Remembering September 11th and What Followed: A Moment of Honor and Nobility

The rest tent is the white rectangle in the middle of the picture.  You can view a current picture of the World Trade Center here.

Something I post every September 11th.  Pray for peace.

“But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Gettysburg Address

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
November 19, 1863

It was early on Tuesday morning as I got dressed and ready for work.  Molly and Keely were still asleep when the phone rang and my Mother’s broken voice came across the line, “Turn on the TV, Christopher!”  The image of that first tower smoldering in the New York Skyline is still fresh in my mind, ingrained there with so many other images that came into homes and business throughout that day on screens too small for the enormity of the event.

A few weeks later the call came from The Salvation Army Headquarters that they needed officers to volunteer for duty at Ground Zero; I had my name in the same day.  There were five of us from California and we arrived in New York October 15th of 2001.  We went through the standard briefing, received our assignments and then they took us to Ground Zero.  When the subway arrived at the Chambers Street station you could feel the quiet, the normally bustling crowds subdued and solemn.

Words fail to describe the scene at the World Trade Center.  Photographs may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand words would not be enough to describe what that place of desolation felt or smelled or sounded like on that day.  Those with me said little and walked on in silence around the perimeter of Ground Zero.  With each stop we would meet the men and women who worked diligently to recover those who had fallen what seemed ages ago.  They would smile and welcome us to the work, but the weariness and sorrow in their eyes was deep.

Our team worked at Ground Zero for two weeks and much could be written about what we saw and heard in those 14 days, but I will only share one event as the nation remembers September 11th, 2001.  I was assigned with a fellow officer to man a rest tent across the street from the World Trade Center and what was now called “The Pile.”  We provided drinks, snacks, basic first aid supplies, magazines and other items for the recovery workers, but we also served as chaplains as the need arose.

I was by myself one evening (I worked the shift from 11pm to 11am) when a firefighter asked if I was a chaplain.  I answered “Yes” and followed him to The Pile.  The crews had just uncovered an elevator car and were recovering the remains of seven people; seven sons and daughters taken from their resting place to be identified and laid to rest again with honor and dignity.  As they lifted each stretcher from the hole, an American flag was draped across the body and then they placed the stretcher on a motorized cart to transport them to the morgue.  I was asked to accompany one of the fallen and took my place at the foot of the stretcher and waited to make the walk.

That is when the siren sounded.  One long, deep clarion tone and everything stopped.  Truckers stopped their dump trucks and shut off the engines.  Cranes paused with loads of debris still in their grasp.  Dozens of workers stopped where they were and faced the Pile, hats off and held over their hearts.  A hush settled on that hallowed ground and we began the long procession to take the seven on their way to loved ones and a better resting place.  It was one of the most noble and honorable moments of my life.

Over the next few days that moment rested in my heart and mind and changed the way I saw what was around me.  Perspective comes at a high price sometimes, but then it can help us value what we ought.  Our team headed back to California on October 29th, ready to be with family and to consider all that we had seen the past two weeks.  I remember seeing my little girl, Keely, waiting with her mother in the concourse.  The sound of, “Daddy! Daddy!” was the sweetest sound I had heard in weeks.  She ran toward me and I toward her and we hugged and cried and mommy joined in soon after.

It has been 15 years since the towers fell and America rose to the resulting challenges and I have not forgotten that moment.  Each day is a day to live the life that hateful men tried to destroy. I will spend this September 11th with my family.  I will go and worship God with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  I will rest at home with my wife, daughters and extended family.  I will celebrate the life I have and give thanks to God.  We will play and laugh and eat good food.  We will snuggle and watch funny cartoons and read a book or two.  There will be days ahead when grief will visit us again, but we will not let it stay for long.  If you let it settle in and get comfortable, it is harder to kick out and it does not suffer roommates. This day is about God’s grace turning mourning into dancing.

Love your family, be grateful, remember what was sacrificed so you don’t forget what was gained and never take freedom for granted.  Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The Blessing of Empty Hands

This is a re-post from December of 2009.  This week had a lot of life going on, but not a lot of writing.  I originally wrote this about 3 years ago and have continued to think about the discipline of maintaining empty space in my life for God to do His business.

The Blessing of Empty Hands
Not many of us would consider the word “empty” something positive. Phrases like empty stomach, empty wallet, empty house, empty tank and others, can remind us of loss, struggle, loneliness, disadvantage and even powerlessness. But God’s economy does not work like ours.
I remember watching my four-year-old daughter, Keely, sketching on a fresh, white piece of paper one morning. With the concentration only achieved by the unfettered imagination of a toddler, she formed a whole world eleven inches long, eight and a half inches wide, and infinitely deep. When the length and width ran out of space for her imagination, she looked at me with concern. “Daddy! There’s no more room!” she protested.

I hurried to look through the supply drawer and fetched a fresh sheet. The joy and anticipation that blossomed on her face was worth far more than the finest painting in the best of museums. With renewed energy she began creating a whole new world. The blessing of an empty page was not wasted on my little girl.

A year later we moved to be near family and friends. Keely had mixed feelings about leaving familiar places and good friends. When we arrived at our new townhouse, she ran up the stairs to her empty room. Boxes and furniture would have to wait. Rushing through the door, she described in detail where her stuff would go, already seeing her special room in her head. An empty room had potential. An empty room was available – a blank canvas for a willing artist.

Just this last year my Mom passed away. Her passing was sudden and painful and left a lot of empty places behind. Her love filled so many lives with joy and grace and mercy. She left a faithful husband with an empty home and a grieving heart, sons and daughters without her loving words to bring comfort and encouragement, friends and acquaintances without her ready laugh and contagious smile and so many other empty spaces. She also left my little girl without her Big Nana. As painful as it is to watch my little girl’s tears when she’s missing her Nana’s hugs, I know she will be better for it in the years to come. She has learned – and is learning – how much God can do with an empty space. We all are.

It is a ironic that empty hands are those most capable of receiving. The hording and grasping so prevalent in our society, in our world, disallows so many from receiving anything from God. He so desires to draw beautiful things on our lives, but they are cluttered and scheduled and busy. He wants to fill our hearts with His love, but we have little rooms and closets that hold onto the past and hide away our shame and pain. He wants to give us so much, but we are grasping to those earthly things that help us feel safe and in control. If only we could learn the beauty of emptiness.

I hope that in the years ahead my daughter will learn to appreciate, even anticipate, the blessings of empty hands. I want her to know the power of an empty cross and the salvation Christ purchased with His blood on its cruel timbers. I want her to understand the blessing of an empty tomb and the promise of life after death. I want her to know Christ the savior “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philip. 2:6-7 NRSV).

Imagine what God could paint on your life if you gave Him the space. How wide, and high, and deep, and long? How much faith, hope and love could fit in a heart emptied of unforgiveness, shame, worry, anger and all the other cluttering memories and thoughts that we hold so tightly too? How much could He bless you with if you let go of everything else? Our challenge is to let go of all the things we’re holding onto and approach our heavenly Father with empty hands. Emptiness is where He works best.

In Loving Memory of Mike Gower

In Memory of Mike Gower

I first met Mike back in 1991.  He and Caroline had taken on the Resident Directorship for the men’s dorm at Simpson College and none of us knew then how much their presence would impact our lives.  We knew him then only as Gower, the big voiced, gregarious general with a strong handshake and a ready laugh, but we soon knew him as the compassionate, loving, wise and patient mentor who directed young men and women into a deeper life with God.

I remember being a resident assistant under his leadership, learning more about what it meant to serve others from him than I did in many of my theology courses.  He was an artisan with relationship, becoming the right person at the right time for each person under his care.  His prayers were insightful, purposeful, and always available.  He loved Caroline “as Christ loves the church” where all of us could see it and aspire to the same love.

I remember visiting Mike in the hospital the day after his open heart surgery with a fellow resident assistant to see how he was doing.  He spent most of our visit asking about how everyone was doing in the dorms.  He seemed indestructible, focusing his will on getting back to what and who he loved.

I remember the premarital counseling sessions that he did with Molly and me, challenging us to love each other more every day.  He pushed us to ask the hard questions and encouraged us to accept the hard answers.  He helped us lay a good foundation for a life together and we are both very grateful.

Choices and changes took our family away from Redding and the Gowers, but each time we returned we looked forward to seeing them and re-connecting.  And each time they made us feel like the connection had always been there, strong and true and genuine.  We finally moved back to Redding a few years ago and stepped back through the doors of our old church, Risen King, to be greeted again by Mike.

It was good to feel that handshake again, strong and true and genuine.  Mike put as much love into a single handshake as many people put into their deepest friendship.  If you were fortunate, his handshake would be followed closely by a hug from Caroline, God’s love and joy in each gracious embrace.  Together they not only welcomed people into a service, they extended an invitation to belong and be loved.  I don’t know if there are greeters in Heaven, but I certainly know someone who can do the job.

I miss Mike.  It will be some time before the sore spot in my heart and spirit go away, but if that is the worst I have to suffer for having called him friend, so be it.  My prayer is that I will not forget that handshake and the loving attitude of service that was extended with each simple greeting.  I hope that someday I can have that same love and grace toward others.  I want my marriage to be a reflection of God’s love for His people.  I want to be like Mike.

Mother’s Day Memories: A Eulogy for Mamie Yeager

On March 22nd, 2006, my mom was promoted to glory from this life.  While I am still missing her each day, it is magnified on Mother’s Day.  In her memory, I have posted the eulogy I shared at her memorial service.  I hope that it is encouraging, especially to those who have lost their mothers.  Blessings.

There is an account in the Gospel of Luke where a woman who has been ill for 12 years presses through a crowd toward Jesus.  Her thought is that if she can just touch the hem of His robe, she will be healed and made whole.  When she finally makes her way through the mass of bodies and brushes against His clothes, she is instantly healed.  She does not cry out, she does not explode into song, she works her way back through the crowd away from Jesus.  In the midst of this chaos, the voice of Jesus can be heard saying, “Who touched me?”  The disciples deny that any of them touched Jesus and ask how he could possibly know someone had touched Him with such a crowd around Him.  He simply replies, “I know that power has gone out from me.”   The woman humbly admits it is she who touched His garments unsure of what His response will be.   With gentleness and love He said, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace.”

In this life it is sometimes hard to see Jesus through the crowd, especially when some of us who say we love Him don’t act like it and others act as if He isn’t there.  My Mom was one of those people who pressed through the crowd.  There were plenty of reasons not too: physical limitations, health concerns, losses, turmoil, the trials common to all people.  But she kept pressing through the crowd. 

She lived in a body unsympathetic to her dreams.  With increasing pain and decreasing mobility, she found herself becoming a person she had not foreseen.  But still she pressed on through the crowd. 

Regardless of circumstances, mishaps or setbacks and in the midst of joy, victory and celebration there was a constant in my Mom’s life: her faith in God.  No matter how big or boisterous the crowd got, she tried to keep her eyes on Jesus and keep pressing on.  She held on to Scriptures like:

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

And, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Or, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.  For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body.  So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.”  

And so she pressed on.  It was her faith that gave purpose and direction to her life.  Her passion for helping others through good counsel, prayer and fellowship kept her going when her body wanted to quit. 

 There is a story of a man coming to a beach covered with starfish.  In fact, there were so many starfish that he could not see the sand.  Among the multitude of starfish was a young girl, picking up one starfish at a time and throwing it back into the sea and safety.  The man watched for a while and then approached the young girl.  He asked, “Why are you throwing the starfish back into the sea?”  She replied, “If they are out of the water for too long they will die.”  The man looked at the innumerable starfish surrounding the two of them and asked, “Why?  It will make no difference.”  The young woman paused from her labor and looked at the man and held up a starfish for him to see before she threw it into the sea.  “It makes a difference for that one,” she said and began her labor.  In moments the man began picking up starfish and tossing them to the sea and safety. 

My mom was drawn to the stranded and helpless and did her best to get them to the ocean of God’s great love.  There may not be books written – no movies or TV dramas produced – about my mom.  But for those she helped to see God’s love and salvation she made a difference.   And she inspired others to join the effort.  She knew of a better place for those swept up by God’s love, and so she pressed on.

In the classic book by CS Lewis, The Last Battle, the final chapters of Narnia have come to pass.  It is the end of that beautiful and fantastic world.  The young children who had found themselves pulled from our world into Narnia, find themselves in another place.  It is much like Narnia, but more.  They are told they must go Further up and Farther in.  And so they do.  In the journey they find they are capable of things once impossible.  They run and don’t grow weary, they walk and don’t grow faint, and they soar through the land on feet made swift by joy and excitement.  Until they find themselves in that far off country we all look too with hope and tears.

I like to think that in my mom’s last moments she found herself in another place.  A place bright and bold and bigger than any other place she had been before.  And in this place she made her way through a crowd, drawn in by something, only to find Jesus in the center.  I like to think that while she walked her way through the crowd she realized a few things: first, that she was walking, not with labored steps, but effortlessly; second, the pain so consistent and dependable over the years was absent not only from her body, but her soul as well; third, an overwhelming sense of belonging and finally, she noticed the people.  I like to think that smiles lined her way, familiar faces from over the years, greeting her on the journey.  I like to think when she reached Jesus she reached out to touch his robe just to make sure He was real.  I believe He embraced her and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you whole.  Be at peace.”

That is what I believe, but I will just have to press on and see.  I guess we will all have to press on and see. 

I hope you will press on.  I hope you will take time to throw starfish into the sea.  I hope you will live a life that pushes further up and further in to the presence of God.  I pray that each of us will be little more like the person we dream we can be every day.  I pray we will all press on for I know if we do, we will all reach Jesus, and the smiling face we sorely miss today will greet us one day.

Change is Good: The Gift of Seasons (Skipping Rocks Blog Post 3)

Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. 2 Timothy 4:2 (NIV)

When my Mom passed away, the opportunity for us to move in with my Dad in his new home was no coincidence.  The blessings from that decision have been beyond measure for all of us.  We all have been challenged to change and adjust, but the result is always a better family than the one we had before.  God has brought us through much together.  

During that first year together, I watched the skipping pond carefully. It has gone from a small series of ponds, to a steady flowing stream, ebbing down to a trickle and finally back to the series of ponds again.  In each season there has been beauty and pain, growth and death, fulfillment and denial.  The constant theme for each season, the one thing that determines each season’s longevity and quality, is water.  Its lack or abundance determined the change and transformation from one season to the next.

Much like God’s movement through our lives together, the water was always there bringing life in a flowing stream or an isolated pond. Those creatures and growing things that rely on the water are at its mercy.  If they desire to flourish and multiply they must stay close to the course of the stream.  They must sink roots, dig their burrows carefully and feed regularly when the season is ripe.

God flows through our life whether we think He does or not.  We are trees by a creek at the mercy of living water.  We must sink roots deep to weather the drought and the flood.  We must keep faith, hope and love deep in the center like sap in the heart of a tree when the drought is upon us.  We must grow limbs strong and thick when the spring brings new life and become the people God desires us to be. 

As a family we have been able to sink deep roots and God has been faithful.  We are looking forward to the seasons ahead knowing He will sustain us with His living water through anything and everything this world can bring us. The water will flow and we will be ready.