Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Surreal Saturday

Or the mirror of your mortality…
Saturday, July 13, 2013

We “slept in” on Saturday, for the Cauleys that means we made it all the way until 8 am. We were determined to salvage one day of vacation. We ate breakfast and decided to get out of town before too many people knew we were back. I was not in the mood to entertain too many visitors. At the end of the day I am pretty much an introvert. I have always said I’d rather be on the platform than in the congregation any day. At parties it is Danelle who makes the small talk, usually I just smile and nod. Now, with the overwhelming news of a terminal illness, I was not ready to have people come over to our house and look at me “that way.” You know what I mean, with those sad eyes and then apologize for my being sick. I’m sick, it sucks, now let’s get on with living.

By 2 pm we were having lunch in Raleigh at Red Robin. As previously mentioned I love cheeseburgers. I especially love Red Robin cheeseburgers. There is a reason that whenever you say Red Robin, somebody will say, “Yum!” and it’s not just because of great commercials. You just can’t beat a slab of meat, melted cheese, thick bacon and all the fixings.

I was half way through the burger before I realized it didn’t have any flavor. Oh, I’m sure it tasted awesome, it’s just I seemed to be unable to taste, like somebody turned off my taste buds. The rest of the day followed suit. We shopped for a hot tub to replace the one that was damaged in the hurricane more than a year ago. One of the recommendations for my condition was anything that would relieve stress and help me relax and reduce stress hormones. We went and saw a movie that was somewhat entertaining but really didn’t hold my interest. The whole day I was distracted and disinterested. It was as if life had lost its flavor, like I was watching the world in black and white with no color. I learned later that I was experiencing a mild form of what psychologists call emotional trauma.

When you experience something that happens unexpectedly, something you are completely
Mirror of Your Mortality
unprepared for, and something you are powerless to prevent, it causes psychological and emotional distress. There are a myriad of vague symptoms like irritability, inability to concentrate, not enjoying things that normally give you pleasure (like cheeseburgers!), edginess, tensions, anxiety, etc. You essentially withdraw inward as you try to understand how something so random could happen to you.

It’s funny; having been trained as a social worker makes it fascinating to evaluate what is happening on your inside from the outside. I had been given news that was personally devastating and, even worse, devastating to those I loved. As yet I really had not had serious symptoms with the exception of some residual soreness and some stiffness from having spent several days in the hospital. While I knew intellectually I was dying, physically I was recovering rather quickly. I was having a hard time conceiving the magnitude of the situation. It was bigger than anything I had ever faced. This was the big one, the one that would kill me. This was life and death.

That evening as I was preparing what I would share with St. Paul UMC the next morning,  I came across this scripture from James 4:13-15: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” With this, some of the fog lifted that was hovering around my soul. I realized that, in essence, I am just like everyone else except I have a much greater awareness of my mortality. All of our lives are just a “mist,” some of us are just more aware of it than others.

It is rather surreal to look into the mirror of your own mortality. Largely I am happy with what I have done with my life. Oh, sure, there are things I’d change, mistakes I’ve made that I’d like to undo, but by and large I have lived my life by giving it away and investing in other people and in things eternal. I have done my very best to serve struggling local churches, help people come to know Christ, disciple them into being radical believers, and release them to live out their divine calling. I got to spend five years mentoring some amazing young adults and doing youth events where literally thousands of young people made first time professions of faith or rededicated their lives to Jesus. I have raised more than $100,000 to help ZOE Ministry mentor orphans in Africa. I have been lucky enough to design events to train clergy and laity in evangelism, help youth embrace mission, and even help my wife start a small, non-profit theatre company. Looking back I can say that I have loved deeply, lived passionately, and sought to listen to God intentionally and do what He led me to do. What more could you ask?

The mirror of mortality makes a lot of things very clear. It becomes obvious what things really aren’t worth the very limited days you have left. Petty grievances and little disagreements just aren’t worth the limited emotional energy I have left. I have always been surprised at the grudges people hold, the bitterness that they cling to, and the pain that almost seems to give them their identity. I don’t understand those who see every glass as half-empty, every problem as insurmountable, and every little disagreement as an opportunity to complain. What a waste of precious life.

People treat you differently when you are dying. I have noticed that when people are around me they too are forced to look into the mirror of their own mortality. This makes some folks very reflective and causes them to take stock of what they are holding onto that they need to let go. It makes some people very uncomfortable because they realize that their days are numbered just like mine, though my number might be lower. It makes others realize that if I am dying after spending two years getting healthier than I have been in two decades, they too must face the realization that, as James reminds us, their life is a “mist.” Maybe that is a gift I can give my friends and acquaintances, to help them remember to treat every day as a precious gift, every kiss as a treasure, and every embrace as a symbol of God’s divine presence in midst of community.

I have come up with an answer for those who ask what they can do for me. I tell them: love deeply; live passionately; and listen intentionally to God, then do what He says. If you do that, when the day comes that you find yourself looking into the mirror of your mortality you will be happy with what you find.

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