Saturday, April 28, 2007

Short Hiatus

Term paper and final exam coming at me like a freight train... and sinking fast in chapel requirements. Not to mention little league baseball times three and a pile of laundry that's beginning to look like Mt. Hood.

So... I'm off the blog for a week or so! Take good care and let your light shine!


Sonrise friends... remember NO MEETING this Monday. See

On My I-Pod: When the Stars Go Blue by Tim McGraw

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How Are You Voting?

I have changed my tune about American Idol. My first exposure to the program was this year's season opener which served up a mean menu of the gifted and the clueless. The first few shows this season generated a lot of controversy for what some (including me) would argue was its gloves-off mistreatment of innocents. It's one thing to subject yourself to international humiliation of you're talentless and arrogant. Therein, perhaps, you get what you deserve. But how about those who are talentless, cluless and set up to fail so the world can giggle and jeer? That's the mean part.

My friend, Jamey, urged me to get out of a cave and give it a chance. I did that. Now I see a dimension, particularly in Simon Cowell, that's real if not somewhat refreshing. You could argue there's a nicer way to critique others. I would agree with that. But his "yes" is "yes" and his "no "is "no." You know where you stand with him. He won't string you along or sychopantically delude you or lead you down a dead-end road or brandish a big goofy grin before he stabs you in the back. Some might argue he could maybe use a little sprinkling of compassion. Then again, I have to ask myself how willing I would be to walk through a filthy trash heap in Africa. Hmmm...

I suppose there's a larger issue about the moral premise of reality television in general. I'm not going there today. The question I have is about how we vote. The judges have said time and again, "This is a singing contest." My boys have a favorite and we let them vote last night. But the question I asked my oldest son as we tucked him into bed was, "Who would win and potentially do the most for the Kingdom?"

I have a favorite entertainer from American Idol and I have in mind someone who might be a good ambassador for Christ. They are not the same.

So, who do you think I should vote for?

(Very cool award-winning photo by Luis Montemayor used with permission. See for more pics.)

Book Club Announcement: Are you reading Inside Out by Larry Crabb? Good! We will be blogging about it in May (not April as planned). This is a better fit with the end of the semester at DTS. So if you haven't picked it up, you still have time! We'll be hearing from Dr. Ramesh Richard. So plan to join us!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Every once in awhile a song comes along...

Lyrics to
(sung by Martina McBride)

You can spend your whole life building something from nothing
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach and you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

God is great, but sometimes life ain't good
And when I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway, I do it anyway

This world's gone crazy and it's hard to believe that tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway

You can love someone with all your heart, for all the right reasons, and in a moment they can choose to walk away
Love 'em anyway

One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach and you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

God is great, but sometimes life ain't good
And when I pray it doesn't always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway, I do it anyway

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in that tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway, sing it anyway

(Stunning photography by i_b_u; see
for restrictions.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Praise for the Creator

Sometimes John's teacher rides with me on field trips and if we don't have a precise street address, I invariably get us lost. In between, "Where on earth are we now?" we've discovered a lot of common ground, laughed hard, and anticipated future opportunities to work our way toward wherever it is that we're going, using the few extra minutes of "traveling" time to chat.

Getting lost is not such a crisis any more because Todd gave me a GPS navigator. So the days of white-knuckled terror doing donuts around the highway with a quivering lower lip are mercifully past. My GPS rights the course and gets me where I need to be. The peace that I have when I set out for unfamiliar destinations is almost incalculable. Whether or not I can discern north from my south no longer really matters. The GPS figures it out for me. "I love that thing!" I tell Todd. What I must avoid, however, is the tendency to focus on the thing versus the God who made the thing possible! We should save our utmost praise and gratitude for God, not the gadget.

We meet Melchizedek, an enigmatic king and "priest of the Most High God" in Genesis 14. He is thought by some to be a Canaanite priest of spiritual parity (or greater) with Abram. Melchizedek was quick to appropriate divine credit to mortal achievements:

He blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by the Most High God, Creator of heaven and earth. Worthy of praise is the Most High God who delivered your enemies into your hand."
(GN 14: 19-20)

Abram is fresh from victory over four kings who had captured his nephew Lot. Melchizedek extends hospitality to the victor and praises the conquest. Noteworthy is the way in which Melchizedek keeps the focus on God, giving credit where credit is supremely due.

Question: Who or what do you praise? Is your joy and dependence upon the thing or the One who makes all things possible?

(Photo by LinBow. See for restrictions.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Forever Spring

A song of joyful praise and hope... amidst our sorrow.

1You planted a garden for me,
and I thank you.

2 Look at the colors.
So vibrant!
3 See the indigo violets.
and bubble gum roses.
Spot the neon grasshoppers
and silvery slugs.

4 Hear the sounds.
How curious!
5 Listen to leaves rustle
Hear the sparrows flutter
Listen as bees buzz

6 Smell the scents.
How inviting!
7 Catch the aroma of sweet sap
from the old maple tree.
Breathe the fresh must
that tells of the storm.

8 Taste the flavors.
How delicious!
9 Warm, sweet tomatoes
torn from the vine.
Freckles of nectar
cling to my lips.
Dots of rain
dance on my tongue.

10 Feel the textures.
How variant!
11 The soil is cool and moist
and teeming with life.
The wind combs my hair
and brushes my face.
The sun gives up one last kiss
before the curtain falls.

12 Your gift to me;
So glorious.
This garden that grows.

13 Through drought and flood and stinging cold—
The garden goes dry and swamps and chills…

14 Still…
The colors!
The sounds!
The smells!
The tastes!
And textures!

15 If only today in my heart,
this bountiful garden grows.
16 As I faithfully watch and wait and long
For the glorious return of Spring.

17 Thank you, Lord,
for the garden you made.

18 For all that I’ve seen.
And all that I’ve heard.
19 For all that I’ve smelled,
And all that I’ve touched.
20 For all that I’ve tasted,
And all I can imagine.

21 For in this verdant plot of what we know,
and what we trust…
22 We find our hope in heaven
and the wonder of You.

23 You planted a garden for us.
24And we thank you.

(Photo by nutmeg66; see for restrictions.)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Processing Thoughts on Evil

There's a feeling of personal vulnerability that saturates us in the aftermath of criminal evil. We may not be personally involved. We may not even know the victims. But we are gripped and grieved by the impact of violence on others. As I watched the television coverage last night of the massacre at Virginia Tech, I was surprised to see snow falling in mid-April. It struck me as a peculiar but fitting remnant of winter wrapped around an otherwise chilling day.

The coming hours and days will see a laser-like focus on what could have been done to prevent what happened on the campus of Virginia Tech. As we desperately try to patch together answers to the question "why," the light of scrutiny will no doubt fall in many directions. Who pulled the trigger? Where did he come from? Who raised him? Were there clues and signs along the way that were missed or ignored? What about the crime scene? Who was responsible for keeping the campus safe? Were safety measures in place and working? Was there a crisis management plan? Was the plan followed? Could this senseless tragedy have been prevented? Or was it an inescapable random swipe of terror?

Events like this also cast a light above as people wonder where God was yesterday. How could a loving God allow this to happen? is the question that will be asked in one form or another by Christians and non-Christians alike. Those of us who love God will find ourselves, perhaps, in the position of feeling like we need to defend Him. Heaven forbid, we lose a soul in our midst who now has more reason to question God. When put on the spot, we'll try to scrape up theories and possible reasons. Optimists will focus on how good things can come from bad. Realists will point to the wrath of God. And both could be right.

But neither really knows. So if you ask me where I think God was, I can only tell you He is everywhere and never caught unaware. If you ask me why He didn't stop the gunman, I can only tell you that I do not know.

I'm reminded of the events that transpired in the latter verses of Job (42: 7-8) as I think about the appropriate response to how we engage others if God is brought into the discussion. Job's troubles by now are behind him. He has endured much suffering and God is now about to reward his faithfullness. But, first, God turns his attention to Job's "friends," who armchair quarterbacked their way through Job's persecution, dispensing bad advice and feigning righteous wisdom. God installs Job to a lofty position now in which his prayers can spare his fluttery friends the blunt force of His anger. Because, you see, Job maintained his integrity throughout. He approached God with honesty in his trials, decrying truthfully his miserable state yet clinging to his faith in God despite his lack of understanding. Job's friends, on the other hand, were too quick to try and reflect the mind of God and counseled from a crumbling spiritual perch.

What can we learn from Job today:

  • We can't speak for God's purpose in allowing specific acts of evil in the world today.
  • We must cling to our faith in His perfect judgment despite our lack of understanding.
  • We must endeavor to speak the truth, which might be: "I don't know."
  • We must know and trust that the prayers of the righteous are heard.
  • Take comfort in the truth that God is with us and He is holy.
  • Cling to the revelation that good triumphs over evil in the end.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Shock and Sorrow in Virginia

My prayers are with the students, faculty, families and community in Blacksburg, VA... it's a sad day in our nation.

"He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist any more--or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist." Rev. 21: 4

Model for Trust

The book of Psalms is rich with praise in good times and bad. Even in psalms of lament, which were written during times of extreme personal distress, the psalmist concludes on a positive note, expressing hope and faith in the goodness of God.

Our Monday morning group looked at Psalm 13 today. It's a terse but powerful psalm of lament that finds David crying to God at a time of dire affliction (13:3). We're not told the outcome here of David's situation. But as we analyze this psalm in three parts, we do get a window into David's relationship with God and his approach to prayer:

  • David cries out
  • He begs for help
  • He expresses trust in God

So the trust precedes the resolution here. It didn't take an immediate response from God to elicit good feelings about God on the part of the suffering psalmist. How is this possible? David knows God. He intimately understands God's just and merciful nature. It's this faith that sustains him during periods of angst.

What can we learn from this?

  • Suffering is inevitable. We can ponder all sorts of philosophical "why's" as we try and wrap our minds around the things we really don't understand, but the desparate heart cry "Why me?" makes less sense to me today. Though there were times I bitterly asked that very question, I see increasingly that suffering to varying degrees is a normative experience of life. I can appreciate intimately the pain behind the question. But if you read the Bible you will find timeless precedent for heartache, illness, injustice, persecution, and every imaginable indirect and direct causitive affliction associated with every imaginable kind of sin. Bad things sometimes happen to bad people. Bad things sometimes happen to good people. It is the nature of life in a fallen world.
  • When trouble strikes, we are to call out to God.
  • We are to pray to God candidly and specifically. As one of my friends said this morning, David is real with God. He's unplugged and honest.
  • Have Bible-based expectations. God is not a concierge. He responds in His time according to His purpose. There will be periods we call out to God and hear our own echo. There is precedent for this. Periods of "silence" don't indicate that God has abandoned us. We are called to have faith in the quiet times, knowing He hasn't gone anywhere. I'm reminded of a particularly heated debate on a theological topic last year during my online course with Dr. Kreider. Several of us went back and forth on a challenging issue. At one point, someone wrote "Where's Dr. Kreider, anyway?" His response came within the hour: "I'm right here." He had been tracking the debate very closely but refrained from solving the problem for us because he knew we'd be better off having worked it ourselves. And, in retrospect, we certainly were. So trust in the quiet spaces.
  • Be ever grateful for the goodness of God. Close your eyes and paint a synthetic picture of all that you know about God from Scripture, creation, history and tradition, and your own Christian experience. Anyway you paint it, it's the portrait of indescribable majesty and holiness.
  • Know that there's good that can come from time spent in the quiet spaces. I'm reminded of an old sitcom from many years ago: Father Knows Best. We must trust that, no matter what, indeed He does.

Blaring on my I-Pod... nothing! What am I missing?

(Pic by denial_land; for restrictions, see:

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Keeping Memories Alive

Reading Jonah and thinking about his expressed elation over God's saving mercy in Chapter 2, I'm hurled back to 2004 when I underwent treatments for colorectal cancer. I wouldn't have been as eloquent as Jonah and my own story isn't as dramatic, but I surely could have penned my own psalm of praise.

  • God seemed to throw up a "firewall" the day of the diagnosis protecting me emotionally from crippling fears about death and motherless children. Ironically, one of my greatest fears before the cancer diagnosis was getting cancer. Sitting in that doctor's office hearing the news I'd always dreaded, I felt infused with a strange sense of calm. It was as if God mercifully blunted the fear.
  • We had many doctors to choose from, but felt a strong leaning toward one. He was booked out many weeks and time was our enemy. We started to look for another doctor, then got the call that someone had just canceled and there was now an opening first thing the next morning. We would find out only after the surgery that this doctor was one of only two in the area performing a highly specialized noninvasive endoscopic procedure that not only saved my life but let me walk away without so much as a scar.
  • Psalm 91 was in front of us... just when we needed it.
  • People lovingly flooded into our lives. We were never lacking for babysitters or meals or hugs or, most importantly, prayers. Old friends, new friends and total strangers astounded us. Needs we didn't even know we had were anticipated and met.
  • I sustained 6 1/2 weeks of daily radiation which I'd been warned would be excruciating. At three weeks, the radiation oncologist said "This is a threshold period. You will most likely begin to experience discomfort soon." A former patient had described the therapy in graphic terms I cannot even write about here. I tried to be brave but worried about how I would endure such pain. I prayed for functionality and a spirit of grace. Week three came and went with little discomfort. Week four came and went with little discomfort. Weeks five and six came and went with little discomfort. Then it was over. The threshold never came. Three weeks later, I went to the surgeon for an exam and he said: "If there were a bell curve for this, you would be off the charts. I see little evidence you were even radiated."
  • The surgeon said there was an 80% chance that surgery alone removed the cancer. It had begun to spread, but not invasively. Still, the doctors agreed that radiation and chemotherapy were essential. But there was another path that was up to me. I could also submit to a more aggresive chemotherapy that would further enhance my odds of beating the disease. The downside was... I might be submitting to something with harmful side effects that I didn't even need. I was really on the fence about this, but chose to go with it so I'd know I tried everything I could for the sake of my children in the event that it recurred. My first drip resulted in an uncommon life-threatening allergic reaction. "I guess we know we won't be doing that," my oncologist said. To this day, I believe that was God's way of making that decision for us, giving me the peace that I'd done all that I could while sparing me potentially irreversible long-term damage.

So, I wasn't gobbled up by a fish and spit out on dry land. But I do have a window (among many) into God's intervention and mercy. I felt tucked under God's wing and protected at every crucial step along the cancer journey.

I can remember sitting in a traffic jam at one point looking around me at a pile up of stressed out motorists. I could see the frustration and agitation on their faces. There I was sitting behind the wheel smiling... because it didn't matter where I was. At that moment, I was alive. I was still a wife and a mother and a traffic jam had never felt so good.

That's what I kind of imagine Jonah was feeling when he captured his song of praise to God in Chapter 2. He is joyful and grateful and closer to God, perhaps, than ever. Yet it all falls apart for him when he loses the focus on God and shifts the thinking to himself.

I asked my Monday morning group to think about a time that they felt rescued by God. I want them to think about it and I want them to write about it. Because, like Jonah, our humanity has a way of getting in the way of our divine reflections. I'm years removed from my own crisis and, if I'm not vigilent about keeping those memories of God's intervention alive, I'm bound to slip into a state of negativity or entitlement as I approach some aspects of the daily "grind." Being some distance away from a significant God event in our lives doesn't change the event. If it was huge then, it's still huge. But time has a way of stealing the significance of the moment.

Think about it: Has God ever bailed you out? Think about it today and give yourself an assignment to write about it. Summarize it if you'd like and put it in your Bible or tape it to your mirror. Be creative and "design" it if you want. Frame it and hang it by the door you exit every morning as a reminder of what God has done in your life. Keep the memories alive!

(Pic of a grateful mommy taken by Terri Judd.)

Friday, April 13, 2007

A Depressed Prophet?

I heard someone theorize recently that Jonah must have been wasted to have slept through the storm that threatened to tear apart his Tarshish-bound ship. You’ll remember that he needed to be roused from a deep sleep by terrified pagan sailors. I thought this was an interesting theory. However, the fact that he emerges from his slumber and engages rationally with those around him leads me to conclude that he wasn’t in a seriously altered state.

I’ve always assumed Jonah’s ability to sleep through environmental tumult was indicative of a cold and uncaring heart. I now have a slightly different view. I wonder if Jonah’s ability to sleep through a violent storm hints at a state of depression.

Running from God & Life?

I’ve never subscribed to the notion that Jonah actually thought he could outrun God. After all, he was a spokesperson for the Almighty. Presumably, he knew of the might and omnipresence of God. So it seems highly improbable that an otherwise enlightened man—a working prophet for Yahweh—would think his little boat excursion would somehow fall off the Lord’s radar. So when he stepped aboard that wrong-way vessel, he had to know he was cruising for a divine bruising.

A Death Wish?

Four times in the book we read about Jonah’s expressed willingness to die. Once aboard the ship. Three times on the other end of his mandated mission trip to Ninevah. In Chapter 4, this desire is expressed with vehemence. He really wanted to die. (Or so he said.)

It seems to me altogether possible that Jonah wasn’t just going on strike. But that he was running from his very life. He was done working for God and, perhaps, ready to call it quits. Down in the bowels of the ship, he pulls a scratchy blanket over his head, maybe, and drifts, as depressed people do, into a state of “I never want to wake up!” sleep.

Lose me!

While we get up close and personal with his rebel spirit in Chapter 1, we have to get to the end of the book to really appreciate the self-centered nucleus of Jonah’s heart. So when he offers to go overboard to cause the storm to abate and save the crew in Chapter 1, we aren’t privy yet to deeper insight into his full nature. It would seem, in the absence of the full story, to be an act of some maturity and self-sacrifice. The text indicates he knew the storm would cease and the sailors would survive if he bailed out. But did he know he wouldn't drown? Probably not. Because we are told in Chapter 2 he was praying inside the fish in a state of "distress" (2:2) and at one point he felt his life "ebbing away." (2:7)

So it would appear that he fessed up and slipped into dark, turbulent waters to stop the storm and save the lives of strangers. Yet we will learn that compassion is not his groove. The only way this act makes sense is if Jonah has already resolved that life is not worth living. He’s not thinking about a house with a hot tub and new Land Cruiser in his Tarshish carport. He’s possibly depressed and ready to power down.

I’m So Glad, I’m So Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad, I’m Glad…

In Chapter 2, we have a jarringly joyful psalm of declarative praise—a seemingly odd pickle in the middle. Look at what surrounds it. In Chapter 1, we meet Jonah, the depressed rebel, facing dire personal calamity. In Chapter 4, we meet Jonah, the impetuous curmudgeon, teetering on the precipice of a seismic breakdown. Yet sandwiched between, we have this lovely, uplifting psalm. What to make of this?

Reading this account literally, we have a wildly supernatural act in which a human being was swallowed whole then subsequently spit up by a giant sea creature. When Jonah realizes his life is being spared—that he is being afforded a whale of a second chance—he can look at life afresh. The part of him that wanted to give up is suppressed—albeit temporarily—as he reels from this unexpected turn of events made possible by a merciful God. His praise pours forth in Chapter 2 from a heart that is about to pop with wonder and gratitude.

But the memory of this miraculous rescue, though still ostensibly fresh, was not enough to override Jonah’s faulty heart as he concludes his mission for God. His words in Chapter 4 read like a spoiled child throwing a mean red fit.

My Sympathies

My professor tells incredibly vivid and memorable stories. When he got to the part about the Ninevites, I shut my eyes and went “eeewww!” Think Saddam times ten. The Assyrian inhabitants of Ninevah had a history of unthinkable atrocities against Israel and were horribly deviant in their treatment of captives. And it was this savage history, no doubt, that kept scraping at Jonah’s heart as he contemplated being an agent for their redemption.

I thought of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein as I reflected upon the leadership climate of Ninevah. And for the first time, I actually felt a glint of sympathy for Jonah’s response. From our evangelistic standpoint today, it's hard to imagine begrudging people an opportunity to repent and receive God’s saving grace. But it was a very human tendency Jonah displayed to be unforgiving and grudge-like in the face of our most despised enemies. To my thinking now, Jonah represents less of an oddity and more of an “orange cone” around the sin that lies deep within the heart of many of us.

When I was a child, the mere mention of the word “Soviet” made me pale. Russians to my nine-year-old mind were the reason Mrs. Harris had us hide under our desks once a month, and the people next door built an underground bomb shelter. The Soviet Union was a place filled with a bunch of humorless nationalists who hated us. My childish mind could not disassociate the government from its citizens.

What we must always remember—something that was lost on Jonah—is that countries and nations and governments and regimes are made up of human beings. I know today that when someone says “Iran” or “North Korea” we can rightfully worry about things like “what on earth would they do with a bomb…” but we must guard against the inclination to indiscriminantly hate them. Because inside those places that are as foreign to us as Ninevah was to Jonah, there are wives and husbands and mothers and fathers and little boys and little girls. People are getting engaged and married and babies are being born. And God loves them, too.

So the lessons from Jonah… as relevant today as they were then.

(Photo is not the fish that swallowed Jonah, but Colin's elementary school art competition entry!)

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Ask Greg...

The Question:

I am engaged to be married to a great guy. He is kind and he loves me very much. But my parents don't like him. (Really, they don't like his job... they don't think he will make enough money.) This should be the happiest time of my life, but I am upset that my family isn't excited. Do you have any advice for me?

Greg's Response:

Bottom line, I think you have to ask yourself the question, “Do I trust my parents, and do they have my best interest at heart?” If the answer is yes, then asking them why it is they really don’t want you to marry this guy is called for. They may be seeing something you’re missing. However, if your parents have proved over the years to not be emotionally safe for you, or have proved to be overly controlling, then I suggest seeking the counsel of another adult you trust who has proven him/herself wise over time.

One other thought: if your fiancĂ© is working in a job that is below his skill level (in other words, he’s settling for less than his best), that should be at the very least a “caution flag” for your consideration. Working jobs below one’s ability, or an inability to hold down a job for any period of time, is often a sign of greater problems to come.

Greg Wells is the Director of Counseling Services at 121 Community Church and the counselor at 121 Counseling Services. An ordained minister, Greg is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have been married for eleven years, and work together raising their two daughters. Greg counsels on variety of issues, including trauma/abuse and intimacy in marriage.

You can contact Greg directly at:

(Diamond ring pic by Manny Pabla; see
for restrictions.)

Do you have a question for Greg Wells? E-mail me at:

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Have a Joyful Easter!

(Photo by Dave77459; see
for restrictions.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

(Photo by Colin Gregory Palmer; see www.
for restrictions.)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Before We Judge...

Do you know a cancer survivor? He or she could perhaps use some encouragement this week. When notable people like Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow get bad news and it's a front-page story, we suffer with them. Though we don't know them personally, we empathize with their pain. We ache for their families, especially the children, and we hurt for ourselves. Because we realize vividly that their news could also be ours.

On Wednesday night, I read an excerpt from an interview that Elizabeth Edwards gave to Newsweek Magazine. Her remarks about God were initially unsettling to me. She asserted she would not be praying to God to save her. She gave God credit for our salvation if we believe. Beyond that, she seemed to question a God that could allow bad things to happen to good people. The context of her questioning was not so much about herself or her condition, but the tragic and untimely death of her son some years ago.

I went to bed thinking, "That's not the God that I know."

Then I woke up in the middle of the night still burdened by that interview. And I came to another conclusion. While that's still not the God that I know, that's also not the level of suffering I've known. To first lose a child then know that another child will lose a mother is almost unimaginable.

There is biblical precedent for what Elizabeth Edwards is expressing right now. If I am going to judge Mrs. Edwards for her candor about God, then I'm going to have to sit in judgment of any number of psalmists, including David, and people like Habakkuk and Job who were similarly impassioned over feelings of abandonment by God.

I wondered when I read Mrs. Edwards' words what backlash would come from such candor. But as I process what she said in light of her experience, I have to say that if nothing else, she is real. And what she is feeling is honest, human emotion. She spoke of hoping to find "enlightenment." I'm not sure what she meant by that. I would hope that she finds the illumination of Christ and the comfort of His peace in the space of uphill struggles to come.

I watched the press conference in which they announced that the cancer had recurred and John Edwards would continue his campaign. I heard the flack on the other end... the "how could he do this political thing when his wife is dying?" armchair commentary.

But when I relfect upon our own cancer journey, I'm reminded of how important it was to our family to keep plodding. We were inundated with meals lovingly prepared by friends and there were nights it would have been cold cereal or cheese and crackers were it not for the grace and generosity of others.

Then there were the times I needed to put a chicken in the oven and pull it out by myself. The times I needed to work my way through six steps in a familiar recipe. Being able to cook for my family became part of my hope. Afterall, if I'm caring for others, I'm still alive.

Could be right now that good medicine for Elizabeth Edwards is knowing that she can continue to do what it is that she would normally do. If she can campaign with her husband, she is alive.

That's my "two cents" on this topic...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Hamlet & Paul on Living & Dying

Anybody want to slog through my latest quirky term paper? We had to write on Philippians 1:21 and for some reason Hamlet kept running through my head. So I kind of went with it...

Contrasting Hamlet & Paul

More than 1,500 years after the Apostle Paul penned Philippians, William Shakespeare wrote the play Hamlet which remains a timeless depiction of man’s inner struggle with morality and death. What philosopher hasn’t asked: “To be or not to be: that is the question…”? Turns out the answer to the dilemma lies in Philippians where Paul might have asked something like this: “To be here or there: that is the question….” Still it was essentially the same burden—Am I better off dead or alive?—that both Paul and Hamlet ponder. But at the heart the predicament, we find much contrast.

Differing Perspectives pn Morality and Mortality

For Hamlet, death might end a tortuous moral battle he called “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that the flesh is heir to…” Caught in a quandary—should he avenge his father’s death or extend forgiveness?—Hamlet is haunted and confused. As he contemplates the possibility of respite in death, he faces terrifying uncertainty:

But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?[1]

As Hamlet considers his earthly demise, he contemplates a nebulous eternity. He remains thus tortured in the present and devoid of certain hope for the future. Had Hamlet’s character encountered Philippians, he might have been spared some of the angst over how best to live and what to expect after death: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)[2]

Paul’s struggle with morality and apprehension over death is behind him. He writes to the church in Philippi as a new man. (Eph. 4:24) Still aware of his limitations (Romans. 3:9, Eph. 3:8), he knew that his sins were forgiven and his destiny was secure (Romans 5: 1-2).

While Hamlet wrestles with his conscience, Paul was at a place of growing sanctification and joy in Christ. In Hamlet, we see a struggle “between a rock and a hard place.” In Paul, we see a spirit of victory in life and death. The eschatological uncertainty haunting Hamlet was resolved for Paul in Christ. And there was no moral ambiguity but clarity (Eph. 5). Paul’s sights were set on eternity (Romans 8:25); Hamlet’s on temporal relief.

Matters of Life and Death

When we contrast Hamlet with the Apostle Paul, we are given a window into two universal and timeless options for confronting life and death. In Hamlet, we find the absence of freedom in Christ and the resulting torment of surround-sound uncertainty. In Paul, we find liberation in Christ and the capacity through faith to endure all things with purpose and joy. How is this possible? It is in Philippians 1:21 that Paul reveals the secret to his ever-enduring hope and joy: For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

Contextual Analysis of Philippians 1:21

Scholars believe that Paul was a prisoner in Rome when he wrote Philippians.[3] Text indicates that he faced considerable uncertainty about his fate—whether he will live or die—as he awaited legal proceedings for preaching the Gospel of Christ (vs. 20). While in prison, Paul realized that the church in Philippi needed encouragement and continued pastoral guidance. So he penned a “thank you” letter to his supporters in Philippi for their loyalty, prayers and financial support.[4] He also wrote to encourage and counsel them.[5]

Though physically restricted, the Spirit continued to work through Paul’s mind and his words to advance the Gospel throughout the prison system and beyond (vs. 13). Paul is encouraged that fellow Christ followers have been emboldened to preach by his example (vs. 14). Even those with selfish motives become able messengers of the Word (vs. 15-18). Paul knows the power of prayer and the Sprit of Christ are at work toward a positive outcome despite his personal sufferings (vs. 19). He pins his hopes on his ability to endure for Christ, that the Lord would be exalted whether he lives or dies. (vs.20)

In verse 21, Paul magnifies the passion and purpose he expressed for Christ in verse 20. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (vs. 21) presents a powerful if not stunning equation. For Paul, Christ was life itself![6] Quoting legendary English minister Charles Spurgeon: “In the words of an ancient saint, he did eat, and drink, and sleep eternal life. Jesus was his very breath, the soul of his soul, the heart of his heart, the life of his life.”

So, Christ consumed Paul’s life. What of death? Paul writes in verse 21: “… to die is gain.” What kind of a man would aspire to death? In Hamlet, we see death contemplated and feared. In Paul, we see death contemplated and coveted!

According to commentary of this passage by Matthew Henry, death represents loss and uncertainty to the unsaved. But for the believer, it marks the end of suffering [7] and a transition to eternal life spent in the presence of the Lord.[8] It is this faith that joyfully sustains Paul despite his unsettling circumstances.

In the classic theological treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius wrote: “Before the divine sojourn of the Saviour, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing….” [9]

It is this bold if not cheerful outlook on mortality described by St. Athanasius that the Apostle Paul exhibits. For Hamlet, death was desirable if suffering didn’t follow him into the afterlife. For Paul, death was desirable because it promised a certain end to suffering and so much more.

While Hamlet struggled both with living in this world and worrying about the next, Paul had a different issue. His struggle was between serving Christ here and enjoying him elsewhere.[10]

A Model for Inner-Conflict Resolution

What can we learn from the models of conflict resolution when we compare Hamlet to Paul? In Hamlet, the prose is thick and needy. It’s the picture of abject turmoil and confusion. You can almost see him wringing his hands and wrinkling his forehead as a dot matrix of sweat forms. In Paul, while there is exclamatory emotion (vs. 22) and a serious unresolved matter, we see clarity of thought and decisiveness as he works out a solution through thoughtful analysis of the options.

In Verse 22, Paul considers the consequences of living and dying for Christ. “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know!” (Phil 1:22)

Paul identifies “fruitful labor” for Christ—spreading the Gospel and building the church[11]—as the product of continuing to live (ref. first clause of vs. 21)[12]. But he shifts gears with the question: “… what shall I choose?” as he considers the possibility of death (ref. second clause of vs. 21). He may be offering more insight into his perspective on death in Chapter 2: 17.[13] It is here he uses the imagery of a drink being “poured out” as a sacrifice. Some scholars believe this illustration is Paul’s way of describing the possibility he would be martyred for Christ.[14] So, whether Paul lives or dies, he sees purpose in divine service. Still, he struggles for a preference between the two scenarios (though clearly, the “choice” of death is not his to make.)

In the next two verses (vs. 23-24) we see two sides of the dilemma. In death, Paul would leave his earthly body and be joined with Christ, “…which is better by far;” for him (vs. 23). Paul is confident that there is a place in heaven awaiting him (John 14).[15]Yet, he realizes there is a continued need for his pastoral leadership on earth (vs. 24).

Paul used the word “torn” in verse 23 to describe the inner debate over living or dying for Christ. We might say that Hamlet was also “torn” between living and dying. This was a shared burden between the two. But the heart of the problem is altogether different.

In life or death, Paul wins because he knew he could bring glory to Christ as long as he lived, and he was hopeful if not confident that God would also use his death to further His Kingdom.[16] Contrast Hamlet who loses so long as he continued to live and even, potentially, magnifies this loss into a dark, unknowable afterlife.

In verses 25-26, we see resolution to Paul’s quandary. Having weighed both positive outcomes of life and death, he comes out confidently on the side of living so that growth and maturity and joy will continue to occur in the lives of those to whom he is ministering (vs. 25). He gives us the reason for this in verse 26: “so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.” Chapter 1 concludes in verses 27-30 with a charge to how this overflowing joy will be used as he urges the flock to stand strong ini unity and focused on the gospel of Christ.

Concluding Thoughts

A literary reviewer once called Hamlet a “man for all ages.” Truly, in his inner turmoil we see echoes and outlines of our own modern-day struggle with matters of conscience and the ways in which fear of death manifests and haunts us (middle-age crises, extreme elective surgery, risk aversion, etc.).

But if Hamlet is a “man for all ages,” Paul becomes a “role model for all time.” He was not immune to suffering. But his faith in Christ enabled him to confidently process and resolve areas of internal confusion, and to bear up to challenges and suffering with courage and joy.

It is said by some philosophers and psychologists that altruism is always rooted in ego.[17] The theory is that one never acts purely out of interest for another. In Hamlet, our “man for all ages,” we see self-absorption and uncloaked humanity. In the Apostle Paul, our “role model for all time,” we have a case for altruism overcoming ego: something many experts suggest is not humanly possible. In Hamlet, there is no joy; only loss. In Paul, there is no loss; only joy.

Personal Ownership

As I return to the original question posed by Hamlet ("to be or not to be...), I’m reminded of the time I lost the use of my hands due to nerve damage from a rare and violent response to chemotherapy. Unable to feed or clothe myself or attend to the basic needs of my children, I wondered if I were better off dead or alive. Unlike Paul, I could not find joy in this experience, only despair. I see sketches of my humanity in Hamlet and the person I want to be in Paul. It’s a journey, this walk of ours.

Today I’m in remission and I cling to this life with an overwhelming desire to help my little boys grow to become good men. Is this what Paul felt when he thought of his flock in Philippi? I’m thinking maybe it is.

[1] The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Hamlet (Act 3/Scene 1),

[2] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.
[3] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[4] Ronald B. Allen, Notes on Philippians, BE109 OL, Dallas Theological Seminary

[5] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[6] P-R-E-C-E-P-T A-U-S-T-I-N online, Philippians 1:21,

[7] Online Parallel Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary,

[8] Net Bible Online,

[9] St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood NY, 1993, page 57.

[10] Online Parallel Bible, Matthew Henry Commentary,

[11] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985.

[12] Online Parallel Bible, Wesley Reference,

[13] Online Parallel Bible, Wesley Reference,

[14] Kenneth Barker (gen. ed), The NIV Study Bible, Zondervan, 1985

[15] Ronald B. Allen, H. Wayne House, Earl Radmacher, New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.

[16] Ronald B. Allen, H. Wayne House, Earl Radmacher, New Illustrated Bible Commentary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville.
[17] Raymie State, Reason, Egoism, Freedom, MIT Objectivist Lyceum. 1991

(Photo of Shakespeare statue by krypto; see for restrictions.)