Monday, August 24, 2009

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes."
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol spoke those words in 1968. I don't believe he had any idea how ferociously we as a culture would embrace his idea. The proliferation of "reality" tv has turned most of us into instant celebrities or shameless voyuers of a sort unimaginable fifty years ago. This has been driven home to me powerfully over the last two months, and sadly reinforced over the past week.
In between the incessant speculation concerning Michael Jackson's death (was it murder?) and burial (when and where?) there was a gruesome murder in San Diego. A body was discovered in a suitcase, mutilated beyond normal means of indentification. The victim was later identifited as Jasmine Fiore, a swimsuit model. Her husband (former, ex, there is some debate over the true nature of their relationship), Ryan Jenkins fled to Canada where he was later found dead by his own hand. It is a sad commentary on the sensibilities of our culture that this gruesome crime was deemed newsworthy not because of the act of murder, but because the dead woman was a swimsuit model and the suspected killer was a reality TV show contestant.
Jenkins mutilated Fiore's body beyond normal recognition in an attempt to thwart police. His gruesome work failed when authorities used serial numbers from Fiore's breast implants to establish her identity. I must confess to reading the story more than once because I was unaware that implants had serial numbers and was gripped by more than a little disbelief at how anyone would know to look for them. Jenkin's suicide means that we will never know the reasons for his horrific act, and we will never know what transpired in the final hours of a young womans' life.
Unfortunately Fiore's death also requires that we pause and consider what passes for beauty in our culture. Why did Ms. Fiore feel the need to alter her body? Would her life have turned out any differently had she not chosen to have appearance altering surgery? We will probably never know. It is a sad fact that some three hundred thousand woman choose to have breast augmentation surgery each year. This number includes those who suffer from diseasses such as breast cancer, but the ones who receive the publicity, and those who have most of the procedures performed are those who have the surgery done for purely cosmetic reasons. As the father of two daughters I am greatly concerned over the messages our culture sends to young women concerning their bodies.
When did it become acceptable, even desirable, for women to mutilate their bodies? I thought the sexual liberation of the 1960's and the feminist movement of the 1970's did away with the objectification of women. It it a damning indictment of our culture that women are still more valued for their physical appearance than for their abilities. It is even more disturbing that young women today are willingly, even enthusiastically, pursuing such a course of action. Men are rapidly joining women in this race for perfection. But women remain the primary pursurers of surgical augmentation, and it's primary victims.
I did not fall in love with the woman who is my wife because she had a perfect body or was more beautiful than anyone else. I fell in love with the person behind the outward appearance. She was, and is, witty, strong, opinionated, and passionate. Those things attracted me to her then and still powerfully attract me to her now. When and where did we lose the understanding of true beauty? Does anyone care? It certainly seems that Hugh Hefner and the power brokers behind "adult" entertainment don't. Nor does it seem that fashion designers and marketers. The internet and entertainment mediums share in the guilt as well, perhaps even moreso because they are the primary promoters through their websites and programming. These all share a portion of the blame for this objectification of women. The pursuit of our 15 minutes of fame has cheapened and degraded us all.
God made each one of us. The Psalmist recognized that each of us is "fearfully and wonderfully made (see Psalm 139:14)." That means that God recognizes the wonder and the beauty of all of us just as we are. His love for us is not conditioned on perfect bodies or faces, but conditioned on who God is and the love and grace he extends to us through His Son. We don't have to alter our bodies to earn that love. Why do we settle for something far less? And yet we do, from Rogaine to Botox, from tanning beds to liposuction. All our attempts to find perfection only mask the true beauty of who we are and blind us from knowing true love and its author.
You can have my 15 minutes....if that's fame, I don't want it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

Still fumbling with the shoe covers, I stumbled into the delivery room. What confronted me there took my breath away. There to my left lay my wife, holding her hand out to me, seeking my comfort. My newborn son lay on a warming table to my right. I stood frozen between the two, uncertain where I should be. As I stood watching my son I saw his tiny arms and legs twitch once and then again. Then before my eyes he went still. My son Jonathan died that moment, and something inside of me died that day too.

Those events took place August 12, 1987, twenty-two years ago today. I was 26 years old, old enough to know that life was hard, but young enough to still believe that I could change the world. I could never have guessed that this would not be the only time I would see a newborn son die. My son Timothy died in March of 1989. Throughout all of the things that I have seen and experienced in my life these are the darkest days of all. There has never been anything so hard, so devastating, so lonely.

We fear nothing more than death. Death is seen as the end of all things, the termination of not just life but also of anything associated with the one who dies. Death is a thief who takes from us that which is not his. We see death as an enemy, a mindless monster driven only by blind instinct. Death to most is a thing to be avoided at all costs.

The death of a child is the most awful thing I have ever known, easily surpassing any and all of the other struggles of my life. When a child dies there is the loss of hope, the loss of dreams. The death of a child leaves a gaping wound that defies our attempts at healing, taunting us as we see others enjoying what we have lost. I have known all of these things through the loss of not one but two sons.

Death can be overcome, not in a physical sense, but in the heart and spirit, the emotion and will. My wife and I took years to find healing, in many respects that healing is still in progress, but we are healing. Johnathan and Timothy taught me that death is a part of life and by embracing their deaths I have come to be more whole. I have learned that death is not permanent, that there is a part of each of us that lives on. As a Christian I have always believed in eternity, but the deaths of my sons drove me to delve more deeply into the question than cliches and simple, yet misguided answers. The truth is that not only do my sons live in my heart and memory, they live in heaven in the presence of God.

Death is not the end of dreams. I have come to understand that God desires to use me to bring comfort to others who have experienced death. Death does not bring an end to life for those left behind but it does require a reassessment of those things we consider important. Too many of us expect (actually it's closer to demand) that life should unfold according to our desires. We seldom consider the cost of the lives we desire. Death guides us all to reexamine priorities, desires, hopes, and goals. Through the process of grief we can come to better understand what proper priorities should be and how our lives can be more in line with the will of God.

Death is never meaningless. The death of children never makes sense, whether those children are infants or teens. There comes with death overwhelming emotions that cause us to doubt that God is in control of the events of this life. But nothing is farther from the truth. God is in control and death is neither out of His control or beyond His purposes. It is true that we may not find the answers we want in this lifetime, but we can be assured that God has a reason and purpose for permitting death to take a loved one. I have come to understand that my own life before the deaths of my sons, filled with abuse and neglect, was a preparation for learning to deal with the terrible aftermath of death. I have seen that death is not an end but the beginning of a new aspect of life, one with greater meaning and purpose. My own journey from death back to life has shown me the power of God to redeem the most terrible tragedy.

Johnathan and Timothy have bypassed the troubles and struggles of this life. They enjoy the presence of God the Father rather than struggle with the failings of their earthly father. Their deaths, while still painful to recall, have made me a stronger, more faithful man. I thank God not only for them but also for the lessons their deaths taught me.