The End of Life: Sacred and Awful

Life is a sacred gift.
But, some seasons are more sacred than others.

Two years ago, my Mother lived on her own, in her own house, driving her own car. Two weeks ago, she entered hospice care.

My Mom, Fran, with her dog, Rigby. (9/25)
My Mom, Fran, with her dog, Rigby. (9/25)

This is my fourth lap with the hospice-farewell process: my father, my father-in law, and my Uncle. And I have decided that the best words to describe the experience of this season in life are sacred and awful.

To stand at the end of life with someone you love and recall the stories of their life is a sacred place. To reflect on their moments of courage and vitality is to embrace the depth of who they were. To look ahead with them to the promise of eternity, to the place where pain and suffering evaporate in the presence of Jesus is to touch what is truly holy.

However, the moments that litter the pathway of this journey through the breakdown of the human body can be gut-wrenchingly awful. Our bodies were not created for death. We were created for life. Death entered the scene as part of the fall—the curse of Adam and all of us who’ve continued in his rebellious footsteps. We were never intended to experience dementia, debilitating loss of strength, or the demise of any other bodily function. We weren’t designed to feed our parents when they can’t feed themselves.

Watching my Mom wilt into a smaller and smaller version of who she used to be, I have to remind myself that she lived 87 years of healthy independence. Until two years ago, she was able to live in her own house, drive her own car, and engage in the activities she enjoyed. But, things have changed. I now need to choose to embrace the sacred transition that is taking place in right front of my eyes—a transition from this life into the next. I have to start saying goodbye while she is still here.

I am not a fan of those endless (and expensive) attempts to squeeze another short delay of the inevitable for a body that is saying, “I have had enough.” Desperate attempts to postpone death only serve to increase everyone’s sorrow and suffering.

I think we need to learn to acknowledge that it is right and good and holy to arrive at end of this life and declare “it is finished.” It is a holy thing to say like David, “I have completed God’s purpose in my own generation.” (Acts 13.36) We need to remember and declare God’s perspective: “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants.” (Ps 116.15)

We don’t know how long my Mom has nor how things will play out at the end. Last week was a good week. The past couple days have been bad days. But, I do know that as I enter another farewell season, I choose to embrace it as a sacred moment, awful at points, but holy and good and right. It is a time to say goodbye. It is a time to bless her transition into the next life as it becomes ever closer.

 

When you have the chance to walk the same road with the people you love, I invite you to embrace this holy tension with me.

 

Your thoughts?
Your experience?

 

The Least of These

Leaders are wired and trained to look for highly leveraged people and opportunities. We think about influence, change, courage, and about mobilizing the people who can help make things happen.

So, what about people who have nothing strategic to give back? What about the people Jesus identified as the least of these?

With my Uncle after a burger togetherAbout six years ago I became the person who looks after my Uncle. At first, it meant simply making sure his bills were paid and his medicines were in order. Then it meant taking him to Dr. appointments, cleaning out his refrigerator, and hiring in home help. Eventually he required residential care and the sale of his home. Lately, waves of dementia has him believing illusions of reality and becoming irritated at everyone–including me.

His needs are rarely convenient and being with him is never fun. My Uncle is someone like those Jesus described as the least of these. He can’t drive. He can’t hear. He has no hobbies and no real interests of any kind. He has no friends, no one who would attend his funeral. In short, there are no strokes to be gained or benefits to be earned as a result of caring for him. But, it is the right thing to do. He has no one else.

However, I have to be honest, lots of times my attitude stinks. I  am not writing this post with a dynamic climax at the end. It is simply that caring for my Uncle makes me think about a lot of things differently. While I spend most of my life working with leaders to help them shape the churches and organizations they lead, I understand in new ways that leadership is about much more than what you do in public.

Jesus said, that caring for “the least of these,” literally equals caring for him. He did not say it is “like or similar” to caring for him, but actually doing it for him. Wow. I find that so hard to believe. When I am with my Uncle, I see the face of my Uncle, I don’t see the face of Jesus. There is no glamour in taking him out to lunch and watching him eat. Can it really mean that serving someone  like him–where there is no quid pro quo, no strokes or favors to be returned–is literally an act of compassion received by Jesus?

Take a good look at Matthew 25:37-46. It will rock your world. “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers you did for me.”  … the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, those without clothes, the sick, the imprisoned.

 

I wonder, do you have someone who is the “least of these” in your sphere of influence? Is there anyone you avoid because there is nothing in it for you?

What have you learned about what Jesus meant when he spoke about serving the least of these?

CHANGE :: End of the 40/40 World

Not so long ago, I listened to a talk given by Alan Roxburgh where he described the end of what he called, the “40/40 world.”  I am not sure I agree with the exact timing of his observations, but I think his point is right on the mark. In my own words, the point is as follows…

For a generation or two we lived in a world where the average family had one parent who worked a forty-hour week for a company where they were employed forty years. In addition, most families were able to make it on the one income so that the other spouse could devote full-time attention to the job of household management and child-rearing. Among other things, this meant that when the working spouse returned home at the end of the day, the house was clean, kids were finished with homework, and dinner was on the way.

In this environment the American church refined its programs and rhythms. Because there was a reserve of energy available for evening activities, it was very common for active church families to spend four or five days a week in church based activities—Bible studies, committee meetings, choir practice, prayer meetings, mid-week suppers, children’s programs, vacation bible schools, etc.

That 40/40 world ended sometime near the end of the last millennium. It was replaced by a world where everyone essentially works as a consultant, a world where job security is only as good as the current project you are working on. It’s a world that requires people to put in however many hours it takes to get the job done. And, now both spouses work in this same environment replete with the anxiety, fatigue, and long hours that come with it. Families no longer have a reserve of time and energy available for multiple church or community activities. Volunteerism cannot be taken for granted.

Thus the leadership challenge. We can bemoan the loss of the older ways all we want to, but the reality is we live in a new world and must adapt to it. We must begin to own the fact that time and energy of our people are the most important resources of any organization. Understanding how the realities of this new day severely limit people’s time and energy is a starting point from which a leader can begin to effectively adjust plans and expectations.

The end of the 40/40 world calls for creative alternatives. Programs designed to serve people must be built on the principle of multi-usage, delivering value on multiple levels. The quantity of commitments expected of people needs to be downsized without value judgments. Every program, every commitment, every invitation must have a crystal articulated purpose and/or vision.  It will not work any longer to attempt enlisting people  out of  a sense of duty.

Leading in a world when people had active reserves of time and energy out of which they can serve was much easier than having to compete for diminishing availability. However, the reality is, that older world doesn’t exist anymore. And, when the world you live in changes, the way you lead must change as well.

Grieving and The Health of my Soul

Every once in a while it seems a window opens that blows fresh air into my soul on a deeper than normal level. I never expected the emotional journey of grief to be one of those windows.

Two weeks ago Margaret and I spent the day in a hospital cafeteria while our son had surgery to repair his heart. We sat there with family and friends waiting for the phone to ring, with news about Ryan, but also awaiting news on Margaret’s father. Just two days earlier Jesse had fallen and broken his pelvis. The injury was more than his declining health could handle and his systems were shutting down rapidly.

We sat there in the hospital waiting at the edge of life for news about two of the men I respect most. We were unprepared to lose Margaret’s Dad on the day Ryan’s heart found “new life.” The two strands of uncertainty turned that day into a moment at the seam between life and death that puts a whole lot of stuff into perspective.

In a poetic way, both Ryan and Jesse went home at the same time the next day. Ryan’s surgery was successful, so he was released mid-day sent home to recover. At that very moment, while driving Ryan home, Jesse was released to go home as well… home to the Savior that he loved. Both men stepped into a new chapter of life together.

That week and the one that followed were more emotionally draining than I would have guessed. They were days of memories and sorrow and letting go and loving one another and loving Jesus. They were days of in-your-face reminder that life is fragile and because of that truly sacred. They were days where grieving reminded us that the mosaic of people and moments that fill our days are worth celebrating.

It has caused me to do a lot of thinking about the relationship between grief and the well-being of my soul. It is amazing how much the grieving process accesses and cleanses out the accumulated clutter in the deep recesses of the soul. In moments like this, you cannot escape the fact that real life happens on a much deeper level than most daily activity.

There is something about living in a soul-deep way that awakens the senses of the spirit and unleashes true peace in spite of the torrent around us.

[fyi: this is the bookend essay to one from last March on life being fragile and sacred.]

Life is Fragile…and Sacred

When you are a child, you are typically oblivious to the dangers that surround you. When you are a teenager, you feel downright indestructible. As a young adult, it seems we are just too busy with a million irons in the fire to notice our own mortality. But somehow, as you get older you come to realize that life is fragile. This incredible bio-machine called the human body can be taken down in hundreds of ways.

Yet, when I recognize how fragile life is, I wake up to the fact that every day of life is a gift.

These days I find myself surrounded by people whom I love that are facing significant health battles. My Father-in-law is now under hospice care as his heart loses strength. My Uncle’s health has degenerated so he can no longer live on his own. My good friend and ministry partner with CRM recently discovered a cluster of tumors that will require extensive surgery. And, in less than a week, my son will have heart surgery to repair a condition that has had him on disability for six months.

My point in all this is not “woe-is-me.” Instead, it is champion the profound realization that at the core, our lives are truly fragile. We are miraculously fragile. And there is something about that fragile reality which makes today, which makes everyday, a sacred gift.

Unfortunately, I easily forget that day-to-day life is a gift. I get busy driving here, flying there, meeting with people, managing projects, working on some new scheme that is going to transform the world… and in the midst of it all I forget that I have no guarantees. I take my health, my strength, my life for granted.

So, today I want to say thank you to Jesse, Ken, Steve and Ryan. You are exceptional men whom God has used to shape my life. Today you remind me to hold my own life as a sacred trust. To take nothing for granted. To live boldly and with passionate focus.

In you I am reminded all over again that life is fragile, powerful, and mysterious. Today is a sacred trust to be held lightly and lived fully. It is a gift.

Honor Your Father and Mother…

Sunday was Father’s Day and I had a really good day. My daughter took me out to breakfast. My son called from out of state. We laughed, we kicked back, we ate the best baby-back ribs I’ve ever tasted. And I got to watch Tiger Woods perform magic. It was a great day for me as a father.

But I wonder how well I am doing honoring my parents. When I was a kid, honoring my father and mother was a pretty simple concept. It meant obeying them, not talking back, doing my chores without attitude, etc. In this stage of life it is a mandate with far more subtlety.

A few years ago my father passed away, but his only brother, my Uncle, lives 20 minutes away. My Uncle has been widowed twice, has never had children of his own, and these days faces growing health concerns. Once a week I go to his home to help manage his finances, sort medicines, and generally check in on him. His hearing aids work only about half the time making communication comically difficult. But he is a good man with a generous heart. Being there for him feels like the right thing to do and to be honest, I wonder if serving him is a way I can honor my father. I wonder how my kids are affected by my efforts at serving my Uncle.

I am also wondering a lot these days about how I might do a better job honoring my mother. She is a trouper, but without my father around, taking care of the house and managing the chores of life are becoming more and more complicated for her. However, she lives two hours away, unless traffic is bad. (It took five hours once.) It is just plain hard to get out to her place as often as I would like. My wife, Margaret and I have made a commitment to go out to my Mom’s at least once a month, but something inside me knows that there is more at stake than “just doing the right thing.”

What’s at stake for me in all this is the challenge of learning how I might truly honor my mother and father in a new way at this complicated stage in life. My growing conviction is that honoring them now is more important than it has ever been.

I was a clueless child during all those years when caring for me or wiping my butt were inconvenient for my Mom. Perhaps, inconvenience is an irrelevant factor in my considerations about how and when to serve them.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

Scazzero - Emotionally Healthy SpiritualityEmotionally Healthy Spirituality
Peter Scazzero

“It is impossible to be spiritually mature, while remaining emotionally immature. [But,] something is missing…the spirituality of most current discipleship models often adds a protective layer against people growing up emotionally.” (pg. 15)

I grew up in a Christian culture that functionally reduced following Jesus to a list of obligations and daily duties. Do daily devotions–or “have a daily quiet time,” memorize scripture, tithe, attend services and Bible studies, acquire knowledge about the Scriptures, and avoid the obviously sinful stuff. I heard very little of the mystery and dynamic nature of following Jesus into a life of deeper mission and intimacy.

Biblical and theological facts, not to mention ecclesiological tradition, were the substance of our Church conversations. Absent was anything of the radical invitation to engage God with the fullness of my emotions. Missing was any notion of the depth of God’s nature as an emotional being in who’s image I was created. Even further off the radar was the notion that my sanctification and my emotions could be connected.

Here is a profoundly different look at discipleship. It is freeing and enticing. It might give new meaning to what Jesus meant by, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” And it is different from the way most of us “do” the Christian life.

Scazerro’s honesty about his own journey, the way he led his church, the frustrations of his wife Geri, and his redemption into a new way of life make the book human. It is written with an honesty and a connection to the daily stuff of life and leadership that is as compelling as it is convicting.

In a sentence, the summary of his prescription, is this: “the pathway to unleashing the transformative power of Jesus to heal our spiritual lives can be found in the joining of emotional health and contemplative spirituality.” (pg. 37)

The book is not only helpful, I think it is profoundly significant and recommend it highly. At the same time I need to be forthright. You should know that I was a fan of this book before reading it. Pete won me over with his earlier book, The Emotionally Healthy Church and, because a few of CRM staff have attended his church in Queens, I have followed the stories of his leadership for some time. I think so highly of what God has shown him that I have invited he and his wife Geri to be the keynote speakers at our staff conference in Portland this coming August.