The prison called “I can’t”

There are those reading this that don’t believe in God. And those who believe in God but are suspicious of anyone claiming a personal encounter or even communication with God. I acknowledge and grant you the right to believe what you will, but ask you to grant me the same. And to suspend your beliefs long enough to read this story because it might well be for you.

In the early 90s, God gave me a dream as I slept. I know it was God because of the nature of the dream and the communication afterwards.

It was an intense, vivid dream of a little boy. He was only 4 years old or so, just learning how to draw.

And he took all his best crayons, and with all the love and hope in his young heart, he drew a wonderful, beautiful picture of his house, his family and all the trees flowers all around. In the dream I wasn’t just watching him do this like someone looking over the shoulder of a child and saying “Isn’t that cute”.  No, I was feeling his emotions as he drew. And they were absolutely beautiful.

When he was done, he was so proud of it, and it was so much a part of his young creativity that he took it to his mother to show her.

He had no way of knowing, but it was bad timing and she was not in good health emotionally.

Out of her own pain and hurt, she took her son’s beautiful picture, ripped it up into little pieces and said “that’s a piece of garbage”

God let me enter his little heart to feel how it broke, absolutely devastated that something he thought was so beautiful could be cast off as ugly and shameful.

And I woke up in horror, devastated, and asked God – “Where is that boy now? You’ve GOT to tell me” Because it wasn’t just a dream. It was the story of someone’s life.

In my spirit, I heard God say “He’s in prison. A prison called “I can’t””

I told the dream to 2 groups of people shortly after that – at MCI Shirley to a group of inmates and at church. In both cases, multiple people came up later and said that little boy was them. If not verbatim, then thematically.

So I said 2 things to them:

  1. That drawing was VERY GOOD and you have vital gifts that you have put away in shame.
  2. You’ve been in a prison of lies but today you’re going free.



Painful patterns of conflict

How I will start my sermon today:

Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman

In 2009 I served as foreman on a jury in Fitchburg District Court. We found a man guilty of driving under the influence, acting upon the evidence presented by prosecution and defense attorneys. I remember thinking how much better a case was presented by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts than the defense; really, we had almost nothing to consider from the case his lawyer presented. To this day I have no qualms about our verdict.

Last night a jury of his peers found George Zimmerman not guilty of any charges relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young, unarmed African American man. Immediately after that, my friends on Facebook, and black people throughout the nation expressed anger and outrage over the verdict.

Let me say a few things, personal convictions that I believe, about the case and the verdict:

  1. I have no reason to believe that the jury did the same work I did in 2009 – that is, they considered the evidence and all the testimony presented to them to arrive at a verdict. Now, that evidence and testimony was gathered and presented by people with different skill and resources. I have no question that George Zimmerman’s lawyer did a better job than the State of Florida. They had more money – raised at a rate of $77,000/week through online contributions – and they were better lawyers. Trayvon Martin, a dead person, could only afford a state prosecutor.  None of those facts have nothing to do with race; they just express how the system works, and sometimes how it malfunctions.
  2. I wasn’t there. I have no idea if Zimmerman acted out of self-defense which was the defense’s successful claim. I do believe that excessive force was used and that Trayvon Martin did not have to die. What that means in terms of Florida’s laws I can’t say, but I don’t believe George Zimmerman was an innocent man. It takes two to tango and by all accounts he picked a fight and he killed someone in that fight. That’s wrong and there’s a strong case that he should be punished under some law for some crime. All that said, even the prosecution’s case pointed to a verdict of not guilty; there was nothing to support a second degree murder conviction.   Wrongful death lawsuit, maybe.  Again, this has less to do with race than it does with rich vs. poor in a flawed judicial system. That’s a pattern that can be observed across time and across legal precedent.
  3. This case conformed to a very painful historical pattern to black people. It should be painful to whites too, but it is less so. Is that racism? Probably. It’s certainly insensitivity and insensitivity of a type that has gone on for generations. If I don’t take notice of the patterns of conflict represented in the Trayvon Martin case, then I am ignoring a huge dividing wall in our nation erected for years by people with the same color skin as me. I thought of posting sick pictures of lynch mobs and disfigured, beaten and dragged bodies of dead black men here.  Those make me ashamed of my white skin, or ashamed that someone would use skin color or anything to justify brutality like that.  So, you probably guess that I am taking notice of this conflict. Big time.

Another case, much closer to home:

On the night of August 11, 2012, four women were sitting and talking in a parked car in Dorchester, Massachusetts. One of them was the daughter of a friend of mine, Pastor Agabus Lartey. Someone came to the front of the vehicle, pulled a gun and sprayed it with bullets. Three of the women were killed, including Kristen.

Like most people, I read the newspaper “at a distance” .. seeing things historically but not too personally. This time I couldn’t do that. I knew the people involved.

As the time came near for Kristen’s funeral, I knew I had to go. So I prayed about what God would have me do. And I heard Him say that I was not to go as a pastor, dressed up and sitting among clergy, though I could do that and there would be nothing wrong with doing so.

No .. I was to serve the people after the service.

So I did. I hauled ice, served food, cleaned up, offered second helpings to everyone, and just served.

Please don’t think anything special about me for doing that; I was only being obedient and though I want to obey more, if I do that for just one day a year I am blessed.

I will never forget what I saw.

I mean on people’s faces. It was a despair, a resignation to disaster and injustice that destroys lives and kills dreams.  “Here we go again” their faces said.  They were tired, beaten down.  The older people hugged the younger ones a little more closely and eyed the teenagers with a distinct fear for their immediate future.  You could see it.

This violence was black-on-black, but worse, it snuffed out the life of a rising star. The highest hope in human form in that community was senselessly murdered.

I’d like to think that serving up potatoes and chicken and and ribs and bringing around ice water would do something to help. And people thanked me, they were very gracious and touched.

But nothing like that way I was touched.

See, I want to take away the patterns of dysfunction, of violence, fear and murder from the minds and hearts of my dear African American friends.

There may be riots now; it happened in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. White people at large don’t understand that. It’s not that they don’t want to; they just can’t. But I want understand to help other people understand, because in just a small way, I “get it”.

I’ll say that I would die for that cause if I thought it would matter.

But I’ll say that Someone already HAS died to take all that away, and HE will bring peace out of the midst of the conflict.

He will resolve it and remake new patterns of life and hope and restoration.

It wasn’t easy and it won’t be easy, but that’s what Jesus does.

And I want to be part because it’s in my heart to serve.

So framed by such real human drama and events, we need to learn about God’s peace this morning.

All heart, a process observed ..

The Story

Now I know what a heart attack feels like.  I had one this past Saturday.  The doctor at the ER said I had flunked a self-inflicted stress test.

From experience, if you say “chest” followed by “pain” you will get the attention of anyone in the medical profession.  And boy, do they have a program for you.

This time, I happened to have been moving my daughter and son-in-law into their new apartment.  They had been living with us for around 10 months, and it was a great thing for them to find a place and move in.  My daughter has always been a voracious reader, and that means she has tons (literally) of books.  They were all in boxes, having been shipped from Texas.  So I moved many boxes of those books up three flights of stairs.  It was a workout and I can’t say I took it easy.  We had to get it done in a short amount of time; the moving van was only rented for a few hours.

As I did the work, I didn’t feel particularly winded.  I mean it was hard work.  The sensation of my heart beating in my throat only reminded of Junior High School gym class when they made all the kids run the 1/2 mile.

But when I stopped, getting into my car to head to the store with my wife, a pain I have never experienced overwhelmed me.  It was angina, a throbbing, stabbing sensation going into both shoulders and neck.  And yes there was also pain in the heart area.

My wife urged me to leave my car at a strip mall so she could drive me to the hospital, but in my stubborn, angry mind (hey, I had things to DO that day and more the next), I insisted on driving home and going to our local hospital, Milford Regional Medical Center.  Yeah, I know, pretty stupid, but I was a heart attack rookie.

And, once I got home, I also figured I might as well smell and look a little better than I did, so I took of my sweaty clothing and got dressed in something clean and more comfortable.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true – I will probably insist on shaving the day I breathe my last.

After I mouthed the magic words “chest pain” in the ER, they immediately shuttled me into a room, gave me a quick EKG, took some blood (later I found out it was a test for troponin, a set of proteins the heart gives off when it’s repairing itself).  And they admitted me, telling me I would take a high tech nuclear stress test the next day.  I was actually psyched because I would get work out and show these guys just how fit this 60-year-old was.

Now I don’t really get along too well with hospital stays.  For one thing, you can’t get sleep.  They wake you up to take blood and things like that.  In fact I noted that every needle that entered my room also entered my body.  Destiny I guess.

My wife and I had a good time with our admitting nurse, who asked all kinds of required questions.  She asked if I had any piercings and of course I pointed to my IV.  And she asked if there were any procedures that I would object to on religious grounds.  Abortion, of course.

And I made famous friends with all my care providers.  In retrospect that was the best reason for going to Milford Regional.  SWEET, AMAZING, WONDERFUL people.

I think denial is generally  a useful phase during any traumatic process.  It allows you to joke (well I joke in any case) and turn down the worry valve.  So when the EKG result and the initial blood tests came back negative, all signs were that it was just a strain of some kind, maybe muscular.  My cholesterol level, less than 100, was particularly impressive, I thought.  I didn’t know that the troponin tests would continue every 6 hours till something was either seen or not seen.  And something was seen.

At the 5:00 PM test, the levels were raised, but no one told me.  Then, at the 11:00 test, well, about 30 minutes afterwards, my wonderful nurse Allie came back in and told me the levels had been elevated for 2 tests in a row, the stress test was canceled and I would have to start receiving blood thinner shots in the stomach.

My only frame of reference for shots in the stomach was amniocentesis, wherein they stick a LONG needle into the womb of a pregnant woman to sample the amniotic fluid.  So I thought LONG and I thought painful.  Then Allie came in with a 1/4 inch needle and quickly plunged it into my stomach.  I didn’t even feel it.  Still, it was technically a needle.

Well that blood-sampling/blood-thinning exercise went on for 2 more cycles after which I was told that my troponin level had receded, indicating my heart was done repairing itself for the time being.

The cardiologist came in the next morning, Sunday, and told me the drill that was to come.  I indeed had had a heart attack and they wanted the best test for assessing the damage.  That was going to be cardiac catheterization, where they insert a tube through an artery and snake it up into the heart area, injecting dye to show the relative health of the heart arteries.  It’s not new, and Milford Regional does 200 or so a week (wow).  But, Milford Regional does NOT do the next step – inserting stents into the thinned caverns of one’s arteries.  If that was called for, I would be sent to UMass Memorial in Worcester.

The other two course of action following the catheterization were drug therapy alone and the invasive bypass operation.  I did NOT want a bypass as it would impact my life in a very major way and hey, I’m busy.

Call me vain or over-hygienic, but I like to wash my hair.  And I did NOT do so from Saturday morning till Monday night.  I felt like a grub.  Call me vain or over-hygienic, go ahead.

So Monday came and I got a echo cardiogram in my room using a mobile device.  It was pretty painful, the technician giving it warned me she would be pressing down and she was a woman of her word.  But she told me some funny stories too, like the lady whose echo cardiogram she had done when she was brand new to the work who had received a transplant and whose heart was nowhere to be found … in the usual area.  That was funny, but she was terrified of being fired till the lady informed her, with a grin.

Then they brought me down to the Cath lab.  There were many, many attendants all doing vital things to prepare me for the procedure, which lasted about 20 minutes once it started.  Amazing.  Even more amazing to me was the picture I saw of my arteries, with my cardiologist saying “See .. there’s your problem”.  Wow.  It was a clog in the northern tributary of what looked like a major artery.  And there was another artery branching off right at the same spot.  It was perfect for stent placement, so he said.  So they bundled me in many blankets (I had a johnny on and that’s all) and drove me over the Worcester County roads to UMass Memorial.

There was a definite difference in the people manners of the caregivers there.  They weren’t nasty, just all business.  But that was okay with me at this point.

So I waited about 2 hours for my second catheterization of the day, they shooed me in much like the other team had in Milford and did the deed.

Oh .. during the procedure they give you some funny juice through your IV (of which I had 2) which makes you dream of idyllic scenes from your childhood.  Except at the point of the stent being opened using the mini balloon that they use, I became instantly awake and “with it”.    I think there was a flow of blood where there hadn’t been one in quite a while.

Then they had me wait till the location of the inserted catheter had been pressure-sealed, did one more round of blood tests and sent me home to enjoy a new exciting battery of medications, the side-effects of which I am still chronicling and assessing.

Once home I did a body scan to pull off all diodes left behind.  As far as I know there still might be a few.

And my wrist hurts; I’m not supposed to rotate it.

The Introspection

There are perspectives to be observed here.  One very common one is one you are likely using right now, reading this.  It’s someone else, it’s NOT you.

Well, this time it was me.  And it was personal, serious and impossible to ignore.  If I have to communicate anything with you, it’s the certainty that you WILL have your own experience(s) like this; it is unwise to read others’ stories as I once did.  I learned a great deal from this; and one thing is that I could have learned a lot more about this before it actually happened.

I think it’s normal to ask “why” questions when this stuff happens.  Part of it is to develop a strategy to prevent recurrence, but part is also an attempt at making sense of personal events that could well be worse than they were, and .. next time .. probably will be.

My “risk factors” were really two for heart disease – heredity and stress.  100% of my ancestors on my mother’s side had heart disease, so that makes me statistically predisposed.  And the stress of working in software is renown.  In a cynical way, I was paid a good salary to get a heart condition.  Not nice to think of, but true enough on one level.  Of course stress is everywhere; there is no escaping it.

I also have a job as a pastor, which I love to do because it helps people.  But it makes me very exhausted sometimes.  I try to delegate, but there’s only so much I can hand off.

And, yes, of course I did not eat heart-healthily.  That has already changed upon arrival at home.

Another part of the analysis process is deciding if there were warning signs.  My biggest problem there is that I endure all kinds of stomach pain all the time.  I have lots of gaseous issues, acid issues and GERD.  No one I talked to could tell me how to tell the difference.  But I will never forget the angina; it’s very distinctive.

I had done very stressful exercise in China in October, climbing a mountain with my friends from the IBM Beijing lab.  No problem, no pain, just strenuous exercise.

Finally, there is the spiritual side.  I believe in a God who judges people, not people who judge people, that’s not the same.  And though I believe God is long-suffering and merciful, His mercy has bounds and when bad stuff happens, I believe it’s astute to pray about its spiritual context.  It’s not so much “what did I do to deserve this” as “what needs work in my life to avoid this in the future”, kind of the same question asked concerning physical changes.  And, I have not stopped asking that question, longing for a reply that will be clear and directive.  God loves people and so that is to be expected.

All in all, I am very, very grateful for how fast this was dealt with and yes, I need to slow down, both God’s and doctor’s orders, to recover and heal.

And I am warmed by all the love of friends and family.  It all comes back at times like this, with phone calls, cards, advice and all kinds of loving gestures that the sensitive people around me do almost without thought.  I couldn’t have a more loving family, and that’s just very special.