“Open the Universe!”

CC BY-ND, rmatthendrick, Flickr

CC BY-ND, rmatthendrick, Flickr

Okay, let’s think outside the box. 

Evil has recently been vanquished and the redeemed now live on New Earth where all is perfect and Jesus is King. Many customs and things still resemble the previous world, although spectacularly enhanced now. Pastime and sports, for example, still exist and so does most other recreation, including a truly virtual telecasting experience.

The biggest draw across the global kingdom now is an ongoing contest called “Open the Universe!” initiating Jesus’s long-awaited expansion of the human race to other planets throughout the cosmos. But who will govern the first new world?

Thus, Jesus has handpicked two teams of the faithful to compete and showcase their glorious skills and abilities. The task: build a city. Each team travels to a designated location on New Earth, constructs, and manages a city of their own, engaging the help and talents of the chosen denizens who will inhabit that domain.

In the end, Jesus will award his first regency to the team that has best organized, designed, erected, and governed its city. There are no losers; the second team will gain regency of the next expansion.

The people of New Earth are riveted by the giftedness of the participants, for each person presents facets of the Sovereign One, as they are called, only that individual can express. In fact, the hosts in Heaven watch with excitement, too.

Here are the first teams:

TEAM LION

Captain: David
Team:  Moses, John, Ezekiel, Apollo, Paul, Deborah, Solomon, Titus, Stephen, Silas, Noah, Elijah, Hezekiah, Ezra

TEAM LAMB

Captain: Joseph
Team: Abraham, Peter, Nehemiah, Josiah, Daniel, Esther, Joshua, Barnabas, Elisha, Luke, Samson, Timothy, Philip the Evangelist, John the Baptist

Cities on New Earth are designed around themes that are strongly incorporated in the built environment. The theme Jesus desires for these new cities is “Human Wonder in Eternal Triumph.” Use of the theme also factors in team selection.

Based on what you know of these people’s lives, particularly their strengths and abilities—projected in a perfect reality—which team do you think would be awarded the first regency? Why?

  • How do you interpret the city theme? 
  • How might each team incorporate the theme into its design?

Please comment and be imaginative!

New Strength is Coming!

CC BY-NC, theothernate, Flickr

CC BY-NC, theothernate, Flickr

Isaiah begins his 40th chapter with prophetic words of comfort detailing the deliverance of God’s people from impending captivity. “The Sovereign Lord is coming in power,” he says; then he transitions into a marvelous exposition on God’s omnipotence.

Starting with nature, he compares the greatness of God and the weakness of humans—“Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?” (v. 12, NLT). “Has the Lord ever needed anyone’s advice?” (v. 14).

The nations are nothing to God, for he can lift the earth like a grain of sand. His worth is incalculable: “All the wood in Lebanon’s forests and all Lebanon’s animals would not be enough to make a burnt offering worthy of our God” (v. 16).

Idols are laughable and only speak to the foolishness of human hearts—“at least choose wood that won’t decay and a skilled craftsman to carve an image that won’t fall down!” (v. 20).

For the Lord sits atop the earth as upon a throne, the King of every king.

A Sobering Indictment

After this illustrious oration, Isaiah directs a pointed question to God’s people: “O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles? O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights?”

It is the prophet bringing correction: “You’ve stood in awe of this boundless God, but you have not understood him.”

Do we not act the same way when our cares have us submitted and down for the count? We feel the Lord doesn’t see. In our dark moments we miss God’s intentions with our trials and sometimes forget that he is for us. But he never forgets us.

Strength to Run

What comes next is truly grand:

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, and to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall, but those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (vs. 28-40, NKJV).

Isn’t this moving?

We get excited about the “they that wait” part. But the really exciting truth is why those who wait renew their strength—ever stop to consider that? Is it merely because they…wait? We find it at the start of the passage: “Did you not hear or know that the Lord doesn’t faint or get weary?” When I finally saw this—WHAM!

Our strength can be renewed because his strength never fails.

I realized how I could wait on God through trials completely confident of his onrushing aid.

The visual is easy: if you and a friend are holding candles and yours goes out, you will relight your candle with the one that still burns. Well God’s fire never goes out! There’s no good or logical comparison for God—match-to-Sun?—but you get the picture.

Perhaps you’re waiting on God right now with every ounce of your strength. You’re fainting or have fallen to a knee; your flame has gone out. I want to assure you that your renewed strength is guaranteed and imminent because the One you trust never loses his strength.

Put another way—God’s coming to light your fire!

More on this topic: God of the Process and God, You’re Killing Me!

Leave None Behind

CC BY-NC-ND, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Flickr

We are a church culture that ranks sins. A few get to tell glowing testimonies of how they were freed from their flaws while others know not to breathe a word about their past misdeeds—at least not the whole story—for fear of being scorned by some or investigated about the extent of their freedom.

This is shameful. It demonstrates that some of us have not understood the nature of sin, that we all stand under the same curse and that the mite of sin is as great as the vilest and most flagrant. We have also not understood the holy nature of God, his seamlessly pure moral character, or the extravagant grace that rescues us all from equal depravity.

Keep the Main Thing…

I like the way Paul addresses the fact—and how do we miss the point?

“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

So profound! Paul highlights issues that were specific to Corinthian society and his hearers; so we gain a telling picture of Corinth. What I love here is that one’s particular “sin background” is non-essential; instead, believers now stand redeemed by the work of Christ—and that’s all that matters, not the once-but-delivered ailment.

If we’re not careful, we will make a big deal about sin and lose love for sinners and fellow believers who wrestle with internal conflicts. We would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” Make sure, the writer explains, that no one—sinner or saint—lacks of the Lord’s great kindness.

Assessing Our Approach

Therefore, our churches must be spiritual communities where harbored sin in people’s lives breaks our hearts and where we have mastered a quick prayerful, loving, and restorative response, in the same way a body heals itself.

Compassion is the key. It characterized Jesus’s approach with others. And Paul, in Galatians 6:1, reminds us to compassionately restore those in indiscretion mindful that not only are we too susceptible to sin, but also to their kind of sin.

Sin will (and should) always be an affront to God’s holy nature in us, yet we must stop being surprised and shocked by the personal matters family, friends, and peers share with us. We are all human and err. Amazement only makes one feel bad about divulging their troubles; it also makes them question if God really cares about them.

Sin ain’t pretty. Yours wasn’t. So we dare not offend the Lord by being insensitive to others and impede ministry before it starts.

This isn’t just about sinners bearing all, if you’re still missing the point. Christians trip up and get bound, too. The context for Galatians 6 is the believing community; so Paul continues, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2, NKJV).

So our churches must be havens where certainly the godly can unpack their burdens and receive guidance and healing prayer. We should think this normal, but it isn’t hardly the case. It is sad that some Christians are scornful, judgmental, untrustworthy, and unloving toward their own—how can the lost ever be saved!

A New Culture

I’m concerned we err because we take our cues from the non-Christian culture around us, not the word of God. But the kingdom of God is our culture, a new and shockingly transformative one, and its implications are monumental. No, we don’t think and act the way the world does; our actions and responses will indeed be revolutionary and countercultural and make non-Christians wonder about our dissimilarity.

And our difference should be most evident in our relationships, the one aspect Jesus seems to deem the very purpose of our lives (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Thus, we take none for granted, neither those with the most need for an assurance of grace nor those who already possess it but need strengthening.

We will best love others and be most real with ourselves when we stop cherry-picking sin and esteem the marvelous grace that rescues us all.

More on this topic: The Need for Transparency

God, Our Contender

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

Jacob and Peter seem like spiritual brothers in my mind. Both carried a profound calling in their lives but didn’t quite grasp the process it would require to develop them in order to maximize it. Thus, we read about their lives with fascination and some puzzlement, at least I do.

Jacob, with a godly heritage, is that guy in every church who respects God and spiritual things but resists the calling he knows is on his life; he isn’t quite ready to give up his game. It’s not his M.O. right now—“I’m not ready for all that”—that is, until God has to get in his face.

Is not that encounter at Jabbock one of the most riveting accounts in scripture? All of Jacob’s years of impartation and resistance come to a singular moment of judgment. I believe the fight actually occurred, but it isn’t difficult to allegorize and deem that here was a moment of crisis in which God gripped Jacob’s heart and gave him the psychological and spiritual fight of his life.

Have you ever fought to the death of your will? Has the call of God ever overwhelmed you…pinned you to the wall?

But what grips me about the story is Jacob’s surrender. In a flash he goes from self-reliance and stubbornness to “I won’t let you go until I have all of you!”

Do You Love Me?

Sounds a little like Peter—“Then wash my hands and head, Lord, not just my feet!” This is Simon whom Jesus renames Peter, don’t forget that. (Didn’t that happen at Jabbock, too? Hmm.)

I really cherish Peter in the scriptures. Some people find their own humanness in the Psalms, Paul’s transparency, and elsewhere; but I discover myself in Peter. I’m not sure if there is a more honest biblical character. I read about him and think, I am Peter.

Peter spent a few years as the closest to Jesus of the disciples. Yet he reminds us of a toddler just learning to walk, sometimes standing, even running, other times stumbling and falling. Peter shows us glimpses of enlightenment—“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and “If it is you, bid me to come”—and equal measures of ineptitude and failure—“Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will!”

Still, Peter may have had one of the deepest loves for Jesus.

I recall him outrunning John to the tomb after the report of Jesus’s body being gone. Then, while he and a few of the disciples fished, John identifies the resurrected Christ by his instruction to them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat: “It is the Lord,” John says.

And at that this rough-hewn fisherman wraps his garment around him, leaps out of the boat, and swims to where Jesus stood. Although Peter was at times unstable and insecure, Jesus had made an indelible impact on him.

God’s Will with Our Pain

Like Jacob and Peter, I’ve discovered that the life of faith is not convenient, especially to the imperfections of my heart that ultimately resist the best God has for me. Sometimes I wonder, however, if God doesn’t allow the disappointments and internal conflicts to surface in us to bring us to a place of surrender.

Hosea says, “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (6:1). Only if you’ve gone through such hardship yourself or with others can you understand how a person’s insolence and weaknesses may actually accomplish the will of God.

After denying the Lord the third time, John relates that the cock crowed and Jesus turned and looked straight in Peter’s face. That had to be the worst moment in Peter’s entire acquaintance with Jesus—and he runs away and cries his eyes out.

But where we might ridicule and excoriate him, God is getting his way with Peter. In fact, he just might have him…and Jacob…and your brother, daughter, or co-worker exactly where he wants them—broken and in submission. They have wrestled with God long enough and now God will wait no longer to prove his sufficiency for them. God gets the best of us to get the best out of us.

The late Dr. Adrian Rogers used to say, “The will of God is the thing we would want for ourselves if we had the sense to want it!”

Thank God that he’s patient with us and uses even our mistakes and hang-ups, our malice and carnality to break our own hearts and wrestle us into submission, as only he can. Our assurance lies in a grace that rescues us from ourselves.

So we can have hope that our friends and loved ones, perhaps out of control right now, are, by prayer and the mercy of God, being steered into the very heart of the kingdom.

Read more on the topic: John the Baptist

The Deceit of Riches

CC BY, MS Images

CC BY, MS Images

Have we not all at some point envied wealthy persons, their lives or possessions? I know I have. Everyone desires a comfortable life, and the more comfort always seems the better.

Now it doesn’t take a change in status to be comfortable. People who, in the eyes of the government, live at the poverty level can and do live comfortably because how one manages their income matters greatly. Unfortunately, poverty stigmatizes people as lacking restraint, but that’s not necessarily true.

The bottom line about true wealth and poverty has nothing to do with dollars and cents. Instead, it has everything to do with inner happiness.

Dangerous Idealism

Humans have a tendency to romanticize wealth. And let’s be clear: there is nothing wrong with being rich. The scripture nowhere condemns it. Everyone has a responsibility to work and wealth is a possibility for all.

I must be careful here lest I paint a stereotype about wealthy people; and I do not wish to spurn them or their wealth. But I do intend to express how often erroneous is our conjecture about riches and rich people.

If only at the nether reaches of our minds, we sometimes think people with lots of money…

  • Need nothing
  • Experience no hardship
  • Possess the power to do as they please
  • Deserve recognition and honor
  • Know more than less wealthy individuals
  • Are people of integrity

That is how television often portrays the wealthy—right before you see that they deal with the same life issues common folk deal with. And you notice how their wealth and power influences their choices and decisions, not unlike how poverty affects the choices and decisions of others. The test of struggle is to survive its dearth; however, the test of prosperity is to survive its flood.

Asaph’s Portrait

America has increasingly become a society of people chasing after riches. But many people are only discovering disappointment when they find them. It’s not because they don’t enjoy the many ways money makes their lives easier; instead, it’s because they realize how it makes their lives harder.

I can never escape Asaph on this topic. He paints a lucid picture of impious wealthy people who do not realize the toll they’ve allowed their wealth to take on their hearts.

“For they seem to live carefree lives, free of suffering; their bodies are strong and healthy.  They don’t know trouble as we do; they are not plagued with problems as the rest of us are.  They’ve got pearls of pride strung around their necks; they clothe their bodies with violence. They have so much more than enough. Their eyes bulge because they are so fat with possessions. They have more than their hearts could have ever imagined. There is nothing sacred, and no one is safe. Vicious sarcasm drips from their lips; they bully and threaten to crush their enemies. They even mock God as if He were not above; their arrogant tongues boast throughout the earth; they feel invincible” (Psalm 73:4-9, VOICE).

Asaph describes people who having trusted their wealth don’t notice the side effects of doing so. They never realized how their privilege allowed all their desires and inhibitions to surface and take control of their lives. (Again, I do not generalize.)

What we often don’t see with these folk are the effects of vice on their hearts. Plastered smiles and a pompous glow only go so far before the pain of inner distress and sadness causes you to buckle.

You may have heard the stories of those who evangelize or make prayer visits to astute communities; they sound much like the stories told of those on the other side of the tracks, sometimes worse. We don’t readily assume that wealthy people are hungry, violently abused, bound in addiction, drowning in debt, or suicidal, yet many live this way behind closed doors.

Getting Free

Sometimes it’s real tough for these people to find freedom because they can get buried beneath the trappings of their lifestyle. Issues of pride, image, reputation, dignity, etc., keep their problems shut out of view and keep them away from help, which only allows trouble and vice to run rampant.

Folk with lesser wealth often have less of their life invested in their reputation to allow such a thing to threaten their well-being.

Perhaps too some wealthy people don’t know how to call for help. They’ve always been in a position of control and security, the ones making decisions and helping everyone else never expecting that they would ever need rescuing. That role reversal must surely be difficult.

All Things are Possible

After the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus, the Lord twice exclaims to the disciples how difficult it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God. It doesn’t mean that they won’t or that it’s impossible; if you will, this was Jesus telling them, “I’m just saying…”

He’s really pointing to those weeds he speaks of in his parable of the sower. They represent all the fineries, gaieties, and pleasures of life but leave one bereft of spiritual wealth, stymied in his spiritual efforts and bankrupt in the life to come.

But a powerful truth he speaks next—“With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible” (Mark 10:27). For all of us the leap from folly to faith is impossible without God. But hopefully you didn’t miss what was so plain to Jesus and remarkable that we don’t see: just how burdensome wealth can be on the soul, the one place that never factors into our dreams of being rich.

Yet God, he says, can give even the wealthy the grace to make the leap into kingdom life.

I trust that you pray for the lost. The next time you do, say a prayer for those who are wealthy. Pray that they be good managers, even stewards, of their wealth. Pray that God would rebuke the Evil One who desires to drag their souls to hell. Pray that they will know the rich love of Jesus, that God would dispel all religious exoticism and foolish revelry so they would know Truth.

God loves the wealthy.

Other reads: 2014 Gates Annual Letter; Why Do the Wicked Prosper and The Perils of Covetousness

The Gumption to Take a Stand

CC BY-NC, NewHour, Flickr

CC BY-NC, NewsHour, Flickr

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” 

Martin Luther King, Jr, April 3, 1968

One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I will speak up when it counts. I am usually not looking to be the leader or to make waves; it just happens. I think it stems from my belief that all authority can be questioned.

I hated when friends would grumble about things but reject options and solutions I offered them or chicken out when I took a stand.

Likewise, it always unnerved me when friends from other nations ridiculed America, expressing their own patriotism, but opted to remain in and enjoy the fruit of America rather than to return and make a difference in their homelands. That may sting but there is truth at the heart of it.

Women in Afghanistan

Change and reform are necessary in our world and relationships; and it’s due to the condition of the human heart. We would like to believe in the goodness of everyone, but too often people betray their own capability for doing right.

A problem arises when we think that changing people is something easy to do, like setting a broken bone or leveling and rebuilding a part of the city. It’s never that simple. Humans are intricately caught up in the weave of good and evil.

Unfortunately, our penchant leans toward immorality.

I was watching television and heard something that really surprised me. A gentleman explained that not long ago women in Afghanistan bore far more rights than they exercise today and were more educated, being doctors, professors, and scientists.

Afghanistan? I thought.

I performed but a small research and discovered a generous women’s rights history in Afghanistan during the 19th and 20th centuries. It all screeched to a halt, however, in the late 1970s and 80s with the influx of communism and war—and the rise of the Taliban, which ultimately ended the forward progress and returned Afghan society back to the strong patriarchalism it once knew.

Although there has been some improvement in the condition of women and children over the last 15 years, post-Taliban Afghanistan, its women and children, remains badly disenfranchised and dehumanized.

Do Something!

Listen, change, like the change needed in Afghanistan, costs something. And it costs someone something. It’s necessarily personal—no way around it. I can only loathe those who expect to sit back and let others bear the consequences for their ease without understanding the price for that ease.

Change is never pleasant; it is uncomfortable at the least. And those who never see the problem and see it as their problem usually do when it finally spins their direction tearing things to shreds. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

For me to have discovered the details about Afghan women and reacted with a self-centered I’m-glad-that’s-not-me attitude, in my opinion, would be to approach grievous immorality in my heart and become part of the problem. It is to participate in the evil, if only by nonchalance.

Hopefully, something in our personal and social constitution—and certainly in our Christian faith—teaches us that our individual well-being finds haven and security in the well-being of the cluster. It’s a collectivist approach that can teach us much. (Psst!—Jesus lived in that type of society.) It would do us well to grasp that we all become better as we hurt, fight, heal, and finally rise together.

Two excellent links on Afghan women and education: 

What We Learn in God’s Holding Patterns

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

A flight holding pattern is a delay tactic airports use when planes cannot land for different reasons, like congestion or bad weather. If you’ve flown enough, you have probably experienced one of these. In fact, you may have looked out your window and saw the airport but wondered why on earth you were flying around it in circles.

Depending on the type of delay and number of incoming aircraft, planes can be stacked in holding until air traffic controllers can land them one-by-one, starting with the lowest plane.

God’s way with us is like holding sometimes, can you agree?

Learning Contentment

Who doesn’t love that great Pauline verse—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13). But I’ve found that many of us don’t understand its context. It is definitely deeper than the Christian self-help it has become in recent times. Paul refers to his ability through Christ to keep at an even keel while facing the highs and lows of his life. He expresses how the grace of God offers him contentment.

So let’s back up a little. Paul, a prisoner now and finalizing his letter to the Philippian Christians, thanks them for their generosity to him. Then, he quickly clarifies that he doesn’t bring up the matter for any new need he has…and this is where the important context begins.

“For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (vs. 11b-12, ESV).

Is Contentment Satisfaction?

This is a revealing glimpse at Paul’s life. His words comfort us in our trials today because someone as sage and godly as he is transparent enough to share his own holding patterns in the will of God.

What does Paul mean by content? Surely he desired to be out of that prison. His churches were better served by his presence among them; after all, he’s sending them a letter here. Certainly he preferred a full stomach to a grumbling one and peaceful presentations of the gospel instead of violent protests.

If we’re not careful, we will make Paul say that he was satisfied with his circumstances. But consider yourself: perhaps there was a time when you didn’t have the things you needed. Did that cancel your desire to have more or better, especially if someone depended on you? No, it didn’t.

Think about the plan God has shown you for your life. Maybe you’re in a hard place right now and simply cannot fathom how he will make good on his promise. Although it’s difficult now, God showed you his plan at the start to provide you hope for when the good times turned. He doesn’t mean for you to build a home in the wasteland.

Something on the Inside, Working…

Instead, Paul’s contentment means he was inwardly self-sufficient, not requiring outside support. It means that he was indeed satisfied with the grace of God that propelled him forward in the divine will despite his external circumstances. In fact, it was knowing that wherever he was in life somehow accomplished the will of God for him; and because of that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him. The scope is pervasive, all-inclusive.

Herein we are offered a deep lesson about what we possess and don’t possess. The highs and lows enter our lives to lend us perspective and never to disturb our rest in God. For whatever may come, we cling to grace, not things.

Let me sum it up this way: Contentment is to not worry about anything you see around you or off in the distance, whether it’s your natural sustenance or the very promises of God. But it is to learn and progress right where you stand. And it is to trust God—who knows exactly where you are in the holding pattern—until he lands you where he wants you next.

More on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness and God, You’re Killing Me!

The Last Days of June

CC BY-NC, aouniat, Flickr

CC BY-NC, aouniat, Flickr

Bladder cancer meant the last year of my grandmother’s life. That’s how it was. The doctor had told us that it wouldn’t be serious. Somehow this was a friendly cancer that would let Grama live to die of something else, like her diabetes maybe, but he was dead-wrong.

The clock had already been ticking. Christmas that year, six months and four days before the end, the eve of which was her birthday, had been unusually joyful. Grama, with all her grandchildren around, laughed until she cried, until it seemed that delight could be her cure, yet we all saw it coming.

When to Say Nothing

I returned home to live from Indiana in early June of 2006; Grama had not long been in a nursing facility in Martinsville, the next town over. She was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I knew well. I planned my visit to see her as soon as I could unload and place my belongings. I hoped the surprise wouldn’t backfire and be mine to loathe because I wasn’t sure what I might find. I could only wish for my granny healthy as possible, recognizable, and glad to see me.

That day I strode down the corridor past open doors and the oddities and odors that claw at passers-by in such sad places of the physically marooned, hoping that Grama’s room was a refuge. I slowed as I approached the doorway, which was open; I didn’t hear visitors inside. I took a deep breath and entered the room confidently.

It was bright and sterile, spotless in fact, and peaceful, with the sun in full glow like a gift for the moment. My grandmother was lying in the far bed next to the window and neatly tucked under a white blanket. She was looking out the door when I entered. “Michael,” she said plainly, the inflection revealing her surprise and bewilderment.

I’m not sure how I reacted, but I went and kissed her on the forehead. Grama looked herself. She turned her face toward the window and cried; I didn’t try to console her. I wondered then and many times since if she wept for seeing me, her eldest grandson come to see about her or because she knew that it might be my last chance.

Bittersweet is hardest to swallow.

In that moment I had no context to understand how she could be feeling, so I respected those deeply profound seconds by waiting. What is it like to face your own death? To know there will be no more living? The future isn’t scary when it means you’re alive and prospering, but the future is perfectly inconceivable when it means you’re dead. I know what my Christian faith explains about the afterlife, yet a human creature, indeed any living thing, designed to grow and reproduce abhors the thought of death.

Grama knew that she was dying because she was already discussing her final wishes. I recall the few times I heard her exclaim “I thought I was gon’ die!” when in the past she had fought off a bad bug or complications. The comment would always make me hide my laughter and still brings a smile to my face for its superstitious absurdity. But seeing Grama cry, however, was in its own way a door of finality.

Tomorrow?

Grama always assumed my return the next day. She wanted to see her family daily simply because she was there. I suppose that I would want my folks near me too for less grievous reasons. But I didn’t always make it back to Grama daily despite the easy thirty-minute drive. Sometimes it was no reason more than the monotony of the place: watching her sleep, no TV, window watching, book boredom, the nosy roommate.

We all lapsed a time or two, for different reasons, and not because we didn’t care but for the cares that consumed our time. Where there wasn’t work and business matters to tend, there was indifference that often trades substantial things for indulgence and always counts on tomorrow. I’m not sure that brand of tomorrow exists though whether we’re living or dying.

I cringed at the fact that when I could have and maybe should have been with Grama, I was busy doing nothing. Sometimes I was lying around watching TV while she was lying down waiting to die. The self-interest disgusted me. Yet I would think this way of Grama, too. Didn’t she realize that we couldn’t possibly be there all the time? Did her dying lend her more right to need? I hated myself for thinking this way. I’ve learned that human nature is a demanding, self-centered circus of a thing—even when the animals are calling it quits.

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Grama forgave us for missing days but not for leaving her there. She wanted to go home and was belligerent about it. The first day I saw her she wanted me to take her home. I could be Hercules with her hoisted in my arms plucking off every resistance until I laid her down in her own bed. It was that mythical at least.

Conversation became awkward at times. “I can bring you lunch if you’d like,” I would say. “What do you want?” The reply would come like a blow and deadpanned: “I wanna GO HOME.” The most I accomplished for her was to get a new chair in the room to make her more comfortable and allow us to sun on the patio.

There soon came a day when I entered the room and noticed signs of the inevitable peering back at me. Grama was gaunt. The volume in her face was gone, completely, and she appeared skeletal. Her skin had become ashen. Her mind and morale remained but her body had been taken hostage. This alarmed me because it happened quickly, and I’m sure she had no idea of it.

One day she requested a mirror from the nurse to look herself over. I couldn’t know how long it may have been since she had seen herself. The act of something so simple seemed so primitive and animal-like to me watching her do it. Research shows us certain animals, like chimpanzees and elephants, querying themselves this way to demonstrate self-perception. Did Grama recognize the person staring back at her? I expected an exclamatory remark but she said nothing.

The Final Night

A few days from that time we got the call to come because our friend—the cancer—had turned foe and would wait no longer. I walked in the room this time and Grama was but a shell now and clearly in her final hours. She was lying on her right side into the bed railing, her eyes partly open, her mouth twisted.

Death is such an indignity.

Her roommate was a Christian woman and an unfortunate soul for the trials she had endured to this point. She had come to the facility with her husband roommate, in that very room, but he had died beside her; she was given a new roommate who also died there; now it was my grandmother’s turn. The staff moved the lady to another room to give us privacy, but I considered it an act of compassion for her own sanity.

Yet the roommate didn’t leave without first detailing my grandmother’s final night. She spoke as frankly as possible. “That woman drove me crazy!” The way she bellowed the word—CRAAZI!—with a distinctly Southern drawl, I found more embarrassing than insensitive, especially standing there with my mother and the pastor.

She said my grandmother had kept the nurses running all night and screamed for the pain in her body—“callin’ on Jesus and askin’ God to kill ’er.” Her words were chilling. That kind of pain must be hell itself. “But she was a good lady,” she affirmed, noticeably in past tense. She repeated herself then quickened, lifting her hand to God. From her account I figured that my grandmother was lucid into the day until her condition turned sometime that afternoon.

The Shadow of Death

Family and many from the church soon packed the room, presences casting their farewells. I was surprised by the show of people and most remained into the early evening. The night came and with it my decision not to stay to the end, whenever it arrived, but I was sure there was no tomorrow.

It was now the very end of June, less than a month since I had first burst in and kissed Grama’s forehead. This time, my last moment with Grama, I walked to her bedside, took her right hand, and bowed in silent prayer to the God who had numbed her soul against a ravaged body. I offered thanks for all the care and fun and meals and counsel she gave me, along with a request that I might pray and trust as she had, until my very end.

I was told by a family friend of a peculiar moment that happened after I had left when she recited Psalm 23 to my grandmother, which was also Grama’s favorite reading of the Bible. Science suggests that hearing is the last of the senses prior to death, presumably the reason—and a good one—why people venture to talk to the unconscious. Our friend leaned down into Grama’s ear and recited the passage; at the line “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” my grandmother made an audible drone, the only sound any of us heard out of her that day and forever.

The End

Joy and Cheryl, two of my sisters, were determined to keep vigil and not leave Grama to die alone. They were the saddest of anyone having been the closest to Grama of the five siblings. They had taken the most of her care and heed through the years, especially Cheryl who had now managed her affairs for a long time.

It was no surprise to me that they waited. I was sad in theory. I loved my grandmother and my heart had suffered some whenever I sat with her. Still, I saw death as a natural part of life and it no longer rattled me as it did when I was half my age. And I think that’s how you get through it, by remembering that death is personal for us all. Grama had now lived to be eighty-nine years old, well past life expectancy, but one expects old people to die. Young deaths and tragic ones are tougher, for their abruptness and intrusion, but the elderly just fade away. I wondered if I was supposed to feel sadder.

Grama passed at 3:30 in the morning. It was June 29, an otherwise happy day on the family calendar because it is Joy’s birthdate.

Joy reported that Grama sat up suddenly and looked around. My sister jumped out of her seat calling aloud to Grama trying to arrest her attention. Whether Grama saw her cannot be known. When I heard this I thought of the Resurrection account of the dead supposedly returning to the streets of Jerusalem at their pass into the heavens; and out of a cancer-eaten body my grandmother’s spirit lifted, too.

She very well might have caught a glimpse of the room and my sisters, but I imagine that the vista into which she rushed was rapturous. No sooner than she had sat up, she lay down again, and like that she was gone.

My Two Cents on Generosity

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

CC BY, emilianohorcada, Flickr

Thought: If I had millions of dollars, I’d be an incredibly generous person.

I’m sure you’ve heard this kind of talk, especially when the jackpot swells. Wealth does indeed allow people to be generous and helpful. My problem with this rationale, however, is that we should think more money makes us more generous persons.

Now I don’t doubt that there are many who have respected their fortune by carefully weighing the responsibility of managing it—and have become more generous due to a new appreciation for wealth’s power. And there are those who have purposefully and creatively used earlier hardship as the impetus to empower others less fortunate.

These kinds of people underscore a process of building virtue and have understood that to be reckless with wealth is to disregard the noble prospects it is capable of producing.

But to assume that abundance directly translates into abundant virtue…well Jesus would quickly disagree with us.

Asian Hospitality

Let me tell you about a wonderful encounter of hospitality I had.

I was a teacher in Japan and decided to spend my first vacation in Tokyo. My American co-worker (and college mate) grew up there and was going to visit family; he asked me to come along. Lodging for me was arranged with a Christian family who gladly agreed to house me.

I was shown incredible hospitality. The entire upstairs loft belonged to me, and my host pre-stocked the refrigerator there with every imaginable treat. My clothes were washed, ironed, folded, and delivered daily. Meals were prompt and the matron’s sister baked and sent over exquisite breads for us. I was insisted upon to use the home phone to call and chat with my family back in the U.S. And despite the language barrier, we enjoyed the presence of Christ together in devotions after meals.

My friend had decided to join me the second day. Those he visited were elderly, so he opted to lodge with us and use his fluency to help us all communicate. When it came time for our departure, the patriarch handed each of us an envelope that, to our astonishment, contained almost $200 to pay for our train home—and a trip to visit them again.

Cultivated Hearts

This kind of hospitality, which I bumped into regularly as a gaijin (foreigner), is extreme by American standards. Obviously, it’s largely rooted in Japanese and Southeast Asian culture, but that lends to what I attempt to convey here. (And I should again emphasize and beg you to consider, to my point, the authentic faith I witnessed in this home.)

To think that wealth, newfound or otherwise, makes us more generous individuals really is to deceive ourselves. If you missed the point the first time: the heart must be cultivated this way.

I hope you go out of your way to accommodate others, really. But the level of generosity I described—let’s face it—isn’t quite American, culturally, for reasons I cannot explain now. When you go on vacation, is it imperative that you return bearing gifts for co-workers to show you were thinking about them? No, you hightail it outta the office just to get away from them jokers!

Gifts of the Heart

Let me be concise. I’m not convinced by wealth-induced “sudden generosity” because abundance has very little to do with virtue. Folk who have nothing but are truly generous people will share the little they have with others in need without a second thought. Did we clearly hear Jesus’s proposition—“Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Real generosity doesn’t need wealth.

After observing the rich give their offerings and a widow place two copper coins in the temple treasury, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “They all (the rich) gave out of their wealth,” meaning their gifts were inconsequential to what they possessed and were easy to offer. For all their abundance and the pride they derived from it, they possessed little spiritual wealth that begged of sacrifice and unadulterated devotion.

But this widow “out of her poverty, put in everything she had”—two paltry coins—and so confirms my point here.

More posts on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness, Living with Simplicity, and Why Do the Wicked Prosper?