When my wife and I were on vacation in New York City, we made sure to visit Redeemer Presbyterian, the church she attended during the three years she lived in Manhattan. Amid much skepticism, Dr. Tim Keller launched the church in 1989, hoping to reach out to Manhattan's intellectual and cultural elite. Cynical New Yorkers scoffed at his plans to plant a church committed to classic, orthodox Christianity. Those on the sidelines encouraged him to water down his committment to the reliabilty of scripture and to classic doctrines such as the deity of Christ and the resurrection, believing that educated New Yorkers would only respond to a milder version of Christianity.
Nineteen years later, 6000 people attend five different services in Mahattan. Most are single and in their 20s.
Part of Keller's attractiveness is his smart, thoughtful, brimstone-free sermons that appeal to the mind and heart (and not the wallet). His book, "The Reason for God" is a great introduction to Christianity and a much needed challenge to the recent stream of athiest books currently in vogue. A few months ago, Keller visited Google's corporate offices for a brief lecture and Q&A session on his book (which has currently moved to number 7 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller's list). You can watch the lecture below.
"Strangely, virtually every death, even of the very old, feels like an intrusion and more or less surprises us. Tears and lament give witness to our basic sense that this is wrong and that we don't like it one bit. Death provides the fundamental datum that something isn't working the way it was intended, accompanied by the feeling that we have every right to expect something other and better." (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a Conversation in Spiritual Theology)
My father-in-law passed away Wednesday night. The last 24 hours have been a jumble of motion and emotion as we scrambled to find remotely affordable airline tickets, send out emails, call family, and pack.
My wife kept saying over and over, "I can't believe he's gone." I remember saying the same thing after my own Father passed away. For months I knew that this day might come but it still surprised me. Death is so unnatural. It's as if we somehow know instinctively that this is not supposed to happen.
Death confused me as a child. I didn't grow up in a religious home so we never really talked much about the possibility of life after death. I was relieved when I attended vacation bible school with some kids in the neighborhood and learned about the concept of Heaven. That made sense to me. Death did not. It still doesn't.
I don't think its supposed to make sense. But what does resonate with me is this intuitive sense that "we have every right to expect something other and better" as Peterson describes it.
That gut feeling that "somethin' ain't right" makes no sense if the world consists only of matter in motion. It's like we know deep down inside that something is broken both in us and in world. Our souls cry out for a redeemer even if our hearts and minds will not.
Every Sunday night, four couples from our church join the wife and I for conversation and prayer (and sometimes dinner). We've been working our way through a discussion guide on marriage written by a psychologist and an Old Testament scholar. Last night's topic centered on the significance family stories.
When someone asks us a question about ourselves, we usually respond with a story. We love hearing and telling stories. Intimate marriages and close knit families are built upon a willingness to share stories. We reveal ourselves through our stories.
Last night, everyone took turns telling stories. Tales were told of acts of courage, heartache, or just plain silliness. Some of us grew up with forbidden stories that were never to be told. Some of us grew up with stories that were incomplete. That was certainly my experience. Growing up as an adopted child, I often asked my Mom to tell me the story about "the lady who had me" (my way of referring to my birthmother).
My adopted parents knew virtually nothing about my biological parents (times were different then). They passed on a few sketchy details that raised more questions in my mind than answers. My biological history remained shrouded in an unsolved mystery until just four years ago.
With the help of the archives unit of my adoption agency, I found the missing pages of my story and met the maternal side of my biological family. (It's a great story...I'll have to save it for a future blog entry). Not only did I get a birthmother, but I learned that I had three brothers, a sister (all "half-siblings" but we quickly dropped the "half), five nieces and nephews (now eight!), and a step-father (who now treats me like one of his own). Such great people...I felt like I won the "adoption lottery."
Before the reunion, I used to look in the mirror and see no one but myself. Now I see familiar faces from the past and present. It reminds me of a verse of scripture where the Apostle Paul contrasts a Christ follower's present relationship with God with his future one. He says that, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12).
What was once a hazy, vague part of my life is now filled with crisp details. The empty pages of my story now burst with prose.
It looks like his hard-fought battle with skin cancer is coming to an end. The wife and I were on vacation in New York city last week and instead of flying home with me to LA, she took a detour back to Texas for what could be her last visit with her Dad.
I know this scenario all too well. Fifteen years ago, I made the same journey. My Dad's battle with skin cancer was also coming to an end. An unexpected phone call from my Dad's boss, informing me that "we almost lost your Dad today" resulted in a rush trip to Atlanta to be at my Father's side.
Cancer, as horrific as it is, also comes with...for lack of a better word...a "gift." It provides you with an opportunity to say what needs to be said and do what needs to be done.
My Dad was a good man in many ways. He provided for us in a material sense. He taught me how to water ski, how to drive a boat, and the value of a good work ethic. But, like many men of his generation, he was emotionally absent and distant.
My encounter with him at his hospital bed was different. Within 24 hours of my arrival, my Father miraculously rallied and was alert and clear-minded. We had one of the most honest conversations I'd ever had with him. My detached, emotionally distant Father was vulnerable, open, and honest. I saw a side of him I had never seen before. I finally got a glimpse of his heart.
Cancer had given my Dad the gift of clarity. The opportunity to consider what was really important. It gave him the opportunity to make peace with God, with my sister and I, and with his ex-wife (my Mother). It gave him the courage to open his heart to us.
He passed away a week later.
The wife's conversation with her Dad was similar in it's significance. No doubt it will be a conversation to savor and cherish for the rest of her life. Cancer's clarifying power continues on.