Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Home Again

Nell is home, but we are chastened now by the experience of this week. Everything seems a little bit different; while the house hasn't changed, we have. Sleep is a real need for all of us. Thank you, Lord, for the people of OCPC, for the rest they are giving us for this weekend.
There is a lot to digest right now; it's hard to believe that it's only been two days. It feels like about 10. We thank the Lord for each of you who is with us on this journey. For those who have the urge to call, please resist it. I'm getting bronchitis, and Nell and Martha need to sleep. We appreciate all the concern, but the best way to show it is to just keep praying.
I'll keep you posted in the new year.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Thank God that doctors can be wrong.
The DWI profile (nothing to do with arrests, but a MRI protocol that spotlights strokes in the brain) is apparently not as foolproof as the doctor who read it at 12:00am said it was. This morning, all the grey heads came together, looked at the films, and explained what was there. Neither of the two bright objects in the DWI profile was a stroke. Praise God.
But... (on this road there is always a but) what happened last night was what is called transient ischemia, or a series of T.I.A.'s, or transient ischemic attacks. This is usually the prelude to a major brain attack, or stroke. The doctors agree that this is why we did the operation last week in the first place.
So, this is what is happening: Nell's left brain is starved for oxygenated blood. We put a new artery down to bring blood to that part of her brain, but the brain must grow the capillaries to tap into the supply. This takes time (3 months). In the meantime, the starvation goes on. So, we are in a horse race between supply and demand. At least supply has a week's headstart.
Thank you for the prayers. One of my favorite quotations:

As night alone enables us to see the stars,
so suffering alone illuminates
the brightest truth of God.

Night brings out the stars
As sorrow shows us the truth.
In the nightmare of these last 24 hours, your prayers have been the truth of God to us. God has granted us rest through them, strength in them, and hope when it seemed all hope was gone. We have been able to breathe deeply through the pain and fear because of the Holy Spirit's power breathing through you. Never, NEVER doubt the power of prayer. Never stop praying.

The New Road

At 6:15, while she brushed her hair, Nell began to have two strokes. One is in the speech center, near the surgical site, the other is deeper in the brain in an area that controls touch and skin sensitivity. The doctors are confident that she should recover from both, but at this point hold out little hope that this is the last of them. This night has put two new moments into the horrible picture album of pain that is this path the Lord is leading us on.
Nell is in ICU at Children's. We are breathing on your prayers. Lord, have mercy on Nell. No more words.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Home for Christmas

It's 2:30, and we're all home on Christmas day. Everyone is very tired, but very happy. This present was enough to unwrap today. We rest in Christ's peace. May that peace bless you this day. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Nell is out of ICU, eating and drinking, putting on her clothes, getting her IV's out, and getting ready to come home, maybe even tomorrow. I thought that just having her ok today was enough, but God has given us more than we could expect or deserve.
Some have been asking me, "do you HAVE to preach tonight, on Christmas Eve?" Yes, I have to preach-- if I didn't I would explode from the need to praise Christ my Lord, to share His love, and to declare His presence.
Emmanuel, You have proved Your name once again. You are God with me, with Nell-- with all of us. Come, Lord, into the heart of every person who darkens the door of any place of worship this night, and fill them with Your light, Your love, Your life, so that this Christmas may be for them what it is for us-- a celebration of joy for hope that cannot fail, life that cannot die, truth that cannot change, family that cannot dissolve. Bring them into Your presence, O Lord, and make them part of Your family not just for one holiday-- make every day they live holy, set apart for You. Thank you, Lord for giving more than I deserve or could ask. Merry Christmas to each of you out there, and for anyone reading this who is privileged to preach tonight-- bring them to Jesus.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Good News

It's been a long day-- got on the road to get back to the hospital literally 5 minutes before freezing rain drove 4 trucks off 67 into the ditch and closed the road for a couple of hours. At 7, Nell was in the ready room, and we had a chance to pray together. Neither Nell nor Martha had slept much.
5 pastors came by, and the General Presbyter prayed with me as we waited the 4 1/2 hours the surgery took after 1 hour of preparation. About 1:45, Dr. Sacco came out, gave us Nell's hair that they had had to shave, and put the most amazing photograph in front of us. "It all went well," he said. "Here's what we did..." and with a picture of Nell's brain opened up, he showed us the intricate stitching and path that he had taken the artery on as he had sewed it into her brain.
After one gets over the shock and awe of looking at the picture, the reality of the artistry of this surgery overwhelmed me.
Nell was moving all her limbs, and when we got to see her about an hour later, she was talking and doing well. Her first questions were to make sure that Martha had eaten breakfast and she had slept in the waiting room. At least she ate breakfast!
So many nurses and doctors took such good care of us. Nell is sleeping in ICU, having already drunk some apple juice. She is in some pain from the head clamp she had to wear, and from her neck. But all is well. All we need to do now is make it through the next 24 hours without complications, and we are well on the way to recovery.
Praise God for your prayers, and for the wonderful way Christ has held us in the palm of His hand. Praise God for David Sacco, who has found his calling, a high calling, and exercises it with such compassion and precision. Praise God for the piece of Belgian lace that he tatted into the wonder of God's blessing to us: Nell's mind.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Long Day of Waiting

We got to the hospital at 9:00am, negotiated the admissions process by 11:00am, got settled in the hospital room at noon. The I.V. got put in at 4:15pm, and when I left at 7:00pm, the first bag of saline solution was being hung.
Everything is kind of in slow motion in this Christmas week. So many little children; so many loving parents. So much service and sacrifice. Being at Children's Hospital is like being admitted to a strange kind of co-op apartment building, where the kids don't know the rules not to talk to strangers, and the parents all recognize in each other's faces that we share a bond not all parents share. Short conversations that hold much more than words bind us together. It is a special place, where a lot of the blinders that we can afford to wear in the "normal" world are too expensive and impossible to keep on. We look at the reality of how fragile our beloved is, and all of the sudden we discover that our love for them, their love for us, is power enough to keep going through the next treatment/appointment/adventure. And in short rides on an elevator, smiles in the hall, or conversations in the parents' kitchen, we find out that love is power enough to make us family with people we've never met before.
After the slow motion of today, we've been pushed to the front of the line tomorrow-- kickoff is 7:00am now, with surgery starting at 9:00. I'll communicate once we're on the other side. We are living on your prayers.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Facts

Here's what's happening next week: our daughter Nell goes in to Children's Hospital on Monday for pre-operation prep (the dreaded loss of hair on the left side of her head). At 10:30 on Tuesday, she begins a 5-hour procedure that will involve cutting a 3-inch diameter hole in her skull, shaping two smaller holes into the skull and the 3-inch diameter circle, sewing the vein that runs along the surface of the skull to the brain, and then re-attaching the 3-inch circle with the smaller holes aligned to protect the vein.
Nell will be in ICU for approximately 24 hours after the operation, and then will be in a room until she can eat, drink, and do all the other things every human being's body does in a given 24-hour period. Then she will come home, probably Friday. The major risk/side effect is stroke; so please be praying with us that we get to Christmas without Nell having a stroke.
Now that we are almost "in the chute," there are lists of things to do and get, lots of boxes to check, and enough chores to keep us busy and not thinking too much. Sometimes work is a blessing! I will be updating this blog as events unfold (probably won't be able to do that until evening/night), so stay tuned. Send on the blog to others who may want to know. The one thing we need from you is prayer; if you know of any prayer chains, feel free to pass on a prayer request for Nell.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus!

What a day. I am ashamed to admit it, but I started this day at work the way I do too many-- frustrated at people slow on the uptake, driving for a finish line on business and not paying very much attention to who I have to run over to get to it.
Wretched man, that I am, who will save me from this body of death? But thanks be to God... for the one who came in and delivered us from a secret need; for the prayers that I can feel pouring over us as we all get more and more nervous, and try not to show it to each other.
And so I come to the end of this day with one prayer, one awesome vision that has never left me since I was changed 30 years ago: O, the deep, deep love of Jesus! Vast in measure, boundless, free-- rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me-- over Nell-- over the O'Neil family, Marlene's family-- over Oak Cliff-- Dallas-- the world.
Whether I ride the wave happily or unhappily, He carries all of us homeward. And as I ride the wave, I watch those dying on the banks, thinking that being dry is being safe, and my heart breaks for them. Wretched man that I am-- but I am a man. Take my life, and make it Yours, Lord! Fill me with Your love. You are all I need! I surrender all of me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Getting Bigger in the Windshield

We are now at D-day minus 8 to the next adventure in the great school of our lives as a family. When our daughter Nell was 4, she was diagnosed with Neurofibromatosis, a genetic disease that causes tumors to grow along the nerves of the body. The most interesting cases (may you never be interesting to research doctors) are centered in the brain, where Nell's has always been.
I call our struggle the great school because Jesus Christ has taught us all so much through the terrors and trials and frustrations and miracles of this journey. My standard summary of blessings has been that the lessons are invaluable, but the tuition is very, very high.
Suffering is the great school; there just might be a connection between the spiritual immaturity of the average American Christian and the fact that we spend more on pain relief in one year than what would be necessary to guarantee every man, woman, and child on the earth safe drinking water.
We must pick up our cross if we are to follow Jesus. I have been reflecting as Nell's surgery comes closer on December 23 on the cherished illusions we use to deflect our call to pick up the cross.
Nell should not be, by all medical studies and probabilities, who she is. Almost all NF kids have severe learning disabilities; Nell is #1 in her class. Almost all NF kids are of extremely short stature; Nell broke through 5 feet before she stopped growing. God has miraculously removed 3 threats to her short life, which no doctor could adequately explain.
I grew so confidant of triumph, that I thought we had crossed into the promised land when puberty finally passed, and what had been described as the worst that this disease could throw at us was in the rear view mirror.
This neurosurgeon has brought us back to the reality that there is still a lot to face in front of us. Every suffering that we have weathered was dismissed by a brush of the hand, a sigh, and an exclamation of "Boy, I'm glad that's over!" We now have to face the reality that that exclamation is just another illusion. There's always going to be something else.
The Lord led me to a new understanding of what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians 12: Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
The cross stays with us, to remind us that we are weak-- that Christ is our strength. Three times I have thought that we had left this disease behind us. No matter what happens next Tuesday, Your grace is sufficient, Lord. Let your power be made perfect in our weakness.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Learning to Converse Again

One of the lost arts in the last 25 years has been the art of talking, even arguing, with those with whom one disagrees in civil conversation. It is possible to love those with whom one strongly disagrees, contrary to the evidence of our current institutional life.
Civil conversation is, like all the great arts of life, learned through modeling and practice more than through formal instruction. That is why the lack of conversational modeling and practice are the accelerant to all the destructive forces in church and society.
At Oak Cliff, it is precisely this modeling continued through the generations that has enabled us to embrace a mission of racial reconciliation in Christ. Some lessons I have had reinforced here:
  • We have two ears, and one mouth. To be used effectively, they must be used proportionately. Listen twice as much as you speak (hard for pastors).
  • We must assume that everyone belongs at the table-- it is God's job to judge, and none of us deserve the invitation we have received from Christ to belong.
  • Our identity in Christ can only be embraced if we let go of all lesser identities--even (especially) the good and cherished ones.
  • We are each created, saved, and called individually-- we have to come to know each other the same way.
  • All forms of group judgment are ultimately lazy ways out of the hard work of loving. Hard work produces a greater reward.
  • The hard work of loving is impossible without the hard work of praying, studying the Word, and living in total obedience to what our study reveals to us.

Rebuilding a civil society at this stage is going to be a long haul. I probably won't live to see it, but I will spend my life to build it in the hope that Christ's Church can grow vibrant and strong again in the public square in America.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Changing the Game

Now Newsweek is adding its 2-cent deficit of thinking to the gay marriage debate. SIGH. I am tired of yelling, "no, it's not!" as much as advocates must be tiring of yelling, "yes, it is!"
It seems to me that Jon Meacham's editorial is a perfect example of the only lasting gift of the Baby Boom generation-- meaningless, endless self-referential, self-righteous destruction. Winning is everything-- anything that has to be destroyed for me to win, burn it up, bomb it, tear it down. If I think you're wrong, that means I don't have to understand what you're saying, I have to stop you from being able to say it. And all this destruction is so that I can stand on the ash heap of Western civilization after I have destroyed the last "enemy" and shout out into the desert wilderness that was once a living world "yes it is!" and have that be the last word.
Enough. God save us from another Baby Boomer President; did it really matter whether he was a Democrat or a Republican? God save us from our current cultural and institutional leaders. Being right does not confer power to ignore the commandments of God; the toxic way this debate rages on drives out the faithful, and leaves only the loud, the brash, the brazen and violent. No one wants to be part of any institution that has as its core value, "I'm the leader and I'm right, so you either tell me I'm right or I will banish you." Life played out as a zero-sum game has no winners. Everyone loses.
Let's find a quiet corner to put the Baby Boomers, with enough round-nose scissors, construction paper, crayons, and glue to occupy themselves until they can run off to retirement and get on with the task of rebuilding what they have spent their working lives tearing down.
And for Boomers on both sides of these issues: we who are younger are not with you, on either side. We're tired of circular firing squads and bracing games of Russian roulette, where you always seem to be the coaches, and you expect us to be your team. Enough.
Let's get on with the business at hand. And Boomers, if you want to help out, do us a favor: sit down, find some humility, and try listening for a while.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

No Way Back-- Look for a Way Forward

I missed the Moderator's modcast yesterday for a good reason. I was trying to find a way forward. I've read Beau Weston's paper, and am an avid follower of his blog, But the paper, and most of our conversation, hit on the major reason we can't find our way: history, especially recent (last 500 years) history, is not a guide. It is an obstacle.
Our terms of conversation are still wrapped up in a Christendom Christianity which has no traction or power in our current circumstances. Why does the church exist? In Christendom, the right response is, "how dare you!?" That doesn't work now. The idea of respect for tradition's sake has never had a great deal of credence in America-- there must be more of an explanation for the hope that is within you than that it was in your parents. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is not a Scotch/Irish Cultural Heritage Society. But we lack a vocabulary to talk about first things-- we get queasy when we have to talk about Jesus-- see my other posts below about being different.
Beau is right-- we have to create a new centripetal force inside this denomination, something (I would say Someone) who/which draws us together, holds us in the midst of serious disagreements, and creates a common language which can remind us we are not strangers or enemies, but blood relatives. That something/someone will not be an establishment that through the gravity of its Charleton Heston voice and sociological peer pressure says, "Come!" It will be a voice that calls to all who have ears to hear, "Go! And go together!"
I hope that what Shannon Kershner and I did yesterday is a start on that task in Grace Presbytery. Shannon and I do not see eye-to-eye on the major issues before us: but I respect Christ's call on Shannon's life as a preacher of the Gospel. I appreciate her willingness to serve Jesus Christ with all that she has, and I believe that that appreciation and respect are mutual. If Grace is willing to open up that communication and respect, then we can learn to talk again. If we can talk, we can come closer to understanding one another. If we understand, we can support one another's ministry with integrity. If we can support one another, we can encourage our growth individually and communally in Christ as we seek to re-evangelize a culture that believes it has been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and found Christendom Christianity to be a false religion.
"By this shall all people know that you are my disciples," Jesus said: "if you have love for one another." The path of the past is a trip to nowhere. We're on untrodden ground-- the last footprints the Church left here are almost 2,000 years old. If there's any history that can guide us, it is in that ancient apostolic age, where the only establishment was for tentmaking.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

Dallas, Texas and Detroit, Michigan have a lot in common. Both cities are dominated by minority populations, while the Anglo majority lives in a safe series of suburbs outside the city limits. Both cities are deeply divided by race and class; both live with the anger, pain, and fear those divisions create. For both cities, the 1960's represent a tragic acceleration of those evils which still scar them both.
But for Detroit, the 60's are memories of burned down businesses, blacks and whites murdered in cold blood, whole neighborhoods bulldozed, and hate spewed back and forth across the divisions until the hate talk was the only talking done.
In Dallas, no business (that I know of, correct me if you know more) was burned. The anger, pain and fear drove white flight, but did not erupt into widespread physical violence.
In Detroit, I know a white pastor who walks and prays his neighborhood with his congregation, seeking to love in Christ his neighbors who are not like him. Their ministry of reconciliation in Christ is struggling; he has been threatened at gunpoint for knocking on the wrong door.
As I write this, teams of two are out walking our neighborhood, white and black together. No one has ever been threatened; they will pray with many neighbors today if the past is any predictor. The Lord is blessing the ministry of reconciliation in Christ here, as OCPC grows in numbers and in depth of understanding of Christ's call and commands.
I write this for this reason: the conflicts on the homosexual ordination issue inside the PC(USA) will resolve one day. If the way we fight is with guns and bombs (rhetorical and sometimes all too real), the wounds from this conflict may never heal. While it may seem to many to be betrayal, I believe that a moderated, reconciling response to this conflict is the only Christ-like response to this time in our history in the PC(USA). If we cannot heal this division, let us at least live through the conflict inflicting the least amount of damage possible.

Friday, December 5, 2008

How to Be Different in the Midst of the War

I am convinced that the personal and private instruction of Christ has impact on public ministry, not the other way around. We can't play by the Lord's rules in the closet of prayer, and go out and play by the world's rules and expect either individually or collectively to grow.
But playing by Christ's rules in the public sphere is not a recipe for respect or for success; to love one's enemies is considered treason. To turn the other cheek looks like playing the patsy. To hang from the cross and forgive your crucifiers is lunacy. But isn't each of these a commandment, in word and in deed, from Jesus?
I have sitting in front of me an invitation to sign my name to Harry Hassall's ad in the Presbyterian Outlook supporting the fidelity and chastity amendment (G-6:106b to those poised beside the Book of Order). Sign me up; it's in the mail, Harry.
And Tuesday, I'm meeting with the Presbytery Life Committee in Grace Presbytery (think meeting planners) to join a pastor from the more liberal side of things in suggesting that Grace simply take no action on the amendment 08B (if I have to explain this to you, it takes too long). A "no action" vote will still count as a "no," but it will possibly enable us to not spend a whole meeting throwing the same rocks at each other.
Some will say that these two positions are contradictory; but I would say that they are both faithful uses of the power of the office to which I am called. The first is declarative; it is important to publicly stand for Biblical truth. The second is ministerial; I am not here to help the PC(USA) destroy itself. I can stand for truth without having to hate or fear those who oppose that truth, and this presbytery must find a way to cohere at this point in its life. As a servant of the church, I need to be part of that glue. If anybody is reading, fire away.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Bless Your Name

Too often we think that praise comes from good feeling. Why is it that only the winning believers praise the Lord in sports? Why does God only get praise when something good happens?
The great secret of praise is learning to bless the Lord's name in the midst of suffering and loss. This is a difficult time of year for me, now that my family of origin has disintegrated. In many ways, when Christ came into my life He began the process of making me an orphan on this earth while all who were once part of my family circle still live. I have blessed His name with the deep grief from each broken relationship, even as I pray for reconciliation.
Our middle daughter's life has hung in the balance since she was 4 from a disease for which there is no cure this side of the cross. This Christmas, she will have a new form of neurosurgery. We will spend Christmas day at Children's Hospital in Dallas, and today what is looming in the windshield is finally shaking loose the tears for her suffering, the fears for what future years may bring... and I will bless the Lord at all times, His praise shall continually be in my mouth, even as the waves of grief drift over me.
Nothing will stop me from praising the Lord's name, as long as there is breath in my body. Praise is His strength in me, His hope for me, the shelter of wings that can hold me even if the worst comes. Being different is not a choice-- it is the only hope that stands when death shakes the foundations, and the mountains of one's own life fall into the sea.
Each time that I fall on my knees before the Lord, and find the comfort and strength that the Holy Spirit provides I am reminded of how many do not know Who I know, what I know. Each time a wave crests, I am reminded of the waves of pain that flowed from wrists and feet up the cross through the heart and mind of the One Who comforts me.
The work of ministry is not a recreational side light to "real life." This is real life. This is for all the marbles-- for life itself. How can we not share Who we know? How can our lips stay silent, waiting for rocks to claim the great joy--even through tears-- of lifting our voices in praise of the God Who made us, Who loved us enough to die for us, Who comforts and sustains us even through the valley of death?
Sing praises to the Lord this day-- no matter what this day brings to you.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Being Different Part IV-- Hoarse Voice

There's an old joke: "what do you get when you cross a Jehovah's Witness and a Presbyterian? Someone who will knock on any door, but if it opens, has nothing to say." Or perhaps you've heard the famous line about Walter Mondale, who was said to have a peculiarly dull charisma that was a cross between a Presbyterian parson and a tree.
We don't speak the name of Jesus; it is tacky. Certainly, we do not speak and use "Jesus" and the second person familiar pronoun in public, even in prayer. That is beyond tacky; that is vulgar to Presbyterian ears. Vulgar after all means, "of the lower classes;" so many who now claim the name of Presbyterian have spent their lives running from or seeking to avoid such a dire fate as to be identified with the many.
Our hands are so clean because our mouths are so shut; we will not witness. But the passion that the living Christ instills in human hearts makes it impossible to be silent. The passion that Christ brings to life makes it impossible to live behind the barbed-wire fences of race, class, and lifestyle.
Who knows the hope that is within you? How many times have you had an opportunity to share that hope, and have decided that "it wouldn't be prudent"? How many people have you thought you were witnessing to when you said to them, "come to church with me"? The average person out in the world is no longer interested in crossing the threshold of a sanctuary; they want to know the Gospel from YOU. What do you believe? Who is Jesus? Why did He come? Why did He die? Where can I read about what you've told me?
There is a lot of explaining that needs to be done right now-- and you are the only person that your neighbor/coworker/friend is talking to. We need to be able to meet that need-- and no number of anonymous good deeds can take the place of those spoken words. Witnessing is not an optional practice that is too "vulgar" or "tacky" for us to do. It is the baseline expectation of every believer, and if we do not wish to stand speechless before a world that has tired of our dull charisma, we have to learn to talk about Jesus till our voices grow hoarse from declaring His praises, and sharing His love.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Being Different Part III-- Calloused Hands

When I served a small congregation in Western New York's grape farming country, my hands were always the giveaway to the fact that I "wasn't from around here." They were too soft, too clean; they hadn't seen years of work or any great amount of use.
Calloused hands are the sign of hard labor over long periods of time. And the PC(USA) has hands that are too soft, and too clean. We have revelled in the pride of place and position, looking to money to do our work for us-- but the work of making disciples cannot be outsourced, no matter how much money one has.
Disciples are made by example; the Word is preached by the life that stands behind the words of the preacher. Love is hard work, and Christ teaches us that hard work is good.
Paul in 2 Thessalonians 3 states a simple fact of life: those who will not work will not eat. Without the hard work of making disciples, the Church simply starves to death. But do the hard work, and the God who fed the Israelites for 40 years across the wilderness with bread from heaven will feed us with Bread of life that we may feed on here and now, and live forever.
It is only when each of us does the work to which Christ calls us that we are individually and collectively fed. The manicured hands of a priviledged denomination are no longer something to be admired. On the mission field, clean hands are the sign of idleness. It's time to get out into our neighborhoods and communities and get our hands dirty doing the Lord's work. No matter how hard it is, the Lord's work is always good.