The Burdens of the Father

June 25, 2009 at 2:45 pm (Uncategorized)

On the 7th anniversary of our marriage, my wife and I took a trip to the hospital for a routine checkup on her pregnancy.  We were both excited because it was the 20-week ultrasound, a time where there was a good chance to find out if the little baby that would join us in four or five more months would be a boy or girl.  As we sat in the dimly lit room and watched the images unfold before us on the computer monitor, we got even more excited.  That was, until the nonverbal communication from the technician doing the ultrasound became rigid, her manner alarmingly quiet.  She asked multiple times when was the last time we got an ultrasound and if we had an accurate due date.  Though we said nothing to each other, Meredith, my mother who had come along, and I became concerned.  Something was wrong.

After a long period of taking still shots, measuring images, and whatever other procedures the technician was required to perform, she told us she needed to talk to the radiologist, and that she would return soon.  She told us to relax.  That was the last thing we could do in those moments.  After a while longer of anxious waiting, we learned that there was indeed something wrong with our baby.  “Excess fluid” was about all of the explanation we received at the time, but the tech said our doctor would be calling us soon to discuss what they had discovered in the examination.  To learn something was wrong with our precious baby, the spark of life in Meredith’s womb, was devastating.  I had a hard time trying to hold it together and ultimately failed, crying and worrying what could possibly be happening with our developing child, who until 30 minutes earlier, had possessed in our eyes a bright future in our hopes and dreams.  We arrived hoping to find out the sex of our baby, but left with the answer that the baby was too swollen with fluid to even be able to discern the sex.

For the sake of brevity and the aversion I feel in ruminating on every detail of what has happened over the past few days, I’ll summarize what happened  thereafter.  Our doctor told us that it was “not good” and she recommended we go to a high-risk specialist as soon as possible to get a more accurate diagnosis of the problem.  The high-risk specialist we visited the next day informed us that our baby was suffering from two serious conditions: cystic hygroma and hydrops.  The cystic hygroma is a cyst at the back of the baby’s neck, filled with fluid, not necessarily life-threatening or untreatable.  However, in combination with the other condition–hydrops–the problem was extremely serious, so serious, in fact, that the probability of our baby not surviving was nearly 100%.  Hydrops is when the baby has fluid accumulations in more than two cavities of its body.  In our case, the baby has fluid in the abdomen, legs, and back of the neck.

To hear from the doctor that there was almost no chance that our baby would survive was heartbreaking.  How can you prepare for such news?  I left feeling the grip of despair and hopelessness on my heart.  I kept finding myself thinking about how many prayers I had said paralleling the words of the David, the poet-king, in Psalm 139:

13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth,

16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me
were written in your book
before one of them came to be.

I prayed often early on in the pregnancy, just as I had for my daughter Toby, that God would be knitting together this new child with care and His perfect hands.  And I found, and still find myself thinking, of the words of Jesus in Matthew 21:22, where he says,  If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”  It wasn’t like I had been asking for a new car or video game.  My heart was broken at the news of what seemed to be the very opposite of what, in my mind, was Godly-aligned prayer.  Why wouldn’t God answer a prayer such as this?  Why would He allow such a thing to happen?  Why would Jesus tell me that my prayers would be granted, if they won’t be?  Intellectually, I understood that my prayers must be aligned with the will of the Father to be answered, but it didn’t seem sensical that these prayers wouldn’t be aligned with His will.  And if I couldn’t understand His will or praying in His will in this matter, how could I understand anything in His will?  How could I ever pray with faith?  These were the burdens of the father.  These were the hauntings of my heart.

I haven’t found myself outright resenting God these past few days, but I have found myself adrift in the uncertainty of prayer and belief, with, what seemed, a failing compass.

But there were other variables at play, as well.  Though the storm raged all around me, God hadn’t let go.  He hasn’t let go.

A few weeks ago at church, before any of these troubles began battering the fragile vessel of my heart, our pastor Bill Hybels preached a sermon entitled “Moments of Truth.”  In his sermon, he explained that his life had been deeply enriched by having words of scripture stored in his memory and heart.  That, in certain times, when he faced difficult situations or issues he wasn’t sure how to handle (or where he thought he did at first), the Holy Spirit would prompt into the forefront of his mind scripture that helped him to navigate his course.  He encouraged us all to espouse words of scripture that bespoke to common experiences of life: trials, temptation, fear, anger, salvation, justice, etc.  By doing this, he hoped the Spirit would bless us with greater discernment and more Godly living.  As a result of this talk, I decided to follow his advice because to be honest, following his teachings in the past has had huge positive influences on my life.  So I memorized some key verses, not knowing how important they would become to me in so soon a time.

Amidst the shock of the news regarding our baby, one of the verses I had memorized from the book of Romans asserted itself over and over in my mind: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (8:28). The words were a balm to soothe a soul threatening to rupture from the pain.  And another verse from the book of James rose out of the spiritual dissonance from within, an invitation to receive wisdom when I lack it, to receive understanding when it seems like it is unattainable: “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (1:5). Because lack of understanding felt like a hole bored into my heart, I prayed this verse and asked for wisdom again and again.

As I leaned into God, I found that He was faithful and present.  On the morning of visiting the high-risk specialist, somewhere in the period of semi-conscious waking from sleep, an Old Testament story played in my mind.  It was the story from 2 Samuel, chapter 12, of David and Bathsheba and the son they had together, whom God made sick because of David’s sin in committing adultery, covering it up by having her husband Uriah killed, and the subsequent attempt to cover all of it in his actions and words.  David’s response to the baby’s plight was to fast, weep, and lay upon the floor for seven days, until the baby died.  In my weekly guys group, we’ve been reading a book by John Piper about fasting and how it can draw us closer and create a deeper hunger for God, so I was wondering if I should fast in this situation, like David.  But I left it at that as I roused from sleep.

Soon after waking, I forgot about the story.  That is, until my friend Bob called me after all of the events unfolded that day.  His wife had given birth to a healthy baby girl that very afternoon.  His heart was a mixture of joy and sadness at our news.  He told me he read the story of David and Bathsheba, and that it gave him comfort in our situation.  I told him I felt little to no hope, and that a story of a baby dying didn’t help much.  But he encouraged me to read it.  Thinking it was a strange coincidence that he brought up the story that was on my mind that very morning, I grabbed my Bible and flipped it open, and to my aching soul’s surprise, it opened to the exact page in 2 Samuel where the story is written.  I wouldn’t usually ascribe any significance into the random page that I open, as if God had some message He wanted me to find, and divinely guided my hand, but this truly was no coincidence on this day.  How could it be?  What are the chances of my hand turning to the precise page of the story that the Holy Spirit obviously wanted me to engage?  As I read the story multiple times, I found my heart softening, and a great hope stirring inside of me.  Here are some of the verses from 2 Samuel 12 that especially spoke to me in not only the darkness of night, but the darkness of my soul:

15 After Nathan had gone home, the Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.

16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground.

17 The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.

18 On the seventh day the child died. David’s servants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, we spoke to David but he would not listen to us. How can we tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.”

19 David noticed that his servants were whispering among themselves and he realized the child was dead. “Is the child dead?” he asked.
“Yes,” they replied, “he is dead.”

20 Then David got up from the ground. After he had washed, put on lotions and changed his clothes, he went into the house of the Lord and worshiped. Then he went to his own house, and at his request they served him food, and he ate.

21 His servants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”
22 He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’

23 But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
24 Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon.

I shared the story with Meredith, and she and I discussed it.  Meredith, this whole time, had been much more positive than I.  Her capacity for optimism, for finding hope is a gift that few people have, and I feel blessed to have a wife like her.  In our discussion and reflection, I found my attention being pulled to David’s words in verse 22, where he says, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept.  I thought, ‘Who knows, the Lord may be gracious and let the child live.'”  Instead of the despair and hopelessness that was taking root in my heart, Meredith helped to remind me that our precious child yet lives.  The baby’s heart is still beating, and the little one is fighting to survive.  How can I, father to a sick child, give up hope while it still remains?  Simply, I cannot.  I must not.  I will not.  So I will fast and weep for my child.  Who knows?  Perhaps the Lord will be gracious to us, and let the child live.

And if God takes my baby home before we get to meet here on earth, I will take comfort, great comfort, in David’s words from verse 23.  He says someday he “will go to him.”  No matter what happens in these next days, weeks, months, or years, I will be able to go to my baby when this life is over and rejoice in the perfect wholeness of the life of my child.

So though the uncertainties threaten my sensibilities around every corner, I will take heart in 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.”  God has already helped to provide a way in His faithfulness for me not to abandon myself and my family to despair, but to allow God’ s arms to embrace us in radical, all-surpassing love.

We walk now not knowing what is going to happen, but I have a deep-seeded hope which has replaced the cold fingers of darkness and hopelessness that were so quick to creep in when we heard the news.  Perhaps You will be gracious, God, perhaps You will be gracious to me.  As long as my baby’s heart beats, I will hold to the hope that God’s will is to miraculously bring this child into the world for His glory.  And no matter what, I anxiously await meeting that child, whether it be in this life or the next, which truth be told, are one withal.

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That’s My King

April 7, 2009 at 9:38 pm (Uncategorized)

Recently, some students asked if I would let them use my classroom for a weekly morning meeting where they can get together with Christ-followers in the school and worship and study the Word.  This is the video that they are going to be discussing this week.  It’s not the first time I’ve seen it.  I saw it at the Willow Leadership Summit last summer, and it was soul-stirring.  If you ever wondered who Jesus was/is, this is a pretty cool video sharing some of his characteristics.

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Rekindling the Heart

March 31, 2009 at 11:05 pm (Uncategorized)

I woke up this morning as I do on many mornings, a few minutes before my alarm went off.  Sometimes it seems a small cruelty when the red numbers burn a 5:28 in the darkness, but this morning wasn’t bad, simply quiet.  I have begun to enjoy the silence of the morning, the centering of spirit that can take place.

I got to thinking back to the summer of 2001, where I spent a month in the sweeping landscapes of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, attending a Christian leadership camp called SLT. 

Sunset at Cedar Campus

Sunset at Cedar Campus

Among the many challenges and lessons I learned there, I made a commitment to read the Bible every day, and except for two days since then, I have fulfilled that commitment.  I say it not in the spirit of pride but as a matter of fact.  Indeed there is no place for pride because somewhere along the way, I lost sight of why I made the decision in the first place.  Eventually, instead of a transformative experience, it became a habitual duty with little inspiration or growth, often relegated to the last thing I would do before going to bed.  Brush teeth: check.  Lie down: check.  Tell wife I love her: check.  Read some verses before falling asleep: check.

For years at a time I would slip into this monotony of religiosity.  And I knew it.  But as of late I’ve felt myself coming out of the indifference, and God has answered my prayers to stir up in me a desire for his Word, for his calling in my life.  I’m sure God has used a myriad of variables to bring about this renewal, many of which I’m not even aware of, but when I think of it, I can see some of them at work in my heart. 

One such variable is my daughter Toby.  As I’ve discussed in an earlier reflection, her presence has altered my understanding of God and how he loves each of us.  Like Saul, when something akin to scales fell away from his eyes, allowing him to see once again but with renewed vision, I feel as if my heart has shed its own metaphorical scales, and I see things differently.  I’ve realized I am afraid of raising my daughter with the teachings of Jesus while refusing to be sold out to him.

Another impetus is the challenge of a theological paradigm I’ve held for years, whether I realized it or not.  Over the last two years, I’ve been meeting with three other Christ-followers on a weekly basis.  Our most recent studies have been on a book called Desiring God by John Piper.  The author presents compelling arguments for a lifestyle in which we unendingly pursue joy.  He claims that we naturally seek out our own happiness, and such pursuit isn’t wrong.  What is wrong is not pursuing that happiness as deeply and passionately as we should.  Namely, that our greatest happiness is found in being fully enveloped in God’s love and will for our lives.  Settling for anything less will leave us unsatisfied.  This mindset contrasts my previous way of relating to God, which was based on duty–that I owed God for my salvation.  I heard an apt comparison from Bob, a great friend of mine: I was like a husband giving his wife flowers out of duty instead of out of the joy of love.  How happy could she be with a gift that I gave her because it was “my duty?”  Not very.  She’d be justified in rejecting such a “gift” altogether.  This isn’t a perfect parallel to our relationship with God, but some main concepts work.  Not that God’s happiness is any way dependent on me–he is fully satisfied in himself–but to know that my heart must be in the right place changes everything for me.

Add in a touch of discipline with the motivation to authentically seek joy in God, and the morning has become a time of solace, reflection, and centering for me.  Instead of a reading quota to fill, I am digging into the Word with openness, and finding deep fulfillment working its way out in my heart, relationships, and life. 

Next time you wake up a couple of minutes before your alarm, resist the urge to roll over and despair at the injustice of sleep deprivation.  Instead, seek out God in the silence.  Trust me, he is there.

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Brief reflections from a new dad

March 19, 2009 at 11:54 pm (Uncategorized)

For Valentine’s Day last month, I made a video for my daughter and wife to celebrate Toby’s first Valentine’s Day.  It’s likely I enjoyed creating it and watching it more than who the gift was for.  Maybe that’s why they say it’s better to give than receive.

I have pondered life and love much these past six months since Toby arrived and have realized a number of things about myself, my world.  In conversations people often ask new parents how life is with the new one, and granted, amidst the late nights, incessant diaper changes, and early guessing games at attempting to placate a crying baby, it can be difficult.  I know parents who have become so entrenched in the struggles of adjusting to the new demands that they long for the days before the responsibilities of children.  In time, it seems that they struggle to break out of the negativity they’ve associated with their children, and it subsequently comes across in the way they share their personal familial experiences.  Maybe I’m just a new dad without a clue.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but stand in awe of what Toby has done to Meredith and me.   I always knew intellectually, that I would love my child in a profound way, but nothing prepared me for the complete wrecking of my heart for the bones of my bones, the blood of my blood.

Toby

Toby

 If the smile of this little one weren’t enough, I feel God has richly blessed me with a mere glimmer of what his love is like for me, for you, for each of us.  It is through my newly acquired father’s eyes that I see my child.  I see her well for what she is: my beloved.  She could do nothing to change that.  To realize my Father loves me in this way, but infinitely more so! (and I must feel strongly about it to use a dreaded exclamation point)  Challenging and revealing is an understatement.  This new understanding has impacted the way I relate to Him and others.  Needless to say, my life is as rich as it has ever been, and God continually wrecks me with the beauty of His love.

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A tribute to one of my favorite series, ever.

March 19, 2009 at 8:32 pm (Uncategorized)

The Dark Tower series by Stephen King is one of the most engrossing tales I’ve ever read.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  This is a short video I created using some images from Marvel’s comics of The Dark Tower and a song by Jami Sieber called “Homage” on her Hidden Sky album.

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Blogging, here I come.

March 19, 2009 at 8:02 pm (Uncategorized)

Ok.  I’ve finally done it.  I’m blogging.

I’m hoping to be able to keep this as a collection of thoughts, reflections, and observations on my everyday life.  Or yours, if I know you and write about you.

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