A Partridge in a Pear Tree

“The reason birds can fly and we can’t is simply because they have perfect faith, for to have faith is to have wings.” ― J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan)

Over the past several years it seems like our decorating style has gone to the birds. We got a new couch a year ago and picked out a fabric with giant birds all over it. I didn’t have to work hard at all to sell it to my wife. I think because it had a black background. Her favorite TV decorating show has a “everything is black” theme to it. We just re-wallpapered in the kitchen and breakfast area. A very busy and colorful bird pattern. Guaranteed to make you car-sick if you’re not careful.

Yes, a theme is definitely appearing in our house everywhere you look. All because something bigger has happened several years ago – we’re just documenting it in our living space.

About five years ago I was in the middle of a terrible dark time that I experienced almost every day. It felt as if I was on a runaway ride that I couldn’t control. Like shooting down the rapids in an inner tube. Other people were making decisions about me and my future. Things were not proceeding the way I had always thought they would or had planned. I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life.

Sleepless nights, worrying and being angry were getting me nowhere just deeper into a hole. I knew I couldn’t control what other people were doing. While my life headed off in directions I had never anticipated I just stood there in disbelief. I was shell-shocked for several years. When would this end?

[Little did I know that cancer was right around the corner ready to strike us and wage a terrible war we still fight every day.]

Then I remembered – was prodded to remember – that Jesus told his followers to stop worrying about their lives. He directed their attention to the birds. God takes care of them, won’t he also take care of you – He loves you so much more!

“That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?” – Matthew 6:25-27

Of course I had read this scripture many times before. But as is often the case, this time it became a handle to hang on to. Then a series of events – signs, if you will, started over approximately two years. These experiences served to encourage and communicate to me that God is present and very much interested in my survival and transformation.

“I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.” ― William Sloane Coffin Jr.

The tribulations only got worse! But I began to calm down. I was consistently reminded of the truth of God’s presence and care for me.

Well, what happened?

I began to see birds in all sorts of locations and (most importantly) at significant times. I didn’t look for them (as Jesus had instructed, they would just show up at just in time.)

  • Right in the middle of an important decision about two people – there are two birds on the window sill.
  • Rushing out of the house overflowing with anxiety – confronted by a mockingbird at the frontdoor who will not move out of the way.
  • There was a bird who would perch on the corner of my neighbors roof day after day and sing at me when I came and went. He wasn’t there at other times, no one else ever saw him. For about a week or so I felt like he was there to meet me (and remind me).
  • Then there’s the little brown bird who would spend the night in the wreath on the front door and sneak into the house when we came home – never happened before, never since – but he came into the house several times (spent the night once) and reminded us how near is God.

There were all sorts of small and subtle encounters that kept me aware that I was not going to go through this terrible time alone.

Maybe when I was too near stumbling and fumbling my faith, God drew near and reminded me of what was always true?

For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6

I teach a course that helps students to understand some of the reasons why people have these kinds of experiences. Often our thinking and perception of the world around us is distorted. We can sometimes experience:

  • Confirmation bias – a kind of selective thinking that happens when we only notice those things that tend to be consistent with our current beliefs – we also fail to notice things that contradict these same beliefs.
  • Pareidolia – seeing significance in random and meaningless phenomenon

Even knowing that these biases in thinking often occur, I am convinced that what has happened to me was not caused by my own crooked thinking. I think I needed some help and there it was.

“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” ― John Berger

God has promised to be present with us, especially during terrible times. This fact is not dependent upon how we feel or how firm we believe. He has promised it, this makes it true.

Sometimes, because of God’s grace and nothing else, he makes his presence known. He has certainly put reminders in our path every day Jesus said to look at the birds – a sight we all see and maybe never notice.

When you open your eyes of faith and practice looking for the truth, there’s no telling what you might see.

Your faith will not fail while God sustains it; you are not strong enough to fall away while God is resolved to hold you.” ― J.I. Packer

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It’s Complicated

“Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved.” ― Martin Luther

These days people are asking me how I’m doing. More than usual. My wife is fighting cancer. This has become a long term struggle with many soldiers helping us in each and every skirmish.

I’m not sure what to say when asked how I’m doing. Sometimes people really want to get an update. Sometimes this question is just an expression of compassion and support as we pass along the way. Still, other times I’m asked by folks who aren’t getting a clear picture from me and are trying to imagine themselves in my shoes. What’s it really like?

Sometimes people just don’t ask. Maybe it’s just too overwhelming for others. Maybe there just aren’t any words.

Typically I’m responding without thinking too much. My response depends upon my mood, my schedule, my need at the moment to let it all out.

How AM I doing? Well, it’s complicated…

I’m feeling scared

The world I live in is mostly filled with a lot of certainty. Watching my wife manage an ever changing daily battle with stage four cancer (that’s now in her brain) and all the medication side-effects brings a daily dose of uncertainty into my (our) life. Mostly we have routines and rituals that make life so comfortable. When the journey heads into the unknown, fear begins to howl in the background.

“Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, and perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next. Disillusion comes sooner or later, but it always comes, it doesn’t miss an appointment, it never has.” ― Juan Gabriel Vásquez

I’m feeling full of hope

Not a single day passes that I don’t experience encouragement of some sort. It is all around me (us). It comes in all the expected places, the emails, notes, hugs. But is also appears out of nowhere. Strangers who lift so much of the burden and never even realize it. All sorts of little “coincidences” seem to appear right and left. I don’t go very far without sensing and knowing the presence of God. My faith has found a resting place. Despite what has happened so far, the core of my belief is not moved. These beliefs are ever more resolved as I am pulled into the deep end.

“It’s amazing how many coincidences occur when one begins to pray.”  – Bill Hybels

I’m too busy to think about it

Life has gotten very fast for a number of reasons. Fighting cancer is a whole other career to add to what’s already on our plates. It’s easy to get behind with one important part of life while trying to manage a whole new chapter.

It’s too easy to slip into the fast lane and wake up three counties later, unconscious of so much that always matters.

“If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” ― T. S. Eliot

I’m uncertain about what the future holds

Our mode of thought has been to just think about today. Even though there are always future plans of some sort that are a normal part of life, we are trying to readjust and live more in the moment – hang on to this day. When I do think about the future; retirement, grandchildren, remaking the house, who am I going to give all my junk to? Sometimes it can be frightening – going from theory to practice. It’s sweet to quote the proverb about numbering your days, but actually doing it is a whole other matter. Living like there’s no tomorrow makes one take today that much more seriously.

“Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.”  – Psalm 90:12

I’m often around other people who don’t want to talk about our “situation.” I imagine that most people are uncomfortable talking about serious illness – what do you say? These days, so many have a lack of personal experience. Great health care and growing distance within families means that suffering and death are not experiences we learn to manage in the same ways our parents and grandparents did.

I’m angry

Let’s be honest. Who wouldn’t be mad every single day. If there was any sort of justice, I’d be the one hit by the dump truck of life, not her. Who knew that the uncertainties of life were going to come and trample in our yard? Living in a society that promotes and promises justice doesn’t  mean the experience is always assured. It’s a hope, not a certainty. Instead of trying to find justice in all of this, the best way to work through the weeds is to be truthful and admit these feelings, find people to talk it out with and pray without ceasing (in all honesty).

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” ― Mark Twain

I’m counting my blessings

Perspective helps with all sorts of situations. But how do you put cancer into perspective? There is always something to be thankful about. In each and every situation there is a way to find thanks. There is always another person near who needs to feel a little mercy and grace. Instead of anguish, there is thankfulness for so much more of life never taken for granted anymore.

“To be in hell is to drift; to be in heaven is to steer.” ― George Bernard Shaw

I’m buckled in for the roller coaster ride

When a life threatening illness strikes there is always a loss of control.  A feeling of “what’s next?” Living a life that’s not really mine, it belongs to a disease that’s taking control of more and more. Of course there is always this illusion that I was ever really in control of anything in the first place. The economy shifts, someone new comes into power or a hurricane appears on the horizon. Instead of looking for control or being heartbroken because of the loss, I’m learning how to just survive today. I used to have all sorts of big plans for the future. Maybe that was a mistake.

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.”  –  Epictetus

Well, how AM I doing? It’s still complicated…but I made it another day, and I tried to make it count.

 

O LOVE THAT WILT NOT LET ME GO – George Matheson

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
that in thine ocean depths its flow
may richer, fuller be.

O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.

 

 

Build Yourself a Levee

“You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside, gotta build yourself a levee deep inside.
Build yourself a levee girl, when the waters run high.”

Now, when I was just a little girl my mamma said to me, “Beware of the devil my child.
But if by chance you should meet, beware of his cold dark eyes full of bold and unholy deceit.
He’ll tempt you with a whirling pool of lies and promises he’ll deny or that he will never keep.”

“You gotta build yourself a levee deep inside, gotta build yourself a levee deep inside.
Build yourself a levee girl, when the waters run high.”

Natalie Merchant / Build a Levee

Fighting cancer is a full time job.

  • There are medical appointments all through each and every week.
  • There are sacks full of medications to organize and take throughout each day.
  • The insurance companies and doctors offices all have to be spoken to and need to have the most simple of things explained over and over again.
  • There are invoices in the mail each day – almost all will not need to be paid but will need to be addressed in some way.
  • Who really knows what new symptom will appear in the morning.
  • Every new symptom is an adjustment to living that must be made, from transportation to meals to sleeping and making plans for the future.

Of course, there’s the full time job that needs to be managed as well. The career that keeps one going and living every single day. It’s like an inner tube to which we cling while shooting down the whitewater river of circumstances.

The floods come and wreak so much disaster in everyone’s world. Living seemed to be working just fine, until that unexpected storm arrived.

In order to keep the flood of fear, disease, and despair from filling our dwelling with the inevitable mold and ruination we must build ourselves a levee of some sort – a barrier of faith that will not be breached.

Faith is the assurance of things you have hoped for, the absolute conviction that there are realities you’ve never seen. – Hebrews 11:1 (The Voice)

Fighting cancer, just like living a full-time life, never stops. There’s always a flood raging just down the road. We’ve all got to build ourselves a levee to keep the evil at bay.

What matters most is to build your levee out of what will last for eternity.

God’s unfailing love for us is an objective fact affirmed over and over in the Scriptures. It is true whether we believe it or not. Our doubts do not destroy God’s love, nor does our faith create it. It originates in the very nature of God, who is love, and it flows to us through our union with His beloved Son.  ~ Jerry Bridges

Did You See That?

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Can’t you buy a car now that will stop for you if you get too busy doing something else, other than driving? I think there are vehicles that will even warn you if you somehow wander out of your lane. Isn’t there a car that will parallel park itself? Of course we are all waiting for the “driver-less” cars that are being developed. Driving is fast becoming an activity to which we have to pay less and less attention. Great!

What are you paying attention to these days? Where are your worries taking you? What keeps you up at night?

  • We tend to pay attention to what’s urgent – what’s currently on fire!
  • We pay attention to what’s familiar to us
  • We also pay more attention to problems that we feel as if we can fix (or we want to fix)

When you feel overwhelmed – and it happens to everyone – think about what you are paying the most attention to during these times. Of course, when you’re involved in a car accident or just heard that your job has been phased out, that’s all you are supposed to think about in those moments. It’s natural and normal. But what about the context within which you frame these kinds of disasters or even the normal bad days?

“For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.” – 2 Corinthians 4:18

  • Remind yourself that this time of trouble is not going to last forever – one day you will see it in your rear view mirror.
  • You are a child of God – he is going to care for you in his way.
  • Think about the messages your words and actions are sending to others about how confident you are about your true future.

We need to stop looking and start paying attention. What does it mean to pay attention to the context within which the Christian life is lived? Think about the works of God in your life that ARE going to last forever. Think about the transformation that the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in your life. The Fruit of the Spirit is nourishing both you and others eternally. Your real home is not here on earth but with Christ in heaven. God has never once left you alone as you traveled through those dark days. At a moments notice you are able to enter God’s presence with your prayers and know the peace that passes all understanding.

“For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long.” – 2 Corinthians 4:17

The ways that we go about defining situations is a powerful process for determining what we believe. You see it’s not always what’s true but what we believe is true that shapes how we go about living. Is the “here and now” so real to you that you can’t get past it and see the “forest”? Have you got things mixed up and are you defining your earthly circumstances with eternal weight? Start looking at the whole picture – frame your life within what you truly believe. There’s a larger story being played out and your life is a part of it. Even the terrible times.

“What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.” – Matthew 10:29-31

Paul wrote to the Corinthian church and encouraged them to not get tripped up by their worries about current circumstances and to instead think about what was being born in their lives now and what was to come, what would last forever – life eternal. What seems so urgent and terrible, what can make us feel so powerless, is actually only for a moment.

“We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.” – 2 Corinthians 4:7

This power to stop staring at the immediate circumstances and instead take the long view and frame what’s happening by looking down the road, that ability is a gift that comes from within us. When we surrender and submit our fears, it is then that our gaze can be raised to see eternal hope spread before us like the bright lights of the dawn.

“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness for it shows me the stars.” ― Og Mandino

My Life as a Dog

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“Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?”  – Matthew 6:26-27

There’s a dog over there, running with abandon up and down the empty lot in the middle of the city. Now he’s lounging at the base of a telephone pole. A few minutes later he’s running at breakneck speed from one end to the other.

Where are all your cares? Where will your next meal come from? Where will you sleep tonight? What of the dangers that lurk around every dark corner? You could get hit by a car!

There you sit staring off into the sky as a storm approaches – what a life.

Here I sit trapped in my cage worried about every single slight and a future that may never materialize. Eaten up with bitterness and overflowing with anger. Worries follow my every step. I’m laughing in public and wailing in private.

I’m the one living the life of a beast – untamed feelings driven more wild by this civilization all around me.

*I wrote this in 2011 looking out the window of the little cage I had just been consigned to occupy. I noticed this stray dog one day and it hit me that it was me who was becoming a wild beast.

Faith takes practice.

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius

Walking to Emmaus Part 1

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That same day two of Jesus’ followers were walking to the village of Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem. As they walked along they were talking about everything that had happened.  – Luke 24:13-14

One of these “followers” is identified later in the story as Cleopas. He may be the same man who’s wife was with Mary and the others at the foot of the cross. She may even have been one of the women who went to the tomb three days later (early this same day). So perhaps these two followers on the road back home to Emmaus have been eyewitnesses to the death and even the resurrection of Christ.

Here they are walking away from the public execution of their hope. Then, three days later his body is missing. What’s going on? There are reports that mysterious visitors were also at the tomb this morning. These two members of the inner circle are talking and trying to make sense of so much that happened so fast. Their minds, hearts and fears are in turmoil. Now, we come upon them as they’ve set off on a 2-3 hour hike back to the comfort and safety of home. What else was there to do?

Here they are like so many of us, walking down that same old path. They are running away from what they have mistaken for defeat. They are putting all the pieces together. Can you imagine what they must have been talking about, trying to figure out and wrap their faith around?

Every now and then I wake up and realize that I’m walking away from the real answers I need to find. I’m heading out to what makes sense, what seems safe, where I feel at home. I want to find my own version of the truth that fits nicely into my carefully constructed life (such as it is). My walk of faith is on autopilot, walking back to Emmaus as I’ve done a hundred times before. How many times have you walked away from the risk of faith and stayed home where dreams never do come true?

Now, as they try and piece together their dashed hope during a retreat down this familiar old road, someone comes along and joins them, and nothing will ever be the same.

“We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.”
– W.H. Auden