[Jesus] took her by the hand
and said to her, “Talitha koum!”
(which means, “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”)
Immediately the girl stood up and walked around
(she was twelve years old).
At this they were completely astonished.
A few months prior to my twelfth birthday, I found myself in a hospital having a tonsillectomy. The event was unwanted on my part, but necessary according to the medical wisdom of that day and age.
The surgery went according to plan, and within a couple of days, I was camped out in the twin bed that filled the tiny guest room at my grandparents’ home. My father had left our family sometime before this, and my mother had gone to work to support us, so my grandparents, who lived just a few miles from us, cared for my siblings and me during school vacations and sick days.
So it was then that my recuperation began in familiar surroundings with expectations of much ice cream and normal common day events. But this one particular day would be anything but normal or typical. In fact, one particular event of the day would be unforgettable.
I remember little of the day prior to the event itself, except for being tucked in bed. My memory of the event, however, is crisp. I can still picture it as if it had happened yesterday. In fact, if I were an artist, I would be able to draw detailed illustrations of the event from memory, just as it unfolded.
But before I share the details of what occurred that day, permit me to first share a little pertinent information about my grandmother. Evelyn Viola Droz Mallasee was what many of us would have grown up calling “a religious woman,” distinguishing her from a run-of-the-mill churchgoer (a term into which we will not delve right now). She and my grandfather were founding members of their local church, where she was both Sunday school superintendent and deaconess at various times. The most remarkable fact to me, however, concerning my grandmother was that she read her Bible regularly, even multiple times each day.
As a youth of little Biblical knowledge, her Bible reading and silent prayer times seemed almost mystical to me, though it was apparent that they somehow had great meaning to her. They appeared to me to be a sustaining factor in her life that kept her going from one reading to the next. This would prove to be especially true in her later years when her body would be badly disfigured by severe rheumatoid arthritis. Her deteriorating condition preceded today’s more effective medications and joint replacement surgeries, and the prednisone and pain medications that she received did little to alleviate the constant pain that engulfed her. Eventually the disease would confine her to her bed during the night and to a single living room chair during the day, as she became imprisoned in her own body.
To this point I can now somewhat commiserate, as Parkinson’s disease has continued to do to my body what disease does best: to steal, kill, and destroy. Disease steals time, energy, and freedom; it kills plans and options, and it destroys hope. Disease is anything but a friend. In God’s hands, though, disease can be a remarkable tool used to bring us into a new type of freedom and life that are beyond those known by the world at large. Within the confines of disease, I and many other individuals have taken (made) time to seek (and find) God first, reprioritizing our lives.
Though often anything but simple with which to live, disease is simply a condition, a state in which we find ourselves, in which we live and make decisions. While robbing us of some capacities, it can yet instill others in us. Life in every and any condition is always about choices, as we must constantly determine what is deserving of our time and attention and what is not deserving, what we believe and what we do not believe. Disease is a reminder that eternity is not far away and that our choices in this world can have eternal consequences in the next one. Disease can be used by God to make us sit still long enough so that we hear Him talking to us. It can cause us to become much better listeners.
Within the pages of the Holy Bible, God’s Word to us, we have the opportunity to learn to hear God’s voice. Likewise, through prayer, we have the opportunity to talk back to God and to develop an ongoing conversation with Him. With little understanding by me at the time, such a conversation between my grandmother and God is what I witnessed for years in her Bible readings and silent prayers. But on the aforementioned day, as I lay in her guest bed recuperating, my grandmother’s prayers were anything but silent. They were loud, fast, and furious.
My first awareness of her presence over me was two-fold. She was shouting my name while praying frantically, and she was simultaneously shaking me quite violently. As my eyes opened and I looked at her, I saw the relief on her face that reflected the relief in her voice, as her words spewed forth her fears of moments earlier when she had been unable to awaken me. I hadn’t been breathing.
How long she had been shouting, praying, and shaking me, I don’t know. I didn’t ask. But I knew exactly what I had been doing while she was trying to awaken me. I had been “flying” through the air, more or less horizontally and well above rooftops, heading somewhere, though I didn’t know where.
I did, however, recognize where I was. As I looked straight down, I knew by the older homes that I saw below me that I was no longer in the suburbs where we lived. With great surprise in my voice, I heard myself say or think (I don’t know which it was), “That’s Pittsburgh!” It was a little like Dorothy exclaiming to Toto in The Wizard of Oz, “I don’t think that we’re in Kansas anymore,” only it was real.
Immediately following my words, I heard words from an unseen source say, “Go back. It isn’t time yet.” Instantly I found myself going in the opposite direction at an increasing speed, and then suddenly I was aware of my grandmother’s very intrusive presence. Opening my eyes, I listened to her words, but I didn’t say a thing except to affirm that I was all right.
I remember well my mother’s arrival to check on me after work that evening. I watched intently as my grandmother attempted to convey to my mother her great concern during the ordeal of that afternoon’s occurrence. From my grandmother’s perspective, it had been a traumatic event. From my mother’s perspective, as I stood in front of her appearing to be just fine, it was a non-event. To this day, my mother does not recall the conversation.
I, on the other hand, remember all of the details that I didn’t reveal to anyone else that day. In fact, decades would pass before I would share the event with anyone. Realize that when this event occurred, I was just shy of twelve years old and I was an oldest child who listened a lot more than I spoke. I also had little, if any, understanding of what had happened. But many years later, as I began to hear of similar experiences by other people through magazine articles and television reports, the memory remained vibrantly alive. Still, a couple of more decades would pass before I would find the nerve to share the experience with my family and a few close friends. The fear of other people’s disbelief is a mighty hindrance to the sharing of many people’s testimonies and, hence, to the greater knowledge of the truth by all people. It was for me.
Hilariously (to me, if no one else), during my many years of silence concerning this event, I experienced a related, recurring dream. In the dream, my family–mother, brother, and sister—and I would be visiting my grandparents, as we often did. The adults would be sitting in their regular living room seats talking with one another, as they did in real life. We children would be playing as usual. Then suddenly (with a big smile on my face), I would stand up, stretch my arms out perpendicular to my sides and begin flying around the living room. Admittedly, I was showing off in my dreams, proud that I could do what none of the others could do.
But in the dreams, I was like a caged bird. I wanted my freedom of flight, but the walls and the ceiling hemmed me in. I was confined by the physical limitations of my world.
In remembering both the event and the dreams quite well, there exists a major distinguishing factor between the two. One is a memory. It is real. The other is a dream that lived only in my mind.
If the actual event of my remembrance was a near-death experience, which I believe it to have been, then I am left with several facts and one big question. First, I know that I existed outside of my body. My body is not “me.” Second, I was moving toward a specific destination. My movement had purpose. Third, I was not alone. Someone spoke to me. And fourth, apparently a designated time for our individual departures from this world does exist, as I was told that my time had not yet arrived.
The unanswerable question confronting everyone who hears this story and the question that I purposely avoid focusing upon in my own mind is “Why me? Why was I sent back, when so many other people, especially other children, are not?”
The truth is that I don’t know. I just don’t know.
What I do know is that I can’t allow myself to dwell on the question. To do so would pressure me to attempt to do what I cannot do: to presume to understand all of God (impossibility at this point in my existence and, possibly, for all of eternity).
Self-contrived “understanding” of God is a dangerous territory upon which to tread, insinuating our equality with God. Doing so creates havoc in our lives and in the lives of the people around us. Pride in our knowledge and accomplishments, without consciousness of their origins in God, does us a disservice by drawing us away from the Truth of God’s all-encompassing grace.
The truth being told to the best of my ability, I can conjure up multiple reasons for my return, too many to list here. Maybe I returned to this world so that my children would be born, and then one day in turn, so too would another being come into this world, someone with a particular contribution to make. Maybe I returned to speak a word of encouragement and truth that would change the life of someone whom I have not yet even met. Maybe I returned to have time to come to a more personal saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Maybe I returned to share my experiences with God in the books that I am penning. Maybe I returned for all of the above reasons and more, or maybe I returned for none of these reasons. I don’t know why I am in this world today any more than you know why you are here, except that it is for the glory of God, such as is defined by God in the Truth of His Word.
Time is a God-given gift, marking off opportunities that will not repeat themselves. We choose how to spend each moment of our lives by making decisions that pass judgment on what and who will receive both our time and our attention. While family, friends, jobs, recreation, philanthropy, and even church activities have proper places in our prioritization systems, we can easily (if we are not ever vigilant) allow our priorities to slip from proper alignment. Life becomes what we don’t intend for it to be as we drift from our intended purposes. No displacement, however, causes anywhere near the degree of confusion and turmoil in our lives as not placing our personal relationships with God first in importance. When God is not our highest priority, we lose in one way or another.
Life is a marathon that is lived in sprints, and time is a gift that marks the length of our course. The moment-to-moment sprints that we choose to run define our life marathon, while time is a constant reminder that a finish line lies ahead. We each run our course, as Paul aptly said, either in vain or to victory. (Galatians 2:2 & Philippians 3:14) The outcomes of our individual races are solely our personal responsibilities. No one else can run our course for us.
While it does not seem “fair” in human terms that we do not each receive the same number of days on Earth, it must be more than fair in Godly wisdom. It must be for our best good and God’s highest glory, or it would not be so. Just imagine the procrastination and selfishness that would abound among people who knew that they still had umpteen years to live. Then imagine the panic and flurry of activity among people who knew that their time was just about up, as their final weeks, days and then minutes on this Earth would tick away.
If God is just, and He is, then “fair” must play out in eternity. While we mark off anniversaries and other events in this life in days and years, reality lies only in the moment. “Now” is all that we are promised in this world. We have the opportunity to worship our Creator and our Sustainer now. When our last moment has been spent, we will be released from the physical confines of this world and free to fly away to our promised eternity.
Not long ago I shared an abbreviated version of this story by email with a dear friend who is fighting a noble battle against an enemy that continues to gain ground within her body. As I typed, I saw in my mind’s eye a picture of twins in the womb near the time of their births. Though the womb that the twins shared appeared minute compared to the world that awaited their arrivals, their needs were completely met through their lifelines to their mother, on whom they depended. The twins were quite content.
But their predetermined times in the womb would expire, resulting in one twin being born first, leaving familiarity and the other twin behind. Neither twin can prevent the first twin from leaving to be with his or her mother. Yet the second twins’ time for birth will soon follow. Though the twins’ lives are intertwined through common times and places, their moments are their own.
This earth is our womb, our growing space. At some point in time, we will each relate to the twin who is left behind as we watch a friend or loved one depart from this world. Likewise, the moment will also arrive when it will be our turn to go on alone.
But are we alone? Never. God has promised never to leave us. He is always with us, leading us to victory in Christ. The more of our life moments in which we choose to follow God’s lead, the greater our victory over the trials of this world will be as we cross into the next one. The only way to be left behind is to choose not to follow along. But God, by His Word, remains available to everyone, marking the path of life with His grace for all to acknowledge and follow. God designed His system for our success, not our failure.
Does everything then work out fairly in the end? It must. The Bible tells us that it does. The concern that should capture our attention is not how long we will live, but if we will Live with God.
[from The Promise of the Cross © 2011]