4.) Coming to Terms With Mortality

CowboySkullI have been told that one of the first things anyone facing cancer, or any potentially life-threatening situation, needs to do is come to terms with their own mortality. But I don’t think we have to be told that. In fact, I don’t think we really have any choice in the matter. Mortality, the brevity of life, just seems to jump up and slap you in the face. But I guess there are those who try to run away from it in fear, or who bury it away and try not to think about it; and I can see how that could be unhealthy, lead to even greater anxiety, and, potentially, get in the way of healing.

While we all readily agree that death is no respecter of persons, that the young die, too, and that we all should try to live in the moment because any day could be our last, still, we pretty much tend to live as though we’ve got some kind of a “lease on life” don’t we? That is, until something like cancer comes along to sober us up to the reality of just how brief the time remaining to us might actually be. I remember a Psalm ascribed to Moses in which he says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, NASB).

But, I’ve got to tell you, coming to terms with reality can really be a difficult process; especially when “reality” appears somewhat illusive. I’m still trying to fully comprehend some of the implications of what it means to have cancer and how my life, and the lives of others I know and love, will be changed. In my heart I’ve determined to be courageous and do my best to keep any impact upon others as minimal as possible. I hesitate even calling the people I know I should and telling them about it.

For the past few months, as a result of my Master’s studies at ACU, and other disciplines God has duly and justly wrought upon me, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my mission in life. I’ve been talking to God and asking Him to narrow my mission vision, and to focus my ministry and my purpose. I’ve been asking Him to bring forward opportunities to demonstrate to others His nature, His glory, His power, His love. I’ve been asking Him to reveal the best avenues whereby I might seek to love, to serve, to reach, to teach, and to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. I’ve had all sorts of great ideas come to mind, but I never, in my wildest imagination, expected that He would answer my prayer with cancer.

People want me to be “strong”—some for their own sake, I think, more than for mine. I’ve already been called a “hero of faith” and one who will “fly through these tribulations on eagle’s wings.” I can’t tell you how much I hope that is true; and, at this point, it still seems easy to, at least, “appear” bold, courageous, and a pillar of faith. That is until, deep in my heart, I’m confronted by the proverbial “rubber meets the road,” where theology becomes reality, and it’s my turn to “take up the cross.”

Now, I consider myself a pretty “tough” guy—although some of my former students, not to mention my grandchildren, might laugh at that—but it’s only been a few days since I learned of my diagnosis and, already, I feel like I’ve been riding that proverbial “emotional roller coaster” of which people so often speak. One moment I’m feeling positive, energized, in full command of my emotions, almost euphoric; and I think to myself, “God and I have got this!” The next moment I’m feeling emotionally drained, empty, depressed, almost hopeless, and nothing seems to matter much anymore—like, “whatever!” Again, I guess some of this could just be my thyroid acting up. Is it okay to admit to you some of my weakness, my fears, and my failure of nerve?

For those of you who have faced similar, potentially life-threatening situations, perhaps you can relate to the scary dreams. Did you, or do you, sometimes have scary dreams? Now, this is no “preacher story”—you know, the kind of license preachers sometime take to make up stories that get their points across, leaving you to guess whether or not the story is actually true—but last night, I actually dreamed that I died and was floating in an endless sea of total darkness and isolation, completely alone and without hope of ever seeing or communicating with anyone ever again. It was so scary that it woke me and, for a few moments, the deep emptiness persisted as I wondered to myself, “surely that’s not what it’s really going to be like, is it?” Of course, for those who love the Lord, we know death isn’t anything like that. I remember Jesus’ words:

I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?  (John 11:25-26, NASB)

And I repeated Jesus’ words to myself, “do you believe this?” And I smiled because, in my heart, I know that I do. I also remember Jesus talking about the reality of the resurrection, saying:

But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him. (Luke 20:37-38, NASB)

Still, I can’t help but wonder, “What would the world be like without Captain Hook?” (Spielberg, 1991)—a few of my former students will laugh at that one, too!

I can’t help but think about my wife, and how life would be different for her; although I’m comforted in knowing that, while she is extremely softhearted, she’s also pretty tough stuff. More importantly, she’s filled with faith, hope, and love for the Lord and for others. I also can’t help but think about my children and grandchildren and the legacy of faith and failure that I’ve left for them. My prayer is that the examples of faith will somehow dwarf the failure and that they’ll not shirk the paths of righteousness that the Lord is calling them to just because one old “salty” who has gone before them walked a little wobbly at times.

I look out my window and see little doves going about their daily business, scratching, pecking, and fussing with each other. I know the wind will keep blowing, the rain will keep falling, rainbows will appear, and people will continue to pursue their busy lives without me; all as it should be. Meanwhile, I will have taken my place at the side of Jesus, among those I love who’ve gone before me, to cheer on those who are still running the race as we all await the resurrection, and, “according to His promise,” that “new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NASB).

Still, having said all that, a little tremor runs through me as I gaze out the window toward the sea and think of the “reality” now set before me. Is it really “my turn” to have to sail such stormy seas? Feelings of frustration, fatigue, and emptiness set in. I wish it would all just “go away”—you know, like, “okay, I get it, and I’m over it, so let’s just be done with it now, and move on with life already!” But, it won’t just go away. And, on an intellectual level, I know that I’ve not yet even set foot on that trek toward Golgotha; I’m still in the courtyard, kneeling on the pavement, awaiting my sentence. It is here to stay, this new reality; it’s not going anywhere. My own mortality has jumped up and slapped me in the face; and so, I guess, I’ve just gotta deal with it.

But, of course, I know that some of this emotion and speculation is, perhaps, a bit premature. After all, who’s to say just what the coming “reality” will actually consist of in the weeks, months, or years that lay before me? I’m not dead, yet! This is still my life and I’m privileged with the right to pursue it with all the joy, gusto, and stamina that I can muster for however long I’m here. After all, “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7, NASB).

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