The Will To Live
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.
If you are convinced you’re going to heaven, where the Bible says there will be no more pain, suffering and tears…, why continue to go on fighting to live?
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)
No matter how depressed you might be over your current circumstances, please don’t give up, your story doesn’t have to have a sad ending.
“Therefore we do not lose heart (don’t give up). Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
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)
Trials Can Make Us Stronger
I never thought that I would be using a quote from the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche in one of my blog posts, but…
This quote came to my mind the other day and I began thinking about it and the man that wrote it. I spent most of February sick or recovering from the flu and other health issues. What little strength and energy I had before the illness has finally returned in the last few days. I’m definitely not physically stronger than I was before the illness. But I do feel spiritually stronger than I was before my battle with “that which did not kill me.”
As an atheist, Nietzsche only believed in the physical world so I can only assume that this quote was referring to trials making people (himself) physically and/or emotionally stronger. I wonder if he still believed those words while lying helpless and suffering from the effects of Syphilis for the last eleven years of his life.
As someone who has relied on caregivers for even longer than Nietzsche had to (ALS, not Syphilis), I empathize with the helpless, the suffering and their caregivers. But I feel great sympathy for those that do not place their hope and strength in Christ, regardless of the state of their health. I feel sympathy because, like Nietzsche, the “strength” and “hope” that they derive from physical/temporal pleasures do not provide genuine and lasting joy or peace. As King Solomon concluded, it’s “all vanity.”
I am convinced that the following is the only strength that can be gained from “that which does not kill us”:
“…we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed (strengthened) 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)
There are so many great earthly pleasures and blessings, but not even the best of them deserve our hope. If Christ is our hope, the pleasures we enjoy on earth will be so much more enjoyable because we’ll have our priorities in order and we won’t have to rely on the physical/temporal things for happiness.
“For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it.” (Romans 8:24-25)
A Lesson We Learned From Our Honeymoon
Last Saturday (11/2) Mary and I celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. Recently we were telling someone about our crazy honeymoon and I thought my blog friends might find interesting too.
I suppose to varying degrees all marriages have a mix of the good and the bad; memories you cherish and other times you wish you could forget. Our honeymoon was some of both also.
We bought our first home three months before our wedding and I moved in and began fixing it up. Buying a home and fixing it up turned out to be more expensive than we anticipated so our honeymoon plans had to be drastically scaled back.
I found a good deal for a week at a resort in a popular destination south of the border (for reasons that will become clear, I won’t name the location). The first four days of the trip were great; beautiful weather, great food and fun activities like snorkeling, parasailing and other fun things honeymooning couples do, but then came day five…
After a nice breakfast by the pool, we wandered into the hotel lobby and began browsing through the rack of activity brochures. Most of the local activities were either too expensive for our limited budget or uninteresting to us. But then we saw a brochure that interested both of us; a four hour guided horseback riding trip up a mountain trail along a beautiful flowing creek. The trip even included lunch at a picturesque mountain-top restaurant before turning around for the trip back down the mountain.
We handed the brochure to the concierge and asked him to book us. He made a call and informed us that activity was already sold-out for that day, but he knew of another guide that could take us up the mountain to the same restaurant shown in the brochure. Without asking questions, we told him to call and book us.
We became a little concerned when we arrived at the “stables” and saw that the location was a long way from the scenic mountain trail located behind the large stable featured in the brochure. We became more concerned when our “tour guide” turned out to be a skinny teenager that didn’t speak English. And we became even more concerned when we realized that we were the only people going on the trip with our young guide.
Pushing aside the cautionary voices in our heads, we mounted our docile horses. Our guide’s horse wasn’t as cooperative as our horses were; it moved from side-to-side and bucked as he was trying to get on.
After finally getting on his horse, our guide led us along the shoulder of the busy street, away from the entrance to the mountain trail. After waiting for a lull in the traffic and galloping across the street, we started up a dirt road. It quickly became clear to us that this was not going to be anything like the romantic horseback ride shown in the glossy brochure. The dirt road didn’t lead to a trail, it was the trail; a switchback road weaving by shack after shack. We had never seen such poverty.
About halfway up the mountain, we passed a dead and very bloated cow with a mangy dog chewing on its head (Mary hates when I tell that gruesome part). Our guide pointed to the cow as if his hand was a gun and shouted, “BANDITOS” and began nervously looking around and then picked up the pace.
After finally arriving at the restaurant, we saw a large group of people briskly crossing a footbridge; the footbridge that was strung across the stream we never saw on our way up the mountain. They were all American tourists like us; the horseback riding group we originally wanted to go with. It turns out that it was a good thing we didn’t join them because they were robbed at gunpoint by bandits just minutes before arriving at the restaurant. The robbers took all their jewelry and money; one older man had to be led by the hand because the thieves even stole their glasses.
Through a translator, our tour guide told us that the authorities were sending a truck to pick up the terrified people, but he felt that we’d be safe riding our horses back the same way we came up. When he saw the panicked look on our face, he shouted “Banditos go” and then pointed up at the mountains. The translator told us that our guide thought the bandits were probably hiding out in the mountains so he believed we’d be safe riding back down.
Nervously, but quickly we mounted our horses for the steep descent down the dirty switchback road. The ride up took about two hours, but we were going to make it down a lot faster than that, or so we thought.
We were making good time down the steep and winding road, but about a third of the way down, our tour guide was thrown violently from his temperamental horse. We heard a loud “SNAP” as he hit the ground and screamed out. He was one tough kid because he immediately stood up and began calmly examining his broken arm. It was bad, the bone was sticking out of his forearm and he was bleeding profusely. I quickly got down off of my horse to see if I could help him.
He began motioning for me to grab his hand and yank his arm to reset the broken bone. I didn’t think this was a good idea because the bone was clearly shattered and wasn’t going to simply go back into place. But he insisted so I planted my feet and began pulling as hard as I could on the poor guy’s arm. He screamed louder than I’ve ever heard someone scream and for an instant I wondered if I had misunderstood what he had motioned for me to do. But he insisted we give it another try and this time he screamed even louder. If the banditos were taking a siesta in their mountain hideaway, I was sure our screaming tour guide had woken them up.
For all we knew this kid was in shock and wasn’t thinking straight so I decided to take charge of the situation. We had to get him down off of the mountain and to a doctor right away. I wrapped his arm with a cloth and helped him get on the back of Mary’s horse. I pulled his unpredictable horse behind me.
After a long slow trek down the mountain we finally arrived back at the busy street. We tried repeatedly to flag down a car to take him to a doctor, but there were no Good Samaritans on the road that day. He finally motioned for us to bring him back to the stable, which we did. I insisted on giving him some cash to help pay his medical expenses, but he refused to take my money.
We were hot, exhausted and extremely thirsty when we finally arrived back to our hotel room. Because the cost was so outrageous, we had agreed not to eat or drink anything from the mini fridge in our room, but we decided to make this one exception. I quickly grabbed a bottle of Sprite and we took several large gulps. When the bottle was almost gone, Mary stopped me as I went to take another drink – the bottle was full of tiny bugs, hundreds of them. Obviously the bottle washing machine was broken the day this bottle was filled.
We decided to put our crazy morning and afternoon behind us and make the most of that night. We made reservations at a casual restaurant that the concierge, the same concierge, had recommended.
After a shower and a short nap, we were surprisingly rested and refreshed when the cab picked us up to take us to the restaurant. The drive up to the oceanfront restaurant was beautiful with the tree-lined mountains on one side and the sun setting over the ocean on the other side. Finally something that qualified as romantic on our honeymoon, but it was short-lived…
We forgot to bring Mary’s good camera on the trip, but even with the cheap camera we picked up at a drug store, you can see from the picture that the view from the restaurant was spectacular. The food was as good as the view, but taste and appearances can be deceptive…
By the time Mary and I arrived at our hotel room, we were violently ill; it was obviously a severe case of food poisoning. From then on out, the only contact we had with each other was brushing by one another as we exchanged places in the bathroom. It was horrible; we were like Protestants visiting a Catholic Church – we didn’t know whether to kneel or sit.
I was somewhat better the following morning, but Mary was getting worse. I booked us on the next flight home and took Mary straight to the hospital. After a 24 hours in the hospital on an IV and antibiotics, she was finally well enough to go home.
Our honeymoon turned out to be a kind of a metaphor for the years that followed; there have been good times, but also some difficult mountain climbs.
Life is so unpredictable; it’s like a switchback road, you never know what will greet you around the next turn. But, if Christ is our guide, He’ll give us the grace we need to deal with any and everything that awaits us.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37)
The Greatest Christian I Know
Who is the greatest Christian you know?
I will give my answer to that question at the end of this post.
I realize that questions such as this could be classified by some as judging others. But the Bible does tell us to “test ourselves” (2 Corinthians 13:5) and to test spiritual claims and people (1 John 4:1 & Revelation 2:2). The Bible also gives us attributes to look for when conducting these examinations of ourselves and others.
Here are some of the attributes (of great Christians) that I’ve found in the Bible:
- Compassionate, Kind, Humble, Gentle, Patient, Bearing the burdens of others and Forgiving (Colossians 3:12-13)
- Encouraging and Building-up others (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
- A reader and a “doer” of God’s word (James 1:22).
- Hospitable, Sensible, Just, Devout and Self-controlled (Titus 1:8).
- Loving, Joyful, Peaceful, Faithful (Galatians 5:22)
- Prayerful, Thankful (to God and others) and Hopeful (Colossians 1:3-5).
If you tested yourself by the above criteria and concluded that you deserve an A+ on every one these virtues, you’re either delusional or off-the-charts self-righteous. Everyone, even the person I chose as “The Greatest Christian I Know,” struggle with some of these.
But, according to Jesus, a truly great Christian possesses one quality that sets them apart; “But the greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matthew 23:11)
I think of people like my sister and her husband who care for their 18 year-old severely Autistic son. People like my mother-in-law who took care of her ill husband until he recently passed away. And even paid caregivers, like the woman that helps Mary take care of me, qualify as “Great” in my book.
But the Greatest all-around Christian I know is Mary, my wife and best friend of 28 years. Since being diagnosed with ALS years-ago, she’s also been my full-time caregiver. She is the best example I know of a truly selfless servant.
And, no, I didn’t just choose her as the greatest Christian out of fear that she’d stop feeding and clothing me.
“…whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” (Matthew 20:26-28)