The Phoenix Gift

It was time.

The bare bulb threw sharp shadows, angular in their diminished brilliance, leaving remote closet corners barely illuminated. Casting about the cluttered closet — that mortuary of materialism where much that was once precious now lies entombed in dust and disuse — a glimpse of a black vinyl case peaked through the litter: this was it. Clambering over the clutter, I grasped the handle, and stumbled across the junk to lift it free.

It seemed so very heavy, perhaps less from its mass than from the burden of its past, and the history which it bore. It had been many, many years since I had shouldered that weight.

Flipping its latches and opening the lid, a fleeting sense of emptiness filled me, in that dark, ill-lit corner of the soul where unfathomable loss resides, long since grieved, rationalized, and set aside amongst the litter of life’s unmet expectations, disappointments, and futile hopes, in that process we euphemistically call “moving on.”

The passion had been real, and intense, if short-lived. From the infancy of struggle to master simple chords and rhythmic strumming; to the adolescent incoherence of lessons teaching orchestral chord comping and chordal melodies in an age of Hendrix and Cream; to the maturity of a group of bizarrely eclectic musicians hammering together rock rhythms and jazz harmonies into something akin to fusion jazz, well before anyone quite knew what to call such a musical chimera: throughout this musical coming of age I had discovered something which, for the first time in those younger days, expressed the depths of a soul at once both lonely and frightened, yet hopeful and excited. Hours were spent in practice; days in arranging pieces I had written in the still-unfamiliar language of musical notation; years in coming to a place where I felt comfortable creating and performing something uniquely of my own spirit with and before others.

As that dusty case swung opened, the guitar now in full view, I experienced as well, for a brief instant, another moment in time: The cockiness of overconfidence unwarranted by experience or training. The intoxicating smell of hardwood carved by blindingly fast blades. The gunshot sound of mahogany hurtled across a room to land splintered on hard concrete. The first stunned look at a hand mangled beyond recognition. The shouts and chaos of a wood shop where something catastrophic had just occurred. The utter despondency of seeing a musical gift, once soaring and graceful, now fallen in the ashes of a smoldering and dying dream. The other-worldly moment where I mysteriously felt moved to thank God for what had just happened — and the stunning inner peace that followed immediately thereupon. The long, painful recovery filled with false hope that I could use my left hand to play again. The brief and fruitless attempt to play with my opposite hand a decade later, soon abandoned in frustration as I came to terms with a loss which was not to be regained, mourned alone in dark rooms with inconsolable, sobbing tears.

It was time to sell this guitar, and another, and move on.

I gently picked up the instrument, its strings dull and lifeless, its frets oxidized and rough, its neck slightly bowed by years of constant pull from strings left tuned to pitch. I sat, and began, gently, to strum, a little.

And a small smoldering ember deep within briefly flickered into flame.

It would need to be cleaned up to sell. New strings, a gentle polishing of frets with fine steel wool, some tender cleaning and polishing of wood dulled by dust and grime, and it found new life again. The guitar, a low-end left-handed Stratocaster built in Japan in the 80’s, would not bring much on eBay. The action was too high, the bridge and tuners low-quality, but the active pickups I had installed shortly after it was purchased had superb sound — and made it seem worth saving. Perhaps I should keep it, upgrade some components, and sell it then — or even give this silly idea of playing one more chance. After all, you never know…

Two months later, a new guitar emerged, with high-quality hardware, a new neck, and far enhanced playability. The project was a sheer joy, as I mastered new skills at guitar repair and setup. The time spent waiting had not been wasted, as I set about laboriously mastering the basic skills necessary to play again.

It was far more labor than play.

Most guitar players play “right-handed” — which paradoxically means they use their left hand to finger the notes to play on the fretted neck, while their right hand plucks the strings directly or with a flat pick. Switching to “left-handed” meant the right hand handled the fretting duty — made somewhat easier by being the stronger, dominant hand — but now meant the weaker left hand, with much reduced finger flexibility and strength from the injury, had to handle picking the strings. Even holding a pick was exasperating at first, as it shifted position constantly or dropped out of my fingers altogether, leading to endless frustration. The pick hand must also move nimbly across the strings, coordinating the string plucked with those fretted by the right. The lack of left-right coordination was maddening, as striking the wrong string, or multiple dissonant strings — compounded by the challenges of controlling the pick — made for painful and fumbling attempts to play even the simplest melody line or chord progression.

Then there was the mind-muscle disconnect: the mind had a pretty good (albeit rather rusty) idea of what to play, from my previous musical training and experience — but the muscles controlling the fingers had an entirely different idea, and balked at positioning themselves to manage even simple chords and scales. One day would bring apparent progress; the next would leave me with little doubt that this whole effort was foolishness and futile, a waste of time better spent on more productive pursuits.

But yet I persisted, driven in no small part by the reawakened passion to play — and the determination and persistence that time and maturity have taught me are the only way to accomplish any goal which is worthwhile. I have just begun taking lessons, putting aside the all-too-easy presumption that I can magically acquire skills without the guidance of others and the disciplined paths they prescribe.

And I am making progress which is both encouraging and measurable. I have not as yet reached a level by any means where I am competent, much less accomplished — but I have reached a place from where such an accomplishment is no longer a hopeless fantasy, but a realizable and foreseeable future.

And I can now see, through eyes of faith, a day where my spirit may once again soar on the winds of song and the harmonies of the heart. To die, and be born again; to be immolated, and rise from life’s ashes; these are the mysteries and the wonders of the ever-unfolding journey of faith.

There can be little doubt that there will be much music in heaven — soaring, glorious, beautiful beyond words. And I now know that I shall be there, adding in some small measure to that infinite and glorious song of eternity.

God of Loss and Grace

The Anchoress tells of receiving heartbreaking news: the prospect of losing her hearing:

Yesterday morning, though, came a straw I have dreaded my whole life, and I finally drew it: the “you are losing your hearing” straw…

The loss was discovered, of course, due to that dismal ear infection of the past two weeks, but the hearing in that afflicted ear is only slightly worse than the other. Upon reading my test results the doctor asked if I had worked around airplanes for the past 20 years, or if I had fronted a rock band. “Severe degeneration! hearing aids!”

The pain of such a loss is real, and it is deep — it can neither be trivialized nor ignored. Some will deaden the pain by drink, others by denial or depression, or one of a host of other means whereby we mitigate the pain while refusing to embrace it.

We live with sense of entitlement: we should be free of pain and suffering. For most, such dire news — particularly about health and well-being — is a devastating blow, devoid of meaning and justice, a cruel trick of fate, perhaps, or some sort of karmic retribution for evil done in this life or one prior. It is at best random misfortune, at worst a cruel robbery, a brutal injustice. There is no making sense of it — it is without reason or purpose.

Yet for the Christian, things are supposed to be different. We serve — as an article of faith — a God of love, and when one has committed their life to such service, the reward of such a severe trial raises a host of uncomfortable questions: Is God unfair? Is this punishment for sin? Is He capricious, toying with me, playing me for the fool, demanding my obedience then rewarding me with pain and loss?

The Anchoress responds as many would — with rage:

“I drove home pounding the steering wheel and telling God I thought He was pretty damned unfair, after all. I demanded that He listen to me and make me a sensible answer about why things were going as they were, why at only 46 years of age I was increasingly debilitated, increasingly arthritic, increasingly feeling like a 65 year old.

It’s not enough that I must sometimes use a cane, or that I wear glasses, not enough that I am constantly bruised, often fatigued into stupidity and inarticulate, stammering aphasia, not enough that my body is scarred all over and that my skin is under seige simply because I am Irish! now I am going to need hearing aids? Now I am going to be deaf? What has my husband ever done to you, that you need to inflict this sort of wife upon him?

Oh, I howled. I ranted.

And it was so out of character for me to do so – this has not been my way, to shake an angry fist at God and make demands. I didn’t like doing it – it felt so wrong. So wrong, not to simply be thankful for my blessings – for all the good things, and all the “not too bad” things.

But I was so angry.

Anger at God — a frightening, even terrifying thought. At worst it presents images of lightning strikes, fire and brimstone, judgment, destruction. Better to pretend you’re not angry, hide it from God lest He send another, more awful plague in retribution.
Continue reading “God of Loss and Grace”

The Celebration of Hope


The lady on the morning “news”, in her warmest and faux-sincere voice, said it sweetly: “This is the season of hope and joy” — and moved on quickly to tug at the heartstrings with some touching story of the downtrodden redeemed, a perfect production for this “holiday” season.

I don’t really think she understands the things of which she speaks.

I often wonder, when watching the scrupulously secular stars of media utter such banalities: what, exactly, is the basis of your “hope”? Is it the optimism of wishful thinking, the notion that in our oh-so-progressive world, things will simply get better and better, hurtling at light-speed toward an inevitable utopia? Is it the hope of new politics, new icons of power to guide us out of the wilderness of war and hatred with an enlightenment found nowhere else? Or is it simply the Big Lie, repeated ad infinitum until it becomes Truth, designed to deaden terrifying voices of angst and uncertainty which screech like harpies just beneath a consciousness deadened by frenzy, acquisitional obsession, and the myriad addictions which numb our fears and deaden our souls.

Yet it is a season of hope — or more precisely, a season to celebrate a perpetual and profound hope, not the emotional hopiate mainlined by the hopeless, dragged out like some green plastic tree from a dusty closet to adorn a meaningless holiday, no longer called “Christmas.”

So what is this true hope, this enduring and transformational power which we celebrate this season, yet abide in throughout the year?

It is the hope of true harmony, God and Man in right relation, the only source for Peace on Earth.

It is the hope, beyond reason, of forgiveness of the unforgivable, of acceptance of the rejected, of healing of sick and mortally wounded souls.

It is the hope of conquest of the demons which drive us, enslaving us in what masquerades as freedom.

It is the hope of deep joy, not mere shallow happiness.

It is the hope of a purpose beyond self-satisfaction, of a meaning beyond random chance, of direction for the lost and aimless.

It is about God becoming small that Man may become great, in Him.

It is about sacrificial love, the emptying of self, the death of pretense and a life of humble dependence.

It is about a Child who became Man so that men might reclaim the wonder and joy of children.

It is about infinite love, abounding mercy, endless grace, transformational power.

It is about Christ: humble in birth, extraordinary in life, sacrificial in death, glorious in resurrection.

It is about our hope — the only true and certain hope — the hope of those who know, and serve, and rely on Him, and His gentle hands which lift us up, and cherish us, and carry us home.

It is about Christmas, when Light entered the world and changed it forevermore.

That is our hope, and nothing less.

Have a most blessed and Merry Christmas, and may the peace of God rest upon you and yours.

Revolution of the Soul

In the past several days, through the lens of my profession, I have been given a rather stark and disturbing vision of our current cultural revolution. It is, it seems, a revolution every bit as pervasive and transformational — and destructive — as China’s Cultural Revolution of the 60s — and indeed may be but a different manifestation of a global transformation which transpired in those very same decades in the West. Ideas have consequences, as they say, and we are watching them bear fruit before our very eyes in a slow-motion train wreck which seems now to be accelerating at a disturbing rate.

Exhibit 1: Phyllis Chesler’s recent piece, “Every hospital patient has a story“, at PajamasMedia. It is a piece to be read to completion, including its lengthy comment section. Therein she details a recent experience during a hospital stay for a hip replacement, with a rather remarkable litany of rudeness, neglect, indifference, and suffering sustained at the hands of her healers, at an upscale New York hospital. Her story is shocking enough, and revelatory; the comments provide even further insight, running the expected gamut of such a piece in the New Media. There are those simply shocked; those sharing similar horror stories; those relaying far better experiences in contrast; those defending doctors and nurses, those attacking them. There is the obligate wackjob who blames the AMA, and the usual finger-pointing: not enough nurses, too much paperwork, inadequate pay scales to draw quality; the evil insurance companies and the government. All mostly true, to greater or lesser degree — but all missing the core dysfunction by a wide mark. At the final period of her post, one comes away with a sense of hopeless, feeling out of control and angry, despairing that such a situation may be even a part of our reality (and not knowing how large a part it may be), yet at a loss to prevent its malignant progression through our remaining hospitals which may have been spared to date, the encroachment of such a toxic stew of callousness, indifference, and coldness. There seems, in the end, little cause for optimism.

Exhibit 2: It is late, nearly 9 P.M., seeing a final consult at the end of a punishing call day, in the ICU. The patient, chronologically young yet physiologically Methuselan, lies in his bed, oxygen mask affixed to his face by heavy straps, bleeding, as he has for months, from a tumor in his kidney. He would not survive surgery, nor even radiological intervention to stem the hemorrhage by strangling its arterial lifeline. He is, furthermore, in the parlance of modern medicine, “non-compliant”: refusing treatments and diagnostic studies; rude and abusive to nurses and physicians alike; demanding to go home though unlikely to survive there for any significant length of time.

The nurse — young, competent, smart, hard-working, the very best of the modern nursing profession — apprises me of his situation, closing with this knockout punch: “You know, we just passed that initiative — you know, the suicide one. He’d be an excellent candidate.”

She wasn’t joking.

Taken a bit off guard, I responded that it is most unwise to give physicians the power to kill you, for we will become very good at it, and impossible to stop once we are.

She continued: “No, I would love to work for a Dr. Kevorkian. Be an Angel of Death, you know?”

“I know”, I muttered under my breath, as she ran off to another bedside, competently and with great efficiency, to adjust some ventilator or fine-tune some dopamine drip. And hopefully do nothing more.

These vignettes in modern medicine are really not about medicine at all. They are in truth about a culture which has lost its compassion. Our calloused and cynical society has become a raging river fed by a thousand foul and fetid streams. We have, by turns, taught our children that ethics are situational and values neutral; taught our women that compassion and service are signs of weakness, that they must become hard and heartless like the men they hate; taught our men that success and the respect of others comes not through character and integrity but through callousness, cynicism, and greed; and taught ourselves that we are a law unto ourselves, the sole and final arbiter of what is right and what is good.

We have, in our post-modern and post-Christian culture, inexorably and irrevocably turned from our roots in Christian morality and worldview, which was the foundation and font of that which we now know — or used to know — as Western Civilization. Yes, we have preserved the tinsel and the trappings, the gilded and glittering exterior of a decaying sarcophagus, where we speak self-righteously of rights while denying their origin in the divine spark within the human spirit, made in the image of God; where we bray about liberty, but are enslaved to its bejeweled impostor, the damsel of decadence and libertinism; where compassion is naught but another government program to address the consequences of our own aberrant and irresponsible behavior, duly justified, rationalized, and denied. Others must pay so that I may play, you know.

This toxic stew of self-centered callousness has percolated into every pore of our society. In health care, the effects are universal and pernicious. Patients demand perfection, trusting the wisdom of a web browser over the experience of a physician — then running to their attorney to redress every poor outcome which their disease or their destructive lifestyles have helped bring about. Physicians, hardened and cynical from countless battles with corrupt insurance companies, lawyers, and Stalinist government regulation, forget that they exist solely to serve the patient with compassion and self-sacrifice, and that financial recompense is secondary to healing and empathy. Nurses have in large measure become administrators, made ever more remote from their patients by mountains of paperwork and impossible nurse-to-patient ratios, their patient-critical tasks delegated to underlings poorly trained and ill-treated. Hospital administrators are MBAs, with no interest or clue about what constitutes good health care, and are indifferent so long as their departments are profitable and their marketing wizards successful as they trumpet “Care with Compassion” in TV ads, radio, and muzac on hold.

The list could go on far longer, but the theme is clear: we have as a culture become utterly self-focused, trusting no one, demanding our rights while neglecting our responsibilities, seeking to be profitable rather than professional. We have abandoned the responsibility to be patient and caring of others, forgiving of human shortcomings and humble about the limits of our abilities — a responsibility not merely of those in health care but of human beings in civil society. We have, through the dubious gift of extraordinary technological advances, industrialized our profession, and replaced a sacred covenant of commitment to the patient’s best — and its corollary of the patient’s trust in the integrity and motives of physicians and nurses — with the cold legality of contract medicine. Small wonder we are treated as fungible commodities in doctors’ offices and hospital beds. Small wonder we will be euthanized when we have exhausted our compassion quotient, dispatched by highly efficient providers delivering “Death with Dignity.”

This utter self-obsession and cynical callousness is by no means limited to health care. We long for “bipartisanship” in government (by which we hope for reasoned men of principle to come together for the good of those they represent), but get instead the blood-lust of modern politics, where power trumps principle, money is king, and votes are bought and sold like chattel. Lawyers sue everything that breathes — and much that doesn’t — raking in billions while their “victimized clients” get pocket change they can believe in. Airlines pack in passengers like cattle, lose your bags, and toss you a bag of peanuts for your trouble. Road rage is rampant, rudeness rules, rip-offs too common to count. The coarseness in culture is extraordinary — in language, art, media, fashion, and behavior. It is revealing how shocked we find ourselves when encounter someone — regardless of the venue — who is actually pleasant, helpful, courteous, and kind; we have come to expect and tolerate far worse as a matter of course.

The revolution which started in the 60s with the “me” generation is bearing its bitter fruit — though its aging proponents will never admit it. And sadly, there’s no going back: the changes which have infiltrated and infected the culture, inoculated through education, media, entertainment, scientific rationalism, and a relentless and highly successful assault on reason and tradition, are permanent, and their consequences will only grow in magnitude.

So it’s time for a counter-revolution.

There is an alternative to our current cultural narcissism with its corrosive, calloused, destructive bent. It is not a new government program, nor a political movement; no demonstrations in the street, no marches on Washington. Its core ideology is over 2000 years old, and the foot soldiers of the revolution are already widely dispersed throughout the culture.

This revolutionary force is called Christianity, and it’s long past time to raise the banner and spring into action.

The true antidote to the nihilism and corruption of the age will be found, as it has always been, in the church. It has since its inception been a revolutionary force, transforming the hopeless and purposeless anarchy of the pagan world of its infancy by bringing light, hope and joy where there was none before.

It can happen again.

The church, of course, has to no small degree been co-opted by the culture it should have transformed. From TV evangelists preaching God-ordained health and wealth to liberal denominations rejecting the core truths of their foundation and worshiping instead the god of government and humanistic socialism; from pederast priests to episcopal sodomy, Christianity in the West has whored itself to a prosperous but decadent culture. Its salt has lost its saltiness, and it has, not surprisingly, been trampled underfoot by men.

It is time to return to our First Love. It is time once again to become light to an dark and stygian world. It is time for a revolution of the soul.

We must, first and foremost, be about grace and truth. We must begin with the truth of our calling: to be holy, transformed by the power of Christ and the work of the Spirit. We are, by nature of our new birth in Christ, His ambassadors: we are to be the face, the hands, the heart, the words, the compassion of Him who saved us.

The task is enormous, yet for each of us, the steps are small, easily achievable yet enormously powerful.

It must begin with a renewed commitment to obedience and submission to Christ, a willingness to fully subject ourselves to His will, rather than trying to bend His will to ours. It means getting serious about church attendance — not merely as a consumer but as an active participant. We need to renew our devotion to prayer, to Scripture reading, study, and memorization, to fellowship with other Christians. These are simple steps which ground us in truth, and give us access to that power which can first of all transform us, then radiate out to all around us.

Then we must act like the counter-culturists we claim to be. Be patient with those who are difficult; be generous in time and money; express gratitude to those around us (when was the last time you wrote a thank you note to your doctor, your contractor, your attorney, to the manager of the store employee who helped you?). Lose the profanity; guard your tongue. Repair broken relationships, as best you can. Be joyful in difficult times, knowing that God is at work in your life despite your difficulties. Be compassionate rather than judgmental to those whose life choices are destructive or misguided. The tattoos and piercings we ridicule are cries of desperation from those hungering for purpose and meaning.

These things will not come easily to many of us who claim to be Christians, as we have become complacent in our self-gratification and comfortable compromises, fearful of being viewed as extremist or weird, rejected and ridiculed.

Get over it.

You may just find that such renewed passion for Christ and love for others might, just might, transform your life.

And you might just find that it will change the world.

Got a better idea? Good, I didn’t think so.

Let’s get started.

The Day After

We’ll be fighting in the streets
With our children at our feet
And the morals that they worship will be gone
And the men who spurred us on
Sit in judgment of all wrong
They decide and the shotgun sings the song

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that’s all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain’t changed
‘Cause the banners, they’re all flown in the next war

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again

     — The Who: Won’t Get Fooled Again

Well, “The times, they are a changin’“, aren’t they?

Needless to say, I’m not very happy about yesterday’s outcome, although hardly surprised. Bad news on a number of fronts, actually — Initiative 1000 in Washington, legalizing physician-assisted suicide, has passed as well. The victors are, as we speak, celebrating the great news that “The doctor will kill you now.” How special — how very, very special.

A dark day for the culture of life, I’d have to say …

So I’ve decided — since change is in the air, or so they say — it’s time to “take a bow to the new revolution” and make some changes myself. So here’s the Change I Can Believe In™, my hopey-changitude to-do list.

First, I’ll be taking the time for some gratitude. Not for this outcome, to be sure, but for the privilege of living in a land where free choices — even bad ones — may be made, without threat or coercion. Gratitude that we will not have to endure a dozen Floridas, with hanging chads and hovering lawyers, tearing our nation to shreds in a scorched-earth scuffle for power. Gratitude that this endless election season is finally over, at least for a few months, until it starts all over again, like some endlessly-looped airport infomercial.

Next, I’ll be taking some time to mourn. Not about the fact that my guy lost, and theirs won — such is the normal stuff of electoral politics, the ebb and flow of a democracy. Win some, lose some, life goes on. Or so we hope.

No, I will mourn about deeper things than vote totals and electoral counts. Mourn about a great nation, which has lost its way and its bearings, having exchanged the moral consensus of the Founders for the moral floundering of postmodernism. Mourn about a people so easily misled by a confidence man, so quick to ignore character and embrace ephemeral visions of change with little consideration of where such change might lead. Mourn over the triumph of the superficial over the substantial. Mourn over our repeated failure to learn history’s lessons, to choose a happy illusion while a dangerous and unstable world percolates, a boiling cauldron just out of view of our blinkered and blissful myopia.

Yes, I will mourn over a once-noble nation, born in faith and self-sacrifice, now choosing death over life, frivolity over faith, pandering over productivity, selfishness over sacrifice. We will never again see, never again be what we once were.

Next it will be time to prepare. The times ahead do not look at all promising, despite hubristic boasts about changing the world and pompous claims of a new tomorrow. It is time to look hard at finances at home and in my business, to trim the frivolous and wasteful; time to stockpile basic goods and discard the worthless flotsam of years of materialistic accumulation.

Then it will be time to look at life’s priorities: work, home, family, spirituality. I plan to work hard for the remainder of the year, earning as much as possible — for in January the game changes, and I will reduce my income accordingly. I can learn to live comfortably on less — and working 60-hour weeks makes little sense when much of the fruit of that labor will be taken from me to satisfy that which is perversely called “fairness.” I plan to give more generously, take more free time, get more involved in my church, exercise more, spend more time with my wife, who has tolerated far too many years of my long hours and late nights.

Time, too, to shut out much of the noise which has become the norm. No reason to read newspapers or watch TV news — the information they provide is neither valuable nor truthful, and is best ignored, serving only to confuse and propagandize. Far too much time is wasted on the web; popular political blogs — even those with whom I agree — serve mainly to keep one’s outrage at fever pitch. Time to find those sites with thoughtful essays and content which nurtures the spirit — and be disciplined even here: it is far too easy to waste time on the urgent and entertaining while ignoring the important.

And most importantly, the spiritual: it is time to get serious, single-minded, committed. No more cheap grace. Time to tackle those strongholds of weakness which have plagued me for years; time to be honest, practice integrity with a passion, and memorize Scripture again. Time to be disciplined in prayer, daily: prayer for our President (yes, especially), prayer for our leaders, prayer for our country, prayer for revival and conversion. There is no more powerful force which we possess; it is long past time to stop treating it as a useful tool to satisfy our self-centered desires and dig in, on our knees, like our lives depend on it — which they most certainly do.

It is easy to be discouraged, to cringe at the boastful celebrations and scream in frustration at the corruption, deception, and arrogance. To do so is wasteful of time and energy — gifts far too precious to be squandered. We cannot change a corroded and corrupt culture from the outside in; the change must come from within, one heart, one life at a time. And now seems like an excellent time to start — and the best place to start is with me.