Earp Takes Aim | Faith, Culture, Life

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Too Many Firsts

Last Friday, Josh and I took Drew golfing for his 23rd birthday.  Actually, for the sake of accuracy, my back was jacked so I served as Drew’s full-time caddy.   We laughed a lot, trash-talked even more and generally had a great time. 

Except for one thing:  It was Drew’s first birthday without his mom orchestrating the festivities.  We talked about her, but not too much, because we both wanted to just get through the day.  But Drew’s first big day without mom was obviously traumatic for him.  See, with Drew’s disabilities, he always relied on Cindy— to guide him, correct him, teach him and most of all, unconditionally love him.  But now, he must look to others even as he learns to lead himself.

After golf, I took him to Best Buy and bought him a replacement i-Pod.  Now that was definitely NOT a first!  I don’t dare add it up, but that young man has singlehandedly destroyed enough i-Pods to outfit the entire Arizona Cardinals team!  But he loved it…and I made sure he knew it was from both me AND his mom.

 

Tomorrow is Izzy’s second birthday.  It’s hard to believe that so much time has already passed us by.  I can still remember when Cindy and I celebrated the news that she would become a Grammy.  She was so ecstatic!  Who could’ve known, even as we waited for Iz to be delivered, that awful cancer was already doing its damage? 

Cindy often grieved the fact that Izzy never knew a day when her Grammy wasn’t “sick.”  As I held her and tried to console her, I would always say, “Honey, Iz loves you so much!  And she knows that you love her, too!”  And then I would remind her how she would always read to the girls and even play in the floor with them— even when she was so weakened and nauseous from the chemo. 

There were even times, after Em and Iz would leave for Prescott, that Cindy would talk about the pain she had experienced just holding her granddaughter in her lap.  But here’s the thing…she always held her anyway!  And nobody but me ever knew! 

Izzy’s “second” is tomorrow.  But it’s also her “first.”  And Emily’s, too. 

 

There are too many “firsts” right now. 

Our “first” Christmas tree.  Maybe that doesn’t sound like big, but if you knew Cindy, you know it’s huge!  Christmas was Cindy’s Super Bowl.  And the tree?  Forget just ONE tree…most years we had three!  And each tree was a veritable work of art, as Cindy would labor over our tree…for hours!  Seriously! 

At first, I considered just skipping the tree.  Then again, I told myself, skipping would only delay my healing.  And I have learned that if I try to deny whatever next “first” is lurking in the shadows for me?  I’m merely postponing my recovery.  So somehow, I did it.  Actually, for the sake of accuracy, Jess did it.  I got the thing out of the attic…but Jess decorated it.  And she did a great job…in spite of her many tears. 

Bottom line?  The tree is up.  And Stevie didn’t wimp out.

 

This past Sunday, our church had a OneDayServe.  We did random acts of kindness for families enduring all sorts of distress.  By God’s design, four of the places I went to involved families coping with various stages of loss through cancer.  One of the families provided me with yet another “first.” 

Rich’s wife, Heather, had just found out that her breast cancer had metastasized.  On Monday, she was to start a second round of radiation, having completed a repeat round of chemo.  Sound familiar?  And as he spoke of her condition, I felt my knees buckle.  And then, when he spoke such gratitude for the help he’d received from our people— with chores now completed that he couldn’t find the time or energy to do himself— I thought of the army of people who had constantly helped Cindy and me. 

But then…instead of crying, I put my arm around Rich and I prayed.  And that was my next “first.”  I don’t even know if Rich is a believer, and I’m even less sure whether I was praying more for him or for me— but at least I prayed.  I gathered myself and offered ministry to someone who is walking a path painfully similar to mine. 

 

More “firsts” are awaiting me.  My first Christmas music performance…without Cindy on the keyboards.  My first Christmas Eve…when I drive home from the service alone.  My first Christmas morning…without awakening with my bride by my side. 

Not that I’m complaining.  Far from it.  See, I’m beginning to sense that a rhythmic momentum is building every time I break past each succeeding “first.” 

You might want to read that line again.

And since I decided at the outset of this rugged journey that I would choose to fully experience each new “first”?  I’m more whole and better prepared and more fully equipped to experience my next “first” because I somehow emerged from my last “first.”  Wow!  That’s deep!  I embrace my next “first” [whatever it may be or bring] because I made it through my last “first.” 

And here’s the thing:  After Christmas?  My remaining list of “firsts” shrinks way smaller and feels [at least right now] way less imposing.  Because I’ve endured them.  I haven’t denied them.  I didn’t try to avoid them.  I faced them.  And I will face my Christmas “firsts” that same way. 

It’s just— and I knew it would be like this— there have been way too many “firsts,” this first December without Cindy.  

 

Bus

I have an app on my iPhone called Bus.  It’s been a hit with both Liv and Iz…who especially loved playing Bus while perched on Grammy’s lap. 

Bus’ soundtrack is that silly kids’ song that drones endlessly about “the wheels on the bus go round and round.”  Remember that ditty?

I don’t know where that phrase originated, but the year before Cindy got sick, we saw The Bucket List and winced when Jack Nicholson’s character said, “we live, die, and the wheels on the bus go round and round.”

His words seemed callous and cynical at the time.  But three years later, I see great wisdom in his assessment.  In fact, his words mirror something another “cynic”— King Solomon— also said:  “If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth.  Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie.” {Ecclesiastes 11:3}

Bottom line, whether we’re talking falling trees or spinning wheels, the reality of life on the bus is this:  Stuff happens. 

Seasons change.  Every year, evidently.  Hot Summers give way to chilly Falls which surrender to deep-freezy Winters. 

But wait for it, wait!  Another turn of the wheel and pop!  A fragile blossom emerges as Spring launches her annual comeback amidst a glorious burst of new life.  It’s a cycle so predictable, you could even track it on your, hmm, calendar! 

Troubles come— and then they go. 

Suffering haunts you— and then it, just as suddenly, leaves you.

Things you never wished for get dumped in your lap— and stuff you never wanted to lose gets ripped from your grasp. 

And try though you may, you cannot navigate around this rhythmic cycle.  Because like it or not, trees fall wherever they fall.  And the wheels on the bus do go round and round. 

 

Echoing this theme, Emily’s friend, Ashley, recently posted the following poem on Facebook. 

“You can shed tears that she is gone

Or you can smile because she has lived.

 

You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back

Or you can open your eyes and see all she has left.

 

Your heart can be empty because you can’t see her

Or you can be full of the love that you shared.

 

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday

Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.

 

You can remember her and only that she is gone

Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.

 

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back

Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.”

 

And that’s what I’m trying to do.  To smile.  To open my eyes [to tomorrow].  To keep loving.  And to find some way to go on.  Because even when I don’t, I’m finding that those darned wheels keep on spinning…anyway.  Whether I want them to or not doesn’t change the fact— they still do!    

To be honest, I’ve actually tried to stop them…several times since Cindy died.  But let me tell you about my most recent failed attempt: 

I took a few hits for the content of this blog.  Granted, hits aren’t new to me— and I’m not typically impacted by hits.  But since my heart is still kinda tender and my healing is still in its infancy?  I responded by clicking off my keyboard and I stopped writing.  As you may know, it’s been a while since I last blogged. 

But then, when I realized I wanted to blog again…?  I felt stuck by how to re-engage.  See, the wheels of NOT WRITING had gained such momentum I was tempted to just stop blogging altogether.  But as I told you over a year ago, I started blogging for Cindy and me. 

Period. 

We wanted your prayers. 

Period. 

And then, after Cindy received her perfect healing, I kept writing because I wanted to find my healing, too. 

And if what I wrote helped somebody else find their healing too?  Fine. 

But I was writing in pursuit of healing…for ME. 

So, since healing is my destination and since the wheels on the bus do indeed “go round and round…”?

I’m blogging again.

 

I’m also trying to “go on” by stepping back into passionate ministry again.  Truth is, I never stopped.  But for almost two years I unapologetically chose to embrace my suffering Bride and give to her the lion’s share of my engaged heart, mind, body and soul.  And then?  With whatever portion I had left, I would try to maintain an admittedly feeble other hand loosely wrapped about my ministry. 

I have no regrets about making that choice or living with the fall-out. 

Here’s why:  I believe that my ministry actually expanded during the fleshing out of that choice.  For one, I modeled to other watching husbands, a faithfulness to my wife that 32 years of weekly preaching never did do. 

And our combined faith through that cancerous fire?  Well, it inspired more spiritual growth among those who followed Cindy’s journey than our ministry efforts alone could have ever hoped to spawn. 

But once my healing had progressed to the point that I wanted to steer my “bus” back into my lifelong ministry passion, I was immediately confronted by the dozens of sagging branches and those several out-of-balance and thread-bare tires that had been patiently waiting for my attention, but that refused to wait even a moment longer. 

I now realize that those wheels had been spinning all the while— even though mine had stopped.  This bus driver’s life may have careened into a dark, unending ditch, but the bus never did quit moving.  My life had stopped spinning, but my ministry had not.  Cindy’s tree fell, but those darned wheels…kept on turning anyway.

 

Financial wheels have also kept turning.  All these months later and I’m still fighting to get some very sizeable medical bills paid by our insurer.  With the help of my friend, they will get paid, I’m certain of that.  But the stress of trying to get the proper documents in front of the right people in a timely fashion has taken its own ssizeable toll. 

Yet once again, those relentless wheels keep doing what wheels always do…they keep turning.

 

I’ve even wanted companionship…and to try out that scary wheel.  But at first, even “wanting” felt unfaithful.  However, after some counseling and much prayer, I’m convinced that “go on” is Cindy’s insistent marching orders.  Even so, my choice to march is another awkward “spinning” moment, as a new set of wheels suddenly turned me toward a place I never planned to go.  And though I’ve tried to refuse to go there, they keep going “round and round” in spite of my protests. 

 

My “bus” has been a bumpy ride [and that’s putting it mildly].  But the wheels “go round and round.”  Sometimes they spin way too fast, sometimes they spin mind-numbingly slow.  Occasionally they turn over rugged, seemingly impassable terrain, and other times?  They hit a chuck-hole that wrecks my alignment and even causes a flat tire or two…

But even in those moments when it feels as though my “bus” is spinning completely out of control— when I can’t catch my breath and the wheels are turning so swiftly I’m not sure I can keep the pace even one turn longer, that’s when I realize: 

I am learning loads…and I am growing stronger.

My faith is diving deeper…and my witness is expanding exponentially.

My passions feel more profound…and most amazing of all…?

My God is glorified by the way I handle my bus.

 

And that’s why I’m smiling again.  With opened eyes and a willing heart, I’m going on again.  At long last, I really am back on the bus. 

 

How about you?  How are your wheels turning?  And is there any part of my journey you can identify with? 

Perhaps you don’t even want to climb on your bus again.  I get that.  And I really do wish I knew how to help you want to.  Trust me, I didn’t know how to “want to want to” either.  But now that I do want to but am still trying to figure out how…? 

Forgive me, but I find myself wishing that there really WAS an app for that.

 

 

 

 

 

A Manta Mantra

I’ve been on blog-cation for a couple of weeks.  On week #1 I was in Ecuador with Compassion International.  Last week I spent some time with my children and their families.  It has been a very enriching time.  But I’m back…!

First, I wanna tell you about Ecuador.  For quite some time, I’ve been praying that God would open a door for me to lead our young church into an amazing global impact.  Having sensed that our season as a mission {noun} was over, I began asking Him to give us a mission {verb} that would hold out the hope of the gospel through both the cross and the cup. 

What do I mean by that? 

Some missional advocates love to say, “preach the gospel; use words if necessary.”  Their point is – the gospel is “a way of life” and true gospel ministry is “making a better world.”  And while I get their point, the Bible teaches that the gospel must be proclaimed {with the cross at the center of that proclamation} and responded to {in repentance and faith}.  And since making disciples is the #1 priority of the church — believers must verbally declare the gospel by holding out the cross of Christ.  So my prayer has been that God would lead me to a globally-focused mission that would do exactly that.

However, although saving a lost soul is the church’s core mission [even over feeding a hungry stomach] – true faith is inseparably connected with good works.  Salvation by faith and mercy to the poor are fundamentally linked – since caring for the poor is a gateway into evangelism {i.e., offering a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name — see Mark 9:41}.  In Jesus’ ministry, He routinely healed the sick and fed the hungry in order to build a platform for evangelism. 

So true gospel ministry is both the cross and the cup.  They are inseparably linked.  And in many cases, ministry to the poor may even precede the sharing of the gospel.  But it cannot be either/or.  It must be both/and. 

That doesn’t mean that we give expecting conversions in return {Luke 6:32-35}.  We don’t give only because the person we help is receptive to the gospel, nor do we withdraw if he or she is no longer receptive.  But our motivation is to lovingly and sacrificially and generously offer the cup but do it in Jesus’ name.  That is, means according to His authority and power, which was purchased through the cross. 

Without question, the pinnacle of the gospel is the cross.  But a key way we get to share the cross is by extending the cup.  But please note…both require involvement.  Not talk, but action.  And not some sea-change of action, but a tribe [no matter how small] who is willing to test the waters and then return from their adventures telling their stories of life change. 

We are called to spread the gospel:  To serve Christ as His salt and light in our world –to do good to the city that He loves — and to save lost souls through His blood.  But we do that by getting out of our holy huddles and by engaging those we meet with the gospel.  A gospel that includes both exalting the cross and extending the cup. 

And that’s what I’ve been praying for…and why I went to Ecuador.  For 36 years, Compassion International has served children who are trapped in a cycle of extreme poverty.  It is an amazing missional agency, now serving over 1.1 million children across the globe. 

But here’s what drove me to want to visit Ecuador.  Compassion does its gospel work in partnership with the local church.  Which means, every Compassion project does what I believe a true gospel mission must do — by both exalting the cross AND extending the cup. 

Our team of 30 pastors visited a region of Ecuador {called Manta} that desperately needs both.  And having returned from this adventure, many on this trip believe that God is calling us to be His vessels to reclaim Manta with the gospel.  And we believe that He is calling us to both plant churches and start Compassion projects all across this region – and by do so, thus fulfill the law of Christ. 

And just so you know, I plan to lead our church into that mission. 

You need to know that every time I held a child or fed them a meal or watched their eyes sparkle at the mere mention of their sponsor’s name but even more at the mention of Jesus’ name – my heart leaped inside me.  I wept a lot during this trip – many times because of the sheer enormity of the need and many other times because I wished that Cindy had been with me.  You see, Cindy loved children with all her heart and served them her entire life.  {I’m not much of a kid person, whereas Cindy wasn’t much an adult person…which made us such a great team.}

But in a very real sense, Cindy WAS with me.  Cuz she became the fuel that will fire this new ministry.  Jesus is engine, but Cindy will be the fuel.  And so, in the name of Jesus and in honor of Cindy’s life– our tribe is going to hold out the cross and offer the cup — to some wonderful, deserving children in Manta. 

Exactly HOW remains to be unpacked.  The details are still to be finalized, but this IS gonna happen.  I’ve been trying for months to envision a fitting legacy to my bride’s amazing life.  And now, finally, I’ve found it.  Just imagine planting churches {after all Cindy was an unabashed fan of the church} and sponsoring dozens of children {because they were Cindy’s favorite kind of people} — in Jesus’ name {since He was her greatest love}. 

 

When I returned to the States and spent a few days with my own children, I became even more burdened by this need.  Cindy and I have six kids who are now adults.  And our kids are having kids.  In fact, Andrea announced that she is having another!!  And although Grammy and Papa’s two granddaughters [with a third yet-to-be-determined grandchild on the way] will have access to the cross and not much need for the cup — there’s another little baby also about to be born down in Manta who will not know either — unless we up here both tell and show them.  Both exalt and extend.  Both the cross and the cup.

 

A Healing Gift

“I must give her what Christ gave me.” 

If I’ve told myself that once these past few days, I’ve repeated it [both verbally and internally] more than 20 times.

The details are unimportant, but suffice it to say:  I got emotionally T-boned recently.  It came in the form of words on a page and catalogued some perceived offenses that, in this person’s view, I have committed. 

The first thing I wanted to give her was a piece of my mind.  I was angry that she would not only make such false accusations – but that she would do it in such an intentionally hurtful way. 

Then I wanted to give her a dose of her own medicine.  After all, who doesn’t need to duck as soon as we dare cast the first stone?

Then I wanted to give an explanation.  In the world of social media, anybody with a Facebook account — [and way too much time] plus no regard for personal ethics [even less the truth] — can write anything they care to write.  If there’s an axe to grind anybody can, through words, suck hundreds of unsuspecting bystanders into a drama for which strangers have no context and even less desire to be involved in.  But since I live in that social media world, and because I feel compelled to try to share my story, every post I write makes me especially vulnerable to anybody with a gripe. 

Even more, since I am passionate about transparency and integrity?  And since I’m seldom hesitant to admit that I mess up more than I don’t?  My knee-jerk response is to try provide context that nobody cares to have and to re-tell a story they have no business entering into.

And that’s where I found myself.  In a very helpless and stuck place — exactly the place she wanted me to be. 

But then, even as I viewed the wreckage, I thought:  “I COULD give her what Christ gave me.”  And the more I repeated that self-talk, the more I began to realize what a gift my accuser had given me.  Seven months ago, such blabber left me distraught and immobilized.  My gaping wounds were so fresh that additional ones only deepened my gushing flow of tears and what, to me, felt like unending pain. 

But not this time.  Nope, not this week.

Far from helpless, I am, by grace, in a healing mode.  God, for whatever reason, has chosen to do a restoring work in my heart — a work I can only describe as extraordinary.  I already knew the healing was happening, but my family member’s words just made me even more keenly aware of how beautifully God’s work in me has been unfolding.

I’ve been using a line recently, “You don’t wanna mess with a man who’s lost his wife.”  I don’t mean it in a threatening way.  What I mean is– you’ve got no business even trying to mess with him; he’s way too strong for that. 

Like a gnarly piece of stale jerky, a man [or woman] who has lost a spouse the way I lost Cindy has become way too tough to let anything get to him.  Not mean…STRONG.  And unafraid of any other kind of loss.  I mean, he’s already lost the great love of his life.  Do you really think that there is any other potential attack that’s gonna unsettle him?  REALLY?

For you who are playing at home…this “play” didn’t.  In fact, far from unsettling me, it has empowered me.  I feel so empowered that I am making a decision and not just reacting with emotion. 

So I have made my choice.  And because Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven” is not about some moron pulling a stunt against me 490 times, but rather our human tendency to “take forgiveness back” and get angry all over again about the same stupid thing – wasting time and energy and affecting other relationships in the process? 

I will probably KEEP choosing and keep deciding…until my emotions fully align with the decision I have already made. 

Just to be clear:  I’m not being noble.  I’m an inconsistent, carnal, selfish, man who has known failure and compromise and evil destructive intent.  In fact, even though other people have negatively impacted my life through the years?  No one has ever disappointed and hurt me as much as I have disappointed and hurt me.  So this isn’t Stevie trying to ascend to and than plant my stake first in some moral high ground.  Nope.  That high ground is the place where only One can stand. 

But what I can do — and what I choose to do — is forgive. 

It’s what I advised Cindy to do {so many times} when she faced this exact circumstance.  But even as I gave her my counsel, I wasn’t sure how she would be able to do it.  But she always did.  Cindy would respond with such grace in the face of hurtful attack — with a charm and a humility that was far beyond anything I ever imagined I could do. 

But now, as a man who has lost his wife, I’m finding that I can also do stuff I never thought I would. 

So…after a long, deep cleansing breath — I pushed the reset button and said to myself once again, with conviction:

“I WILL give her what Christ gave me.”

No anger.  No revenge.  No explanations. 

Just cool hand on a hot brow. 

A soft answer intended to turn away wrath. 

A fresh cheek, vulnerable and exposed. 

An “I love you…and forgive you.  And I really do hope that you will forgive me, too.”

 


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