Two Reminders From Antonin Scalia

Antonin_Scalia_2010Antonin Scalia’s recent demise has everyone thinking; mostly it seems about the divided nature of our country and President Obama’s choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. But it’s got me thinking about two different matters. The first is reasoning and decision-making. Justice Scalia was known for sound reasoning proceeding from firm legal principles resting on a view of the Constitution as having a single and unchanging meaning. Many disagree with his views on that last part, but his method and legal record should remind us that our principles must rest on something. We can’t draw our principles from nothing.

Reasoning is important to us as we make decisions and take actions to improve our health and wellbeing. What is the best way to live? How should we decide? What is our model? What principles have we found to guide us in decision-making, and on what foundation do they rest? Here’s a diagram of how I’m viewing the best case for us as we proceed.

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We should be making our choices after reasoning through the facts of our personal situations using the principles that apply, and those principles should be based firmly on reality as we understand it. In short, reality matters. Are body and mind separate “parts” of people? Do humans have souls and an eternal existence? Is there an unseen spiritual reality underlying and supporting our perceived material reality? If so, how does that work?

Just as the Supreme Court Justices have different views the nature and meaning of the Constitution, as individual people, we may have differing understandings of reality. Their disagreements, based on variation in views of the Constitution, illustrate for us how our views on reality matter in our personal choices. The President and the Senate together will select the next Justice, based in part on his or her view of the Constitution, and we have little control over that. However, we each have complete control over how we understand reality, and there is nothing more important.

Yet how much time does the average person devote to thinking about the big picture, to investigating the big topics? How much time have you spent investigating and settling upon a personal worldview, one supported by evidence? Many people choose to “go with the flow” and accept the prevailing cultural norms. That’s what I did for a long time, until a more careful inquiry caused me to rethink it and draw new conclusions; conclusions that have changed my principles, choices, actions and results – for the better!

I encourage you to thoroughly investigate reality for yourself. Ask the hard questions, spend the time to search the evidence and draw firm conclusions before more of your life passes behind you. Which brings up the second Scalia reminder. His death reminds me that I am going to die. So are you, and no one knows when for either of us. The second matter makes the first all the more important.

Avoiding Deadly Mistakes

IMG_0447A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences.
Proverbs 22:3 NLT

Sharon and I returned yesterday from an enjoyable weeks’ vacation in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s different up there. Hills, mountains, rocks, creeks, and waterfalls, along with cooler temperatures and low humidity, were a nice change to the end of summer in Florida. But we’re not exactly mountain people, both of us having some fear of heights, and seeing the sights of western North Carolina was not without its challenges.

The first full day there we set out on a trip to Linville Caverns, deciding to take the “scenic route” along the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was quite scenic, but as you might expect in the mountains, there are occasional sheer drops just off the road, which we both found somewhat disconcerting. Nevertheless we drove slowly and enjoyed ourselves, stopping at a couple of scenic overlooks while staying well back from the edge. Then the fog came in.

I’m not sure if it was actual “fog” in weather terms, or more of a cloud on top of the mountain. Either way, it was a bad experience. Visibility became quite poor, sometimes just ten feet or so. Unfortunately, once you’re on the Parkway, which runs across the ridge, it’s not so easy to get off, as exits are few and far apart. So praying, driving slowly, and focusing on the faded double yellow line we endured until we could descend at the next junction.

Maybe the locals drive in conditions like that all the time. I don’t know. There were some other cars and pickups with North Carolina plates on the road. For me, it was scary knowing that it would be  easy to make a simple mistake and leave the road with potentially deadly consequences. I won’t do that again. Live and learn. Next time check the weather forecast first.

It left me thinking for the rest of the week about how precious life is, and how easy it is to die from the consequences of a mistake, bad decision or accident. Within a day we saw this news of two young women hikers who had wandered off the safe path and fallen to their deaths, and that brought to mind other recent tragedies including the French couple that died unprepared for the New Mexico desert. Beyond the headlines, I have personally known people who’ve died from a single mistake or bad decision – sometimes their bad decision, sometimes the result of another’s bad decision. I’m sure you have too.

The most extreme examples are easiest to bring to mind – climbing Everest, free diving to new records, or “extreme sports” in general. Therefore, it’s easy to think, “I would never do that” and not learn any lessons. Yet, we all suffer from the same condition.  Bad and potentially life-threatening  choices are common in more everyday behavior such as:
– going offshore in a boat without adequate safety equipment
– driving while intoxicated (you or somebody else)
– riding with someone who is driving while intoxicated
– “horseplay” with machinery
– taking the curve too fast
– not buckling your seatbelt
– being in “the wrong place at the wrong time”
With a moment’s thought, you can bring to mind many more examples.  If you’re stuck check the morning newspaper.  Truthfully, it’s very easy to die from a mistake or bad decision. Happens all the time.

I’ve drawn two lessons or meanings from this weeklong meditation on accidental death. The first is the need to be prudent about my choices in life. Life is full of risks; many are worth taking, but some are not. For example, is it okay to drive 85 mph on the highway? Discernment is necessary. What are my motives? Am I putting my life at risk? Have I properly assessed the risk? Have I minimized it? Is the risk worth it? I want to be responsible steward of my own life, and my family needs me to stick around. I should think about that. Perhaps you should too.

The second lesson is that, no matter how prudent we think we are, we will screw up a lot, and that as Christians we are to be forgiving. God has forgiven us and we are also to forgive. It’s easy to blame ourselves for our own bad decisions and to react with anger or derision about others’ mistakes. Perhaps you’ve thought, “That was stupid” (or “careless” or “criminal”) after hearing of an accidental death. I know I have. But who hasn’t also been similarly stupid, careless or even criminal at times and escaped consequences? I know I have.

Lately, hearing of tragedy brought on by bad decisions, my responses are tending towards sadness, compassion, and forgiveness, and my thoughts to “there but for the grace of God go I.”

Thank you God for delivering me from my own foolishness. Keep me safe. Guide me with your Holy Spirit, and help me to live prudently. Amen.

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Hickory Nut Falls at Chimney Rock, accessible via a “gentle” trail walk.

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How many people climb on the rocks despite the sign?  How many BECAUSE of it?

A sign on the trail – How many people climb on the rocks despite the sign? How many because of it?

 

 

Mom’s Last Two Years – God at Work

PA281187When bad things happen, we want to know what it’s all about. Why is this happening to me? What purpose could it serve? These are pretty common questions, and they’re what my mother was asking two years ago when my father died unexpectedly of a rapidly progressive brain tumor. Mom and Dad had been married 58 years, and she was devastated by his relatively sudden death. She had some tough questions. Why did he die? Why am I alone? I was hoping I would die first. God, what is your plan? And we didn’t have any answers.

Despite her profound grief, my mother’s trust in God did not waver. She poured out her heart to Jesus, to us and to her friends.  Over time she improved, and about nine months after my father’s passing she moved to Westminster Winter Park to be closer to our family. Westminster is a Christian retirement community where Mom quickly made many new friends. She also found a new church home and was warmly welcomed into that fellowship. Between the passage of time, Westminster, friends, family, church and Jesus, Mom was becoming her old happy self again after about a year.

Then the cancer showed up. A gallbladder attack, surgery, unresectable cancer, no good treatments, and then “most people die within a year.”  What the hell is going on?! A year of grief, just getting well and now this?!  Mom didn’t say it like that of course, but it captures the way she (and all of us) felt at the time – more grieving and more tough questions for God. As you know, God showed up and Mom was given joy, peace and physical wellbeing until shortly before her passing last month.

Mom is at peace now. I am too, but I’m still thinking about her last two years. What was that all about? Why did it play out that way? It sure wasn’t an easy road for her. How do I make sense of it?

According to her wishes, we held a memorial service in St. Petersburg, and threw a party for her Winter Park friends, at both of which I heard many stories about Mom and how she had impacted the lives of others – a significant number of them from the last two years. Mom made an quite an impact despite and also because of her illness.  It’s clear that she left a legacy, and that God was using her for his purposes right up to the end.

As I have reflect on all that I have seen and experienced over Mom’s last two years, this passage from scripture comes to mind:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”      John 9:1-3 NIV

I don’t presume to know why everything happened as it did for Mom. God has his reasons. But for now, I’m considering that all these events happened so that the works of God might be displayed in her, because they surely were.

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Revising the Bucket List

bucketIt’s still sinking in that Mom is not with us anymore, and really, I don’t think our family has fully adjusted to Dad’s passing two years back. Three short years ago Mom and Dad were seemingly healthy, each with a family history of longevity into the 90s. Now they’re both gone. They were good people. Wow, that seemed to happen fast.

But Mom and Dad aren’t the only ones. My wife and I have other friends and relatives who have passed away from illness or accident within the last year. You may not have had the same recent close-up experience with death, but you probably know someone grappling with a serious, potentially fatal illness, and of course we all see media reports of innocents killed in the Middle East, addicts dying of overdoses, and many tragedies large and small cutting lives short. People die.

Yes, people die. But more to the point, I’m going to die. (And, more to the point for you, you’re going to die.) No one here gets out alive. What do I make of that? How should I live? What is worth my time, and what is not? What’s on my “bucket list?” Those are the questions that I’ve been asking myself over the last couple of years. Examining the lives of those friends and relatives who have passed away, looking at how they lived and the impact they had, and continuing to follow Jesus is helping me understand that life is really all about relationships – with God and with man.

Here’s how my bucket list is shaping up:

  1. Love God. Follow Jesus.
  2. Love my wife and be a good husband.
  3. Help my children as they establish their own adult lives. Be a better father, and adjust to the changing nature of my relationships with them.
  4. Take care of myself. Eat right, exercise and remain emotionally balanced. Rest more.
  5. Live simply. Shed possessions. Avoid entanglements. Be grateful for what I have.
  6. Listen more. Talk less.  Stop arguing.
  7. Be kinder, gentler, more understanding, and more tolerant.
  8. Do work that really matters to people, especially work that matters to their souls.
  9. Remain passionate (but without scaring people).
  10. Focus more on the process – being the person I want to be and doing the work I am called to do – and less on the results. Leave outcomes up to God.

None of us knows how much time we have left. But even with a very long life, I won’t be able to cross any of these things off the list before I depart. I’m a work in progress, and perfection is not attainable. Nevertheless, it’s good to have clarity about what I’m doing, and also what I’m not doing. I don’t need a dream vacation, or to climb Everest. If I just work on the ten things above, I’m sure I will have a fulfilling life, and probably quite a bit of fun too.

Mom and Dad have shown me that.

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Excited to Die

Mom passed away yesterday, almost exactly a year after she was first diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder, a nasty disease. In many obituaries, you read about an individual succumbing to cancer after a “courageous battle” or “brave struggle.” Not so with Mom. There is no very effective treatment for gallbladder cancer if it can’t be cured surgically as Mom’s tumor could not, and so she elected to trust God and have palliative care only.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. At the beginning she struggled emotionally and spiritually, but God granted her peace as I wrote about back then. Shortly thereafter she began to develop abdominal pain, which was her greatest worry, but God again intervened. Without going into details, Mom had a supernatural dream involving Jesus, my late father, the most beautiful place she had ever seen, and an invitation to a party. She awoke with a feeling of such joy that she could not fully describe it, and her pain had been completely relieved.

At the time, she was amazed and awestruck. She told me, “Peter, I’ve never felt like this before! I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t ‘do’ joy.” She went on to describe a physical sensation of joy in her abdomen at the location of the cancer, where she had been experiencing the pain. She likened this to the feeling of dread or foreboding that we all have probably experienced in our stomachs from time to time; only saying that this sensation was “the opposite of that.”

After the dream, she was not only pain-free but truly asymptomatic for about seven months. And it was a great seven months. She continued to be at peace, enjoyed life in abundance, and began to refer to death as “going to the party.”

Two months ago she felt some “queasiness” in her belly, not quite pain and not quite nausea, and became jaundiced within a day or two. She didn’t appreciate turning yellow, but we told her it accentuated her smile (which it did). This initiated a short phase of progressive jaundice, anorexia, weight loss and weakness.

A few days ago when she became too weak to walk, she and I shared an intimate moment. “Mom, this is it,” I said and she replied, “I’m ready.” Then, after a brief pause, she turned to me, smiled and said, “No… I’m excited!”

Enjoy the party Mom.

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Finding Meaning In Life, Nowhere or Everywhere?

The week just past has been an interesting one for me. I met many new people, reconnected with old friends, held the first copies of my new book, had the usual work ups and downs, and had some nice family times too. Through it all I’ve been wondering about the meaning of everything. Why is this happening? Why now? Where’s it all going? What does it mean?

I’m not always so focused on meaning, but I started my week reading this depressing article – “I Nearly Died. So What?” – in Sunday morning’s New York Times (online). The author describes how caring for her mother during her mother’s terminal illness, and then coming close to death herself during an acute illness, changed nothing about her. In fact, she seems proud of that. Now, four years later, she is still “not a better person” but the “same person” for the experience, and believes that there is simply no meaning to be found in such events. Arguing that there is no significance to life crises or suffering, she believes that we try to “make sense” out of them “for the sake of soothing our own nerves.”

Feeling sad for the author, I went on to read the comments – expecting many people to object to her argument for meaninglessness, and perhaps, to have a kind word of hope for her. Instead there was mostly agreement with her view and praise for her willingness to advance it in the newspaper. Reading the many similar, but shorter, stories of individuals proud to find no meaning in life’s biggest events made me sadder still. Then I went off to church, pondering why some get it and some don’t.

Early Monday morning I had the opposite experience, coming across this happy piece – Sudden Brush with Mortality Shows Why Life Is Sweet – in my local paper. The author, Darryl E. Owens, a regular columnist, developed chest pain from a life-threatening blockage in his cardiac arteries. A cardiac cath, a stent, and a short hospital stay later; he is a better man – more appreciative and more focused on the things that matter. His advice, “Love God, love your family, and love your neighbors, and you’re headed down the right path.” You got that right Darryl.

God provides the meaning in life, and not just for the big events. Too often it takes a crisis or other major problem for us to remember what’s meaningful and to find significance in our lives. But God is Lord of the small as well as the big. Not a sparrow falls without his consent. Everything is under his control, and we know that he is at work in all things for the good of those who love him. That’s what I was thinking this week as a result of this advance reading.

With that perspective, how could it not be an interesting week? A lot happened. What does it all mean? I’m not too sure but I can’t wait to find out, because I know that the author of all meaning will make it good.

I’m going to try to hang on to this perspective that everything matters, that the small events contain meaning as well as the large. I want to keep a sense of wonder about how God is working in my life and the lives of others through the seemingly insignificant events of the day. I want to live like everything is meaningful. Because it is.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.    Romans 8:28 NIV