Contrasts

Two very different scenes this week that nonetheless come together.

Scene One: It snowed over the weekend, starting Saturday night and through Sunday evening, with about five inches of snow here at the house. (See the picture from the dining room into the back yard.) Roads were pretty slick Sunday night, but by Monday enough plows had been through that roads were better, and I headed out to do some errands.

As I drove, I noticed how postcard-perfect the roadside scenes were. The sky was a soft shade of light blue that contrasted beautifully against the snow-covered landscape. The trees themselves were frosted with caps of snow on the branches; a string of evergreens looked like a Christmas tree forest, glistening under the winter sun. Nearby our house is a great set of sledding hills, and we can hear the shrieks of delighted children. But yet, muffled: I love walking in the snow, as it dampens sound and makes everything quieter, hushed, more peaceful. It truly was a magnificent scene, and gave my heart cause to praise God the Creator for this tremendous gift.

Scene Two: Heartbreak. Our daughter had been pursuing a course of action academically that was not working out for her. It had been her hope to succeed at this new school, and yet her health is not such that she can achieve what she needs to achieve. And so she had to come to the point of deciding what to do: to try to push on, or to step out.

Every parent fiercely wants the best for their child, and every parent’s heart breaks when their child can’t get what they want. I’m no different, and so I ache for her to have to make a difficult decision.

And in the midst of it, the Father’s heart is breaking as well, I am sure. Two thoughts come to mind. First is the beauty of the snowy scene, and how it shows the magnificence of God. Look, he is saying: you’re right to feel for your child. But look around you, and see how much I love you too. I love you enough to give you this entire creation to enjoy, and it’s beautiful. And I love you enough to give you this gift even though you don’t deserve it. Receive my gift; lift your head, stop focusing on your own troubles and look at the magnificence I have for you.

And second: Remember the promises God makes throughout history.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. (Isaiah 41:10)

I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:13)

Our daughter’s troubles will pass. There is hope. And we see that hope in the love of God, reflected in the beauty of his creation on a snowy January day. Come, Lord Jesus, fill the hearts of your faithful, and wrap us in your love.

Advertisements

Merry Christmas, 2018

This Christmas was different, of course. The head of the dining room table was empty this year, with Mom passing in October. And the call to Vermont was missing a voice, with Mary’s dad passing in June. I made it through the day pretty well, but for hearing that silly “Christmas Shoes” song, and immediately thinking of Mom.  And yeah, crying.

And yet, there was brightness to the day. We were allowed to sleep in until well past nine; in fact, I was the first up, to start the coffee cake. Sarah was in much better spirits this year than in some past years, which gave me joy to see her happy and engaged. (Are the teen years ending?!?) We exchanged gifts and some very creative ones came out (I have a dozen new pairs of silly socks to wear to work, for example), and of all it, only two duplicates that we have to take care of.

In so many ways, this was a better Christmas than I expected, or have any right to deserve. I know so many others didn’t have a fire in the fireplace, or a turkey dinner, or the luxury of dozing by the first after the second. And as the years go by, the pile of presents gets a little smaller, and that’s okay: I don’t have anything to prove by great hordes of presents. In fact, quite the opposite: it truly isn’t the getting. The day is about much more.

The day is about love. The day is about the most tremendous love, far beyond anything we can imagine, breaking in and disrupting our lives. It’s about all the contradictions inherent in the fact of the Author of the Universe coming to us as a tiny, defenseless, utterly dependent baby in an insignificant backwater town two millennia ago. It’s not about the loss of our parents, it’s about love–the love they had for us, surely, but all the more, the love that wraps them now, the same love that pulls me in and won’t let go. It’s a much, much fuller Christmas than ever before. And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.

Merry Christmas!

Now What Do We Do?

At Sydenstricker UMC, we are at the climax of a year-long discernment process, seeking to identify what it is that God is calling us to do and to be. The process, called Next Level Innovations, culminated in a special weekend recently. An outside team of experts from the District came in to help facilitate conversations about what’s special about SUMC, what needs to change, and where we can make a difference. The outcome of that weekend was a report with a set of recommendations that we’re now considering, and will vote on whether to accept later this month.

As the report was presented, we had a special unified service, at which our NLI mentor, Rev Brian Brown, preached on the ripples we make in life. We then had the NLI director, Rev Dr Sarah Calvert, present the recommendations to the church.

The following weekend, Pastor Don was away on conference business, and I had the preaching duty. I spoke on the question of Now What Do We Do? Once we’ve heard from God, what is our response going to be? Give a listen and let me know what you think.

A Week On Campus

Today wraps up my second-ever week on campus at Asbury Theological Seminary.  I had two classes this week, Vocation of Ministry and Intro to the Old Testament, splitting the week: Vocation Monday through Wednesday noon, and OT Wednesday afternoon through Friday.

These were two very different class experiences, akin to going from a warm bath into a raging Class V rapid.

Vocation of Ministry is all about helping us understand the concept of “call,” and how we may be called into God’s service. We spent a lot of time in small-group accountability groups, and so I had the chance to come to know Mark and Justin better than just online. Pastor Don would also love some of the takeaways from the class:

  • If you build a church, you might not make disciples, but if you make disciples, you’ll definitely build a church.
  • Don’t sweat your ministry. God has far more invested in it than you do.
  • Our job is climate control: creating a set of conditions in which God can do something.

I felt especially convicted in our discussion of Sabbath. I don’t rest. I just don’t, not in the way the Bible calls us to. I do need to be more intentional about that: carving out time to do nothing but to sit and be in Jesus’ presence.

Old Testament moves at a firecracker pace: pop pop pop pop. The class has been a ton of reading (about 648 pages last week to get ready for this week), and I took more notes in these 2½ days than I’ve done in a long, long time. College Boy would have loved the archaeological discussions about various sites (is Mt. Ebal Joshua’s altar, or an Iron Age I barbecue pit?). We also waded into more controversial lanes:

  • What if the Exodus event wasn’t all of Israel, but only the tribe of Levi? And the rest of the tribes never left Canaan?
  • What if “the law” in the Old Testament wasn’t prescriptive, but a set of statements that defined a general approach that the society was supposed to take?

Rolling around on the floor with those kinds of questions was fun; I only wish some of the quizzes in the class weren’t so much a Bible trivia gotcha.

* * *

I also drew reassurance once again at just being here. This does feel like a good place to be. I do feel comfortable here. I can see myself at this kind of work now. And hey, it’s a great place for a selfie with a life-sized John Wesley…

Ten Days On

Today is ten days since Mom passed away.

It’s been an uneven road. For the most part, I think, I’m doing OK. There are moments, though, and there are days that are better than others.

For instance, the other day I saw a trailer on TV for the new Disney movie, The Nutcracker. Oh good, I thought! Mom loves Disney, and she certainly loves The Nutcracker–she always used to collect nutcrackers, in fact. She’d love this, I should…take…her…oh yeah. Huh.

It’s little reminders like that that keep cropping up. Mary and I went to the funeral home to pick up Mom’s cremated remains, and we were stuck in the traffic created by the construction on Route 29 out by the nursing home. Boy, I’ll be glad when this construction is over, I thought…then it occurred to me, I won’t have to drive over here anymore. Oh yeah. Huh.

In these moments of sadness, though, it’s still been possible to find joy. Remember, joy isn’t happiness: there’s not much to be happy about in this at all. But joy is a product of God: it is the security, serenity, and yes, joy, of knowing God and knowing his grace. I can still find joy, in the absolute conviction that Mom has attained the healing that escaped her here. She has a glorified body now, one that works when she wants it to, one that won’t cause her to fall or develop infections, one that’s free of every trace of Parkinson’s Disease. She can run and play with her dog, Kep, in ways that she never could here. And she has claimed the prize of faith.

joy

There is much to be done, administratively, that will be tiresome. There are the dark moments when I wish I could just hear her voice again, or know that hopeful look she would give when I visited. Or take her down to the fish pond one more time. But I also know, she is experiencing the restoration of all things. And in that, despite the darkness, I can take joy.

It’s Not Goodbye, Mom

My mom, Sandy Stoddert, 76, passed into eternity Saturday night.

Mom had struggled valiantly against the effects of Parkinson’s Disease since 1985…yes, for 33 years, and since she was 43, she’s been dealing with it. She fought to keep her independence as long as she could, taking in home-based aides for the last five years she lived in her home in Vermont. Then in 2011 she admitted it was time for more help, and she chose to move to Virginia into an assisted living home in Woodbridge. But the disease kept after her, and in parallel she began developing a series of infections that later would weaken her kidneys to the point they couldn’t cope. Just before Christmas 2016, she moved into her nursing home, and it’s there, surrounded by those who have cared for her, that she died.

I’d seen this coming for awhile, although the actual end was a little faster than I’d expected. She developed her final infection in mid September, and this time her kidneys didn’t respond. Her brother, and my sister, each came down to say what they needed to say to her last weekend.

Then it was my turn.

You see, when my dad passed ten years ago, the decline from his surgery to his passing was only six weeks, and much of it was spent in hope of recovery. But when it became obvious that his story wouldn’t end well, I wasn’t prepared to say goodbye. It was more about me, more about asking forgiveness for my own shortcomings, than about him and what was about to happen.

Enter God: he got my attention in one of the class lectures last week. The professor had in someone to talk about her call, and what she does (she’s a chaplain at a hospital in Kentucky). And when she started talking about the four things she wished everyone had the chance to say to a loved one who’s dying, I really sat up and paid attention.

I used that, then, as the basis for my own talk with mom last Wednesday.

  1. One, I forgive you. I forgive you your role in my parents’ divorce and what that meant to me at the time, I let all that go.
  2. Two, please forgive me. Forgive me for all the times I didn’t show you love, when I put myself first.
  3. Three, here’s what you meant to me. You gave me your love of reading and books, your love of history and government, and you were the one to make sure I got to church. And so here I am, a senior executive in the government and trying to follow Christ as he leads into this new adventure…and yeah, I wrote a book too.
  4. Four, I love you, and it’s OK to go. The last words I heard her say to me were on Monday, when she said she was tired. And so I told her it’s OK, we’ll be fine. My sister and I are doing OK, and all the grandkids are launching into their own lives just as you’d want them to. Go ahead and rest. Go find your beloved dog Kep, and play with her again. And take hold of the healing that we just can’t get for you here. Oh, and by the way: I love you.

Three nights later, she passed away. Go in peace, mom, and savor all the restoration that’s available now in Christ. I’ll see you again soon enough.

(PS: Here’s her obituary.)

Mom’s Ailing

I’m having to come to terms with the fact that my mother perhaps has very little time left among us.

About ten days ago, she developed an infection that affected her kidneys, causing them to be ineffective at metabolizing sodium, among other things. This is at least the third such infection in the last 14 months, and it got to the point this week that my sister and I have put her on a do-not-resuscitate, or DNR, order. She’s eating less, and at one point this week refused her medicines. The palliative care nurse practitioner noticed she looked a little sad Tuesday, and asked if Mom felt she was beginning to transition home. She nodded.

Large parts of this, of course, feel like when my dad was ailing ten autumns ago. He went in for open heart surgery, came out of that, developed complications, and slowly sank over the next six weeks: in mid September, he had surgery, and by November 6, he was gone. What feels the same is the slow-motion horror of the train wreck you can see developing and are powerless to stop.

It’s so much different from when Mary’s dad passed this summer, largely unexpectedly. And what feels different from my dad to my mom is that we’ve had 32 years to see this coming. Mom’s Parkinson’s Disease has reached a pretty advanced level, and so it’s entirely foreseen that some complicating factor will start to work on her. Still, it’s not easy seeing her drift away, unable to communicate well, weakening.

And yet, I have to confess to a certain peace about this. Perhaps because it’s been developing for so long, but also perhaps because of what I know. I know, for instance, that I’ve done all I can for mom, and so I really don’t think whether she knows I love her is in question. And all the more, I know there is a restoration of all things that awaits her. There is newness, wholeness, beyond anything we can imagine. Mom will be restored, not only to how she was before the PD afflicted her, but also to what she was always intended to be, in a resurrected body free from everything. This is the promise in Christ: this is the fruit of his resurrection, opening the way for us to follow him into glory. We don’t follow Christ because we get eternal life: we get eternal life because we follow Christ. Makes all the difference in the world.

The medical team hastens to say that the new antibiotics are working better, her numbers are improving, and in any case, it could be some time still, months even, before the end. But for the first time we are talking about an end, which in turn gives me hope for a new beginning. Alleluia...come, Lord Jesus.