About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
It is imperative that we know what it means to see, to hear, and to discern the things of the world to which we truly belong.
They are all staring at me. Lori’s wig is crooked. She’s got a nine-year-old and is losing her battle with cervical cancer. To her left is Paul. He has pancreatic cancer and his wife, Evelyn, will lose her partner of forty-seven years in only four weeks. To his left is Beth. She just had a lumpectomy, lost her left breast, and is beginning a chemo regimen. Her engagement to sing her first solo concert at the Kennedy Center has been canceled. The other side of the room is not looking much better. Bill’s abdomen is distended and he looks as physically uncomfortable as his wife does. They don’t even have the comfort of a diagnosis. To their left are Maya and William. They just got run over with positive biopsy results and resemble emotional road kill: blank eyes staring at speckled tile and no signs of life. Sitting next to them is Mike. The wrapping on Mike’s head can’t mask the huge divot of missing skull from a surgery that removed a glioblastoma from his brain. As I look at him, I can’t fend off the thought that he’s a goner. His kind of cancer is not the kind you survive. His chin is in his chest and I can’t see his face. His new wheelchair makes him slump. I can’t tell whether he is doing well today or not.
By contrast, Michelle is supremely visible. Outwardly perfect, she is flanked by her two perfect girlfriends. Their perfect world, perfect nails, and perfect makeup suggest all is very well. But Michelle’s insides betray her outsides. Blond and beautiful outside, but bellicose and bitter on the inside. She is losing her fight with an aggressive breast cancer. The trip to Japan to explore experimental therapies was a failure and she’s back with us in Orange County. On this night, in this room, the big C is defeating the OC.
Oh, and did I mention? They are all staring at me.
The year was 1993, and I was twenty-nine years young. I was attending seminary, working full time, and had been assigned a clinical pastoral rotation on an oncology unit. One evening a week we met in the basement of the Western Medical Center in Anaheim with about thirty cancer patients and their families or friends. To describe this time as a defining moment seems to cheapen this chapter of my life, but it captures the ethos of the year in which my world was beautifully ruined by God. It was a year of first-time encounters with reality:
• first time I was afraid to show up for work
• first job in which mortality was a daily reality
• first sustained connection to cancer and its victims
• first encounters with true despair and imminent death
• first exposure to “unfixable” emotions
• first big crisis of faith
• first funeral
• first time I caught a clear vision of life and heaven
What did I see for the first time?
• I control nothing.
• Trauma dissolves the trivial.
• Relationships define riches.
• Personal discomfort leads to discovery.
• Reality, however painful, is where we find eternity.
• God’s vision for me is different from my vision.
• Physical poverty produces spiritual clarity.
A cancer support group was God’s agent of new meaning and purpose in my life. I didn’t like His choice, but He didn’t care. He let me borrow His glasses. He decided that’s the kind of reality I needed to get clear in order to see Him and, in the process, see myself. I saw that Kenny likes sanitized, sanctified, and tidy. He prefers comfortable and predictable, like any good adult child of an alcoholic. I saw a man who freaks out and wants to run when the environment gets emotionally negative or out of his control. God showed me how I prefer the focus to be on someone else who needs help. I don’t like feeling helpless. He pointed out my affection for regular outward results, numbers, and success you can quantify.
He made me face my tendency to rewrite reality to make people feel better. He pointed out how I wanted to teach more than be taught—to be someone’s solution versus process an issue. I like prescriptions that cure and solve, not processes that end poorly or, God forbid, remain
unresolved. He showed me that it’s possible to prefer heaven so much that it leaves little room for the real emotions and problems of earth. He showed me just how much I like my version of serving God and being God’s man. But my version wasn’t working for Him. It was time for an Etch-ASketch moment, or better, an Etch-A-Ken moment. I turned my screen upside down and erased the picture that was there. I didn’t want to start fresh, but it happened.
Glad it was me and not you? Not so fast. You’re going to get to wrestle too. God wants to erase what you’ve drawn on your Etch-A-Sketch and instead draw His dream for you. Will you let Him?
The Big Oak Tree
In my neck of the woods, Live Oak Canyon Road is famous. It’s famous for its curvy sloping turns. It’s famous for the large and beautiful heritage oak trees that canopy its spirited descent past Cook’s Corner. It’s famous for its horse ranches and a steakhouse. On weekends, it’s home to scores of Harley-Davidson riders and car enthusiasts alike. This road has it all.
It calls out to you to roll down the windows, blast your music, and step on the accelerator. Travelers never forget this little stretch of heaven, and campers know it as the entry of passage to O’Neil Regional Park.
But you might start to notice other things along Live Oak Canyon Road, things that tell another side of its personality. Little crosses and bouquets of flowers enshrine some of the larger trees. Abnormal gouges mar the woody flesh of others. On certain days, you might see people standing
side by side, staring at or praying next to one of the big oaks.
And on others, you might see a police car on the road, an
officer instructing you to turn around. There’s been another fatality.
Live Oak Canyon Road is famous for a lot of things, and one of them is death.
The brutal fact that belies the beauty of this road is the invincibility of oak trees. Oak is hard and oak trees bend for no man. My neighbor Gary lets me borrow his spare Harley Road King, and we ride down Live Oak Canyon Road. I feel free, empowered by the throttle, more confident with each shift of the gear box. I gain speed, control, and comfort as I climb to cruising speed. Yet there is a sense that danger is just one slip away, and my acuity for my surroundings is heightened. I am especially aware of the oak trees. It’s a weird combination, but a necessary one if I am going to enjoy this ride. I have to respect the oak trees. I have to be sure of that. I wonder if everyone who has perished on this road was feeling the same way before something went horribly wrong. Elation, then devastation. You have to be alert and respectful while enjoying the beauty. Live Oak Canyon Road is the dream of being God’s man. It’s so inviting, so attractive. It’s beautiful and challenging. It’s also very dangerous when you take too many liberties, look too long, or begin to think you have it figured out. It’s not hard to get loose in the corners. It’s easy to outpace the road. New tires can breed overconfidence. It’s tempting to push for more speed when caution is in order. It’s easy to feel like you have this course wired.
And just when it feels familiar—you guessed it—a million little pieces. God’s vision for you is solid, invincible, and has been in place for a long time. It is an oak tree. It is unstoppable. Only arrogance or ignorance would attempt to displace it, try to cheat it or ignore it. And yet we do. We presume to design what we will become in Him. We chase our fantasies over His chosen vision. We forecast and fashion our lives in our own image. We reengineer ourselves for cultural acceptability. We shape our dreams around our own insecurities and dysfunctional tendencies. And then there is the fatal error: we take God’s plan for our lives and make it something to be conquered. We get behind the wheel and take over. I wonder what God thinks of all our presumptions, our engineering
of His plan for our lives. The dream we have for ourselves is unnatural. It is not
God’s dream for us. God tells us in numerous places and in numerous ways, “My version of your future is not your version. Your dreams are not My dreams. Your paths are not My paths. Your ways are not My ways.” If salvation is not a result of what we do, then why would we think His vision of greatness as a man would be dependent on our exploits?
God’s dream for us is not something we chase; it’s something we become.
God set Samuel straight when he set about looking for a God’s man among Jesse’s sons: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart”
(1 Samuel 16:7). God’s dream for your life is not external, designed to impress. It’s not internal, a value or a purpose. It’s not even a spiritual discipline or set of beliefs. God’s dream for you is a heaven-owned vision of greatness, a God’s man image built upon that of the God-Man. You have known this and felt it inside of you ever since you were a little boy. It’s time for all of us to recapture it.
The Dormant Volcano
I see the volcano in my eleven-year-old son, Ryan. He’s dormant one minute and exploding with magma the next. It seems so random. All of a sudden he blurts, “Wouldn’t it be great if our car could fly like both a plane and a helicopter?” His crea...