This post is really different for me to write. It is about the process of making the transition from a life of faith in the God Jesus called, “Father,” to the end of that life in the process we call “dying”.
As I am writing this draft, Andrea and I are now in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and have received the news that the cancer is in so many crucial areas of my body (liver, pancreas, lymph nodes) that finding a “cure” is not one of my options.
For almost ten days I couldn’t eat or drink anything without gagging and throwing up. Not only that, some bile came up into my throat due to a blockage in my upper intestine so everything I tried to swallow tasted like feces. I Finally contacted my doctor about my concern and was immediately sent to ER, put on a stomach pump to relieve the pressure from trapped fluids in my stomach, IV’s for hydration, and put on the schedule for an endoscopy to try to correct the problem.
In the meantime my three daughters arrived and along with my wife, Andrea, we had a “love-in.”
During all this time I have continued my practice of walking through my days and nights thanking God for all the advantages and blessings that have given me the freedom to love people and help them become what God created them (particularly) to be, and to spend time writing and playing with Andrea, and other members of what has become our new “extended family.” and others on our ‘team.’
One of the main blessings on my continual gratitude list had been my health. So when that was failing, I became grateful for the clinic I was able to get to, and for my friends who began to step up and help us get in to see these remarkable medical specialists.
But all this unexpected serious information and experience began to depress me and affect my positive attitude and practices. When I got to my lowest point, a visiting friend took me to a meeting in the hospital area. Simply being honest and sharing my fear and my experience, strength and hope got me through a very difficult time, and prompted me to write the e-mail getting honest with my physicians about my inability to eat or drink.
All this, and my family’s arrival, interrupted my description of the inner process of dying. With the family and a few friends here filling my life with love, my faith was concrete, my loving listening and gratitude were intact, and my awareness of God’s healing presence intact somehow.
The night before the family was to leave I began to pray alone in the dark hospital room. I asked myself what I believe about a “life after this one.” I realized with a shock that I really hadn’t spent a lot of time learning about “heaven.” Fear suddenly gripped me. I calmed myself by surrendering my entire life, death, and future to God. And then I became aware of what I have come to believe happens when some believers die.
My conscious focus during the past few years had been on learning to live and share the self-limiting love I have experienced from God in the present “Reign of God” that Jesus announced, described and inaugurated throughout his entire life and work. I’ve done this because it is what I saw Jesus doing.
When he did speak to his disciples about how they and their lives would be evaluated in the last analysis, he referred mostly to how well they had replicated the LIFE of self-limiting love he had given them. And for me that included the way Jesus had referred and deferred to his loving Father as “Daddy” in a continuous dialogue.
But then, in that dark night alone, I suddenly thought, “What’s going to happen to me and my relationship to God that has come to fill and inform my entire life?” And I almost panicked. Compared to what I had already received and experienced in this life with the Father as Daddy, the pictures Christians had developed about Heaven seemed pale and insignificant. I had moments of thinking maybe I should stop and do a crash course on “Heaven” with someone I knew. And finally, I once again surrendered my life and my entire future to God and went to sleep.
The next morning I just happened to talk to a Christian who’s spent a lot of time studying about Heaven. I suddenly remembered Jesus and what he did in his own life as it was drawing to an end. He simply trusted his Heavenly Daddy, did and said what he could determine was what God wanted Him, Jesus, to say and do. And at the last of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane, with nothing in hand to assure him in advance that what he had to do would turn out for him personally as he hoped things would, Jesus decided to take the first steps alone—even if all his own followers deserted him.
I saw that for me—if I am really to follow Jesus, I am going to have to step up to the doorway of death that I am facing right now—the end of all I know of life and human experience. I must stand before that doorway with the same faith of a small child as Jesus did, doing what he thought his daddy was asking him to do–regardless of whether his own followers (and in my case what other Christians) may think. Although I am in the midst of my family and those of you who are a part of life’s family too, I am all alone.
All I can think of to say as I approach that door is, “Daddy who is in Heaven, it’s me, John Keith. All l I have to give you is the life of love that you have given me! All the rest of the material possessions and public attention that came about as a result of the life I built for you as a Christian—all that has gone somehow. All that is left is this little boy who loves you as his Daddy. And I’m knocking, wanting to come in and let you continue—in whatever way—to teach me about how you made us to be when you created us way back in the beginning in the garden. But if this is not your plan, or whatever you have for me (or don’t have), whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) I’m knocking on this huge Dark Door of Death, wanting to come in and say ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I love you, Daddy.’*
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? John 14:1-3
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:10-12
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 7:20-22
And prayers come with these words for all of you who have become so dear to me.
(Note: Since writing this post Keith has come back to Austin. He will begin chemotherapy next week. Your prayers are appreciated during this time and we are certainly grateful for the kind words and prayers you have offered thus far. Thank you.)
* This account is not “the way” any Christian (or others) “should” think about approaching God at the time of his or her own death. But this was my honest experience the other night as I was realizing that my own life—as I have lived it—is coming to an end. Not being an expert of any kind, this is just part of my own “experience, strength and hope.” I miss you all and love you very much! –John Keith
After several days of medical procedures and tests we were told last Thursday (October 20th) by my Gastroenterologist that the internal blockage that has caused recent discomfort is the result of the bile duct being squeezed shut because of a tumor pressing against it. The tumor is right next to my liver. Because of its location it cannot be removed—too many other things in the area.
On Friday I went into surgery where a stent was inserted into the bile duct to allow it to drain so poisonous bile will not be backed up in my system. They also took a biopsy of the tumor and the liver to see if they have been “communicating.”
I was in the hospital overnight and most of Saturday. This past Tuesday, Andrea and I met with my doctor where we learned the tumor is malignant. The doctors could not give us any information about a prognosis at the time.
This has been a sudden shock, since I have been dealing with a neck issue. The neck discomfort was resolved a few weeks ago and then pain in my stomach increased.
We are processing the abrupt change in our lives because of the inoperable aspect of the problem and the fact that all our plans that included me will possibly be canceled.
Many of you have been so loyal to us in your reading and responding to these blogs that we thought the least I could do was to be honest with you about this unscheduled confronting of my own death, since this is a big part of the adventure with God.
Andrea and I are very much in love and closer than we thought two people could get, so we’re experiencing the biggest shock I could have imagined—although, having buried all my “growing up” family by the time I was 28, I should not be so surprised, but I find myself in a new world of “reality.”
Last Thursday, when I told a dear friend about what’s happening he said, “I’m coming to town in January and I’ll look forward to a visit then.” I had to gently remind him that “I might not be alive by then.” This is just a vivid example of what we are experiencing in every relationship we have.
Since we have been working full time on a book for five years that includes a trip clear through the Bible I am going to try to tell the story on video. We will report on our progress on this in the future. And as my commitment has been to you all along, I’ll try to continue to respond to your questions that come up as we are walking through our adventure with the Lord and each other.
Bottom line of all of this: We will appreciate your prayers for healing if possible and for continuing to live for him in either case.
I am extremely grateful not only for the amazing life I’ve had, but for friends like you who are reading this.
This is not something we would normally write, but since the last part of this life is a part of the adventure of living with God and with each other, I’ll see what I can do.
The most important thing on my agenda is the people I love—which includes more people than I ever dreamed it would and certainly some of you who are reading this.
After a long day at the hospital on Tuesday Keith came home and enjoyed a wonderful evening with his family. Then early Wednesday morning Keith woke up with a fever and discomfort and was taken to the emergency room. There the doctors were able to reduce his fever and he is feeling better. Keith is staying in the hospital for a few days to make sure that any infection is eliminated. The next step, after Keith comes home, is to see an oncologist about possible treatments for this tumor.
We invite you to leave your comments, thoughts and prayers for Keith and Andrea and all of their family here. As they are able they will check in and read your comments.
We thank you for your prayers.
Lord, thank you that you promised to prepare a place for us, beginning now, so that we may be together with you always.
“…I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2b
Photo © MaxPaul Franklin 2011
Keith, After I decided to surrender my life to God, how should I go about finding my vocation?
Good question. At first I didn’t know what to do. I was a land man for a major oil company. It was a good job but hardly considered to be a training ground for Christian disciples—which I definitely wanted to be after finally trying to turn my life over to God.
I prayed about what to do and at that time there seemed to be only one way for really serious players to go: go to theology school and become ordained to be a full time Christian minister. So I studied the Bible and theology and the history of the church and preaching under some good professors. Along the way I sat with my parents when my older brother was killed and with my father when he died of a heart condition and with my mother when she died of cancer—all before I was 30. All during this time I was praying and reading the Bible and the lives of the saints—the people in the past who had given their lives to God.
I decided that the playing field I was called to in which to help people find hope and real love was in the ordinary life I was trying to live as a businessman. I made a decision that God had my address. Instead of spending all my time “deciding what I would become for God,” I would treat my own ordinary life as a father and husband who commuted in a car pool twenty miles one way to work five days a week—that I would commit that life to God and to learning how to live for him all day long.
I made that decision because I simply didn’t know any ministers at that time who talked, preached or shared individually about having real problems in their own lives and relationships with their spouses, children, parents or fellow clergy. I was still in my thirties and just couldn’t believe that I was the only committed Christian who wrestled with lust, jealousy, and the many faces of fear of failure. None of these pastors seemed to have that terrible three-day silence warfare with their spouses or had to be right in arguments with a spouse or feel like a wimp, or worry at night about developing a retirement plan or squeezing in vacation time. In fact, since I did wrestle with all of these things, for a number of years I thought I must not be a good Christian.
But at another level I was learning that the way out of the fears for me was not courage, which I’d prayed for, but love. When I was worried, I discovered that if I helped someone else, my fear left me—and that maybe Jesus was right (J) when he said that it is “love that casts out fear.”
At twenty-two I had met a man who encouraged me to keep a journal about the things in which I was interested. He helped me write a small book of ballads. And after a few years of talking to lay people about the hope I was finding in an intimate relationship with the God Jesus called Father, I began writing books about the simple yet agonizing discoveries concerning what it might mean to try to live one’s whole life for and with God.
As I’ve written in blogs before, I kept trying to be open to finding out the truth about my own character defects. And that process has made me face many of the denied self-centeredness and control issues with which I had never before been confronted—either in church or school. But because I’d learned a lot about Jesus and his life, teaching and self-limiting love, I knew that when I learned about my sins and character defects, to confess them to some Christian men also trying to live for God. And I began to see how I’d hurt many of the people I love most.
The incredible thing to me is that in spite of my flaws—many of which didn’t surface until I had become a best-selling author and lecturer and had traveled in many foreign countries around the world, teaching about how God can change our whole perception of what it means to live intimately with him and other people. The bottom line about the discovery process is that I would have bet anyone that I would not do the immoral and hurtful things I wound up doing. And they happened to a man who was very disciplined and had “kept the rules” all his life. I was baffled. And when I faced and admitted what I’d done, it was too late to mend some of the fences I had charged through.
What does this have to do with finding a vocation? For me, a great deal. After having a number of best-selling books translated into many languages and having trained with and learned from many powerful and wealthy people as a young man, I finally realized I am just a person. And that I can sometimes love and help people who are struggling with the questions of life and who have discovered the hard way that they are powerless on their own to change their lives at a deep level.
I go to group meetings of people, some of whom I have known for twenty-five years, with whom I share the pain and joy of trying to live for God. When guests and new people come, we discuss our scariest and most fearsome problems. I was writing books and lecturing in different places in foreign countries, but for twenty years I didn’t find it helpful or necessary to tell them that I was a writer and lecturer. But lately, since many of the people who read my books are very old or deceased, I have told some of these people I love and meet with that my vocation is being a writer and a sort of talent scout for God—helping a few people discover the vocational dreams they buried along with their self-centeredness and control issues. That’s come to be the focus of my vocation.
The short answer to your question about choosing a vocation as a Christian is that since God seems to want loving representatives in every culture and every financial, political, educational and medical field, it doesn’t much matter what you do vocationally as long as you love God and surrender the center of your life to God. So I’d advise you to pray about it, ask God’s will, and then pick something that you really love to do. Then go and find out if you can do it.
Will there be pain and sorrow? Of course, but you will find that in the long run your ability to navigate through pain and still be loving will have more effect in spreading the Good News into other people’s hearts around you than all of the sermons you could preach and all the books you could write.
Lord, help me to keep listening for your voice in the pain of other people’s lives and in my own. And thank you that you let me fail enough to wake up and see that I don’t have to “win” to be the person you will love “someday,” but just to open my eyes and see your loving presence in Andrea, our families and the other people we get to walk with on your crazy adventure. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“This is a large work I’ve called you into, but don’t be overwhelmed by it. It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. The smallest act of giving or receiving makes you a true apprentice.”
-Jesus to the Twelve in Matthew 10:42
“But I do more than thank. I ask—ask the God of our Master, Jesus Christ, the God of glory—to make you intelligent and discerning in knowing him personally, your eyes focused and clear, so that you can see exactly what it is he is calling you to do, grasp the immensity of this glorious way of life he has for his followers, oh, the utter extravagance of his work in us who trust him—endless energy, boundless strength!”
-Ephesians 1:18-19, The Message
“Always continue the climb. It is possible for you to do whatever you choose, if you first get to know who you are and are willing to work with a power that is greater than ourselves to do it.”
-Ella Wheeler Wilcox—American Writer (1850-1919)
“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
-Theodore Roosevelt—26th President of the United States (1858-1919)
This is a response to the second question of a two-part question that came up after John Burke (Lead Pastor at Gateway Church) interviewed me last month. I responded to the first of the two-part question on last week’s blog. Last week’s question was about why I think the kind of small group I had mentioned was important. My response is that Jesus spent approximately two-thirds of his three-year ministry with a small group of twelve men—the same twelve men. And all Jesus left was that small group and the Spirit in their midst. Further, Paul’s ministry was largely devoted to starting and continuing to correspond with and mentor a few small groups scattered in cities around the Roman Empire.
So now I’m getting to the second question: “What is the purpose of the small groups you talked about, and do these groups prepare Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment to issue God’s invitation to the world?”
What is the overall purpose of an “adventure” group?
Although the members of an “adventure” group learn about and experience ways to pray as Jesus taught the Twelve, and they examine relevant scripture passages, the overall purpose is for the group members to experiment with and actually experience receiving and giving the love of Jesus in their real time everyday lives and relationships. The experiment begins with every member agreeing that for thirteen weeks they will assume that the God Jesus called Father is real. And for the thirteen-week period the participants will live as if they had actually surrendered their entire lives to God. This includes an agreement among the group members not to argue about God’s existence or different interpretations of the Gospel. Instead they will be guided to experiment with how to love the people in their personal and vocational lives beginning with the other group members. They learn how to share in the group meetings by listening without interrupting or challenging what anyone else says they have experienced, and by reporting what happens—the failures as well as positive experiences—when they consciously take God with them clear through their days and nights. Each group member agrees to pray for the others every day during the experiment about the things shared in the group.
This group experience is not like any Bible study or sharing group most people have ever been in. The purpose is not to evangelize your neighbors or become expert Bible students; it is to learn (by doing) how to carry out the new command that Jesus gave the disciples when he was about to leave them: “Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (Jn. 13:34-35, The Message)
Since we are also called to love the world, the primary purpose of Jesus’ group and these groups is to learn how to love God and do his will in all areas of our own lives, secular as well as “religious.” And as we try to do some simple things to learn how to receive and give love—with the Father and each other, we will be acquiring the core characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that we will need later when we go out to meet the needs of those who have been marginalized in our culture—the hungry, the sick, those without clothing and shelter, etc. I’ve always thought it was strange that Jesus didn’t send the Twelve out on missions until not too long before the crucifixion. He evidently wanted them to be sure to go out with love as well as a perspective in everything they did.
Bruce Larson and I worked for years with dozens of groups to build a course that is emotionally safe. We did this by developing rules (and making these rules clear) that keep the members from putting people down who risk sharing their reality, (i.e. not “fixing” them, offering suggestions or corrections) that would shame them for not participating or for “making mistakes”. The leader and all the group members will help each other to learn how to love and assure every person’s safety in the group. (This experience can be invaluable later in missions to people who have been abused in their worlds.)
Almost anyone can lead an Adventure group. In the meetings, Bruce and I face and respond first (on CD’s) to every question to which group members are asked to respond. And the group leader responds third. So an appropriate level of vulnerability is established before other group members are asked to share, which allows the group to become safer and closer more quickly than is usually possible otherwise. Also, any participant can choose to “pass” on responding to any of the questions or exercises without being shamed or criticized. These guidelines create a safe and more free and open atmosphere than many participants have ever experienced anywhere. An atmosphere in which the real issues, the fears, the joys and the reality can be shared—of trying to commit their lives and relationships to God in the real life contexts of their own families, church situations and vocational and social lives.
So in this safer atmosphere, the participants try various experiments in their real life situations (outside the group, between sessions) of praying, handling the many disappointments of admitting when they are wrong and asking forgiveness. As they do so, they are building a library of experiences—living stories—from the experiences they will personally go through and share with the group during meetings. And while they are carrying out these experiments between group meetings, the group members will also be examining some of Jesus’ stories (parables) and considering with which character they identify—thus adding more living stories to their educational base.
When people close to Jesus (including the Twelve) asked about the stories he pointed out that they (whom he was teaching) were getting a good picture of how the Kingdom of God works in their lives. But other people whom they encountered along the way—people who hadn’t had this much teaching from Jesus and so didn’t understand—for those people stories created readiness—readiness to hear more. (See Mark 3:10-11, The Message, quoted at the end of this blog.)
What usually happens—invisibly at first—is that in the process of being heard and accepted as they are, people who may have been church members for years, come to realize that love has crept in and replaced loneliness and the sense of not fitting—feelings that apparently all people long to overcome.
As to the sharing, it often happens that when someone who has “passed” several weeks in a row finally speaks, he or she may be a different person than the one whom you met at the first meeting.
We believe that these experiences are all parts of the transformation process Jesus said was essential. It is like being “born anew from on high.” And friends, when you see a fellow adventurer being transformed before your eyes, week after week, it is impossible to tell you what this can do to your faith and ability to love God and other people. It seems that one must experience this personally to understand how important it is.
There is also a strong rule about keeping everything that is said in the meetings confidential. At first this seems strange but in the end, this creates an unbelievable sense of freedom and honesty. I remember when I started the first group of this kind in a church in Norman, OK in the 1950’s I had explained the group plan to the pastor and gotten his permission to start the group. We were meeting in our home. After several weeks the pastor called me and said, “What are you telling the people about money?”
I said, “Why are you asking?”
He said, “Well, three of the couples have started tithing since the group started meeting and they were a little vague when I talked to them.”
I laughed because tithing hadn’t even been mentioned. But the minister was so happy that he said, “I’m sending another couple over to join your group.”
“I’m sorry, Joe,” I said. “The rules are that no new members are allowed to join a new group after the second week. In this intimate atmosphere running in new people every week means starting to build the trust level all over again. We may do another group later if some people want to.”
The minister then asked, “Well what is this ‘secrecy’ all about? Where did you ever come up with a rule about people not sharing what’s going on in a group?”
I smiled and said, “Jesus. Several times Jesus told people who’d been helped by his ministry, “Don’t tell anyone.”
This may sound like an unusual way to operate a group, but people who have been together for thirteen weeks sharing their reality, the good news and the bad, sickness and celebrations, have reported time and again that long before the thirteen weeks are over, participants report that they find themselves becoming more caring for people around them outside the group, even difficult people and even in painful situations. But these feelings and attitudes of really beginning to trust and share are new and a little scary for people at first. And we are convinced they need a safe, non-critical place to report failures as well as successes. (We still attend such groups after all this time.)
This sort of group experience can create a spiritual culture of people who want to experiment with really trying to offer to God the living out of their eating, sleeping, working, walking around lives for Christ. (See Romans 12:1, The Message)
No group structure or process is for everyone, of course. But we have found that unless a large church finds a way for new people to learn to love each other and pray specifically for each other in a face to face atmosphere, over a period of time the back door of that church will become bigger than the front—no matter how gifted and committed the teaching pastors are. And our experience indicates that many group graduates go on mission trips after a thirteen-week group, or join a mission group in their own city, or teach a class in the church. They report that because of their experience in these groups, they find themselves listening to and praying for or with the people they are going out to help.
I have not tried to give you a comprehensive picture of the course content. If you would like to read about the course materials, click here.
And one last thing: because of years of being in adventure group meetings of various kinds, I realize that people are all different in their needs, hopes and dreams. And I have discovered that my job is not to change anyone—even any of you who may be reading this blog. So if what we have learned is not something that you feel comfortable trying, we won’t bug you. But this is just my answer to the person who wanted to know the purpose of this kind of group experience.
We are starting up again working in local churches after many years of working in different cultures here and overseas. If you choose to use this group experience as a part of your Christian formation effort, we’ll be glad to do what we can to help that happen.
“When they were off by themselves, those who were close to him, along with the Twelve, asked about the stories. He told them, “You’ve been given insight into God’s kingdom—you know how it works. But to those who can’t see it yet, everything comes in stories, creating readiness, nudging them toward receptive insight. These are people—
Whose eyes are open but don’t see a thing,
Whose ears are open but don’t understand a word,
Who avoid making an about-face and getting forgiven.”
-Mark 4:10-12, The Message
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s.”
-1st Jn. 4:17, The Message
Lord, Thank you that you took the time to live the life of love with the few people you chose to deliver the Father’s invitation to the rest of us, so we’d know it’s really livable. Give me trust at this time to believe that I will get my work done if I risk interrupting my busy schedule long enough to live your life with a few others…again. In Jesus’ name, amen.
What have you learned as a Christian about death and dying? As an 84-year-old, how are you handling the fact that statistically your own death is not far off for you?
In the first place, death is real for everyone—Christians and all others. But death is also the most important deterrent to serious crime and abuse of others who are weaker than we. In fact, without death most of the morality we have could be lost. The fear of death keeps us from going too far since people could kill us. And with regard to the reign of God in human experience, death is like a beeper light at the end of every life reminding us all that we apparently have a limited time to consider God’s offer of a creative, loving and intimate relationship that starts in this life but extends beyond death. And because of this offer from God we can risk all or part of our lives loving and experiencing love that can transform all of life into fulfilling experiences of freedom from the irrational fears of rejection, injury and death.
I learned a number of things about death and dying between my eighteenth and twenty-ninth birthdays. During that time all of my family of origin either died or were killed. And I found myself planning funerals, picking out coffins and doing the paper work to clear up estates from age eighteen to twenty-eight. I had no idea how unusual that was. I just had to step up and do things because of the way things unfolded.
But I didn’t face the stark fact that I am going to die until the last member of our family—my mother, Mabel Olivia Davis Miller, died.
When she was sixty-three, she discovered she had terminal cancer and had only a few months to live. Since she was the youngest child of her family by fourteen years, her sisters and brothers had predeceased her, she was pretty much alone. When she had to be hospitalized, I asked the major company I worked for to transfer me to their Oklahoma City office (from Texas) so I could be with my mother who had been a sorority housemother in Norman twenty miles away.
I worked in the daytime and took the night nurse’s place for financial reasons. Because of that I got to sit with her while she was dying. And I was amazed. She was calm about her own death. She had me get a notebook so she could tell me what I would need to do as the last member of our family. She told me who to get for a funeral director—a friend of my father’s of whom I had never heard. Then she told me what to give to some cousins in Missouri whom I hadn’t known since I was a child. And she told me some people to notify when she died who would be hurt if they weren’t contacted—and she even helped me to pick out the clothes she’d be buried in—since I would have had no idea.
The bottom line was, here was a brilliant woman dying and in a good bit of pain who was thinking totally about other people. When everything was planned, a few days before her death, she said to me very calmly. “I wonder what death will be like. I wonder if there will be anything like consciousness and if Jesus was right when he said there will be a “place” for each of us—and if so, will we recognize those who have gone before.”
And I realized something I’ve never forgotten: that we learn how to face death by watching people do it with courage and trust.
But even with all that experience I never let my weight down into the stark fear and awareness that I am going to die—until after my mother’s death. After her funeral, I went into our family home in Tulsa and arranged for most of the things to be given to the Salvation Army. The last place I went to was the basement. There was a large room in the center and several smaller rooms with doors opening into the big room. When someone had died, what remained of their personal effects had been put in one of the separate rooms. No one wanted to go through them. But now there was no one else to go down those stairs to go through it all.
I remember sitting on the floor of that big room with boxes of family pictures and mementos of my dead family’s lives all around me. I felt helpless. I began to cry when I realized that there was no one left to tell me who the people and occasions in those pictures were. When I realized that I’d never know, I also realized that I’d just have to burn those last remaining evidences that these people had lived—people who had been so dear to my family and who had loved me. I felt lost and very sad.
That night I had a vivid dream. I was lying in a wooden box with my eyes closed. I sensed that someone was about to nail down the lid but I couldn’t get my eyes open or move my mouth as I realized I was being nailed in a coffin alive! I panicked!
Finally, with all my strength, I exploded my muscles and kicked at the top and woke up trying to scream “I’M ALIVE!”
The next morning as I sat on the basement floor in the midst of the boxes, I realized in a different way that I am going to die. And I thought about that. Then something occurred to me I’d never thought before and I said to God, “Whatever your plan about death is, if it’s good enough for them (and I indicated the boxes of pictures) it’s good enough for me.” And in that moment in the gray concrete basement I felt in some strange way that I had joined the human race. That was when I realized that death is like a red beacon at the end of the tunnel reminding us that if we want to live a good and loving life here on earth, we should get at it, since our time is limited.
Several months before my mother died I had committed as much of my life as I knew to as much of God as I knew in Jesus. However at that time I had not thought about my own death and how people who might see a picture of me might not know my name. And for me, those few minutes alone with the family’s past in that gray basement constituted one of the milestone steps in realizing that I had to begin to trust every part of my life to God in order to live in Reality.
Over the years I have been very healthy physically and I’m grateful about that. As a counselor I have also learned that everyone is afraid at some level—afraid of a few things or a lot of things. But I’ve also learned that Jesus left us an incredible Life Plan that is designed to free us from fear by teaching us to receive God’s love and acceptance and continual presence right now—without having to earn it. And realizing that I was loved by God somehow freed me to want to give other people who were lonely and afraid the same self-limiting love I felt from God and from other people I met the next few years who were attempting to surrender their whole lives to Him.
Since that time when I hear that someone I know has died, I realize that the best thing I can bring to their family is to be present during the time of the funeral. At first I didn’t want to see people who had lost a loved one because I didn’t know what to say. But then I remembered that Jesus didn’t promise to bring us brilliant or fancy gifts. He just promised to be with us—he promised us his presence. So now I can go and sit with a friend or family member without the burden of having something brilliant to say but just to listen to them tell what happened, how the sickness or death went, or whatever they want to say, if anything.
And over the years, I’ve learned that for me the acts of loving people, helping out if possible or just walking alongside them in simple ways by being present—all of these are parts of what Jesus promised each of us—as an aspect of loving us specifically. The bottom line is: we will never have to be alone again. He will be with us. And it is that love (not courage) that sometimes can cast out fear—even of death. (see John 4)
Regarding my own upcoming death, sometimes I wake up at night afraid. And when I do, I stop and surrender my whole life once more and thank Him for the remarkable years I’ve already had and for the people he’s put in my life to love. But mostly I’m filled with gratitude, and I’m more in love with my wife, Andrea, my grown kids and grandkids, great grandkids, old friends, and the crazy people I still meet with several times a week who continue to teach me how to live and love. So I’d like to hang around a while longer. I am very happy and love the work God has given me to do, as Andrea and I work together to finish a book about a new perspective that we have heard God offering in His story as we try to walk in it.
Lord, thank you that as we learn to love you and other people as you love us, you help us to trust our relationship with you and its continuance beyond pain and death—and the miracle is that we can begin to trust other people as you act toward us in trustworthy ways. Help us to surrender our lives right now—and then help us to look around and see who we might love and help for you today. Amen.
“You trust God, don’t you? Trust me. There is plenty of room for you in my Father’s home. If that weren’t so, would I have told you that I’m on my way to get a room ready for you? And if I’m on my way to get your room ready, I’ll come back and get you so you can live where I live.” (Jn. 14:1-4, The Message)
“This image of planting a dead seed and raising a live plant is a mere sketch at best, but perhaps it will help in approaching the mystery of the resurrection body—but only if you keep in mind that when we’re raised, we’re raised for good, alive forever! The corpse that’s planted is no beauty, but when it’s raised, it’s glorious. Put in the ground weak, it comes up powerful. The seed sown is natural; the seed grown is supernatural—same seed, same body, but what a difference from when it goes down in physical mortality to when it is raised up in spiritual immortality!” (1 Cor. 15: 42-44, The Message)
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” (1 John 4:17-18, The Message)
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world. (Matt. 5:8, The Message)
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.” (John 11:25, The Message)
Keith, what if we have let God in our lives and into the driver’s seat and nothing happened? I still have the same struggles that I have always had. Is there ever a way out? I am really wondering and feel as though I am constantly in a spiritual battle between God and the devil. Thanks, R.
This is a question that most Christians don’t have the guts to ask. And yet for anyone who has consciously and seriously tried to put God in the driver’s seat of her or his life, it is the question to ask.
There are a couple of times Jesus dealt directly with that question. “What’s necessary to put God in the driver’s seat where the decisions are made?” One is recorded in Matt. 19. A rich young man came to Jesus and told him that he wanted to quit being a listener and start being one of Jesus’ committed disciples—which in terms of our conversation would be saying, “I am ready to put the God you call Father in the driver’s seat of my life.”
Jesus said in effect, “Great, “If you want to enter the life of God, just do what he tells you.”
The young man said, “What in particular?
Jesus said, “Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you do yourself.”
(R., can you say that you are following what Jesus says? I suspect you are from the tone of your inquiry.) Anyway, the young man said in effect, “I’ve done all that.” (I’ve put God in the driver’s seat and am willing to keep all his commandments.)
Then Jesus must have looked at the man and said, “This young man is a serious player.” But then Jesus says something completely of the wall. He asked the young man to give up the thing that was really most important to him that wasn’t even a “bad” thing, but was the thing that bottom-line motivated and determined his most crucial decisions (what was really in the driver’s seat of his life—but he had never seen it that way.) Jesus told him that if you really want to trust God with your whole life, then, “go sell all your possessions; give everything to the poor. All your wealth will then be in heaven. Then come follow me.”
What I think Jesus is saying to the young man, and what I heard him saying to me (that for years stopped me in my tracks) was that I already had a god sitting in the driver’s seat of my life—in fact several as it turned out–and until I was willing to see and admit that something or someone who was not God was the most important thing in my life (“in the driver’s seat determining my private decisions”), I could not really surrender my whole life to God at all.
The young man in the story’s response was: “That was the last thing the young man expected to hear. And so crestfallen, he walked away. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and he couldn’t bear to let go.”
What Jesus does still, it seems to me, is to help us see that when we come and want to follow God totally, we already have a god we do not realize is a trump card to our attempts to put God in the driver’s seat (or maybe several gods that we obey when they call.) The young man’s god was his money, or possessions. And until we see and admit that these gods which unconscious to us are already in the driver’s seat, we are not free to surrender our whole lives to God and are baffled that we are constantly in internal battles we don’t understand.
I was absolutely shocked when I tried to see what was really most important to me—because consciously God was number one. Some of the things I have had to admit were keeping me from surrendering my whole life were—at different times—financial security, sexual fantasies or actions, the love of my wife or one of my children (more than anything), my vocational success, drinking too much, my reputation as a fine Christian man, and my writing and speaking ministry. A mentor helped me realize that each of these things was at times more important than God, when I would spend time thinking about and doing one of them to the detriment of my clear duties as a father, husband, and Christian man “surrendered wholly to God.” Many of these things were not even “bad” things, but they kept my focus on me and what I wanted, instead of what I knew was the priority of God for me, and were detrimental to my growing up to be the man God had in mind for me to become.
But after many years of meeting with other men and women wanting to follow Jesus and be his people, I finally realized that although I can’t just “put God first,” I can tell him that I am willing to, and give Him permission to show me those things that I have consciously and unconsciously put in the driver’s seat of my life and relationships. In fact working with individuals and small groups to help them –and me—to discover, confess and commit God those other hidden gods, so that together we can uncover and achieve the dreams and vocations God has for each us—this became my life’s work for God.
These positive changes in direction came about when some bad decisions I made because of obeying some of the competitive gods I had not faced caused me such pain that I became willing to surrender my entire life to God, realizing that only He could give me the courage and insight to even want Him that much.
But the other part of what happened when I specifically set out to give God permission to sit in the driver’s seat in my life was that I agreed to start doing the disciplines that could help me learn how God wants me to live. For me this has entailed learning all I could about what Jesus said the Father wants us to do in the new Kingdom (Reign) of God in his people’s lives. I read the scriptures, concentrating first on the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-2), the parables, and the teachings of Jesus describing the character and purposes of God, realizing that God wants us to live out of these same characteristics. That includes loving the poor and marginalized people, but also Jesus said people will know we are his followers by the way we (Christians) love each other. (John 13:35) And I prayed almost every day about what I was learning, asking God to show me where my life needed to be different, and to help me to stop clinging to my old ways of running my life as I learned how to let God be in control.
And when I saw how Jesus said God wants us to live, I examined my life and saw not only the false gods in the driver’s seat, but also self-centeredness everywhere. And when I discovered I had hurt someone I had to learn to confess to God, then go and confess to the person I had harmed and make amends to that person. All of this became part of a running conversation with God about the life of loving I was discovering that I’d always wanted to live but was afraid to try because I might look “pious” or “holier than thou.” Now I don’t care. I just want to love people and learn how to use the gifts God has given me in the process.
And all I can tell you is that what has happened to me has made me more loving, aware of my good traits as well as those which derail my best intensions and conscious motivations.
I started not to tell you all this, but since I found that God accepts us the minute we come to him in as complete trust as we have, I have discovered the life I always suspected might be out there somewhere for me. I am still only a child trying to obey his intimate heavenly “daddy.” But I also care enough about you to tell you these things, whatever you may think me. And that—as anyone who has known me many years will tell you—is a real miracle.
“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.”
“I am talking about a revolutionary way of living. Religion isn’t something to be added to our other duties, and thus make our lives more complex. The life with God is the center of life, and all else is remodeled and integrated by it. It gives singleness of eye. The most important thing is not to be perpetually passing out cups of cold water to a thirsty world. We can get so fearlessly busy trying to carry out the second commandment, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” that we are undeveloped in our devoted life to God as well as neighbor”
A Testament of Devotion
“We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the center, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of our soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence…. To empty ourselves of our false divinity, to deny ourselves, to give up being the center of the world in imagination, to discern that all points in the world are equally centers and the true center is outside the world, this is to consent…. Such consent is love.”
Waiting for God
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which use to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”
Third Edition, page 83-84
P.S. If you want to check out a way a Christian or group of Christians can use the 12 Steps as a guide to spiritual wholeness see A Hunger for Healing: The Twelve Steps as a Classic Model for Christian Spiritual Growth.
 If you want to see a case in which Jesus did the same kind of helping someone see the ‘god’ that was already in the driver’s seat of her life, but upon seeing that god was ready to put Jesus’ God first, see the story of the woman at the well—and what happened to her life when she made the decision to put God before her secret god (i.e. Relationships with men—or sex.) See John 4.
 R. – I am not suggesting that you have any particular ‘gods’—just sharing what happened to me when I faced this very question.
Keith, is the Bible true? And if it is, how can I know it’s true?
That’s a good question, one that a lot more Christians wonder about than you would imagine. The simple answer is that since the story is all about God, what God is like, and what God wants from the relationship with His people, only God would know if the story is true or not.
But there is included in God’s story a way for people to know him and know what he wants in a relationship with him. If we surrender our lives to God and begin to live in the intimate relationship with him, we can begin to “see” him walking around in Jesus in the scriptures. We see him loving and inviting people to live with him in the creative life of giving and being loved that he has offered to us. Then, in the actual living with him and for him, we will know that the story is true in a way that is convincing enough for us to keep going.
Since the life God offers people in the Bible is an intimate life of mutual love and trust with God and other people, it should not be surprising that knowing whether the story about God’s loving us is true can be determined only by entering the relationships and beginning to love and trust the God whose story it is.
The love of the God of the Bible whom Jesus called Father is a love that transforms those who accept it and try to live it and pass it on. And the characteristic way that love is transforming is that the loving reign of God in people’s lives works like yeast that is put in dough—it permeates every aspect of a person’s life, and not just Sundays or the “religious” room in one’s inner home.
My experience has been that I first surrendered as much of my life as I could at the time to as much of God as I could understand—which I realize now was not much. But I really thought I’d done it, and that was enough. And as I “took God with me” into the daily aspects of my life, work and relationships I discovered that my life was changing. I began by becoming aware that when I made time to acknowledge God’s presence in the different parts of my life I began to talk to him about what I was experiencing (pray). And I asked him to change one thing after another, until one day I asked God to change everything in my life that was not God’s will for me. It was then that I began to change my behavior as if God were continually with me—which I realized he was.
Although I could tell you thousands or more words about this process, you haven’t asked me to do that. So I’ll just finish this blog by saying that for me the transformation (so complete it’s like being born into a new life) is not just changing one’s ideas about God, but rather in my case it was the changing of my whole perspective about who God is, what he wants from people—particularly from me—and how to love without trying to control people to get outcomes I want to fulfill my dreams and make me happy. I began to think about how I could enhance the lives of people around me. The Bible calls this Life and relationship with God “Eternal Life” that begins “now and never ends.” (John 17:3, The Message) And this is eternal life: to know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent.
Dear Lord, thank you that you didn’t bring a religion to control our lives, but a Way to live and love and learn about all of life. Help us to surrender to a life of love with you in which we can know you and your way of being human. Amen.
My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. (1 John 4:7-10, The Message)
God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us… (1 John 4:17-18, The Message)
Who is God, and what is the Bible really all about? I try to tell my children that God is love. But I see God’s people in the Bible (and in history today) slaughter people in God’s name. Can you give me a simple definition of who God is and what the Bible is all about?
That’s a very good question—probably impossible to answer in a brief blog post. But since I have spent the past four years almost full time reading virtually nothing but the Bible (trying to write a book that Andrea and I hope will shed a little light on that very question) here is my two minute impossible “answer” to your impossible questions.
In very simplistic terms the Bible is the story about God—who created the world and everything in it. The story line of the Bible deals with God’s experiment as “Father” with human beings, or you might say—with family life. According to the story, God “Fathered” human beings as male and female, and he gave only them free choice so they could experience love. (Without being able to choose, humans could not have made a decision whether to love God or one another or not.) The tragedy of the plot is that from the beginning (Adam and Eve) chose not to respond to the Father’s love and tutoring about what life and reality are about—“what is good and what is evil.” And the first humans rebelled and tried to replace God as their own teacher of what is good and what is evil.
From that point the Bible is the story of how we human beings—men and women—have scratched and clawed (either with bared claws or wearing velvet gloves) to get what we want that we think will make us “happy” and justified our choices because we have put ourselves and our self-centered desires in the center of our life where only God, who created everything, belongs.
In the pages of the Bible are all the Father’s recurring offers to transform whatever we get as the result of our efforts (failure, injury, disappointment or hollow success) into what we need in order to be transformed into what we were ‘designed’ to become: co-hosts in the Father’s family as we join God in inviting the rest of humanity into the intimate, caring relationship with the Father and each other to learn how life and loving were made to work. In this relationship, the Father has offered to limit his power and personally tutor each of us about how to interact with him, each other and the environment—teaching and modeling the same self-limiting love with which God relates to us. And the idea seems to be that it is the Father’s love that lubricates all of the rough edges of life and turns them into the wisdom and knowledge that can make existence a heaven or hell—now and always.
Since all of us human beings have consciously or unconsciously put ourselves and our wants to satisfy our self-centered desire in the center of our lives and relationships (thus creating what we call Sin: replacing God as the source of the knowledge of what is good and evil for us and those around us to do,) we all resist accepting the Father as our tutor about how to live and relate.
This unconscious but universal tendency to replace God (Sin) blinds us to who God is and who we were made to become. We project our own need to control onto God, punish those who disagree with us and use his name to enforce our own will on others. And we have honestly taught and projected our conclusions onto God. So we lost the original vision of the self-limiting love of the Father. For centuries we see the Father touching the lives of those who would trust him, and sending messages through these “prophets” about our screwing things up. Invariably we killed or ignored these prophet-messengers.
Finally Jesus came to make clear what the Father is like—how the Father’s self-limiting love looks walking in our homes and neighborhoods as we face our political and personal dishonesty and controlling relationships. At last we could see and interact with the Father person in Jesus.
But people’s projections of their own unconscious self-centered experience and ideas about God overshadowed Jesus’ self-limiting love. They could not accept the fact that God would transcend even legalistic justice to forgive them, love them and teach them how to love each other and even their enemies, so that love could be the guide for Reality oriented life and relationships.
Experiencing the fact that we could not believe that kind of self-limiting love (because we couldn’t do it ourselves), Jesus limited his power to escape or retaliate and instead died for us—the unmistakable act of self-limiting love. (“i.e. if I stepped in front of you and took a bullet to save your life, you would know that I care for you.)
So in Jesus’ life and death we see God as the loving, intimate Father we always longed for but most of us could not find, who limited his power to punish us in order to give life and freedom to us if we will accept as we see it in Jesus.
That’s the impossible short version of the answer the Bible story gives to our impossible questions: “Who is God?” and “What’s the Bible story about?”
“It wasn’t so long ago that you were mired in that old stagnant life of sin. You let the world, which doesn’t know the first thing about living, tell you how to live. You filled your lungs with polluted unbelief, and then exhaled disobedience. We all did it, all of us doing what we felt like doing, when we felt like doing it, all of us in the same boat. It’s a wonder God didn’t lose his temper and do away with the whole lot of us. Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us.” Ephesians 2:1-2, The Message
“The person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that’s who loves me. And the person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and make myself plain to him.”
Judas (not Iscariot) said, “Master, why is it that you are about to make yourself plain to us but not to the world?”
“Because a loveless world,” said Jesus, “is a sightless world. If anyone loves me, he will carefully keep my word and my Father will love him—we’ll move right into the neighborhood.” John 14:21-24, The Message
“How blessed is God! And what a blessing he is! He’s the Father of our Master, Jesus Christ, and takes us to the high places of blessing in him. Long before he laid down earth’s foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.” Ephesians 1:2-4 , The Message
Lord, thank you that you have not given us a complex philosophical system that only the brilliant and educated could understand. But instead you loved us as your children and gave us a story to walk in with you and each other. And thank you Lord, that it’s a love story about forgiveness. In Jesus name, amen.
“God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.” 1 John 4: 17-18, The Message