About ten years ago, I met a man who underwent quintuple coronary artery bypass surgery. Up until then I had only heard of triple and quadruple bypass surgery. I’m sure they’re doing sextuple, septuple, and octuple bypass surgery now. I looked it up, and there’s no neat way to do this. I will not bore you with the details, and I know you did not come here to be grossed out. But I believe some detail is necessary because it is a matter of Life or Death, and what we celebrate today is a matter of Life or Death. So here goes. Coronary bypass surgery involves placing the patient under general anesthesia; breaking the chest open; stopping the heart; diverting blood flow to a machine; harvesting healthier blood vessels from other parts of the body, usually the leg; grafting those blood vessels onto the heart bypassing the blockages in the damaged vessels; and restarting the heart making sure there are no leaks. That is as simple as I can put it; and I know I left out many important details, like what kind of preparation is involved before surgery, how long surgery usually goes, and what is expected of one after surgery, to say nothing of the toll all this takes on the patient’s family. Anyway, ten years later, this gentleman is still alive. But he has returned to some smoking, some drinking, and not as active a lifestyle as I am sure his doctors would like. He is once more flirting with danger. He was given a wonderful second chance for a new life, but instead he has preferred a path that leads back to death a little at a time each day. His sons however seem to have learned from their father’s experience. They have children of their own, and that alone is compelling reason to choose life. You know people like this man. Maybe you are this man. I don’t know what it’s like to live a life like that. So I will not stand in judgment. But I just think it should be a no-brainer. Life or Death.
Recently I met a man who has been killing himself a little everyday since he was 14 using alcohol and all sorts of illegal drugs and substances. He told me he wanted out of that life, a path to death he has been on for most of his life. My first reaction was I didn’t know where to start. I have no experience or training with recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. But I told him I was willing to help, that I wanted the same for him, to bring about this change of direction in his life. In fact I had no idea what I was getting into. But I am not naïve. I’m learning. We all know it will be a difficult climb. It will be expensive, and frustrating, and heartbreaking. But I know I can only invest myself in his recovery as much as he is willing to make this radical change in his life. This is not my battle. I can walk away whenever I choose. And on several occasions, I have felt that strong urge to give up. He, on the other had, has to make that difficult choice each day, and each moment of each day: Life or Death. Everything he does, everything he puts into his body: Life or Death. Every choice he makes, every breath he takes: Life or Death. The details can distract from the issue sometimes – just a little sip here or a little hit there to take off the edge should be harmless – but it comes down to only two things: Life or Death. It should be a no-brainer, don’t you think?
It should be, but only if you have something to live for. What do you live for? What ultimately is the reason you take every breath you take, why you get up in the morning and put in a full day’s work, why you eat healthy and get the necessary sleep and exercise, why you slog through school to get an education, why you put money away into savings, why you make plans for the future, why you wear a helmet when you ride a bike, why you use the handrails when you walk down the stairs, why you make sure the airbags and brakes in your car work, why you spend time you don’t have with your friends and loved ones, why you get down on your knees and pray, why you make time to come to church, why you share a portion of your resources with the poor and the hungry, why you choose to live the life you live?
I like my life. I enjoy my work. I love spending time with my friends and my family. I appreciate the ordinary blessings in my life. But really it could be better still. I know it could be better. My doctor says I need to lose weight. He says my cholesterol is too high. It needs to come down by a lot. And I need to exercise more. Finding the time is a challenge sometimes. But unless I am convinced it is a matter of Life or Death, there will be no compelling reason to make a change. And for many people, myself included, we prefer Life and a little side dish of Death, not the big old nasty Death in a black hooded robe and a scythe (you know, that big nasty curved blade on a pole). It’s just a little side dish of Death, not as scary. Life and a little side dish of Death. No need for alarm. Just stay the course and carry on.
So our life with God is a matter of Life or Death as well. While many among us have no trouble proclaiming aloud our choice for God, we say our prayers religiously; we go to church eh… —when we can fit it in; we help the poor for the tax write-off; we also don’t often see any need for a change in the direction of our life. We are convinced we are good people, with good hearts. Why fix what ain’t broken? So every now and then, what harm is a little white lie? A little fib? A little gossiping? A little road rage? A little cursing? A little petty theft? But it’s just a couple of pens, a mug, or a longer lunch break than I should get. And every now and then, what harm is a little temper tantrum? A little righteous indignation? A little peek at inappropriate websites? A little off-color joke? A little tax evasion? A little fling with someone else’s spouse? Whoah! That I’m afraid, sir, is where you cross the line. Really? I say you crossed the line long before then, when you decided on several occasions it was okay to choose Life with a little side dish of Death.
This Easter day, we celebrate our triumph over darkness and sin in Jesus Christ risen from the dead. But because I didn’t myself die the death he died, it’s a little surreal. I have no nail marks, no wounds, no welts, no disfigurement, no loss of dignity. I can rejoice in Jesus’ new Life while not actually giving up my old life. But if I did truly choose the Life he won for me, it would be earth-shattering and mind-blowing. It would mean an end of sin and the flowering of grace in every corner of my life. But instead, I am content to choose Life with a little side dish of Death. Having a little excitement isn’t bad. In fact it can be good, we so often hear. We’re not cloistered monks. We can have a little fun. We’re not breaking the law. We’re not palling around with Satan and his minions. We are proud to proclaim for all the world to hear that we choose the Life Jesus offers by his death on the cross … and every now and again, a little side dish of Death.
Just like after bypass surgery — I’ll take a large greasy pizza, and a small diet soft drink. Really?
Rolo B. Castillo © 2013