When Theory Meets Reality

Some of you know my family had a brush with death this past week.  Others of you know that I have a new book on joy coming out in four weeks.  Well, those two things (call them “my reality” and “my theory”) collided on Monday.

My Reality: My dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma that attacked his lungs. There are over 30 types of lymphoma and each requires a specific chemo cocktail to zap the cancer. Using the wrong mixture is not a good thing. For many reasons that I won’t go into, it took 17 days to get the diagnosis right.  In the meantime, our family stood by as we watched him slowly begin to suffocate to death.

My Theory:  (Actually, my theory on joy is more than a theory.  It’s my theology.  It’s rooted in a decade of reading everything under the sun about joy.  It’s based on my life coaching practice. It’s proven true in my life many times.)

The foundation of my understanding of joy is that it’s different from happiness. Happiness is circumstantial.  Joy is sustained even when things aren’t going so hot. Joy is all about perspective — seeing our lives through God’s lens and with a view toward eternity.

The rubber met the road on Monday.  I was in Florida to help my mom help my dad. I went to bed on Sunday with a heavy heart, woke up at 4:00 a.m. and couldn’t fall asleep again.

I lay in bed realizing it was quite possible my dad was going to die that day. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t giving up:  My mom, brothers and I were tirelessly working every angle to get my dad the help he needed.  What was happening was simply that the possibility of his dying had settled into my brain.

And then something horrible happened:  I realized I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t angry.  I wasn’t frantic. I was at peace. (Peace is obviously different from joy, but those of you who have downloaded the first 4 chapters of my book or preordered it know that I intentionally lump peace, joy, and fulfillment together.)

So how could being at peace be horrible. Because I initially felt guilty. Shouldn’t I be distraught?  Shouldn’t I be devastated?  What would mom or my brothers think if I wasn’t all torn up?  Would they think I was heartless or didn’t love dad?

But then it dawned on my why I was at peace.

  1. My dad is right with God. He knows that when his body dies his spirit will continue on forever. He’s accepted Jesus’ gift of bridging the gap between forever separated and forever joined with God.
  2. If he died, he would be with his father, mother, older sister Rita, and so many others who have gone before him — including his crazy, lifelong-bachelor Uncle Pete. Pete loved the Yankees and loved my dad and they did all sorts of fun things together.
  3. In 20 or so years my mom would join him.
  4. In 40 or so years, I would join him.
  5. There is no one in the world that he loves that he hasn’t told so.
  6. There is no one (as far as I know) who he needs to forgive that he hasn’t forgiven.
  7. There is no one (as far as I know) who he needs to apologize to that he hasn’t apologized to.
  8. He’s followed biblical principles of money. Spend less than you make. Be generous. Save. My mom would be secure because this high school biology teacher and football coach was frugal and thinking of her in case he should die first.

I finally got out of bed a little before 6:00 a.m. and saw my mom in the kitchen.  She told me she woke up at 4:00, too. I said to her, “Mom, I don’t have much confidence in dad’s situation right now.” She said, “I’ve been trying to put the thought out of my mind, but I feel the same way, too.”

I then said, “I have to tell you that I feel strange and even guilty — even ashamed — to say what I am about to say, but I actually think I’m ok with either outcome today.”

She put her hands to her mouth and gasped: “I feel the same way. The last thing I want to do is have your father die and I have been praying like crazy for God to turn the situation around, but I think I’m ready to trust that the Good Lord knows better than I do.”

We went on to have a great talk about all the reasons why we felt the way we did. (The 8 items above).

We finished our breakfast and headed to the hospital resolved to do everything in our power that day to keep my him alive, but trusting the result to God.

I don’t write all this to brag about my dad or make my mom and I look like we have life all figured out. I’m just telling you the way it is and that you can have peace and joy, too.

Three closing thoughts:

  1. God’s not done with Joe Spadafora.  His condition has improved and I now believe he’s got lots of living and loving left to do on this planet.
  2. Knowing the character of God and how much He loves us (so much so that he would kill His own Son to give us the chance to be with Him for eternity) continues to blow my mind.
  3. I firmly believe this mindset is spiritual reality  — not some kooky psychology or irrelevant theology. My encouragement is to crack open a bible and start reading (or re-reading) it.  I suggest starting in the second chapter of Matthew and go from there.

Be blessed and live with joy.

Jeff Spadafora