Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Alarm Clock Anxiety Disorder

Among family and friends, I have jokingly referred to my "alarm clock anxiety disorder" from time to time. This morning I reached a point where it's just not funny anymore. My head hurts, my vision is blurred, and I feel exhausted. Before starting this post, I did an internet search (yes, I Googled it) for "alarm clock anxiety." Low and behold, this seems to be a real issue that affects a lot of people. Unfortunately, it's an umbrella term, covering many different aspects and types of alarm clock anxiety. My experience doesn't really fit into most of what I read about panic disorders and people who wake up and repeatedly check to make sure their alarm is set; so, I doubt the mental health industry is overly concerned for my well-being at this point.

I wake up because I hear my alarm going off. And then, when I am fully awake, realize it's not going off and it's still the middle of the night. I'm not afraid it won't go off or that it isn't set, I just keep thinking I hear it. The key in my situation is that this is clearly tied into stress, specifically work/school related stress. I have noticed that the two go hand-in-hand and are only experienced in combination with one another.

For me, work/school related stress manifests in dreams. I remember when I was working in technology in the K-12 education environment...where I was trying to perform the work of 2, or more, people in a regular work week (after all, "we can't hire people just because we need them"...yes, that's a quote...I actually heard those words.) Most mornings, I woke up feeling like I had already worked an 8 hour shift. I would, quite literally, spend my night dreaming that I was at work, solving problems, responding to help desk tickets, and tackling complex programming issues. On more than one occasion, I woke up in the morning with an answer to a serious problem I had been struggling with at work for several days, or even weeks. As thankful as I was for having found my answer, the stress of sleep was compounding the stress of work...and that's where the alarm clock anxiety disorder comes in. 

I'm not afraid I didn't set my alarm, or that it won't go off, I'm afraid I'm going to sleep through it. It's a phenomenon that has only happened two or three times in the nearly 30 years I've been using an alarm clock to wake up. I know, and I mean I KNOW, that I will wake up when my alarm goes off.  Even if I forget to turn on the ringer on my phone (who doesn't use their phone as their alarm clock these days?) the phone will vibrate and that is enough to wake me up. I WILL hear it (or even feel it if the phone is lying on the bed next to me) and wake up. There's no rational reason for me to think my alarm won't wake me up AND that fear doesn't exist when I'm not stressed out by work/school.

I don't want you to think I'm complaining about school. I mean...I am...but not necessary in that whiny "school sucks" way we're all used to hearing from children. School is hard, especially for a 41 year old internet ravaged brain (see The Shallows); but, it's the kind of hard that is rewarding. I am being challenged socially, theologically, academically, and spiritually AND I'm enjoying that...but it doesn't mean it isn't causing some stress in my life. The light at the end of the tunnel, the end of the semester, is only a little over a week away and it's both a blessing and a curse. I have far too much work to do to get it all done in time, but I know it will get done...somehow...eventually. #stress

I know that in just over two weeks I'll be able to set my alarm and sleep relatively soundly through the night...light at the end of the tunnel. No more dreams about papers, discussion board posts, 40 page chapters on Biblical interpretation, world religions, or the creation and fall of mankind. I might not even set my alarm, not that that will make any difference in how I sleep.

The other aspect of this is that I realize it's not something I have ever taken to the Lord in prayer (aside from the middle of the night plea of "Please, God, let me just sleep through the night!") Much like Paul's thorn in the flesh, this is a stressful and bothersome issue for me and if I'm not taking it to God in prayer, I'm not doing myself any favors. I'll pray about it tonight, and even if I wake up stressed out tomorrow, I will try to "take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Testimony (The Great Wall of Text)

I was privileged to share my testimony in both services at the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church on April 21. The process of preparing to share was both difficult and rewarding. Reflecting on the past two years of my life grates against wounds covered in fresh pink skin while at the same time allowing me to see where God has moved in my life.

If you're not into reading, you can watch and/or listen as I read it for you:

For the academics among you, below is the text of what I was reading. The one thing I wish I could have done is presented my testimony through song, a musical as it were. Music has played a vital role in both my grieving and my spiritual journey. Even as I type this up, iTunes is pumping out the soundtrack of the past two years for me:
  • God is God - Steven Curtis Chapman
  • Come Thou Fount - David Crowder Band
  • How Deep the Father's Love for us - Kendall Payne
  • In Christ Alone - Owl City
  • Leaning on the Everlasting Arms/'Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus - David Crowder Band
  • O Love That Will Not Let Me Go - Christ Rice
  • You Are My Vision - Rend Collective Experiment
  • Before the Throne of God Above - Chris Rice
  • 10,000 Reasons - Rend Collective Experiment
  • Build Your Kingdom Here - Rend Collective Experiment
It's a soundtrack that takes me from the miry pit to the pinnacle of asking God to help remind me to build His Kingdom here on earth. These are songs that bring me comfort, hope, and great joy. The are filled with some good theology, filled with the Christology of the resurrected King of Kings.

If you have time to read, and for some weird reason prefer that to listening to me drone on in the background, have at it:

Good morning! A few of you already know me, know who I am, and know where I come from. A larger number of you know who I am in the “your family has gone to church here for a long time” way of knowing someone. And some of you might not know me at all. If you’re a Spring Arbor University student who was in chapel on April 8, I’m the guy who fell off the horse in Belize.

Those of you who know me the best know that I’m incredibly uncomfortable right now. Not so much because I’m speaking, but because I’m not wearing a t-shirt and jeans or shorts. Of course, I’d be even more comfortable wearing a motorcycle helmet and listening to the sound of pavement passing beneath me. I can feel comfortably at home just about anywhere if I’m riding on my motorcycle.

The good news is I’m not here to preach today. I don’t really feel qualified to preach. I’m not trained to be a preacher, I haven’t studied to be a preacher, and at this point in my life I don’t feel called to be a preacher. I’m just a guy who sat down to lunch with Pastor Mark, 61 days ago, and was asked to share the testimony of how God has been working in my life with you today.

And I pray that I can do that in the vein of Micah 6:8, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Whether you know me or not, my goal today is to humbly allow God to show you what He has been doing in my life over the past couple of years.

For those of you who may not know me, let me introduce myself. I’m Chad Cole. I have three brothers, Ryan, Jared, and Aaron, and two parents, Jim and Kathy. Over the past 17 years I’ve managed to pick up a couple of sisters-in-law, an adopted sister from Estonia, and some wonderful nieces and nephews.

The Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church has been the home church for my family since my parents first moved to Spring Arbor back in 1969. Like a number or you, I first started attending the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church as a small bundle of cells being knit together in my mother’s womb. That was back in 1971. I grew up in the nursery, attended Sunday School, children’s church, and CYC on Wednesday nights. I went to young teens and senior teens. I even remember the old stone church. I remember when the chapel was the sanctuary. I remember the day when we celebrated the opening of this sanctuary; I was seven years old and there were lots of balloons. I have been on mission trips with the youth group to the Ozark Mountains and have been to Rancho Betania, in Mexico, twice. I graduated from Western High School and went to Spring Arbor College. I dropped out of college when education just didn’t agree with me and I went back when it did. By the time I finished the course work for my degree it become Spring Arbor University.

Like a lot of college students, I met my wife at Spring Arbor. Our first official date was October 27, 1995. On January 11, 1996, I asked her to marry me when I took her out to dinner to celebrate her 20th birthday. It wasn’t planned, it just happened.  We were married on August 10, 1996…288 days after that magical first date.

A few years later, I took the like opportunity to open the discussion about family. Her response was not what I expected. When we were engaged and first married, we’d always talked about having children. She had changed her mind. There were some extenuating circumstances with the health of one of her family members, she had come to conclude that having children was not something she could do, and even if she could, she shouldn’t. In addition, she felt too young, there was too much life left to live to worry about having kids when she was only 23.

I would bring the subject up, a couple times a year after that, but the conversations were short, and always ended the same. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t want a family; she just didn’t think it would be possible to have children. As my 20s gave way to my 30s, I asked about it less and less. By the time I had reached my mid-30s, it wasn’t something we discussed anymore. I had come to accept the possibility that we might never have children. I was resolved to a life of being a good husband and a good uncle. For the first time in my life it really kind of felt like life is not fair…

Early in 2009, when I was 37 and Sara was 33, as we crawled into bed on a cold winters night Sara said, “There’s something I need to talk to you about.” My heart started racing. We had been married 12 and one half years at this point and I don’t think Sara had ever said those words to me, ever, about anything. My hesitant “OK” was followed by a long silence…a very long silence. After a while, I asked her if she was going to let me in on the secret or if she wanted me to guess…she thought guessing might be the faster route. I loved this woman with everything in me and I could only think of two things she would tell me we needed to talk about at 11PM on a work night…she either had been lying to me about how she felt about me and wanted to leave me or she wanted to have a baby. I quickly and quietly told her I was going to pick the more positive of the two things I was thinking and I asked her if she wanted to have a baby…she said yes…and my whole future changed. It took everything in me to not jump out of bed, shouting with joy, and run out into the street and let everyone who could hear know about this wonderful change of heart. Instead, I hugged her close, told her that it was wonderful, and we both fell asleep happy.

However, the joy of wanting a baby turned quickly to frustration. Even though there were documented and persuasive reasons to suspect fertility might be an issue, her doctor did not want to test anything until we had tried all the natural methods for a least a year. And so we tried…and month after month after month went by with the same results…negative…negative…negative. The following spring after a year of trying and 3 months of tests and referrals…the doctors prescribed the treatment we had been seeking for over a year. And we tried. Negative. And tried. Negative. And tried. Negative. It was now mid-June 2010…after almost a year and a half, our joy had been replaced with a sense of resignation…it wasn’t going to work. Life is not fair...

On Saturday night, June 19, Sara took one last test, just to affirm the last negative test. On Monday morning she was going to call the doctor and let him know we were done. We wouldn’t be pursuing IVF due to personal convictions. Our desire to be parents was not going to be fulfilled. For the first time in over a year, I didn’t sit and wait with Sara for the test to display its results. I waited in the family room, head down, emotions clouded, discouraged, dismayed, and disappointed. Life is not fair...

Sara’s shouts startled me out of my sad stupor. She was screaming that I needed to come to the bathroom. I wondered if she’d somehow fallen and hurt herself. As I rounded the corner to the bathroom, my concern dissolved as I saw the joy on her face as she jumped up and down waving that little white stick in the air like a pennant. I grabbed it from her hand and looked…two pink lines. We were going to be parents…

Despite the immense joy and pride we felt, we managed to keep the pregnancy secret until late August. We had wanted to make it to Grandparents Day in September to make the announcement, but Sara had finally grown tired of sucking it in all day at work. The announcement was greeted with bewildered joy. I was 38 and Sara was 34, we’d been married for 14 years. I think most people had just started to assume children were not on the docket for us. Our due date was late February 2011. Registries were created. Quilts were sewn. We had a baby shower at Thanksgiving. Holidays and birthdays came and went, each one drawing us closer to that impending due date.

On February 4, we drove over to the Toy House, in Jackson, and picked up the baby seat for the car. Here is my Facebook post from that night.

…and then you blink…and life changes. In the span of less than 1 minute you can go from bliss…to blank…from a future full of joy, challenges, and delight…to a future that seems as black as night. A reality where life is not fair…here is my Facebook post from the next night.

One minute I was sitting next to my 37-week pregnant wife, having a pleasant conversation with her parents. The next minute the minivan we were passengers in was a crumpled tin can and I was lifting her chin and asking her if she was OK. I watched as her pupil dilated, her lips and face lost their color and I found false hope as the primal reflex that causes a baby to take its first breath caused her to take her last. The seatbelt designed to save Sara’s life had held firm during our accident. It held her in place as a semi pushed us down the snow-banked median of I-94 crawling farther and farther into the back of our vehicle. The pressure caused her uterus, designed by God to protect the life within to rupture. She was gone…in an instant…and that small life within her would fade in the minutes that followed. The safety measures, both man made and God designed, put in place to save life, had taken it.

It took almost an hour to get Sara to the emergency room. Miranda was delivered less than 1 minute after arriving at the hospital. The doctors and nurses were able to miraculously start her heart and get her on a ventilator. She had already been moved to labor and delivery when they rolled me into the emergency room, strapped down to a gurney, unable to turn my head. They let me hold Sara’s hand as the staff continued to perform CPR, everyone knowing it was in vain but refusing to give up, eventually the chaos stopped, the room got quiet, and what I had known in my heart for over an hour was officially declared…she was gone. Life is not fair…life just is.

Even though the hospital staff had been able to revive Miranda, she had been without oxygen for too long. A little more than 72 hours later, late in the evening on February 8, after all the other family members had filed through and taken time to hold her, I held my daughter, Miranda Evangelene Cole, in my arms as the life support systems were disconnected. I held her and waited…waited for her perfect tiny little heart to beat its final beat. All of my hopes, all of the joy of the previous 9 months, the expectations of a lifetime, the family I had always wanted…were gone. My future was an empty and bleak wasteland. Life is not fair…life just is.

I remember waking up the next morning and staring into the mirror for what seemed like forever. I did not recognize the man standing and staring back at me. A man who felt like everything he had been living for had been taken away from him. His eyes were vacant, with barely a glimmer of life in them. I did not know who he was. The rest of that week was a whirlwind of numb activity. The hours spent planning visitations and a memorial service, taking care of loose ends at the hospital in regards to birth documentation, taking visitors, and sharing in meals provided by caring members of the community at my parents home here in Spring Arbor.

On Friday, as I got into my car to head to the church for the visitation, I did something I hadn’t done in a long time. I turned on my car radio and switched it over from ESPN to a local Christian radio station. The first song that came on was a decade old song by Steven Curtis Chapman. I heard these words that morning:

And the pain falls like a curtain, 
on the things I once called certain
And I have to say the words I fear the most…I just don't know
And the questions without answers,
come and paralyze the dancer
So I stand here on the stage afraid to move, 
afraid to fall, oh, but fall I must
On this truth that my life has been formed from the dust

God is God and I am not, I can only see a part
Of the picture He's painting. God is God and I am man
So, I'll never understand it all; For only God is God

God is God...and I am not. Those words got me through two visitations and the memorial service the following day. For the first time in my life I had an experience with the Peace that Passes All Understanding. I was also starting to understand the message behind life’s not fair…life just is. When I was earning my degree in communication from Spring Arbor back in the early 90s, we had a professor who would always respond to the repeated pleadings of his students cries of “that’s not fair” with the simple phrase, “life’s not fair…life just is.” In looking back on this, nearly 20 years later, I now have eyes to see and ears to hear, and I can hear the story behind the phrase. I had heard his testimony 20 years ago this very month, as he shared about the pain of losing his son before he himself came to know Christ. Now, I can understand the truth of “life’s not fair, life just is.” It takes on a whole different meaning when you’ve lost like that. You see, life isn’t fair. We were never promised fair. Fair is what you get in a fairy tale, not in this life. I had a new appreciation for, a new perspective on “life is not fair…life just is.” But in that unfairness God is still God, and I am not…he is still sovereign…and the story isn’t finished.

As the following days turned into weeks, I would hear Steven Curtis Chapman’s song in my head over and over again. God is God and I am not…and I soon realized that I had a choice to make. As the numbness and the nearness of the loss wore off, as my new reality caved in on me, I had to make a choice. I could sense two options for me to choose from, I could choose to stand with my fist raised asking “why?” and “how could you?” and shouting “this isn’t fair” or I could lay my broken and battered heart at the foot of the cross, crawl into the lap of Jesus, and ask him to carry me through the storm. I chose the route of the broken and battered heart because I didn’t have the strength to wrestle with God or be angry with Him…and I didn’t see any reason to do so. For me the story of Job had already been written. I didn’t need to ask those questions again. I want to make sure you understand that even if I had raised my fist and demanded answers that would likely have never come, that wouldn’t have been the “wrong path.” There are few wrong ways to grieve and for many people part of grief is anger at God. And guess what, He’s big enough to handle that anger…it was just not the path that made sense for me. I found I only had strength enough to ask God to carry me through and to put my hope in the resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. That choice didn’t take the pain away. That choice didn’t alleviate my grief. It doesn’t ease the anxiety when a semi is coming up on me at a stop light, or when I have to drive west on I-94, or every time is snows. It doesn't take away the hurt when I see everyone posting pictures on Facebook of their smiling families, their happy children, and the celebrations of life events I will never get to experience with Sara and Miranda. That choice didn’t put a smile on my face, because life’s not fair, life just is. But...it did change my perspective, and it did open me up to His love, His grace, and His mercy in ways I have never felt before. As I look back on the events of the past 2 years, I can see God’s movement and blessing in my life.

Over the course of the past couple of months, as I have slowly prepared for today, I have been able to see that in the course of my life God has surrounded me with the people who helped me the most during my darkest hour. I have a loving family and together we have clung to the promises of faith. When tragedies like this hit, many families fall apart; but because we were able to turn to God, focusing on His goodness in our time of need, we drew closer. We have cried together, laughed together, and celebrated together the time that we had with our loved ones.

In addition to my immediate family, I have an unusual “extended family.” God has blessed me with six friends from college. These men are not just friends, they are brothers; they are as close as family. My friends did not try to console me with empty words. When we would meet later on, we talked about the weather, life events, and if I wanted to talk about Sara and Miranda, they listened…I now realize they had all been down this road already, and whether they knew it or not their words meant less than their actions. You see, each of my closest friends had experienced either the loss of a parent or a child. They had all already tasted the bitter tears of grief. As I look back today, I can see God’s hand in their actions as they helped me adapt to my new normal. In response to this loss, they did not offer me platitudes of faith, they did not try to console me with their own grief, and they did not abandon me; instead, they offered me their lives and their time. They helped me clean my house. They invited me over for dinner. They put together 12 months of activities as a purposeful attempt to bring our whole group closer together and show their love and support. My friends, without realizing, took the lessons of Job chapter 2 to heart:

“When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
Job 2:11-13 (NIV84)

No one said a word to him…that’s some good advice on how to deal with the bereaved, especially in a tragic loss. It’s advice my friends followed instinctively and it’s advice we would all do well to consider. Over the past two years I have learned that in our rush to console the bereaved, Christians sometimes say the dumbest and most hurtful things to each other and to non-believers. We feel like we HAVE to speak at a time when our mere presence and a hug would be sufficient; this compulsion to open our mouths comes out of a desire to avoid an awkward silence and we end up doing more damage than good. I find this is especially true in the tragic situations of life where both the bereaved and those looking on are left wondering why? When we are all left asking why bad things happen to good people? If we take the time to be silent, to eat a quiet meal with those who suffer, to just sit with them and let them cry when they need to cry and allow them to talk when they want to talk it can change our whole perspective on life and suffering. In one of his sermons dealing with the suffering of creation, John Wesley expressed a belief that suffering exists “by the wise permission of God, determining to draw eternal good out of this temporary evil.” Athol Dickson said essentially the same thing in his book The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me about Jesus, “I believe sometimes bad things happen to good people so we can watch God turn the greatest tragedies into the purest love.” Life’s not fair…life just is. Through my experiences of the past two years God has opened my eyes and ears and taught me that if we’re busy trying to make ourselves feel better about someone else’s loss, we’re going to miss out on a great opportunity to experience the love of God. Being surrounded by Godly people has gone a long way towards bringing me through “the valley of the shadow of death.” Yet, God has done other things in my life, too.

Being plunged into the depths of despair has a tendency to strip away all the things you think you believe about God and leave you with the truth of what you actually believe about him. In the course of my life, I have memories of being taught the tenets of the Christian faith by people like Oletha Johnston, Donelda Clevenger, Joann Cleveland, Lorain Whiteman, Dave Johnson, Janice Chilcote, Oreon Trickey, Mark Bain, Larry Angus, Carl Spring, Ron Kopico and many, many others. I heard the preaching of three pastors filling this pulpit in my lifetime…not many churches can claim to have only had 3 pastors in a span of 4 decades…yet, for all those people, and the godly messages they brought, I feel like I took the wrong message away…and that’s my fault. I had ears to hear and eyes to see, but my relationship with God was all about me. I spent a significant portion of my life telling God why I wasn’t qualified to serve Him. I couldn’t be the man he needed me to be.

I don’t know about you, but I live in a performance based society. I got good grades as a child to make my parents happy. I got good grades when I was older to earn scholarships. I worked hard at my job so that I could get a raise or a good evaluation. In my relationships with other people I have often “performed” for love and acceptance…and I don’t know about you, but I carried that into my relationship with God.

For most of my life, my relationship with God has been about me trying to please Him. I have spent most of my life traveling a path of good intentions. “God, I want to serve you, but I need to get my life in order first. I need to start reading my Bible every day. I need to start praying every day. I need to stop swearing when I stub my toe or hit my thumb with a hammer. I need to get out and exercise more to take care of your temple. I need to do this and I need to stop doing that because there’s no possible way you could love me or want to use me until I can clean this up and cross that chasm that exists between us.” I’ve been focused on looking at the mess that is my life, the life I see, not necessarily the life the public sees, and in that focus Christ is somewhere over there. I have lived my life thinking that my job, my duty, was to get rid of all the bad things in my life…I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to appear spotless when I reached my judgment. I was stuck in the last 10 verses of Romans 7. The problem with that way of thinking is that I fail, a lot. I can’t be perfect, not matter how hard I try. But it was what I kept thinking I had to be, and it kept me from having a growing relationship with God.

Last June, I finally went through some counseling. I had reached a point of realizing that even though I was working through my grief in mostly good and healthy ways I had other issues that needed to be dealt with. I scheduled myself for a 4 day, one-on-one counseling retreat with a Godly couple, Jerry and Denise, who run a faith based counseling ministry out of their home in Georgia. I flew down thinking I needed to work on some anger and other relationship issues. By the end of my first day with them, those issues had been put on the back burner. Jerry and Denise had quickly cut through the mustard and made me realize that my bigger issue was putting my trust in God, trusting in His grace. I didn’t understand it, it wasn’t part of my life, and it wasn’t part of my relationship with Him. I understood the concept that grace meant receiving something I didn’t deserve and that mercy meant I didn’t get what I had coming to me, but I had never really figured out how that worked in my life.

It turns out I’m a little bit of a control freak. I don’t like not feeling 100% in control. Jerry and Denise spent the next three days guiding me toward the Father. Helping me strip away my presuppositions about who He is, based on my life experiences, setting aside who I thought He was, based on my perceptions of the people in my life, and teaching me that if I’m willing to walk the path of trusting God, the path of God’s grace, the other issues I had been struggling with would be things He would start to take care of. For almost a year and a half I had been grieving with the hope of the resurrection, but I hadn’t REALLY learned how to make that hope part of my own life. I still struggle with this, and will for the rest of my life. Giving up control is not natural, it’s not what my humanness desires, but I have finally learned that giving Him control, living in His grace, allowing Him to wrap his arms around me and stand beside me is the only way I’ll make it through life. He is here, standing beside me, looking at the mess of my life with me, and promising that He will carry me through the minefield.

The last thing I want to share with you today is how hope, and my journey of grief, have impacted the way I live. The biggest thing I have learned about the hope of the resurrection is that salvation is for today. It’s not just fire insurance. The hope of the resurrection changes how I interact with the world around me. It puts a whole new spin on “thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” The hope of the resurrection is for right here, right now, it is for every single little moment I live in. Grief has opened my eyes to how much pain exists in the world around me…the hope of the resurrection gives me the power to do something about it. The hope of the resurrection causes me to pick up hitchhikers and drive them an hour out of my way just to make sure they’re safe and to have an opportunity to pray with them. That might not be the wisest thing for some of you, but I tend to feel pretty safe around the rest of you puny humans. The hope of the resurrection directs me to invite the guy at the corner of Boardman and Airport Roads to get in my car and let me take him grocery shopping and then drive him back to his apartment, instead of making him walk, so the two kids he’s trying to feed can have some food.  The hope of the resurrection shows me that it is the small day to day opportunities that most of us let pass by that really would be doing His will here on earth.

In January, God worked through Pastor Mark and brought us a great series about generosity. As the end of the month came around, a little more than two weeks before the second anniversary of the birth of my daughter and the accident that took her and her mother from me, I was struggling to come up with ways to remember Miranda. I wanted to find something special to do for her birthday. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as I was driving to church on January 27, on a day when Pastor Mark was preaching about the Liturgy of Abundance, I got the idea that the best way to remember my daughter would be to do something special for other people…and The Miranda Gift was born.

I created an event and invited my family and friends to it. The next thing I knew they were inviting their friends to it. By February 5, over 1,700 people had been invited and nearly 500 said they were going to participate. On a day when grief could have beat me up, sent me back to bed, and left me waiting for February 6, God provided a way for the hope of the resurrection to triumph over the grave. I spent my day running errands and looking for the perfect opportunities to hand out my own Miranda gifts. Instead of tears, God had given me purpose. Instead of pain, He was giving me joy. The hope of the resurrection was offering beauty for ashes. When I got home that afternoon, I logged onto Facebook and the reality of God’s greatness came flooding in as I saw examples of people reaching out and offering something to complete strangers all over the country.

The world inside Facebook saw a woman in Jackson who had gone to East Side Meijer to cash in her spare change in order to help make ends meet. With her last few pennies she was treating her 3-year-old daughter to a ride on the horse at the front of the store when she received a Miranda Gift. She took her daughter to the toy department and let her pick out a tricycle. The rest of the money helped them with their other needs.

There was the cashier at a store in the mall who was given a Miranda Gift to hand out to the next person who came up to the counter to buy something. One of you was that person; you shared the story of Sara and Miranda with that clerk and asked her to give it to someone else. You posted about the encounter without even knowing what the Miranda Gift was. Later the clerk you had given the gift back to posted on Facebook, telling her part in the story, and the joy she had found in handing the gift to a young mother pushing a stroller through the mall. That young mother posted on Facebook when she got home, her sons birthday was the next day and she was overwhelmed with the generosity and blessings of others.

There was a father who received a card while pumping gas; the woman whose daughter brought a card with a gift certificate home from school; the mother whose son had found a card in his school locker; the woman at Target who found a card had mysteriously appeared in her shopping cart; the parents of the babies born at Allegiance Hospital on February 5th; the person who saw a friend post on Facebook about receiving a Miranda gift, and then started sharing the event with their friends; the young mom at Airport Road Meijer who was handed a gift as she was checking out and then proceeded to head back out once she got home and figured out what was going on so she could give a Miranda Gift to someone, too…hope, handed from one hand to another; hope given freely and without expectation.  And you know what I learned…there is VICTORY in the hope of the resurrection.

I want you want to take you back to my professor from college. “Life’s not fair, life just is” wasn’t the end of the story. He had another catch phrase, I’ll never forget, and somehow I never made the connection between “ life’s not fair, life just is” and his question of greeting, “You got the victory?” When he asked, I would always answer in the affirmative, no different than if he’d asked if I was having a good day. I now see the question behind the question, “Do you have the hope of the resurrection?” Folks, there’s victory in hope. “You got the Victory?” isn’t about my day…it’s about my soul. I get that now and I better understand the way he ended many of his conversations, “Keep the Victory.” Life’s not fair, life just is. BUT there is VICTORY in the hope of the resurrection.

And that VICTORY can be overwhelming. The hope of the resurrection is what pulls me back and allows me to get out of my pew most Sundays after I listen to Pastor  Mark bring us God’s words. Have you ever seen Schindler’s List? I was a big deal about 20 years ago. It was a movie about the Holocaust and one man’s role in saving some of the Jews from Hitler’s genocide. At the end of the movie, the main character, Oskar Schindler, is preparing to flee in fear of his life. He is standing outside the factory where he saved 1,100 Jews from certain death by employing them. These people of little means, present him with a gold ring, made from the fillings and crowns in their own teeth. In a time when Oskar Schindler should be raising his arms in celebration of the 1,100 lives he has saved, he breaks down. He is overwhelmed at the thought of all those who he did not save. His last scenes in the movie are of him sobbing uncontrollably realizing he could have used his wealth and power to save even one more person. Folks, I have that moment sitting right here in this sanctuary almost every Sunday. I am so overwhelmed by the grace of God and the hope of the resurrection that I can’t help but feel like I wasted a significant portion of my life. I wasn’t living in sin, I just wasn’t living in the grace of God with the hope of the resurrection.

The hope of the resurrection calls me to serve my fellow man, to be Jesus in human skin. Here I am, at the age of 41, climbing out of the miry clay, out of the pitch black dark of grief and I’m finally starting to understand the full extent of the power of God’s grace and the hope of the resurrection. Life’s not fair, life just is. But there is Victory in the hope found in Jesus Christ.

My testimony is that I live with the hope of the resurrection, a hope born of the Grace of God. I live with the promise that my daughter and wife are rejoicing in Heaven, worshipping the Living God with the angels and all those who have gone before. I live with the promise that they are made whole, recreated, resurrected with perfected physical bodies, as God fully intended them to be. I live knowing that I, and all those who believe, will join them in that resurrection when our time here is through. I live knowing that my only responsibility is to lay my brokenness at the feet of Jesus every day and say here I am Lord, use me in whatever way you see fit. That is my testimony.
Life’s not fair, life just is…but do YOU have the Victory?

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen. 
1 Peter 5:10-11 (NIV)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 21

Well, I'm not gonna lie, school is kicking my butt. I find I'm struggling (but still getting A's) with two areas:

  1. Time management - this is something I have never really mastered in my life. I tend to be a bit of a procrastinator anyway but I also tend to get overwhelmed if I spend too much time staring at the big picture, which causes me to lose focus and get sidetracked on minor issues.
  2. Internet brain - back in February, I posted about how the internet is changing the way our brains work in regards to learning...at least for those of us who use the internet regularly. School means a big transition back to reading books...lots of books...and I'm finding that the neural pathways which help turn academic reading into academic learning have suffered a bit of atrophy over the past 15 years. This makes it difficult to sit down and focus on learning for any length of time (more than about 10 minutes) without the learned impulse to check email, Facebook, text messages, etc., etc. kicking in. I typically find myself spending 6 hours in the library trying to accomplish 3 to 4 hours of work. I am carefully evaluating the means necessary to overcome this and think a Facebook blackout might be on the near horizon. I'm not too bad with email and I don't have enough people texting me to make that a real issue...my biggest problem is Facebook. It both consumes a lot of time and the way it is designed contributes to the atrophy of the pathways needed for book learning'. Ultimately, this issue has the biggest impact on item #1.
I know I will make it through the semester and probably have my best academic showing ever...it's just mentally exhausting. I'm starting to think I need to put a nice 3 to 5 day excursion on my calendar for May to get away once exam week is done.

In other news, and the main reason for this post, I have been invited to share my testimony during both services at the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church on Sunday, April 21. Many of you have been praying for me, encouraging me, and lifting me up over the past two years and I sincerely appreciate that. If you're in the area, feel free to come to either the 9:00AM or 11:15AM service and listen in person. If you live out of town and would live to watch or listen, set your alarm and head over to the church website where both services are streamed live and can be listened to later in the archive at the Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church online.

I'm anxious and nervous and ask that those of you who pray ask God to speak His love through me and through my life on April 21.