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).

A Welcomed Search

On December 12, I went in for some routine pre-op.  I was going to have a port catheter removed. The nurse discovered I was running a temperature; then she discovered my white blood cell count was high; then the radiologist discovered spots on my lungs.  This led to the ER doctor saying, “We are going to check you in tonight.” My response was, “You mean, spend the night?” I spent the next six nights being fed heavy antibiotics in room 605, and, though home now, I am still on intravenous antibiotics.  What started with a simple blood sample ended with a month-long treatment for a serious blood infection. This Christmas we gave thanksgiving to God for medical staff and the discovery of this illness.  So, my poor health for the past three months is more understood; I am much stronger now.

Over the past eight months I have been on the “With My Last Breath” speaking tour.  One of my points is found in Psalm 139:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.

King David of Israel invited God to diagnose any hidden spiritual illness festering in his soul.  This is a courageous prayer. This is a suitable prayer to start one’s year. What a wonderful year 2019 would be if the infections of our soul’s blood were exposed!  They need to be treated with the blood of Christ.  “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood” (Rev. 1:5).

“O Lord, there are poisons in my soul which are hidden to me.  Would you search them out, diagnose them as sin, and wash them out of my life through the blood of Christ, and fill me with your Holy Spirit?  I lift up praise and thanksgiving to you.”

Happy New Year!

Dawn’s Reflections on a Tree

This year our Christmas tree almost wasn’t a Christmas tree. The last on the lot, we got it for a steal. Free, that is. Good things come to those who wait (or procrastinate as the case may be.) I think the message from the generous folks at Boy Scouts of America went something like this: “It’s 12 feet tall and six feet wide. If they can haul it off, they can have it.” We hauled it off within the hour.

Remember how Charlie Brown rescued the overlooked tree that was too small and flimsy? Well, we rescued the equivalent of its arboreal doppelganger. Too tall and too wide, it was destined to be bonfire fuel before ever being adorned with lights and tinsel. But with some serious pruning with loppers and chainsaw, we managed to get it inside where the carols were playing and the wassail was brewing. Thanks Nolin (son) and Eric (son-in-law) and Chad (good friend) for adding muscle to our Christmas spirit so that this tree could find our home.

Destined for destruction, redeemed, pruned, adorned, and given the purpose of shining brightly through the season of long, dark nights—there’s a lesson in that. Like our spruce, we long to be brought in from the cold and given a home. I like analogies.

Speaking of which, John was sitting and looking at our big tree (which literally fills up a good portion of the room) and he mused, “Our year has been a lot like that tree. We too have had gifts piled up around us. We too have had the opportunity to shine light in places we’ve never visited. We could have felt cold and rejected, but instead we are surrounded with love and good friends and precious family.” Good thoughts on paper; helpful thoughts to read and ponder. But if you could have heard him say it, you may have noted the stark contrast between his message and his experience. Speaking becomes more and more difficult with each passing week. Forming the words and making himself understood takes a lot of effort (and patience) on his part. Likewise, listening carefully and decoding takes a lot of effort (and patience) on our part. But when we get past the confusion, we find treasures like the one about the tree. His perspective is one of blessing, not loss, and it’s worth the effort it takes to share it with others.

When I think about it, John himself is a lot like our Christmas tree (although he is beginning to look a little more like Charlie Brown’s.) So before we all begin dismantling the evergreens that grace our living rooms, I’d like to conclude with the old German ode to the Christmas tree as my way of saying thanks, John, for being steadfast in every season.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging;

Not only green when summer’s here,

But also when it’s cold and drear.

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree

Thy leaves are so unchanging.