Modeh Ani. Good morning, indeed.

Each morning–early in the morning–I drive my son to his cross country practices.

And each morning, I’m tempted to go home and go back to bed until his run is finished.

Instead, through what can only be described as supernatural grace, I walk while he and his teammates run.

I walk, as the sun rises over the trails and cornfields and wildflowers.

I walk, as I grumble about the little things in life (like the unexpected failure and subsequent purchase of an entire AC system when it’s 100 degrees in the shade) and wonder where God is.

I walk, as I think about the patients I care for as a nurse, the ones who have bellies being drained from the effects of cancer; the ones whose caregivers sit at the bedside and feed them applesauce when a month before they could handle a nice slab of prime rib; the ones who love it when I wash their hair, massaging their balding heads no one else has touched for weeks.

I walk, as I consider the life-changing week my sons spent caring for “the least of these” on the streets of Chicago, returning to us as young men, hearts on fire for the Kingdom. Hearts bonded with new friends. Hearts bonded with the broken and the Lord.

Here are a few pictures I’ve taken on my walks this week as I consider all these things, blessings, curve balls, love so deep and other-worldly it hurts. And I recite, as my Jewish ancestors* and Jewish brothers and sisters do still today–before they even rise from their beds–the morning Modeh Ani. A prayer to begin the day.

May you acknowledge and feel the merciful restoration of your soul, and the faithfulness of our Great G-d, today, too, dear friends!

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מוֹדֶה (מוֹדָה) אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃

Modeh (modah) ani lifanekha melekh ḥai v’kayam sheheḥezarta bi nishmahti b’ḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.

I offer thanks before you, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.

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*Through extensive research I’ve been doing for my second novel (David C. Cook, 2015), I recently discovered that my Grandfather was 100% Jewish, which means I am 1/4 Jewish. My knees are buckled with honor at this truly life-changing discovery. 

one thing in the middle of all the big

I am ashamed.

I also want to switch churches.

The first problem I’ll explain below.

The second one is only a half-truth, because I do love my home church. For one thing, most of my best friends go there. For another, it’s unapologetically Bible-based, God-fearing, and truth-speaking. For another, it’s a lot closer to home than the church I want to switch to.

About 850 miles closer.

See, we went on vacation last week to a little town on the coast of Florida . . . the sort of rare town left on the Gulf these days that maintains a sense of history, a sacredness of nature, one Piggly Wiggly, no fast food joints, and no high rises.

Like many Southern towns, there’s a church on every corner. The Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Catholics, the Methodists–each of them own a corner spot on main street.

But they’re small.

Real small.

And because of their smallness, they’re rather charming, and, well, curious-looking.

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On the first (and only) Sunday of our vacation, I dragged my mom along with me to the Methodist Church–the oldest church in town. My intent: to sit in the back row, sneak in a few iPhone pictures, write some notes on the hairstyles, dialects, clothing, and face contours of parishioners for character studies for a future novel, and sneak back out.

But ooooooohhhhhh noooooo.

God, and the pastor–a charismatic young Grecian named Themistocles (“Themo” for short) from Maryland (you can’t make these things up)–spotted my mom and I the instant we walked through the creaky wooden threshold. Seeing as how the head count was 62 the week before (this, of course, posted on an old attendance/hymn board in the front of the sanctuary), I suppose we stuck out like a couple of sore Yankees. He ran over, shook our hands, and introduced himself. Once everyone had taken a seat, we were asked–along with a couple of other mortified first-timers–to stand and tell everyone our names, where we were from, and a little about ourselves. (Have I mentioned spontaneous public speaking gives me panic attacks?)

Themistocles praised God for “all the visitors God spoke to, to come worship with them that day.” Then he began to pray over each person in that sanctuary, laying hands on the hurting, asking others to surround and lay hands on the broken, commissioning a team going to serve in Nicaragua that week, and calling everyone by name.

I sank in my pew, ashamed that I’d come there to scope out “what kind of people went to a church like that.”

Red-faced and avoiding Themo’s intense gaze, I flipped through the program, and noticed the prayer needs of the sick, the hurting, the healed, the newly married, and the newborns were listed by name on the back.

Then Themo began to preach.

Oh, how he preached!

He preached for 30 solid minutes on Romans. About grace and hope. About sanctification and edification. About justification and condemnation. About faith and forbearance. About kindness and patience. Good and evil. He even mentioned the word predestination–Lord have mercy!

Most of all, Themo talked about how the Kingdom of God is busting out all over, and that we are the ones–you and I–to usher it in.

Then he asked the youth of the church to come forward and receive communion.

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He asked the youth to come forward first.

The coming generation.

The ones many of us think should take communion last–if at all.

The teens and pre-teens walked forward, knelt in a semicircle before the communion table, ate the bread, and drank the wine.

And then, we who were used to going first were last.

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We sang the doxology in harmonies without a choir to help us.

And I realized how much I miss singing that sacred prayer at the end of the offering.

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An elderly woman played the organ, and we sang Amazing Grace.

A young man (who happened to look like Chris Martin) and another played acoustic guitars, and a teenager played the bass, and we sang…

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Your love never fails

it never gives up

never gives up on me . . .

. . . this one thing remains . . .

. . . and on and on and on and on it goes
yes it overwhelms and satisfies my soul
and I’ll never ever have to be afraid
’cause this one thing remains

this One thing

remains

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Big church, big music, big theology, big exegesis, big feminism, big programming, big movements, big projects, big cheap grace, and yes, even big discipleship.

What does all the big mean, if we’re missing this One thing . . .

. . . this One thing that remains in the hearts of 62 parishioners as it has in the tens of generations of hearts before them, embraced by the chippy clapboard walls of a church most postmodernists would dismiss . . .

. . . but where, on a Sunday morning in June, this One thing was bigger than I’ve felt in a hundred Sundays of big church put together.

One thing.

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The Lord has promised good to me.

His word my hope secures.

He will my shield and portion be,

As long as life endures.

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arise, o church. a response and a call for the hearts of our youth.

i’ve thought about it, too, now that you mention it.

not so much now, but i did.

back when healing felt like hot coals inside my gut, and the sunlight singed my parchment-thin heart.

back when there was that one time when my medicines, they just stopped working.

“Put me in the hospital,” i begged my counselor.

but i stayed home.

stayed a mess.

stayed alive.

eventually, the fine titration of years of therapy and therapists helped, combined with medicines as essential to the care and feeding of my brain as insulin is to a brittle diabetic.

i remember the strangling weight of depression and anxiety, curling around my inmost being, whispering–no screaming–inside my head that all the world, my family, my friends would be better without me.

but here i am.

alive.

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they, on the other hand, are not.

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two Matthews–their very names meaning “gift of God”– in two weeks. 

gone by their own hands.

the strangling weight of grief chokes two sets of families, two communities of friends.

one is in the national spotlight.

one happened in a nearby community.

and the whole world groans for answers.

of which there are none.

except, perhaps, one.

one answer, and though it is not nor ever will be enough, it is this:

arise, o church.

arise.

arise and take note of the vicious tearing of the veil separating the seen from the unseen.

take note of the evil powers and principalities punching through and groping for our youth, a precious, toe-headed generation of believers who will be (and are, even now) called upon to raise swords–the weight of which the world has never known–to fight for their lives and their faith.

two Matthews are gone from this earth, but make no mistake: their deaths are NOT a score for the grave.

indeed, the victory is Christ’s, Who overcame it.

Who can overcome even yours.

i painted this picture (below) when i was in one of the darkest times of my life. when cords entwined. when death crouched on the corner of my bed at night and counted my breaths as i gasped through living and imagined nightmares. when i stood too near to the gaping window, soothing currents of death caressing me, taunting me, singing in minor key over my deflated soul.

but then, He reached down and took hold.

He reached down and took hold of those boys, too, you know.

why i live to tell about it, and not them, i do not know.

but i do know this: for those of us lucky enough to have been drawn out of deep waters and have breath yet to speak of it, it is time for us to arise.

time for us to raise banners for hope.

time for us to shed our shame and shameful notions of mental health and

admit

that though we scramble to look perfect, life hurts.

admit

that for many of us, the grave never ceases to beckon, no matter how many worship songs we sing, no matter how many Bible studies we accomplish, no matter how many times we go back and forth between the baptizing waters of redemption.

we who live must admit this.

and testify.

that our brokenness is NOT for a lack of faith.

brokenness is the Siamese twin of this earthly life.

and still . . .

. . . still, He reaches down.

because we are meant to live.

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arise, o church.

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call upon angel armies to bind up the hearts of our youth, whose lives are under an all-out siege.

call upon angel battalions to seal the tears in the unseen veil.

to protect this next generation.

to have mercy upon them.

that they may live.

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most of all, we pray, o Lord, please cover the hearts of these hurting families with Your unfailing and healing love. seal the mouths of those who would hurt them in the midst of their unbearable pain. protect them and hold them close. and assure them of the truths of Romans 8:35-39.

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amen.

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I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

Romans 8:38-39 TMV

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Do you or someone you love struggle with thoughts of suicide?

Seek help today.

Do not be ashamed.

And most of all, do not delay.

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