Suffering Servant

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The past month we have studied soteriology or the doctrine of salvation in theology class, reading a wide variety of ideas and theories followers of Jesus have wrestled with over the years. In our studies, we discovered that the salvation spectrum is a wide one. Not everyone holds the view that salvation is simply believing in our heart and confessing with our mouth that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9). To some, salvation is more than just a prayer, a mental assent to a set of belief systems, and a dunk in the river.

Those who endure unjust suffering and oppression in this life tend to worship a Jesus who offers more than just eternal security—more than just hope for then, but also hope for now.

19th century slave narratives reveal a hope of salvation wrought with blood and tears. African American slaves in bondage refused to worship the Jesus preached by their white slave owners. That Jesus wasn’t the Jesus they knew. White slave owners, the majority of whom considered themselves Christians, preached a white Jesus who wholeheartedly approved of their oppression. In their sermons to the slaves, they preferred Paul’s proof texts of Ephesians 6:5—“slaves obey your earthly masters with respect and fear,” and Colossians 3:22, “Slaves, obey your masters in everything and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity.”

This repeating sermon series carried the self-seeking motive and agenda of keeping the slaves in line when they weren’t looking—often after escape attempts or being caught gathered in worship. Slaves were not permitted to gather together to worship for fear that they would rally around a different Jesus than the slave master version. However, slaves would feel compelled by Jesus to arise at 3 in the morning, against the commands of their masters and proof texts, to risk the beatings, rapes and violent deaths that came as a result. They would quietly sing songs of praise and supplication to and with the Jesus they knew: the suffering Jesus who knew their pain, and tarried with them to provide comfort and hope. To them, Jesus was chained alongside them and bared his back to the whips and chains to receive the same stripes they received. The suffering Jesus in their midst knew what it was like to be oppressed, abused, beaten and mocked. The black slaves knew the suffering Jesus for He was One of them.

This week in my New Testament class, Dr. Warren Carter focused on the term “Son of God” in the gospel of Mark. He pointed out that every time the demons confessed that Jesus was the “Son of God” in Mark’s gospel it was in response to displays of power.

Mark 3 reports that Jesus had been going around curing many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” But Jesus sternly ordered them not to make him known.

When the demon who was one of the “legion” possessing the man in the Gerasenes saw Jesus coming, he screamed, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? Do not torment me!” (Mark 5).

Up to this point in Mark’s gospel, no human being had confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. In fact, the first confession of Jesus as Son wouldn’t come until Mark 15, as Jesus hung lifeless on the cross after enduring unimaginable suffering.

Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” – Mark 15:37-39

So why were demons confessing Jesus’ Sonship in response to His acts of power, and humans not able to confess until he hung powerless on the cross? It is Dr. Carter’s opinion that humans can’t truly confess Jesus as son of God until they see both the power and suffering of Jesus. In fact, when humans confess that Jesus is Son of God based only in reference to His power, that confession is demonic. It is half-baked. Agenda-driven. Self-seeking.

This was the false “Jesus” many white slave owners worshipped in the 19th century. The false Jesus quoting from Paul’s epistles was inspired by the same devil that quoted scripture to Jesus in the wilderness—disguised as an angel of light and made in the image of oppressive slave owners. As Ann Lamott once wrote, “you know you have made God into your own image when He hates the same people you do.”

White Christians who possess an imbalance of privilege and comfort (of which group I belong) ought to be wary of history so that it doesn’t repeat itself in our lives. We who hold much of the power in our society need to examine our lives, our motives, our version of Jesus. Are there ways in which we have molded our own personal Jesus in the idolatrous image of comfort-seeking agendas, and at the expense of others? Who are the marginalized of society to whom we participate in their oppression with our judgments on their “failed” lifestyles we know nothing about because we haven’t bothered to listen? Who are the lepers of our day, the outcasts we ignore at best, judge and condemn at worse? In what ways have I created a privileged, white Jesus in my own image? In what ways has my confession of the Son of God been solely based on the power I enjoy … half-baked, one-sided … demonic. The soul searching has brought me to my knees.

I decided that I must cultivate a lifestyle that purposely seeks to hear and help those who don’t share the same comfortable lifestyle my privileged status affords. I want to take action for the marginalized in our society, forming relationships where I can in order to listen, learn, and grow in empathy, action and solidarity.

My mom, who has spent her life looking after the downcast and disadvantaged likes to quote from Luke 12:48: “to whom much is given, much is required.”

White Christians, to whom is the suffering Servant calling you to suffer with and serve?

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Dive in

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In my last post, I talked about having enrolled at Brite Divinity School last fall and my desire to chronicle my journey in this space. Brite offers a unique approach to theological learning that I have thoroughly enjoyed. While certainly regarded as a liberal school, I have been impressed with the way my professors have made room for differences in opinions all the way up and down the spectrum of Christian thought. The goal at Brite is not to teach you what to think, but rather how to think. The desire is that students develop life-long skills on how to think critically—thoughtfully engaging with a wide variety of opinions on a given theological subject. The goal in reading is not to quickly make judgments, or agree or disagree, but to fully understand the argument being made before wrestling with what your head and heart believe to be true. One’s personal theology and practice needs to be a continual process.

The first book I was assigned as pre-reading before beginning studies last fall was How to Think Theologically, by Dr. James Duke and his former colleague, Dr. Howard Stone. I had the pleasure of taking History of Christianity I from Dr. Duke last fall.howtothink2

Duke and Stone are big time proponents of wrestling with faith. They contend that thinking deeply about, and critically questioning your spiritual convictions is not an optional, esoteric discipline, but rather the passionate exercise of every Christian who desires to make some sort of spiritual chicken salad out of the often uncertain, sometimes maddening chicken poo of life.

Duke and Stone use the terms “embedded theology,” and “deliberative theology.” Embedded theology involves concepts about God and the world that we subliminally accept based on experiences with the spiritual beliefs of parents, pastors and churches in our faith journey. Deliberative theology is fancy academese for strapping on a leotard and wrestling with the embedded beliefs in your head and heart that are currently causing discomfort … that spiritual chafing could be an invitation for exploration from the Spirit within.

I am grateful for my foundation, a mixed bag of Mennonite, Lutheran, Baptist, evangelical, charismatic and prophetic goodies. However, Hebrews seems to suggest that from time to time God orders a bit of shaking and spring cleaning in what you believe and how it is impacting the way you live your life.

I see it as a muscle-building workout plan for my faith. The more you tear down a muscle, the stronger it gets. If I am growing, I would imagine that my theology is being worked over a bit causing me to wake up sore and grumpy from time to time.

How do you wrestle? I believe there is a tailor-made plan for each of us based on our calling in life. Follow the Spirit’s bread crumbs. Pay attention to spiritual books, articles, and podcasts that mysteriously surface in your life—especially if they are from sources who see things a little differently than your normal circles. Don’t just read books by people you always agree with, engage the other side of the spectrum as well. Tend to think conservatively? Fight your fears and see what a liberal theologian has to say. Lean more to the left? Be brave and engage with a conservative author. The more you dig in the more you will discover the limitless and inexhaustible opinions available ohyeahconcerning God and the fabulous but often hard to understand Bible.

Staying humble, teachable, and in community with your thoughts and wrestlings is a good way to keep you from overdosing on one particular flavor of Kool-Aid. That’s what friends are for—to warn you when you are falling off the deep end. I believe the Spirit is with you in this venture, and is able to keep you from stumbling.

I am learning that critically engaging the spiritual doubts and fears that arise in my life instead of conveniently sweeping them under the rug takes courage. However, I am discovering that the more I engage the infinite God with my little finite brain and fearful, failing heart the more I realize how little I know and just how futile my attempts to control God have been. We’ve got all of eternity to fathom the mysteries of God, might as well start now.

So what are you waiting for?

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Strap on a leotard and dive in.

The Liminal Place

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It’s been a good while since I have posted. I followed the bread crumbs to Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth last Fall and have been buried under a pile of books and papers ever since. Divinity School has been incredible—equal parts exhilarating, enlightening, and exhausting. I am constantly reading and writing, and thought I would begin sharing excerpts from what I am learning and writing about in school.

This week I wrote a paper from Luke 24:13-49, the Road to Emmaus, for my Evangelism in the Contemporary North American Religious Landscape class. I focused on the liminal space in which Cleopas and his companion find themselves while walking the dusty road just days after the crucifixion. Here is an excerpt:

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Cleopas and his friend, it seems, have found themselves in the liminal space. The liminal space is a place betwixt and between—no longer here, but not yet there. The dream they had pursued with all their zeal was gone, but nothing had arrived to replace their hope. One door had closed but another had yet to open … and there was hell in the hallway.

Transition is painful.

Many of us have experienced the darkness of the liminal space. Following the Wind of change away from a familiar job, city, church, or community stirs up a swarm of unanswered questions. Transition exposes our insecurities and heightens our fears. Like fish out of water, we flop and we flip, desperately seeking refuge while gasping for air.

The scriptures are teeming with these types of stories—tales of wandering and wondering through uncertain wilderness. From Hebrew slaves in exile to Jesus’ temptation in the desert, it seems that God has a habit of calling people out of safety into uncomfortable places, and paths of discovery they never would have chosen.

For many of us, the pain we endured in the wilderness causes us to lose hope. Just like Cleopas, many of us are confused why we invested so much into something that failed to launch. Embarrassed by our naiveté, we self-protect through cynicism. There are few places as miserable as the dark dungeon of cynical space. There is precious little life-giving oxygen down there.

We live in a world without much certainty. No one can say for sure what tomorrow will bring. Perhaps it is for this reason that God has given us the gift of faith. Maybe this is the reason we do so much better when we have hope.

Jesus’ solution for a grieving, cynical Cleopas and his friend was to break bread and share wine. He met them in their disbelief and disillusionment and said, “touch me and see.” He blessed them. He spoke identity and calling back into their lives. “You are witnesses of these things. I am sending you armed with my Father’s promises … clothed with power from on high.” Then he ascended into heaven before their very eyes.

Cleopas and his friend worshipped, returning to Jerusalem with great joy. I imagine they couldn’t wait to share their story with other spiritual refugees in desperate need of hope. One encounter with the resurrected One can change our lives and get us back on track. One word spoken to a spiritual refugee can remind them that they can overcome hurt and loss. Hope reminds us that we are not ones who shrink back into cynicism and negativity. We are most alive when we take our place as ambassadors of hope and harbingers of reconciliation.

Our postmodern world is full of spiritual refugees shuffling away from Jerusalem toward an uncertain and unknown Emmaus. Take the time to hear their story, ask questions, offer them hope. The tomb is empty and the future is bright. What are we going to do with our resurrected lives?

Healthy Heresy

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Many of the courageous thinkers that introduced radical new concepts that have made our world a better place were accused of heresy and put to death.

The concept of heresy didn’t exist during the first century. The early church of the apostles had no man made orthodoxy to defend. Their faith and action was based on the courageous life and unorthodox teachings of Jesus, much of which they heard and witnessed firsthand. Jesus taught His disciples not to operate out of the fearful, black and white rules and regulations of the religious leaders of the day, warning them that the way of the world was to strive to control and “lord over” one another. “But not so for you,” he instructed his twelve.

Instead of fear and control, Jesus demonstrated an alternative lifestyle of kindness, loving “enemies” and including those from different cultures, faiths and practices. Instead of punishment and exclusion, He offered mercy and transformation to those suffering from addiction and destructive patterns. For those who hated him and wanted him dead, He chose to turn his bearded cheek and even bless those who persecuted him. Later in the first century, Paul added: if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.

 But just a century later, our Christian leaders developed a foggy memory. As the sands of time fell, fear and control gained momentum again until many Christian emperors and bishops began sentencing torturous deaths to all who dared challenge their “orthodoxy” with new thoughts and opinions about life and faith. Jesus’ peace-seeking, enemy-loving example evolved into choosing to burn those with a different point of view to death instead.

St. Augustine, despite many of his good and noble exploits, is often recognized as the one who took punishing heretics to the next level. Widely thought to be the father of the Inquisition, many historians assign him responsibility for adopting Roman methods of torture for the purposes of the Church in order to ensure uniformity of belief … orthodoxy. Opposing the doctrines of religious leaders became an offense punishable by death.

But the word heresy, commonly defined as “erroneous doctrines harmful to the unity of the church” is really more about freedom of choice. The Greek word haíresis literally means “the act of choosing.” I choose to exercise my freedom to think, and to use the creative intellect and intuition God gave me to wrestle and reason with the paradoxes and mysteries of God and faith. Instead of just going along with the acceptable, orthodox and often controlling and agenda-driven laws of the religious “experts,” I choose to courageously abide with the Spirit within to hear His voice and reach my highest potential – gradually growing into the greatest expression of love and justice-seeking action I am capable of becoming.

I wonder if we are all heretics in our most healthy and free state?

I wonder if becoming a healthy heretic is the courageous process of daily choosing to exercise all of the God-given faculties we’ve been given? The spiritual wisdom, discernment, intuition, intellect and reason we possess is a priceless gift designed to empower us to live authentic lives of love – collaborating with the voice within, with God and with others to produce justice on the earth.

A healthy heretic asks questions about things that don’t add up, refusing to burying one’s head in the sand, or to puff up his chest and declare, “Well, God said it and that settles it!”

I’ve done that. I’ve taken the road most traveled and glibly excused my gut-wrenching experiences with death, loss, suffering and pain with, “well, we live in a fallen world you know … God is in control!”

But my practice is changing. I am asking so many more questions these days. I can’t help but wonder if the main reason for pain and suffering on this planet is to facilitate our growth. What if the angst and disillusionment that comes with suffering is an invitation to courageously face the paradoxes and contradictions in our lives? What if disillusionment is a gift because it causes us to examine our illusions – the black and white containers we have always held to be true but now are leaking, no longer holding the holy water we believed to be orthodox truth. Sometimes the painful lessons of life, suffering and experience we endure poke holes in our faith. What if these holes were designed to let more light in?

What if what Helen Keller said is true: “The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next.”

Jesus was a master at challenging the air-tight traditions and doctrines of the day. While delivering His famous message labeled “The Sermon on the Mount” by scholars, He began several points with, “You have heard it said, but I say to you …” He had something new and fresh to present and wasn’t afraid to speak His alternative view in clear earshot of the violent men clinging tightly to the status quo.

Jesus honored the past while ushering in the future. Seasons change and fresh wineskins must appear to replace the frayed and tattered containers now too weak to hold water or wine. Jesus’ first miracle was new wine, proof positive that sipping yesterday’s wine, once rich and vibrant but now stale and sour is unacceptable in his eyes.

Are we courageous enough to taste the new vintage He’s pouring in our hearts, when fear tempts us to spill it in the dirt? Are we still suffering through the foul and fermented flavor of yesterday’s pour, our disappointed taste buds settling for a brownish bouquet of band-aid and bile that curls our tongue, wrinkles our nose and deadens our soul?

What are the new ideas you are hearing in the secret place? Are you willing to follow their call into the unknown, courageously exploring the untamed boundaries and borders of your faith? Are you hesitant to consider the radical ingredients sometimes found in new wine and wrestle it out in community with fellow travelers and tasters?

I wonder if fear could be defined as possessing more faith in the devil’s ability to deceive us than God’s ability to keep us? What if fear of what others will think is what keeps us from the fuel required to move our one wild life into the next season of radical adventure and fulfillment?

What if you are just one healthy heresy away from awakening your heart to beat again?

Dakota Fertilizer

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My wife and I both derive from a rich heritage of successful South Dakota farmers. Lutheran and Mennonite, German, Norwegian and Russian pioneers bearing our names in their DNA as they trudged across the barren, snowy plains, finally planting their boots by faith in the fertile soil of the Dakota prairie. I am so grateful for my heritage.

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Possessing a grit and resolve that carried them through the pitch black darkness and uncertain days of a 19th century pioneer, they learned to get back up every time life knocked them onto the dusty seat of their overalls. With ox and plow they were forging paths for more than just seed. Tilling the soil with their blood, sweat and tears, they cultivated character for the coming generations, my immediate family included.

Every few months I find myself reading the obituary of my great, great grandmother Elizabeth Graber. Without her courage, my family tree would never have made it past sapling. Below is a portion of her obituary, written after her death in 1931.

Elizabeth Graber, daughter of Reverend Christian and Elizabeth (Shrag) Graber was born in Waldheim, Russia on March 30, 1855. She was baptized on March 25, 1871. On October 8, 1872 she was united in holy wedlock with Peter Graber and enjoyed the blessings of a happy marriage until God in His infinite wisdom chose to call her husband away from her to his heavenly home.

 In the year 1874, she together with her husband migrated to America and established their home on a farm in Childstown Township in the State of South Dakota. Here they encountered many joys and sorrows in their pioneer life.

 This union was blessed with eight children, seven sons and one daughter, of which only three sons are living today. The oldest child was born in Russia in 1874, before the migration started, and died the following year, 1875 in America.

 In the year of 1882 in the month of July the family suffered a great tragedy that shook the entire community into great sadness and empathy. One day as all the family was occupied outside, except the four smallest children remaining in the house, the house started on fire. The two older boys ran out to inform the mother who was working in the garden. By the time she returned to the house the fire was so far advanced that she could not enter by the door anymore to rescue her two youngest, Jonathan and Henry, who was still in the cradle. She lost no time in breaking a window and entering the burning house to get her two children, throwing them out the window to safety. However she herself suffered severe burn wounds to the face and body in her determination to get to the children. As a result of her rescue efforts she was confined to bed for a year with intense pain; and the scars remained to her dying day, scars of which she did not need to be ashamed of.

 Five years later, in the year 1887 came another year of testing, similar to the time of Job. March 17th her son John died at the age of three and a half years. The next month, April 30th her husband was taken from her, a marriage of 14 ½ years suddenly ended leaving her with six small children. Christian the oldest at eleven years, was suddenly thrust into the fatherly role.

 On top of all this sorrow, came another blow when on June 11th her two year old son Peter died. Truly this was a year of trial and testing and caused many tears to flow.

 Three years later in the month of October, 1890 her youngest child and only daughter died at the age of 3 ½ years. Six years later in February of 1896 her oldest son Christian, who had become her right hand and crutch to lean on, died at age 19, after a short illness.

In all of these difficult days, she soon learned to look up unto the hills, from whence cometh all of mans help, strength and comfort.

 Even though her life was one of pain, suffering and struggle she was often found expressing gratitude for God’s grace and love that was extended to her. And again at times the valley of the shadow was so dark, that she was searching for light and direction.

She attained the age of 76 years, 8 months and 12 days. Of these years, 44 ½ were spent in widowhood. Left behind to mourn her passing are her three sons, Jacob, Jonathan and Henry with their wives, 19 grandchildren and a host of relatives and friends.

 Jonathan, the little toddler thrown from the window of the burning farmhouse would be one of the three children who would survive, emerging from the embers of this tragic story to marry Louise Miller, who would give birth to my grandpa Sy. Sy would marry Adina and cultivate his farm and family (including my mom) through the dust of the great depression.

Grandpa Sy.

Though I was just a kid, I remember so fondly his kindness. He would pour me a little glass of beer and set it next to his as we shot pool in his basement. My skinny, 8-year old chest would stick out with pride with every sip of Old Milwaukee. Somehow he knew what I needed as the youngest of four. This one small gesture meant the world to me and still lives in my heart 40 years later. His kindness and wisdom are a part of me, tilled and cultivated into my soil and fostering growth every day.

My wife’s grandpa Andy was another one living in South Dakota during the depression. Andy pulled himself up by his bootstraps and out of the rubble to become an entrepreneur. Grandpa Andy holds a special place in my wife’s heart. He always believed in her – as a person, and a businesswoman. The first time she saw a one hundred dollar bill was when he was handing her one saying, “Sonja, here’s some milk money, this is just the beginning for you.” His love was sown like a seed and his encouragement watered it into life. He has greatly influenced who she is today, an entrepreneur full of wisdom and encouragement for others.

Grandpa Andy founded a company called Dakota Fertilizer. I think that is so appropriate.

Fertilizer is defined as “a substance such as manure or chemicals used to make soil more fertile, fostering the growth of plants.”

In those days, farmers would often take the manure from their livestock and plow it into their fields in the fall, allowing it to decompose into nutrients that would foster the growth of the next spring’s crops.

Seems like a pretty good metaphor to me.

Looking at pain, suffering and loss as “fertilizer” has helped me immensely. I have attained peace through the heartbreak and deaths of this life by including it rather than avoiding it. It all belongs. Success and failure, kindness and abuse, life and death, they are all useful.

What if the seemingly endless, daily piles of manure in our lives were meant to provide the necessary fertilizer of wisdom and courage, kindness and character our children and grandchildren can receive as vital nutrients for their lives? The pain, loss, and failure of this life have a way of producing necessary grit and endurance. When we reach out and invest in the soil of our family and others we prepare the ground for the next generation of hope.

What if our greatest sorrows, suffering and loss make up the most potent fertilizer there is?

Didn’t Jesus say, “unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels–a plentiful harvest of new lives?

Didn’t he go ahead and walk that walk in his own life, his suffering and death fertilizing the soil for all of humanity to grow and thrive in His wisdom and mercy?

I wonder if the bumper crop our lives were intended to produce can only be stunted when we choose to sit in our manure instead of putting it to work? Wallowing in bitterness, resentment and regret are like rolling around in the very manure that will nurture new growth in the next generation. We just need to get up and apply it.

Maybe when our land starts looking barren, cracked and dry it’s time to climb out of our pigpens of shame, un-forgiveness and bitterness and put our hand to the plow.

The generations are waiting.

Into the Wilderness

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I find the moments immediately following the baptism of Jesus of Nazareth fascinating to say the least. It’s probably not how I would have written it.

On that day, the heavens opened and the Spirit descended on this Jewish carpenter like a dove. The voice of God boomed from the heavens, not with angry warnings of doom and punishment but with the giddy squeals of a gushing Father, smitten and singing over His boy with the glory of an angelic choir:

“You are my beloved Son! You bring me so much joy!”

This was groundbreaking stuff – surely the cause for a good party – especially for the Hebrews who never turned down a good soiree. This monumental and earth shattering event had been predicted by Isaiah hundreds of years in advance and the time had arrived! Heaven’s unveiling of Messiah was here fulfilling prophecies of old and answering the prayers of generations of pilgrims from the beginning of time.

Surely a feast was in order? Certainly a weeklong shindig with open wine bar and all you can eat buffet? Wouldn’t the region’s most creative chefs, musicians, and winemakers be the perfect hosts to usher in the coming campaign of miracles, healing and deliverance? Shouldn’t the renowned artisans and poets of Galilee be called to create the perfect atmosphere to ring in the new freedom longed for since the dawn of man?

But there would be no such party on this day – not a single tray of cocktail weenies would be served.

The Spirit simply took the hand of the Messiah and led Him into the wilderness. No pomp or circumstance, not a single crust of bread.

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The wilderness …

To the Hebrews it was more than just a desolate and frightening wasteland full of enemies, serpents and beasts. It was an experience, a rite of passage … tradition. With all of its lawless danger and uncertainty, the wilderness represented to them a gateway, the hope of greater freedom.

Entering this untamed habitat, free from the structures, traditions and rituals you’ve known all your life is lonely and confusing. Gone is the constant and familiar noise to drone out your thoughts and numb your pain. In the void you find yourself on a crash course in the language of silence and the Spirit. You discover new words you didn’t know existed that somehow connect the dots between head and heart.

Following the Spirit into the wilderness is an act of faith, day by day learning to trust more in His desire to keep you than the ability of the darkness to deceive you. The moment-by-moment uncertainty tests your mettle and refines your inner silver.

John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptizer, was no stranger to the wild. His pilgrimage into the woods soon found him dressed in camel’s hair and eating bugs and wild honey to survive. But this forsaken forest of sticks and snakes was the cauldron needed to forge and form his life message:

“Prepare the way for Messiah. The one we’ve been waiting for … He is here. Make a path in your lives for the new freedom He brings.”

I wonder if he could have heard that message anywhere but out there.

Way before John, the Hebrew Scriptures roll out a non-stop parade of wilderness excursions that produced many a great exploit. Abraham and Aaron knew the wilderness intimately. Moses spent most of his life out there, straying outside the camp where God would meet Him and speak to Him face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

There are wilderness stories of Job, Joshua and Jacob. Gideon, Ruth and David. Jonah, Elijah, Paul and John to name just a few. All the children of Israel it seems had a date with getting lost in order to be found.

I wonder if we do too.

There must be a method to the madness of the Spirit. He seems convinced that we need to learn how to grow spiritual eyes and ears that will trust a hand that can’t be seen and follow a voice that can’t be heard.

There is a story in there about how the children of Israel wandered for 40 years. Complaining and moaning most of the way, they took turns convincing each other that God had abandoned them – left them alone to die in the wilderness. But Nehemiah reports that He in fact never left their side. They just refused to receive new eyes to see and ears to hear.

Isaiah said that as you wade through the fires and waters of the wilderness, the Spirit is always with you, step-by-step ushering new places of enlightenment and peace into your life. I have spent more than a few days of my wilderness excursions doubting that proposition. Curled in a ball in the fetal position feeling abandoned, alone, wanting to die. In the woods, I sometimes wondered if I was losing my faith, in my hunger and desperation grabbing whatever low hanging fruit of half-baked theologies and philosophies I could find … stopping a few miles down the road to vomit them out.

It’s part of the process it seems. The chaos of the wilderness exposed much religious posturing in my life. I learned that if your sacred cows aren’t producing any milk, maybe it’s time to thin the herd.

If I had known what I would encounter out there, I think I might have stayed home. There is just too much discomfort there for my liking. Had He warned me about the pain, uncertainty and loss, the misunderstandings, depression and doubt, I think I would have cracked open a beer and turned on the ball game instead.

But maybe we don’t have a choice in the matter – it’s part of the human experience and none of us are immune to it. There is this force, this tractor beam from heaven that lassoes our heart and pulls us toward our calling, and there is always a vast forest in between.

As the Sons of Korah wrote, “Blessed are those whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

Maybe we don’t so much choose our wilderness appointments as they choose us …

… the doctor’s report … the job layoff … the divorce papers … the phone call in the middle of the night. In a moment our safe and secure world turns wild and untamed. Yanked from the safety of what we’ve always known and sent up the creek without a paddle –at the mercy of the swirling waves, tempted by devils one minute and ministered to by angels the next. It’s a schizophrenic swing dance and you flail like crazy to try and keep up.

And then you see an opening in the clearing. The battles cease and you find a spot of rest. You made it through this stretch of woods and you’ll never be the same. Pondering what you’ve seen and heard, you come to this conclusion: “I wouldn’t go back there for a million dollars … but I wouldn’t trade what I learned for a million either. The new eyes, ears and understanding gained are priceless.”

It makes me wonder if our true calling, the one our heart yearns for most is hidden behind what we fear the most. I wonder if in the school of the Spirit, the courage to follow Him into the wilderness is the only tuition required.

A Healing Dream

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I sat up in bed suddenly one morning this week at 5:08 am, the full glory of a vivid dream – a precious gift emanating from my being.

In the dream, I wandered alone down the empty street of an unfamiliar town. Thick clouds filled the grey skies concealing any sign of a hiding sun. Turning the corner, I entered through the door of a square cinder block building to my rented bed, one of many cots in a row, draped with clothes and backpacks from other travelers. The black flowers on the sagging white drapes reminded me of a time gone by. It felt dated and dreary all at the same time.

In the distance, a rumbling wave of laughter and conversation grew closer and closer until it burst through the door. Within seconds, the dungy, grey little room morphed into a full-blown cocktail party full of people, colors and life. I scanned the room searching for a familiar or friendly face but without any luck. Grabbing my bag, I spun around to head for the door, and there he was … right in front of me. I stopped in my tracks, eyes wide as saucers.

It was my brother-in-law Aaron, and he looked so alive, so healthy and at peace. Undeniable kindness twinkled from his eyes, piercing electric blue and full of light. Holding a glass in his left hand, he leaned forward and cupped my left elbow with his right, his eyes beginning to glisten with tears. Curling one side of his mouth into a smile the way Aaron often did, he slid in close.

“Matt, I want to tell you how much our friendship, our time together has meant to me. Thanks for always being there … for me … for us … I love you.” 

I fought to hold back the tears like I always do, but my usually smirkingaaron
impenetrable levee couldn’t withstand the gushing wild rivers. We collapsed into a full bear hug, the dam bursting into a raging flood.

And then I woke up, suddenly back on earth but still carrying with me the tears, lumps and heart palpitations of another realm. Waves of gratitude pulsated through my body, ricocheting off dueling pangs of loneliness. I miss Aaron, and the stark reality that I won’t see him again on this side carries tangible weight.

I sat for a moment on the edge of my bed, my memories taking me back to the surreal final months of Aaron’s life on this earth.

Thursday, May 21, 2015 is a day I’ll never forget. Sitting in the oncologist’s office in Dallas with my wife Sonja, Aaron’s sister, and Vanessa, Aaron’s wife. Aaron sat quietly in a wheel chair, the pressure in his head causing him to sit still with his eyes closed. Beads of sweat encircled his brow, revealing just how much pain he was battling. He had been sluggish the past 24 hours, and we wondered if his constant hiccups were a sign that his medications needed to be adjusted.

I’ll never forget the moment the oncologist entered the room. I’ll never forget the look on her face, and the ensuing words that burst what was left of our deflating balloon.

The MRI revealed a stroke caused by the glioblastoma Aaron_wc
tumor having invaded every hemisphere of his brain. The hiccups were not caused by meds, but instead a telltale sign that his brain had been fully compromised.

“There is nothing more we can do for Aaron,” she said.

Another surgery would be cruel, and would most certainly debilitate him into a state of being persistently awake but completely unaware for the remainder of his life.

“Aaron has just days left,” she said. “It could be a week … it could be a few days …”

The words plunged deeply, a long dagger penetrating clean through hope and coming out the other side. Deep tremors pulsed across the arched back of my wife and she slumped forward, her body shaking with agony, the corners of her mouth curled back, rivers of tears flowing down her neck. I put my arms around her as she buried her head on Vanessa’s shoulder, which shook and convulsed like a jackhammer. Chokes and sobs and hyperventilating gasps pierced the sterile silence of that bright white room. I have never experienced the depth of searing pain and suffering as that moment in my life.

I remember driving home in numb silence. There was no human language available for this. At some point on the journey, I began to pray for the words that could explain to my two daughters that Aaron, their beloved uncle and one of their heroes would be leaving us soon.

And suddenly I was back on the edge of my bed again, not willing to go any further into that memory, shifting my thoughts to anything that would keep me from going back to the pain of that day.

But I found myself fading back, this time to the memory of another day – back in the car, the four of us heading toward Dallas again. This time it was to visit Dr. Pan a few weeks later. Dr. Pan was a kind oncologist willing to roll up his sleeves and search for a solution like a needle in a haystack. Aaron had defied the odds and made an incredible comeback since that fateful day. He was full of vanessahuglife and fun and we laughed and joked together on the way, enjoying this radically kind and gentle version of Aaron. His journey of suffering had drawn out the true Aaron like a diamond from coal.

After the appointment, Aaron was weary, but like always his love for good food won the day.

“I’ll be ok, let’s go to True Food Kitchen.”

We jumped in the car and made the short drive to the restaurant, dropping the girls at the door. After a few passes, Aaron spotted a good parking spot not far from the entrance and we grabbed it. Sliding out of the car I moved quickly to the passenger side to help Aaron out, only to discover that he was already yards ahead, his face set like flint toward the restaurant. I picked up my pace and was just steps behind when his body lurched forward. Like a baby giraffe testing out new legs, his shoes began slapping the pavement searching for secure footing, his body stretching forward and his head nose-diving toward the pavement with the weight of a forging anvil. With no time to think I dove full out into his path, desperate to provide cushion for his plummeting body and the blacktop below. Cradling his head, I skidded underneath, my right hand and back colliding with the earth in an awkward dance of flailing arms and legs.

Out of the corner of my eye came two elderly women, mouth’s agape with panic, cackling like hens as they rushed to lend a hand.

“Oh my God – Oh my God! Call the ambulance! Take my water! He needs water!”

Aaron’s craned his neck off my chest and looked up calmly through drooping eyes. “I’ll be ok … I’m ok … I’m ok.”

That was Aaron’s mantra the last month of his life: “It’s ok … I’m ok.”

Aaron would be ok for another day. We grabbed take out and headed back home.

Back on the edge of the bed, I remembered the wrestling and angst of the last weeks of Aaron’s life. Mornings swung wildly with hope, prayer, struggle, confusion … even anger. I remember waking early one morning and reading this verse from Colossians:

I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for his body, the church. – Colossians 1:24

I remember wanting to punch the apostle Paul in the mouth.

You are glad?!

Really Paul?! Glad?!

What do you know?! Have you ever dealt with this? Have you ever had cancer, Paul? Have you experienced the roller coaster of doubt and hope, faith and disappointment … the piercing, razor sharp little knives of sorrow when the sobs of your wife startle you awake at 2 am? How about at 3 am and 4, as your mind continues to race back and forth between verses of hope and the piercing words of oncologists to “get your affairs in order?”

How can you be glad? I’m not glad about any of this! I want to throw your confusing book with all its pithy and glib religious verses through the window and out to the curb with the rest of this week’s trash! Take your magical thinking and precious pillow embroidery verses somewhere else! We’re in the fetal position over here!

I remember that dark valley like it was yesterday. I remember all the rain, and the hospice workers, and all the precious moments our family enjoyed with Aaron the last three weeks.

So much healing has taken place since Aaron took the hand of the Father and entered another realm right before our eyes. June 17, 2015.

As the months drifted by, I gradually patched things up with Paul. I made amends with God again. Eventually I was able to find the strength to humble myself and head back home, His open arms and warm embrace reminding me that He has always been with me, with us, every step of the way.

Now I’m beginning to see what I couldn’t see in those dark days. The valley of the shadow of death is a hard and terrifying place, but a required pilgrimage. We all have to walk through the abyss of unjust suffering to gain understanding, to understand what the apostle Paul meant, what Jesus knew.

In the middle of that empty, black hole you are stripped of all your independence. Losing all your power to control things, the uncertainty exposes your greatest fears. There were days when I tried to push them away through cynicism, bitterness and negativity. Needing someone to blame: the cancer, the doctor, the devil or God, I fought to deflect the pain like a hot potato. Finding myself without any control over the situation, self-protection kicked in like an old furnace, sputtering and whirring through clouds of black smoke. I searched frantically for places to hide, avoid, shut down and check out. Broken and self-conscious, faced with a situation far beyond my pay grade of maturity and experience, I often chose to slide into the role of helpless victim, not realizing it was removing any last ounce of power I had.

But there is always mercy. Somewhere in the valley a tiny pinhole of light flickers ahead. Shuffling blindly ahead, squinting to see until the break of dawn begins to usher in a new day, new hope.

What you learn through the process is how suffering transforms you into a completely different person. There are ways we grow and mature through suffering that we can’t get any other way. You can read every book and bible on the planet, but without the searing pain of loss and grief our ascent remains merely mental. Without the valley of the shadow of death, it’s just theory without experience.

You are never the same after the journey – I’ll never be the same. Deep lacerations on hemorrhaging hearts eventually heal into sacred scars you hold dear.

Reading the papers, it seems that unjust suffering is one of the common bonds we humans have here on earth. Not knowing what to do with it, we all have different ways of coping with it: work, drugs, religion … anything to avoid the pain.

But through Aaron’s life I have begun to fourofus
see Jesus in a new light. He’s not just a transaction, a contract and eternal life plan. He is our path. He is all of us, courageously modeling the transforming power of death – showing us how to courageously move through the pain, and in the process transform our suffering into an entirely new kind of life.

Without death there is no resurrection … and I’m looking forward to every rebirth planned for me. And after last night’s dream, especially the last one.