Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jonah and Ministry While Dying

Some of the most painful hours in ministry for me are those days when I’m called to the hospital to pray with a family and a loved one when the patient is moments away from passing to the next life. I don't take the requests lightly and recognize that it is a great privilege to participate in these sacred moments. I want desperately to help, but I never feel more like Jonah as a reluctant minister than on those days. As I drive to the hospital, I want to turn and escape to the lake for a boat ride (people on boats need ministry too, right?) Instead I proceed on and I am swallowed by the great emotion that drags me to whatever depth it chooses, in spite of my attempts to buoy myself up and keep my head above the swells.

When I arrive the air is often thick with unrest, especially if it is a labored homegoing. There are often livid moments of life followed by almost complete stillness. Each one in the room wants to help their loved one escape the pain and make the journey that can only be made alone. And yet, in a way, each one of us dies a little bit with each arduous in-breath of the person we care about. The horribly descriptive "death rattle" is not a pleasant sound; It just hangs in the air until it mercifully ends. Furrowed brows, muted sobs, and soft sweet words of encouragement usually make up the feng shui of the otherwise sterile room as the patient struggles to both hang on and let go. God usually refreshes us momentarily with emotional daylight and fresh air as we speak prayerful requests and praises to Him. Most of us gulp down the reassurance eagerly, knowing that the sorrow is going to plunge us to the bottom, like a giant catfish on a small Zebco again soon. We are reminded by the medical beeps and whooshes that this journey won’t be cancelled, even if it is postponed temporarily.

The dying experience seems to be different for everyone,but these ministry opportunities don’t seem to ever get any easier for me. It makes me so appreciate the hospital staff, ministers, hospice workers, volunteers, friends, and chaplains who are gifted at helping others through this part of life. These are definitely “take up your cross and deny yourself” moments for me. I want to help people through this difficult time, but I often take on so much of deep sadness those around me get a hard shell of protective covering or mushy emotional talk from me while I attempt to get a handle again. That is selfish, I know. They need ministry and I have been invited to give it. I guess the reality becomes only Christ in me can do it.

There have been a few notable exceptions to this trail of tears type journey toward the hereafter. I once had the privilege of sharing the final moments with one lady with a Catholic Priest and several of the lady’s family members. Each had said “goodbye”, there was a peace in the room, and there was no struggle. The nurse had disconnected the respirator and the "beep, beep'" of the heart monitor was the only sound in the room. The family gathered and held hands around the bed and the Priest began with the traditional last rites. The ‘last rites’ceremony was a new experience for me as a lifelong evangelical. The words were comforting and reassuring. As the Priest finished his last words with “Amen”, the monitor immediately went flatline with a single unbroken tone. The nurse turned the monitor off and we all celebrated this woman’s transition to eternal life. At the instant she heard the last goodbye of her faith from this life, she heard the welcoming sounds of the place promised by Jesus. Her loved ones were gathered around her on this side of heaven to say “so long”. And, (according to many of the near death stories I have heard), her loved ones in heaven were gathered to welcome her to her place of comfort and rest. It was a beautiful drama played out in one of the best possible scenarios. A life well lived with few regrets, a passing that was easy and celebrated with loved ones into the welcoming arms of family and a Savior who had gone ahead of her to heaven. This was a wonderful serendipitous trip to the hospital.

Regardless of the amount of duress in dying, the hope that comes from Christ is what ultimately sustains us. Whether it is an easy celebration of a life well lived or a laborious and tragic passing, the result for those who are in Christ is a wonderful place full of love, where tears are wiped away, and sin and death no longer taunt us. The victory is won and we are safe and secure in LIFE; in real, never to be taken again, LIFE.

I request your prayers for this Jonah’s brother and any of the other ministers in your life who may struggle this part of the calling too.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Learning from the Three Amigos!

An old movie I enjoy is the Three Amigos.  In one of the scenes the three friends are riding their horses across the desert.  They are all parched.  They are hot.  They are obviously in need of water.  So they stop and get out their canteens.  Steve Martin’s character turns his canteen up and one little drop of water comes out.  Martin Short’s character opens his canteen, turns it up and only sand comes out.  Chevy Chase’s character opens his canteen, puts it to his mouth and water gushes out soaking his mouth and clothes.  The other two turn to him hoping he will share just a little with them.  Chase’s character, however, is oblivious to their need and proceeds to not only gulp down the liquid, but spill it out all over himself, swish it around his mouth then spit it out. When he has had all he wants, he throws the canteen to the side and the rest of the water pours out all over the ground.  He then blissfully pulls out some chap-stick and coats his lips.  Finally he notices his friends’ woeful stares and offers them some lip balm… a sad consolation for these two were desperate for some water.   

Sometimes we believers are like that; we have the living water of Jesus. We are refreshed and enjoying His blessings, but we are totally oblivious to those around us who are spiritually parched.  We enjoy worshipping, and studying God’s Word.  We enjoy the Christian fellowship of the body of Christ.  We are refreshed when we serve others in Jesus name.  But  we neglect to share the blessings of salvation with those who are desperate to know Him.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Have Youth Sports Gotten Out of Hand?

Let me start with four disclaimers: 1st. This is a self-indictment as much as an observation of the climate of my community. 2nd. I love sports. I love the values and growth they can instill in young men and women. I love the drama of great contests. I enjoy the display of great talent and athletic giftedness.  I enjoy the excitement of the sports venue. I have participated closely with high school, D1 and even professional sports many times in my life and like it. 3rd. I understand that many sports have inherent physical and emotional risks and those risks can actually add to the personal growth and development that comes from sport. 4th. I love to win. I enjoy winning and don’t like to lose.

Now for my rant… What are we thinking? I heard a friend just relate how a local middle school wrestling coach is coaching kids to break the bones of their opponents. How the stands full of ravenous parents and kids cheer when bones of their opponents are actually broken and limbs are dislocated. How there were no moments of silent concern for a competitor who had been injured and writhing in pain.

Are we sacrificing our young kids’ health for our own entertainment and self-fulfillment? Have we become so barbaric that we condone the significant injury of our own kids so we can reassure our own fragile egos? Have our youth sports devolved toward the complete pagan lack of compassion of the Roman Coliseums where gladiators fought to the death to the delight of the cheering crowds? I’m not suggesting a Barney-the-Dinosaur-"everyone’s-a-winner" milk toast competition, but I am asking the question, “Have we gone too far?”

My own son waited three days through headaches and nausea to tell us and his coaches that he thought he might have a concussion, because he feared losing a starting spot on the football team. He had already overcome ACL injury and repair two years before. ACL’s and bones fortunately can be usually be repaired, but brain injury can have life long debilitating prospects. I have to ask myself, “Have I so overvalued sport in the life of my kids, that they are willing to risk permanent neurological injury?”

I talked with a mother of a young boy the other day. He was a 9 year old, but already a pretty exceptional athlete. He signed up for baseball and wanted to be on a team with his school friends, but a coach who had seen his talent on the football field recruited him and refused to release him to the team of his friends because, he “didn’t want this kid playing against him.” The mom wisely said, “This is ridiculous,” and pulled the boy out of the league. Really! At 9 years old we are forcing a young boy to make an MLB decision because we as adults can’t handle the possibility of losing a little league baseball game? Are we really still trying to give these kids a fun, learning, little league sports experience or are our egos so delicate that we can’t. Can we not just make the investment into the kids’ lives and not involve our own need to convince ourselves were not losers. Are we so lacking in self-esteem that we have to put our own needs above the benefit of the kids we have agreed to coach?

I heard about an exceptional swimmer, who had already been considered for the US Olympic team by the time she was a young teen. 5 hours a day of training all of her life: in the pool two hours before school, two hours after school, and an hour of weight training each night. Before the kid made the Olympic team she finally just completely burned out. She never wanted to swim again.

I hate to hear about the kids who give up their childhood, family, faith, and friendships to participate in a sport at a high level for several years only to discover that they now can’t stand the sport and are burned out before they reach college. They have been indoctrinated so heavily with a win-at-all-cost philosophy that they can’t even experience healthy relationships. They can’t successfully re-enter society without totally re-casing their lives. They have burned bridges of healthy friendships for the sake of a select team pennant and missed important family celebrations to “chase the dream.” (I could also make arguements for the scores of kids who are wonderful examples to the contrary, but I'm making a point here)

Sport is not a great financial investment for most families. For every 100 kids in High School football only 8 will play in college and less than 1 will play professionally. I would guess most other sports are similar. Those aren’t great odds for the parents who want to ride the gravy train or see their kids eventually get paid to play. So, those thousands of dollars spent to participate in youth sports, professional training and travel had better be an investment in the personal and character development of the kid.

We need to be interested more in our kids learning a good work ethic, good morals, and healthy relationships, than winning at all costs, because the cost to society is steep. When we turn out kids who have been coached on the field by coaches of questionable character, who can win a game but not pass a simple test of integrity, we have failed our communities. What kids learn in life is more “caught” by observation than taught by words. We become like those we are around the most. So kids who spend several hours a week with a coach with bad values begin taking on those values themselves.

Here is a suggestion: let’s enjoy sports again, let’s give our kids their lives back, and let us adults have enough emotional health so we don’t have to base our self evaluation on whether our kids win or not. Let’s invest in the integrity and health of our kids, so the next generation doesn’t have to reap the consequences of our misplaced values.

Coaching youth sports is a privilege given to those we want our kids to emulate. Coaching that is sold to the lowest bidder, the one who will win the most games, without any concern for the lack of ethics it took to get there is just wrong. I have experienced some stand out coaches in a couple of different sports who were winners and yet didn't sacrifice themselves or their teams on the altar of win-at-all-costs questionable morals and ethics. These leaders were confident enough in themselves to give up their own egos to shape their students into real winners with real values. They made unpopular decisions that cost some wins for the sake of personal integrity. And they developed a team of kids with values instead of giving in to the delicate egos  of those who felt they “had to win.” I appreciate all those coaches out there doing the right thing.

Sports are a huge business and millions of dollars are spent each year on training, equipment, travel, etc… and most providers have an expectation of a high return on investment. Professional team owners want to make a profit. High School and College Alumni want bragging rights and recruiting supremacy. Parents want their kids to have a winning experience and maybe a college scholarship. Kids want to win too.

I get it, there is a lot riding on sport these days, but what if we backed off and came back toward the middle just a little. Lower the stakes, make it okay, even expected, that people follow the rules, make it okay to play our best even if we don’t win, make it okay to highlight the other valuable aspects of sport, not just the almighty "W," and make it healthy and fun again. Take the barbaric, “destroy the enemy, so I can feel good about me” back to “lets’ come together, play our best, and leave with our heads held high.”

Don't think that I am suggesting a generation of mamby-pamby, whimpy competitors, I'm just saying lets put some good old fashioned American values back into sport and lets value ourselves and others enough not to have to base our own self-esteem on the athletic success of our kids.

Well, enough of my rant. Before the next season is over, you may have to remind me of what I have just written. Just tell me to take a deep breath and ask me, “Have we gone too far?”