Monday, December 26, 2016

12/26/16 To die, to live

Dear Family and Friends,

At our Christmas Eve service last night we sang a carol I was unfamiliar with, “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt.”  The last verse of this song really spoke to me.  It goes like this:

Can I, will I forget
 how love was born, and burned
 its way into my heart
 unasked, unforced, unearned,
 to die, to live, and not alone for me, 
to die, to live, and not alone for me?

Even more specifically, I have been reflecting on the paradoxical words “to die, to live.” 

Christians celebrate Christmas so that we will never forget how love was born, the night God came to earth in the form of a newborn babe lying in a manger.  While love may have been born that night, love was put to the ultimate test when Jesus willingly gave His life, in the most inhumane, excruciating manner, so that we could live a life reconciled to God.  John 15:13 puts it this way:  Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus loved us so much that He died—so we might live as people of faith and hope who have the opportunity to get to know God in a most personal and life-giving way.

The concept “to die, to live” may have started with Jesus’ death, but it doesn’t stop there.  There are two deaths each of us must consider.  The first is a spiritual death—a dying to oneself.  We are asked by God to give up the idea of controlling our own lives and destiny, and realize we belong to Him, and were made to be in relationship with Him.  The Bible says that because of Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  Even common sense should tell us that the air we breathe, the complex way in which our bodies are formed and function, and the sleep that renews us each night, are just a few of the multitude of things required to sustain our lives, and yet which, are totally beyond our own ability to control.  So why do we work so hard to believe that we have no need for God?

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Great Divorce, citizens of Hell are offered a chance to take a bus trip to Heaven for a day.  At the end of the day’s sightseeing, the tourists are offered the chance to stay in Heaven, but under one condition.  They must give up control and lordship of their own lives and submit to the authority of God in their lives.  Surprisingly, most of the tourists prefer to re-board the bus and return to Hell, where they don’t have to answer to anyone but themselves.  To be reconciled to God through Christ’s death for our sins requires that we die to self and give up control of our lives and hearts to God.  “I” must die, to live. 

The second death required of us is our physical death, whenever that time should come.  While the spiritual dying to self is not a requirement, but a choice, if we want to have a relationship with God, the physical dying is required of each and every one of us, whether we believe in God or not.  But the good news is, for those who have given their lives to God, this second dying also produces life—life everlasting with God in Heaven.  As someone living with a very serious cancer, I give a lot of thought to this second death that will be required of me.  When will it come?  What will it feel like?  Will it hurt?  Will I feel afraid?  How will my family handle the grief of losing me?

When these thoughts come, I can turn my thoughts to the words of that Christmas Eve carol.  I can remember how love was born that starry night, and burned its way into my heart, unasked, unforced, unearned.  How Jesus died, that I might live.  How at age 14, I gave my life back to Him, that I might live a life filled with purpose, and the love and closeness of God.  And how, when that final dying comes, there lies a life eternal with Him in Heaven that is beyond my wildest imaginings. 

To die.  To live.  And not alone for me.  The gift of Christmas is for you, too.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

12/25/16 A Christmas homily

Steve here with a short Christmas homily.

I just looked up "homily" and came up with two potential definitions:

1.  A tedious moral discourse.
2.  A religious discourse which is intended primarily for spiritual edification rather than doctrinal instruction.

I will let you decide which of the those definitions to apply to the following.

We went to Renee's church last night (Phinney Ridge Lutheran) for a delightful Christmas Eve service.  The children's choir was out in full force, along with wonderful instrumental music and great singing all around.  People were dressed in the festive best and there were smiles all around.  What's more, even the communion bread was homemade and there was real wine!  How cool is that?  I realize that you aren't supposed to rate communion on how good the elements taste, but thought I would throw that in just as an aside.  And one more thing:  there was no sermon!  Apologies to all you hard-working pastors and ministers out there who burn the midnight oil to come up with interesting sermons each week.  Just saying that last night, I was happy to skip it.  So instead, you dear folks get one this morning.  It won't be a long one.

I just wanted to say that singing the songs about Joy to the World, Away in a Manger, and those dear heralding angels really drove home the point of what all this Christmas hullaballoo is about.  God stepped out of eternity into time to bring any who ask into a state of grace and love through His dear Son.  Lost souls being found.  And that's the Christian message pure and simple.  A huge corollary to that, is that we, too, are creatures of eternity.  One day each of us will breathe our last and at that point, we will step from a world of time into eternity.  That's an awesome thought.

In the recent weeks and months, being faced with the terror of a cancer that just doesn't want to give up easily, it is a welcome meditation to reflect upon the fact that life here on earth is but a vapor as St. James so eloquently wrote.  And that, my friends, is something worth rejoicing over. 

As Gabrielle faces a very daunting and scary scan on the 29th, this is a good time to step back and realize that God is behind everything and that He has Gabrielle, and all of us, in the palms of His hands.  What better place to be than that?

Merry Christmas!  Or as Tiny Tim would say, "God bless us everyone!"

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

12/20/16 Christmas thoughts

Dear Family and Friends,

This Christmas season I find myself once again thinking a lot about the juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure.  And about the things that cause our hearts to overflow with happiness and break in despair. 

The month began with great joy.  Steve and I were able to spend a week on Kauai with my sister, Marti, and her husband, Merle.  It was my pre-chemo week, so I felt great!  I was able to hike a beautiful trail along a bluff overlooking the ocean and swim laps in a giant saltwater lagoon.  I got to eat puka dogs (get one if you go to Hawaii!), mouthwatering fresh fish at an open-air restaurant overlooking a koi pond, and to share an enormous ice cream sundae at Lappert’s with my sweetheart.

Then, the day after my return home, my blood counts were again too low to get my chemo.  That week was filled with five days of stomach injections of the drug that stimulates my bone marrow to make blood cells—and in the process, produces a truckload of bone pain!  Remember those growing pains you had as a child as your bones stretched and lengthened?  Well, multiply that pain by about 100!  It was a tough week, followed by chemo on the 15th, which brought yet another rough five days, this time with extreme nausea, fatigue, and no appetite.  On the positive side—I have unintentionally lost four pounds in five days!  So much for my usual Christmas weight gain!  J

In the midst of my own modest sufferings, I have encountered people this month whose sufferings are far greater than mine.  People who cause my heart to break.  The day before chemo I was well enough to attend my volunteer day at Children’s Hospital, where I was assigned to a 4-year-old boy with cancer.  We played Legos, and he led me on a “tour” of about 10 bedpans scattered about his room that were filled with water and contained all manner of plastic sea life!  He knew the names of each animal and told me that his Make-A-Wish was that he wanted to ride a dolphin.  Can you think of anything sadder than a child gravely ill with cancer who will be spending Christmas in his hospital room?  Or the heartbreak I saw in his father’s eyes when he returned to the room after my time spent playing with his son?  Having cancer myself, after the blessing of living more than five wonderful decades without it, is so very much better than the thought of my children—or any child—having to face this dreaded disease at a young age. 

And yesterday, Steve and I joined five friends for a volunteer day at Hope Place, a residential program for homeless women and children run by the Union Gospel Mission.  We worked in the kitchen, chopping bags of oranges and onions, wrapping potatoes in foil, making cheese quesadillas, and Steve, master griller that he is, put perfect grill marks on 70 mammoth rib eye steaks that had been donated for their Christmas dinner party later that day.  As I was serving lunch and chatting with the residents, my heart ached for these women who, through poverty, abuse, mental illness, and addictions, had arrived at this place in life with their precious children in tow.  I have so much.  They have so little.  Plenty and want.

I read in my advent reading this week that “A broken heart isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  You can think of it as something broken apart and shattered, like glass, or as something broken open, like a crack in a seed about to sprout.  Opening our hearts to pain increases our capacity for hope.”  I definitely feel that the brokenness our family has experienced throughout my battle with cancer has been an opening through which we have come to experience God’s presence in a deeper way, through which we have developed greater empathy for all those who suffer, and through which we have come to feel an exponentially larger sense of gratitude for each day, and each blessing, large and small. 

May the heartbreaks we experience allow us to see that through the cracks, the light of hope can emerge, and may we be a beacon of light and hope for others. 

“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”  Isaiah 9:2   


Steve, Marti, and Merle at Kauai Lighthouse Park

Mini Golf in December...and I won!

Hiking on a rainy day in Kauai.

Poipu Beach.

Lappert's sundae!