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Thank Luck

I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. – Abraham Lincoln, October 3, 1863

Even atheists say “thank God.” Gratitude is an odd word that demands both a “for” and a “to.” It is usually pretty obvious what one is thankful “for.” But we tend to forget that, in saying it,  we are thanking someone or something for the gift. To whom are we grateful? If someone gives us something or does something for us, we thank them. It’s concrete, tangible, unambiguous. But to whom are we expressing gratitude when we reflect on the many good things we have that, for lack of a better term, were dropped in our lap?

Lincoln’s proclamation left no doubt as to whom he felt our nation should be grateful. And for the most part people who would not call themselves believers still feel gratitude towards some vague, amorphous condition that they might call luck or fate or some such. For believers, we know that luck and blessing are two very different things. Being lucky just means that you got an outcome you didn’t necessarily deserve, it just came out that way. Could have come out different, but “I was just lucky, I guess.” Lady Luck is simply the personification of blind and random forces in life that determine our fate. Inescapable, amoral and impersonal. No one says “Thank Luck.”

Being blessed is another matter entirely. We are the object of a transitive verb, and how we choose to fill in the “subject” says much about who we are. At one extreme, it is again a vague and impersonal force or being, “The Universe,” a “Higher Power,” something that is “out there” giving us goodies. Funny thing is, when the gift brings with it suffering, God usually gets the blame. Even though they may not believe in God, they still need someone to pin it on.

At the other extreme, there are those of us who believe God to be a personal, loving and powerful being. When we are blessed we say “thanks be to God.” Except when the gift brings with it suffering, we aren’t thankful. It is because that in saying that, we imply that God causes bad things to happen to those who don’t deserve it. Especially me.

But for us Christians, real faith in God requires us to be grateful for all the blessings we receive, even the ones that seem malevolent. Real faith sees the hand  of God in everything, the bad as well as the good, for  “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

We are grateful for good family, nice friends, a home, puppies, rainbows, unicorns. But never cancer or loss or hardship. Do I have the spiritual maturity to be grateful for the whole package, or do I, as was suggested to Job, “curse God and die?” It would be the height of denial to say that my circumstances today are what I would have chosen. But I don’t believe God gave me cancer, twice. What I am grateful for is that God is with me in  my cancer, that I am not alone in this burden. And I fervently believe that good will come of it, that my acceptance of what I have been given will in some or many ways bless someone else.

So on this Thanksgiving Day, I thank God who has so richly blessed me in all aspects of  my life. And I thank all of you, family and friends who have walked this difficult path with me, for your generous and sincere love. I’m not lucky but I am blessed.

 

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No matter where you go, there you are

Somebody nudged me the other day and asked when I was going to post to this blog again. And again today, someone wanted to know how I am doing. It’s been far too long since my last post and there’s a reason for this, one that I’m not particularly proud of. As a rule, when I post it is because there is something interesting and worth sharing. And I want it to be profound and engaging because frankly I get a lot out of your responses. And I don’t like posting some boring, day to day stuff because there probably won’t be any spectacular response. It never occurs to me that the people who love me just want to include me in their lives. This is pride, the foremost of the Seven Deadlies, and the one that underlies them all.

I have been home a month now and have settled in to what, for now, is the new normal. Maybe you want to know what that is, maybe not. But I’ll share this with you all.

One of the most significant developments for me is that I am finally being fitted for the devices that soon will allow me to produce sounds via a voice prosthesis. It won’t be speech, but it will be a necessary first step. I’ll be back to Michigan in January for the placement of the prosthesis and several intense weeks of speech therapy. As my therapist said, my success is up to me. It’s a long road ahead but he feels that I have the right attitude to pull it off. We shall see.

One side benefit of this is that I can now use a button called an HME (heat/moisture exchanger) that eliminates the need for nightly humidification. One less piece of medical equipment. We returned it the other day. The HME is also a filter that removes larger contaminates like cat hair (no shortage of that here), and the usual junk that floats around. Normally your nose does all of these things. But since mine is now merely decorative, it’s a necessary and welcome replacement.

It’s good to finally be back in familiar surroundings, but I am beginning to realize just how much I need to adjust to function in a world where speech is expected. So I carry around my Boogie Board to write on. And there is a voice to text app on my phone that helps a lot. But other people don’t quite know how to act around me. One guy started writing back at me, assuming that since I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t hear. An understandable but humorous response.

Another thing that is turning out to be harder than I thought is developing a simple sign language that Charlotte and I can use to communicate. It takes a lot of work and we’re usually short on time, or too tired to work on it. So it’s not moving along as I had naively hoped. Patience is the requirement here.

Participating in group discussions is proving to be very problematic as well. I got a taste of it when I was in Michigan during my recuperation, but now it is becoming a point of real frustration for me. We have a bi-weekly bible study that I used to actively contribute to, but it’s the same problem of being ten steps behind the conversation so that by the time I have typed what I want to say I am hopelessly off topic and I end up erasing all the typing I just did. We went to our Marriage Encounter sharing group last night and they started to wrap up the meeting before I had a chance to “say” anything. It’s no one’s fault. I just feel left out and minimized. It’s obvious that people don’t understand what I need from them. Our little Sunday AA meeting in Rochester gave me a chance to actively participate because they came to understand my limitations. From that a comfortable dynamic emerged. But I can’t expect that to happen in most groups, at least not at first.

I developed a pretty bad strep infection in my chin which the doctor is treating with an arsenal of antibiotics. There is still a lot of edema in my face, and it is always at risk for infection. I am getting regular massage by a physical therapist trained in lymphedema massage. But even with that, it will probably be a year before the swelling fully subsides.

Still, it’s good to be home and able to go in to work a couple of days a week. Everyone has become so accustomed to my working remotely that I usually have no reason to go in. As a result, I have become a house husband, something Charlotte is enjoying. Every day that I work from home, there is a list of chores for me to do in addition to doing my regular job. And I’m happy to do it. If I ever really retire, I suspect I will have a “honey do” list every day. I don’t mind because it means I have a wife whom I can care for.

So that’s where I am. My life is pretty ho-hum. And that’s just fine with me.

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Going Home

 “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” – “You Can’t Go Home Again.” – Thomas Wolfe

I now have something which seemed like a distant horizon not so long ago. Charlotte and I have airline tickets to Phoenix where awaits my car to finish the journey, my home, my bed, six impossible cats who own my heart, and most of all my wife.

“Home” is a state of mind. It is the place where there is a reasonable expectation that things are as they should be, or at least attainable. I have been in Michigan for most of the summer and early fall, and I am surrounded by people who love me. Everything I need is at my disposal, I want for nothing. I know my way around familiar streets and I notice the unexpected presence of businesses and buildings that weren’t here when this was “home.” But it no longer is. And even if I were to move back here, I could not return to the “home” that I once knew. That state of mind has passed away, as it certainly should.

Home will be found again in our little house in Arizona filled with the things that make it more than a mere dwelling. And I do so long to be back there. And yet, I will not find the home I left. It will certainly become “home” again, but it will never be “. . .  the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time.” These are the musings of one whose life has been more than half lived, for whom the inevitability of change has seeped into his very bones.

Is this a melancholy surrender to these feelings? It can be, but it certainly needn’t be. For with the perspective of time and an understanding of the transient nature of all that surrounds us, we can turn forward in anticipation of joys yet to unfold, of loves awaiting our arrival. For those like us whose faith is in God, we can affirm that “it was good, it is good, and good it shall ever be.”

Welcome home.

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A God With Skin

With peals of thunder punctuated by blinding flashes of light a mother attempts to get her child into bed.”Mommy, I’m scared” he says not surprisingly.”Honey, nothing will happen to you. God is watching over us and nothing bad can happen when God is our protection. Now go to sleep and we’ll see you in the morning.” Mom gets into bed, but a couple of flashes later her son has jumped into bed with mom and dad. “Honey, I told you God was watching over you. Let me take you back to your room. You’ll be nice and safe there.” But, of course, it only takes a couple of flashes and back into their bed he jumps. The scene repeats itself a few more times,and finally mom says, “Honey, don’t you believe that God is watching over you?” “Yes,” he replies. “But right now I could really use somebody with a little more skin.”

 

This is an old joke but a favorite for one important reason. It’s easy to talk of God’s goodness and protection when things are not terribly frightening, or when they are happening to someone else. But what happens when things get real, when it’s no longer a matter of simply knowing that God cares for us? Sometime, God works in tangible and immediate ways. The rent is due and an unexpected check shows up. You need to hire a replacement for a person that just quit, and you run into someone with the right qualifications looking for a job. We have all experienced moments like that. They can be faith builders, but they aren’t a foundation for faith.

The central fact of Christianity is precisely the punch line of that joke. We need a God with skin. We need a God who took on human flesh so that as human beings, we have a God who knows our infirmities, who knows intimately our deepest fears. And our deepest, most secret fear is that God is an illusion, a story we tell ourselves to feel better. But the little boy in the story wasn’t buying it. He didn’t want a story: he needed real protection.

How, then, do I experience a God with skin? How do I experience the tangible reality of a God who is my protection? Jesus came in the flesh to conquer all sin and death. But that meant that he had to first die. And even though He rose from the tomb, it was still necessary for Him to leave us so that something more powerful could take the place of His earthly presence, limited, as it were, by time and space. What He gave us was more than His risen body. He gave us His Holy Spirit. And it was His intention,, and that of the Father, that those who are baptized into His death are likewise baptized into His life.

So take a moment and look at you hands. If you are a Christian, those are not your hands. They are the flesh that clothes the hands of God. This is not a metaphor. The highest expression of God’s incarnation is that he redeemed our own flesh that it might become His. But we do not experience it unless we use it. The Holy Spirit is power, and power is not dormant. It is only when those hands are animated by the Holy Spirit that the miraculous ensues. The irony, then, is that I am never so close to the protection of God as I am when my hands reach out to protect someone else. God made us for purpose. Not merely a purpose, but purpose itself. As Christians, that means that nothing ever happens outside of the purpose of God.

I am dealing with some very difficult struggles right now. It is Sunday afternoon and a group of friends who stopped by have gone home. It could be the saddest moment of my week. Nothing is easier than self-pity. I could go in my room, close my eyes, and let the tears flow. And there would be nothing inherently wrong in that. But it is less than God wants for me. So I grabbed my computer and did what I could to give the moment meaning. I wrote. And by writing about the reality of my life, perhaps someone else’s life will be touched, or they will touch someone else. After all, what is skin for if not for touching?

 

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Top of the Roller Coaster

I’ve been remiss in holding to my goal of blogging more often. I’ve tried a few times and the words just didn’t seem to come. But tomorrow night will be the last night I go to bed with my speech in this condition and Charlotte will be here and I won’t waste our time together blogging. I don’t know what condition I will be in this time next week, but it will be different.

While I was sharing at the meeting this morning, I came to the realization that the thing I really fear the most is knowing I might never be able to talk to an AA newcomer. It’s hard enough in Arizona even finding new people to sponsor. But if my speaking ability becomes more limited there will be even greater hurdles to overcome. The bright side of that is that, if I am open to the possibilities, God will find a way to use these new developments to reach people I might not have otherwise reached. I just can’t see how, at least at this time.

I have maintained for some time that my strongest natural talent lay in teaching. And when I became a teacher, I found that it was a talent like every other, present in potential but requiring a great deal of practice and humility to properly develop it. I may not be a great teacher, maybe not even a good one. But when I am teaching, I feel that I am in my natural element. Whether I am standing in front of a classroom, or at an AA podium, talking one-on-one or leading a small group, there is no experience to compare to it. When I see a flash of understanding cross someone’s face, I feel like I am doing what I was made to do.

So what do I do if I can’t talk? Obviously I can write, and I certainly plan to, more than ever before. There is on this blog alone years of postings, mostly about the Program but also about my faith and other philosophical areas. And for the most part, it seems no one has read it. Nor need they. I am, after all, just one person expressing his opinions which, while they might be  insightful at times, are mostly syntheses if things I’ve learned from other sources. So my writing eventually flowed to a trickle for one reason only. I want to be heard. That, ultimately, is the source of the joy I find in teaching.

Am I being self-centered? I won’t deny it. Recognition and positive responses make me feel very good about myself. But following one’s true vocation ought to be gratifying. There’s no sin in that if kept in proper proportion. And the apparent loss of one’s vocation can only have a couple of meanings. Perhaps it wasn’t true discernment, just a rationalization of what I wanted to do anyway. In which case, it’s actually a kind of guidance, showing me that I may have missed the mark somewhere. Or it could be a refinement, a deeper expression of what the true vocation is. What I have done up until now may have been a preparation for something more demanding but more fruitful. Or it might just be something that happened and doesn’t require a spiritual analysis. I have no answers.

So this is how I feel: almost to the top of the roller coaster. Frightened, eager and wanting it to be all over. I don’t think I could wait another week. For the most part, I am genuinely content, convinced that God would not have brought me this far to abandon me. But every morning, for a few moments after I wake up but before I really have my thoughts under control, I feel alone and weak and angry and genuinely frightened. Praise God that these feelings don’t last very long. But I do need to be reminded daily just how bad it could be if I were facing this with only my own power.

Once again I am doing something which used to be anathema to me: typing what comes into my head and publishing it without editing. But I can’t afford the luxury of that much time, and I may actually be a little more self-revealing if I don’t try to tidy it up as much. In any case, this is pretty much raw Steve. Let me know what you think.

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Disappointed, joyous and free

I don’t have problems. I have opportunities, and some of my opportunities are insurmountable – heard at a meeting.

It is a character trait of mine that my emotions run ahead of my reason. And the surest outcome of that tendency is to permit circumstances to toss me around. Let a storm cloud appear on the distant horizon, and I am already wet. Let a sliver of sunlight emerge, and the world is a perfect place. I strive to be temperate, I may even boast of it at times, but calm, rational acceptance of circumstances is hardly guaranteed.

Today received news that things actually are just as grim as we first thought. I had embraced the unexpectedly sunny prognosis, and have now made myself worse off than before in some ways. In addition to the fear I already faced, I now carry the additional burden of self-inflicted disappointment (not to mention some embarrassment over having celebrated a bit soon).

When I first had a confirmed cancer diagnosis, I resolved to glory in my infirmity. And God certainly seemed to be providing the grace to stare down this obstacle. But as is often the case, the price of grace can be dear. Thus the question becomes “is grace always sufficient for the trial?” Is the true measure of grace always to be found in the depth of the struggle? My theological self says “yes” emphatically, and my scared inner self says “shut up.”  They are not in conflict.

I will continue to proclaim that God is my fortress and my shield. As in the past, I will affirm that Jesus conquered death and that the grave no longer holds the victory. And I will do this with quivering lips because I am weak, as are we all. It is not bravado I wish to show to the world. Rather, it is the inexplicable peace that overcomes it. Don’t think for a moment that I am not frightened. To face something this dire and not be frightened is either insanity or stupidity. But beneath the fear is a joy that no one can take from me. And that joy is rooted in absolute truths: that I am loved and supported by the best people in the word, that the most spectacular woman in the world is my wife, and that God, in His boundless love, will never leave me desolate.

So be by my side as we navigate these “opportunities.” It’s going to be a hell of a ride.

 

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Making it easier

To all my friends that had trouble commenting:

I had the blog set to require moderation of comments, but since I am so lazy it meant that your comments weren’t posting until I got around to it. I activated a plug-in that should prevent spam so if it works, there won;t be any restrictions. If I have problems with spam, I may have to tighten things up a little, but I’ll let you know before I do.

 

And thanks for all the response to my last post. More will follow. I have a biopsy tomorrow which will give us a better idea of what we’re dealing with. Pray for Charlotte. She’s having a tough time.

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Never Too Late

My blogging slowed to a trickle lately. (Actually, to nothing) But I felt a need to journal so that my family would have a record of my thoughts. I almost started a separate blog, but realized that no one read this one anyway, so how better to stay anonymous than by blogging to an unread site. I felt guilty that I had waited so long to start journaling, but guilt should never be an excuse for inaction. I decided to start on my 70th birthday, but emerging circumstance dictate that I start now. So my next post, along with any I fell need to be seen,  will be shared on Facebook.

See you there.

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Did Jesus lie about the Flood?

Noah's FloodOur friends at christiannews.net posted this article regarding Ken Ham’s assertion  that Jesus’and the Apostles’ references to Noah and the Flood constitute proof of the literal interpretation of the Flood story in Genesis. His point is that, if the Flood is a myth, then so is the Gospel. My understanding of this reasoning is based on the assumption that Jesus of Nazareth, being entirely God, was therefore omniscient and would be lying if the Flood story weren’t literally true.

Ken Ham sets up a dichotomy but there are at least four reasonable postulates regarding His references:

  1. He was omniscient and spoke of a true literal Flood.
  2. He was omniscient and spoke of a literal Flood when He knew that it was only a story, in which case He lied and the Gospel is a myth.
  3. He was not omniscient and spoke of the Flood as any other Jew of the time might understand it, as being literally true.
  4. He was not omniscient spoke of the Flood as any other Jew of the time might understand it, as being a story.

Postulates one and two are Ham’s dichotomy and are entirely predicated on the assumption that Jesus, being God, was omniscient. But there is evidence in Scripture that Jesus Himself may not in fact have been omniscient which thus allows for postulates three and four.

We focus on Jesus’ divinity but don’t always see the correlate, namely God’s carnality. If Jesus was tempted “like us in all ways, except for sin,” He clearly shared our carnal nature, although untainted by original sin.

Furthermore

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Phillipians 2:6-8 (NIV) [emphasis mine]

So it is altogether plausible that, although Jesus was entirely God and entirely man simultaneously, he might not have possessed all the attributes of divinity by virtue of of His incarnation. It seems to me apparent that Jesus did not comprehend His full nature from infancy, that awareness of His being the Messiah came to him in stages. Yet He was God from His very conception, so there had to have been times when He was not omniscient. Similarly, although He possessed the power of prophecy (as no man ever had) yet the prophetic office does not imply omniscience per se. Even at the last, during His agony in the garden fully aware of the death He would likely soon suffer, nevertheless prayed

… Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.
Mark 14:36 [KJV]

Knowing that God the Father had spared Isaac, perhaps (and this is only speculation) He might have wondered if the Father would likewise spare His own Son. He clearly speaks as having His own will apart from the Father. In any case, it is clear that there was at least a sliver of uncertainty regarding the Father’s will, and a sliver is all it takes to render moot the question of omniscience.

So having established that God incarnate might not be all-knowing, we can allow the possibility that Jesus may have been referencing the “time of Noah” and the Flood according to the prevailing understanding of devout Jews of that time. Whether they saw it as literal or metaphorical is not a question with a direct answer. But it really makes no difference. It still obviates the necessity for a literal Flood.

Let me take pains to affirm that Mr. Ham’s reasoning is not in itself wrong except as it fails to take into account a fuller range of possibilities. My greater concern is that, in setting up a literal Flood as a litmus test for being a Christian, he may be turning some away from a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ who might otherwise have been saved if not for such rigidity.

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Orlando and the human heart

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.  – Rahm Emanuel

I have refrained from posting anything on Facebook regarding the Orlando massacre (and it justly deserves that name.) Most of it is either treacle or polemic, neither very enlightening. But I quote Mr. Emanuel for a reason. It seems that even before our nation has started to process the immensity of this act, the narrative has been seized upon as a platform to push various political agendas. I refuse to address any of them directly, but a short, incomplete list will suffice to give you the flavor:

  • LGBT
  • Gun control
  • Gun rights
  • Islamic barbarism
  • Islam, religion of peace
  • Border security
  • Anti-Trump
  • Anti-Obama

The real issue, and one that never occurs to the zealot, is that the human heart is inherently wicked. Many will nod in agreement, meanwhile believing their own hearts to be pure. This is the sin of pride, and a grave one it is. The moment we lose sight of our own fallen state, we cut ourselves off from the grace of God. Those who are well have no need of a physician.

C. S. Lewis spoke of it as “enmity to God.” There is an excerpt from Mere Christianity called “The Great Sin” and is worth reading. I could easily embed the entire thing but you can read it here. I will, however, quote it in part.

In God you come up against something that is in every respect immeasurably superior to yourself. Unless you know God as that – and, therefore, know your-self as nothing in comparison – you do not know God at all. As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.

The quandary we find ourselves in is beyond challenging. Jesus said to love your enemies and He placed no limit on that definition. I confess that I continue to be filled with self-righteous rage every time I see images of 9/11. And I seek them out deliberately to arouse those feelings. I want to hate, and hate strongly. This is pride. This is the spirit of antichrist. And it was against that spirit that Jesus directed His angriest comments. It was the spirit of the Pharisees. We are no different, and painful as it is to say, it is Christians who often display this in the greatest measure.

What, then can we do? I think first of all, admit to ourselves that our anger is more a reflection of our pride than a justified response to inhuman brutality. It is only by accidents of birth and the power of the Holy Spirit that we do not do such things. Secondly, I think we need to earnestly confess this to God and, if you are Catholic, to humbly partake of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, what used to be called Confession. Most importantly, we should pray not only for those who suffered death and injury and for their families, but for the perpetrators as well. Their hearts are not beyond the reach of God’s healing Spirit and our intersession on their behalf is powerful and effective.

Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.- James 5:16
Having said all this, let me emphasize that I am nowhere near this degree of humility. I can see the way, but I despair of having the power to follow it. I only pray that God will impart to me by His grace the means to move forward.

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