If my calculations are correct (they often aren’t), I put on the SharperIron “Publisher” hat 19 months and two weeks ago (May 15, 2008). So I missed my opportunity to write some reflections on the one-year anniversary. Since we were preparing to move the site to Drupal about that time, things were hopping. Plan B was to write some retrospection at the year-and-a-half mark (“sesiquiannual reflections”?). That time “swine flu” got in the way. Plan C was to combine these thoughts with some Christmas greetings, but—well, that’s passed now too. So welcome to Plan D: “New Year’s greetings and reflections on 19 and a half months heading ShaperIron.”
“SharperIron” has gradually become a household word at our place. With the exception of my youngest (Joel, age 8), everyone in my family now has a pretty good idea of what SI is. They’ve watched me work on it quite a bit. To the degree they’ve been interested, they’ve provided feedback. My daughter (Jenna, age 11) has been vocal about how the site looks. My wife (Marilyn, age—um, 29) has shown interest but is not yet a regular reader. That would require a much larger quantity of content that is warmer, more personal and more devotional than what we currently provide (note to self: more content that is warmer, more personal and more devotional).
My son will really get interested the day we offer some kind of game. (I’m sure he’d be delighted to see an online real-time strategy game where armies of “Fundamentalists” throw Bibles at armies of “Neo-Evangelicals.”)
But life was mostly non-SI-related in ‘09. In January, we heard that my dad was having some worrisome symptoms: some peripheral vision problems, dizziness and disorientation. First, docs looked for an inner ear problem. Nothing helpful surfaced there. Another doctor said Dad had cataracts. Wrong again.
Eventually diagnostics revealed a walnut sized tumor in the left side of his brain. If you imagine a straight line extending back from the left eye and straight in from the left ear, the tumor was at the intersection of those two lines. Tests confirmed that the mass was a highly invasive cancer called glioblastoma multiforme. Most simply call it “glioma.” Due to where it was located, a couple of doctors said “inoperable … and you probably only have a few months to live.”
It’s hard to describe the emotional roller coaster we were all on for a while there. Many decisions had to be made rapidly, all with less than sufficient information. Because Mom and Dad were living in a remote lakeside cabin in the Michigan U.P. wilderness, they needed to move right away. Much had to be learned about the cancer and what—if anything—could be done about it.
In the months that followed, Dad saw cancer experts in Milwaukee who decided the tumor was not exactly “inoperable.” They were able to “debulk” it, and a series of radiation treatments and chemotherapy rounds followed. With the surgery, the radiation and the cancer all doing damage, Dad went through a lot of changes rapidly. Radiation robbed him of hearing in one ear. Because of vision problems (and maybe risk of seizure) he is not permitted to drive. The multiple hours of manual labor he enjoyed doing outside on a daily basis had to be cut back quite a bit. To this day, though he is much more “himself” than a few months ago, food doesn’t taste right, activity is more draining, and detailed tasks that would have been easy before are often confusing.
Watching all of this happen first-hand changes you. So far, I can put only a few of these changes into words. For starters, my view of my own mortality has changed dramatically. I feel the shortness of life and Qoheleth’s “vanity” (Eccles. 1:1-2) as never before. Sentimental songs about heaven seem less sentimental and more theologically important. The groaning of creation and of “we ourselves” for the “revealing of the sons of God” and the “redemption of our bodies” (Rom. 8:18-19, 8:23) is no longer an abstraction. More than in my past (but still less than in my future) it’s my own groaning.
Since neither my parents nor my siblings have ever faced this situation before, we’re all learning things about each other we didn’t know before. At the same time, we are all becoming people we never had to be before.
But I’ve also come to see how completely non-extraordinary all this is. Unexpected changes, troubles, pains and sufferings are the norm for all of us, and becoming people we never had to be before is what we all experience every year. It’s just easier to see that reality when a bunch of it happens all at once and the drama of something like cancer is involved.
In years of gradual change, just as much as in years of great upheaval, we are called to understand God’s agenda for us as His children—His agenda to remake us, sometimes gently, sometimes violently, but always destructively as well constructively. We tend to think, “Life brings both sufferings and blessings,” as though these were two different things. But, in reality, God’s plan to reshape us into His image is comprehensive. Every experience serves that end and, therefore, the truth is that “Life brings both sufferings and other blessings.”
My view of church life has also been altered by this experience. The old cliché says a preacher’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’ve come to believe this phrase describes the work of the local church as well, and I’ve been struck by how important a “comfortable” (and comforting) church experience is for those whose lives are in the midst of immense upheaval. When all around them—and in them—is changing, they need very much to go worship at a place that is not rapidly changing. And they can certainly be forgiven for thinking that this place should not be changing at all.
Given what’s been happening in our extended family, the challenges of keeping SI moving forward have often felt like a retreat into the trivial. I don’t believe this project is trivial. But this year it has had the added attraction of being an enjoyable escape at times—especially the technical work (which I never really intended to get into). Whether a particular icon somewhere has the proper shade of gray truly is trivial, but it can be tremendously therapeutic.
SI has been much more than therapeutic for me in the last 19 months, though. Looking back brings a flood of lessons learned—and still learning—immediately to mind. I’ll hazard a quick, incomplete and random list.
- Transitions: starting something from scratch is probably “easier” than picking up where others have left off—unless you are wired to avoid risk. In that case, transitions are “your thing,” thorny though they tend to be, because you will rarely bring yourself to attack bare ground with a shovel and an idea.
- Transitions and problems: what seem like huge problems at the time often turn out to have been non-problems after you have laboriously constructed unneeded solutions. It’s OK. There’s no avoiding this. You just can’t see a real problem from a non-problem, or a major problem from a minor one, until you are at least mid-stream—often not until you’re well up the far shore.
- Rapid decision making: I received some surprising advice from a certain leader-type who will remain unnamed. I was describing the difficulty of making a large number of decisions rapidly without enough information (for me, “enough information” would be a prophetic vision of the exact and certain outcome of every option on the table.) He said, “flip a coin.”
- Criticism: there are two ways to waste it. One, just believe it. Two, just disbelieve it. When it’s highly contradictory (like what the survey is yielding so far), you’re blessed, because it is impossible to either “just believe it” or “just disbelieve it.” You are forced to weigh it.
- Risk: failing a lot is vital. I recently heard a leader-type (maybe the same one) say that “successful people fail more than unsuccessful people.” This is true because they try more things and because not trying is more damaging overall than trying and failing. The principle is very difficult for some of us (me, for example) to accept, but it rings true. How else did we all learn to walk or ride a bike? The corollary of the principle is that if I am not succeeding it may well be because I am not failing enough.
Many other lessons are also working their way into my sometimes-thick skull, even now. Between family matters, church matters, SharperIron and life in general, I’m sure many more are queuing up behind them. I look forward to what God will graciously drive through to my heart and mind and how He’ll unmake and remake me in the year ahead. Like the rest of you (I’m pretty sure), I have mixed emotions about the process. But Scripture is unmistakably clear about the eventual outcome. To fail to rejoice in that—in any year—is just wickedness.
Though troubles assail us and dangers affright,
Though friends should all fail us and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide,
The promise assures us, “The Lord will provide.”
When Satan assails us to stop up our path,
And courage all fails us, we triumph by faith.
He cannot take from us, though oft he has tried,
This heart cheering promise, “The Lord will provide.”
No strength of our own and no goodness we claim;
Yet, since we have known of the Savior’s great Name,
In this our strong tower for safety we hide:
The Lord is our power, “The Lord will provide.”
Aaron Blumer, SI’s site publisher, is a native of lower Michigan and a graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He, his wife, and their two children live in a small town in western Wisconsin, where he has pastored Grace Baptist Church (Boyceville, WI) since 2000. Prior to serving as a pastor, Aaron taught school in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and served in customer service and technical support for Unisys Corporation (Eagan, MN). He enjoys science fiction, music, and dabbling in software development.