Last year, a woman in our church received news from her doctors she had about sixty days to live. The likelihood of a misdiagnosis over a year earlier had allowed cancer to reign unchecked in her body for twelve crucial months. Critical time to react was lost in the shuffle of medical care.
Her response was remarkable.
The faith she had diligently nurtured for most of her life granted her the capacity to embrace this difficult news with an enormous amount of peace and joy. She was not faking it either. She was as real and sincere as it gets. She really was a remarkable person.
I, on the other hand, am not.
I am not really sure how I would respond if I were told I only had two months to live. But I think I have a pretty good idea.
I am pretty sure most all of us would respond to the news that we had a short time to live in exactly the same way we respond to ANY difficult or disappointing news in our life. Here's a test. Take inventory of the last few "dramas" in your life - regardless of their size - and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it's going to look like when your doctor tells you that you only have sixty days to live.
If you become belligerent with the auto mechanic about the news that you're going to need four-thousand dollars worth of repairs on your car, the chances are really good that you’ll freak out in exactly the same manner at the news you've only got eight weeks until your funeral.
If you go into a deep depression, becoming really grouchy and sullen when you find out that you weren't chosen for that new position at work, you'd react the exact same way to finding out that you’ve got two months to complete your bucket-list.
If you switch into your usual passive-aggressive rage toward everybody in your path when someone doesn't meet your expectations because they can't read your mind, you'll do the same when you realize you only have eight more Saturdays to sleep late.
Oh sure, you might surprise yourself and everybody else around you. The devastating news might precipitate some kind of miraculous conversion of your typical patterns of behavior. I say, might. But most likely, it will not. We could only hope that we’d be noble and valiant in the face of such devastating news. More than likely, however, news like that will drive your normal response mechanisms into hyper-drive; displaying your typical reactions in high-definition clarity.
I recently read a quote by an unknown Navy Seal. (Evidently, Navy Seals even make profound statements under the cloak of secrecy. Ninja sage.)
"Under pressure, you don't rise to the occasion, you sink to
the level of your training. That's why we train so hard."
Navy Seals understand that when the bullets start flying, they are not going to react in a more courageous fashion than how they have trained. They are not going to suddenly develop reflexes and skills they didn’t possess before all hell broke loose. In the face of a crisis like combat, they will respond exactly like they have practiced a thousand times.
It's no different for us when we find ourselves caught in the crossfire of our little domestic battles with the auto mechanic, the HR department or our spouse. We practice our responses every time we don't get our way or something gets in the way. We have trained ourselves to freak out, to become sullen or to become passive-aggressive. In the words of a Navy Seal, that's the level of our training we will sink to when we find ourselves in a close-quarters firefight with life.
I am convinced my friend responded to her news with such a noble spirit because that's what she had down deep inside of her; a noble spirit. Since I have known her she has endured the tragic end to her husband's business, his untimely passing, the loss of her home in a fire, and a serious fall off a step ladder requiring extensive surgery to repair a severely damaged leg. And to every one of these enormously trying circumstances, she embodied everything you would imagine a deep faith in God might look like. She was one of the spunkiest, most delightful and positive people you'd ever want to meet.
(Is that just “her personality” or is that “her faith?” Good question. Perhaps her personality has been shaped by her faith.)
That's exactly how she received the news that the cancer in her body would steal away the years she had hoped to enjoy with her grandchildren. Meanwhile, all of us who knew her were getting a lesson in how to live by faith when you're dying.
Now back to my original question. How would you respond?
If I were honest for the whole world to read (that’s a blogger's dream, right?) I would resort to my typical passive-aggressive depression where I get really mad at God for not giving me what I want.
There. Now you know. It's not pretty. And I'm a pastor! That just makes it worse (and more embarrassing).
So, what's one to do?
I guess the answer is to train differently. Regardless of where you come down on questions about faith and God, your typical response to drama is going to be your response the next time. Unless you change it. And that kind of change only happens through diligent training.
For those of us who put stock in our faith in God, we are instructed to do this very thing - to train ourselves.
Jesus counseled us that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In spite of our best intentions and noble aspirations, getting ourselves to follow through and actually act like we want is an entirely different matter. That takes some serious discipline.
The Apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor named Timothy with these instructions for Christ-followers in his day. "Train yourself to be godly." In other words, train yourself to react to life like God would have you react.
React with gratefulness.
React with joy.
React with hope.
React with peace.
React with praise.
React with love.
Boy, am I going to need a lot of training. I wonder if the Seals will take me at my age?
What about you?