How Do I Hold This?

On my way to an appointment yesterday, I got a text message from my wife with an update on the father of one of my son’s friend’s dad. Any time I hear the words, “It’s not good,” I always feel like a boulder gets firmly planted in my gut. My shoulders sag, my heart aches, and I do my best to keep the waterworks from starting. Tears seem inevitable, yet I still try to contain them.

There’s so much hurt, pain, and brokenness. I get so frustrated with those false prophets who say that God never gives you more than you can handle. That’s a load of garbage. I can’t find one place in the Bible where it even remotely says that. In fact, I think it says the opposite, that in this world you will find trouble and that if you choose to follow after Jesus, pain will be part of the journey.

As I sit here feeling the weight of all the stuff swirling around me, I keep asking myself, “How do I hold this?” How do I hold onto hope while standing in the face of turmoil?

I’ve always struggled with those who consider themselves Christians and who talk about an absolute assurance with no doubt. My speculation and cynicism makes me think that they’ve never really experienced anything significantly difficult in their lives to be able to hold to that. I’m not saying that I doubt God, but I certainly wonder about his ways at times.

When you’ve seen a godly man like my father who served God for years as a pastor come to a place of brokenness and defeat in his final years and months, it’s hard to have such bulletproof assurance. Again, hear what I am saying, I still believe, but like the man in Mark 9, I continue to ask God to help my unbelief.

I honestly don’t know how people do it without hope and without faith. I recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me.” It’s a heartbreaking read of a father’s letter to his son. But that father has no hope and without hope, it’s hard to just know what to do about the future. What are we sailing towards if we lack hope? How do we step with one foot in front of the other without hope?

In the words of the old hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” The problem is, sometimes I wish that my hope could be founded in something that I could see and even touch. Sometimes I wish that I could get a little glimpse of that hope for myself rather than having to hold onto God’s promises. It’s not that I don’t think that they’re true, it’s just that sometimes you want something a little bit more tangible.

After hearing of some more difficult news this morning, I almost told my friends that I think it’s time for a prayer meeting. What else is there to do?

While it might seem that I am in despair, I’m not. There’s a difference between discouragement and despair. Despair happens when we lose hope, and I haven’t lost it.

I’m reminded of the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Bible. Despite the difficulty of the circumstances surrounding him, he still maintained his hope in the Lord when he wrote the following:

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.

The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

My circumstances and the circumstances of the people around me don’t need to dictate my response to them. If those things bring me to my knees, then they draw me closer to the One who holds all these things in his hand…..so that I don’t have to.

Reclaiming Hope – A Book Review

reclaiming hopeIn the introduction of “Reclaiming Hope,” Michael Wear writes, “If we are to reclaim hope, we must understand our nation’s political life and our role in it. Politics is causing great spiritual harm and a big reason for that is people are going to politics to have their inner needs met. Politics does a poor job of meeting inner needs, but politicians will suggest they can do so if it will get them votes. The state of our politics is a reflection of the state of our souls.” So begins his chronicling of his journey with President Obama and his administration as part of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Reclaiming Hope” reads more like a memoir as Wear recalls his experience in the midst of the Obama administration. Along the way, he paints a compelling picture of President Obama. Multiple times, I stopped reading to soak in just what this young millennial was saying about the now former President of the United States. His youthful idealism seemed to have gotten the better of him on more than one occasion. Wear seems to maintain a significant amount of hope and faith in his fellow man, even if that fellow man is a politician.

Wear explains his unease with a party (the Democratic party) that at times seems to buck up against the very foundation of evangelical Christianity. As he explains his own viewpoint, he was honest about the choice that politics gives the individual between “imperfect options.” At the same time, his own coming to Christianity in his formative years led him to identify with so many people who saw the Republican party as unswervingly connected to evangelical Christianity and, therefore, something of which to be suspicious.

Obama’s own faith is presented by Wear as a faith that seeks to “express itself in deeds.” Through President Obama’s words, both in his books as well as interviews and speeches, Wear adamantly defends the former president’s Christian faith. His apologetic for the president can sometimes come across as the wide-eyed wonder and youthful idealism rather than sincere and objective critique, but Wear is honest in his admiration for Obama as well as his criticism of him.

Wear clearly criticizes the former president and his administration when he writes, – “…it should be clear that President Obama and his administration made concrete policy and political decisions that directly fueled partisanship, polarization, and the culture wars.” In his criticism, Wear is explicit as well, not simply lobbing bombs but bringing clear and specific instances when he thought that the former president either missed an opportunity or assuaged to the majority of his supporters.

Even in the midst of talking about the same-sex marriage debate which resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country, Wear’s point has weight when he writes, “What is the value of a legal or political victory to affirm what marriage is if the culture does not embrace that definition? What good is a law on such an issue if it does not reflect Americans’ convictions? You can legislate morality – every law has moral grounds – but what does it mean if that law does not represent a moral consensus?” Whether or not you agree with the legislation or Wear’s take, it’s hard to not take pause to contemplate these words.

Wear’s total experience throughout both the 2008 and 2012 campaigns also gives him a valuable perspective. Specifically as it relates to diversity, Wear writes, “In 2009, our diversity demanded we accept that there will be voices we disagree with in public spaces. In 2013, diversity required us to expel dissent.” Despite his youthfulness and, at times, idealism, Wear is honest and blunt in his true assessment of the political landscape, even in his own party.

The dividing line in our country seems more pronounced than ever, but Wear warns Christians that withdrawal from politics or from political parties is not the answer. He reminds Christians that there have always been those in the Bible who found themselves at odds with prevailing ideological and political systems of their day. That did not give them cause to run and hide but instead to represent and stand above the crowds as an example. Inconsistent protestations don’t do anything but hurt Christians and the Christian witness in the world.

Wear reminds his reader that putting hope in political figures will lead to disappointment. He points the reader to the hope that we find in Jesus Christ. He reminds us that God is at work in all things and that Christian hope can be advanced even through non-Christian sources. He challenges Christians to be involved and work towards those Christian hopes and for the good of all people rather than simply circling up the wagons and waiting for Jesus to return. Isolation and separation from society and politics will not do anything to advance the Kingdom of God.

I was constantly surprised while reading “Reclaiming Hope” that Michael Wear is as young as he is. His insights and challenges were full of wisdom gained in a lifetime of experience accumulated in a short period of time. He is honest and fair and never comes across as pompous or knowing it all. In reading this book, I find myself with a different perspective, having had my eyes (and possibly my heart) opened a little bit more to see political parties and ideology as less “black and white” than I’ve been used to seeing them.

While I’m not sure that this will make an Obama fan of the most furious opponent of the former president, reading this book with an open mind may give a different perspective on a president who was often vilified by those on the political and ideological right. “Reclaiming Hope” was not what I had expected that it would be, but I think that’s a good thing. It was an important read for me and I think it is for anyone who legitimately wants to ask questions about the future of our country, especially those who are evangelical Christians.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Booklook Bloggers. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Give It A Chance

So many things have been swirling around my head over the last week. There have been times I’ve had to simply remove myself from social media and all media outlets because of the things that I was reading and thinking. I’ve seen friends on both sides of the political spectrum crying out. I’ve heard and seen all kinds of different emotions. Fear. Anger. Joy. Relief. And so many more.

There has been a little glimmer of hope as I’ve watched people process through the election and the state of our country. The refreshing part has been watching people working together, encouraging one another, listening to one another, crying with one another, hearing one another’s story. Difficulty and adversity has a way of bringing people together, causing them to see what’s most important. As I’ve watched some of my friends vent and process their emotions, I’ve noticed a change in some of them and those around them, including me. That has been encouraging to me.

While there’s been some encouragement, there have been a lot of troubling things to me as well. The most troubling thing to me has been that people have been wishing that the president elect would fail. Before the inauguration, before he actually takes office, they’re hoping he fails.

Wow!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve thought, “These are my friends?!” Yes, it’s a question and a statement. I’ve sat in stunned disbelief that there is no grace in that wish, the wish for someone to fail. Regardless of how much I disagree with someone, no matter how much I might dislike someone, how gracious is it to wish for their demise and failure?

My biggest thought with some of these friends has been, “I feel bad for their children.” Is this the same kind of attitude they take with their children? Are they wishing for their failures? Or is it just the people with whom they don’t agree, and if it is just those people, what kind of level of maturity are we showing when we wish for the failure of anyone who “wins” when we fail to get our way?

But this is what we’ve come to, a place where we draw lines in the sand, where there is a definite “winner” and a definite “loser” in the struggle. Why can’t we find a middle ground? Why can’t we find and extend grace?

Yes, there is hurt. Yes, there have been horrible things done and said. I understand that, but wishing for the failure of the leader of your country?

After September 11th, living just outside New York City, I watched the City respond. I watched people come together. There was a unity across ideologies, across party lines, across ethnic lines. In those days after the terrorist attacks, we weren’t blacks, white, Asians, gays, straights, Republicans, Democrats, or whatever, we were Americans. There was a coming together that people somehow knew was more important.

I’m not comparing our election to the tragedy and disaster of September 11th, but the response could be similar. Like I said, I have been so proud of so many friends on both sides of the political spectrum who have understood the importance of listening. I’ve done my best to listen and observe, to hear the things that I’ve been missing all along. I’ve tried to put aside my own discomforts and listen to what’s making others uncomfortable. It’s hard, I want to talk far more than I want to listen, but that’s growth.

I’m not sure what the next four years will hold. I’m skeptical. Heck, I was born in Brooklyn and raised in New England, skepticism is part of my DNA. But I also have an otherworldly hope, a hope that isn’t in a president, a government, or a country, but in a King and a Kingdom.

I know that I can’t convince anyone of anything, so this post may be simply a release of hot air to those who disagree with me. But I do think that we all need to ask ourselves some things. Have we ever said something stupid, something that we’ve regretted? Have we ever had viewpoints that changed, morphed, and evolved over time? Have we ever been given a second chance? Have we ever given a second chance to others? If we had failed miserably and acted unkindly in the past, wouldn’t we want someone to give us a chance to show that we could act differently.

No, my confidence in the president elect is not at 100%, but I know that I need to give him a chance. That’s what I would want someone to do for me. Like I read somewhere in the last few days, wishing him to fail is almost like wishing a heart attack on the pilot of the plane in which you are flying. I’ve found myself praying more since last Tuesday, and I will continue to do so. Among my prayers is the prayer that we might find a way forward….together, and that when given a chance, maybe, just maybe, we might find ourselves pleasantly surprised that failure was not on the horizon.

Unreasonable Hope – A Book Review

unreasonable-hopeWhen I picked up “Unreasonable Hope,” I’m not quite sure what I was expecting. As Chad Veach tells the story of his journey with his daughter, Georgia, he pulls the reader into his story. He describes the emotions that he and his wife, Julia, experienced in the anticipation of a baby and the dreams that come for every couple expecting their firstborn child. Veach explains about the disease, lissencephaly, that his daughter has and explains the disease and their family’s journey with it.

It was hard to read at times because I could feel the heavy emotions that this young couple was feeling, which speaks to his ability to describe the situation with such vivid detail, enough to invest the reader into his story. Throughout his explanation, Veach never blames God. He is honest about the struggles but also sees beyond those struggles to what God is able to do through them. He shares about what God has taught he and Julia as well as those around them. He’s honest and realistic about their struggles but he also shares the hope that they have found in and through Jesus Christ.

There were moments in reading “Unreasonable Hope” where I felt like I was reading a Joel Osteen book. Veach is honest about the fact that being a Christian does not insure a pain-free or trouble-free existence when he says, “But just because Jesus is with you doesn’t mean you’re free from trials. Storms will happen when you know and love God.” While he acknowledges that, he still makes it seem as if we should be experiencing blessing and gifts from God in this life, that we should somehow anticipate that God has something more for us in this life.

While I don’t disagree that God wants to bless his children, I think the Veaches own experience is a testimony to the fact that sometimes in life, we don’t have answers that are satisfactory for the troubles that come our way, even as those who trust and follow Jesus. There were moments when it seemed that Veach got this, and it’s evident that he does, considering his circumstances, but the specifics of it weren’t as clear as I think that they could be to prevent someone for having unreasonable expectations of what our life in Christ should be like. He writes, “He’s ready to overflow our boat and give us more than we need.” I just wonder how a Christian living in the Third World might respond to reading that sentence as they are scrambling for their latest meal and watching their children go hungry.

Veach has an engaging writing style and, as I said, he draws the reader in with the honesty of his story. While I admire the honesty and transparency with which he writes, I feel like he misses the boat a little when it comes to explaining that sometimes the hope that we have in Christ won’t be fulfilled until the day when we meet Him face to face.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Thomas Nelson Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

Home – A Book Review

home - fitzpatrickOver the past few years, there has been an overabundance of books and movies published and produced about heaven. If you walk into any Christian book store, you will see the shelves lined with these books and movies. Some of them have even gone on to garner more expansive attention. While I haven’t seen the movies and I’ve only read or perused a handful of the books, I’ve gotten the basic idea of the premise behind them, and that idea is rarely about meeting Jesus face to face. Instead, it seems that these books have focused instead on the fact that a) death isn’t the end and b) we’ll get to see our loved ones in heaven.

 

Those may not be the worst conclusions, but they certainly aren’t the best conclusions either. If heaven is simply about escaping hell and seeing the people we love, I think we’ve missed the point. Couple that with the fact that many of the conclusions in these books are based not upon the Bible but on a person’s own dreams or near-death experiences. There may be a place for fiction and dreaming, but we still need to rely on what God has given us in order to determine, to know what is to come. If our only basis of what we know about heaven comes from these books on movies, we may have the tendency to be driven by an emotionalism rather than something more concrete and reliable.

 

Into this landscape comes Elyse Pitzpatrick’s book “Home.”

 

There is a sense in all of us, writes Fitzpatrick, an unfulfilled desire and unmet need for home that cannot be fulfilled. No matter what we try to do to fill those desires, Fitzpatrick suggests that this desire in us is meant to create in believers a dissatisfaction that can only be filled by our real home, which is not the earth. She writes, “Perhaps one of the reasons why God chooses to leave us in this terribly broken world with its various disappointments is to create in our souls a certain dissatisfaction, an insatiable hunger for home.”

 

As Fitzpatrick weaves her way through “Home,” she continually relies on the Bible and the writings of theologians and others. She continually points back to the Bible to frame what we know and what we can expect. She acknowledges the discomfort of living in a world ravaged by sin but reminds the reader that God’s intention for creation was something so much more than that.

 

Fitzpatrick shares her own experiences as well as the experiences of others. As I read some of the accounts of her friends, my heart ached for them. There is no question that this world is not as it should be. But in the midst of it all, Fitzpatrick points to the hope that we should have as followers of Christ. While things are bleak, disheartening, and somewhat depressing at times, the ache we feel inside is for what is to come. She suggests that the more we let the thought of our true Home slip away, the more difficult it will be for us to hold on to hope.

 

The humility with which Fitzpatrick writes is a winsome quality of this book. She honestly confesses that her life has not been filled with many of the struggles of others. While she hasn’t been without difficulties, she acknowledges that things have been fairly good. She writes with a sense of comfort to point those whose experiences haven’t been quite as joyous and carefree to the hope of which she writes. Even when she’s done, she humbly concludes with these words, “All that we have been through in these pages filled with black lines, all the drawing, erasing, and redrawing I’ve done for you are at best pencil sketches by a woman in a dungeon, trying to sketch a world I’ve never seen, seeking to employ words I’m not skilled enough to arrange, trying to create for you something more than a child’s stick-figure drawing.”

 

For me, “Home” was a refreshing read. It was evident that Fitzpatrick had done her homework in scouring the Bible as well as the writings of those who have studied the idea of heaven in the past. While there were moments when I felt like she was lost in the prose, the material which she was writing is so necessary to remind us all of what is to come.

 

There are much more scholarly works written about heaven, some of which Fitzpatrick makes reference to within her book. “Home” is an easily accessible book that is helpful to point people towards what is to come, not based on emotions, feelings, dreams, and other things, but based on what God has given to us as a revelation of himself and what he is bringing to us. This book is worth the read, especially for those who might be struggling most with finding hope in the midst of the brokenness that they are experiencing in this world.

 

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge from Bethany House Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

A Perfect Storm Moment

Next month, it will be the three year anniversary of my dad’s death. July marks the five year anniversary of my mom’s death. While time has healed, there are still moments when the pain feels fresh like a newly skinned knee.

I’m not sure if it was just the combination of a lot of things or not, but this morning was a tough morning for me. I dragged myself out of bed and ran six miles, feeling as if I had expended all of the energy I had by the time I walked back up to my front door.

When I walked back into the house, it was still quiet. This “spring ahead” thing is tough on kids (and their parents). I wanted nothing more than to just go back to bed, but I went through the motions of my daily routine. After going to the bus stop with my boys, laying in bed with my daughter watching the Disney Channel, and doing my best to muster up enough energy to move ahead with my day, I finally got out the door.

I’ve saved four voicemails in my cell phone. Two of them are from my mom and two of them are from my dad. There are days that I just need to hear their voices. Their statements are comforting to me and hearing the words “see you soon” always both break and warm my heart simultaneously. It was to those voicemails that I went as I drove to Starbucks this morning.

The messages don’t do the same thing to me that they once did when the pain and hurt was really fresh. I think I’ve come to a place where they actually bring me more hope now than they do despair. The inflections of words, the emotion in my parents’ voices, the love that they shared, all of those things are evidenced within just a few sentences left on a voicemail.

The messages were over and I switched back to listening to music in the car. As I pulled into the parking lot of Stabucks, the song “Cinderella” came on. I don’t think that I fully appreciated that song until I had a daughter. We’ve danced to it a time or two, but just like those voicemails, that song has the ability to rip my heart right out of my chest as I imagine my four year old daughter grown up and me walking her down the aisle on her wedding day.

As the song ended, I just sat there in my car. My eyes were dry, but my heart was aching. Within twenty minute period, I had experienced a swath of emotions. Up, down, all around. To top it off, it’s a rainy day and a Monday. Karen Carpenter sang it well, “Rainy days and Mondays always get me down.” I took to social media and proclaimed that while rainy days and Mondays might get you down, what happens when you have rainy day Mondays?

Within a half an hour, I was cranking along. That’s the nature of the beast, the further away from the situation I get, the better my recovery time.

As I sat in Starbucks listening to the clanking of equipment and the banter of the baristas and patrons around me, I couldn’t help but smile. The rainy days always seem to make the sunny days brighter. The chilly days always seem to make the warmth strike me just a little deeper than before. The moments of pain somehow seem to make the moments of joy last that much longer.

Sure, there’s still pain, there’s still grief, and there’s even still the occasional tears, but the hope that I hold onto in those moments will sustain me and carry me on. Rainy days and Mondays might get me down, but they also help me prepare for what’s ahead, and thinking about that, I just can’t help myself from smiling!

Faith and Fear

faith and fearI’ve been going through a particularly stressful situation lately and I’ve felt my blood pressure rising with my anxiety. In the midst of it all, I’ve been intentional about carving out time to seek the wisdom of God and to meditate and pray.

The other day, while I was driving, I remembered a verse that had struck me which I had memorized while our church was going through a study of the book of 1st John in the Bible. The verse is 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” It was as if that verse had just been implanted in my brain and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Within just a few short hours, I encountered two additional references to that very same verse, one in a phone conversation with a friend and church member whose small group had discussed the verse during their study the night before, the other from a friend on social media who mentioned that Bono, the lead singer for the band U2, had quoted it during the band’s concert in Paris the night before.

As I went throughout the day, continuing rolling the words of the verse over in my head, I made it part of my prayer and I eventually encountered it again as my brother-in-law shared it on social media as well.

Now, I have a tendency to be stubborn and sometimes thick headed, but not so much so that I would miss a message that was being given to me over and over again, especially all within the same day. I felt like there was a reason why that verse had come to my mind and that was just confirmed when it was mentioned no less than three more times as I went through the day.

When we come to decisions, situations, or crises in our lives, we have a choice in our decision making. We can either choose to be led by faith or led by fear. That was the truth that seemed to strike me between the eyes as I pondered and meditated on that verse the other day.

As I thought more about it, I thought that the leap from faith to fear doesn’t seem to be so large. Somehow, it seems so much easier for me to make that leap, almost effortless. On the other hand, the leap from fear to faith can sometimes feel like a leap from the earth to the moon, it feels like it’s the longest distance that I’ve ever traversed in my life.

But God…

That’s a phrase that we see in the Bible repeated numerous times, and I think it applies here. We often may find ourselves leaping from faith to fear and needing to find our way back to faith again, but God reminds us that he is love, he is not fear. While there is a way for us to think about God in a fearful way, that is more of a reverential approach rather than a trembling and cowering approach, especially when we’re being obedient to him.

There is no fear in love because perfect love casts our fear. People use fear to punish, to control, to manipulate, and to push. Fear has nothing to do with God and those of us who use fear as a means for getting our way as well as those of us who embrace fear as a way of life need to find ways to make that leap back to faith.

Over and over again, as I’ve been ruminating on this verse, I’ve realized how easily I can fall into the fear-filled trap rather than living in the faith-filled moments. God calls us to live lives full of faith, it’s the essence of who we are as we follow Christ. We are not called to be led by fear.

In the midst of a world that has a lot of scary things, it doesn’t mean that we don’t concern ourselves with those things, it just means that we still trust that our faith isn’t in those things and the people behind those things, our faith is in the One who is the very definition of love, perfect love. We do not fear because HE is with us. We pray, we fight, we move, we stumble, but our faith is not based on any of the things that WE control.

As we journey through a fear-filled world, may we find hope, peace, joy, and perfect love for the journey.

The Shrinking Tomb

Right after my mom died, we all assumed that my dad was going to continue to live on his own. I was still finishing up seminary at the time and flew out to Minnesota just a few days after my mom’s funeral. So, imagine my surprise when midway through my week in St. Paul, I received a phone call from my dad telling me that he was in the hospital. He assured me that everything was okay and that he would be fine, but I should have known better.

Dad had lost a lot in a short time period and it would be difficult for just about anyone to recover from that kind of loss. A career. A home. A wife and partner. The familiar. The convenient. The comfortable.

Dad continued on his own, living in the townhouse that was supposed to have served my parents throughout their retirement for the next four and a half months. Then, well, you know what they say about something hitting the fan?! That Christmas may very well have been the worst Christmas in my forty plus years.

Dad was in the hospital for a few weeks, he recovered enough to leave but not enough to be on his own. We were uncertain what would come next for him. I tried to be as sensitive as possible in the midst of my father’s frailty. He had been pushed into so many things in such a short period of time that I didn’t want to find myself guilty of being one more person pushing him into something that made him uncomfortable or sad. So, we held on to his townhouse, hoping that one day he would be strong enough and well enough to get back there again and live on his own.

That day never came.

When I would go down to visit my dad, we would generally go out to lunch, maybe stop by the cemetery to see my mom’s grave, and then stop by the townhouse. Sitting there in the townhouse at the dining room table, opening up the mail that had come, I think it still gave him a sense of control, a sense of solidarity, and a sense of independence. I’m not exactly sure how it felt for him all of those times, but eventually, it was just me going to the townhouse and to the cemetery.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that I was visiting two tombs. Although the townhouse still contained most of my parents’ belongings, it was empty, cold, and lifeless. Sure, there were memories there, but it was as if time had stopped and every time that I set foot in there, it was as if I was walking into an alternate universe where time was suspended for however long I chose to stay. Just as Edmund, Lucy, Peter, and Susan had set foot into the wardrobe transporting them to Narnia, so the townhouse had a similar effect on me. The difference was that while the Pevensie children were in the wardrobe time was suspended, the townhouse acted as sort of a time vacuum to me. The time that I spent there seemed to pass quickly without me fully realizing it.

Over time, I realized that visiting the townhouse wasn’t too much different than visiting the cemetery. They were both tombs, of a sort. One was warmer, an larger, and better decorated, but they both contained something that was no longer there, except in my mind. In that townhouse I could find myself reliving memories, getting lost in daydreams, and simply remembering what used to be.

We embraced the difficult task of getting rid of everything that we did not want to hold on to, helped (thankfully) by a friend who ran estate sales. In the months before the townhouse finally sold, it felt more and more like a tomb as there was nothing there anymore, no furniture, no pictures, no clothes, no sign of what used to be, just emptiness. We transported the remaining belongings to a storage unit not far from my house after the townhouse sold.

One afternoon, not long after the townhouse sold, I found myself driving to the storage unit. As I opened the door, the remaining belongings still held that smell, you know, the smell of my parents. Not sure I can explain that in a way that would do it justice with words, but it was the same smell that hit me every time that I walked into the townhouse.

I realized in that moment that the tomb had gotten smaller. It had gone from townhouse size to storage unit size. In some ways, it was a fitting metaphor for my grief. Not to say that my sense of loss over my parents felt any smaller, but it seemed that I was better able to handle it and on some level it had somehow shrunk from the size of a townhouse to the size of a storage unit.

In the absence of the townhouse, I’ve not got many reasons to frequent Williamsburg. There are no trips to the townhouse, nor are there any trips to the cemetery. My trips to the storage unit are limited, but I know that one day, in an effort to eliminate expenses, we will need to eliminate that storage unit as well.

The tomb is shrinking.

Entering into this Lenten season, it seemed fitting for me to come to this realization. After all, the culmination of the Lenten season has to do with the discovery of an empty tomb and, beyond that, all of the implications that come with it.

When faced with the emptiness and loss of what was, it’s easy to linger on it, allowing it to diffuse into our souls and somehow convince us that it’s the end. Facing the emptiness of the townhouse and the condensed memories that take up the storage unit, it’s a reminder to me that there is hope beyond tombs, I can picture in my mind that storage unit being empty one day, and I think it will be symbolic to me, in a way, of the hope that remains in the midst of emptiness.

The tomb was empty, the clothes remained, but the body was gone. Jesus was gone. In much the same way, Mom and Dad are gone, the tomb is empty. Sure, there are still earthly shells of what used to be, but the lifelessness and emptiness that seems so palpable point me to a picture of hope, reminding me that death is not the end.

Some people give up things for Lent, they take part in a fasting of sorts to focus them on the meaning of the season. I’ve never been one to do things simply because everybody else does and I don’t think that I will start now. In fact, maybe my visits to the “tomb” might become more frequent in the midst of this Lenten season. Visiting an occupied grave may serve as a fitting reminder to me that there was an empty tomb that was visited many years ago and the implications of its emptiness are as relevant today as they were back then. In addition, the ramifications of that emptiness ring loud and true today and on into eternity, so if that’s what tombs remind me of, bring it on. Nothing like finding a little hope in the midst of emptiness.

The World Is Different

It was more than a year ago that a local husband and wife were out for a morning jog when a car hit and killed the wife. In the aftermath of the accident, the running world rallied around a cause to keep the memory of this young runner, mother, and wife alive with Meg’s miles (or Meg smiles).

The driver of the automobile that hit the woman was recently sentenced to four years in prison. The surviving husband, a local police officer, was interviewed after the verdict and he shared what his family has been going through in the year since they lost their wife and mother. His children haven’t been able to sleep and his 8 year old, in what he called a true moment, told his father that the reason that he hadn’t been able to sleep since he lost his mother was because, “the world is different.”

When I first read the article about the interview with Scott Menzies, that phrase haunted me. I turned it over and over in my head, thinking about what it meant and how true that it was….and is. I thought about the end of The Lord of the Rings when Frodo and his friends are sitting around a table in their local pub, hearing the familiar sounds that don’t feel so familiar anymore. They look at each other with acknowledging looks that tell each other that they understood what the others were thinking. The world was different.

When things change, there’s usually no way to get them to go back the way that they once were. I’m sure that’s the way that Scott Menzies and his family have felt. How painful for his three young children to have to come to that realization that the world is different and that it can never go back to what it once was for them.

I can understand a little of what they are feeling with the loss of my own parents. The world is different now, things have changed. Although I was much older when I lost my parents and the circumstances by which they died were not nearly as tragic as the Menzies family, for anyone who loses someone, there is a realization that they all must come to in facing the new world, in facing the fact that things are different and will never be like they once were….

Well, not on this side of eternity, at least.

Tolkien uses the phrase, “everything sad is coming untrue” to describe the vanquishing of evil. It’s a phrase that I replay in my mind over and over again, thinking about what is to come when I’ve found myself focusing far too much on what’s been lost.

The world is different now.

Every time that I drive by the memorial that has been set up at the site where Meg Menzies was killed, I feel as if I am on sacred ground. I say a prayer for Scott Menzies and his family. I don’t pray for the driver of the vehicle like I should, but that’s probably something that I need to start doing as well. His family has experienced a different world as well, nothing is the same for them either, and there is nothing that they can do to return things to the way that they once were.

The world is different, but different isn’t always bad, especially when there is hope beyond that difference. We can’t see things in full, but only in part. I equate it to trying to do a puzzle without the cover, we don’t really know what it is that we are building, we haven’t been given the whole picture, but do we trust that there is One who sees things in full, who knows all things, who is sovereign over it all?

Yes, the world is different now and it’s not always easy to take. Things will happen that will challenge our thinking that will disrupt the normality, simplicity, and comfort of our lives. Where do we find hope? It’s a question that I constantly return to and one that I think that we all ultimately need to answer.

Just for context’s sake, here is my original post about the tragedy that took place last January: http://wp.me/p3tHzf-cn

Lessons

Yesterday was a very long day for me. I preached at our morning worship gathering, had a rehearsal for Christmas Eve right after that, and then I hopped in my car and drove up to Baltimore for a memorial service for my great aunt. Since my wife and I didn’t think the kids would handle the 5 hours in the car very well, I took the trip solo.

Driving up 95, I had a lot of time for reflection. Over these last few years, I think I’ve had plenty of time for reflection. To be honest, I was kind of feeling numb. I’m growing weary of attending funerals and memorial services for people I care about. Not sure what the magic number is that you hit, but I think I’ve finally crossed the threshold.

I reflected on my aunt and the times spent with her. For most of the time that I remember, she and my uncle lived in Carlisle, Massachusetts, but there was a time when they lived in Blandford, MA in the western part of the state. I remembered going up to stay with them a few times after I got out of college to go skiing. Whether it was just me or whether I brought a bunch of friends, my aunt and uncle opened their home willingly, cooking us breakfast, providing us with a place to sleep, and just showing us all around hospitality.

I walked into the community center where the service was being held, I found myself acting very introverted. I knew no one in this unfamiliar place. I looked around and tried to take in all that I saw. Eventually, I was saved because my uncle and cousin showed up. At the same time, my aunt and uncle from Williamsburg showed up who have been such an incredible support to me and my brother over the last few years.

As I listened to my cousin, his wife, and my uncle share about my aunt, I was struck by their stories. I watched the slideshow of pictures of my aunt and realized that, while I didn’t know her as well as they did, I did know her fairly well. The pictures that they painted with their words were of a gracious, humble, sweet, loving, gentle, and hospitable woman. It had been a long time since I had spent time with her and my uncle. Over the last few years, dementia had overtaken her and it was painful to hear my cousin talk about what had become of her. Yet all the time, my uncle had stood by her side, upholding his marriage vows, and loving her with a Christ-like love. What a testimony.

As I sat there, a thought popped into my head. For those of us with families whom we love, it seems that God gives us family to give us a taste of heaven. My mind was filled with memories of gatherings when we enjoyed one another’s company and I couldn’t help but wonder about the glorious reunion of all of those we have loved when we are finally gathered together without pain, tears, or death.

I did the obligatory mingling at the reception after the service, but my head was somewhere else. When I finally left, I drove home feeling numb. I was glad to have shed some tears at the service. It had been such a long time since I had cried that I was beginning to wonder whether or not I was even capable any longer. To be honest, I think losing Mom took most of the tears out of me and I haven’t had a whole lot of them since.

Ultimately, I think the place I finally landed was a place of gratitude. I found myself grateful for the family that God has blessed me with. I found myself grateful for the family that I married into as well. Family has always been important to me, but I still need reminders, especially on those occasions when you face challenges. I have a friend who says that friends are the family that you can choose, and I completely agree, but it’s really nice when you have family that you would have chosen to have as friends as well.

When it all came down, I smiled to myself as I thought about my aunt and Mom and Dad hanging out together. As my cousin reminded us during the service, hope that is seen is no hope at all, as the Apostle Paul said. I appreciated his candidness as he echoed Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 about faith, hope, and love. He said he didn’t have a great faith (which was admirable for me coming from another pastor) and that he didn’t love very well either, but he could hope very well. It’s into hopeless situations that hope comes. A reminder of this Advent season and a reminder, even more so, of the coming arrival of Jesus again some day.

Until that day, I like my cousin will hope too!