Archive for November, 2013

One in a Million


My husband’s brother Michael died this week. It wasn’t really unexpected – he’d been treated for end-stage renal disease for more than 44 years. It’s just that, well, we never really expect death. It is a rare, unnatural, uncommon occurrence for death to pass so near, so close to us we can touch it – at least, it seems to be, when it’s happening to us. In truth, of course, it’s not. A million people died this week, the same as every week, and my brother-in-law was one of them. Just one in a million.

What did seem to be rare and uncommon to me was the extraordinary graciousness that welcomed and embraced everyone as the family gathered to say good-bye. I can’t say it surprised me, though. My brother-in-law was one of those rare people who were truly “grace-full”, so much so it couldn’t help but spill over and touch other people with its healing effect.

I don’t mean to make him sound like a saint, because he was just a human being like all the rest of us. Yet in spite of the grave illness that set so many physical boundaries for him during his life, he was a man bound and determined to live his life fully, and he did everything with a zest I still envy. Perhaps, in that respect, he was one in a million.

Many of us have Michaels in our lives – people who inspire and instill hope in us. We admire them; and we long for that illusive gift of grace they seem to have in their possession. But many of us also know people embittered by the hardship of life, people who seem to live in the shadows of pain or fear or loneliness. We pity them, for it seems they have been robbed of a great treasure – that graciousness we all desire. It does not seem to be circumstance or means that makes the difference. Grace can be found in the most dire situations, just as it can be absent in the most fortunate. What, then, can possibly cause such a difference?

I am convinced that faith – in its broadest sense – is what makes the difference. Faith is as simple – and as difficult – as accepting the fact of mystery in the world and refusing to waste time or energy demanding answers to pointless questions like “Why?”. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as recognizing the miracle in each breath, every heart beat, the full palette of emotion and thought. Faith is as simple, and as difficult, as allowing your loved ones to walk with you to death’s door, and leaving them, when the time has come, with a smile and the surety of peace. I don’t know the odds of finding such faith – one in a million? – but I know the quest is worth everything.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”    Hebrews 11:1

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When we were much younger, my husband and I pursued the American dream with a vengeance. Like many of our contemporaries, we just assumed we could “have it all” – successful careers, thriving family, comfortable home, cars, vacations, and satisfying volunteer activities that made a difference in the world. This belief is so basic in our culture, we assume that NOT having a picture-perfect life kind of marks you as a loser. It was the piercing honesty of a child that finally shattered the delusion. I was trying to get the boys bathed and ready for bed. They were squabbling, each trying to provoke the other in ways that only siblings can, but when the water started flying around the room, I lost my cool and snapped at them both. Whereupon my 3-year old put his hands on his hips, screwed on his best “angry face”, and said, “Well, I’m sorry! I had a hard day today!”

His comment hit me like a ton of bricks, because up to that point in time, I absolutely knew that “having it all” would make us all happy, and yet there I was, faced with clear evidence to the contrary. Neuroscientists tell us that all new information coming into the brain has to be assessed and a decision made about how to handle it. If it fits with what we already know and believe – if it’s consonant with our experience – it may reinforce what we already thought, or it may just be discarded since it offers no new value. When the information is dissonant, however – when it contradicts something we believe to be true – it takes a lot of energy and brain work to process it, no matter what we ultimately do with the new idea: ignore it, deny it, or construct logical reasons to reject it. There is another possibility, of course, though in my experience it takes even MORE energy and creative thought to consider seriously that the old information we’ve been using to make decisions might not be complete or entirely correct.

The problem with my son’s challenge was not that career, home, and financial security were bad, because they’re not. The difficulty arose because I had allowed those things to trump a much deeper, more fundamentally-held truth – that love is the purpose for which God created us. I didn’t do it consciously, of course, but the contradiction was there all the same, just waiting to be pointed out to me. I thought I knew all about the selfless love of God in Christ. Why, I could have recited all the right Bible verses for you, but I don’t think I really began to understand it, even a little bit, until I was confronted with the idea that I might need to sacrifice something in my life, for the sake of someone I loved. Change like that is for the brave of heart, and yet that is exactly what Christ calls us to – transformed lives, changed from the inside out.

You know, I’m pretty sure God had been sending me the message that “love wins” a long time before my brain was able to recognize it and decide to work through it rather than dodge it. But when I finally did, it was no longer possible to keep doing the same thing hoping for a different result. Within a year, we changed our lives in some pretty radical ways. Joe decided to stay home with the kids full-time, so we could focus on nurturing those strong, family relationships of love and respect we believe God calls us to, and I took on the role of sole provider for a while, to enable all that to happen. I probably wouldn’t suggest what we did to anybody else, for I can assure you it was terrifying, but it was also the right way for us to move forward. Our faith grew deeper, and stronger, because we were willing to re-learn something we already knew in a new way, and to be changed by it.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2

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