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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Grimacing While Running Life's Race, Finishing Life's Course, Wearing a Crown of Victory

It's been nineteen days since Herbert S. Estes died, late in the evening in his bed, with Ruth and two nurses present, on May 4, 2014.  He struggled a bit with his final breaths, fighting down to the end.  Was he feeling pain from his heart or his breathing?  We really don't know, but it would not be surprising if there was some pain.  Although he had not struggled with the same kind of pain that his daughter Everly did last year, as tumors did their damage to her backbone, liver, and other places, he had endured pain in his body as the brain, nerves, and muscles stopped working as they should.  His many years of heart and arterial disease had also given him pain, off and on.  It could have been a bit of angina that he felt in those closing minutes.  There was a grimace.  It's stuck in Ruthie's memory.  She hopes he was not hurting too bad as he left us.

But the grimace could also be the grimace of a competitor.  Herbie's decline was exacerbated by his loss of hearing and his loss of vision.  Both of these were indirectly related to his heart and artery disease, with other complicating factors.  Not seeing clearly, and not hearing very much, he was often confined to a world all his own, an inward looking life of memories and imagination.  Through the last year of his life, there were times most every day when he seemed to be in another place from where the others in the room were. 

Sometimes he felt the need to protect the family and himself from potential dangers.  In those cases, we were reminded of his athletic body, because he could grab one of our hands or arms and hold and pull with great strength.  He still had that grip strength even on May 4.  Other times, quite often in fact, he was at some kind of contest.  It seemed that it might be a track meet.  He would talk about running a race, and about trying to win.  This race, this competition, easily slipped over in our imaginations to be a kind of metaphor for his struggle to live and to come to the end of his life. 

The imagery that Paul the Apostle uses in his writings as he approached his death was present in our thinking.  In Corinthians he wrote about training to run, and running in a way that one can win.  In Galatians and Philippians he wrote about hoping that his running would not be in vain.  To friends in Ephesus, Acts tells us that he hoped to finish his course.  He urged Timothy to train, and in his last letter to Timothy announced that he had finished his race.  Everly's favorite verses come from Paul's letter to the Philippians, and they also contain this imagery of pressing on toward the mark.  We can't be sure that we knew everything going on in Herbie's mind, but we have strong belief that he was through memory and imagination running a race to win.

Running a race to win can mean trying to keep strong and keep going as long as possible.  So a grimace can be part of the evidence of a runner giving it all he's got to keep going and stay ahead of the competition.  Unless my imagination is way off track, I think it is at least partly true that Herbie's grimace, on many days, and on May 4, was the grimace of a competitor, a runner, striving to win a race. 

There is ambiguity in Paul's imagery about the race, and it is inherent in the concept of a race.  On one hand, there is the struggle and effort to be ahead.  Someone else is always running along behind, maybe closing the gap of the leader, pushing to get ahead.  Then there is the end of the race when the winner is decided.  Being ahead, winning, during the course of the race, is not yet a victory.  That's why there is a constant striving.

Who were Herbie's competitors?  I think of it as the various illnesses of his heart, arteries, brain, muscles, blood, etc.  He was struggling to stay ahead of their diabolical progress to consume and defeat him.  He was trying to keep himself present, out ahead of their threatening and damaging progress.  He was fighting the good fight. 

Sometimes Herbie did think he was in a fight.  It was heartbreaking for Ruth, Marie, and others who would be in the room with him when he mistook them for a threatening presence.  It was not all the time, but it was a regular thing that happened.  This fighting was to the family a sign of his suffering, his discomfort with the remains of his life.  Being so isolated by bodily weakness, lack of vision, and lack of hearing, he felt threatened.  We fear he even felt alone at times. 

Of course, that is not so different from anyone's struggle with terminal illness.  Everly only briefly struggled with that kind of mental isolation for a couple of weeks while she was in the hospital in April 2012.  The combination of advanced tumor growth, too strong a dose of chemotherapy drugs, and pain medications put her out of her usual consciousness.  But even after that short episode, the experience of her cancer often made her feel alone.  Inability to sleep, inability to work, struggling with maintaining a body under attack, always hurting somewhere, long nights awake--all of these were isolating experiences.  In that way, Herbie's acting out of his frustrations and isolation is part of what many people suffer as they approach the end of their days.  Herbie felt alone, but his family made Herculean efforts to reassure him of their presence and love, and he clearly knew that up until the very end.

Herbie, like Paul, could say,
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-9, NRSV).
I mentioned it in my last post, but I want to close with quoting the full remarks of my niece, Emily Finkelstine, which are relevant to this point.
After Herbie’s worst stroke, I found myself wondering a lot why God would allow the end of his life to be so full of pain and confusion. My reasoning was that if God works for the good of those who love Him and God works for His glory to be seen in the world, then at least one of those things should be evident and visible in suffering, and I couldn’t see it. But eventually, I saw the glory. I saw it in the unbreakable bonds of familial love…in the way that Granny Ree and my mom and the whole family cared for him and watched over him, even on the hardest days. And most of all, I saw it in the way that even when Herbie knew nothing else, he still knew the name of Jesus and he sure still knew how to sing hymns, nice and loud and off-key and full of praise.
I used to pray for freedom for Herbie a lot, whether that meant miraculous healing, returning home to Jesus, or even just having the knowledge that his soul was free in Christ even as his mind and body were held relatively captive here. It wasn’t until I moved back into the house after my freshman year of college that I realized Herbie shared my prayer; he would often cry out for freedom and for victory. So, as difficult as it is to say goodbye, I know that he has those things now. I know that he is free and that he is reveling in the blessings of Christ’s victory over death. Hallelujah.
 

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