October 19, 2017

“Wisdom” and the Fog

Road to Nowhere #3, Paul Waldo

Many plans are in a man’s heart,
But the counsel of the Lord will stand.
What is desirable in a man is his kindness…

• Proverbs 19:21-22, NASB

• • •

I stand on top of a rise in the road. Before me, a valley stretches, still shrouded in fog. Behind me, the sun has burned its way clear and I can see the ways I’ve come. I can make out a few of the sharper turns, various forks and crossroads where I chose this way or that for one reason or another, spots along the way where the road disappeared into a dark wood, then emerged on scenery wholly new. Well past halfway on my journey, I’ve forgotten more than I remember, and some of what I recall I don’t trust. In some ways I’m more sure of my path, in other ways I’ve never been less able to plot my course.

This week I will officiate the funeral of an old friend. Several years ago, our families attended the same church and we were part of the same social small group. We spent New Year’s Eves together, played cards, laughed a lot, and talked about our families and work. A simple guy, he didn’t talk much, and wasn’t much of churchgoer. We weren’t close, but I was there as a pastor and friend at some important times, and he always seemed genuinely happy to have us in his home. About my age, now he’s gone. Over the years, we’ve only seen each other rarely, and he and the family have had their struggles: finances, house problems, mental illness in the family. Last I heard he and his wife were getting divorced, he had a girlfriend, and it wasn’t pretty. Complications from a chronic health condition took his life suddenly and unexpectedly last week.

And I get to speak words of “wisdom” to comfort his family and friends at the funeral.

Which is a funny thing, because at this point in the journey, I’m not sure I know what wisdom is. I have some hindsight, for sure, and plenty of experience. Maybe that qualifies. I have a deeper trust in the sovereignty of God than ever before, but it is not the kind of trust that can be expressed in “answers.” The thought of God’s sovereignty is like the fog in the valley ahead of me — a mystery that envelops the world but obscures my view. To think that I would appeal to such a concept as comfort for myself or others seems kind of crazy, to tell the truth. People don’t generally expect the guy down in the mail room to be able to delineate the intricate decisions of the CEO. About all I can say is, “I have no idea how to explain it, but I guess he knows what he’s doing.”

Recently we saw another couple who had been members of a congregation where I served on staff in the past. We haven’t really talked for about ten years. They’ve been to three different churches since then. Their son now tours with a punk band and they didn’t seem interested in going into details. They did want to discuss how the husband is making plans for retirement, and since they have been very diligent about money matters, it looks like they’ll move to the Rockies and live the dream. They seemed reasonably happy, but you never know.

On one level, I’m not a big fan of the book of Proverbs. Read in certain ways, it cannot help but promote self-righteousness. Dividing the world into “wise people” and “fools” leaves little room for nuance. Pharisees love it because it organizes life neatly into divinely demarcated divisions and makes the rules and rewards clear. It is elder brother theology par excellence. It scoffs when the silly, sentimental old man loses his mind and runs out to welcome home the wastrel.

A guy with whom I used to coach Little League told me the other day his son and girlfriend and new baby are moving into their house for awhile. It will be a crowded situation with many opportunities for irritation, conflict, and hurt feelings. Been there, done that. I know they didn’t expect this, and I’m sure they are wondering where this will all lead. They have a good spirit about it (or at least they put on a good face about it), and I hope to spend more time with them in days to come. They are some of my favorite people in the world, and I’d love to be a friend and an encouragement if possible.

In the end, I guess that’s what I will say at my friend’s funeral. The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing. But I know that love is real. I’m here to be your friend today, and I want to encourage you to be friends to each other. That’s how Jesus showed his love to us — by befriending us and laying down his life for us. We’re here to do the same for one another.

It’s foggy ahead, and the way is not clear.

Take a hand and enter the fog together.

Don’t let go.

Comments

  1. “The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing. But I know that love is real. I’m here to be your friend today, and I want to encourage you to be friends to each other. That’s how Jesus showed his love to us — by befriending us and laying down his life for us. We’re here to do the same for one another.”

    I have a friend, about my age, who is dying of cancer. These words articulate my thoughts my thoughts much better than I ever could.

  2. Tokah Fang says:

    Humble words, honestly meant: perfect!

  3. Cedric Klein says:

    Paraphrased- “The world is big and round. Most of it is wet, some of it is dry. Part is cold and part is hot. There aren’t any rules I know of, except one- Goddammit, you have to be kind.” Eliot Rosewater, as recorded by Kurt Vonnegut.

    Also- “Be careful what you pretend to be because what you pretend to be is what you are.” Howard W. Campbell Jr., the best American in the Third Reich, also as recorded by Kurt Vonnegut.

    • Adrienne says:

      Ooooooh. Good ones. Thanks, Cedric! So sorry to hear about your friend, Chaplain Mike.

    • Another Kurt Vonnegut quote, seen on a refrigerator magnet with his likeness:
      “We could have saved the Earth but we were too damned cheap.”

  4. So glad that in this fog my Father holds my hand and won’t let go as I’m not so sure in these times of testing whether I have the strength to hold on. My sympathies in and through the valley of grief as you remember your old friend!

  5. I hear what you say about Proverbs..it divides the world into “the fools” and “the wise”. Well I remember when I used to read Proverbs regularly and I followed Biblcial counsel on “God’s will” and moved from Wisconsin to Washington, D.C. As a fundy all into the Bible I leanred that I was “the fool” which stood in stark contrast to Proverbs. How could that be especially since I read the Bible, and Proverbs and was “wise?” Could it be that the world is not all “black and white” and many in the reformed crowd proclaim?

    Speaking of the fool…let me explain one of the big heresies that I think befalls John Piper. In addition to being gnositc in his theology he teaches from the prospect of the Prodigal Son’s brother. Remember him? The one who was angry that he wasted his father’s inheritance? The one who was angry that his Dad slaugtered a calf to celebrate his return? Yes that one…. Whenever I hear John Piper talking about a “wasted life” I can imagine him arguing with God just pissed that someone returned to God, just like the Prodigal son’s brother.

  6. Well said. I can’t add a thing.

  7. I may have spoken of this before. If so, it was awhile. It happened thirty years ago during a time when marriage and church were disintegrating along with general circumstances. It was not a fun time. For lack of a better word I think of the following as a dream.

    I was hanging onto the end of a long, thick rope which disappeared up into a fog. That was all I could see and for all I knew the rope was attached at the other end to a sky hook. Again for all I knew I was suspended a thousand feet in the air or in a cloud. A strong breeze swept by me swirling the fog but not dispersing it. I could see about fifteen feet of rope above me and that was it. All I could do was hang on and fortunately there was a knot at the end of the rope I could hook my feet on.

    As I was starting to wonder if this was going to go on forever or at least until I got too tired to hang on any longer, it dawned on me. Somehow I just knew that it wasn’t the force of gravity that was tugging me and the rope down, it was centrifugal force as the rope and I were being whirled around and around in a big circle sideways. There was no wind blowing, it was me being swept thru the thick fog.

    And I knew that at the other end of the rope was Jesus. I couldn’t see him, I just knew. Both hands gripping, feet planted on seemingly nothing, leaning back, muscles moving, it was just him and me and the rope and the fog. That was it. It was enough.

  8. While the loss of a loved one or friend is very painful, the opportunity to hand over Christ is very great.

    I love funerals just for that reason. Death is right there in the room. It is ugly and stark and bitter and cruel. And we have the duty to remind the folks there that someone in that room will be next (of those that are gathered).

    This is the law on steroids.

    Then we can tell them of the wondeful thing that Jesus Christ has done for the deceased. How He loves fresh dirt, and raising people from the dead. And how Jesus has already done this for them, the baptized.

    A truly sad time…but a golden opportunity not to be wasted.

    • Margaret Catherine says:

      No. You have no duty; but rather the privilege to share the sorrow of those people, to be with them and be a comfort to them. Everybody in that room s very well aware that death is a reality, they hardly need any more reminder than the one right in front of them. Sorry, but “golden opportunity” sounds far too ghoulish.

    • Steve: only the baptized?

  9. David Cornwell says:

    For over two months I wondered around in a kind of fog that has just lifted. I had colon cancer twelve years ago, which I’ve talked about here before. But the real possibility of relapse stick it’s ugly head into my life once again. Some symptoms and tests turned up to rekindle old fears. A colonoscopy was called for to find the truth and eliminate possibilities. I was late getting this procedure, and it scared me. I have symptoms from another condition that can easily be confused with those present in cancer. Then about four days before the test, I suddenly became very sick, probably with a virus. The fog was thickening. In my mind these symptoms were related to stage four colon cancer.

    Once again my wife and I talked about the possibility of death and what it would mean to her and the family. I made some adjustments to my final arrangements. I prayed again about those people and situations in life that stand as a barrier to spiritual peace.

    Importantly, I notified friends and family members. I’m usually hesitate to talk about personal things to other people, but this time was different. It wouldn’t be right for them to suddenly find out about a dire situation that I was keeping secret.

    One of the most important things I did was notify about seven persons on the staff, officers, or friends in our church. The outpouring of support, prayer, calls I received was amazing. The pastor called me (we live 30 miles from the church). He also stayed in touch through email. The same was true from the others. This is one of the reasons I love my church.

    Friday the day of the test arrived. When the haze was lifting after the procedure, I asked for the results and received the amazing news– everything is clear, nothing at all, not even a polyp. No more tests for five years.

    So– for now, the fog is lifting once again. Each morning I get out of bed is a fresh new day, filled with the gift of life, love, and grace. Some day the fog will descend again, maybe suddenly, and when it does it will threaten me with darkness. But my faith in Christ tells me that the fog isn’t all there is, for He stands beyond it in light glorious, real, and everlasting.

    And– I’m glad we have a real chaplain helping run this place (Internet Monk)!

    • Eloquent and moving David. We love having you share here.

      • David, thank you for sharing your story. During diagnosis and surgery for an ovarian tumor a decade ago, I didn’t get to the fog, because it all happened while I was still in shock and denial. Yet, here you and I are!

        What your beautiful tale reminds me is the duty in love we have to others when THEY are going through the “fog”. It is knowing that it is NO TIME for platitudes, but just for sharing love and the gift of presence. It isn’t avoiding the person or the subject [side note–cancer, like most serious illnesses, is not readily “caught” and passed along, although the reality of our mortality may be!] It is offering prayer for and with the person and/or family, providing a meal that is NOT pizza, and taking the kids to and from softball/karate/dance class for a week or two. It is hugging and not being afraid of what our friend might say…..or sitting while s/he says nothing for an hour.

        We all know it our heads that we will die, and then and only then will we see Jesus face to face. Many, many of us don’t seem to be able to get that information from our head to our gut. Let’s love all over those who are facing this reality for the first time in their gut…..and hearts.

        • David Cornwell says:

          Thank you Pattie. And the world is so full of those who are facing this kind of reality for the first time. I just heard of a young woman who lives near me, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and the devastation this has brought on her, but also her teenage son.

  10. petrushka1611 says:

    This post and the one on grace from last night have brought me to needed tears. Or maybe it’s the fog condensing on my face…sometimes it’s hard to tell. Praying for you all.

  11. I have a funeral in two days for a woman I really didn’t know (not a member of our congregation), who died 5 days after finding out she had cancer. She couldn’t afford the tests she needed, apparently. She leaves behind a 13 yr old daughter, and a fair amount of family dysfunction. Been thinking about texts and what to say in this difficult situation – your post, Chaplain Mike, is going to be very helpful in framing a message.

  12. Your description of your journey sounds an awful lot like mine. It’s encouraging to know that there are others who walk through the fog at times, and don’t see the path clearly until you look back on it.

  13. Mike:
    This is one of the more moving and real pieces you have written.
    It resonates deeply. And sometimes the fog is so thick you wonder if God is there at all.

    Thanks!
    Ken

  14. Chaplain,

    The song Farther Along by Josh Garrels fits in with this post quite well. Grab it here: http://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/

    I hope it strikes a chord with you as it has done with me.

  15. Michael says:

    “The world is broken, and I don’t have a lot of wisdom to offer. I won’t pretend to tell you what God is doing. But I know that love is real. I’m here to be your friend today, and I want to encourage you to be friends to each other. ”

    Thank you for the entire article, Chaplain Mike, but most of all, thank you for these sentences. It’s essentially my faith distilled and said plainly.