(Blogger’s note: “Life Change Week” continues …)
So I called my mom on Sunday to wish her a happy Father’s Day …
You think I’m joking. I’m not joking. I grew up in a single-parent home even before my parents split up when I was eight – my dad, a lifelong drunk, was at best only peripherally involved in my upbringing. So while I did call my dad Sunday as well (more on that in tomorrow’s post … and since this is “Life Change Week,” that should give you some idea of how it went), my first call was to Mom. After all, as I told her myself, “you did all the work!”
Not that it was going to be a totally easy conversation. Mom and I get along great; I’ve always taken after her side of the family, the talkative but introverted, bookish, creative side with the weird sense of humor. We don’t always agree on things (especially politics), but we understand each other. The difficulty is that her health has been failing lately. She’s had problems before – a 1973 bout with Guillain-Barré syndrome that permanently affected her legs, a diabetes diagnosis several years ago, a mild stroke – but lately it’s snowballed. Doctors have been doing test after test on her, trying to figure out what’s wrong with her heart (arrhythmia), with her liver (which is twice its normal size), with her spleen (same as the liver), with her bone marrow (not producing white cells), et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. They still aren’t totally certain as of Sunday, but during our conversation, Mom slipped in their tentative diagnosis.
The current front-runner: cancer of the liver.
Worse yet, Mom dropped the words “liver cancer” on me as the good news. The bad news is that the MDs aren’t sure that the liver cancer is the “primary” – meaning that something even more horrendous might be going on, of which liver cancer is only a secondary result. Frankly, anything involving the word “cancer” is bad enough as far as I’m concerned. Anything involving the word “cancer” in the same discussion as the words “my mom” is especially horrific. There isn’t a whole lot, in my way of thinking, that could be worse.
I’m dealing with this about as well as I can – I haven’t broken down crying, or screamed at the top of my lungs, or punched anything or anybody. I’ve mostly just felt sort of dull and depressed, like I’ve just been in a car accident. To a great extent, Mom is the only family I have outside of my wife and kids, and of course the body of Christ (where the relationship is in sort of a transitional period, to reference Jules in Pulp Fiction). So when she’s sick, it’s like somebody started moving the planets around in their orbits.
My mom, however, is another story. She’s completely unchanged – bubbly and happy as ever. Five minutes after mentioning the “C” word, she was discussing some book she’d been reading and asking what my daughter would like for her birthday next month. Candidly, I found it a little annoying – I didn’t actually say, “Why are you letting me panic by myself?”, but I certainly thought it.
It took me a while of thinking to realize what was probably happening on her end of the phone line. Part of it, I think, is that my mom was a nurse or nurse administrator for over thirty years, and has seen more people get sick and either die or get well than most of us. When I was still in high school in the mid-1980s, Mom was dealing with AIDS cases on a regular basis – at a time when many folks still thought you could catch the disease from using the wrong toilet seat. She’s worked in infection control, in emergency rooms, in psychiatric wards and in neonatal intensive care. If it can go wrong in a human body, she’s studied it, seen it, treated it, and in many cases told me about it over dinner. (I have a very strong stomach to this day.) So it’s not like anything this side of an immaculate conception is going to surprise her.
But I think it’s more than just that, or that she’s had a full life – she’s 66, but her parents lived into their eighties. I think what she’s got is something we could all use, especially those of us who call ourselves Christians: perspective.
See, she’s a believer, going back to childhood. Her life belongs to Jesus (though as an Episcopalian, I don’t think she’d state it using such baldly evangelical terminology), and she knows that when she dies, Heaven is her next stop. When she gets there, there will be no more mourning or crying or pain, no death, none of that junk – she’s been promised that, just like we have (Revelation 21:3-4). When you really believe that, when you live like that’s the case, it’s really ridiculous to get worked up over such an obviously temporary little annoyance like cancer. After all, the worst thing cancer can do is kill off your mortal body – and then you get an immortal one. That’s like a third-grader in late May being aggravated about her grade level; just wait a few weeks, it’ll change!
I’ve known people with that kind of perspective before. An old friend of mine, Jeff Etcheverry, once told me about a time where he’d had to pass a kidney stone. (Yeah, I winced too.) When the pain got really bad, he said, the only thing that kept him going was the knowledge that it could only last for another thirty or forty years … and then he’d be with Jesus for all eternity. Don’t knock it – it got him through it. There’s no question in my mind that it’s a good perspective to have, especially if you want to keep sane in a world of increasing insanity.
What bugs me isn’t that perspective – it’s that so many Christians, including myself, don’t seem to live that way most of the time.
I mean, we always talk about being sin-free, pain-free, whatever-free, worshipping Jesus for all eternity … but do we act like eternity is really in play for us? Would we spend so much time on earthly concerns if we recognized how little (if at all) they’ll matter when time is no more? I know I’d fret a lot less about money, jobs, the car, the computer, the lawn, the state of Major League Baseball, and a whole host of other things if I kept in mind that I’m not going to be taking any of them with me after I croak. And I’d care a lot more about people, since their souls ARE going to live on, even when this planet is a smoking cinder. I believe that … but I could do a much better job at putting my belief into action.
Come to think of it, I wonder how many of the American church’s current maladies can be traced back to a lack of perspective on eternity. The entire “prosperity gospel”, blab-it-and-nab-it movement is obsessed with earthly health and possessions, almost to the exclusion of everything else. In the process, they ignore Jesus’ plea to “not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). In focusing on worldly blessings, however nice they may be, they risk losing track of the more important heavenly ones.
Closer to home, how would keeping our eyes on eternity affect Pentecostals’ emphasis on divine healing? (I’m theologically a Pentecostal myself, so I’m pointing a finger at me here.) Would we be so eager to insist on God healing every physical malady (and sometimes blaming people for “lack of faith” when it doesn’t take place) if we recognized not only the temporary nature of suffering, but also that to be released from a deadly illness means a postponement of a trip to our permanent home, where there are no deadly illnesses? Think about that one for a while – I know I am.
So many less important things, I suspect, would be de-emphasized if not dropped like hot rocks if our focus was on the heavenly rather than the earthly. All of the foolish little disputes in congregations about buildings, carpeting, service order, choice of music and seats on the board would fall away (since all of those things are destined to burn). So would most talk of politics and who pulls the governmental levers (we’re going to a place where there is only one Ruler, and He’s not subject to electoral whims). Instead, we might be more inclined to be concerned with the states of our eternal souls, and those of the folks around us. In short, the church in America would look more like the church in the New Testament: loving people, loving God and eagerly awaiting His return. They didn’t have most of the things we have, and didn’t need them, because they honestly believed that this world was not their final stop, and they lived accordingly.
I can’t remember if I quoted this in a previous entry; if I did, I’m now quoting it twice. One of my own heroes, singer/songwriter, Charlie Peacock, sang this in a tune entitled “Put the Love Back into Love”:
Lennon said imagine, I say imagine this
What if we actually lived like heaven exists
And having so believed, put every thought, word and deed
Under the heading of heavenly things?
What if we did? I think God would be able to use us to transform the world, to “turn it upside down” the way He used the earliest Christians. I think we’d all be a lot more pleasant to be around, a lot more attractive to our neighbors who have no idea what eternity holds. And I think I’d be less focused on my mom’s diagnosis and more focused on how we’ll spend infinity together, regardless of how all these tests come out. I need that perspective that she’s already grasped. We all do.
It strikes me as something I should work on. Maybe you should too …