loss

Harsh Answers

On the last day of our Kansas visit, one year ago today, I dropped by Mom’s nursing home room to tell her we were returning to Tennessee.

         Her relocation had not gone well. So she decided that was the time to let me have it. Of course, it was; she probably knew that was the last time we’d meet. As soon as I sat down, she asked me, her firstborn, “Why am I here?”

         And I heard myself reply, “Because your personal care needs have grown beyond what your family can provide.” I instantly hated the way those words felt in my mouth. Like marbles, too smooth. Accurate, but manipulative. They gave me power and protection, but granted her no space or grace. That’s when I heard Him whisper…just listen to her!

         She kept rolling; her eyes were like lasers. “Your daddy and I built our home; it’s right over there (she pointed east). It’s paid for; it’s mine. Why can’t I just go home?” I wanted to throw up; I could see she’d been suffocating under a blanket of dehumanizing logic: What happened to my life? Why am I held captive so near my home? Why am I spending $5,000 a month for this 340-square-foot box when my home costs me nothing?

         “Mom, I wish you could go home, but you can’t take care of yourself.”

         “I know, Ed—” She broke, “But, my sons…DON’T WANT ME!”  

         There it was. I couldn’t imagine what it cost her to face it and to say it. Yet, I silently protested. Her three sons and daughters-in-law did want her. We deeply loved her; no one carried mommy stuff. Vernon and Betty had cared for her long and sacrificially from their home next door. And Carl and Deana had invited Mom to live with them in Colorado.

         But she was right. Our lives, homes, our ages, our patterns for living, could not absorb the disruption of a 96-year-old woman with serious health needs.

         Her wet and pleading eyes searched my face. I think she was looking for some spark of hope, some sign that the Christ lived in me. Then, dreading the moment, but feeling pressure to get on the road, I stood. “Mom, I love you so much. You’ve been a wonderful mother. But we have to go.”

         She wouldn’t let go that easy; she escorted me out of her room, down the hall, down the elevator, and right out the front door. As I approached the car, she started crying, but melted into my arms. After holding her a few minutes, I said, “Come on, Mom, we don’t live here. We have to go home.”

         “I know,” she wept, nodding and looking at the ground. In that moment, I watched her revert to that child of poverty and shame back in her native Missouri, scared and crying because the road had washed out, the water continued rising, and Daddy was gone. She had no path to a future.

         My last image of Mom frames her in the rearview mirror, as a nursing home employee lead her back inside.

         She died four months later.

         In the end, Mom was like a fearful citizen in an occupied country. She didn’t understand the noises from the street, or why strangers marched into her room day and night, or why those strangers barked orders at her. The conquering “soldiers” could not see Mary Chinn had lost her home, her privacy, her dignity. She had nothing else to lose; she just needed mercy.

          Oh, yes, “The poor plead for mercy, but the rich answer harshly.” (Proverbs 18:23) Harsh answers are the tools for enforcing the rules of the realm. They focus on the work to be done, not the ones for whom it is done.

         Gandhi said, “What you do for me, but without me, you do against me.” Older, weaker, sadder, sicker, poorer people understand that so well. They are the ones most in need of gentle answers. However, for now, they live with the harsh answers of a bloodless world that is passing away.

         But a new world is arriving. Now! Incredibly, its Creator heard all the harsh answers of the old regime during His time on earth. No wonder Isaiah wrote, “He will not cry out or raise his voice…a bruised reed He will not break, and a dimly burning wick He will not extinguish. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged.”

         At last, Mom lives in that new world. A bruised reed has “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” soaring far beyond harsh answers. I think I’ll start practicing gentle answers. Here and now.

Letting Go

Our white cat, Tiger, came to us in 2006 when his previous owner dropped him at our house. Joanne and I instantly saw the man was abusive. When he opened the cage in our foyer, Tiger ran as fast and far as possible. We later found him crouched behind the dryer.

         It took a long time to win his heart; he was so fearful. But, over time, he gradually warmed to us. I think he finally realized we would not injure him. In time, he became vocal and his personality opened like a flower. He learned to express his needs and his affection.

         For example, Joanne and I meet at our game table almost every day for a card game and have done so for years. In that ritual, I’ve pulled the piano bench up beside my chair for Tiger. He would jump up, watch us play a while, and then paw my arm as I tried to play; his searching eyes told me he needed attention. And, of course, I gave it to him.

         And, despite the feline reputation for indifference, Tiger was always attentive to us, mainly to Joanne, a diabetic. If her blood sugar fell or climbed too much, he would lay nearby, fixing his gaze on her. When I appeared, his laser stare told me, “Do something!”

         We became a society; three of God’s creatures leaning into each other within our one-acre corner of Tennessee. We learned the cross-species nuances of affection, reaching, retreating, intruding, and yielding. We stepped on his tail; he threw up on our floors. Through it all, we slowly began to understand the scripture, “Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast.”[1] We were effectively the hands of God for Tiger; we had to fulfill the Lord’s care for His creatures.

         We loved and enjoyed him for 13 years. But, these pet-and-people connections never end well. He was, after all, an elderly cat. So, after completing some kidney tests, about 1:00 p.m. on October 1, the vet told us the time had come. We said we’d bring Tiger to her clinic at 3:00.

         Over the next two hours, I watched Tiger interact with his environment, including us. But I knew what he didn’t—that the road to his future had washed out. As I petted him, prayed for him in this new journey, and wept in farewell to a friend, I wondered if that’s how God views us. He sees what we cannot, and He knows we can’t control what is coming. In the end, our weakness will drop us into His kindness.

         Throughout that last trip to the vet, and as we entered the “death chamber,” Tiger was docile, accepting, silent. As he lay on the table, his very full eyes locked on ours. Peacefully. He had moved beyond fear.

         Then we gathered him in his blanket and held him while the doctor administered the drug that would take Tiger from us. As the chemicals carried him from our shoreline, he pulled a corner of his blanket into his mouth and began to suck. He continued to suckle a breast we could not see. Until he stopped.

         In his death, Tiger made his final statement to our little family; go gently. Lay it down, let it go. Rest. Everything will be far better than you ever imagined.  


[1] Proverbs 10:12 (ESV)

The Shack: A Shovel In The Heart

The new movie, The Shack, based on the hit novel of the same name, tells the gripping story of great pain and shocking loss. But right there is where The Shack steps beyond another retelling of the human suffering story.

It does so by revealing loss as a doorway to life. As such, it challenges our definitions of “good.” In other words, it confronts our assumption that “good” is a synonym for my preferences and desires…you know, good equals painless.

The Shack is a shovel, thrown deep into your heart. For example, it makes us face the truth about personal judgments. To reach a verdict against any human – terrorist, deviant, killer, traitor, or even myself – is to presume against the Creator and only Judge of us all. Therefore, for me to judge anyone is an audacious (and dangerous) demand that I be crowned King.

Against the backdrop of those illusions, The Shack invites us to step into a much higher view: God is with us through all of life, including the painful and horrid moments. That perspective forces us to realize that life is a continuum; our earth life is a like a capsule of time and space floating in a sea of eternity. Whatever we lose here, we find there. Death is never “the end.”

Finally, for me, The Shack is a powerful reminder that Heaven often arrives in an earthly eruption of Hell. So when I insist that life please me and never bring any pain, I miss the portal that so often brings Heaven on earth.

In all of these perspectives, The Shack is a surprising, powerful, and clear view of The Kingdom of God. That beautiful dominion of God invades our world (including our comfort zones, preferences, and myopia) and reveals a new and radiating increase of His authority.

And that new government brings peace, rest, and joy.

Hurricane Donald

I recently had to face my offensive harshness with telemarketers. For the first time I saw one as a fellow human who was struggling, stressed, and locked into a job he hated. And my glorious Edness had just made his load heavier. That epiphany broke something in me that needed breaking.

The sudden exposure (even in private) of a bad habit or hurtful way is one of the most humiliating and painful episodes in life. I fully understand the Apostle Paul’s harrowing question, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

But, those moments are also essential and helpful. We all need those interruptions of cosmic kindness that disrupt our forward movement. They come to break, refine, and equip us with more grace.

The Beauty and Power of Disruption

Nations, cultures, and groups also need that refining force. Well, guess what. We have it; we are living through a powerful and historic disruption. It’s called “Trump.” But it has very little to do with policy or politics…or Trump. In fact, if he doesn’t already know it, he’ll soon learn that he’s caught in it too.

I think it’s dealing primarily with our arrogance and attitudinal sclerosis. In other words, it’s confronting our swagger and inflexibility. And it is applicable across the board. Like a hurricane, it is staggering across the land, bearing down on every person, group, relationship, event, and institution.

But why?

I believe it is because disruption brings newness into the present, “new” as the invading, explosive, and transformative power of the future. That new will—like a hurricane—rip and splinter old ways.

And that is for our good!

Have you noticed that most people seem to know our present national path is not healthy and not sustainable? So everyone claims to want change—but as a tool they can deploy to manage the future. It doesn’t work like that; real change invades. It’s not controllable by anyone or any agenda, and that’s the secret of its power and beauty.

From time to time, we all need to be so challenged, provoked, and terrified that body fluids leak through our clothes. That’s why and how we change. The great kindness of our Creator always has and always will tear up old ruts, comfort zones, and corruption in order to bring renewal. He will always cut across me; His purposes are too important to leave me (or you) intact.

Where did we ever get the idea that we and our tribe don’t need disruption? Why would anyone think that we get to create, educate, innovate, and negotiate only with those who feel exactly as we do about everything? That’s silly. Maturity requires the ability to work with different and difficult people.

Right here, it gets personal. I didn’t vote for Trump. He was the proverbial “bridge too far” for me. OK, so now what? Looks like I have decisions to make about adaptation, humility and learning new skills and rhythms.

I appreciated seeing the Tech titans—none of whom could be called Trump supporters—actually sit down and talk with the President-elect. For years some have lectured us on the need to sit down together, to “cross the aisle” to work with “the other side.” Oddly, so many of those voices never did that. But Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, Elon Musk and several others did. Furthermore, they agreed to keep meeting together with the new President.

Maybe they understand how the world works.

All Things New

Over the past year I have learned that loss always feels personal. But it never is.

Human instinct seems to always view loss from a close and immediate angle…it happened to me, took something from me, and now forever diminishes me and my future. But that is a distortion, like one cell in a drug addict’s body contorting in pain when he goes cold turkey. That cell cannot see the larger picture and purpose.

Much of what we’re seeing now is the contortion of individual cells. Too many bloggers, political elites, media voices, entertainers, and college students are only looking at Hurricane Donald from a very personal perspective.

To all of them I would say, “Close your eyes and take deep and long breaths. Humble yourself. Walk outside. Look up. Reconnect with the deeper rhythms of the universe. This is not personal any more than a hurricane is personal.”

Relax, trust, and prepare to live in a renewed and beautified landscape – one you didn’t design and one that lies far beyond the ramshackle real estate of your own habits and preferences.

Life After Loss

Over the past 18 months I’ve been working in a laboratory of loss. Through our son Paul’s death, my participation in a study of education in American, my knee replacement surgery, post-surgical recovery and rehab, relocating, political realignments, and global immigration dynamics, I kept being drawn to the issue of loss.

Through all of that, I’ve come to see that loss is not to be feared or rejected. It is a normal and essential part of life’s cadence. If we regard losses properly, they can bring renewal for the next season of life. Here are some of the details:

  • Loss is not personal. Yes, I know that it sure feels personal. In the moment, it seems unique, even historic. But loss is rarely personal. The simple truth is that everyone dies, financial tides rise and fall, relationships get injured, trains go off the rails, etc. The old bumper sticker (sanitized), BAD STUFF HAPPENS, captures a simple, but large and inescapable truth.
  • Life requires that we deal with it. The species cannot continue if humans are immobilized by loss.
  • Loss (a.k.a. ruin, failure, death, destruction, etc.) is always painful and disruptive; it never comes at a good time. So we must learn to accept and navigate it.
  • Loss is short term. Most people tend to view the whole journey through the keyhole of the present moment. But almost nothing we see through the eyes of grief is accurate or helpful in the long term.
  • Loss is an illusion. It might lash, boil, invade, injure and steal from us; it may even leave us face down in the gutter. But it cannot destroy the core of our true identity. For that reason, we don’t have to fear it. Nothing significant is taken away by loss.
  • Loss is a myopic interpretation of a larger change. An old “Far Side” cartoon showed two men fishing on a lake as a large mushroom cloud boiled up over the horizon. One fisherman said to the other, “I’ll tell you what it means, it means screw the limit.” People inevitably view global realignments through the lens of their personal needs and desires.
  • Loss calls us to greater maturity. Living in a culture that encourages emotional indulgence, we tend to welcome grief and offer it a big easy chair. But maturity pushes the grieving out of bed, into the shower, and to the office. And it makes sure that he or she does that every day for the rest of his or her life.
  • Loss passes by. Glen Roachelle once said, “When you go through a storm, don’t become an expert on storms. Just get through it.” It comes. Endure it. Loss moves on; you should too.
  • Loss reveals a higher path. Crises always bring me to see that my “Edness” is insufficient. For me, I can only proceed by faith in God’s total reliability. I’m not assuming this is (or should be) your response, but I have to get up above the big muddy me and ascend into a higher and clearer view.
  • Loss is not The End. Although it appears to be apocalyptic, loss the usually just the end of a season or a way of thinking. What appears to be great loss can be a gate to a brand new future.
  • Life surpasses our earth existence. For me, where I live is not a big deal. Living in God is the real objective. From His place, I am able to more clearly see the vast sweep of the whole journey. And seeing loss from the high ground give a completely new perspective and releases people to accept and bless it.
  • What about loss on a national scale? It seems to me that conservatives tend to view every loss as an assault on our foundations and liberals tend to see losses as threats to progress. Both views are power grabs. In truth, when seen from the high ground, the losses brought by war, disease, economic tremors, social injustice, technology shifts, and even immigration crises are often servants of renewal and redemption.

 

The losses suffered by individuals, families, business and industry, and nations mean old things are blowing away and new things are arriving. Life after loss is much like the land after a thunderstorm. The scent of rain and the purity of the air suggest new beginnings.

Let’s step into the new. We have more to gain than we ever lost.

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