Tuesday, May 19, 2009

“It’s never too late to turn to God, Mr. Bauer.”

Do a Google search on Jack Bauer, and most of the images returned feature Jack holding a gun. Or Jack surrounded by an exploding fireball. Or perhaps most emblematic, a "Jack Bauer" action figure kicking down a door. Like Captain Kirk from a generation before, Jack is our vicarious stand-in for life's great dilemnas... should I/we follow the rules or save the busload of children (save the kids). Should we torture a man to extract a truth that may save the lives of countless thousands? (yes, with relish) Should one choose close family relations or national security? (national security over family security almost every time) Action Jack has busted through the doors of dozens of dilemnas over seven seasons, but now he faces his greatest dilemna yet... He's dying.

Jack's seizures, random twitches and grimaces have surfaced more often than uber-nerd Chloe's signature pout and squint. We're reminded how weak and powerless Jack is, even as he shoots his former friend and current traitor Tony before he can exact personal revenge. Our can-do post-modern MacGyver is reduced to reliance on his daughter to save his life. And then, just before he is placed in a morphine-induced coma, (say it ain't so Jack!) he calls for a single, solitary figure. An Imam--a Muslim holy man.

Not to ruin the plot for those of you (non-Hulu) folks who haven't watched the last few episodes, but some shadowy arch-conservative pseudo-patriots (let the reader understand they mean Blackwater aka Xe) have manipulated good, peace-loving Muslims into being the facade for a biological attack on Washington D.C. At first, Action Jack falls for this ruse, almost pulling out all his Guantanamo-esque skills of interrogation on the hapless Imam. But in a blinding flash of insight, our hero realizes that both the Muslims in question AND the Imam were innocent men, and that once again, he had been on the brink of doing something heinous. (torturing an innocent man--you'd think he'd have gotten used to it by now). Foreshadowing Jack's call for the Imam on his "deathbed" the Muslim holy man tells the man with the tortured conscience "“It’s never too late to turn to God, Mr. Bauer.”

Now let me get down to my thoughts. I certainly don't want to get into the debate about whether all Muslims are heaven-bent to take us poor infidels into the great beyond. Surely such over-generalizations belong to those who need life cut into convenient, cookie-cutter categories. Nor am I going to shout and scream that Christians are getting a poor shake because Jack called out for a mullah instead of a reverend. Frankly, a man with as much violence in his past as Action Jack is doing well to talk to anyone of a spiritual ilk. Nor am I offended at the writers' evident attempt to patch up hard feelings in the Muslim community for casting them as evil nasties in previous seasons. None of that bothers me; after all this is entertainment.

What concerns me, however, is that the TV Imam gives rather un-Muslim advice. And for that matter, the advice doesn't fit into Christianity's script either. The holy-man character repeats his previous statement to Jack, "I hope that you can forgive yourself.” Hello--when did Oprah become a guest on my kick-down the door, blow up the helicopter, shoot your former friend in the shoulder action show? But that's where this psycho babble advice comes from. No Muslim or Christian or Jew in their right theology would tell someone that the key issue to settle before you die is to forgive yourself.
I'm not saying that forgiving yourself isn't important. I've made some God-awful, searing mistakes that still wake me up some nights in chilling, sweating regret. Is it hard work to not beat myself up for all those past mistakes? (Even though I wouldn't count torture, murder or growing an ugly beard and hiding in Africa in my mea culpas) You bet. But before I die and face my maker, I think that it would be slightly more important to consider the ways that I have failed Him, sinned against Him and His design in my life and seek His forgiveness. A great king who blew it said it this way, "Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned..."
It's not my place to tell you that you must choose the Christian answer above the Muslim answer or the Buddhist answer, or the St. Oprah answer, for that matter. That's up to you. I'm merely clarifying according to the Bible, when life comes down to mono y Deo, just you and the Divine, the issue is worship failure. A life that fell short of it's divine intent. I reflect on God's purpose for my life, one He characterizes as "glorious" and realize with grim certainty that I have often fallen far short of it... Sure I need to forgive myself. But more importantly, I need to ask God's forgiveness. I was made for Him, and I lived for myself instead. The ultimate answer isn't more SELF, it's more G-d. After all, it's never too late to turn to God, Mr. Bauer.

Friday, May 1, 2009

This was not my mother, but it made me think

I received an email from a friend today that touched me deeply. As Mother's Day approaches, it made me reflect on my own close relationship with my mother. More than that, it helped clarify what is important in life. Please read this, but don't email me to say your sorry my mother died! It wasn't my mom, but it did touch my heart. Read this from my friend Dave....

This morning my mom died.
She was diagnosed with cancer 7 ½ years ago, and was given about two years to live, five on the outside. She wept when she heard because of the sadness about not being able to watch her beloved grandchildren grow up.But from the day she first heard the news she wasn’t afraid of death. She was always very grateful for her life, and maybe more importantly, she felt like God had given her a mission that she had completed faithfully. So was time for her to pass the baton for the next generation, and go home to be with God.

All that suddenly changed when my sister-in-law was also diagnosed with terminal cancer. My mom’s own mother had died of cancer when she was young, which had always been the primary heartbreak of my mother’s life. She received that has a call to “come out of retirement” so that she could shepherd my brother and sister-in-law’s three very young children through that tragic experience.That may not seem like a particularly heroic decision, but it’s one of the most heroic and sacrificial things I’ve ever seen anyone do. Determining to stay alive as long as she could and order to care for her grandchildren meant subjecting herself to years of countless indignities and cruel medical treatments.

Daily soldiers and missionaries give up their lives to serve others, which is an awesome sacrifice. My mother made an even more awesome sacrifice, in my estimation: she made the sacrifice of choosing to remain alive, and endure excruciating pain for five more years in order to serve her grandchildren who needed her. And she bore it without complaint.
I realize that for many of you, it will come as a shock to my mother was sick, because she insisted that we never share with anyone – not even her own sister or my grandmother living next door knew. I admit that at first I didn’t agree with her desire for secrecy, but over time I came to understand. She knew that if others knew that she was so sick, that they would concentrate constantly when serving her – but she had stayed alive in order to serve others, she didn’t want to be the focus of attention. She poured enthusiasm and energy into people who had no idea that she would return home to sleep for hours in the middle of the day because it was so exhausting for her.

Since they finally learned last week about how sick my mother was, many people have commented about how difficult it must have been for my father, brothers and I to live for so long with that knowledge. And in some sense it’s true, but in another sense, nothing could be further from the truth – this time has been a tremendous gift.
As I counsel people whose loved ones have died, I frequently hear about their regret at having missed the opportunity to say so many things they wish they had been able to say. So many of the most precious things we would ever want to communicate to someone we love can seem out of place or excessively serious in the rush of daily life. So while we chatter about the minutia, we leave so many of the most important, intimate things left unsaid – assumed.
But after someone has received a diagnosis of terminal cancer, any awkwardness around saying something too serious or too personal disappears immediately – suddenly it seems like the most natural thing in the world to say exactly how you feel, express your appreciation freely. What an incomparable gift has been to live like this with my mother for the past seven years. I’m sure I’ll have many days of sadness ahead, but I don’t think I’ll have too many regrets.
David asked God in Psalm 35 “"Show me, LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is”, and in the same vein, Psalm 90 records Moses’ prayer that God would “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Living with death in mind changes the way we live, and in my relationship with my mother and had the privilege of doing that.
Many people have also commented on how proud my mother must have been to have raised three sons who all attended elite universities and graduate schools, and are successful in their respective fields. She was more proud that we all are very hard workers, regardless of our level of achievement, and exercise integrity even when it hurts. But in truth my mother was much prouder still that she’d raised three boys who are faithful husbands, and devoted fathers, and that in a world of broken families, our family remained devoted to one another. Aside from the ephemeral scuffles of little boys about whose turn it is to go next, or “who started it”, I have no memory of any significant conflict among my brothers. For the past two months, my father and brothers have all spoken together at least weekly, and for the past week we’ve spoken everyday. That is what my mother would have been most proud of – and with good reason, because she is most responsible for nurturing that family environment.
My mother was vital and active until just a week before Easter. But still, when I visited with her that week, she dismissed too much talk about her condition, and wanted to share her excitement about what was going on in my life and those of my wife and children. She must have told me 50 times that day how much she loves me. She didn’t have to tell me so many times – her words and actions over decades have made that impossible to miss.
Over the past couple days her condition declined very rapidly, but I am so thankful that she never experienced any obvious pain. And she never expressed a moment of fear at any time in the past seven years – her faith is absolute, and she looks forward to being with Jesus.
This morning she took in one last quick breath, and then died quietly, and made her way to heaven. There is an ancient prayer for a “Good death” – and it is not a quick death the way some of us imagine – it is a death that one can see coming from a long way off, so that one can enter into it deliberately and participate in it fully. It is a death in which one has time to be reconciled to God and others, and make her death a gift of life to others. In every way, my mother had a very good death.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you for your interest and for allowing me to process my feelings this way. Please know that there’s no need to respond by saying that you’re sorry or that you care – I’m so thankful to live among a community of friends and a very nurturing church in which people routinely and clearly express how much they care and how supportive they are. I am thankful that we truly do share each other’s joys and sorrows, and I feel very loved.
I thank God for the gift of my mother, and pray that the way that I live reflect her values and honor her memory.

Lord- please receive my mother with joy and welcome her with your eternal embrace. Speak to her the words all Christians long to hear when we meet You face to face: “Well done, good and faithful servant! Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25)