Tumors and maybes

Owen had an oncology appointment today. Before every oncology appointment, he has an ultrasound to check out the growth of his liver tumor.

This procedure usually takes 15 minutes. But today, the time in which it took to take all those pictures of his insides was the emotional equivalent of two days.

Owen, it turns out, is no longer willing to hold still while a stranger presses on his belly in a dark room. It was one of those awful and comical moments where Owen cried so hard he almost threw up and Olive cried because she was convinced the ultrasound tech was trying to kill her brother. We had to turn off Frozen because the combination of the Anna-freezing-to-death scene and Owen’s red-faced screams was too much for me to handle.

And I discovered hospitals do not give free narcotics to moms of babies with tumors in the ultrasound rooms. So don’t bother asking.

I was irritated. The three-inch tumor hasn’t shrunk at all since Owen was born. It’s a vascular tumor that has thankfully remained benign, and Owen’s wonderful oncologist regularly checks it to make sure it hasn’t grown or turned malignant.

But it is supposed to be gone.

And this means it’s not the kind of tumor we hoped it was.

The doctor asked if I had any questions.

No questions, I said. Except for the one I always ask: will it ever be operable?

Because his tumor is vascular, the risks of surgery are too great.

Today, however, I got a different answer.

Maybe, the oncologist said, maybe it will be operable at some point.

There are a lot of contributing factors to this maybe… but it’s still a maybe.

No, it’s not the kind of tumor we had hoped for, but maybe…

I know potential surgery is not everyone’s good news, but it offered a new possibility to Owen’s medical circumstances.

And I went home with that maybe in my pocket.

As Olive, Owen and I left the hospital to pick up Ellia from school, I had one hand in the backseat feeding Owen pretzels while simultaneously trying to throw Olive a juice box. On the drive there were calls to return and plans to make and dinner to think about.

Even after receiving a hope-instilling maybe, the chaotic drive home reminded me of how today needed my attention.

Our tomorrows are full of maybes. And these maybes can be both exciting and frightening—oscillating from hope to despair.

But we live in today.

And today surgery may not be possible—but today the tumor isn’t malignant.

Today was full of yelling and crying and labs—but today was 75 degrees and perfect for pretending to be super heroes in the backyard.

There is grace for today—grace we can miss by becoming lost in the unknowns of tomorrow.

We often waste precious emotional energy on what is uncertain and unpredictable. We offer our resources to anxious speculation when we can take comfort and strength for what we currently have on our plates.

All of us have looming question marks surrounding aspects of our tomorrows. And they can be real and terrifying.

But the grace will be there in those triumphs or storms just like it is today. And every time we experience the presence of God in our todays, we are more prepared to receive and live in the presence of God in our tomorrows.

Tumors are real, but so are games in the backyard with your kids.

We can’t imagine the potential pain of tomorrow, but we also can’t imagine the immense grace God is willing to provide.

Live, live, live today—and then tomorrow, commit to do the same.

Elli-O’s and effort

“You can teach what you know, but you will reproduce what you are”

— Christine Caine

A few days ago, Ellia made an autobiographical cereal box. I loved it. Anytime we use recyclable trash for homework purposes, I’m on board.

She named her cereal Elli-O’s.   Obviously.

The rest of the box was covered with her dislikes and likes, hobbies, favorite author and musician (currently Stephen Sondheim, which I would argue is not a normal choice for a 7 year-old).

She wanted her cereal to be about who she is and how she lives. So additional to her favorite color, she wrote on her box in gold Sharpie the three lies she doesn’t ever want to believe:

  1. I am what I do
  2. I am what I have
  3. I am what other people say about me

Brett talked to her about these three self-identifying statements in a recent conversation. He and I are both influenced by Henri Nouwen who discusses these lies on multiple occasions, pointing out how believing them can block us from our true identity as the Beloved of God.

But there was something extra convicting about seeing these words written in 7 year-old handwriting next to the word “Elli-O’s.”

I had some thinking to do.

I’ve realized I talk a lot. And I talk about what I believe. But I don’t talk about what I do.

I talk about what’s right, but I don’t always talk about my actual choices.

I talk about practices I value, but they aren’t actually practices I consistently live.

There is a significant gap between my action and my beliefs.

And this reality, even if written in gold Sharpie, would make a terrible cereal box.

Ellia and Olive both have frequent questions about God, and in my opinion, amazing creative insights on who God is. And often, I will catch myself saying something I believe and yet am reticent to do. I believe God calls us to be his hands and feet to the world. I believe we are meant to be a blessing, to love the unlovable, to be trophies of grace and voices of freedom.

But sometimes, I’d rather just write it on a piece of paper than follow through.

None of us are perfect. I’m not talking about unreasonable expectations or suffocating legalism. I’m talking about the fact that lately, I haven’t been living out of who I am. I’ve recently heard myself make statements that are disconnected from my heart.

Ellia is at a point where what she hears is sinking down into her soul—it’s shaping the way she views herself, her relationships and her God. And she has integrity about it—she wants to align her practice with her beliefs.

Somewhere in the stress of the last year, I’ve forgotten the importance of being a doer of the Word and not just a hearer. I’ve forgotten about the firm foundation on which I say I want to live. Instead of loving, I often judge. Instead of giving, I often take. I’ve given into bitterness or unforgiveness or self-absorption—and I’m not making a lot of effort to do anything about it.

On her final draft of the cereal box, Ellia decided to write out the fruit of the Spirit instead of the lies because she felt that, while she valued both, one fit the food theme more than the other.

And I keep the scrap of paper with the three lies with me.

I want to be able to be who I say I am. I want to take the grace God gives me to change instead of relying on my own ability to repeat statements of belief. I want to be a person who embraces the word of God with integrity—who isn’t willing just to listen—but is willing to love.

Love is hard work. Dying to self is not easy. The things that bring us fullness of life require action.

Dallas Willard said it best: “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”

And I want to be someone who fights to live as one who belongs to God. I want to be someone who looks to Jesus instead of giving into insecurities.

I’m not what I do.

I’m not what I have.

I’m not what others say about me.

My kids remind me not of what I want to say, but of who I want to be—not just what I want written about me, but what I want to be true about me.

And in the midst of the struggle to live in the gospel instead of just observing it, my kids also remind me of the abounding grace available when I mess up.

God’s children and bricks

Katie is one of my best friends from seminary. She’s a real life sunshine-y care bear. She’s passionate, deeply kind, and every time I hug her I get glitter on my soul.

I recently got back from a two-week stay with her in Florida. On a particularly rainy day during my visit, she came home from her job, noticeably non-glittery and emotionally spent.

“We had a memorial service today,” she said flatly. “I mean, who has a funeral at work?!”

Katie works at Matthew’s Hope in Winter Gardens, Florida—a ministry that cares for people without homes, people without jobs, people who often struggle with addictions and people who have lost almost everything. Every day, this ministry provides hot meals, haircuts, and toiletries. In the back, you’ll find a shower trailer monitored by Rickie, who takes his job very seriously. Matthew’s Hope is one of those rare places that holds grace and tough love in healthy tension, providing both mercy and practical tools to fight addiction and poverty.

And maybe just as important, Matthew’s Hope offers community. People who show up here belong here. It doesn’t matter if you’re coming for toilet paper or an occasional meal. It doesn’t matter if you are a part of the job program or if you work the community garden. It’s a place of belonging for those typically marginalized or misunderstood. These community members may have different stories and backgrounds, but they share a common familiarity with pain, defeat and loss.

In five years, there have been 45 deaths in the Matthew’s Hope community.One day a year, this nontraditional family comes together to remember those who have passed away.

And I sat with Katie on her couch hours after the latest memorial service. Five people had died this year and today, homeless people and a mix of volunteers gathered around a table displaying pictures of the deceased. After the unconventional and, at times, irreverent eulogies, five men carried five bricks to the candlelit table—bricks bearing the names of those who had died.

The mood was heavy, and even those characterized by deflective sarcasm and abrasive exteriors were now serious and reverent.

Everyone in this community knows the sandpaper-y fabric of difficult lives. Dying can be lonely, but so can being alive. Some died from alcoholism.

Some died of illnesses in the midst of making healthy changes.  One man, particularly defensive and rough around the edges had been a part of the Matthew’s Hope community for a few years.

A volunteer pastor recently found him sitting out in the cold. “Get in,” said the pastor. “It’s too cold.” “Nah,” the man said. “I’m ok.”

“Get in! You’ll freeze!”

“Nah,” said the man again. “I want you to know I’m ok. I’m really ok.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean with this whole God thing. I get it now.”

This homeless addict had found a place of peace, even in a cold, unforgiving parking lot. He died a week later in his tent in the woods.

Each person gathered that afternoon has their own story—stories of being in prison and gangs, stories of dropping out of bible school and falling into drug abuse, stories of losing jobs and families and hope. It was in this setting that a pastor spoke about the gospel.

As he looked at the pictures of those who had recently passed away, he kept referring to them as God’s children. It almost felt like a forced word of hope.

But the more he said it, the more it became clear that his message was reality. Being the beloved of God was far more real than any of the labels or words these people had carried during their lives.

Those gathered heard it, too—the deep reminder that God’s love is not earned by living in houses or avoiding substance abuse or keeping a job. God’s children don’t do anything to deserve their place as those who belong. God cares deeply about these people who live in the woods, these people who have group funerals, these people who have suffered so much.

One younger guy stood in silence the entire day, and as the 5 bricks were added to the other sacredly placed 40 bricks, he spoke. “Maybe being loved by God is all that matters.”

In all the suffering these people had endured, through all the ways they had been defeated, marginalized, wounded and rejected, at the end of their lives, the words that were spoken were those of belonging. Maybe the world would give a critical or pitying eulogy, but today, in the moments of reverent silence, those who had died were remembered as God’s deeply loved children.

And this was a reality that trumped any harsh word or feeling of regret or even a lonely death in the woods.

Maybe we forget that being loved by God is all that matters. We forget that in the love of God there is no hierarchy. Maybe we should aim to see people through the lens of their belonging to God. Only then can we live in solidarity with the broken. Only then can we experience God’s heart for the pain of this world.

walking beside our kids

“You just need to know we’re for you.”

Ellia has had a tough year. She’s had several hospital stays, missed plenty of school and spent a good amount of time in her wheelchair. She’s struggled to see herself as more than a kid with a genetic disorder. She’s strong, not just for a seven year old, but she challenges the emotional strength of every person around her.

And I think lately, she’s been tired.

Recently, the issue of school has caused her deep anxiety and fear. We’ve had a difficult time trying to decide what is best for her in the midst of her very real concerns. And right now, no solution is very appealing.

It’s ok as parents that we don’t always know what to do for our kids. Maybe that’s because we’re not our kids. We don’t know what they feel when they fall or fail or experience social rejection. We don’t know what makes their specific situation better or what makes it worse.

Traditionally I’ve viewed parenting as an institution in which the child follows the adult. What I say, you do. When I choose, you acquiesce.

But as Ellia sat in panic the night before she went back to school this week, I sensed that parenting is more than the limiting pattern of “follow me.”

Of course I affirm the parental duty to set boundaries, enforce boundaries and call their children to be respectful and responsible.

But as I sat on her bed watching her cry before school the next day, I realized that she needed something more than a parental decision-making moment. She needed more than correction or advice. She needed to know that she was not alone. She needed to hear that we weren’t just leading her; we were also beside her. We were with her in the struggle, not disconnectedly trying to solve her problems.

When it comes to adversity, we often see our role as parents in two ways: one, we rescue our children from challenges. Or, two, we explain that difficulties are part of the real world and they need to suck it up.

And maybe different times call for different responses.

But underlying any response and at any time, we need to offer a clear reminder that our children are not alone.   They are not alone when they make mistakes, they are not alone when they succeed. They aren’t alone when their feelings get hurt or the teacher gets angry or they are falsely accused or socially wounded.

Earlier that night, Brett spoke similar words to our 7 year old. He reminded her that no matter how she does in school or what people say to her or how good she is during computer time, she has a family who will walk with her every step of the way. She doesn’t have to do the difficult things alone. We will listen to her and help her process.

“And you need to know, Ellia, that we are here and we will always fight for you.”

This doesn’t mean she won’t walk through consequences, nor does it mean we will save her from suffering. But maybe we should stop parenting solely from the front while demanding fall-in-line obedience. Instead, we must be willing to walk beside our kids, even as we hold them accountable.

They won’t be perfect, but neither will we.

But each day and in each circumstance we can teach our kids that they don’t face the world alone. And sometimes this is what our children need in order to have the courage to show up each day and live the life in front of them.

It’s a small picture of the hope we experience with the reality of Emmanuel—God with us.

Hold your kids and surround them with consistent guidance and grace—not just as their leaders, but also as their biggest fans.

 

redefining repentance

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.

And the people throughout the whole region came to John for baptism and the confession of sin.

It’s super snotty, but there have been times in my life where I’ve read a sermon title in the bulletin in order to decide whether or not I want to commit the next hour to sitting in a pew. If it’s a sermon about tithing or church growth, then you can find me journaling in the foyer. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never willingly listened to a sermon entitled, “Repent Now.”

But these are the first words we hear from John the Baptist, who shows up on the scene as the forerunner preparing the way for Jesus—the Messiah who has come to save the world through restoration and reconciliation with the Creator.

And John is big on the concept of repentance. I’m assuming he wouldn’t be invited into many pulpits today. Repentance has become an abrasive word associated less with “seeker-friendly” churches and more a message of “fire and brimstone.”

Maybe it’s because across church life, we feel uneasy about talking about sin—even though we all have an experience of it and we all want out of it. We’d much prefer to camp out on the message of God’s patience or our call to be conduits of compassion.

I grew up defining repentance as feeling badly that you’ve failed and experiencing shame and guilt for your sin until God felt you were sorry enough. I’ve always read John’s message as the historical equivalent to the phrase “Turn or Burn.”

REPENT!!!

It feels like a guilt-producing street preacher yelling about my one-way ticket to hell.

If this is true about repentance, this guilt and shame, this sin-focused message, then why would people come to John?

I doubt people came to be shamed. The religious establishment was already doing a bang-up job of piously ostracizing those who were imperfect.

Why wouldn’t the listeners respond like me and go journal at the other side of the Jordan til Mr. Crazy Pants stopped yelling?

What was so compelling about John the Baptist’s words that so many were drawn out to the wilderness for baptism?

John said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

And the people came in droves.

Repent. The Kingdom of God is immanent.

Either these Jews didn’t understand the concept of good news or we don’t understand the concept of repentance.

Israel knew repentance was never solely about sin. It wasn’t a reprimanding call God issued to correct behavior. The call to repent was the call to identity. It was an offer to turn toward the God who had called and provided for his people. The God who had delivered and had covenanted to love.

Repentance is the message of hope and freedom through embracing our identity.

The call to return isn’t in opposition to a message of God’s forgiveness, grace or patience—it’s an avenue to experience God’s forgiveness, grace and patience.

Re-member. Re-turn. Re-focus.

This message is exciting to those of us who feel the unshakable weight of sin. Who feel like we are our own worst enemy.

And for those of us longing for the rescue of God, the words of John are salvific and our way to see and experience the Christ.

If the Kingdom of God is immanent, then tomorrow could be different than yesterday, then disillusionment and failures don’t get the last word. A new way of life is here.

Repent—say yes to who you are. Say no to who you aren’t. Move toward the God of grace. Move away from that which is destructive.

You don’t have to keep wandering aimlessly.

People flocked to John the Baptist because they were compelled by the hope of the coming King.

Of course, repentance includes the element of confession. But it’s more than feeling guilty for our sin.

Repenting doesn’t mean we feel shame, it means we take the hand that Jesus extends to bring freedom in places of destruction. It means we grab on to the grace that willingly pulls us into light. Connection with Jesus isn’t about the pursuit of perfection—it’s about a life of dependence.

Thus repentance is marked by the goodness of God and his amazing work of reconciliation. It’s the act of looking to God and allowing this God to do what he has done and will do again- deliver, restore, and transform.

Through repentance, I don’t have to keep doing the things I don’t want to do. I don’t have to continue holding on to hate or unforgivenness or my futile efforts to make others happy.

John calls us to be changed and renewed.

And in so doing, we open ourselves up to see the transcendent God who is also immanent. Emmanuel—God with us