I was thinking about Good Friday when I woke up early yesterday morning. Then I thought about people using the phrase “Thank God It’s Friday” to celebrate the end of a work week and the start of the weekend.
Even though I haven’t worked in over 19 years, I remember that feeling of being so glad a work week was over as I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a Friday evening or landing at the airport after being gone all week on a business trip.
Then I thought about the darkest Friday of my life.
After three days of grueling tests, which included cutting muscle samples out of my thigh without any anesthetic and a spinal tap that left me with a debilitating headache for three days, the neurologist, flanked by a group of interns, told to Mary and I that I had ALS. He went on to say that I would continually get weaker, be confined to a wheelchair, lose my ability to speak, and that I would die in three to five years.
That was not a Friday I was thanking God for.
Do you think when the disciples were staring up at Jesus dying on the cross they called that day “Good Friday?”
Yeah, I don’t think so either.
I’m sure there was a lot of confusion and crying on that dark day. Maybe they were like Mary and I on the long drive home from the medical center that Friday evening; not even looking at one another for fear of dissolving into tears.
Like Mary and I, I’m sure they were thinking, “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be.”
To add insult to injury, Jesus and the disciples were surrounded by people that were mocking and celebrating His crucifixion.
For the disciples, this day was anything but TGIF.
Jesus knew differently.
“…for the joy set before Him (Jesus) endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:2)
It was “for the joy set before Him” that Jesus was able to endure the insults, the flogging, the beatings, and being nailed to the cross.
It wasn’t until Sunday morning that the disciples understood that God’s plan was so much bigger and better than they could have imagined:
“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who (like Jesus) for the joy set before Him endured the cross…” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
We can endure the cross we have to bear, no matter how heavy it might be, if we “fix our eyes on Jesus” and focus on “the joy set before us” – eternal life with the One who suffered and died for us.
This does not mean that we have to abandon our hopes and dreams for this life – far from it. God wants to bless us in this life too.
But, making a commitment to follow Christ is the only Unshakable Hope that God offers for this life and the next.
Today is a great day to make this commitment or to renew your commitment.
I almost made it through a whole year without being hospitalized or having any additional health problems. Almost. Then, with just a few days left in 2016, I caught a cold. The “common cold” is not much more than an annoyance for otherwise healthy people, but for someone like me with weakened breathing muscles and only 30% of my lungs functioning, the common cold is much more than an annoyance.
On the morning of the last day of the year, I was having an extremely difficult time breathing even wearing my breathing mask. In addition to that, I couldn’t keep anything down. I was a mess, more than usual. Mary and I both assumed it was pneumonia again so she called 911 and within minutes we were in an ambulance en route to the hospital. ALS has brought us one adventure after another over the last 20 years.
We waited in a small emergency room for twelve hours while waiting for a room to open so I could be admitted. It was during this time that I began thinking about the will to live. I was thinking, “if I didn’t have a sense that God still had a purpose for even a broken down mess like me or if I was an atheist or adhered to some other fatalistic worldview, I would have wanted a doctor to give me a shot that would have ended this suffering. It was as if my opposition to euthanasia was being tested.
Apart from the fact that the Bible teaches that life, including our own life, isn’t ours to take, it’s a very logical question; a question I’ve pondered at length over the last 20 years.
It’s a question that really confuses atheists.
Years ago I was watching a Barbara Walters special on heaven. She interviewed representatives of many different faiths to get their take on the after life. For some reason her last interview was with an atheist. I remember so vividly the closing sentence of this atheist: (If we believed in a heaven) “we’d all be killing ourselves now.”
But the reverse puzzles me: if atheists believe that this short life is all that there is, why do studies on assisted suicide show that atheists are the most likely to choose that option when facing a terminal illness?
Last year, Mary and I watched a movie titled “Me Before You.” It was a fictional “love story” about a wealthy self-centered 33 year old playboy in England that becomes a quadriplegic after a tragic accident. He’s obviously depressed and becomes a recluse in his parents mansion. He begins researching assisted suicide and finds a beautiful facility in Switzerland that provides “death with dignity” for wealthy people from all over the world (unfortunately, this facility really exists).
I’m obviously not a movie reviewer so let me wrap this summary up: his pretty young caregiver convinces him to travel to many exotic locations and they fall in love, but he still goes through with his plan to end their travels at the Switzerland death clinic. Not a very happy ending.
While watching this “love story,” my mind began to wander. I began thinking about a woman I admire so much. Fifty years ago, this woman was a beautiful and carefree 17 year old swimming with friends in the Chesapeake Bay. She dove into shallow water and hit bottom. This tragic accident resulted in her becoming a quadriplegic, virtually the exact same injury as the man depicted in the movie. Like him, she became depressed, reclusive and also had suicidal thoughts, but…
Joni Eareckson Tada had made a commitment to follow Christ three years earlier while attending a Christian summer camp. It was a renewal of this commitment and the support of family and friends that gave her life new purpose. For 50 years she’s been serving others all over the world while confined to a wheelchair. She shares the Gospel on TV and radio, hosts summer camps for mentally and physically disabled youth and, a ministry that is so needed, she provides wheelchairs to the disabled in third-world countries, like the boy below in Haiti. Her ministry has given away over 150,000 wheelchairs so far.
It’s really amazing what God can do with broken (humbled) vessels, regardless of our physical state. This year, give God permission to use you – this is the ultimate expression of His gift of a freewill. We are Christ’s hands to help a hurting world.
And, as the Apostle Paul wrote, when we’re done fulfilling God’s purpose for us in this life, it gets so much better:
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21)
I’ve learned so much about following Christ over the almost twenty years that I’ve been dealing with this frustrating disease known as ALS. It’s been a long and, in every sense, a painful road to travel. But, from a Christian perspective, it’s these difficult trials that are supposed to shape and perfect us:
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
One word stands out to me when I read the above passage – perfect.
Perfect: being entirely without fault or defect: flawless b: satisfying all requirements: accurate.
Jesus did say that His followers were to be perfect (Matthew 5:48). That’s a tough standard; the toughest of all standards. It’s kind of funny to think about now, but before making a commitment to follow Christ, back when I was still committed to following myself, Matthew was the first book I read; I’m kind of surprised I didn’t throw that Gideon Bible across the hotel room when I came to that part about being perfect.
I was so far from perfect back then, but I’m still so far away; “perfect” seems as far from me as a tiny star in the darkest of nights. But it was a tiny star that led the kings of east across the wilderness to Jesus. Like that tiny star, “Perfect” is unattainable for even the best of Christ’s followers, but it should always be our focus. I think that’s what Jesus meant.
Even late in his life, after suffering through many difficult trials, the Apostle Paul knew that he still wasn’t perfect, but he still had perfection as his goal:
“Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” (Philippians 3:12-13)
If I asked for some examples of spiritual imperfections, most of us would give examples like gossiping, angry outbursts, impatience and so many other faults of our words and/or actions.
One would think, as I once naively thought, that if a person was unable to speak or move, it would be easier for him or her to become spirituality perfect. As someone who can’t speak or move, I now know this isn’t the case.
Religion is all about right and wrong actions, but Christianity is a lifelong journey of perfecting the spirit and the soul (mind, will and emotions) of man. Actions are important, of course, but only if done with the proper motives.
“But the fruit of the Spirit (Godly character) is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Before ALS paralyzed my body and silenced my voice, I wrongly believed the above passage only applied to our actions. Now I know different. ALS (not being able to move or speak) has forced me to focus on my spirit and thought-patterns. This can be a frightening process, like confronting long-entrenched demons. But, on the road to becoming perfect, this is a process that we all must go through, and it shouldn’t take a terminal diagnosis to force us into it.
Over these difficult years of struggling with this dreadful disease, I’ve discovered that the fruit of the Spirit, or lack thereof, is more about our inner man. Good actions can just be an act.
How do you know if your actions are directed from godly (perfect) motives?
The first and most important thing is to determine whether you’re doing the act to please God or man.
A people-pleaser will never be viewed as perfect in the eyes of God. Christians motivated by a desire to please God will be viewed as perfect in His eyes. But, their words and actions will not be viewed favorably by all men. Jesus is proof of this.
Jesus is the only perfect (flawless, sinless, righteous…) being that’s ever stepped foot on earth. He was despised by both secular and religious people. Keep that in mind when you’re standing up for what you believe; this is the greatest and most difficult action of all.
“For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
“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!
Some might be disappointed, but this is not one of those quizzes like I see posted on Facebook. (There actually is one of those quizzes with this same title, but I didn’t take it because I was afraid that the results would show that I was Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tree).
Ten or twelve years ago, let’s just say eleven, Mary and I were shopping at Home Depot. After finishing our shopping in the store, we wandered out to the garden department to look for some small trees. It was November, and most of the plants were marked down because they were making room for Christmas trees.
Mary got hung up looking at wreathes and other boring items, so I cruised my wheelchair over to go look at trees. As it turned out, there were not many trees left, and I didn’t see anything I was interested in. Just when I was about to return to Mary and tell her not to bother coming over there, I spotted a tiny tree that was hidden behind two huge trees. With the footrest of my wheelchair, I pushed one of the large tree pots aside so I could get a better look at the little tree.
The tag on the tree identified it as a Bald Cypress, but it just looked like a two foot high vertical stick that sprouted a few tiny horizontal twigs. Other than a few yellowed leaves, there was no foliage on it at all; it was pitiful. But, it was marked down to only five dollars.
About that time, Mary walked up and assumed that I was looking at one of the large trees in front. Before I even noticed that she was there, I heard her voice, “That won’t fit in the van.”
ALS had already robbed me of my ability to speak, so I kicked the pot of the scrubby tree in back so she would know what I was looking at. After bending to see beneath the foliage of the trees in front, she rolled her eyes and began to walk away, thinking that I was joking.
When she finally figured out that I was serious about buying the tree, she dug it out and put it in her shopping cart. Couples (hopefully) learn to pick their battles after years of marriage and I’m sure she figured that a five dollar tree wasn’t a battle worth fighting. But I’m also sure that she felt vindicated when the cashier joined her in laughing at the tree.
After getting home, we looked for a place to plant the pathetic little tree. We finally agreed to plant it between the shed and our neighbor’s fence (I don’t remember, but Mary probably chose that spot because it was kind of hidden). After planting it, I had her place rocks around it so the men that mow our yard didn’t run over it thinking it was a weed.
“He (Jesus) presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven (the Christian life) is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field; and this is smaller than all other seeds, but when it is full grown, it is larger than the garden plants and becomes a tree…” (Matthew 13:31-32)
I didn’t have the ability to voice it at the time, but I was in total agreement with Mary and the cashier that the tree was pathetic. But I wasn’t focusing on the tree itself, I was looking at the picture of a mature Bald Cypress on the plastic tag that was attached to the stick-like trunk of the tree.
As Jesus said in the parable above, the walk of faith begins so small; like my tree, the beginning of our spiritual life is often pathetic. There will be storms that batter us as we grow, but if we remain focused on Christ and on the picture of what God designed us to be, we will conform to that image – just like my tree conformed to what I envisioned it to be:
“Do not despise these small beginnings, for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin…” (Zechariah 4:10)