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I spent a lot of time this week at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where my father had aortic valve replacement surgery on Wednesday.  As I sat with him in his room, spent time in waiting rooms, and walked the corridors of this sprawling medical center, I was struck by just how many different physicians, nurses, and various kinds of technicians I encountered around every single corner on every hallway of every floor.

Cardiologists, pulmonologists, endocrinologists, pediatricians, neurologists, OB/GYNs, anesthesiologists, surgeons, oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, psychiatrists, geneticists, orthopedic specialists, ENTs, gastroenterologists, ER doctors, and on and on the list could go; all of them supported and assisted by countless nurses, techs, and other staff. And that was just one hospital in one city. Multiply that by all of the hospitals in Baton Rouge, and in places like Dallas, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Atlanta. Add to that all of the family practitioners in every town of any size at all across the country. Multiply that by all of the countries around the world.

Why so many medical professionals? Why do they stay scheduled and booked for weeks, sometimes months, in advance? Why do they have such incredible job security? Because there is an incalculable amount of sickness, pain, disease, injury, discomfort, debilitation, and disability in this world.

I was reminded this week about how much of life revolves around sickness. It is everywhere. It is relentless. No family is exempt. No individual is immune.

Such is life. Such is this life. But, such is not the life to come.

The apostle John was granted an apocalyptic glimpse and vision of our perfected existence beyond the brokenness and imperfections of this life. Beside the river of life, he saw the tree of life, the leaves of which brought healing to the nations. No more curse. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more suffering. No more parting. No more tears. No more death.

Nothing, not a single thing, for doctors to do.

I can’t wait!

It was about this time last year that I saw my first bald eagle in the wild while driving Coleman out to his horseback riding session at American Therapeutic Riding Center between Sand Springs and Keystone Lake.  I was ecstatic!  Since then, just in the past year, I have seen seven.  About six weeks ago, Kim, Coleman, and I took a scenic drive one Saturday afternoon.  We drove nearly to the Arkansas line and then wound our way down Highway 10 to Tahlequah.  Between Tahlequah and Fort Gibson, we pulled off on the roadside for about 30 minutes and watched three bald eagles as they fed on something in a pasture.  A three-fer!!!

However, my most incredible eagle sighting came just last week as, once again, Coleman and I were traveling along Highway 412, this time on the return trip from his riding session.  In the distance, I saw something that at first I thought must have been a kite (the man-made recreational kind, not the bird of prey) with a long tail extending below it.  As we drove closer, it became apparent that it was an eagle, but I still could not identify what was dangling from its clutched talons.  A huge, writhing snake, maybe?  As the eagle soared over the highway just ahead of us, I could clearly see that it was carrying a tree branch, probably four to five feet in length, with several smaller branches and twigs protruding from it.  It was truly an amazing sight, almost a “run-off-the-road-watching-it” kind of amazing!  The eagle was taking the branch to its nest, perhaps the one that is easily visible on Wekiwa Road that runs close to the Arkansas River.

Eagles’ nests are huge, ranging from five to nine feet in diameter.  Eagles were created with the divinely programmed instincts and abilities necessary to build these homes, but it still takes a massive amount time and effort on their part to construct such sturdy and durable aeries.

We humans, also, have been known to expend substantial amounts of time, effort, and resources on our “nests,” the homes in which we are blessed to live while on this earth.  That is all well, fine, and good (as long we keep it in perspective and within our means), but it would be wise for us to periodically assess how much we are investing, comparatively speaking, in preparation for our eternal home.

Like Abraham, we are “looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God,” (Hebrews 11:10).  We are booking eternal accommodations in rooms prepared by Christ Himself in the Father’s house (John 14:2-3).  Our earthly houses can be destroyed by fire, flood, or wind; thieves can break in and steal our worldly possessions.  That is why we store up our treasures and invest our hearts in heaven, beyond the reach of thugs and thieves (Matthew 6:19-21), in a “building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens,” (II Corinthians 5:1).

“Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.  Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed,” (I Timothy 6:17-19).

Some glad morning I’ll fly away, just like that eagle, to be at home with the Lord.

“In India, we have a saying: ‘Everything will be all right in the end.’  So, if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.”

So goes the response of the irrepressibly optimistic Sonny, the aspiring hotelier, to his dissatisfied guests in last year’s surprise hit movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Though I assume it was entirely unintended, Sonny’s expression of confidence in the future reflects a sentiment that is very much at the heart of Christian hope and faith.

I don’t have to convince you that “it’s not all right” in this world.  Beyond the global concerns of numerous wars and regions of famine throughout the world, and national worries about violence, crime, and a struggling economy, our personal lives can sometimes be a total mess.  God does not provide Christians with exemption cards or pass chips that shield us from chronic illnesses, unemployment, broken relationships, betrayal, or mistreatment by others.  “In the world you will have tribulation,” (John 16:33).  You nailed that one, Lord!  This isn’t a “chance of rain – 40%” kind of prediction; it’s a given; Jesus practically promised that things are going to be tough.

We hurt.  We have disappointments, both in ourselves and in others.  We get discouraged.  We get tired.  Just when we start catching some wind in our sails, something or someone comes along and knocks the legs out from under us, resulting in a solid, mixed metaphoric kick in the gut.

But, we’re not there yet!

Scripture reminds us that “everything will be all right in the end.”  Granted, there are some days when those words come across like a toothless, impotent platitude that utterly fails to sooth the soul or dull the pain.  But, deep down I believe and know that one day, God is going to call a halt to all of this temporal nonsense, and suffering is going to be victoriously swallowed up by glory.

After His heads-up about life’s hardships, Jesus went on to supply the antidote for our anxieties.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world,” (John 16:33).

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us,” (Romans 8:18).

“So we do not lose heart.  Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison,” (II Corinthians 4:16-17).

I’ve got a room booked at the Best Eternal Celestial Hotel (John 14:1-3).  I can endure a few more bumps in the road along the journey, and I will patiently persevere while I’m waiting for check-in time to arrive!

His name is Nikita, and he made an indelible impression on my heart.  I don’t have a photograph of him, but I can see his face so clearly in my mind.  

I met Nikita two years ago on my first trip to Ukraine.  Our mission team had already enjoyed a successful week of VBS/Bible Camp in Yasinovataya, and it was Day One of working with a new group of children in Gorlovka.  I was teaching the oldest group of kids, those in their early to mid-teens.  Nikita, a tall, slender young man with dark hair, first caught my attention as we were getting our morning session started by making name tags to wear on lanyards.  Through my translator, Dima, I had asked the children to write their names in Russian and English (with assistance, if needed).  Nikita just fumbled with the materials for several minutes until someone thoughtfully wrote his name for him, slid the name card into the plastic sleeve, clipped it to the lanyard, and placed it around his neck.  It was then that I began to perceive “shades of Coleman” and indications of autism.

When Nikita spoke, his voice was rather loud, he stuttered, and he often blurted things out at unexpected moments.  His hands were in near-constant motion, sometimes just moving about, and at other times intensely focused on some object.  By mid-morning, he had completely dismantled his name tag, shredding both the paper and the plastic sleeve.  We made him another.  After he dispensed with three of them on the first day, we decided that Nikita really didn’t need a name tag.  

I moved Nikita’s chair next to mine at the table and gave him some blank sheets of paper and some markers.  It kept him happily occupied while we had our class discussions.  His kinesthetic activities and self-stimulatory behaviors, however, were in no way indicative of a lack of interest or comprehension of what was going on around him.  He would frequently respond to questions that I asked.  Sometimes Dima would translate Nikita’s answers for me, but I needed no help in understanding when he quickly replied with a repetitive “da” or “nyet.” 

Nikita’s mother had stayed nearby throughout the morning and approached me at the beginning our lunch break.  Through Dima, she expressed concerns that Nikita might be a distraction and wanted assurances that it was alright for him to remain with the others in the class.  That gave me an opportunity to briefly tell her about my son Coleman.  I explained to her that I, too, had an autistic son.  Like Nikita, he had dark hair and dark eyes that danced when he smiled.  Her eyes began to fill with tears, and she gave me a long embrace.  I assured her that I understood, that I had so much respect and admiration for her and the love and care that she provided for her son, and that Nikita would be fine.

Nearly every day that week I sat at the table with Nikita and his mother during lunch.  She lovingly assisted him with his meals, as we still do with Coleman.  One day Nikita was wearing flip-flops that were glaringly much too small for his long feet, the entire length of his heels dragging the ground behind them.  Members of our team expressed concern to Nikita’s mother, along with an offer to provide money for new shoes.  She smiled and explained that the flip-flops were hers, but that Nikita had chosen them that morning before they left their apartment and was insistent on wearing them.  Been there, done that!  You choose your battles carefully with autistic children, and “appearances” soon slide way down the list of things that are worth fretting over.

Nikita and his mother presented me with a box of chocolates on Thursday evening after our closing Family Night presentations and activities.  Nikita gave me a tight hug before they left for their home.  I was hopeful that they would stay connected with the church in Gorlovka in the weeks and months that followed, but apparently they did not.  When a team from our church returned there last year, they were told that Nikita had not been seen again and that no one had an address for them. 

Nikita and his mother have stayed on my mind and heart over the last two years.  I held out hope that they would show up at the church in Gorlovka on Monday morning three weeks ago when our group was starting this year’s VBS, but they didn’t.

Yet, Wednesday of that week provided a brief, but joyful, reunion!  We had taken our class to a park across the street to play a water balloon tossing game that was a huge hit with kids in the heat and humidity of a Ukrainian summer.  That’s when I noticed Nikita and his mother walking toward our group.  I caught sight of them about the same time they saw me.  There were smiles and hugs shared, but only a brief conversation as they explained that they were in a hurry to get to the nearby supermarket to buy a few food items and were pressed for time to reach some scheduled activity.  About 15 minutes later, they walked back by us.  Nikita ran to me, presented me with a chocolate bar, gave me a firm kiss on my cheek, and then quickly caught up with his mother.  No words were exchanged, but it made my day, my week, and my trip!

I hope that I can connect with Nikita and his mother again on a future trip to Gorlovka or through Christian friends who live there.  Coleman has access to so many resources, assistive devices, and a large, loving support network that make his life and circumstances (and ours) so much easier to bear.  We are blessed; I know we are; and it weighs on my heart heavily when I consider how little of those things Nikita and his mother may have.

But, one thing I know.  I know where I will find Nikita in eternity.  I will find him living joyfully and freely in the presence of his Creator, released from limitations, perfected and whole, and occupying a prominent place of honor in the Blessed Order of the Least of These.

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May 2023