness of it all.  But my Dad, all this time, had known, and seen, those shortcomings.  Deep inside of me.  Yet He did not burden me with those things, nor embarrass me for those shortcomings.  He knew I was not yet ready to face them (in His strength and grace).  So He prepared me, and brought me to that place when it was time, when I was ready to hear and receive those words in a place deeper even than where the arrows struck.

And notice how His words and counsel were offered not only at the right time, but in the right measure.  The easiness of it all, the lightness of His touch.  With a simple question perfectly chosen and phrased to resonate deep within me, the Lord was at once showing me, gently, compassionately, that those thoughts are a big deal, and yet settling me into a place of grace and truth where I could overcome those arrows (I pray once and for all), by His strength.  A place where, by His grace, by His work in my life and heart, I received and experienced a deep and true repentance.  A loving gift purchased by the blood of my Savior, and quietly placed into my heart by the strong hands of my Abba-Father.

But even in the midst of His love and compassion being lived into my heart, it is perhaps the calm, unhurried restfulness of it all that struck me most in this instance.  During this time of correction, which in retrospect began during my stroll through the Clinic, if not before, I never got the sense that there was some kind of rush, that somewhere God was standing over me with furrowed brow and a stopwatch, measuring my progress in minutes and seconds.  That He wanted to tick that particular outcropping of “hateful envy” off my long list of sins so that we could frantically move on to the next, and then the next, and then the next.  No, His heart in this, His heart toward my sanctification, seemed unhurried, restful.

I found myself wondering why this struck me most . . . and had to conclude that I just didn’t expect it.  For some reason I had to be reminded, yet again, that He has an unhurried, restful heart toward me with respect to my growth as a Christian.  Why does this so often surprise me, catch me off guard?  After all, God tells us He will lead us beside still waters, make us to lie down in green pastures, unto restoration of soul.  (See Ps 23:1-2.)  That’s His approach.  Sink in and breath deep, join Him where He’s at, and He will change you.  His way, He tells us, is restful:  Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”  (Mt. 11:28-30).

This is not to say that God is ambivalent about our sanctification, our growth in Him.  God is passionate about our sanctification (Ex. 34:14) — and yet He is never hurried.  Jesus certainly lived a wholly unhurried life while He walked the earth, and explained that this was the Father’s heart as well (“He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9)).  For the unhurried life, the unhurried heart, affords opportunity to immerse, sink in, relish.  It embraces depth and yields richness.  It has time to listen and appreciate and counsel.  (“Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10a).)

A hurried life, by contrast, kills love (Ortberg).  I remember learning a new card game, years ago, with a few friends.  Fairly competitive friends.  The game was played two against two, and I was having some trouble keeping all of the rules and nuances and partner-signals straight.  As my partner got increasingly agitated with the slow pace of my learning, I got increasingly beleaguered of heart.  His attitude was “hurry up and learn already!” and my inward response was “get me out of this game!”  That’s the impact of a hurried life, a hurried heart:  churning, tension, overblown superficial concerns, distance.

The unhurried life, however, has time for intimate conversation and exploration, for nurturing and shared experience, for long embraces, unto falling more deeply in loveThose are the things our Father, our Savior, our Holy Spirit, is after with us(!), for He longs to have our hearts.  And so, by example, He invites us into the unhurried life that He lives and speaks of.  The not-so-surprising “catch” is that if we embrace Him, unto falling more and more in love with Him, sanctification naturally will follow, more and more:  “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15 (emphasis added)).

Like any man, I have inumerable sin issues in my life.  “Too numerous to count”, as they say.  Most of those issues I’m not even aware of yet, but many of them represent struggles that have plagued me for years and years and years.  God longs for me to be free of those struggles, is passionate about my sanctification — much more passionate than I am, I might add.  But, as Dominic Smart puts it, “at the heart of being with God is not successful performance, but a relationship of love” (emphasis added)So when I take stock of my life, and realize how little like Jesus I am, how little I’ve grown, I have to remember His heart in all of this.  He’s not in a rush, for hurry kills love.  I must let my sin remind me of His forgiveness, His glory, His love, His heart toward me, staked to a Cross.  (Yes, even that foul black sentiment I coddled at the Clinic and then again at the Interstate counter — Jesus took the punishment I deserve for that.)  To the extent I sense accusation, burden, guilt, or abandonment as I continue to struggle with “this that or the other sin”, I must recognize those sentiments for what they are:  more darts and arrows from hell, seeking to bring me down and take me out of relationship with my Abba-King, who is compassionate, who remembers that I am dust (Ps. 103:14), even if I do not!

As my Savior lowered Himself to personally teach and correct me on the Valley View bridge, He reminded me that far from being agitated or fed-up with me, He loves me with an everlasting, compassionate love, and He remains unhurried even when I fail, repeatedly, to catch on.  He will never say to me “hurry up and learn already!”  But instead, His message to me, and to you, is come, My beloved, just as you are(!) –sink in, right here, right now, with Me, and breath deep, unto abundant, everlasting life.

 

Day 32 — Too Wonderful

I remember coming to New York City in the summer of 2002 with my family.  Megan and Mallory were much younger then, 10 and 8, and we hadn’t adopted Cara yet.  We ventured into the city in our Honda minivan and crawled our way, pre-GPS, to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where we checked into a suite for a couple of days.  The overarching intent of our weeklong vacation was a “side-by-side” comparison of sorts.  We would spend a few days in the greatest city in the world and consider the best that “man” has to offer, and then immediately drive out to a mountaintop destination in the Pennsylvania Poconos for a few days to experience what God’s creation offers in comparison.

We were so excited(!) as we settled into the Marriott to begin the first leg of our side-by-side experiment, and what followed in New York was even more thrilling for our young family:  Times Square, the Museum of Natural History, Central Park, Rockefeller Center, subway rides, Statue of Liberty (from a distance), front-row seats at a Broadway play (“Oklahoma!”), street vendors, Grand Central Station, great restaurants.  People everywhere(!), by the thousands.  Wonderful times remembered with fondness and smiling eyes.

 *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Last Monday night Diane, Megan, Mallory, and I made our way to New York City a second time, in another Honda minivan.  (Cara had stayed behind with her Grandma and cousins, an hour or so away in upstate New York.)  It was the first time we’d been back to stay in New York City, together, since our 2002 vacation.   Ten years removed from our 2002 “side-by-side”.

And one week removed from our (my wife Diane and my) trip to the Block Cancer Center in Chicago.

Yes, once again, our travels centered around cancer.  We were in New York not because we planned an adventurous family vacation, but because I needed to consult with a pancreatic cancer specialist over the course of two days, and her offices are somewhat close to the theater district in Manhattan.

As you may recall, it was exceedingly, exceedingly hard for Diane and me to go to the Block Cancer Center in Chicago the previous week.  (Please see “Day 20 – Remembering His Kiss”.)   Although Chicago held no special memories for us whatsoever, it was the first trip we made for the purpose of figuring out my cancer treatment.  The first time we traveled together to an exciting get-away destination for something other than, well, a get-away.  And it was the first time I felt Cancer dragging me down, pulling me down emotionally and spiritually.

And here we are, now, returning to the site of one of our most memorable family vacations . . . because of cancer.  For cancer.  But God’s grace, His love, His light touch are evident to me as we check in.  God prepared Diane and me for this moment, this trip, by allowing us to grieve, as it were, in Chicago.  I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to drive up to, check in, and settle into, “our” hotel had it not been for Chicago.  But even as I realize that my wife and I have been prepared by the Chicago trip, I suddenly realize our daughters haven’t been.  And as we ride the elevator up to the 28th floor, I know we need to talk about it, to get those emotions out in the open as a family, to fight the various spiritual battles each of us may be facing.  As the elevator doors open, I find myself quietly longing to talk about these things with our daughters.

And so the wait begins — the wait for the right moment.  I’ve learned the hard way that these types of discussions can’t be forced; my ambitions, my timing, must be set aside. The Lord must lead here.  I must yield this space, let Him bring the discussion to us in the ebb and flow of our lives, as He decides best.

As we unpack and begin to settle in I try to be alert for the right moment, the right “pulse” in our room, but it just doesn’t seem like the right time.  I ask the Lord to let me know if it’s time, but I don’t sense any feedback.  It’s very late, after midnight, and as the minutes tick by I begin to realize it won’t happen that first night.  I reluctantly realize we’ll be waiting until morning.

We lie down.

The initial gameplan is for our girls to explore Manhattan on their own during the day while Diane and I visit doctors, and then we’ll all meet up together at the hotel in the late afternoon.  On Tuesday evening we’ll have an early dinner and head to a Broadway play (“Once”), and on Wednesday we’ll head upstate to my brother’s house to reconnect with Grandma, Cara, and my brother’s family.  So, there is more of a vacation purpose to this trip than there was in Chicago, and I am hopeful this will take some of the sting out of the realities of the overall trip for my girls.  But still, for my daughters’ emotional well-being, I want to have this discussion before we get too far along.

Morning comes; we rise up.

We hang out in the hotel room and get ready for the day in a rather sleepy-eyed fashion.   We’re all together, no distractions — but somehow, still, the time is not right.  If I had my druthers, the conversation would take place before we leave that room, but it is not to be.  My heart sinks a bit as we step from Room 2832, knowing that this longing to minister to the girls will remain unmet for at least the better part of day one in New York, and I carry deep concern for them as, at Seventh Avenue and 36th Street, our paths separate.

We reconvene in late afternoon to dress up for an early dinner before taking in Once on Broadway.  Still, the time just isn’t right.  The vibe isn’t there.  The Lord seems very silent to me.  Again I am tempted to force the issue, but I hold back.  I quietly search for signals as to how they might be faring emotionally. . . . but all I sense is tremendous angst over which shoes to wear (Mallory!) ☺.

We head to a Scottish pub/restaurant that Diane and I scouted out earlier and, upon entering, elect to eat in the pub — a bit more festive, we figure, than the upstairs restaurant.  As we meander the path to our table we hear the comfortable and familiar sounds of good times quietly unfolding around us, in the booths and at the bar.

We sit down.

Our family quickly becomes part of the talkative background noise of the pub, as we weave the experiences of the day into the tapestry of our family memories.  The give-and-take at our table grows louder with joking and laughter as the various foibles of our day fully illustrate the foibles of our personalities, who we are.  The talk is fast and lively.  Megan.  Mallory.  Diane.  Me.  Mallory.  Me.  Diane.  Megan.  Diane.  Mallory.

And then, a moment.  It comes abruptly, takes me by surprise.  Mallory says something — I don’t quite remember what — but it was the perfect segue into the conversation I had been longing to have.  I finally sense the Holy Spirit saying, “now is the time”, and as I inwardly consider His still, quiet voice, and silently double-check with Him that yes, it’s time, I fear I’ve paused too long to make my play.   But in that elongated moment there is a lull in the conversation – the first of the evening — one of those pregnant pauses where nobody offers a witty repartee or re-directs the family to the next topic of conversation.  It’s as if the Holy Spirit is underscoring that “yes(!!), it’s time”.

The Lord has provided the direction and the margin.  The words come slowly to me at first, but I manage ham-handedly to tee up the family discussion. . . . And it flows wonderfully, with honesty and depth and truth.  The mood is light, the back-and-forth conversation relaxed and effortless.  We are all in – Diane, Megan, Mallory, myself — as far as each of us is ready to go, and it is goodVery good.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know my sitting down and my rising up;
You understand my thought afar off.
You comprehend my path and my lying down,
And are acquainted with all my ways.
For there is not a word on my tongue,
But behold, O Lord, You know it altogether.
You have hedged me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is high, I cannot attain it.

 (Ps. 139:1-6)

True to His word, faithful to His character, the Lord took the time, as it were, to search me and know me deep, to understand my thoughts, my desires, and to meet me there, to counsel and guide me — even amidst the swirling distractions of pub and cancer (as my friend Joe later pointed out).  And so too, my family.  For reasons I don’t know – for reasons even they may not know — they weren’t ready for this conversation when we lied down at the hotel, or rose up the next morning, or made our paths into the city.  Not even when we first sat down at the pub.  But our Abba Father was taking stock, preparing each heart (Ps 33:15), charting and navigating the course each needed to take in order to meet in that momentary pregnant pause at a little Scottish pub on 47th street, off Broadway.

Yes, such knowledge is too wonderful for me.  It is high, and I cannot attain it.  Your grace, Your love, Your compassion, Lord, abounds.

Why me?  Why us?  (And you, believers, children of God, why you? — for such is our Lord with you!)  Whether in the car approaching New York City, or in an elevator being whisked to the 28th floor, or unpacking in a hotel room amidst 7 million others in New York, or chatting with my family over fresh baked bread and homemade butter in one of a thousand Manhattan eateries, You, my Abba, are with me, with us, searching us deep, knowing us intimately, anticipating our every word, ministering to us, speaking to us, loving us.  You are “all in,” all the time.  (As You are with each of your children!)

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me
.

 (Ps. 139:7-10.)  Your love, my King, it is intimate.  Your care, my Love, it is deep and wide and full.  Every momentEverywhere.

It is too wonderful!  I cannot attain it!

Those moments at the pub, such an embrace!  You not only whispered “now is the time”, and gave me the grace to hear Your still, quiet voice, but then You provided the margin, the lull in the table talk, so that we could respond, could follow Your lead, walk with You, at Your unhurried pace.  And so the conversation – far from being laborious, difficult, and stilted — was buoyant and deep, with joy and honesty amidst pain and uncertainty.

Oh my Abba, my Father, my Dad, may we know these truths about who You are ever more deeply.  How often I run off on my own, expecting You to follow my lead!  How often I plague myself with a “Ready, Shoot, Aim” mentality (as my friend Dave puts it)!  May I set aside these things!  May I set aside my desire to be in control, and re-direct that longing to You, the One who truly is in control, trusting that You will perfectly guide and direct me, Your son whom You love.  May I be patient enough to await Your timing, and sensitive enough to hear Your prompting, in every facet of my life.  For Your voice gladdens my heart, and Your timing, it is good.

For You – my Father, my Savior, my Holy Spirit – You are good.  It is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it.

Day 20 — Jesus was at Our House Today, While We were in Chicago

Jesus was at our house today . . . and we missed it!!!  And I’m so amped just hearing about His visit, just seeing His gifts, that I can’t sleep.  So here goes.  I hope I do this justice.

Our close friends knew we were headed to Chicago to visit the cancer center on Monday, returning Tuesday night, and they knew my wife, Diane, dearly wanted to take care of the annual landscaping around the house — weeding, planting annuals, mulching, herb garden.  The usual.  So a couple of our friends approached me to make some arrangements on the sly, as a surprise to Diane, to do those landscaping chores during our absence.

Now, those combined tasks are actually quite gargantuan.  If memory serves, it takes in the neighborhood of 12 to 15 yards of mulch to do the trick.  And that’s the easy part, because the spring weeds are thick and overgrown.

For the past week, every time we’d drive away from the house together Diane would lament the landscaping, and every time we’d drive back up . . . well, same thing.  She also looked at her bulbs and herbs everyday for the past week, and each day she would move to plant them, but I would distract her with some lame request to set it aside for the time being — knowing the cavalry was coming soon!

Monday afternoon finally arrived and we left for Chicago.  I knew, of course, that folks (and lots of mulch!) were coming over to prepare Diane’s huge surprise, and I can’t even count the number of times I almost blew it by saying something like “I wonder how far along they are,” “I wonder if they’ve wrapped up yet,” “I’ll bet they’re finished”, “can you believe it”, etc.  But miraculously, I kept my big mouth shut!

As we were driving up our street tonight, around 11 p.m., we pulled around the bend and there our house sat, lit up for the first time with new spotlights.  In our absence, 70 of our brothers and sisters in Christ, from young kids to grandparents, had come over to our house Monday and Tuesday to do, well, pretty much everything that needed to be done — inside and out!  (As my daughter Mallory put it, “they did everything-that-you-worry-about-doing, and then everything-you-would-have-worried-about-doing after you did those things, and then everything you would have worried about doing after that.”  Well put!)  How they even knew what our “wish list” was, I do not know!

It’s dark outside, but here’s a sampling of what was done:  Weeded and mulched our yard, back and front; planted an overwhelming number of flowers; cleaned our front porch and set up two huge decorative flower pots with flowers; trimmed back shrubs and pachysandra; mounted a hose wheel w/ a new hose; filled and hung a birdfeeder; installed sidewalk accent lighting; replaced formal lighting on the outside of house on either side of our front door; refurbished the lightpole/lighting by our driveway; powerwashed our deck; scoured our grill; painted our deck; repaired painted the wooden deck benches and tables; repaired a step leading off of the deck; prepared and set up new planters on the deck and by our garage; with respect to the enclosed portion of our deck, they scrubbed and cleaned the floor and the wooden framing, and then repainted everything (floor, framing, ceiling), replaced the corroded ceiling fan and the decorative door which had fallen into disrepair, cleaned the furniture and purchased new cushions for the wicker seating, arranged the furniture, installed a new table top water fountain, and decorated with new ferns and flowers; cleaned gutter and roof debris; repaired and painted the lattice-work surrounding the base of our deck; cleaned (inside) the first and second floors of our house, including first floor windows; oiled our kitchen cabinets and other wooden furniture; cleaned and organized our kitchen pantry and our walk-in pantry room; did all our laundry; thoroughly cleaned our garage; and thoroughly cleaned out our large shed.  (The whole event was photographed every step of the way, and a DVD is being prepared for us to enjoy!!!)  With the exception of the birdfeeder and decorative flower pots on the front porch, which we already had, everything mentioned above was purchased and provided free of charge to us, and topped off with multiple cards expressing love and prayers for us.  And, all of the above was bathed in prayer, and followed by prayer.  Indeed, the group signed up for slots in a 24/7 prayer vigil for us, meaning we will have at least one person covering us in prayer throughout our trial.

My mom and my daughters — near breathless with excitement(!!) — told us all about it, and how everyone worked with such joy and enthusiasm and love.  Think of it.  Men taking off work to sweat for our “to-do” list.  Children pulling weeds, sweeping, cleaning.  Grandparents painting and hauling.  Women scrubbing and planting.  Everyone pitching in with everything, with whole-hearted abandon.  Not for themselves, but for us.  My mom tells of one girl in her teens who kept coming up to her and saying, “thank you, thank you so much for letting me be here to help, for letting me be a part of this!” (!!!)

What can we possibly say?  There are no words!  How could we ever thank you enough?  There are just no words to convey our hearts, our love, our thanks.  How loved we feel.  How loved we feel.  Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!  What you did for us — the breadth, the width, the height, the depth — it is overwhelming . . . so overwhelming.

As my mom said, “This is Jesus!  This is the Body of Christ in action!  This is what it looks like!!”  Amen and amen!!  The Body of Christ came to our house while we were in Chicago, and loved on us.  Jesus loved on us, for He lives in His children, and He works — loves — in and through them.  And His love-in-action, it is beautiful!  (For more of our Lord’s love-in-action, please read the “Thanksgiving” page!)

As I wrote on the Background page, “I trust that [God] will reveal more and more of how beautiful He is – and how utterly, lovingly invested He is in us — as our days move forward.  That is what this blog is about.”  Well, those 70 friends and family, brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, lived out His heart, His beauty, yesterday and today at our house.  Lived out, with their hands and feet, their muscle and sinew, their heart and spirit, how utterly, lovingly invested He is.  May all the world see in wonder, and glorify His name!

Oh, precious Jesus.  You came to our house while we were in Chicago, and we missed it.  But, oh, how Your fragrance lingers.  We lift up our faces even now, and feel Your love showering down upon us from heaven.  Abba Father, rain down Your heart upon those who have given so dearly to us, fill them ever so deeply we pray, even as they sleep . . .