Change!

Following is an excerpt of a graduation address I gave to graduating seniors at Seven Rivers Christian School in May 2014. I had been diagnosed with ALS in January and could no longer teach. I had the privilege to teach all of the graduating seniors prior to my diagnosis.
________________________

I retired in 2004 and moved away from the congested streets of Fort Lauderdale to Citrus County [where Seven Rivers School is located].I loved the rural, traffic-free roads of western Citrus County where I could do my 24-mile daily bicycle ride. I bought a boat for fishing and scalloping. I cleared much of my 3-acre property by hand with a machete. I vowed to run the eleven miles round-trip from my house to Route 19 every year on my birthday until I reached 100! I carried literally

Then, first came the knee replacement three years ago. No more running. Then, last summer pains in my neck began to hinder my bike riding, and a diagnosis of asthma was an explanation for my loss of breath. Finally, in January of 2014 there was something far more serious than pinched nerves and asthma. I lost twenty pounds and grew physically weak. Finally I was diagnosed with ALS, a disease for which there is no known cure, and which ends in death on an average of three to five years after diagnosis.

After a full day of tests—in a room with two nurses, another doctor in training, and my wife—the doctor said, “I believe you have ALS.” And then explained the seriousness of the diagnosis. When he finished, from inside of me came words that I had not prepared ahead of time, nor rehearsed—because five months earlier I had been told by another doctor that I did not have ALS!

My mouth simply opened and out came the words, “Thank you. I know that it is difficult for you to have to break that kind of news to people, and today you have done it very well. But there are two things about me that I want you to know. First, I am a Christian, so whether I am on this side of the grave or that side of the grave, God is with me, so I have nothing to fear. And second, God has given to me the world’s best care-giver in my wife. So, I’ll be OK.”

About an hour later while we were waiting for our car to drive home, I shared with my wife an unusual experience that I just had seconds before. It was as if a big barrel filled with grace up in heaven just turned over and poured out all over me, from my head to my feet. “That means that I’ll be OK,” I said. “God’s here.”

I wish I could tell you that every day since then has been tremendous. There have been days of doubts and questions. People my age aren’t supposed to get ALS. Why me? I’ve worked hard my whole life to remain physically fit. Why me? Why not the fat, soft guy living off of welfare who spends his days in front of a television with a six-pack?

The day after the diagnosis I sat for several hours looking out a window while it all sunk in. My emotions ranged from shock to exhaustion, back to shock, then peace, and then doubt—back and forth.

My old nature came, looked me right in the eye and reminded me that I was not fit for heaven, that my sins were many, and that my failures were beyond calculation. The old nature belittled me and accused me for most of that morning with charge after charge of guilt.

At first I believed him. But then I remembered a line from a sermon in the film, “Martin Luther.” Luther said,”When the devil comes to you and says that you’re the worst of sinners and that you do not deserve heaven, say to him, ‘You’re right! So what of it?! I’m all of those things and more! That’s why Jesus died for me and took my place on the cross. All of my sin has been laid on him and now I’m forgiven and I am safe him!”

I used that line, and with it the old nature began to fade away. In its place many passages of hope from the Bible came across my mind that I had memorized in years prior. One of those passages, Romans 8, became a major part of my daily meditating.

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a]free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in the flesh,4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

I was challenged by a friend in my first year as headmaster when I stated that I didn’t think I had the ability to do the job that God have given me to be a headmaster.  There were too many high expectations, too many demands, too many big decisions to make, too much money to raise, too many families to satisfy—and I felt overwhelmed!

My friend referred me to Psalm 1.

“1Blessed is the man who does not walk in the path of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the company of mockers, 2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever he does prospers.

That was pretty clear. If I meditated on the law of the Lord day and night, I  would remain a green tree, no matter how dry or stormy the weather, I would bear fruit no matter the circumstances around me, and my leaves would never wither up and blow away. And then the punch line — whatever I would do would prosper!

The Hebrew word translated “meditate” is the same word the Hebrews used for a camel or a cow chewing its cud. They have multiple stomachs and they chew food for awhile, then they swallow, then they bring it up again and chew for awhile, then they swallow, and then they bring it up again and chew for awhile, then . . . . you get the point!

The only way to meditate on the law of the Lord day and night is to first memorize portions of the Bible. During the process of memorizing, the spiritual meaning sinks into you deeply and becomes imbedded. As you repeat the Bible passages that you have memorized, they become part of you. They show up in your conversation. They jump into your memory when you wake up in the morning. They come to your mind at just the right moment throughout the day.

No matter what changes come in its environment, the psalmist says, the tree planted by streams of water will stay green, it will keep its leaves, and it will bear fruit. A person who meditates on the law of the Lord day and night is like that tree. And that person prospers, no matter what is going on around her or him.

What saved me that first day after my diagnosis, and the days that have followed, have been the Scriptures that I had memorized. Some of these are Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Philippians 2, 3, 4, Romans 3, 8, Colossians 1, 2 Corinthians 5, 1 Corinthians 15, John 6, and Psalms 1, 23, 84, 103, and 139. I review these in rotation every day.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is probably not the best place to go for advice, but its creator, Jon Wedon, made the following comment about change:

“Bottom line is, even if you see ’em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.”

Changes will come—big changes. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are.

We all will see many changes. How we handle them will be determined by how much we have meditated in God’s law. Whether we prosper or not in those times will be determined by how much we have meditated in God’s law. That is one of the true absolutes of life.

You will soon leave home and set up your own life either at college, or at work, or in the military. You will handle that change as a green tree full of leaves and fruit, or you will wither and become like a a piece of drift wood on the beach—a dead stump with little life.

Some of you will graduate from college in four or five years, only to find the job market virtually devoid of employment. How will you handle that situation?
You will likely marry. It will not all be sweet and lovely. How you handle marriage and its changes will depend upon how you have meditated on God’s law.

You might experience a devastating death of a child.

You might be called into an office one Friday afternoon and told that you no longer have a job.

You might be married for ten years, only to hear your spouse tell you that they do not love you any more. And they want a divorce.

You might go to your doctor for a routine physical at the age of 28 only to learn that the doctor has found a lump in your neck, and a week later find out that you have incurable cancer.

You might be called into Christian ministry, only to have others criticize and belittle you.

The economy could do a tailspin and all your savings evaporate.

Will you lose your leaves and wither, or will you remain green, full of fruit, and prosper?

And I can go on and on with the possible changes that you will face—each one of you—not all with the same experiences—but in each of your lives events will occur that will naturally shock you to your core.

Change!

What saved me that first day after my diagnosis, and the days that have followed, has been the Scripture that I memorized.

When a child dies, or your father collapses in front of you as mine did, or you are diagnosed with ALS—you don’t have time then—you’re too much in shock, your emotions are too high—for you to suddenly search around for God’s promises.

You won’t have the emotional and mental ability to start leafing through the Bible for something to help you. Emotions will be coming at you too quickly.

But if you have meditated and placed God’s word deep inside of you, it will immediately come to center stage—it will get your attention—it will grab your emotions—it will calm you down—and it will be like a big barrel of grace up in heaven that tips over and all that grace will pour over you.

I am here tonight with you at your graduation to tell you that it works. It is working for me. and it will work for you.

It is God’s absolute principle for living in a world of change.

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