The original impetus for writing on anxiety came in the form of an invitation from the Lung Cancer Alliance folks, to share on the topic for a webinar in December 2017. In preparation, I am keeping a personal anxiety journal, just for the heck of it, so that I have plenty of current illustrations!

Okay, I admit I am feeling a little anxious these days. I am looking forward to my April 26 CT scan, a routine image every six months to check for signs of a cancer reoccurrence. One is said to have “scanxiety” in anticipation of one’s periodic scans. Mine is a very specific and temporary concern, and then when the scan comes back “all clear,” I go back to a state of relative serenity— until the next one. One of my coping mechanisms is to keep busy and find wholesome distractions to divert my thoughts from dwelling on something (a scan) that is going to happen, no matter what. Later this week my distraction is to see three plays at the Ashland (Oregon) Shakespeare Festival. I’m hoping Henry IV (Part I) and Julius Caesar will do the trick!

Seriously, though, my little bit of anxiety is nothing compared to the build up of community-wide, even national anxiety. It depends on where you live, how much exposure to world news you get, and life circumstances or age encroaching upon you.

I started noticing this more corporate anxiety right after 9/11. A mother of young children, a parishioner of mine, freaked out about the horrific event and feared for the safety of her toddlers. She watched replays of the event night and day. Her anxiety reached irrational levels, leading to her refusal to let her children stay in the church nursery during worship and Sunday school.

More recently, I observe that drivers on the road are more tightly wound than ever before. Admittedly, I live in an area known for its legendary, impossible traffic. There is no longer a rush “hour”; the morning commute starts at 5:30 and continues until 9:30; the afternoon commute in the opposite direction starts as early as 3:30 and goes until 7 o’clock. It’s a jungle out there. The condition has not engendered virtue among drivers though. Rather, as people get more frustrated, they take more chances. They become rude and self-entitled. They go after motorcyclists who have some special traffic privileges in the state of California. They speed when the slightest bit of black pavement opens in front of them, or they honk their horns. [It is possible that these behaviors are not signs of anxiety but of anger. . . I concede the point. But their bad manners cause me anxiety, I can tell you that!]

Nowadays, I think a blanket of generalized anxiety has enveloped Americans with fears of terrorism, the possible loss of health care insurance coverage, a President and Congress moving in uncharted directions, and hearing a political or religious point of view one deems threatening. Not since the Cuban Missile Crisis have I been aware of such angst. The fact that every act of violence, every unusual (even rare) occurrence, is broadcast not only during the News Hour but also across social media 24/7 does not help a person keep perspective. This week, for two hours on Facebook, it was possible to watch in horror as a crazed individual kills another in cold blood and posts the video in real time.

What is a person to do? How would knowing the Risen Christ make a difference when we feel like we are taking a bath in anxious waters? Jesus says, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33). The NIV translates this passage, “In the world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” Jesus overcame the world—and the devil and death also—by his own death and resurrection. God is bigger than all of creation and any problem, and we are invited to believe that God is at work through both creation and difficulty. His work does not necessarily prevent pain and suffering for me in the short term, but God is gaining the victory over all the enemies that make humans suffer. The fact that God, the Lord of History, is working things out over time is the source of our hope:

20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. 24Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. 25For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26The last enemy to be destroyed is death.  —1 Corinthians15:20-26

He will prevail, and therefore so shall we.

Tomorrow I will draw from the Apostle Paul, who experienced plenty of pain and hardship in the course of his ministry, and yet seemed remarkably free of anxiety and worry. He is going to give us some ideas about how we can handle anxiety in the day-to-day matters that bother us.

We have arrived at the day of Jesus’ death, about which he prophesied, for which he prepared his disciples, and to which he marched willingly. Time has not permitted an elaboration on the trial before Pilate, Peter’s denial, or the mocking and scourging designed to humiliate and traumatize our Savior. In summary, we can say that by the time Jesus walked from trial to execution, carrying his own cross, he was already exhausted physically and mentally.

It is important to recognize the potential for spiritual danger when we are completely and utterly spent. Exhaustion can weaken our guard against temptation, scramble our judgment, and even make us (literally) stumble and fall. The only other time we see Jesus at very low ebb like this was when he spent forty days in the desert, immediately following his baptism (Matthew 4 and Luke 4). Satan took advantage of the situation to harass Jesus and attempted to divert him from his mission.

On this Holy Week night-without-food-or-sleep, we can only imagine the weakness Jesus felt. Add physical pain and/or emotional torture, and we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ state as his crucifixion approached. All signs read, “Danger! Danger!”

When I get tired, I tend to get snappy, irritable, and selfish. My body and mind say, “You’re done, babe. You have nothing left to give. Go to bed.” If you were to overhear my words at this low point, you would be very disappointed in me.

How much worse was the exhaustion, the pain, and the spiritual strain on Jesus the night he was betrayed into the hands of Roman soldiers, Jewish elders, and a mocking crowd. Yet, what came out of his mouth as he was hanging on the cross? What we call “the seven last words of Christ”:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34)

“Truly, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

“Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother” (John 19:26)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)

“I am thirsty” (John 19:28).

“It is finished [accomplished]” (John 19:30).

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

The gospel accounts give the impression that Jesus was largely silent in the three hours he hung on the cross. But the few words he did say reveal his soul, his intent, his mission, and his trust. What was his message?

Forgiveness: Jesus spends no energy whatsoever on anger or resentment. He asks the Father to forgive the people who were perpetrating an inherently unjust and undeserved punishment. He does not allow his spirit to be encumbered by bitterness. Take that, Devil!

Salvation: The very purpose of Jesus death was to atone for the sins of the world. In his weakened state, however, he does not overlook the salvation of one criminal hanging right next to him. Atonement is accomplished at Jesus’ expense, for our benefit. The thief who believes him and asks for consideration receives it freely and selflessly. No one is beyond redeeming! Take that, Devil!

Relationship: Jesus takes care of family business and gets his affairs in order. He possesses nothing of material value, but cherishes his mother. In a culture where widows were extremely vulnerable, he asks the apostle John to take her under his wing. Again, not thinking of himself or his own losses, but only of others. Take that, Devil!

Abandonment: Up to this point, the one reality Jesus could count on in life was the presence and guidance of his heavenly Father. On the cross, even that consolation is removed. I acknowledge great mystery about this moment. The God-Man Jesus feels his Father’s abandonment, distressing him greatly. But even in this dark despair, Jesus continues to speak to God who is silent. Take that, Devil!

Distress. The acknowledgment of thirst is so human and so basic. Physically, he is parched. But as Mother Teresa affirmed throughout her ministry to the destitute and dying of Calcutta, the human condition is one of thirst: yearning for living water, needing love, crying out for justice. Jesus at this moment is right alongside us experiencing neediness. He bears it. He is not satisfied, but he continues to trust God. Take that, Devil!

Victory. Like a marathoner crossing the finish line, Jesus recognizes that his dying is accomplishing the will of God and fulfilling his mission on earth. Nothing can be added now; he has done what he came to do. No guilt. No regrets. Only peace. Take that, Devil!

Trust. Jesus has survived scourging. Jesus has withstood mocking. Jesus has endured God’s abandonment to death. Jesus has finished his work. And now, Jesus gives up his spirit into the care of his Father. What trust! What resolve! What faith! Take that, Devil!

O Lord, that I may in the circumstances of my death be able to walk through the Shadow into your marvelous Light: trusting you, thinking of others, forgiving as needed. You have walked this path before me; now by your Spirit help me to live and die in confidence and serenity. Amen.

 

As we move through Holy Week, I am contemplating Jesus’ mental state, on the lookout for anxiety. If I had been in Jesus’ shoes that week, anxiety is what I would have been feeling. But that is only projection from a very human point of view! Letting the Scripture speak for itself, we find a window into the soul of the God-Man Jesus in accounts of his visit to the Garden of Gethsemane.

Up to this point, Jesus was handling his emotions well. He has spent the evening with his closest disciples, instructing them, explaining the meaning of upcoming events, and reassuring them of the Spirit’s presence. His death is less than a day away. The narrators hint at poignancy and even sadness, especially in reference to imminent betrayal, but we see no fear at the dinner table.

In the Garden, though, we see a different reaction worth noting.

I am comparing the versions proffered by Matthew 26:36-46 and Mark 14:32-42, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Luke, for all the heart-warming humanity in his gospel, includes very little emotional content in the Garden of Gethsemane scene. (All we have is the textually disputed Luke 22:43f that elaborates on Jesus’ anguish in the garden.)

Matthew 26:37 states:
He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved (erxato lupeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Mark 14 uses a different verb:
Jesus began to be distressed (erxato ekthambeisthai) and agitated (ademonein).

Lupeo (to grieve) points to deep sadness and emotional pain. Agitation (ademoneo) suggests a physiological disturbance caused by a flush of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone of stress. Physical pain is often accompanied by agitation, which adds to the suffering. So according to Matthew, Jesus was in deep emotional pain, overwhelmed by sadness and apparently unsettled and disturbed in his spirit.

Mark also uses the word ademoneo (agitated), but instead of referring to grief, he uses ekthambeo (be distressed). This word means, “greatly astounded,” with either positive or negative reactions. The positive use of this term would be “to be amazed,” but in this case, the meaning is “to be alarmed.”

What caught my attention is that this word “astounded/alarmed” suggests that Jesus was surprised by something ugly or dangerous. For some time we know he had been aware of the purpose of this journey and its outcome (his death). But in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken aback by a vision of what was to come. Louw & Nida suggest that this word meaning may even extend to fear.

What could possibly surprise Jesus to the point of alarm? The desolation of his own death! Death itself was not new to him; he had wept at Lazarus’ tomb before he shouted for Lazarus to come out. But here in Gethsemane, Jesus is confronted and astounded by the pain of dying and the darkness of his own death.

This reaction is different from the poise he demonstrated in the prior week. So different in fact that I wonder if the first Garden encounter—the one that caused alarm and agitation—was not with his heavenly Father but with the devil. The devil authors fear, disturbance, and destruction. If it can immobilize us by intimidation or threat, it will. God, on the other hand, is the author of peace. He provides courage and instills in us a sense of purpose and resolve. And he gives us the power to proceed on the path he has chosen for us.

By all accounts, Jesus is taken aback by the devil’s threat at first, seems to regroup, and then addresses his Father with “Please, if possible, remove this cup; nevertheless, do your will, not mine.” This is the honest, steady, intimate plea of Son to Father, born out of complete trust in God’s plan.

Jesus, even if he were momentarily afraid as the text suggests, was not sinning by recoiling from the horror of what would happen. But he does not run from this particular peril, because it is his mission to walk into trouble and die for a pre-ordained purpose. He willingly submits to his Father and carries out his assignment knowing full well now what it will entail, in all its gory devil-drawn detail.

As we continue on our Christian walk, there are times and circumstances when we become alarmed, even afraid. Alarm in the midst of a genuine threat to our wellbeing is a gift from God to help us get out of the way, run, remove our hand from the fire, or otherwise escape and survive. When there is danger, the alarm is raised so that we can act appropriately and quickly. There is no sin in recognizing danger. There is no fault in being outraged by death. Please be assured that even Jesus felt these things!

When I think about the moments in which I received bad news in the last ten years or so, I did experience alarm that allowed me to give my full attention to next steps. Yes, I tended to get agitated by the unknowns, unsettled by the ambiguities, befuddled by options before me. But my faith in God’s providence never wavered, because this state of alarm morphed into vigilant trust in the Savior. Focusing, as Jesus did, on walking in God’s Way throughout these ordeals was made possible by God’s Spirit within me. I believe it is that same strength and power that enabled Jesus to walk toward his death, from Gethsemane to Golgotha, resolving to do God’s will without complaint or cowardice.

Anxiety lurks at the edges of my mental and spiritual life. I come by it honestly, that is, I grew up in an anxious home. It is part of my Christian testimony: Jesus’ gracious invasion into my awareness and his Spirit’s residence in my soul for 47 (!) years definitely changed my course by moderating anxiety’s influence. For this I am deeply grateful.

So when cancer attempted to take over my body in 2013-14, and in the three years of cancer-freedom since then, the question of anxiety was forefront in my mind. I blogged about it at the time, and made the conscious choice not to let it get the better of me. What has surprised me, though, is the potential for worry and anxiety three years out! I’m calling it “survivor anxiety,” and it rears its ugly head as I prepare for the periodic CT scans (“scanxiety”) or await lab results or hear about a lung cancer patient who didn’t make it. This is real life not only for me but also for countless lung patients. In what ways does God’s Word address this besetting condition of my soul?

We can do no better than to look to the life of our Savior Jesus Christ for clues, and Holy Week is as good a time as any to make this examination.

Sunday morning at church, the children processed down the aisles waiving their palm branches and encouraging the rest of us to sing our “Hosannas” with gusto. Thus began the reenactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a few days before “the passion.” One day he is publicly welcomed, feted, and praised. Five days later he is tried, convicted, and crucified. A heartbreaking downfall.

And yet, none of these events was outside of Jesus’ foreknowledge. The gospels indicate that Jesus was aware of and was following a timetable—arranged by his heavenly Father—that took him to Jerusalem. He had previously visited the great city as a private citizen, but this entry was a public one and the launch of an amazing package of symbols, statements, and, ultimately, sacrifice that were the climax of his ministry life.

His heavenly Father had revealed the plan: “You have five days to live.”

As an aside, I ministered to a woman in my city for several months, after her doctor informed her that her cancer treatment was not working and she had three weeks to live. One of her first “orders of business” was to ask for a minister to consult with her, after a 25-year absence from church fellowship. I had the privilege of walking alongside her, helping her process her tenuous relationship with God. Then we parted for a time presumably to allow her privacy with her family and to make final arrangements. The plan was that her daughter would call me when death occurred, and I would do the memorial service. I didn’t hear from the family for months and thought perhaps they had dropped the ball. So I called the family home, and the woman herself answered! She was still alive, though much weaker, and still understanding that death was right around the corner. Her only anxiety revolved around the question of why she hadn’t died yet.

Luke records in his gospel that at a critical juncture Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51-53). He took the bridle off his public ministry, went boldly to Jerusalem, said the prophetic things, and did the provocative miracles that would bring the issue of his identity to a head.

My question is this: was Jesus worried about what was going to happen to him? Reading the gospel account from Luke 9 forward, one gets no inkling that Jesus was anything but resolved about his mission. In fact, later in Luke 12, we find Jesus giving his famous sermon about worry! “Do not worry about your life . . .”!

What about Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem? Was anxiety among the feelings he carried while riding on that donkey? As he paraded up the hillside toward the temple, and the crowd shouted “Hosanna,” he knew death was only five days away, but we see no signs of anxiety. I suppose he could have been tense, on alert, hyper-vigilant, watching the political signs around him, but he certainly showed no signs of fear or foreboding; in fact, he chose this display and incorporated well-placed symbols into the celebration. Riding a donkey spoke volumes: “I may be the son of David, but I am unlike any king you have ever seen.”

As his week progresses, we perhaps see some developments in Jesus’ mental state. For now, it would be good to pause and ask ourselves the question, How would I handle the knowledge that I had five days to live? What did Jesus have that enabled him to proceed through his last days in confidence and resolve? Could I have that same serenity as I move through my own life toward its inevitable end?

Hello faithful readers,

I am taking a blogging break for the month of June to accommodate the intense concentration required to prepare and sing several choral concerts this month. It’s a spiritual discipline of another sort.

I am in the middle of final rehearsals this week, in anticipation of two “bon voyage” performances this weekend in Seattle. After a week’s break, I head to Frankfurt with the Northwest Firelight Chorale, to visit and perform in the Rhein Valley and Cologne in Germany and points west in Alsace and Burgundy France.

Crazy, I know. My 62-year-old brain is in overdrive memorizing eighteen pieces, most in English, but one in French and another in Alsatian, which is going to be the death of me. On the other hand, there is so much for which to be thankful:

• a voice that is finally cooperating and stable enough to sing for hours

 • a fine and fun choir and a conductor willing to overlook my creative breathing 🙂

• beautiful music focusing on the theme “On the Journey Home” through American sacred songs, hymns, and spirituals. A lot of these texts are heaven-centered, and since I have been contemplating Life after Life after Death lately, it has been a blessing to sing about it also.

Keep me and the choir in your prayers, for travel mercies, good health, and appreciative audiences throughout the tour.

In the meantime, treasure Jesus Christ in your heart and bring the Word to life. And if you get a chance, sing about the hope you have in the Savior!

I have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila this week, and am taken in by the character development of the girl without a home. Not wanting to spoil the book for anyone who has not read it (and I’m not even finished with it myself), let us just note a habit Lila started when she landed in Gilead. She pinched a pew Bible in order to gain some insight into what the preacher was talking about. To achieve her other goal—increased literacy—she opened the book at the beginning (Genesis 1) and started writing out verses one at a time, ten times each. It helped her ponder the texts and enter them into her memory for referral later.

On my piano rack stand several pieces of vocal music that must be memorized for a choral concert tour we will be making this summer. My struggle has included listening to the pieces many times, plunking them out on the piano, singing my part frequently, but they are still not memorized. My next step is the Lila method: write out the words, find the patterns, note the changes from verse to verse, and otherwise parse the lyrics in order to get them into my brain. Next will be loading the pieces onto my iPhone so I can practice holding my own with the rest of the choral parts.

Early in my walk with Christ, I memorized one hundred Bible verses and their Scripture references. Memorizing was so much easier then! But it always included writing them out (by hand) a few times, just like Lila did, then saying them out loud. Exposure to them through reading, writing, and speaking them finally enabled me to “hear” them. By this rather pedantic method, I succeeded in storing those verses into my mind and heart, where they reside and are available anytime they are needed, even today.

Of course, in the meantime, lots of homework has supported this early effort. I have read the entire Bible (more than once), studied theological concepts, outlined entire books of the Bible, and explored implications for everyday life. In other words, Scripture has taken root in me over the decades I have been known by Christ.

The Apostle Paul’s lengthy exhortation to the Colossians continues with the urging:

16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
and with gratitude in your hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Paul knows the importance of keeping a firm grip on the Word of God. Something happens internally when we set something to memory. It becomes ours. It speaks to us when we are not expecting to hear from it again. We find ourselves making connections between something happening and what we have remembered. This has been my experience of internalizing the Scriptures. Paul calls it “letting the word dwell in you richly.” Namely, allowing the Word of God to abide in both mind and heart so that and until it bears fruit within. But he goes on to say that this Word is something that we, together as the Body of Christ, share with one another through teaching and correction. When the Word dwells in us, and particularly in our Christian community, in our worship and study together, we become a people of the Word. It isn’t only an individualistic thing, to know the Word of God, it is also a corporate thing to know, experience, taste, and handle the Word of truth among fellow believers.

And a joyous, comforting thing it is. Last week I had the privilege of spending an evening with several of Steve Hayner’s friends, who shared poignantly of walking alongside him on the journey toward heaven. Scriptures just “popped” for them. Old, familiar verses that had brought so much solace in life were now reapplied and richly expanded at the moment of death. I will never read Psalm 116 the same again.

Years ago, the wife of a dying man in his 90s called me for a visit. He was a retired pastor who had been in perfect health until just a few months before his death. My husband and I called on him in the hospital at a time when he was feeling discouraged and down, desiring more than anything for the Lord to take him home. He had been unable to read for several weeks, which further depressed him. As he shared this, his wife gently chided him, saying, “But honey, you have so much Scripture memorized, you hardly need to read now.” And then she prompted him with the opening verses of Isaiah 6:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne . . .

He immediately joined in, and before our very eyes he enthusiastically delivered the entire chapter and Isaiah’s call to the prophetic ministry. It was just amazing. He was a different person when he concluded his recitation: encouraged, seeing heaven, awestruck.

There is a man in whom the Word dwelt richly. Is this not an encouragement to all of us to grab hold of portions of Scripture, memorize them and carry them with us? There will come a day for us, too, when we will be unable to read. But with the Holy Spirit, who Jesus promised would help us remember everything he taught us (John 14:25ff), we can “eat this book” (Revelation 10:9, The Message). Lent is a perfect time to get going on this, don’t you think?

 

In Memoriam: Steve Hayner

February 23, 2015

A service celebrating the life and ministry of the Rev. Dr. Steve Hayner takes place today in Atlanta, Georgia. Steve was president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, and former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He was also a friend and encourager to me, in the context of our national covenant group which met two weeks ago shortly after his death.

Join me today in attending Steve’s memorial service at Peachtree Presbyterian Church through live-streaming.

The service begins at 2 p.m. EST, and the worship bulletin is available as a PDF download here.

As I participate in this service shortly, I will be contemplating also the next line in Colossials 3, “And be thankful.” I am thankful for Steve, his influence in the wider church, his humble and gracious and reconciling spirit, and the joy with which he walked the journey from this life to the next.

Last Saturday, my covenant group friend Steve Hayner died in the Lord. As his wife Sharol put it, his life was swallowed up in LIFE. I along with thousands of readers of his CaringBridge site, colleagues there at Columbia Seminary, and family and friends whose lives he touched in decades’ time, were aware that his homegoing was imminent. He was sick only about ten months, from diagnosis of his pancreatic cancer to the end of his life on earth. Occasionally he would share what was on his heart and mind as this process took its turns and twists. We all stand privileged to have witnessed his journey home.

As I learned a year ago, one has the privilege of choosing what one thinks about. Steve chose to focus on finding joy each day and seeking his daily calling, regardless of what his external circumstances would permit him to do. I last talked with Steve and Sharol by Skype in October, when jury duty prevented me from visiting in person that week. Clearly, Steve was choosing to think about what was happening to him with eyes wide open, heart trusting God, and a joyful fearlessness that was so characteristic of his spirit.

I thank God for Steve, for his incredible example of humility, servanthood, brilliance, and purpose. I feel for Sharol and the loss she and her family have now experienced, but even she knows that having died to self, Steve’s life was hidden with Christ in God, and he is alright.

In this life, God has given us the power to choose the focus of our thoughts. We can choose fear, and the content of our thoughts roam around a dark closet of “what ifs” and worst case scenarios. We can choose worry, and the imagination unleashes a horror movie of losses. We can choose anger, and the blood boils at the injustice of it all. Or we can choose godly trust, and surrender ourselves to the Lord who has our days numbered and who anticipates our homecoming even more than we do.

So the question we have to ask is this: how are we to think? Where are our thoughts best lodged, for now, this side of heaven? What should be the focus of our lives? The Apostle Paul begins chapter 3 of his letter to the Colossians with a word from the Lord on this subject:

1So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things
that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,
3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
4When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Remember the context: Paul in chapter 2 has been making the case that the Colossians were in danger of a spiritual derailment of sorts. It sounds like they had been harassed by troublemakers trying to convince them that legalism is necessary for their acceptance by God. But if they are in Christ, Paul claims, they are united with the Lord of the Universe, the only One who is himself God. They do not need any external props to hold up their faith, to appease God, or to prove themselves worthy of God’s salvation. They do not need empty philosophies that are deceptively promising but ultimately dead-ends spiritually. Going after mere human wisdom will not produce any gain at all.

Paul makes the great pivot with the word “So.” If you have been raised with Christ then put your mind, your heart, your yearning, your desire in the direction of the throne of grace! Think about what is in God’s realm rather than get bogged down in the weightiness of earth. If you do this, Paul says, you will discover your safety in Christ, the one who brought you to life by the work and word of God. “When Christ who is your life” is revealed, then glory (God’s light and power) will also be revealed. Wow.

This passage opens up a bunch of questions, which I will ask you rather than answer myself. We do not want to misunderstand Paul’s main message here.

  1. Have you been raised with Christ? Paul develops this image elsewhere in his writings, so you can check it out here: Romans 6:4; Ephesians 2:6

  2. If so, then what are your choices about your focus, between “things that are above” and “things that are on earth.” Think concretely here. What would you benefit by focusing on those “above” things in your life today?

  3. Paul is speaking to living and breathing Colossians, so what does he mean when he says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden . . .” What practical implication does this reality have for you as a Christian believer?

  4. And a question for a later day: does choosing to think about things that are above preclude us from really seeing and responding to the needs, the pains, the death, the terrorism, the exploitation, the war, the injustice, the addiction, the violence, or the depravity all around us on earth? How do we continue to seek the things that are above while at the same time trying to be good citizens of the world? I actually think Steve Hayner found the fulcrum of these two polarities. As you read the many tributes being published right now (and undoubtedly attested to at his memorial service on February 23), see if you can point to evidence of his grasp of “above” and “on earth.”

As I dig down in earnest to write a book about my lung cancer experience of the past year, the dreaded “book proposal” has me delving into stuff I have studiously avoided so far: statistics. As part of my research, I attended last night’s Shine a Light on Lung Cancer presentation in my area. The sponsoring organization, Lung Cancer Alliance,  is an advocacy group raising awareness about its prevalence, promoting screening, and lobbying for more funds to go into research of its causes. Almost 200 Shine a Light events took place yesterday, as part of Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

The reason why I have avoided survivor-statistics is because they are so bad in the realm of lung cancer, especially for Stage III (mine was III-A) and IV. A year ago, I knew they were bad but it was easier to hold onto that amorphous concept than to hear how bad. My dear medical-scientist husband read the studies and confirmed my preference not to see them. Focusing on only one number—one— enabled me to concentrate on receiving God’s healing and participate in the plan for cure. After last night, I hold that my avoidance decision was a good call, and I highly recommend it.

But I do not recommend rolling over and playing dead, either. Somehow, today, after reeling a bit from the shock, my thoughts range somewhere between “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics” and “Bring ’Em On!” As the event MC—himself a seven-year survivor—said, “When I was diagnosed, the statistical chance of survival was 15%. I looked my doctor in the eye and said, ‘Tell me how I can be one of those 15%.’” My sentiments exactly! Especially for my readers who have never had cancer, becoming aware of the uphill battle (not to mention your own lung health) will enable you to be better citizens, better pastors, better neighbors and friends to those who must walk down this road. That could be 207,000 Americans in the next year, according to the CDC.

Last night’s speaking panel included my own surgeon and medical oncologist, plus an oncology nurse and a lung cancer survivor. How grateful I was all this year to have the interpretive skills and medical optimism of these two physicians—surgeon and oncologist, joined by equally positive radiology oncologist—to keep me focused on what turned out to be very effective treatment. But the contrast between their demeanor in the examining room and the seriousness of their numeric reports last night was shocking. Imagine working optimistically, creatively, wholeheartedly, and skillfully with statistics like those hanging over your head. But it was their courage that became my own, and I will be forever grateful for each one of them.

The oncology nurse brought me back to the chemo chair experience, where over time I was blessed by the caring ministrations of several nurses just like her. In the familiar intimacies of side-effect control, I realized again how safe these women made me feel. And despite the physical danger of the disease I was fighting, I was safe: safe emotionally, safe spiritually, even safe (in the shorter term) physically. All because they said, “We are here to help you get through this as comfortably as possible.” Mission accomplished, ladies!

Erik, the survivor on the panel, told stories that illustrated the importance of hope. Believe it or not, his surgeon not twenty minutes before the trip into the OR, told Erik, “We’re going to try get all those lymph nodes out; if we miss one, then you’re terminal.”

Why don’t you just shoot me? Good grief.

Erik spoke sincerely about the power of hope, and why we must follow the signs of hope with courage and persistence. We must keep doing medical research, because we do not know why 17.5% of all lung cancers occur in people who never smoked. We must celebrate a milestone this week, a recommendation by Medicare to cover lung cancer screening of high-risk people, starting in 2015.  We must keep working on surgical techniques that make the procedure safer and recovery quicker. We must keep researching targeted therapies. There are exciting signs of hope in all these areas, and we are emboldened to pursue the Beast and slay it once and for all.

So add this to “Naegeli’s Laws”: Statistics do not predict what happens to me!

 

Out of the Silence

November 12, 2014

As I indicated in my last post on October 27, the Naegeli family is grieving the sudden untimely death of Matthew, nephew to my husband and me and beloved friend to so many. Some life experiences are simply off-limits to a blogger, particularly when one’s writing might only add to the pain a family suffers. And sometimes, there are no words.

This is my one blog out of this sad journey, about what I experienced and how the Word was brought to life during Matthew’s memorial service in Albuquerque. This was a public event, attended by several hundred mourners who filled the sanctuary of Hope Evangelical Free Church.

It is a glorious, sunny Albuquerque morning. The vistas are breathtaking at this time of year, reminding us as we walk into the church that the world and God’s handiwork is vast and beautiful and much bigger than we are. Arriving an hour early, we enter from the parking lot through the back door of the church, right into the flurry of activity by “the church ladies” preparing lunch for the reception. It has been said that one way to avoid descent into the black pit of mourning is to keep busy. These wonderful, hospitable ladies are putting their loving care into action, to facilitate a most healing fellowship that unfolds in the next few hours.

We family members are ushered into various rooms for various activities: baby care here, singing practice there, main lobby for setting up pictures and guest book . . . and “the cry room” (ordinarily for moms and their babies) where we would all gather just prior to the service. Twenty-five (at least) aunts and uncles, cousins, parents and grandma finally land for a quiet moment of reflection with the pastor.

The pastor, relatively new to Hope, looks like he graduated from college last June. (Why is it that so many pastors look a lot younger than me these days?!) He is gentle in spirit, authentic in manner, and wise in his approach to the family. It turns out he is the anchor for the service and the preacher of the Word. For now, he is the convener of a brief family meeting in which he lays out the flow of the service and prays a heartfelt petition to God that our time together would honor Matthew’s memory and demonstrate God’s goodness even in our grief.

The television screen in the cry room is transmitting a beautiful hymn medley played by a pianist and violinist in the sanctuary. I appreciate the quality of the music, and—knowing how much Matthew invested in the music ministry of this church—realize these musicians’ gifts were cultivated by Matthew’s passion for the arts in worship. With this lovely backdrop, we all stand and get in line to walk into the sanctuary and to our rows reserved in the front.

Some time between our departure from the cry room and our entry into the sanctuary, the music stops. As we enter from the back, the congregation stands in complete silence. No music to cover our steps or our sobs, just the solidarity of a dear community of faith saying with its presence, “There are no words.” I am close to losing my composure, stunned and blessed at the same time by the truth of this moment.

Out of the silence, the pastor gently invites us into the presence of God. We are urged to bring everything we’ve got at the moment—sadness, grief, tears, anxiety, whatever—with us to the place where God cries with us. He introduces briefly the gospel story he will preach later in the service, the account of Jesus traveling to Bethany to comfort Martha and Mary upon the death of their brother Lazarus. As Martha runs out to greet Jesus, the two have a brief conversation about faith and Jesus’ power to do something. But when Jesus approaches Lazarus’ tomb, he stands there and weeps. In the face of death, there are no words.

And yet, out of that silence, Jesus summoned the depth of God’s suffering and the power of God’s redemption to raise Lazarus, unbind him, and let him go (John 11).

The pastor emphasized the presence of the weeping Jesus in our current suffering and the knowledge that some things simply cannot be explained but only experienced in the compassionate presence of our Risen Lord.

As the service progresses, we hear the tributes, the funny stories, the laughter and tears of a life devoted to Jesus, to the arts, and to loving friendship. When his turn comes once again, the pastor preaches the love of God, the sufficiency of his grace, the power of the resurrection, and the genuineness of our hope in Jesus Christ. But this is no triumphalistic denial of death, rather a full-on confrontation with its rudeness and injustice in light of God’s intention for humankind, Life. Embedded here is the proclamation of a hope that some day joy and laughter will be as natural and genuine as sadness is today.

As a pastor myself, having conducted hundreds of memorial services and funerals in the last twenty-seven years of ministry, I am convicted that I have perhaps not made room for tears and true sadness. I think I have talked too much. I never regret lifting up the hope of the resurrection, because this is in fact all we have to hold onto at a time like this. But the hope shines brightly against a dark backdrop we might tend to keep safe and unseen behind a curtain. There is really no need to be secretive or embarrassed about the pain of loss; our faith fully acknowledges its existence and its source. This service taught me that for all its immensity, death is still not big enough to take away the grace and truth of the gospel: “By his stripes we are healed,” (Isaiah 53) and “then there will be no more mourning or tears or pain . . .” (Revelation 21).