Posted September 12, 2003
On the Road for May 16, 2003
A Promise is a Promise
I Bless the Lord, my soul; all my being, bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, my soul; do not forget all the gifts of God,
Who pardons all your sins, heals all your ills,
Delivers your life from the pit, surrounds you with love and compassion,
Fills your days with good things; your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
- Psalm 103, 1-5
Some years ago … in this space I described myself as “a man of small faith and large passions.”
Nothing has happened since to prompt a more sympathetic description.
I am not a pious man. Never was. Never tried. Couldn’t bring myself to care.
I am not a saint. Never aspired to the role. In fact, I can recall the day I rejected it.
I was in the sixth or seventh grade when the latest edition of the Catholic comic book Treasure Chest arrived. It featured a story about Dominic Savio, a young Italian boy who died at 15 in the mid-1800s and was canonized in 1954.
His comic book biography showed him confronting some classmates on the playground who were exchanging dirty stories before school. Dominic not only didn’t participate, he ripped his classmates for their bad behavior.
I sensed that my life had come to a turning point — because my favorite pastime was to share dirty jokes with my friends on the playground.
I reflected on this for a moment. If giving that up — much less giving my friends hell for doing it — was what it took to be a saint, well sainthood was not my destiny.
And that pretty much marked the end of my pursuit of spiritual perfection.
Over the years … I mellowed some, owing no doubt to the prayers and patience of my dear wife — who is a saint.
Apparently she did not want to spend eternity wondering how I was holding up in warmer climes.
If she has one flaw, it is her judgment of men.
And for that I will be eternally grateful.
If I had to fill out a questionnaire … ranking my aptitude as “sinner,” it would be somewhere between “experienced” and “accomplished.”
I’m not proud of that. As sinners go, I’m a repentant one.
But there’s no denying I’ve had a great many occasions and reasons to repent.
God doesn’t make junk. But some of His creations end up pretty tarnished.
Put me in that pile.
Part of my mellowing process … was beginning to pray intentionally again, which I started in my early 30s. For some years now, I have prayed every night and most every morning and a lot of times in between — especially when police cars are following me.
When I pray, I ask for a lot of things for a lot of people.
For me I ask for mercy.
I don’t think asking for justice is in my best interests.
From time to time … I have found myself wondering what it would be like on my deathbed. Would I cry? Would I despair?
And what would happen if death slipped up from behind and caught me unawares? When that question arises, just in case, I say the Act of Contrition. Sometimes twice, to show I am not kidding.
But questions about my death quit being academic about midnight as Easter began and a doctor in the emergency room said, “You are having a heart attack.”
I did not panic. I did not despair.
“You have some blockage in the lower part of your heart, and we should try to clear it with angioplasty,” he said. The risks, he explained, included stroke and death. But if he were me, he would have it done.
So I agreed, lay down on the gurney, squeezed my wife’s hand, kissed her softly, and was wheeled away.
The procedure gives you a lot of time to spend with God — going over your life together, so to speak.
I am happy to report that the Act of Contrition cannot be worn out. And God gives no indication that he bores easily as you repeat that prayer over and over again.
But I am happier to report that in the solitude I felt myself in good hands. I felt love. I was not alone.
And I was not afraid.
Not of dying. Not of death. Not of afterlife.
I had my preferences — among them watching the Packers win this fall and living to a ripe old age. But I turned things over to the Lord. “Not my will, but yours.”
And I felt at peace.
When the doctor said … an artery had been punctured and I would need emergency bypass surgery, I was not thrilled.
But I was not afraid.
When I woke up and heard by blood pressure was something like 70 over 20 and wasn’t getting any better, I did not panic.
It occurred to me that I could be dying of what my wife’s father died of, and I thought that would be mean. So I asked the Lord, if I was bound to die, to let me die of something else for her sake.
When I woke again … after the second surgery, my chest burned and I struggled to communicate that with a breathing tube down my throat.
Finally my wife made out the letters I was tracing in her palm, B-U-R-N-S, and followed my pointing finger to a swelling on the right side of my chest.
When the doctor said we would have to go down for a third trip under the knife, I recalled a doctor years ago saying something about not wanting to put a patient under anesthetic more than once a year.
It occurred to me that three times in a day was pushing the envelope. But I didn’t panic.
Live or die, I had the sense that things would turn out okay for everyone.
And now they seem to be doing just that.
Somewhere in the ordeal … I told the Lord that if I lived, I would tell the story of how God loves sinners and offers them peace on death’s doorstep.
I wasn’t bargaining. I was just grateful.
And a promise is a promise.
Even from a sinner.