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Monday, November 26, 2012

Another Birthday

Today would have been beloved Claire's 38th birthday. I had breakfast with two friends this morning and we remembered her. It is hard to believe she has been gone since August 2010.

Markers like this are bittersweet at best; to stop and take time to recall the special qualities of someone who is now gone is very dear... but it is also jarring to realize how life has plowed forward all too easily without them. In losing Claire I have experienced a very strange tension: I was (and sometimes still am) angry that we could not put all of life on "pause" and refuse to continue without her. At the same time, it was often a great relief that I had the new things of life to distract me from that unnameable ache.

Grief, after the initial shock and awe of the loss, settles into a strange stereo existence. On one speaker is the (usually) louder ups and downs, joys and challenges of everyday life. Yet humming steadily in the background is a quiet tune that increases in volume at the strangest times -- a visual reminder, a song, a conversation or a particular person can turn my attention from the present concerns onto memories and sadness.

It is a curious thing... Sometimes I have lovely, wonderful, fulfilling experiences or opportunities, and am so grateful for them. They are almost too good to be true, and I cannot believe I have the privilege of doing them. But what do I still wish for? To get to share them with Claire, to see the laughter and delight on her face as I tell the tale. I look forward to those times, but also miss them.

The photo here is of our last conversation... I was heading out for vacation, to take my niece and nephew camping, and stopped by to say goodbye. Those goodbyes were especially poignant because there had been several close calls in the few years preceding them, and at first I did not have the courage to say all I wanted to say... Yet after one especially horrible moment where we almost lost her, I decided to never miss another chance. Over and over I would say all the things that were felt and known, and learned a profound lesson in the process. Thank you Claire.

This morning as I rode my bike back from breakfast and memories of Claire, my iTunes mix brought up this song by Sara Groves called The Long Defeat:

I have joined the long defeat
that falling set in motion
and all my strength and energy
are raindrops in the ocean

so conditioned for the win
to share in victor's stories
but in the place of ambition's din
I have heard of other glories

and I pray for an idea
and a way i cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave

I can't just fight when I think I'll win
that's the end of all belief
and nothing has provoked it more
than a possible defeat

we walk a while we sit and rest
we lay it on the altar
I won't pretend to know what's next
but what I have I've offered

and I pray for a vision
and a way I cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave

and I pray for inspiration
and a way I cannot see
it's too heavy to carry
and impossible to leave
it's too heavy to carry
and I will never leave

There are many references I could give here as to what "the long defeat" means, but if you are a fan of Lord of the Rings, you know what it is talking about. At one point I heard an interview by Ms. Groves, where she talked about being inspired to write the song out of learning about the work of Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health in Haiti: the whole concept of "losing" a cause yet knowing that we cannot give in to the loss is profound... and really the meaning of life for us as followers of Christ. The weight of sin and brokenness in the world is "too heavy to carry" and yet how we cannot possibly leave either. We stay for the fight, despite the seeming odds against us, because it is simply the right thing to do. As she says, "I can't just fight when I think I'll win."

That was what I learned from watching Claire fight that damn brain tumor for ten years. It was a losing battle, but she never gave in. Her redheaded stubbornness, faith and beauty refused to cave, and it took her without permission at the end. With the strength of the crucified and risen Christ, who is acquainted with such a fight as that, we persevere as well. In the strain of it all, I inch toward understanding what obedience means. We miss you Claire, we don't forget you, and we are grateful for the years we did get to have. See you again.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

FSE #6: Lovely Adventures

I am realizing I haven't posted an "FSE" (Former Student Encounter) since April... not that I haven't had quite a few, but I've let the joy of sharing them slip my mind. Gettin' older, y'know...

ANYWAY, I just returned at midnight last night from a whirlwind of a weekend. I drove down on Saturday, Nov. 17, to our Free Methodist Church in Santa Ana, for a Hispanic youth rally called Explosión Juvenil 2012. Completely, totally fantastic -- from the colored lights to the thumping worship to the torta sandwiches for sale out front, made by beautiful abuelitas... a powerful meeting full of praise and worship by a ton of young people. I had many highlights, but perhaps my favorite was seeing four of our pastors up front on the worship stage, dancing in worship with the worship band, leading the students in humility and joy. How I love seeing not just youth, but the key adults in their lives, being together in that way.

From there I drove to Azusa and spent two nights. I got a nice day of rest and Sabbath on Sunday, with a little side trip to Flappy Jacks on Route 66. A fellow gluten-free friend hooked me up and I'm telling you, to get to have a big, goopy waffle after at least three years of deprivation was pretty. darn. amazing. Their helpings are enough to choke a horse, so my food extended into lunch as well. Not complaining.

That evening I went to The Gathering, another Free Methodist service that is being led in partnership with Azusa Pacific University. I have been working with the campus ministries pastor who is leading this service. I felt so fortunate to see another unique way that our movement is seeking to reach its neighborhood. As we say in describing worship as one of our Five Core Freedoms (summed up in using the term "Free" in our denominational name), "The FMC gives freedom to each local congregation to follow the Spirit’s leading on how they worship. Some Free Methodist Churches worship in liturgical style with daily office, while others worship in charismatic style with praise choruses. A few have taken this freedom to create a blended style of worship that brings together a community of people of all ages and creates a family of God that accepts both sacramental liturgy and the Christian year as well the most recent of praises choruses and prayer services. Worship includes not only the music of praise and the study of Scripture but also the sharing of life in community."

As if I hadn't gotten to do enough cool stuff already, I woke up Monday morning and headed over to APU to speak in their morning chapel. I have spoken at Westmont's chapel a couple of times, but APU is about four times larger than Westmont! Their chapel meetings are major productions with all sorts of media, including live feed to another location.

This little youth pastor was rather daunted... I am used to just using my little powerpoint clicker, a Bible and telling some funny stories. In multiple emails back and forth with the tech teams, I tried to not let myself get rattled as I tried to navigate the use of slides and music and quotes and such. But I should have known better... I showed up right on time on Monday to run through tech and who is there but the beautiful and amazing Hannah Elliott Williams! (Pictured above at her wedding, surrounded by us as her former high school small group). I know that Hannah had been working with production for chapel, but just sort of assumed she'd moved on to something else since I hadn't heard from her in preparation.

I am not sure I have ever been so grateful to be wrong. Not only is Hannah still involved, but she's running all the tech for all the chapels on campus... and APU run seven of them each week to several thousand students. Incredible and super duper cool. Hannah was in full bossy lady form yesterday, and completely set me up to succeed, allowing me to use the music and slides I had submitted.

It was a wonderful, wonderful time. The chapel time opened with an APU Gospel Choir that blew the roof off the building. I knew with that sort of set up that I would be fine. The students were incredibly receptive and warm, and even laughed at my jokes. Someday they will post the message on iTunesU, and maybe I'll post the link here. I made a nice fool of myself, but also challenged them to grow up to maturity in Christ by going to / joining / loving the church, the bride of Christ. What a privilege. The rest of the day was full of meetings with students, sweet conversations with students who stopped me to talk about chapel, a meeting with students who want to pursue vocational ministry in their future, and my seminary class in the evening. PHEW. I am rather tired, but smiling.

How blessed and grateful I was for this entire weekend, for this crazy stuff that all adds up to a job that I love, and to see a former student (now a dear friend) who is simply THRIVING. I have already had Thanksgiving!

Sunday, November 11, 2012


My first hero growing up was Julie Andrews. Keep in mind that the most formative movies of my early childhood were Mary Poppins (1964) and Sound of Music (1965). I really do not think they make movies like those anymore...

Any Julie-phile will immediately know which song to start humming from this photo... here are some of the lyrics:

I have confidence in sunshine
I have confidence in rain
I have confidence that spring will come again
Besides which you see I have confidence in me

Strength doesn't lie in numbers
Strength doesn't lie in wealth
Strength lies in nights of peaceful slumbers
When you wake up -- Wake Up!

It tells me all I trust I lead my heart to
All I trust becomes my own
I have confidence in confidence alone
(Oh help!)

I have confidence in confidence alone
Besides which you see I have confidence in me!

Oh Julie, how I love thee... but these words are not true. That lovely confidence of childhood and middle school years falls apart in high school and the insecurity that remains carries on in some form for the rest of our lives, at least for most of us.

I was reminded of this in so many ways this past week:

  • I met with a youth group last weekend who came up to Santa Barbara for a retreat, and the seniors were open in their profound fears of the future as they anguished over college decisions and social pressures;
  • I met with a class at Westmont who traveled last semester through Turkey and the Middle East. We talked over the complicated idea of what it means to communicate the gospel cross culturally, understanding the language and culture of those to whom we seek to serve. One student said, "I don't like this. It's too hard." We all agreed it's far easier to keep things black and white, rather than in nuances and shades of gray, considering each context on its own;
  • I met with my Westmont internships class, and we talked this week over how to persevere in ministry over the long-term. We agreed that we so badly want others to love us in order to make us feel needed. I talked over the dangers of that, and taught from 1 John 4 -- how loving others with agape love is utterly different from the human love we know naturally;
  • I went to a high school event last night and felt the insecurities and drama of adolescence wash over me as I saw them all talking and texting and flirting and trying to fit in...

But I am not without hope. The older I get, the more I see how impossible it is to live life under my own power. Rather, I am motivated all the more to teach and proclaim the gospel because it is good news: If we lean in to Christ, we gain something new: a boldness and courage that is not human. This morning I am reminded of that gift in Hebrews 10:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus... (vs. 19)

The word "since" implies a response, and the writer of Hebrews does not disappoint:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings (vs. 22)

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (vs. 23)

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vs. 24-25)

Then we can go dancing down the road like Julie does, drawing near and holding unswervingly and spurring one another one, if we live out of the confidence that only Christ can give.

But as I kept reading, I was sobered by this:

Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. 

Many of my conversations this week were with young people. I love their idealism, energy and earnest questions. They help to keep me from becoming cynical. But I cannot deny that my own experiences of suffering and disappointment have tempted me to "throw away my confidence" at times. Hebrews 10, with its use of "confidence" in two very different ways in one section, reminds me that regardless of whether I have the energy to dance down the road or only have the strength to sit in sadness and grief, that I can still have confidence. How? As one commentator puts it, a confidence from God helps us to "trust in God, certainty of salvation, the conquest of the consciousness of sin, sanction and power to pray and expectation of the future."

So I do not have confidence in confidence alone, and certainly not in myself. But I rejoice that I can still be bold, and take risks, through Him... In fact, it is crucial that I do so, in order to feel the power of his presence in my life, and to last until the end. Press on with such confidence.