What’s Better Than Being Remembered?

I recently posted about my dad’s diagnosis of stage 4 pancreatic cancer in When Terminal Cancer Hits Home. The post was read far and wide. People wrote back their prayers, expressed their sympathy, and often shared their own family’s struggles with cancer. I have been overwhelmed by people’s openness and tenderness.

A friend of my dad’s from childhood, who Dad hadn’t spoken to for over 50 years, called to see how he was doing. After hanging up the phone Dad turned to me with a disbelieving smile and said, “You don’t know how much people really care about you until something like this happens.”

On Thursdays, we sit together for hours and Dad tells me about his childhood. Growing up in Chesterown, Maryland my dad can share a lot about his mother’s side (the Kirby family) but not his father’s side from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. I asked him if we could drive together around Chambersburg so he could show me some sites. Dad is not up for traveling so I turned to google. Within five minutes, I was able to find my paternal great-grandparent’s grave while sitting comfortably in Dad’s living room. It was nicely indexed online, alongside several other family members.

On the way home from Dad’s, I phoned friends from Gettysburg who, years ago, shared they had information about the Kieffer family from the Chambersburg area. Until recently, I had been too preoccupied to look into it. The next day my friends delivered a book, five inches thick, about the earliest families that settled around Chambersburg. Apparently the Kieffer family (also spelled Keefer and Kuffer) goes way back and our surname means “barrel maker”.  Who knew!

I registered on ancestry.com hoping to make a family tree for my dad. In six hours I was able to trace our paternal roots back to Johan Nicolaus Kieffer who was born in Germany (1734) and died near Chambersburg (1818). I assembled digital files of death certificates, census registrations, probate ledgers, and gravestone pictures. I can’t wait to show my dad.

After I stayed up researching until midnight, my wife asked me at breakfast, “Why are you suddenly so curious about your ancestry?”

As an adoptive parent I care less about biological connections than most people. But I care deeply about real connections. My curiosity about our roots was rekindled as I’ve talked with Dad about his father, Jack Kieffer. I only knew my grandfather as a fun-loving Chestertown socialite who couldn’t resist stopping to talk to nearly every person we passed on the street. My grandfather loved golf, drank scotch, and told great stories. My grandfather’s dad died when was six so he barely remembered him. He told us his dad’s legal name was Crist — the name on his tombstone. Online I found Crist’s death certificate. It turns out Crist was a nickname for Christian. I don’t know how my grandfather never realized this. But, I wonder how my dad, James Crist, and my brother, Jonathan Crist, will feel about it.

Researching my ancestry has put some things into perspective. Not only was I ignorant of little things. I didn’t know the big things. Until this month, I couldn’t name my eight great-grandparents. People who lived, loved and dreamed about their future only 100 years ago.  I wouldn’t exist without them and yet I know almost nothing about them.

My great-grandkids will likely know as little about me.

Ecclesiastes warns, “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:11)

The sobering reality is that you will soon be forgotten. Chances are your great-grand children won’t even know your name. If you want to be remembered you must place your hope elsewhere.

God says, “Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. I have engraved your name on the palm of my hands.” Isaiah 49:15-16. The image of engraved flesh is dramatic — bloody, painful, and permanently scaring. What kind of person scars himself like that?

Only a crazy lover determined to prove His love.

After Jesus died, the grieving disciples beheld this crazy love when Jesus showed them his nail scarred hands. Jesus’ scars surpassed those Isaiah spoke about. His scars promise redemption not mere remembrance. The good news of Isaiah is God will never forget us. The better news of Jesus outshines mere remembrance. It announces resurrected life!

When Terminal Cancer Hits Home

My dad started losing weight in October. Initially he felt proud because he needed to lose the extra pounds. But he grew concerned when his energy dropped precipitously. At the family Christmas party we encouraged him to see a doctor as soon as possible.

One visit to the doctor turned into many. At each stage my dad braced for the worst, yet hoped for the best. Then on Thursday, February 4, 2016, surrounded by his wife and three children, my dad was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. His cancer is clearly aggressive and terminal.

Kieffer_James_Family-2016Sometimes clarity is a most unwelcome friend. But this friend helps you focus. I now know how I want to spend the next several months with my dad. I’ve made notes to myself about conversations I want to have with him — conversations about God, his childhood, our family history, and our relationship.

We’ve already started to talk about things my dad would like to do during his last days. Unfortunately it probably won’t include a cruise or long distance travel since he feels too ill.

There will be hard days ahead. Doctors will shoot toxic chemicals through dad’s veins hoping to slow the cancer and improve his quality of life. Thankfully my dad has a peace about him. It surprises me given his bent toward anxiety — something I reflect to my own chagrin. I believe God has given my dad a foretaste of divine peace — a calm that “transcends understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I pray that God’s grace, as well as his family’s love, will strengthen dad for the fierce storm now making landfall.

I am so thankful for the doctors and nurses of oncology at GBMC (Greater Baltimore Medical Center). They care deeply for people and want to help.

Hope has many definitions.” Dr. Donegan leveled with us.  “Sometimes it means being cured. Sometimes it means managing the symptoms until The Good Lord takes us home.”

I wish hope had one definition.

Thankfully Jesus promised, that someday, hope will have a singular definition. It will mean “a full and complete recovery”.  When we reach glory, the earlier definitions of hope will seem crude, like the word nice which used to mean “silly, foolish or simple” — far from the compliment it is today.

Jesus spelled out God’s ultimate definition of hope. When He walked on earth Jesus healed the sick, cleansed the leper, forgave sinners, restored the outcast and raised the dead. Jesus healed in every possible way: spiritually, relationally, physiologically, and physically. Through Jesus, God still plans to fully recover what has been damaged by sin and death.

At least in this life, my dad’s time will end sooner than we wanted. Yet at 75 years old, whether you live an extra six months or ten years; both seem right around the corner! Knowing your time is short focuses the mind. The central question becomes, “How will you prepare for what’s next?”

Jesus told us how to prepare as he faced his own imminent death. He said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me.” (John 14:1-3).

Jesus asks us to remember what He did on His first trip to earth and then trust him to return and finish the job. When God finally restores this broken creation it will be better than new. Jesus’ bodily resurrection was the “first-fruits” of a new and glorious harvest — a transformed cosmos.  Heaven will be no disembodied consolation prize but a vibrant, sensual and incorruptible material reality. God shall walk on earth with man yet again; just as He once did in the Garden of Eden.

This singular hope means cancer’s victory is only short term. It will be conquered, once and for all, at the resurrection!

Come, Lord Jesus!

Hope Builder #2: Choose Life

“Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying!”  (Andy Dusfresne)

Hope is always an active choice.

thIn the movie Shawshank Redemption, a banker named Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is unjustly convicted for the murder of his adulterous wife and her lover. Andy is sentenced to two consecutive life terms at Shawshank, a notoriously brutal state penitentiary. He befriends Red (Morgan Freeman) who helps him to learn the ropes of his new life in prison.

Strangely, Andy possesses an immunity to the dehumanizing process of prison life; a devolution the inmates call being “institutionalized”. Once fully institutionalized, a man surrenders his hope. Andy never becomes institutionalized.

Andy’s hope empowers him to overcome persistent and grievous injustices and then devote himself to improving the lives of his friends. He magically creates moments when the prison walls all but vanish in the eyes of his fellow inmates.  At one point, he gains unauthorized access to the prison’s loudspeakers and plays Mozart (Le nozze di Figaro) to the whole prison compound.

“I tell you those voices soared, higher and further than anyone in a great place dares to dream.”  Red proclaimed.  “It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

Andy’s punishment is two weeks in solitary confinement. When he returns to the general prison population, his friends ask him if his stunt was worth the cost. Andy replies that it was the easiest time he ever did because Mozart’s music helped him forget.

“Forget?” Red asks.

“Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there is something inside that they can’t get to. That they can’t touch. It’s yours.” Andy says.

“What are you talking about?” Red asks.

“Hope.” Andy says.

“Hope? Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. Its got no use on the inside. You better get used to the idea.” Red says.

“Like Brooks did?” Andy quips.  (Brooks Hatlen, their friend, had become institutionalize and lost hope.  When Brooks was freed from prison, fear ruled him and he eventually hung himself.)

Everything came down to a simple choice for Andy. When suffering, we either choose life or choose death. Those are the only options.  Andy fought for hope with all his energy. In the end, hope won!

The same choice faces us all. We cannot control terrible things from happening. But we can control how we respond.  Each moment we can choose to “get busy living or get busy dying”.

What will you choose? Realizing there is no middle ground is the first step out of the solitary confinement of helplessness. If you keep stepping toward hope, your own prison walls will begin to disappear. Like Andy Dusfresne you may even give other people a glimpse of life beyond these stone walls.  But, the more depressed you are, the more likely you are to ignore Andy’s charge. Feeling helpless you’ll believe there is middle ground between “get busy living or get busy dying”.  You’ll think you don’t have to choose, or worse that you can’t chose.  But that is a lie, believable, but false.  And this lie will blind you to the hopeless choices you are already making.

The Bible says it this way.  “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off… I have set before you life and death… choose life.”  You might ask, “How do I choose life?”  The verse continues, “[By] loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days.” Deuteronomy 30:11,19-20

Some of you might be thinking, “I need more than a promise.  I need help.  I need someone to show the way.  If only I had my own Andy Dufresne!”  You have someone better!  Jesus Christ was the only innocent person to live in the prison of this fallen world and never give up hope.  He too devoted himself to improving the lives of his friends. He got busy living and giving life — even his own life on the cross!  As a result, Jesus has torn down the stone walls that blind us to the world beyond.  Knowing Him allows you to sense the beauty of the real world and feel like you are free.

Hold fast to Jesus and hope will find a way!