Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.   Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it full and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing is serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we are not created with the ability to cope with death, so it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.

Boldness: The Key to Miracles

Years ago, a British test pilot was flying a solo mission, when halfway through he discovered a rat on board with him who was chewing on his fuel line.  He assessed the situation and realized that if the rat was successful in completely chewing through the line, he would definitely not have enough fuel to get to where he was going and may not even have enough to land.  So instead of risking the landing, he decided to take the plane higher.  Since there was no oxygen higher up, he was able to successfully kill the rat and save his plane.

Often, when we are facing persecution and trouble, we tend to go low, hide out, and wait for the storm to quietly pass us by.  We rarely, if ever, face the storm head on and boldly proclaim victory in the face of it.  Instead, our humanity kicks in and we become meek in the face of adversity, and when we are timid, we are not only doubting our own abilities, but we are also doubting God’s ability to work through us.  When we feel the need to go low, God desires us to go high, as that’s where He can do His biggest works.  By going high with boldness and declaring victory for Him, we open the floodgates for his miracles to be done through us, giving Him even more glory.

Scripture repeatedly shows that God desires to use us way beyond our capacity.  Whether leading people out of Egypt despite speech issues, fathering a child while in the twilight of life, or facing down actual lions, individuals who were not fundamentally extraordinary were used for extraordinary achievements once they showed boldness.  When people see our boldness, it gives God a stage to accomplish His work through that boldness.  God wants us to achieve well beyond what people expect of us, work that we would never be able to do ourselves, because people then know that it couldn’t have possibly come through us: it must be from God.  It’s as if boldness is the calling card and invocation for God’s angels and for His plan to work through us.  When we go high, God takes us even higher.

Similarly, in Acts, after Christ’s ascension, the apostles Peter and John boldly preached to the crowds to the point that the leaders jailed them, threatening them to stop.  After being released, Peter and John continued to do what got them in trouble in the first place, boldly preaching the gospel, but now with an even greater boldness.  Together, they prayed: “‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’  After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.29-31).  As they became bolder, God took that boldness and worked to end their persecution, taking them and their followers even higher.  When we invoke boldness, God uses us beyond what we are capable of doing, all for His glory.

When we decide to go low in the face of adversity and land the plane instead of flying higher, we sometimes end up just saving the rat, allowing him to chew on the lines another day.  We need to show boldness in the face of persecution and to go high, ending that oppression and cutting off the enemy.  This week, when you are feeling as if the world is closing in on you, show a boldness in your faith that allows God to work miracles through you.  When the world wants you to go low, go high instead.  Amen.

Good Grief

Although an assurance, death is never something for which we seem to be prepared.  As those who are left in its wake, our confidence is often shaken and our endless questions remain.  Though answers sometimes elude us, what is certain is that we as a collective do not discuss the process enough or even know how to handle its aftermath.

This week, I took part in the receiving line at my father-in-law’s funeral service, a viewpoint of death from which I had not previously experienced.  Standing next to my family, I shook hands with extended relatives, friends, former students, and past co-workers, all of which had wonderful stories and anecdotes about how he had touched their lives.  Outwardly, we attempted to put on the bravest face we could find, reaching down deep for some sort of superficial courage, but inside, we were wracked with shock and a bevy of emotions at our loss.  Although mostly unspoken, I could see the deep grief etched into the faces of my family and those who were left behind.

Grief has come to be understood as a necessary part of the process; it’s the survivor’s way of grappling with death firsthand and with the confusion that comes as a result.  Yet, we seem to have a problem with how to address grief.  Mistakenly, many view grief as a weakness of faith and do not fully understand or accept it, so we tend to be unsure as to how to deal with it when we encounter it.  Because we don’t talk enough about it, when we see it we attempt to cure it, thinking that grief is a human flaw.  However, grief is a sign of faithful individuals wrestling with the complexity of life and the seemingly contradictory nature of death when juxtaposed with an all loving creator.

So, when we expressed our grief to some, we received well-intentioned but dismissive comments intended to halt our grieving process.  When people saw us struggling with grief, their work mistakenly turned away from comforting and gravitated more towards justifying the situation, moving from an emotional response to a logical one.  In our faith journeys, we are sometimes (although not enough) taught to question everything, but when grief rises to the surface, we are too quick to dismiss it instead of embracing it and allowing it as part of that journey.

Reasonably, the limitations of human knowledge lead to uncertainty within all of us.  We are unable to answer the simple question of “why,” as the answer eludes us as long as we reside on this side of the curtain, while the heavenly realm continues to exist behind the thin veneer that separates us from our complete knowledge.  Resultantly, doubt creeps in from the lack of answers, not as a sign of our loss of faith but instead from a lack of satisfying responses to our endless questions.  Hence, when we are filled with pain and doubt, grief emerges not as a sign of faithlessness but as a sign of our humanity.  In Matthew 27.46, a crucified Christ, limited by human knowledge and wracked with pain, cries out in grief to His father and creator. “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli,[a] lema sabachthani?” (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’)”  Much like ourselves, Jesus’ answer was not provided to Him in that moment, and like Him, we are fundamentally forced to confront our doubt.  Also like Him, our agonized uncertainty is not a reflection of faithlessness but is the sign of one’s individualized wrestling with questions and a frustration with our limitations as imposed upon us by our humanity, none of which should be dismissed.

Grief makes us not so much question God’s existence but instead question our understanding of our faith, refining it not through commonplace platitudes but through empathetic understanding and acceptance.  Despite the emotional toll it may take, we need to resist the urge to halt or dismiss grief, as we need it to help us through these difficult times and emerge a more mature Christian.  Although oftentimes unpleasant, a Christ-like wrestling with our faith and our doubt through grief leads us to a stronger, steadier understanding of our existence and further solidifies our relationship with God.  Amen.

Precarious Shifts in Perspectives

As permanent members of this planet, our view of others, our problems, and the horrors of this world are what we experience daily.  Their importance fills our lives and troubles our minds to the point of being fully consumed by them.  The good news: it is possible to put these events into perspective.

In 1968, members of the Apollo 8 mission spied the Earth from a distance for the first time.  They described seeing our planet as “hanging in the void” of space, dangling precariously.  They then reported experiencing a profound cognitive shift in their consciousness, citing that they understood the “big picture” of our existence and how fragile our planet and its inhabitants are.  These astronauts recorded that they felt as if we were just one small cog in a larger, more intricate process of the universe.

The astronauts experienced what is more commonly known as “The Overview Effect,” where individuals view the world from space and feel as if Earth is nothing more than a tiny ball in a much larger universe, suspended in the vacuum of emptiness shielded by a paper-thin atmosphere.  When experiencing this effect, astronauts have reported that all the conflicts that divide people and the boundaries that break us up suddenly become incredibly unimportant, and a need for universal harmony and peace is instilled.  In other words, they learned not to sweat the small stuff, because it’s all small stuff.  The pettiness we experience on a day to day basis just isn’t worth fretting over or fighting about, because in the larger realm of things, it just isn’t that significant.

This week, I felt a profound shift of my own.  I had been worried about school and developing my lesson plans, how I was going to fit in certain activities into my life, and being able to maintain my day to day lifestyle with enough time, energy, and money for everything that we needed in our household.  My world then came to a complete halt when I discovered that a close family member had died.  As if at the drop of a hat, everything that I was so worried about previously didn’t matter in the slightest.  Priorities like school, activities, and deadlines became meaningless.  The surreality of my existence and a new set of priorities eclipsed everything else and my life was brought into a new reality and perspective.  Much like those astronauts, the small stuff no longer mattered, as I firmly grasped the frailness of life.

Sometimes our lives can be so overwhelming that what we really need is a different perspective to realize what is truly important.  Although my moment was sad in nature, it really drew me closer to those around me, helping me see past the triviality of daily life because my perspective had been changed.  In our daily walk of faith, we too can be bogged down by the minutiae that negatively affects us and eats away at our emotions.  Psalm 90.2 helps us to get that proper perspective, one that shuns out all the superfluous noise: “Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”  To know that God was, is, and always will be, erases a lot of what plagues us daily.  He was present before anything else, and He will outlast any and all of our problems and squabbles.  A shifted perspective onto Him and his vastness leads us to a cognitive shift that resets our priorities and helps us to see what is truly important.

Focusing on His everlasting nature helps us to see the bigger picture, that everything on this Earth is delicate and temporary, that our problems are much smaller than we realize.  This week, take time to meditate on God’s existence, remembering that He is bigger than any problem we have in our lives.  With a proper perspective, our focus on the particulars of this world quickly blur, as our vision on Him and what’s important comes into sharp focus.   Amen.

Unforgiving Claims of Fairness

“It’s not fair,” my student Julie repeated over and over to me, complaining about her last class.  She had just come from history, where the teacher gave back the tests, and Julie marked the correct answer on the question sheet, but copied it down wrong on her answer sheet.  “I knew the answer!” she stammered out with extreme indignation, but the fact was that her answer sheet was wrong, and so her answers were wrong.  However, Julie’s outrage was in comparison to the teacher’s treatment of another student.  “I get good grades, I do all my work, and Tara doesn’t do anything, yet she gets to do things over and I don’t.”  It was a fair point.  If one student gets extra chances, shouldn’t all?  I asked how her usually high grades compared to Tara’s, and then found that the other girl was often times borderline failing and could probably use all the chances she could get.

Fairness is a concern for us our entire lives.  When we are little, we measure the candy we receive against what others get, making sure we all get the same.  Teenagers decry the concept 7-8 times a day, citing how some can stay out later than others.  As adults, we resent other’s happiness and success, feeling that we are just as deserving, sometimes maybe more so.  Years ago, Rabbi Kushner, whose own son died at age 14, attempted to tackle the concept in his book “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” which touched a collective nerve and was met with enormous success.  Yet, when we ask about life being fair, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who hires workers for his vineyard.  In the morning, he finds townspeople, hires them for a day’s wage, and puts them to work.  Midway through the day, he finds that he needs more people than he originally thought, so he hires even more townspeople on two later occasions, agreeing to pay them a day’s wage, as well.  At the end of the day, the workers come to collect, but those who started work in the beginning of the day expected to be paid more that those who started towards the end of the day, feeling that it would only be fair that way.  The landowner disagreed, “I am not being unfair to you, friend.  Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?…I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you…Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20. 13-15).  Instead of paying what was fair, the man paid what was right, citing generosity as his motivation.  Perhaps he felt that it was not right that the others were unemployed and denied opportunity earlier in the day.  Maybe he felt that it was wrong that they couldn’t provide for their families.  Either way, through righteousness, the landowner modeled mercy and grace, which may not be fair, but is right.

When we talk about equality, we should talk less like the Pharisees who cited the law and its fair adhesion to it, but more about God’s grace and mercy, and how being merciful is right and just.  If we want life to be truly fair, then Christ’s death on the cross would not be allowed and because of our actions, we’d all deserve death.  We cannot be both fair and forgiving, as fairness means we get what we deserve, not what we need.

Would Julie ever make this mistake again?  Probably not.  It was a hard lesson to learn, but because of grace, she was being taught it so that she would learn from it.  Sometimes righteousness means having to suffer for our own good because it’s what we need, with the reason behind it being to mold us into better people.  Through righteousness, God’s deep love for us is revealed, and through His mercy, we are shaped to be people who walk closer with Him.  We can’t possibly fathom God’s plan, but we are certain as to His righteous intentions.  Amen.

Soldiering Onward with Faithful Assurance

When the entire world is suggesting one thing, but we know that God wants us to act differently, our beliefs get questioned and our faith tested.  Staying steadfast and resolute in what we believe is never easy, especially when the world questions our every word and action.  However, if we can hold tightly to our faith with assurance, God’s plan for us will be carried out and may lead to being an example to the world who rejected those beliefs in the first place.

During World War II, Desmond Doss felt a tremendous obligation to serve his country, so he entered the military intending to be a medic.  When he enlisted into combat infantry, he listed himself as a conscientious objector, meaning that according to his Christian beliefs, he felt that he did not have the right to kill another person.  So, he refused to train with, carry, or even touch a rifle.  Because of his beliefs, he experienced intense ridicule and scrutiny in response to his actions, but he refused to compromise them.  Even though he did not know how God would use him, it was the comfort of Doss’ faith that helped him through this difficult time.

When Private 1st Class Doss eventually shipped off to fight in Okinawa, his platoon was trapped under fire in a seemingly unwinnable tactical situation, and several men were left wounded on the battlefield after a retreat.  Instead of retreating with the rest of his group, Doss decided to stay behind and help as many of the wounded as he could find.  Still refusing to fight, Doss single-handedly located seventy-five wounded soldiers, treated them for their injuries, and lowered them down a high cliff to the retreated platoon.  During that time, Doss glimpsed God’s plan for him, how He was using Doss as an example of pacifism, humanity, and sacrifice to the fallen, giving them hope where there was none.  The following day, right before the next assault, the platoon refused to deploy without Doss, and only after he was finished praying.  During that assault (the army’s 8th attempt), the platoon successfully took the hill.

Since we are trapped by the confides of time, we are unable to peer into the future and see how all of the threads of God’s massive patchwork quilt come together, revealing the significance and length of each strand.  If we were able to, how easily we would be able to choose our next set of actions.  However, faith indicates trust in something over which we have no control, giving up control to someone who knows more than we do.  The author of Hebrews 11.1 spells out exactly what faith is for Christians: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” With faith, we can be positive that despite what the world says and how it tells us to act, God’s way is the right way, even if it isn’t always the easy way.

In Hacksaw Ridge, the film which carefully details Doss’ story, after seemingly endless derision and much intense pressure to leave combat infantry, one of his commanding officers asks him, “What do you do when everything you value in this world is under attack?”  With Doss knowing that he was doing the right thing but not knowing why or to what end, he responds with, “I don’t know sir.  I ain’t got answers to questions that big.”  Faith is just that: we don’t always know what God’s ultimate plan is for us or how to verbalize the steps, but we know how to keep ourselves open to it and be a vessel for His will.  We may not have the answers and may face difficulty throughout, but we know to look to Him for guidance.  This week, even though you may not know for sure the outcome, find the assurance of faith by placing your confidence in Him through prayer and His promises.  In our travels, we may not know the destination, but we have the directions.  Amen.

A Haunting in Our Forgiven Lives

As I reached down to grab what I thought was clearly my vibrating phone in my pocket, my hand came up empty, and I rolled my eyes to discover that, once again, I had been tricked by my own body: my phone wasn’t even with me.  Apparently, I am not alone in experiencing this phenomenon (as many will be relieved to hear).  The idea of “phantom ringing” started to appear years ago with the proliferation of pagers, and once we all turned to owning smart phones, the feeling went widespread.  A singularity that afflicts most at one point or another, many will admit to swearing that they feel the vibrations of their phone against their leg, only to find no such vibrating occurring.  Chalk it up to how tied we are to our phones, I suppose.

However, a similar situation also occurs with 60-80% of amputee patients.  Dubbed “Phantom Limb Syndrome,” this condition arises when patients who have lost a limb or other significant body part feel varying amounts of pain, discomfort, or itching in a part of the body that no longer exists.  Patients absentmindedly reach down to rub or scratch the missing part, only to be painfully reminded that the part is no longer there.  They have become so used to the limb being a part of them, that their body is having trouble adjusting to a time without said body part.  Like the phone, it is as if the specter of the limb haunts the person missing it, leaving them with nothing but empty air to grasp at.

I mention these two ghostly examples as they are like the way in which we allow past sin to hang over us, where even though we have been forgiven and the sin is no longer with us, it negatively affects our actions and mindset, discouraging us from being the forgiven person we are.  We sometimes have a hard time grasping Christ’s forgiveness, as He takes our wrongs and, once forgiven, places them as far away from us as possible.  Psalm 103.12 states that, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103.12).  Our sin can be no further away from us than where Christ has placed it.  We are completely dissociated from it.

Yet, we tend to ruminate and reflect on what we’ve done despite the forgiveness we’ve received.  Yes, we’ve all done some pretty bad things where we’ve hurt others, cursed God, and destroyed ourselves both literally and physically.  Despite the forgiveness we’ve sought and received, we allow our past actions to hang over us like a dark cloud.  Like the man who walks through a spider web and for the next few hours swears that spiders are crawling on him, the guilt of our sin hangs lifelessly over us, haunting our every move regardless of the forgiveness received.  Despite our feelings, that sin is not there, so why do we allow the guilt to hang over us?  It is because we’ve lived with our actions and the guilt of them for a great deal of our life, so we “phantomly” perceive them to be there.  Like the non-existent phone or ghostly limb, we erroneously think it’s with us always, yet the reality is that those sins have been forgiven, and we need to adjust to this new reality.  Christ desires us to not only be forgiven but to feel forgiven, as that is when His grace shines most brightly.  So perhaps we need to rebuke the specters of our past sins and their associated guilt and begin to live as the forgiven, saved people we are.  This week, don’t allow forgiven sin and phantom guilt to haunt you.  Refuse to let it dampen the joy that comes with grace.  Don’t let Christ’s mercy be dulled by the perceived grime of our past actions, but instead reject that phantom guilt and live as saved individuals.  Amen.

Varied Measurements of Effort

My son was so excited to bring his “Splat Ball” home to play with around the house.  Throw it at any surface and it will stick, smoosh outward, then reform into a ball.  Seemingly endless fun.  He paid a few dollars for it, and after a few hours of tossing it around, it broke.  We reassured him that nothing lasts forever, but in our minds, we were thinking, you get what you pay for.

I recently heard a speaker who was discussing his long history in the martial arts.  He explained to the students that there was no getting around it: what you put in is what you get out.  If the students were expecting to advance through the ranks with only the occasional practice session, some studying, and a handful of determination, they would be sorely disappointed with how far they would get in their training.  He explained that in martial arts, as in many other areas, there is a connection between effort and success.  There are no shortcuts: you must be willing to put in the time and effort towards success, sometimes doing tasks that aren’t always enjoyable, but result in strong outcomes.  He concluded with the idea that with maximum effort comes maximum result.  Should the students put their all into their practice, they will achieve the maximum amount of success.

Just last week, I reinforced a similar concept with my students.  Halfway through the year, a handful were still not studying, reading, or completing homework.  They would observe classmates academically passing them by, getting great grades and achieving all types of success, as they remained behind, baffled as to why they weren’t doing better than they were.  To pep talk them into a greater effort the night before a big assignment, I jokingly let them know that several studies have shown a proven connection between success in school and success at obtaining a decent earning job later in life.  Although my attitude was tongue-in-cheek, the concept still holds true.  If they study and work hard, the chances of them earning a decent living significantly increase as they grow.  It’s not a mystery.

In all three of these instances, the concept remains the same: what you put in is what you get out.  If you choose to do very little, your results will match the effort, and vice versa.  Christ also preached this concept, that if we put effort into our faith, we will receive blessings in return.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, His first response was, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22.37).  He knew that if we put in all our heart, mind, and soul, that God’s plan would be made fully manifest in us, much more so than if we just put in a little effort.  If we choose to work on our faith, the results will reflect that effort.

Too many of us stagnantly sit around in our faith, wondering where God is and why He isn’t helping, but we don’t examine the effort that we’re putting in for our own walk.  We forget the connection between maximum effort and maximum results, that what you put into it is what you get out of it.  We need to remember that even though God is there for us, we still need to continuously work on our relationship with Him instead of waiting for Him to come to us.  If you want a rewarding spiritual life, you have to work on it.  This week, take some steps towards putting your entire being into loving Him, and await His blessings in return.  With your great effort, God promises mighty results.  Amen.

A Life, Fully Lived

As a lifelong Jeopardy fan, Cindy Stowell had always dreamed of competing on the show.   She and her husband bonded over the show for years, answering questions together as she hoped for a future spot as a contestant.  This past summer, Cindy applied online and earned a spot to tape an appearance this summer, which aired this past December.  While competing, she managed to unseat the 7-day champion, last for 5 days in competition, and earn over one hundred thousand dollars in winnings.  However, Cindy never got to see her appearance on television because she died December 5th of Stage IV Colon Cancer at age 41.  She knew that she had precious few moments left, so she decided to continue to pursue her dream with additional vigor despite her failing health, and instead of resigning herself to what amounted to continuous fevers, excruciating abdominal pain, and just a handful of months left, she decided to live fully, as if any moment might be her last.

Death is such an enormous fear for so many that we become paralyzed by the mere thought of it.  We’ve lived our whole life avoiding the inevitable (and it is most definitely inevitable for all of us) that when we are faced with it, we cannot begin to fathom it.  In fact, we often spend so much time dreading that final moment, that we forget to actually live the other days as if we were truly alive.  We instead wrap ourselves in misery and guilt, victimizing ourselves and others instead of embracing what little time we have left and making the most of it.

Early in his career, Steve Jobs came across a quote that read, “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.”  The realization he made there was that he had to stop morbidly worrying about death and instead start embracing life by making every moment count.  Instead of waking up each day wondering what the point was because it was all going to end anyway, he would ask himself, “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” Whenever the answer was “no” for too many days in a row, he knew that he needed to change something.  His decision to live each day fully and make his actions count led him to a fulfilled life that changed many others in the process.

Many verses of the Bible warn us that we don’t know how much time we have left before death’s embrace, and all of these verses have the same basic message: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come…What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’’ (Mark 13.33, 37).  Mark, and many other authors, knew that oftentimes death comes unexpectedly, so his advice is for us to stay alert, be on our toes, and not to resign ourselves to depression and inaction.  Changing our mindset from “waiting to die” to “living for life” alters our world and those around us, as we project an outlook of gratitude and optimism.

Both Steve Jobs and Cindy Stowell were taken from this earth much sooner than most, but they both chose to live in the moment instead succumbing to their fates.  Because these two people saw the end coming and instead chose to live as fully as they could, both are influential to those that know their stories, and their influence ripples outward, teaching us to love every God-given moment.  This week, repeatedly ask yourself if you are living this moment as if it were a gift, alertly living as fully as possible.  If not, it’s time to make a change and embrace life.  Amen.

The Transformative Properties of Pure Love

Having visited nursing and rehab homes before, I knew what to expect.  Often, hope is scarce as the hallways are frequently filled with the despondent aging, many of whom are being wheeled up and down the hallway just for a change of scenery.  They have seen a great deal of pain and loss in their lives, and the monotony of later life takes its toll.  So, any and all change of pace and scenery, including visitors, is quickly welcomed with great enthusiasm, being a bright spot in the day as it breaks up the routine, easing the pains of life and distracting them beyond the ills from which they suffer.  However, what I didn’t expect was how much the residents would change when they got a visit from our dog, Finn.

Sixty pounds of off-white long soft fur and a love of everyone, he’s pure mutt with an enormous heart that often exceeds the size of his brain.  With pleading brown eyes that beg for attention and a tail that never stops, he bounded into the home with great excitement, looking for the next person to meet.  Anxiously, he’d happily trot over to them, leaning against their legs as he welcomed their loving advances.  Astoundingly, faces not only lit up as people asked to meet him, calling him over to pet him and say hello, but their entire demeanor changed.  People who were immobile and pain-riddled suddenly forgot themselves and called to him with open arms, as Finn gave every ounce of love he had.  No matter who they were, their lives were instantly improved when Finn came to visit them.  The transformation that took place because of his presence was astonishing.

There’s something pure about a dog’s love that is unlike human love.  When dogs meet someone, they never judge, accepting people for who they are.  Whether people were bed-ridden, wheelchair-bound, or with a walker, no matter the age, disability, or illness, Finn accepted them with his whole heart, and didn’t differentiate between any of them.  His total lack of judgment allowed for him to see people beyond their human failings and see them only for the love for which they were capable.  Additionally, a dog’s capacity for love is seemingly endless, as despite the number of people Finn met, or the number of times Finn met the same person, the well of love from which Finn’s love drew never dried up.  And because of that endless, boundless pure love, people’s hearts were changed as he brought what sorely lacked from so many of their lives: hope.

Similarly, Christ’s love shares many of these characteristics.  Endless and boundless, His pure love knows no judgement and can transform even the lowest.  Ephesians 2.4-5 displays the life-changing purity of His love: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.”  Like Finn, Christ’s love brings life and hope where there previously was none.  Christ takes even the direst situations and completely changes them around with the addition of His pure love.  For this reason, when God intervenes in our lives, we are never what we once were.  Transformation and hope are immediate, as we are fundamentally different because of his selfless, non-judgmental love.  Although we are humanly flawed, we can still be aware of the transformative nature that pure love can bring and work towards imitating it in the way we interact with others.  What we can still hope and pray for is for God to work through us, using our words and actions to give hope and love where there was none beforehand.  In that way, His love transforms us and others through its pure, nonjudgmental nature, altering our hearts and minds forever.  Amen.