Saturday, February 14, 2015

Trying to See Heaven

A couple of Saturdays ago I had the privilege of spending the morning hours with some folks from our church. Robbie, a developmentally disabled man began to sing Christmas carols as we removed the Christmas decorations. And while it was a bit unusual, revisiting the messages of Hope and Peace in the birth of The King was something we all ought to do a little more often. He had an extensive repertoire of carols and was faultless in  their lyrics, singing out loud and strong. Sometimes I have a difficult time understanding Robbie when he speaks, but he must be terribly accustomed to it -- the minute he senses your confusion, he will spell the word out for clarification. He is in fact, an excellent reader. As we moved into the sanctuary to work, Robbie drew my attention to one of the stained glass windows. "Why did John die?" he asked. The glass, which depicted a scene from the Bible had nothing to do with John or John the Baptist, and for a split second I was befuddled. But just as I opened my mouth to question the origin of his thoughts, I saw the words: "In Memory of John ______." Robbie had already read the text, derived from it that John was no longer with us, and wondered about the cause, before I'd ever even noticed. People like Robbie tend to have such a unique way of seeing things: adult topics as viewed through the eyes of a child. It shouldn't, but it always surprise me. Robbie had spent a good portion of the morning asking questions:

"When is the trip to Linvilla Orchards?"

"When is the family reunion?"

"Are there beds in heaven?"

"Does heaven have jobs available?"

He conversed easily with anyone he could engage. Somewhere along the line his questions got me to thinking. About trips for the Youth this summer. And reunions where past members and friends of the church could enjoy a little agape and hospitality -- the delicious kind -- some Sunday morning. But most of all, about heaven. Robbie had inspired me, and I tried to see things his way. And while it was a less than theological approach I don't think I would be wrong in saying that Heaven will be far more breathtaking and sensational than anything we could imagine. Chiefly because God is there, of course, but when you consider the wonderful things He has gifted us with here on Earth, for it to be Heaven it has got to be even better!

For instance, one of my favorite things is afternoon just as Spring begins to break; lying in a field, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face with the cool of the ground on my back, staring up at the passing clouds, and taking in the sweet smell of fresh green grass coupled with the earthy fragrance of rich, dark topsoil. Or the sunrise in winter -- it's always better in winter -- after a cold, dark night; watching the ice crystals in the atmosphere cast what seem to be hundreds of shades of purples and yellows, oranges and reds across the sprawling sky; clouds rippling as they reflect the colors of the dawning day. Or later that same day: the clear blue sky holding up a big warm sun as chilly breezes move through my hair, nipping my ears, but the sun warms my face and my soul. Or the Autumnal aromas of apples and spices, the sound of leaves rustling in the trees or crunching in my hands; putting on a favorite sweater for the first time since Winter; rolling hill after rolling hill covered with brilliant orange, lustrous gold, and fiery red. Or the simple, crazy laughter of a child; or watching them dance. Or stepping out onto the back steps of Home with a giant mug of freshly brewed coffee and watching stars fall from the sky. Or finding that tiny spot at the top of my husband's neck, just beneath his jawbone which somehow seems to invite my face and snuggles it perfectly; or slipping my fingers between his as we walk alone. A library book. A crossword puzzle. My very own box of dark chocolates. Spending Saturday morning hanging out on Earth with people I will celebrate with later.

And somehow, Heaven will be better than all of this.

For a more theological discussion, see Randy Alcorn's website: , or read his book, Heaven.

Friday, February 13, 2015


I thoroughly agree with this hashtag while at the same time, disliking it immensely -- not because I have some sort of respect for cancer, but because I have some respect for myself. The whole "sucks thing," I know has become part of daily vernacular, even for many faithful Christians. It has become nothing more than a strong version of "stinks." However, I still don't like its origins and/ or its implied meaning. So, allow me to propose #cancerisevil, or #ihatecancer, even #cancerneedstobeeradicated. Lengthy, I know, but A) it allows me to express my point without using words I wouldn't want your five year old to repeat, and B) it goes a step further toward saying it is not something we just need to face, something we need to deal with, but something very real that we need to take action against. And I say all of this NOT for myself. Let's face it, when it comes to cancers, I have one of the most treatable; based on my age, affected area and staging, the survival rate is just shy of 100%. You can't even say that about taking a cruise anymore. Outside of the emotional bummer of having my release from oncological care rescinded based on "just one more test" (if the oncologist ever says that DO NOT believe him), everything else is simply medicine. Like taking an antibiotic or setting a broken leg. Sure, no one wants to do it, but it makes you better, so you do.

The reason I am angry with cancer is because of what it has taught me. Things I would never choose to see or never wish to know. I think we all search for knowledge about something; I don't think anyone is perfectly blissful in complete ignorance. We all want to know what's behind curtain #1, or what would my life had been like if I had..., or how does the "other half" live. But when I see someone, someone really young, or really old afflicted by cancer, a lot of questions begin to gnaw at me. Sadly, I got some answers, and I hate what I've learned.

The first time I came face to face with the possibility of cancer, I sat in an all-to-crowded, very warm waiting room with a veritable Heinz variety of folks. An older woman struck me as sort of sad; she was obviously a repeat customer. But who doesn't expect this to be the face of cancer? She appeared to be in her sixties, thin and frail and pale, a scarf wound tightly around her head. I arrogantly, expectantly closed my hand around the clean bill of health the oncologist obligingly dropped into it, and stepped out the door and back into my life. Not until I returned for my routine check did I see the true character of cancer for what it is. As my tears mingled with the freezing rain falling hard outside the oncologist's office, I'd never felt so alone or so betrayed. Long story short, it was a blip, a glitch, and that clean bill of health proved to be stronger than the threat of anything more. But I learned that cancer is NOT -- despite what they tell you -- an exact science. That it is a liar, a conniving, backstabbing, insidious enemy straight from the pit of Hell. That it can take a warm, sunny day and make it cold and bleak within minutes.

Just a few years later, when that clean bill of health had lost its place of reverence and fallen in cue and value somewhere behind too much to do and too many bills to pay, cancer came calling again. This time it was real, and it was a complete surprise. After surgery for a completely unrelated issue, I found myself in a cancer treatment center asking a question which I'd prefaced, "Now, you say that I had cancer--"

"I don't say it, you did have cancer." SLAP! Cancer didn't care about my denial and, quite frankly, neither did my doctor (thank God!). But on that visit, cancer showed me just how ugly and consuming it can be. Not only did it not care what I wanted to think, it didn't care who it hurt -- and trust me, it hurts more than the physical bodies it chooses to commandeer. As I stood waiting to leave, a man clearly not given to blubbering or sharing personal details was confiding to the receptionist about the deteriorating condition of his wife. He seemed to be searching not only for comfort, but for some sort of reason or order, some way to make sense of it all. But I learned that cancer needs no reason; that it disavows any purposes but its own and defies order. That cancer assaults anyone who even remotely cares for those with it. That it lies in wait and wraps itself in deception, biding its time for likely and unlikely host alike, likely and unlikely moment alike. That, like the antagonist of a psychological thriller, it manipulates the minds and health of those nearby, delighting to steal any hope or hope of hope it can, wreaking further havoc on its target.

Months later when the doctor and I agreed we'd retest, looking for some different result, I was rendered with another truth about cancer: it will not go away on its own, and it will wait as long as need be. This time I wound up in a place called "Nuclear Medicine." Being a child of the seventies, it conjured up all sorts of images of Three Mile Island, cloak and dagger-type espionage, sinister cover-ups, and Karen Silkwood receiving the news "Thelma is cooked!" In reality, it was a place no child should ever have to hear of much less be. As I stood at the Registration Desk one morning I noticed a hospital gurney down the hall. Reminiscent of the ubiquitous ad for hospitals everywhere, a child lay on the gurney, sunlight pouring through doors nearby and casting itself across her face; her mother and a nurse stood at her side, concern bleeding through the upturned corners of their mouths. As I stood there, appreciating this vignette come to life and noticing especially the little girl's full, beautiful, wavy brown locks, it was then the tumblers dropped into place; I realized that, unlike the ad, this was very real. I immediately knew that cancer was hateful. That this little child knew terms and procedures no child should ever have to know. That this child was out of place, and that she was not in class or sitting at lunch with her friends or out playing in the snow. That cancer had inserted itself in her life like some vulgar unchecked pedophile at a child's birthday party. That her family and her friends knew what she knew. That by affecting one little girl an entire segment of society could be changed forever. That cancer steals your "normal" and the normal of everyone else around you.

Now, as a Christian, I have faith that my God is bigger, that my God is sovereign, and my God is love. But I can see the brokenness of people and the world in which we live -- lasting consequences of self-worship. Though I can pray and find comfort, though I can read God's Word and find hope (He does win, by the way), I am not absolved of compassion or devoid of hating all that is wrong with this world. On the contrary, it is my faith which makes me more compassionate, and makes me to hate evil even more. And so it is in this spirit that I write:


Sunday, February 8, 2015

A Tale of Two Churches (Part Two of Two)

As I looked around the faithful few gathered in the sanctuary, it became more than apparent this body was -- even within itself -- rife with difference: an elderly hand affixed to the arm of youth, pale-skinned feet under darkly shaded legs, eyes touched by poverty and sickness settled within a face radiating sheer joy, health and prosperity. Some worshipped with arms outstretched. At the rear of the sanctuary, some danced with tambourines and flags. Some knelt in prayer as a child beside his own bed. Others cried out in a cacophony of praise and joy, as if they had come face to face with The Holy One Himself. One man -- the man who had first introduced me to this group -- reclined in the pew, his body wracked with the pain I knew afflicted him every hour of the day. Yet, here he was. The lady who had most recently been sent to call us to this place, stood "singing" in sign language to no one in particular, but feeling the emotion of the words she saw projected on an old overhead, allowed them to flow to her hands. The worship band consisted of three, a stark contrast to the first church whose "guitar section" alone outnumbered this group. Offering was taken by children who rushed forward, eager to participate in the celebration of giving. Prayer was not the solemn event we witnessed in the other assembly, but a somewhat noisy gathering of hearts and minds, verbally expressing agreement with echoes and groans. A time of greeting followed: the opportunity to introduce ourselves and to meet those around us. We moved toward folks, anticipating handshakes and pleasantries; what we received were outstretched arms, warm embraces, genuine hospitality, and a Christian fellowship beyond our past experience or current expectations. This body of diversity and apparent deficit was completely unified at its core, and stood strong on a foundation much more than adequate, a Foundation -- with a capital "F" -- that cannot be quantified in earthly terms. Put this same group of people together without the Power that most obviously resided among them, and you would find infighting and discord, imbalance and bitterness that can be traced back for generations. The pastor humbly took his place at the front of the church, calling his friends and pupils to order -- experience some futility at first, but seeing one by one, this somewhat rowdy but happily loving family come to order. The message began. Practical, relevant, and every word straight from The Book which he required us to open as he began: The Holy Bible which he obviously revered but even more so, loved. And that, Dear Reader is sadly where our tale meets its most dramatic divergence.
The tale of the first church is one of prosperity and popularity. A church with almost unlimited resources at its disposal. A church heavy with talent and capital, brimming with tradition and education, but void of purpose. A church which has managed to keep the commonality of this world beyond its doors, and cull its own homogeneous, oblivious herd, unwise to the insidious diversions of a more tolerant and seeker-friendly theology. A church afraid of public opinion and striving for political correctness, offering programs and a place of importance for every faction, but offering them little else of any genuine value. How can a church which has worked so hard to ignore the offal outside its very steps have so much of the world and its scraps within its perimeter? On the other hand, how can a church -- our second church -- which throws open its doors to the world, to poverty and sickness, to persecution and pain, to any color or creed, to any age or address have so little worldliness within its loving arms? Truth, my friend, Truth. That is, the Truth of the Gospel of Jesus. The only Truth on which to build a church, a family, a life. To preach any other gospel is to preach a lie. You can preach hospitality, tolerance, kindness, or self-respect, but to preach anything outside the parameters of the True Gospel is to preach relativism and an ideal open to individual interpretation -- an ideal that must be refashioned and repackaged depending on societal changes or the waning and waxing of its appeal.
The first church in our tale, so aesthetically appealing has forgone the inerrancy and immutability of the Gospel and its God -- has exchanged the truth for a lie, in order that it might become more than it is and a Holy God less. The second church, the church (or one very similar) which we now, praise God, call our home has stood on the Word of Truth no matter its popular appeal, no matter whom it may offend. The second church is trusting that God doesn't need a bunch of broken individuals -- whitewashed or otherwise -- to make Him look good, that God grants said individuals the privilege and the responsibility of doing His work and bringing to others the tale of His love if we simply trust in Him.