Almost Famous

"Daddy, I'm famous!" Gemma jumped into our old, gold minivan (affectionately named "Blanche") to announce the news.


Yesterday was Gemma's very last doctor's appointment in the long saga of her recovery from a harrowing case of bacterial meningitis. She recently received a clean bill of health from the Infectious Disease team (praise God!) and this was the final check-in with her Ear-Nose-Throat surgeon to be sure her sinuses are all clear.

And they are!

But during the appointment, Gemma's doctor mentioned something that brought everything rushing back into perspective again. Namely, he informed us that her case was so serious, so life-threatening, and so incredibly rare, that it's going to be published. 

Gemma asked what this meant, of course, and after getting a kid-friendly explanation from the surgeon concluded that she is going to be famous now!

Famous? Well, almost. Because her mom and I were just brought back to the heaviness, the intensity, the trauma of it all. Stuff like this happens so fast and then ends so fast that it's easy to at least partially bury it. Sometimes it feels like you have to bury it just in order to function with all the busyness of everyday life.

But then it comes bubbling up and rushing back, whether you like it or not. And sometimes it gets published in a medical journal and permanently preserved for posterity.

This has me thinking more deeply about how we continue to live in gratitude for the resurrection that has come to our family, while still working to accept the fear and sadness of this sickness and the effect it has had on us at the deepest level. Because it really happened, and it was really serious. It permanently changed us.

In other words, how do we continue to lean into the reality of it and not slip into denial - while still singing those praise songs of rejoicing and thanksgiving?

Perhaps the Christian season we are in sheds some light. We are located, right now, in that liminal space between Easter and Pentecost, between the witnessing of resurrection and the arrival of the Spirit. True, we don't celebrate Ascension until May, but the ultimate promise - of the abiding presence of Christ by the Spirit - has not yet arrived.

We are in that space between - rejoicing at resurrection, but still working to accept what has happened, still waiting to receive the promise of full restoration. 

And we believe it will come. We believe it with all that we are, at the deepest core of our being. But we are waiting for that Pentecost promise, for the next steps for our family, healthy and sustaining and full of life and power and peace, to appear before us. 

How about you? Are you in a similar space between? If so, I'd love to hear about it in the comments :).

Easter: The Opposite of Pitiful

One of the classic portions of Scripture unpacking the resurrection of Jesus - and what Easter really means - is 1 Corinthians 15. In that passage, the apostle Paul argues that the resurrection is the non-negotiable foundation of Christian faith, to the degree that without it, "your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (v. 17). Then verse 19 goes a step further: "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

In other words, Paul is saying that without the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which is the foretaste of the eternal resurrection life that is available to everyone in Christ, then we are downright pitiful. 

Resurrection has been on my mind in a really heavy way lately because my oldest daughter Gemma recently got really sick. So sick that she could have died. Her rare case of bacterial meningitis brought her closer to that edge than I even want to admit, and it was a frightening thing for our family.

And watching her recover, after more than a month of being so sick and weak, has been like watching resurrection before our very eyes. 

I have an even greater appreciation for Paul's words now, because this life can't be all there is. And perhaps my tendency is to overemphasize the things of the kingdom that apply to the now, rather than the things that apply to the not-yet. Perhaps my tendency is to move out of that faith-space where the resurrection of Jesus is the foundational grounding of my whole existence, and instead to get caught up in things that pale in comparison. Things that might even be considered pitiful.

As painful as it was to experience, for Gemma especially and also for her mom and me, I do believe God has given me a visceral taste of what our resurrection hope is really all about. Life is so precious, so wonderful and brilliant, a good gift of God that is not meant to be extinguished. As I pleaded with God for my sweet baby's life, I knew this in my bones like never before. And Jesus has made a way for that dastardly enemy Death to be defeated once and for all.

[Tweet "Jesus has made a way for that dastardly enemy Death to be defeated once and for all."]

That's where I want my core focus to be - on the historic hope that has guided the Christian faith and church for millennia and turned the world upside down in the process.

The hope of resurrection.

Because nothing can stop that hope.

It is the opposite of pitiful. 

Best Laid Plans in the Lenten Wilderness

When I last wrote, I wrote about Lent and the positive action of writing a book that has the power to overshadow the negations - the fasting - of the season. But I should have written about best laid plans.

Because I didn't write a book for Lent this year. I journeyed through my child's health crisis instead.

About the time that Lent was beginning, and just days after our recent move, my oldest daughter Gemma got a flu-ish virus. Or at least that's what we thought it was. She was groggy and a little feverish. On the first day her stomach was upset and she threw up. After that she just wanted to lay on the couch and watch TV.

We weren't that worried, though it did seem a bit strange since she'd had her flu shot. Regardless, we proceeded with business as usual and thought Gems just needed her rest. We gave her TLC and lots of fluids.

When the fevers and headaches didn't go away but only got progressively worse, we were concerned. We took her to her primary care, and he thought it was just stubborn virus. A few days later we took her again and he sent her to the ER. After a day of observation, the ER docs sent her home.

A few days after that we would be back.

By that time the fevers and headaches had grown so intense they were triggering confusion, hallucination, and photophobia. We had already read online about meningitis, and despite the doctors' viral diagnosis, it sure looked like the dreaded infection to us.

It's strange how your mind begins to tell stories in a moment of crisis like this. Denial-stories of how it couldn't be that, it couldn't be happening to us, surely God will protect from the worst.

But it was that, and the worst did happen.

To us.

By the worst, I don't mean the worst of all possible diagnoses. But I do mean the worst case scenario for this set of symptoms and this situation.

Gemma didn't just have meningitis. She had a rare case of bacterial meningitis that was the result of an undiagnosed sinus infection eating through the soft bone in her still-developing skull and creating an abscess on her brain. The infection was now in her sinuses, in her bone, and in her meninges (brain and spinal fluid).

The infection was deadly.

And Gemma was suffering, not just from the constant and intense fevers and headaches but from lack of nutrition and depleted strength. She was, for all intents and purposes, fading away.

I cannot type that without trembling at the reality of it. I don't want to believe it happened. I don't think I've fully accepted it.

When faced with trauma we dig deep wells to find perseverance bubbling up that we didn't know existed. Gemma dug deep, deeper than I ever thought a child could. She is strong - angel-strong. Her mom and I dug deep, inspired by her, out of sheer determination to see her healthy again. Our focus became singular and everything else was pushed aside. None of us, of course, knew how deeply we were being affected by all of it.

We still don't.

What we did know is that in the darkest moments God was all we had to hold onto.

These kinds of experiences are theology demolishers. Unless one wants to live through eyes sewn shut, religious platitudes and cliches become utterly useless. "God is in control" is the kind of platitude I mean. When your child has a life-threatening illness, you become quite sure that believing such a platitude would be to believe in the worst of all beings, God or not.

God is not in control, not in that way. My wife and I are quite clear on this now.

But we believe, with a depth of reality that transcends theology, that God is always, powerfully, lovingly, restoratively at work.

I wouldn't be writing this - wouldn't be writing anything - if Gemma had not recovered. She has. And with such marvelous fullness as to leave her mom and me breathless at every dance, every joke, every race from the yard to the house, every shrill argument with her little sister, every big, full meal eaten after such a long, sullen hiatus. We marvel, really, at Gemma's return.

Her resurrection.

Her body endured not only a deadly illness but two surgeries and almost daily procedures that repeatedly turned the trauma dial up to 11. Her mind fought and processed and is still processing now in hindsight - wondering, worried if this will ever happen to her again.

I guess recovery, in that sense, will be ongoing for a while yet.

I won't soon forget the spontaneous request she made while still in the thick of her nearly three-week hospital stay: "Dad, can you read me a Bible story about Jesus healing someone?"

And I can't help but see Jesus the Healer in the hands and minds of doctors solving problems, making diagnoses, performing surgeries, prescribing antibiotics. I can't help but see Jesus working miracles through the hundreds of people praying at the prompting of a few Facebook posts, through their urgent pleas to the Father for Gemma's homecoming. I can't help but see the laying on of healing hands in the hugs of friends who drove hours out of state just to visit her for part of the day.

I can't help but see Jesus the Miraculous Healer in those first couple days after we arrived home, when Gemma's spirits suddenly revived even as her body came alive.

The Lenten wilderness has a way of uncovering our deepest realities, of laying us bare if we let it. It can upend all our best laid plans to do a much deeper work. This is the essence of the fast - to clear away the clutter and remember we are dust. True repentance can take root in such a space, leading to true restoration.

My wife and I have been changed by this journey. Our daughter has been changed. Our family has been changed. Forever.

We still don't know how the change will unfold, how resurrection will spring forth from such a dry and thirsty desert.

We just know, deep in our bones, that God is powerfully, lovingly, restoratively at work - always.

Writing a Book For Lent

Lent is negative. Not inherently, but in the way that it is often perceived and practiced. Lent is giving things up. Lent is subtraction. Negation. And this practice can be very good. I've given things up for Lent and it's been a beneficial discipline.

But this year, I'm not giving anything up. Instead, I'm doing something. I'm committing to a positive action, one that will certainly last the entire 40 days of this holy season.

I'm writing a book.

But even as I write this post in my new and newly reorganized office (an important, and positive, discipline for those of us who write and also have ADD), I realize that this positive action has negative implications. That is, to do this thing I will actually have to give up doing other things. Essential to committing to this action is the negation of others.

For instance, I know that I'm not going to be able to watch much TV, especially the dramas I love to absorb and study and analyze. They are art to me, and a kind of life's work in themselves (as well as genuine recreation). Which is to say, I'm not a binge-watcher in any unserious sense.

Really, the only show I'm going to allow myself during this literary Lenten journey is The Walking Dead on Sunday nights - and that because a) Sundays are for feasting, even during Lent; and b) I'm writing a book called After the Apocalypse, so...research!

There will be other areas of negation too - emotionally, I am immersed in that often dark space of exploring past experiences and mining them for gold that may help those who read the book. That means some of life's exuberance will be absorbed in prayerful reflection, in lament, in examination, in surrender. The usual social and communal joy will be absorbed by the cavetime of reflective writing.

A fast, to be sure. 

To be honest, I also realize that blogging will be an area of negation during this season - a decrease if not a total fast. Like I've mentioned before, the momentum will be slow in building over here, though rest assured it will come. I am not a bottomless well, and my creative capacity must be directed towards the commitment that I've made. But I shall return, and probably like a flood, once that season dissipates.

Which brings me back, I guess, to Lent in general. What if the giving up by which we typically identify the season was replaced by an emphasis on positive action - which, if only by implication, includes the negations as well? Committing to an action is energizing. I am beyond stoked to write this book. And the good things that must be given up are more meaningful for the positive goal of sacrificing them.

Maybe you can do something similar this season, committing to a concrete action as the Lord leads.

Maybe you can keep a positive, and holy, Lent.

The Campaign Ad That Always Makes Me Misty (Yeah, It's Bernie)

This year I decided to make no bones about my support of one of the Democratic presidential candidates: Bernie Sanders.

And this video sums up why I feel that, as a Wesleyanabaptist messy-middle Christian, I can express my public support with no qualms. Namely, Bernie is the closest thing we have to a candidate who champions the cause of real people, real Americans, and particularly those who are struggling economically or marginalized and oppressed in some way. His campaign is a radical departure from the typical grotesque financing from millionaires, billionaires, Wall St., and other corporate interests. He's funded by real people, the same people he is committed to serving.

There is no doubt that our ultimate hope does not lie in the political system. But for those of us interested in the church being a prophetic witness to the powers, Bernie does offer hope of making some very real and subversive changes that will more consistently uphold justice and compassion for us and our neighbors. Fighting income inequality, establishing universal healthcare, and reforming the racial injustices in law enforcement and incarceration are just a few examples.

And honestly, I am looking for America - to catch up with other developed countries in upholding human rights and empowering real people.

So, watch it and weep!

2016: The Year of Accepting, Arriving, and Belonging

2015 was quite a year for our family. At the start of the year, I happened to write about the transition that was then underway, still unaware of all it would entail. It would indeed be "starting over." But I homed in on another idea in that post, one that would turn out to be especially accurate: 2015 would be the year of "dying all the way."

And it goes without saying, but dying kind of sucks.

Of course, I'm not talking about physical death here (though the physical death of a friend or loved one can accompany/trigger this) but an emotional, psychological, and spiritual one. I'm talking about the death of a season of life, of a way of being, of the patterns and routines and places and relationships and dreams that have come to define your entire perspective on everything - torn away, piece by piece, until you and your ego and your identity are laid stripped bare in the grave.

Ready for resurrection.

It happened. Accept it. Move on.

Not exactly the most revolutionary string of words but somehow of utmost profundity to me at this moment. Because oh have I tried to maintain some kind of grip on at least some pieces of that old season. Sure, there are good memories I will treasure, good work that was accomplished, important steps that were taken, and some vital (and vicious) lessons learned. But last year was characterized by the last gasps of that emotional entanglement and looking back; or as Brené Brown puts it in Rising Strong:

During the process of rising we sometimes find ourselves homesick for a place that no longer exists. We want to go back to that moment before we walked into the arena. But there's nowhere to go back to.

There's nowhere to go back to. Do you feel the weight of that? Everything has changed and no amount of wishing or analyzing or reliving can reverse that. If you've experienced some kind of traumatic shift in your life, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

And so here, at the start of 2016, I can honestly say that genuine and thoroughgoing acceptance has finally set in. It happened. It really happened! There's no denying it. There's no spinning the narrative or tolerating the false narratives that others have tried to apply. I know what I know. I have seen what I have seen. Accept it. Really accept it! Accept it in all of its jagged, scarring reality. Hold its pain close, and then hold it closer, until it is absorbed into the astonishing reality that I am still here, I am still breathing, I am still alive! Integrate it into the truth of my true self, into the wholeness of my whole heart, into the bedrock of my belovedness in the Beloved.

And then - and only then - move on.

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In the midst of 2015's fuller, more complete dying, though, we could feel something else - a groundswell, a shift, a progressive kind of breaking through. Namely, we were beginning to arrive. 

The first real glimpse of this came with the birth of baby Willa - or Bae Willa, as my middle child is fond of calling her. Willa's conception (calm down) was nothing less than inspired. My wife Kalen and I decided to go for number 3 because of an overwhelming sense that our family would be incomplete without her, and having her would bring us into the fullness of our family's calling and destiny. And Willa's arrival was something like a refreshing wind of the Spirit in the precious incarnation of what had theretofore only been a thin promise: that hope is alive and help is on the way and homecoming is near.

Bae Willa is a snowbaby now!!

The second glimpse came like a bolt of lightning. Literally. I've told the story in my newsletter The Letter Z, but the long and short of it is this: at a moment of personal and career crossroads, lightning struck a tree a few feet from our house, shook the walls and surged the power, and fried my (surge protected) internet router. Which, through a domino-like series of strange events, forced a choice that we were leaning away from - the choice to keep writing as a central focus in my ministry and career. This would in turn lead to committing and pressing forward with my book proposal, seeking representation from an agent, and finally...a two book contract with Zondervan. Light(ning), clarity, fulfillment - and the power of "almost." Arrival, indeed.

Yep, that's the tree!

The third and final glimpse is more etherial than the first two - a feeling more than an event. But it goes a little something like this: I just want to belong. The desire for belonging is kind of a miracle in itself; it is only possible to want that when acceptance has set in, when moving on manifests itself as more than distant potentiality - as actual reality. The deep desire to rejoin the world fully is something like a heat-seeking missile that begins to home in on a target. When that desire arrived in late 2015 - and it surprisingly did - all kinds of strange and powerful things were set into motion. You could almost hear the stone rolling away.

I am done with evangelicalism.

While that probably sounds like an epic pronouncement, it is more like a realization; this is simply where I find myself at this point in the pilgrimage. I wrote some months ago (perhaps kinda prophetically) on graduating, on being done with "evangelical church as usual." I also wrote this:

It’s time to allow whatever additional elements of allegiance to an institution or organization or a form of religion to die, so that I will not stay too long, so that this will not need to become a messy(er) divorce.

And now, I stand at the point where allegiance to evangelicalism has died all the way.

I emphasize the -ism because what I am not leaving behind are any and all of the ways my faith bears certain marks of evangelical identity. In fact, this is precisely why I am done with evangelicalism - because it, as a somewhat anxious and defensive category, often practices the "forced teaming" of demanding conformity to its major points and players. To hold some of those points in common but not others, or some of those players as friends and accomplices but not others, is to find oneself outside the bounds.

But the fact is, I have woken up. I have progressed. I can't deny it. And the reason I can't is because I want to belong.

See, belonging begins with knowing thyself. It begins with being thyself. It begins with, dare I say, loving thyself (something that is incredibly hard for me to do). In this context, it begins with accepting all the ways in which your real, embodied experience has shaped your faith. It begins with living that faith, and living it to the full.

This is what the experience of death - and resurrection - is all about. The death of old identities and ego-masks leaves you finally ready for rising strong as your true self. And that's what leads to belonging - to a place, to a people, to a way of life. The more we embrace the true self, as we have been created and re-created in the Beloved, the more we begin to walk in fullness of joy and flourishing life.

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The fact is that I hold those evangelical elements of my faith near and dear, even as I hold the liturgical and progressive elements of my faith just as near and dear. I am leaving behind both the inner and outer struggle of being doubtful and double-minded or oscillating back and forth to try to please the "teams." Instead, this tension is becoming an integration - not a battle. And it is precisely this personal integration that will create an integration in connections, community, and calling.

Which is to say, belonging.

And that, at long last, here in 2016.

On thick (enough) ice with two of the loves of my life, and my best friends - Gemma and Pippa.