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)
“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!
When I was a kid, I had a friend I’ll call “Bubba.” (There were no kids called Bubba where I grew up so I figure that’s a safe name to go with). Bubba was a high-maintenance friend that never called before coming over and always seemed to show up at my house when I was in the middle of doing something important, like watching Gilligan’s Island. He was hyper and never stopped jabbering on about stuff I wasn’t the least bit interested in. No matter how disinterested I acted, he would stay for hours and would even invite himself to dinner. To my immature and selfish mind, Bubba was annoying.
Before becoming a follower of Christ, I viewed thoughts and discussions about death much like I viewed Bubba knocking at my door – an unwelcome annoyance. After becoming a follower of Christ and coming to believe that my eternity in heaven was secured, I basically put the issue of death on a shelf thinking that one day, when I was old and gray, I would have to take it down, dust it off and deal with it. Even as a Christian, I still viewed death as “Bubba.” I never thought that welcoming death into my thoughts and prayers every day would be one of the best decisions of my life.
Old age, tragic accidents and horrible illnesses remind us that invincibility (in these bodies) is a myth; we are deceiving ourselves. ALS jolted me out of that denial comfort zone and forced me to face death head on and it’s been the most life-transforming experience. I hope to convince others that thinking about death on a daily basis is good for us emotionally and spiritually. This is the exact opposite of what I believed before ALS invaded my life.
“…we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead…” (1 Corinthians 1:9)
A few months ago I read an article that listed the top 5 regrets of the dying. They are as follows:
I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
I wish I had stayed in touch with friends (Bubba, where are you?)
I wish that I had let myself be happier.
I suppose everyone’s list of deathbed regrets would vary from the above list, but in truth we’ll only have one regret on our deathbed: “I wish that I hadn’t lived in denial that this day would come.” All of our regrets grow out of denial about our death. One would think, as I once thought, that thinking about our death, putting ourselves on our deathbed, every day would be depressing, but I’ve discovered that the opposite is true.
Like me, Ebenezer Scrooge wasn’t changed by reflecting on his past or even by discovering how others viewed him; he was only transformed when he came to terms with his own mortality. Obviously “A Christmas Carol” is not based on the Bible, but I believe Dickens got that part right.
“…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death…forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” (Philippians 3)
We rightly associate Easter with life, but Jesus’ whole mission was about defeating death. He had to face death before He could defeat it and so must we.
When I was diagnosed with ALS in 1996, at the age of 36, the Neurologist’s prognosis was that I probably would not live to see my 40th birthday. Our girls were only seven and four years old at that time.
I naturally thought of everything I would miss; like high school and college graduations, interrogating their dates, giving them away on their wedding day and the birth of my grandchildren.
I am so thankful that the Neurologist’s prediction was wrong:
I’ve lived to see both of our daughters graduate from high school and college.
I gave Lauren away on her wedding day two years ago.
And last week I became a Grandfather!
Because heaven is our ultimate future and Christ is our hope, the following verse is true for all Christians – even those of us that are facing difficult trials and those who’ve gone on to their ultimate future at an early age:
“For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the LORD, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)