Category Archives: Church

Gone…But Not Forever…

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Graham, sharing with the millennials group in 2012. He was in a recovery program in Atlanta and in a ‘good place’

It’s fitting that before I could post this, my 9th (and presumably last) installment since our son passed, I needed to sit by Graham’s graveside and read it out loud to him. I’m not intending to sound melodramatic, but, somehow, I feel I owed him that. Anyway, you, dear reader, have graced me more than you know for following along. Processing this way has helped ferret out many of the emotions tremendously. Thank you. Oh, and since I’ll still be blogging, come back and visit from time to time. I’ll probably need an ear or a comfy shoulder again soon.

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(Continued from previous post, “Gone…But Not Homeless…”)

It was March, in the year of our Lord, 2003. Our church family was challenged to believe Jehovah-rapha for my healing, to press in, intercede, and see if God wouldn’t take my body and raise it from the prison of paralysis, and grant the healing so many cried out for. Graham, then 13, was out front, emotionally leading the charge.

Before we left for church that morning, this conversation ensued:

“Dad, let’s put the regular van driver’s seat in today.”

“The regular chair?” I asked.

“Yes sir. You’re not going to need your wheelchair after the service. You’re getting healed this morning,” he answered with unhinged exuberance.

I knew that “faith comes by hearing the word of Christ” so I used the moment to teach my boy a little something about how God operates, as best I understood it.

“Has God told you I would be healed today, Graham?” I pressed.

“I just know you will be, Dad!”

“Graham, buddy, I haven’t heard that He will. Only that we are to ask together as a church family and see what God might do,” I tenderly explained.

He could not be deterred. He even held a stiff hand out to stop me.

“I know you’ll be healed today, Dad!”

And that’s when I sensed something dangerous afoot. I had to do something, say something, to help my son see that just because it’s a strong wish doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.

“Graham, what if I’m not healed today?” I pleaded.

He shook his head sternly. He wasn’t hearing that. No way. I was getting healed that morning. End of story. The matter, as far as Graham was concerned, was dropped.

The rest of that morning, I didn’t pray with the couple hundred who gathered around me, pressed shoulder to shoulder, groaning and pleading and crying out for my healing. Instead, I was praying for a boy whose young faith was almost certainly going to take the hardest of hits. I felt Graham at my right shoulder, dying by degrees the longer the prayers went “unanswered”, and knew in my spirit he’d be fully deflated by the end of the morning.

We left that service and I rode the lift up into the van and locked my wheelchair into its place behind the steering wheel. Just like always. Graham, sitting in the co-pilot’s chair, was quiet. Nothing changed. The hopes he’d pinned to my full healing were lying in shattered pieces at his feet.

Later, in the gloom, Graham confessed to something else occurring while all the praying was going on. It confused him greatly.

“Dad, everyone had their eyes closed, but I just watched. I watched you for awhile, but nothing was happening, so I just started watching people.”

There was an unsettled expression on his face that prompted me to ask: “Did you see something?”

“I saw Jesus,” he said.

I didn’t say a word. I trusted my son. If he said he saw Jesus, I believed him. Whatever it was he saw confounded him, clearly.

“He just kinda appeared in the back of the church. Then He passed through all the people and came right up to you.”

“To me?” I prodded.

“Yes sir. He just knelt in front of you.”

“Did you see His face?” I asked, masking excitement.

“Not really. That was a blur. But I remember He put His hands on your legs and I could tell – even though I couldn’t see His face – that He was looking at me.”

I thanked God that night for graciously revealing Himself – in whatever way it was – to the most devastated soul in the room. That experience puzzled, more than moved, our son. He wasn’t making up a story to appear spiritual. No, he was already mad. He didn’t want anything to do with God. But he couldn’t deny…something happened. And was flummoxed.

A common prayer of mine became,

For Graham, I pray that a great and mighty olive tree would grow from his tender shoot and that future generations would be blessed through him. May he not “settle among the Philistines” but always pitch his tent in spiritual places, leaving altars to You everywhere he goes, and may he constantly be seeking to build new altars to You! May the fire never go out. May faith be his walking stick, and obedience his shoes, and may Your provision always fill his backpack every mile of his journey with You…

The pull of darkness, however, was irrefutable and our gorgeous son, in spite of God’s tender overtures, lacked the intent to refuse its draw. He was defiantly pitching his tent toward Philistia.

There was no lack of warnings, mind you. One of Graham’s strongest champions, his school administrator who loved him unconditionally, once looked into his eyes and said, rather brokenly,

“Graham, you have had so many chances to repent – more than most. Just remember, young man, GRACE REFUSED IS GRACE REMOVED.”

Dark storm-clouds began to move across his countenance. His sweet face turned sullen and hard. In short order, he was devolving into a slave of darkness, feeding himself the opiates of satan’s kingdom to compensate the emptiness within. He hated God, hated me, hated church, hated ministry, hated…yes, I’m very certain, even himself.

Many have commented on his tattoos and have seen it as a positive expression of his artistic side. I’m sure there’s s o m e of that but I also have an altogether different take on it. While I was so proud of his script (handwriting was never his specialty!) and how beautifully his drawing was evolving, many of his own tattoos were also ugly and dark. I sensed for some time that the way he inked his body reflected how he intrinsically felt about himself, deep down, minus the masks.

I know others will take issue with me on this front, but I know my son better than anyone except his mother, plus I know a thing or two about the nature of evil and how it manifests. It eats from the inside out.

I also know that 24-year old Graham was tired of his rebellion. Living in opposition to the higher plan of God does that to you.

It exhausts you.

It leaves you empty and unfulfilled, running on putrid fumes.

In the fullness of Graham’s shortened time on earth, God intervened and mercifully rescued our boy and received him home. God’s grace does that. It takes what the enemy means for evil, turns it upright, and creates something beautiful from the wreckage of our choices. Something praiseworthy.

This GLORIOUS REVERSAL first became evident to us when Dr. Venugopal, the attending cardiac ICU doctor at the Univ of MN hospital, called me at 5:30 p.m. on December 16th. I had been expecting her call for several hours so I had my pen and little notebook handy to write down everything she said. The last word we got was that Gra-Gra was found alone in a car, unresponsive at the scene, likely an overdose, but that he was on some sort of “blood warming” machine and that the next 24-48 hours were critical to his survival.

That’s all we knew.

So I’m driving Sandy to the airport so she can catch a flight to Minnesota to be with her baby boy and we’re scared and we don’t know details and we just want someoneanyonetocall
andletusknowthateverything’sgoingtobeokaywithourGraGra
andwhyisn’tthedoctorcalling…?

We pull up to a Zaxby’s because Sandy hasn’t had a thing on her tummy all day. The drive-thru lane is wrapped around the building for the supper-time rush, so my lovely goes inside, discovers she has no appetite, orders a drink, then visits the ladies’ room.

And.

You guessed it.

While I’m waiting in the van, Dr. V calls.

I pull out my pen and moleskin notebook. I need to write it all down, word for word, can’t miss a detail because I’m not, by nature, very detail-oriented (except in my writing) and I’ll need for Sandy to be completely in the loop.

“Mr. Mitchell?” the female voice responds when I say hello.

“Yes?” (Pretty sure my voice cracked)

“Mr. Mitchell, I’m the doctor in the cardiac ICU here at the hospital. You can call me Dr. V because my name is pretty long…”

My heart is in my throat.

“Mr. Mitchell, what do you know at this point?” she asked kindly, like a gentle counselor, not professionally.

I told her.

“Mr. Mitchell, I understand your situation is that you’re in Georgia?” Her voice lilts on the end.

“That’s right.”

Dr. V sighs. And pauses.

“Mr. Mitchell…”

I’m ready, pen in hand. Can’t miss anything she says.

“…If only there was some other way to do this…”

I thought she meant having to give all the medical jargon over the phone rather than face-to-face.

I thought…

Rather, she said ten plain words: “Mr. Mitchell, I’m so sorry, but your son is…”

Oh God

“…GONE.”

My hand, holding the pen, was shaking. A blast of sorrow came through my insides and exploded out my mouth. I don’t usually cry hard. My eyes get watery and leak, sure. My voice cracks, yeah. I pause to collect myself, certainly. But this was so sudden, so unexpected, a dam inside released and oceans of sorrow – years of pain and pent-up sadnesses – broke out and through.

I heard Dr. V saying other words but I, for whatever reason, put down my moleskin notebook and picked up a white piece of paper in the cupholder. Who knows why? It was a receipt from an earlier stop. I turned it over and wrote a single word:

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I’m almost finished, you’ve been so patient to make it this far, but I beg you to stay with me because the next paragraphs are the most critical. They put the “amen” to this epic story. Read on, I beg you. You won’t regret it.

Earlier that same afternoon, as Sandy raced home from an early shift, to pack and race again to catch a flight out of Atlanta, a myriad of thoughts whirled through her mind. At the forefront was her son’s soul. She cried. She prayed. She veered through traffic. She stormed heaven.

God, who was already cradling our boy, prompted Sandy, through the chaos, to play her worship CD. He always seems to speak to her through music. Her finger touched play and the disc responded with the song, “Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone.”

Meanwhile, I’m sitting at the dining room table, waiting for Sandy to get home and I’m crying out for my son’s soul at the exact same time. I’m thinking the next day-to-two-days is crucial, so I’m praying that God will intervene. I honestly was thinking this will be Graham’s ‘wake-up call’, that he’ll somehow survive, and I’m asking God to run ahead and use it to redeem him from his broken path.

And turn his heart toward home.

Little did I know he was already there.

Once upon a time I’d been given a word for Graham: “as long as you’re looking for a way out instead of the way HOME, you’ll always remain a prodigal.”

Recalling that truth, I prayed this scary turn of events would turn our prodigal son home.

So I prayed. And, just as Sandy was prompted to push play to hear from heaven for herself, the Father of mercies niggled at me to open the Bible app on my ipad and read the “verse of the day.” And this is what it was:

Psalms 85:2-3
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
you covered all their sin.
Selah
You withdrew all your wrath;
you turned from your hot anger.

Maybe my theology is askew here, maybe my imagination is running awry, but you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me otherwise of what I believe my son’s dying moments were like in the realm of the Spirit.

I believe the adversary – satan – was fully convinced Graham Scott Mitchell would be his. As our baby man was expiring in that back seat, the accuser was posturing for his claim, talons snicked, breath hot and visage contorted with hellish glee. He had won. He was sure of it.

But in those last milliseconds, as our son’s breathing slowed to a final heave, a Voice thundered in the heavenlies. As his last gasp pushed through the natural realm and into the unseen, I can almost hear what the Almighty commanded as He dispatched His guardian escorts:

Psalms 87:4-6
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush —
“This one was born there,” they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there
.”
Selah

The great deceiver was himself deceived in the end.

HALLELUJAH!

Dear reader, if you’ve journeyed with me in these few posts, you’ll agree that these truths buttress and serve as soluble bookends to our boy’s life and are our unarguable and unchanging testaments to this God-story:

The LORD gave…miraculously
The LORD has taken away…mercifully

Thank you, merciful God, for setting Your affection on Graham, and seeing him Home before the darkness swallowed him up. I know You ran to meet him, because You never disowned him, and that’s how You treat Your own. Thank you for letting us have those very last words with our boy: “I’m so glad your mine” (Sandy) and “I’m so proud of you” (Me). Now he’s safe, he’s gleaming and he’s free.

Amazing Grace, his chains are…GONE.

Perils of a Praying Church

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So you belong to a “praying church.”

In our culture, that condenses into a formula of a having at least three prayers in the main worship hour – opening, offering and closing – plus a mid-week gathering where burdens, praises and prayer requests are itemized in “bulletins” (elongated word for bullet points?) and passed out to the tiny handful of congregants where it’s more a 45-minute Bible Study, quick run-through of the handout, updates and additions with five minutes of stale prayer to close it out. But, presto, you’re a praying church!

(As an aside, it used to be said that those who attended church on Sunday mornings love their pastor; those who return on Sunday night, their church; those who tighten ranks and gather at the midweek prayer service love Jesus. That’s what they say.)

Be that as it may…

Acts 12 recounts a rapid-fire, edge-of-the-seat, thrilling episode in the annals of the early (praying) church. One of them Herod dudes (hard to keep them all straight), not the Herod of the Christmas story but the one of the early Acts – Agrippa One, specifically – wanted to shut down the Church. His leadership in Jerusalem was coming under closer scrutiny from the higher-ups in Rome because those cultish “people of the Way” were gaining momentum in the empire.

Not cool, Harry.

So Harry began a scorched-earth policy. First, he killed off the Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Jerusalem. Then he started manhandling deacons (well, is that such a bad thing?), arresting committees, jailing worship leaders, framing the worship band, railroading trustees, thugging on staff and incarcerating members. He created a culture of fear. The church went underground.

What seemed like a brilliant move but would blow up in his face, was to arrest the darling of the Church, the first eyewitness of the Capital-R Resurrection, the preacher who brought a city to its knees, and the Apostle who moved the levers and ran the show. Peter. As Luther to the Reformation, so Peter to the Early (praying) Church.

The timing couldn’t have been more or less popular, depending on which side of the Passover continuum you fell. During the highest, holiest feast of the year, when scads and scads of people made their pilgrimage to the Capital, Herod took this high-profile quarry into custody. He sent 16, count ’em, soldiers to arrest him with plans to bring him out after the feast, try him and publicly execute him.

So he thought.

One night, while the (praying) Church gathered in secret and interceded non-stop for their apostle, an angel of the LORD kicked Pete in his sleep (sleep?!?) and led him out past two sleeping guards, an outer guard, a heavy door, another guard, another fastened-down gate, and all the way out through a final IRON gate and into the city. Luke tells us that the chains on Peter simply “fell off ” and that the gates opened “of their own accord” (?!?) and none, nada, zero guards stopped him. The angel, bathed in light, stayed with Peter out into the city and left him only when the coast was clear. Pretty much right up to another gate.

The Gate of a (praying) Church.

A dumbstruck Peter, who had up until this moment thought he was still snug in his cell, dreaming about a jailbreak, realized it was really happening! Wow! Wait’ll my church family hears about this!

He arrives at an outer Gate, the home of a prominent family in his hometown. Inside, his Bros and Sis’s were praying fastidiously.

Knock.

Nothing.

Knock, knock.

Still not a movement. Is this the right house?

Another knock, this time more forceful and demanding.

A crack of light appears and a silhouette approaches stealthily. Rhoda. Rose.

“Who’s there?” There’s a whispered shrillness to her query.

“It’s Peter!” he announces.

The servant girl gets lockjaw. Maybe a squeak erupts as she adds voice recognition to his self-address and her eyes get wide. Peter can almost make out the whites in the darkness and smiles broadly. Five minutes earlier he was chained between temple guards, now he’s about to shock the living daylights out of a prayer meeting!

Luke doesn’t leave out a detail, he reports it exactly as it happened. He tells us that Rhoda wheels around and busts up the prayer meeting with the announcement that Peter is FREE! But she left Peter outside a locked gate, standing in the very unsafe outdoors!

Ah, good times, good times…

(COMMA ALERT) Meanwhile, as Peter, who earlier was gated and guarded from getting out, and was now gated from getting in, on the inside, in the (prayer) meeting, Rhoda’s news is not received with enthusiasm.

“You’re mistaken…”

Knock.

“It can’t be him…”

Knock, knock.

“It must be his guardian angel…”

Knock! Knock! Knock, knock, knock!!!

“WHAT IS ALL THAT KNOCKING!”

“Uh, guys…ummm…don’t know how to tell you this, but…uh…Rhoda’s right…”

Indeed. But the point of all this is to ask: if the church was gathered, praying earnestly (Acts 12:5,12), what, pray tell, were they praying for?

Is it possible they were only trusting God to encourage their brother, protect him from torture, give him grace to endure to the end, to finish well, to be gloriously received into heaven???

How uninformed to believe for a release, after all! For their brother to be restored to the ministry of the gospel!

The church had form. The church even had zeal. They even had determination.

What they lacked was faith!

Do we make our prayers too predictable and safe? Do we embrace a box and stuff our prayers inside its walls?

And, just one more thing…satan’s prisons have gates, yes, but so do churches! (see v13) Our gates are gates of “just enough.”

Just enough belief.
Just enough prayer.
Just enough zeal.
Just enough religion.
Just enough expectancy.
Just enough hope.
Just enough faith.

But that? Oh, it wouldn’t be prudent to ask for so much! Let’s just believe for…this much.

Is that how your church prays?

Is that how you pray?

Believe me, this story has me asking myself the same thing.

Wouldn’t His Kingdom come more powerfully to broken marriages, captive souls, prodigal sons, pervasive sin, cultural atheism, deceived minds, dark territory, impossible strongholds, aggressive rebellion, relentless attack and hopeless despair if we…

…could just hear what’s on God’s heart, to hear His intentions, to believe what He says on a matter, then pray that back to Him? If only…oh, if only…then, when no daunting prison or stronghold can contain our confident hopes…we won’t be taken by surprise.

A Good Spanking

Couldn’t have said it any better…

“The older theology tended to produce character. By the end of the 20th century, we have become God’s demanding little brats. In church we must be entertained. Our emotions must be charged. We must be offered amusing programs. We give up a lot to become Christians, and what little teachings we do get must cater to our pragmatic, self-centered interests.

“Preaching must be filled with clever anecdotes and colorful illustrations with nothing more than passing references to doctrine. I want to know what this means for me in my daily experience. Have we forgotten that God is a Monarch? He is the King by whom and for whom all things were made and by whose sovereign power they are sustained.

We exist for His pleasure, not for ours. We are on this earth to entertain Him, please Him, adore Him, bring Him satisfaction, excitement and joy. Any gospel that seeks to answer the question, ‘what’s in it for me?’ has it all backwards. The question is, ‘what’s in it for God?'”

– Michael Horton

A fisherman put it this way in his day:

1 Peter 4:17-19 (Message)
It’s judgment time for Christians. We’re first in line. If it starts with us, think what it’s going to be like for those who refuse God’s Message! If good people barely make it, what’s in store for the bad?
So if you find life difficult because you’re doing what God said, take it in stride. Trust him. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll keep on doing it.