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Reborn at 71

Dale@PTSLast week the remarkable happened to me again. I know exactly where I was and who I was with when it happened. I have not yet fully grasped all the ramifications, and I wonder if I can fully live into what is indicated. But I know already that life looks very different to me than life looked the day before it happened. And I have the feeling that God set this up 20 years ago for God’s own purposes. But also as a gift; as another experience of the remarkable.

If you have read this blog in the past you remember that after I retired from pastoral ministry but before I was diagnosed with fatal brain cell cancer, I agreed to become president of Union University of California, an online theological school for church leaders living in poverty and oppression. When I was diagnosed a month later, it did not seem possible that I could fulfill the role of president, and so I withdrew. UUC’s renewed request to install me as president despite my prognosis gave Jinny and me our first hope that God might have something different in mind instead of progressively debilitating illness followed by my death within 2 years.

“Remarkable” is my neuro-oncologist’s favorite word for my recovery from brain cell cancer. I looked up my diagnosis on the internet last week, and found the words “universally fatal” describing the type of cancer I had. That is the same message my doctor gave almost 5 years ago, that “Everybody who gets this cancer dies of it; no one survives”. But the phrase “universally fatal” somehow made me appreciate just how remarkable my recovery is. And just how awesome is the gift of the additional years God has given me.

So for the past 5 years I have been serving UUC as president. I love this school, and I think its work is extremely important. I have not been particularly thrilled with one of my major responsibilities—fundraising. We are always challenged financially, and it is not easy for some people to catch the vision, see the importance of good theological education, and remember how life-changing their own education was for them. We are in an exciting time at UUC, with accreditation just around the corner and a new English language program successfully launched for overseas students. But still, 5 years of fundraising had worn me down.

So when I turned 71 in late November, I found myself thinking of retiring as president. I found myself thinking about growing older, about decreasing my responsibilities, about doing less, using less energy, planning for the short term rather than the long term, finding meaningful but less demanding projects, thinking old rather than thinking young. I know that the previous generation of Sewall men lived only into their early to mid-seventies. And I have just turned 71. Looking back today, I think I was slowly sinking; not liking the direction I was taking, but thinking it was the wise and realistic direction for the circumstances.

Apparently that is not what God has in mind for me.

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Fr. Roger Sonnesyn

In early November I had gone to Hawaii to hang out with my Episcopal priest friend Roger Sonnesyn, who was filling the pulpit for a month at St. Jude Episcopal church. Roger asked me to preach on the Sunday I was with him. I prepared a sermon based on the Episcopal lectionary passage of the week, about the widow giving her two small coins to the temple treasury. My sermon idea was that as we grow older and have a greater sense of our vulnerability, we are in a better position to give God all we have because we have a fuller sense of our spiritual poverty. But the sermon became a stronger challenge to be “all in” as a follower of Jesus than I had foreseen.

(You can hear the sermon by going to www.stjudeshawaii.org and clicking the “worship” button, then the “sermons” button. If my November 8 sermon has dropped off the list, type in “Roger Sonnesyn sermons” in the search box.)

CHURCH

My plan in Hawaii was to hang out with Roger and talk theology. Instead we talked about Africa, a place Roger loves, where he has been doing ministry for decades. We talked about Roger traveling to Africa to enroll students in UUC’s English language program (since English is the language of university education in much of Africa, and there are many African church leaders who have not had access to education). The more we talked, the more it dawned on me that God’s Spirit was present in the conversation. In fact I began to suspect I might be in Hawaii with Roger for the purpose of having this conversation.

So I invited Roger to visit UUC, and after Hawaii, Roger flew to California and spent all day December 8 learning UUC’s online education systems. On December 9 I joined him, and the executive team planned the strategies and details for building the English language enrollment in Africa, beginning with the network of Anglican bishops that Roger knows in several African countries.

AFRICAIn the middle of this process it dawned on me that the success of this effort would require strong support at the presidential level. And that God is calling me to be “all in” with UUC’s African student initiative for as long as it takes—probably for several years. The words of my own sermon had circled around to redirect my life.

How do I feel about this? I am thrilled. I am reenergized. I have already made all my resolutions for a New Year and a new lease on life. I have a continent to learn about! I have a new part of the family of Jesus to meet and love. I have support systems to build; people and networks and yes, money to locate. I have a partnership with Roger to develop and enjoy. I have dozens and eventually hundreds of students to offer the gift of access to education.

I find that I am not thinking old anymore. And I am not thinking about my replacement as president. I am not thinking about settling for a lower energy life. Rather I am thinking that God already had this second remarkable surprise in mind 20 years ago when Roger and I were first becoming friends; 15 years before my diagnosis and remarkable healing from brain cell cancer. God had already decided to enrich our friendship by calling us to work together on this exciting task and to extend my life for this joy.

Now I am thinking about Caleb charging up the mountain at age 85 (Joshua 14:12). I am not interested in slowing down and drawing back. I am interested in being “all in” as a follower of Jesus. I feel reborn.

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Me

I woke up this morning with an itch to write.  It’s been a while and though I’m not even sure what’s on my mind, I thought I would take time to sit down and see what emerges.

We just returned as a family from visiting my 97 year old grandmother at her home on Hilton Head Island, SC.  It’s a trip we have taken many times over the 29 years she’s lived there and as happens often when I return to places I love, I found myself reflecting on all the previous times I had walked those shores.

I have spent countless hours journaling there, sitting on a piece of driftwood brought in by the tide and listening to the waves crash; walking the beach among the gulls debating how life was going and where I wanted it to go next; and biking at low tide carried along with the wind’s current from one end of the beach to the other.  I’ve cried many tears along that shoreline, mourning first the loss of my sister’s marriage, my mother-in-law’s death, my own marriage, and my dad’s diagnosis.  I’ve struggled on that beach to let go of life’s propriety and expectation and just twirl, soaking up the joy of the sunshine, the crashing waves, and the essence of the moment.

So many of my life’s reflections and chapters ended and began in that very place and I found myself recounting those memories with each step this past week.

When I lived there for a summer as a hopeful college student in 1993, I remember climbing on my bike with my Walkman and heading out on one of the many trails to the beach.  I was listening to Pat Benetar’s newest album.  I remember feeling hopeful about the life that lay before me.  I biked and dreamed of graduating and entering into the real world as an adult fully responsible for my life’s path and what that might look like.  I biked and dreamed of the career path I would choose and how I could impact the world.  But primarily I biked and dreamed of the man I would one day meet, marry, and bring back to the beach to share it with him.

Years later I did marry.  And in all the years I was married and my family gathered together at that beach, my husband was never able to join me.  The timing or the financials simply never aligned to make it happen.  So I continued to bike, walk the shores, journal, and dream some more…alone.

Looking back with each of those past dreams so vivid in my mind, my life doesn’t look anything like I thought it would.  It’s surprising because the illusion when I was young was so strong that I was the commander of my own destiny, that I could control and manipulate the events of my life into the perfect semblance of order that would lead to the manifestation of each dream.  In the end, none of it came to pass regardless of how hard I worked to make it so and yet I find that’s ok.  Better even.

It’s nearly impossible to walk next to the ocean, look out over its expanse in the horizon and not believe in God; it’s one of the places in the world I am absolutely certain of his existence and acutely aware of my tiny place in the world.  And because of that, during each week I was there over the last three decades I surrendered the outcome of my life.  It was impossible not to.  Each visit, nothing in my life looked as I thought it would.  I would bike towards the beach with that on my mind, remembering all the thoughts and dreams from the previous visit, and churning over in my mind what I would do to correct the course of where my life was headed.  And then I would arrive at the ocean, a natural representation of the creator himself, and in the awe of that moment, I would simply surrender, let go, and trust him.  The smallness of my ability and self in comparison made it impossible to think my way could be the better way to go.

With each passing year I got better at maintaining that surrender for longer periods of time.  The losses of the last five years in particular taught me how little really is in my control and surrendering to God and letting him drive my life became cathartic.  It released the endless pressure I felt to hold things together and the hole its absence left was filled with peace and a gentler spirit.

Last November at the beach I felt fully free for the first time in my life.  I had ended my sabbatical earlier in the year, made adjustments in my life to correct its course, and I was finally content to be there alone…happy even.  I twirled on the beach with ease, biked around the island, raced pelicans along the shore, made silly videos to send to girlfriends back home, and simply sunk into God’s presence which I found all around me.  I was finally free.  I could twirl and twirl some more and it felt great.

And wouldn’t you know it, when I finally fully and completely surrendered and stepped into God’s rhythm and plan for me, just six weeks later I met the man who finally accompanied me back to that beach this past week.  Twenty two years after I biked the trail with Pat Benetar playing in my headphones chatting with God about my dream to bring someone I loved there to share the experience with me, I was there.  Walking hand in hand with him at sunset, moved nearly to tears by a dream finally coming true.

Yes, during those twenty two years I learned hard lessons.  That life is challenging and I can’t control the outcome, only how I respond to the challenges thrown my way.  That it’s good to dream but better to hold my dreams loosely and instead press closer to God to hear his dream for my life.  That life never turns out how you picture it will and that’s one of God’s hidden gifts.

Because more important than any other lesson, I learned that when I surrender to God’s plan and his timing, life turns out better than I ever could have pictured, even if I’d been working on the picture for 22 years.

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-Sara

IMG_2659It’s been over a year since I posted to this blog, and four years since I sat to write on an Easter weekend.  I haven’t stopped writing completely, I simply didn’t feel I had much to say here.  I am generally a fiercely private person; this blog has been the one exception.  For those of you who have followed it, I have let you in to the hardest years of my life.  You’ve walked alongside me as I learned hard lessons, mourned the loss of my marriage, struggled with my identity and self-worth, celebrated the miracle of my father’s health, and so much more.  This blog was never intended to be a place for me to write my story.  Instead, it was a platform for my family to talk about what it was like to live with a terminal diagnosis.  Yet the timing of my dad’s diagnosis intertwined with the end of my marriage and I found it therapeutic to tell my story.

One of the hard parts about living in a town of less than 1000 people is that many times your story gets told for you, often at your expense.  What I learned as I wrote during those years was that this blog allowed me to control how my story was told, and surprisingly I found people were receptive to it.  They understood the pain, the hard decisions, the loss of a dream, and the frustration of floundering through life while people watched and judged.  They supported me, they encouraged me, and many became fast friends.

It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since I wrote the only other post that mentions Easter.  It feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago simultaneously.  At the time, I had hope that my marriage would still be resurrected.  A few months later the opposite happened instead.  Since then, my life has been a series of ups and downs.  You have walked them with me.  It’s been a journey of self-discovery, of faith, of despair, of grief, of joy, of miracles, and of hope.

I have been silent for some time.  Primarily that is attributed to the fact I always feel the need to write when my life is turned upside down.  It helps me process.  When I enter a period of calm, I find I generally have less to say.

I realized today though, that for those of you who have walked this journey with me, writing only when I struggle leaves you with a sad story which is not a complete representation of my life.  Along the way, God has blessed me in many ways.  He has gifted me with great friends, a fantastic job, opportunities to travel, time to reflect and sort through what He wants the next phase of my life to look like, and over time, He has slowly mended wounds and gently tended to my vulnerable heart.

And recently he surprised me with the greatest gift to date, a man who would heal what was left of my broken heart and resurrect love for me.

A year ago while I was on sabbatical I worked my way through an intense writing program designed to help me tell my story in a way that would uncover what I wanted for my future.  As part of that exercise, I had to write about my ideal future in great detail, including what I wanted in my ideal mate going forward.  At the time there was nothing I wanted to do less.  Love had hurt me repeatedly for a five year period, I had no desire to go there or even open the door to dreaming.  I vividly remember everything about the moment I came to that question, sitting on a balcony in Italy overlooking the coast.  IMG_2997

There was a lot of hesitating, a lot of procrastinating, a lot of extra coffee poured, but in the end I was committed to the process and pressed on.  To get through the exercise, I wrote what I believed was the most far-fetched, never in a million years would I find it description possible.  My thought was if someone like that actually existed and crossed my path it would be the only circumstance under which I would even think of entering into a partnership of any kind again.  I was exhausted.  I was broken.  And I was certain I was so damaged I was unlovable.  So I answered the question almost in jest, simply to move on to the next part of the process.

But here’s the thing about God.  It turns out he does listen.  He has always been the quiet guide of my heart’s desire, whispering and urging me to put my desire into words and to trust Him.  I did so reluctantly for no other reason than I had no other option.  I had done all I could to stay healthy, to heal the broken pieces in my core, to right the wrongs I had done, to reconcile with anyone I had hurt along the way, and to emerge a better version of myself than I was.  But none of it fully alleviated the pain.  I was at the end of myself, exhausted and floundering as I tried to balance living an authentic life with guarding my hurting heart.

And then unexpectedly, nearly a year after I wrote those words and promptly forgot them, the greatest gift to date.  A man who when I let my guard down, leaving my heart vulnerable and sending me into a panic, simply hugs me and tells me I’m safe, that he will protect my heart.

It had been 1,817 days since romantic love had brought me anything other than fear, pain, and anxiety.  1,817 days.  But in one small instant, my heart recognized that the one I had written about on that balcony was actually physically standing in front of me.  He wasn’t a mirage, he was real, and in one small instance when my guard was down, he had taken the last tender places in my heart and made them whole.

Life has only ever been predictable in that I know it will be a series of ups and downs.  But now I also know that when God promises to work everything together for good, he means it.  It doesn’t always look like what I think it will, it will rarely happen on my timeline, but if I’m willing to surrender to Him and trust in His promise, I may one day find someone unexpected standing in front of me perfectly tailored by God just for me.

As I enter into Good Friday and a period of reflection about the Easter holiday and the resurrection, I realize four years later, that’s what I finally feel.  That my hurting and broken heart has been resurrected by the love of my faithful God and this beautiful man.  Resurrection really is possible and my heart is proof.  I have finally reached the light at the end tunnel, the happy ending to my story.

I am blessed.

-Sara

Man_ScannerI spent a half hour in the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance MRI scanner yesterday, listening to the banging and the music, being still for the sake of a clear MRI image, and as for the sake of knowing again that God is God.

I get nervous before an MRI scan, partly because it is the only time I feel like a cancer patient; and partly because I always wonder whether I can again lie absolutely still for 28 minutes.

If you have never been in an MRI scanner, the banging has something to do with how the image is produced. The noise is varied in pitch, rhythm and volume, but always loud. So I am given ear plugs and head phones, along with a choice of music. At its maximum volume, the music is only background for the banging.

Russell_Watson_-_The_VoiceMy music is always English tenor Russell Watson’s album, The Voice. I bring the CD with me to the scanning room, and the SCCA staff play it for me beginning with track 8 so that the album ends about a minute before the banging stops. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Nessun Dorma!” are highlights. Yesterday I left my CD in Jinny’s book bag, and one of the SCCA staff tracked Jinny down in the coffee room to get it for me. Such kindness is typical at Seattle Cancer Care.

I try to make my time in the MRI time with God. I think about people I care about, and ask God to be with them. I give thanks for kindnesses, and ask God to bless those who are kind. (Yesterday I asked God’s blessing for the woman who retrieved my CD.) I remember God’s kindness to give me life against great odds, and ask that God will help me fulfill my years on earth according to God’s purposes.

books-of-the-bibleSometimes, to pass the time, I tell myself (or rather think to myself) the books of the Bible in order. I do this both forward and backward. Sometimes I think them in alphabetical order, forward and backward. Sometimes I say them in order, not by name, but by the number of chapters in each book. I taught myself to do this partly for the fun of it, and partly as an exercise in the content of the books. Together they give such an amazing picture of these sacred texts, this complex story from God. The exercise also reminds me which books I am least familiar with. And which words from God speak clearly to my soul.

Yesterday I also had a particular question for God. If you read my last blog, called “My Fight with Jesus,” you know that I have been upset about God’s apparent lack of response to the financial needs of the school I work for, Union University of California. A few days before my MRI, a friend emailed me an article about Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, my alma mater, receiving a $20 million bequest. You can read about their good fortune at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/city/2015/01/28/Pittsburgh-Theological-Seminary-bequeathed-20-million/stories/201501280057.

BECKETTPittsburgh Seminary already has approximately $200 million in endowment money. And I have mentioned to God occasionally that if Union University had even a $20 million endowment, we could thrive on the interest alone, and do so much more for our students than an onsite school with onsite expenses can do. So I have been talking to God about $20 million for Union University of California, and out of the blue Pittsburgh Seminary gets a $20 million gift. This news reminded me for a moment of Samuel Beckett’s suggestion (Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot) that God has aphasia, with the implication that the One who speaks things into existence sometimes gets the words mixed up. That idea, of course, is absurd. (Beckett won the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature as an absurdist playwright.)

So in the scanner, with Russell Watson singing and the MRI banging, I had my quiet moment with God. I said “What’s the deal Lord? Pittsburgh Seminary doesn’t need the money. UUC won’t survive without the money. I have been pleading UUC’s case to you about the money, including a $20 million endowment. What are you doing? Give me some clue.”

20121201-205046.jpgYou are probably not surprised that I did not get a direct answer, though the banging and the singing did not interfere with the communication. Instead I got, surprisingly, a sense of peace and well being. Not only about my university, but also about my health and my length of days on this earth. Prior to my MRI, I was already sensing that my fight with Jesus was over. The fight seemed to become more and more artificial as my lifelong trust in the Lord re-emerged.

I came out of the MRI with no new answers. I don’t know why Pittsburgh got the $20 million. I don’t know if I will succeed or fail as president of UUC. I don’t know if UUC will find the money it needs to survive. I don’t know for sure if I will live or die with the cancer that the MRI is imaging. But we walk by faith rather than by sight. The judge of all the earth will do right. Today that seems good enough.

I did get one old answer. The MRI image showed no cancer activity, the same as every image for the last 3 years.

For related articles:

http://www.pts.edu/Dale_Sewall 

www.mi-reporter.com/community/259998821.html

Dale Sewall

Dale Sewall

Call me stupid. Also call me ungrateful.

It’s stupid to fight with the One I have trusted more than any other for over 60 years; the One I know is smarter, wiser, more knowledgeable and more faithful than I; the One who has always had my best interest and the world’s at heart.

And it’s ungrateful to be upset with the One who has saved me from violent death at least three times in my life; and most recently has drawn me back to health from what was supposed to be an inevitable, ugly and 2 years overdue death from brain cell cancer.

So call me alive and healthy at age 70, and believing I will be alive and healthy until at least age 87.

But also call me stupid and ungrateful. Because I am definitely upset and frustrated with Jesus. It is all about what is happening and what is not happening at Union University of California, where God called me to work as president after my retirement from pastoral ministry in 2010.

If you have read this blog series from the beginning, you probably remember that 6 months after I retired from pastoral ministry in June, 2010 I was surprised by the invitation to become president of UUC. I love this school, and I love the man who founded it; and while working full time was not in my plan, I immediately wanted to say yes. I rejoiced to say yes. It felt totally right to say yes. I could even look back and see how many of the experiences of my life had prepared me to say yes. I was pretty sure I could make a contribution to the success of UUC. I even had a friend tell me that she believed my most important work still lay ahead after my retirement. So I said yes. Happily.

A month later I was diagnosed with brain cell cancer, told I had a statistical average of 18 to 24 months left in this world, and that my last 6 months would be ugly until they got uglier. Then I would die. Inevitably. The fact that this did not happen is a major reason my heart and mind should be 100% full of gratitude 100% of the time. Unfortunately such gratitude does not seem to be in my nature.

When Union University still wanted me as president after my diagnosis, I told them that calling a president with brain cell cancer was an extraordinary act of faith. And so I would accept on the basis that we would all expect God to do extraordinary things for the school during my tenure.

Looking back maybe I should have presented God with a specific list of expected extraordinary actions. Letting expectations remain vague is probably what led to this conflict. On the other hand, I have never found God to be particularly forthcoming on the specifics of an agreement. When I bring up specifics I most often get a vague answer, the general feeling of an answer, a quiet hint of an answer, or a deflection from an answer rather than the clear response I hope for. Apparently it is still important to God that we walk by faith rather than by sight.

Celebrating with UUC graduates.

Celebrating with UUC graduates.

I cannot deny that many extraordinary things have happened in the last four years. It is medically inexplicable that I am alive, healthy and treatment-free. And it was a total surprise when I ran into a friend I had not seen for 30 years, who asked what I am doing now, and then became a major supporter of UUC. Her financial support has allowed UUC to move from offering education in two languages to five. This increased capacity allows many more students in oppressive situations to complete the study they deeply desire to complete. Many, many of our students have lived their faith with courage and tenacity, risking the ill will of governments and neighbors hostile to Christian faith. Their faith and courage has been and remains most extraordinary.  And finally we have been able to hire several remarkable staff people…just the right people at just the right time…to grow the school’s capacity to educate more grass roots students around the world.

So yes, extraordinary things have happened, and I am grateful for those things.

But here is what has not happened. In spite of much effort and very much specific prayer, we have not succeeded in finding the large and ongoing support base of friends and donors to keep UUC growing, or even to maintain the school at the current level.

We have been as faithful as we can to God’s leading. We are doing everything we can think of to build a donor base of generous friends and foundations. We have prayed generally (“Lord, we trust you to provide what we need”), and specifically (“Lord, send us a $2 million benefactor in 2014”), and persistently. All to no avail so far.

So the reality is that UUC needs to find $250,000 in new income by the end of the first quarter of 2015; and the same amount again every quarter of 2015. Otherwise we have to cut back, shut down some ministries, lay off some of those extraordinary staff who joined us at just the right time, and withdraw the opportunity for study from some of the humblest, most courageous Christians in the world.

Dad grads2A friend said to me the other day that people on the margins of society (like almost all of our students and many of our faculty) look for miracles; and people at the center of society look for solutions. I have looked and looked for solutions. I have prayed and prayed for miracles. It seems so logical to me that the One who called this school into being and called me to be president would put it into the hearts of people to help us at the right time. Now is the right time, and time seems to be running out.

So in exasperation I say to Jesus “You called me to this. You made my heart glad to respond. You saved my life or I would not be here to do this. You provided extraordinary support for four years. You love this school more than I do. So now are you really willing to let UUC lose its best opportunity to be the school you want it to be? Do you really want all those courageous students that no one else is reaching, to have no school of their own? Have I misunderstood your hints and whispers and quiet assurances over these four years? If you called me to lead this school, why aren’t you backing me? Where are those generous benefactors the scriptures refer to when they say that the ones whose ministry is giving should generously give?”Dad Grads

This is painful for me. It wakes me up at night. It makes me anxious every day, the way cancer used to make me anxious. It takes the fun out of being president of the school. It makes me question everything I think I heard from God about God’s plan for UUC; and every event that I took as confirmation of what I thought I heard. To say it tantrumatically (I just made up that word), THIS IS NO FUN!

So it seems like the next three months will be agonizing for me. And perhaps depressing. I am going to have to figure out how to deal emotionally and spiritually with whatever is the reality at UUC three months from now. It’s really much more about the future of the school than about how I feel. The future of the school is important.

Meanwhile I don’t like feeling stupid. And I don’t like being ungrateful. I know that Jesus is the best thing about my life and always will be. So why am I living with such a high level of frustration? I would love it if you would say a prayer for me. And for the future of UUC.

  • If you want to know more about UUC go to the website www.uuc.edu. Also click on the link to our religiously exempt school, Union University International.

Alive at Seventy

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Dale Sewall

Time is a funny thing. How on earth did I get to be 70 years old? I guess one answer would be by not dying at 68 like the statistical average survival time for the brain cell cancer I had said I would. But I am asking a more general, non-cancer specific question about our sense of time.

How could I possibly be age 70 when my subconscious brain apparently thinks I am much younger? My image in the mirror always surprises me. The guy looking back at me should be 40, not 70. What is the deal with time that I miscalculate it so easily?

Jinny and me with Santa in 1965

Jinny and me with Santa in 1965

How did all those teenagers that I worked with and loved in my first ministry become older than their parents were when I knew them? In the same way, why do those high school and college year book pictures recall an era that seems so long ago? What is that glow of youth that appears in all those pictures, and when did it disappear? How can life go by so quickly and the first 30 or 40 years seem so distant at the same time?

Someone asked me recently if I had any remaining symptoms of brain cell cancer. I said the only symptoms I have are the symptoms of growing older. But why is growing old such a personal surprise?

I am alive at 70. And though I insist that I am not yet old, younger people will think of me that way. Bummer—as we used to say 50 years ago. Or was it 40 years ago? Time is so slippery!

So I am 70 and planning to live until age 87 and then die of something totally unrelated to brain cell cancer.

Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address

I aim for 87 because maybe God told me something like that in such a still, small voice that I may have imagined it. And because I have thought for a long time I would die at 87, probably due to my love for the opening words of the Gettysburg Address. And because I think 87 is enough and I would rather move on to live in glory than continue here in growing frailty. Eighty-seven would also be ten years longer than most of my male Sewall relatives have lived, and I don’t want to make myself too much of an outsider to that history.

And I want to die of something unrelated to brain cell cancer because that would indicate that I really was cured of an “always fatal” disease, and would validate all the God talk and faith statements I have made in this blog. If the cancer returns in 5 or 10 or 17 years, my survival for that many years would still be a remarkable medical event, but not the kind of testimony I want this experience to be. I much prefer an undeniable witness that this fatal cancer was not fatal; that I experienced, not a long remission (hate that word…don’t use it around me), but an undeniable cure.

My wife, Jinny, and me on my 70th birthday

Jinny and me on my 70th birthday

My daughters and their families all gathered to celebrate my birthday last week; and not just my birthday, but also my survival to age 70, which is something they did not take for granted. My 70th birthday celebration was one of the most fun and fulfilling days of my life, and I am glad I lived to experience it. This was after I spent the morning doing a memorial service for a dear neighbor. And the memorial “celebration of her life” was part of what made the day special. It helped me to focus again on time, on time’s deceptive nature, and on time’s passage—so quick and so slow at the same time.

I suggested at the memorial service that we are confused about time because time does not compute in our souls. We were created to be eternal. And I reminded those at the service, including myself, of all the promises of life beyond this life that I have written about many times in this blog.

No one knows how much time he or she has left in this world, except perhaps those nearing the end of a fatal illness (God bless them). But when our last days come on this earth, long ago will seem long ago, and yet all our years will seem to have gone by so quickly.

The Book of Ecclesiastes says that we human beings have eternity in our hearts. I think that is right. And it messes up our sense of time.

Dale in 1947: Farmer not cowboy

Dale in 1947: Farmer not cowboy

I was in church a couple weeks ago in a worship service with a cowboy theme. The church leaders were all dressed like cowboys and cowgirls. Being visitors, Jinny and I looked like dudes from the city.

In keeping with the cowboy theme, the offertory song that day was Tim McGraw’s country western hit “Live Like You Were Dying,” a song about talking with someone who has been diagnosed with a perhaps fatal illness. The singer asks “How’s it hit ‘cha when you get that kind of news? Man, what’d ya do?” If you are a past reader of this blog, you understand how I can relate to the song title and the question.

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Tim McGraw

In the song, the answer begins “I went skydiving, I went Rocky Mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu.” In other words, the person with the serious illness went out and did a lot of high energy, adrenalin rush activities that he had apparently been putting off in the busyness of life.

The song was a highlight of the service, beautifully sung by the music director of the church. I told him afterward that I really liked his song. And that the song’s description is not at all how it is when a person is diagnosed with a life threatening illness.

When I was told that I had a statistical average of 18 to 24 months to live, I had no wish to jump out of an airplane, climb a mountain, or ride a bull. Instead I was stunned into inactivity. And I needed all my energy to respond to the overwhelming emotional shock of the diagnosis.

jumping-out-of-a-plane

Skydiving: Not on my list.

Forty two months later and in good health, I still have not put skydiving on my agenda.

Looking back over my 3 ½ years with brain cell cancer, I now believe that “What do I want to do before I die?” is not the important question. Making bucket lists is a popular trend, but I now think such lists have limited value. And may be a distraction from a more important question.

The question I find compelling since my diagnosis is “Who do I want to become before I die?”

All my life I have been a follower of Jesus. When I started that journey, I knew there were some significant flaws in my character and some issues I seriously needed to work on. I assumed then that by the time I was an older adult, God would have helped me become a much better person. And God’s help has been significant over the decades. I have in many ways “grown up into Christ.”

“Who do I want to become before I die?”

“Who do I want to become before I die?”

But when I thought I had a maximum of two years left in this world, I felt an urgency to focus on my inner being, and on some of my outward behavior. It was not a fear of God or God’s judgment that led me to this. In fact a part of me looked forward to leaving this world for a far better world, and to be more directly in the presence of God, which is the presence of love, integrity, justice, righteousness, kindness, mercy, light…all the characteristics of God described in the scriptures.

I also believe that whatever flaws are still clinging to me when I go to God will be taken away “in the twinkling of an eye” and I will be changed into all that God wants me to be. This is what God’s grace is all about. But still it is while I am here in this world that I can contribute to my own transformation. I want to die satisfied with who I have become.

So the important question is “Who do I still want to become?” rather than “What do I still want to do?” This is my most important learning from my experience with brain cell cancer. The list I am working on is the list of ways I want to become a different person before I die.

Who do you want to become?

Who do you want to become?

Though he doesn’t lead with it, Tim McGraw’s song also embraces the idea of becoming a different person. After the list of high energy activities, the song goes on to suggest loving deeper, talking sweeter, forgiving when forgiving is hard, being a better spouse and a better friend, reading the “good book,” taking a hard look at what to do differently, taking the time to go fishing with someone and to watch an eagle fly. Those are internal changes.

The song also says “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.” In other words, to live with a perspective on life powerfully influenced by the knowledge that our time here is limited.

“Live Like You Were Dying” is a good song that suggests we ought to be thinking about “sweet time.” So I ask you, in the time you have left here on this earth, who do you want to become that you are not yet?

I’m working on my list.