Sharpening iron

As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17

I’ve been part of a men’s discipleship group at New Life for five years. It was initiated by two young men who were new to the church at the time. The group didn’t move in the direction they wanted and eventually they left both the men’s group and the church. Subsequently they also moved out of the area. But the group they had planted remained and thrived in the lives of four men. All of us are older. All of us are elders. Occasionally others will drop in for a visit, but four men have made a commitment and often experience spiritual highlights early on a Saturday morning.

The meetings are usually unplanned without designated leadership, but they follow a predictable format. We just talk. We are comfortable around one another and there is high personal trust. So the guys open up without fear of rejection or condemnation. But we challenge one another directly. The most common topic by far is politics. Closely related is the culture war. That often leads to the challenge of evangelism in a changing world.

In many of these discussions I remain silent for fifteen or twenty minutes while the guys vent. Eventually they ask me what I think or I finally say, “May I address this with you?” Then it’s my turn to vent. We open the Scriptures and God leads us through a remarkable time of insight and depth. Sometimes we go on for two hours. Many times we walk out of the session praising God and saying to ourselves, “Where did all those insights come from? We didn’t plan it, but God delivered. It was a wonderful time of refreshment. God is so good to us!”

Over time, no matter where we began our conversations, we kept arriving at the same conclusions from our time together: We need to change our unwritten core values of status quo and power. We started putting the ideas on a portable white board. They were radical changes, like stop judging others or stop trying to control others. We talked about radical acceptance and service from a position of powerlessness. Scary stuff. Sometimes other people would look at the list on the white board and comment, “I don’t like it!”

That’s understandable. I’m not so sure we like it ourselves, either, because our stubborn old values continue to assert themselves with force. I keep dragging out the white board. I point to it and say, “We’ve talked about this a dozen times from several passages in Scripture. This is what we always conclude, right?”

“Right,” they say. But it’s hard to put it into action. We’re still suspicious of outsiders. We are still quick to point out the faults of others. We still want to be in control of election results. We’re still angry about cultural changes. For the past year or so I’ve begun to wonder if the men’s group is stuck. Where’s the life change?

Two weeks ago, God gave me a breakthrough. It turns out we were off track and have been for a long time. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Others saw the problem and I didn’t. I’ll write about it next time.

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Father’s Day

Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Hebrews 12:9-11

The older I get, the more I respect my dad. The years provide a perspective I didn’t have when I was younger.

Dad grew up during the depression in the inner city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. He was the third of four sons in his family. Money was tight. While he was still in school, he contributed to the support of his family.

He met my mother in Sunday school when they were elementary students. It was his mother, not his father, who provided spiritual direction for him. His father had nothing spiritually to offer. My parents married young against the counsel of mom’s parents. They were just 19 and 18. But they worked hard at their marriage.

When I was young, we all were active in church. But dad didn’t verbalize his faith much. I probably talked enough for all of us. I read the Bible voraciously and had a prodigious faith when I was young. I think maybe dad didn’t know what to do with me.

He certainly tried to build into his children’s lives in ways his own dad, my grandfather, hadn’t been able to do. His dad died about 60 years ago. I never knew my grandfather.

Dad tried to teach me to play ball, but I was a terrible athlete. They tell me I used to stand in right field with my back to the plate. Dad tried to teach me how to work on the family car. There was only one car back then, of course. He had once taken a car apart and put it back together. But I wasn’t the least bit interested in learning mechanics. Dad is an accomplished woodworker. He built beautiful wooden toys and fine furniture such as shelves and tables and chairs. He even made each of us sturdy wagons to haul our kids around at the fair, and later our grand-kids. More than once someone has offered to buy our wagon. It’s not for sale.

Dad was a stern disciplinarian. When we were kids, we didn’t think he was always fair. He had a bit of temper when we were younger. He has matured. So have we. In hind­sight, I can see how hard he tried. And I respect him for that.

Thanks, Dad!

Burying a son

My dad’s 86th birthday is this weekend. It won’t be an especially joyful occasion for dad. About a week ago he lost his youngest child, my brother Darrell. Darrell died at age 56 from complications to pancreatic cancer.

Mom turned 85 a couple weeks ago. For awhile we wondered if Darrell might die on her birthday. Instead he lingered a few more days. These were hard days for my parents. They were basically housebound 500 miles away from Darrell’s hospice house. Their fare­well was accomplished with a phone call, although Darrell was unable to speak. He communicated only by grunts and gestures which were relayed by our older sister Pam.

After Darrell’s memorial service in South Carolina, I spent three days with my parents this week in Ohio. It wasn’t especially a deep or spiritual time, although we did pray together a couple times. We didn’t tell stories about Darrell or look at any old pictures of him when he was healthy. Maybe that will come later. Dad is stoic and self-contained. He wants to move on. Mom is tender and open, but quiet. I know the pain of losing a brother, but they have endured the crushing experience of burying a son. That’s a much greater loss.

The Scriptures provide numerous episodes of parents who lost their children to untimely death. They include sons and daughters of both the rich and famous as well as the poor and obscure. It isn’t a rare phe­nomenon. The parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, lost a son to murder.

Naomi lost two sons to death and her husband as well. King David lost multiple children to death by murder and the judgment of God. Jacob mourned the death of his son Joseph, but Joseph turned up alive in Egypt many years later.

A few of the children who died were subsequently restored to their parents. They include some of the most unique stories in the Bible. Elijah raised the son of a widow in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-24). Ironically, we are told neither the name of the woman nor her son. Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4:8-37). Again, their names are not provided. Jesus raised the son of a widow in Nain (Luke 7:11-17) and the daughter of a synagogue ruler (Matthew 9:18-26). These are the exceptions.

For the rest of us, death is final in this world. The mothers of Bethlehem mourned the loss of their baby boys by the sword of King Herod. But the children were not restored to their parents. Not yet.

Abraham almost lost his son Isaac in a very strange way. God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering on an altar (Genesis 22:1-2). Amazingly, Abraham obeyed without hesitation. He believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. That’s incredible faith. At the last instant, when Abraham’s knife was in the air to slay Isaac as a sacrifice, the Lord stopped the procedure and rewarded Abraham’s faith.

At first it seems like Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac doesn’t make any sense. Why would God command Abraham to do that? The initial answer is that it was a test of Abraham’s faith. But the meaning goes much deeper than that. The typology wouldn’t be fulfilled for two thousand years until God himself sacrificed his own son Jesus on the cross. This time the Lord didn’t stop the procedure. Jesus died on the cross. God buried his own son.

Parents bury their children because they lose them. But God buried his son because he gave him (John 3:16). A few dead children were restored to their parents. Their resurrection is a type (a picture) of what is yet to come for all in Christ. Because he lives, we too shall live. Such is the hope of a parent who has buried a child.

Resurrection. To Abraham life after death was a belief and a hope. The resurrection of Jesus made it a reality. He was the firstfruits of resurrection. We will follow later in due time. In the meantime, resurrection remains our belief and our hope. Parents still bury their children with the hope of a future resurrection. When Christ returns, he will make that resurrection a reality.

A grief observed

Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7

My brother Darrell died last Saturday from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56. I received the news while finishing a salad lunch at Costco six miles away. My sister Brenda was seated beside me with her cell phone. She said simply, “He’s gone. About five minutes ago.”

It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. For a few seconds it didn’t matter that Darrell’s suffering was over. For a few seconds I forgot that I had prayed a benediction over Darrell and told him I loved him several nights in a row. It just hurt badly.

I had recently blogged that death was welcome. But it really wasn’t. Not at that moment.

The hurt was immediately followed by regret. We hadn’t been there with him. We had stopped for a 25 mile torque check on our rotated tires. We were going to pick up salads and eat them in Darrell’s room. But they told us it would take 45 minutes with the car. So we ate the salads there. And lingered a few minutes more. We hadn’t hurried. After all, we had been waiting with Darrell almost a week. We were commuting from my older sister Pam’s house in Asheville, North Carolina. That was 65 miles away and we hadn’t seen Darrell yet that day. It was already noon. Suddenly he was gone.

Pain and regret stabbed me. I ran for the car, which I had just learned was ready. On the way, I realized that God’s timing was right after all. Anne needed to be alone with Darrell at the end. Suddenly I was glad she had been there instead of us. Had we arrived earlier, she might have left before he died.

By the time I pulled the car to the no-parking zone at the door two minutes later, Carol and Brenda had already reached the same conclusion. I loaded Carol’s crutches into the back (she had sprained her ankle 12 days earlier), jumped into the driver’s seat, and said, “Let’s pray.”

We drove and prayed. Or prayed and drove. When we arrived 10 minutes later, God was already providing peace. Anne was ready for us. All was well. At least, all was going to be well.

In the days since, I’ve been aware of deep grief. My mind regularly goes back to Darrell. He was my only brother, but we weren’t especially close. I was almost five years older by the calendar and four years ahead of him in school. I was finishing college and getting married when he finished high school. I was the oldest in my high school class. Darrell was the youngest in his class. It made a difference. We were very different. We didn’t do a lot together as kids. Not only was I older than Darrell, we also had different values and different interests. Our life paths diverged.

We met a few times over the years for vacations and holidays. But we didn’t see each other a lot, not even every year. We weren’t angry or fighting. We were just in our own very different worlds.

Late in January, Darrell called me. He said he was finally ready to open up. He told us his disease had returned and the news wasn’t good. He was scared. He asked for prayer. We prayed.

After that, I was the one who initiated contact. Darrell was still very private. He didn’t want calls more often than every three weeks or once a month. Sometimes it was hard to reach him. He was hospitalized a few times. He kept saying, “No visits and no money.” I nudged him toward Jesus and pointed him toward some resources. He said he’d check them out. I asked about his faith. He said it was “slow.”

At the informal memorial service on Sunday, one his co-workers (Rich) stood up and said he had very directly confronted Darrell about heaven in one of his last coherent days. He said, “Sometimes you had to be very direct with Darrell.”

That was true. Darrell didn’t respond to subtle hints. Rich told the group how Darrell had confirmed that he was going to heaven. That is a comfort to me. But Darrell’s death still hurts. I’m not sure I expected it to hurt this much.

Anne told me about another person who was coping with death by pretending it never happened. I’ not sure it’s possible to do that. I think if you try it, you’re left with only a very superficial life.

It’s much better to live deeply. That involves the spiritual world. That means connecting with Jesus. He has offered to carry our pain. I can testify that it’s a genuine offer.

Jesus does carry our pain. I still feel the loss, but it’s not crushing. All is well. At least, all will be well.

 

Crossing the Bar

“All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8

My brother Darrell passed peacefully from this world into eternity at 12:25 p.m., a little more than an hour ago. God was right on time. His wife Anne was by his side. The rest of us were on our way, a few minutes away. It is proper that God arranged for Anne to be alone with Darrell at the end. The rest of us would have crowded her.

No formal funeral arrangements are planned. A memorial service will be scheduled at a later date.

Crossing the Bar
Lord Alfred Tennyson, 1809 – 1892

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have cross’d the bar.

Tarrying

For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay.” Hebrews 10:37

Many people have declared that the Lord’s timing is always perfect. God is never late. Nor is he early.

It’s a challenge to embrace God’s timing when you’re watching your brother die a slow and agonizing death. I don’t know if the process is agonizing for Darrell. He is non-communicative, non-responsive, and heavily medicated. We don’t see signs of conscious suffering, for which we are grateful. But his uneven, shallow gasping for breath is agonizing to watch. Apparently the fluid retained in Darrell’s swollen legs and feet are hydrating his body and prolonging his life.

How does this delay of death fit into God’s timing? Is God ever late to a funeral? Do bodily fluids take life and death out of God’s hands. In reality, is this merely a matter of nature?

The short answer is that providence, sovereignty and omnipotence imply God’s presence and perfect divine timing. Life and death are matters of nature from a human perspective only. God is above nature. He is supernatural.

But what about the natural, human side of prolonged suffering? What we are experiencing with my brother is not even an exceptional case. Prolonged suffering abounds throughout this fallen world. Much of it is far greater than we are enduring here in South Carolina.

What is God’s timing about such things? Hebrews 10:37 indicates that God’s timing is reliable. It is preceded by verses which issue a call for confident living and perseverance in the face of suffering. It is followed by a call for the righteous to live by faith. This is not a new idea. The writer of Hebrews is citing Habakkuk, who wrestled with the same problem around 600 B.c.

Habakkuk saw evil everywhere and pondered God’s apparent absence and indifference. God’s response shocked him. God told him things were going to get even worse before they got better. Judah would be carried into captivity by the Babylonians.

That’s like bodily fluid delaying the inevitable. Habakkuk explained how the suffering of God’s people would be prolonged. But “revelation” would come (Habakkuk 2:3). God would win in the end.

The writer to the Hebrews took that concept of approaching revelation and applied it personally. The Lord would come to remedy evil and suffering. God himself is the ultimate revelation.

What does all that mean to the reader of Scripture? It means that although the world appears to be falling apart, God is still in control. His timing is still perfect. It means we are to live by faith, not by what we painfully observe in slow motion on a hospice bed.

Based only on our sight, the Lord appears to be delayed, subject to bodily fluid in a dying man’s body. God appears to be absent or even indifferent. Life and death seem arbitrary and mechanical.

Habakkuk says, “Not so. God’s timing is impeccable.” The writer of Hebrews agrees. What appears to be apathetic tarrying to us is divine timing to God. We walk by faith, not by sight. Therefore we will not shrink back in the face of an agonizing loss. Not only will God be on time, he’s already present with  mercy and grace. Life and death are still in God’s tender hands, Darrell’s bodily fluids not withstanding.

Three weeks ago a friend in Minnesota was retelling a story about a horrific motorcycle accident he had barely survived 45 years ago. I asked, “Where was God in all this?”

He answered, “God was late, but he eventually showed up.”

No, not really. God was there all the time. And God is present with Darrell here. To borrow a line from another pastor: In the meantime, God is not absent, apathetic or angry. (cf. www.meantimeseries.org)

 

 

Pastor or brother?

And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:21

My brother Darrell is dying of pancreatic cancer. He is a 13-year survivor. Almost 14 years. We’re not aware of anyone who has lived longer. When the cancer was first diagnosed, Darrell and his family were casual participants (perhaps members) of a Methodist church. They had a good relationship with the pastor. Then in the time of their great need, the church suffered a split. The pastor was ousted. As I understand it, they tried another church. Then it, too, suffered a split. Or maybe it was the same church a second time around.

In any event, my brother had what we call “a bad church experience.” There are two sides to every story. I didn’t hear the entire account. But in the aftermath, Darrell and his family essentially adopted a secular worldview. They felt burnt by the church. He never ceased claiming to be a believer, at least with me. I didn’t observe anger directed toward God. But his attention was drawn to other endeavors, especially beating his cancer by medical means. In my last extended conversation with Darrell, he described his walk of faith as “slow.”

When we arrived at the hospice home Sunday night, Darrell had been unresponsive for a couple days. Nevertheless, I read Scripture with him, invited him to faith in Christ and prayed with him. To watching family members, this was my pastoral task. Every day I’ve read Scripture to Darrell, expounded on the passage, and prayed with him. My role here has indeed been spiritual. But is it pastoral?

As Darrell has lingered, the question has arisen whether I should continue to stay near Darrell or drive to Ohio in support of our parents. In considering this decision, someone asked me what I want to do about Darrell as a brother, not just as a pastor. In other words, am I a pastor or a brother?

The question surprised me. As a pastor, I’ve read Scripture and prayed with people thousands of times. That experience has given me familiarity with the situation here. But I’m not Darrell’s pastor. I’m his brother. As his brother, I’m required to love him. In this situation, that means reading Scripture to him, presenting opportunities of faith in the face of death, and praying with him. I can do nothing less for my brother.

Pastor or brother? The answer isn’t both. I’m not the pastor here. I’m a brother.