This Side of Heaven

Sharon and I stayed close to home this Thanksgiving.  My parents were traveling, so we invited a few friends over for dinner.  My wife can cook.  And she can decorate.  The table was perfect.  The food was too.  And at the end of the evening, Sharon prepared to-go boxes and sent everyone home with leftovers to enjoy the next day.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.

But for the families of two of my friends, sadness found its way into the week.  And Thanksgiving Day did not go as they had planned.

Last Tuesday, in the Ambulatory Surgery Center at Good Shepherd Hospital in Longview, a man went on a stabbing spree—leaving four people injured, one critically.  A nurse lost her life in the confrontation.

The man’s name was Harris Teel.  He was stabbed in the heart while waiting for his son to come out of surgery.  He is the father of a friend I used to teach with.  He is still fighting for his life.  And I know that his family is on their knees praying for his survival.  I am lifting up prayers for Mr. Teel and his family as well.

The nurse was Gail Sandidge.  When she heard the disturbance, she left the patient she was caring for to be of assistance.  She too was stabbed in the heart.  She was related by marriage to a dear friend who is a member of the church where I worship.  Gail was a wife, mother, sister and dear friend to so many.  And besides being a devoted nurse who loved her patients, she was a believer who walked close with God.

I didn’t know Gail.  But I have been in that part of the hospital as a patient before, and the nurses on that floor have been a blessing to me.

As I reflected on this tragedy, I remembered a day six years ago when I was having a catheter surgically implanted in my chest just above my heart.  The catheter would serve as the entry point for my chemo drugs.  The morning of the surgery, I was apprehensive.  But then a nurse breezed into my cubicle and smiled warmly.  She asked me about my cancer and I told her I had lymphoma.  Then she told me that she was a stage 3 breast cancer survivor. “Your oncologist,” she said, “was also mine, and he’s the best.”

Then she did something extraordinary.  Something I will never forget.  She looked at me and said, “I had the same procedure you’re having today.  I had a catheter placed in my chest too—Here, let me show you my scar.”  And she pulled the collar of her uniform down just enough to show me where the catheter had once been.  “You don’t have to be afraid,” she said. “You’re in God’s hands.  It’s up to us to fight the cancer, and it’s up to Him to do the miracles.  And He can do miracles.  I’m living proof.”

She didn’t know me.  But she knew how to bring calm into that cubicle.  She expressed vulnerability.  She showed me her scar.  She made the unknown known.  She didn’t waste her cancer.

And when she left the room, Sharon whispered, “Little angels.”

Last Tuesday, when Gail went home to be with the Lord, heaven certainly gained another precious angel.

I know Gail’s family is mourning her death.  But as he reflected on the loss, Gail’s minister, the Rev. David English, said this: “We grieve, but not like those without hope.  God can and will redeem this loss somehow, although we may not be aware of it this side of heaven.”

His words struck me.  Each one of us, after all, is living just this side of heaven.

I am mindful, always, that my life is a vapor.  Six years into remission, I understand that each day is a gift from God.  And each day is filled with gifts for us to treasure.

I live a blessed life.  And I am grateful—for my wife, my family and friends, and for the students on this campus that God has entrusted into my care.  Each day, I have the opportunity to invest in their lives, with the dream that they will, in turn, invest in the lives of others.

And so, while I’m still this side of heaven—

May I be a faithful servant to the students in my classroom.

May I be a man who reveals the heart of God.

May I be willing to share my scars with others.

And may I remember that someday on the other side—“. . . there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain.”

(Revelation 21: 4)



Exploding Biscuit Dough

We were in the middle of it.  The cancer, that is.  It was the morning of my surgery to have the catheter placed in my chest, just above my heart.  It was the entry point for the chemo drugs and would stay inside me for a year.

That morning, we got up early and prepared for the trip to the hospital.  On our way out the door, Sharon realized she’d forgotten her breakfast.  She ran back into the kitchen, grabbed some orange juice out of the refrigerator, gave the door a gentle push, and turned out the light.  What we didn’t know was that the refrigerator door didn’t close.  It stayed open.  All day.

The temperature in the refrigerator had climbed to 61degrees by the time we got home.  And we began dumping foods that hadn’t survived the heat wave.

After a few minutes, I started feeling the effects of the anesthesia.  So Sharon ordered me to the couch, set the frig on turbo cool, and left the kitchen behind her.

But while I was dead to the world, and to all that was going on in the house, Sharon slipped back into the kitchen and confronted the refrigerator alone.  After sniffing the milk, she declared it spoiled and tossed it.  She kept tossing.  And then she noticed something on one of the lower shelves and at the back.  It was a can of biscuit dough.  And it had exploded.  Biscuit dough was everywhere—on the shelf it was sitting on, on the shelf above it, and all over the back of the refrigerator.

It must have exploded while the door was open.  And when Sharon came home and adjusted the temperature to turbo cool, the dough hardened.  It wasn’t easy to clean.  That dough was happy where it was and wasn’t going anywhere.

While I slept, Sharon got on her hands and knees, trying to scrape hardened biscuit dough from the back of the refrigerator.

Sharon’s job is stressful.  Add to that a husband—with cancer, who had undergone two surgeries in less than a month—and I’m not sure the word “overwhelming” adequately describes the situation.

While I slept, Sharon cleaned hardened dough from the back of the refrigerator and cried.

It’s an image that still tugs at my heart.  I can see her—a sick husband on one side—a stressful job on the other.  And in between, exploding dough.

We talked about it later and even laughed a little.  And she made the comment that she felt bad for crying over something so small.  “I know,” she said, “that exploding dough is the tiniest of events in the scheme of life and eternity.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “But you still have to walk through it.  You still have to face the stress of work and my illness and even the challenge of exploding dough.”

These seemingly insignificant moments, must be met and overcome.  And it’s these moments that define us—that reveal our character—and that push us toward or away from God.  These moments can have eternal implications.

Sharon and I made it through.  We hung on to God.  And to each other.  And in the biggest storm of her life, she trusted.

I’ve been thinking lately about my students and the pressures they face.  It’s at this point of the semester that many are learning the hard lesson—sometimes, the dough just explodes.

The other day, one of my classes had major papers due.  I had talked to the students early on about the importance of having essays completed and ready to turn in when class began.  We talked about being prepared for the unexpected.  We discussed power failures, and printers that run out of ink, and alarm clocks that fail to ring, and dogs that eat homework—but I forgot to mention locking yourself out of your room 5 minutes before class—which is what happened to one of my students.

Exploding dough.

And so sometimes, I tell them a story from my life, to let them know they are not alone in the tough times.  And I let them know that there’s a way through the exploding dough.  Always.  God is with us.  Each one of us.  “Do you believe this?” I ask them. “Do you believe God is good and that He will not give you more than you can bear?”

Sometimes they aren’t convinced.  And so I remind them.  “Don’t forget,” I say . . . .

“You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength” (Philippians 4:13).

All things, I remind them.  You’ve got to hang on to that.  Even when the dough explodes.





That Sense of Urgency

I’m a cancer survivor.  My doctors still shake their heads in amazement.  I’m not supposed to be here.  But God had other plans—and in October, my wife, Sharon, and I will celebrate six years of remission.   

Having cancer changed how I look at life.  It left me with a sense of urgency.  It even changed what I did for a living. 

For some time, I’d been pursuing a career in college administration.  But sitting in a chemo infusion room every three weeks for a year prompted me to reflect on a lot of things—including my career.  And after some long talks with Sharon and my oncologist, I retired from administration so I could return to the classroom.  God made me a teacher.  It’s what I love.     

I’d forgotten, though, the peaks and valleys of teaching.  I had forgotten that the classroom is both exhilarating and discouraging.  I had forgotten what a roller coaster ride it can be. 

Some of my students dread my required classes.  They fear not only failing my class, but also failing themselves and all those who believe in them.  For other students, my classes are merely an unwelcome obstacle standing in the way of their diploma.  And I’d forgotten that some students, even the better ones, don’t always read the assignments.  A colleague from another university says, “You can assign all you want, they aren’t going to read it.”

I recall the first time I was faced with a significant instance of student apathy that resulted in several F’s (a long time ago when I was a graduate teaching assistant).  I sat in my mentor’s office with my head down, feeling like a failure.  “Did you really think you could save them all?” he asked.  “Yes,” I said.

The truth is, I still hope to inspire all of my students.  But, realistically, I know that there are some I won’t connect with.  I recall an honors class (not this semester!) when a student came with a drop slip.  I was surprised because she was such an excellent student, and I loved having her in the class.  When I asked her why she was dropping, she said, “I don’t like the class—It’s just not working for me.”

I also know that there are students who will fall away and who will fail.  But I am still hopeful and I truly believe that, more often than not, students are looking for an excuse to succeed—they are looking for someone to inspire them. 

I think my expectations are probably more realistic now.  But they’re still high.  For me.  For my students. 

And I hope my sense of urgency rubs off on them. 

When you live on this side of cancer, there’s so much more at stake it seems.  Life is fragile.  Not one of us is guaranteed tomorrow.  And I have my students for a semester—just 15 weeks.  A mist. A vapor. So much like life.  What will they take away from this experience, I wonder—intellectually and spiritually?     

In a mere 15 weeks, how can I teach them to write skillfully and read diligently and think critically?  How can I reveal to them that the discipline of faith and the discipline of learning and scholarship intersect in a profound and rational way?  And how can I model for them a life built on Jesus and His love and grace? So little time.

My wife and I pray and trust that my remission is permanent—that the cancer never returns.  But I still look behind me—over my shoulder.  And sometimes I think I can hear it—walking fast, with a purpose, coming to overtake me.  That urgency is never far from me. 

And so I teach.  And I invest in the lives of my students.  And I pray that something sticks along the way.  Even if it is just my attitude—my love for Jesus, my love for my discipline, my love for students, and my conviction that one class can make a difference. 

15 weeks—just a vapor.  But this reality forces me to live in the present—to treasure each day—each class with my students. 

So I live with a sense of urgency—in all areas of my life—as a believer and husband and teacher.  

I know God still does miracles.  He is doing one in my life.  I pray He does one in my classroom. 

“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine...” (Ephesians 3:20a).