Why Is Everyone So Afraid of Flowers? Some Unmorbid Thoughts on Death.

A strange thing happened today. As I was moving three floral arrangements around the campus of the retirement community where I work, several people told me not to leave them where I intended. The flowers were cheerful, aromatic, and gorgeously arranged so it was strange to me that no one wanted them. When I asked what the rejection was about, the message was clear every time. “They are funeral flowers!”

Well, yes. They are. They were delivered to our campus for the memorial of a beloved resident who died. Her daughters asked if I would take them from our chapel — which isn’t used much during the week — to locations in the main lobby, skilled nursing, and assisted living units. They wanted the residents to enjoy the beautiful arrangements made in honor of their beautiful mother. What a lovely idea and kind gesture. Or so I thought.

funeral flowers

I was busy catching up on emails and admin tasks when my colleague Brad arrived for the day. He said, “What is your plan for the flowers in the rotunda?” To which I replied that the rotunda was my plan, as it gets a lot of traffic and more people would see the flowers there. He then told me the sales director wanted them moved ASAP because funeral flowers don’t send the right message when someone walks in our doors for a tour.

As a side note: our company’s new motto is Live with Promise. We recently rebranded and took away the word “retirement” from our community, replacing it with the word “living.” Apparently the word retirement carries the stigma of being put away, and a retirement community is a place you go to die. So now we only live.

I got a handcart for the other two arrangements and pushed them across the campus toward our skilled nursing and assisted living units. As I got off the elevator for assisted living, one of the staff asked hostilely, “Where are you going with those?” I told her I was going to place them in the lobby to be enjoyed by the residents and guests. She told me I wasn’t going to do that because the residents don’t like them. Though I’m not sure if she was really speaking for the residents or for herself, she said they don’t like to be reminded about death. I tried to engage her in conversation about this, but she deflected, so we compromised about the flowers. She would take the arrangement to her office, dismantle it, and make new, smaller arrangements that wouldn’t scream funeral!

Later, I ate lunch on the screened patio by the pool. (It’s one of the few public places where employees can eat their lunch.) As I took my seat, I noticed that the large arrangement from the rotunda had been moved to the porch. Now it was in a place where maybe 20 people would see it in a day, and with the Florida humidity, the flowers will wilt by tomorrow. A coworker came out to join me for lunch and hesitated as she approached my table. Looking at the blooms behind me, she said, “I don’t know if I can eat here. I don’t like seeing those flowers.” This staff person has worked at our retirement community for over a decade.

I have to remind myself that not everyone has had as much exposure to dying and death as I have as a pastor and chaplain. And I need to remember that even those who work regularly with the dying, like medical professionals, are often uncomfortable and superstitious around death. And I know that talking about death and even thinking about death makes many people uncomfortable. So I’ll try to moderate myself a bit as I write on…

Today’s experiences with the flowers reminded me just how guarded our culture is about death. Maybe shrouded is a better word than guarded. It’s like we are trying to put curtains up between us and the reality of death. As though a flimsy sheet could erase the reality altogether. This guarding happens even in places like retirement communities and hospitals where death is frequent.

Frankly, if my career has taught me anything, it’s that death is much easier to face when faced directly. When it’s called death instead of “passing away” or “expiring.” And I believe it’s much easier to face our own mortality when we talk about death like it is normal and common. Because it is normal and common.

Try this small exercise. Pause from reading this post and say, “I am going to die.” Let that sentence hover in the silence around you. Give it a good minute. Then maybe say it again. Say it out loud and slowly.

How did that feel? What are you feeling? And more importantly, why do you think saying that simple, direct, and true sentence makes you feel the way you do?

I remember the moment I consciously stumbled upon and accepted my own mortality. I was a chaplain intern at a large hospital. The chief pathologist invited any chaplain who was interested to view an autopsy. Call me crazy, but I rushed to put my name at the top of the list. I’d always been curious about and fascinated by the body. I wondered how all of the organs that I read about in my science books could fit inside a body. And, did they swish around in some kind of goo? Or, were they floating in air, doing some kind of delicate dance, not touching one another?

So I got to see a full autopsy — one where they not only emptied the chest cavity, they even extracted the brain. The process was clinical and methodical but not at all cold. The doctors showed great respect for the body out of respect for the person who had lived in it. As they removed organ after organ and took samples from each, I remember this moment when I said inside my head, “I’m going to die.”

In that moment I got the chills. That sentence zinged out of my head, shot down into my heart, and then reverberated throughout my own torso, plunging down into my toes. I may have shook a bit on my stool because the doctor turned and asked if I was okay.

“Yes,” I replied, “I’m okay.” And I was. Facing the reality of my death was, literally, breath-taking. Startling. A little bit scary. Very humbling. And more settling than I can explain.

Staring at the empty chest cavity of a human body — a body that once housed a living, breathing, vibrant woman, and then realizing that my body would one day be empty of my personality, my breath, my being — I was rattled but then settled. I faced the fact that I would die. It would be real. People would have to deal with the loss of me. I might experience pain while dying, but it also might be over before I even know what’s happening. I will die. I can’t control that because it is simply a truth. Death is natural. It is normal. It is common. It will be part of my story just as it is part of every human’s story that ever was.

I understand the fear. The resistance to and avoidance of the topic. The attempts to distance ourselves from the reality of death, foolish and unhelpful though they may be. I understand it, but I wish this wasn’t our way. I wish more of us used the words death, dying, dead, and died rather than vague and prettied euphemisms. Because death is. And denial and euphemisms don’t help us manage-well all the living, dying, and grieving that we do on a daily basis.

If you are still with me, there is good news here too. Dying and death can be the most beautiful days, hours, and moments you could ever know.

As a chaplain, I’ve supported hundreds of people in the long and short times preceding death. Many of them are afraid, but not about the impending reality of their death, or even the finality of death. They fear the not knowing of those paper-thin moments between life and death. At the very end, what will they be aware of? What will they feel? Will there be pain?

Beyond this fear, there is usually calm, peace, and a lot of rest and sleep. And here is where the beauty arrives. When people stop denying, fighting, or cushioning themselves from death — when they face death, speak it aloud, and accept it — then they are able to relax deeply into the moments that remain.

Dying people who accept their dying cherish more. Their senses are heightened because they know they have precious little time left to smell the roses, to feel the smoothness of your hand in theirs, to float pleasantly along the chords of their favorite music. They want to spend time with their loved ones. They want to tell their stories. They want you to feel comfortable around them and treat them with the same love, respect, and dignity that you showed them before you knew they were dying. They are still the same person, it’s just that their body is dying.

Spending time with people who are dying and their loved ones has been one of the greatest honors of my life. It’s pure time, like when you hold a sleeping newborn and feel their rhythmic breathing and perfect skin. Or when you sit at the park on a comfortably sunny day and simply take in the breeze and the sounds of children playing. Or when you are flying in an airplane and it’s all weightlessness and white noise and the view out the window is cotton ball clouds over soft blue skies. These pure times are meant to be taken in. To be held. To be breathed. They are a holy pause that we store and remember later when the grief comes.

When you spend time with people who are dying, all the stupidity of life falls away. No one cares about celebrity gossip or small town gossip, what kind of car you drive or who has gained a few too many pounds. They focus on what is true, what is important, and what is enduring. It’s time full of phrases like, I love you. Do you remember the time… Thank you for… I want you to know… I’m sorry for…

There is time and space for laughter, tears, warm hugs, hand-holding, singing, reminiscing, and for peacefully spinning dreams that may never happen.

Yes, there are instances near death when modern medicine cannot overpower the pain of disease and that is difficult to witness. But the vast majority of deaths I’ve attended have been quiet and calm with minimal pain. And most of these deaths have been peaceful times saturated with the sacredness of life and wreathed with the beauty of love.

I wish we would not fear death — the reality or the word.

I wish today’s flowers were colorful, happy reminders of a kind and contented woman who we shared life with, rather than funeral flowers that pricked us into depression or made us recoil.

I wish more people had the courage to be uncomfortable and use straight talk about death. I think it would be kinder and more helpful for our own acceptance and well-being.

Death won’t come faster just because we speak of it. But if we are able to think and speak of death with a calm, no-nonsense manner, we will be better able to live our lives to the fullest, to live with promise, and to breathe deeply of the roses.



When someone you love is dying

My grandmother Betty battled cancer for more than a decade. Most of my memories of her are tinged by the effects of disease – terrible bloating and vomiting caused by experimental drugs, brutal rounds of chemo that made her hair fall out and grow back in different shades and textures, and our family spring break trips to Mayo Clinic when she was too weak to be at home.

Despite her prolonged illness, I remember many good things too. Grandma’s nickname was Mean Betty Jean but she was just the opposite: invariably kind and calm, with a gentle smile and a friendly chuckle that made me want to cuddle into her side. She taught me how to play card games like Crazy Eights and Kings in the Corners. Every year for Christmas, she bought me pajamas that came packaged with a matching stuffed animal; this was both delightful and silly.

Even though my grandmother was sick my entire childhood, I never realized that she was slowly dying. One ordinary Thursday I came home from school, made myself a snack and was eating it standing by the sink when my mom came in and told me that grandma had died. We stood there for a long time, quietly crying by the kitchen sink. I thought I’d share many more spring breaks with grandma. I was looking forward to another Crazy Eights tournament. But most of all, I wished I’d had the chance to say goodbye and to give her the best hug I had because I knew it would be our last.

Now in my mid-thirties, I’ve said goodbye to several beloved family members and friends. As a hospital and hospice chaplain, I helped people prepare for death and supported grieving families. With death and dying as the landscape of my daily work, I learned that while being a witness of death is never easy, it doesn’t have to be depressing or scary.

The time that precedes death can be the most beautiful time you share with someone you love. It’s a time to give and receive precious gifts. Not gems set in velvet boxes, but true words and actions. Things as simple and life-giving as presence, as saying I love you, as laughing over a hand of cards. These are gifts with the power to free souls from fear and pain and open them to gratitude and joy.

If your loved one is dying – my thoughts are with you. I pray you have the courage to give and receive the following gifts.

Talk about death. We often avoid the D-words – die, death, dying – because we fear it will be too painful for the one who is dying. In my professional experience, dying people want to talk about death. Unless they suffer from dementia, they know it’s their daily reality. Most want to acknowledge it, talk about it and prepare for it as best they can. They want the opportunity to review their lives, tell their stories, to confess their regrets, and seek forgiveness. How will they have a chance to do this important work, this emotional preparation, if we are afraid to accept their reality? One of the greatest gifts you can give your loved one is the freedom to openly face their death.

Know and honor their wishes. Terminal illness comes with an obstacle course of decisions. Do we pursue life-extending medical treatments? Will we manage the pain with narcotics or alternative therapies? What finances do we need to get in order? When and how should we prepare the memorial service? These are important questions, but too often families tackle them without consulting their loved one. Two of the greatest emotional struggles of the dying are loss of control and loss of identity. Asking your loved one about their wishes, and following through with them, honors their personhood. It helps them retain an important strand of control. Start with Five Wishes and advance directives.

Address the bucket list. People who are dying often daydream about what they would do if they had unlimited time and resources. For many, this ‘bucket list’ may not be written on paper, so talk to your loved one about what they want to do with their remaining time. Many bucket list items can be accomplished outright but you might need to do the legwork. Other items might be beyond your loved one’s physical capabilities, but could be modified to achieve the same sense of satisfaction.

Consider hospice. While hospitals do what they can to create a comfortable environment, it’s not an ideal place to share your final days. Hospice provides 24-hour on-call support for patients and families in a variety of settings: private homes, retirement communities, skilled nursing facilities, and in-patient hospice units. It is a free benefit of Medicare, Medicaid (in 47 states) and of most private insurance carriers. A consistent, interdisciplinary care team – including a physician, nurses, a social worker, and a spiritual care provider – will manage medications, address pain, provide informed and compassionate guidance as things change, and generally enhance your loved one’s quality of life. Not all hospices offer the same range of services, so ask for referrals in your area. If you have more questions, start here.

Share simple pleasures. It’s easy to get distracted by all the details that come with caring for a loved one. Meetings with lawyers and ministers are important, but no more so than surrounding your loved one with what gives life to their soul. Focus on simple things. Cook their favorite meal, even if they can only enjoy a few bites or the smell. Hold hands. Reminisce and tell your loved one why you cherish them. Say I love you. Put a cozy lounge chair in the garden and share the sunshine and the quiet. Have a family movie night. Read their favorite stories aloud. Let the grandkids star in a family concert or play. This will be their comfort and joy.

Let them apologize. It’s natural to seek forgiveness and express regret at the end of life. Research shows that the dying seek forgiveness in three categories: the forgiveness of God, of others and of self. Surprisingly, the data says that forgiveness of self is the most difficult category. Seeking the forgiveness of others is certainly a doorway to forgiving ourselves. Families often try to deflect, minimize or avoid such apologies because they don’t want their loved one to feel burdened by grief. Well friends, grief is unavoidable at this point. The good news is that letting your loved one speak their truth is precisely the thing that can lighten their burdens. So when they speak, don’t interrupt. Take deep breaths and listen until they are finished. Then offer words of acceptance and love.

Let yourself be weak. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a family member say I have to be strong… I know this is difficult advice, but it’s much kinder to let yourself fall apart from time to time. Have a good cry in the shower. Go into the basement or the woods and yell. Confess your fears and struggles to a good friend or counselor. Cry out before God. These are better coping skills than trying to rigidly harness the emotions that come with losing someone you love. Grief is an unruly thing; it comes and goes in unpredictable, sometimes turbulent, waves. Try though we might, the tide is not something we can control. It’s best to ride the cresting waves and trust that they will deposit you on shore.

Care for yourself. It’s okay to care for yourself even when your loved one is dying. In fact, it’s critical. Stress and grief will upset your ability to assess your needs, so listen to your friends and family when they say you need a break. Let them take you out for coffee or to the spa. Accept their casseroles, their offers to clean your house and their long hugs. These things are like a good saline drip to a body parched from grief. Plus, it will give them a practical way to help you, which is what they desperately want to do.

Plan a memorial service. This part of the grieving process can be difficult, but also incredibly healing. Through words, music, prayers, pictures, flowers and food you can craft a gathering that honors the life of your loved one. Invite family and friends to contribute and do the work together. You’ll laugh and cry and discover later that this is when the mending began.

Stay connected to God. Friends, this is the time for raw and real prayers. This is a time to use the Psalms like prayers when you have no words of your own. This is a time to sit on the floor in your closet and open your hands to heaven. It’s a time to acknowledge your weakness. To ask for comfort and for the strength for one more day together. It’s a time to realize that God is in every moment working for your good and for the good of your loved one. And when pain, fear, and confusion come, this is when you’ll need to trust that things are not as they seem. Remember that God is with you, doing the unseen, gathering you all under the shadow of his wings.


Have mercy on me, my God, have mercy on me,
    for in you I take refuge.
I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings
    until the disaster has passed.
Psalm 57:1

Better Than an Ice Bucket

The ALS ice bucket challenge has flooded my Facebook newsfeed. At first it was just a friend of a friend, so I didn’t pay much attention. Within three days about fifty of my friends accepted the challenge, so I finally figured out what is going on across the country.

(AP photo/Elise Amendola)

(AP photo/Elise Amendola)

Every week something new is trending on social media – a video of cats doing something “extraordinary” or a baby doing something ordinary, a poignant or provocative blog post, links to breaking news and scandals. Some of the trends are funny and uplifting, some controversial, and others downright deplorable. The phenomena of all these people dumping an ice bucket over their heads to raise awareness and/or money for ALS is one of the better trends. According to The Huffington Post, they’ve raised over $160,000 in a 10 day period. It’s amusing to watch my friends and celebrities douse themselves, but whenever I see the letters ALS, I think of images and challenges that make a bucket of ice seem as intimidating as tossing a grain of sand into the sea. I think of the day I met Hank.

Many years ago I did a chaplaincy internship at a large suburban hospital. Our staff of chaplains worked hard to meet the spiritual and emotional needs of thousands of patients each week. One day while on call, I was paged to spend time with a patient whose family was out of town. The RN told me her patient’s name was Hank, that he had advanced ALS and he was having “a rough day.” I’d heard of ALS, of course, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, but at that point I knew more about the baseball player than I did the disease, and that is saying something. I had no idea what to expect.

I heard Hank moaning before I reached the door of his room. When I entered, I saw a man slumped in the raised hospital bed, the side of his face smashed against the plastic side rail. His eyes were open but they didn’t move. I approached the bed slowly, greeting Hank by name and introducing myself. With a frozen jaw and his lips and tongue only twitching, Hank groaned out a short sound. It wasn’t what I would normally call a word, but it had enough force of breath to let me know that Hank was trying to communicate with me. He repeated himself many times. I asked myself over and over: what did Hank need? What could I do? Unable to understand him but sensing his distress, I felt helpless and uncomfortable and wanted to run out of the room.

Eventually, I figured out that Hank was saying. “Head, hurt.” – and no wonder, smashed up against the railing like he was, unable to move. I wanted to kick myself for missing the obvious. It took me ten minutes and four requests to get a nurse to help me get Hank in a comfortable position. He groaned loudly the entire time but stopped as soon as we got him better situated. By that point, I was sweating and holding back tears. I pulled up a chair and sat down where Hank could see me, not knowing what else I could do.

Hank was so fragile. He wasn’t much older than my father but he looked decades older. He couldn’t move his limbs or his head and when I held his hand, his fingers were stiff and still in mine. I imagined that he must be a shadow of his former self, a fact confirmed when a woman stepped in the room.

Marge introduced herself as a friend of Hank’s from high school. She told me that she wanted to come visit even though she hadn’t seen Hank in years. She gave a smile that was more like a grimace and she stood in the doorway, nervously wringing the cardigan sweater she held in her hands. Her eyes darted to Hank lying in the bed cocooned by six pillows and a blanket. I invited Marge to take my seat so she could visit with Hank. She quickly declined, mumbled about coming back on a better day, and left. She was there maybe two minutes max. Her friend’s appearance so startled and distressed Marge that she fled.

I spent a few more minutes with Hank. I didn’t say much because I didn’t know what to say. I prayed for his comfort. I briefly held his hand and when I left I made sure one of the many CDs stacked by his bed was playing. I was shaken. As a chaplain it was one of those defining moments when I felt utterly inadequate to my task. As a human I felt ashamed and embarrassed. Ashamed that I was uncomfortable in Hank’s presence, that I was tongue-tied, that I spent more time worrying about my feelings than Hank’s. I was embarrassed for Marge, Hank’s friend, who couldn’t bring herself to spend more than two minutes with him. Later that week I grew angry – angry with the unit nurses who were too busy to help Hank, and angry with hospital standards that kept too few nurses busy with too many patients and too many protocols.

This is a portrait of ALS and it exposes our real challenge. There are thousands of Hanks in our country, in our hospitals, nursing homes and neighborhoods, hoping we will hear them cry out and come help. Certainly giving money to ALS research and other charitable health care organizations is a tangible way to help. And if you dumped an ice bucket on your head and raised awareness or you followed a link and educated yourself about the disease, I’m sincerely glad. But ten minutes of reading and a fifty dollar donation don’t meet the real challenge of ALS.

You may never know or meet someone with ALS, but chances are in your lifetime that you will know and love someone who will be diagnosed with a debilitating and/or degenerative disease. Whether it is ALS, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, or dementia, your challenge, if you choose to accept it, will be to offer your steadfast love.

Steadfast love is love that goes beyond sentiment and beyond the doorway. It’s love that moves forward through your fear and discomfort, knowing that your fears and discomforts are nothing compared to the one whose hand you hold. This love makes you pull up a chair, stay a while and come back tomorrow. It prompts you to bring his favorite book and read the best chapter aloud and then talk about what moved you. It inspires you to sing her favorite song through your tears or gently massage lotion on stiff fingers and cracked skin.

Love never treats a person like they are someone else’s problem, like they are a disease, a financial burden, or just a body in a bed. To love is to greet them by name and always treat them as a beloved. Even when they can no longer speak. Or when they’ve forgotten your name. And especially when they no longer sound, smell or feel like the person we once knew.

And when we run away, steadfast love asks us to forgive ourselves, to go back and try again.

This is what ALS asks of us. This is also what God wants of us. It’s a big, scary ask. But don’t forget, we have everything we need to meet it.

Love is the most beautiful expression of our humanity. Treating people as people, being involved in their care, showing them they are loved – until the day they die – this carries the scent of heaven. If we do this, then we offer the best help and meet life’s greatest challenge.


Unvarnished: Healing our Images of God

The following is an adaptation of a sermon title “Healing our Images of God” which you can listen to at http://hopechurchchandler.com/sermons/sermon/2012-12-30/healing-our-images-of-god.

All of us have experienced pain, whether past or present. A bomb may have dropped in your life 10 years, 10 months or 10 days ago. Have you dealt with the pain? Have you explored how the shrapnel from that bomb may have damaged your relationships with God? It’s likely that circumstances in your life have affected how you see God. Having a whole and healthy relationship with God is essential for health in all other areas of life.

I want 2013 to be a year of healing for all of us – healing in many ways, but most of all, healing in our relationship with God. I want all of us to be people who wear crowns of beauty, who are anointed with the oil of joy and wrapped in garments of praise, just like the word pictures painted by the prophet Isaiah (61:1-3). Doesn’t that sound great? But to live that way in 2013, we need to pause, take a close look at our lives and see how circumstances have damaged or distorted our image of God.

Let me illustrate with a bit of art history.

Rembrandt's 'THe Night Watch'

The image above is Rembrandt’s most famous work. It’s popularly called “The Night Watch” because its actual title is long and descriptive. Painted in 1642, The Night Watch is a scene of a militia gathered in the center of town surrounded by supporters. What few people know about The Night Watch is that it was covered with varnish sometime after Rembrandt’s death – as was the custom. Cleaned in 1940, the varnish came away and restorers discovered The Night Watch was actually a day scene! When they saw the lightened image (below) they realized that the popular title for the painting was all wrong.

The Nigh Watch (unvarnished)

Another little known fact – when The Night Watch was removed from its original location in the 1700s, the painting had to be trimmed to fit its new location. This process cut off two characters on the left side of the painting (seen below).

Night Watch trimmed

Now we know that for hundreds of years when people viewed The Night Watch, they did not see what the artist created. I believe that the same thing happens to our image of God. Our painful experiences are like dark varnish that shade and distort the way God meant for us to see him. 

How many of you have witnessed or experienced something so terrible that your concept of God no longer fits into your experience of the world? Maybe the recent school shooting in Connecticut or another world disaster or something closer to home has you wondering how God can really be good.

When something bad happens, how many of us trim God down so he can fit in our new understanding of reality? Unfortunately, when we do this, we cut off part of the story that God originally revealed to us. 

Rather than acknowledging and holding the tension between who God is and who the world portrays God to be, we allow life circumstances to distort the truth of God’s character.

Let me offer my life as an example. In the past six years I’ve experienced significant pain in circumstances both professional and personal. The past three years have been particularly difficult. What caused this pain is best kept in the confidence of my counselor and my mentors, so I’ll ask you to suspend your curiosity. Let me simply say that pain has varnished my life from sunshine to mud. Pain has distorted my image of God.The best way to illustrate this is to share a story from my days as a hospital chaplain. It’s a very difficult story to hear, but please bear with me.

One day I was working as the chaplain on call and was paged to the emergency department. There I met a young, single mother. Our staff was frantically trying to revive her four-year-old son.  During an hour of terrified waiting she told me what happened.

She and her son had been swimming in the family pool, he securely clipped in to a life jacket, she floating on a raft nearby. The grandfather came outside and the little boy said he wanted to go inside. They unhooked his life jacket and when he turned to go inside with grandpa, mom pushed off on her raft to continue relaxing. Several minutes later she decided to go check on her son and see if he had everything he needed. Only, she could not find him inside and grandpa hadn’t seen him. She raced outside and looked in the pool but didn’t see anything. (Later she told me the pool pump was broken and the water was very murky.) Thinking her son might have gone to the playground beyond their back gate, she raced there and ran around calling his name. She searched nearby and then ran back to their yard.  When she looked into the pool again, she saw a foot in the murky water of the deep end. She dove in, pulled out her son, yelled for the grandfather to call 9-1-1 and began CPR. None of the efforts of that mother or our staff saved that beautiful little boy. I lay on the floor with this devastated young mother as she wept that her child must never have gone inside, must have slipped back in the pool with her and drowned without her seeing or hearing him.

I worked many drownings when I was a chaplain. Unfortunately, few of them had happy endings. It sounds strange, but when tragedies like these are a part of your daily work, you learn methods to cope and move on to the next case. However, this drowning knocked me down. I could hardly function the next day, couldn’t bring myself to see patients, couldn’t stop the tears. I asked myself why this drowning was affecting me so personally and profoundly.

Through prayer and reflection I realized that I identified with that boy in the pool. The pool scene was my image of God. My circumstances made me feel like I was a child without a life-jacket, drowning in the murky waters of my life. Oh, I knew that God was with me like that mother was with her son in the pool, and I believed that God loved me as much as that weeping mother loved her child, but I felt like God had taken his eyes off of me and I was slipping under the water, unnoticed. Inside, my soul was crying out, “Don’t let me drown!”

Six years of painful experiences and events changed the way I saw and related to God. My image of God morphed from a loving parent to a neglectful parent who overlooked me. I had known what it was to bask in the love of my heavenly Father, but I could no longer feel the warmth of his gaze on my face.

Pain is not the end of my story. I’m walking a healing path. If you want a fuller picture of the healing in my relationship with God, listen to the sermon.  Here, I’ll simply list for you significant healing points. This is not my advice to you. It is not a step-by-step process or a self-help strategy. None of this was very intentional but was the result of a desperate desire to have my image of God and my relationship with God restored.

Lament – I embraced the biblical practice of lament and cried out to God. I took the Psalms and made their words my own when I had no words.

Prayer – I realized that my inner thoughts and prayers were sliding into a kind of un-holy and depressing complaint. I got sick of wallowing. I needed something constructive so I changed my prayer life. Prayer became an intentional time of silence where I simply acknowledged that I was in God’s presence. The only thing I ask of God is to be given consolation as I wait for things beyond my control to change.

Self-Exhortation – Sounds strange, but I reached a place where I had to confront myself. I had to ask myself the questions, “Corrie, is God negligent? Is that the truth of God’s character?” and then struggled toward the answer. It was a process of shoveling through the manure pile that was my pain and scraping through questions until I got to the bedrock of truth. I understood that I was the one who allowed my life circumstances to varnish and distort God’s image. Here is the most important question I unearthed: who is the artist of God’s image – me or God?  Put simply – who holds the paintbrush?

Sorting through Shadows and Light – Rembrandt was famous for a technique called chiaroscuro, using bold contrasts between darkness and light in a painting’s composition. Regrounding myself in the belief that God is the artist of his image and the Bible is his canvas, I’ve schooled myself to check the things the world says are true about God against what God has revealed as true. Having faith means that even when circumstances and feelings paint a bleak or dark picture in my understanding of God, I seek out the light. I find the light in the narratives of scripture.

I felt that God was a negligent parent who overlooked me in my pain, but as early as Genesis 16, the story of a downcast woman named Hagar reminds me that God is “the God who sees me.” So I focus on the light in this story, the truth of God’s character. The God I worship is one who sees the downcast, the abused, the runaways.  He is the God who finds them and who blesses them abundantly.

Waiting – I can’t tie this post up in a nice little bow for you. I have not reached ‘the other side’ of these tribulations, if there even is one. I realize that I am in control of very little that can change my circumstances, but I can shape my response to these things. I’m learning all kinds of difficult lessons about waiting, endurance and trust. I’m sure there are many blog posts to come about these.

I want to encourage you to think about ways in which painful life circumstances have varnished your image of God. Have you struggled for so long that you can no longer hold the tension between your life and your understanding of God?  Have you trimmed God down so he can fit into your understanding of the world?

If we believe scripture is the truth, then we need to see it as the canvas on which God painted his image for our viewing pleasure. If we want to be shaped by the Word and not the world, then we need to surrender the paintbrush. We need to give it back to the Master Artist. We need to gaze long and deep into God’s canvas, the Bible. We need to submit our feelings and our experiences to his story, to his revelation. Oh, what an image he creates!

If that message does not connect to your soul, then maybe it is time for you seek healing in your relationship with God. Maybe you need to look deep into your own story for the place where things went wrong and see how your image of God got stained and distorted.  Maybe it’s time to surrender the paintbrush and let the Master Artist restore his greatest work, the image of his love for you.

Return of the Prodigal Son, (detail) by Rembrandt Van Rijn

(The Return of the Prodigal Son (detail) by Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1669)

How John Travolta Healed My Image of God

Travolta in Saturday Night Fever

“Why couldn’t God have given me a life like John Travolta or Dolly Parton or Clint Eastwood?”

“You don’t know me well, but if you did, you’d know I’m one of the world’s nicest guys. Real polite. I try real hard to make other people’s days better. I hold doors open for people; no one does that anymore. I don’t say a mean word to anybody, even when they deserve it. I’m a good person. So why didn’t God give me a life like Travolta or them others? Don’t I deserve better than this?”

He looked at me expectantly, this crusty middle-aged man who, the first time I introduced myself as a chaplain, responded with, “A chaplain is the last person in hell I need to talk to!” Our first encounter was right before he lost his lower leg. Instead of helping him prepare emotionally for his amputation, he allowed me only to dial the phone for him before he kicked me out.

He was a handful for our staff that first stay — gruff, demanding, foul-mouthed, a modern-day Ebenezer Scrooge — except this Ebenezer, who I’ll call Benny, was constantly counting other people’s money piles.

Several months after his amputation he was back, this time with breathing issues. I reintroduced myself and this time his greeting was a snort followed by, “A chaplain? Well, God hasn’t done anything for me lately!”

I wondered how soon he would kick me out this time, but I was in for a surprise. Despite Benny’s barnacled attitude and thinly veiled religious digs, he really needed someone to listen. For the next hour he spewed a litany of woes. He lived a good life, respectful of others, tried to be a good person. He was an artist with an undiscovered opus of Pulitzer-worthy poetry. He tried hard to get published and when that failed, Benny spent his entire savings to self-publish one of his works. No one ever read it, save Benny’s friends, and they didn’t pay for their copies.

Not many friends left. Family somewhat disinterested. No wife (though he talked about a potential Mrs. with a wistfulness I’d only seen in pining young women). Then he comes down with this disease and that condition and loses his leg and that’s a real pisser. Can’t drive anymore. Dialysis sucks. Rehab was going well and he was getting the hang of his new prosthesis until he got hit with this latest spate of illness. Now he’ll have to start all over with the rehab.

Funny thing about Benny — he was realistic and undramatic about his prognosis. Doc told him he has 5 years tops, and that’s only as long as he can steer clear of infections and viruses. Not much of a chance of that in the rehab centers and assisted living facilities that have become his homes. Though he was matter-of-fact and calm about his future, he raged about his past.

Benny’s life was a soggy and disintegrated mess of should-haves, wished-I’ds, and if-onlys. And to give him his due, there really wasn’t a lot he could have done to change his circumstances. It seemed he never caught the smallest break. I was sympathetic. But then he got back to his schtick about how God owed him a life like Travolta and Dolly and the man who played Misty for me.

I tried to push back a little and pointed out that those celebrities’ lives can’t be as shiny as they seem.  He guffawed. I pointed to Travolta’s son’s death two years ago and to Dolly’s obsession with plastic surgery. Is their wealth and fame really a good indicator that their lives are so great — that they are satisfied? They may have everything they wanted, but do they have everything they need?

When I asked Benny about his faith story he stitched together a vague sentence about the Lord. He believed in God but didn’t really care about worship, or the church, nor did he really live much of his life as an offering to God. When I asked him about what I saw as unreasonable expectations of God, this was Benny’s bottom line:

“Well, he’s God, isn’t he? He owes me something better than this!”

I thought about my visit with Benny for several days. It took me awhile to untangle why our conversation left me spellbound and speechless — which I rarely am. As I burrowed down into my silence, I discovered four reactions.

1. Benny’s arrogance made me queasy. It gave me the shakes. If ever I expected lightning to strike and the ground to swallow someone up, it was then and there. To sit in a bed and rail against the Creator of the universe for not giving you health and wealth and fame, when all you did for the Lord was be nice to other people and occasionally hold open doors!?

2. I was in awe of Benny’s lament. His litany of woes and his calling God to account echoed much of what I read in scripture.  (Check out Psalm 88!) Benny’s words made me uncomfortable, but they were honest. I rarely meet Christians who are willing to be this honest about their lives or their faith, or have the chutzpah to address God the way our biblical ancestors did. Good for Benny. He can teach us (me) a thing or two.

3. In Benny I was startled to see myself. In a previous post “Seduced by Onions” I talked about tumbling off my spiritual pedestal. In too-rare moments of clarity, I realize that I’m just another Israelite whose faith in God frays when the way to the promised land is long, dusty, and desolate. Benny loudly spat out words that I’d been hiding in my soul for years. Somewhere deep inside of me there’s a miser who is constantly taking stock of other people’s blessings, comparing them to mine and realizing that I’ve come up short. I’ve descended to that dank place where all I can crave, reach for, and smell is what God owes me. Seeing myself in Benny made me feel…

4. Shame. Shame is the moment I realize how much I’ve been focused on myself. That I’m holding on with a death-grip to what I feel I’m owed and promised, rather than being focused on God’s goodness.

When I come back to God’s opus, the Bible, I remember that God never promises a trouble-free life, a painless existence, a quick and easy way to the milk and honey. Jesus is not a TV evangelist that flashes a mega-watt smile at you through your flat screen and tells you that if you just pray hard enough, if you believe enough, live right enough, or send in a generous donation, that you’ll be healed, or rich, or happy.

In contrast, if we sit at Jesus’ feet for even a few minutes we would hear him prepare his disciples for a tsunami of woe. Jesus tells his followers to prepare for being hated — by pretty much everyone. To get ready for persecution. For feeling like they don’t belong in this world. For being thrown out of places of worship. For being disconnected from their friends and family. For being killed for their beliefs. For grief. For feeling alone and abandoned by their Savior. (see John 15:18-16:33)

Is this God — who doesn’t make our lives easy, doesn’t protect or heal us from every disease, doesn’t give us wealth and fame like Travolta or Dolly or Eastwood — really a good God?

Yes. I can say that God is good (even when he doesn’t give me what I want or think I deserve) because I believe that God is who he shows himself to be in the Bible.

God’s character is not nullified or lessened when the circumstances of my life go to pot. 

God never abandoned his people even when they doubted him, complained about the food, worshiped idols, disobeyed his commands, and otherwise acted like petulant children for forty years in the desert. Not only did God not abandon them, he renewed his covenant with them, led them through the darkness, provided food and clean water, overcame every enemy, and always, ALWAYS loved them. Presence, provision and love — that is the character of God, which doesn’t change like shifting shadows (James 1:17).

If every good gift comes from God, then why are Benny and I so quick to blame God for the bad things that happened?

Why can’t we, in the sucky moments in life, trust that God has not changed? That he is with us, giving good gifts, and loving us — even when we don’t feel the love for, or from, him?

We pave a road called Pain when we create or entirely reshape our image of God based on our circumstances. If life is rosy and rich and full of laughter, God is good, a righteous savior, the very embodiment of love. But if life is uncertain, riddled with loss, or fraught with bad luck, then God is a dead-beat dad, a slimy politician, an adulterer.

We walk down the road to Peace when we start with, and hold onto the image of God, that God himself paints in the pages of scripture.

Benny and I need to make a U-ie. We need to somehow disconnect our spiritual GPS from the cultural and circumstantial maps that make us think that we’ll find God on Indulgence Street. God never promised to give us everything we want. In fact, Jesus painted a very clear picture of the difficult road believers would travel. But God did promise his people across the ages that he would never leave nor forsake them (Deuteronomy 31:6). He proved his character through thousands of years of history – stories we can read in the Bible. God crowned his character with love when he sent his son Jesus to die for all sins, for every sinner. Even the crusty Bennies and the doubting pastors. And if that weren’t enough, God gives us the gift of his Spirit, the Advocate and Comforter who is with us until Jesus returns.

Presence. Provision. Love. Those are good gifts. That is the Good God who knows our every circumstance, knows the number of hairs on our heads, and laid every grain of sand in the sea. If this God knit me together in my mother’s womb, knows me by name, doesn’t change, is with me, providing for me, and will always love me, then that reality is better than any life that I can ask for or imagine. Even better than Eastwood’s.