Tag Archives: death

Help! My Church is Closing!

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I recently learned that my church was going to close. Well, my church campus, anyway—one of three campuses the church has around the city.

It doesn’t look much like a church in the traditional sense. We meet at a middle school: the main service gathers in the Multi-Purpose Room, while the youth and children fan out to classrooms and the library around the campus. But for many, this middle school is the only church they have ever known, and they have come here at 10:00am every Sunday morning over the past four years. For these, it might as well be the whole church that’s closing.

Others moved from the main campus, which has met for more than ten years at a high school eighteen miles away. They made that move for a variety of reasons: to be part of something new, to support the leaders of this new work, or simply to attend church closer to home.

Whatever brought each person to this location, each will feel its closure uniquely; each will navigate the change in his or her own way. Are there right and wrong ways to navigate? Probably. More helpful, though, would be to speak of healthy and unhealthy ways. I want to help us navigate healthily.

Sit on the ash heap
It begins with recognizing this for what it is: Change, but not only change. It is a loss—a death in some respects—and loss and death are traumatic events. They are to be grieved and mourned.

In the Bible’s epic story of suffering, a righteous man named Job loses everything of value to him in a matter of hours. His tremendous wealth—crops, flocks, herds, and servants—is wiped out or stolen by marauding bandits; and all his children—seven sons and three daughters—perish in a great storm that collapses the house they were celebrating in. But that’s not all: soon he is afflicted with “loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head;” they are so devastating that his friends scarcely recognize the man. Even his wife, reeling from her own loss, tells Job to “curse God and die.”

In his great pain and grief, Job—who had been honored as one of the greatest in the city—goes out of the city to sit on the ash heap, where garbage and dung were burned. On the ash heap he nursed his wounds; on the ash heap, he cried out to God and tried his own heart.

Of course, there is no ash heap for us to sit in today. (I suppose you could trek out to the local dump!) Still, we need to get alone, reflect on the loss, and name the hurt, as one of our pastors said. What am I feeling – anger? hurt? betrayal? sadness? shame? On the ash heap, journal in hand, we can silently name these emotions. We can cry out to God knowing, from Job’s experience, that God can handle all that we feel and say.

Sit with friends
Learning of Job’s great loss, several friends came to sit with him. I love how the English Standard Version says it: “They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him” (Job 2:11, emphasis added). Those are friends we need: people who are aware enough to recognize our hurt and care enough to sit with us – even going so far as to make an appointment together to come together. One of my mentors called these our “3AM friends”: the ones we can call at three o’clock in the morning and know they will pick up the phone!

Sitting in silence. Job’s friends sat with him in silence for seven days and nights. They just sat. No words. Just silence. Henri J.M. Nouwen describes this type of friend:

The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares.1

Nouwen emphasizes that care must precede cure. Indeed, “cure [without care] can often become offending instead of liberating.” And silence is often best—and usually the first—evidence of care.

Sitting with questions. Here we need to move away from Job’s friends, for after a week, the silence and stench must have gotten the better of them; when they opened their mouths, little grace came forth. Friends who care will ask more than state. It’s not as easy as it sounds; for even questions can condemn, and tone of voice can betray an inner judgment.

(Want to try an experiment? Read the following question out loud four times, emphasizing a different word each time: What are you thinking? Read it once more, emphasizing both the first and last words. Do you notice any difference?)

Good questions are hard work. They probe beneath the surface, get beyond circumstances, express concern. What are you feeling? is often better than What are you thinking?, for loss and hurt are, by definition, feelings. But we also need help thinking right, for great grief can bring about a spiritual vertigo in which up seems down and right seems left. Yet thinking and feeling cannot be divorced: we can think all the right things, but still feel completely out of sorts. We can feel alone in the midst of the most loving community; feel lost while staring at a map; feel numb even as our heart experiences the deepest of pain.

Sitting again with silence. Nor are answers critical, at least in the moment. Sometimes the best question comes at a time when the heart (or the head) cannot provide an answer; but the question nonetheless sits and simmers, waiting for the best time to be answered.

Someone asked our pastor’s wife how she was doing with the decision to close the campus that had long been part of her and her husband’s dream for the church. When the question was asked, she was in the midst of caring for others’ hurts; but later, in the quiet of her own thoughts, she realized that she, too, was hurting – that she, too, needed to sit on the ash heap.

Face God and worship him
For 37 chapters, God is silent in the face of Job’s complaints and his friends’ condemnation. When he finally speaks, we hear little gentleness in his voice. He answers none of Job’s plaintive questions. But he also does not chastise Job for asking. He simply and convincingly emphasizes the vast difference between himself, the Almighty Creator God, and Job, the created. Deeply humbled, Job confesses:

My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.

Job got his wish: an audience with God. But it wasn’t what he expected. Indeed, it was so much more: he gained a new understanding of God; he saw God anew. And in the seeing, he was brought back to the place he’d started: to worship (see Job 1:20).

In my own seasons of loss, I have moved away from the self-pitying question, Why? and sought new revelation of who God is. It’s not easy, and I don’t make the shift easily or consistently. But it’s much more satisfying to look for God in my hurt than to wait in vain for the because that I may not like. And God is so big, so multi-faceted, that there is always a side to him I haven’t yet seen. Indeed, Jesus suggests that knowing God will take an eternity (see John 17:3).

Back to church
Yesterday was our last Sunday at the middle school. It was a time of tears and celebration, of remembering and looking forward. We recognized, thanked, and applauded the dozens of men, women, and children whose labors made “church happen” for the past 200-plus Sundays. We thanked—and were thanked by—the school staff whose facilities we borrowed and cared for. Then we folded the chairs, packed up the room dividers and sound equipment, and loaded the trucks one last time. And then we ate pizza and tacos together.

Next week will be different. Some will go back to the high school campus, but not at 10:00am. Some will visit other churches, wondering if they will find a community anything like what they’ve had these past few years. Others will waken to a hole, a vacant space they’re not quite sure how to fill.

Each heart will be smudged with just a bit of ashes. But ashes can be good fertilizer. Where death and burial are, Jesus offers resurrection.

1 from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Ave Maria Press, 1974. 38.

Get Out of the Tar Pits

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USA_tar_bubble_la_brea_CAIn the heart of Los Angeles, California, in the shadow of towering skyscrapers and next to the very 21st-century Museum of Art, a geologic phenomenon bubbles up from deep beneath the surface of the earth: black asphalt. Trapped in the asphalt are thousands of years worth of fossils: bison, wolves, mammoths, and sloths; spiders, insects, and birds; sticks, leaves, and grasses.

Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and the George C. Page Museum are treated not only to well-preserved skeletons and archaeologists at work on active digs, but also to the pungent aroma of the tar that seeps up in the middle of the otherwise-green lawns of the surrounding park. It is a sticky and stinky museum!

The tar pits that so easily trapped unsuspecting animals offered a poignant metaphor recently as I prepared to preach on Colossians 3. In this compelling passage, the apostle Paul urges his readers—already convinced of their salvation through Jesus—to live in light of that salvation. Look up!, he says. Keep your hearts, eyes, and minds fixed on Christ.

But then he adds these words of warning: “Put to death whatever is earthly in you….”

Paul knows we can’t keep our eyes on Jesus when our noses are filled with the stench of death – when we’re walking through the tar pits.

What are some of the tar pits that entrap us? “Sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. … Anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language [and lying].” It’s a comprehensive list, but by no means exhaustive.

When I was in training in the Air Force, i had a roommate who used to read two things every night before bed: Playboy and a Bible – in that order, at first. But as the weeks of training went on, the order switched. By the end of our two months, the Bible no longer sat on his nightstand but was tucked away in a drawer; only the magazine remained.

As my roommate learned, it’s hard to stay focused on life when you’re walking in a graveyard; it’s hard to keep your eyes up on heavenly things when you’re constantly looking down at what’s “earthly.”

You died with Christ, Paul says, but you’ve also been raised with Him. So put to death what belongs to death, and live a life of life.

 

What about you? Have you been raised with Christ? Then what do you need to put to death so that you can live with your eyes up, on Christ?

Keep your head up!

On Life and Death

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Morgan on Walden Pond

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. – Henry David Thoreau

I found myself these past two weeks reflecting more than usual on life and death. First, because my father—three months shy of his 80th birthday—was having one of those surgeries that is far more involved than the ninety minute time frame would suggest; a surgery that has become almost routine (more than a hundred performed each year in this hospital alone) but could go mortally wrong in an instant; a surgery that is merely a precursor to another, which is at the same time far more complex and far less risky. At least, that’s my non-medical perception.

But my reflection has also been inspired by my son, who turned 21 last week—an age at which he may now do almost anything legal other than rent a car from a major agency. He’s also had his run-ins with death, beginning in the first moments of his life when his bluing skin and an infant oxygen tent made me eternally grateful for the calm confidence of the delivery-room nurses. Two-thirds of his life later, he spent two weeks in the hospital for an appendectomy that in many cases would be an outpatient procedure; we, on the other hand, were told not less than five times in three days, “this is serious; he could die.”

And here I am, gratefully positioned between a father and a son who both have taunted death time and again—my dad, until last year, on snow skis at 12,000′; my son on the rugby pitch for a couple years and now on boulders and climbing walls wherever he can find them.

Facing death, I’ve found—even as but a slim possibility—is made easier when life has been fully lived. That’s what took Thoreau to his cabin on Walden Pond. It’s why it tends to be easier (though not easy) to say goodbye to an aged parent than to a child, or a young mother.

And we can face death without fear when we have the confidence of our destination. Paul described it with the words, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Jesus comforted Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Of Canes and Cancers

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Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting the late Dr. Vernon Grounds, then Chancellor Emeritus of Denver Seminary. I never knew him well; my introduction came while the then-80-year-old theologian and scholar was in the middle of making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! But the few things I learned about him told me he was a very interesting man whom it would have been fun to know. For all his learning and influence in the world of today’s Christian leaders, my own takeaway from Dr. Grounds has nothing to do with theology. Instead, it is all about canes.

When I met with the Chancellor in his office, it wasn’t his personal library of some 25,00 volumes that caught my attention, but the dozens of canes from around the world hanging on his walls. Intrigued by this unique collection, I asked Dr. Grounds about it. Although I don’t recall the exact story, it began with one walking stick picked up as a souvenir during a trip. After that humble beginning, friends and co-workers began returning from their own travel adventures with a cane or walking stick to add to Dr. Grounds’ growing collection. Eventually the canes outgrew the stand by his office door and were hung on the wall. As I picture the scene in my mind, the collection adorned the upper third of the high-ceilinged office wall behind his desk.

I have been a collector since I was a child; in less-gracious times, my mother called me a packrat, but I prefer how Gallup’s Strengths Finder assessment describes it: I have the signature theme of Input. On my family’s first ski trip to Austria when I was fourteen—just a few months after we had moved to Germany—I bought my first cane, intended to display small souvenir shields from the places I would visit during our time in Europe. I picked up a dozen or so of the shields over the next few years living in Germany and later in England, and continued to collect them after returning to the the U.S. Today that cane is covered with reminders from Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and Wales; as well as California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. As it filled, I began to add not more shields, but more canes.

I bought my second walking stick—a beautifully and intricately carved piece of mahogany (I think) inlaid with copper—when I went to Ethiopia for the first time. When I went into a shop and told the shopkeeper what I was looking for, he joked that “walking sticks are for old men going to church!” In the post-9/11 world I was not allowed to carry the cane home on the plane with me, so it joined the other luggage in the vast underbelly of the aircraft…where some of the carving broke.

My next cane was from my parents’ trip to North Africa, then I bought one in Liberia, then a long hiatus before I found one that may prove to have more significance than any other. The irony is that it was purchased not on some adventurous trip to a distant country, but in a souvenir shop at, of all places, Disneyland! But the significance of that particular outing was great.

In late summer 2013, my wife’s younger sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her battle has been long and hard. Days of tremendous struggle have been followed by reports of miraculous progress…only to be followed again by the cloud of a tumor that continued to spread in spite of every possible form of treatment. In late March, 2015, we learned that the treatments were not working and there was no other viable options. The news ripped into our family’s hearts. For me, it brought back too-vivid memories from decades earlier, when my brother’s battle with cancer reached a similar point.

Exhausted by the nearly two year fight to save her life for her childrens’ sake, my sister-in-law decided that the battle now was to live—really live—with her children as best she could, while she could. And so the next day (35 years to the day after my brother’s battle ended), the whole family—three sisters, their husbands, and seven kids—went to Disneyland! While the kids rode as many rides as they could, the adults spent as much time talking as possible, laughing at times, crying at times. And as we walked mindlessly through one of the many gift shops I saw it: a cane, nicely carved and beautifully painted. I picked it up to look closer and was surprised to find a label proclaiming that it was hand-carved in Africa. Maybe I just want to believe that and maybe it really was made there; in either case, the design and the price were both right, and now I have in my collection a walking stick that will forever be a reminder of my dear sister-in-law, her love for her husband and kids, and their love for the Magic Kingdom.

Jeaneen Blackinton Davis died peacefully on April 27, 2015, slipping from her cancer-stricken body into the eternally-healing arms of her savior, Jesus.

Death Is Dead

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jesus statue kneeling

Though death is dead
        to death he wages war
Each death a vict'ry
        in this lovers' quarrel
'tween sin and death—
        two partners in the fight
to steal mens' lives
        and lay them in the grave
 
Yes death is dead
       but still death carries pain
As one much-loved
       slips out beyond our grasp
And leaves a hole
       that never shall be filled
Though life and time
       for us yet linger on
 
Yes death is dead
        and sin's defeated, too
That much made known
        one Resurrection Day
When One who died
        for sin lay buried in the ground
And three days on
        no longer to be found
 
Yes death is dead
       and life is sweeter far
When lived with hope
       of life beyond the grave
A life for Him 
       who buried death itself
To give us life
       eternally with Him


[Written in honor of my sister-in-law, Jeaneen Blackinton Davis, as she fought a brain tumor that finally stole her life on April 27, 2015.]