Monday, February 9, 2015

leprosy of the spirit

Once upon a time I attended a tiny two room school in Gazeley, England.  There was big class and little class.  I was there from the time I was 5 until I was 8.  I stayed in little class the entire time.  It was our village primary school.  We had a headmaster and a couple of teachers and the cooks in the lunch room.  The cooks wore the most amazing multi-hued platform shoes (it was the 1970s).  Our Headmaster, Mr Bouldrey, was a tall thin man of Ichabod Crane proportions.  He was spindly and had a chronic scowl on his pinched face.  He was not kind.  He did not like me.  He was the villain in my school world.  If he had a theme song it would be dark and ominous with creepy minor chord undertones.

I seemed to be the focus of his hatred towards all things American.  "Since when did the Americans decide to replace the letter 't' for the letter 'd' in the word 'water'?" He sneered in my general direction one day whilst my mother stood by.  He then proceeded to mimic a very bad American accent pronouncing the afore mentioned word, "Waadder."  To which my mother, the heroine of my everyday, immediately quipped back, "Oh about the same time the British replaced the letter 'a' with 'oo', and the 'er' with 'ah', and with a sardonic smile she said in her best British accent, 'Wootah'."

However much I detested this man he did teach me a valuable lesson one day while he droned on in class one day.  There in class He suddenly exclaimed the most bizarre thing I had ever heard in my less than 10 years on the planet.  He said pain was a gift.  He said imagine one day you are walking along the sea shore and you step on a thick shard of glass and it deeply pierces one of your sandy bare feet.  He said if you felt no pain you would go on walking not realizing your food was bleeding badly.  "You might even develop a bad infection or worse bleed to death right there walking along the sea shore on holiday."  Yikes this man was nutso!  Yet it made sense in my primary school mind.  We do need pain to alert us that something has gone wrong and needs immediate attention.

I came across a book a few years ago called, "Where is God when it Hurts" by Philip Yancey.  This brilliant book amazingly laid out how pain is a gift from our Creator.  Paul Brand is a doctor who has studied and treated patients afflicted with Leprosy and he lends to the book his considerable research in pain.  It is resplendent with science and studies and all manor of smart stuff.  Lest this blog become a book report I will continue on with my point.

This idea of pain being a gift rocked my world when I was in primary school and it rocked it again as an adult.  Our loving God placed within us a complex system to alert us to injury and infection.  It is very effective.  In the book they site studies that have tried to replicate external systems to convey the pain message to our brains without actual pain.  It fails miserably.  Read the book.  It's truly remarkable how delicate and intricate the pain system is that God has designed within us.  Especially when the absence of pain is presented.

Leprosy is a disease which numbs the body in ever widening degrees.  The shriveled limbs and scaly skin and eventual blindness was thought to be the disease itself until one brilliant doctor realized it was the lack of being able to feel pain that enabled the patient to continually injure oneself without treatment that led to infection which led to gangrene which led to loss of limb, etc.  The very lack of pain was the crux of the matter which led to the eventual destruction of the physical body.

This book explores pain both physically and emotionally.  It studies our interaction with pain and pleasure.  It is much more complex than just a scientific study of pain and Leprosy.  I found reading the book challenging and inspiring.  But to take it a step further or even many steps deep within to our very souls I am stuck on this notion of numbness that creeps in and spreads deep in our hearts and souls.  When we harden our hearts we numb the pain so to speak.  It seems to do the trick in the moment but what damage will result from closing down and hardening in the face of injury?

I have always adopted the lines of the poem by the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, " have love and lost is better than to have never loved at all" to my life.  I was shaken a few years ago when a friend I thought was close and I loved dearly simply walked out of my life with hardly a backwards glance.  This loss of friendship happened during a very personally painful time which seemed to add insult to injury.  I was tempted to harden my heart.  I wanted to swallow the pain and shove it deep down and never allow myself to repeat such a time.  I was tempted to wall up and never let another friend get close again.

What's worse is I was tempted to do the same with God.  I felt confused and frustrated as things were not going the way I thought they should.  I wondered if God was paying attention or if we had just misread the signs.  I felt my heart start to harden, my spirit start to shrivel.  Thankfully I did not "go gentle into that good night" as Dylan Thomas advised in his famous poem.  All would have been the beginning of leprosy of the spirit.  I would begin to distance my feelings and gradually numb my heart to God and people.  Ultimately it would have led to a gangrenous bitter spirit, amputated compassion and vision.  I would have become scaly with dry brittle skin becoming so easily offended and eventually my vision would cloud with suspicion and block the golden light of wisdom.  It would be tragic and yet I think it happens entirely too frequently among us Christians.  We flicker and sputter and eventually burn out due to our own hardened hearts.

With hardened hearts we endure cancerous relationships inflicting damage that batters and bruises our spirit but we stuff it and in our numb state don't realize infection has set in.  We die just a little bit day by day until we end up sleep walking through life.  Leprosy of the spirit becomes the new normal.  The disease does it's damage yet we don't seek treatment because we've lost sensitivity.  We walk along the sea shore on holiday bleeding out.  The medicine so desperately needed can reverse damage and restore feeling.

"I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.  I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." Ezekiel 36:25-26

"Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: ‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’" Matthew 13:14-15

"Do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion, on the day of testing in the wilderness," Hebrews 3:8

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Jeremiah 17:9

"For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." Hebrews 4:12

"For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Romans 1:21

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding" Proverbs 3:5

"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" Psalm 51:17

"Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved." Romans 10:9-10

"Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart." Psalm 97:11

"Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water." Hebrews 10:22

"Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart," 1 Peter 1:22

"Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls." Matthew 29:11

Did you know there is a scale to measure sensitivity?  It's called the "absolute threshold of touch", and is measured in grams (per square millimeter of skin surface).  In Yancey's book he lists measurements in various parts of the body:

Tip of tongue         sensitive to 2 grams of pressure
Fingers                  sensitive to 3 grams of pressure
Back of hand         sensitive to 12 grams of pressure
Back of forearm    sensitive to 33 grams of pressure
Sole of foot           sensitive to 250 grams of pressure

Another test assesses the "absolute threshold of pain".  It measures how much pressure must be applied to a very sharp needle before the subject begins to experience pain:

Cornea                  0.2 grams produces a painful sensation
Forearm                20 grams  produces a painful sensation
Back of hand        100 grams produces a painful sensation
Sole of foot          200 grams produces a painful sensation
Fingertip              300 grams produces a painful sensation

Can you imagine what an "absolute threshold of pain" might measure in our hearts and spirits?  And if we silence the warning system of pain within us we will unwittingly destroy our very hearts.  Not all pain is helpful as in debilitating chronic illnesses but for the most part it is a gift says Yancy that no one wants.

I will close with a quote from Dr. Brand:

"At one time, I thought of pain as the opposite of happiness.  I would have illustrated life by drawing a graph with a peak at each end and a trough in the middle.  The peak at the left would represent the experience of pain or acute unhappiness.  The peak at the right would represent pure happiness or ecstasy.  In between is quiet, normal living.  My goal, I thought, was to face firmly toward happiness and away from pain.  But now I see things differently.  If I drew such a graph today, it would have a single, central peak with a surrounding plain,  The peak would be Life with a capital L, at the point at which pain and pleasure meet.  The surrounding plain would be sleep or apathy or death."




Monday, February 2, 2015

My dad and Rich Mullins

I was up late the other night scrolling through netflix looking for something worthwhile to watch and I came upon the movie, Ragamuffin, about the life of Rich Mullins.  I had always wanted to see that movie ever since I heard they were making it but being out of the country and somewhat out of the loop I missed it.  I quickly cued it up and settled down to watch.  By 2 am I was weeping as the credits rolled.

I have always loved Rich Mullin's music and his songs and voice are linked indelibly in my mind with my dad.  When I was a senior in high school my dad was going through his second course of treatment for Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  It had been discovered the year before in the forth and final stage.  His first round of chemo seemed to kick it and we rejoiced.  However it was during our family vacation to an upscale dude ranch of sorts that I knew it was back. We were out to dinner and Dad's voice was weaker than I remembered it being the week before and a tiny bit of food was on his chin that he didn't wipe away.  I sat staring at that spot of food remembering his first symptom was a numb jaw/chin.  I knew it in that moment it was back and I looked over at my mom and I could tell she knew it too but we continued our dinner as if we were a normal family on vacation.  Because that vacation was to be a celebration of cancer free life and ironically almost all the other guests at the ranch were medical doctors, the very people my dad would least like to vacation with (they were hosting a medical convention!)

I stayed home from school the day my dad checked into his room at the Baylor Hospital Cancer ICU floor in Dallas Texas.  After the car was loaded with his things my dad did a lap around the interior of our home.  I stayed with him as he took in the living room and kitchen of our home.  He knew and I knew that he may not see it again so he was doing what we do when we leave a place we love, he slowly walked through and touched things lightly.  I was feeling that moment of fear and loss and hope alongside him.  The last thing he did before walking out the front door was hand me his Texas A&M class ring.  He told me to keep it until he came home again.  I kept it on a chain around my neck for the 7 weeks he was in ICU fighting for his life.

The upside of Dad being in the hospital was I got to drive his car.  He had a convertible Chrysler LeBaron.  It was blue and beautiful.  I'm not in the least a car person but I loved this car.  It was classy and sporty.  I drove it to school and to youth group.  And while I drove it I often listened to dad's Rich Mullins tapes.  I could listen to it loud and replay songs and no one was there to tell me to turn it down or switch the tape.  It was ultimate freedom to drive and listen alone.  Rich Mullins became a big part of the soundtrack to my dad's fight against cancer and my fight to find the love of God in the midst of death and disease.

Lyrics to the song, The Love of God, are among my favorite.  It is poetry set to music.  The depth of feeling and truth resound through the desolate parts of my soul.  "There's a wideness in God's mercy that I cannot find in my own, And he keeps his fire burning to melt this heart of stone..."  Such lyrics wedged their way in to combat the growing calluses on my heart as I became increasingly mad at God.  How could he allow my strong and healthy dad to become so sick?  I would visit him and could see the toll the high dose experimental chemo was taking on his body.  His hair fell out and his face and body bloated and the whites of his eyes turned blood red due to burst capillaries, it was as if his iris' were set in pools of blood that never spilled over.  It was hard to look at him.  He was nearly unrecognizable.  And he said the craziest things while on the morphine drip.  He once asked me to teach him how to play the mandolin.  I had never held a mandolin much less knew how to play yet he insisted I promise to teach him.  Another time he asked me to find the diamonds on the third floor.  I asked him what diamonds and looked to my mom for help.  She just looked at me and said to do as my father asked and go find the diamonds.  I hesitantly went to the door and once outside wondered if I should actually go to the third floor or just stay away for awhile.  How was I to explain my lack of diamonds when I came back?

So I went to youth group every Wednesday night.  I drove in Dad's car and listened to Rich.  "...Keeps me aching with a yearning, Keeps me glad to have been caught in the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God..."  My dad had a temper.  He wasn't perfect.  He blew it time and time again.  He was funny and so smart and distant at times and yet so present.  He was a mystery wrapped in an enigma.  When we lived in England he was often away training for long periods of time so when he came back from a trip he would come to my school to walk me home at the end of the day.  He was so handsome in his Air Force uniform.  I was on top of the world when my daddy came to walk with me.  He also took me for drives along winding country lanes.  He had a green MG at the time, a convertible.  It is my favorite car of all time.  We would hurdle through time and space with green hills and forests sliding by safely encased in our little green bubble.  Rich wrote an amazing song called "The Color Green", it would have matched perfectly those drives my dad and I took when we lived in England.

It was in England that we all became Christians.  My dad was stationed there at Lakenheath Air Force base.  After going to Germany with my sick brother to try and get a diagnosis my mom came back with a renewed sense to know God.  She had had a roommate, another mom of a sick child there to be tested as well and my mom experienced a very holy moment in prayer with some other moms.  She came home with the suspicion she wasn't the Christian she thought she was.  She and Dad started taking us to the home church on the base led by American missionaries.  We found ourselves caught up in a community of young believers.  We were forever changed by meeting Christ there in that little base house.

After coming back to the states and my dad going to Westminster Theological Seminary outside of Philly and after many moves we stopped going to church as a family.  My parents never made a conscious choice to stop attending it just got pushed to the back burner and with their 2 hour daily commutes in the Dallas Fort Worth area their priorities slowly shifted.  I was attending a large southern Baptist church in Arlington, First Baptist.  After being invited by my best friend in 7th grade I continued through out my entire teen years.  I loved my youth group.  It was one place in the world where I felt safe and loved.  It wasn't perfect, I wasn't even sure my youth pastor liked me all the time but he was there to lead and direct the many volunteer youth leaders and youth staff who showed up week after week and they cared.

Our youth group was made up of teens from at least four different high schools and many more junior highs.  While living in the same city I ended up going to 2 different elementary schools between 4th and 6th grade and 2 different junior highs.  We moved across town before I could attend the high school those schools poured into.  I hardly knew anyone at the high school I ended up attending.  I was the new kid again and I had a HUGE chip on my shoulder and decided not to invest.  I stayed distant.  I attended classes and played in the band and wrote for the newspaper but I was a ghost walking the halls, totally disconnected.  Youth group at FBC was my constant.  I was known.  I was loved.  I had community with others and grew in my faith.  "...Now I've seen no band of angels, but I've heard the soldiers songs', love hangs over them like a banner, Love within them leads them on, To the battle on the journey and it's never gonna to stop, Ever widening their mercies and the fury of his love..."

Over my teen years I had become a leader at youth group.  However during those months I struggled with my faith I stepped out of leadership.  I continued going.  I had a Sunday School teacher my senior year who patiently let me rage against God without judgement.  He was a retired marine.  We jokingly called him "Friday" after the detective in the old tv show Dragnet.  Detective Joe Friday was known for his dry, "just the facts", manor.  As was our beloved volunteer teacher.  His silvered hair was styled in the classic high and tight crew cut and he walked with a ram rod straight posture.  He was intimidating until you realized his warm humor and heart of gold were just beneath the austere surface.  He wasn't afraid of my questions and anger.  He was there and listened and cared.  I had another youth leader once ask me, "Don't you know every time you cry about your dad, God is crying with you?  You can go through this alone and angry with God or you can accept God knows what he's about and lean into him and be comforted."  It became startlingly clear I needed to do just that.  Trust God and let him comfort me.

While Dad was in ICU I put a request in the offering plate one Sunday asking for prayer quoting some verses I had found, James 5:14-15, "Is any one of you sick?  He should call the elders of the church to pray over I'm and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  If he has sinned, he will be forgiven."  A large contingent of Elders from my church drove to Dallas and prayed with and anointed my father with oil.  They started a church wide volunteer movement of so many that gave blood and plasma to my dad.  So much so the nurses started to believe my Dad was somehow famous as they had never had so many donors for one patient.  My uncle Bob was the main donor of plasma for my dad and towards the end was donating nearly everyday (my Uncle Bob hated needles yet his love for my dad inspired his commitment to continue the painful and lengthy donations).  My dad told the nurses it was his daughter's church that was behind all the donations.

Something happened there in that hospital room.  My dad got stronger and was eventually discharged.  He had nearly died yet he was wheeled out Cancer free.  He and my mom started attending my church and it became their church.  My dad gave testimony of his baffling remission and his turn back towards God.  It was through the crucible of Cancer that my dad returned to Christ. "Joy and sorrow are this ocean, and in their every ebb and flow, now the Lord a door has opened that all hell could never close... Here I'm tested and made worthy, tossed about but lifted high, in the reckless raging fury that they call the love of God."

He did die 7 years later at the ripe old age of 45.  He died in his sleep.  It seems a piece of plaque had broken free and lodged itself into my dad's chemo weakened heart.  He told us he didn't want to die in a sterile hospital bed.  He said he wanted to die in his sleep with one heart beat here and the next in heaven.  It was a surprise to us but not to my dad.  He had visited me just a few weeks before he died.  He played with my babies and told me he was proud of me.  Rich Mullins died just three months after my dad.  So once again they were tied together in my mind.  I remember thinking my dad would have been so sad to hear that Rich had died but then I remembered that they are probably together in heaven hanging out.

I wanted a Rich Mullins song to be played at his funeral.  The song "Hold Me Jesus" seems to encompass the complexities of faith and so reminds me of my father.  It highlights the struggles we face in the midst of our humanity.  My dad was not perfect.  Rich Mullins was not perfect and he allowed us to see it.  Sometimes in Christian circles we try to project this image that we've got it all figured out.  Rich wore his heart on his sleeve. When you watch Ragamuffin you flinch inwardly at his mistakes and melancholy.  He was messy and sloppy.  He smoked and drank.  He preferred bare feet and torn jeans.  His hair was often long and disheveled.  Yet he fearlessly pushed into the grace and love of God.  He lived as closely to what he felt God would have him live as possible.  He feasted on the Word of God.  He continues to be an inspiration and his music lives on.

There are few people you get to know intimately.  To know them without the masks we so carefully construct.  My dad was one I knew well and because of that I knew his failings and his shortcomings.  He was often a mess.  Yet he turned to God and allowed Christ to shine though.  I am often a mess, just like my dad.  Yet I turn again and again to Christ.  He loves me as I am.  I hope you know the love of God.  I hope there are people in your life, messy ones that blow it all the time yet turn again and again to Christ.  You cannot outrun the love of God.  "Oh the love of God, and oh the love of God, the love of God..."

I will close with the lyrics to Hold Me Jesus:

Sometimes my life just don't make sense at all
When the mountains look so big
And my faith just seems so small

So hold me Jesus, I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace

And I wake up in the night and feel the dark
It's so hot inside my soul
There must be blisters on my heart

So hold me Jesus, I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace

Surrender don't come natural to me
I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want
Than to take what You give that I need
And I've beat my head against so many walls
I'm falling down, I'm falling on my knees

And this Salvation Army band is playing this hymn
And Your grace rings out so deep
It makes my resistance seem so thin

Oh, hold me Jesus, I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace

Oh, hold me Jesus, I'm shaking like a leaf
You have been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace

You've been King of my glory
Won't You be my Prince of Peace