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.

 

Welcome, Enemy

 

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26

Death is a vile enemy. It defies faith. It denies hope. It devastates love.

Death is a vicious enemy. Jesus prayed to his Father, “If you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Then the Savior submitted to the most ignoble death possible. He willingly suffered the humiliating condemnation of a Roman cross.

Death is a defeated enemy. The Resurrection changed everything. Jesus turned death on its head. He came back from the grave, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

Death’s final destruction is yet future. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:54). In the meantime, humanity remains subject to the despicable throes of death. At present, death is still a powerful, hated enemy.

My brother Darrell is dying of cancer. It’s not a pleasant sight. He has not received food or water for six days. Yet he lingers. As far as we can tell, he is not aware of what is going on around him. His breathing is shallower today. Yet, incredibly, his vital signs are actually improving. His blood pressure improved today. His heart rate was closer to normal. The hospice care has been wonderful. He may yet linger for days. Or his departure from this broken world could come tonight.

God has his purpose in the timing of Darrell’s life and death. Yet I don’t recognize it in the lingering, unless it serves as an open door of invitation for those who remain.

God remains sovereign. Death remains an enemy, though a welcome enemy. When the angel of death finally arrives, it will sting. There will be genuine loss. We will feel pain. But death will accomplish only what God has decreed. Therefore I say to the hovering immanence of destruction, “Welcome, Enemy.”

Ice storm

A week ago an ice storm hit our area. The forecast was so dire the governor closed all the public schools in the state three days in advance. Late Friday evening the thermometer rose above freezing and the sky deposited sleet, freezing rain, and then rain. The temperature dropped quickly. By Saturday morning thick ice covered everything. 

Needless to say, travel was treacherous. Since we live in a small town, I walk nearly everywhere all the time. It’s a good thing, too, because I doubt our car could have made it up the steep slope of our tuck-under garage. Carol and I joke that whoever designed our house didn’t live in Minnesota and visited during summer to deliver the blueprints.

A week after the storm, it’s still slippery here. Everywhere. I’ve still been walking my normal routes, but it’s slow, tense work. Staying on my feet is really challenging. I’ve started to slip several times, but haven’t fallen all the way yet. I walk like an old man with tiny, defensive steps. True to form, I’m actually beginning to become an old man. I sense a fall may not be as easy as it used to be. Psalm 37:23-24 comes to mind: “If the Lord delights in a man’s way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand.”

That’s a comforting thought when walking on ice! And it’s followed immediately by this: “I was young and now I am old…” Oh boy, Lord, keep me on my feet!

Yesterday I began to notice that my calves were a little sore because of my defensive posture, but I kept walking. Today my calves are very sore. Defensive walking–maintaining a constant tension in the legs to guard against slips–may help us avoid painful confrontations with the ice, but there has been an unintended consequence–pain of a different kind.

Defensive walking reminds me of defensive living. Defensive living maintains constant tension with other people. Our relationships are guarded. We think the worst of others, refuse to grant the benefit of a doubt, find it hard to forgive, and cannot enjoy authentic vulnerability with our family and friends. Anger is usually part of the equation. One way to describe defensive living is “walking on eggshells” around other people. We keep them at a distance and try to hold on to the status quo at any price. So we never relax. That describes a lot of relationships.

There’s a cost. We live defensively to avoid the pain of relating with others, but it turns out there is an unintended consequence–the different pain of a lonely life. Perhaps the status quo isn’t worth preserving. Vulnerability and authenticity involve real life pain, but it’s far better than walking on eggshells around other people. Life produces ice storms in the stress of difficult relationships, but defensive living is not the way to respond.

If I’m going to keep walking on ice, maybe I need to strap some spikes on my shoes to grip the ice better. Defensive walking is too painful! And when life produces ice storms in strained relationships, a gospel-driven life helps me grip the slippery mess of loving and forgiving other people who are broken just like me. Defensive living is just too painful!

An ice storm proves it.

A scary thought

“Let us run with perseverance the the race marked out for us,” Hebrews 12:1b.

A couple weeks ago New life Church hosted an end-of-summer picnic at a local park. About 30 people attended. One of the activities was a softball game. Nearly everyone participated. It was a lot of fun! It also may be an object lesson for life with a scary thought at the end.

Hang with me and I’ll explain. However, I have to back up first.

I’m not much of an athlete. I enjoy sports as much as the next guy, but I’m not big (though I’m rounder than I used to be!), I’m not strong, and I’m not fast. If my memory is right from over 40 years ago, my lifetime batting average in youth baseball was .222, two for nine. That’s two base hits in nine years. Get the picture?

I haven’t played much ball in the past twenty years. It was a surprise my wife even knew where to find my ball glove. That old leather was pretty stiff the day of the picnic. I was stiff, too. So I was really gentle as we began to play. I jogged after balls and lobbed throws to other players.

Running hard wasn’t on my agenda, but neither was it a real concern. I’d been jogging several times this summer and I’ve shed a few pounds. I felt like I was in relatively good shape for my age and lifestyle.

After awhile, the competitive juices began to flow and I took after a fly ball in right field. It was the first time I’d run all out in years. I didn’t feel a thing during the game until my last time at bat. But soon it was clear I had pulled a groin muscle–or perhaps done something worse.

Almost two weeks later, I can’t run a step. Not even a soft jog. Right now my life is strictly sedentary.

Was that brief all-out run worth it? I’d say “no.” For starters, I didn’t catch the ball. It fell harmlessly in foul territory. So there was almost no gain to the effort. And the cost was too great. If I had just limited myself to jogging, the game wouldn’t have been any different and I wouldn’t have gotten hurt. You have to be top physical condition to run all out. 

Here comes the switch-eroo. Is it possible this is similar to spiritual running?

The Apostle Paul used physical conditioning as an analogy to spiritual conditioning in 1 Corinthians 9:24. He spoke of buffeting his body for spiritual profit. That’s not something we do in a restaurant! Similarly, Hebrews 12:1 calls for followers of Christ to run a race with perseverance. Obviously, it’s a spiritual race.

We’re called to a long race. A hard race. We must be in top spiritual condition to run it.

As a preacher, I’ve exhorted Christians to run their race hard. Many people have been jogging in their spiritual lives, but I’ve exhorted believers to run all-out for Jesus.

Is it possible that’s a mistake? Are preachers setting the stage for immature believers to be hurt by calling for total commitment? If we’re out of spiritual shape and we run all-out for Jesus, will we pull a spiritual muscle? Can Christians become discouraged, disillusioned, or depressed if they run too hard, too soon?

Is it possible we need to work up a regimen of discipleship leading to top physical condition over time and then run all-out for Jesus? Do you have to be in top spiritual condition to run all out for Jesus?

It’s kind of a scary thought even suggesting that some believers may be better off if they don’t run all-out for Jesus. “Run your race toward Jesus, but not too hard!” That doesn’t do much for a pastor’s job security! (Don’t tell the board about this post.)

Right now, I really wish I had held back at the picnic. I would be much better off now. But what about the spiritual race which we are called to run with perseverance?

Are there any believers out there who would have been better off if they had held back early in their spiritual development so they could run with more perseverance later when they were more mature?

What do you think?