The Sound of Silence

The only thing worse than going silent is for no one to notice.  Fortunately, that is not my case. Many caring individuals have inquired into my absence in the blog arena.  I thought a health update might be in order. So, here we go.

As you know, ALS is a nerve disorder which affects muscles.  For the past two years my voluntary muscles have been deteriorating.  Presently, I am confined to a wheelchair. I can shuffle my feet some, but no more walking.  A fancy electric wheelchair allows me to roam around our property and give my grandchildren rides.  I am amazed how quickly they learned that the joystick controls all the excitement and power.

My voice is reduced to garbles right now. My family’s ears are accustomed to my mumbles and they understand most of my limited speech.  I find that parents of small children do better at understanding me; their ears are finely tuned. Come visit me and test your skills at translation and charades.  

Typing has become extremely more difficult these last couple of months.  My fingers don’t work correctly and sitting at my desk requires neck and upper body strength which is no longer there. Presently, I am typing this note propped up in my bed using an iPad and two styluses. I have several blog fragments left unfinished because of my limited finger control.  I would dictate but the computer can’t understand me any better than my friends. Maybe this new arrangement will get me writing again.  

I no longer eat or drink. All nutrients and water are taken in via a bolus feeding tube.  Five times a day someone pours me a drink, or rather, pours a drink in me. I get plenty of calories; I have actually gained a little weight back. I went from 175lbs to 125lbs and now I am up to 135lbs.  Just call me “Chubby.”

A new muscle annoyance these past few months has been in my mouth and face.  Due to less jowl muscle, I have less control over my jaws, so I constantly bite my lips.  In the big scheme of things this is minor, but it is the horsefly in my stall right now. I told my wife that I was going to have my teeth removed; I don’t need them and they are now a hassle.  Her sad look made me quickly reveal that I was joking . . . and I couldn’t get a good price for them anyway. 

One bizarre side effect of my mouth muscles is that I am swallowing large amounts of air. I used to do this intentionally as a child when I wanted to form a colossal burp.  What was annoying then for those around me is now annoying for me. The 60 year old body doesn’t manage air like the 10 year old body.

Fatigue is gripping me more these days. I sleep a lot.  It would be worse if I had a long list of chores piling up; fortunately, no one is expecting much from me these days.  This helps assuage my sleep guilt, but I am having to get used to being a slug.  

And so, my “outer man is decaying, but the inner man is being renewed day by day.” The apostle Paul wrote that phrase to the Christians in ancient Corinth. He was discussing suffering brought on due to his life as a servant of Jesus.  I find it encouraging that quality of life is not limited to the outer man. We are more than our flesh.

The other day I came across a piece of paper where I had written, “Born once/die twice. Born twice/die once.” I am not sure what those notes were originally for, but they are applicable now.  Jesus was speaking to a religious man one evening, and He told this gentleman that he needed to be born again, a second birth. Jesus went on to explain how this happens. He used a part of Jewish history.  When Moses was leading the people to the Promised Land, they were extremely rebellious, filled with grumbling and complaining. A consequence for this was the arrival of venomous snakes. People were being bitten and dying.  They quickly saw the connection and came to Moses in repentance. God instructed Moses to create a snake of bronze and wrap it around a pole. If the sick people looked upon the snake on the pole, they would be healed. Then Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.  That whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Then Jesus said these famous words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

If we are only born once, our flesh will eventually die and our spirit will die with it, the second eternal death.  But, God, rich in mercy provided eternal life. If we are born twice (body and spirit), we will only die once. Our spirit will live eternally and be given a resurrected body!  This happens through repentance, looking to Jesus who was lifted up on the cross. There is our source of healing and life.

My body is dying.  My lungs are now functioning at 24%.  Respiratory failure is what normally kills the ALS patient.  But, I do not fear this valley of death for I am alive within and will live eternally. This is only by the grace, kindness, and sacrifice of Jesus.  I can’t keep silent about that.

With My Last Breath

Before my fingers became musically useless and my voice garbled, I was able to write and record this last year. My desire is that it will provide one Christian’s perspective on life and death. It was birthed out of reflections on the coming paralysis that ALS infuses into life. Many of you have heard it in other contexts. Feel free to pass it to anyone who may find it helpful or of interest. John

With My Last Breath

Well now, death has been hovering around my door.

Adam unlocked it, but I did much more.

The body is crumbling, but my spirit is strong,

He who has ears, come hear my song.

He who has ears, come hear my song.

Go ahead and crush me, break my legs and break my hands.

You’re the one with limited days, of that you understand.

Don’t forget there is a heel which will smash your wicked head.

Heaven will rejoice when Death is dead.

Squeeze your hand around my throat, take my voice away.

A song is more than words and notes, I will find a way.

Suffocation doesn’t stop the breath of God’s Word.

Your pitiful presence is mockingly absurd.

With my last breath, I will sing of God’s goodness.

With my last breath, I will tell of His mercies.

With my last breath, I believe beyond the grave, there is hope even in death,

With my last breath, I will sing of God’s goodness.

With my last breath, I will tell of His mercies.

With my last breath, I will speak before the King who gives life beyond our deaths,

With my last breath.

Fearfully and wonderfully I was made of Eden’s dirt.

To there I will return, but with no lasting hurt.

The kindness of God’s love is felt each wasting day.

Thanksgiving, praise, and hope is what I say.

Dear family,

Darkness is approaching, we must part a little while.

Our tears hold no bitterness, they will dry with a smile.

Make the most of your days, they really are not long.

Inside of you there lies your own song.

With my last breath, I will sing of God’s goodness.

With my last breath, I will tell of His mercies.

With my last breath, I believe beyond the grave, there is hope even in death,

With my last breath, I will sing of God’s goodness.

With my last breath, I will tell of His mercies.

With my last breath, I will speak before the King who gives life beyond our deaths,

With my last breath.

What Kind Of Animal Are You?

You know those personality tests that label a person as an animal?  Maybe a dominant lion? Or a productive beaver? A warm labrador or an adorable otter?  Well, I took an assessment of myself the other day. I came up as a two-toed sloth. Yes, I am a sloth — a cross between a wookie, a glacier, and an emoji happy face.  God’s whimsical antonym to the majestic cheetah. It is difficult to watch a sloth without shaking one’s head and laughing. That is how I spend a good deal of my time — shaking my head and laughing.

Ever so slowly — with the greatest of determination, mind you — I work my arms through the sleeves of my jacket.  An attempt to dry my hands usually leaves the water evaporating before I snail the towel over my skin. My teeth are ready for a re-brushing before I am finished with the first brushing. For integrity”s sake, I have removed from my vocabulary the phrase, “I’ll be back in a minute.”  A sloth — shaking my head and laughing.

All of this slowness took my attention to a wonderful phrase that is repeated several times in Scripture:  “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 86:15)

All of the caricatures of “the mean old man upstairs” fall apart when faced with the true nature of our Lord: full of mercy, gracious, strong and steady in love, faithful, and slow to be angry with us.  Our daily struggles against our sinful habits are cared for by God’s tender, patient hand.

And yet, there are times when the Lord appears to be slow, but is not.  He has been accused of this when it comes to the return of Christ. But, take courage — “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”  (2 Peter 3:9-10)

Jesus is going to return.  He will reshape the heavens and the earth.  He will raise the dead. He will judge all mankind. He will provide eternal life to all who have trusted in Him to wash their sins away by His blood.  He will reign forever and ever. And in the meantime, God is slow to anger . . . When I see the the two-toed paw of the sloth, I am reminded of the hand of God’s love and compassion.  By reflecting on creation our minds can be drawn to truths expressed in the Scriptures.   So, let’s hear it for the sloth. Let’s hear it for slow. Let’s hear it for the Lord! Shaking my head and laughing.

I Miss Eating

I keep having this recurring daydream.  I am at a mountain stream with a tin cup in my hand.  I dip into the current and bring a refreshing drink of cool water to my lips.  Deep draughts slowly roll down my throat. Over and over again I return the cup to the stream.  Then my hand goes to a basket I had placed in the shallows. I pull out a pear and crush its icy pulp with my teeth.  Four or five bites and it is gone. I reach down into the frigid basket and my fingers find a peach. I chuckle to myself over how good this is going to taste.  

Such are the daydreams of those who eat via a feeding tube.  No liquids or solids go through my mouth anymore. The good news is that my choking spells are seriously better; there is no longer anything to choke on.  I still help in the kitchen by giving orders on how the meal for the family should be prepared. I know I have become a bit demanding of my sous-chefs (and I am guilty of watching too much of the Food Network), but I find great joy over watching my family enjoy meals.  I vicariously dine with them.

Recently, my pastor and I had a sad, but helpful, exchange of text messages.  We agreed I should no longer take communion. I have been choking on the cup for months and now the bread is getting to me.  I must admit the thought of dying with the Lord’s supper in my mouth would be kinda cool. But, I imagine it would be an overly traumatic scene for children and misunderstood by adults; most would think I was being judged for taking the meal in an unworthy manner (see 1 Corinthians 11:27-30).  Probably best to avoid all of that drama.

Lately, I have been pondering how the curse of sin and death was brought into this world through eating.  Adam and Eve actualized their disobedience through consuming the forbidden fruit. What started in man’s spirit was manifested through his body.  Our physical ills have their source in a broken spirit. My ALS is a manifestation of the grand rebellion humans displayed against God. The beauty of our world was shattered through the pride of mankind.  And so we all die . . .

But God, rich in mercy, did not leave us in this condition.  When the Church celebrates Christ’s resurrection this month, we recall Passion Week and the Last Supper.  

And when he [Jesus] had given thanks, he broke it [the bread], and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24-25)  

The healing of man’s condition is found in Christ.  “By His stripes we are healed,” said the prophet Isaiah. Jesus invites us into His life.  We sacredly commune through our mouths with Christ. His body and blood are spiritually in us.

What did Jesus tell the Samaritan woman?  “[W]hoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  And then during the Feast of Tabernacles,

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’”  

We really are being made into new creatures, ones that can dwell in the new heavens and the new earth.  Allow me to finish by turning our thoughts to the Apostle John’s revelation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. . . . They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

Everlasting water for the thirsty.  Everlasting fruit for the hungry. Christ is everything and He offers everything.  

And so, my friends, when you arrive in heaven, please come find me—I will be down by the river.

Three Ships Passing in the Day

“Yay, Evelyn!  Did you see her stand on her own?”

“Leo, aren’t you a big boy pulling up and shaking that metal grate!”  

I didn’t know watching grandchildren develop would be so enjoyable . . . and disturbing.

“Look at John, he’s standing on his own!  I even saw him take a few steps the other day!”  “Wow! Nice job putting on your shoe!”  

Yes, right now my grandchildren and I are sharing many of the same challenges.  We are three ships travelling the same waters, but they are sailing one direction and I another.  They are free standing and feeling so proud; I am free standing right before I freefall. They are taking their first steps with glee; I am pounding out my last steps with difficulty.  They are using nimble fingers to pick up big people food; I am using curled paws to assist my liquid feeding through a stomach tube. They are babbling their first words; I am babbling my last.

Like Benjamin in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” I feel my body is going in the wrong direction — towards childhood.  All muscular strength and ability is fading away. I am walking backwards down life’s stairs. I am sinking into the quicksand of paralysis. I feel like I am melting.  I have no major physical pain, but rather a foreboding angst that I will soon be trapped in a helpless and dependent body. This is the very condition from which my grandchildren are freeing themselves.  Majestic mountains are ahead for them and deep valleys await me.

Sounds discouraging?  Pity party? Absolutely not.  Because, curiously, I am able to say that life is better now than it has ever been.  I want that to sink in — my life is better now than it has ever been! Over the past year, I have received hundreds of cards, kind messages galore on social media, never-ending daily prayers, gifts, visitors from near and far, and just plain ol’ love.  I have implored thousands of people to see more to life than the physical body. And best of all, I am knowing Jesus Christ through suffering.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  (Matthew 11:28)

Experiencing rest in Jesus is the good life.  I would not trade it for an Olympic body. This joy from the Holy Spirit eludes any earthly description.  It is ethereal, sublime. I feel at rest, and I am content.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:13)

The Apostle Paul speaks of doing all things.  What things is he talking about?  They are found in the verses above; they are the full spectrum of life’s conditions.  Paul is saying that wherever you find yourself in life, contentment is available. Am I reading this correctly?  Reread it. Yes, that is what Paul is saying.

Contentment and rest are found in Jesus.  This may sound abstract, but the more intense the need, the clearer this truth becomes.  Contentment is not found by reshaping life’s external circumstances. Contentment comes by reshaping the life within.  I spiritually died with Christ. I resurrected with Him a new man. I am seated with Him in the heavenlies. He has given me the Holy Spirit.  I hold on to Christ by faith. I trust His promises. I will be given a new life beyond the grave. In this I experience contentment and rest. Life is now as good as it gets.  This is available to all who believe.

“Who’s ready for a little supper?”  Evelyn pounds her highchair and gets some avocado to squish into her mouth.  Leo pounds his highchair and carefully pinches a few peas. I teasingly pound my wheelchair and get a cup full of liquid poured into my belly.  Then we all take a ride around the house in my wheelchair. (Apparently, Grandpa-on-wheels makes me quite popular with the toddler set.)

Three ships passing in the day.  I sense a closeness to my grandchildren and I love it.  I am sensing a closeness to Jesus and I love it. “There is rest for my soul.”

Grappling with ALS

Trey Hawkins is a 10th grader at Eastwood Christian School.  I saw him recently at a sports event. He came up to my wheelchair eager to remind me of a story I had told his class from my childhood.  

School sports began for me in high school.  I played city baseball before that. And, with the physical activity associated with a family of five boys, who needed school sports?  During my 9th grade year I played football. Well, played is a generous word. More accurately, I practiced football and watched the games; I had a great seat on the sideline.  Though fierce enough for the sport, there was a problem. A boy 4’10” and 87 pounds does not make high school football material. I was a favorite when the coach wanted to demonstrate a tackle.  

Football ended and wrestling began. I thought it held promise. I would compete against boys my own size, sort of.  The lightest weight class was 95 pounds. But, I figured it couldn’t be worse than football. There were extreme physical workouts and the learning curve was steep.  I ended up wrestling for the junior varsity team.

One morning at school, halfway through the season, the varsity coach saw me in the hall and said, “Geiger, my man is sick, so you are wrestling varsity tonight.”  He didn’t seem all that thrilled to have an inexperienced rookie filling in for his seasoned veteran. Gulp. I suddenly felt sick as well. Wrestle varsity? Not on the night when our opponents were the notorious Hanford Falcons!  Fear gripped me in its talons. Then, the teasing began by my buddies. “Gonna be a tough night.” “Heard the guy you’re up against is a beast.” “Did you know the Hanford guy is undefeated?” “Did you know the Hanford guy has pinned everyone this season?”  Now, I took all this with a laugh and didn’t believe a word of it. Nobody is that good and I was scared enough just having to wrestle with all those upperclassmen.

While we shook hands and before the referee’s whistle, I remember thinking that the Falcon’s frame looked taller and stronger than 97 lbs. should. (Our league gave an extra two pounds halfway through the season.  I still stayed steady at 87 lbs.) But, he was a senior and I was a freshman, so I imagined it was some optical illusion.

I was swooped up and thrown to the mat before I knew that the whistle had blown.  A player receives 1 point for gaining control of his opponent, 2 points for reversing the control, and 2-3 points for almost pinning the opponent.  A pin is when a wrestler’s shoulders both touch the mat for two seconds. If you’re pinned, the match is over. To prevent being pinned, a player usually bridges (arching the back and supporting oneself with the head, neck muscles, and possibly the elbows).  In a matter of 6 seconds I was already down 4-0. I lay bridging for the entire first round . . . and the second . . . and the third. My memories (Oh, they are still so vivid after 46 years) are hearing the fans yell, “Get up, John!” and the Hanford Falcon saying to the referee, “He has to be pinned by now!” and the ref saying, “No, not yet.”  The match ended in my suffering a humiliating defeat, 14-1. My one point was awarded because the Hanford boy, out of frustration, performed an illegal move. (I think I recall him jumping on my chest.)

The referee pulled up the hand of the winner and kindly adjusted my dazed body so I would walk back to my bench.  As I approached, my teammates were cheering and clapping. (Teens can be cruel, I thought.)  The coach seated me beside him and the next match began.  I couldn’t bear to lift my head and watch. At some point Coach Lloyd leaned over to me and said, “I am proud of you.” (I remember thinking that coaches could also be cruel.)  “That boy you wrestled has pinned everyone this season. You spoiled his record.” I looked across the mat and saw the tall, muscular boy sitting with slumped shoulders and head down, disappointed.  It is amazing how quickly one can go from shame to a sense of pride. I sat up and watched the rest of my teammates wrestle, enjoying my first experience as a varsity grappler. Sometimes you win even though you lose.       

Trey remembered that story; he then applied it to me. My body is losing its fight against ALS. Some days I feel like my only option is to sustain a bridge move as long as possible to delay the inevitable. However, though I lose in the body now, Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection offers victory for my spirit and hope for a renewed body:  “We are more than conquerors through Him [Christ] who loves us.” The broken world will not stay as it is:  “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”  We will not always hold our head in shame: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’”

Thank you, Trey.  It does make a difference how we see life’s events.  Because . . . sometimes you win even though you lose.

Skin, Bones, and a Little Bit of Muscle

I glanced in the mirror the other day after a shower; that was a bad idea.  All I saw was skin, bones, and a little bit of muscle. I have lost fifty pounds over the past four months.  ALS has affected my muscle mass so that I resemble a prisoner of war. And sadly, the deterioration of my body means that, due to ALS, I cannot do many of the simple joys of life.  No more eating tasty burgers or steak. No more walking outside on a spring or autumn day (I have been having dreams of running and walking). No more teaching. No more writing notes.  No more guitar playing and singing. No more fluid conversations. No more shooting rifles or pistols. “No more” seems to be life’s theme these days.

The apostle Paul said to the first century Corinthians, “Don’t you know your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?”  I can’t help but think about King Solomon’s glorious temple and how the Lord inhabited it.  Then, due to man’s sinfulness, the temple was destroyed around 587 BC by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.  Jeremiah, the prophet, laments Jerusalem’s destruction, How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations!”

Jeremiah lamenting the fall of Jerusalem, Rembrandt

So, I was standing there lamenting the destruction of my body, an earthly temple of the Holy Spirit.  Before I could slip into depression, I thought about Zerubbabel (a prince, in the line of the Messiah) rebuilding the temple.  I thought about Jesus (Messiah and King) speaking to the pharisees and telling them that He would rebuild the Temple in three days: “But He was speaking of the temple of His body” (John 2:21).  I thought about Jesus’ resurrection.  I thought about our future bodies which will be like Jesus’ resurrected body: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it does not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

In my recent talks I have been drawing attention to 2 Corinthians 4:16: “Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.”  We are all decaying, but those of us on a rapid decay schedule may think about it a bit more often. These days, the beauty of the inner man being renewed surpasses the lament of the outer man’s decay.

What now is important? Loving God and loving others. In the two great commandments we see what renews our inner man, what will last for eternity, and what is really important.

My suggestion is to avoid mirrors.  But, if you don’t, then make sure you hold to this simple truth: “It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him (2 Timothy 2:11).