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.
It seems that America is obsessed with comfort these days. Have you noticed all the mattress commercials? They all claim that their brand is the most comfortable and tell us that we need to replace our mattress every eight years to maintain that optimum comfort. One mattress store will even finance your mattress for eight years. (I don’t care how comfortable the mattress is, if you finance it, you’ll probably be up half the night worrying about making your mattress payment).
Don’t get me wrong, I’m probably more obsessed with finding physical comfort than most people. One of the most difficult things about being paralyzed by ALS is trying to get comfortable because my body is literally dead weight. There’s no turning over or even turning my head in order to get more comfortable when I go to bed. I recently got a new mattress, the one that I see the most commercials for, and it’s every bit as comfortable as the manufacturer claims, and I really do sleep better. (Don’t tell the mattress people, but the mattress I replaced was twelve years old).
So I really appreciate physical comfort, but…
It also seems that much of the Western world is seeking a more comfortable (politically correct…) form of Christianity. Even if I wanted to do so, I’ve concluded that I’m just not clever enough to make Jesus and the New Testament into something more “comfortable.” Even writing this post is out of my comfort zone.
Like a lot of non-Christians, before making a commitment to follow Christ, I viewed Christians as narrow-minded, judgmental and hypocritical. My cynicism about Christians (churchgoers) was so deep that, even after committing to follow Christ, I wanted nothing to do with church or churchgoers (“organized religion“). For about five months, I read the Bible for an hour or two every night. With no preachers or churchgoers to influence me, I learned to just take the Bible at face value – I became convinced that it is God’s word.
I eventually accepted an invitation to go to church and discovered that most Christians are not narrow-minded, judgmental or hypocritical. I also came to realize that non-Christians can be all of the things that I was accusing Christians of being.
Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6)
How does one make words like Jesus’ above quote more “comfortable” for the Jew, the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Hindu or for anyone else of a different belief system? As I said, I’m not that clever. Even if we “speak the truth in love,” as the Bible instructs us to do, verses like this and so many others can be taken as fightin’ words by many people.
Jesus is not a unifier; He is the most divisive figure in all of history. Trying to make His words more “comfortable” will only serve to strip them of their life-transforming and hope-giving power. Besides that, people deserve honesty not comfortable condescension.
Other than His most devout followers, the only people that Jesus succeeded in unifying was/is His political and religious enemies: “Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day (the day they crucified Jesus); for before they had been enemies with each other.” (Luke 23:12).
What would a “comfortable” (acceptable to all religious and political groups) “Christianity” look like? China has already given us the answer. The following are just some of the rules the Chinese state-approved “churches” have to follow:
• The Communist Party has the final decision on who can preach and what can be preached.
• Preaching about the resurrection and the second coming of Jesus is forbidden.
• Gathering to worship outside approved churches and official “meeting points” is forbidden.
• Evangelizing or giving out tracts is forbidden.
• Importing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
• Printing Bibles is forbidden, even if they are given away for free.
• Government officials cannot be Christian.
• Teachers cannot be Christian.
• Soldiers cannot be Christian.
• Police officers cannot be Christian.
• Children and teenagers cannot be Christian.
Obviously the above is not Christianity, but sadly there are many churches in North America and Western Europe that could relocate to the middle of Beijing without having to change what they preach.
China is officially an atheist country, including the education system. But the truth is that China will soon have more Christians than any other nation on earth. The majority of these Chinese Christians meet secretly in house churches that teach the true message of the Gospel. They risk beatings, imprisonment, losing their homes, jobs and even their lives. Like the early Christians and so many oppressed believers around the world today, they’ve chosen the uncomfortable road.
With the increasing pressure from governments, the education system, the media and even some Christian denominations to make Christianity more politically correct and comfortable for all people, which road will you choose?
The fact that God’s nature was difficult for me to understand used to be a real challenge to my faith. This was especially true after being diagnosed with ALS. I don’t remember ever asking God “Why me?” but I naturally wondered why God would allow this or any other horrible disease to strike anyone. I began to rethink everything I knew, or thought I knew, about this being we call God.
One of the first things I studied was the Christian definition of God; the Christian belief that God is made up of three separate beings (Father, Son and Spirit) that are actually one being. This doesn’t make sense! I have heard many different analogies that attempted to explain this concept of this three-in-one God by everyone from children’s church pastors to highly-educated Theologians, but I still don’t get it! I know better than anyone that I’m far from being the sharpest knife in the drawer, but after many years of trying to figure out this concept of what we simply call the Trinity, I’ve concluded that no one is able to explain this Triune God in terms that are understandable to even the razor-sharp knives among us. And, I’m now okay with this because –
If we were able to understand God in human terms, He wouldn’t be God; He’d be a man.
C.S. Lewis was one of the best Christian apologists of the twentieth century, but before becoming a follower of Christ, he was an outspoken atheist. He concluded that there was no God because the idea of God didn’t make sense to him. He wondered why a supposedly loving God would allow his mother to die when he was just ten years old. He also wondered why a God that claims to care so much for His creation would permit the horrors he witnessed as a soldier in World War One. I imagine a lot of people asked similar questions after seeing innocent people being killed and maimed in Boston and in West, Texas. But, ironically, it was also this seemingly nonsensical nature of God that brought Lewis back to the God of Christianity.
“Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17)
As a professor at Oxford, Lewis and some other professors, including his fellow professor and friend, the author J.R.R. Tokien (Lord of the Rings) formed a group where they would meet and discuss Philosophy, Theology and other “Big issues.” Tolkien was a Christian and he began challenging Lewis’ conclusions about God. Like me and so many others that have come to a crossroad, Lewis began to rethink his beliefs about this mysterious God.
“Atheism turns out to be too simple” – CS Lewis
Lewis also came to the conclusion that mere mortals were unable to fully comprehend what we call the Trinity. And, like me and those who understand the implications of this conclusion, this idea of an incomprehensible God intrigued Lewis. He eventually ditched his “simple” atheism and turned to a complex God.
He wrote: “On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two separate beings… On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which we, who do not live on that level, cannot imagine…If Christianity was something we were making up, of course we could make it easier. But it is not. We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions. How could we? We are dealing with Fact. Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about…Reality, in fact, is always something you couldn’t have guessed. That’s one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It’s a religion you couldn’t have guessed.”
Why do we expect to understand why God allows tragedy and heartache when we cannot even comprehend the makeup of God? We haven’t yet even figured out why people do the things they do. God sees the Big Picture – the eternal picture, the picture that we’re incapable of seeing. For that reason alone we should give Him the benefit of the doubt when tragedy strikes.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
After reading some of the comments from my last post (“More than just a Dream”), I’m afraid that I might have left the impression that my only hope (for physical healing) is in the next life. If I believed heaven was my only hope for healing, I probably would have checked out years ago. Waiting (for heaven) to be healed is merely my backup plan; it’s my Plan B. Whether it’s through medical science or a miracle from God, even after 16 years with ALS, I’m still hoping for the best outcome here on earth. This is what I believe for others too, regardless of the severity of their trial.
I realize how crazy it sounds for someone who has received a diagnosis of ALS to be hoping for a complete recovery. I’m not naïve; I’ve known so many good Christian people who have died of this and other insidious diseases like Cancer, Heart Disease and Lupus. And I realize that, medically speaking, ALS is 100 percent fatal. Well, technically that’s not true; there are medically documented cases of people being miraculously healed of ALS and even the ALS Association says, “There are people in whom ALS has stopped progressing and a small number of people in whom the symptoms of ALS reversed.” So maybe it’s only like 99.9 percent fatal – I choose to believe for that one tenth of one percent chance.
As I typed that, a scene from the movie Dumb and Dumber came to my mind (don’t judge me). In this scene, one of the “dumb guy’s” named “Lloyd,” who’s in love with a beautiful and sophisticated character named “Mary,” is asking her what the chances of them ending up together are:
Lloyd: What do you think the chances are of a guy like you and a girl like me… ending up together?
Mary: Well, Lloyd, that’s difficult to say. I mean, we don’t really…
Lloyd: Hit me with it! Just give it to me straight! I came a long way just to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So you’re telling me there’s a chance… *YEAH!*
Maybe some of you reading this think I’m like Lloyd for being excited about a one in a million chance of being healed of ALS. Maybe you’re thinking that I shouldn’t encourage people to hold onto “false hope.” I’m definitely not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I’m not “Lloyd” either; I’ve been contemplating this for over 16 years and here are some of my conclusions:
- Miracles by definition defy all natural laws – including statistical probabilities.
- For the 16+ years of this trial, God has sustained us with miracle after miracle; I don’t think I have the right, nor do I think that I’m qualified to categorize certain miracles as “big” and others as “small.”
- There’s no such thing as “false hope” when you’re looking to the “God of hope.”
- Jesus still heals; He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb13:8)
- “God doesn’t show partiality.” (Acts 10:34)
- “The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)
- I would rather die looking for a miracle than live not believing in them.
In Daniel chapter 3, King Nebuchadnezzar demanded that the Jews bow down and worship his god. All those that refused to bow would be thrown into the furnace that the Babylonians used to make bricks. As most people know, three young Jewish men refused to bow and this is what they told the king; “…our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
For me, this is more than a great example of strong faith; I believe this is a pattern of faith that all Christians should emulate regardless of challenges we might be facing. We can proclaim that, “Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from [insert your trial here]. BUT EVEN IF HE DOES NOT… we are not going to serve…” doubt, fear, worry, hopelessness or anything else that destroys faith, hope, joy and peace!