Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Not Like Anything Else

Yesterday I was driving to an appointment and without warning, images of Jesus began to flood my mind.  He was being beaten by large, sweaty, yelling men.  They spat on him, punched him.  Blood ran down his face.  He was dirty and sweaty, streaked with dark red and black markings.  He looked exhausted and on the verge of collapsing.  Then I saw his hands being pounded into the cross, then him hanging on the cross.  The images came fast, chaotic.  I couldn't concentrate and felt a sense of loss rise in my chest.  I wanted to cry out, to make it stop.  I wanted his pain to end.  Tears came quickly and before I knew what was happening, I started to cry right there in the car.  I was not sobbing, but was overcome.  I shook my head slightly, trying to get the images to go away and return my focus to driving.  I felt silly and surprised, confused about what I was experiencing.  After a few minutes, the images were gone, but they left a sense of deep loss and regret.  It was like I’d had one of those powerful, horrific nightmares that feels so real you can’t shake it for days and don’t fully understand why it has left you so scarred.

What came to mind next was a memory from about ten years ago.  I was living downtown Chicago and my mom lived nearby.  One day, I had to work late, and so I asked her to walk my dog, a black Labrador mix named Peat.  Peat was not so skilled on a leash and would pull and panic at the slightest sound.  Shortly after the time my mom was supposed to have walked Peat, she called me saying that Peat had pulled her down the stairs near our apartment building and she fell on her face.  She had scrapes on her chin and nose.  She had cut her cheek and sliced her hand.  I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and my knees weakened.  I felt momentarily like I might faint.  I pictured my mom, whom I loved so much, laying on the sidewalk.  I imagined how much this would have hurt her and how I wished I could have been there to catch her, or pick her up, or comfort her, or something.  I wished I had never asked her to walk Peat.  It was my fault that her face was scratched, bruised, and bleeding.  It was my fault that she was hurt.  Her hurt was hurting me.  More than anything, I wanted a do-over, to rewind the day and not ask her to walk the dog. 

I spent much of the rest of the day yesterday trying to sort out what images of Jesus being beaten and crucified had to do with my mom being hurt by my anxiety-ridden, skittish dog.  I realized this: although I have read in the Bible about Jesus’ suffering, heard the story of his crucifixion all my life, seen pictures and statues of him hanging lifeless from the cross, and watched movies of his unspeakable suffering, for the first time yesterday, Jesus’ suffering became the suffering of someone I love.  At first, feeling this hurt me and was as real as the hurt I felt so long ago when my mom, who I love deeply and unfailingly, was vulnerable and bleeding.  Jesus' pain was hurting me.  In that moment in the car, Jesus became someone I love, and not just with my head, but so deeply in my heart and soul that what hurts him, hurts me.  But then, in the same moment, Jesus' pain healed me.  I actually felt what he endured for me.  This was no longer an abstract concept.  Someone I love so much loves me so deeply that even though he knew all the ways I would one day betray and ignore him, he volunteered for pain and death so that I would be spared.  This is love.  (1 John 4:10)  This is grace.  (Rom. 5:8)  This is not like anything else. 

Saturday, June 18, 2011

He Lifts It Off Of Me

When I was 10 years old, I struggled deeply and constantly with the idea that I would die and that everyone I knew would die.  My mom would die.  My dad would die.  And death was permanent and not something I had made up or could get out of.  I don’t know why this suddenly hit me at age 10.  Nothing in particular brought it on and nothing in particular made it go away a year later.  I thought about the world around me and how I’d never see it again.  I couldn’t wrap my brain around this and couldn’t understand how I could ever cope with this idea.  I couldn’t believe that all the people I saw at the grocery store, on the bus, at school, could possibly continue living knowing that death was on the horizon.  I cried myself to sleep some nights.  Other nights, I couldn’t sleep at all, kept awake by fear.  Sometimes during the day, I could not concentrate at school because I was so preoccupied with the fact that one day, I would simply not be anymore.  Today I am, tomorrow I am not.  After a year, adolescent and teenage stuff took over and my obsessive fear of death faded.  Every now and then, though, if I thought about the fact that there would come a time when I no longer existed, I could throw myself into a paralyzing and momentarily debilitating panic mode. 

Given this experience in my own life, when my daughter approached age 10, I thought often about whether she would go through what I did.  I thought about what I would say if she talked to me about fear of death.  I asked myself whether I could raise it with her and feel competent or satisfied with the way I might advise or comfort her.  I watched her and listened to things she said, keeping a keen ear out for signs she might be struggling.  Then, several months after she’d turned 10, she called me upstairs one night after I had put her to bed.  She had gotten into my bed and was shaking and crying.  I knew when I walked into my room that the fear of death was upon her.  And I was so unprepared despite all of my thinking and anticipation that this day would come.  I sat down by her and wrapped my arms around her heaving fear-filled body as she told me that she was thinking about death and dying.  My heart sank and I didn’t know what to say.  I knew the grip this fear could have and what I would have given for her never to experience it.  At first, I rambled about how good health and long life run in our family, and pointed out her youth and vibrancy.  I told her how much I loved her.  But I couldn’t tell her anything that would change the underlying fact that death is real and that she would die.  I rocked her and finally better words came to me, by God’s goodness and grace.  I explained how much God loves her, and that no matter what, he would not leave her.  And that, in the end, although it was true that we all would die, she would be with Jesus and I would be there with her.  I really thought I was onto something now and she seemed to calm down a bit, the tears coming a little slower.  

She pulled away from me slightly and looked at me with wet eyes.  “I know that God loves me.  But, Mom, what if God loves me so much that he wants to take me to be with him now.”  Like so many other parenting moments, I was not ready for this one.  I thought, “Hmmm.  Good point.”  She cried harder now as if her death was imminent because of how much God loved her.  I then mumbled something about God needing her here so he could bring his love to others through her.  Eventually, exhaustion took over. I think just talking and getting her out of her own head helped the most.  Nothing I said seemed useful really.  

Several months later, the fear returned.  I couldn’t come up with anything new or better to say.  I had no answers as to how to deal with this fear.  Death is a fact.  How do you make a 10-year old okay with this?  So this time, I just said: “I’m sorry you’re scared.  I think we need to ask Jesus for help.”  To my great surprise, she said: “Yeah, that’s what I usually do.”  I smiled and asked: “Does it help?”  “Yes,” she said, “it really helps.  He lifts it off of me.”  This rendered me speechless.  I have no idea what God is doing inside my daughter’s heart and mind when she turns to him and asks for his help.  The fact that he brings her peace and lifts off the fear, allowing her to fall asleep, is almost too much to take. 

Whenever the fear returns, and it does, she asks for Jesus’ help and if I am with her, we ask together.   Just the other night, we did this and I realized that although I don’t struggle with the fear of death anymore, I struggle with other things.  And so often, I try to think my way out of them or become resigned to the fact that they will simply burden me until they don’t anymore just like the fear of death.  Sometimes I don’t even think to ask Jesus for his help.  Sometimes I think certain things I struggle with are just too insignificant and it’s better to save my requests for something really serious.  What peace I am foregoing.  No more.  

 “The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:5-7)  I will ask Jesus for help.  No big explanations needed.  No big words, no philosophical thoughts about why I am fearful or anxious.  Like a child, I will just say: “Jesus, please help me.”  He is near.  He will lift it off.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

My Times Are In Your Hands

This morning I prayed a very short, simple prayer.  It was "use me today, Lord, in whatever way you will."  Tonight, as I sit staring out the window into the backyard watching the green leaves blow frantically in the cold breeze, two stranger’s faces haunting me, there is a big part of me, bigger than I care to admit, that wishes I hadn't prayed that prayer just so I wouldn’t have had to have seen what I saw. 

As I walked to lunch with a colleague today to celebrate a legal victory, the lives of two people changed forever.  We had walked several blocks and when we came to the corner of Adams and LaSalle, and were discussing various deadlines in our case, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something moving very fast hit something standing still.  And then a man with short hair, a summer-weight sweater, a gold wedding ring, and casual pants fell to the ground.  I looked down at him.  Blood bubbled out of his mouth, his body was motionless, his eyes rolled back into his head.  His life will never be the same.  Another man lay next to him, a bicycle under him.  He jumped up and looked at the man he'd hit, saying, "Oh my God.  Oh, are you okay?  Are you okay?"  His life will never be the same.  Several people gathered around.  Only thirty to forty-five seconds had passed.  A woman squatted down and cradled the man's head.  He was unconscious.  I reached for my phone and called 911, begging the person who answered to send an ambulance.  "A man has been hit.  He's bleeding from his mouth.  He's unconscious.  Please send an ambulance.  Adams and LaSalle.  Please send an ambulance."  

The bicyclist leaned against a light pole on the corner, his eyes were filled with tears and his face was shrouded in fear.  I glanced at him briefly and turned back to my colleague. We wondered what more we could do.  An ambulance was on the way.  A traffic police officer stood to divert traffic as cabs and buses and cars whizzed by.  Some people said to turn him over so he didn't choke, some said not to move him.  Standing there was not helping so we walked on to the restaurant a half block down.

As we walked, we were both silent, shaken by what we'd seen.  The face of the bicyclist, all alone in the chaos, was everywhere I looked – his watery eyes, blank stare, deep fear.  The restaurant was busy and we sat at the bar because of the long wait.  I needed to go back.  I needed to go back and check on the bicyclist.  I ordered a lemonade and stared at the menu.  I began to pray silently for both men.  I thought of the phone call the injured man's wife would receive.  I thought about his kids.  I thought about all the stuff he probably had and how in a single instant, it lost all significance.  I prayed that he would live, that he would be okay.  But the bicyclist’s watery eyes pierced me again.  I couldn't concentrate.  I thought about the sadness and guilt and fear he must be feeling, not knowing whether the man he hit would die, not knowing what his life would be like if he lived.  I thought about all the stuff he probably had and how in a single instant, it lost all significance. 

My colleague and I talked; I'm not sure at all what I said.  I saw the ambulance speed by outside, lights flashing, siren sounding.  I needed to go back.  We kept talking.  I kept praying.  Finally, in the middle of our conversation I excused myself: "I'm sorry, I just need to go back."  I rushed out of the restaurant and walked down the block where the ambulance still sat.  The man was not on the street anymore and all the people who had stood around him were gone.  A police officer stood on the curb and the bicyclist stood exactly where he had when I left, against the light pole, staring straight ahead. 

"Are you okay?" I asked him as I approached slowly.

“Yeah.  I don’t know.  I don’t know," he said, making brief eye contact.  He was young, quiet. 

"I was here when it happened," I said.  He nodded.  “What do you have to do now?”

"I think I have to give a statement or something.  I don’t know," he said.  So much unknown.  Everything unknown.

"What's your name?" I asked.

"Danny," he said softly, looking at me again, but just barely.

"Danny, I would like to pray for you if that's okay."  This felt so awkward to say.  Part of me wanted to pull it back in.  I had no idea if Danny was a Christian, had thought about Christianity, or if he was an atheist or a Buddhist, or what. 

His eyes met mine directly now.  I stared into them.  "Yeah.  Yes, that would be great.  Thank you." 

"Okay, Danny."  I looked at him in love and put my arm on his shoulder.  I walked back to the restaurant and with each step, I asked God something, but I’m not sure what.  I couldn’t formulate a coherent thought.  I started and stopped.  They were half prayers, half thoughts.  At one point, I just said: "God, he is in your hands.  Danny is in your hands."  I couldn't formulate words anymore.

Thirty minutes later, after eating, as we left the restaurant, my colleague went in one direction, and I started back to work in the other direction.  As I approached the corner where these two lives were changed forever, a police car pulled up and Danny got out of the back.  I wanted to go to him and provide comfort in some way.  I wanted to just hug him or stand near him or do something.  I stood nearby for about three minutes and asked God to give me guidance as to what to do.  I thought he might tell me to go pray with him, to comfort him, to say something.  I heard nothing and people stared as they walked by because I stood still in the middle of the sidewalk. 

I looked at Danny and then looked away.  There had to be more I could do, more I could say.  There had to be more.  I couldn’t just leave him standing there with his bike, a weapon on that day.  Then I heard in my mind: "Let him go."  I crossed the street and heard it again: "Let him go."  God had used me as much as he wanted and my job was done; he would take it from there.  I walked back to work.

Now, hours later, I can’t stop thinking about Danny and all that I saw in his eyes, and all that I didn’t see in them.  I can’t get the image of the injured man lying on the pavement out of my head.  I can see every crease in his face, the color of his eyes, the bright red coming out of his mouth.  I probably will never know how these two lives have been changed by the instant they collided.  But I cannot heal the man who was hit.  I cannot take away Danny’s guilt or fear.  There is nothing left but to let go.  They are both in God’s loving, gracious, merciful hands.  And how I realize anew today that I am too.  “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God.’  My times are in your hands.”  (Psalm 31:14-15)

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Which One Brings Life

On Thursday at lunchtime, I decided to go sit at a nearby sandwich place to eat and read my Bible.  This is not something I do everyday.  More often than not, I speed through my food at my desk as I work.  (Probably not the healthiest habit.)  Anyway, I was feeling a need to connect with God, thirsty to hear from Him, so I thought reading part of one of the gospels or a Psalm might be the way to do it.  I went out, holding my Bible by my side and thinking about what to read.  I breathed in the warm air outside and reveled in the cool breeze as I made my way to the restaurant.  Time with God as I had planned in my head was sounding like just what I needed.  I crossed the street and saw my friend Steven sitting on the sidewalk with his military bag.  He was trying to get enough money for food, relying on the compassion of passers-by.  I would go say hi on my way back from lunch, see how he’s doing.

As I approached the revolving door of the restaurant, I felt a strong prompting from God to go back and sit with Steven.  So, I turned around and walked back to the little spot on the bridge where Steven sat and where we had had our very first conversation just over two years before (Take the Marine to Lunch).  I sat down next to him on the concrete in my black, pressed work pants.  I put my Bible down next to me, my purse between us, and wrapped my arms around my knees.

“Hey,” I said. 

“Hey,” he said. 

The sun blasted down on us and the wind blew across our faces as we talked about a full range of topics: his health, my work, some painting I needed to do at my house, that he was reading Revelation, a guy we know named Thomas who sells newspapers, a guy we know named Prince who lives on the street, but whom we haven’t seen since Thanksgiving.  For much of the time we were just quiet.  People in suits scurried busily by, staring down at us.  Tourists with kids skipped by, looking at us with curiosity.  Time slowed almost to a stop.  Sometimes Steven and I talk about our faith, our doubts, Christ.  This day, though, there was no need to talk of these things.  Christ was right there with us.  His presence and His peace settled on us, grounding us in Him and lifting us to Him.  I could have sat there forever and thought that heaven would be like this.  In those minutes, we could foresee the day when Steven’s pain would be no more.  His nausea would be gone, never to return.  He would not be losing weight; would not be worried about more chemotherapy or radiation or that more cancer would be found in some other place in his tired body.  In those minutes, we saw in each other the place where God dwells in us.  In those minutes, Christ was with us, just as He said He would be.  (Matt. 18:20) 

About thirty minutes later, it was time for me to get back to work.  I picked up my Bible, smiling to myself with a grateful, joy-filled heart, made a quick stop for sandwiches, gave one to Steven, and took mine back to my desk.  

“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life.  These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”  (John 5:39-40)  It is easy to sit at a table at a sandwich shop and study Scripture, to know what it says, to be able to identify what book says this and which says that.  It is something else entirely to come to Christ.  If you have tried both, you know, without a speck of doubt, which one brings life.