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Monday, March 25, 2013

Proof of Heaven

Eben Alexander was convinced that there is nothing beyond this life. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1976 and received his M.D. from Duke Medical School in 1980. After he completed a fellowship in cerebrovascular neurosurgery at Newcastle-Upon Tyne, he served for fifteen years on the faculty at Harvard Medical School with specialization in neurosurgery. As a physician and a scientist, he concluded that when the brain dies all consciousness ends. The person ceases to exist.

All that changed on November 10, 2008 when he suffered a severe attack of bacterial meningitis that left him on life support and, by every measurement, brain dead. After existing in this comatose condition for a week, Eben Alexander miraculously woke up. When he did, all his preconceived scientific assumptions about life and death were changed. The dramatic Near Death Experience (NDE) left him convinced that life beyond this physical existence is not only real, it is the greater reality.

He documented his experience in his book, Proof of Heaven, which, as of this week is number 31 on the Amazon e-book sales list. He writes, “We need to accept – at least hypothetically and for the moment – that the brain itself doesn’t produce consciousness. That it is, instead, a kind of reducing valve or filter, sifting the larger, nonphysical consciousness that we possess in the nonphysical worlds down into a more limited capacity for the duration of our mortal lives.” … “The physical side of the universe is as a speck of dust compared to the invisible and spiritual part. In my past view, spiritual wasn’t a word that I would have employed during a scientific conversation. Now I believe it is a word that we cannot afford to leave out.”

This week, the world will recognize an even greater proof of life beyond the grave than Dr. Alexander’s experience. As impressive as his near death experience may be, it pales in comparison to the historic death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus died on the cross, it was not a “near death experience.” A Roman soldier thrust a spear through his side releasing a final gush of blood and water to confirm that Jesus was truly dead. His lifeless body was buried in a borrowed grave, and, on the third day, to the shock and surprise of his closest followers, God raised him from the dead.

Luke, a first century physician, after conducting exhaustive research and extensive interviews wrote, “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3). Paul, arguably one of the greatest minds in history, stated, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (1 Cor. 15:3-8). Every other event in history, including Dr. Alexander’s NDE in 2008, is dated by that singular life that gave the world its greatest “proof of heaven.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

Pope Francis

White smoke curled from a chimney over the Sistine Chapel at 7:06 pm last Wednesday, March 13. After less than two days of deliberation, the 115 cardinal electors had chosen Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new Pope. Within an hour he had selected his new name: Pope Francis. 

In 2008 our family rented an apartment in Rome overlooking St Peter’s Basilica.  We strolled through St Peter’s Square, the open plaza where a standing-room-only crowd of more than one hundred thousand gathered last week to welcome the new Pope. We visited the Sistine Chapel and stood beneath Michelangelo’s images of the Last Judgment, where cardinals have gathered to choose the next Pope since 1846.  The still fresh memories from that visit made the events seem close and personal.

Cardinal Bergoglio is the first Pope to choose the name Francis, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.  It is an interesting and perhaps significant choice. The man we know from history as St. Francis lived at the turn of thirteenth century.  He grew up as a spoiled youth in a wealthy and influential Italian family. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “No one loved pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display … the very king of frolic.”  By the time he was twenty, Francis became a mercenary, was captured in battle and spent more than a year in prison with a protracted illness.  That experience seems to have started his spiritual journey that would set him apart. But his turning to Christ was neither sudden nor easy.

Once released he decided on a military career of conquest and glory, but a series of dreams began to redirect his journey.  Through a series of missteps and, what appears to be a confusing period of solitude, prayer and clumsy efforts to serve God, Francis eventually came to a clear vision of God’s will for his life.  He found the focus for his life on February 24, 1208 when he heard a recounting of Jesus’ instructions to go into every village, two by two, carrying no money, neither bag nor shoes, greeting everyone on the way with blessings of peace.  To heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God.  (Matthew 10:7-11).  From that moment forward Francis committed himself to a literal application of these instructions from Jesus, devoting himself to the poor and a joyful proclamation of the Kingdom. Francis is credited with being the first to celebrate Christmas with carols and many Christians still sing his hymn, “All Creatures of our God and King.”

The new Pope is the first to choose the name Francis. The name emphasizes the transforming power of Jesus Christ, who can change a profligate mercenary into a joyful servant of the poor.

 Bergoglio’s selection as the new Pope is almost universally applauded.  Luis Palau, the world famous South American evangelist from Argentina, greeted the news with enthusiasm.  He said, "I've met him several times, gone to his place, we've talked, we've prayed together you know. He builds bridges to other Christian groups, like evangelical Christians ...  He's a friend. He's a real friend."

Monday, March 11, 2013

Learning from Buddy: Persistence

Every year I write at least one column about my dog, Buddy. We adopted Buddy four years ago after he was found starving on the streets of Fort Worth.  I wrote his story for my grandkids, “just the way he told it to me”: how Barney the Blood Hound helped him survive on the streets until they were picked up by the dog police. I named the story, Buddy the Floppy Ear Corgi because his left ear flopped. His ear doesn’t flop anymore.  Maybe he outgrew it. Maybe it flopped because he was puny and sick. Both ears now perk straight up like a respectable corgi. I kind of miss the flop.

We left Buddy last summer in Montana with our grandkids while we spent the summer in Nuremberg, Germany.  When we returned, he was in Wyoming, where our kids moved while we were away.  I think he liked the open spaces of Montana and Wyoming.  He even joined the rodeo and tried his hand (or paw) at chasing bulls.  After all, corgis were bred as herd dogs. I used to think he chased squirrels in an attempt to catch them, but I finally figured out he was just herding them around the yard.

Lately, he is teaching me persistence. “Persistence” isn’t a word we use much.  But we all know what it means: never quitting, never giving up and never becoming discouraged. Buddy doesn’t use words, at least not human words, but he communicates. He communicates most by “persistence.”  If he wants to go outside, he goes over the door and sits there looking out the glass pane.  He never moves.  He just sits there until I notice and obligingly open the door and let him out.  He does the same thing about coming back inside. If I am eating he locks his eyes on the object and stares, again refusing to move.  I can scold him, tell him he isn’t getting anything from me, act as callous and cold as possible, but it doesn’t faze him. He just sits there staring with those big brown corgi eyes until finally I give in. He wins his arguments with persistence.

I need to learn more of that. We humans are always looking for short cuts to get what we want.  We learn this at a very early age, usually within two years.  We try tantrums, tears, weeping and wailing. We get angry and argue.  But it seldom achieves our goals.  We need to learn from Buddy.  Persistence and peaceful perseverance is almost irresistible.

This must have been what Jesus meant when he taught us how to pray. Jesus said, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’  I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.  So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.” (Luke 11:5-10).

Monday, March 4, 2013

Spring Planting

In Minnesota March is greeted with snow-covered fields of frozen earth. April snowfall is not uncommon.  When we lived there, I once planted our garden on May 1 only to have it freeze.  But we are back in Texas where spring comes early. The first of March finds nurseries overflowing with flowers and vegetables begging for a place to grow. Whether in Minnesota or Texas, there is something about digging in the earth, sowing seed and burying plants in the freshly turned soil.  It is an act of faith, of hope and expectation. It is an ancient ritual of believing. It is a way of interacting with life’s mysterious miracle. When I was in Minnesota, I wrote a poem about the experience.

I have bedded them,
laid them down to sleep,
dug shallow graves
and buried them
beneath soft soil,
dark, moist, rich dirt,
gently padded and patted.
They have been accepted
by the earth,
their burial signified by stick-markers
on which are written their names,
not in remembrance but in expectation,
waiting for them to wake,
to spring from dormant death into full flower:
pink and red and lavender,
yellow and white
the funeral-ritual of spring.
Cemeteries are like gardens, the name markers signifying the faith and hope with which the bodies of those who have gone on before were laid to rest. What is buried appears to be dead and lifeless. But is it?

Paul had this image in mind when he wrote, “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else.  But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.  … So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;  it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

      I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.  For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ … thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:37-54).