Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Micah's Legacy, Part V: To Walk in Faith with an Enigmatic God

Fifth, Micah’s death has meant that we must walk and talk with God even when we do not know what God is doing. In the 14 months since Micah has died, Heather and I have often struggled with God over Micah’s death. We have often wondered:

· Why us? Why do we have to bear this burden of grief?

· Why now? God, if you wanted to take Micah, and if I was required to bury my son, why couldn’t we have just a few more years with him?

· Why would you take Micah away, only to give us Owen so soon after? In giving us Owen, it is clear that you want us to be parents—so why did you take Micah from us?

· Why didn’t the doctors find the pea in his lung? Why didn’t they take out the pea? Why did the pea get lodged in his windpipe?

· Why couldn’t Heather or the EMTs revive him? Why didn’t I realize what was going on, and try to shake the pea lose? Why was I so powerless to watch my son die?

In the September 2010 edition of Christianity Today, Frank James III writes about his grief following the death of his younger brother, Kelly, who died in 2006 in a mountain climbing accident. About his grief, Mr. James writes, “There is disappointment, sadness, and confusion, but oddly, there is no retreat from God. Instead, I find myself drawn to God. To be sure, he is enigmatic than I thought, but I still can’t shake loose from him. There seems to be a kind of gravitational pull toward God. …My conception of faith has become Abrahamic—which is to say, I must trust God even though I do not understand him.” Christianity Today, September 2010, 61.

Mr. James is right in describing his faith as “Abrahamic.” God promised Abraham that he would become the father of the nation of Israel. But Abraham had to wait many years for God to fulfill his promise to provide him with a son. Then, in Genesis chapter 22, God tells Abraham to take his only son, Isaac, and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Amazingly, Abraham was ready to do so, even after having endured so many years of waiting upon God for his son. Then, at just the last moment, when Abraham’s knife was raised to sacrifice Isaac, God provided a ram as a substitute sacrifice.

The story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac seems to defy logic. If God knew the extent of Abraham’s faith, why did he test Abraham like this? Scripture says that God stopped Abraham once he saw that Abraham was ready to sacrifice his own son. Genesis 22:11-12. But isn’t God supposed to be all-knowing? So what is the point of this exercise?

Like us, Abraham had the capacity for logic; he could have questioned God’s demand that Isaac be sacrificed. Abraham could have asked, “God, if you are all-powerful and all-knowing, why did you give me Isaac, only to have me sacrifice him now? What is the point of that?” But Abraham, without questioning God or his ways, was ready to be obedient to God, even to the point of the death of his own son at his own hand. Indeed, it was by faith that Abraham trusted in God to provide for him and for his son. “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promised was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.” Hebrews 11:17-19.

The author of Hebrews also writes that, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.” Hebrews 11:1-2. God was pleased with Abraham’s life because he lived an obedient life in faith, not logic. Abraham received his commendation from God precisely because he did not stop to debate God over the righteousness of his ways. Abraham is listed as a member of the "Hall of Faith" in Hebrews chapter 11 because he was obedient to God, even when, from a human perspective, he had reason to doubt God.

As Christians, we must take Abraham's example and follow God where he leads, even when we don’t know what God intends to do in and through our circumstances. We must live a life through the heart (in faith), and not just the head (by logic only). In difficult circumstances, our faith must become dearer to us than it ever has before, because in it is the “assurance of things hoped for.” For Heather and me, we have learned that we must walk with God in faith, even though we realize that we will not understand God’s reasons, on this side of Heaven, for why God deemed it necessary to take Micah home to Heaven so soon.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Micah's Legacy, Part IV: An Increased Reliance Upon God

Fourth, Micah’s death has decreased our reliance on ourselves, and increased our reliance upon God. Before Micah died, I would have been able to explain to you what it means to trust in God. But ever since that Sunday morning in July of last year, when Heather and I stood by, helplessly watching as our son left this earth, we have a newfound appreciation for our own limitations. Understanding our own limitations is helpful insofar as it requires us to place a greater degree of trust in God.

The circumstances surrounding Micah’s death clearly demonstrates the surpassing power of God’s purposes over even our best-laid plans. Regardless of how much we plan, how many professionals are involved in our plan, how wise we think the plan is, or even how much we pray to God, our wisdom and strength are utterly insufficient. Whether in our professional lives, our parenting abilities, or our financial situations, we are utterly helpless without God. While God will use our abilities and circumstances to carry out His plans, God’s purposes (not ours) will stand.

The implications to me of my own lack of self-sufficiency are far-reaching. One very practical application to my life of this has been in financial provision. While we can (and should) be diligent about education, training, and building a career, it is God who ultimately provides us with the skills, the job, and the paycheck. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, I find two passages, found consecutive to one another, to be relevant to living a life of financial reliance upon God.

First, in Luke 12: 13-21 Jesus gives a parable which has often been called the parable of the “Rich Fool.” “Someone in the crowed said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me. But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? And he said, “I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

As an estate planning attorney, I have the opportunity to observe in many of my clients the very same mentality espoused by this rich farmer. It certainly seems wise to make money, to save, and to plan for educational and retirement costs. I don’t think that Jesus was faulting the farmer for owning productive farmland or making money; he was, however, faulting the farmer for his intention to rely upon himself and to “cut out” God from his financial life. The rich farmer attempted to rely upon his “own” finances to be rich toward towards himself, but not rich towards God.

The rich farmer was also making presuming upon a certain future with regard to his money. He thought, incorrectly, that he would have many years to “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” So many of us in our comfortable American culture think that, based upon our income, savings and retirement accounts, we will have 15 or 20 years of a “rich” retirement to relax, eat, drink and be merry. But God’s plans are not our plans. With the onset of cancer, heart attack, or life-altering accident, God’s plans are often not our plans.

In our situation, soon after Micah’s birth, one of our family members was kind enough to make a generous contribution to a college savings account in Micah’s name. All of us, myself included, presumed upon a future in which Micah would have the opportunity to college. No one ever dreamed that Micah wouldn’t have a chance to go to college. Jesus is not suggesting that we shouldn’t save for future expenses, such as retirement and college; he is, however, warning us against relying upon ourselves for a certain future.

Second, in Luke 12:22-31, it seems that Jesus anticipates (or perhaps answers) the listener’s objection from his first parable. I can imagine one of his listeners saying, “Jesus, I don’t understand that parable. If we can’t even store up crops during a good year, what are we supposed to do about money? Shouldn’t I worry about having enough money to feed myself and my family?

Jesus says, “…I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor born, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.”

The promise that “God will clothe you” must have had significant meaning to the listeners, given that, earlier in the Gospel of Luke, we are told that Jesus demonstrated his authority by feeding the 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. Earlier Jesus showed his listeners that He has the authority to feed and clothe them; now, he is commanding them to trust in Him for our daily provisions. Jesus is not giving us a list of commands, and then suggesting that we are “on our own.” God calls us to an unwavering obedience to him, and in his sovereignty, promises to provide all we need.

Jesus is not looking for people to stand “on their own two feet.” Jesus is looking for people on their knees, people who are in such need of God’s power in their lives that they are willing to rely on God for everything, including food and clothing. If we rely upon ourselves, we will be anxious about every life opportunity. We will have our attention divided between Jesus and the status of our own pocketbook.

In taking Micah away from me, the Lord also took away some of my tendencies towards self-sufficiency. Whether in our financial situation, specifically, or just in life, generally, we have lost a sense of self-sufficiency, and increasingly found a need to rely upon God.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Micah's Legacy, Part III: Taking the "risk" of loving

Third, God has used Micah’s death in my life so that I will not presume upon the future, but will take the risk of loving even in the full knowledge of the possibilities of loss and grief.

In his book, “Confessions of a Grieving Christian,” motivational speaker Zig Ziglar writes that experiencing deep grief following the death of a child is good in that it demonstrates a deep love for your lost children. Ziglar says that if you were not filled with grief, you would be filled with regret at never having taken full advantage of the opportunities to love your child. One of the most meaningful comments made to me during Micah’s wake came from a former co-worker of mine. She told Heather and me, “I have no doubt that no little boy was loved as well as Micah was loved by you; he was loved as well as he could have been.” As much as grief hurts, I am grateful that my life is not filled with regret at having never taken full use of our opportunity to love Micah.

Love is intended to be given. Unlike many other things in life, it cannot be stored up for later use. It is meant to be given away, and given away immediately. Ziglar says, “If you truly want to have a lot of love, you must continually give a lot of love.” Ziglar, Confessions of a Grieving Christian, p. 200. In 1 Corinthians 13:8, the Apostle Paul says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Paul tells us that the most excellent of the gifts is love. As I have previously written on this blog, our grief at Micah’s passing is as deep as our love for him.

But I am convinced that as much as we grieve over Micah’s sudden death, God does not want us to stop loving. For me, this means that while I continue to love Micah, I also “step out” into the currently unknown future of loving our second son Owen. We are “stepping out” into the unknown because, frankly, to love is to risk loss. Whenever you love, you are devoting your finances, your time, your skills, and your emotions towards the object of your affections without being guaranteed of a particular outcome. With children, to love is to want the very best for your children, to place your whole heart into them—into their physical needs, their education, their spiritual lives, their whole lives. And yet there is no guarantee that our children will outlive us. Or, perhaps even more significantly, there is no guarantee that our children will grow up to be the men and women that we pray that they become.

We take risks because we are finite and are ignorant of the future. The author of James says, “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” James 4:13-15. As with all parents, we had specific dreams for Micah. We hoped that he might grow up to like baseball, do well in school (especially history) and then attend Wheaton College (or, in Heather’s case, Seattle Pacific University). Until Micah was taken to the hospital by ambulance, there was never a moment when Heather and I thought it possible that we would lose our Micah.

But while we don’t know the future, God does. We take risks; God doesn’t. And not only does he know the future, he is orchestrating the future for our benefit and the benefit of our children. Pastor John Piper says, “Risk is right. And the reason is not because God promises success to all our ventures in his cause... The bottom-line comfort and assurance in all our risk-taking for Christ is that nothing will ever separate us from the love of Christ.” Piper, Don’t Waste Your Life, p. 89, 95. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said,“”Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.” But love is worth the risk not merely because of any existential, “in the moment” benefit. The truth is that while Micah may be lost to us, he is not lost to God. God is sovereign. This means that God rules over both good circumstances and bad. God is just as likely to work good in us through the pain of grief as He is in the joy of hope fulfilled.

One of the legacies of Micah’s life and death is that it exploded any misconception of safety and comfort in our lives. In Christ, we can be assured that the end result of our “risking” love is ultimately for our own good. We can take the risk of loving again because God loves us and works all things together for our good.