Further up and Further In

 

Further up and Further In

In these retreats, we are learning to pay attention to the importance of transition: the importance of ending one thing before beginning the next, with a spacious break in-between. This simple practice, if integrated throughout our days, will help us live more humane lives. More humane for us; more humane for others.

 

With that in mind, once again take time to transition into this section of the retreat. Perhaps take one of those meandering walks we talked about in the first section. Perhaps practice the body prayer for a few moments. Don’t forget the Music and More button on the home page. Take a few deep breaths before moving on.

Breaking Hard Bread

In this section, Donna shares a story that we are calling,​ Breaking Hard Bread. Sit back, relax and enjoy the story. It begins with this foreword from the prophet Isaiah:

 

“Although the LORD gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’”

— Isaiah 30:20, 21

Hard Words from a Good Friend

Betty (pictured) grew up in China and was 69 years old when I met her. I grew up in Arkansas, and was 30 years her junior. Betty’s husband was a scientist who invented night vision technology. My husband was an area director who invented Young Life program characters and creative ways to help middle school kids sit still long enough to hear the gospel. At first glance, it seemed Betty and I had little in common. Yet almost two decades ago the Lord introduced us to one another at a friend’s birthday party, and we became fast friends.

 

For many of those years, we met once a week to share our lives and dwell in the presence of Jesus together, always over a delicious meal. Betty became my dear friend and mentor, though Betty would be offended to hear me call her my “mentor.” She would reject that verbal form of social distancing. She would always insist we were soul companions, traveling side-by-side. Her humility was almost shocking.

 

Betty was humble, and she was also bold. She would not hesitate to tell me the hard truth.

One day, during a time of severe personal pain in my life, I made my way to Betty’s house for some hoped-for comfort. Instead she offered me the hard words from Isaiah 30. I was surprised that those hard words brought a sense of healing and hope and the clarity that I needed. Such is the beauty of God’s living and active Word. It is not just a two-edged sword, but a sharp knife in the hands of a Skilled Surgeon.

 

Bread and water are essential for our survival, yet adversity and affliction are not meals any of us would ever order off the menu. Our Father loves us enough, however, to give us what we need, even if it is sometimes painful. Like the Good Physician that He is, our Lord knows how to skillfully use pain for our healing; He has sworn His own Hippocratic Oath, “Do no harm.” By offering me these words from Isaiah, Betty was inviting me, in the midst of my pain, to trust our Father.

Hard Words from a Good Friend

Betty (pictured) grew up in China and was 69 years old when I met her. I grew up in Arkansas, and was 30 years her junior. Betty’s husband was a scientist who invented night vision technology. My husband was an area director who invented Young Life program characters and creative ways to help middle school kids sit still long enough to hear the gospel. At first glance, it seemed Betty and I had little in common. Yet almost two decades ago the Lord introduced us to one another at a friend’s birthday party, and we became fast friends.

 

For many of those years, we met once a week to share our lives and dwell in the presence of Jesus together, always over a delicious meal. Betty became my dear friend and mentor, though Betty would be offended to hear me call her my “mentor.” She would reject that verbal form of social distancing. She would always insist we were soul companions, traveling side-by-side. Her humility was almost shocking.

 

Betty was humble, and she was also bold. She would not hesitate to tell me the hard truth.

One day, during a time of severe personal pain in my life, I made my way to Betty’s house for some hoped-for comfort. Instead she offered me the hard words from Isaiah 30. I was surprised that those hard words brought a sense of healing and hope and the clarity that I needed. Such is the beauty of God’s living and active Word. It is not just a two-edged sword, but a sharp knife in the hands of a Skilled Surgeon.

 

Bread and water are essential for our survival, yet adversity and affliction are not meals any of us would ever order off the menu. Our Father loves us enough, however, to give us what we need, even if it is sometimes painful. Like the Good Physician that He is, our Lord knows how to skillfully use pain for our healing; He has sworn His own Hippocratic Oath, “Do no harm.” By offering me these words from Isaiah, Betty was inviting me, in the midst of my pain, to trust our Father.

Hidden No More

A few years ago, Betty was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but we continued to meet weekly whenever possible. We would break the bread of adversity together and sip on the water of affliction over lunch at her favorite restaurant. It was painful to lose my friend, day-by-day, but Betty continued to mentor me with lessons that were never structured or planned. Lessons that were increasingly delivered through communion of the Spirit without the help of words.

 

At the outset of the pandemic, Betty’s son called me to tell me that we were losing her for good. She had cancer and would be spending her final days in hospice care at home. ​ For the next three weeks, I set aside all social-distancing rules and made many trips to sit with Betty.

 

One day toward the end, Betty was sitting in a wheelchair in her living room, head down, not responsive, when her two nieces showed up at the window to say goodbye. What a surreal season we were living through. Two delicate young women standing in a flowerbed, eyes glistening from barely above their protective masks, calling out over and over again through the screen, “Auntie Betty, we love you.” The girls pulled their dad up on FaceTime, and he repeated the same mantra, “Betty, it’s your brother James. I love you!”

 

In this holy moment pregnant with adversity and affliction, the words from Isaiah proved true. My Teacher was hidden no more, and it seemed He was standing right behind me.

 

‘What else is there to say when someone is dying than I love you?” I thought I heard Jesus ask. “In fact, what else is there to say at any time on any day?” This moment at the end of Betty’s life illuminated for me the sole purpose and goal of our journey with Jesus: to embody and proclaim nothing but pure love. If only I can remember that lesson moving forward. It so easily slips away.

 

Death makes everything so clear.

Actively Dying

Shortly after Betty’s nieces left, the hospice nurse showed up, fully suited in a mask, blue scrubs and gloves. He examined Betty, then he gave a thorough explanation of what her sons could expect in the days to come. He said Betty was transitioning — she was “actively dying” now. It would not be long. He told us firmly, Betty belonged in her bed. She would never sit in a chair again. Like the words from Isaiah, these were hard words to hear, but they brought the clarity we needed, and so they were a gift.

 

In those final days of Betty’s life, I would play instrumental hymns for her from my cell phone. One day, after hours of not opening her eyes or speaking, Betty began softly humming along:

 

It is well … with my soul.

 

Through the fog of Alzheimer’s and the pain of cancer, Betty’s soul was rising in hopeful chorus.​ In that moment, I thought I heard the Teacher once again. He was singing in silent harmony with her: You are much more than your body. You are much more than your mind. Your life is safely hidden within Me.

 

Betty’s life was indeed hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), and as her mind and body were now sloughing away, that beautiful life was beginning to shimmer from deep within.

 

The day the nieces showed up to say goodbye, however, Betty could no longer hum along. She was fully standing on the threshold between this world and the next. She was leaving one room, and preparing to enter another. She was ready for this moment.​ She had practiced the posture of surrender since she first surrendered to Jesus as a 15 year-old girl.

 

Betty had given me a book years ago by Henri Nouwen, “With Open Hands.” ​ She had talked with me about living a life with our hands outstretched and open, sometimes being led where we did not want to follow. Now I was witnessing Betty actively letting go of everything in this world, soon to include her ravaged body. She was in truth “actively dying.” The Teacher silently suggested to me that this was also the posture I was to take as I moved on without Betty. I was to practice actively dying, so that I too would be ready to cross that final threshold with my hands outstretched and open.

Actively Dying

Shortly after Betty’s nieces left, the hospice nurse showed up, fully suited in a mask, blue scrubs and gloves. He examined Betty, then he gave a thorough explanation of what her sons could expect in the days to come. He said Betty was transitioning — she was “actively dying” now. It would not be long. He told us firmly, Betty belonged in her bed. She would never sit in a chair again. Like the words from Isaiah, these were hard words to hear, but they brought the clarity we needed, and so they were a gift.

 

In those final days of Betty’s life, I would play instrumental hymns for her from my cell phone. One day, after hours of not opening her eyes or speaking, Betty began softly humming along:

 

It is well … with my soul.

 

Through the fog of Alzheimer’s and the pain of cancer, Betty’s soul was rising in hopeful chorus.​ In that moment, I thought I heard the Teacher once again. He was singing in silent harmony with her: You are much more than your body. You are much more than your mind. Your life is safely hidden within Me.

 

Betty’s life was indeed hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), and as her mind and body were now sloughing away, that beautiful life was beginning to shimmer from deep within.

 

The day the nieces showed up to say goodbye, however, Betty could no longer hum along. She was fully standing on the threshold between this world and the next. She was leaving one room, and preparing to enter another. She was ready for this moment.​ She had practiced the posture of surrender since she first surrendered to Jesus as a 15 year-old girl.

 

Betty had given me a book years ago by Henri Nouwen, “With Open Hands.” ​ She had talked with me about living a life with our hands outstretched and open, sometimes being led where we did not want to follow. Now I was witnessing Betty actively letting go of everything in this world, soon to include her ravaged body. She was in truth “actively dying.” The Teacher silently suggested to me that this was also the posture I was to take as I moved on without Betty. I was to practice actively dying, so that I too would be ready to cross that final threshold with my hands outstretched and open.

Actively Dying

Shortly after Betty’s nieces left, the hospice nurse showed up, fully suited in a mask, blue scrubs and gloves. He examined Betty, then he gave a thorough explanation of what her sons could expect in the days to come. He said Betty was transitioning — she was “actively dying” now. It would not be long. He told us firmly, Betty belonged in her bed. She would never sit in a chair again. Like the words from Isaiah, these were hard words to hear, but they brought the clarity we needed, and so they were a gift.

 

In those final days of Betty’s life, I would play instrumental hymns for her from my cell phone. One day, after hours of not opening her eyes or speaking, Betty began softly humming along:

 

It is well … with my soul.

 

Through the fog of Alzheimer’s and the pain of cancer, Betty’s soul was rising in hopeful chorus.​ In that moment, I thought I heard the Teacher once again. He was singing in silent harmony with her: You are much more than your body. You are much more than your mind. Your life is safely hidden within Me.

 

Betty’s life was indeed hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3), and as her mind and body were now sloughing away, that beautiful life was beginning to shimmer from deep within.

 

The day the nieces showed up to say goodbye, however, Betty could no longer hum along. She was fully standing on the threshold between this world and the next. She was leaving one room, and preparing to enter another. She was ready for this moment.​ She had practiced the posture of surrender since she first surrendered to Jesus as a 15 year-old girl.

 

Betty had given me a book years ago by Henri Nouwen, “With Open Hands.” ​ She had talked with me about living a life with our hands outstretched and open, sometimes being led where we did not want to follow. Now I was witnessing Betty actively letting go of everything in this world, soon to include her ravaged body. She was in truth “actively dying.” The Teacher silently suggested to me that this was also the posture I was to take as I moved on without Betty. I was to practice actively dying, so that I too would be ready to cross that final threshold with my hands outstretched and open.

The Last Supper

As evening began to fall upon us, I spoke with Betty about the transition she was facing. I comforted her with words from Jesus. I spoke with Jesus about Betty. I committed her spirit into His hands. Then I realized I was really hungry. So I called the Japanese restaurant where Betty and I went to lunch dozens of times over the past few years. I ordered the meal that Betty and I always ordered and shared together. Then I went to pick it up.

 

I did not realize how dangerous it would be to drive the familiar route from Betty’s house to Fuki Sushi without Betty in the car beside me. I did not expect the flood of tears as I recalled the familiar conversation we would have on that regular drive. In the last years, our conversations were always the same, going over the same territory, usually several times in one outing. I did not care. The content did not matter. Our relationship was not content-based nor information-dependent. In fact, the less our conversations made sense, the deeper our love seemed to grow for one another. As I drove, I thought I heard the Teacher say,

 

“You know, that’s how it is with you and Me, too.”

 

At the restaurant, I waited my turn to approach the hostess, six feet back with my mask in place. Yellow caution tape sealed off the dining room where Betty and I had sat for many meals over many years. It felt for a moment like the physical building was actually joining me in my mourning.

 

When I approached the hostess, she asked me from behind her mask, “How are you?” I said, “I’m OK.” As I took the bag of food to leave, however, I turned back to her and said, “My friend and I have come here many times for lunch. She is dying now. This will be our final meal.” This beautiful Japanese woman, her eyes turning soft just above her mask, said, “I am so sorry.” Then she gave a gentle bow.

 

I was happy to discover when I got back to Betty’s that both of her sons, James and Andrew, were there. They had not been there for most of the afternoon, taking a needed break before returning. Now the three of us got to sit at Betty’s table and share Betty’s favorite meal. Betty was no longer able to eat, of course, and I had known all along she would not be joining me for dinner.

 

The brothers and I sat there for more than two hours. We told stories about Betty and laughed and cried. We talked about how I had experienced her in ways that they had not, and vice versa. We saw Betty in a new light and celebrated her life over shrimp tempura and sushi. It seemed that the Teacher was listening deeply to us, like He did those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Likewise, as He broke bread with us, He opened our eyes to see.

 

I had shared meals with Betty and her sons before, but never with just James and Andrew. Our relationships now took on a new sense of depth and intimacy without Betty in the room. That was unexpected. The Teacher reminded me of His strange, parting words to His disciples:

 

It is for your good that I am going away.

 

Those words seemed newly relevant and true. There were gifts we could not receive from Betty, except in her departure. The Teacher assured me, On the day of your departure, I will give gifts to your loved ones, too.

 

Betty crossed the final threshold four days later at 4 a.m.

The Bread of Life

After Betty passed, James, Andrew and I were once again hungry. When the restaurants finally opened, we picked up a hearty breakfast and shared another meal. One week later when we laid Betty in the ground, we returned to her house, sat in her garden and ate again.

 

Give us this day our daily bread,” the Teacher taught us to pray. Whether that bread is thin wafers of manna, pancakes soaked in butter, or the bread of adversity washed down with a hard swallow of affliction, it is a gift from our Father. This remains a mystery, but one thing is increasingly clear:

 

The bread of adversity is meant to be broken together.

 

When we share our suffering with one another, our Teacher is hidden no more. Jesus joins us at the table, and we see Him with our own eyes. Like the disciples in Emmaus, we see His wounded hands and feet and the scars on His forehead. We hear the voice of the One who has gone before us, whose body was broken on our behalf.

 

Take and eat,” Jesus said to His disciples, His last night in His unscarred body. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Before He said those words, however, the Teacher gave thanks for that hard, broken bread.

The Bread of Life

After Betty passed, James, Andrew and I were once again hungry. When the restaurants finally opened, we picked up a hearty breakfast and shared another meal. One week later when we laid Betty in the ground, we returned to her house, sat in her garden and ate again.

 

Give us this day our daily bread,” the Teacher taught us to pray. Whether that bread is thin wafers of manna, pancakes soaked in butter, or the bread of adversity washed down with a hard swallow of affliction, it is a gift from our Father. This remains a mystery, but one thing is increasingly clear:

 

The bread of adversity is meant to be broken together.

 

When we share our suffering with one another, our Teacher is hidden no more. Jesus joins us at the table, and we see Him with our own eyes. Like the disciples in Emmaus, we see His wounded hands and feet and the scars on His forehead. We hear the voice of the One who has gone before us, whose body was broken on our behalf.

 

Take and eat,” Jesus said to His disciples, His last night in His unscarred body. “Do this in remembrance of Me.” Before He said those words, however, the Teacher gave thanks for that hard, broken bread.

Reflection Questions

What has the Lord stirred within you through this story?

Of what are you most aware?

A thought?

A feeling?

A longing?

Linger and listen to what the Teacher might be offering you through this awareness. Write down what you are hearing from Him. If it helps, write it in the form of a letter from Jesus to you.

During this season of adversity and affliction, have you noticed any “teachers” coming out from hiding?

Through whom or what has Jesus spoken to you?

What did He have to say?

If you have lost someone you loved, what gifts did Jesus give you at their departure?

In what ways did He meet you and console you?

What gifts is He still giving you today through this loved one?

Thank Him for His gifts.

You might be interested in reading a recent article from the Wall Street Journal, Dying Gives Us a Chance to Confront Truth. It was written by C. Kavin Rowe, a former Young Life Campaigner kid who is now a professor at Duke University Divinity School.

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