Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Peace, Hope and Joy

The Christmas holiday is often flooded with words such as “Peace”, “Joy” and “Hope”. You’ll see these words plastered on Christmas cards and storefront and municipal banners. They’re relatively non-controversial words which secularists and the faithful can similarly appreciate, even if the deeper meanings of these words are points of contention. While secularists will raise their glass at the general notion of these three things (after all, who doesn’t like peace, joy and hope?), Christians will point out that these words should appropriately be tied to the birth of Jesus Christ, whose coming and later death and resurrection was the watershed moment in redemptive history which brought those things to bear. Which brings me to yesterday…

I woke up very early yesterday morning and unable to go back to sleep, so I switched my iPhone on and checked messages. One of the e-mails I received was an update from a friend who had been diagnosed with stomach cancer this past year. It was quite a shock, as she was about the same age as me and my wife, and she, her husband and their young daughter are active parishioners at our old church – just a wonderful family. By the grace of God, her treatments went well (though not without a lot of pain and discomfort) and she seemed to be on the path to being cancer-free.

Last Friday, she went to the hospital for a hysterectomy and during that procedure, the doctors found that the cancer has returned in the form of tiny seeds covering the insides her abdomen. The discovery of this peritoneal carcinomatosis came with the prognosis from her doctors that she will only have about three months to live. Given the prognosis and their oncologist’s assessment that aggressive treatment would prolong life for only a few months at the expense of quality of life, they’ve made the difficult decision to opt for palliative care so the family can best enjoy the rest of their time together. Our friend and her husband are now praying and planning on when and how to tell their daughter the news, which they’ll do after Christmas.

Where is the peace? Where is the joy? Where is the hope? Does it even exist?

It does. And amazingly, my friend gets it even when it would be understandable for her to despair and to lash out at a God that has thusfar chosen not to free her from cancer. But she understands that “peace” does not mean absence from hardship. She understands that “joy” is not the absence of things in this life that will cause sadness. She understands that “hope” is not primarily about a cure for cancer.

She articulates this in the aforementioned email to her family and friends:

(My husband) and I cried together and consoled each other. We are concerned about how (our daughter) would take the news and my eventual death... But God gave us strength to trust Him and His love. We are so grateful to know that He knows best and that He is sovereign. I know that God will lead (our daughter) forward and help her overcome the grief and fears. I know that God will help (my husband) to raise her and live without me. I know that God will help my parents, sisters and brothers, and friends...

I believe our God is good and able. He is wise beyond all measure. He helps me overcome my sadness and fears. He makes me excited to meet Him face to face soon. I believe Heaven is more glorious than our wildest imagination. I believe some of my best friends are there, waiting for me. I hope I will be waiting for a very long time from Heaven, but that I will see you one day, too.

I am so glad I had the privilege to know you and be a small part of your life. You made my life rich and wonderful. I don't want to sound like this email is the last of my communication because it's not. Of course, God may pull a miracle and extend my life (I ask that you would all pray for such a miracle) and that would be wonderful, too, if that happens. :)

She understands and declares – with much more credibility than almost any of us can – that the peace, joy and hope that we celebrate on Christmas is built upon the foundation of a covenant promise with Almighty God through Jesus Christ and goes far beyond our superficial definitions of what those words mean. It is the promise of relationship with the Living God where we have an inheritance in heaven which not even death can take away. It is the imperishable promise of love from a God who knows all and will somehow redeem terrible and tragic things for good, and will envelop the brokenhearted with comfort and peace.

Please pray for my friends and their daughter, and may all of us grasp the peace, hope and joy of Christmas as well as my friend does.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Trauma of Being Lost

I went into work late one day last week because of a dentist appointment, and during my usual walk crosstown, I noticed a little boy walking around with a scooter looking around nervously in front of Grand Central Station. Within a few seconds, it was painfully obvious that the child was lost.

A small group of other bystanders on the sidewalk also paused and saw the little boy push his scooter around almost in circles as his eyes futilely tried to scan the crowds for his mother. When it was clear that no adult nearby was his parent, I walked over to him as did a Grand Central Station security guard.

The child started to cry for his mother, and I squatted down next to him and tried to assure him that things were going to be okay and we were going to find his parents. As the security guard radioed for police and as we waited, I tried to engage and comfort the boy. Between sobs, he told me that his name was Max and after flashing him some different age possibilities on my hand, I found out that he was three years old. I told him that I had a daughter about his age and kept reassuring him that people were on their way who were going to make everything okay.

In a few minutes, a police officer came and tried to asked the still sobbing boy for his mommy's name and if he remembered from which direction they came from. The officer began to walk westbound with the boy and within minutes, another security guard came running up with his radio: they had found the mother who had been further east on 42nd street frantically looking for her child. I saw the mother running quickly towards us pushing a stroller with tears in her eyes.

I ask her if she was Max's mother, which she confirmed, and I told her that he was fine and was going to be brought back shortly by the police officer. I explained that we found him alone on the corner of 42nd Street of Vanderbilt but besides being scared, he was fine. The grateful mother asked me for my name, but I smiled, told her that I was just grateful that Max was okay, just as Max approached with the police officer. I slowly walked away as the mother was joyfully reunited with her son.

I walked another two blocks to my office, shut the door and sat silently at my desk for a few minutes, with a tidal wave of emotions swirling within me. Was I projecting one of my own children being lost? Was I struck by the enormity of a scenario where one of my children was at the mercy of a handful of strangers, hopeful that they'd encounter one who would be benevolent and not malevolent? Was I living vicariously through the boy's mother, terrified of the thought of losing my own young son or daughter in the city? Was I vicariously living through the little boy who was understandably terrified out of his mind? Perhaps it was a combination of all of those things.

Something else dawned upon me around how traumatizing it is to be 'lost'. The little boy didn't know where he was, didn't know where he was going and had no presence to guide him or protect him. He was in a scary place full of potential hazards and thoroughly unequipped to deal with his surroundings. It's arguably one of the most traumatizing feelings in the continuum of human emotion, perhaps only matched by a parent who has lost or is looking for a child who is lost.

I suppose it's no wonder why Jesus uses this imagery in Luke 15, when he tells the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin. Perhaps it's fitting given the depth of human despair that exists in those who are lost (regardless if people know it or not), and the depth of longing and yearning from God to bring those who are lost back to him, borne out a love which is described as higher than mountains and deeper than the seas.

On an ordinary Tuesday, a scared little boy pushing around a scooter became for me a heartbreaking picture of those of us without Christ who have been given the grace to realize just how lost we are. And on that same day, a tearful reunion between a mother and child became a window into the joy of those who come back to the Father.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Celebrating Freedom of Rudeness

Many years ago, I remember hearing a story about an immigrant who was visiting the United States and was learning about our Constitution and system of government. In a conversation with his American host, the visitor spoke glowingly about our democracy but expressed concern that like a ship, there seemed to be so much sail, but not quite enough anchor. His point being, does our rightful embrace of individual rights sometime cross the line in which we are willing to sacrifice the greater good? Did we run the risk at elevating the individual and individual whims at the expense of agreed upon community standards and norms.

I thought about this when I read about the big blowup around a teen's irreverent "tweet" (Twitter post to all you who aren't social-media savvy) in regards to a visit to the Kansas state Capitol. In a nutshell, Kansas teen Emma Sullivan decided it would be funny to tweet the following to the world:
"Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot."
Governor Sam Brownback's public relations team subsequently caught wind of tweet, and in what can only be called a big-time overreaction, made Ms. Sullivan's tweet known to the principal of her high school. To compound that overreaction, the principal proceeded to overreact, allegedly calling Ms. Sullivan an embarrassment to the school and disrespectful, and demanded that Ms. Sullivan write a letter of apology to Governor Brownback and his staff.

Ms. Sullivan's parents (who like their daughter are proud liberal progressives) responded in outrage and before soon, the whole incident was on the national media. Ms. Sullivan refused to apologize for her tweet, citing her first amendment rights, much to the cheering of the liberal left.

Did Governor Brownback's staff and the principal grossly overreact? Absolutely. What I think is alarming that Ms. Sullivan is being hailed as some civic-minded first amendment hero in certain circles. Are we seriously lauding this girl's behavior as the standard at which we want our children to engage in political discourse? Do we want kids who don't recognize the distinction between respectful disagreement and dialogue with political policies and immature teen rudeness? "He blows a lot?" Yeah, that's a really insightful starting point for a discussion around policies and alternative legislation.

What's laughable is that Ms. Sullivan actually buys into the "I'm a crusading role-model" baloney. When she releases statements like, "The issue is relevant and, if anything, is a starting point of dialog with the governor about his policies and how our First Amendment rights can be taken away." Give me a break. "You suck" is a fascinating way to start a dialog with the governor.

But maybe that's emblematic in the soul of a country which has some lost the discipline and value of civil discourse. It's tragic on both sides. Conservatives and liberals both rightly united after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot, taking a stand against inflammatory language and rhetoric in the political arena. But underlying all of this is a common foundation around respect, acknowledging that people can disagree with the best of intentions and understanding that while those who disagree politically aren't evil, neither do they suck nor blow.

Freedom of speech is the right to not be prosecuted for views, but it doesn't isolate us from rightful consequences of our actions. When language is improper, derogatory or inflammatory, the perpetrators should be told and corrected. What's troubling is that common decency is taking a backseat to whether a certain type of rhetoric plays on people's worst divisive nature. The first filter isn't whether something is rude or inappropriate, it's whether one happens to agree that the subject criticized is worthy of attack or not. The knee jerk reaction of progressive bloggers and pundits is to observe that the slight is aimed towards a socially conservative Republican, and then scream, "Freedom of Speech!" Of course, if the target was President Obama, they'd react in outrage. Both sides of the political fence play this game, though - the target somehow legitimizes disrespect. It's ridiculous.

And we have a real-life example of this, when country singer Hank Williams, Jr, who upon comparing President Obama to Hitler was fiercely defended by progressives for his freedom of speech and lauded as a champion for being a politically aware musician. Oh, wait, that didn't happen. He was roundly criticized and rightfully censured and had his pre-Monday Night Football intro cancelled. I just mixed him up with the Dixie Chicks, who took shots at President Bush instead and called him "a dumb f*ck" and were roundly defended by liberals for standing up for her freedom of speech. Of course, that the target was good 'ol 'W' made it okay.

Let's be consistent, shall we? Let's stop applauding inappropriate and disrespectful talk and opinions in the name of free speech.