This post is really different for me to write. It is about the process of making the transition from a life of faith in the God Jesus called, “Father,” to the end of that life in the process we call “dying”.
As I am writing this draft, Andrea and I are now in the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and have received the news that the cancer is in so many crucial areas of my body (liver, pancreas, lymph nodes) that finding a “cure” is not one of my options.
For almost ten days I couldn’t eat or drink anything without gagging and throwing up. Not only that, some bile came up into my throat due to a blockage in my upper intestine so everything I tried to swallow tasted like feces. I Finally contacted my doctor about my concern and was immediately sent to ER, put on a stomach pump to relieve the pressure from trapped fluids in my stomach, IV’s for hydration, and put on the schedule for an endoscopy to try to correct the problem.
In the meantime my three daughters arrived and along with my wife, Andrea, we had a “love-in.”
During all this time I have continued my practice of walking through my days and nights thanking God for all the advantages and blessings that have given me the freedom to love people and help them become what God created them (particularly) to be, and to spend time writing and playing with Andrea, and other members of what has become our new “extended family.” and others on our ‘team.’
One of the main blessings on my continual gratitude list had been my health. So when that was failing, I became grateful for the clinic I was able to get to, and for my friends who began to step up and help us get in to see these remarkable medical specialists.
But all this unexpected serious information and experience began to depress me and affect my positive attitude and practices. When I got to my lowest point, a visiting friend took me to a meeting in the hospital area. Simply being honest and sharing my fear and my experience, strength and hope got me through a very difficult time, and prompted me to write the e-mail getting honest with my physicians about my inability to eat or drink.
All this, and my family’s arrival, interrupted my description of the inner process of dying. With the family and a few friends here filling my life with love, my faith was concrete, my loving listening and gratitude were intact, and my awareness of God’s healing presence intact somehow.
The night before the family was to leave I began to pray alone in the dark hospital room. I asked myself what I believe about a “life after this one.” I realized with a shock that I really hadn’t spent a lot of time learning about “heaven.” Fear suddenly gripped me. I calmed myself by surrendering my entire life, death, and future to God. And then I became aware of what I have come to believe happens when some believers die.
My conscious focus during the past few years had been on learning to live and share the self-limiting love I have experienced from God in the present “Reign of God” that Jesus announced, described and inaugurated throughout his entire life and work. I’ve done this because it is what I saw Jesus doing.
When he did speak to his disciples about how they and their lives would be evaluated in the last analysis, he referred mostly to how well they had replicated the LIFE of self-limiting love he had given them. And for me that included the way Jesus had referred and deferred to his loving Father as “Daddy” in a continuous dialogue.
But then, in that dark night alone, I suddenly thought, “What’s going to happen to me and my relationship to God that has come to fill and inform my entire life?” And I almost panicked. Compared to what I had already received and experienced in this life with the Father as Daddy, the pictures Christians had developed about Heaven seemed pale and insignificant. I had moments of thinking maybe I should stop and do a crash course on “Heaven” with someone I knew. And finally, I once again surrendered my life and my entire future to God and went to sleep.
The next morning I just happened to talk to a Christian who’s spent a lot of time studying about Heaven. I suddenly remembered Jesus and what he did in his own life as it was drawing to an end. He simply trusted his Heavenly Daddy, did and said what he could determine was what God wanted Him, Jesus, to say and do. And at the last of his life, in the Garden of Gethsemane, with nothing in hand to assure him in advance that what he had to do would turn out for him personally as he hoped things would, Jesus decided to take the first steps alone—even if all his own followers deserted him.
I saw that for me—if I am really to follow Jesus, I am going to have to step up to the doorway of death that I am facing right now—the end of all I know of life and human experience. I must stand before that doorway with the same faith of a small child as Jesus did, doing what he thought his daddy was asking him to do–regardless of whether his own followers (and in my case what other Christians) may think. Although I am in the midst of my family and those of you who are a part of life’s family too, I am all alone.
All I can think of to say as I approach that door is, “Daddy who is in Heaven, it’s me, John Keith. All l I have to give you is the life of love that you have given me! All the rest of the material possessions and public attention that came about as a result of the life I built for you as a Christian—all that has gone somehow. All that is left is this little boy who loves you as his Daddy. And I’m knocking, wanting to come in and let you continue—in whatever way—to teach me about how you made us to be when you created us way back in the beginning in the garden. But if this is not your plan, or whatever you have for me (or don’t have), whatever happens (or doesn’t happen) I’m knocking on this huge Dark Door of Death, wanting to come in and say ‘Thank you,’ and ‘I love you, Daddy.’*
My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? John 14:1-3
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Matthew 7:10-12
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matthew 7:20-22
And prayers come with these words for all of you who have become so dear to me.
(Note: Since writing this post Keith has come back to Austin. He will begin chemotherapy next week. Your prayers are appreciated during this time and we are certainly grateful for the kind words and prayers you have offered thus far. Thank you.)
* This account is not “the way” any Christian (or others) “should” think about approaching God at the time of his or her own death. But this was my honest experience the other night as I was realizing that my own life—as I have lived it—is coming to an end. Not being an expert of any kind, this is just part of my own “experience, strength and hope.” I miss you all and love you very much! –John Keith