The beloved pastor and bestselling author shares how confronting a long-held fear about his health brought him peace and strengthened his faith.
- Posted on Aug 27, 2018
I first noticed the tremor 10 years ago. My thumb started quivering. Insistently, nervously, mysteriously. As if my thumb lived on a caffeine drip. With a mind of its own. Almost immediately, I assumed the worst.
My father had died from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Am I going to go like he did? I wondered. Is this the first symptom? I combed my hair, and my thumb quivered. When I was putting on the golf course, guess what couldn’t settle down? If I raised my left hand to make a point in a sermon, all I could see was a twitchy thumb.
Dad had been an oil field mechanic. He was used to depending on his hands. One day, he squeezed a screwdriver and noticed something shaky. He diagnosed himself and actually informed the doctor that he had ALS. A certain death sentence. He went into a long slow decline. At the time, I was about to serve as a minister in Brazil and worried sick about him. Dad didn’t want me to stay home. He sent a letter and underlined the key words: “I have no fear of death or eternity.”
You would think that I would have the same sort of confident faith. That I too would be able to lean on the promises of God. “The Lord is with you,” the book of Judges tells us. “In all things God works for the good,” Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans. “In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world,” Jesus says in the Gospel of John.
And yet I put off seeing a doctor about my thumb for a long time. The idea of going was just too scary.
Finally I made an appointment to meet with a neurologist. I entered his office full of dread. The doctor asked me to walk, checked my balance, tapped my knee with a hammer and hammered me with questions. After each one, I thought, This is it. He’s going to deliver the death sentence.
At last the doctor said, “No need to worry.”
“There’s no need for a wheelchair?”
“Nope. The tremor in your thumb is nothing to worry about. I promise.”
I walked out of there and got in the car to drive home. While stopped at a traffic light, I noticed my left hand on the steering wheel. Can you guess what my thumb was doing? Shaking.
For the first time, I had the opportunity to look at the tremor differently. I could ponder the problem, or I could remember the promise. I could choose anxiety, or I could choose hope. I opted for hope. As corny as this might sound, I actually talked to my thumb.
“You’re not getting any more of my attention,” I said to it firmly. “The doctor made me a promise. You are harmless.” From that moment on, each time I noticed my thumb misbehaving, I thought of the promise that the doctor had made me.
My doctor’s promise is reliable. Fear has to take a hike. So it is with the promises of God. Unlike my thumb, those words are unshakable. His promises are better than a lifetime warranty. They will one day carry me into God’s presence.
I spent an hour recently in the office of a cemetery director, pondering over just what death will mean. I looked at a map of all the possible sites for a grave. All of a sudden, I had an idea. “You’ll think I’m crazy,” I said, “but is it possible to record a message for my tombstone? A sort of voice mail from the grave.”
“I’ll check,” he said.
He got back to me a couple of days later. “A recorded message can be encased in the grave marker. It can be played by pressing a button.”
I wrote something down, but I haven’t recorded it yet. Perhaps I can test it with you first. Engraved on the granite stone will be this invitation: “Press for a word from Max.” And then you’ll hear me say, “Thanks for coming by. Sorry you missed me. I’m not here. I’m home. Finally home.”
Shaky thumb and all.
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