Jenny Simmons recently wrote me a cool letter from Bussloo, Apeldoorn, Netherlands where their band Addison Road was touring. She talked about how weird it felt to be in a foreign country with all the strange sounds and smells and language and a general sense of unsettling unfamiliarity. I didn’t know where she was going with this until she presciently observed that cancer has taken me to a strange land, a different country if you will where I’m probably feeling a general sense of unsettling unfamiliarity as well. Touché. She nailed it. I’ve had the privilege of traveling to some pretty strange places in this old world, but now I’ve embarked to a new country which I’d heard about but heretofore never seen—the land of the valley of the shadow of death.
I’m not (obviously) dead yet, and I entertain high hopes that, like Hezekiah of old, I might be granted an extra span of years to ride motorcycles upon the earth (big H had chariots, but same difference, he was “in the wind” all the same). Realistically, all of us this side of Heaven are traveling the valley of mortality. We know that death and taxes are inevitable, and that even with cryogenics “immortal mortality” is a silly oxymoron. But I’ve learned there’s an international divide between “the valley” and the “shadow”. When you go to the land of the shadow, you’re closer to the celestial gateway and you behold a different scenery in the shade cast by encroaching valley walls. It’s a new land. It feels like a different country. Jenny, you’re right.
There’s lots of folks here. Since I arrived, I’ve had good company all along the way. It was a royal pain getting through customs though. Your passport is a health insurance card, but then you have to fill out multiple clipboards full of repetitious medical history, probably endure surgery, and recover by ingesting mystery meals concocted in the bowels of the cafeteria by a cadre of mad-scientist dieticians. And even after you’re over the border, you keep having to wait around interminably in hospitals and doctor’s offices and chemo labs before you can go out exploring again. But hey, it’s ok. Certain hassles accompany all travel. Chalk it up as just part of the adventure.
So, since I’m here, I thought today I would adopt a new role suggested to me by my pastor buddy Larry Parsley. It’s the role of “travel writer”. Don’t worry. I have no illusions about supplanting Rick Steves as he clues the world in about where to swill authentic Hofbräu Oktoberfestbier or how many socks to pack for a mule ride through the foothills of the Himalayas. Instead, I propose to send a travel report to all my compadres who live back in my old homeland of “know I’m going to die someday but still insist on living like I’m immortal”, otherwise known in this transmission as “Myopia”. (I think the Post Office will know just where to send these missives). As my buddy Larry writes:
“Preachers too can learn to inspire listeners with exhibits from distant lands. We should be like the faithful spies of Numbers 13, who point to the gigantic grape clusters from the Valley of Eschol and say to the people, “There’s more where that came from.” Our sermons should be sprinkled with stories of faithful believers who faced down ‘Amalekites’ and lived to sink their teeth into the fruit of the land. Our preaching can reassure fellow travelers that the very place which is presently a “Valley of Weeping” can be transformed into a “place of refreshing springs” (Psalm 84:6 NLT). Or, as that great travel writer John Bunyan might put it, our ultimate destination is not the Slough of Despond, but the Celestial City.”
“Faithful Spy”, that’s me, your new Travel Writer reporting from the Valley. To begin, I’d like to describe for you a huge grape cluster of a genus rare back in Myopia but that grows here in great abundance. In fact, ever since I cleared customs I’ve joined the natives of this country in a daily repast on these wonderful grapes. Aside from their obvious benefit as a prime anti-oxidant, they afford the gift of perspective to all who consume them. Would you like to sample a few? Read these words, and you’ll taste something positively ambrosial:
“Lord, make me to know my end,
And what is the extent of my days, Let me know how transient I am.
Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths, And my lifetime as nothing in Your sight, Surely every man at his best is a mere breath. Selah. Surely every man walks about as a phantom;
Surely they make an uproar for nothing; He amasses riches, and does not know who will gather them. And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You. Deliver me from all my transgressions; Make me not the reproach of the foolish.” Psalm 39:4-8
I received a note the other day from another dear friend of mine. Dr. Bill Lawrence taught and mentored me in seminary and has been one of my big brothers in the ministry through all the years since. The occasion of Bill’s note was his rumination upon turning seventy and thus fulfilling his biblically proscribed “threescore and ten”. He’d been meditating on the very verses in the grape cluster above and was wondering how much longer God would wait before taking him home to Heaven.
Yes, you guessed it! There’s more than one way to enter this land of the Valley. Cancer will get you in. So will old age. You can get here lots of different ways, but beware if you fly American: you’ll probably arrive without your luggage. In any case, Bill voiced an insight from Psalm 39 which is second nature to Valley people but which often strikes folks back in Myopia as pure novelty. For the substance then of my first Travel Writer report to you, I give you Bill’s words:
“More always means less. There’s always more out there somewhere. More opportunity, more recognition, more power, more control, more success, more money, more everything. But more always means less. You see, to get more of whatever we seek, we always end up with less time. That’s what we do in life-we trade our time for whatever we gain. Now everything in life is finite, but nothing is more finite or more final than time. There’s more of everything else, but there’s never more of time. We kid ourselves into thinking we have more time. We say, “I think I’ll put more time into sales or management or golf,” but we don’t really have more time, we just manage ourselves differently in the time we have. We’ll never have more time. In fact we have no idea how much time we do have. We look at the game clock and think, “I have years to go before the game ends,” but only the Timekeeper actually knows how much time we have. And He’s not telling. So here’s the deal. More means less. No matter how much more you get, in the end you always have less time. Now all of us need to go after more because that’s the way life works. It’s just that you need to make sure the more you’re going after is worth the less time you’ll have once you get it. . .so what “more” are you going after? At this point in your life what makes the “more” you’re seeking worth the less time you will have once you get it? In light of God’s purpose for you, what are the wisest ways you can invest your time to give the most glory to Him?”
Reading those words, I’d say Bill got God’s answer when he prayed with the Psalmist, “Lord, make me to know my end, And what is the extent of my days, Let me know how transient I am.” Here in the Valley, most people kind of get that; now we all can.
By the way, did you taste the grape that said, “Surely every man walks about as a phantom”? Bill now refers to himself as “The Phantom” and I’m jealous because what a cool handle that is and I wish I’d thought of it first. Guess I’ll just have to settle for “Travel Writer”, but that’s fine because I’m doing just fine with the journey so far. “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.”
Jenny ended her letter with a series of prayers, and I wanted to close by reporting from this foreign land that they’re being answered by the One in Whom is all our hope. “I pray, Andy, when you are scared, God will meet you in this foreign country.” He has, every time. “I pray, friend, that when you feel lost and homesick for the life that was, you will meet God in this foreign country.” Yep, He’s been here long before I arrived. “I pray, Pastor, that when you feel out of your element, when you experience culture shock, you and God will adjust in the new land, as good friends, ex-pat’s, in an adventure. . . for the Savior who greets us in the midst of our fear, anger, homesick, and humble new beginnings smiles, offers us a well worn chair, and a warm but amazing Guinness and says ‘welcome home child’”. Yes to all that too Jenny except the Guinness but I’m sure it’s on the way, maybe with a fine Cuban to boot.
That’s all for now from your intrepid reporter, the “faithful spy”, “Semi-C”, a.k.a. “the Phantom” (sorry Bill),
Your Travel Writer,
P.S. Just scoped out this bit of graffiti on the Valley wall: “Our ultimate destination is not the Slough of Despond, but the Celestial City. . .” Larry was right, as usual.
Dr. Andy McQuitty, one of our beloved Preach It, Teach It teachers, is fighting cancer. Please include him on your personal and church prayer lists.