The whole earth is filled with awe at your wonders; where morning dawns, where evening fades, you call forth songs of joy! – Psalm 65:8
Sunset and resurrection:
Yesterday evening, walking back to my car after meeting with the Wednesday evening men’s covenant group, I glanced up to see this peaceful scene (above) playing out over the CLC. I thought about my friend Sandee, who would pass peacefully into her own sunset a little over an hour later (probably around sundown in Minnesota), and I thanked God for the continuous witness to the resurrection that we enjoy every single day.
A little earlier – just before dinner – I had grabbed a few images from the garden. The dogwoods are done, the azalea bushes are close to the end of their display, and the trees are all busting out with the light-green leaves of springtime. Now – as if to pick up where the dogwoods left off – we have four different colors of iris (and more) vying for attention in the back garden.
Simply put, the whole earth is involved in telling the story. And what a story it is!
It’s a story of birth, of new life, of spring, and growth, of maturity, of autumn, and – eventually – winter, and death. But then Easterplays in to the equation, and we have to realize that what we understand as death is really nothing more (or less) than rebirth into something new.
This past Sunday (yes, it seems a long, long time ago) Jesus set the new standard by reinventing the idea of resurrection. Resurrection – and I get into this in detail in my lenten book, Reaching Towards Easter – is a movement forward, not a return to the status quo. If we are indeed an Easter People, then death and birth are very much the same event.
It’s not just that we have a lot to look forward to in life beyond life; it’s more that we have much to celebrate now. This life as followers of Jesus is full with life-charged opportunities, invitations to live into our Easter faith.
So here is a sunset, and also some new flowers. Both tell the same story, and that is the story of life, of renewal, of celebration, and of new creation.
– We are so consummately blessed, in all that we are and all that will be – DEREK
What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. – 1 Corinthians 15:42-49
TIME: Sometimes the years seem to fly by as if all of life is just a series of fleeting moments; at others time stands almost completely still, hanging in a kind of suspension, barely edging forward at all.
As spiritual beings we understand that time can never be adequately measured as an even, constant, linear stream of incremental, predictably spaced ticks.
Even though we know that the movement of the minute hand on a watch is equivalent to a fixed interval calculated relative to the rotation of the earth on its axis, that a year represents our progression around the Sun, and that one atomic second equals the specific interval of time taken to complete 9,192,631,770 oscillations of the Cesium 133 atom, we still understand that there is so much more at play than physics and mathematics.
We know that a lifetime with someone you love is nowhere near enough, and we understand that one minute of suffering for that same person is an unacceptably long eternity. We hold these unequal definitions of the behavior of time as experiential realities, yet we live in a physical world where our day-by-day is organized according to the rigid movement of a digital clock.
MARCH 12, 2012: According to our calendar, it was three years ago today that my brother, Geoff, passed from the limitations of this life and into the completeness of eternity. To those of us who love him, it was barely yesterday.
We seem to move freely between the measurable realities of this corporeal experience and the eternal principles that govern the universe of spirit, and yet – sometimes – the two truths grate against each other in a way that leaves us yearning, impatient, uncomprehending, and a little broken.
Memory can become a fresh experience of pain… and pain can engage the comfort of spiritual presence… and spiritual presence can strengthen our knowledge that the reality of life is a much deeper, more complete, and permanent truth than the parameters that we experience as time and space.
GRATEFUL: So today holds a poignant tenderness for me, it always will. I miss my brother. Geoff was my only sibling, and the last few years of his life we had been able to recalibrate our relationship and grow into a deeper appreciation of – and mutual respect for – one-another.
But I am not grieving. Instead, I feel a mixture of thankfulness for his life, appreciation for his legacy, and anticipation for the way God will continue to blend chronos and kairos and eternity; because there is no limitation, no dimension, and no oscillation of a cesium atom that can hem in the promise of the Kingdom.
So, as Rebekah so eloquently prompted us to consider in Sunday morning’s message at WFPC, the answer to the question, “How are you doing today?” is this confident, heartfelt word: “GRATEFUL!”
For the second time this week, I’m plugging in a couple of family photographs to go with my morning words. As I’ve watched the deep drama of so many events play out all week long, often extremely close to home, and as I’ve read scriptures in my morning devotional times, I can’t get these images out of my mind.
Just a couple of days ago one good friend announced – with great joy – that his first grandchild had been born; just a few hours later another good friend was devastated by the news that his five-year-old granddaughter had died. Both men are members of my small group. That same day, the mother of one of our preschool children gave a kidney to her two-year-old (they are both doing well). The next day, in Pensacola, one of Andrew and Naomi’s childhood friends died suddenly, he was 30 years old.
The events of life are sometimes overwhelming; but even when tragedy seems to predominate – both on the world stage and closer to home – we still refer to our experience as “life.” This is because life is irrepressible, and because “life” is a larger concept than the mere span of years we experience here on earth.
I like the way Rebekah often phrases the idea during funerals and memorial services at our church, “Life as we experience it is not enough to explain life.” And, “We were created for eternity.”
NEW LIFE: I think it is actually very beautiful that birth so often comes along in the same moment as tragedy and grief. Both experiences are passages, book-ends of our span of time here in this particular element of time and space.
That’s why our anchoring in the firm permanence of God’s unchanging faithfulness is such a critical fixed point in the way we navigate life. People live and die; governments and institutions are absorbed into the passage of time; civilizations rise and crumble; continents shift with the Earth’s crust; stars collide; galaxies disappear into the void…
…Yet God exists, not outside but beyond the limitations of time, and space, and imagination, and expectation. I find tremendous comfort and confidence in the knowledge of such definitive stability, in a world that is always just a heartbeat or two away from another crisis.
The bottom line here is not just that I know where I stand, but that I stand with Jesus, the foundation and the fruition of God’s unswerving Covenant of Love.
The bottom line here is not just that I know where I stand, but that I stand with Jesus, the foundation and the fruition of God’s unswerving Covenant of Love.
WHAT’S NEXT? Over the next few days (and weeks, and years), each one of us is going to be witness to the marvelous unpredictability that is life.
There will be births (Rebekah Mae, to Naomi and Craig), weddings (Andrew and Alicia), and also things we can’t even imagine. Change is a constant, it’s part of who we are. That’s another reason why, in my understanding of how this constant dance of life works, fixing my anchor in the solid rock of God’s unwavering love in Jesus feeds my soul. Outside of that fixed point of pure light, there is no navigation that makes any sense.
y immediate Maul family may not be very extensive in terms of numbers (there are 12 of us now that my brother is gone), but we’re scattered far and wide geographically thanks to the continuing adventures of Andrew and Naomi.
Consequently, when we do make it back together there’s a lot of picture-taking, and story telling, and looking at family photographs from times gone by.
My niece Hannah was leafing through old family albums featuring her dad when she came across a black and white image taken when my brother Geoff was three and I was one. She remarked how much her son, Hudson, looked like his “pop-pop,” and how much fun it would be to try and replicate the picture now I had a grandson too.
LESSONS: So Naomi and Hannah balanced David (six-months) next to Hudson (four-years), gave him a toy phone and did their best to create another iconic image. The result wasn’t quite as envisioned, but the exercise did bring some very important things to mind.
There’s nothing like family. I’m so thankful for the love that we share.
Children literally absorb the love they’re exposed to in a family that is deliberate about cultivating positive relationships. It’s a fact – my grandson is already healthier emotionally – and will be – because he is so completely (and extensively) loved.
Learning the stories of the past is a key element in embracing the future.
Family stories told properly are not about nostalgia… they are about affirming the rich layers of history that help define the experience of family. Nostalgia points backwards, whereas the celebration of heritage moves forward, toward a future rooted in shared experiences.
We simply MUST work hard to keep our small family connected. I want all my mum and dad’s great-grandchildren (there are three now and who knows how many in the future!) to be good friends one day, and to celebrate family together.
CONSTANT CHANGE: Family is an organic phenomenon. Eight months ago David Henry was not yet born. Ten weeks ago my brother Geoff was still alive. This time next year? Who knows? The family may have grown from twelve to even more. Life is defined by change. If there was no change then there would be no life.
And so, in the middle of new life, death, new love, birth and more, telling one another the iconic stories of history helps to root our family in the constant of shared memory.
One day, I want my grandson David to tell his children about his great-uncle, and how Geoff shared a sepia-toned childhood with grandaddy Derek. David may never remember meeting Geoff, but the memories will be real because they are a part of who David already is, and a part of who he is becoming.
STORY OF FAITH: Family is a collective consciousness. Ours is also a collective story of faith….
Which reminds me, when he’s old enough I need to make sure that David learns to remember my grandparents, Fred, Connie, Lilly and Arthur. There’s this story from right after WWI when his great-great grandfather wanted to go to Africa as a missionary… And the one where another great-great followed his 8-year-old to the train station when she ran away from home to “Tell Mr. Hitler to bomb (her parents)”… Then there’s the late 1800’s, when one of David great-great-greats was floating up the Yangtze River….
IMPERATIVE: I’m backed up with work this week. But first I have to write this post. My brother Geoff has run into a few more negative results in his ongoing cancer journey. So I headed down to North Bradenton for a lunch time visit and we chatted for a couple of hours. Our conversation has been working on my heart and mind and I’m having a hard time thinking it all through. So I guess I’ll take my own best advice and simply put one word in front of the other and see where it leads.
WATERS OF ETERNITY: But first I had an errand to run in Tampa. Then I continued on down I-275 and over the Sunshine Skyway. Just before the big rise I pulled over to the waterside park to catch my breath and take in the view. I immediately thought about “passage,” and “crossing,” and the way the waters of eternity lap so closely against the margins of our lives. Mortality placed itself firmly in the front of my consciousness.
When I got back in my car I opened the roof and the windows to let the fresh air breeze through. I wanted to feel liberated – not restricted – on my way over. I didn’t think that I was driving my vehicle across a metaphor so much as breathing in a little understanding. We are more connected to eternity than we think, most of the time.
CANCER: I’m going to share some thoughts from my conversation with Geoff, and I want you all to know why. Before I left we talked about confidentiality, and medical privacy, and the limits of public information. But my brother is insistent that I help to tell his story.
The reason why – Geoff said – is that his experiences, what he is learning through this struggle, and what God is teaching him about abundance and “living like we mean it”, are his gift to all of us. This conversation about life and eternity is appropriate wherever we might be on our journey toward life beyond life.
“I am an open book, Derek,” Geoff said, “and I want you to help turn the pages.”
FIRST THE HARD NEWS: The change for Geoff over the past two weeks is threefold –
First, the liver cancer has proliferated – is proliferating.
Second, Hospice has been prescribed in order to help manage pain and coordinate care.
Third – and this came out just yesterday – he now has bone cancer too.
It had only been a few days since my last visit, but I was taken by the visible evidence that the reach of the disease has shifted. Pain, difficulty in movement, loss of appetite. It was all revealed in the way he got up from his chair to greet me.
IMPORTANT CONVERSATION: We talked a lot about the meaning of life. We talked about vitality, and how it is a much bigger concept than physical fitness. We talked about fullness, about what Paul referred to as, “The Life that is truly Life.” Here’s the passage:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life… 1 Tim 6:17-19
It turns out that my brother truly is rich.
And we talked about healing, and about medical interventions when the end of our physical life is right there, lapping up against us like the ocean against the shore.
“I’m entirely open to the idea of God healing me physically,” Geoff said. “But that would be God’s decision. Believing that God can heal doesn’t change the fact that I need to make reasonable decisions about my care that work in my best interests, given the continued progress of the disease.”
CLICHÉS THAT RING FALSE: Let’s make sure we understand what’s true here. The language we use to talk about these kinds of issues turns out to be critically important.
First cliché: Many people say they don’t want to talk about Hospice because, “Hospice helps people die.” But it’s actually more true to say that, “Hospice is helping my brother to live!”
Effective pain management and loving care typically increase both the quality and the length of life.
Second cliché: Another common red herring idea is, “We don’t want you to give up…” Believe me, the choice to forego aggressive interventions in favor of Hospice care is not “giving up.” Hospice care happens to be a reasonable treatment choice.
Let me repeat that. When a treatment choice is palliative rather than invasive, the team of care-givers is making a reasonable medical decision. THEY ARE NOT GIVING UP!
If a Hospice-referred cancer patient is driven to aggressive treatments they are uncomfortable with because someone else is unable to handle a difficult diagnosis, the following scenarios tend to play out:
First, the treatment will likely make the patient feel worse and result in additional suffering.
Second, the patient’s chosen path will have been compromised and the rhythm of their life compromised.
SACRED RHYTHM: This is a crucial point. The path to the passageway from time to eternity is typically a long one. Finding peace at the latter stages of the journey is critically important. Coming to terms with the fact that this life is temporary is an important element in understanding that the fullness of life transcends time and space.
The fullness of life transcends time and space.
Geoff and I talked about the fact that his life has found its rhythm. His confidence and his peace are so much more real than the pain and the breaking down of his increasingly fragile body.
That’s enough for this post. There will be more, because my brother is courageous enough and generous enough to think about and to love the rest of us, and to talk about the end of his life without fear.
57 years into the conversation… and now he’s a pretty good theologian!