Practicing Helplessness

In Texas Children’s Hospital’s sprawling buildings, sits a food court a few floors up.  Light from spacious, more-than-two story glass floods the space.  Surprisingly great smells usually fill the colorful space with half of everyone clad in med chic and the rest in civies.  The closer to Christmas, the fewer the clientele, and on a Saturday, it was spooky quiet.  Only clean air came from dark kitchens.

My oldest son, Colt was upstairs in Coronary Intensive Care.  He resembled a splayed frog with 27 bags dripping into him in all four appendages it seemed, to leverage him out of the 48 hour night following his surgery.

Our kind surgeons were great, but honest.  They carry a small, but unflinching number of souls who do not exit that 48 hour night on this side of life.  Colt was in great shape, but twice as old as others having surgery.

I hate that food court.

All my knowledge and training was suspended.  I could do nothing but pray, like other parents scattered at tables eating to subsist and get back to their kids.  Nothing but pray as had other parents whose children fell into that small, unflinching number.

Life’s stunning gift looms larger than what we barely understand.  My son in the most sterile place we can make, still carried more hitchhikers in him than we have identified.

If he lived, I could thank surgeons, doctors, nurses, vampires, specialists, the hospital concierge, and cleaning people.  But all their best, left me with an inexplicable space.  Who or what fills the space between proficient practitioners and a child leaving the hospital alive?  Christmas loomed.  I thanked God Who entered that inexplicable space.  His Son was wrapped in non-sterile swaddling strips and laid in a dirty manger.  His caretaker,  a teen with zero medical training, took Him to Egypt in an endurance event.

It was as if the God who sent His Son, held my son upstairs, and popped into my food court for a flicker for a father learning helplessness.  Practicing it.

Colt came out of CCICU.  We spent nights in his room.  He joked about the food, matching scars, and enjoyed friends travelling hundreds of miles — to see him.  He rested in life’s guaranteed moments of helplessness.  Amazingly, we made it home for Christmas.

As I write, my sister Mitzi Deal, and her beloved Greg are practicing helplessness as their daughter, Jodie, has a tumor on her Pineal Gland excised in one to five hours, followed by a day or so in ICU, just a block down from my food court.

Mitzi is funny.  She will tell you she’s learning faith, not helplessness.

Actually, I savor my moments in that food court in the late afternoon sun reminding me of Who lights all inexplicable spaces.


Just in Time

As a kid, I heard Grannie say, “You must count your blessings!  I do.”  Often, we were at a piano, which I had not practiced enough, and she was teaching Life and Piano 1010.  Look it up in the catalog.  It is a lab course, so it costs more.

I never thought to tag her admonition to her heavy sigh leaning on the piano to stand and limping / waddling outside, eschewing a cane to see the afternoon.  I failed to connect thanksgiving for another day to her waking up at the crack of dawn, so that the hour and more that it took her to get dressed would not deter her being my hostess.

Granny’s dad left her at the convent/orphanage in Galveston, so he missed the Hurricane (before we named them) of 1900 hitting the city and killing thousands.  Granny’s story on riding the last train out of Galveston, with some arguing the value of the orphans, and the harrowing crossing on the causeway as waves buffeted the train.

Sitting at the piano with me, she had already buried a daughter, overcome her husband’s very public affair, and lived off piano lessons, while dividing her home into three apartments.

Only now can I barely hear her unstated wisdom: “when you least feel like it.”  When she said “count your blessings,” her rheumatoid arthritis still swelled her knuckles and curved her fingers as she ripped through Chopin as if the arthritis had vanished.

We all have “thanksgiving helpers”.  As Tom Hanks interviewed members of Easy Company about heroes, they all concurred, “The real heroes are buried over there.”  Those men were most thankful for our freedoms.

People walking away from graveside services are either angry, numbed, or more grateful to have had the love of the one now departed.  “When you least feel like it.”

People sitting with loved one in a hospital are either despondent, depressed, or more grateful.  “When you least feel like it.”

Jesus’ half brother had his version of what Granny said: “In all things give thanks.”  All things includes a bucket list of things I would avoid: thanksgiving helpers.  “When you least feel like it” is probably when you most need to start your Thank You’s. When you start thanking, you may be just in time for your sanity, your soul, and your hope.  Or the occasional miracle.

Jodie, on the occasion of your surgery

I cannot begin to tell you how emotional it was when, as an infant, you were diagnosed with diabetes, and then the worst  brittle diabetes.  Your mom wept for days.  She wept sticking you repeatedly to find your blood sugar level.

I was in the hospital last week.  They pricked my fingers three times a day.  I used all my fingers on one hand.  Did you celebrate your 10,000th prick?

Then they told your parents your life expectancy was 12 years … possibly.  So we heard story after story in the night, in the morning, in the bathroom, in the bedroom when everyone in the family — including pets — took turns awaking for no particular reason (God must laugh when we say silly things); to walk in, check you, and find you had cratered.

Your family created a “new normal”.  Jodie cratered.  Jodie’s out cold — and we must calmly, intentionally work our way out of this.

This latest series of debilitating headaches, leading you through a new, bewildering forest of conflicting diagnoses, crashing and ascending hopes — has drained all of you.  Draining Jill and me ten hours away is a lot less than your mom and dad.  That draining, doesn’t even include the bills. . . .

So, next week you return to Houston, to Ben Taub where your grandfather loved his traning as a physician to remove your outsized pinneal gland.  Being twice as old as doctors said was even possible, helps me pray that you lick this thing and flourish.

Ideas and Ugly Babies

Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc. says Pixar’s culture follows a simple premise.  All ideas are born as ugly babies.  They take work.  They require input: iteratively.  Teams know they present repeatedly in front of all the creatives.

Two things.  One, people must give precise feedback in the scene where they lost you.  Two, they must offer a solution.

When you meet again in a month, you either must employ their proffered solution, or show why yours works better.

Great entrepreneurial feedback does that.  Someone puts her finger precisely on the blind spot and explains it.  Two, she offers a testable, clear solution.

My ugly baby is growing into a brilliant, awkward teen, but knows he ‘ll be challenged, tomorrow if not today.

Pain and Beauty

I teach creativity and imagination.  I know, why assign such topics to someone deficient in both?  Go figure.  Eat your heart out, etc.

I require some students to write reports on creators they choose from Daniel Boorstin’s The Creators.  Amazing book, and improbable to be equaled in a generation as he was the Librarian of Congress tapping an astonishing group of researchers to help research and tell the stories.  He achieved lucid, clear, salient story telling at its best.

So questions about creative people lurk in the literature.  Are they more avant-garde, anti social-conformity, rule busting people?  Are they more broken, prone to mind and mood altering substances?  Are they more gifted?

Sixty years ago Guilford showed a scatter graph supporting his “intelligent enough” theory of creativity.   IQ correlates positively with creativity up to @ an IQ of 85, and then any correlation vanishes.  Hmmm.

Creatives come from all manner of socioeconomic, religious and family backgrounds.

Now some research suggests we are “happier” in the left side of our brains, and “sadder” in the right side; and many associate creativity with that right side, although, in truth, when you’re in the creativity “zone”, your brain draws on the left and then the right side some — 300 times a second.

Also, remembering sadness, pain, or loss is easier than joy or happiness: which begs a question.

Do creatives know they live out their lives with more pain, or that creativity is born of pain?  Do we all sense that, and avoid or seek creativity based on a desire or fear of pain?

If you interviewed King David, The Rolling Stones, U2, Coldplay, Hip Hop Kings, Ray Charles and Billie Holiday, Rich Mullins, Michelangelo, and Da Vinci — how do you see them answering, “What percentage of your life have you been “happy” or “joyous”?

Even if their answers suggest beauty is born of pain, art is born of suffering — why seek to create, to innovate, to make art?  That provokes two hard questions for me.

One, did God know His stunning creation, and the people who he made the crowning aspect of that creation would bring Him unfathomable pain?  Why create anyway?

Why do some of the most haunting, intense, overwhelming things of beauty; why do they push us to that pain in the throat, choked tears, impossible to swallow, quivering smile that mimics stunning moments of worship for believers?

Have we been wired for far more than we dare create, hope for, or desire?


Hurricane coming in on Texas coast.  Three or four hundred.

Hurricane and twisters hit Tampa, St. Pete;  fifty five ish.

Gas explosion in Dallas kills twelve year old girl.  One.  Once removed,

One dies in chopper crash in Afghanistan.  One.

Myanmar is killing ethnic and religious minorities.  One and potentially one hundred.

Snowstorm in Colorado.  One hundred and fifty or so.

The more people you know, care about, pray for, and love around the world, the more likely it is that any given piece of news will touch you, hurt you deeply.

So the choice is, fewer connections, and lesser chances of getting hurt through events, or enjoy the rich network of people and souls; at risk of getting hurt by Acts of God or terrorists, or disease, or accidents.

Fewer is less in every meaningful way.  So, not the richest option.

My Life.Church Sermon I will never preach

This is too long for a blog, so if you don’t read it all, I get it.  Should you read it, I hope it encourages you.  I did the whole thing in a dream this morning, and I almost never share dreams, but, here goes.  Sermon follows:

I have listened to speakers speak here for years, and they begin the same way.  “I love Craig and Amy so much, you have an amazing church, and I am so delighted to be here today.”  It is that last phrase where I listen, you know, to hear what they say.  Are they saying, “I am humbled and honored, truly!” Or, does it smell a little more like “You are in for a treat!  I think I have something amazing.  In fact, a lot of folks think I am amazing!”

So how could I possibly be preaching here?

What I think happened was that we made a small mistake!  You know how when a manager walks to the mound and he starts to touch one fore arm, but he puts a couple of fingers on the other, like he wasn’t sure, and he could not remember who was warmed up in the bullpen?”

I am the bullpen.  I am that guy in the bullpen whose name is Tom, or Tim, I am pretty sure it wasn’t Tammy.  He is a member that we don’t call members at LifeChurch, but we have a couple of hundred thousand of those.  He tithes most months, but more people are completely faithful there.  He and Jill lead a life group just like 251 others at Stillwater.  And the Stillwater campus is a mistake.  If we had not added it when we did; we would not fit the profile where they hope to expand these days, but GT and Megan were commuting every weekend and God was working, and today, one in ten staff members in all the Life Churches have passed through Stilly.

That kind of “mistake”.

So, they called the wrong guy out of the bullpen.  In fact, someone might investigate where I got a uniform and dropped down into the bullpen with my glove and enough swag to act like I just got traded from a Canadian hockey team where I was the equipment manager.

Wrong guy.  I am a small mistake, but LifeChurch is a great place because I have been comfortable in the dark watching Craig on screen.  He is really taller in person.

Well, maybe I am here because you are a small mistake.  Maybe you have a sin or two because you somehow think they make you cool.  See, I swear for effect some days when teaching or making a point.  And like everyone who smokes I have it under control, except when my daughter in law, Fair Claire, sends a request through my son that I watch my mouth during Christmas in front of the grandkids.  You see, “under control”.

It is freaky, but sometimes when the stress is bad, or my health is in the toilet I swear more.  Isn’t that the dumbest thing?  I think I can pin my potty mouth on something outside me when the Bible says, “The stuff coming out of your mouth is the overflow from your heart.”  Oops.  My heart’s overflow must resemble my toilet overflowing.

So there you are, sitting in the dark, or with your computer using earphones so your family and neighbors don’t know that Jesus is the best thing that ever happened to you, but you seem to make more mistakes than progress in following Him.

It could be that you love Jesus, and are astonished that He left heaven, lived and did all those astonishing miracles, and got religious people angry at Him — and they crucified Him thinking, “That takes care of that;” only God raised Him from the dead to emphasize His boy was telling the truth.  All along.  Every day.  In every miracle for undeserving people.  Jesus was telling the Truth, and telling Truth so well that it turns out that Truth is one of His Names.  Truth has a Name above all names and it is — wait for it: Jesus.

And that right there makes Jesus, forgive me, unbelievable.  I mean Jesus was just like us except for the perfection thing, having Satan give Him the VIP tour of earth and testing, miracles everywhere, demons testifying to who He was when He was trying to be cool about it.  Okay, not exactly like me.  I am an example of human, I think.

And that makes me uncomfortable even in the dark some weekends at LifeChurch.  Jesus was true to His calling, true to His message.  And I fail my calling, and some days I fail His message that I deliver.  You know how people say Craig is the same in the pulpit and at home except when driving?  My wife and sons and daughter in law would all say, “He is the same in both places” with all their fingers crossed in back of them.

When Jesus walked out to the mound, Heaven rushed the infield to breathlessly watch.  When I walk to the mound, people are checking their programs and smartphones and shrugging at each other, “Who is that guy?”  No name on the back.  His pants are too big, and why can’t he stand up straight?  How come he isn’t even listed?

In spite of all that, I found some small things that surprised me in the Jesus story.

There is this day when Jesus has been feeding thousands and the people want to make Him an earthly king, and Jesus realizes that before He can address the crazy crowd, He has to get rid of His disciples.  All of them.  He puts them in boats and dismisses them, and only after sending away His own does He lose the crowd.  The disciples were wanting to drink the Kool-Aid.  They were ripe for everything except what Jesus was doing.

Jesus also had been handing out freebies on miracles, food, healings, casting out demons and He knew it was time to ratchet up the message, call people to faithfulness, to followship, to maturity — and people were walking away — and this is the part that froze my heart.  Jesus turns to His disciples and asks, “Do you want to walk away, too?”

And all of God’s plans and power, and all of God’s predestining, and all of God’s plan for planet Earth comes to this point.  Jesus hands the ball to failers (not failures by God’s grace) but failers like me.  Like you.

And obviously, at this moment, Jesus is thinking that handing the Gospel Football to these guys is maybe not going to work.  He is looking at Peter who suffers from foot in mouth disease.  The two Sons of Thunder who think the coolest thing about Jesus is that He can call down fire from heaven and maybe blow away an entire town.  Matthew is a never ending fountain of questions.  Mary of Magdala is still conflating a puppy love for followship.  And Judas, Judas is stealing from the till and will pointlessly betray Jesus at the critical time, just before Peter denies Him three times.

Do you want to walk away, too?

I don’t know any mature Christians who have not made some sort of truce with church and religion, and decided to still love Jesus more than what they see in other Christians.  Ouch.

Some of them believe Christ even though what they saw in me made believing Jesus tough, because what they saw in me made them want to walk away.  OUCH!

My wife, Jill has this thing that thunders in the silence, “Your Plan A was to use us all along?  Even with the Holy Spirit, what were you thinking, God?”

Which forces the question.  Is God missing something, a lot of somethings, or did God decide what was most true about us before He began the experiment?

I am a creature saved by God’s grace and I lust for if-not-sex then intimacies where I should not, and toys, and money that buys toys.  All are true.  Now for the HUGE question.  What is more true?

Life and faith have daunting conundrums.  The light coming out of these lights, is it waves or particles?  Yes.

Is Jesus fully God and fully man?  Yes.

Is God three or One?  Yes.

Am I a sinner or God’s dearly bought son?  Yes.

And Jesus knows how I struggle here!  Remember that night before they killed Him?  No?  Let me tell you how crazy this is.  The die is cast.  The trial members have been assembled in two houses.  Soldiers are following Judas to find Jesus, and Jesus is in this Garden with his sleeping disciples, yes they failed Him this time as well, and Jesus is sweating blood!  No kidding.  Think about it.  Sweating blood.  I would say He was really wrestling, wouldn’t you?  And here was the question.  Here was Jesus’ big question.  It was time to die.  It was time to suffer.  For better or for worse, there was nothing more Jesus could do for the disciples.  And it all looked impossible.

Jesus was asking for a bye.  Jesus was asking to be let out of this part of the contract.  He went from thinking about it, to truly tempted to bail out.  He was sweating blood.

Jesus was asking if God could be happy with less.

And God thundered back in silence to His beloved Son.  Sure you feel this drag, this bent to failing, and this understandable horror at dying.  Now, which is more true?  You’re wanting to bail out, or you are My beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased?

He knows when I want to fail.  When I want to be let off the hook.  When I want to be left alone.  When I don’t want to measure up.  How afraid I am to walk out to the mound some days.  When I want God to settle for less from me.

Occasionally God sends someone to remind me who and Whose I am.  Occasionally, He puts me in the stands to remind some friend, or student, or colleague what is most true about them — that he or she is a son or daughter of the High King and He was right to give her salvation and call her to follow Him.

But sometimes, God is silent.  He and heaven hold their breath to see me come through, to see me come true, knowing that I face bogeys.  Some days, I am sweating bullets, and God nods silently to His angels who will never understand why God trusts us, and he says, “Let the bet ride on my boy, Thomas.”

The angels can think of as many reasons as I can, maybe more why God should spread His bets, and God laughs, and according to Ephesians 1, He is gesturing that He was right to let anything ride on me.

God’s bet is riding on me because He has given me Jesus and Spirit, and watches to see me act on what is most true about me.

How about you?