Monday, February 23, 2009

Praise to the Lord, the Almighty

This is one of my favorite hymns. It was written by Joachim Neander, called the greatest of all German-Calvinist Reformed hymn writers. (Now there's a mouth full!) He wrote some sixty hymns and composed many tunes. Nearly all of his hymns are triumphant expressions of praise. Neander was a noted scholar in theology, literature and music, as well as a pastor of the Reformed Church in Dusseldorf, Germany. This particular hymn takes on new significance when you realize that he wrote it the year he died (at age 30 in 1680) while battling tuberculosis.
1. Praise to the Lord,
The Almighty, the King of creation!
O my soul, praise Him,
For He is thy health and salvation!
All ye who hear,
Now to His temple draw near;
Praise Him in glad adoration.

2. Praise to the Lord,
Who over all things so wondrously reigneth,
Shelters thee under His wings,
Yea, so gently sustaineth!
Hast thou not seen
How all your longings have been
Granted in what He ordaineth?

3. Praise to the Lord,
Who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;
Surely His goodness
And mercy here daily attend thee.
Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do,
If with His love He befriend thee.

4. Praise to the Lord,
O let all that is in me adore Him!
All that hath life and breath,
Come now with praises before Him.
Let the Amen
Sound from His people again,
Gladly for aye we adore Him.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Remembrance

On Sunday we laid my mother-in-law's body to rest and held a celebration and memorial service for her. The service was beautiful, honoring Barbara and glorifying God. The highlight was my wife, Heather's, remembrance.

Remembrance of Barbara Strom

“Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.” It is an honor for me to stand here today and rise up and call my mother blessed. Over the last few weeks as I have sat by her bedside, I have reflected quite a bit on her life and things I have learned from her.

The story of my walk with Christ begins with her as she nurtured our faith in Christ by her example. From my earliest memories church was what our lives centered around. And I have a love for the body of Christ that was born from watching her serve it with joy. She taught Sunday school, volunteered with the youth and then found her niche keeping the nursery for Sunday school, every Sunday for over 20 years.

The thing that I have reflected on the most these past few weeks was her deep strength and faith. She did not have a particularly easy or comfortable life. As I think back – it was filled with struggles, As a single mom, she had to work very hard and she had some pretty hard trials, losing everything more than once. I knew where her strength came from because I can’t count the times I saw her in tears on her knees. Her faith and hope where in her Lord and she drew deeply from Him, she had joy, a resolve that whatever was happening God was working it for her good. I often wondered why, when she was so faithful to Him God allowed her to bear so much. God brought these verses to mind this last week as she was in hospice and I meditated on them every day: II Corinthians 4: 16-18. Therefore we do not lose heart. Though our outward body is wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” My study bible notes that although his trials were not minor, in comparison to the eternal glory that would one day be his, Paul saw them to be mild and transitory. He viewed troubles as preparation for a great future reward for believers. The realization that , as I was watching my moms body wasting away right in front of me, inwardly she was becoming more and more alive was an incredible comfort and realizing though her life on earth might have been a struggle – that does seem momentary now and no eye can see or even imagine what glories she is experiencing now. She has the joy of her reward. The lessons I learned from her and where her strength lie have served me well in this last year.

My brother and sister and I all feel like we were given a gift in 3 days before she went to hospice. We knew things were not going to turn around – but she wasn’t ready to give up quite yet. So those three days we spent remembering and saying all that we wanted to say. I am so grateful God allowed us to have that. We remembered the close quarters we grew up in. We lived with my grandparents in a 2 bedroom house – they had one room and all four of us shared the other. Paige and Derrick slept in bunck beds and my mom and I shared a double bed. I slept with my arm around her and twirled her hair as I fell asleep. She reminded me in the hospital that I had told her once that if she ever decided to remarry I wasn’t moving – this was my spot. We had a wonderful day with my aunt one day –I heard so many stories of them growing up and my mom was so happy that day. That was really the last day she could communicate. It was a precious time. I asked my mom to tell me what her favorite memory was of her kids.
Paige – she remembered the time the two of you went on a women’s retreat together in Tampa. You remembered that too and said you felt like it was the first time the two of you connected. You did have some rocky times – but God took those and redeemed them. Mom said to me on one of those days – she was so proud of you that you had turned your life back over to Christ. That is what you rest in – His redemptive work in your life “the old is past away, He has made all things new” in you.
Derrick – she said that she remembered how when you were little you would always ask, “momma can I get you anything?” You always wanted to care for her. Even these past few weeks – you took care of everything for her… and us. You thought of everything - you have done that so many times over the years and carried so much of the burden for our family. I pray you will go to Him and take His yoke and learn from Him whose yoke easy and whose burden is light and find rest in Him.
When she got to her favorite memory of me – she said, “Heather, Heather, Heather, Heather – in every yearbook picture of you your mouth was always wide open.” Thanks mom! I asked her if she could think of something a little nicer – and she did. Shopping trips for homecoming dresses, wedding dresses.
Heidi – you know she loved you like her own daughter. She told me – she always got more information from you than from Derrick - and she loved you for that.
Paul – she loved you like her own son and was grateful for all the ways you served her. I teased her in the hospital and said – I think you loved him more than you loved me – every time we got in an argument – you always sided with him – to which she replied, “I call ‘em like I see ‘em”!
Jason – she loved that you called her “rainbow grandma”
Ryan – she loved being called Grams – and you started that. She loved your fun loving ways and is so proud of you. You remember her asking you in the hospital to trust and follow Jesus – she will be up in Heaven cheering you on as you do that – and we will be doing the same from down here.
Luke – she loved your tender heart
Emily – she loved your sweet disposition and thought you were such a little lady
Eli – she loved your sweet heart
Ethan – she loved your love for her and loved how you prayed for her every day
Ellie – she loved your little giggle. You brought her so much joy.

I felt like I was in the middle of something sacred the past week as I watched her have one foot in this world and one in the next. This tremendous ache and loss I feel has just made eternity come into sharper focus for me. We have the hope of heaven, but death is not what we were made for and a vivid reminder this isn’t the way things are suppose to be. Both the ache and the longing lead to the same desire for the day when all will be made right, when He will wipe away every tear from our eye, their will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. He will make all things new.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Shadowlands

My wife, Heather, spent the day with "Grams" and said her goodbyes to her mom. She read the last two chapters of The Last Battle from The Chronicles of Narnia. The book ends with Peter, Edmund and Lucy meeting Aslan as they enter the Shadowlands. They were experiencing things too delightful for words.
"You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be," [said Aslan.]

Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often."

"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you guessed?"

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

"Your father and mother and all of you are--as you used to call it in the Shadowlands--dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
Grams is now in the Shadowlands beginning the Great Story, face-to-face with Christ her Savior. It was amazing to see her take her last breath--not a struggle, but more like something wonderful took her breath away. I wonder what she is seeing and experiencing and can't wait to meet with her again.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Torn Between Two Worlds

At the end of The Lord of the Rings trilogy Frodo is leaving Middle Earth to pass on into the West. He leaves Sam, his best friend and companion, behind. In their exchange Tolkien makes some brilliant observations about passing on from this world to the next.
'I wish I could go all the way with you to Rivendell, Mr. Frodo, and see Mr. Bilbo,' said Sam. 'And yet the only place I really want to be in is here. I am that torn in two.'

'Poor Sam! It will feel like that, I am afraid,' said Frodo. 'But you will be healed. You were meant to be solid and whole, and you will be.'
Sam doesn't realize where Frodo is going until later.
'Where are you going, Master?' cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.

'To the Havens, Sam,' said Frodo.

'And I can't come.'

'No Sam. Not yet anyway, not further that the Havens...Your time may come. Do not be too sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years [in the Shire]. You have so much to enjoy and to be, and to do.'
I'm feeling much like Sam as I see my mother-in-law passing away. There's a tearing that is taking place. Anyone who has lost a loved one understands. The apostle Paul wrote of the conflict when he said "I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account"(Philippians 1:23-24). He still had work on earth to do.

How does The Lord of the Rings end? Sam returns to the Shire to his wife and daughter.
Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. 'Well, I'm back,' he said.
As the apostle wrote for those of us who are left "in the Shire" here on earth, there is living and labor to do, and when our work for Christ and his kingdom on earth is through it will be our time to die and rejoice in Christ's presence which, of course, is great gain.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

On Death and Dying

My mother-in-law is dying. She is a wonderful woman of prayer and nurture. She has taken each of her children (including in-laws) and grandchildren under her wing and encouraged them to follow God's will for their lives. She has lived well. Now she is dying well--under the excellent care of hospice and with the love of her family.

Seeing a loved one die makes the veil between this world and the next become very thin. It makes you face your final enemy. You realize "noone makes it out of here alive."

It has been interesting to read how people deal with death. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is widely recognized as one of the foremost authorities in the field of death, dying and transition for over 20 years. She reflects our culture at large's approach to death and dying. Here are some excerpts. (You can read the entire interview here .)
When I started this work, I wouldn't know what [dealing with death as an atheist or agnostic] was. I was raised Protestant. In my heart I was Catholic, and I was made into a Jew. For 22 years I was a little bit of everything. Then I worked with dying patients, and I began to realize that we're all the same. We're all the same human beings. We all are born the same way.We all die the same way, basically. The experience of death and after death is all the same.

It only depends how you have lived. If you have lived fully, then you have no regrets, because you have done the best you can do. If you made lots of goofs-- much better to have made lots of goofs than not to have lived at all. The saddest people I see die are people who had parents who said "Oh, I would be so proud if I can say 'my son the doctor.'" They think they can buy love by doing what mom tells them to do and what dad tells them to do. They never listen to their own dreams. And they look back and say, "I made a good living but I never lived." That, to me, is the saddest way to live.

That's why I tell people, and I really mean it literally, if you're not doing something that really turns you on, do something that does turn you on, and you will be provided for to survive. Those people die with a sense of achievement, of priding themselves that they had the guts to do it.
This seems to me a scary and short-sighted way to approach death. For one it's a rather demanding way to live--having to measure up to your own dreams. At the end are we really supposed to sing along with Frank Sinatra "I did it my way"? On top of that, am I the sole determiner of how great my life can be. Isn't there something beyond me to which I can aspire?

What happens if in the end you are not the reference point around which you are to live your life? What if there is something greater than yourself that you can throw your self into? What if there is something actually worth dying for?

The Bible clearly points to something beyond ourselves that both judges us and justifies us. Jesus' life and death both brings the justice and mercy of God in focus. We do in deed live examined lives and this gives us significance. God is watching over us. This should bring both severe sobriety and great comfort.

My mother-in-law may not have stated her approach to death in these terms, but she is certainly living (and dying) them out. I find the way she lived and is dying much more compelling and comforting than anything else that's out there.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dodge Ball in the Street

I came home today to find my seven-year-old son, Eli, and my eight-year-old daughter, Emily, playing dodge ball in the street with some neighborhood kids in front of my house. After I was sure they saw me and were safely out of my way, it thrilled my soul. Do kids still play in the street? Mine do. Emily and Eli watch their share of television and DVDs. They play X-box--a lot! They are all too often on the computer nurturing their Webkins like every other kid in America. But when given a choice, they would almost always rather play outside–and I love it.

I love it that they want to play with real kids in the real world more than they want to play with virtual pets in the virtual world. To me, kids at play in the neighborhood after homework is done and before dinner is ready seems very human–a little slice of how things ought to be. In that moment of seeing my kids play in the street, the pressures of being a pastor, the current political scandals of South Florida and Idaho, the war in Iraq all seemed to fade into the background, and the kingdom of God came into view. My kids were playing with Nick, his cousins from Ecuador who now live in Madagascar and R.J. who, because he is usually inside playing video games, hadn’t yet seen my four-month-old baby daughter, Ellie. I met Abi, Nick’s aunt, who explained that she and her husband want to move from Madagascar to South Florida, because they want a better life for their kids. Suddenly, the 2.2 million people who are expected to move to South Florida in the next two decades have faces and names.

My wife came out to call us in to dinner, and the dodge ball game quickly turned into a mini-block party. These are the magic moments I live for–seeing lives being woven together by Christ. Connections were made. Amazingly, an Ecuadorian from Madagascar who married a French man had things in common with an Anglo couple in Parkland, FL. My wife and I traveled to Quito, Ecuador in 2003. We have the same concerns for our kids–safe community, quality education, promising opportunities. Who knows how these neighborhood relationships will develop? Well, we know who knows. Right now I need to leave my virtual friends and have a cup of coffee and a conversation with my very real wife.

Renewing All Things

I am starting this blog because I would like to share with others what I believe. I believe that God is on a mission to redeem and renew a world lost and broken by sin. He is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Incredibly God has chosen to use his imperfect people (the church) to take part in carrying out his glorious work of renewal. Christians have been rescued by God in Christ to become agents of renewal. This requires word and deed ministry, proclamation of the gospel and demonstration of the gospel. God is renewing human hearts and recreating all things through his broken people (the church). This is our mission to the world. This renewal begins with individuals, families and communities. These are the themes I would like to take up in this blog.

The City of God

“The City of God is a place where the inhabitants love people and walk on gold; the city of man is a place where the inhabitants love gold and walk on people.”

St. Augustine