Reunion

 

I had the privilege of attending a family reunion last week. It was over-the-top good, which is not always easy to say about family reunions.

Below is a poem I crafted to commemorate the event. A few words about it: Since this was Catherine’s side of the family, I believe it is safe to say the backdrop of the event for everyone was the processing of sorrow for her absence and our loss. Continue reading “Reunion”

Separation

Can anything separate us from the love of God poured out for us through Christ Jesus?

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)

It does not appear to be so. It is interesting in the above passage that the Apostle Paul finds it necessary to mention that not even life can separate us. Perhaps he has in mind life as in the opposite of death, but I like to think he has in mind “life” as in the daily grind of life, that place where we experience it. Not even what we experience in life, both good and bad, can separate us from God’s love.

Which is an astounding thought. Don’t take this the wrong way, but in many ways I have felt my life to be a complete failure. I have accomplished much, but I also feel I have failed at life in the most significant way possible, according to the only perspective that really matters: I have failed to live a life pleasing to God.

And I have come to this realization in the daily grind of life, where it is experienced. There, I have learned what stuff I am made of. And I have discovered it isn’t pretty. Like the Apostle Paul, I discovered with no small degree of anxiety that “in me, there is no good thing.” But unlike Paul, it has been hard for me to be okay with that. How can anyone be okay with that?

Growing up, I was always told that as long as I did my best, that was good enough. That is a good personal philosophy that produces a great work ethic. But somehow it does not work so well when we turn to the spiritual life. There is something that happens when we compare our lives to Jesus, knowing He is our example, that makes the wheels fall off “at least I am doing my best.” When God opens our heart and we see our motivations for what they really are, doing my best seems to lose all meaning. Doing my best actually becomes part of the problem.

But this I feel is part of the process, and in fact the beginning of the solution. The journey with God — unlike any other task we face — is not one where we work for God but rather God works in us. He is repairing us. And that process is not so much Him quickly fixing whatever keeps us from doing the things that please Him as it is understanding — despite whatever real failure in our lives we encounter, whether in plain sight or hidden from view —we are just as pleasing to Him.

Processing failure, I feel, is a critical part of my journey with God. For there is one thing that can separate me from the love of God, and it is myself: Particularly how I perceive my own failures. Does my failure, in the particular or general sense, change how I feel about myself? Am I still deserving of the very best God has to offer? Is He still extravagantly generous toward me if I feel I have failed to keep up my end of the bargain?

This is where an overactive work ethic, with all its good, can get us into trouble. Excelling in life is good, and God desires us to live fully-functioning lives where we accomplish great things. Because this is how He has made us to function. But if our ability to function becomes the criteria for our right to be accepted and loved, things begin to break down. The way it works in God’s kingdom is that first we are loved and accepted, then we function. In fact, we only function as we were truly designed to function to the extent we know we are loved.

I begin then to realize what God is really working on is not my ability to achieve but my capacity to be loved, even (and especially) in my failure. Nothing can separate me from the love of God. And I suppose in the final analysis, not even myself. For God simply loves me too much to keep me on the shores of failure when, in truth, an entire ocean of His extravagant love awaits me.


Photo by Tim Foster on Unsplash

Catherine

 

Dear Readers: The following is a transcript of my reflection shared during the memorial service for my wife Catherine. For those unaware, she passed away suddenly June 5, 2018. I plan to resume my “normal” writings in the weeks to come, though in away, this is all part of the journey.


God I love this woman.

Well, as we begin to approach the end of this service, I want you to know two things. The first is that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.

Catherine always liked to say that. “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” I would be in my office working at home and suddenly I would hear from the other room, “Thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.” It was a simple phrase, but it actually had profound meaning. It meant there was absolutely no situation you were facing that was too big for God. It also meant that your imperfections were not too big for God either.

It meant, in a way, what Jesus said to His own disciples before his own death: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart: I have overcome the world.”

I have told you these things so that in me you may have perfect peace and confidence. In the world you have tribulation and trials and distress and frustration; but be of good cheer [take courage; be confident, certain, undaunted]! For I have overcome the world [I have deprived it of power to harm you and have conquered it for you]. (John 16)

So thank you Lord I am having a wonderfully imperfect day. And thank you Father that we, here today, all of us, are having a wonderfully imperfect day.

I imagine many of you today are feeling acutely the imperfection of this life in the present moment. I know I am. The loss of my beautiful wife is anything but neutral. There is something deep within us that knows this is not the way things should be. On the contrary we know it is tragic, even perhaps unjust.

Well, I do not wish to get too philosophical. But I would like to propose to you, as a way of encouragement, that the reason we feel this way deep in our gut is because we know we were created for a different world.

We were made for a world where things like this simply do not happen, a world not built on the brokenness of human frailty but an eternal world whose maker is God.

That this life is not so much our home as it is the place where we are called home: A place where we are invited and given opportunity to return to the place to which we know we have always belonged.

It is also a place where we are given opportunity in this life to exchange our imperfection for God’s perfection: A crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, a garment of praise instead of despair. Of this I am convinced.

So thank you Father that I am having a wonderfully imperfect day.

The second thing I want you to know is what Catherine meant to me.

So I have hand-picked a few stories, beginning with the way we first met.

Now some of you may be aware that our relationship began with me volunteering to babysit her two children. Karyn and Paul were about 8 and 10 at the time, Catherine was a trade show coordinator. She traveled often and needed someone to look after the kids while she was away. On one particular occasion, I was available so I said yes.

As a a side note, if I may address the young single men in this room: If you are looking for a way into a woman’s heart, I highly recommend this strategy.

I am only kidding. The truth of the situation is, a master plan for winning over her heart was the farthest thing from my mind. We were no more than friends at the time. But when Karyn and Paul insisted I be their only babysitter after that first time, and I came to love her children as my own, and came realize in a profound sense they were my own.

And as Catherine and I evolved from no more than friends to good friends, and from good friends to me realizing she was much more than a friend, it was clear she had found her way into my heart. I love that woman.

But I still believe babysitting her kids was a good idea.

So that is how our relationship started. But many of you may not know that Catherine and I actually had met several years before, almost without knowing it. And how we actually first met is important, even symbolic, of who Catherine was and what she has always been to me.

I have to give just a bit of backstory. At that time, I was a wreck. Not five years before, I had experienced a spiritual crisis. As a result, I was broken on the inside in so many pieces, I knew I was beyond repair. And so now here I was a few years later, searching for God. I thought I needed God to simply show me He was real. But looking back, what I really needed was for God to show me He was love.

And so one evening, at a worship service at a church right here in Orange County called the Huntington Beach Vineyard, I found myself at the front of the church altar. The pastor had invited anyone who wished to receive more of God’s love to come to the front and others would pray for them. And so there I was.

What happened in the next moment was a bit unexpected. I suddenly felt the power and love of God in a way I had never felt before in my life.  I mean, this ovewhelming sense of peace and love filled my entiere body and soul and spirit. And this was a bit weird, but almost involuntarily, my arms raised upward to heaven as though on their own.

At that very moment, a hand touched my elbow. And then another hand touched my other elbow. They gently held onto my arms, supporting the weight of them as I connected with the love of God.

Moments later, I opened my eyes to find a young woman holding up my arms. She was very kind and passionate and of course just as crazy as I was to find ourselves in a church service like this. I would later find out that her name was Catherine Stevens, or as many of you knew her, Cathy Nugent, the woman I would one day marry.

In a way, our first meeting was a perfect symbol of who Catherine was to me as well as many other people. Her deepest desire in the lives of those around her was to connect them to the love of Jesus. She could not of course do this without God; she could only facilitate, much like a midwife.

Hold them up, support their arms so to speak. But she did this regularly and quite successfully, facilitating God’s work of reconnecting our brokenness to His perfect goodness, and in the process rebuilding our lives.

Okay, two stories down, one hundred ninety eight to go.

Just kidding. You know there is this desire — I do not know if you feel it — but to capture completely all that Catherine meant to us in a one-hour memorial service. To not leave anything out. I realize it cannot be done. She simply meant too much.

But I also realize that this is what the rest of our lives are for:  To recollect, to cherish, to appreciate, to be thankful. To cry. To laugh. To honor. To heal.

And throughout all of this, the one person I am not grieving for is Catherine.  Let me read something:

We know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God-made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. (2 Corinthians 5)

I have to tell you one last story. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit that same church where so many years ago Catherine and I first met, and once again I found myself up front in desperate need. And once again, God met me as He has so, so many times since that first encountered. This time, I was standing, and the power of God was so strong I could not remain standing. I found myself lying on the ground with the love of God overwhelming me and going very deep. And this may sound strange, but in the midst of this tragic situation, the presenting emotion as I lay there with God was joy.

And then a woman who was praying leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I see in my mind’s eye your wife in Heaven, and she is dancing. And she is wearing a light pink garment, dancing in a meadow among the beautiful  trees with Jesus. And she is so, so happy. And she is so happy with you and for you.”

I knew it was true. It reminded me of one of the last things I said to Catherine as I sat beside the hospital bed after she had passed away: I am so happy for you.

You know, people say that after the loss of a loved one, your life will simply never be the same. I want you to know I do believe because of what has happened, my life will never be the same. But not because of Catherine’s death. On the contrary, because of her life.

 

Urgent Prayer Please (Update)

It is with great sadness I inform you that my sweet beautiful wife Catherine passed away last Tuesday night at 7:30 PM.

Many of you are probably unaware Catherine had her own prophetic prayer ministry, emotionalrenovation.com. The tagline was “letting Jesus rebuild our lives.” But I liked what Catherine often said about what it was she did: Helping people connect to the love of God.

Many of you are also probably unaware of how deeply my own writings were shaped and inspired by her own life: How her deep connection with Jesus has, throughout the years, connected me more profoundly to the love of God than I ever thought possible.

She will be greatly missed. She was the most profoundly authentic and passionate woman of God I ever knew and had such a tremendous impact on so many people.

Catherine, we will miss you and are so grateful for your blessing in our lives. I know for you and all of us who know you, this is not the end, but only the beginning.

Sincerely,

The husband of the most beautiful woman in the world. OOXXXOOOX

The Christian Soul: Acceptance

I have to let you in on a little secret: This whole series on Christian Spirituality is personal to me. I suppose any topic written is personal to its author in some way. But this one is especially so. When I talk of “you” and “us” and “we” in these discussions, I am speaking to myself as much as anyone else. The “you” inside me is listening to what I have to say.

And so last week when I introduced the question concerning what motivates us, I was thinking about what happened to me long ago. I was thinking about being told by some individuals I was not okay before God, and that the only way I could be okay before God was by doing everything the Bible said — which meant doing everything they said. It was that simple, really. Continue reading “The Christian Soul: Acceptance”