At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks By Showing Up

Last night I took my son, Joshua, to a hockey game. It was the first one we'd been to together since December of 2001, and even then it was a late-night club-level collegiate game between Virginia and Duke at a Charlottesville rink. But last night we went several steps up. No, we didn't go to a St. Louis Blues game (not on our budget), but rather we headed to the Family Arena in St. Charles to watch the hometown St. Charles Chill battle the Tulsa Oilers. And we had the time of our lives.

The action was intense and scrappy, and even though it was the minor-level Central Hockey League and not the NHL, no one there cared. Back and forth the scoring went, and hometown hero Jordan Fox nearly won in for the Chill in regulation had not a wrist shot pinged off the goal post. But the 3-3 game went all the way into overtime, and when that didn't produce a tiebreaker, things went to a shootout, which the Oilers unfortunately won.

But we had a blast. We had great seats (center ice, first row of the upper bowl). The one thing that was a downer was that the listed attendance--for a 10,000 seat venue--was a mere 2,144. Now that's more than the Chill have been drawing, but it's given me a desire to send a letter to the paper imploring more people to turn up to these games. The Chill is an expansion team, new to the league, struggling in the Central Hockey League standings but working extremely hard, and the players are involved in a lot of visible community events. Is it so hard to plunk down five dollars per ticket (yes, you read that right...five dollars for general admission!) and encourage this team by your presence?

It took me back to my late high school years. My dad was the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in central Maryland. One Sunday he was going to be out of town, so he asked a friend in the church--who was finishing up seminary classes and was studying to become a pastor himself--to preach in his stead that Sunday. In the bulletin the week before his absence, Dad included an announcement that Jeff would be preaching and exhorted the congregation to make every effort to come "to hear the Word and to encourage the speaker" (emphasis mine).

The next week, Jeff preached to a church that was barely more than half its normal attendance. And trust me, those who were out weren't on family vacation or in the emergency room for a gall stone the size of Nunavut. I remember we were driving home from that service when Mom--clearly frustrated--said, "Dad is going to be incredibly disappointed! He said to hear the Word and to encourage the speaker!"

To be fair, that wasn't the normal modus operandi of that church. But sadly, very little of either hearing or encouraging happened that day.

Often, we show up to many things in life and expect to be spoon fed, entertained, or whatever. But the people or teams doing their job have put in a lot of work, and the presence of others can be a big "thank you" for their efforts. It goes beyond me hoping the Chill can double or triple their average home attendance. It means that there are people around you every day whose work tends to be the proverbial submerged amount of the iceberg. It doesn't show up publicly. The Chill practice hard. Jeff worked hard in preparing that sermon. But even today, we can show up in gratitude for others. Many people you know work hard in their job, on their special talents, and so on. Maybe an easy way to give thanks for them is to do so consistently: Show up and enjoy them and what they do, not to mention participate in their lives and activity. I would imagine such would be a great encouragement.

Give thanks by showing up. Obviously by showing up at Thanksgiving dinner today...but do so beyond this day.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Don't Let Bitterness Ruin Your Life

The Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. Another extension of that principle is that we should seek to take life as it is, better it where we can, and roll with the punches if and where we don't better it.

I'm worried that this idea is lost on a lot of folks today. As a private school teacher, I'm in the middle of Aristotle's great educational enterprise. What I've also found distressing over the years is the amount of increasing discontent and bitterness rising in the general population.

I don't think this is a simple "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality, although I wouldn't doubt there are some of those undercurrents afoot. Low-grade bitterness and discontent haven woven their way into the fabric of many souls I know.

Grades: A "C" used to be average. A "B", when I was in school, was evidence you'd done a good deal of work and understood the material at a high level. An "A" meant excellent proficiency. Now a number of my students beg me for extra credit so their final average can tick up from an A-minus to a full-blown A (note to all: I never give extra credit opportunities). Somewhere along the way people became dissatisfied with the evaluations they were getting. They bought into the lie that grades equal automatic success, or at least the opportunity for good college=good chances=good job=good life. Somewhere along the way, people started becoming more bitter about what they'd earned because they wanted--or felt more entitled to--more.

I've always enjoyed one scene of the movie School Ties because you get a proper whiff of contentment and proper perspective. Brendan Fraser and Matt Damon--students at the fictional St. Matthew's School--are reflecting on the mental breakdown of a classmate whose poor French grade might prevent him from getting into an Ivy League school. Damon even mentions that years ago, another student didn't get into the university of his choice and killed himself. Fraser, incredulous, says, "I sure want to get into Harvard, but I'll be damned if I kill myself if I don't."

Damon looks at Fraser and says, "I envy you...If you want something and if you get it, you deserve it, and if you don't, you'll manage."

Hence, the root of bitterness: The unwillingness to recognize that you can manage, the refusal to will yourself to be content.

By no means am I saying one should lack ambition. I've written several books and had one novel published. That takes ambition. But I force myself to reconcile the fact that if my writing never gets the publicity I want it to have, I still have a good life, a wonderful loving wife, and phenomenal children along with an enjoyable vocation. 

Some things don't work out, or at least they haven't worked out yet. I was having a conversation with a friend from Nashville yesterday; I hadn't seen her for years and then she and her husband dropped by my school for a half-hour since they were in town. Michelle asked me about our son Joshua's progress. And I found myself saying--in a rare moment of the Holy Spirit taking over my vocal cords, "Well, it'll be great if the research bears fruit and we get a treatment and cure in the coming years. We'd be fools not to welcome that. It'd be an amazing blessing. But then again, we've borne this matter for all of Joshua's life. We know the terrain, and if he's never healed, that's the path we have, and we'll manage. If Joshua is healed, it'll be wonderful, and God is good. And if Joshua never walks again, it'll be okay, and God will still be good."

And yet still we move on. If we acquire wealth, are blessed with health, or other positive, that's great. If not, God gets us by in the meantime nonetheless. This time of year, it's all the more appropriate to keep I Timothy 6:6-8 in mind.

"But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content."

Bitterness and discontent can only shred your soul and tear at the fabric of a life that--while perhaps not as ideal as you'd like it--is much better than the millions on this planet who live in abject poverty and want.

Don't let bitterness ruin your life. You brought nothing into this world, and you can't take a thing out of it. Contentment counts for so much more.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Questions That Matter

Last week--November 20th, to be exact--was the culmination of a three-part series of split chapels at Westminster Christian Academy in St. Louis, where I presently teach.  One series covered a Christian approach to film, which I've heard was very good. The other series touched on the idea of doubt and posing our questions about faith and God.

While three weeks isn't sufficient to cover every query that plagues every student (and faculty member for that matter), it does give us a starting line from which to engage the questions that are burning in students' hearts. And since I teach in a Christian school, I know that many students are--sadly--afraid to pose their inquiries because they perceive they might get a "doubters" stigma.

Personally, I wish many would throw caution to the wind. Maybe it's part of my personality that I believe in swinging the intellectual punches and prodding the areas of God and faith I don't get, and the heck with what others think. (Yes, I've read too much Philip Yancey, if that's what the accusation is) But I wish questions from others weren't in short audible supply.

Yet students wrote in their questions and we took the top cluster during the half-hour chapel last week. The video is posted above. The chapel lasts thirty-three minutes, but it's worth it if you can hang in there. From left to right are faculty members Tim Holley, L.B. Graham, and Jim Butz, then outside speaker Jeremy Smith, and then faculty members Jason Wilkins, myself, and Andy Shaw.

The questions we dealt with ranged from "How can one say Christianity is the right religion?" (4:00-10:40) to "How can we trust the Bible?" (10:40-16:00), to "Why does evil/pain exist? If God created everything, did he create evil and suffering? If God is sovereign, then why doesn't he fix our problems and hardships?" (16:00-23:00), and finally "How do you explain the contradictions that seem to exist between science and the Bible?" (23:08-28:38)

Hopefully, this can be an encouragement to believers but also invite continued conversations with seekers, doubters, and the spiritually disenchanted. Wherever you are on life's journey, maybe this will help believers and unbelievers connect to hash out some of the ideas raised by these and other questions. None of us claim to have the answers perfectly; the best we can hope for is to make a decent cumulative case that will lead to more clarity and discussion with others.

Pax vobiscum, and happy viewing!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Reason, Imagination, and an Enduring Legacy

With all the attention paid to the anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy's death this past Friday, I was going to sit down a couple days later and weigh in on the significance of November 22nd. But to do so is to acknowledge two other deaths that occurred that day.

Aside from the end of Camelot that squelched the hopefulness of American life in the early 1960s, November 22, 1963 is also known for the passing of Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, a tome that was sweeping and eerie in its foresight of the pyschological manipulation and genetic conditioning in the future. Huxley was an agnostic who dabbled in spirituality and mysticism; it is said that on his deathbed, he had his wife Laura read from the Tibetan Book of the Dead until he passed over to "the other side." He was also one of the most formidable intellectuals of all time and deserves his place in history.

But my thoughts still turn to the first member of the triumvirate whose time came on that day. Clive Staples Lewis, a.k.a. C.S. Lewis, known to his friends as Jack (which causes some initial confusion in Peter Kreeft's hypothetical debate-fest among the JFK-Lewis-Huxley triad in Between Heaven and Hell), died at his home in the Kilns, Oxford, England before Kennedy's assassination and Huxley's expiration. Many authors and thinkers have had impact upon my life and worldview. The overwhelming majority of them usually are in specialized areas. Philip Yancey, for example, has been indispensable for leading me in good territory on the questions of suffering, evil, and when God doesn't make sense. Peter Kreeft and James Sire do yeoman's work in helping me understand the consequences of belief and building a coherent view of life.

But Lewis splashed over so many reservoirs; he more than anyone showed me the Great Consensus, the hallway of Christian belief, as ably demonstrated in Mere Christianity. He led me through The Problem of Pain just before I would begin to fathom what difficulty was with what Joshua would endure. His The Abolition of Man showed the importance of moral education and the common grace evident in thinkers of other traditions. Miracles was  a useful guide through the reasonableness of divine intervention in a natural world.

But ultimately you do something with reason and crisp logic; they should lead onward to wonder and joy. Lewis' faith shone most brightly, it can be argued, in his Space Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. These are not precise analogies of the Bible, and they were never meant to be, but the reality of Biblical themes and the Christian worldview come shining through in Lewis' fine balance of plot, character, and setting. In short, Lewis grabbed me early on with his gift of being able to argue for the faith in an imaginative fashion, reason flowed into wonder, and logic was carried along on torrents of joy.

It's only appropriate that the most concise presentation of faith can be rendered in colorful wonder (with thanks to Paul Ford's Companion to Narnia) as follows:

     I believe in the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, who has put within time the Deep Magic, and, before all time the Deeper Magic.
     I believe in his son, Aslan, who sang into being all the worlds and all that they contain, Talking Beasts and humans, dumb animals and shining spirits. And I believe that Aslan was a true beast, the king of beats, a Lion; that for Edmund, a traitor because of his desire for Turkish Delight, he gave himself into the power of the White Witch, who satisfied the requirements of the Deep Magic by killing him most horribly. At dawn following that darkest, coldest night, he was restored to full life by the Deeper Magic, cracking the Stone Table and, from that moment, setting death to work backwards. He exulted in his new life and went off to rescue all those who had been turned into stone by the Witch's wand and to deliver the whole land from everlasting winter. He will be behind all the stories of our lives and, when it is time, he will appear again in our world to wind it up, calling all of his creatures whose hearts' desire it is to live "farther in and farther up" in his Country which contains all real countries.
     I believe that upon us all falls the sweet breath of Aslan and that ours are the sweet waters of the Last Sea which enable us to look steadily at the sun. I believe that all who thrill or will thrill at the sound of Aslan's name are now our fellow voyagers and our fellow kings and queens; that all of us can be forever free of our dragonish thoughts and actions; and that one day we will pass through the door of death into "Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before."

Many thanks to you, "Jack".

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 20, Final Thoughts

In looking over the past three weeks of musings, poems, and reflections, I have learned several things:

I continue to be--in the words of my friend Mike Tant--a blessed but ever grieving father. But I also know the grief moves towards joy and reunion. One day I will embrace Jordan again and we'll never have to say goodbye.

I remember that I am surrounded by good friends--both here in St. Louis and elsewhere--who are a great source of encouragement.

I find peace in the grounding in faith I received from my parents. It could seem like basic wiring some of the time when I was younger, but the roots have gone deep enough that they held on when times were bleakest.

I am overjoyed that God has blessed me with a loving wife and delightful children who are a great fountain of my present happiness.

And I am comforted that God not only understands pain. He experienced more of it than all of us put together. Without the Cross, none of this has a prayer of making sense.

Like I said in chapel this past Wednesday, God knows what it's like to lose a son.

Comfort is real. Peace is lasting.

In this, there is no doubt.

I am comforted. I am at peace.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 19, "Jesus (The FInal Epic)"

I know full well that today is the fiftieth anniversary not only of the death of President John F. Kennedy but also of C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. But my post on that historical paradigm shaker will have to wait until Sunday, after we are through the Twenty Days of Comfort series. Because...

Tomorrow is the five-year anniversary of the day that Jordan left us to find his way to Heaven. True, the sadness that slammed into us on the morning of Jordan's death was unbelievable, but over time there is no doubt that God's comforting mercies have been even more abundant. 

One moment he was there, and later he was not. I had checked on him at three-thirty in the morning as he cried briefly. I asked him, "Are you okay, buddy?" To which he babbled, "Uh-huh!" And I responded, "I love you, Jordan." And again his response, the only one his voice was capable of giving: "Uh-huh!"

Such a cutie. He rolled back over to go to sleep. When he awoke, it was in eternal life.

The poem that follows is the longest one I have ever written, by a landslide. Twenty-two stanzas of iambic pentameter that traces Jordan's entry into the arms of his Lord and Savior.

I'm not saying tears are automatic, but you may want to have some Klennex nearby.

I have no confirmation that Jordan dreamed his way into heaven, but I'd like to think that when he passed from our hands into those of Christ, it happened--crawling, running, leaping, then resting-- like this. 

Jesus (The Final Epic)

On mattress all familiar now I lie.
The beam so soft from outside comes within
And pierces darkness deep. A shaft of light
Now beckons to recall that in the midst
Of life, there is a certain hope for me.

Wherefore this beauteous sight I cannot tell.
It seems to mingle with a call divine.
Is darkness coming and, if so, will I
Be sure that thus beyond the shadow's gloom
I surely find delight that God is there?

So sleep a little bit, I tell myself,
And wake again when light invades the room.
The heaviness upon my eyelids pressed
Will gently wrestle me to slumber's bay
And once again I'll wake to morning bliss.

The dream begins, and there I find myself
Crawling through meadow warm and floral spray,
And through the loamy soil I come upon
A flowing river lapping o'er its shore
Upon which sturdy boat I spy alone.

And then this wildest epic takes new form:
I clamber toward the small conveyance here
And, scrambling over side onto its deck,
Discover strength not previous' known before
As this adventure takes a strange new turn.

At first a whisper soft speaks o'er the waves
Before the boat dislodges from its roots.
No oars are needed to glide swiftly on,
For far away the drawing point reveals
Itself--a voice that's calling out my name.

Onward the river moves in powered calm.
The peaceful torrent flows within my dream;
Upward it climbs to raging waterfall
That flows reversedly to higher ground
Of forests verdant green on mountainside.

With instinct charged I bolt from here in haste.
Renewed in spirit now I sprint headlong
And, clutching in my hand both spear and sword,
Toward higher elevation I plunge on
To seek who far off grandly calls my name.

I seek a bold adventure, lordly gain,
I sense a battle for my body's health.
With courage I, prepared for struggle great, 
Fly over fertile ground with swiftest feet,
Yet knowing not if this be heaven or earth.

And then from forest thick my little form
Tumbles into a clearing bathed with light,
Where stunned (my eyes can scarcely take it in),
I see the genesis of sacred voice
That draws me, sweetly calling forth my name.

Lion of Judah, Citadel of Grace,
He speaks my name, not his, but his I know:
The King of Kings, Messiah, Lamb of God,
Redeemer, Son of David, Prince of Peace,
And 'round him there a crystal fountain flows.

With quizz'cal look I glance upon his brow
And gaze upon that skin once torn by thorns
Before I lock my eyes upon his wrists
And side where holy gashes bore so long
Ago the sin he washed away from me.

With trembling voice I ask him, "Where am I?"
And broad the smile expands upon his face
As Jesus says, "My son, throw down your spear
And sword--They're needed not within your home."
To which I make reply, "What is this place?"

In thund'rous laughter loud Jesus calls out
The truth: "Why, little Jordan Christopher,
You've reached my Sacred Mountain's summit high
And in my Holy City evermore
You'll live--For I've made you completely new."

So with one final earthly heartbeat more,
I throw aside forever spear and sword.
And to my family on earth I give
One final whispered gracious soft farewell,
And pounce to take a leap for which I've longed.

The power surges deep within my veins
And all my muscles move with apexed might
To bound thro' heav'n's sweet air, and tackling thus
My dear Good Shepherd, sending with a laugh
Us both into the Fountain's roaring foam!

With holy scream I throw my head far back,
And smiling ever widely I shout out:
"This, my eternal home! This is the place
For which I've longed and sought forevermore,
Although I knew it not for all my life!"

My Savior's nail-scarred hands encircle me
And lift me out from there with splashes fresh.
He looks within me deep, a blessing great,
Before he wraps me in his arms so tight
And turns into the City's entry path.

Around us there explodes a tumult great
Of angels, saints, and martyrs bringing me
Into the city with triumphant song,
And there forevermore my home shall be,
And where one day, I'll join my family.

Yet deep in Heaven's din I clear perceive
My great Redeemer's voice within my ear.
The saintly roars all strangely fade away
And unmistakably his whispers dear
Bless my initial entry to my home.

"My little Jordan Christopher," he says,
"How long I've waited for this special day,
For you to enter your inheritance
And all encumbrances be thrown away,
So everlasting joys will now be yours."

"You are my little soldier, my brave soul,
And I am your Commander holding fast
To bear you to my Father's throne where you
Will have eternal joy and peace at last.
You'll have eternal joy and peace at last."

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 18, "Happy"

While it is still hard to know Jordan is not with us anymore, there have been many things to be thankful for. After Jordan spent a few days in the hospital for a respiratory illness, he seemed well enough to bring home. And during what turned out to be his last days (although we were unaware they would be), his playful spirit filled our house to the brim.

This poem remembers his last full day with us, one in which he almost polished off a full bowl of Beef-A-Roni, continued walking on his own, and sat with Joshua and Lindsay in a frenzied laugh-fest as they watched some Pink Panther cartoons. 

We wouldn't give up those remnants of joy for all the money in the world.


Now home at last for near a week
My wild rumpus gladdens all
Who see or hear my active streak
Across the room or down the hall

My sister plays with giant blocks
I lumber o'er like massive clown
And my left hand then quickly socks
Her tower, which goes crashing down

My brother's laughter then unglues
As great mischief within me snaps
So sneakily, I grab his shoes
And covertly undo his straps

My mommy's now in cleaning mode
The vacuum whirrs with happy hum
I chase it 'round like hopping toad
Which gives my heartstrings joyful strum

At dinnertime we bless our food
I clutch my daddy's hand in prayer
My beef and pasta all tastes good
As thankfulness we gladly share

Warm water plunges in the bath
The soap and shampoo cleansing me
Before I burn more comic paths
And scramble 'round the house so free

With Josh and Lindsay one more time
I watch cartoons and laugh out loud
Their happy chuckles with me chime
Ensconcing me like pillowed cloud

More hugs and kisses bring day's end
Under the light of shining moon
Mommy and Daddy kiss me and
Promise that morning's coming soon

More right than imagined they are...

For a voice is calling from afar...

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 17, "Steps"

The idea of Jordan walking on his own was a risk. Joshua had figured it out at fifteen months of age, but as Jordan was reaching the eighteen-month milestone, he was content to cruise around using the furniture in our St. Charles, Missouri home. The overwhelming majority of boys with X-linked myotubular myopathy never walk. So we understood that going in.

Then, on October 8, 2008, Jordan, for some inexplicable reason, let go of a chair near the kitchen wall and began tottering toward Christy and I as we were making dinner. What followed was pure joy, through Jordan's eyes and ours.


The greatest gifts are unexpected,
The intercepts of time and space.
In life's arena, I'm determined
To seek this avenue of grace.

Tottering, I let go of the chair;
Turning, my hip rotates about.
I swing my leg and I forward march
And my work vaporizes doubt.

I set my feet to rhythm softly;
Pattering, I cover this ground,
And both my parents smile broadly
As I make steps with muted sound.

The greatest gifts are unexpected,
The intercepts of time and space.
In life's arena, I'm determined
To seek this avenue of grace.

The numbered steps come to twenty-nine;
A cheer breaks forth from happy home!
But I'll be planning for future time:
The record's falling--It will come!

And thus, when bath is done, I'm walking:
From my room to Daddy's will it be.
No stumbles, totters, spills, or fumbles
And my steps number forty-three!

Joy and happiness roll on!
I've crossed another Rubicon!

The greatest gifts are unexpected,
The intercepts of time and space.
In life's arena, I'm determined
To seek this avenue of grace.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 16, "Straw"

After we moved to the St. Louis area in the summer of 2008, it seemed that Jordan was crossing a new Rubicon every week. Today's poem celebrates that moment when--after graduating from his bottle to his sippy cup--Jordan took the grand plunge of drinking from a straw out of an open cup. Never will we forget the smile that creased his face when he succeeded.


With smiles bright today I'll glow
Another pattern I'll outgrow
Within my drink there stands a straw
I stare at it with reverent awe
And then take in the flow

Cold liquid spills in the burrow
Within my mouth little grotto
And pleasure then aligns my jaw
With smiles bright

This triumph done, my eyes follow
And gaze at Mommy from below
She cheers and gives a fine hurrah
Her love for me--nary a flaw--
Spills onto me, her small hero
With smiles bright.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 15, "Birthday"

After a year of tumbles and turns, of narrow escapes and sober reflection, of one job ending and another provided, our family gathered around the table in celebration on April 5, 2008. Jordan--beaming with happiness and wondering what all the fuss was about--was celebrating his first birthday.


There's a joy contagious to this day
I think to myself
You're one year old today
They say to me
I know little of years, months, days
I think to myself
You bring light to our days
They say to me

Some time ago
Before the world began
The day of my birth 
Was set forth
They call today
A celebration
My family looks back
As we look forward

The sacraments of days
Are brought to table
It does seem strange 
To say we honor
The Maker of the stars
With candles, cake,
Drinks, and ice cream.
But we remember
And give thanks.

All the gifts of
The year gone past
Are strewn across the path
Of grace breathed forth
Before the foundation
Of all the ages
With courage and love
We confess anew:
This is a day of hope.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 14, Who's In Charge Here?

In Pat Conroy's episodic work South of Broad, the novel's protagonist, Leo King, endures a wretched evening at a dinner party and comments at the very end of one chapter that "I realize that you can walk away from anything but a wounded soul." Abrasions of the body are one thing; wounds of the heart are another, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

The issue of pain and the question of evil (although I suspect people focus more on evil that befalls them and not evil in general) is sure to come up this week. In what is already going to be a draining week, I've been asked to serve on a panel discussion during our chapel time this coming Wednesday, one in which students will be able to ask questions about things they doubt about, issues they have with Christianity, things they're wrestling with, etc. I've been in enough open conversations with people to know that the question of "If God is in charge, then why doesn't he fix all our problems and hardships?" is going to come up.

For all what we've gone through as a family, we have brushed around that question. Sometimes it doesn't seem to me that God has his hands on the wheel; in fact, there can be long stretches where that seems to be the case. And keep in mind, I do my best to limit my queries of the Almighty to moments of intense suffering. Right now, I'm keeping tabs on the Eastern Division championship in the Canadian Football League and hoping my Hamilton Tiger-Cats can hold on to their slim lead and go to the Grey Cup. If they don't, I'll be awfully perturbed. But it's an inconvenience; it's not suffering. If ABC Family ever cancels Pretty Little Liars, teenage girls across America might be devastated (although 99% of rational thinkers might be breathing prayers of thanks)...but again, that's not true suffering. If you're going to ask the question "Who is in charge of all this mess?", then it had better be in response to something truly meaningful.

But there is something else worth sharing in the midst of pain. Now, skeptics and atheists can tune me out here if they wish, but I'm talking primarily to theists/Christians here. What exactly drives our questions of God? When we wonder what God is up to, that's legitimate in principle. We have a very limited perspective and so out of curiosity (and sometimes for the sake of our sanity) we might like to know why we are enduring a present affliction. But the spirit in which we pose our question is critical. Toward the end of the Biblical book of Job, the title character--who has lost almost everything in a short period of time--has endured his loss with a fair amount of grace and perseverance. At the very least, Job has acted better than his poorly-comforting buddies. But toward the end of the book, when God--in a specially present way--comes on the scene, Job plies him with questions about his suffering, asking in effect, "Why have I gone through this? Put yourself in my shoes."

And--as Frederick Buechner aptly says--"God doesn't explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that trying to explain the kind of things Job wants to know would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam...God doesn't reveal his grand design. He reveals himself."

In short, God says, "Job, you put yourself in my place." Philip Yancey paraphrases God's response this way in Disappointment With God: "Until you can offer lessons on how to make the sun come up each day, or where to scatter lightning bolts, or how to design a hippopotamus, don't judge how I run the world."

That seems rather brusque and jerky, but it's a point well taken. It's interesting how people often talk about God should be acting like a sovereign ruler if that's how the Bible reveals him, but the moment their world crumbles they shoot off at the hip at God and treat him as if he's a peer, an equal.

When this happens, friends, it's my opinion that--as understandable as that default mode could be--we're treading in dangerous territory. If we can't control the wind patterns in Finland or supervise the fetal development of caribou in Canada at the same time, maybe we should slow down our retorts to God.

It doesn't mean we knuckle under. Trust me, we've blown up and thrown plenty of punches at God during Joshua's post-surgical complications, our loss of Jordan, and Lindsay's struggles with her place in this milieu. But I think one thing Christy and I have learned over time is that we ask the questions from a posture of humility as submissive followers instead of demanding peers.

"I don't understand what you're doing, God. It's maddening. But I want to struggle by following you, not pulling against you." 

That's not a bad place to start.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 13, Cause, Result, or Response?

I'm not trying to convert skeptics on the issue of suffering today, just giving some thoughtful reflections I've found helpful.

In four days, I will be part of a faculty panel discussion during our school's chapel time. The purpose of this event is to field questions from students about their doubts, their questions about faith, etc. Students have been given an opportunity to write down their most pressing questions of life and Christianity, and we panel members were given a sneak peek at the cluster of questions yesterday.

Except for a few word choice issues, they were almost exact the questions I was expecting (by the time you turn 43, you can pretty much figure what queries will float to the top). And of course, there was the big one: Why does evil/pain exist? If God is sovereign, then why doesn't he immediately fix our trials and hardships? If God created everything, did he create evil or suffering?

Nothing like a loaded question to get your day started.

There's a lot I could pull out of the realm of theology to answer these questions. I could talk about the human rebellion against God as the answer to the existence of pain and evil. As far as the "Fix" question, one could always reference C.S. Lewis' "divine megaphone" statement from The Problem of Pain (excellent resource, by the way) or Peter Kreeft's redirect of "Would fixing our pain and sheltering us from hardship truly make us better or would it make us spoiled brats?" I know the arguments about how suffering builds up character; heck, St. James makes that point in his biblical epistle. And on the whole "Did God create evil and suffering?"...well, that's another post for the future, but suffice it to say a perfect God cannot create something contrary to his character.

But the thing that binds those above questions together is they are "cause" questions; they are asking for a reason why something exists. Don't get me wrong; those are decent ruminations. But are questions of "cause" the ones we should primarily ask?

For some time, I've felt my arms are too short to box with God. I live in the realistic valley between two lands: (1) the comfort that God welcome my questions and lashings and confusion and lets me throw the punches in his direction, and (2) the knowledge that eventually I tire out and have to eventually fall into his embrace. It was comforting years ago to run across Philip Yancey's Where Is God When It Hurts? and read through his chapter "Arms to Short to Box With God." Yancey is convinced that we spend a lot of time looking for the cause or reason behind suffering. Someone suffers the loss of a loved one and people comfort the survivor with "Some relatives came to Christ at his funeral--that must be why God took him home." Or--even more unhelpful--people can assume that some hidden sin set off the suffering and pain one is experiencing: "You should have mended your relationship with your mother years ago; that's why you have cancer now." (I wish I could be making this up, but Christians can say the cruelest things just like that.)

It is true that suffering can produce good results, but I don't think we should strategize what those results could be the moment tragedy strikes. When a child dies, the parents need to grieve, not think in advance about the positives that will results years down the road. In fact, when I look at the record of God's work in the world (i.e., the Bible), I discover that neither the cause nor the specific result of suffering gets as much press as something else: the response God wants as we slog through our painful trials.

A young lady who endured ten years of sexual molestation by an uncle may never know exactly "Why?" She may not see "productive results" for awhile, although such an experience can lead to her going into a vocational field that deals with the prevention of sexual abuse. All I'm saying is that knowing the cause or seeing the result of suffering will only take one so far.

What God wants from his children is a response of trust as we go through the valley of the shadow. When Job lost his children, his cattle, his property, and all his wealth and was sitting in mud asking God why these things happened (although he dealt with his suffering more constructively than his friends did in "supporting" him), God didn't display the cause or reason for Job's hardship. God showed up...He displayed himself. The implication to me seems to be that as we participate in trials, we don't primarily seeks answers (meaning that's not #1 on our list) but rather what supremely counts is trusting God in the fog. It doesn't change our circumstances, but slowly, eventually, such trust can change us.

Yancey even asks the question Would it really help us to know exactly why God permits a specific instance of suffering? The implicit answer is no, and Yancey even says that knowledge "may engender even more bitterness. But it does help our actual condition when we turn to him in trust." He includes a prayer by Blaise Pascal (whose "Wager" I reference in the next-to-last chapter of Litany of Secrets) at the end of the chapter. I hope you find it assuring even if it is beyond the amount of control you are willing to let go.

"I ask neither for health nor for sickness, for life nor for death, but that you dispose of my health and my sickness, my life and my death, for your glory...You alone know what is expedient for me; you are the sovereign master; do with me according to your will. Give to me, or take away from me, only conform my will to yours. I know but one thing, Lord, that it is good to follow you, and bad to offend you. Apart from that, I know not what is good or bad in anything. I know not which is most profitable to me, health or sickness, wealth or poverty, nor anything else in the world. That discernment is beyond the power of men or angels, and is hidden among the secrets of your Providence, which I adore, but do not seek to fathom."

Friday, November 15, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 12, "Standing"

Given all of Jordan's challenges, one would figure he'd have an upward climb in meeting his physical milestones. But to see the courage and joy emanating from him, you sensed the confidence growing within him that he'd hit those points before long. It was in February 2008 that he began utilizing the sofa to balance himself and cruise around the den of our Florida home with a smile that beamed like the sun.

In honor and memory of those wonderful day, here is today's remembrance:


On February afternoon
When all our family is home
I've reached another milestone
Within my little life's grand tome

Gather close and hear the story
I'll tell you how it came to be:
Inside our house, within the den,
I sit upon my Daddy's knee

The dark green love seat beckons me
It's sat there many days on end
But now I hear its siren call
I grasp it like a long-lost friend

My left knee buckles, then holds firm
My right hand lifts to steady me
And while Dad watches from behind
Mom and Lindsay stop and see

They see me grasp for fabric soft
They see me wobble, then aright
And place my hands upon the couch
There's surely no more need for fright

And then surprises more await!
I turn to them as Josh wheels o'er
I magnify their shock supreme
With one additional gift galore

From side to side my hips will churn
In notes unexpectedly sweet
And balancing on my support
I scoot about upon my feet

Another goal is conquered thus
Yet more to come I am aware
For now I see the strength of God
In every challenge that I dare

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 11, "Christmas"

We will always remember Jordan as a child of two Easters, one Thanksgiving, and one very special Christmas. The Yuletide of 2007 was a wonderful time where we finally got some breathing space from the medical trials of the past year. Even Jordan must have gotten caught up in the celebration because the little eight-month old codger reached for my bottle of Beck's Light when I was taking a swallow! The fact that he had only one Christmas is poignant; the reality that we spent it with him is delightful; the supreme conviction that every day he spends is Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one gives us great hope.

After all that, today's poem:


A change in the air
From warm to crisp
Brings to an end
The autumn's tryst.
My family's here
Bustling around,
For Christmas is here:
The joyful sound!
Our friends will arrive
Much later today,
But now there's even
More time to play.
Excitement has split
The air like spears
With this joyful truth:
Christmas is here!
Amidst all the smiles,
My spirits lift:
Mom's handing to me
A beautiful gift.
The chatter breaks forth,
Invades my ear
As I shout for joy:
Christmas is here!
My family all 'round
With smiles in place,
And I pause to think
If this be grace
To be my one time,
I've naught to fear:
For Christ loves me still.
His presence is here!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 10, "Daddy"

It feels a tad odd to be writing a poem about the relationship Jordan and I had, but this was inspired by a seminal event. When Christy and I had swapped out again on Joshua's care, she going to Miami to stay with him, I remained in Royal Palm Beach with Lindsay and five-month old Jordan. My days during the school week consisted of waking up extra early, getting ready, getting Lindsay and Jordan ready, packing up Jordan's Port-a-Play bed and his bottles of formula, then dropping off Jordan at whoever was in the church rotation to take care of him that day, get Lindsay to school, then teach and do my chaplain duties at the same school, grab Lindsay, we go get Jordan, go home, make dinner, feed Jordan, play with the kids, get them to bed, and then collapse after a phone update from Christy.

One night after a week or so of this routine, my body couldn't keep up. I was sitting on the sofa, holding Jordan, when I apparently passed out from exhaustion. I woke to the sensation of what seemed like butterfly legs on my lips. I opened my eyes to Jordan's fingers dancing on my mouth and his concerned look turning to joy.

It was a moment I'll never forget, and it's the event that inspired this poem.


My Daddy's shoulders are broader than mine,
But they are made of flesh and bone,
And his arms reach down to me tenderly
Before he speaks in softest tone.

"I have to go to work today and so
Another is caring for you.
I'm tired and weary and turned and tossed.
I just can't believe this is true."

"I can't understand that this is your lot
To see new faces every day.
One day, you'll see, our whole family
Will all come home, for good, to stay."

So once again my Daddy kisses me
Goodbye into another's care.
Before the twilight comes, he's back again;
I'm resting 'neath his kindly stare.

With Lindsay he and I our dinner make.
His tired smile warms me well.
On love seat soft he holds my little frame
While breath puffs from his tired shell.

Like a determined mule my Daddy plows
Through daily moments large and small.
He warms to Mommy's voice, a smile from me,
Lindsay's "Good night"--he loves us all.

Open your eyes again, Daddy, and I
Will reach toward you and touch your face
Before a goodnight kiss, a signal blessed
By our true Father's sacred grace.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 9, "Mommy"

In early August 2007, we faced up to the reality that our oldest child Joshua needed to be trached to facilitate his breathing and recovery following his spinal fusion surgery. I would remain in Miami with Joshua for the lead-up to the surgery while Christy returned with Lindsay and Jordan to Royal Palm Beach for some school year preparation and some down time after the sheer brutality of the previous two weeks. After what she had endured with Joshua's needs, I know waking up in a relatively quiet home and being able to play with her baby boy brought a lot of joy to my wife's heart.

And--I believe--it captured Jordan's heart, for sure. Hence, today's poem, through his eyes, about his loving mother and my darling wife.


Her life may be an upward climb,
But sweet the moments she holds me.
Her heartbeat signals peaceful rhyme;
She hugs me close upon her knee.

While Daddy watches Josh afar, 
My day begins with smiling face
Given to me like Christmas star;
Her joy is evident to trace.

She feeds me cereal and pears,
And gently after strokes my chin.
She whispers to me grateful thanks:
I've made her feel younger again.

She beams euphoric all day long;
We play beneath the azure blue 
Midsummer sky, and this I know:
My Mommy loves me, this is true.

We eat with friends who beg to play
With me in voices sweet and light.
And so I do, but I will not
Let Mommy drift out of my sight.

For she's the one who gave me life;
Thus my protector she has been.
And once again with grateful thanks
She says I've made her young again.

And end of day, my crib will call
To hold me tight in slumber's space,
But not before my Mommy gets 
To have one final night's embrace.

For her sweet joy is evidence--
I surely need no cryptic clue 
Of all this means, for this I know:
My Mommy loves me, this is true.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 8, "Joshua"

Jordan adored both of his siblings, no doubt. But three months into his life big brother Joshua had to have spinal fusion surgery at Miami Children's Hospital. Recovery was brutal, and within the first week post-surgery Joshua went into septic shock and nearly died. Obviously, he recovered, but the moments before we knew he was in the clear were quite dicey.

In this poem, Jordan brings to mind something Joshua said to me when Jordan was a little peanut struggling to thrive in the NICU soon after birth in April 2007. One day, Joshua said point-blank, "I don't want Jordan to die. Can I give him some blood or some air from my lungs to make him feel better?" 

Medical improbabilities aside, it was a sweet gesture full of hope, the hope Jordan's voice reciprocates now.


On my tenth day he held me.
His smiles rolled down like a river.
Now held in a bed not fifty yards away,
He fights for his life.

When I was born, struggling, he asked
If he could give me blood or air
From his lungs. So deep was his wish
That I live as he seeks to do.

My parents cry to God, who watches him,
But does the Cross lurk behind
Clouds and darkness?
Come near, Jesus:
What my brother wanted before.

Come near, Jesus. Speak, speak to him,
Joshua, my brother, my brother.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Twenty Days of Comfort: Day 7, "What's Up With That?"

Today's post shifts to another Philip Yancey classic: Disappointment With God. This tome was a handy burden-bearer when Joshua was in Miami for a lengthy hospitalization following his spinal fusion surgery in 2007, and I felt that Yancey penned a mother lode of amazing questions and entreaties that were swirling around in my head but which I'd never been able to organize into coherent speech.

I should first say that our family has lived on both sides of the tragedy divide. Obviously, this month reminds us of Jordan's passing into glory five years back. For whatever reason, God took him. But it is also the six-month anniversary of when Joshua finally came home from the hospital to stay, when he defied doctor's expectations and began to eat by mouth again. All this began with a July journey that saw Joshua go into post-surgical septic shock and nearly die. For whatever reason, God spared him.

It seems arbitrary, I know, from our limited human perspective, why one son survives and one dies. If God can heal and extend life, why doesn't he do that all the time? I have no answer for that question other than we have faced that mystery personally. But Yancey points out another drama in which that reality comes home.

Disappointment With God deals with three primary questions: Is God silent? Is God hidden? Is God unfair? Yancey rightly says that the "problem of unfairness bothers many people who are otherwise attracted to Jesus' life. The great theologian Augustine, for example, puzzled over the arbitrariness of the healings in the Gospels. If Jesus had power, why didn't he heal everyone?"

Yancey mentions that Augustine was particularly vexed by the story of the crippled man in John 5. The location was a pool in Jerusalem where the disabled would congregate which was "the Lourdes shrine of its day. Sometimes the water in the pool would ripple, and they would run, limp, or crawl to enter the water while it was astir." Anyhow, Jesus arrives one day to encounter a man who'd be crippled for thirty-eight years but, he told Jesus, he could never win beat-the-clock with anyone else to get in the presumably angel-stirred waters. 

So Jesus says to get up and walk, and--boom!--it happened. Twoscore minus two years of lying flat, and he's gliding around Jerusalem like Fred Astaire.

And then Yancey hits the proper nerve: "But the storyteller, John, adds one significant detail: Jesus then slipped away, into the crowd. He ignored the rest of that great throng of disabled people, leaving all but the one unhealed. Why? Augustine wondered, 'There lay so many there, and yet only one was healed, whilst He could by a word have raised them all up'."

I don't know the answer to that hidden question. All I know is that we've lived on both sides of that equation. Joshua survives, Jordan didn't. And yet I go on, for whatever reason, trusting in Someone who cautions me to recall that his kingdom is not of this world. It's not a jigsaw puzzle that fits cleanly together; it's not an auto manual that directs you how to tweak life so it hums along neatly.

I wish I had an answer for that question. I wish there was healing for all the boys with myotubular myopathy and all the kids with centronuclear myopathy. We live in the tenuous already-but-not-yet of progress toward a cure in a race against time. 

It means I live in the paradox between a kingdom in which there is suffering and a King who says that pain--redemptive though it can be--is an unnatural invasion into his preferred design. It means I like in the paradox between a kingdom that baffles me because it is thorny and a King who says, with tears, "Trust me" and earns it by bearing thorns.

It's where I live, for better or for worse. Trust me, I have plenty of questions. But I also know clearly why I have questions. And for now, that is good enough.