April 25, 2017
For fifty days following his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ continued to interact with his disciples and appeared to hundreds of people. More detail is given in the gospel of John than in the synoptic gospels, so I am going to take a leisurely pace through the last chapter of the fourth gospel. I’m interested to know how our Teacher and Lord could possibly top his “performance” on Easter Sunday. What can disciples expect after such an amazing feat, Jesus’ mic drop moment of all time?
30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
1After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. [John 20:30–21:3]
The fourth gospel writer, putting pen to parchment a few decades after the other three had rendered their accounts, summarizes his purposes in verses 30-31. He first states that Jesus did lots of other things—miraculous demonstrations— that John has not included in his account. Mentioning this fact suggests that John had picked the best stories to share, but they were only the tip of the iceberg. Regardless of what you have heard in people’s Christian testimonies, it is likely that Jesus has done even more to make himself known and present in a person’s life! Keep that in mind the next time you share your own testimony or hear how Jesus has made a difference. And that is not even taking into account all the secret and invisible blessings God is imparting without our knowledge. No one book can contain it all.
John then writes that the stories he related in his gospel account were included to convince his readers that Jesus is nothing short of Messiah, the Son of God. This is the lens through which one should read the entire book: how does an event or this particular episode demonstrate Jesus is divine and sent to us on the messianic mission of salvation? John would not be satisfied if your conclusion to his writing was that Jesus was a very good man, a great teacher, a rabble-rouser who spoke truth to power, or a particularly effective physician. Of course Jesus was all these things, but John’s message is, “But wait! There’s more!” Jesus wasn’t just anybody; Jesus was God’s Son who took on flesh and lived among us (Jn 1:14) in order to do what was necessary to save the world (Jn 3:16). Notice how John points us back to his book’s introduction: “See, here is what I wanted you to know, and I think I conveyed it convincingly.”
It might feel like chapter 20 is the end of the story. But John goes on to relay some natural encounters that might even seem a little common to be included at the conclusion of his book. After all the resurrection excitement, we see the disciples decide it’s time to get back to fishing. Peter leads the stampede to the boat, showing leadership even then. The fish of the Sea of Galilee are caught at night, so that evening they rig their boat and prepare their nets, and then row out to the perfect spot for a good catch. They are pros at this and have full expectation that their nets will fill. Alas, they catch nothing all night.
I’ve stopped the action at this moment just to give us a taste of what that felt like. I’m not sure they expected to catch fish every time they went out. (I know my husband has high hopes when he goes out in his kayak to fish, but there are too many variables for him to assume that he will catch anything.) Here they are, coming up empty after losing a full night’s sleep trying. I would not be happy about that outcome at all, so I expect these guys were pretty disappointed.
My thought, in light of this fruitless foray onto the lake, is that life after knowing the risen Christ is still going to carry disappointments. As “life goes on,” circumstances will be imperfect, even mundane, and success may be elusive. Believing and knowing Christ does not guarantee that struggles desist. It is important for us to modulate our expectations about what salvation accomplishes in our life. We may still have financial strains. We may still get sick. Our car might still break down. Those things happen to everyone, even Christians.
What does change, for sure, is our attitude toward the difficulties of life and discerning whether they have any meaning. It should also prod us to pray and ask God for help, rather than rely solely on our own expertise—these guys were professional fishermen, after all— and Jesus will intervene in this particular problem shortly. We’ll explore how and to what end tomorrow. For now, let us appreciate the fact that our having difficulties does not disprove or discredit our Savior’s accomplishments, teachings, resurrection, or power. This may seem like a tough sell, so we will keep exploring this theme through John’s eyes this week.
April 21, 2017
I’ve been on the road, driving alone in our little Sprinter van conversion RV, to meet Darling Daughter A in Ashland, Oregon. It’s a drive one can easily accomplish in one day, but I left Wednesday afternoon to get the first three hours under my belt. Without really planning it this way, I have had a mini-retreat. Driving in the quiet, enjoying the scenery, occasionally listening to music, stopping every once in awhile to stretch. It’s good for the soul! I recommend it.
Sometimes a person just has to get away, into the quiet, in order to gain perspective. The daily discipline of “quiet time” allows us to listen to God and examine our lives. One need not go on a road trip to accomplish this task, but every once in awhile an extended “time away” (even at home) refreshes the spirit. I have experienced significant spiritual breakthroughs in times like this and am open again.
In the silence, I realize one question is a trigger for my anxiety: Am I spending my time on the most important things? I often wonder if today’s precious hours are being spent properly. “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Ephesians 5:15-17). Am I doing what God wants me to be doing? Doubt that I am has plagued me for a few years, from a career perspective. It seems to be coming to a head as my husband and I discuss retirement (some time in the future). Like, Wait, I’m still working on, “What do I want be when I grow up?”
It is possible for me to get quite tied up in knots about this, and I know full well it is a form of obsession, diffuse in its focus, and therefore in the category of anxiety rather than worry. Worry tends to be focused on more realistic, specific concerns. I face the Life Question every day, because of course I have a long list of unfinished projects, home improvement tasks awaiting attention, four books to write, and relationships to maintain. Which is the most important to work on today? Half the time, I don’t know. I recognize that I can suffer from analysis paralysis, otherwise known as “overthinking.” Throw in a little perfectionism, and you have a recipe for emotional gridlock.
But wait, there’s more: experience a life-threatening illness that carries with it an abysmal 5-year survival rate. [I just celebrated Year 3 of those 5, and expect a full lifespan.] The tension surrounding the time question builds. Could it be that one of God’s purposes in carrying me through lung cancer was to explore this particular growth area? God has invited me to re-learn how to live in the present, make the most of every encounter, and consider the value of what I used to dismiss as trivial pursuit.
A corollary to the fear of Time-Wasting is the Bucket List idea: what’s on my list and how much time do I have left to fulfill those dreams? I was speaking with a patient earlier this week, and he told me, when asked how he was doing in his spirit, “I’ve done everything on my bucket list, and I no longer know what the purpose of my life is.” Wow! What a great entry into a meaningful conversation on the Purpose of Now.
I realize that most of my anxiety has to do with the future. My daughters laugh at me as dinner winds down and conversation gets goofy, and I change the subject to “What’s up tomorrow?” or “Here’s tomorrow’s plan.” Over decades time I have under-appreciated what is going on right now and often have not been present to it. It’s odd, because when I do actually rest in the present, I feel safe and secure, led by God. I have the capacity to put my heart and soul into whatever I am doing and get lost in time. Not very often do I do this, but I can.
Those who are overwhelmed by the present cope by diverting their attention to something fun or engaging: needlework such as counted cross-stitch is excellent for requiring concentration, and I have found backpacking does the same thing for me. You either center down and concentrate in a very small circle of activity, or you do something repetitive and concentrate on breathing. I know people who find their refuge in gardening, in making music, in fly fishing, and in painting. These activities are calming because they put us in touch (whether we realize it or not) with our Creator, who is saying right here and right now, “Peace be with you.”
April 20, 2017
Human beings comprise bodies, minds, emotions, and spirits. What’s going on with us psychologically has an effect on our bodies, as those tied up in knots in stress can affirm. Spiritual turmoil can put our emotions in a spin. And physical illness can cause depression. We’re a bundle of entwined happenings. All this to say that anxiety has many causes—physiological, emotional, mental, and spiritual—and therefore can be tackled from all these angles. We can also say that no problem is purely a spiritual one (or a physical one, or . . .). Our multi-faceted nature is a wonder: complex and beautiful.
Isn’t it wonderful that the Apostle Paul knew this, so when he addressed worry and anxiety in Philippians 4:4-9, his Spirit-driven encouragement was right on target.
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I love the promises of God’s presence and power in our lives, especially when we are in situations that muddle our minds and rob us of peace. God’s indescribable inner peace is able to “stand guard” over our hearts (our center of meaning and identity) and minds (our thoughts). If we follow Paul’s example in dealing with worry, we are assured of God’s peace. So how do we get there?
First of all, Paul’s alternative to worry is prayer that is conducted in a spirit of gratitude. “By prayer…with thanksgiving, tell God what you need.” Sometimes we fret over things without ever really articulating what it is we desire to happen, so of course we fail to make our petition.
I’m sure I’ve told this story before, but it is so compelling and apropos, hear it again. Martin Luther struggled with worry and depression throughout his life. This is well documented in his writings. He was having a particularly bad week, and granted, there were several threats on the horizon that he obsessed over. The story goes that his wife Katherine came to breakfast wearing all black, appearing in deep mourning. Martin inquired about who had died, and Katherine stated flatly, “God has died.” Alarmed at her tone, Martin protested that God indeed was not dead, to which she retorted, “Well, Martin, the way you’ve been moping around in helplessness and worry all week, I thought God surely had left us!”
So Paul’s first word of advice is, “Okay, stop spinning in your head about this, and ask God for what you need. Spit it out!” In a way, this prayer begins with a confession: “Lord, I am sorry I didn’t come to you first with my worry.” The Apostle makes no promises about specific answers to prayer, but Paul does claim that asking with thanksgiving is met with God’s peace standing guard over our hearts and minds.
Second, choose new thoughts you want to dwell on. As a diversion from the worries, pick subjects that are good and true and pure. I believe that each of us gets to choose what we think about. Self-awareness helps us recognize what we are thinking and how we are thinking. We can actually turn to ourselves and say, “Self?! What’s that you’re thinking? How are you feeling about that? Is it worth all the lather you are working up?” We have the capacity, given to us by our Creator and empowered by his Spirit, to discern if our thoughts are spinning in circles or if the cogitation is constructive. Paul says, go search in your mind (or in nature or in a good book . . .) for those things that are worthy of praise, excellent, and commendable, and dwell on them! In this way a negative (worry) is displaced by a positive (commendable thing). When I get in a worrisome mood, I turn on favorite music really loud and dance to it. Or I take a turn in my garden or walk the labyrinth a short distance from my home.
Third, by praying and by diverting our attention, we can cultivate the ability to banish thoughts we don’t want to dwell on. It takes a little practice, and diversion really helps here, but just because a thought enters one’s mind doesn’t mean it has to set up shop. We can usher it out the back door as fast as it came in the front. This, by the way, is what is required in dealing with temptation. A thought flits by, all sparkly and attractive, but we can take “custody of the eyes” (or in this case, the mind), as the Benedictines used to say, and move on to something more wholesome.
The Apostle Paul attaches spiritual focus to mental health! He proclaims and I can affirm from my own experience that focused, thankful petition gets me out of my worrisome spin, diversion helps me find something better to occupy my mind, and moving on in the Spirit frees me for service.
I’m not sure if I will be able to post tomorrow . . . it all depends on finding a Wi-Fi signal at a time I can actually send off a blog entry. Stay tuned!
Thanks for the little breather there, around Easter. It was a busy weekend, including leading worship for a group of about 35 staff and patients at John Muir Hospital. It matters not if the congregation is 35 or 3500, a lot of energy goes into a service! So for all my friends resting after the Day of Resurrection, may Jesus refill your hearts and souls with his love and strength.
Picking up on the theme of anxiety from last week, the question is whether Jesus’ resurrection from the dead should make a difference in our tension/worry level. We can get an idea of its impact on the disciples by looking at the gospel accounts (especially John 20-21) and watch their reactions to the Lord’s reappearance.
In John’s account, the disciples are huddled in the Upper Room again, “afraid of the Jews” because of their friendship with the One who had been crucified. This group of eleven (minus the betrayer Judas, who earlier had hanged himself in remorse) was processing the events of the week, wondering if the crucifying spirit would extend to them by association. They were worried, plain and simple. Though Jesus had prepared them for something like this, it was beyond their imagination that a person who had suffered so could actually have risen and left the grave! And yet, Mary Magdalene herself had seen the Risen Lord that morning and told the disciples. It is important to note that Jesus had sent the message through Mary that he was Risen; she had faithfully passed it along to the disciples, and despite the notification, that evening they are still huddled in a worried wad, wondering what to do next.
But then Jesus appeared to them (all except Thomas the Twin who must have been out shopping or something), confirming the event and bringing much joy to the Upper Room. As time passes, we see the disciples begin to circulate again, getting back to work and otherwise reestablishing their routines. The gospel writers, knowing what is coming, hold us in suspense a bit, because we know eventually that the Resurrection and the preaching of the Resurrection (after Pentecost) would completely turn their worlds upside down. For now Jesus’ followers are waiting for instructions, which Jesus does give. The Spirit eventually will come upon them and empower them for dangerous, invigorating work proclaiming the gospel. [I will come back to this theme as we approach Pentecost.]
This series of events—resurrection, meeting Jesus face to face, waiting for “something,” commissioning for service, and empowering—all take place within a span of a few weeks. The resurrection is a fact, but there are still circumstances of concern to the disciples throughout this period, that is, until Pentecost. After the Spirit comes upon them in power and endows them with spiritual gifts, we see very little, if any, evidence of worry or anxiety. In fact, these Galileans become bold risk-takers with new preaching gifts putting them before huge crowds of curious neighbors, Jews and Gentiles alike.
It seems to me that this progression of events might help us understand worry and its relationship to Resurrection. You and I may have legitimate reasons to be cautious or “worried”: that is, some specific expectation that carries a threat to our wellbeing. Jesus said, “Do not worry” about all the basics of life, even some of the extraordinary circumstances of the moment, because God is merciful and will take care of us. [It has always fascinated me that Jesus did not psychologize about worry; he just said, “Don’t go there” (Matthew 6:25-33).] Maybe the Lord was so blunt in his teaching about worry, because he knew that if a person practices worry it becomes a habit that leads to a more generalized state of anxiety, which is a lot harder to control!
But getting back to the resurrection. This amazing miracle of Easter is of great import, but it does not succeed in and of itself in alleviating our anxiety! There are Christians around the world, most recently our Coptic brothers and sisters in Egypt whose churches were attacked on Palm Sunday, who know that suffering is still a hazard of following Christ. The resurrection did not put a halt to the persecution of Christians. Life goes on, and believers know that life is not easier because of the faith and sometimes think life is actually harder.
What the resurrection does, though, is help us work through our Greatest Fear, the fount from which all our other worries and anxieties flow: our aversion to death. When Jesus rose from the grave, he conquered the Great Enemy, death, and declared that New Life was found only in him because of that accomplishment. As our faith grows, we learn that death is not the worst thing to happen to us. We come to understand that it is the necessary doorway through which we must pass in order to enter the eternal rest promised to us in Christ.
But most people I talk to say, “I can accept the fact that I will die; but I just don’t want to go through the dying required to get there.” Precisely! This “secondary” fear is very strong in us, and Jesus agony and suffering prior to his death do not help us manage that worry very well. Or do they? If it is any consolation (and it has been to many saints through the ages), the fact that Jesus suffered so acutely before his death means that he has borne our grief, carried our sorrows, and by his scourging we were healed (Isaiah 53:5).
Does this claim have any direct relationship to our anxiety and worry? More on that tomorrow.
April 10, 2017
Today’s entry is one more context-setting blog, and then I think tomorrow I can start in on some Holy Week reflections. One of the more interesting ministry directions I have taken in the last year and a half is to involve myself helping people who suffer from lung disease (sometimes cancer, but more likely asthma, COPD, or emphysema). When I was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 2013, I was introduced to a new community of “my people,” those for whom breathing is an appreciated gift and intentional effort.
Part of my recovery in 2014 required me to undergo the Pulmonary Rehab program at John Muir Medical Center (Concord Campus). Participating in that seven-week discipline—which included class instruction and discussion as well as medically supervised gym workouts—opened my eyes to a needy population. I was soon asked to teach one of the units, specifically on “activities of daily living.” So now, once a month, I go in and entertain them with demonstrations, recommendations, website links, and other instructional input to help them function independently at home. Great fun, for sure, and keeps me in touch with a vulnerable group of people.
The second contribution I am making to lung health is through the Lung Cancer Alliance (LCA) in Washington, D.C. This fine group of people is supporting all kinds of efforts, with the hope of reducing the incidence of lung cancer, catching it earlier, finding new treatments, and supporting patients and their families with useful resources. The organization has a legislative branch that raises awareness among Members of Congress, drafts bills, and promotes funding for research of the disease and its cure. I made a trip to D.C. last month in order to meet with legislative aides for the two California Senators, Diane Feinstein and Kamala Harris (see me here with Senator Feinstein, whom I met out in the hallway), my Congressman Mark DeSaulnier, and Senator Marco Rubio (R–Florida) in hopes of convincing him to co-sponsor a bipartisan research study bill with Senator Feinstein.
One of my LCA assignments, to be fulfilled next December, is to contribute to a webinar on the topic “Survivor Anxiety.” I had shared with one of the staffers that after three years, I still suffer from scanxiety (getting anxious right before or after a periodic follow-up CT scan) and certain events can trigger an anxious reaction in me. So between now and December, I am keeping an “anxiety journal” and pondering—in a good, non-anxious way, I hope—how to address what turns out to be a common experience of cancer sufferers.
I share all this by way of introduction to this week’s reflections on the events of Jesus’ last few days of life prior to his resurrection. I am going to look at some biblical texts through the lens of anxiety. Particularly this week I shall try to imagine how Jesus managed himself through the horrific unfolding of events leading to his excruciating death on the cross. I anticipate that we will learn something together about worry and obsession over the things that might happen to us, but the goal is to discover the resources we have in Christ that will enable to walk our own journeys with poise and confidence.
April 8, 2017
Now don’t fall over in a dead faint as I write my first blog post in about a year and a half. No precipitating event has compelled me to write. Sitting down today with the purpose of writing something was completely spur of the moment. It’s just time to start engaging again, bringing the Word to life. I’ll be honest: I have no idea who my readers are now, but I hope you will give me some feedback (by means of “Comments”) so that I get a sense of you and what you find of value here.
The quick updates in previously used categories:
Health continues to be stellar, enhanced to a large degree by losing 38 pounds in the last year (yes, I started on Ash Wednesday 2016!). I’ve maintained above average skeletal-muscle mass, and now see normal health numbers across the board, though high blood pressure remains my inherited and therefore stubborn vulnerability. The one long-term effect of annihilating The Beast is with me: asthma (particularly bad this winter in the damp cold). A visit to a cardiologist informed me that long-term effects of radiation applied to the upper left chest can lead to stiffening of the blood vessels in that area. He therefore has recommended an aggressive treatment of my borderline-high cholesterol. So add Lipitor to my daily meds ::sigh::
My voice is back to 100%, after discontinuing the cortico-steroid inhaler I was taking daily for asthma control. The inhaler mist was depositing a residue directly on my larynx, gradually paralyzing it. After five days off the inhaler (in October 2015), my voice was back to full capacity and control! Praise God for this; and my asthma has not been any worse as a result.
For reasons that will be more obvious in a minute, book writing came to a screeching halt last year, but my work desk is now cleared of all clutter and the manuscript is front and center, getting some attention two or three times a week. My 12 to 15 hours of chaplaincy work each week at the hospital are amazing on so many levels, most especially experiencing the opportunity to be a light to people who register their religious preference as “None.” Many of my ministry stories now come from the encounters with patients and their families, though HIPAA rules (federal privacy laws) require me to mask or obscure details so you could never know about whom I am writing.
I remain in the category “No Evidence of Disease” (NED), that is, cancer-free more than 3-1/2 years after the diagnosis of Stage III Lung Cancer. My surgeon says I became cancer-free on March 3, 2014, the day of the surgery to take out my upper left lung lobe and many lymph nodes. My oncologist says my cancer-free anniversary is April 28, the last day of chemotherapy. So what’s a girl to do? Celebrate life more enthusiastically than usual for almost two months, from March 3 to April 28! I am right in the middle of this prolonged celebration.
On March 14, 2015 (the Pi Day of the Century, 3.14.15), our “little Miss Elly” was born to our older daughter and her husband, both attorneys now residing in Tacoma, WA. Our first grandchild is of course smart and brilliant and healthy, and that is probably all you are going to hear from me about her in this public forum. But we love going up there to the Pacific Northwest to help celebrate her birthday just as the cherry blossoms are popping, celebrating with pie of course!
In 2016, we added another date that happens to fall within this celebratory period. On April 12, 2016, my husband Andy was felled in a motorcycle accident, when a car went through a red light and they collided in the intersection. He was taken to the trauma center at Highland Hospital in Oakland, just two miles from the accident, and over the next eight days was stabilized with internal injuries, operated on for a broken pelvis and shredded knee tendon, and rejoiced over that things weren’t a lot worse than they were. He transferred to “my” hospital (close to home) for two weeks of acute rehab, then came home for another five weeks of non-weight-bearing discipline. All in all, he was off work for four months, and the whole experience was a huge test of our faith, good-humor, and marriage vows (the “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health” part). But I am happy to tell you that one year later (next week), Andy is back to 100%, working at Abbott Diabetes Care, walking without a limp, and doing the things he loves—all except motorcycle riding, since his brand-new BMW motorcycle was totaled. After long and careful thought, Andy replaced it with an Audi plug-in hybrid car, and we are both very happy with that choice!
Andy’s accident was a terribly destabilizing and disorienting experience, but a year later I can say that I have my sea legs back with a renewed sense of call to my hospital work and to writing. There is so much to tell you, but I will continue on Monday. In the meantime, take a moment to celebrate the life God has given you!