Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soul Food II

          As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in the Catholic Church, and was confirmed there. This means that I received catechetical training, had my first communion, and was then confirmed by the archbishop, all while I was in first and second grades in parochial school.
          This is significant because circumstances required that I leave my former church, something I’ll write about down the road. At about that time I felt led to start studying the Eucharist, which is the Catholic word for communion, or the Lord’s supper. “Eucharist” actually means thanksgiving, and it comes from a Greek word. I have been attending Mass on Sundays because of a deep spiritual need to participate in the Eucharist. I find it very moving. Because I’ve been confirmed in the Catholic Church I can receive communion even after four decades of absence.
          I also began reading Thomas Merton’s The Living Bread. For those of you not familiar with him, Merton will probably be remembered as the greatest monk of the last century, if “greatest” is something that can be said of a monk. Merton lived at the Abbey of Gethsemane, which is a mere 90 minutes from Bowling Green. He died from an accidental electrocution in 1968 while in Thailand at an ecumenical conference on monasticism.
          Merton examines John 6, and focuses on Christ’s statements that He is the “bread of life,” and “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;  for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” As Merton points out, these are deeply mystical words, and are to be taken literally.
            What Merton means is that the elements of the Eucharist are “soul food.” Communion actually nourishes the soul, and is an integral part of the care of our souls. One thing I discovered while a member of a Protestant church is that communion is done rarely, if at all, and is more of a ceremony than anything else. Many Protestant churches have communion once a quarter.
            In seminary I was taught that communion was a sacrament, but little else was mentioned about it. Many Protestants believe that communion is an ordinance, or a remembrance per 1 Corinthians 11:23; however, little attention is paid to John 6. Communion isn’t seen as soul food, and is viewed as a sacrament in name only. (BTW, the Greek word for sacrament is the same word “mystery” comes from.)
            Interestingly, Protestant orthodoxy on communion is not too terribly different from Catholicism. Here’s what John Calvin had to say about the Lord’s Supper:
The sum is, that the flesh and blood of Christ feed our souls just as bread and wine maintain and support our corporeal life. For there would be no aptitude in the sign, did not our souls find their nourishment in Christ. This could not be, did not Christ truly form one with us, and refresh us by the eating of his flesh, and the drinking of his blood.

That’s big stuff, and along the same lines of what Merton had to say. Martin Luther believed in what he called the consubstantiation of communion, meaning that Christ is present in the elements. The Catholic Church differs a bit on this, maintaining that the elements are transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ during the Mass, and that we ingest them.
            All of this thinking is close enough in my mind that quibbling over the differences produces much heat and little light. What we should be paying attention to is the agreement among great theologians that communion is soul food.
            I find myself fascinated by communion. It is something deeply mysterious, yet vital, just like our souls. If our souls form an integral part of our being, then we should pay as much if not more attention to them than the specials at the local restaurant. Christ says, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”  There is no better way to nourish the spirit than through communion; that is, a direct union with God by receiving His body and blood so that we mutually abide in and with Him, and He in us. Unfortunately, the deep significance of communion is as little mentioned as the soul.
            I have my own “routine” for participating in the Eucharist. Typically, I read and meditate on John 6 during worship, and then read 1 Co 11:28–29: “Examine yoursel[f], and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.” That is a serious commandment. In the Greek, the word “examine” is in the imperative, meaning it is not optional. It is required. Paul states that people in the church at Corinth are sick, weak, and dying because they are not undertaking the required examination beforehand. Receiving communion involves preparation of the soul and mind; the body and blood of Christ should be welcomed with as much purity of being as possible.
            I also like to say a part of Psalm 51 to myself: “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” This helps me focus on my suitability for communion.
            I’m the first to acknowledge that all of this sounds foreign to many Christians in a scientific and secularized world. The soul and communion are invisible and mysterious. Some of this seems like mumbo-jumbo, or something for mystics locked away in remote areas. But that isn’t so, and is an easy way of avoiding the challenge of an intimate knowledge of the depths of our souls. We cannot know ourselves unless we know our souls.
            I am reminded of one of my favorite quotations in the Bible: “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:18) Caring for what we take into eternity with us is caring for the unseen inside us. We must feed our souls just as we feed our bodies.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Soul Food I

 When was the last time you heard a sermon on the soul? I have heard a lot of sermons in my day, but I cannot recall ever hearing someone preach on what exactly a soul is.

 Nor for that matter have I heard a single lecture on the subject in seminary, and I can tell you that I have listened to upwards of 500 lectures during my course work.

 Why is this? How can something so important be so neglected?

Our soul is the part of us that lasts for eternity. It is vital to us, makes us who we are, makes us unique, is loved by God, and is the very concern of Christ and the Church.

 You would think we would hear more about it.

 I looked at two modern systematic theologies, both highly regarded, for a definition of soul. (Systematics, by the way, is doctrine that is formulated from the Old and New Testaments.) Both had lengthy discussions about the differing views of trichotomism, and dichotomism and monism, but only one had a definition of the soul: “The immaterial part of man; used interchangeably with spirit.”

 I don’t know about you, but that’s not much help to me.

 Another modern author calls the soul “imagination,” which I like fine, but again, this does not convey a lot of information. The great mystics of the Church, like St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton, write about the soul and the dark night of the soul, but don’t tell us what it is.

 The etymology, or history of a word can often be helpful for getting a sense of what it means. Interestingly, though, the origin of the word “soul” is unclear. No one really knows where it came from. When I learned this I wasn’t really surprised. It is a very difficult and mysterious word.

 The Greek word for soul, which our words psyche and psychological come from, is used 116 times in the New Testament, but there is some overlap between the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Yet again, though, there is no description of the soul.
 So I thought I would try my own. Here goes. 

 Our soul is our very essence, the divine spark of being that makes us unique, gives us our character, our personal substance, our moral compass, our thoughts, feelings, emotions, hopes, inspiration, and imagination. It is the divine gateway through which God pours His love and grace into us, and through us into others. If we have no soul we have nothing, and are nothing. We have no being without a soul.

 What have you always dreamed of but dare not venture? That is the imagination of your soul calling out to you.

 While all of this sounds grand, you will notice that my definition also includes things that we find negative. We all have insecurities about who we are, and we have negative thoughts and emotions. Our shortcomings, fears, and anxieties are all a part of our substance and soul too.

 We are made beings, but we are not made perfectly. In fact, as I’ve written before, we need to spend time appreciating the true poverty of who we are and the agendas we plan. This is a form of the brokenness of our soul.

 If we spend the time we should taking a good long look at who we really are (and not who someone else tells us we are or should be) then we see the wide range of talents, thoughts, feelings, worries, cares, loves, hatreds, anxieties and so on that compose the essential person we are. We then begin to see the complexity of a single soul. 

 Now, multiply that times the six billion other souls on Earth, each unique unto that person, and you begin to have a very small appreciation of the astounding complexity of human life. Mix in good and evil, and the causes of the troubles that sweep the face of the planet make themselves apparent.

 Clinical psychology does not recognize the soul because it cannot be scientifically proven. But I would tell you of my belief that many of our personal and social maladies come from diseases of the soul. 

 I could keep going, but by now you have an appreciation of the daunting task of describing the soul, and why we hear so little about it.

 Now for the follow up questions. If our soul is so vital to who we are, why do we pay so little attention to it? Why does the Church pay so little attention to it? After all, our soul is at the very core of what makes us human and unique to God. How much time do we spend listening to it? How much time do we spend caring for it? We have nothing else when we die, so surely our souls deserve more attention.

 These are deep questions that I’ll be exploring over the next few weeks. This is part of the aftermath that helps me make sense of life for the Breens in the year 2010.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Aftermath - Part One

These are difficult times. Lynne died three months ago. It seems like yesterday, and then again it doesn't.

The reality of her absence has finally settled in among us, and right now we are three guys struggling with sorrow, grief, and plain old missing her. The suddenness of her death was so surprising we have been slow to grasp its reality. Lynne was not only wife and mother, she was the only female in the house. I can't quite tell you how, but the dynamic here has changed.

We are all grieving differently, and there is plenty to go around. It's like everyone is riding a roller coaster, except we're not on the same ride. My sons and I are hitting peaks and valleys at different times.

I want to respect the privacy of my sons, so I won't put their thoughts and feelings on public display. But I can tell you that watching them hurt is so painful for me. Most of the time they don't have to say anything: the shock, occasional anger, and distress is written on their faces.

I am managing them and myself, and sometimes it's tough keeping things together.

A big trigger for me has been going through all of Lynne's stuff. It is bittersweet, and very real. Some friends are helping organize and sell her clothing. It has been taken out of our closet and moved onto racks out in the garage to be inventoried and sold. Seeing a familiar piece of clothing sitting on a rack evokes emotions I really can't describe. (I am also impressed that she fit six racks of clothing in a relatively small space!)

And let me tell you, walking into a closet that is mostly empty drives home the fact of her death like nothing else. 

A really hard thing for me was taking her robes and gowns off the stand in the bathroom. These are items that she wore for years, and are so familiar to me. They weren't fit for sale, and weren't the sort of thing you keep for a memory. They were an everyday part of our life together. I couldn't bring myself to throw them away, so I just left them on the floor of the closet for days until I could muster the ability to dispose of them. Doing it had such a feeling of finality to it, like "yes, she really is gone, I am having to say goodbye in a very different but very concrete way, this is bad." 

Before we did any of this I let my in-laws come up and go through Lynne's belongings for keepsakes and things they could use. The first time we didn't get very far, because we kept lingering over individual items and sharing memories. We also had to decide what to let go, and what to keep for my sons and the families they will some day have. I came in late the second time they were here and they had several sackfuls of stuff. I couldn't even tell that they had made a dent in the closet.

I am also finding items I hadn't thought about in years, and they bring memories of the great times we had together and as a family. I posted a photo of Lynne early in our marriage, and another from a day at the creek while I was still in school, and before we married.

Talking about Lynne in the past tense is strange too. I still automatically call her my wife, but am slowly switching to "my late wife." I am now a "widower." How odd this is.

How do we deal with the unexpected death of a loved one? We're finding out, so stay tuned.



Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Real Deal

I’m exhausted. 

It has been a month since Lynne died, and I have been very busy. But were you to ask me what I have been busy doing I would be at a loss to tell you. 

The word “whirlwind” comes to mind. Events keep playing over and over in our minds, and everything seems unreal. We still can’t believe Lynne is gone. One of my in-laws said, “we keep thinking, ‘she’s been gone long enough, time for her to come back!’”

I understand exactly what they mean.

I have had so many “things” to take care of that I haven’t had time to look after myself. Now I have to. I am going to take some time off and just “be.”

This is the last post on CaringBridge. I’ll be moving everything over to a blog I set up called “Living Truths.” I’ll  post a link here in the next few weeks so everyone can find it. 

I’ll continue to write about Lynne and the events of our lives together, and I will also continue to muse upon Christianity, religion, and spirituality.

I remain awestruck by the number of people who follow the posts here, and I am flat dumbfounded by where the writing comes from. I never have a clear idea of what I am going to write about until I sit down, and then it flows. I think God calls it grace. 

So many of you have flattered me with many words of encouragement. Lots of folks are telling me I should be a writer. That is exactly where God leads me. In fact, God has been after me to write for quite some time. Before Lynne died I had five short stories in various stages of editing, and was having a web site built to publish them. I have the base ideas for my first novel in process, and I also want to write about modern Christianity. That’s all been on hold, but the events of the last month have deepened that conviction in my heart. I hope to have the web site up and the stories published in the next few months.

I have been searching my mind for the best way to describe who Lynne was, and I’ve decided that the phrase “the real deal” fits well. Lynne was real. There was nothing artificial about her. The laugh, the smile, the belief were all real. Lynne wasn’t perfect, but she did have perfections. She had perfect belief. She had perfect hope. She never doubted that God would see things through, and He always did.

Which begs the question, “what makes us real?” We can also ask the opposite question, “What makes us false?”
I do this routinely when I lead Bible studies. I’ll  start asking people, “Who are you?” Of course, no one ever volunteers an answer. Then I follow up with “Don’t tell me about your job, or your family, or that you’re a Christian. I want to know who you really are.” If no one speaks up, then I start selecting volunteers.

Boy do folks squirm. I never, ever get a good answer from them. 


There are lots of reasons for this, I think. Self-examination is extremely difficult. It requires honesty, and it is painful. We don’t like what we see, and we don’t like who we truly are. When we look rigorously inside ourselves we see fear, we feel shame for things we have said or done, and we have a deep sense of inadequacy. Some perhaps even see evil. Each of these qualities can form a part of our true self.

Ultimately, if we are faithful to this exercise we realize that we are broken.

No one likes to feel that way about themselves, so when asked about who we are we turn to our false self for definitions. Our false self comes from the things of the world we use to describe ourselves. It can be money, it can be a hobby, a job, or an accomplishment. It can even be religion. 

When we use externals to define us we neglect the person that God made. We forget that we are human beings. What that means is that we are beings made by God. He has willed us into existence. It is God who defines us, who gives us our personalities, our character, and our talents. If this is so, then why do we look outside ourselves to identify who we are? There is no reason for this beyond a simple lack of trust in Christ.

In Matthew 3:16-17 the Father told the Son, “You are my Son, the Beloved, my favor rests on you.” The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen tells us in Life of the Beloved  that “being the Beloved expresses the core truth of our existence.”

God knows everything, and He certainly knows we that are broken. What we do not realize is how precious this makes us to Him. He loves us for it just as we love our own children when we see them in pain. As I mentioned last time, He uses our brokenness as an opening for His infinite love and grace. This is part of how He makes us holy.

But this happens only if we allow it, and only if we trust. We have to permit ourselves to receive God’s grace.

We’ve talked about faith as trust before, and about how holiness is an inside-out thing. It seems to me that confronting who we are in our brokenness is a vital part of this process. This is a deep truth that we will dwell upon some other time.

People who understand their being in Christ and their belovedness,  and then surpass their brokenness are truly rare. We sense this quality about them when we are in their presence. We sense their holiness.

That was Lynne. How many of us have some doubt every day about what we do? Lynne never did. She had the keenest sense of direction and spirituality of anyone I ever knew. She had this because her being, the real Lynne Breen, was centered in Christ. She knew she was beloved.

And now you have your answer when someone asks you who you are. Tell them, “I am the Beloved.”
This has been a dramatic time of change that began in January when I went to Gethsemane. That trip was the first in a cascade of events that continues to unfold. In the last month I lost my wife, my church, and a deep friendship. All are painful. One I had no control over. The others were at the hands of someone who sacrificed the Bible and our fellowship on the altar of personal expediency.

This is part of my personal brokenness, but I know that I too am the Beloved. God is making deep changes in me, and for that I give thanks.

A new season begins in my life, and in the life of my sons. Remember how I keep saying that death unleashes life? I see no accident in time as between the recent events in the lives of myself and my family, and Lent and Easter Sunday. The Resurrection was the historical event that unleashed life from death. So too has my wife’s death unleashed new life in myself, my sons, and others. We await eagerly the great lives He has prepared for us.

May you have a blessed Easter, and to God alone be the Glory!

Reality Check

 I have been thinking for the last week or so about what Lynne is doing in Heaven. And the answer I keep getting is “dancing.” Now this is funny because Lynne liked to dance, and I didn’t. Clumsy white guys like me do not like to dance. 

This may surprise you, but when Lynne danced she really shook it. She shook it to the point it embarrassed me (which was really my issue, and not hers). It was a completely different aspect of who she was, and because I refused to stumble around the dance floor she did not get to shake it very often.

Lest we forget, there is no time in Heaven. Heaven exists outside of time. So dancing for a solid week in Heaven is no big deal because no one is counting. St. Augustine said that God sees past, present, and future all at once. Try and get your arms around that one, and you’ll have the barest whisper of an idea of eternity.

Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth, the reality of Life without Lynne creeps in bit-by-bit. It feels very odd after the busyness of a day at the office or a hearing in Court to drive home knowing that she will not be there. Her car sits in the garage, her clothes hang in the closet. We haven’t touched anything, and frankly have not even thought about it.

I did manage to take care of some essentials. I paid the cable bill; after all, it’s NCAA tourney time and a fellow has to manage his priorities! Oh, and I went down and checked on the utilities. I remember a friend who manages the local utility coming through the line at the funeral visitation and nicely asking, “Is there anything I can do?” I said, “yes, could you make sure that our power isn’t cut off? I have no idea if the bill has been paid. Do you have any influence there?” He said he did.

Women know, and men gladly neglect the thousand little things necessary to making a house a home. Warren Buffet, the famous investor, used to work out of an office upstairs at his home. He came down one day and noticed that the dining room walls had been painted. He asked his wife when she had that done. “Seven years ago, Warren” she told him.

I am seeing our house with new eyes and a new appreciation for my late wife. Now it’s “OK, take care of the dog,” which I never liked very much anyway, check on Caleb’s stuff at High School, water the houseplants, run the dishwasher, do the laundry (tomorrow) and so on. I didn’t know we had a subscription to Good Housekeeping. Where are all these catalogs coming from? What’s Coldwater Creek? And look at all the cosmetics, creams, and “body stuff!”

Lynne and I both garden so it’s time to work on that, but without her eye for color and design. What once seemed a bit dreary has new meaning.
Walking around looking at things in the house also triggers memories of laughter and good times. It also reminds me that a godly woman whose spirit once filled its rooms has departed. But hey, she’s dancing!
The reality of our situation is also settling in with my sons. I don’t want to put their thoughts and feelings on display, but I see in their faces the growing awareness that their mother has suddenly, and irretrievably left. We have a lot of work to do. Lynne was the only woman in a three-guy household. That alone should qualify any woman for sainthood, but we all know that Lynne’s enthusiasm, optimism, and love for God filled the walls of this home and the world beyond.

Those who know me well will tell you that I dislike noise, and complain a lot about all of the noisiness of the world. Now I will tell you that we should always be careful with our complaints. Few things seem relevant now, and absolute silence can be disquieting.
Allow me to close with Proverbs 31:10-12:
             An excellent wife, who can find?
For her worth is far above jewels.
               The heart of her husband trusts in her,
And he will have no lack of gain.
               She does him good and not evil
All the days of her life.


One of Lynne’s favorite sayings was that were she to get tattoos, she would have a tatt that said “This world is not my home” on one hand,  and “Lord Jesus come quickly” on the other. She said that a lot. I’m not certain what that implies about being married to me, but it does show us what absolute faith is.

We’ve discussed faith as trust before, but now I want to talk about it in terms of belief. Lynne had absolute belief in Christ and His promises. Absolute means “free from all imperfection or deficiency.” It means “perfect.”
I saw Lynne’s perfect belief day in and day out for years. In fact, I am living proof of it. Lynne prayed for my salvation for nineteen years. That is a very long time. 

I had a classic conversion following an irresistible call to belief from Christ. (I dislike the term “born again” because it has been made cliché by politicians, evangelicals, pagans, and just about everyone else. If we have to use a term, let’s call it “born from above,” which happens to be a very nice translation from the Greek of the New Testament.) That happened in 2003 and I’ll write about that some more some other time, but I can tell you I was Lynne’s long-term prayer project. 

Lynne had a perfect belief in prayer. She never doubted but that God listened to her prayers, and that He would answer them. It was not unusual for me to come home from the office and find her in bed deep in prayer. I used to joke that our bed was her native habitat, and probably qualified for Federal protection, but it was her prayer place. She would see people she knew in Wal-Mart, find out that they had serious personal problems, and start praying with them right there. She did that with strangers too. She didn’t care what other people thought about it.

There were many times we would be winding down the day lying in bed, and she would say we needed to pray. I let her take the lead because I was a rank amateur compared to her. These weren’t simple prayers either. They were often very lengthy, made reference to scripture, and came from the deepest part of her heart. If you ever heard my wife pray, then you knew it was in earnest.

Some of this may sound far-fetched to you, but I saw amazing stuff happen time and again. It rarely happened overnight, and did not always occur exactly as she asked, but by golly when Lynne prayed God listened, and He heard

I used to tease Lynne about being a Jehovan. By this I meant that she was an Old Testament-sort of gal who believed in a just God who rewarded goodness, and punished the wicked. She frequently prayed for just that, and I am a witness to how those prayers were answered. I can also tell you it was a good idea to avoid being on her “punish the wicked list;” it will be interesting to see how those prayers are answered ultimately in her absence.

Another one of her favorite prayers was for exposure. Sometimes people conceal who they really are, or their motives for why they act in a certain way. Lynne prayed for their exposure. She would also pray that those people be snared by their own traps. I continue to see both things happen. Even yesterday, someone we prayed over that I thought I knew well told me who he really was. It ended a lengthy friendship. Although exposure can be painful, people who reveal themselves by character and deed bless us because they give us the ability to understand and avoid them.

Some very kind people have described Lynne as a prayer-warrior. I like the term fine, but if we are going to use military metaphors, I think prayer-commando better finds the mark.

Compared to Lynne, I am a prayer pup. I tend to pray a single prayer for a lengthy period of time. For example, there was a stretch of many months where all I did was give thanks for God’s grace. I gave thanks that He chose me. Why He did escapes me, but He did.

Right now, my sole prayer is the Lord’s Prayer. I honestly cannot tell you why, but I know it is what I am supposed to pray. Sometimes I say a single line, or repeat a phrase over and over. It is an awesome prayer for deep meditation and contemplation, and even though I have looked at many commentaries that discuss it I believe that we have a poor understanding of what it means.

I want to tell you about two other Christian people I know who have perfect belief. A few days ago I was riding with a friend, and he started to tell me about a rare vascular disease he has. He has kept it in check for years with powerful steroids. If he quits taking the steroids he will get sick and die; but if he keeps taking the steroids they will eventually catch up with him and cause other serious medical problems. If you look at him you would never know that he is seriously ill, and his attitude about his dilemma is chipper and upbeat.
He told me he talked to his mother about it once. She said she could not understand why God chose him for this illness. Her other two children have various health and emotional issues, yet God chose her strongest and most successful child for this malady. He answered, “don’t you see, mom? He chose me because I’m the strongest!”

Then he looked at me and said, “I am thankful this illness.” It floored me.

The other friend prayed an astonishing prayer. She asked that she be given the ability to know the suffering of Christ on the Cross. Not very long after that she became afflicted with multiple sclerosis. The surgeries, the pain, and the disability have been a challenge not only for her, but for her husband and children. But just like my other friend, you will meet no one more resolute and upbeat in her belief and assurance of the outcome of her illness.

What is going on here? How is it that ordinary people greet or ask for extraordinary challenges with joy and perfect belief? After all, this is America. We do everything we can to avoid death and prolong life, regardless of the cost or the poor quality of life. We cling to life with all our might knowing that death will eventually come.

Paul the Apostle says, “I die daily.” What I think Paul means is that he faces not only death every day, but lives “in willing identification with the death of Christ.” This willing identification leads Paul to boast not for himself, but for Christ. It seems to me that is part of what is going on here.

But there is also another deep spiritual truth at work. I have been studying the contemplative James Finley for several months now. He was a disciple of Thomas Merton, the famous monk from the Abbey of Gethsemane at Trappist, KY. Finley tells us that if we are true to ourselves we realize that we are walking wounded. We have been hurt deeply by others and by life. We respond falsely to the pain and injury of life by striking back, withdrawing, or acting in some other way harmful to ourselves and others.

Our true self, if we are honest, recognizes our frailty and poverty of self, and we respond by going forth in compassionate love in recognition of the preciousness of ourselves in that frailty. God loves us regardless of who or what we are; the preciousness of our wounded self is a touchstone with paradise because that is the opening through which God grasps and loves us.

If you’re like me, these are  hard concepts to grasp. They require study and meditation. The easy thing to do is read this, say “that’s too deep for me,” and move on. But I promise if you will take the time to reflect on this and be intensely honest with who you really are, you will see absolute truth and have perfect joy.

The stories of my two friends help give this understanding and meaning. I am certain that they have never thought about who or what they are in the terms I just expressed. They simply know to do it because Christ has graced them with perfect belief. They accept who they are, they accept their illness, and their perfect belief gives them joy in the face of their adversity. They know that God loves them absolutely in their frailty. They die all day long.

You may not believe in Christ Jesus, and this may sound like crazy talk. So be it. I promise that you are no more hard-bitten than I used to be, but God has slowly been opening my eyes to the wonders of the world we live in as played out in the everyday lives we lead.

The Broke Down Bible Club

A few years ago my former church ran a Thursday morning men’s Bible study. Shortly after I became a Christian I decided to go. I did not know anyone at the session, so I walked in and sat down. The pastor gave the lesson, and then told us to break into groups.
Everyone else was already in a group so I looked around, picked out some guys sitting together, walked over, and asked if I could join. We ended up meeting for several years on Thursday mornings after the Church series ended, and then for reasons I really can’t recall stopped getting together. But we did begin to develop strong relationships with one another.
Groups like this are a great idea. Unlike women, men don’t share emotions well. I won’t pretend to try and explain the reasons for this, we just don’t. It has something to do with our reluctance over vulnerability and intimacy.
But as the famous poet said, “no man is an island.” I am a prime example of what happens when you try and go it alone. We live in an outrageously complex world, and just when we start thinking that things could not possibly become worse they do. Madness and mayhem seem to be the order of the day.
When you try and navigate through life in this sort of world by yourself bad things start happening. Things like arrogance, pride, selfishness, and what I call the “master of the universe” complex start to shape who and what you are. Men must have fellowship to, among other reasons, reveal who they really are, talk about sports and shooting things, make fun of each other, and prop each other up when the bad stuff happens.
And we need it to keep each other real. I am around a lot of very successful people, and that includes folks who pack some pretty big egos. I publicly plead guilty to this myself, and it remains a life challenge for me. Guys are good at calling each other out when someone gets too big for their britches. Being in a study group is a good cure for egotism.
We broke ranks for a while, and then one of the guys sent me an email that his marriage had failed. Right around that time another one of the guys saw his marriage fail. I knew it was time to reconvene the Thursday morning group. I actually went out to where I thought I would find one of them at church on Sunday, eyeballed him among hundreds, and told him it was time to get going again. As an added bonus another one of the boys was there, and I grabbed him too.
We do a light Bible study. Right now we are beginning Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. It is a study of Christian spiritual disciplines like prayer, meditation, fasting, simplicity, and study. Being a Christian is a way of life, and like an athlete you have to train for it. Having a deep relationship with God doesn’t happen just by showing up on Sunday or studying application. You train for it.
Then we talk and share. Everybody has issues in life, I don’t care who you are. Since we reconvened I went to court to sit with one of the guys when the judge officially dissolved his marriage, then stood with him while he cried out in the hallway. The other guy got divorced too, found an internet bride (which raised a few eyebrows among us), and then realized he still loved his ex-wife just before getting hitched again. One of the guys can’t find a job. Several of us have substance issues. We talk about this stuff, and in the case of the internet bride, tease mercilessly. That, folks, is fair game.
I thought I was the relatively stable one in the bunch. Then Lynne died. My crew was there for me.
After a few weeks of disruptions that kept us from meeting we finally got back together last week. Somebody said, “this has to be the most broke-down Bible club in town.” We hadn’t named ourselves before, so we officially adopted  “The Broke-Down Bible Club.” One of the old chums showed up; he has the closest thing to a normal life. He was named “Director of Normality,” the joke being, of course, that there is no such thing.
This is guy-bonding at a deep level.
You’re invited (if you’re a guy). If you think you’re really broke-down you have stiff competition. We could use some more normal men too. We come from all walks of life.

We don’t have many rules, but here are a few.

1.    Omerta. For those of you who don’t know what Omerta is, it is the Mafia code of silence. When we get together and share ourselves as deeply as we do what we talk about doesn’t leave the room. Period. (I know, I sort of broke the rule by telling you about us.)

2.    Be real. No phonies allowed. The self-righteous, and those who think they have the only correct view of scripture are discouraged from coming.

3.    No politics.

4.    Don’t come because your wife thinks it is a good idea. Come because you want/need to.

5.    We start at 6:30 a.m. every Thursday and stop at 7:30 so folks can get to work. Come to the back of Hillvue Heights, go up the elevator to the third floor, and come on in.

I know walking into a group of strangers can be intimidating. Trust me, you’ll be well-received.

Sedum Heaven

I need to correct any misimpressions that may be forming about me. Folks have been so very positive about the posts on Caring Bridge I hold myself out as no model or source of inspiration for anyone.
Being married to me for 26 years had to be tough. I can be moody and impulsive, demanding and, I am told, intimidating. Sometimes the lawyer side of me kicks in at home with wife and sons, and that is not a good thing. Lynne handled our marriage with love, grace and, in some cases, longsuffering. On the other hand, cross-examining your kids when there are some issue can be fun (for me).
Lawyers will know what I mean by what I say next: beware the wife who loses her fear of lawyers. Lynne worked in my office off and on over the years, and dealt with a lot of lawyers. Many times they did not know they were talking to my wife when complaining, threatening, cajoling and doing the other stuff some lawyers do as a part of their daily routine. Over time she became unimpressed with many of them. I remember one occasion at home where she was dealing directly with a lawyer in negotiating a difficulty in our homeowner’s association, and she had the guy practically standing on his head in a corner. And she did it with finesse and grace.
Fortunately, God has been knocking the edges off of me, slowly but surely, for the last seven years. I like to think I am mellower now, slower to anger, and more thoughtful. I hope I can call that wisdom. But for God’s grace, I certainly would not have the perspective on the swirl of events I’ve written about over the last few weeks.
So I am feeling confessional, and I have to tell you what I did today. I have mentioned that Lynne and I liked to garden. We have a cottage-style garden, and have had a few disagreements about certain things: what perennials to plant, what color, that sort of minor stuff. But we had a big running disagreement for the last few years over the sedum. I can’t stand sedum, and Lynne had a lot of it planted in the flower beds. Sedum overruns the other plants, takes up too much space, its foliage isn’t pleasant to look at, and the flowering heads are unimpressive. Plus when it dies off in the Fall all you are left with is a bunch of really ugly brown stalks.
Every year I said, “time to dig it up and get rid of it,” and every year Lynne said “no.” Rule One (keep momma happy) always being in force in the Breen household, the sedum stayed put. (For those of you who do not know what Rule Two is, it too is simple: observe Rule One).
Yesterday was a beautiful day, and I decided to do some Spring clean up in the flower beds. I fed the roses, did some trimming and pruning, fretted over the Bermuda grass that has invaded the bee balm, that kind of stuff.
And I saw that I finally had my chance to get rid of the sedum. So I did. It is now in sedum heaven, if there is such a thing.
I hope this does not offend you, or that you think I am somehow disrespectful of Lynne’s memory by jumping on the chance to ditch a plant I never liked. As we say in the South, “I seen my opportunity, and I took it.”
The Russian sage isn’t far behind. That’s what God made Roundup for.


When I was a wee lad growing up in the Catholic Church married women wore hats to Church every Sunday. I have some distant memories of it. The tradition, of course, comes from 1 Corinthians 11: 4-11. I’ll leave you to read it for yourself but it is quite interesting, and if still observed would give Sunday worship an entirely different look.

Then women quit wearing hats to Sunday Mass; I vaguely remember my mother telling me that they were no longer required. Women don’t wear hats anymore, which is fine. Guys wear baseball caps, usually for one of two reasons. Either their hair is messed up and they don’t want to wash it, or they have no hair at all. Why women wear hats at all is a mystery to men.

About a year ago Lynne went on a “hat kick.” If you look on eBay lots of vintage hats from the New York and Paris designer houses in the Fifties and Sixties on have come up for sale, and the prices are very reasonable. No doubt the ladies who bought these and kept them have passed away, and the families have decided to sell them.

So Lynne became a hat sniper on eBay, and I started coming home to boxes and boxes of hats in the dining room. I was amazed. Some of them were in their original boxes, and they were in flawless condition. (I was, of course, observing Rule One: Keep momma happy.)

I saw everything from the ridiculous to the sublime. Who are these people who dream up these designs? One of them looked like a Stay Puft marshmallow. Another one was suitable for the first manned mission to Mars. Lynne knew that her father was in poor health, and she bought a “bee keeper’s” mourning hat with an extraordinary veil. I’ve posted a photo of her wearing it a long with a mink stole we found years ago in a thrift shop for a song. The look is totally retro, but charming. Other hats were exquisite concoctions of feathers, velvet, fur, and a few things I simply did not recognize.

I had a lot of fun watching Lynne try them on, and she was thrilled with collecting and wearing them. She started wearing hats to Church on Sunday, and rarely left the house without one. The photo on the home page here shows her in one.
When it was Lynne’s turn to host the Bas Bleu Book Club at our house they were reading one of those Southern chic lit books about crazy people, and they decided to go in character. Everyone wore a hat. I’ve posted a photo from it. If you look closely in the back row you will see a sighting rarer than Bachman’s Warbler: Robin Ciochetty in a hat (the big red one).

When it came time to plan the funeral service someone (I don’t remember who) brought up Lynne’s hats. This was a no-brainer: everyone needed to wear a hat to the funeral. Even better, I decided to get all of Lynne’s hats out, let everyone pick a favorite, and keep it as a memento. (Uh, I am the father of two sons, not much use for them here, although we did save several for them to give to their wives.)

I did not realize she had so many. We covered all of the tables and furniture in the dining  and living room areas!

It started a micro fashion show. The women there helping with the planning started looking around, then picking out hats and trying them on in front of the mirror. It was neat to watch.

A friend loaded up the rest of them so they could be distributed to other friends and to the young ladies Lynne had mentored. When I wrote Lynne’s obituary I asked the ladies to wear hats.

That they did. The visitation was a river of ladies in hats. At the funeral one of the pastors made note of the hatfest, and asked everyone wearing a hat in honor of Lynne stand up.

I stood up, and looking around saw dozens of ladies stand up. A sea of hats! Such a unique tribute to my wife, and a way to make the funeral celebration something special everyone could belong to.

I don’t know why, but writing this makes my eyes well with tears, and my nose a little runny.

A Good Death

We buried my wife of 26 years today. The celebration service was extraordinary, the weather was stunning, and I was so deeply moved by the lengthy line of friends and family who gridlocked Bowling Green as the procession moved through town to the cemetery. It is a tradition in the South that folks stop their cars on the road and respectfully let the entourage pass by. That was cool.

The funeral today was the culmination of what I call a good death.

I hope that phrase gives pause. We never hear death called a good thing, but I believe it. We have all seen how death tears people apart emotionally and spiritually. They become angry with themselves, with their family, and sometimes with God. And sometimes they never recover. I know some people here who have lost a mother or a father, and even though they are Christians they remain crippled for years by that death.

I think there are lots of reasons for this, and perhaps we'll reflect on that sometime. What I want to discuss tonight is how death can be a good thing.

Lynne's father passed away just seven weeks ago after a lengthy illness. We actually had two funeral services, one where he lived, and another in west Tennessee at the family cemetery. Six generations of his family are buried there.

I had the honor of being asked to preside over the service in west Tennessee. You'll notice that I did not use the word "preach." I am not a preacher, have no interest in it, and intend to resist if called.

But I was delighted to do this. My father-in-law was a humble, sweet man who had the DTV version of the Bible. For those of you not familiar with the DTV, it means "duct tape version." He had his Bible for so long and used it so much he put duct tape on it to keep it together.

We were at a rural church before a small group, so I figured that I couldn’t do too much harm, or that things couldn't go too badly. I opened with what I thought was a pretty funny line. "I want to put you at your ease and let you know that I am not a preacher. I actually am an attorney who has been in practice for 26 years. It is my understanding that it is illegal to be a lawyer and a preacher in Tennessee." No one cracked a smile. "Tough audience," I thought to myself.

Anyway, I told them that Tom died a good death, and that we should celebrate his death. We should not fear death as so many do. If you think about it, we go to great lengths to avoid death, and this really is silly. Clinging so hard to life makes little sense, yet we spend tremendous economic resources and emotional capital trying to avoid something that, guess what? can't be avoided!

I told them that we should instead reflect on Tom's "kingdom life." In Luke 17:20 the Pharisees demanded that Jesus tell them when the kingdom of God should come. To quote from the Authorized Version, " He answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

That is a big, big statement: “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Other translations say that the Kingdom is at hand, is among you, is in your midst, and so on.
What does that mean? What is meant by the statement the Kingdom of God is at hand, and the Kingdom of God is within you?
We all know of and anxiously await Christ’s return to reign over His kingdom, so the phrase certainly anticipates Christ’s future return. But it also points to a present kingdom. That’s right, we can live in God’s kingdom right now. It’s all around us and within us. All we have to do is look and see.
I could go on for a very long time about this and sound like a professor of theology, but I won’t do that to you. Instead, I am going to direct you to a terrific example of the presence of the Kingdom we experience every day: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Our Junior Bible Quiz friends recognize this right away. It is the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. That is a great example of the presence of the Kingdom, and it is how we can live the Kingdom life every day. That’s what my father-in-law did.
I also saw it played out when he died in hospital. As he drew his last breaths Lynne talked so sweetly and lovingly to him, and gently stroked his forehead. I read Psalm 23 and Romans 8 to him. Janice, my sister-in-law, was rushing there and talked to him on the cell phone while my nephew Brandon held it to his head. On the day of his funeral Janice and my mother-in-law went down and dressed him and anointed his body with oil.
This is the Fruit of the Spirit, and this is the Kingdom in our midst. This is the Kingdom in us. I was utterly blown away by witnessing and participating in something eternal and divine in the present moment.

And I’ve been doing it again for the last week since Lynne became ill. Not only has the Spirit been on the move bestowing its fruits, but I have seen the Kingdom at work too. You’ve heard me say that out of death comes life. This is a deep truth embedded in the Bible that we should pay more attention to. It’s the Resurrection, of course, but I’ve also seen it in small in hundreds of ways.
Lynne’s organ donation is a great example, but this episode goes well beyond that. I have watched God change lives in front of me. One person I am thinking of in particular has had his soul startled into awareness, and whether he knows it or not there is no going back.
Dozens of people have told me that this has caused them to reexamine their marriages and their lives, and to start paying attention to spiritual priorities they know they have been neglecting.
It’s changing me too. I am learning much, much more about loving and being loved. I like it a lot. I also watched as hundreds saw my wife buried in a timeless ritual. That too is a present part of the Kingdom.
Just as with my father-in-law’s death, I am again stunned at being right in the middle of God revealing His eternal truths and mysteries as they are made manifest in His Kingdom. Better yet, I am a player in it!
You are too. See!
My wife’s death is a part of God’s revelation of His glory. With all of these awesome and majestic things going on around me how can I call this anything but a good death?

Friday, May 28, 2010


I cannot tell you how deeply moved we are by the love friends and family have showered upon us. Thank you so very much for everything. We have received hundreds of cards and emails, phone calls, meals, and just plain old love. It feels so good.

We received a letter from the Kentucky Organ Donor Affiliates yesterday telling us about Lynne’s donation. Lynne’s left kidney was successfully transplanted into a gentleman from Kentucky who had been on the list since last October. Her right one was successfully transplanted into a lady Kentuckian who also had been waiting since October. Unfortunately, none of her other organs could be used. Perhaps the whole purpose of the trip down here by the Mayo Clinic folks was for me to ask Dr. Rosen about his faith. Hmm.

In one of my earlier postings I spoke of how the Gospel unleashes life from death. I also spoke of how Christ keeps telling us in the New Testament, “See! See! See!”

Lynne’s death has given life to two people in desperate circumstances. See?

I’ll be posting soon on the Broke Down Bible Club. Stay tuned, and God Bless.

Heroes - Part Two

An exhausting day. Visitation is Thursday at Living Hope from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. We will have visitation again beginning Friday at 10:00 a.m., and the funeral service at 1:00 p.m., also at Living Hope.

Over the next few days I am going to discuss spiritual issues, but I want to write about heroes again today.

The heroes are small group moms, my small group, my church family, and our close friends. Everyone came together like a well-drilled team. My son Caleb is in a very tight group of teens at church. They have been with him almost around the clock since last Thursday.

The moms in that group stayed with them at the hospital for hours while folks brought scads of food into the huge conference room the hospital set aside for us. What a relief for my wife and I. I am so thankful for Leigh Anne, Kim, Lisa, Betsy, Karen, Debbie, Leslie, and others for kicking into high gear and watching the gang. And, of course, thanks to Hoss, our teen minister, who neglected his own family for days to sit with the gang. (We call him Hoss because he is a dead ringer for Dan Blocker, who used to play Hoss on the Bonanza series.) These folks are all heros, although I know it embarrases them to be called that.

The reason this is so important is because dozens of teens came through that room, many unchurched. They got to watch what really was a party, not some sort of death watch. They had to wonder why.

So did all of the people going up and down the halls at the hospital who looked in, and wondered what the three day festival was all about.

My own small group has been together for a long time. The small group theoreticians say that most groups last about two years or so, and then become stale and should disband. Not us. We haven't been able to bring ourselves to dissolve; we did for a while, and it didn't work. Instead, our relationships have matured and deepend, and my wife's death has brought us even closer.

The ladies have organized , come in and cleaned house, looked after us, given good advice, and joyously jumped in and helped organize all of the hundreds of funeral activities. Thanks to all of them so very much. Sisterly love in Christ is the best, and that comes from a guy who has grown a lot emotionally even in the last six months. They are heros.

And it goes on. My wife had so many other dear girlfriends. One of them just left after helping look through scads of photos so we can have a digital montage at Church. She and her husband worked trielessly at hospital to direct people around, see to the little things, and turn tragedy into God's glory. Others are making sure we get hot meals, and I am told we are booked though April! Cool! They are all heros.

I can keep going, and I know I am overlooking others. Please know I love and thank you all. You are heros.

This is the Gospel. We can talk about the Gospel all we want, but I promise you that if we live it people will notice that much much more than anything we can ever say or pontificate about. I am seeing it right now, and what an extraordinary blessing to be on the receiving end!

I'm fried. I'm going to keep posting at least once a day, and at some point will switch to a blog I am setting up. I found a photo of my sweet wife I like a lot. I hope you enjoy it, because it captures her spirit so well.

Heroes - Part One

Heroes - Part One

It has been a long day, but everything went so well at the hospital. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Rosen from the Mayo Clinic, the surgeon who flew in to harvest Lynne's organs. I'll talk about that some more some other time, but right now I want to talk about the heroes at The Medical Center.

Most of you know that I am a personal injury attorney. My office deals with medical charts a lot, but we rarely see or know anything about the people who give the care to our clients, or who put their information in the medical records.

I spent the last four days in ICU, and was able to watch these folks giving care to my wife and others. I am a bit of a wordsmith, but I find myself at a loss to describe these caregivers. The usual words like "dedicated," "caring," and "compassionate" come to mind, but these fall so very short of what I saw.

I saw love, joy, patience, kindness, gentleness.... Sound familiar?

My dear wife's friends and family almost overran the hospital, and the ICU. Thursday night the halls were packed, and dozens of folks were in the ICU. Well, this is an intensive care unit. Over a dozen other critically ill patients were on the floor. We really shouldn't have been allowed in there.

And I never once heard a single complaint. Over the last four days we had dozens of people streaming through the place to see Lynne and say goodbye. I saw moments of tenderness from friends I will never forget. The staff was so gracious and accommodating throughout all of this.

Downstairs, the Medical Center reserved its main conference room on the first floor, and it stayed packed for three days, mostly with my youngest son's friends. They consumed phenomenal amounts of junk food, and the staff, without a single complaint, let them surround my son with their love while his mother was ill upstairs. I kept listening for a collective crash from the youngsters from all the stuff they were gobbling down, but it never came.

I want to identify a few of the heroes who worked so very hard to give my wife such intimate care. The nurses I am thinking of are Amy, Alex, Jason, and Barbie. I cannot thank each of you enough. God Bless you. Thanks also to Barbara and Sally. I know you guys lets us break all the rules, but we all witnessed something very special while my wife was your patient.

Thanks also to Dr. Randy Hansbrough, Dr. Jiannua Zhu, and his partner Dr. Paul Burke. Your professionalism, accessibility, compassion, and lucidity are so deeply appreciated by myself and my family.

And a special nod to my old friend Dr. Bob Watson. Dr. Bob is the Chief of Anesthesiology at the Medical Center. Most folks in Southern Kentucky do not know that we have a national treasure here. This rare man is a trusted friend, mentor, adviser, confidante, and brilliant physician who kept outrageous hours while all of this happened to make sure my family and I knew everything that was going on, and so we could navigate through this difficult time. Thank you so much old friend, and God Bless.

To the Administration: you have heroes working at your facility. One of the senior nurses today told me, "We're a family hospital." That is true. Hold your heads high, for you should proud of them. Thank you for allowing these people to excel at what they do.

This is how things are supposed to be. This is a major part of the amazing story that the Lord privileged to me be a part of.

How great is our God!

See you again very soon.

In Him,