Monday, November 24, 2014

grief

I've been thinking a lot about grief lately as I have watched, in the last couple of weeks, two different families experience the tragic loss of a dearly loved son.  One was from a heroic two-year battle with cancer and the other from a heartbreaking decision to take his own life.  In both cases loved ones were left in the wreckage that only death can bring, filled with pain and anguish deeper than they ever imagined possible, trying to make sense of it all, and wondering how they will ever be able to survive the next minute--much less the next day, week, or year--without their beloved child.  It was incredibly hard to watch.  Maybe because it was too familiar.  For, looking into their eyes, I saw something that I recognized.  It was a deep, indescribable pain that only the most difficult moments of this life can produce; one that reminded me of a different time and a different place when that pain was my own (Jackson).  And I remember clearly that it was into the midst of the pain (almost 27 years ago) that God spoke, reminding me that he too had experienced the agony of losing a son.  Reminding me that he could understand my anguish like no one else. 

Another beautiful reminder of this was given to me just last week at one of the memorial services, in which the pastor turned to the grieving mother and father and said to them, "God understands what you are going through."  He then went on to explain that at least a part of what may have been happening as Jesus died on the cross, and the sun hid its face and the rocks were split open and the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, was that God himself, a grieving father, was tearing his robes in pain and grief.  I don't claim to fully understand how that is even possible, but when I heard those words it brought up a "yes" from the depths of my soul.  "Of course," I thought, "that's exactly what God would do."   It touched me to the core; a God who would share our pain, a God who would voluntarily take that pain upon himself that we might have life and hope.  Only God would do something that beautiful.  Only God would put himself in those shoes...for us.  Why?  So that in the midst of our deepest darkness and suffering, we might have an even deeper companionship with him.  So that when we found ourselves in times of most desperate need, we might be met by a more beautiful vision of his heart.  So that at those moments when we felt the most lost and hopeless, we might find hope and healing in the midst of our pain.  Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

why

A few days ago I was given an extraordinary gift.  A dear friend of mine invited me over to his house to meet a truly remarkable young man.  The young man's name is Sean and at the time he was in the midst of a two-year battle with Ewing's Sarcoma, a rare form of tissue and bone cancer that predominately attacks adolescents and young adults.  Sean grew up in Brentwood and came to Knoxville to play tennis at UT, where Ben (my friend) became one of his coaches.  But shortly after signing with UT, in October of 2012, Sean was diagnosed with cancer, which was the beginning of a heroic two-year journey.  And it was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Ben and Sean.  If you know Ben at all, you know two things: he loves his players and he loves Jesus.  Well, eventually Sean's most recent stage of his battle with cancer required a significant amount of care and attention, but because of his love for his teammates and his friends he did not want to leave Knoxville.  Therefore, my friend Ben invited Sean, and his family and friends, to come live with him.  Again, if you know my friend Ben, this is no surprise at all.  That is where the "extraordinary gift" part comes in.

On Wednesday of last week Ben invited me over to join some friends and family as they prayed for Sean.  It was an incredibly beautiful and intimate time.  Beautiful in the sense of a man selflessly opening his home, and his heart, to a group of folks in tough circumstances in order to kindly and compassionately make their lives as easy as possible.  Beautiful in the sense of the love poured out on this young man by a community of family and friends who were loving him selflessly and extravagantly.  And beautiful in the sense of an incredibly strong and courageous young man fighting an epic battle with heroic perseverance and bravery.  I watched as Ben warmly and gently made such wonderful space for this beautiful story to unfold.  I watched as a group of women cared for Sean with such tenderness and affection that, as a bit of an outsider, I didn't feel worthy to witness it.  And I watched as Sean tenaciously fought a battle that would have overwhelmed, and long since defeated, a lesser man. 

And so we prayed.  We gathered around his bed and laid our hands upon him and poured out our hearts.  We prayed for healing.  We prayed for comfort.  We prayed for peace.  All of which God graciously granted; for on Sunday, November 16, Sean peacefully went to be with Jesus.  Now he is, indeed, whole.  Now he is, indeed, comforted beyond our wildest imaginations.  Now he is, indeed, fully at peace.  In the immortal words of  Dwight L. Moody, “One day you are going to read that Dwight L. Moody is dead. Don’t believe it.  For at that moment I will be more alive than I have ever been."  And so it is with Sean.

I realized that day that I had been given an extraordinary gift.  During times like these we are often tempted to ask the question "Why?"  And as I drove away from the house I began thinking about that very question.  But it wasn't the whys you would have normally expected, it was a whole different set of whys.  The whys that recognize that all of life is a gift.  Like, why did I get the privilege of spending thirty profoundly impactful minutes with such an incredible group of people?  Why did I get the privilege of meeting this amazing young man?  Why was I somehow chosen to be one of the ones that were fortunate enough to have found themselves in his life-changing path?  And I thought about his parents.  Why were they given the incredible gift of being this young man's parents?  Did God have a broad smile on his face as he gave them this amazing son?  And why did they get the privilege of having him for a full twenty years?  Why not just twenty minutes?  Or twenty days?  Why did God want them to have hearts and minds filled to overflowing with a full twenty years of wonderful memories?  What a gift!  And I thought about his friends.  Why did they get the gift of being able to be Sean's friend?  Why did God specifically pick them out to be next door neighbors, or classmates, or doubles partners with this extraordinary young man?  Why did they get that privilege and not someone else?  For they are so much the richer for having known him and having been around him.  And then I thought about his teammates.  Why were they the ones to be chosen to come to Tennessee, in just the right place at just the right time, to get to be on Sean's team.  And why did God give him to the UT community to begin with, and not to Vanderbilt, or Florida, or Georgia?  Why did they get the gift of walking this journey with him?  Why did they get the gift of seeing the courage and the tenacity and the bravery and the strength and the fight of this one remarkable young man who would forever change the course of their lives by having known him?

 I know I am a richer man for having met Sean and his family, and I was only around them for about thirty minutes.  I can't imagine the impact of being around him for two years, much less twenty.  And I am forever grateful for those thirty minutes and this one amazing young man who helped change forever the way I see the question, "Why?"
 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

o my soul

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. (Psalm 103:1)


I love the way David seemed often to live from his soul.  There is something about that idea, and about these words that begin Psalm 103, that is very appealing and intriguing to me.  I tend to live, all too often, from my head, or from my fears and insecurities, or from my surface reality, or from my circumstances.  But when I do this I get the constant sense that I am missing something, that there is much more to life than what I am experiencing at the moment, something much deeper.  And I think this something deeper has a lot to do with living from my soul.  My sense is that my soul is the deepest part of me, the uncharted depths of my being.  It seems very mysterious and abstract, but at the same time it seems to be the most real part of me that exists.  And it is a place that I long to live from regularly, but one that I, unfortunately, seem to be aware of and in touch with far too infrequently.

So just what is a soul anyway?  And how do we bless God with it?  The word soul in the Hebrew (nephesh) comes from the root naphash which means to breathe, to take a breath, or to strongly pant.  Our breath is the part of us that gives and sustains life.  Therefore, nephesh (soul) is that part of us that makes us most alive.  It is our being, our essence, our is-ness, who we really are.  It is who God dreamt us to be.  Dallas Willard once called it "the deepest part of the self."  Or, as a dear friend said to me recently, "It is the part of you that burns inside."  In short, the soul is the place we were created to live out of.  It is the part of us that was made for intimate union with our God. 

And the word bless in the Hebrew (Psalm 103:1-2) means to kneel or adore.  So when David says, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name."  He is saying, "Let the depths of who I am, who I was dreamt to be, adore the one who made me that way."  To bless the Lord with all my soul means to turn towards God and open my most intimate places, in adoration, to him.  To engage him with all that I have and all that I am. 

But the soul can be an elusive animal.  As a matter of fact, I once heard someone describe the soul as a deer; which makes total sense since Psalm 42 uses the image of a deer to describe our soul's longing for God.  "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you , my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go meet with God?" (Psalm 42:1-2)  I am not much of a hunter, but I do know that if you want to see a deer it will take time and patience, stillness and attentiveness; any sudden movement or commotion will scare it away, back into hiding.  And so it is with the soul.  If you want to have access to your soul, most likely all of these things will be necessary as well.  There are times, however, when you just "happen upon" a deer completely by accident.  You just look up and there it is, as surprised to see you as you are to see it.  These moments happen with the soul as well.  Sometimes, when we are least expecting it, the soul just shows up.  It might be a scene from a movie, or a song, or a sunset, or work of art that suddenly captures you, and low and behold you and your soul are standing face to face.  These moments, as they are with deer, are rare and beautiful.  They leave us different than they found us.  And if me are willing to take the time and the space to reflect, and to mine their treasure, they can offer our souls food for days and weeks to come. 

But what of the intentional moments?  How can we be more like David?  How can we live our lives more consistently from my souls?  I guess the easiest answer is to pay careful attention to the things that bring us to life inside, and to consistently make these things a regular part of our practice.  These things can help us to have access to, and live from, our souls more often.  The other day I heard an incredible question in this regard, one that I hope to reflect on and wrestle with in the days and weeks (and maybe even months and years) ahead.  The question was: "What fuels your soul to keep you stumbling toward love?"  And what a great question it is!  It is a question that realizes a few central truths.  First, it realizes that our soul is the engine that drives us, in whatever direction we may end up going.  Secondly, in recognizes that the soul can't run on its own, it needs fuel to keep it going, whatever that fuel may be.  That is up to each of us (since we are uniquely and wonderfully made) to figure out.  And lastly, it clearly shows us that the purpose of it all is to continually stumble in the direction of love.  Ultimately life, even my life and your life, is not about us, but about God, and about him being known and glorified both within us and around us.  So, this day, let us consider our souls.  Let us live constantly from them.  Let us consider what offers them the fuel they need.  And let us, always and everywhere, continue to stumble in the direction of Love.