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Night frozen window

This is always a difficult time of the year for me. The really hard part of winter begins in December, when the days are darkest. This hard stretch continues to worsen as January lengthens, but the bleakness reaches it nadir in February. You can find me here every year, when all seems most desolate and everything appears to spread as empty meaninglessness far as the eye can see.

Every year is hard, the very hardest in February. But some Februaries are worse than others. I don't know if it has something to do with how much sickness a particular winter has, or how much snow and cold, or if it is tied more to things in my own life. Whatever the reason, this seems like a harder February than many in recent years.

I think I am struggling with depression, probably of the seasonal sort. For a number of weeks now I haven't had any interest in playing computer games. At first I thought this a stroke of good fortune--with no interest in game playing there was one less distraction from work, one less temptation from productivity. Then I realized my lack of interest in game playing didn't come from me being eagerly caught up in activities. Rather, the lack of interest sprang from apathy. That is never a good thing.

Game playing could not interest me because I couldn't find much motivation or meaning to do anything. Yes, I was plugging away at getting the minimum done at my daily obligations--but once that was finished apathy swallowed me. At the end of the day even having fun felt like too much work, pointless, and why bother?

I lost motivation for blog post writing. I'm trying to get that back. I have a bunch waiting to be written, but all eagerness has deserted me. I struggle to apply myself to most reading. (I have managed a bit of novel reading.) On top of all this I find no real excitement in my book project. My book about Grandpa is nearing completion in exciting ways and yet it just feels more like a grind and a duty than the exciting and interesting beginning of the next adventure in my life. This is great, this is amazing, this is what I have been striving toward for years. And yet, what I feel is "Meh."

I don't want to feel "meh." I would like to feel the true goodness and light of that which is starting, that which is beginning to unfold and I can partake in. I want to apprehend that, to rejoice in that which God is giving me.

Instead, I feel a crankiness and a gloom. I feel irritable and short of patience with people. I don't want to be around them even as I also feel some need to be around them to escape the darkness and closing coldness. I want the world to go away. There is a feeling of being pressed down upon. I feel like I want to sleep, but I don't want to go to bed. I want to hide away in some hole, and yet I feel trapped indoors. I want to get out. I want lights turned on, very bright everywhere.

Everything seems cold.

I long for bright sunshine, blue skies, and a warm wide world which welcomes me to do things. Yes, I long for that not just around me, but springing up inside me, too. I hope it is just the time of year, the weather, which brings this brew of bleakness. By February all my energy for dealing with winter is spent. I know that. And if that is all that it is, then when mid-March comes with its bright sunshine, melting snow, and warmer weather--then this cloud with dissipate. But if it is something more, this may be a longer battle.

Spring will come soon enough into the world around me. February has reached its end and March is coming. May spring also come within me. May joy and gladness come, and eagerness and vigor in labor--even a heart revived. May I know freedom from gloom and the hope of real fellowship in the midst of toil.

We are not meant to live all of life in winter.

Morning frozen window

The time has arrived. After much work (big thanks to my talented brother Justin who designed the covers and many more) and much agonizing, I must now decide what cover will go with my book The Sea is Wide: A Memoir of Caregiving. It will be a tough choice. In the end I must weigh the pros and cons of each possible cover and make the final decision myself. But feedback can help that decision making process, so I’m here to ask you all for your thoughts. I have posted a selection of the five top covers. Take a look, give your vote, and maybe even leave a comment!

Thanks for participating!

Water in darkness and light

This past autumn one of my brothers survived a car accident. In the space of a breath his vehicle swerved, in less than a second careening over the guard rail. A roll down the bank followed, the blur of a tumble leaving him dangling upside down, the upended car perched on the edge of a pool of water.

The vehicle was a crumpled mess, and yet he escaped without a scratch, without so much as a bruise or a strained muscle. Thank God for such mercy. To see the crumpled wreck of car is to wonder how someone could walk away unscathed. Thank God for His loving protection. Considering what had happened, and what had not happened, I can only feel deeply grateful.

And yet, I couldn't simply go on with life. I thought about my reaction, and it bothered me. God seemed so good after that miraculous preservation through the accident, but was I measuring His goodness by what pleased me? Home team wins the ball game, God is there. Home team doesn't win, then what?

God is good, that is sure. But how easy to affirm such when God does exactly as we want. A different thing entirely to find comfort in a loving, protecting, keeping God when all the goodness you could imagine is snatched away. Or even a small measure of what is treasured. What would be my feeling if instead I stood at that fateful place on the road and looked down to where my brother died? In my mind's eye I saw myself, and I was not resting in God's goodness. I saw myself in that imagined place, and there was no warmth toward God in my heart. I was angry beyond expression that God robbed me of a brother I wanted for many years to come. My heart clenched against God in a way that frightened me.

I could not put that from my thoughts. To find my thankfulness and rest in God so dependent on circumstance left me uncomfortable. What value is trust if you only trust someone when trust doesn't really need to be exercised? Sure, it is easy to trust God when your brother is saved from death. What about trusting God when he dies? Many people I love will die--if not sooner than surely later. And what praise and thanks and trust will I give God then?

By the measure of myself, I won't give much praise at all.

By my own confession, the trust I give God is a mockery of trust.

This analysis troubled me in a double measure because, it seems, I also become guilty of hypocrisy. People around the world are suffering tragedy, and tragedy has struck even closer; not so many years ago my aunt was killed in a car accident observably no more severe than what my brother survived. To the world I have declared that God is always worthy of praise, is always trustworthy, and is always loving and good. I call the world to believe in such a God, to rest and trust in such a God. But if I can already see that I will not live up to such when the hammer falls in my own life, what right do I have to proclaim those truths about God unless I relish heaping the judgment due hypocrisy on myself?

On first thought that measure of oneself does seem like good cause to shut up about God. If in hard times I am not a paragon of the virtues I would extol, what right do I have to speak of them? Though such a thought seem true, it is in fact false. A very clever lie, but a lie nonetheless. A lie because the reality of God's qualities, and our proclamation of those attributes of God as true is not dependent on our mastering those virtues. The truth of the love of God is not dependent on us having attained to such a loving nature. The truth of God's goodness is not dependent on us fully apprehending that goodness. The truth of God's justice is not dependent on us always understanding that justice. If all the wondrous aspects of God were things we could fully apprehend or attain or encompass with our feeble selves then they would not, in fact, be very awesome at all. The fact that we fall so horribly short of the godly qualities of God is a reminder that God is awesome enough to be God, and worthy of all that we so faltering and failing are called to give Him.

It is not hypocrisy to declare that God deserves many things we fail to give Him, that His greatness surpasses our feebleness, and to proclaim that He has many qualities that we fail to rightly acknowledge. However, it is hypocrisy to lay claim to having given and done unto God that which we have not, nor will. Let us declare that God is completely trustworthy--but also that we have not trusted Him as we should. Let us say that He is always good, but that in our failures we do not believe His goodness as we ought. Let us assert that God is loving in all His ways, but that we often do not understand it, and in times of trial even doubt it.

We are not equal to the task of demonstrating the fullness of God's perfection--we fall far short. And God knows that, and has not put such a burden on our shoulders. It does not rest upon us to be perfect in love, faith, hope, or goodness so that the world might know those qualities of God. Jesus carries that requirement, and with great thankfulness we can know that God perfectly shows to the world all of His perfections so that none can say they were utterly ignorant of God. It is for us only to acknowledge and proclaim that God is who He says He is, and to humbly admit that we fall so short of the limitless perfections of God and that we are in need of as great mercy as the worst failure we may meet.

If we are all equally in need we may all equally call on the mercies of God.

And in the last measure our great hope is this: our coming through the storm doesn't depend on how much we can muster the good qualities needed--faith, trust, or any such. Our measure of ourselves is not the ultimate standard by which we will stand or fall on the dark day, because we have a sure promise: "if we are faithless, he remains faithful" (2 Tim. 2:13) and again we are promised that Jesus "will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Cor. 1:8-9).

I have looked at myself and found that I am lacking in my relationship toward God and because of that I see I cannot stand. But this is to remind me that God is not lacking in His relationship toward me, and because of Him I will stand on the dark day.

Beauty of the sky
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Thunder of the water

When you go through a hard time it can make you bitter. God knows I struggle with that. More than that, disillusioned in a way that gets into my bones. But sometimes God gives eyes to see better than bitter darkness, and more grace than I deserve. Seeing, and understanding, good in this life is not something that comes easy to me.

Learning the stories of other people makes me think about my own. If I am gripped with a sour resentment, the story of another doubles upon doubles the vinegar of my mind. No matter whether it is a happy or hard story, in it I can see some fault with God, some unbalanced scale. But if I am in a better place and seeing with a different sight, then even the hardest times in life benefit from a retrospective meditation. Such reflection brings an understanding brought on a wafting breeze of thankfulness.

I feel such a wind far less often than I ought, but when I read Meryl Comer's book Slow Dancing With a Stranger which chronicled her experience caring for her husband through Alzheimer's, the story gave me an occasion to look at my own experience of Alzheimer's with fresh eyes--and I was better for it. Reading about the hard things Ms. Comer experienced I could nod my head in knowing agreement at some points. On others I saw things I didn't have to experience. But in both cases my fresh perspective from time's distance gave me a clarity in heart I don't typically glimpse. I was reminded of how much worse it could have been--both for my experience, and for Ms. Comer. I read Comer's book of hard things and looked over my shoulder, surprised to see mercy there.

More than that, I was reminded of goodness, goodness that in hard times we often fail to see.

Don't misunderstand me--Meryl Comer and her husband when through difficult times in their Alzheimer's story. And my own time of caregiving was far from a carefree jaunt. Those journeys we make through rock and wilderness mock any trivializing. But there is the oddest experience in stepping up to the edge of the abyss. The darkness is there, and how it gapes at you, the ground falling dizzingly away at your feet. There, with your feet perched on the lip of all that might be you realize with such breathtaking vividness how much you are not in the abyss. There, perched on the edge, one feels a special deep kind of thankfulness.

If you have eyes to see it.

Near to drowning

There were perhaps a few times I experienced that seeing while still in the process of caregiving. But mostly in my life of caregiving the experience was more like being tied up in a sack while dangling over the abyss. I couldn't see anything, and while in that sack I was being beaten with a stick. It was very dark, very painful, very exhausting, and very confusing. Yes, if I was able to rightly understand my circumstance at the time I would have been very thankful--but when tied up inside the sack of caregiving it is all very confusing and hard to understand rightly.

It is in going back to those times with clearer eyes--outside that metaphorical sack of caregiving--that I can see the abyss and feel a deeper thankfulness for what was, and what was not. In truly trying times the bulwark of our comforts thins like a rusted ship hull and in the disintegration begins a dim grasping of how great are the horrors which exist, and how it easily they might come upon us. In that recognition settles the realization that horrors unimaginable hang over us and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in our grasp to keep them at bay. Then, in that recognition, if the inner eye snaps open and your truly see--oh, then the difficult times are suddenly seen so clearly as mercy, a mercy so deep and so vast that words cannot grasp it.

The times which lash us like discipline teaches the dullness inside us and wakeness that which sleeps. Mercy is not stupor, though oft we think it so. It is not the rest a drowning man feels as he slips downward, downward to the last sleep. Mercy is being brought through the storm. The wind and the storm tell us what is, and what is coming, like no comfort sleeping will ever educate.

The paradox is, this thing can't be shared with those outside it--not fully, not in the depth of indwelling which comes with personal grasping. Those outside the scourge of travail can only see that which strikes dread, whatever the mask it wear. Only when you have entered that crucible might you begin to understand how lacking our grasp of horror is, and gain a double portion of mercy; knowing the difficult as indeed a gentle mercy compared to what might be. It is only there in experiencing the burden that you can know with an experiential tasting how what you went through could have been so much worse, and so futile. In knowing deliverance from that depth, and the good which the hard has become, this fashions a depth of gratitude which does not bend knee to simple words.

I could tell you how thankful I am for many distinct things in those hard years I went through. If my memory did not fail me, I could fill books with distinct events from day after day. Thankfulness that Grandpa was not violent, thankfulness that we did not face horrors in a hospital. I could dig up little things, big things, simple things and complex things. They would all be true. I could move on to other parts of my life, other hard times, and what I would say about those hard times would be true too. But those are feeble statements that don't really capture the knowledge that comes from realizing the depths of horror that is capable in this life--and the truth that we are all spared from experiencing that, in this life.

Yet how often it is that in my smallness I scream at God. In the sea of life's trials the billows roll and horror grips me that does not comprehend the deliverance from drowning. And so yet again my feebleness reminds me of the grace, the mercy, of eyes that sometimes are enabled to see.

The Other Side
The walk of old age

Recently I read the book Slow Dancing With a Stranger by Meryl Comer. It is the story of how Ms. Comer lost her husband Harvey to early onset Alzheimer's. Any story about Alzheimer's is a tough read, but those that deal with early onset Alzheimer's--as Ms. Comer's book does--can be particularly hard. Early onset Alzheimer's takes a person in their prime, and often progress with a brutal swiftness. Slow Dancing With a Stranger was not short of hard moments, but in the end I was glad I read it.

I am not always glad I have read such books. Since I am person writing a book about Alzheimer's, conventional wisdom is that I should read as many books as possible on the topic. Know your field, is the advice. Know your competition. I find that hard to do. Reading Alzheimer stories brings back unpleasant memories, but more than that I feel particularly sharp regrets over the hard things people experience in the books I read when I know that if only they had known better--if someone had taught them better--everyone would have suffered less. I am not a detached or ignorant reader, and so I bring extra baggage. When you know what could have been better it is even harder than when the story events seem foreign and confusing.

In some ways Meryl Comer's story reads like a horror story of every caregiver's worst nightmare. Her husband became sick at a young age, and Ms. Comer quit her job and cared for her husband for twenty years. That's right. Twenty years. Career abandoned, life on hold for twenty years. A person facing the caregiving future, or someone two years into the process, dreads imagining five years, much less twenty. It sounds impossible. It sounds horrific. And yet Ms. Comer did that, and by all measures appears still in her right mind and reasonable health.

When I read a book like that a little voice inside me questions why I am writing. When I read the story of someone who has gone through an Alzheimer's experience which dwarfs mine--I question if I have anything to add. Can I really speak to the experience of others, or do I just have a bad case of hubris?

The doubts then start gnawing more. The experience of everyone is so different, their life and their situation unique. Who am I to think that I can speak from my situation into theirs? Am I just insulting people by thinking I have something to share which will benefit their life?

The doubt can grow toxic. But what I must remind myself is that life should not be a comparison game. It is not a contest to see who has the worst wounds--and if you don't win then yours don't count. No, that is not what life is about. We should not measure our suffering on a scale against other people. Is my suffering worse than yours? That is the wrong lens to look at any suffering.

The truth is that every life matters, and every story has meaning no matter how seemingly big or small. Every life is etched with truth if we have eyes to see it, and truth always matters and always has importance. Our personal story does not have importance because it is the most terrible story of suffering, or because it is the greatest story of success. Every story is important because God is working in every story, and where God is present you cannot call things of no importance.

Remembering this is a good encouragement to me, and a good reminder to humility. The encouragement is the reminder that it doesn't matter if my story of Alzheimer's doesn't feel like the greatest or longest, or most severe (and no doubt it isn't). But being "the greatest" in anything isn't why anything in my life, or about me, is important. That isn't the reason why my story is important, and its value doesn't come from the number of points earned for suffering. The value of my story comes from the fact that God did something there, and that reality can speak into the lives of other people, even if by some measure they have suffered more, or differently.

The reminder to humility comes in that the value of my story doesn't come from my awesomeness. It doesn't depend on my awesomeness or come from it. Even if I don't go on a religious rant in my book (which I don't) it is still a story about the mysterious and amazing things God does in a small and yet greatly valuable lives we live. So I don't need to justify the worth of what happened to me. God already has because what God does is never worthless. The same is true in your life, whether you write a book about it or not.

It isn't about you. When I remember that it is very comforting because then I remember it doesn't rest on my shoulders.

A journey of mercy

Those who are old enough (or young enough) know of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" stories which were popular at one time. I think I probably read all there were, though I definitely consider some to be far better than others. I didn't care much for those that seemed to have wimpy, or overly-moralizing story lines. Something I also did as a child was play imaginative games with my siblings. I say "games" but often these were imaginary adventures where I would talk about what I was doing, or what was happening, and my younger siblings would listen transfixed. Really, it was story telling under a slightly different guise.

These two different examples both fall into the category of emergent stories. The idea of emergent storytelling is that the story arch is not fixed in advance--rather it emerges dynamically while it is being read or experienced. The "Choose Your Own Adventure" novelettes of my youth fall on the more static end of this category spectrum (while there were multiple story possibilities and endings but it was all printed up and fixed in advance), while the adventuring I did with my siblings came in on the far more dynamic end, seeing as I was making up things on the fly.

Since those heydays of my childhood I have moved on to the staid respectability of writing polished stories. The narrative I present is crafted, and re-crafted until it is smooth and without disjoint. But I have never entirely forgotten about the story telling adventures of my childhood. While sloppy in their form, the participatory adventures I told to my younger siblings had their own particular thrill. There is a total disregard for critical analysis as a child (maybe with an exception for my older brother Teman, who came out of the womb with critical analysis) and with that disregard comes a certain wild abandon in embracing a story. I have since wondered how it would be if I revisited that method of story telling as an adult. Is it possible to return to Neverland?

My presumption has been that an adult surely could tell such emergent stories to children (I think plenty of parents do it all the time) but I wondered how well an adult might tell such an emergent story to other adults. Is it possible? I have suspected that it is--by at least some people. I think that was often the root of many stories told in ancient times around fires. But could I tell an emergent story that others might be amused to partake in?

So I decided to give it a try.

Now, admittedly this is not a serious narrative effort. It is more along the lines of an experiment to see if I am still able, in my stuffy old age, to string together a coherent and passably engaging narrative. The depth is no more than one might find in a light adventure story. Call it a choose your own adventure for adults. It isn't quite as dynamic as telling a story live to your younger siblings. The mechanic for the "emergent" part of the narrative is that at the end of every section the readers get to vote on what will happen next, among several possible choices. I don't think this is as engaging as interacting with an audience in person, but it is the balance I am trying to use with technology. We'll see what happens.

If you want to read (and play) along, head over to http://adventure.creative-vapors.com/2014/09/10/awakening-cry/ and read through to the most recent entry. On the most recent entry voting is typically open from Tuesday until Friday. After that voting closes and I write the next installment, it is posted, and the process repeats.

Currently the story is in the early stages but it is starting to take shape. If you check it out I'd be curious to know what you think.

Fire in the stove

Flammable Paradox

I see men walking
like trees
upon whom the Cursed hung.

Judgment redeemed
set afire
for purified ingots.

One morning this week found me sitting in the dining room, empty breakfast bowl in front of me as I stared at the wood stove fire. I guess my line of thought started with pondering why many people (myself included) find a strange beauty in fire. There is a fearsome and awesome thing to fire, and beauty too. It is a sublime combination, and as I thought I wondered why this was so.

Why did God make it so that we naturally are drawn to fire's mysterious beauty? Fire is destruction and on first reflection why should we find beauty in destruction, whether it be the immolation of wood in a fireplace or a star expending itself. And yet we do find powerful beauty in fire, in light. All light comes from some sort of fire, the rending of something torn asunder whether it be the inferno of wood molecules or the dissolution of countless stars. Without those countless dyings creation would be a cold dark death. It is only in the dying of something that light and life exists.

The most common Biblical use of the imagery of fire specifically is for judgment. As we see things in the natural world readily destroyed by the awesome power of fire this is an analogy that we readily understand. But there is a tension too, for if in fire there is only the truth of God's wrath why are we so drawn to it, and why has God used fire with its light and warmth to demonstrate it as the source of life?

How can judgment bring forth life?

As I sat in my chair, milk damp bowl forgotten as I watched the flames, I kept thinking about how the Bible uses fire. Given fire's common use as a symbol for God's judgment, it is quite remarkable that on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit descended on the followers of Jesus it came as tongues of flame settling on them. When the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism it came in the appearance of a dove. Fire is quite a different matter, and most certainly there is a reason for this differing imagery.

We gain some understanding of the choice of fire for the Spirit's coming on the disciples if we look closer at the use of fire in the Bible. There are places in the Bible where fire carries a purely punitive conception--such as the fires of hell. But often in the prophetic literature fire is used in terms of a redemptive, restorative, judgment. One example is found in Zechariah 13:7-9 where we read:

“Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!”
declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.
In the whole land,” declares the Lord,
“two-thirds will be struck down and perish;
yet one-third will be left in it.
This third I will put into the fire;
I will refine them like silver
and test them like gold.
They will call on my name
and I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are my people,’
and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.’”

In this passage fire is the very thing which makes the people pure and perfect (removing the bad and leaving only the good) and restores their relationship with God. It is this idea which informs our understanding of the fire descending on the disciples at Pentecost. It was the sign of their purification. And the imagery struck me; if to a man with not yet full seeing eyes we can appear as trees walking, than how much more do we appear to earth-dimmed eyes like logs set on fire by God. We burn oh so brightly, gloriously, and in our passing only ash remains.

The line of thinking quickly brought me back to the paradox of the cross. For it is in that great act that we see death, destruction, and judgment bring forth life, restoration, and deliverance. Metaphorically, on that cross Jesus was alight with the fire judgment of God as he became cursed for us. It was an ugly demonstration of the consequences of sin, and it was a beautiful demonstration of the reality of love. It was the consummation of death, and the seed of life. The death of Jesus Christ was both, and it is a paradox that no natural mind can explain. It is a beautiful paradox, and in looking at that little fire on the stove I saw how it existed as an example paradox of that paradox--a sun blazing light in its fiery death, giving life to this world, right down to the logs in my fire warming the house. We are transfixed by the beauty of fire because in it we are given a dim recognition of the beautiful mystery found in redemption--that in God the judgment of death brings revelation, redemption, and restoration. It seems impossible, and yet it is. How fitting then that God would give us fire, a sign of judgment which shines forth the mysterious beauty

It is not that in spite of death God saves, for the death of Jesus was not merely an obstacle that had to be overcome. Rather, it is through death that God saves, for the death and resurrection of Jesus was the very means by which God saved. This paradox is not happenstance. Yes, the cross of Jesus shows the mystery of God. But more than that it shows the power of God in that by His hand the negative becomes positive, defeat the greatest victory, and we can delight in the hope this teaches us about God's ability to thwart every intention of evil.

When Satan enticed Man and Woman into sin in the Garden of Eden, judgment was their just due (and how Satan took pleasure in that). But for all Satan thought he had thwarted God, it was that very judgment of separation, the very fire of wrath, that God used to reconcile the lost back to Himself. The greatest blow Satan could think to strike against God--whether it be the Garden of Eden or the Cross of Jesus--was used by God to bring the greatest glory to His name. Not only are we saved from judgment, but that very salvation was purchased by means of judgment.

We look at a fire and if we have eyes to see it tells us of the mystery of what God has done--and what only God can do. For the fire in the hearth will soon go cold, and only dead ashes remain. And if this creation continued long enough the stars too would burn out. The fires of this universe are a picture, and they are beautiful, but their ashes remind us still that for all the beauty of ephemeral flames we are looking for the blazing glory that will never end.

Fire in the stove
Grandma's house

The past, fickle thing, refuses to remain in place. What stories it tells, who can hear? Time unspools, always moving further away, further behind. Memory too, like time, runs from us, but the ghosts of our minds have their own different pace. In that tapestry some recollections remain fresh years later while others fade quickly. History gone cannot be called again to present as it was once, but walking again in places where long past yesterdays were written does bring a reflection different from merely traveling the mind's backward fleeing path.

Almost four months ago Grandma's last day slipped away. Her house emptied, possessions dispersed with the efficiency of rats fleeing a fast sinking ship. The empty shell was prettied and put up for sale. From there the process slowed, a waiting and a plodding through the process of divestiture. Into the limbo I returned on occasion to mow the lawn and stir the inner soup of past and present. So summer waned and autumn slipped through. This week I made what may be my last trip, if the sale finalizes as it should. Then no more to a place where the ribbons of memory lie unraveled in heaps, draped across the rooms in a collection only the mind's eye can see.

The physical act of walking up the steps triggers a sense almost like walking back in time. For that flickering moment it is as if I am returning as I did so many times before to a house of sickness, brokenness, and my own rut routine. Then the emptiness greets me, the past winks out, and I am here in the present with the barren places. The carpet in my old bedroom still carries the impression of my desk, fresh and unfaded, much like the imprints on my mind. The ghosts of the past are young here, and hover at the edge of eye and mind.

Someone might ask what I feel walking through the empty places, marked from eight years of my life. The answer is that I feel more and less than one might expect. I'm still learning about emotions, but one thing I have learned is that they are more sublime, deeper, and nuanced than the rush of tears or joy we so readily identify. Emotions do not come only in primary colors, and the pictures painted can be more muddy, complex, or more unclear than we might like. The mix of hue and shade embody profound things, things in us we yet do not understand.

The texture of what I feel walking through that empty mausoleum of modern construction is like the whisper of a thousand voices in cacophony, or the intermingled scent of disparate aromas. I would tell you I felt nothing. But then in the open space of aloneness there is a stirring, the tremor given by deep things I can't yet interpret.

Perhaps it is a song of sorrow, the notes of loss, regret, and hurt playing their faint tune. Is that why I hear? A bit of fondness, maybe, too, for not all things in that place were ugly in their time. All of it, good or ill, carries the weight of years. The taste of memories defies the apish parody of simple words seeking to mark in clear boundaries on that which truly plunge in deeper wells. Like a melody the things felt flows through heart and soul, near and yet beyond words.

I feel nothing, and yet everything--but so faint as to miss it. But there is a reason we feel it, and find it a riddle of things not easily untied. Life is the learning of what we have been taught and yet do not understand, and those are a wave tossed sea in our soul, highlighted in crest by the foam which emotions wrought. So in empty spaces are we taught. And so too from the empty places would come the eye opening we seek, if only we would listen. I hope that I am listening.

The empty places
Alone each to his own

We all have those songs which move us, giving words to something deep inside. A song which gave words to something I didn't think could be made so simple and clear is "Come Close Now" by Christa Wells. In one video1 she tells the story of how the song came about. The spark for the song sprung from a book by Dan Walser called To Make a Life. Christa says that Dan writes in his book about grief describing it this way; "Being in this room upstairs in a house that is burning down and I'm strapped in a chair. And outside this house there are all these people running around with fire hoses and ladders and sirens and they are trying to fix it and make it better but I'm still alone up in this room. Eventually one, maybe two, people just quietly make there way up the front walk and they open the front door of the house and they walk up to this room that I'm in and they pull up a chair beside me and they sit down and they just sit in the burn with me." The picture is a powerful metaphor for grief. As one who has both seen grief first hand, and experienced it in my own measure, I can say it rings very true.

Christa takes this picture of grief and puts it to song in "Come Close Now." The words are lyrical, poetic, and beautifully sung. For me the song is deeply moving. But as I listen to the song part of what moves me are the many layers of truth wrapped up in the song. First, there is the truth the song shares about the perspective of a grieving person. The song captures very well the feelings of alienation and helplessness that swallow a grieving person. Speaking for myself, I found in grief a profound sense of being terribly alone. It felt like no one could understand the place I was in, or the feelings I struggled with. More than that, it felt like there was no purpose in speaking, or attempting to share, because perhaps the only thing more dreadful than the feeling of aloneness in grief is someone attempting to "fix" the situation. Grief cannot be fixed til death is destroyed, and anyone who tries to fix grief with pat platitudes or comfortable bromide only shows more painfully to the hurting that the imagined helper doesn't understand how deep and wide runs the stream of sorrow. True understanding, and true healing, does not come from people running around trying to fix a hurt that stretches more vast than any human healing. In poetic words the song gives shape to the conflagration which is grief.

Second, the song equally expresses the place of someone outside the grieving--a place I have also been. There is a unique hurt a heart feels when it sees someone in grief and realizes there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do to make the grief go away. You cannot banish the hurt or heal the wound. In those moments we feel the heart weighing, heart rending, unutterable burden of the sentence, "From dust to dust." In that moment of complete helplessness there is a strong urge to walk away. No, to run back to some place where the world seems fixable. As the lyrics sing, "I'm afraid of the space where you suffer . . . I can't handle the choke or the danger / Of my own foolish, inadequate words." How so very true. The song goes on:

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

This refrain captures the paradox of being succor for the grieving. At first in folly we might think to sprinkle water on the bonfire in an attempt to put it out. But if we gain the grace to realize how foolish our attempts to fix the grief of another, it then leaves the question, "What can I bring to your fire?" Which leads to the realization of how unhelpful our attempts at helping, "Shall I sing while the roof is coming down?" It is absurd--you don't sing while the roof is coming down. And yet, in the paradox of being comfort to the grieving the answer is yes. Not ladders and hoses on the outside--singing right there in the middle. If you are going to be true help to those in the throes of grief, you can't be safe. You can't stay outside the fire. You can't put out the fire. You must do the insane and go into the fire, hold them in the flames, and sing while the roof is coming down. In this rather lose metaphor those running around outside with ladders and fire hoses and sirens are people trying to give "things" to help the grieving. To sing is to give of yourself in a very personal way. To ask to come close is to request to partake with the person in their pain, even as one would join in flames. What good does it do to sing while the roof is coming down, what good does it do to come close in the flames? Logically, it does no good at all. And that is the point--in the depths of grief people don't need cold logic, they need nearness. However useless it might seem, in truth it does far more good than we can imagine.

More than once I have had the privilege of being with those in the midst of deep, devastating, grief. My own powerlessness in the presence of their profound hurt made those times some of the most trying I have experienced. It felt like I was doing nothing good, and I wanted desperately to find something to fix. And yet, somehow, I dimly, haltingly, perceived that my act of simply being there, of being still and with them, was the most profoundly comforting thing I could possibly do. We cannot fix grief. That we cannot do. But being with the grieving in their grief--that is the only thing we can do.

But having meditated on this truth I came to realize it was not the end of the matter. The truth so sharply on display in the sphere of grief applies also to the rest of life. When someone is going through a difficult event what they need is not for us to slap band-aide "solutions" on their struggle but for us to come close and join with them in the struggle. An illustration from my own life is the years I spent caring for my grandfather as he died from Alzheimer's. It was no help at all, and could be very harmful, for people distant from the struggle to offer "solutions" and advice. The only thing that was helpful was if someone came close and--having shared in the grueling experience--offered something from that shared experience. This insight caused me to realize two things: This idea of "coming close" articulated exactly how I wanted to share my own Alzheimer's experience with other people to help them. I wanted to come close, to (as it were) sing while the roofing was coming down. Whatever exactly that would entail in literal acts, I knew that the idea poetically captured what I wanted to do. But also when I hear "Come Close Now" I am reminded that I must be very careful when offering advice, fixes, or opinions on the struggle of someone else's life--no matter what the struggle. In a way for each of us our life is the story of our own house burning down. The rest of the world is running around telling us how to fix it but really what we need are the people who will come close even though our lives are burning down.

This brought me to another sharp reminder: Christians need to be very careful how we minister to the world. Especially in the corporate church of America there is a strong push for social justice, poverty alleviation, and similar causes. We want to heal the sick, fix the broken, and set the captives free. All are good desires, but what so often happens is we throw a lot of money, expertise, and energy at the problems we see in the world--and end up becoming those people outside the burning house running around with our sirens, ladders, and fire hoses. Money, expertise, and energy aren't the solution to grief, and neither are they, ultimately, the solutions for the rest of the brokenness in the world either. The poor man in Africa may do more to heal the hurting than a thousand rich people in America with all their money because the poor man is the one who knows what it means to come close. May we flee the snare of thinking that all our planning, organizing, and money can take the place of coming close and entering into the pain and suffering of those we seek to serve.

If that warning applies to the church as a corporate whole, it applies equally to us as Christian individuals. If we are bringing the light of the gospel to the people around us, may we be careful to bring it not as people running around with ladders and sirens and fire hoses outside the burning house, but let us enter the burning houses of others, after we have asked, "Can I come close now?" and there in the smoke and the burn share with them as one who truly sees.

And this brings us to the most profound and deeply comforting truth I found in Christa's song. The idea of "Come close" is so true for grief, for life, for the church, and for us as individuals because it is ultimately a truth that God Himself has demonstrated. The world is a house burning down. Our lives are houses burning down. And God has not stood outside running around with sirens, ladders, and hoses shouting advice to us. No, God came close in the most amazing way. He became incarnated, Immanuel, God with us. Jesus Christ came into the smoke and fire and burn. He came close and held us in the fire and sang the song of deliverance we needed to hear. Jesus came close historically when he was born in human flesh, lived, ministered, died and rose again. He came into the fire, and in holding us near he saved us from the fire. He took our place in the fire so that we might go free. But it is good to remember that not only did he do this once for all when he came to walk on this earth, but also when he enters into our lives individually he does the very same. The world right now is running around in circles outside the burning house of our lives while we sit inside bound to a chair, and what we need is someone to come in. And it is Jesus who does. It is he who comes in, who sings us the song of deliverance, and wraps us in his arms so that even in the smoke and the burn we are safe, we are preserved.

That is the heart of what it means to come close, and that is why we are called to come close now.


1. In this live performance of the song on Youtube Christa Wells gives a lengthy introduction explaining the song: http://youtu.be/gLDUO_mVYb4

2. The song, without introduction and with full lyrics included in the notes, is also available on Youtube here: http://youtu.be/jIYdZPuqjnY

Coming close

I stumbled upon the short film “Happy Pills” tonight, and it touched a raw spot with me. Watching it, I was struck by how I was bringing feelings to the video which hardly anyone else would bring. It was all on slant, and yet hit so close to home. It wasn’t my story, but it was like someone knew, really knew, the dark place from which my story, and those like it, come. The sign of very good artistic insight, if not down right personal experience. Other people watch this and see the video the author created, which is plenty and enough. I see a rippled reflection of my own past. In the words of the man I hear an echo of things I’ve heard for eight years, an uncanny amalgamation of all the bad in two people I tended. In the ladies tight movements and misery and hesitation I saw a shadow of myself. I didn’t play deceit on Grandma, but in the end I did have to let her do what she would however self destructive her choices.

The short is incredibly well acted. Watch it, and see what you will.


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