THE DASH

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. [Ecclesiastes 3:1 (ESV)]

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years. [Linda Ellis]

clock - ChicagoAfter scrutinizing the website for the umpteenth time in a futile search for the perfect gift for my daughter-in-law, I closed the iPad and announced, “What a waste of time! This is why God created checks and gift cards!” I remembered last Friday when both Linda Ellis’s poem “The Dash” was read and the recently deceased David Cassidy was mentioned. The former Partridge Family heartthrob’s last words were: “So much wasted time.” Indeed, too much time is wasted in unproductive activities or agonizing over what, in actuality, are trivial matters. Searching the same website, over and over, and expecting to find something different was certainly one of those.

Last Friday morning, I made better use of my time; after looking at a photo of a friend’s niece, I prayed for her. This two-year old, bald from undergoing chemotherapy for stage 4 cancer, was asleep in her mother’s arms and doesn’t understand that the chemicals making her so miserable are a last ditch effort to destroy the cancer that has ravaged her body. Later that day, I attended a Celebration of Life for a man who, less than a week earlier, set out for an afternoon ride on his motorcycle never knowing that would be his final ride in life. Absent from that memorial service were our senior pastor and his wife. They’d been in a car accident earlier in the day. Like the toddler and the motorcyclist, they never expected what came hurtling into their lives. One child is fighting for her life, one man lost his life, and one couple escaped with their lives.

Many of us might say we have too little time but the quantity of time granted us and our loved ones, whether just days or several decades, is exactly the right amount of time and has been determined by someone far greater than we are. The way we spend those precious moments, however, is our choice alone. Unfortunately, David Cassidy had it right: “so much wasted time.” When the book of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a season for everything, wasting time is never mentioned as one of them. We can fritter away our minutes in all sorts of futile ways—anger, nitpicking, regret, lethargy, worry, complaint, conflict and fretting are just a few—or we can use them generously, joyfully, thankfully and with love.

This week we celebrate my mother-in-law’s 101st birthday; her dash has been long and well spent. While she has been blessed with exceptional longevity, last Friday was a reminder that we all have expiration dates and none of us know that day. In many cases, it will be far sooner than expected. The dates we are here, however, are not as important as how we spend the time between those dates. How will we spend our dash?

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. [Psalm 90:12 (ESV)]

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MARA

Monarch butterfly - queen anne's laceBut she said, “Don’t call me Naomi; call me Bitter. The Strong One has dealt me a bitter blow. I left here full of life, and God has brought me back with nothing but the clothes on my back. Why would you call me Naomi? God certainly doesn’t. The Strong One ruined me.” [Ruth 1:20-21 (MSG)]

The final lesson of learning to be independent – widowhood…is the hardest lesson of all. [Anne Morrow Lindberg]

When we first meet her in the book of Ruth, the widowed Naomi does not seem the sort of unpleasant meddlesome mother-in-law about whom jokes are made; she is much loved and respected by her daughters-in-law. After great tragedy strikes their family, Naomi’s widowed daughter-in-law Ruth chooses to leave home, return with her to Israel, and adopt the God of the Israelites. Naomi must have been a very special woman to have a daughter-in-law so determined to stay at her side. By the time the widows arrive in Bethlehem, however, we see another side to the older woman. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she says, telling people to call her Mara, meaning bitter. For Naomi and Ruth, circumstances improve when Ruth meets and marries Boaz and presents her mother-in-law with a grandchild. Unfortunately, not every widow has a Boaz to act as her redeemer and provide a happy ending to the story.

I have a group of widowed friends who, if comparing tragic sob stories with Naomi, could put hers to shame. They lost as much or more and have endured as many hardships and challenges as did Naomi. Nevertheless, in spite of having their lives turned upside down by their losses, none of them would call themselves bitter. While they have their moments of complaint, sorrow and loneliness, their faith strengthens them and allows them to face their new reality with an eagerness and joy that does not depend on outer circumstances. Their grief hasn’t left them bitter; if anything, it has made them better. They radiate a sense of peace, purpose and zest for life because their redeemer isn’t a relative who has chosen to take care of them; their Redeemer is Jesus Christ!

I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to lose a spouse but I imagine it’s like being ripped in half. Someday, either my husband or I will face the grief and uncertainty that comes with widowhood. When the “we” of our lives becomes just “me,” loneliness, anger and resentment can easily follow. We can become bitter or allow our faith to fill us with hope. Death may take away a spouse, but Jesus will take that spouse away from death! I pray that, in our grief, we will be strengthened by our faith in God’s purpose and receive the consolation offered by our Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

Most loving God, you know the pain and sorrow of death; mercifully hear our prayer for those who mourn the death of their beloved. The nights are lonely and the days are too long. Comfort them and bring an end to the days of tears. Bless them and bring an end to their days of sorrow. Renew them with the joy of life and bring to an end their days of mourning. Let the bond of love which you have for your people be the foundation of their hope that love never ends and that precious moments with our beloved are forever held dear in our hearts. Amen. [Vienna Cobb Anderson]

The Friend, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send at my request, will make everything plain to you. He will remind you of all the things I have told you. I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught. [John 14:26-17 (MSG)]

You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you. [Matthew 5:4 (MSG)]

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THE BUCK

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. [Psalm 23:4 (AKJV)]

deer - buckI have an elderly friend who tells me Psalm 23 is her favorite psalm but, when reciting it, she omits one troubling sentence. “You know the one,” she added, “the one about death!” In actuality, a better translation for the original Hebrew would be “darkest valley” but she learned “valley of…death” as a girl and it remains that way for her. Whatever translation is used, those words should be ones of comfort rather than fear.

I thought of our exchange when another friend shared the last days of her uncle’s life. An avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, he’d been by defeated heart disease. Two days before he died, he was resting in his hospital bed and surrounded by family. A three-point buck emerged from the woods and slowly approached his house. The magnificent creature stood by the window and stared in at him. Eventually, it lay down beneath the window and, like the rest of his family, kept him company as he awaited death’s arrival.

My elderly friend is a woman of faith but even the most devout believers have moments they fear death. It is our final surrender and there is absolutely nothing we can do to defeat it; that loss of control is frightening. Nevertheless, death is inevitable and as much a part of life as birth! Even though Scripture assures us that death take us home to the Lord, the moment of death remains a mystery. Will there be a flash of light, a heavenly chorus, or a dark tunnel? Lazarus didn’t say and neither Trip Advisor nor Yelp have posted any reviews.

I wonder why my elderly friend seems so afraid of what, at her advanced age, is right around the corner (more likely, in the next room). If she has unfinished business, it’s too late; by now she’s forgotten whatever it was. Is it fear of leaving family and friends behind? God loves our loved ones far more than we ever could and He’ll continue to watch over them in our absence. Has she forgotten that we are only temporary residents here? There’s a great deal wrong with our present home but everything is absolutely perfect in the future one. Death, however, is necessary for entrance to it. If she’s afraid of losing her earthly possessions, she should remember that, rather than losing anything when we depart, we gain everything when we’re gone.

The actual moment of death is probably the most terrible and yet the most beautiful moment of our lives. Perhaps my friend’s fear of it is because she chooses to omit that one sentence from her favorite psalm. Whether it’s the valley of death or merely a dark valley, those encouraging words tell us we are under God’s care and safe in His presence when we enter that shadowy valley.

Was the buck’s extraordinary extended visit just a coincidence or was it a gift from God? We’ll never know. It is my understanding, however, that its presence assured both the dying man and his family that the God who knows when every sparrow falls was with him; he would not be making that final journey alone.

Death is not the end of the road; it is only a bend in the road. The road winds only through those paths through which Christ Himself has gone. This Travel Agent does not expect us to discover the trail for ourselves. Often we say that Christ will meet us on the other side. That is true, of course, but misleading. Let us never forget that He walks with us on this side of the curtain and then guides us through the opening. We will meet Him there, because we have met Him here. [Erwin Lutzer]

Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live:  and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. [John 11:25-26a (AKJV)]

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SHED THE SHROUD

Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” [John 11:43-44 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiralWhen Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the once dead man emerged from the tomb with his face wrapped in a head cloth and his body bound in burial garments. Jesus commanded people to unbind him and free him from the trappings of the grave. Something tells me that, after four days in a tomb, Lazarus left behind more than some linen cloth soiled with the detritus of the tomb and death. While we don’t know what he experienced during those days, He must have returned to life with a new perspective. As he walked into the sunlight he never expected seeing again and inhaled the air he never anticipated breathing again, can you imagine how much he appreciated his new lease on life? Given a second chance, he probably wasn’t about to bring any regrets, resentment, anger, or guilt with him. Raised from the dead, he probably shed much of his past along with that shroud as he stepped from the tomb’s gloom.

Unlike Lazarus, we haven’t physically died. Our family didn’t wash us with warm water, rub us with spices and oil, wrap us in a burial garment, lay us in a tomb, and mourn our passing. Like Lazarus, however, we were dead before answering Jesus’ call. Born again into a new spiritual life, we are no longer spiritually dead and our grave clothes are no longer necessary. Lazarus shed his, why can’t we? We tend to carry the detritus and debris of our yesterdays with us when we come to Christ. Instead of putting on the new clothes of salvation and righteousness, we stay wrapped in the shroud of the past that’s stained with betrayals, anger, disappointment, loss, and hurt and embellished with remorse and disgrace. Even when we think we’ve donned the fresh clothes of a new life in Christ, we often tuck a pang of guilt or shame into a pocket. We can’t believe we’ve been forgiven, but we have; we can’t believe we’re good enough, but we are; we can’t believe He could possibly love us, but He does!

When Lazarus stepped into the light from that dark tomb, he shed his shroud. When we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we were given a new spiritual life; let us shed our past and clothe ourselves with joy and the presence of Jesus Christ.

And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. [Galatians 3:27 (NLT)]

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy. [Psalm 30:11 (NLT)]

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COMPASSION FATIGUE

Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.” [1 Kings 19:4 (NLT)]

hibiscusMost of us think of sloth as laziness: a dislike of work or any physical exertion. Having watched the local zoo’s sloth in action (or, rather, inaction), I think the sluggish animal is appropriately named. Spiritual sloth, however, is far different than being a couch potato. Originally, the sin of sloth was two sins: sadness and acedia. Compiled by Evagrius of Pontius, 4th century monk, these two “capitals sins” were part of a list of eight he believed to the greatest threats to devout monasticism.

We know what sadness is and it’s important to remember that the sadness which Evagrius found problematic for his monks was not clinical depression; it was that despondency or gloom that easily came upon a monk living an ascetic life of prayer, fasting and labor in the middle of the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. It was unhappiness with one’s present situation and the melancholy that comes from longing for something different. It was distress at one’s circumstances and the inability to give thanks in all things. In this troubled world, we certainly don’t have to be monks to suffer that kind of sadness.

Acedia comes from the Greek and means without care or concern. Rather than laziness, it is apathy or a fatigue of mind and soul. A spiritual boredom or weariness, acedia results in listless prayers, study or service. In the midday heat, the monks were tempted to let their minds wander during study and prayers and then fall asleep causing Evagrius to call acedia the “noonday demon.” Seeing the correlation between sadness and acedia, in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory combined the two sins into sloth .

A few mornings ago, I fell victim to compassion fatigue and began to understand spiritual sloth. The previous night’s discussion in Bible study had been disheartening. We’d talked of the recent hurricanes (with yet another one on the horizon), Mexico’s earthquakes, Puerto Rico’s devastation, Korea’s threat, the horrendous carnage in Las Vegas, a polarized nation, and the unrest in the Middle East. As I added that night’s heartbreaking prayer requests to my already burgeoning and depressing list, I grew numb with grief. “What’s the point? I wondered as I listed a two-year old just diagnosed with metastasized stomach cancer, a woman who may lose her feet because of nursing home neglect, and a friend’s suicidal son. “What difference can I make? Why bother?” I cried. At that point, my heart was so weary with grief that I no longer wanted to care or pray. I probably felt as Elijah did when, while fleeing Jezebel, he sat down under that broom tree and said he wanted to die. That’s spiritual sloth and it’s not just monks and Old Testament prophets that can be afflicted with it. The enemy wants us all to become so downhearted and world-weary that we fall into spiritual inactivity or sloth.

Elijah was cured of his spiritual sloth by food, rest, and a talk with the Lord. Although I didn’t eat, I was nourished by Scripture. I didn’t sleep but I rested in the words I read and then, like Elijah, I had a prayerful chat with God. God whispered to Elijah and gave him new strength. He whispered to me and refreshed me with his words of love, comfort, reassurance and hope.

I cried out, “I am slipping!” but your unfailing love, O Lord, supported me. When doubts filled my mind, your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer. [Psalm 94:18-19 (NLT)]

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. [Philippians 4:8 (NLT)]

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WHAT LEGACY?

But God said to him, “You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?” Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God. [Luke 12: 20-21 (NLT)]

Trumbull Cemetery - OhioWhen touring a nearby resort town, a beautiful old mansion was pointed out. It was once owned by a man who made so much money on his invention of the sanitary milk bottle cap that he retired at the age of 26. For 93 years, the Chicago White Sox played at a ball field named for the team’s founder. In 2003, the field was renamed US Cellular Park and then, in 2016, it became the Guaranteed Rate Field. When I went to Northwestern University, the football venue was named for a former Evanston mayor. In 1997, the stadium was renamed to honor the family of a generous donor to the school’s athletic facilities. A friend’s daughter is attending a school named for a German immigrant who opened a Chicago butcher shop in 1883. Who were these men?

If you’ve not been on a Lake Geneva boat tour, you’ve never heard O.N. Tevander. Although one can still find pictures of his bottle capping machine, he doesn’t even rate a mention in Wikipedia. Do today’s baseball fans know that Charles Comiskey was a key person in the formation of the American League and founder of the Chicago White Sox? Do the Northwestern Wildcats know anything of William Dyche, class of 1882, and that his name was to remain on any NU stadium for perpetuity? In another twenty years, will they have any idea that Patrick Ryan founded Aon Corporation and once served on the university’s Board of Trustees? By then, it’s possible that another large check will have been written and the stadium will have yet another name. When you hear the name Oscar Mayer, do you think of an immigrant butcher from Bavaria or of a large corporation (now owned by Kraft), hot dogs and the wiener song?

Even if we amass great wealth, make generous donations, or achieve some modicum of fame, chances are that most of us will be forgotten in a few generations. Our last name might remain on a corporate letterhead or, if wealthy enough, we could have a building or stadium named after us (at least for a while). Our headstone may rest in a cemetery, we might be listed in a genealogy chart, or an old letter or picture of us may reside in a box of memorabilia stored in someone’s attic. Nevertheless, we will be long gone and, for the most part, forgotten. For William Dyche, perpetuity lasted only 71 years! How long will it last for us? Even if a great grandchild has our china, a piece of our jewelry or carries our name, our essence will have vanished. We will be little more than a short family story or a faceless name.

Jesus told a parable about the rich man whose land was so productive that he ran out of room to store his crops. Rather than share his excess, he just built bigger barns so he could relax and enjoy his wealth for years to come. Unfortunately for him, he died that very night. A simple parable, it points out the temporal nature of life.

Financial planners often ask their clients, “What will be your legacy?” The rich man in the parable left a legacy of filled barns for someone else to enjoy. Sadly, he forgot the most important thing—his soul. Sometimes we’re so busy thinking about our legacy here on earth that, like the man in the parable, we also forget about our souls. Whether or not we are remembered in this world isn’t really important. The real question is whether or not God will welcome us into His kingdom in the next.

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)]

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