“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/

Turning Point

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

John 20:19-20

It struck me, while reading these verses this morning, that these two verses encapsulate a complete turning point for the disciples. It has to be the darkest time in their lives. Jesus, who they were so devoted to, had just been crucified and they were now milling about in a dark room behind closed and locked doors, for fear of persecution, trying to figure out how to stomach the situation they suddenly found themselves in. The focus of their life had been cut off. Their meaning and purpose of life had taken a dreadful blow and they were, seemingly, left with nothing.

The reality, of course, is that Jesus knew precisely where they were and what their state of mind was. He knew exactly where to find them and closed, locked doors were no barrier to Him. He came to them and the first thing he said was “Peace Be With You!” In fact, this part must have been important because, later on, verse 21 indicates that he repeated these same words. He knew what waves of torment were running through their minds and he wanted them to be at peace because, even though they didn’t understand what was unfolding, He did. He wanted them to trust Him.

Again, though, because of His awareness of exactly what they were thinking and feeling, He showed them the wounds in His hands and in His side from the crucifixion and, “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

The sixteen month journey that led from the initial diagnosis of my Dad’s stage four glioblastoma brain tumor in October 2010 to his passing on February 20 of this year continues to be the lens through which I view the life that I have left now that he is gone. Some days are better than others, but, the loss of the best man in my wedding, my life-long best friend, is one that continues to impact me on a daily, perhaps hourly, basis.

There are nights when I lie down in bed and, as the noise of the day recedes, my mind drifts back to my Dad and the difficulty of the last two weeks, in particular, of our time time together when he, his brother, and I were staying together under one roof around the clock. The interactions that I had with him at that time along with so many other details and distinct moments in those final days when he couldn’t articulate recognizable words anymore (except for “goddammit!”) and my uncle and I found ourselves all too often at a loss, have left deep impressions on me as a person that I’m struggling, each day, to figure out how to deal with.

Like the disciples who were hiding and milling about in a darkened room behind closed doors, my heart and my soul far short of joyful and they have borne blisters that cause the whole of me to bristle at the seemingly random intervals that memories of Dad and how it all went down surface . I fall apart for a moment before I get myself back together in order to move on and, as Dad would say when he was still able to, “keep putting one foot in front of the other.”

But, I am aware enough to realize that what it is that allows me to move forward at all is the grace of God and the notion that He knows, like He did with the disciples, exactly where I am mentally, spiritually, and physically, and that he has a bigger plan that, while I don’t necessarily understand every step, will end up being well worth the journey.

It is the peace that He, first and foremost, gave to the disciples, that He has also given to me. While the pain and the moments of darkness are, indeed, very real, it is the peace that I have through faith in Jesus that has carried me away from every each and every low point, onward and upward. It is this peace that will continue to carry me to the point when I, too, will see the scars in His hands and the wound in His side, and be “overjoyed” as the disciples were once they knew that it was Him and that He had come back for them.

“…I know you enough to know to trust you with what I don’t…Lord please help me to be patient with what is unseen…”

-Josh Harmony

Lessons Learned In The Dark

When I’m having a conversation with somebody I often preface my comments by stating something to the effect that I am basically a journeyman with a prodigal background and that, while my intentions are good, my consistency of focus is more fallible than not. The main reason that I make this disclaimer is because I don’t want my reliably poor decisions and character faults to distract from whatever truth God may choose to reflect off of my twitching countenance for someone else to see. While my soul is at peace, my body, brain, and nerves are often not.

My life experiences, so far, have taught me a little about humilty and a good deal about perspective. One of the greatest lessons that I’ve learned can be summed up in a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make of it.” Very little in this life is permanent. So, how can I deal with it?

I was born in March of 1976 and put up for adoption. By June of 1976 I was in the home that I would grow up in under the care and supervision of my adpotive parents. In 1994, however, my parents began a long and difficult divorce process that wouldn’t be resolved until several years later. Through a combination of that process and my older brother’s runaway exit from home and family nearly a decade before I learned that having a cohesive and whole family to cling to throughout life is not guaranteed for everyone.

In January of 1996 I learned that a person’s home and belongings can disappear in an instant. It was -6 degrees farenheight in upstate New York at about one in the morning when I returned home from work to find my house engulfed in flames, though, fortunately, with my dad standing safely outside along with members of six local fire departments. It was so cold that night that the pumps on the tanker trunks were freezing up and hindering their efforts to control the blaze. We were very fortunate to have homeowner’s insurance and a lot of generous friends and family help us to get through, but, again, it was an eye-opening time in which I learned that material things that we put so much effort into acquiring and keeping really are temporary and fleeting.

Probably the most significant lesson in my life began to unfold in October of 1998 when an previously unknown tumor in the pineal gland of my brain ruptured and I had to be hospitalized in the intensive care unit for several days. The subsequent VP shunt insertion surgery, radiation treatments, biopsy, and eventual surgery to remove the apparently and fortunately benign tumor made a stark impression on me and my appreciation for the more subtle, yet frequent, moments of beauty that are available to us each day.

Through these experiences and others I have learned and experienced what it means to be truly alone. I’ve also learned how weak I can be in such moments. Life, indeed, takes on a different perspective when your belongings have gone up in smoke, your home is gone, your family has disolved, and you’re not optimistic that this next Christmas won’t be your last.

As a result of these lessons I have a much greater appreciation, than I might have had otherwise, for the true stability and peace that comes from placing one’s hopes on something that is endless and invincible. Events written about here that I realize could be interpreted by a random reader as ‘Woe is me’ complaints, instead, had a very real and longstanding impact on the worldview, hope, and peace that I now have.

For me, the loss, pain, loneliness, and what I interpreted as betrayal, was a critical step in the learning process of finding out there really is joy, peace, and love to be gained and experienced in this life and beyond.

Now, as a husband and father of two, I am certain that the great appreciation and fondness that I have for my life is more than it would have been had I not experienced what I have in the past. I needed to be left in the dark so that I could realize that there was a light.

“If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know that it was dark. Dark would be a word without meaning.”
-C.S. Lewis