Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Every Breath I Take
My mother died of breast cancer at the age of 53. My father died of a massive heart attack at the age of 57.
Yesterday (September 24, 2013) I turned 55. Hoo boy. Talk about being stuck in the middle.
For years I’ve been joking about telling the Lord that if I could live to age 60, I’d count everything else as bonus. But I wasn’t joking.
On the other hand, it’s not like I’m necessarily genetically predisposed to check out early. After all, my father’s father lived to be 94 and my father’s oldest sibling, my Aunt Mary, will turn 101 in November.
But still …
Now, some of you are probably thinking, “Hey, Mike—you’re a Christian. You’re a minister. Don’t tell me you’re afraid of dying! After all, aren’t you going to a better place? Don’t you believe what you preach?”
No, I’m not afraid of dying; I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Yes, I’m going to a better place; I hope it looks like a Caribbean resort or at least like St. Simons Island. And yes, I believe what I preach; that includes the verse that says “Lord I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
I confess to having been afraid in the past. When I was a child, I at times did not want to go to sleep for fear I would not wake up. My mother would say, “Son, what are you afraid of?” I would say, “I’m afraid I’m going to die.” She would respond, “Don’t be silly; you’re not going to die.” And I would think, “Liar!” In hindsight, though, I have to cut her some slack; how do you tell your neurotic nine-year-old, “Oh, Son, odds are pretty good that you won’t die tonight, although I guess, now that you mention it, you could. I mean, the house could burn down or something. You never know. Sleep tight, now.”
I was also afraid that my parents would die. When they left me with my grandparents to go somewhere, I would fret over the possibility that they would not return. My father would say, “Son, what are you afraid of?” I would say, “I’m afraid that you’re going to die.” He would respond, “Don’t be silly; we’re not going to die.”
It wasn’t too many years after he spoke those words that they died. They each left one day and never came back.
And so fear set in, only it was worse than fear; it was fear compounded by a sense of abandonment and betrayal and by an inability to articulate the terror that was churning in me. The result was that I became a rather anemic-looking Hulk; it was anger that triggered the internal forces that in turn transformed mild-mannered Bruce Banner into the raging Incredible Hulk but it was any threat to my sense of security that triggered the fear in me to transform me into a raging coward.
Under those circumstances, life felt like as much of a threat as death did.
It was at times hard to breathe.
One day when I was a boy I was enjoying a tire swing in the back yard of Granny and Papa’s house. I was swinging pretty high when the dry-rotted rope snapped and I came down flat on my back. It was my first experience at having the wind knocked out of me. I remember how desperate I felt as I lay there, gasping for air.
There were lots of times after the deaths of my parents that, when some perceived threat would knock the wind out of me, I would struggle to breathe. My breath would come in great gulps; something in me wanted the air and something in me didn’t. I was afraid of the unknown and of the known; I was afraid of death and of life; I was afraid of not having and of having; I was afraid of losing and of gaining; I was afraid of not loving and of loving; I was afraid of not being loved and of being loved.
Things, I am glad to be able to say, have changed over the years. Oh, I’m still afraid sometimes, but I tend not to live in fear; I still feel an anxious pang sometimes, but I tend not to be overwhelmed by panic; my breathing still gets a little labored at times but I can barely remember the last time that I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.
What has made the difference?
The grace of God, certainly; I have struggled since 1977 when Dr. Robert Otto assigned our “Introduction to Christian Thought” class at Mercer University to read Living by Grace by William Hordern to overcome my tendency to find it hard to believe that God loves me just as I am and that such a God will care for me all the way through life and into death. At long last, I can say that God’s grace has largely won out over my fears; I have found it possible to rest in God’s love and to trust in God’s grace. When I fail to trust, I find myself relying on God’s grace to make that all right, too.
The grace of my good wife has made a huge difference, too. I will not embarrass her by saying much more about that, but it is a fact that for years she was the embodiment of God’s grace that kept me sane by giving me hope through her unconditional love.
The grace of experience has helped as well. By God’s grace I have lived long enough to live through enough, to learn enough, and to grow enough that I’ve been able to give up some of my childish ways. It has felt good over the last few years to be, at long last, an adult.
I am told that on average a human being breathes 5,256,000 times per year which means that since Dr. Henry slapped me into action on September 24, 1958 at the Lamar County (GA) Maternity Shelter I have drawn some 289,000,000 (that’s 289 billion) breaths. I now regard each and every one of those breaths as a great gift.
I can remember some times when I was very aware of each breath because I was struggling to take it. Now, I am trying to be aware of each breath in a different way—I regard each breath as an opportunity to pray.
This is my practice: when I am in a position to be able to think about it, with each breath in I pray “God, thank you” and with each breath out I pray “God, help me.” My hope is that this practice will lead me to a point where each and every breath will be, either consciously or sub-consciously, such a prayer.
One day I will draw my last breath. I wonder if my last prayer will be “God, thank you” or “God, help me”?
While either one would be appropriate, I think it will be both …