As you’ve likely realized by now, I’m aware of my mortality.
I don’t know how long I’ve got left — who does? — but I do know my future won’t be as long as my past has been.
I already keep a whole platoon of doctors in business. I’m forever being trundled off for some new test or other.
I’ve got an endocrinologist who checks whether my pancreas and kidneys are failing. A urologist who wants to know whether my prostate is petrifying. A dermatologist who biopsies my moles for fear they’re glowing in the dark. A retinologist who determines whether my eyes are bleeding me blind. A gastroenterologist who’s scoped me yin to yang and over again trying to discover why my innards don’t work as hardily as a 20-year-old’s.
To date, my ailments have proved minor.
But those recurring appointments remind me that sooner or later a test’s results will not be good. A test will turn out bad. Very bad. After all, none of us gets out of here alive.
Before I shuffle away in my open-backed gown to that great endoscopy in the sky, I’d like to get it right, religion-wise, down here on Earth. I really would.
I’d like my parishioners, wife, son and grandkids to be able to say after I’m gone, without blushing, “That guy was a genuine Christian if I ever met one.”
Not that I’ll know the difference, obviously, but still, that’s what I’d like.
I’d like to master a few of the basic spiritual virtues, such as kindness, humility, joy and faith. Thus far, I haven’t mastered any of them.
I’m not a bad guy. I’m just not a particularly good guy.
I’m too impatient. Too cranky toward those who interfere with my beloved routines. Too absorbed in my own momentary wants. Too trapped by the voices inside my head. Too gloomy. Too focused on things large and small that haven’t gone my way.
Yet, if I haven’t mastered my faith’s basic virtues, I believe I’ve made progress. Over the years, I’ve inched close enough to at least understand what they require.
To be a virtuous person is to be turned outward rather than inward. It’s only by fixing our eyes on God and other people that we ever escape our petty, niggling, whiny, sin-stained selves. (Maybe that doesn’t describe your inner self. But it describes mine.)
In Matthew’s gospel, for instance, Jesus says a godly person is one who sees a thirsty person and gives her something to drink, or sees an immigrant and offers him a warm place to stay, or sees a sick person and visits her.
That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but gracious actions, including those, often involve two stages — first, we’ve got to get outside our myopia enough to actually perceive someone else’s need, and second, we’ve then got to leave our own comfortable house and go do something tangible for that person.
We’ve got to be both mindful and intentional. For a lot of us that doesn’t come naturally. It’s not our default mode; it’s the override of that default.
We do a virtuous thing, whatever it is, not because we feel like it, but because we know it’s good. We consciously choose it over the alternative.
Slowly — excruciatingly slowly — I’m trying to yield to the spirit on such matters. I’m trying to make better choices 10 or 100 times a day, in myriad little ways.
I remind myself to be nice to that surly store clerk, even when I feel like stomping out in a huff. When some self-appointed critic berates my writing or preaching or theology, I try to smile and hold my tongue; I remember he could be correct.
When I’ve just spent 30 minutes reading the national news and am convinced the country is on a bullet train careening down greased tracks to hell, I decide to lift my eyes from the computer screen and rejoice that God’s still on his throne.
As I’m driving toward Lexington for another doctor’s appointment, to be gouged and plucked and scoped, I try to thank the Lord that, whatever this day holds, he’s already given me 62 years and he’ll no-doubt see me the rest of the way, however long that is.
None of this comes easily to me. It’s all against my default nature.
But I hope if I practice it enough, someday it will come naturally.
Right now, I practice all of it imperfectly. Occasionally I mouth back at the critic despite myself. Sometimes I still get the blues and keep them for a week.
Still, I think I’ve at least recognized the path toward those spiritual qualities I’d like to master. And that gives me hope.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.