Word of knowledge, word of healing…

I share the following story for two reasons.
One, I feel I must share God’s word that Hannah will survive in an open way to testify to a healing, compassionate God who works miracles. This is an act of trust, especially that those who read this and desire to believe in God do not get their hopes up only to have that fragile hope crushed by a different outcome. I’m very sensitive to this concern, and only very rarely take this step as a result.
And two, this open sharing is in the tradition of Scriptural authors who had an experience with God, and responded by openly and publicly calling on God to complete the work he promised. They told God his good name was on the line, and this is my way of acting in that tradition.

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It had been an up-and-down day at work today. We weren’t particularly busy, and I was hoping for a little more to hit a financial goal that I’ve set. I was scheduled to work until 4, and two tables came in just before my shift ended. The first came at 3:35, and the second came at 3:45. Both tables had people that I would consider “characters;” louder, engaging people.

The second table had been eating for a bit when I greeted the second table. It was an African-American couple. I mentioned my name and that I would be “taking care of them.” The man (with a striking resemblance to Al Sharpton) laughed and said “Where I come from, ‘taking care of us’ means you’ll be paying for our bill!” We both laughed again and bantered a bit about Cracker Barrel’s food. He got our “country green beans” as a side and asked if that meant he needed to go out in the country to get them. I said yes, that it was our way of getting people to burn calories before they consumed some, and we both laughed again. I share these details to highlight that we talked a bit, but not about anything significant…nothing to do with our lives.

After I delivered their food, the two tables began to talk to one another. I retreated to the kitchen to get end-of-the-shift things done, and only stopped by twice to drop some things off at the table.

In one visit, the African-American man was talking to the other table and said, “Sure as rain, you’ll be going to Ireland soon!” The way he shared it was somewhat cryptic, like he was “prophesying” that the man would go.
The man at the other table said, “I won’t be traveling there any time soon! I don’t fly on planes, sorry.”
He responded, “Well, it’s going to happen.”

As I walked away from hearing that exchange, I inwardly groaned a bit and thought, “This guy sounds like one of those kinds of charismatics who tells people what “God” is telling them and it’s just used like a weapon to put people under their authority as a “spiritual” person or something.” What he was sharing just seemed…off. I typecast him as a religious quack. But I shrugged it off and focused on finishing up my work.

I returned to the table to drop off the check, and the man shook my hand…and proceeded to rock my world.
He looked at me intently.
“You’re worried about a baby,” he said.
“Yes,” I replied, instantly floored.
“You’re at work but it irks you to be here because of the baby. It eats you up inside to be away, doesn’t it?”
“Yes.”
“I see a blond-haired woman, your wife? I just want you to know that God is saying that your baby is going to be just fine.”
Me: stunned silence.
“You’re in school, aren’t you? You’ll be finishing school soon. And you’ll be moving into a new residence too. Things are about to come together for you.” (I’m in school at Xavier, and Bethany and I have been very serious about buying a house very soon, so these details were further confirmations of something special here).

Reeling, I simply said, “Thank you,” and walked back to the break room. I immediately called Bethany’s cellphone. She didn’t answer. I then called her hospital room phone. She didn’t answer. I called her cellphone again, desperate to process with her what I had just heard. She didn’t answer.

I hung up the phone and felt an impression to try to track down the couple before they left and express my thanks for his courage to say what he said. I caught up to them on the front porch.

I expressed my thanks to the man, and asked
“Do you have the gift of discernment?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“I love seeing people operating in their gifts,” I said. “I just want you to know that what you shared was exactly relevant to what we’re going through.”
He proceeded to rock my world further in response.
“Your wife, she had trouble with bleeding? Your baby, I’m seeing tubes. I don’t think those tubes will be on her long, if at all.”
I asked him his name, he gave me his business card from his church, and finished with a bang, saying, “Tell your wife she doesn’t need to cry. Everything will be fine. And tell her to put her feet up.”

I think I mumbled some form of “Thanks” and walked away, immediately back to the break room, and called Bethany.
“You have no idea what just happened to me,” I said, and proceeded to tell the story of my last twenty minutes. I heard her begin to cry on the other end of the line as I told the story, and she said, “I didn’t answer the phone before because I was in my bathroom crying. I just felt like I didn’t have the energy to keep going, and I went in the bathroom so the nurses wouldn’t see.” So as this man told me to tell Bethany not to cry, she was crying across town.

Astonishing! My brain exploded on site, and continues to be overwhelmed by the power of this experience. The chances of even one of the details of our story being identified by this man would be very, very slim. The sheer accuracy of the scope of all he shared with us means that outside of divine intervention, the chances of the things he said being accurate were 0%. I’ve only experienced this two other times in my life; one of those coincidentally also being at a Cracker Barrel in Staunton, Va.

God sees us, God hears us, and God is faithful to respond in powerful ways when we seek Him.

For the sake of my integrity and God’s, I have not made up one single word of this story, either to embellish it or to make it say something that did not happen.

*I will be adding to this story over the course of the day today, Thursday, September 8th as I recall details, but will cease after today*

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Let go? No, Fight!

It seems as if our society
when aware of Death
does not deal with it directly
seeking to place it
forgetfully
in the corner of the attic.

But Death will not be forgotten
so easily.
Death rears its head
in the most, seemingly,
inopportune times.

And we,
because we are death-deniers
because we are well-trained at looking the other way
because we are cowards
are not prepared for death
to become our companion,
are not prepared for death to leave the third person behind
as in “The concept of death scares me,”
and become first person, like
“I hate you death, and your works.”

Because of our denial of Death
we have no way to fight it.
We are not prepared for a battle.
Therefore,
We simply believe we must
grudgingly
accept Death as our abusive companion.
Unwelcome,
but inevitable.
The final word.

Our theologies,
whether thought about in normal times,
or primarily in times of crisis (for most)
lead us to this conclusion too.
After all, how can one fight Death?
So we baptize Death and call it God.

“It is God’s will,” we say
“If it be your will,” we pray
“Let go and let God,” we counsel,
wishing for healing
like an older child on Christmas Eve,
wishing for a glimpse of Santa,
knowing better than to maintain that foolish hope.

“It is unrealistic,” we say
so it
seems to comfort us to chalk up the supposed inevitable conclusion
as the foregone will of God,
any testament to a different approach
be damned.

Yet I read of Jacob,
who would not let go until God blessed him.
I read of Hezekiah,
who refused to accept the word of Death as final,
turning over in the most basic, most seemingly weak form of protest,
saying, “Remember me? I love you.”
Those names are far from isolated in the annals of the Scriptures.
I read, in a different encounter with death,
of an early church,
persecuted
suffering
refusing to let other’s hatred determine their course of action
and in the face of great suffering
losing brothers and sisters right and left
continuing to choose love and truth,
to fight for a different way
with no weapon other than their example of sacrifice and selfless service.
These people shout at me loudest now,
when Hannah’s life hangs in the balance.

Who will you listen to, Nathan?

“Let go and let God”?
No,
for now,
until the final word is given,
we fight,
the dirty kind,
tooth and nail,
scratching,
clawing,
weeping,
begging.
There is no pride too essential to lose,
no good name more important
than fighting for the value of a life.

I will kill you,
old cowardly theology,
old cynical perspective on life.
Death, you may win battles from time to time,
but you will not win this war,
because I vow not to quit.

Let go?
No,
Fight!

Nurturing compassion as an intimate part of prayer

This post emerges from the precarious situation we are in.  Bethany is almost 19 weeks pregnant.  Her water broke nearly a week ago, and day by day we have prayed, cried, held one another, and prayed even more; we have pled with God for the life of our daughter Hannah.

As I’ve read about (all focused on one chapter in one book, Celebration of Discipline) and practiced prayer this week in a deeper and more intense way than I ever have in my life, I have been absolutely struck by the below quote from Richard Foster.  It has stuck with me through thick and thin; prayer for Bethany and Hannah when beside them and prayer for them when apart; prayer in the more steady moments, and prayer in the crushing crisis moments.

“We do not pray for people as “things,” but as “persons” whom we love.  If we have God-given compassion and concern for others, our faith will grow and strengthen as we pray.  In fact, if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”

More than anything else (especially when I’ve had long stretches of sitting beside Bethany and Hannah), I’ve quieted my heart and nurtured the compassion that comes from seeing them as “persons whom I love.”  Without saying anything for awhile, I focus on that compassion, allowing it to grow and grow until my heart feels like it’s going to explode with love for them.  And from that place, I begin to pray in a more specific, “God, have mercy on us!” kind of way.

I have stayed and drilled down deep with the words of Richard Foster because he exemplifies the very best of theology; the kind of thinking that is in intimate relationship with practice.  He does not write about prayer from an ivory tower, or an academic institution somewhere where it’s his job to write and think about prayer (as important as that can be).  He is a deep practitioner of prayer.  He chooses to engage in the bold kind of prayer we are called to in the Scriptures, and he wrestles with prayer from that place.  He is committed to ” learn to pray so that my experience conform(s) to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.”

What is Foster’s method to pray? “We should never make prayer too complicated,” he says. “We are prone to do so once we understand that prayer is something we must learn…but Jesus taught us to come like children to a father.  Openness, honesty, and trust mark the communication of children with their father.  The reason God answers prayer is because his children ask.”

I have been working with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength to pray in this way.  Nurturing compassion in silence until my heart bursts with care for my wife and daughter, then moving to pray with strong desire and conviction that God deserves to hear from my very heart with boldness, not pious words of “if it be your will” that we use as protection to keep us from the dangerous edge of prayer.

I have come to believe in a deeper way this week what I’ve been moving toward for a while now.  God not only welcomes the direct communication that comes from us; he has created the world in such a way that certain things in creation will not be done if we don’t participate in the work of prayer.  That certain things are not done is not because God is not sovereign; somehow unable to correct a creation in chaos and rebellion.  No, certain things are not done because God limits his own absolute authority out of a desire for his creation to step up to the plate and be counted in the work of prayer.  We are called “co-laborers with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9) because we have an essential role to play.

This is not magic; there are no incantations that make God subject to our desires.  No.  But our Creator so expects our participation that he waits, he tarries, for us to care enough about the world that we work to make prayer as habitual as breathing.  As Foster said above, “if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.”  Prayer is born out of a love for God and for people, and is made powerful by the growth of that love.

I have said to others in this crisis, “God is not on trial  in this situation.”  This is true in one sense.  The existence of a God out there somewhere does not hinge on whether our baby girl Hannah survives.  I have met that God in Jesus and will never turn back again.  I have never encountered any way of life so beautiful, so worthy of all of my life, so purposeful.  But that statement “God is not on trial” is not true in another sense.  God has revealed himself to be good, to hear us and to see us, to identify with us in our anguish and move in response to our cries.  If this is how God has been revealed, then I expect that God will hear us in this crisis, will see us in this crisis, will identify with us in this crisis; and will act, will not hang back waiting when his creation rises up and screams “MERCY God!  MERCY!  HEAL and ACT!”

If our daughter dies, this will not destroy my faith, but it will inflict a wound on my heart, it will tempt me to take a step toward the belief that all things are inevitable and prayer is only psychological adjustment to accept the inevitability of life and/of God’s will.  There are a million steps back to that place, but I can only be honest and know God hears how much this matters to me.

And I know God’s response would be, “Nathan, learn from what you are feeling in this crisis.  Take your commitment to bold, humble prayer, and practice it until it becomes as natural as breathing.  Take what you have learned about the essential role of a powerful love for people empowering prayer and love people deeper; battle against a belief system that crushes or dehumanizes people; never let it rule you.”

So I will practice this bold, humble prayer.  Life has brought wounds on my heart and will continue to.  God will not be my magic puppet as I would like him to, and this will hurt.  And yet God has made his human creation to co-labor with him in prayer; limiting his own authority as he awaits their faithful response.

And so we pray, “Lord, save Hannah!  Hear our cry, and move in power!”

Life and death, joy and sorrow

Human beings usually see life and death in a rather short perspective.  What meaning can the birth of spring and the death of autumn have for this grass?  People think that life is joy and death is sadness, but the rice seed, lying within the earth and sending out shoots in spring, its leaves and stems withering in the fall, still holds within its tiny core the full joy of life.  The joy of life does not depart in death.  Death is no more than a momentary passing.

Wouldn’t you say that this rice, because it possesses the full joyousness of life, does not know the sorrow of death?

The same thing that happens to rice and barley goes on continuously within the human body.  Day by day hair and nails grow, tens of thousands of cells die, ten of thousands more are born; the blood in the body a month ago is not the same blood today.  When you think that your own characteristics will be propagated in the bodies of your children and grandchildren, you could say that you are dying and being reborn each day, and yet will live on for many generations after death.

If participation in this cycle can be experienced and savored each day, nothing more is necessary.  But most people are not able to enjoy life as it passes and changes from day to day.  They cling to life as they have already experienced it, and this habitual attachment brings fear of death.  Paying attention only to the past, which has already gone, or to the future, which has yet to come, they forget that they are living on the earth here and now. Struggling in confusion, they watch their lives pass as in a dream.

– Masanobu Fukuoka “The One-Straw Revolution” pgs 161-62

Irony

The folks I have considered my closest brothers and sisters in Christ in recent years, the Church of the Brethren, are in crisis.  Membership rolls are dropping, budgets are being slashed, and everyone has an opinion about why it’s happening.  I’m not writing here to add another opinion, though I have mine.  And besides, I really don’t have a dog in this fight, as denominations (in my book) are very secondary to the larger call of Christian brotherhood.

But I found this email interesting that I received from said Church of the Brethren.  You let me know if you find mixed messages in this email.  I’ll give you a photo montage of the place of meeting to help stimulate your imagination to see the mixed message.

The Church of the Brethren invites stewardship leaders to consider attending the “Steward Leaders in Changing Times” conference this November.

In the midst of challenge and change, congregational steward leaders are asked to provide answers and solutions. Plan now to attend:

“Steward Leaders in Changing Times”
Hilton Marco Island Resort, Florida
November 30 – December 3, 2009
The Ecumenical Stewardship Center, of which the Church
of the Brethren is a member, is sponsoring this event.

Hilton

Commencing Lent with Ash Wednesday 2009

“We live in the city of death.  All the cities and societies of the world are places of death.  We look to and serve first one and then some other power of ideology and institution- on and on, over and over again- in order to find the City of Salvation, but each one turns out to be itself consigned to death, a witness to death’s power and reign.  It is through these idols which are themselves acolytes of death that death tempts us with the hope of our own salvation.  Death tempts us by promising to save us from death; that is how cruel and vain and filled with guile death is.

All images of the good society– all panaceas and utopias; all idealism and ideologies; all provisional hopes, compromises, appeasements, corruptions, and failures in the life of humans in society in this world- are in the repertoire of death’s temptations.  Plato’s republic, Constantine’s empire, Rousseau’s social contract, Jeffersonian democracy, Marx’s classless society, free enterprise, and world government are specific forms by which humans are solicited, enticed, or coerced into the service of death..all such principalities in turn pay homage to death and are subject to it even as they promise  us salvation.

God builds the City of Salvation.  It is not some never-never land, some alabaster city beyond the realm of time, but a City, whatever be the final shape and reality of its fulfillment at the end of time, which has form and actuality here and now in the midst of this history.”

–  William Stringfellow

May disciples of Jesus remember as Lent begins that we are expected to be a people apart in the world, a people of repentance and humility and suffering love, an example to the world of what the world is made for.  We do not exist to point to some ethereal heaven, but to exist as a testament that heaven is coming to earth, and we will live this way even if we are hated and considered ridiculous.

Lent, then, is a season of repentance and of stripping away; a season where we intentionally take time out to examine ourselves, to remove some of the pleasures of our life in order to know what really matters.  It is a season where we choose the darkness of forsaking pleasures so we might be able to see what idols we depend on for our security, what powers of death we lean on and believe are our savlation.  We must not settle for less.