Back Pain, a Prisoner and a Lenten Reminder of Mercy

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She was large, and heavily tattooed.  She was in a striped uniform with handcuffs, her feet shackled. She sobbed because of her back pain.  Her life a long history of mistakes and bad choices; alcohol, drugs, criminality.  Her family, husband and children, a victim of her lifestyle, her addictions, her misdeeds.

They can’t have narcotics in jail, and in fact, narcotics don’t have much role in back pain, we’re finding.  But in jail, she lay on a thin mattress on a concrete pad.  Getting up and lying down were, she said, agonizing.

Was she lying?  Her drug screen positive for amphetamine, it was possible.  The officer with her said, ‘I’ve known her for 15 years.  This is her. Crying and moaning. But what if she really has pain?  It’s tough doc.’

It’s tough for sure.  Knowing as I did that if she went back to jail, she might really be suffering. Knowing, also, that she had a reported history of heart disease even though she was only  in her 30s.  Knowing that she would surely come back with chest pain or back pain, legitimate or illegitimate, if nothing were done.

Ultimately, after two visits, she seemed worse.  She seemed to have difficulty standing.  Her sobs continued.  Her officer and I sympathetic but worried about being tricked.  She was given pain meds and transferred for an MRI.  Maybe there was something going on in her spinal cord. Maybe a hematoma, maybe an abscess.  Who knew?

Here is the conundrum of compassion, as it were.  The compassionate will be cheated, fooled, and lied to.  This is life in the ER. This is life on earth.  The right thing is often, in the rear-view-mirror, exactly the wrong thing, as those who fool us laugh and drive away.

But we have the last laugh.  Because the right thing is just that.  The right thing.  And it’s a great lesson here in the Lenten season.  To show kindness, to give mercy, to expect to be the butt of the joke, the patsy, these are all the ‘price of doing business,’ when our business is being like Jesus.

I believe she had pain, but even if she lied to me, even if she gamed me, it’s OK.   I’m not offended.  She was vulnerable. She was wounded. She was broken.  She was a prisoner. And here’s what Isaiah, God’s prophet, said about captives and prisoners.  And notice, no mention of guilt, or of punishment deserved or earned.  Isaiah 61: 1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,a
2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
3and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

Jesus said the same thing at the beginning of his ministry.  Luke 4: 16-21.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15 He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In this passage is healing and liberty.  And nobody is a ‘jailbird’ or ‘scumbag’ or ‘crook’ or ‘junkie.’  Jesus wants to offer this to all.

This Lenten season, can I do any less?  I, a captive of sin as all of us are, delivered and healed? I with blind eyes, seeing clearly thanks to my redemption?  God knows if I lie to him, if I try to trick him. And loves me anyway.

And if it takes showing mercy to the meth-using prisoner with back pain to honor the mercy I received, well it’s a small price to pay.

Edwin

The Nativity in the Emergency Department; my December EM News column

Merry Christmas!  This is my December column in EM News.  The Nativity in the Emergency Department.

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2012/12000/Second_Opinion__The_Nativity_in_the_Emergency.9.aspx

I once wrote a story for Christmas in which the nativity happened in an old, beat-up hunting trailer behind a man’s store, somewhere in the South on a cold winter night. From everywhere and all around, rough people and businessmen and politicians found their way to it, situated as it was in a cluttered backyard of a poor but compassionate store owner. Mary and Joseph had a car that broke down, you see, and they were stuck. I doubt if it’s that original. I suspect Hallmark or someone has done this story over and over.

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Yet it still resonates; it still bounces around inside my mind. I envision that cold night, and the star, and the people in my neighborhood, camo-wearing hunters and bearded bikers, the guy with the meth lab that blew up (no kidding), the men in the garage across the highway. I suppose it’s because the story fits everywhere.

As you might expect, I have this image of the manger scene set in an ED. I think back over my patients, and it makes perfectly good sense to me. I can’t decide if it’s a busy night or a slow one. But there are Mary and Joseph, maybe homeless. We do see the homeless, don’t we? And certainly the poor. “Doctor, we don’t have any money or anywhere to go. Can we stay here tonight?” We might try social work, but face it, they probably went home already. The poor are always among us.

If it’s a slow night, the nurses are stricken with a kind of magic. They fluff Mary’s pillow, and one of them (who used to do OB) notices the way Mary is breathing and holding her belly. “She’s going to deliver!” (For the purpose of the story, Labor and Delivery is full to capacity.) All of the nurses are hovering, getting ice for Mary and coffee for Joseph, who has not so much as the change to buy one.

If it’s a busy night, everyone is frantic, and when Mary says, “I think the baby is coming!” the staff roll their eyes, as if they needed one more thing between the overdoses and the chest pains, the weaknesses and the demanding daughter in the hallway insisting on endless attention for her aging mother.

But they do the right thing, don’t they? They almost always do. We almost always do. Before you can sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the baby is there. He’s crying because they do that. And Mary nurses him immediately after the nurses clean him off. But the nurses, and the doctor who caught him (fumbling, frightened … he hates delivering babies), all of them are somehow breathless. The hair on their necks and arms rises up, chills run along their spines. It’s not fear; it’s wonder. Inexplicable. Another poor baby. So what? Everyone is crying. Nobody knows why. Mary just takes it all in as Joseph wraps his arms around both of them, still in the same dirty sweater, still disheveled.

Of course, there are no animals. And yet. If it’s slow, the sleeping drunk in the next room wakes and stumbles in to see. Looking down, he cries, too. He understands something so deep he can’t express it. Something he forgot about hope and love and parents and forgiveness. He reaches into his pocket, pushes $100 into Joseph’s hand, and goes to lie down again. He sleeps in lovely dreams.

If it’s busy, things suddenly move slowly. Things happen. The mumbling, confused lady with dementia (whose daughter is so demanding) speaks for a few minutes with utter clarity, and finds her way to the door of the baby’s room. She holds her daughter’s hand and laughs, and recalls the details of her own maternity. The meth addict, tweaking and rocking back and forth, sits on the floor and just watches. He is calm. He does not scratch or scream. He is transfixed by the inexorable wonder he always hoped to find in drugs, and by the possibility that he might be whole again, that he might have his own wife, child, and delight. The man dying of lymphoma, passing the room as he is wheeled up for admission, asks the nurse to stop so he can look, and the child fixes its tiny eyes on him. He still dies, but he does it in peace.

The cardiac patient’s chest pain resolves, and the febrile infant in the hall-bed (the one who looked so sick) begins to laugh, cackling, breathless laughter. His fever is gone. Only the babies can see the angels swooping round, touching, healing, encouraging.

I can imagine all sorts of things. An angry mayor, searching for the child. Or professors and priests and ambassadors looking for him later, giving him gifts.

But all I see now is the dawn. Mary is strong. She has no time to be admitted. Joseph says they have to go. They are loaded with formula and money, with snacks and blankets (and diapers). They are hugged and kissed by strangers, and everyone waves goodbye.

The next shift asks, “What was that all about?”

“Don’t know,” is the answer, “but I’m glad I didn’t miss it.”

And the chaos descends again, tempered by inexpressible hope, washed in love.

The Questions we Cannot Answer

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My column in the December issue of Emergency Medicine News.  Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2016/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__The_Questions_We_Can_t_Answer.13.aspx

I remember the early trials of thrombolytics; not for stroke but for MI. During my residency we were still comparing tPA with Streptokinase. It was pretty incredible stuff. Now we’ve moved beyond that positively ‘medieval’ method of treating heart attacks and have advanced to incredible interventions in coronary and cerebrovascular disease. Furthermore, we are able to rescue more and more people from the brink of death with advanced medications and with techniques, like ECMO, that our medical forebears couldn’t even imagine. These days, people can say things like: ‘I had severe sepsis last year, but I recovered,’ or ‘A few years ago I nearly died of Stage 4 cancer, but here I am!’ Fifty years ago, twenty years ago, their families would have told their stories with sadness.

What we do is amazing. The science behind our saves, coupled with our training and passion, make medicine all but miraculous. I am proud of what I know, proud of what I do. I am so impressed with my colleagues. And I am often awestruck by the scientists and engineers, without whom we would be apes poking bodies with sticks (good-looking apes in scrubs, mind you).
If we could, at the end of our lives, look back at the gifts we gave to the sick and injured, we would see that they far outweigh our errors and mistakes, our losses and failures. And yet, for all our modern innovations, we have limits. We can ask and answer a constellation of questions, and we can fix untold numbers of problems. But there are questions that defy us, and problems that leave us shaking our heads.
In spite of our pride in science, and our common dismissal of all that is ‘unscientific,’ suffering remains, and we can’t answer why. Who knows this better than those of us who have dedicated ourselves to emergency care?
For all of our miraculous saves, men and women, boys and girls, still suffer horrible injuries and have cardiac arrests, fatal pulmonary emboli. They still die at the scene of car crashes. They still develop mental illness and kill themselves. Addiction still separates families and leaves parents weeping for children, lost from life or lost in the jungle of drugs and desperate lives.
Despite the extension of life we offer so many, even the healthiest men and women will, at some point, leave one another and pass away from this life. And, knowing this fact does nothing to ease the pain of the loss. The most ancient husband or wife still shudders and weeps with the loss of a spouse the way a newlywed would; perhaps more bitterly, knowing love more deeply at 85 than ever they did at 25. And yet, for all our scientific wonders, we can’t say what lies beyond this life.
What I’m saying is that for all our medical wonders, there are just questions we can’t answer, and things we can’t fix. And it is likely that our science, however wondrous, never will have that capacity.
We know it. It’s why we cry after failed resuscitations, and why we call our children when they travel, frantic to know they have arrived. It’s why every EMS tone terrifies the parents of teens and every scan of a loved one is terrifying to those of us in medicine. We can’t control the troubles of this life nearly as much as we think.
Mankind has always known this. Ancient physicians, as limited as they were, did their best and wanted more. They saw the dangers of this life, and their own incapacity, with what was likely more immediacy than we. And sick, injured humans have always known the fear of loss, the questions of suffering, the pain of death.
Into this ‘vail of tears’ we proceed every shift. This is why I often tell young physicians that they should read and understand more than medicine. I favor religious faith, natural to mankind as it is. But if they decline religion, they must have a philosophy. Or they should read great novels, stories, poetry; or reach into the depth of music for some kind of solace in this mess of the unknown.
But let me say this, now that December is here: Christmas comes to offer hope to the hopeless and answers to the hardest of questions. There are those of us who believe its message with all our broken hearts. But even those who find it a charming myth can surely see beauty in the story of God (however you perceive God to be) become man. God suffering with men and women and rescuing them. God come to give a hope of forever to humans trapped in mortality. This is especially poignant to those whose lives have been a succession of one devastating loss after another. It is comfort beyond medicine for them to believe in a God, come to forgive their wandering ways, answering them in the midst of their cutting, suicidal, self medicating cries for rescue. No pill is as good as God come to make every loss whole, and heal every pain in eternity. No resuscitation comparable to God come to die and defeat death.
The pain of this life is enormous. We try so hard, but we can do only so much. The manger in Bethlehem is, if nothing else, a beautiful story to remind us that just maybe, there is healing for the wounds that lie beyond our science. Perhaps the very dream that there is meaning, that there is hope, is a suggestion that there is more there, more here, than meets the eye.
And maybe, the manger is even more than a distant dream, more than a quaint bedtime story, glowing as it does in the chaotic night of human suffering that darkens our ER’s and trauma centers.
Merry Christmas!

The King is Here. Merry Christmas!

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http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/12/11/commentary-king-here/95198746/

Whenever I see the opening scene of Lion King, when Simba is presented to all the animals of the plains, I get emotional. Not because his character is a cute, sneezy fuzzball, but because of the reaction of all of the other beasts. As the music rises to climax, and Rafiki the wise mandrill presents the future king to his subjects, the animals do something that seems decidedly ‘non-Disney.’ Certainly it doesn’t appear ‘modern.’ All of the animals on the ground, looking up at the cub, begin to growl, roar, trumpet, jump, shriek, stomp the ground and, in the end, bow down silently in honor of the newborn king of the beasts. It gives me chills every single time. The kingdom is giving honor to the king.
I get the same feeling when I read about Aragorn in Tolkien’s Return of the King. He is the suffering servant, the mysterious wanderer of many names who travels the wilderness for years, growing stronger and wiser, protecting the innocent. He ultimately confronts evil and tyranny on fields of battle before he is crowned. No longer Aragorn, he is King Elessar, the latest in an ancient, nearly lost line of nobility, returned to rightful rule at last. It is an image of joy and hope, as the King ascends the throne and all’s well with the world; or at least Middle Earth. I want Elessar to be my king too.
Just as I always loved tales of Arthur, who may or may not have existed as we have been told, I enjoy stories of the not-at-all mythical Alfred, the only king of England ever to be called ‘The Great.’ He unified smaller kingdoms into one, promoted Christianity, order, justice and education. This despite many troubles, including invading armies and a chronic intestinal illness that left him wracked with pain.
There’s just something about kingship. I know, this is America and we don’t have kings. (Well, not exactly.) But deep in my heart, I want a king. I want a good king, a just king, a holy king. I want a king I can kneel before, serve, live for and if necessary, die for with joy in my heart.
This isn’t about misplaced patriotism, or some rejection of democracy. Monarchs are perilous things. But the king I want deserves to be king. Not only is it his birthright, he has earned the crown through fire and battle. He knows his people and has gained his kingship by love and sacrifice. The king IS the country. He loves the people and wants only the best for them. The king I long for, ache for, not only lives for the country but would die for it and his subjects.
Which brings us, round about, to Christmas. Hidden beneath the camouflage of fat Santas, elves, sentimentality and commerce, Christmas is the Christian celebration of the coming of the King. Not held high, but born low. Sought by poor shepherds and wise men, also searching for a king. Feared by another king, Herod the Great. Condemned by Pilate (not quite a king but close). Born among the people he lived a most ‘unkingly’ life on earth, living his few years as a common man, who was nevertheless most uncommon. He worked, healed, taught and rebuked the great. He told his followers that he came to serve not be served. That was the model for his reign. He announced his Kingdom with a thundering whisper, like no king mankind had seen.
The prophets knew this: ‘…of the increase of His government there will be no end…’ The apostles did too: ‘Then, opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh.’ The carol writers understood it. ‘Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.’ That word, lord. We use it so flippantly as just another church code-word. But the lord is the one to whom we owe devotion, the one with authority. Our ancestors in less democratic times understood. ‘Thank you Lord. Help me Lord. Have mercy on me Lord. Send me Lord.’
Christianity is far more breathtaking than its detractors, or even many adherents, realize. For it celebrates the coming of the King and his Kingdom. Same king, past, present and future. The King that puts all other kings, counsels, parliaments, presidents and ministers to shame and flight. And gives the word King it’s proper meaning for all time.
If that’s not a reason for a celebration, nothing ever was.

Idols All Around

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/11/14/commentary-humans-easily-deceived-idols-every-sort/93588762/

One of the consistent themes that runs all through the Bible is the theme of idolatry. And if we can learn anything from its writers down the thousands of years and hundreds of generations since they lived, it’s that humans are easily deceived by idols of every sort.
It’s arrogant for us to laugh off the idea of stone and wooden deities, and shake our heads at the fish or dragons, serpents or elephants that they represented to our ancestors. (That’s right, all of our ancestors!) Because we’re no less susceptible despite our assertions that we are modern and rational. Twenty-first century man remains a remarkably idolatrous creature.
This is rarely as evident as it is during a presidential election cycle, when we believe that vast power, and all our destinies, rest with the office and person we are electing. If only we elect him, or her, all our problems will be solved and our enemies smitten! We elevate candidates and politicians to places they were never meant to be, not by God, nor indeed by the founders of our republic, who doubtless had a much more suspicious view of human character than we do; else they would never have built in so many checks and balances.
In fact, during elections we also make idols of government in general, constitutions, courts and legislative bodies. We worship commentators and media outlets and anyone and everything connected with the process. We idolize our own opinions and spend far more time in our own personal echo-chambers than we do either worshipping God or (for the non-religious) simply pursuing secular knowledge or simple joy. Pity, as our self-adulating tirades and tantrums change few minds.
But it isn’t only politics. We all have our idols. Thanks to social media, young people take constant photos of themselves in a kind of self-worship. Social media have also allowed Americans to make an idol of the approval of others, whether in likes for one’s selfie, or agreement with one’s views. The disapproval of others is a bitter pill whose side effects include exclusion from friendly society; a kind of excommunication for heresy. How many opinions would be shared more honestly if not for the fear of being shunned or attacked en masse online?
Conservatives often idolize guns or military prowess, as if they could save us from all danger. And yet the Bible says ‘Some trust in chariots and some trust in horses, but we trust in the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 20:7) (The chariot being the main battle tank of antiquity, by the way.) And liberals make an idol of choice, as if replacing the word ‘killing’ with a euphemism makes it less like the reality of killing an unborn child, less like a modern adoration of the dark god Molech.
We idolize the freedom of sexual expression and sexual orientation, as if all that mattered in this life were who could have sex with whom. And on the other side, we idolize morality, as if our sanctimonious attitudes about sexual sin were anywhere as important as the forgivingness and redemption offered in the Bible to those who sin sexually, gay or straight. Grace matters more than moralism.
America idolizes the idea of compassion and charity without understanding the moral and spiritual underpinnings that make it reasonable and possible. And yet, we also idolize the American concept that everyone can simply succeed if they try, which is simply untrue. The deck is sometimes stacked and there are those who need our assistance, personally and through state programs. Some idolize capitalism, some idolize socialism, but both can become monstrous deities when not applied with Godly wisdom and caution.
The Decalogue begins with ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery, out of the land of Egypt.’ And follows it immediately with ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’ And of course, after receiving the Ten Commandments, the people promptly made a Golden Calf and ignored God, the source of all their good things. You can be an atheist and still see the truth in this tale. This is the story of all mankind. The worship of those things we shouldn’t, and the rejection of those things that are truly, ultimately good.
Whether a citizen is religious or not, we can surely agree that we all have idols we should take from their altars. Maybe it’s a good time to start.

We All Have to Face Evil

Dear reader, 

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  I wasn’t sure if it was the right column for this week, but I’d been thinking about it for a while.  Ironically, I really lost track of the date and wasn’t thinking about the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks.  But maybe it was appropriate as we consider what evils were inflicted that day.  Anyway, here it is.  May God deliver you and yours from temptation and evil.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/readers/2016/09/11/commentary-we-all-have-face-evil/90004264/

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ So goes the last sentence of the Lord’s Prayer. (Well, unless you count the later addition, ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory, forever and ever, amen.’)
The more I think about it as I get older, the more important the ideas of temptation and evil seem. As a husband, as a father, as a physician, I am fully convinced of the moral and spiritual dangers of this world. And yet, those words,’temptation’ and ‘evil’ fall on skeptical ears in a modern, scientific world. Do we believe in such a thing as temptation? Do we believe in evil? And how do we learn about these things in a time when virtue itself seems all too relative? And are they really relative as we search everywhere for virtuous leaders?
The word ‘temptation’ is dismissed as laughable. Rather than seeing it as a thing to be resisted, an assault on our character, a fork in the road of life, (or worst of all, the actions of Temptation should be embraced, as it invariably leads to fun and to liberty.
And ‘evil’ is even worse. Evil is only evil in the eye of those condemning it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure; one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. One man’s campaign contribution is another man’s bribe. Evil is passe’. It’s a yawn, a hoax passed down from an irrelevant church through silly preachers and uptight believers. Evil isn’t a thing for modern, educated people. Right?
Personally, I hold with the stark reality of temptation and evil. Reflecting on my own life I realize that I have experienced any number of temptations. Some of which I regrettably embraced.
Media and popular culture, being the principal moral guide-posts of generations, teach us that it’s funny to laugh about temptation, especially when it occurs in youth, and relates to sex, drugs and alcohol. But it quickly turns serious when we realize that temptation also eads people to use ever more powerful, ever more addictive and lethal drugs. Temptation leads men and women to cheat on their spouses, abuse children, embezzle, lie, engage in shady business deals, abuse public office, commit acts of terror, oppress, torment, rape or murder. It causes coups and wars, genocides and crushing poverty, loneliness, broken homes, broken hearts.
It’s common to suggest that such activities are merely the result of mental illness or caused by the frustrations of poverty or oppression. While sometimes true, the news doesn’t bear that out. Many very sane, very capable, very educated and financially sound people fall prey to temptation, a thing which ruins their own lives and those of others.Temptation, then, is the trail-head down evil paths. Evil, that old church bugaboo, that joke perpetuated on children, by ignorant religious folks, in order to manipulate them! But we all, every man, woman and child, believe fully in evil. We just have different words for it. We may disagree about the source. Is it something spiritual? Is it mental, financial or social? But without doubt, we know that there are dangerous forces and wrong things in the world.
Even the most convinced and brilliant atheist (and there are many) will reasonably condemn certain actions and applaud others. We use words like ‘unfair.’ We say we ‘ought to’ or ‘ought not to’ do certain things. We believe ‘that’s just wrong’ about a host of behaviors. Slavery? Bad. Murder? Bad. Greed? Bad. Human trafficking? Bad. Environmental destruction? Bad. Intolerance? Oppression? Tyranny? Hatred? Abuse of political power? Bad, bad, bad. And, to those of us with a more theistic inclination, evil.
And yet we live out a strange duality, in which we reject the idea of temptation’s perils and the reality of evil, even as we want to see virtue blossom. We find ourselves surrounded by crime, war, racism and sexism. We rail against big business, misleading ministers and lying politicians. We desire that our leaders be ‘good’ and ‘just’ even as we vacillate over virtue for ourselves, and can’t help laughing at things like ‘temptation’ and ‘evil.’
We may have to find different words to speak a common language here. But suffice it to say, I still pray that God will lead me not into temptation, and will deliver me from evil. And all those I love. For in a dangerous world, temptation and evil are real. And I’m just too weak to face it alone.

Church helps bring us together

My column in today’s Greenville News.  You don’t have to be a believer to see that, for all its flaws, the church has had, and continues to have, great benefit for those who attend.  And to the extent that it unites rather than divides, benefits for society at large.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/03/12/church-helps-bring-us-together/81575156/

By way of full disclosure, I’m a preacher’s kid. So, when I write about all of the benefits that accrue from church attendance, I’m speaking from both experience and from a slight bias. But before anyone gets angry and accuses me of all the standard Christian ‘crimes against humanity’ (shoving religion down your throat, intolerance, wanting a theocracy, hating people who are different, being ‘judgmental,’ being a right wing extremist, etc.), let me say that I’m going to talk about the benefits of church without getting into theology at all. That’s right. I’ll try not to even invoke the names of the particular deity that I worship. (I’ll save that for Easter Sunday.)
When I grew up, given that my father was a pastor, church was just what we did. Sunday morning church attendance wasn’t a negotiable (although other services were as I grew older). We got up, mom made breakfast, dad matched ties, polished his shoes and went over his sermon. Then we piled into the car and went to whichever church he was leading at the time. (We were semi-migratory United Methodists.)
In church, we children were herded into Sunday School classes where we were taught and mentored by kind men and women who knew us and our families. From them we learned the stories of our faith, many of which are idiomatic to Western culture at large. And we made dear friends. Some of them are still my friends decades later.
After Sunday School we went to the main church service. There we learned the value of decorum, respect and reverence. We witnessed and participated in the ancient traditions that our fellow believers have followed for two thousand years, and which help anchor believers in difficult times.
In the summer we had Vacation Bible School, that classic church activity held (now as then) in what was surely the hottest, muggiest time of the year, during which we did crafts, heard stories, sang songs, played dodge-ball in the basement and drank our total individual fluid volume in grape Kool-Aid,. We were nourished by sugar cookies and potato chips.
We later dated people we went to church with, although it turns out you aren’t allowed to make out with your girlfriend during church services. (A friend of mine discovered this in a fairly unpleasant manner). We went to camp and on other summer adventures with our friends. And we became adults together, moving slowly out of youth groups into adult classes and adult behavior.
We also learned music. Although these are days of microphones, amplifiers and Power-Point in church (nothing wrong with that), we not only sang in youth choirs and later with adults, we learned to read music and follow along. We appreciated melody and harmony. We read the beautiful lyrics written by great church composers, poetry filled with depth, wonder and hope. Those works are etched deeply in my memory. Many of those beautiful songs are lost to recent generations. It’s a pity. Even Christopher Hitchens, noted and brilliant atheist, suggested the value of reading the King James Bible. I feel the same way about great hymns.
In church, from childhood on, we saw sad, hurt people come to the altar to confess or lay out their troubles. There, friends and family surrounded them in love, in shared tears, touched them with compassion and prayed by their sides. It’s hard to witness that sort of fellowship and not learn to feel sorrow for the struggles of others.
We watched baptisms and took communion (and snuck extra communion wafers), even when we were still learning to fully understand their meaning. These became bits of our identities.
As time passed we enjoyed the delight of weddings. We also went to funerals. We learned with clarity that a group of people who spend so much time knowing and loving one another have to pass through both joy and the sorrow with them. And that death can be celebrated as surely as grieved.
I understand that many people take issue with Christianity. But church gave me great gifts: a community of fellow believers, meeting in love and sharing values and stories that were both culture foundations and individually inspiring. I continue to enjoy that every week.
And in these times of dissension, alienation and isolation, when the only thing we have in common seems to be division, I think we could use a little more church.

Churches Shy Away From Hard Questions

My column in yesterday’s Greenville News.  While primary responsibility for teaching our children rests with us as parents, the church often drops the ball in its mission to the young.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/01/24/churches-shy-away-hard-questions/79054658/

I have a problem with the church. It’s not the music, or the ‘mega-church’ concept. It’s not the donuts or the coffee or any other petty issue. The problem I have with the church is that I fear we are doing a poor job of preparing our kids for life.

What troubles me is the way we dumb things down for Christian young people. Maybe we don’t want to frighten them, maybe we don’t want to confuse them or cast any doubt into the faith we’re trying to mold. But frankly, we are failing them. Because it’s a world of hard times and hard questions, and unless we teach kids how to answer them, they’ll have grave difficulties believing all of the stuff we tried to teach.

One of my kids used to come home from Sunday School and we’d ask, ‘what did your teacher talk about?’ He’d shake his little head and sigh. ‘Moses…again.’ Like all of my kids he wanted more than stock stories designed to get through a study guide every year. In fact, our family has often used the term ‘Sunday School answer,’ when having discussions. For example: ‘why is it wrong to steal?’ Answer: ‘Jesus.’ We all laugh at that, but we all know that Sunday School answers don’t always cut it.

The problem we Christians tend to have is that we have a kind of global ‘Sunday School’ answer for the world, which usually comes down to ‘it’s in the Bible.’ Which is great for established believers to say to one another. But at a certain point in time, thinking Christian kids will start to ask about that book we hold as sacred and about that God we worship. And they’ll wonder whether to believe or consign their faith to myth.

Now, if Christian kids ask that, what will non-Christian folks ask them, or say about it? If they don’t recognize the book, or the faith, or the rules, then all of our ‘but it say so,’ and ‘Jesus loves you,’ may fall on deaf ears. So, when our kids go off to work, college or the armed forces, it won’t take long until someone easily shatters their beliefs; not even intentionally, but simply by asking hard, honest questions.

Kids in many churches today are very kind and good. They go on mission trips and they work in the food-bank. They teach the younger kids in children’s ministries, etc. But all too often they aren’t being asked the hard questions in church, or being taught how to deal with them. And I don’t mean that they aren’t being taught how to ‘make the sale.’ I mean they aren’t sure how to face the issues themselves.

What questions do we need to help them answer? Here are some: ‘Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? What is my purpose? Is there such a thing as truth? Why can’t all of our truths be equally true? Did Jesus exist? Does God exist? What do we need Him for? Is there evil? What is sin? Is the Bible reliable? Aren’t all religions the same? How can we be scientific and true to our beliefs? Is Christianity cruel and mean and oppressive? What if I screw up? Why is there pain, suffering and loss? If there is, what does it say about God? Can I have hope in trouble? What happens when we die?’ (Incidentally, many of the same questions are asked by every kid, whether their families are Christian or atheist.)

That’s only a short list. But if we love our kids then we’ll sit down with them and address those life-shaping uncertainties. We’ll do it using the Bible, and by taking from philosophy and history, art and music, biology and physics and every other area of human endeavor, so that they will go into life equipped with solid answers, not fragile platitudes that blow over at the first wind of disagreement.

They’ll ask other questions; sometimes questions we hadn’t imagined. And may of them will have serious doubts. They may walk away from their faith. But they deserve our patience, love and prayers. Because a faith shaken by honest skepticism will be better in the end.

Church leaders and parents, let’s prepare our young people. They need depth to face the world and transform it. They need truth to help them endure life’s struggles. They need to know they are loved and that their lives have meaning.

But Sunday School snippets aren’t enough anymore.

 

Coming Home to The Father’s Beach House

I am doing some temporary work on the SC coast. As it happened, this weekend was the birthday of our daughter, who turned 15 years. Since her celebration fell on a weekend, my wife brought our little girl and her siblings (and a dear friend) to the beach for the weekend.

Since I was there before the clan and found our rental house, it was also my task to stock it. Friday afternoon the family was on the move and I left the ER about 7 pm. Jan had sent me a list of assorted snacks and drinks to buy. So, giddy with the knowledge that my favorite people were headed towards me, I went off to Kroger.

I filled my buggy with chips and Goldfish crackers, with gum, Oreo Cookies, Mounds Bars, Kit-Kats and Hershey Milk Chocolate. I loaded up on Lay’s Potato Chips…Salt and Vinegar, Jalapeno, Barbecue and Wavy. There were water bottles, Coke Zero, Diet Coke and Sprite Zero. And for my lovely wife, a swimming pool of an un-sweet tea from Popeye’s, along with a dozen or so pieces of fried chicken for the late arrival dinner the kids would certainly want. It was exactly the sort of feast that makes a vacation, however short, a vacation. And the best part was that as I shopped, I knew the desires and preferences of each of my loved ones. I was preparing the house for them specifically.

As I returned from the store, the resort community where we are staying was serene, with a cool wind in the pines and palmettos, and humid that air smelled like impending rain. A few cars drove the narrow streets and the waterways under the bridges were still. The guard at the gate was relaxed. No chaos or danger lurked. And on entering the dark house I had left at 6:30 am, I hit the switches and light filled the house, as I turned up the heat to take off the night chill. The heat and light like some foretaste of the love and youth that were only a couple of hours away.

I set about putting groceries away and then arranged the snacks and goodies on the counter for easy access as soon as everyone arrived. And on my daughter’s pillow, a small bouquet of Daisies, a flower she loves.

When they were close I met the family just before the gate to give them a parking pass and escort them to the right driveway. We then parked, unloaded and I went about hugging and kissing. I must have embraced everyone three, four or five times; certainly six or ten for my bride! I directed them to food and I positively danced and skipped around the house, sliding on the hardwood floor in my socks, so happy I was to see them. We laughed and told jokes, we smiled and teased until we could barely keep our eyes open, then it was off to bed.

The next day was more of the same, with lunch and dinner out for the birthday girl, a walk on the cold, cloudy, beautiful beach in between, and games around the table in the evening. Today, as I write, they are all on their way back home, while I have some more shifts to work. The house is empty except for me, although if I am still I can hear echoes of their laughter, their jokes, their wisdom. Their love for one another still hangs in the air of the kitchen and dining room. I can sense the warmth my wife provides to my heart, which still lingers. And I smile at the absolute wonder of our children who are temporarily absent in body, but present in every other way to this passionate father.

Even as I was getting ready for their arrival, I knew this entire event was a message. It was somewhere between epiphany and Theophany. It was certainly a new insight into both my family and my faith. While I did not see God or his representatives, as a Theophany by definition is, I certainly felt a powerful insight into God, the Father.

In John 14: 1-4, Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ (ESV.)

That verse resonated through my head, that image through my soul, as I looked around the neighborhood and the house in preparation for my family. I imagined the Kingdom of God, beyond time, outside time, in a way we cannot fathom. And yet, at the end of all suffering, loss and pain; at the end of every separation and hint of loneliness or sorrow.

There, God waits for us. There, He prepares the rooms, knowing who we are and what we love. There He stocks up for the great celebration. There, He waits, checking the unfolding of history, speaking to us, encouraging us, calling us forward to the place where we will be safe and happy for all eternity, loved and cherished. From there he and his servants sally forth to our aid, rescue or comfort, or to bring each of us home in our time. It is the place where the joyous, thrilled Father will kiss every wayward child who made his way on the prodigal road to the Father’s house. And we are all prodigal in our own ways.

And what would the Father fail to give for his child’s safe arrival? Everything up to His own life? There’s the Gospel. The Gospel of Christmas and Easter, where the Father, lover of our souls, desperately desires our presence with him for all eternity and comes to earth to love us, then demonstrates love so great that even death is not off the table, nor is death an end or impediment but one more bit of trouble to be overcome for the children He loves more than they can fathom. The cost of eternity is paid. The gate is open to us in the evening, and next morning, of our lives.

God wants us with Him, and nothing can make Him cease wanting us. He will not force his children to come along, but will do everything else to bring us at last to the warm, well-lit home he has prepared and stocked for our joy, our warmth, our safety and our eternal communion with Him.

Rules and morals? Guidelines? Of course. These are the road-maps to the Father. Don’t turn off here, don’t get lost there, don’t trust any false father for only the true Father loves you, only He knows the depth of your pain and the beauty of your creation in His image. Only He is preparing the perfect place for you. Love the other kids, bring them along. Sin is a distraction, a thing that will keep you from the good. That’s why He’s so eager to forgive all, and keep us headed home.

And when we finally pull in, walk in, fly in or appear with Him, such kisses He will lavish upon us and such delights prepare for us that it is worth anything to make the journey, the last great journey to His side.

1 John 3: 1 says: ‘See what kind of love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ The children of God get to come home to the house of the Father.

St. Paul reminds us further that we cannot begin to grasp it: ‘But as it is written, “what no eye has seen nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love Him.”’ 1 Corinthians 2:9.

On that day with him, in the best vacation home of all, we will laugh with tear-filled eyes and cry with joy in our hearts. And if there are soda’s or candy bars, if (as I suspect) there is sweet tea and fried chicken, it will only be the most miniscule hint of all that awaits. Because the best thing of all will be to stand in the presence, at last, of the Father we have longed for all our lives. The Father who has ached for us, planned for us, and sacrificed for us since we first took shape in his great, loving heart.

I pray that I see you there.

 

Christmas is Rooted in Imperfection

This was my column in Sunday’s Greenville News.  Merry Christmas my dear friends!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/12/20/christmas-rooted-imperfection/77441958/

Christmas appears, if we believe the marketing, to be a season for the rich, happy, safe and whole. The time when vast, intact families of beautiful, healthy people gather around lavish feasts and exchange mountains of gifts, all while understanding ‘the real meaning of Christmas.’ Children come home from college, husbands and wives embrace, grandparents sit quietly around the fire attended by grandchildren and even the dogs have shiny coats, pawing open their toys from palatial pet stores. Outside the window snow falls and Santa slips away with a smile. I love it! Except, it isn’t always that way. In fact, it isn’t mostly that way.

Maybe that’s why it started the way it did. Humble and dusty, in a shed for animals, with poor parents, traveling far from home and having a baby whose identity and destiny were, at the least, overwhelming. Christmas started in a place where poverty was not merely widespread but baseline. Riches, means, these were the outliers. When Christmas is temporally perfect, that’s grand. But Christmas is for those struggling. At Christmas, Jesus is born into the midst of difficulty and brokenness, not into a palace.

Furthermore, the Christ child came to a people with a clear cultural memory of slavery, in a time when they were subject to the vast power of almighty Rome. He came in a time when being forced into slavery, because of debt, crime or conquest, was simply a fact of all too many lives. It is comical that those who object to Christianity use the term ‘slave religion.’ Of course it is. It was and is a slave religion because it cared for the slaves (and others nobody wanted), embraced them, and because Jesus himself said came, among other missions, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives.’

And of course, we are slaves and captives still. Slaves to the illusion that politics (or worse, politicians) will redeem the world. Slaves to possessions. Captive to the idea that only money matters, and that with enough money every person will be good, healthy, kind and just if only we can shuffle it around adequately. Slaves to the beliefs that we can control everything, that success is all and that education and intelligence somehow excuse us from trouble. Captives all around, though the shackles are prettier than the heavy iron of old days. But they hold us still.

Jesus was not born so that we could have a nice holiday, although I love Christmas as many of us do. He was born, launched into this world, a teacher, healer, deliverer, redeemer. And this is very important for all of those whose lives are broken at Christmas. I’ve seen them over and over. Christmas can be a time of grieving, worry, fear, sickness, loss, mourning and loneliness as surely as it’s a time of beauty and wonder. And why not? It fits the story. Angels and heavenly songs attend the infant King, born into a place of trouble and suffering, point-counterpoint.

So then, move past the limited accounts we have of that first Christmas. Watch the Gospels after Christmas and see the child become a man. He healed the possessed, the blind and lame. He taught mercy and turned human judgment upside down time after time. He raised the dead. And he forgave sins, which is maybe the one thing we find the most objectionable of all (because it would mean we have to believe in sin and our own guilt).

Trouble at Christmas is especially hurtful, simply because we want everything to be just right. But we must not be ‘troubled at the trouble.’ Christmas happened, and happens, exactly because of trouble. The world needed more than kind words and beautiful ideas. It needed a deliverer, who would plop right down in the midst of every dark thing that binds and wounds us.

I hope that everyone has the perfect Christmas, with loved ones and prosperity all around. But most of the world won’t. Which is, beautifully and ironically, exactly why Christmas happened. And why the man Jesus, years later, said in John 16:33, ‘I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’

If that’s not a Christmas greeting for everyone, nothing ever was.

Merry Christmas.