Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is My Love Not Enough?

God is not a man, that He should lie,
nor a son of man, that He should change His mind.
Does He speak and then not act?
Does He promise and not fulfill?
Numbers 23:18-19

“Ann, Is my love not enough? Do you think you must do something to complete it?” This was the Lord’s question to me many years ago as I prayed frantically, in my crazy Mama way, for my son who had withdrawn from college in the midst of a battle with depression, chronic pain, and abuse of prescription drugs. A couple of years later my daughter withdrew from school with the same enemy of depression chasing her home. Our years have been laced with “trouble”, to use Jesus’ own word. We have known sorrow, distress, disunity, loss, change and other forms of “trouble”. “Trouble” in this life is a given. This life is messy. There are things that happen, like the Shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., that are incomprehensibly awful that we are tempted to think God isn't paying attention. We are in between Christ’s two comings. But we are invited to live within the Promise Christ made: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.

Many have walked with me through my trouble. In turned I have been honored to walk with several loved ones through a variety of “trouble” … divorce, unemployment, fear regarding prodigal children, struggles regarding sexual identity, all kinds of sickness (both physical and mental), and through the dying of loved ones. More than half of my extended family, including myself, have known depression intimately.  Over the last two and a half years my Father, my brother-in-law, my Mother-in-law, and my brother lived years with cancer, yet each died. And just recently, my brother’s wife found out she has breast cancer and will have a double mastectomy after Christmas. These are valleys shadowed by death. Perhaps they are somewhat like yours.  In each, I have heard the Lord’s question repeated: “Is MY love not enough?”

IS God’s love enough to ultimately transform, redeem, renew, heal, complete and bring meaning to what seems so senseless and incomprehensible? Is his love enough for the parents of those children shot? His question to me is repeated over and over. Everyday He challenges us to see Him standing in the midst of all the “trouble”, especially when it seems He has instead hidden Himself.

Brendan Manning, author of The Lion and the Lamb, offers this perspective on suffering:

"There is an intimate bond between the sufferings of Christ and the conflict and suffering in each Christian life. The daily dying of the Christian is a prolongation of Christ's own life. ... Our daily dying (in all its forms)… is our personal participation in the fellowship of His sufferings.

The redemptive value of Jesus' suffering lay not in the suffering itself but in the love that inspired it." (for in itself suffering has no value)

I do not believe that brokenness, loss, depression, cancer, or any other imperfection of the human situation, in body or soul, that brings suffering, is God’s will. In fact, I believe Christ came in all heavenly authority to declare he is victorious over all forms of suffering, even suffering unto death. His miracles of healing, restoring sight, casting out demons, making the deaf hear, cleansing the lepers, making the lame walk, and raising the dead speak to HIS authority and HIS will to unify, redeem, bring life out of death, and make right all that is wrong.

In this life, there is much I don’t understand and may never be able to grasp. But, I have grown in my conviction that Christ’s love is indeed enough. I don’t always feel it but, I choose to believe Christ enters into our suffering. As He entered the lion’s den with Daniel, God enters into the places in our lives where we are powerless. He is in the furnace, walking in the fire with each of us. When we are not capable of perceiving His presence with our physical senses, it is nonetheless a fact that He is there. It may be that the complete healing to our physical bodies or the total recovery of our finances or the renewal of our marriage or the healing of our grief or the salvation of our children and much more that we long for will come in our day and it just as likely may not. Nonetheless, His love IS enough and as those in the furnace did in the book of Daniel, we can choose to step out and declare, “We do not need to defend ourselves…. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it…But, even if He does not…” (and these are my words)... His love is enough.

One of my most favorite Bible verses comes from the 6th chapter of Deuteronomy:
"We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders - great and terrible - on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised".

That which is promised is embodied in Christ and in His love that is enough. He is our Promise. And we are His people, moving in and through this place in between His two comings. We are within the Promise, which is Christ Himself, and we move toward the Promised Land. We are held by the Promise and we hold the Promise within us. We are being moved through this wilderness, spending our time living to die to what was, trying to let the past be the past so that the promise that is within us might be released through the decay of the old life and our new life will released to grow up out of the humus. He brings us out. He brings us in. He sets us free. His love is enough to do this.

But, in this place, in this life in which we have “trouble”, we must wait actively for the culmination and the complete realization of Christ’s promise. We ache. We moan. We groan. We cry. We wail. We scream. We lament. We weep. We present our sorrow as an offering. We choose to believe. We practice our faith. We rejoice. We worship. It is what we do as God’s people inspired by the Promise to move toward the Promise. When we left our “Egypt” the moment we first chose to take up our own cross and follow Christ, the Promise went before us and even now He leads us, teaches us, and forms us through our wanderings. There is purpose in this life of wilderness wandering. It is where we die to what was. It is our cocoon of transformation. It is where fear and unbelief give way to courage and faith. It is where we are brought out, set free to move forward. It is where the cloud of unknowing is spun about us and the crucible of the love of the Almighty forms the new out of the old.

There is meaning in the suffering, the losses, the changes, the pain of brokenness, and the silence pressed upon us by that which is too huge to bear. Some days, I can see a glimpse of that truth, as if there is a break in the clouds and the Promised Land is in view… as if the air is clear and the vista uncluttered. On those days, my faith seems alive, but, this is not always true. In fact, more often you will hear me question the plan of God that takes me along this circuitous path that seems to simply take me through my past over and over again. It is not unusual for me to cry out “God, why did you bring me here just to have me die?” But, some days, I hear His words, “I have brought you out….to bring you in … to try you and test you …to see what is in your heart.” There is meaning. The Way, the Truth, and the Life define my existence. There is a future. There is a destination. There is the promise…Christ in us the hope of glory…the good news of life after death. And the journey, the wandering, the pain, the brokenness, the loss, the change, and the sorrow are all captured and saturated by His love that is enough.

Through the life of Christ, through the living Word, the sword of the Spirit piercing our hearts, the Promise Himself becomes the destination of our faith. And the journey that seems to go nowhere at times is defined. Though it cannot always be seen or felt and we may cry out in fear and loneliness along the way, we can remember and contemplate Christ’s question and challenge to believe: “Is my love not enough?” We are invited into his perfect love. The challenge is to welcome Him, invite Him to come in and take up His abode within us. The challenge is to get up each day and declare with our mouths it is true, HIS love is enough. Christ IS a participant in our sufferings. We become participants in His sufferings. We become one. In this relationship, we join with Christ in His creative work of transformation…the work of life-death-life.  And this is not just for our own benefit. As we are transformed, as the old dies and gives way to the new, we are able to become conduits through which this love will flow, impacting the lives of those He chooses for us to love.

This all sounds quite “spiritual”, doesn’t it? And of course it is. But, we are not completely “there” in this life, are we? This is not Heaven. More often than not I have been guilty of retreating into my longings for the Promised Land. I want to be there, in the perfected, and not here in the process. Often my longings insulate me from participating in my present life. At times, this has been necessary, but in the long term such a choice only keeps me from the joy along the way.

When our children were small we found great fun in reading books outloud. One of our favorite books was Ramona the Pest, by Beverly Cleary. At one point Ramona hears her kindergarten teacher request that they “wait for the present”. Ramona hears the word “present” and plants herself in her desk, determined she will wait , staying put, sitting still as long as she must to get the present. She waits and waits…through recess, through lunch. Finally, the teacher is determined to try to understand why Ramona won’t leave her desk. As it becomes clear that Ramona has misunderstood what the teacher meant by “present”, she recognizes she has missed a day of life waiting for what was always there.

We wait for the “present” because we cannot fully believe that the journey through our life in Christ, in His presence, is in fact just as great a gift as the destination. The story of Moses and His relationship with God throughout the wilderness journey toward the promise land shows us what should be, what can be. Moses was not satisfied for God to be outside the camp. He reasons with God, “How will the other nations know that you are with Your people…that we are your people?”  So God comes to the tent of meeting and the Word says that Moses “spoke to God like a man speaks to another man”. The “present” was God’s “presence”.

It is in living daily in His presence that redemption and renewal become reality as our minds are transformed. It is in speaking with Christ along the way that our hearts begin to burn with understanding as He reveals what is true. It is in the fellowship of His sufferings that we come to know that His love is indeed enough. It is enough to lead us through. It is enough to gather us, to strengthen our feeble hands, to steady ours knees that give way. His love speaks into our fearful hearts:

“Be strong, do not fear; your God will come,
He will come with vengeance;
with divine retribution He will come to save you.”

A highway will be there…
The redeemed will walk there…
the ransomed of the Lord will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will over take them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away.

from Isaiah 35

The chorus from Michael Card’s song, The Promise, says it so well:

The Promise was love and the Promise was life
The Promise meant light to the world
Living proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus
The Faithful One saw time was full
And the ancient pledge was honored
So God the Son, the Incarnate One
His final Word, His own Son
Was born in Bethlehem
But came into our hearts to live
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did He have to give
What more could God have given
Tell me what more did He have to give
At last the proof Jehovah saves
For the name of the Promise was Jesus

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Death Shall Be No More

"This too shall pass."  "Life is long". These are mantras my husband spoke often during a stretch when what we felt was the opposite...that we would never pass through the valley. Instead, our sense was we would all die there, having become victims of the power of the Unmaker.

A friend mentioned she was going to do a workshop on "balance", when she felt anything but balanced. The impact of circumstances surrounding a critical surgery for a loved one shoved her into a place without normal control. Being forced into the role of a being a much needed caregiver without natural resources shoved the weight far to one side.

"They will heal", was the remark made to me when I shared of the death of a marriage between two young people and their horrible sense that neither would ever feel alive again.

I think of John Donne's poem, Death Be Not Proud, especially the last line: "And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die." 

For years I have cycled through experiences such as all these in which Death seemed to have the final say. Each time I have woken  up days or weeks or months or years later to light and life seeping through the cracks in my coffin. Each time I have been lifted up and placed on a rock and felt strength in my weakness. But, it is remarkable how each new Life-Death-Life experience feels so unique and as powerful as the last. Each time Death comes boastfully and arrogantly crashing into my domain, claiming he has the final say, I feel the same dreadfully horrible feelings. Each time I have to desperately call on my allies to help me put on my armor and take my stand against his artillery barrage. Each time, I feel I am learning about the Way, the Truth, and the Life as though I didn't already know Him.

My latest confrontation with Death has come from several directions almost at once. I found the only thing I really could do was climb in my foxhole in my full armor and camouflage myself with the truths of the One who has finished the battle. I read and wrote and prayed and declared and proclaimed and reviewed and remembered. I came and I saw, I celebrated and rejoiced. I sought peace and pursued it. In my mind, I made level paths. In my heart I practiced trusting, and took my stand and waited. I interceded, pleaded, and beseeched. I confessed, repented and submitted. I cried and wailed and grieved. To what end? That what has already been assured to us by Christ and in Christ will become clear again. Death shall be no more. This is my focus as I am hunkered down in my state of surrender: That we will pass through this valley of the shadow of death, fearing no evil, His rod and staff comforting us. Though now, in this stage in the cycle, we have trouble, on the other side, Death in all his forms will have died. There will be no more separation, brokenness, divorce, division, blindness, deafness, cancer, or any other unmaking of any kind. We will have passed from death into Life. 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Snake in Our Midst

What do you do when things feel out of control or you believe you are powerless or too weak to make any difference in a given situation? What is your response when you have been given a burden to carry or a responsibility to fulfill but feel you have no instructions or resources that will equip you? How do you react when the reality is you are in over your head?

In the same week, I heard two of my most favorite people say, "I don't know what to do. I am paralyzed."

About the same time, I had a dream about being in charge of a large group of middle-schoolers. I was told I was to take them on a hike, but I had no instructions about where, no plan, no map. I didn't even know their names. They took off as a scattered, chaotic, frenzied, and seemingly uncontrollable mass. In their midst, I saw a large snake weaving in and out of the group. Anxious about their safety, I spent the rest of the dream trying to find a telephone so I could call 911. My cellphone in my pocket was dirty and useless (let's interpret that). As it turned out the snake was not a threat. I just assumed it was. And the dream ended in a rather anticlimactic way.

We each have our "normal" way of responding to crises, weighty responsibilities, losses, and fearful situations. I tend toward isolation and almost manic efforts to make it all make sense. I close myself off with my journal, pen, highlighters, bible, hymnal, and youtube. I listen to music, I read, and I write and copy readings onto page after page after page. Then I reread, highlight, and search for meaning and direction. Rarely, have I ever been disappointed. It works for me. It is time intensive but eventually assumptions of danger and fear of not knowing the way always give way to some conviction that I am, and the ones I intercede for, are spiritually secure in Christ and the way to go will be revealed one step at the time. That's my way of allowing Christ in and His way of transforming me over and over. What is yours?

My husband wrote these worship notes for this Sunday's bulletin and he shared them with me after he heard me listening to a great song by Stuart Townend: Christ in Me. See, I have been of late in my place of isolation and Stuart Townend has had a lot to say. It was a song that kept coming to mind and so I kept listening and praying it. We will sing this song on Sunday. And, I will likely add these notes to my journal. They go like this:

“Be holy in all that you do, for it is written, ‘Be holy, for I the Lord am holy.’”  Peter is quoting Leviticus (where this thought appears numerous times) when he includes this command in 1:16.  How do we begin to understand it?  As a (hopefully) good Trinitarian, I offer three thoughts: (1) Begin by reversing the phrase – “I the Lord am holy.”  It is fundamental to His “otherness”, at the core of “My ways are not your ways.…”  He is; we aren’t.  It is this staggering difference that we affirm as we sing “Holy, Holy, Holy…early in the morning our songs shall rise to thee.”  But He calls us to holiness?  How?  (2) Read Leviticus.  It is certainly one of the least-examined portions of Scripture, so full of page after page of “do this but certainly don’t do that”.  What that book tells me is that God has not asked us to simply be nice or use good manners; such is not the path to holiness.  Leviticus is a great example of God pointing us in the right direction, providing instruction in fleshed-out Godliness.  Instead of waiting for “inner holiness” to shape our external behaviors, we can adopt “behavioral holiness”.  It is akin to a phrase my wife has used: in challenging times, she chooses to practice believing.  But as good as that is, the external only takes you so far.  Aren’t we supposed to act out of hearts transformed, overflowing with gratitude, with (as Peter puts it) “reverent fear”?  So, (3) God provides the means to move towards holiness: “O Spirit of God, come down, let mercy and grace abound; my passionate prayer shall be, Christ in me.”  As we come to the Table, we take Him in, we “feed upon Him by faith with thanksgiving,” the “Lamb without blemish or defect”, “Christ in you, the hope of glory”.  And we sing our prayer of aspiration:

Spirit of beauty and holiness, come refine with fire from above,
‘Til I am cast in Your righteousness and I love the things that You love.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Mystery of Healing Brokenness

Sometimes things pile up on themselves. Several events, too monumental to process quickly or orderly...each needing months or years to be heal or restored, but happening nearly simultaneously, result in a sense of being weighed down and almost paralyzed. The response of my psyche is a mixture of intense reactive self preservation and manic movement toward renewal and a deep deep weariness that makes everything seem to be moving in slow motion through a fog. I suspect it is instinctive and normal and not to be ridiculed but instead accepted and learned from.

I have a sense of being washed out. My broken foot that will take months to heal; a cavernous, emptied space in my psyche left by my brother's death after 18 months of brain surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, gamma knife procedures, and countless MRIs; and then a flood of emotion coursing through my heart as three very close to me find themselves in a place of brokenness have all worn away my defenses and left me vulnerable and fragile.

Normally my dreams serve as a wake up call, revealing what I may not have been able to see and thus giving me direction and a focus that help me find my way. But, the dreams I have had lately are more confirmations of what has been all too obvious. First came several dreams in which my brother was still alive, yet still dying.  I would wake feeling the grief afresh of losing him and having lost him. Then, I dreamed I had a washed out place on a tooth and was told I needed a "specialist" to fix it. And just the other night I dreamed the walls of my bedroom had been damaged by a torrential downpour. The drywall was saturated and would all need to be replaced and half the floor had been splintered beyond repair and would need to be replaced as well..

Fortunately, and for this I am grateful, I have been inspired, energized, and moved to seek the "Specialist". I seek solace in my God who first sought after me. I know that healing will come as I spend time within His counseling chamber. I listen, I pour out my soul's content. I confess. I plead. I claim, declare, and pronounce what I hear to be true. I practice believing and so put to the side for a time the doubts and discouragements. I look at the object lessons I am given.

I have been seeing and contemplating the lesson my broken foot has to teach me regarding the process of healing brokenness. When I first broke my foot, I didn't understand how bad it was. I was led to believe by the emergicare physician that it was not such a big deal. But, when I saw the specialist, the truth began to be revealed. Even looking at the Xray and being told it was a bad break and would need to be immobilized didn't convinced me entirely. At the time, I thought of it only as a blessing in disguise that would allow me a month to spend with my brother. Returning for another Xray after my brother's funeral opened my eyes and my understanding: The break was more like a crushing blow causing a huge gap that would need to be filled in with new bone. Growing new bone is a miracle that can not be rushed. You have to submit to the process.

My foot was put in a cast. No movement, no weight bearing for 6 weeks. Then came a walking boot, but walking would be limited by the pain still present. Then there was the issue of the pain and stiffness that was caused by the immobilization. That hard cast that was put there to protect the bone and give it a chance to begin healing caused muscle atrophy, slowed blood flow, and shortened, weakened, and hardened connective tissue. There is always a ripple affect of brokenness. Brokenness is never simple and often things seem to get worse before they begin to get better. After 8 weeks, there seemed to be little to no healing visible by the Xray. But the doctor believes there is a strong matrix of callous forming and on that framework calcium will be deposited and bone formed to fill in the space. There is a hope of new growth/new bone/new union...a new foundation on which to stand.

As I have answered His kind invitation and spent time with God, my Specialist, the doctor of my soul, I have been reminded of His ways, His creating out of nothing, rebuilding what has been crushed, restoring what has been washed away, renewing what has ruined. I know the reality that it is His heart's desire and His will that the brokenness we now endure be filled in with His very Self. In understanding him, even if only in part, there is hope. For He is our Hope. And hope will allow me to believe. And believing will make sense of what cannot be seen. In the end He will fill in the gap. His end is nothing short of reconciliation in which the two broken ends are joined in Him.

I believe. Please help my unbelief.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Sabbatical's Broken Ending and New Beginning

It has been a summer I will never forget. I know it is not possible to convey in words the what, the where, the impact of 3 very different and very transforming and remarkably intertwined experiences: a month long sabbatical, my brother's last summer, and a broken foot. I need to try for the sake of the process and with hopes that the result is reflective in the slightest way of creation and making and not destruction and dismantling.

At the end of June my husband and I packed our 1998 Ford Explorer to the max with kayaks, bikes, and hiking and fishing gear and left for a month long sabbatical to Mount Desert Island, Maine. We had both been granted a generous and much appreciated gift of a month off by our employers. Over the last few years, we had buried 2 parents, 2 uncles, and one brother. We were both weary and needed to find rest. But, we left with hesitation. My brother Ricky's life with brain cancer was showing signs of turning toward the finish line. A new tumor (his third) had shown up on his June MRI. After Gamma Knife "surgery" for this new tumor, Ricky decided he would not continue with chemotherapy. He had found that the side affects made him question why he was living. When he announced his decision we could read the looks on the doctor's and nurse's faces. Clearly they knew the tumors could only be slowed, never defeated. Without chemo the tumors would have more freedom to grow with abandon.

So, understandably, I was questioning our decision to go to Maine. Should we be so far away? But, we all agreed I could fly and be home in less than a day if it seemed the thing to do. So off we went on our adventure with smartphone apps making the distance seem manageable.

After three days, visiting family along the way, we successfully traversed the 1000 miles up the east coast and celebrated our arrival with a lobster roll from Thurston's Lobster Pound, just a mile and a half down the road from our rented cottage in the back of Bass Harbor. For the next 3 weeks, we would rise with the sun most days before 5am and set out before 7:30 for the day's mostly scripted activity. I biked, hiked, and kayaked over a total of 200 miles and was never disappointed. We took ferry rides to explore off shore islands and Dave fished almost every body of water on the island. The strenuous physical activity rewarded by breathtaking vistas was balm for our weary souls. I'd return after each excursion to our cottage, eat some lunch, and climb in the hammock with one of many books and read until sleep took over. I was tasting heaven. But, deep in the center of myself, I sensed that I was being readied for something, rather than recovering from something. I was pushing hard and training my body and mind and soul for what was to come.

All the while, our heaven in Maine was laced with the reality of my brother's life growing closer to its end. We would text daily and send pictures and songs and readings. His ability to focus was diminished by the new tumor growth and his short term memory loss, declining strength, and failing eyesight were making his world shrink. Daily walks and long loved activities had already been curtailed by the smothering side affects of chemotherapy and Avastin infusions. With the clear signs that the treatments were no longer holding back the advance of the disease, Ricky's twin sons flew from California early in July to stay for the rest of the summer. We were told that Rick might live until Christmas, but I don't think any of us really believed that would be the case.

The last portion of our Sabbatical was spent backtracking the 1000 miles, stopping in Boston and Annapolis along the way to see more family and ending at the family lake house on Lake Norman in North Carolina. We had a couple wonderful days there with our daughter and the grandchildren.

Our lake house, passed on to my sister, my brother, and myself after our father's death in 2010 is only 45 minutes from my brother's house. My sisters and I, with our spouses drove down together for dinner one night. It had been a month since I had seen Ricky. It was as if there was a constant air raid alarm going off outside as we all tried to live out the evening as normally as possible. The next day Ricky's wife Deborah came by herself to the lake and floated with us and we cried and cried. We were looking directly into the beginning of his last days and ours with him..

A couple of days later, I went with Ricky for his appointment with his oncologist. The wait was long. I sensed what was coming next. Ricky did not. He assumed he would see the doctor and then move on for his scheduled Avastin infusion. But, that was not to be. Blood work and other indicators forced the doctor to speak the dreadful news, "Rick, you are no longer thriving with the treatments." All of a sudden, I felt like we were on a fast moving train. No more stop gaps. Hospice and palliative care were called. A different kind of hope was going to be needed.

That same day, I drove back to the lake to pack once again for the final leg of our home bound stretch of our sabbatical. I was rattled and numbed after such a long day. I was not looking forward to leaving, going back to work, and being limited as to the amount of time I would have to spend with Ricky. That changed in a moment. After a brief downpour, I went to load the bikes on the roof of the car. One step onto the doorway of the car with wet shoes and next thing I knew I had fallen and pulled my bike down hard onto my foot. X-rays the next day showed it was broken. Strangely, we all felt it was a blessing. I was freed from working and freed to being with my brother for the next month. Just a few days later marked the last real conversation Ricky and I I would have missed had I not had a broken foot. I climbed on their king sized bed where he spent most of every day and we spent the afternoon exchanging abbreviated thoughts of the hope of the resurrection, eternal life, heaven, and family as we shared memories, pictures and music.

Every day for the next three weeks took each of us to a new place. The train was picking up speed. We could see the end rushing closer and closer. Anytime a group of people are put together and forced to face life and death there is a unimaginable bonding that takes place. My sisters and our spouses, our nephews, our niece joined our hearts and souls with Ricky's wife Deborah as she spearheaded his most intimate and thorough care. We gave our best to one another and to Ricky. Most of the time we felt weak and flawed but nonetheless we gave our all. Those weeks were not glamorous by any means. Dying can never be glamorized. But the love that we felt was in some way redeeming. And we knew Ricky's life had been redeemed. We knew he would pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and receive a new body. And we knew we would be left here without him. When Ricky opened his eyes after 4 days in a coma we knew it was time. We laid our hands on him and encouraged him on his way.

He took his last breath on August 19th and began his ultimate Sabbatical.

You may read of his last days here in the last journal entry on his Caringbridge page:

Rick's obituary gives you a glimpse of his life:

Following are the words written by my husband and read at Rick's Memorial service on August 25, 2012:

He was always Ricky to his sisters, and Uncle Ricky to our kids – a beloved uncle, certainly the tallest.  I’m sure that the nieces and nephews would have felt the same affection towards him, but it helped that it was Uncle Ricky who built that 73-foot-tall diving platform that you cousins used for many years at the lake.  The easy casualness of the label, “Ricky”, seemed so much more “him” than his given name of Moffatt Patrick Witherington, Junior.  Moffatt Patrick Witherington, Junior. Adam, I think he was about the age you are now when the two of you wore Burger King crowns for a combined birthday party.  He loved his sisters; and Deborah and Sibel, my goodness, what a gift each of you were to him – and what a gift he was to you.  What can I say, the man loved being surrounded by his women!  As everyone knows, Rick’s three sisters adored him as they did their dad – the two were so very much alike in look and demeanor, full of gentleness and a perpetually sweet disposition.  My son Mark & I joined Rick & his dad to form a pair of father&son “teams” for dozens of  rounds of golf over the last 20 years (all of them making liberal use of the Grandaddy Rules); 20 years, and the dozens of rounds, now feel like nowhere nearly enough.  I have been enriched immensely by both of those really good gentle-men, the M.P. Witheringtons Sr. & Jr.

Throughout his life, he was quietly interested in a pursuit of what could be called “spiritual understanding”, in that he appropriately viewed life as more than “just” life.  He did not “just” see things around him, he tended to marvel at them, looking for and seeing truth and beauty that went deeper than the surface.  This pursuit included lots of letter-writing (some of you will remember that ancient form of communication) – letter-writing with family and friends that went beyond the nuts & bolts of daily life, along with a good amount of reading and inquiry, from examining various faith traditions to reading about supernovas.  As if in his “wandering” he was looking for…something. Like his sisters, he grew up in the Presbyterian church, but it would be a stretch to say that the church grew in him.  He wasn’t ever abrasive or caustic about it (was he ever abrasive or caustic?), not what one might call “rebellious”, but definitely “on the outside”, looking in but not joining in.  But when he heard of his cancer 18 months ago, a door was opened, and God’s goodness was seen and experienced, as if the rest of him awoke to seeds that had been planted long ago, what his soul already knew.  He became a simple participant in the life of faith.  Much of this was due to the “faith wrapped in skin” ministry of selfless saints both in Charlotte and in Durham, where he came for a good deal of his medical care.  He embraced the offer to be anointed and prayed over.  Members of my congregation in Durham were seemingly everywhere, in the guise of hospital volunteers and medical staff and meal providers.  And he prayed, in a simple, and, in keeping with his character, gentle, manner.

I don’t think it’s demeaning to say that his faith was small; in fact, that puts him smack in the middle of Matthew 13, where Jesus says that all that is required is faith the size of a mustard seed.  In God’s economy, such a miniscule “investment” yields a return of immeasurable size, because the small size and strength of our faith is overwhelmed by the grace of the Lord and by His great faithfulness.  St. Paul was knocked to the ground when he met the Lord; Rick’s experience bore no resemblance to Paul’s, but they met the same Christ.  We surrounded Rick’s bed Sunday evening and sang hymns for 90 minutes as he slowly faded, songs about mercy, soul-healing, and hope.  Years earlier, I would not have expected it, but for Rick on Sunday it was so obviously right.  And in the next moment, he met face to face the One who had known him and pursued him all of his days.

The day before Rick died, there was a wedding at my church in Durham, during which we sang “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” – and all I could think of was my great big brother-in-law, the pleasant wanderer, who had been sought and found by the Lord, finally coming to say, in the words of the hymn, “Here’s my heart, take and seal it”.  The hymn uses the word “Ebenezer” to refer to a point of “arrival”.  Rick’s Ebenezer was the end of his life: by God’s grace, he had come to see that he was loved by the One who made him.  There’s a line in Psalm 34, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” – Rick tasted that truth, and saw that he was loved by God.  Mercy had been poured on him, through a relationship – and, according to many passages in Scripture, a “coming home” or “awakening” moment includes a celebration (which seems most appropriate: make no mistake about it, the Witherington clan LOVES to party).  Mercy, relationship, and a celebration – that sounds like a good definition of what Scripture calls “grace”.

A prominent theme of Scripture is of God’s desire – His habit – to transform people such that they – we – experience restoration and renewal.  Listen to these words from Isaiah 61, words which Jesus would fulfill, words of hope and healing for Rick in his last weeks, for Deborah and the family, for all of us:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives [and didn’t we long for Rick to be freed from the disabled captivity of his final days?], and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s good favor…, to comfort all who mourn, to provide for those who grieve – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  Then they will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.”

Now, we have glioblastomas and chemotherapy and death and the pain of separation; but, from the book of Revelation, we are promised this:
“The Lord will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.”

In each passage, the old has been replaced with the new, the damaged with the strong, tears transformed into gladness, brokenness turned into wholeness.  Death itself has been declared “no more” through Christ’s resurrection – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:  
“Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive…When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
    “Where, O death, is your victory?
      Where, O death, is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

God’s promise to us, through Christ’s resurrection, is that the ultimate defeat – death – is turned on its head, transformed into victory, fully and completely and permanently.

At the very end of the book of Job, after that long-suffering man had had an encounter with God, he says, “I had heard of You with my ears, but now I have seen You with my eyes.”  And so has Rick.  The One he heard of he has now met; he has been made whole, and strong, and new.  His death has been swallowed up in Christ’s victory.  And the party’s already started. Thanks be to God.

                        I will miss him everday.


                                          He was my friend
                                                              He was my brother