Monday, August 20, 2012

The Ministry of Presence

"More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn't be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them."  
- Henri Nouwen

My mother died two weeks ago. I promise that I will not begin every blog from now on that way but today it seems appropriate. She had surgery on a Tuesday night and never really came back to us. For seven weeks she stayed in a hospital bed and we stayed beside her, my sister, my step-father, my wife and me. At first we all wanted to stay but then the economy of energy began to dictate that we take turns. We would work in shifts like factory workers passing in the courtyard. My step-father came faithfully every morning, though most mornings Mom did not know that he was there, or if she did, who he was. Chonda would come just after lunch and spend the afternoon and evening combing Mom’s hair, making the nurses laugh, cleaning soiled bed sheets, and playing Doris’s CD  for Mom. And I usually had the graveyard” shift. I would come sometime after my last appointment, 8 or 9 when the hospital was starting to get quiet and the rooms were dark. I would just sit, reading the Psalms to mom, talking to her about the Olympics playing out on the TV, or telling her what latest yard project Sammy was doing at their little home. I don’t know if she heard me much. Some times I would decide to leave at midnight if she was sound asleep, many times I stayed until Sammy came in the morning with a cup of coffee and a ham biscuit from  Hardee’s. We would spend a minute catching up and then start the process all over again.

During that time we came to appreciate the ministry of presence, those people who stopped their busy schedules for only a moment, entered the hospital room and just sat. Most did not do anything particularly memorable, some stayed too long and talked too much, others only flitted in and out with a mumbled prayer and a quick handing over of a casserole, like the Olympic relay team passing the baton on the flickering TV over our heads. Some seemed comfortable in this “visitation” role, others were very ill at ease and made me nervous. But they came. They came and sat and when they came they brought Christ with them. That’s the ministry of presence.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for every text, every FaceBook post, even every email and phone call. These people were making an effort to connect and I am thankful. But there is something about presence, physical presence, the warm bodied, looking you in the eyes, not sure what to say, presence that allows Jesus to enter the scene in a new way. That presence sustained us and encouraged us through seven grueling weeks. And even at Mom’s funeral, the ministry of presence is what ministered to us.

I have never been one to go to parties much, or sit long hours with elderly people on a Sunday afternoon, or take the time to drop in on a friend that is sick (or hurting.) For one thing, guys don’t do that. For another everybody is so busy, they are, I am, busy. We have modern conveniences to help us with that, texting, voicemail, FaceBook. I usually make sure I do that and send a nice card with a little check in it when the time is right….. I have missed it. If I get too busy doing the Lord’s work to BE the Lord in someone’s time of need then I have misunderstood the Gospel. Jesus always went to feasts and funerals. He never turned down an invitation to eat or mourn. That was where some of His best stuff happened. Water into wine. Loaves and fishes.” Little girl, get up.” “Lazarus, Come forth.”  Jesus was all about the ministry of presence.

I am determined to do better. A friend of mine was in the hospital last week, It was a busy day. Counseling all morning. I had two meetings in Lebanon in the afternoon. It was supper time when I was driving back to town but I decided to stop by the hospital. We sat and talked for 45 minutes. We told stories and laughed. We hugged and showed pictures of our kids. In a little while I prayed a not too profound prayer and left. Not much to it. It was the closest I was to Christ all day.      Mike

Monday, August 13, 2012

Holding On, Letting Go

It is one of the great challenges of life, how long do I hold on and when do I let go? A few years ago we were fishing and swimming and just chillin’ at the little lake on my sisters farm. The kids, including my two sons were swinging on an old rope swing and dropping with a kerplump into the middle of the lake. In between every jump they yelled over at me, “C’mon Dad, you try it.” Now I am a wise, mature, solid thinking older gentleman so of course I got up and gave it a whirl. Amazing, exhilarating, a real adrenalin rush. And that was just climbing up on the platform so I could reach the rope. I grabbed this wet, muddy object of so much activity, took a death-hold grip and sprang out like a gazelle into the upper atmosphere somewhere just above the water and under the leaves of the trees.

Let’s leave our hero suspended in mid flight to discuss holding on. It’s not a bad idea. There are certainly some appropriate times and places to hold on. Walking along the rim of the Grand Canyon comes to mind. The handlebars of your sons Harley Sportster is another good place. I can think of a few more. When my grandson wants to get quickly from the car, across the parking lot to Toys-R-Us it is a good idea to hold on, tight. When my wife comes and sits on the couch next to me, even when it is the fourth quarter of the Titans and New York Jets, I have learned the hard way, that’s a good time to hold on.

In fact holding on is the stuff legends are made of. How many tales do you know of explorers that were ready to turn back but they held on a little longer? Or inventors that held on for one more experiment and then they broke through? War heroes held on against all odds. The rags to riches success models that we follow are all about holding on. Even scripture is full of admonitions to hold on. I Thessalonians 5:21 says to “Hold on to what is good.” Hebrews 10:23 says to “Hold unswervingly to the hope that is within us.” We grew up with Sunday School lessons and youth camp sermons about “holding on to Jesus.” And our favorite spiritual poster is that cat gripping desperately the end of a rope with some applicable Bible verse underneath and the caption, “When you get to the end of the rope, tie a knot and hold on.” You KNOW that is profound!

Holding on is just what we do. It is woven into our DNA. I give Jakson, my one year old grandson, a new toy and he holds on. Jon-Mical, the four year old plays in the evening outside in the tree house until he is so sleepy his eyes can barely stay open and his head drops, but he holds on. We hold on to jobs when they are less than fulfilling. We hold on to habits that we have promised to give up. We hold on to our kids long after they are out on their own. And we hold on to the false confidence that we can fix things when we know we can’t. My mother died this past week. I stood by her bed and held on probably long after I should have let go. On the other hand, she seemed to hold on until some special moment or circumstance that we can only guess, was in place. Holding on is as natural as breathing.

And speaking of holding on, what about the hero of our story suspended between earth and sky on the rope swing? We forgot about him. He (me) is still holding on. In fact that is exactly what I did. I held on while the swing made a glorious arc out over the beautiful, sundrenched lake. I held on as it paused for a moment, imperceptibly shifting directions, in that second free from the bonds of gravity. I held on as it started its rapidly increasing descent back towards the place from which it had come. And I held on while it whacked me against the muddy bank of the pond and then dropped me unceremoniously into the shallow, moss covered edge of the water. I lay there enveloped in slime, breath knocked out of me, hand throbbing (found out later it was broke), thinking to myself, “Self, you held on when you should have let go.” And there’s the rub. When do I let go?

Well the bad news is, I don’t know. The good news is you do. You know if you listen to the heartbeat of God, if you tune your desires to the Holy Spirit, if you take on the mind of Christ, you will know when it is time to let go. You will recognize that sometimes letting go is not only the best thing to do. It’s the only thing. You will understand that if I have any hope of holding on at all I am going to have to let go. There will come a time when you will see that holding on is going to cause more pain and letting go will bring freedom. Does that make sense?

Let me give you three times that come to mind when letting go is better than holding on. First, when you are holding on to hurt. We have all had those moments when we have been so wounded, so unjustly treated, so betrayed that the anger and hurt of that seems to hold on to us as much as we hold on to it. We process it, rehearse it, relive it, analyze it. We hold on to it, sometimes rightly so, to make sure it will never happen to us again. My wife speaks often to other wives who have been betrayed by their husbands. Doris will say to them, “You have to forgive but not today.” There is a benefit is holding on to hurt for awhile to help you establish boundaries and keep yourself safe. But….there comes a time, and you know it, when holding on to that thing is strangling you. The death grip you have on that perceived wound or unfair treatment is really a hold around your own heart. You HAVE to let it go. The situation may not be completely resolved. You might not feel fully vindicated. You may not have received the full apology that you desired. But it is time to let go and move on. Holding on any longer will only create more hurt and rob your life of joy.

The second time to let go is in a relationship that has become toxic. Listen, there are people that I have loved that in the long run were so unhealthy for me I had to let them go. We’ve all had those, an abusive father, a controlling mother, a legalistic church, a wayward child. Now I don’t mean for any of those that we desert or abandon them. God is a God of reconciliation and Paul says He has given us “the ministry of reconciliation.” We never stop loving. Never stop praying. Never stop believing that God can make things right. But there comes a time when we do that from a distance. When that connection with a sick person is beginning to make me sick too it is time for me to let go. God hates divorce. Our kids will always be our kids. We are to honor our parents. I don’t know exactly how all of this plays out but I do know that in some relationships there comes a time when the right thing to do is to let go. (And trust God!)

Which leads me to the third time of letting go. We did it this week. It was not easy. Still isn’t. As my family stood by the hospital bed of my mother who had battled for so long, it became apparent that the time had come for us to let go. My sister whispered to her, “Mom, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” In one way or another Mom had given each one of us that last smile and tender goodbye. She was ready and we, as much as we would like to have had one more day, or one more minute, knew it was time to let her go. And you know what? When we did God reached down to her and said, “Here Nanny, Take my hand and hold on.”

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Thursday, August 9, 2012

She's There Now

Got this text conversation from my son, Josh with his 4 year old son, Jon-Mical last Tuesday, the evening my mother died.

I told Jon-Mical that Nanny died. He immediately asked if she was flying now.
"Flying?" I asked.
"Yes. Is she flying up to heaven?" he responded.
I told him she was.
He looked up and asked, "How far is she?"
"She's already there." I said.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

God Far Away

I need God and He is far away. That desolate, desperate cry is not some philosophical, poetic metaphor from ancient literature or the pitiful plea of the fundamentally fearful. It is my testimony for right now. The words from my lips. The echo of my heart. It is the true, simple, unadorned and undeniable condition of my spirit in this stage of my existence. I NEED GOD AND HE IS FAR AWAY. And interestingly enough, (to me at least) I can speak it without trembling emotion or paralyzing fear. To coin a phrase (again) it is what it is. I need God, simple enough. And He is far away, maybe not simple but certainly understandable.

For one thing, the panic is removed from that conditional announcement when I remember that I am not the first. Moses wandered and wondered on the “back side of the desert” before he had a close encounter with a burning bush. I do not know where the back side of the desert is but I have been there often in the last 2 months. Abraham may have felt that as he led the donkey full of firewood, and his son Isaac up the mountain to prepare a sacrifice. Have you ever felt like you were being asked to give up or let go of something so precious to you that sure God could only ask you by shouting from a far, far distance away? Of course, King David is the poster-child for abandonment issues and reactive attachment disorder. Listen to a few of his familiar laments. “How long, O  Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide Your face from me?” Ps. 13:1. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me?” Ps. 22:1. In fact those words remind me that even Jesus felt this eternal, fraternal separation when on the cross He quoted David, “Elohim, Elohim, lama sabachthani.” My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Come on tell the truth, have you ever felt that? Maybe sometime in the last 24 hours? When the police call and say we have your son in custody? Or worse, you’d better come to the hospital? When the boss walks in with a cardboard box and a security guard and says, “Sorry, there have been budget cuts?” When the couple that lives next door that loved your kids and ate your barbecue pulls up in a U-Haul van and tells you they have taken a job in Alabama? When you’re cut from the football squad? Left off of the guest list? Given the cold shoulder at church? Unfriended on FaceBook? All of us at one time or another have known the pain of personal rejection and made the leap from the loss of a comfortable situation to the abandonment of God. Even if only for a moment.

If you have read my FaceBook Mom-Updates you will guess that my moments have come at 2am sitting beside the hospital bed in ICU. The night is anything but silent. It is punctuated by rattling bedpans, the incessant beeps of IV pumps, and the groans, the groans of a dozen people who perhaps deep in the recesses of their subconscious are asking, “Why have You forsaken me?” I have watched the spark of intelligence and acuity that was my mother flicker and almost go out over the last 2 months. I have felt her pat my hand and smile at me with the same smile she would give the waiter at Shoney’s or the boy who delivers her paper, asked her questions like my name only to have her turn away in embarrassed confusion. And I have asked God where He was in all of this. How far away? I need God and He is far away.
So what help is there in recognizing I am not alone in my dilemma. Is “misery loves company” enough to satisfy my detached heart? I don’t think so but I do find other solace in thinking through these examples of spiritual loneliness and isolation.

First, I recognize that sometimes the abandonment that I feel is a result of my own behavior and is necessary for my purification. Remember Moses. He rose up in anger and killed the Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew slave. As noble as his motives may have been his action was wrong. Moses fled into the wilderness and spent 40 years letting God burn away the selfishness and control issues in him. Isn’t it possible that what was really burning in the middle of that bush were  what we call in CR character defects? Moses felt far from God so that some of his hurts, habits, and hang-ups could be placed under grace and he could emerge a leader for his people. So, there are times that my separation from God is for my own healing and my own good.

Secondly, as with Abraham, God often has another plan. Who knows? Maybe His plan is even better? Let’s see. Go up the mountain. Build a fire. Kill my only, my dearly loved son and place his lifeless body on the fire as a gift to God. Or…look up and see a ram that God has snared for me, long before He even asked me to come up onto the mountain. So he closes the door on that job only to give me one closer to home. He allows my relationship to end and suddenly a new person, the right person comes on the radar screen. He tears me away from the First Church of Comfort and plants me in a place where His fire burns brighter in the eyes of people that I have ever seen. Many times the isolation I feel from God is a result of Him working behind the scenes to make something different, better.

And finally, like David I remember that He is not far away at all. My emotions get the best of me. It’s just that time of the month or that time of my life. I am fragile and frazzled, over stressed and under appreciated. I am a legend in my own mind and no one else seems to acknowledge that and God seems so far away. I am an emotional creature. God made me that way. And the more I can express my emotions, be honest about my feelings, the healthier I will be. But my emotions are not the metrics for the way things are. In fact, most of the time my emotions bear little correlation to reality. I feel what I feel and that’s okay but that doesn’t mean it is true. Listen, I feel like I’m going to shoot a 70 every time I step on the golf course. I feel like this is the year for Ohio State to beat the SEC and win the National Championship. (every year) I feel like one more MacDonald’s Sundae won’t cause me to gain weight. I feel like I can afford that new BMW I’ve had my eyes on. All of these feelings are real but the facts they point to are not true. (Well, except the ice cream sundae thing.) God is not far away. He has not moved. He is as close as my next prayer. And even when I cannot feel it I know He says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

Which leads me to the last thing, Jesus on the cross, seeming to decry the abandonment of God. “My God, my God WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?” Jesus knew the whole story. He knew about the incomplete sacrificial system and the holiness of His Father. He knew the demands of the law and the plan of God. He knew about the crucifixion but also about the resurrection. He knew that after Friday, Sunday was coming. His cry was the reflex response of His mother’s side of the family. It was His human nature identifying with our human nature. We will cry. We will feel lost and alone. We will struggle with abandonment and question our faith. We are human. That’s what we do. But that is not who God is. HE IS THERE. Even in the hospital room at 2am, He is there. He loves us with an everlasting love. He knows the plans He has for us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He invites us to come to Him when we are weary and heavy laden. He is there.
I need God and He FEELS far away. But He is not. That’s good.