Tuesday I went to the funeral of a friend. He was not an old time friend I had known since high school. He was not a cancer child I had befriended through our efforts to help others through this maze we call childhood cancer (although Lord knows I have been to way to many cancer children’s funerals).No, Ben was a night clerk at the hotel I am staying at in Round Rock, Texas (just north of Austin). And, yet, in the few short weeks I knew him, I came to count him as a friend. It is funny how extended stays at hotels can lead to you feeling like you are around a second family.
I could take this post a lot of directions. Since Ben was killed by a teenage driver who was high due to huffing (and possibly ingesting or inhaling other substances), I could write on the dangers of driving under the influence. Since I had originally heard Ben was killed due to injuries sustained by choosing to not wear a seatbelt, I could write about the dangers of not being buckled. [NOTE: I received a comment the other day that Ben was, in fact, wearing a seatbelt, thus the addition to the blog post] I could rant about the fact it is way too easy to get on the wrong side of a highway and run head first into another car. I could also talk about how Ben’s organs helped others out, saving the lives of some. But none of these directions would suffice.
My last conversation with Ben took place the last week of April. The last time I saw him, we ended our conversation with “see you next week” like so many times before. But next week never came for Ben. When I got back into town the first week in May, Ben was in a coma. By the week after, spent in Nashville, he was brain dead and his parents had to carry out the wishes to have a part of Ben live on to save others. Yesterday, people came from many places to remember Ben.
When you deal with childhood cancer, you get some measure of how fragile life is. As you watch a terminal case progress from hope in standard regimens to hope in clinical trials to hope in alternative treatments to acceptance and hospice, you gain an understanding of how life is both tragic and precious. When life ends rather suddenly, however, you realize not only how precious life is but how precious each and every moment is.
The impact of thinking you, or someone you love, could be enjoying your favorite television show one moment and gone the next is sobering. It is not something you should dwell on, as life presents enough worries without dwelling on your demise. But you should dwell on making sure each moment counts. It is easy to make life your focus right after you have experienced a loss, or nearly lost your own life, but hard to maintain that focus – without some concerted effort, at least.
Here is a lesson on perspective. We spend the majority of our lives on relatively meaningless things. These things could be the television shows we watch, the worries we bear, or even the majority of the work we do. We spend our time on these things believing we are doing many of them to make the meaningful things better or perhaps to escape from the drudgery of daily life or the stresses placed on us. In reality, much of the busy work comes from our own fears that focusing on the meaningful things will increase our likelihood of screwing the meaningful things up. Rather than face that possibility, we move to the minors.
Here are some things I have learned:
- We will spend all but a blip of our “lives” in eternity, yet the majority of us spend less than a small percentage of our time focusing on whom we will spend eternity with
- Our biggest treasures in our twilight or during hard times are the friends we have, yet most of us spend very little time with our children and friends in a meaningful way
- Our most meaningful legacies are those we pass on to the next generation, yet most of us seek our meaning in temporal things
- The most important people during tragedies are those that were never expected to show up …
- … and the most damaging are those who were expected who found more important things to do
Here is what I have learned about life and its meaning. Some will find comfort in this, others will assume it is just a meaningless fairy tale. For the later, I suggest you examine the things you are “sure” of very closely, as I am confident you will find each of us have something we hold on to that is not fully supported by evidence. This, in a non-religious context, is what “faith” is.
God and the price of Love
We start with the creation. It is not important whether creation was six days or billions. It is not important whether God used words to create or set things in motion and allowed evolutionary processes to complete His work. What is important is God reached the pinnacle of His creation at some point and that pinnacle is us. Genesis tells us God made man in “our image” and he breathed life into man. On a spiritual level, God separated man from other creatures by giving Him an eternal soul, or “breathing His spirit” into His creation. The important takeaway here is God felt He had finally reached a point where He created a creature that was in “His image” and, out of love, gave man a soul.
Now God has a choice. He loves man and wants man to love Him back.
- He can dictate the terms, but love from prisoners is not real love (see the Stockholm syndrome). With God, the appearance of love could have been perfect facsimile of love and none of His creation would have known the difference. But God would have known it was not real love, which must be freely given.
- He can give His creation the choice to love or hate. This choice also leaves the created the power to “hate” through ambivalence, denying the existence of a creator. If God takes this choice, he has to leave His hands off in most cases, lest He interfere too much and create prisoners (choice 1).
God chooses choice #2, with the exception of a small group He calls His people. Even with His people, God is often distant, leaving them to doubt. But love can only be fully realized when both parties have the freedom to love, so it is a necessary self-imposed restriction. And, for those who choose to love Him, it is worth the pain watching others turn away in hate. There is so much vested in this concept of the joy God experiences when His creation chooses to love, Jesus mentions it as a summary for two of His parables (1 lost sheep, 1 lost coin):
In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.
— Luke 15:10
In the rest of Luke 15, we find the parable of the prodigal son. A son asks for his share of his father’s inheritance and then spends it on foolish things. Downtrodden, he decides to go back to his father’s house and beg for a job, noting his father’s servants are treated better than the life he has now. And, in response, his father runs to him and holds a celebration:
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
— Luke 15: 20b – 24
That is the power of love. Even those who don’t acknowledge the love are loved. Even those who walk away are loved. This is agape love, or perfect love as God loves. Yesterday is forgiven and forgotten simply because the object of love acknowledges love and asks for forgiveness for his unloving acts.
Love is not a Contract
When you examine life, you often find people (perhaps even yourself) saying things like “if you really loved me, you would X”. For a parent, this X might be “clean up your room”. For a lover this might be “bring me flowers on Friday”. Regardless of what X might be, you have reduced love to a contract.
When it comes to God, we find these contracts in the form of “if I pray hard enough, or get enough people to pray, you will give me X”. In these transactions, we reduce God to some sort of cosmic vending machine. We make God into Santa, who brings the desires of the heart to the “good children”. Taken far enough, this contractual thinking can shake our faith to its core. We see those without faith experiencing healing while those with faith suffer and conclude this is all an accident.
There are a few problems with contractual thinking. First, love is not a contract. One may show love through “proper” actions, but the lack of specific outcomes does not reveal love. Second, everything becomes transactional rather than relational. Rather than lean on our loved one, we chock up brownie points or move them farther up the s___ list. Only by doing everything we expect does one get an A+ on the test. Despite all the extra credit done in unexpected kindnesses, the lack of meeting one objective mars the score. And we become jaded.
If God truly gave us the free will to love or hate, He must carefully choose His direct interventions. Too much monkeying and His creation loses its choice. And love becomes a meaningless game. Things look great, but there is no relationship. Love becomes a contract.
If God truly loves man, then He loves all man, not just those who choose to love Him back. If love becomes contractual, then it is reserved for those who choose to love back. While this is common with man to reduce love this way, very few of us continue in long term personal relationships where we know everything is contractual. We ultimately end up feeling used by these relationships. And, yet, we would want a God to count up our prayers like coins and give us a soda when we have the right amount in the machine?
As you travel through lives valleys, be it the sickness of a child or the death of a loved one, you find people coming together to your aid. Many times, the strangest things happen, like an old friend calling at just the right time despite not having kept in touch for years.
This is God’s love in action. He will not act as a vending machine and He cannot interfere too much without destroying our free choice. So He moves us to step out through compulsions. Now, there are certainly bad compulsions that come from other sources. I am not one to chock all of this up to “the evil one”, as I have seen way too many people blaming Satan for their lives when they are running down the path to destruction on their own power. I certainly don’t discount evil forces, but we have no power to control outside forces completely, so we have to look within ourselves. Taken a step farther, even if evil forces are trying to ruin our lives, they only have the power we have given them to ruin our attitudes and perspectives.
Back from my digression. In the midst of the worst time during Miranda’s cancer treatment, I saw people popping up out of nowhere and helping fill in the cracks in our lives. Some were friends, family and church members, but others were just moved by our story and felt compelled to step in. As the picture was painted, I came to what I feel is the only logical conclusion: there is an artist moving us to help each other out.
My city, Nashville, was hit by a horrible flood a few weeks ago. As the waters receded, I watch the residents come out in droves to help each other. People used their boats to rescue others from the flood. Others came and tore out drywall, insulation, wiring and duct work. Each felt compelled to reach out in a meaningful way, many helping people they did not even know. And I saw the hand of God working in a way that leaves each of us free to love or hate, accept or deny. And I saw beauty in the handiwork in the midst of all the chaos and destruction. It was the same hand I saw when my daughter was sick and we weren’t sure if she would live or die. And it was the same hand I saw moving at the memorial for Ben.
The beauty of this compulsion is those of us who are true to the compulsion are gifted in being part of the miracles God plays out for those we are compelled to help. What a marvelous gift.
One of the most compelling phrases in the entire bible comes in John 11:35. It is two words: Jesus wept. In the original Greek (accented), the passage is ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς., which means “Jesus burst into tears”. This was not a minor sobbing, but a heartbroken expression. John states that the crowd saw Jesus crying and interpreted it as a loss “The Jews said, ‘Look how deeply he loved him.’’” (John 11:36 – The message).
But the unwritten assumption is Jesus loved this man who had died and was crying because he was dead. This is seen in the next verse where some in the crowd state “Why can’t this man that healed the blind have prevented him from dying?”.
Jesus was not crying because Lazarus was dead. He had come to Bethany to raise him from the dead, so He was already aware. He was crying partially for those who misunderstood His mission. That He had come to earth to bring them to a closer relationship with God; He had come to love, to be love. He was also crying because He loved them. This is a very powerful picture. God weeping even though He is about to give His friends their heartfelt desire. In this moment, He chose to be one with them and not merely vend out what they prayed for.
Why Doesn’t God Heal the Children? AND Why didn’t God save Ben?
Hopefully the answer to these questions is already clear from the story told thus far.
- God loves us and wants us to love Him back. This must be a free will gesture on our part.
- God wants a relationship, not a contract. He will not reduce himself to a vending machine
- God has proven this love in His death on a cross
- God has proven His love by weeping with us when things go badly, even when He is going to make an exception to His non-interference
- God has proven His love by compelling others to stand in the gap
It is hard to think there is a God that loves us so much, but allows so much pain and suffering. But much of our pain and suffering is brought on by either our own selfish desires or the selfish desires of others. Then there are things that just happen in the natural world.
When I think about Ben, I think about how one selfish desire led someone to take the road in an impaired condition. And once the impact happened, the clock ticked down. And God wept with those who were impacted by the loss. He wept because they wept. And He wept because they did not truly understand that the loss is not permanent, as we will spend more time in eternity than our fleeting time on earth.
When I think about children with cancer, it is harder to understand. Perhaps one day we will understand the cause and how we are partially to blame. How selfish desires to make money have created compromises that lead to greater incidents of cancer. Or perhaps we will just begin to understand that certain things are truly accidents of nature. Even so, I see God compelling others to stand in the gap(s) left when a loved one is diagnosed and see the handiwork of God, softly weaving a lovely tapestry. Gently painting a masterpiece, using others as brushes and paint to complete the work.
When we think of God’s work as a masterpiece, we often want to be part of the painting. We would rather be the paint than the brush. Yet, it is the brush, humbly allowing itself to be used by the master’s hand, that does the most to complete the painting. As God compels me to do His work, I often would like to be a visible part of the picture, as well. But I have found that being the brush often allows you to become part of the painting, as the brushstrokes often add the most character.
I often illustrate the finite nature of pain by asking someone to draw a line on a piece of paper. The line represents eternity. Here is the question to ask, when you deal with the pains life brings: Can you draw a small enough dot to represent your earthly life on this line?
In this life we are going to have pain and sorrow. Some of the pain will come from circumstances. Other pains will come from selfish acts of others. And some pain will come from our own decisions and actions. As much as we would like to escape this pain, we cannot. But we have a God who has chosen to experience our personal pain to have a love relationship with us. We have a God who shares in our pain …. and our joy.
In this life, we often wish God would remove our pain. But God cannot do this. This does not mean God is not all powerful, as the cannot is a self-imposed restriction, not an incapability. God has chosen to carefully intervene only when necessary and – instead – compels us to participate in His masterpiece. If God were to remove this restriction and intervene whenever asked, we would lose our ability to chose to deny His existence and, by proxy, lose the ability to complete the circle of love. In addition, God would remove the gift we receive by stepping in and being “God” to those in need.
And, finally, that we have a God who has experienced our pain and weeps with us through the pain. While we believe life would be better without pain, this pain often leads us to greater relationships and understanding. And, even when there seems to be no reward, we have an eternity given to us to live in the presence of love.
I am thankful to have known Ben. He was a ray of shining light, as are most of my “family” in Round Rock. He was always professional, ever loyal to his “family”, and showed loving kindness to everyone I saw him interact with. I am certain he was not a saint in all things, but he added salt to life.
I am thankful to have participated in his life, for the short time I knew him. I am not sure what I may have brought him that he has with him in eternity, if anything, but I am grateful to God for letting us meet.
I am thankful to have been there for his memorial. I am not thankful he passed away, nor am I thankful in the way he passed from this life. I am thankful, however, that his death and remembrance were catalysts that compelled me to write these things down.
Life is a fleeting gift. It’s primary mission is to learn to love as God loves us. To learn an unselfish, unassuming kind of love and give it freely to all of those who our lives touch and who touch our lives. We have the power in our hands to make our lives what we desire, even if we often fail to realize we have this power.
We live. We love, We do great things. We make mistakes. And through all of this, we have a God who loves us enough to leave us alone enough for us to come to the realization He is there and loves us. And, perhaps, love Him back.
One parting thought. I pray that God expresses Himself in some real way to you today – that he compels someone into your life so you can see the wonderful masterpiece He is painting for you. And, I pray you find some way to give into His compulsion and be a miracle for someone else.
Peace and Grace,