Friday, March 29, 2019

Three Years Later: The Heart Attack Chronicles

My wife just reminded me that on March 31, it will be three years since I had my heart attack. I have blogged before about what went down after that happened ("A Pastor's Reflection On An Unexpected Heart Attack," "Blogs And Heart Attacks," but it's been a while since I've posted any heart attack related thoughts. An anniversary seems appropriate. So... here come thoughts. 

* * * * *

Trauma is real. I'm still coming to grips with the emotional and physiological toll. While my heart is medically cleared to do whatever paces I put it through, my heart was not the only thing that took a hit. It was a systemic attack. The closest thing I've found to an explanation is something called epigenetic trauma. My body has been building a new kind of Anthony for the past three years. I will never be the same. Wrapping my mind around that - and adjusting my expectations for who I am and what I can do - has been a daunting and frustrating journey. My peer group is small, since not a high percentage of folks survive a 100% blockage Widowmaker.

I have had a really, really hard time finding anyone in person or online whose recovery resonates with me. By most accounts I should have bounced back relatively quickly and felt a lot better. Nope, and nope. I am learning to be comfortable with not knowing/understanding and not having people around me know/understand. It's okay, even as I wish it could be different.

Rest is beautiful. Before my heart attack, I was a guy who did a lot. A lot. I really struggled to enjoy rest and relaxation: "I should be doing more"; "I don't want to be lazy"; "successful people push themselves"; "my worth is reflected in my accomplishments". My heart attack forced me to rest, and even now it forces me - if I am wise - to rest proactively rather than reactively. I am still not entirely comfortable with how much less I do, but I am learning to embrace napping, lounging, and not accomplishing much on a given day. Turns our rest is a gift. Who knew? Also, naps are the best.

Health is pursued medically, naturally, and existentially. I got lost for a year reading all kinds of helpful/unhelpful stuff online. There came a point where I had to either throw up my hands and say, "Nobody agrees, so I'm just going to do what I want," or say, "Nobody agrees perfectly - but there are genuine experts, and there are some common threads I can tie together."  I had to make an authentic choice (*nods toward existentialism) that I can follow boldly. That kind of mindset and attitude matters, sometimes as much as the path that is chosen (barring genuine foolishness). 

I like and trust my doctor, which I why I take a statin among other medicines. When I asked her about all the conflicting studies, she smiled gently and said, "Well, I've read the hundreds of studies while in medical school, and you are a prime candidate to be on a statin." Hundreds, you say? But I read 10 online! See how that sounds out loud? I also takes supplements and changed my diet (still working on getting that consistent) because that matters too (and my doctor agreed). Which supplements? The ones I chose after researching and talking with my doctor and the nutritionists at the hospital. (I recommend a book called How Not To Die, by the way. It's very good and not as morbid as it sounds.)  

Time is shorter than I thought. There is a nagging sense of impending death, not one that haunts me but more like a soft nudge that reminds me I am moving toward the end of this life, and that the end may not be as far away as I had planned. This will prioritize some things, let me tell you. I don't want to put off vacations I had planned with my wife; I want to have conversations with my boys now instead of later; I want to help my congregation unpack the Bible more than ever; I spend more time with people vs projects. I still want to maximize my time, but it has to do more now with relationships and presence. My tiredness gets in the way of that more than I would like, but when I'm up and about, that drives me far, far more than it used to. 

I have replaced dreaming about the future with entering into the present. This, for me, is a good thing. I used to be restless and unsettled about unfulfilled dreams I had. My post-heart attack experience has refocused my attention on what I have - and I love it. My family, my church, my friends, my opportunities here in Traverse City, my teaching - this really is what I have wanted. I just didn't see what I had. So it's not that I've lost a vision for my life; my vision is now to appreciate more fully what I have been given.

Practical example: I've thought for a while about a new and better house. You know what? My house is fine. You know what I would do in a bigger house? The same thing I do in my house now, except I would have to spend more time cleaning and mowing. I'm good. If, however, you would like to give me property by some water somewhere, message me. 

Dear God, I love my family. My imperfect, wonderful, challenging, soothing, annoying, delightful, confusing, lovely family. Also, shout out to my lovely and gracious wife. My heart attack has impacted her. I am a different man than the one with whom she spent 23 years, and, as she told a friend, it's like learning a new and difficult dance just when you thought you had the dance figured out. She is patient, and kind, and in my corner - a corner in which I am often napping. 

Naps are the best.

I'm fed up with Empire. The values of the American Empire and the alluring siren call of political power, Wall Street wealth and Hollywood glitter bother me more than ever. What does God require of His people? To do justice and love mercy. Dear God, our nation is so bad at both. We, His people, ought to be the ones who don't follow people, personalities, and parties that live large lives of arrogance, greed and lust in an empire that is not our home. We don't have time to be distracted by this. We don't have time to have our witness compromised by this. It's boots-on-the-ground, love-thy-neighbor time in the most practical of ways with people whose faces are in front of us. I might not see the person I am having coffee with again. Dear God, let my distractions be few, my priorities right, my loves ordered in the service of the Kingdom. 

I love the community of God's people more than ever.  I long for a taste of heaven now, and I believe God intends His church to be the place where we experience what an old hymn called a 'foretaste of glory divine': love, repentance, forgiveness, grace, graciousness, patience, truth, justice, mercy, kindness, radial generosity, relationship, transparency, honesty, and a sense of family. 

It's hard, y'all. 

I need this kind of Kingdom community more than ever, and I'm trying to offer it more than ever. I don't have time to mess around on this. Not to be morbid, but I don't know how much time I have. I want my wife and my boys to be deeply implanted in a community that is all of those things listed above because I don't know what my future holds, and I don't know when God's people will need to be God's comfort and peace for them. If I can be a part of building that kind of community, I want to do that with my time not just for their good but for God's glory.  

* * * * *

I've been telling more and more people lately, "I really recommend a heart attack." I'm kind of joking, but only kind of (and granted, they don't laugh). I don't like the ongoing physical impact it had; what I mean was that it did indeed refocus my life in important ways. 

I don't want another heart attack so I can mature more - I'm not stupid. But if I have to walk that road again, I pray that it will do what the other one did: lead me out of where I am, as broken and blessed as it is, and into an even better place either here or in the world to come.  God gets to make that call - and He is good. #all the time

Sunday, March 10, 2019

If We Want To Be Taken Seriously

The list of people I know who are leaving the church or questioning their faith during the past several years is growing. The reason they give is consistent. It's not a growing doubt because of an intellectual struggle; they lose interest in Jesus because they have experienced the people of Jesus, and they begin to think, "If this is what Christian transformation into the image of Jesus looks like, I'm not interested."

Some of it is being around Christians who leave no room to wrestle with questions and doubts. Some of it is being publicly shamed by Christians on social media over standard disagreements that should never have escalated like they did. Some of it involves private confrontations characterized by harsh judgment rather than grace and truth. Some of it is the unequivocal  support by Christians of President Trump, who for them is a deeply confusing champion for evangelicals.

A lot of it is that, actually. President Trump seems to represent for virtually all of them the separation between what they thought Christians were supposed to support and applaud vs. what they apparently do. This is the new tension in the American evangelical church, particularly for those under the age of 30. This is not a mere reflection of my musings; this reflects what I have learned through numerous personal conversations and plenty of surveys.

If you argue that it's not there, you're wrong. If you argue that it's not fair, you may be right. The Trump-supporting evangelicals I know – at least the vast majority of them – are undeserving of most of the vitriol aimed at them. They are about as far from ‘deplorable’ as they can get. They constitute many people in my family, my church family, and my friends who love Jesus and love others, and I wouldn't trade them for the world.

Yet, fair or unfair, the reality is that the public witness of the church in general has suffered a huge blow, and this is a matter that must be considered. There is a confusion in a watching world brought on by the perception of an unflinching embrace of a man whose history and many of his ongoing actions stand in sharp contrast to both the ethics and the people whom Christians have historically supported.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Loving Well In An Unwell World

As a culture, we seem to be trending in the wrong direction in so many ways.

  • We shout when we should whisper and whisper when we should shout. 
  • We deride and antagonize those with whom we disagree rather than seeking first to understand and then thoughtfully engage. 
  • We try to win arguments by bullying people rather than compelling them
  • We vomit anger and hurl insults on total strangers before settling for those we know. 
  • We let partisan politics cloud our rationality and empathy. 
  • We worry far more about policies than the people impacted by those policies
  • We want to be first, right, and best without doing the moral or intellectual hard work that would justly place us into any of those positions. 
  • We want to be seen rather than see; be known rather than seek to know; live in comfort, security and ease rather than give sacrificially of ourselves for the sake of others. 

The world is not well. Neither are we. This is probably nothing new. Maybe I'm just noticing it and feeling it more than I have before.

Is there an answer? I think there is: love. This sounds trite; even as I say it, I've got pop songs that make me laugh or cringe running through my head.

There is a danger that saying "Love is the answer!" trivializes the situation. But love - real love - is not trivial, and neither are the situations into which it enters.

So let's talk about loving well in an unwell - and often unloving - world.