“I’m Not Afraid. No, I’m A Believer”

“I just don’t understand why it has to be this way.” Those were the most honest words my dad ever uttered to me with regards to the cancer that was, at the time, just a few short months away from finally robbing him of his life. My dad was a product of his generation: a man who worked hard and didn’t talk about his feelings. It was an extremely difficult pill for him to swallow. He had an amazing track record of getting the short end of the stick. He wouldn’t have been a good poster child for the notion that people get what they deserve. It was a horrible way for his life to end and anyone who reads this blog or who knows me at all, knows that the seventeen month journey that I endured, from the moment my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer until the midnight moment when he passed away as I sat with him in his bed, was a terribly dark, trying, and painful journey for me, too. It was like watching a fatal car crash happen in slow motion over the course of over a year’s time. As his main caretaker, I was there at every turn carrying a progressively heavier load as his condition worsened to the point where he couldn’t talk or do anything for himself. The description of those months as the darkest period in my life is, to say the least, an understatement.

As dark as it was, though, the backdrop of shadows revealed a thread that was just beginning to strengthen and glimmer intermittently, reflecting a faint, still, small hope that peace would be found, at some point, further down the road. It wasn’t, however, a hope that relieved my pain or a miracle that washed all of my stress and fear away. Nor was it a time machine that could beam me to some future point and time in my life when I would be stronger. It was, simply, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). I can’t remember exactly how or when, in the midst of that journey, I came across Psalms 18:16-19, but, when I did, it was immediately relevant and became the main security handle that I have held onto tightly ever since:

“He reached down from on high and took hold of me;he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

The identity and timing of “a spacious place,” however, remained a mystery to me until the naming of Kevin Max as the new lead singer of rock outfit Audio Adrenaline.  Heartfelt encouragement from Kevin to consider “the least of these” set off a series of events, one of which was an introduction to the work of The Hands and Feet Project. As described in a prior post titled, “How To Live Life,” I was inspired to step out in faith and commit to donating profit from the sale of my Dad’s house to The Hands and Feet Project. After making the donation and relaying my Dad’s story and an explanation of how the donation came about, Hands and Feet Project director Mark Stuart extended a generous gesture by asking if they could name the kitchen in a new building that is currently under construction in honor of my dad.

Without going into too much detail, the redeeming and burden-lightening effect that his gesture had on my family and I with regards to the memory of my dad, a guy who always worked hard and looked out for others, but, seldom received his due, was nothing short of monumentally life-changing. Almost instantly, the weight of several months of my life characterized by mourning and wondering how to navigate life without the man who was the best man in my wedding, my best friend, my Dad, started to lift and a new and inspired life swelling with purpose and hope began to emerge. With one kind gesture, my Dad’s legacy would be  shifted from one of loss and emptiness to one of eternal hope in a vocational school kitchen from which teenage Haitian orphans would be receiving their daily meals as they developed skills to become productive Haitian citizens.

I know that Audio Adrenaline’s (the band that started The Hands And Feet Project in 2006) new song “Believer” is being explained by the band as the story of blind surfer Derek Rabelo, but, it wasn’t long after the album’s release that I found my own story told in the lyrics of the song. From an adult life characterized at first by complacency, and then by utter darkness, to a life of purpose and meaning, learning how to step into places where Jesus wants those who are His to go,  mine has changed significantly. Now it is I who am finally “giving up, letting go of control,” not only as I make preparations for a January 2014 short term mission trip with The Hands and Feet Project to Haiti, but, also, in my daily life. I’m learning that my personal comfort and convenience are not a priority, but, that loving others as myself, and in doing so, honoring God above all, are the priorities that matter. In fact, I’m learning, now, about what living life more abundantly really feels like. Each moment spent in my classroom teaching fifth graders is more passionately invested. Each hug and kiss from my wife and kids is more distinctly savored.

Like Derek Rubelo, I can’t necessarily see the waves of life coming, but, learning to feel my way through, with faith,  “I can walk on the water with You, Lord.”

I want to live this live unsafe, unsure, but not afraidWhat I want is to give all I got somehow, giving up letting go of control right now‘Cause I’m already out here, blind but I can see, I see the way You’re movingGod how I believe that I can push back the mountains, can stand on the wavesI can see through the darkness, I’ll hold up the flameTake me to the ocean, I want to go deeper, I’m not afraid no, I’m a believerAnd so I lose this life to find my way and come aliveThey can try to deny what’s inside of me, but there is more, can’t ignore all the things unseenOh I believe I can walk on water with You, LordWhen I walk through the valley of the shadows, when I’m trapped in the middle of the battle, I will trust in You‘Cause trouble comes, but you never let it take me, I hold fast ‘cause I know that You will save meI will trust in You, I will trust in YouOh here I stand all alone waiting on you, Lord, waiting on You

Learn more about The Hands & Feet Project at http://www.handsandfeetproject.org/

Joy: Is It All In My Head?

Joy. It is the feeling I experienced today, mixed equally with gratitude, when I received the news over the phone from my neurologist’s nurse that the MRI I underwent three days ago showed “no acute change” in the pineal region of my brain where a ruptured benign brain tumor was removed fourteen years ago. It had been two years since my last MRI. The discovery of basal cell skin cancer on the side of my head this past fall (which has since been removed) raised concerns that adverse consequences might be surfacing from radiation treatments I received in the fall of 1998 to treat the pineal gland tumor. This heightened concern, in combination with a string of headaches I’ve been experiencing for a couple of weeks, had me on edge and fearing the worst leading up to and since the MRI. But, the news that I received today released, in me, a surge of gratitude for what I view very sincerely as a new lease on life. Its like I just came up from the bottom of the deep end of the pool and broke through the surface of the water, able to take in a chest full of oxygen that, just moments before, I wasn’t sure I would ever get close to again.

“Joy.” It is the word that the lead singer of Audio Adrenaline used repeatedly in a conversation that I had with him after his band’s 481088_10151484213989268_2073100386_nconcert in Gaffney, SC, two nights ago. The band was in Haiti last year to shoot a music video for the song “Kings & Queens” which can be heard frequently on Christian radio these days. The song is focused on the plight of orphans in Haiti, children who are living examples of what Jesus referred to in scripture as “the least of these.” What struck Kevin most during his time there was the utter joy exhibited by the children being served in the children’s villages of The Hands & Feet Project. He explained that, in comparison to the lives of Haitian children outside the reach of orphan care, the children currently being served by Hands and Feet are healthy, happy, and fully alive. Thanks to the Hands and Feet Project they are cared for, sheltered, educated, given health care, and raised in a loving, family-style environment that allows them to develop as children with the hope of a future.

The hope of a future, however, is simply not there for so many Haitian children who live in a country where only half of the population has access to clean drinking water and only half of Haitians fifteen years of age or older can read and write. Kevin described the prevalence of parents who sell their children off into the abandon them at the local hospital, sex trade, abandon them at the local hospital, or worse. A disproportionate number of adults drowning in the hopelessness that surrounds them in Haiti choose to commit suicide and take their children with them. We’re not talking about kids whose parents just can’t afford new Nikes for their child on the first day of the new American public school year. We’re talking about a a sizable population of children who are abandoned in a country where the odds are already stacked heavily against those who do parents. In Haiti only half of the adult population can read and write and only half have access to clean drinking water. Without outside help, the children who’ve been abandoned have no hope.

But, in a way that I would imagine is, at least, comparable to the gratitude that I felt and the joy that I experienced when I received the news today that my MRI was clear, the children taken in by the Hands and Feet Project experience the joy that comes with the security of a loving family environment on a daily basis. Compared to where they come to The Hands and Feet Project from, they, too, get a new lease on life and, according to Kevin, their own joy and gratitude is tangible and clearly evident in the children that he was able to spend time with. So much so that it was the defining characteristic that he chose to share with me when I asked him to tell me about his experience in Haiti.

Right now, though, The Hands and Feet Project is running at full capacity and can’t take in any more orphans than they already have. They are, however, working to expand and need any help that can be given to do so. Please visit The Hands and Feet Project’s website to learn more about what you can do to “be like Jesus to the least of these.”

Christmas In Perspective

December 15-18, 2007

Its difficult, for me, to keep my mind from wandering down the road that, instead of having Christmas light-decorated houses, is cluttered with the contradictions of the Christmas season. Even though I am definitely one to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of the holidays, I know that the “magic” that I experienced as a child was just that: magic. Likewise, I know that David Copperfield can most accurately be described as an illusionist rather than a magician and that the “magic” that I remember was not really magic at all, but, ignorance.

The groundlessness of the nostalgic, ideal childhood Christmases in my mind is made even more so when juxtaposed against the reality of what the majority of other children in the world were experiencing at the very moment that I was unwrapping my new G.I. Joe motorized tank: the absence of clean drinking water, the absence of enough food for a meal, the pain of cancer, the limitations of muscular dystrophy, and the loneliness of orphanhood. Unlike the diminishing of my childhood ignorance over the years, however, these real human tragedies and their resulting despair have endured and progressed to new levels.

To contemplate this reality, for me, is to experience the disappointment that comes from being let down by the fabricated stories that I now feed my own daughter. My wife and I had considered, briefly, the possibility of not going through with the whole Santa charade with my daughter, but, ended up doing so anyway. Granted, I still enjoy singing and reading about Santa and Rudolph, but, anticipating when and how Julia will learn that he’s not real isn’t something that I enjoy. She’ll be disappointed someday, too.

And what kind of precedent does this set? What is to keep her from thinking that if we lied by telling her that Santa was real, but, he turned out fake, that Jesus is fake, too? That is my biggest fear and it is restrained only by the fact that my life is dependent upon Christ now, even though I spent my first several years thinking there was a Santa.

I’d like to be able to write in an ending paragraph to this post here with some grand conclusion about the best way to handle this at this point, but, the truth is that I haven’t come to one. The significant problems and realities of this world remain, as does the saving grace of Christ that this day is supposedly intended to celebrate (though Christ was not likely born on December 25). I do believe the celebration of the fact that he came is very legitimate and worthwhile and, deep down, I feel like we should be more honest with my daughter. Instead of focusing on Santa and getting we could fully focus on Christ and giving and I could rest knowing that she has and will continue to experience the real joy that comes from helping others in need, especially during the holidays. It would be a holiday tradition that would never disappoint.

One of my brightest new memories of this season, so far, came the other night when my family was out caroling at a local nursing home with a few people from my church. We were really focusing on older members of the church that were in the home, but, another older woman, not a member of our church, invited us to her door to sing for her. She asked that we sing “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and proceeded to explain to my four-year-old daughter (who was looking at the woman in a puzzled manner) that she didn’t plan on being at the home, but, that sometimes life gives us “bumps in the road,” and that God would help her through.

This was an obviously coherent woman (unlike many residents at the home) facing, undoubtedly, a very difficult and dark time in her life. It is something I can’t really fathom at this point – the idea of living my whole life and then spending the end of my time in a cold, sterile nursing home. But, after we finished stumbling through the song (we weren’t 100% sure of the words at the time) this woman took such care to express to us her appreciation and gratefulness for our visit. I can’t help but to believe that the resulting gratification that I felt from the interaction is just a taste of the real joy that could be experienced if I focused more on the giving aspect of Christmas.

One reason I think that Christ was born the way that he was, in a barn occupied by livestock, is that God wanted us to understand that it is not up to us to climb insurmountable mountains in order to reach some higher level and live up to His high and holy standard. Instead, he came down and into the world as a vulnerable, dependent, homeless child. He taught, healed, sacrificed, suffered, and continues to serve as deliverer of the free and unmerited favor of God.

We do have the opportunity to experience the real joy of Christmas on a daily basis throughout the year by serving those in need. So, maybe the question here shouldn’t even be about whether or not to celebrate the idea of Santa during Christmas, but, instead, how can we do more to help others every day of the year?

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”~Matthew 25:40