The title of this blog might seem like an oxymoron, but I hope to convince you otherwise.
I have come close to death several times even before ALS entered my life 21 years ago. With each brush with death, the more I am able to identify with death and eternity and live my life accordingly.
You might think that viewing my life as having one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel would be a depressing way to live, but I’ve discovered just the opposite; it’s a very liberating way to live, at least, from a Christian point of view. I think it’s also the viewpoint that Christ intended us to have.
In the days leading up to Christmas every year, Mary and I always watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the 1951 version (the best version) of “A Christmas Carol.” After watching these movies this last Christmas, I was thinking about why I love these two holiday classics. I concluded that it was because, in each of these movies, the central character learns about what’s really important in life after seeing themselves as dead.
Virtually every morning when I wake up, I remind myself that this might be my last day on earth. I am a long way from perfecting this, but I try to let this reality govern every aspect of my life. Before ALS, even though I was a Christian and was supposed to be “eternally minded,” I’m ashamed to admit that I did not always allow my own mortality to influence my daily life. Even back then in 1996 when I was diagnosed, before smartphones, Facebook and so many other distractions and time-wasters, it was so easy to lose focus on the realities of life.
The Apostle Paul said, “I die daily.” (1 Corinthians 15:31). It was miraculous that Paul lived to be an old man. He had come close to death so many times. Even after suffering through numerous trials and brushes with death, Paul lived his life with joy, peace, hope, contentment and so many other spiritual and emotional strengths we all long for. Yet, he seemed to go through a daily exercise of visualizing himself nailed to a cross:
“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).
Many well-meaning Christians have empathized with me by saying things like “ALS is a heavy cross (for you) to bear…” I’m thankful for everyone who empathizes with my having to go through this horrible trial that has cost me my career, my health and so much more. But this trial is not “my cross to bear.” I took up my cross the 35 years ago when I made a commitment to follow Christ.
“If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits his own soul?” (Luke 9:23-25)
In today’s narcissistic “selfie” culture, “Denying yourself” is a tough message to sell. Christianity, true Christianity, has always been a counter-cultural belief system. But in a society where just about anything goes, those who make a commitment to follow Christ, to live like they’re dead, are today’s ultimate rebels.
Buying into this living like you’re dead life will cost you everything you’re holding onto, but the benefits are joy, peace and unshakable hope; hope that will carry you through trials, temptation, and tribulation.
“Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:2-3)
Thanks for taking the time to read,
picture credit: https://jaytharding.com/
Can you imagine going a whole month without seeing yourself in a mirror?
If you’re a follower of my blog, you know that I’ve had ALS for almost 21 years, and that I’m totally paralyzed and home-bound. In addition to an excellent nurse visiting me once a month to confirm that I’m still alive, a very nice lady also comes to our home once a month to cut my hair. She came the other day to cut my hair so Mary maneuvered my wheelchair into the bathroom in front of the dreaded mirror (mirrors don’t lie). “Who is that guy with gray hair and big bags under his eyes?” I asked myself.
You see, unless I ask Mary or my caregiver to place me in front of the mirror, which, for obvious reasons, I rarely do, haircut time is the only time I have to face this 56 year old man in a wheelchair (a really disturbing experience).
In some ways, my journey with ALS almost seems like a bad dream, a really long bad dream, even more so when I don’t see myself in the mirror for long periods of time.
Except for the constant reminders of the wheelchair I’m sitting on and the eye-tracking (Look Ma, no hands) computer I’m using, I could close my eyes and almost imagine that I am still the healthy 36 year old man that I was before being diagnosed with this stinkin’ disease.
“…we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Can you imagine someone picking out the clothes you wear every day – for 20 years? On occasion, when we’re having company, Mary will bring out three shirts and ask me which one I’d like to wear. But, other than those rare occasions, Mary or Sharlene, my caregiver and good friend for the last ten years, pick out the clothes I’m going to wear without any input from me.
As I was writing this post, I thought about an old black & white movie I’ve seen, titled “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It’s about a narcissistic man, Dorian Gray, that, while examining his just-completed portrait, basically makes a pact with the devil that his physical appearance would remain just as it is in the portrait.
Over the period of several years, all of his friends age naturally, but Dorian‘s appearance remains the same as it was the day that he collaborated with evil. However, his now-hidden portrait reflects his soul, and this portrait becomes more hideous with every evil act he commits.
If there was such a thing as a mirror that reflected our soul, what would your reflection look like? (I have probably asked myself this question a thousand times since making a commitment to follow Christ some 35 years ago).
When looking into a mirror, we can see our physical imperfections, but for those who call themselves Christians, the Bible is the mirror of our soul. If we’re open to making changes to our spiritual imperfections (if we have “eyes to see and ears to hear”) the Bible will transform us.
“But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.”(James1:22-25)
“But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)
Are you being transformed by the Mirror of your Soul?
If not, I hope and pray you’ll begin doing so today.
“Life Goes On”
Whether we’re going through the worst of times or the best of times, history and our own experiences show us that life does go on. This is true, but I don’t recommend saying “life goes on” to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.
“There is an appointed time for everything.
And there is a time for every event under heaven —
A time to give birth and a time to die…
A time to weep and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn and a time to dance.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)
I thought about the above passage last week when our daughter gave birth to a beautiful seven pound girl on Wednesday, then a close friend died of cancer on Friday – “A time to give birth and a time to die.”
Those who are grieving and those who are rejoicing have this in common – life goes on for both of them.
It was a beautiful Friday afternoon in 1996 that the neurologist informed me that I had ALS and would likely be dead in three or four years (so much for predictions). I vividly remember driving home that day in stop-and-go traffic. I was exhausted after three long days of examinations so Mary was driving and I spent much of that long drive home staring out the window at the other drivers. I imagined that they were thinking about dinner or maybe they were making plans for the weekend ahead. In the midst of horrible news, when it seems that our life will never be the same, the world seems like such a cold and cruel place when you look around and realize that life goes on just as it always has.
Compared to life’s great highs and lows, day-to-day life can seem so trivial. When we experience the extreme highs and lows, we tell ourselves that we’ll never again settle for the trivial life. But our emotional or spiritual highs and lows gradually find their old balance, and we return to a mundane normalcy. I think this is the root cause of much of the addiction and depression we see around us; “life goes on” is difficult for many people to cope with.
What’s the answer?
Even for someone that’s been paralyzed by a horrible disease and can no longer eat or speak, “life goes on” can be a great message if you truly learn to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15)
I try not to focus on the personal and professional “highs” (or the financial gains) that I’ve missed out on over the last 19 years. Instead, I make a conscious effort to focus on the good things in my life, like our beautiful new granddaughter, and to share in the highs and lows of others. Living vicariously through others is not the life that I envisioned, but years ago I concluded that the only alternative was to throw a pity party and make myself and everyone around me miserable. I’ve been to several pity parties, and I didn’t like the company (me, myself and I) or the hangover of guilt.
Life is hard, but it’s much easier if we surround ourselves with people that won’t only rejoice with us in the good times but will also support us in the difficult times. I’m so thankful that Mary and I have family and friends like this.
For my daughter, her husband, their son and their beautiful baby girl, life goes on.
But the great news is that the friend we lost was a committed follower of Christ so life goes on for him also.
“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain…” (Revelation 21:4)
Life goes on!
In the midst of a trial, the greatest temptation we face is to hunker down and wait for the storm to pass. I don’t believe this is ever God’s will.
We tend to view trials as a kind of imprisonment, thinking our life is on hold until the day we’re released from the grip of the life challenge. ALS has made me a virtual prisoner of my own body for the last 18 years. It has been a very cruel warden. But I look around me and see other people fighting illness or trying to overcome addictions, depression, abuse, debt and so many other cruel masters.
We must continue to hope and pray for freedom from whatever is trying to “hold us,” and we should do everything in our power to move toward that goal. But, in the meantime, we should look for opportunities for God to use us right where we are. This is what the Apostle Paul did, and I’m convinced it’s what God wants us to do.
It was from prison that Paul wrote the following: “Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel…” (Philippians 1:12)
We don’t usually associate the word “progress” with imprisonment or any kind of trial, but I believe that we should. If we wait until we “have it all together” before we try to help and give hope to others, many will go without help and die without hope.
Would I be a hypocrite telling people that God still heals when I’ve been held in the grip of a terminal disease for 18 years?
Let me answer that with another question: Was Paul a hypocrite for writing about freedom in Christ from the depths of what was likely a rat infested dungeon?
Paul was almost stoned to death by an angry mob and severely beaten other times. He also suffered from what he called “a thorn in his flesh” (many Bible scholars say this “thorn” was poor eye sight). Regardless, it’s unlikely that Paul was the handsome and strong man depicted in the Bible movies. After spending much of his time in prison and enduring countless beatings, he was likely pale and scarred, and probably in pain 24/7. Yet, God used this suffering servant to heal and give hope to others.
The Apostles faced the same trials, temptations and human frailties that we face. Yet, in the midst of trying to overcome their own trials and temptations and battling their own demons, they were feeding the poor, healing the sick and giving hope to others by spreading the good news.
People don’t care about how much we know until they know how much we care. Maybe we wouldn’t have truly learned to care apart from our suffering.
I hope you’re successful in keeping all of your New Year’s Resolutions, and 2015 is the best year you’ve had so far. But we cannot wait for all of our hopes to be fulfilled before we offer help and hope to others.
I recently read a blog post that reminded me of an incident that occurred a few years after Mary and I were married.
I was working for a company that required me to be on-call for one week per month. This was a few years before cell phones were readily available so we still used pagers. I still remember the sick feeling I’d get when I would hear that annoying beeping noise in the middle of the night or during holiday celebrations. I had to drop everything and immediately drive the 30+ miles to work.
Around two o’clock one morning, that annoying beeping noise woke us from a dead sleep. After walking over to the sink and splashing cold water on my face, I called the answering service and heard the message that I was needed at work right away.
While getting dressed, I opened my wallet and discovered that I didn’t have any cash. I quickly looked in Mary’s purse and found that she didn’t have much cash either. I told her that I was going to run by the ATM and get some money on my way to work.
Our bank was located on the service road of the freeway, right on my way to work. It was very convenient, but, even though the location was just off the freeway, it was fairly secluded. At that time, it was the only business in that area; a small building surrounded by dense woods. For this reason, and because the bank didn’t have a drive-through ATM machine, Mary didn’t like me going there at night. That night she again asked me to use the ATM in the convenient store near the front of our neighborhood.
I value Mary’s advice, but the convenient store charged a fee for using their ATM and our bank did not. It’s not that I’m cheap, I just hated paying unnecessary fees so I decided not to take her advice that night.
I had been to our bank’s ATM at night before but never at such a late hour. Other than a few dimly lit lights shining up from the landscaping in front of the building and a small light over the ATM machine, the area was dark and the woods surrounding the building were pitch black.
I parked my car in front of the small building and quickly walked up the sidewalk to the ATM machine. I got an eerie feeling like someone other than the ATM camera was watching me as I punched in the numbers on the keypad. I convinced myself that this was my imagination, but I was still so relieved when the cash popped out so I could finally return to my car and get out of there.
When I was about halfway back to my car, I heard footsteps on the sidewalk behind me. “Could you give me a ride?” the shaky voice of a woman asked. Thinking it was a set up and her boyfriend was going to pop out of the bushes and shoot me, I didn’t even turn around until I reached my car and opened the door.
She was young, twenty years-old at most. I looked over the top of the car as she nervously explained that her car broke down on the freeway. I only heard bits and pieces of what she was saying because I was planning a quick getaway and scanning the hedges in front of the building for any sign of her accomplice. Before even getting my answer, she began sheepishly walking towards my car as if I had agreed to her request.
Still suspicious, I mumbled something about being in a hurry to get to work and moved closer to the open door of my car. “PLEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE, I’VE BEEN RAPED,” she shouted as she rushed to my car and frantically tried to open the locked passenger door. I unlocked the door.
She asked me to take her home so her mom could accompany her to the hospital.
After driving a mile or so on the service road, she pointed to her car parked on the shoulder of the freeway and began telling me the horrifying story.
She was at a friend’s house watching a movie. She stayed later than she intended and later than her mom wanted her to. While driving home on the nearly deserted freeway, her car stalled so she parked it on the shoulder and turned the emergency flashers on. She waited in the car for about thirty minutes hoping that a police officer or a Good Samaritan would stop and help her. She finally gave up on that idea and decided to walk the three miles or so to a gas station to call her mom.
Thinking it wouldn’t be safe walking along the shoulder of the freeway, she decided to walk in the grass on the inside of the service road. She had only been walking for about five minutes when, seemingly from nowhere, a large man grabbed her from behind and carried her into the woods where he raped her. Following the brutal assault, the rapist fled one way and the traumatized girl fled the other way. Thinking that he might return to look for her, she hid behind the bushes in front of the bank to figure out what her next move would be. This is when I entered her nightmare, and she decided that I would be her next move.
Evil is the ultimate opportunist.
“Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8)
Evil operates like a lion wandering through the wilderness looking for the young, the weak or otherwise vulnerable prey. An evil lion found a physically vulnerable young girl that night.
But evil doesn’t just search for the physically vulnerable, it also preys on the emotionally and spiritually vulnerable; those isolated by addiction, depression, abuse or one of life’s many other challenges that are so difficult to overcome without the help of others.
I can no longer help those in physical distress, but I can still do my best to help those in emotional or spiritual distress by giving them hope. As Christians, we all have the responsibility to help the hurting, even when, maybe especially when, we’re hurting.
If someone came to your mind when you read that, it’s probably the person that God wants you to help.
What are you waiting for?
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)