Tulips

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Today is February 7.  One year ago on this day my wife received news that a mole which had been removed from her skin and biopsied had returned positive for stage one melanoma.  In the grand scheme of cancer diagnosis, this is not that big a deal.  The cancer was less than 1mm deep into her skin and we were immediately assured that this sort of thing had a 99% positive prognosis.  So you’d think we’d be able to move on, be thankful for the early catch, and forget about it.

Not so.

One year ago today began a journey that is hard to put into words.  Both Shalene and I fell deep into a world of serious anxiety, fear, depression, doubt, pain, and questioning of our faith.  There were several times when I almost left this faith which has defined me for my entire life.

To put our whole journey into words would require a book, not a blog.  But today, on February 7, I want to share with you one of our stories.  To tell this story properly will require me telling you several preface stories.  Eight to be exact.

Preface story one.

My family moved to Ancaster to start a church almost two years ago this week.  Ancaster is a white collar city: educated people, professors, lawyers, CEOs, and that sort of crowd.  This is a city with an intense radar for BS — where people won’t get duped by slick sales jobs.  So if you’d asked me two years ago why I thought God directed my path towards Ancaster, I would have responded with a level of foolish pride in my answer.  I would have suggested to you that the fit made sense; that I fancied myself a well-read, educated, sort of guy.  And that we were going to do church in such a way that it was going to convince people in a way they’d never heard before that this Christianity thing made sense (my fingers tremble even writing such nonsense now).

Fast forward to November 2012.  I remember sitting in one of my favourite Ancaster hangouts with a member of our church’s leadership team.  Something had been building inside of me and I shared it with my friend.

“I’m pretty sure that the only way that this church is going to work is if Jesus shows up and starts doing some crazy things — stuff we just can’t explain.  I think that’s all we’ve got.  And I’ll be really honest with you; that scares the shit out of me.”  My friend looked at me.  He began to tear up.  And he said, “I absolutely agree.”  And in that moment I knew that that’s what had to happen.  But I was a skeptic.  I grew up believing that Jesus was powerful, able to do the miraculous, able to heal — all that kind of stuff.  But in that moment I knew that I only believed those things on paper.  I had serious internal doubts.  What I wanted was something I wasn’t sure that I could believe in.

Preface story two.

I serve on the Ancaster Ministerial.  Around the same time as the previous story took place, the Ministerial had a meeting wherein we were deciding what to do for the 2013 Lenten Lunch series we host and run in the city.  For seven weeks during Lent we host a lunch and provide a short Lent-themed devotional.  About 80 wonderful senior citizens from the community show up each week.

We distributed the dates that we were each going to lead a devotional and decided that the series would focus on the seven miracles of Jesus from the Gospel of John.  I received my date and plugged it into my calendar.  I received my text and put it in a folder, not to be thought of again until a few days before I had to speak.

Preface story three.

Shalene’s favourite flower is the tulip.  And here’s something sad: I didn’t know that until this past year.  Chalk one up for the husband of the year.

Then came February 7, 2013.

As I mentioned, we fell apart on this day.  Days turned into weeks turned into months, in most of which you would have usually found us crumpled in a ball in front of our fireplace, in bed, or barely getting through each day.  We were in counseling.  We had a steady flow of amazing people coming to care for us.  I lost 30 pounds from not eating.  Our kids were suffering.  We had so many questions.  We spent hours in tears, prayer, and journaling (these were often the only times we felt peace).  Some of my worst moments included contemplating driving our vehicle, with my family in it, into oncoming traffic.  Yes, it was that bad.

Preface story four.

On the night of February 7th an amazing couple from our church came over to be with and pray for us.  As they prayed, they felt compelled to tell Shalene that somehow in the midst of the journey ahead, God was going to help her realize just how much he loved her.  This was pretty significant for Shalene.  Shalene feared God.  And not in the healthy way, but in the “He’s out to get me” way.  Her getting cancer seemed only a validation of this deep internal fear.  Accepting Jesus and the Spirit was easy for Shalene.  But Father God was not someone to be trusted.

Preface story five.

During several of our journaling times, both Shalene and I felt like Jesus was telling us that the coming of spring had something to do with our healing.  This puzzled us, but we clung to it.

One morning during a time of journaling, Shalene began to think about our circumstances as a time of trial, testing, and intentional shaping.  She felt compelled to count the days between her diagnosis and the first day of spring.  It just so happened to be 40 days.  She mentioned this to me and I responded with an intrigued but casual shrug of the shoulders.

Preface story six.

Several weeks after her diagnosis, Shalene was reading through the Gospel of John.  She read John 9:1-7.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”  Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.

Reading her own sickness into the story, she read the story aloud for me and then asked what I thought.  I said this: “I’ll tell you what I think.  I think it’s stupid.  If God wants to make us sick just so that he can show up and make himself look good, then he can keep his goodness to himself. I don’t ever want to hear that story again.”

And that was that.

Preface story seven.

A couple of weeks later I remembered that I had to speak at the upcoming Lenten lunch service on March 20th.  I wasn’t doing much of anything work-related, but I was trying to keep up with some responsibilities.  I went into my office, picked up my Ministerial folder, opened it, and found the passage on which I was to speak: John 9:1-7.  Are you kidding me?  I was angry.  Really angry.

I sat down, pulled out some commentaries, and began to read.  Slowly my eyes started to open to a teaching that I hadn’t grasped upon first reading.  We all want to know why.  Why does crap happen?  The disciple’s question is often our question.  Did I do something?  Is this a consequence for something?  But Jesus doesn’t even really respond to that line of questioning.  His response is concerning what he’s going to do right now.  When Jesus says “this happened,” I think he’s referring to what he’s about to do.  He’s about to show his power, love, and presence by intervening into the brokenness of our humanity and doing something crazy.  He’s about to give people a story — a story that will demonstrate to the world that The Light of the World is in our midst.

I began to get excited.  Still incredibly anxious and depressed about my own circumstances, but I could find hope in this story.  And hope was something I found hard to come by.

Preface story eight.

The night before I was to speak at the Lenten lunch was a bad night.  Shalene and I put the kids to bed and then collapsed (again) on the living room floor.  Our anxiety was through the roof.  We cried and cried.  And then I did something I’d never done before.  As I knelt on the ground I began to pray.  “God, I need something I’ve never asked for before.  I need an angel.  I need you to send someone to tell me that everything’s going to be okay.  It was really great of you to send an angel to tell those around Jesus’ empty tomb that it was going to be okay.  Well I need the same thing.  I’m so desperate.”

Of course in my mind this angel was to be large, wearing a bright white gown, and ideally with a flashing billboard over its head reading, “I’m an angel.”  Trumpets would have been nice, too.  To be honest, I had little expectation of this sort of prayer being answered.

And with that, we made our way to bed.

The story. (Finally)

The next day I got ready for the lunch.  It was a cold, snowy, and blistery day — the kind of day that makes a bad mood even worse.  As I was getting ready, Shalene reminded me of something: today, March 20th, was the first day of spring.  I guess I knew it, but I didn’t want to think about it much because I was pretty convinced I was going to be let down — that it was just going to be like any other day: a day filled with worry, anxiety, depression, and doubt.  But so it was, the first day of spring.  A snowy, cold, blistery, crappy day.

I arrived at the church in which the event was being hosted.  I went and sat down at a table awaiting my time to go up and speak the message which I’d prepared.  A little old lady came and sat down beside me.  We exchanged names, though for the life of me I can’t remember hers.  I didn’t think anything of this new acquaintance and when my time came to speak, I got up and instantly forgot I’d even met the woman.  I shared a bit of our story since Shalene’s diagnosis, my first run-in with the text from John, and then my understanding of the text upon doing some research.  And although I shared how the text gave me hope, I didn’t shy away from saying that I was still filled with worry and anxiety.  I finished speaking and took my seat.  When I returned to my table I didn’t even notice that the little old lady wasn’t there anymore.

When the service concluded I was greeted by several well-meaning people who came over to give me a hug and offer their prayer support.  I admit that all I wanted to do was get home and go back to bed.

Then it happened.

The little old lady returned.  She stood behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.  I turned around and she placed into my hands a large bouquet of flowers.  Tulips, to be exact.  She looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to give these to your wife.  Tell her spring is coming and everything is going to be okay.  I have to go now.  Someone is waiting for me.”  Then she smiled and left.

“Where on earth did she get these flowers from?” was all I thought.  I left the church and returned home.

When I got home I gave the flowers to Shalene and told her what the lady had said.  Neither of us thought much of it except that it was a little bizarre that this lady had a bunch of tulips on hand on such a cold and crappy day.

Later that day we’d planned to have some friends over, and it just happened to be the same couple that was with us the night of February 7th.  As we sat down in the living room for coffee they asked us how our day was (knowing that most of our days were pretty awful).  I began to tell them about my day: the speaking, the little old lady, the flowers…  and then Shalene stopped me.  “Aaron, do you remember what you prayed about last night?”  We both looked at each other stunned — like what the heck just happened here?  And slowly we began to remember all of the prefacing stories that I just shared above.  One by one we reminded each other of the moments along the journey: the conversations, the journaling, the connecting dots — all of it.

Our friend’s eyes lit up.  “Don’t you see it?” they asked.  “He’s chasing you; he’s wooing you; he’s revealing himself all around you; he’s answering you with angels.  He gave you flowers!

Our eyes filled with tears.  We still had the anxiety, the questions, the doubts, and our journey was far from over.  But on that day — the first day of spring — God brought us tulips.

He’s all around us.  He is so good.  He is so loving.  He is with us.  And the same Jesus who said, “this happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him,” is still at it.  He’s still doing his thing and giving us stories to tell.

All we have are our stories.  Looking back to that conversation with my friend in the coffee shop, I believe now that the only way God could use me to lead a church where the unexplainable could be a part of our story, was to walk me through the unexplainable so that I could live it firsthand.  Now I have my stories.  I have a testimony of God’s loving presence that I never had before.  And now I expect the unbelievable.

Some will read this and call it simple coincidence.  Maybe they’re right.

Some will read this and think I’m nuts.  Maybe they’re right, too.

But for me, and I pray for you, this has deepened my faith.  This has turned a skeptic (which is an exhausting way to live, by the way) into a believer (who still has more questions than answers).

We are doing much better these days.  Shalene is in the clear health-wise, though we have a monthly routine which includes mole-checking and doctor’s visits.  We have both learned all sorts of things about the human battle with fear, anxiety, worry, and depression.  We continue to get help for these powerfully debilitating mental health issues.  Our journey with this isn’t over; it will likely never be over.  And this isn’t the sort of thing we’d wish on anyone and we pray we never have to walk through this again.  But we are so thankful for our time in the valley.  It changed us.  It’s made us into something better for one reason: God met us in the darkness so that we could know his light.

Today, on February 7th, I brought tulips home for Shalene.  They’re sitting directly in front of me as I type this.  They represent far more than just flowers on what is another cold, snowy, blistery day.

May you recognize that God is all around you, walking with you, and constantly wooing you into his presence.

May you receive your tulips.

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The Shaping of an Identity

Our church has been in the process of shaping our written identity — our vision, mission, statement, or whatever you want to call it.  It continues to be a work in progress, but here’s the most current stab at it.  This is something into which we wish to live, become, and be.

avc colour vintage

Here because of grace.
Because God acted.
Because God loves.
Because God is about redemption.
Because God pursues us. Always.

He loves humanity.
He loves creation.
He is good.

Here because of Jesus.
Because in him all things are being redeemed.
Because of his life.
Because of his death.
Because of his resurrection.
Because he is with us. Always.

He is our pastor.
Our teacher.
Our counselor.
Our healer.
Our lord.
Our saviour.
Our hope.

Here because we are a church.
Because together in the Spirit we are united as one.
Because together we are able to listen to the Spirit’s leading.
Because together the Spirit is making us whole.
Because together we are the body of Jesus, with all our diversity and gifts.
Because together in our brokenness we find life.
Because together in our weakness we find strength.
Because together we embrace mystery.
Because together we walk in God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness.
Because together we submit to the Holy Scriptures.
Because together at the Table we find Jesus.

We are becoming a people who are learning to love Jesus more fully.
Becoming a people who love others.
Becoming a people who live on mission.
Becoming a people who share our stories.
Becoming a people who live God’s kingdom.
Becoming a people of ridiculous generosity.
Becoming a people who serve locally and globally.
Becoming a people who value simplicity.
Becoming a people who laugh, play, cry, and live life together.

Here because we love this city.
Because we believe there’s a better way.
Because we have so much to learn.

Ancaster Village Church

http://www.ancastervillagechurch.ca

Where have all the tears gone?

It’s been a long time, but a question I received yesterday in an email from a dear friend and saint in Surrey, B.C., has prompted me to return to this blog, at least for today.

It’s unlikely that many noticed my departure from the blogosphere.  It’s more likely that at least a few people noticed my decline in postings on Facebook and Twitter starting February 7.  I more or less disappeared.  Why?  That was the day that my wife received news that she had been diagnosed with melanoma.  Coupled to this news was the reality that she was three months pregnant with our third child and experiencing some complications.  Then only a couple of weeks later we began noticing that something was “off” with our eldest child — a journey that eventually led to him being diagnosed with a type of epilepsy.  There were also other things going on which only piled anxiety, worry, and pain on top of what were already two crumbling minds: financial issues and church issues among them.

We were shattered.

My wife and I completely shut down.  We spent days lying on our family room floor in front of the fireplace in tears and filled with crushing anxiety, doubt, and worry.  In what felt like an instant, we fell apart and could not see a way forward.  I had a few very bad weeks: one of them where I wrestled with quitting my job as a pastor, leaving my faith entirely, and suicide.  And another where I just literally shut down, not speaking, almost comatose.

For weeks on end we had doctor appointment after doctor appointment: some for me, some for our son, some for my wife, and some for the baby.  We began seeing a counselor every week as well as seeking the counsel of many friends.

Through all of this many of our church family, friends, and immediate family cared for us, tried to encourage us, prayed for us, brought us meals, watched our children, anointed us for healing, and checked in on us to make sure we hadn’t done anything stupid.  That in itself was a powerful experience of compassion, care, and love (though at the time it was hard to see).

There are so many more details about the ups and downs of the weeks and months that followed “the news” that I could share.   But I should summarize some of the points of the journey and offer a few updates lest you think all is still bad: my eldest son is in good shape and on medication that keeps his epilepsy in check, my wife and I (though not completely free of worry and anxiety) are doing much better, after surgery my wife’s cancer is no more (though we will live with constant check-ups for the rest of her days), and just four weeks ago we welcomed our third child into the world and he’s doing great.

But this is why I return to my blog:

I’m a cryer.  Always have been.  Even when I had the world convinced in my teen years that I was a bad-ass with an awful attitude, I still couldn’t get up at my younger sister’s baptism and say a few words without choking up.  When I got older and eventually became a “preacher,” more often than not my sermons would contain some tears.  It never embarrassed me.  I never felt like less of a man because I cried.  In fact, I had many men and women tell me that I, being the way that I was, gave them permission in their own life to express emotion.  Having said that, I’m sure it annoyed some people.  In my last church some of the youth would even take bets before I got up to preach, guessing when the tears would come.  I was happy to entertain.

But the fact that I cried always puzzled me.  I never knew why it came on.  And sometimes I’d began to tear up while talking about things that wouldn’t make most “normal” people cry.  I even prayed that God would take my tears away so it wouldn’t ever become a distraction and so that I wouldn’t have to always remember to take tissue on the platform with me.  But they never went away.

I continued to be the primary teacher in our little church plant while I went through my recent journey of worry, doubt, pain, and anxiety.  It was a crazy experience.  I’m not sure how many churches have had pastors who get up to preach and include lines like, “I’m not sure that I believe in any of this anymore”?  Well ours has.  And there was certainly a fair share of tears in those sermons.  But over the last few months my tears have gone away while preaching.

So when I received the email yesterday from my friend in B.C., and when in her email she asked, “Do you still get emotional when you preach?” it got me wondering: where have all the tears gone?  Why am I not crying like I used to?  And these questions began to put together some scrambled thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head for the past few weeks.

This is, I think, what’s happened.  I’ve been a hypocrite.  Sure, every preacher is.  Heck, every Christian is.  But for years now I’ve been preaching sermons while never dealing with some known issues in my life.  I always assumed that my hidden sin was just that: hidden and out of sight.  And here’s where I think some of the tears came from when I was preaching in the past: an overwhelming internal unrealized sense of God’s loving and gracious pursuit of me.  I think grace was wrecking me.  God’s love was chasing me and trying desperately to show me who I was and who I needed to become.  And that internal tension kept manifesting itself through the tears.  Preaching of a God of love and grace was like looking in a mirror and seeing all the things for which love and grace were needed…and I didn’t know how to change, handle it, or reconcile it.

Then came the last nine months.

I’m not the type to suggest that God “caused” the circumstances which lead to my being brought to the floor (quite literally).  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But I can certainly say with confidence that he was there in every moment, using the circumstances to teach, guide, transform, and redeem.  That’s just who he is.  It’s what he does.  And these last months have — I know this will sound over-the-top, but it’s true — completely changed me.  Both my wife and I have found an intimacy with the voice and person of Jesus Christ that we never knew before.  I have stories and a testimony of Jesus’ presence that before I would have thought impossible or even crazy.  And as a result of this transformational journey I have died to some destructive things in my life.  In my pain, grace and love met me in a way that I could no longer respond to them without allowing the Spirit to do some work in me.  In many ways it feels like God has given me the opportunity to be rebuilt.  I’ve been stripped bare and brought to nothing, and from there Jesus has put the pieces back together, forming a much better edition than the preceding one.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m still a hypocrite.  Jesus has much more to do with me.  But for now the tears which told of an internal battle have changed to a dry-eyed confidence, experience, and knowledge of the height, breadth, and depth of God’s love and presence in my life.  I can speak of his grace now without feeling like I’m knowingly and without desire to change taking advantage of it.  I have no doubt that I’ll still cry from time to time.  But I think that the tears will reflect something different now.

If you’ve stumbled across this post, my heart for you is that you’d dive headfirst into God’s love and grace.  Sit alone.  Open your ears.  And ask Jesus to meet with you and reveal to you the inside of your heart.  Then let him work.  Let the gentle, compassionate, and oh so patient teacher take you on a transformational journey into his heart.  And don’t be afraid to let the tears come.

Grace and peace to you.

P.S. If you cry when you preach, please don’t assume it’s for the same reasons. 🙂