29.) How Did You Know I’m Alone?

I want to speak, now, to yet one other “bump in the road” that people seem to want to avoid discussing—and it IS somewhat hard to talk about—and that is, the deeply emotional aspects of facing adversity and recovery. It has been my experience that there is a certain profound sense of “isolation” that sets in when facing difficult personal struggles or going through times of adversity.  I don’t know just what it is, really, but when facing any situation that forces us to confront our own mortality, the experience is often accompanied by an abject sense of loneliness.  In discussing his own experience with cancer, Jeff Tomczek (2012) put it this way:

Be grateful for every message. Be appreciative of each gift and each visit. There will be moments where all of this attention will make you feel lonelier than you have ever felt in your life. In a hospital room full of people with messages stuffing your inbox, voicemail and mailbox you will find yourself feeling completely alone. This is when you will realize that you could afford to have a stronger relationship with yourself. That only you walk this earth with 100% investment in you.

This is not only true of the hospital room, but even the ole “comeback trail” can sometimes feel pretty lonesome. As the intensity of the dramatic moment distills into the mundane struggle for normalcy, and people begin to realize that you’re probably NOT going to die—at least not anytime soon—they lose interest. That incredible support network that once surrounded you begins to fade and dissipate.

Well, we all know that “life goes on,” and that is how it should be. Personally, I don’t want people trifling over me. I’m ready to be taken off of a few “prayer lists”—I hate prayer lists anyway; nobody wants to be a line item on somebody else’s “list.” Don’t get me wrong, however, I do love the notion of spontaneous, heartfelt prayer. But, while I am more than ready to fade from some people’s short-term memories, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to lose EVERYone—yikes!

I’m reminded, again, of Jeff Tomczek’s wisdom as he shared some of his personal insights into his own cancer recovery. He said:

You’ll understand who truly loves you because they will still be there. You’ll want to meet new people that connect to the newly evolved version of your old self. You’ll want to let go of those that don’t ‘get’ who you are now. You’ll feel a little guilty doing it. Then, you’ll move on. You don’t have time to waste. The greatest gift you’ve been given is that you now understand that and you’re going to make the most of every second. (Tomczek, 2012)

Well, it’s okay with me if some of the buzzards who’ve been sitting around on the wires, wondering whether or not I’m going to die, take flight and head off in search of the next poor victim that they can hone in on for their dramatic amusement. However, there are a few sweethearts with whom I feel like I’ve drawn much closer through all of this; and I really don’t want to lose contact with them. But I know that even some of them will need to fly away because life is demanding, there are other people who need our attention, and we all have only so much room in our lives for those first, second, and third level relationships. In fact, I myself have been seriously contemplating cutting my Facebook “friends” list down from over 200 to only about 50, or maybe 20, or perhaps just 10—huuahhh!

I know that I’m not quite myself these days.  I’m not really over all the effects from the surgeries, the internal radiation therapy, and the additional minor—albeit often painful—medical procedures. I’m still on some pretty tough antibiotics, an occasional pain med, and my thyroid hormone replacement levels still need to be moderated.  In fact, my endocrinologist is upping my daily dose of levothyroxine (T4)—thyroid hormone replacement—to 200 mcg; which is, typically, as high as they will go.  Hopefully, that will be enough to get me out of this residual hypothyroid stupor I’ve been contending with for months on end now.

Well, these are some of my excuses, anyway, for the continued heightened state of general “discombobulation” and “emotionalism” that tends to plague me these days.   But, I have to admit, some of this “emotionalism” may have less to do with all these chemical imbalances, or even dealing with cancer, and more to do with just gettin old—sort of a “mid-life crisis,” perhaps?  Let’s face it, life does get a bit “freaky” after you turn 50 and it begins to dawn on you that the average life expectancy in the U.S. for people your age is only about 70 years—67 for men, 74 for women (Information, 2011)—and that means you have, in all likelihood, lived at least two-thirds of your life, already.

It’s funny how, when you think back to how fast life seems to have flown by, and how little of it remains, your priorities begin to shift and a number of new and unfamiliar emotions begin to come into play.  To be more specific, you begin to ask yourself questions like, “What are the most important things, really, in life?” and “What does God want me to do with whatever little time is remaining to me?”  These are questions which, to be fair, many of us have asked often throughout life.  But, when you get much past 50, these kinds of questions seem to take on a new urgency.  Here are a few related items I’ve been contemplating lately:

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 THINGS don’t really matter much!

Now, I know that I am somewhat of an “odd bird” to begin with.  Material wealth and financial security have never ranked particularly high among my personal values in life.  Sometimes I am tempted to regret that fact and sort of wish that I had given more attention to making money; and that I had been a better provider for my wife and family.  But when one feels compelled to buy in, completely, to the work Christ has set before us—to the extent that he or she is willing to forego possessing or enjoying very many of this world’s amenities—life, for better or for worse, becomes all about “the mission.”  And, I suppose that, to wish I had been a better provider is, in a way, denigrating the providential care of God; as though He, in some way, has not been a good enough provider or taken care of us the way I expected Him to.

I remember, when our children were still very young, my wife and I were visiting with some friends of ours, another young family, who had just purchased some land and had moved a pre-manufactured home onto the property.  They walked us around the premises showing us their new garden, their lawn, their chickens and other animals; and we rejoiced with them and were, genuinely, happy for them.

But, after dinner, while we were relaxing, talking together, and rejoicing over the acquisition of their little slice of the proverbial “American dream,” one of them asked the question of us, “So, tell us, what is YOUR dream?”

I shot a quick glance in the direction of my wife, our eyes meeting in telepathic connection, and we simultaneously smiled at one another.  Then, turning back to our friends, she answered for both of us, saying:  “We’re living it!”

Our friends, quite aware of our meager subsistence and minimalist lifestyle, stared at us with blank expressions and queried, “What do you mean?”

She went on to explain to them how that, for us, living, loving, serving, reaching, preaching, and teaching WAS our dream.  It’s all we’ve ever really wanted, and, aside from our health and well-being, all we’ve really ever asked for—and, well, we’re living it! I fell in love with my wife all over again that evening.

That being said, still, there have been times when—and forgive me, Lord, if I disparage Your providential care for us in any way—I wish that we could enjoy the lifestyle and financial security that some of our family and friends seem to have achieved.  We still live in a house that is not our own; and I get sort of tired of looking at our hodge-podge, hand-me-down furnishings—leftovers from garage sales, unclaimed stuff left in storage units, and worn out items that some hotel or resort was trying to get rid of.  What is our fashion theme?  We call it, “Contemporary Missionary!”  Some of you may recognize it as the “Rag-Tag Gypsy Wanderer” motif!

But I know that, compared with 97% or more of the world’s population, we still manage to live like royalty—we are not paupers by any stretch of the imagination.  And, really, I have nothing to complain about except, perhaps, that I have not been a better steward of the material resources that God has blessed us with over the years.

While we’ve done better than most, still, I wish I had completely refrained from that whole credit/debt trap.  That is not a good way to fund mission trips, or local ministry, or moving and relocation expenses, or education, or to pay for other goods and services.  It’s walking by sight, rather than by faith.

I also wish I had given more to others in need, or to worthy causes along the way; and that I had spent less on material things to which I felt entitled.  But, most of all, I just wish that I would have done a better job of simply being there for people.

My commitment going forward is not only to try to get out of debt as soon as possible, but to do a better job of investing our material resources, to the greatest extent possible, in eternal treasure and kingdom expansion.  Yes, I’m still all about “the mission!”  And, somehow, the idea of “making it” in this old world—whatever definition we individually assign to that idea—seems to pale in comparison with just “living it”—to the glory of God.

Jesus, after confronting the rich young ruler, who just could not let go of his material possessions in order to follow Him, said:

 “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”  The disciples were amazed at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!   It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?”  Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.”   Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake,   but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” (Mark 10:23-31, NASB).

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 TIME is a precious and fleeting commodity!

In his bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages, Gary D. Chapman (2010) outlines five mediums by which we all communicate and interpret our love one for another.  These include:  words of affirmation; physical touch; acts of service; giving and receiving gifts; and spending quality time together.  While we all “speak” each of these languages to one degree or another, individual hearts typically resonate at a higher level with one or two of them.  But regardless of what one’s first love language may be, I believe all are important to establishing and maintaining beautiful relationships; and we each need to be aware of how all five may play out in the various relationships we hold dear.

If there is one thing that has been drilled into my mind through my confrontation with cancer, it is the importance of treasuring the time we are afforded one with another.  And, yet, it seems to me as if this may be the very “love language” that is most often neglected.  For some reason, when it comes to loving and being loved, simply spending time together seems to take a back seat to verbal expression, intimate touch, acts of service, and gift giving.  Why is that?

Perhaps our high-powered, hectic, busy lifestyle has much to do with it.  The demands of today’s professional world—what it takes in terms of effort and energy just to keep a business financially solvent or a family afloat—are incredible.  Add to that all the organized activities to which we attach ourselves and our children in an effort have what society deems a “well-balanced” lifestyle, and it seems we have little time left for sharing some of life’s simple pleasures with one another, things like:  walking and talking together, sitting on the front porch and sharing our day, playing a simple game, throwing a football, listening to and sharing some music, or even praying and praising our Lord together.

When I look back on my life, I wish I could say that I have no regrets; but I do.  In fact, people who say “I have no regrets” are, I think, being incredibly arrogant.  Of course we have regrets; things we wish we would have done differently.  But one of the areas of my life that I regret the most is not spending enough quality time with the people I love.  Seems like there was always some immediate, pressing concern that was driving me:  academic pursuits, ministerial pursuits, deadlines, appointments, various commitments, or just financial considerations to take into account.

My mother battled with cancer over the last two years of her life.  While we often talked on the phone, I never seemed to make it “home” to see her during all that time—until near the very end.  Even then, I had commitments to speak at various places while on that trip and spent most of my time gallivanting around the great Southwest meeting with elders and mission committees, trying to hang on to the mission support that helped sustain us on this field of labor, rather than being at my mother’s side.

I remember my mom calling me in the middle of that trip, she in a hospital in New Mexico, me at a speaking engagement in Dallas, asking—no, begging—that I return and see her one more time before flying back to Hawaii.  I did, but it was only a short visit in the hospital at Las Cruces. The doctors had assured us that she was getting stronger and would be driving again by summer; so I took my leave, promising myself and her that I would return that summer to spend more time with her.

But summer, for her, never came.  Only two weeks after my return to Hawaii, my sister called to tell me that our mother had died. Looking back, I would give anything for a few more days or weeks, filled with long, boring, difficult hours just sitting in a hospital room at her bedside talking, sharing, reminiscing, rubbing her back (she loved that), and just giving her my time.

My little nephew, Gatlin, battled cancer over the last four years of his life.  I talked with my sister on the phone often, but, again, I never seemed to make it “home” to see her and the family during all that time.  Near the end of Gatlin’s life—he was only 14—we were blessed that he and my sister were able to come spend a couple of weeks with us here in Hawai‘i.  I don’t remember all the particular things we did, but that doesn’t matter so much as just the memory of his being here, his smile, his unique personal interactions—quite the tease—and the time that we shared together.

A couple of months later, my sister called to tell me that the time of Gatlin’s departure from this life was nearing and that he really wanted me to come see him while he had a few good days left.  However, due to local responsibilities here at home, I felt that I couldn’t just pick up and go.  So, I waited.  I waited until it was almost too late.  Even then, when I finally made it back to see him, he was on his final leg and died only 3 days after my arrival.

Looking back, while I was glad that I was there when the Lord called him home, I find myself wondering just what was so incredibly important that I couldn’t have hopped a plane and gone back to spend that last two or three weeks with him.  It wouldn’t have mattered what he was capable of doing, or what we would have done in the time we had together; only that I was there—but I wasn’t.

My little student, Jessica, battled Fanconi’s anemia the last couple of years of her life.  This little gal seemed to capture my heart in no time flat; and not just mine—people who knew her just couldn’t help but love her immensely.  Jessica had to have a bone marrow transplant in Honolulu and we had developed plans for me to travel over to visit and help Jessica with her school work while she was in the hospital.  We planned to continue with her home schooling needs when she returned to Kona.  But Jessica never returned to Kona and I never made it over to Honolulu to see her.

You see, while funds were available, they were limited; and we didn’t want to spend the money on travel until Jessica regained enough strength to actually be able to engage with me at some appreciable academic level.  But that never happened.  After 97 days in the hospital, the Lord took Jessica home just a few days after her 12th birthday.

Looking back, I’m wondering what the big deal was about making “appropriate use” of those designated funds.  I should have followed my intuition at the time and just hopped as many planes as I could to be there with her as often as I could; if only to give her a hug and a kiss, to pray with her and her family, and to let them know how much I love them.  No amount of money, raised or saved, can compensate for the time I missed out on being with Jessica in those last few months of her little life.

Are you starting to get my point?  I’m sitting here wiping tears and hoping that, perhaps, you are already well ahead of me and can relate stories of people in your own life to whom you wish you would have, somehow, managed to give a little more of your time.  And all the important agendas, busy schedules, deadlines and appointments, financial considerations, and other extenuating circumstances just seem to have paled, most now long-forgotten, in comparison to the time we had, or would like to have had, with those precious loved ones.

In considering our walk of life with the Lord, and the opportunities He gives us to love and share our lives with others, perhaps we would do well to heed the Apostle Paul’s admonition when he said to the church at Ephesus,  “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time [the KJV says, “redeeming the time”] because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NASB).

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 RELATIONSHIPS are what matter most!

And this is what has me a little “teary-eyed” today: while material things and so-called “financial security” continues to sink ever lower on my priority index, my emotions are steeped in thoughts of friendship and fond memories of precious moments spent with people I love.

You see, this past week, a couple of long-time friends who live on the U.S. Mainland—Craig and Danelle—dropped in to spend a couple of days with me.  They were in the islands to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and to spend some time with their daughter on the island of Kauai.  But on their return trip home, they deliberately diverted their travel schedule—at the cost of a few hundred extra bucks—to hop on over here to our island and to see me.  These are, by the way, the first people I talked to on the day I found out that I had cancer—they knew my diagnosis, even before my wife did.  They have encouraged me often throughout this entire ordeal with a calm, steady, reassuring faith; and, now, they’ve even taken the extra time and expense to drop by and aggravate me for a few days.   Do you have any idea what that means to someone living in exile on a rock out in the remotest parts of the sea?

While the time we were able to spend together was sweet indeed, you should know that they didn’t come to cradle and coddle me—cudgel, perhaps, but not coddle (look it up).  Rather, as evidence of their true friendship, the very first thing they did on the morning after their arrival was to kick my butt into high gear by forcing me into a 5 mile cross-country run with some serious up-hill; which, while helping me with my pacing and breathing, as I try to adjust to my new running regimen, nearly killed me in the process. I wanted to quit so many times on that run, but they wouldn’t let me and kept challenging me to “push the envelope” just a little further.  I wanted to throw up, then collapse; or collapse then throw up—the only reason I didn’t is because I couldn’t decide the order.

Then, when I finally found some shade and a patch of grass beside the sea on which to collapse, they wouldn’t allow me to rest for long.  Before I could even recover, they had me out in the sea fighting turbulent ocean waters in the midst of a big swell with strong currents that threatened to sweep all of us off to Tahiti.  In fact, Craig got caught up in that current and was helplessly swept away, like a rag-doll, between a couple of giant lava pillars protruding from the ocean floor; causing Danelle and I to have to search for him in vain for more than 5 minutes.

I shot a quick prayer to God and, just when I was giving in to the possibility of his early demise, he reemerged some distance away from us.  A flood of relief swept over me in knowing that I had not, by God’s grace, as of yet, lost anyone I love on “my watch.”  However, due to the physiological impact of the whole episode, I was simply too physically and emotionally spent to make it back into shore at the spot where we had entered.  Rather, I gave in to the forceful current and just let it take me at will, Danelle following suit, until it washed both of us up on a rocky formation jutting out into the sea not far away.

Then, on the way home, these two dear friends manipulated me into stopping by Sports Authority to purchase a firm styrofoam roller—a device invented at Gitmo, no doubt.  They then induced me to practice several tortuous exercises using this instrument of malevolence; which not only inculcated excruciating affliction, but left me nauseous for hours afterwards.

However, because it was my granddaughter’s birthday and we had a party to attend, like the brave trooper I portend to be, I was able to “cowboy up” and not let on to anybody how totally whipped I really was by day’s end.  And this was just the FIRST day of their visit!  Ahhhh… “What ARE friends for?!?”  

Now, of course, I make no claim to infallibility in my documentation of the foregoing events.  As in all my storytelling, I can only assert that these are, indeed, the facts as I remember them.  And you, already knowing my distaste for hyperbole, are, I’m sure, convinced of the accuracy and reliability thereof.

Then, this past week, another long-time and more, shall we say, “benign” (at least from a distance) friend—David—called to cheer me up and talk about various matters related to ministry.  He said that he wants to print out and use my interactive, online Bible lessons in his Sunday morning Bible class.  Of course I gave my permission—”Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8, NASB).

As with Craig and Danelle, David and I have spent quite a bit of time “down in the trenches” laboring together in behalf of the cause of Christ on one mission campaign or another.  Now he reminds me once again that, time zones and distances notwithstanding, and even though I sometimes feel like John the revelator—exiled to the island of Patmos—we still need one another; and nothing binds our hearts together like active participation in mutual ministry.

On yet another note, I have an ever growing and evolving relationship with someone who has always just kind of “been there,” out on the peripheral margins of my life, but with whom I never really connected until recently.  My little cousin—Constance—who is several years younger than I, lives in the Middle East, out on a small peninsula surrounded by the Persian Gulf, in the nation of Qatar.

We’ve never talked to one another very much, or even seen one another more than just a few times in our lives.  But working through this cancer, as well as other adversities in our lives—she recently lost both her father, my Uncle Coleman and, just last week her mother, my Aunt Shirley—seems to have thrown us back together in quite an unexpected fashion.  It has been such a joy to learn about her family, her life, and all her adventures abroad.

Brief notes from her seem to appear out of the blue via one form of communication or another; dropping in, as it were, from the wings of the wind right when I most need them.  Yesterday another one of her messages drifted in, saying:  “The miles or oceans do not create a distance that can keep me from feeling you close!”

Wiping eyes, again, and looking out my window at the thousands upon thousands of miles of ocean waters surrounding me in all directions, I quietly give thanks to my God that, in this modern world of cyber connectivity, we don’t have to remain isolated from the people we love.  And, while I would hop the very next plane to go see her if I could, the inter-web will have to suffice for now.

These are but three, among many, relationships I’ve grown to cherish even more through this battle with cancer. However, I’ve also noted that some people, apparently, seem to have trouble relating to others, even “friends,” who are in distress; and, for various reasons, seem to need to take a step back and withdraw their friendship and support.  Then, of course, there are those who always seem to rally around tragedy, and are very attentive to those going through the fire, but then seem to disappear from the scene as the flames die down.

But there are people who, whether I fully appreciated it or not, were there for me before I ever entered into my “trial by cancer.”  They have encouraged me through it and they will still be there when it’s over—if it ever truly is.  And, when you’re beginning to “feel the years,” and start to realize just how few of them may be remaining to you in this present realm, precious relationships like these seem to skyrocket to the very pinnacle of one’s value system.

I guess I just need to learn to be grateful for any amount of love and friendship that I am allowed to experience with anyone during my short tenure here on earth—whether they are life-long relationships, or only for a little while. Are you familiar with the little poem entitled, “Reason, Season, Lifetime”—attributed to Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker? I wasn’t, until recently, but I think it helps express what I’m feeling and trying to say about relationships:

REASON, SEASON, LIFETIME

When someone is in your life for a reason, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty; to provide you with guidance and support; to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually. They may seem like a godsend, and they are. They are there for the reason you need them to be.

Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away. Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

Some people come into your life for a season, because your turn has come to share, grow or learn. They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy. Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

Lifetime relationships teach you lifetime lessons; things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life. It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.

 Thank you for being a part of my life, whether you were a reason, a season or a lifetime.

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How did you know
That I’m all alone today
Oh, I feel so scared
And I want to go away
I bleed so deep underneath
My soul is screaming

[Chorus:]
I’m not gonna hide
I’m not gonna run away
I’ll uncover the scars
And show you every mistake
Your love is mending my blisters
And the bruising shame
Here with you
I am safe

Drowning the tears
Won’t make it go away
It’s robbing my soul
I’m taking this mask off my face
To discover love
And uncover all
It means to live and breathe

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