Hope

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The Valley of Megiddo in Israel.  In Hebrew it is called Har Megiddo, what we know as Armageddon.  It is 50 miles long and 50 miles wide.  Here is where the Bible says the battle will take place (Zechariah 12:11, Revelation 16:16) between good and evil, between Christ returned and the Antichrist.  Christ prevails in this battle (Revelation 17:14), and then in Revelation 20 it explains that after this Christ will reign on Earth while Satan is captive.

For a thousand years the Earth will have the privilege of knowing and living with a perfect government, made perfect by an omnipotent, omniscient, holy leader.  After Satan’s imprisonment during this thousand years, he will be released and will build up one last army to fight against Christ.  As depicted in Revelation 20, Satan and his army will lose this final battle and will be forever separated from God and God’s faithful followers.

Did you hear that?  Even with a perfect government in place Satan will be able to gather people who willingly choose to fight against the ruler, against Christ.  The problem has never been a poorly run government or an economic bailout or an unmerited war or an incapable leader – even in a perfect government people will revolt.  The core issue has always been and will always be the heart of man.  We are fallen and imperfect.  Our human sinful nature is in conflict with what is right and true and holy.

Today was a monumental day in our country.  We inaugurated the 44th President of the United States of America.  Today we inaugurated the first black President of this nation.  The events were impressive as usual, though there was an added flare of emotion as this marks another ‘first’ in U.S. history.

I did not vote for Barack Obama.  I do not agree with most of his policies and have a different philosophy on the role and purpose of government.  I will, however, do my best to respect him as our President.  I will try my best to submit to his rules and laws as long as they do not compromise my adherence to God’s highest authority.  I pray that the decisions President Obama makes will ultimately bring blessings upon our country.

I will not, however, join the voices that deify him.  There has been so much talk of hope around this election and this President.  I understand the desire to have a competent government that generally serves its people well, but in what exactly are we being asked to place our hope?  Hope in an imperfect government?  Hope in an imperfect man?  I can’t hope in that because I know it will inevitably leave me disappointed.  I am not trying to be cynical, but am merely acknowledging that no mere man and no one administration will ever wash away the world’s problems or the country’s problems.  Rather, my hope is in the One who can make this promise —

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. Revelation 21:4

President Obama is intelligent and well-spoken.  He will be a face of endless opportunities for children that think they have limits – they will think about what could be instead of simply what is now.  But there is only one perfect and holy One that can save me from my fallen, sinful state and there is only One that can uphold such lofty promises as offered in Revelation 21:4.  My hope is in him.

Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Psalm 25:4, 5

The Tide Is Coming In

The inspiration for this month’s masthead comes from the movie Cast Away (2000) with Tom Hanks.  After being stranded on a remote tropical island for five years, convinced that he would die alone on that island, a chunk of plastic from a port-a-potty washed ashore and gave Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks’ character) a sail…and hope.  He created a raft and set out to sea.  The waters were rough, but finally he was rescued.  When he returned to land and his former life, he not only dealt with the trauma of reacclimating, but he also discovered that his fiancee had married another man and had a child.  On that island he thought he would never see her again, but after the hope of the rescue and then the disappointment of reality, he lost his love all over again.  Chuck Noland said to a friend:

One day logic was proven all wrong because the tide lifted, came in, and gave me a sail. And now, here I am. I’m back in Memphis, talking to you. I have ice in my glass. And I’ve lost her all over again. I’m so sad that I don’t have Kelly. But I’m so grateful that she was with me on that island. And I know what I have to do now. I have to keep breathing. Because tomorrow the sun will rise. Who knows what the tide could bring?

I love how he finds gratitude in the midst of his mourning.  Whether we order it or not, life comes with some rough seasons.  It’s a package deal.  There are times that the gloom, the pain, or the stress of life’s winters can be overwhelming.  There is not always a logical, tangible explanation for the strength that we are given to endure and overcome these hard days, and some times it seems like we aren’t even succeeding at this.  But we can, and we will.  We have to keep breathing.  For tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide could bring?

Gallbladderlessness

In the last two posts (here and here) I had mentioned my “back spasms” and then mentioned that my health had been deteriorating throughout December.  The “back spasms” and “back discomfort” in fact had little to do with my back.  As symptoms progressed – nausea, loss of appetite, exhaustion, weakness, general sick feeling, back pain, itching in hands/feet, darkened urine, and so on – it had become clearer that I had liver and gall bladder issues.

Gall bladders store bile, and I had developed small gall stones (perhaps I had already passed larger ones during those horrific nights spent writhing in pain?) and gall sludge, which were preventing bile from moving through the organ as it ought.  It is not recommended that you try blocking your flow of bile at home.  Oh my painfulness!

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It was determined on Thursday, December 11th that I would need to have my gall bladder removed, so I scheduled a surgical consultation.  After scheduling the appointment, my symptoms worsened to the point where I had only about four good hours in me a day.  By Sunday (just one day after Ro passed away), I turned jaundice.  Seriously yellow.  That was enough to have all procedures expedited, and I was admitted to the hospital that day.

I really have so much to say about the hospital experience.  I’m not just talking about my 3-night stay or the unflattering gown or the fact that from Sunday to Wednesday the only thing that I was allowed to eat/drink were two liquid meals consisting of Jello, popsicles, broth, and juice.  I’m talking about what I learned about advocating for yourself, trusting your body, and communicating with hospital staff what your body is telling you.  This sort of hospital drama is a story for another time – like maybe when the medical bill arrives.

I had two surgical procedures.  First, I had an Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography (ERCP; scoping procedure) to rid my biliary ducts of the gravel-like gall stones and sludge.

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The procedure was supposed to take 30-45 minutes, but due to my “notably J-shaped stomach” and the doctors’ several attempts to clear out my duct-work, my ERCP took almost two hours.  As I was coming out of the anesthesia and clearly still incoherent, I explained to the doctor that “J” is for “Jesus.”  That was right after giving him a fist bump instead of a hand shake and asking him if 1) he found any macaroni and cheese in my biliary duct and 2) it was okay that I kept farting.  I do recall Brian apologizing on my behalf; I saw nothing wrong with my behavior at the time.  Moral of the story: If possible, always have a friend or family member take you in and bring you out of surgery so that they can make excuses for your ridiculous behavior.

The next day I had my gall bladder removed laparascopically.

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The surgeon told Brian that this surgery went perfectly.  I have this foggy memory of screaming and thrashing as I came out of anesthesia this time, and in the first recovery room I had noticed that they put weights on my legs.  As far as I know, it is not normal to put weights on people’s legs for this type of surgery, so I am assuming they were placed on me due to the thrashing.  Recovery was strange and scary for me, but after about 3 hours of recovery time I was discharged.

By the evening of my gall bladder surgery, Wednesday night, I was home.  Ro’s funeral service was in Cleveland on Saturday morning.  If you would have asked me Friday morning at 6am if I would have been well enough to travel for the service I would have said no.  In fact, Brian did ask me that question at 6am on Friday morning, which is why I cried in response: “We’re not talking about this now!”  I couldn’t deal with no.  But by the strength and healing power of God I rallied to a point where I could travel.  Okay, so maybe I wasn’t in best form, and maybe traveling set my recovery back a day or two, but it was completely worth it.  To be a part of such a wonderful tribute to Ro and to be with family during that time was completely worth it.

Recovery has been a process, but I have been living in a state of gallbladderlessness (thanks for the term, April!) for just over a month now and am fairly well acclimated.  And you know, I may not store bile like all of the people in this world with gall bladders, but I think my J-shaped stomach, the rest of my GI tract, and I will be just fine!

My Favorite Baritone

On Sunday morning, December 7th, I received a concerning phone call about my step-father.  (His name is Robert, but decades ago the nickname Ro was given to and seamlessly stuck with him.)  Ro was in the ICU with renal failure.  The situation looked grim.  I was in a sickly state myself, but felt a tug at my heart to venture to Cleveland, so we went.  Brian and I were greeted at the hospital by my brothers and mom, and we all waited for Ro to return from a surgical procedure.

The nurse finally gave us the go ahead to see him, two at a time.  Brian and I went first.  Ro was tired but alert.  I tucked my hand into his clenched fist and used my other hand to stroke his hair.  I tried to lean over the bed rail to plant a kiss on his cheek, but my torso wasn’t long enough.  I stretched onto my tip toes and puckered out my lips as far as they could go.  The three of us chuckled as I worked my lips out a nanometer at a time.  It didn’t work, so I went flat on my feet and took a step back, ready to attempt this again with more momentum at the start.  Lips ready, the second attempt was successful.  Ro nodded and smiled in approval.  We had a short conversation, exchanged I love yous, and then Brian and I returned to the waiting room to tag in the next pair.  The visit wasn’t easy, but the strength of family together made all the difference.

After exhausting Ro, we watched football in the waiting room and dined in the cafeteria so he could rest.  A couple hours later, Brian and I went with my mom to see Ro one last time before returning to Pittsburgh.  I took the same position at bedside, gripping his hand and petting his hair.  I once again leaned over the bed rail for a kiss, and once again we laughed as I found myself trying to reach his cheek by straining my puckered lips.  Didn’t work.  Just as I was about to lean back in a failed attempt, Ro turned his head and puckered his own lips to bridge the gap.  Such a sweet kiss.  Eye to eye we both said I love you to one another.

The week to follow was a whirlwind of emotion and turmoil.  I was struggling with my own health, which was deteriorating by the day, but that seemed so irrelevant compared to Ro’s fight for life.  For us, it was this roller coaster of feeling hopeless about his outcome one moment, but then in the next moment getting an encouraging update that maybe the next procedure they attempt will make all the difference and he’ll improve.  Ultimately, procedure after procedure failed, and by Thursday Ro was unresponsive and in transition to hospice.  Over the years, he had fought his way through so many ailments, but this time the battle was too great.

Saturday morning he started singing again…in heaven’s choir.

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I struggle with the word “step-father” because it sounds so second rate, like when you put the word ‘step’ in front of ‘father’ it somehow lessens the parent-child relationship.  Sure, I have a father who I know and love, and sure, my mom tended to make the big decisions for me and my brothers during our childhood, and sure, Ro was closer in age to a grandparent than to a parent, but there is nothing ‘step’ about the relationship that I had with and the love that I have for my step-father.  He has been a father figure in my life from about the age of four.  There aren’t many memories that I have of my life before he entered in to our family.

He did all of those parenty things, like make me eat my vegetables, drive me to extracurricular activities or to friends’ houses, encourage me, love me.  He was my tooth fairy and my teacher at the piano bench.  He would watch me swim in our pool when I was so desperate to get in the water, but wasn’t old enough to swim alone.  When we went camping and I had a distraught look on my face as I took my first bite of sour cereal one summer morning, he told me that I shouldn’t eat that because the milk sat out on the picnic table all night.  He mowed, he raked, he buried our dead pets in the backyard.  He teased that I always had to be on center stage, but I knew he loved it when I sang, danced, or raised my voice louder than anyone else in order to be heard at the dinner table.

He helped me learn to ride a bike and was the chaperone of my very first drive with a learner’s permit.  In my high school days, I joked with Ro – though it’s true – that one of the most important lessons I learned from him is that, when in a bind, your socks can be used to wipe dirty hands.  I still laugh about the one morning when he served as my alarm clock – he opened the bedroom door, threw a shoe at me, and left.  So random.  But just as randomly, one day he walked through my bedroom door and gave me a watch that he had bought for me earlier that day, just because he was thinking about me.  I don’t know how old I was or the day it happened, but I remember the moment when I recognized that he had stopped pushing me to study and instead reminded me to make sure I didn’t overdo it.  All along he encouraged me to pray and to read my Bible, and most certainly led by example in this regard.

Do you see this theme of me, me, me, what he did for me?  Yes, kids are needy little creatures, and Ro was such a big part of meeting those needs and wants during my childhood.  It’s such an unselfish act and he did it willingly as any loving father would do for their child.  There was nothing second rate or ‘step’ about any of this.

For the past decade he had grown dependent and in need of increasing care and I have long been married off, but even still there was a special bond between the two of us.  And even though we have lived a state apart for many years, there has been a comfort in knowing that my roots are just…there.  They are a constant in my life; they ground me.  Ro is part of my history and has had a hand in who I’ve become.  I miss the comfort of this root just being there.  I miss him.  I will miss our breakfast dates where we talk about politics, current events, the end times, and the Bible.  He always listened when I shared about my most recent adventures and believed that I could succeed in whatever I was doing.  I will miss his laughter and his song.

Ro had so many wonderful attributes – he was a great listener, humble, a prayer warrior, hard-working, encouraging, supportive, and patriotic, to name a few.  Jesus was on the throne of his life, and because of the relationship he had with God he studied the Bible like crazy.  My mom found a note that he had written from a devotional referencing Psalm 98:1-3.  He wrote: “Victories in sports, business, or politics must be won again and again, year after year, but there is a victory that was won once for all.  The psalmist celebrates the victory of God’s power and holiness, beautifully prefiguring the final victory of Christ over sin and death.  Our greatest victory is receiving God’s gift of salvation, and this victory need never be won again.”  Ro lived in the light of this victory.

There’s no mistaking – his God-given gift was his voice.  He studied music, taught music, and had music seeping from his pores.  He performed in a multitude of choirs and was a professional soloist.  As he would practice at the piano in our living room, I always felt this great privilege of being serenaded on any given day.  Beyond all this, his music was an offering and helped people connect with God.  I remember sitting in church during a duet he sang, “Household of Faith.”  I was not even a teenager, but still recall the power of the two voices – not only did they have the chill factor, where my arm hair was on end and I was pushed back in my seat breathless, but those voices also invoked a connection to the lyrics and a call to respond.  I remember this same response as Ro sang “He is No Fool” and “He’s Alive” as well.  This was not just a talent, but a powerful spiritual gift.

At Ro’s memorial service, my mom did such a beautiful job honoring Ro’s life.  At the end of her reflections, she shared a story about Ro auditioning for a choir in the Cleveland area about 17-18 years ago, the Singer’s Club.  She didn’t think he should have to audition given his ability; he humbly shrugged his shoulders and went to the audition.  When he returned, my mom asked him how it went.  He sheepishly replied, “They said, ‘To what do we owe this honor?’”

I echo my mom’s words:  It has been an honor to listen to this man, to know this man, to love this man.  But Robert would say, “To whom do we owe any honor?”  To his Lord and our Lord, Jesus Christ, who won that greatest victory.

(Click here to hear an excerpt from “God’s Great Grace,” Ro’s last public solo in 2001, age 76.)