Tuesday, October 25, 2011

One last chance

   I experienced something last week that proved to me further that God's timing is always absolutely perfect, and how He works all things together, even when they make no sense to us with our limited vision and perspective.
   My step-sister Debbie passed away early Sunday evening. I have no doubt that, as I write this, she is in the presence of God Himself, living in a paradise that none of us could possibly imagine, and one that she could never adequately describe to us if she were given the chance. I'll explain why I believe this later on, but for now, I need to give you a little history of our relationship.
   In 1979, I was a teen-aged runaway with no posessions to speak of. I was an incredibly rebellious stoner and high school dropout. I had an attitude a mile deep and ten miles wide, and nobody was going to tell me what I could or couldn't do. Whatever type of drugs or alcohol you would put in front of me at that time, I'd take both until they were gone. I felt incredibly depressed, abandoned, and worthless.
   Debbie was 29 at the time, 12 years older than me. She had issues of her own that were just as destructive, if not more. She was struggling with severe alcoholism - a battle that would take her 2 trips through detox to finally overcome. She was also in the midst of a horribly disfunctional relationship with her boyfriend.
   We decided to rent an apartment together in Edison Park, on the far northwest side of Chicago. During the year that would follow, we would become both the best thing for each other as well as the worst thing for each other. We absolutely believed in each other. We saw each other as incredibly intelligent, witty, kind, attractive, and valuable to a world around us that we believed saw both of us as far less. At the same time, we not only fed each other's addictions, we actually cheered each other on in them, both of us deciding that nobody had the right to tell us what to do.
   That year ended with me looking at the madness around me and deciding that I needed to get away from it. I enlisted in the Navy and moved to San Diego. What I found out is that we can never move away from the madness that we create within ourselves. My addictions only grew worse with time.
   By the time I came back to the Chicago area, I had beaten my addictions and was clean and sober. Debbie had also beaten hers. She was also clean and sober, was married to Ray, one of the nicest men I've ever known, and had two step-sons who were also great people.
   As the years went on, our paths went very different ways. Whenever I would see her, there was a bond I felt with her that nobody else could relate to or understand. You see, we loved, respected, and encouraged each other during some of the darkest days of our lives. It was a feeling similar to going to war with someone, and coming out knowing that they always had your back. It was a mutual respect that couldn't be put into words.
   Because of my own decisions, we didn't see each other for about 15 years, until I attended her husband's funeral last year. About a year and a half earlier, I had fully commited my life to Christ and felt almost immediately that God was telling me to go back and restore my relationships with her and her family. I did so gradually, not overwehlming anyone with my sudden re-appearance into their lives, but by simply being there from time to time.
   Debbie had called me out of the blue during this time, saying that she believed she was dying, and that she just wanted to talk to me before she left this world. That call truly took me by surprise. I don't know that I fully believed her. I mean, nobody wants to believe that someone is going to die. What made my skepticism worse was that she couldn't give me a clear reason why she believed this, other than to say that she felt as though her body was just giving up the fight.
   So, there I was last Tuesday, sitting by her bedside as she lay very still. She could no longer speak, but she would hold the hand of whomever sat by her side, giving an occassional squeeze.
   I knew I was going to see her for a couple of days before I went. I was aware of her condition. I knew that I had a lot to say, but I wasn't sure how to say it. I prayed for two solid days, asking God to give me the words, and the courage to speak them.
   I sat by her bedside, took her hand, and in so many words, said the following to her:
   "Hey Debs........It's me, Steve. I have some things that I need to say to you, but I'm not really sure how to say them, so please bear with me, ok? Fisrt of all, I love you, and I've always loved you. I've always had an incredible amount of respect for you. I want to ask you to forgive me for walking away so many years ago. That was wrong of me, and I'm very sorry.
   Debs, you know me like few others have ever known me. You've seen me at my very worst, and I've seen you at yours. I could never lie to you or feed you a line of crap. You'd see right through that. I know that since I've come back around, you've seen something very different in me. I'm not the same person anymore. I've changed. Maybe you've wondered what caused that change in me. I need to tell you that it's the faith I now have in God. It's changed everything for me.
   I know that you know you're very sick. Maybe, as you lie here, you've been thinking about God, and where you stand with him. I'm sure that thought has crossed your mind. I know that being in your position can completely change a person's perspective on these things and suddenly give them more importance than ever before.
   I ask you to just consider this: That maybe, after all of these years, God brought me here to your bedside for this reason alone. This is more than likely a conversation that you and I could never have had under different circumstances. But here we are, and here it is.
   Debs, whatever you've done with your life up to this point doesn't matter. Whatever mistakes you've made don't matter either. God wants a relationship with you, and it's never too late to start that relationship. If you want to be sure of you're relationship with God, and to absolutely ensure where you will spend eternity, I know how you can do that. I'm going to pray with you, and if you want to, just pray the same words I speak to you right now.
   Lord. I come before you, admitting that I'm a sinner. I thank you for sending your son to die for me that I might be forgiven of my sins. I know that I am in need of that forgiveness, and right now, I'm asking for that forgiveness. Lord, I want to know you, I want you to know me, and I want to spend eternity with you. I give you my life, and I ask that you would send your Spirit to live within me. In Jesus' name I pray these things. Amen."
   I opened my eyes and sat back, thinking for a minute. I then leaned in and said "Debs, if you just prayed that prayer, it might not happen today, it might not happen tomorrow, but one day you will fall asleep here, and wake up in paradise."
   What happened next was remarkable. I stood up and told her that I was going to leave. With that, she opened her hand and began to wiggle all of her fingers, similar to what a small child might do when reaching for a toy his parent was holding. As I watched her hand, she didn't stop. Her fingers kept moving more than I had seen then move at any point since I had arrived. I said "Oh, you don't want me to leave. Ok." and I sat back down and took her hand again. The whole time I was holding her hand, she continually rubbed my fingers back and forth with her thumb. About a half hour later, I really had to leave, so I got up, kissed her head and said "I love you, Debs. I gotta go now."With that, she let out a moan. It was the first time I had heard that since being there, and I know that she wanted to say something to me, but couldn't.
   A few days later, my sister was driving down from Michigan to see her. She prayed all morning, asking God to give her the right words to say to her. When she finally got her answer, it was this: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for the Lord is with me."
   Why is that so very important, and why does that give me an incredible sense of peace, closure, and a certainty that she is now in paradise? Because if she wasn't going to be welcomed into the arms of God after leaving this world, God wouldn't have told my sister that she had nothing to fear.
   The moral of the story is this: God's timing is absolutely perfect. He brought me to her side after all these years, to say those very words to her at the very moment she was open to hearing them, and it was the incredibly disfunctional years of our past, which made no sense to us at the time, that created the bond between us that gave me the right to be heard by her. That, my friends, is a miracle of biblical proportions that took an entire lifetime to accomplish. But I can take absolutely no credit for any of it, because it wasn't I who accomplished it. It was all God from day one.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Coming to life

   Today I'll be celebrating my 49th birthday. This is a very special birthday for me, but not for the reasons you might think. Sure, it will be the last birthday I'll experience still being in my 40's. There comes along with that all of the usual worries and concerns we face when we realize that the road ahead of us is far shorter than the one we've left behind. I'm in no way immune to those thoughts. But this is a significant birthday for me for another reason, and one which is quite profound for me.
   You see, about 6 or 7 months after celebrating his 49th birthday, my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. By the time he was diagnosed, it had spread through his body to the point where there was no hope of survival. He passed away shortly after his 50th birthday.
   I was just 22 at the time. For some reason, in the back of my mind, I believed from that point forward that I would probably meet the same fate. After all, genetics are genetics. In my young mind, that seemed like it was a very long way off. Not so much anymore.  
   What my father missed is extraordinarily significant. Since he passed away, I've raised two children who I'm exceptionally proud of. I now have two grandchildren who I love dearly. He never met any of them. While that hurts to think about, this is not a sad story.
   You see, as I sit here this morning, I see something very different about our lives, and these are differences I feel extremely blessed by. I think about what my father might have been looking forward to at this stage of his life, and I compare that to what I'm looking forward to. I think about how he lived the last few years of his life, and I look at how I have lived the last few years of mine.
   Over the past 3 years, I have witnessed absolute miracles in my life. I have been blessed by God in ways I never dreamed possible in virtually every area of my life. On a personal level, the past 3-5 years have been the most difficult years I've ever experienced. But at the same time, in the midst of the storms, I have witnessed first hand the way that God can reach down into someone's life, raising them up from the trash heap, and give their lives true significance. I can see many people around me who have seen my trials and struggles, who have heard my words during these times, and who have been left with no doubt that God Himself has moved in my life.
   I'm in no way comparing myself to my father and believing that I'm somehow better than he was. I'm every bit as human as he was. Just as he had his flaws and weaknesses, I also have mine. I'm more aware of those flaws and weaknesses than any of you will ever be. The single significant difference between who he was then and who I am now is this: Within all of my faults and failures, I look to Christ every day, living my life with the hope and faith that tells me that nothing is impossible. There are no dreams that are too big for God, and with every single day that passes, there comes one more day that could result in my seeing the impossible unfold before my very eyes, not because I'm anything special, but because God is with me.
   It could very well be that what I believed when I was just 22 will come to pass. Maybe God will take me home just after my 50th birthday too. But if He does, I will go knowing beyond a doubt that I will spend eternity with Him. That fact, in and of itself, makes our stories polar opposites. My father's passing was a story of great sadness. It was one of watching an incredibly large, physically strong man being reduced to a mere shell of what he once was, with no hope, no faith, and incredible feelings of loss by everyone who loved him and wished that somehow he would've been able to beat his illness, turn his life around and become what we all knew he could be if he just allowed himself to.
   My story will be one of how God reached down into the life of a simple man, with a multitude of faults and failures, and decided to do great things through his life, eventually leading him not to death, but to eternal life.
   You see, at this point in his life, my father was preparing to die. I, on the other hand, am just beginning to live.