April 8, 2020

A Lenten Brunch Special: March 21, 2020

Chimney Rock, New Mexico. Photo by Pedro Szekely at Flickr. Creative Commons License

A Lenten Brunch Special: March 21, 2020

Note from CM: We have a special guest speaker for our weekly brunch today. My good friend and former iMonk partner Jeff Dunn is here with a message most appropriate for Lent. And like all of Jeff’s writing, it arises from his life. He has reached a critical point in his journey, and I’ve asked him to share it with you. I know you’ll appreciate his words and his spirit, and that this community will rally around Jeff and his family at this time.

Welcome, Jeff, and thanks for your transparency. We love you.

Goodbye Seems To Be The Hardest Word
By Jeff Dunn

The men in my family have always had trouble saying goodbye. My grandpa’s eyes would well up with tears when we would leave to return to our home—just 12 miles up the road. My dad and I do great on a phone call with each other, until that awkward time when it’s time to end the conversation. I almost imagine us being like teenage crushes. “You hang up first.” “No, you hang up first.” When our oldest daughter left to go to college for the first time, it about tore me up to say goodbye. And she was only going four miles away. Even our son, VERY much the millennial, doesn’t like saying goodbye. When he stops over for a visit, he’ll just get up and walk out the door without even a “See ya later.” There’s something about saying “goodbye” we Dunns just haven’t grasped yet.

Now I’m struggling to say goodbye to things that have been a part of my 60-plus years on earth. Goodbye to travel. Goodbye to going to Tulsa Drillers baseball games (if and when they get started again). Goodbye to going to Gardner’s, my favorite used bookstore.

I’m also learning to say goodbye to simpler things, like getting up from my chair unassisted, going to the grocery on my own, writing with a pen. Yesterday I said goodbye to my favorite coffee mug—handcrafted by a master artist here in Tulsa. It has become too heavy for me to hold.

I received my diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, last summer. That diagnosis—or, rather, deathnosis, as ALS is always fatal—put me on my farewell tour. And what a tour it has been! I’ve longed for this for so very long. No, I haven’t desired a fatal illness, and I wasn’t wanting to say goodbye to the many people, experiences and things I’ve enjoyed all of my life. But I have longed to say goodbye to the false self, the self constantly in need of approval and acceptance, the self that talked a good game about the love of God but didn’t believe he loved me or even knew I existed. All it took was ALS to help me to stop begging for attention from others and really, truly begin to know my ever-loving, merciful, kind and generous Father.

It’s funny how receiving a death sentence has freed me to live. Here’s what I mean. I had longed to go to New Mexico for a number of years. It was a longing in my spirit that I couldn’t explain. I just knew I had to go. And even though I made attempts to scrounge up the money and free some time for the venture, I always came to the conclusion we couldn’t afford it. New Mexico became a dream that most likely would never come true.

Then, right after the doctor confirmed the symptoms I had experienced for more than a year were caused by Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Motor Neuron Disease if you’re British, Charcot’s Disease in France), I decided I was going to New Mexico no matter what, and I wasn’t going to wait around to go. I didn’t know how fast the disease would progress to the point where I couldn’t travel.

My spiritual director asked me if I was afraid to die. “No,” I told him. “Why should I be afraid to die?
“But I am afraid to not live.”

So, in September my good friend Mike Lacer and I set off for the Land of Enchantment, neither of us knowing just why we were going, only that we had to go in order to live. I could walk you through the entire trip, but suffice it to say it was God-infused from the moment we left Tulsa until we returned five days later. There was something about meeting God in the desert that cannot be described, at least not in any language we possess.

Many think my life now is a desert. All I have before me is daily physical deterioration. I will soon (if I’m not already) be useless to others. All I’ll be able to do is watch Netflix and drool. This is what many think is the inevitable path in front of me. And maybe it is. I am experiencing new physical limitations or pains daily. My muscles constantly twitch. It will soon be hard for me to swallow, so perhaps I will drool like that dog on Turner and Hootch. I don’t have Netflix, and don’t plan to get it—instead, I watch the squirrels and birds out my back window.

As for being useless to others, I think I’ve lived on that island for quite a while already.

But my life is far from a desert, or at least the desert most people think of—a lifeless place of dirt and rocks and a few plants you can’t touch because of their sharp quills. The desert is a magnificent landscape teeming with life. However, it takes special senses to experience this life. Senses that can adjust to the desert landscape. Eyes to see the sky reaching all the way down to the earth. Ears to hear the powerful silence. A nose to smell the freshest fresh air ever. Hands to touch pyrite and gypsum and iron ore. And a tongue to taste—oh the tastes! Rich, earthen meals made from simple ingredients that are more wonderful than any gourmet meal. This is the desert I experienced in New Mexico, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, brought home with me.

For so long, my life was noise and buildings and a lifeless sky. It took a deathnosis to get me to see that God has so much for us in the barren and broken places. In these last months I have—at last—learned to not strive for God, but rest in him. He is here with me, more real than the rocks I brought back from the desert. I now have the intimacy with my Father that I have longed for.

In The Luckiest Man, author John Paine recounts his life before and after his own ALS deathnosis. He puts in much better words than mine just how I feel about this illness.

ALS gave me a gift. It brought me to edge of myself—my abilities, my confidences, my control—then pushed me over the edge, screaming. I didn’t find the abyss over that edge, though; I found the open arms of God waiting to welcome me into his life of unconditional love, validation, comfort, and peace. In my own powerlessness, I found myself welcomed by the Power of all power.

Yes, I see ALS as a gift from God. Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—matters outside of God. He will not settle for being a part of my life—not even the biggest part. He wants all of me. He wants to take me from edifices built for the glory of man, the sounds of uncivil discourse, and the smells of those desperate to extend their lives and take me to the desert, his desert, where there is real life, true life. The only way there is by death. For me, that death includes physical death, most likely in a year or two. For all, it means a death to self. Being a Christian is not easy. God demands nothing less than everything.

So, I am saying goodbye to things that used to make me so happy. The coffee cup I mentioned at the start of this post is made of clay, not steel, but yesterday it weighed by arm and shoulder down to where it was too painful to drink from. I said goodbye to “hopping up” to go anywhere. I have no “hop” left. Now I have a lift chair—a recliner that pushes me up to a standing position so I can get up when no one is here to help.
I said goodbye to the idea of returning to New Mexico. Any trip longer than half an hour wears me out. I said goodbye to going to Ohio to see my aging parents or going to Dallas for an In N Out burger.

I’m having to say goodbye to talking for very long. About five minutes into a conversation I find myself gasping for air. (This is a blessing for those who have been subjected to me rambling endlessly about things only I care about.)

Maybe the hardest thing I’ve had to say goodbye to are my beloved books. I can no longer hold a hardcover book, and can only hold paperbacks for a short time. I’m switching to reading mostly on my Kindle. eBooks are an awesome innovation, but as you book lovers know, it ain’t the same as holding paper in your hands.

None of these goodbyes, however, hold a candle to the Hello I’ve received from God. I implore you to let go of everything and get to know God in the most intimate way possible. For most, it will not take being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s. But for everyone it will involve dying.

I want to close with a quote from St. Augustine. If you forget everything I’ve just said, fine. But hold these words close to your heart.

All those who belong to Jesus Christ are fastened with Him to the Cross. A Christian during the whole course of his life should, like Jesus, be on the Cross. It would be an act of rashness to descend therefrom, since Jesus Christ did not descend, even when the Jews offered to believe in Him. The time for driving out the nails of this Cross is only after death; there is then no time to extract the nails whilst we live; we must wait until our sacrifice is consummated. So strong sometimes are the storms of life that strength of arm is of no avail, and there is no other means to save us from shipwreck than trusting in the Cross of Jesus Christ by which we are consecrated.

• Saint Augustine of Hippo

Comments

  1. Jeff Dunn, how eloquent your thoughts and written words are. I thought at the beginning you were sharing a story being housebound with the corona virus and lamenting the loss of mobility though being isolated, that I could relate to, your journey before you
    I can understand your love of a printed book, you can read and reread the pages, you can mark them, dog ear them , the book conveys substance to me but perhaps that is our environment we grew up in. All I can say is God Bless you and thank you for sharing your story. One of the best things I learned here was from CM and I use it when I am at a lost of words to convey my thoughts to others in a situation I have not encountered ” With God the worst thing , is not the last thing”. Nothing to add to that . You already know and believe that.

  2. Michael Bell says

    Jeff,

    Thank you for stepping up to the plate when Michael Spencer passed away. You hold a special place in my heart. Thank you for being such an encouragement to me. Go with God my friend, and rest in his peace that surpasses all understanding. I often think of you, and will be especially praying for you at this time.

    Mike Bell

  3. Jeff

    I never comment but have missed your presence on this blog, especially the Saturday ramblings. Daniel does a good job but your sarcasm and sense of humor are closer to mine. My heart hurts for you and your family as I have walked the Lou Gehrig’s path with another close dear friend and I understand the physical limitations that confront you. The world will be a dimmer place without your presence. I thank you for sharing your journey with us and I pray for relief for your body. May God protect you and encourage you. May you know that you are loved. Losing your favorite coffee cup makes me weep. Much love to you Jeff Dunn.
    Heather

    • Jeff,

      Many of Heather’s words to you—if not all—resonate with me as well. The dignity with which you’re approaching this is both admirable and inspirational. Much love and much peace to you. Prayers, too.

      -Rick

  4. David Cornwell says

    Jeff, thanks for sharing. You’re arriving at the end of the road that all of us travel. You may arrive at Home before some of us. The road is long with many twists and turns, hills and valleys, parks and wild places. You have blessed us with your presence and wisdom. You have spoken plainly about hardships and offered clear praise to God at other times.

    Your witness and your writing have blessed us all. Thank you. If the Lord permits and you have the strength, I hope we hear from you again. If not we wish you well just now.

    May the peace of God be with you.

  5. “But my life is far from a desert, or at least the desert most people think of—a lifeless place of dirt and rocks and a few plants you can’t touch because of their sharp quills. The desert is a magnificent landscape teeming with life. However, it takes special senses to experience this life. Senses that can adjust to the desert landscape. Eyes to see the sky reaching all the way down to the earth. Ears to hear the powerful silence. A nose to smell the freshest fresh air ever. Hands to touch pyrite and gypsum and iron ore. And a tongue to taste—oh the tastes! Rich, earthen meals made from simple ingredients that are more wonderful than any gourmet meal. This is the desert I experienced in New Mexico, and thanks to the Holy Spirit, brought home with me.”

    Jeff, this touches my heart, it’s such beautiful writing. May your journey continue in peace and in love. Blessings to you.

  6. Jeff, I love you brother. I have only one regret–not meeting you face to face when I lived so relatively close.

  7. I implore you to let go of everything and get to know God in the most intimate way possible. For most, it will not take being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s. But for everyone it will involve dying.

    Many of us, perhaps all of us at this point, are being pulled along that path of death to self due to the current crisis. It’s hard enough all by itself, but to have the added weight of something like ALS along with it is like finding oneself on the express route to death to self, as well as plain old death. What a terrible ordeal the way of the cross is — and what choice does one have but to trust, as best one can, that it leads to new life and journey’s end? That is the only Christian option, and the only hope for any human being. May God continue to be with you, holding you close as you go, Jeff. Peace, my friend.

  8. *sits in the ground next to Jeff in silence*

  9. Andrew Zook says

    This resonates with me, more than it would have maybe 3 wks ago… I felt a kind of dying (expressed in emotionally breaking down) immediately prior to my PET scan. And although that scan gave us some good news finally, (the nodule on my lung hasn’t spread) I’m thinking more in the themes that Jeff has brought up than I did a little while ago…

  10. Jeff, I’ve missed you in recent years.

    I’m very sorry to hear about the loss of the coffee cup and the hardcover book. Stories like this are often the most poignant illustrations in a tragedy—as when Einstein was asked what a world after a nuclear war would be like. He said, “No one will ever again hear Mozart.”

    I’m currently reading (in hardcover, no kindle here) a novel by Amor Towles, Rules of Civility, in which the protagonist, a young woman in 1930’s New York, recalls her Russian-immigrant father telling her about his life toward the end of it: that “Whatever setbacks he had faced in his life, he said,however daunting or dispiriting the unfolding of events, he always knew that he would make it through as long as when he woke in the morning he was looking forward to his first cup of coffee. Only decades later would I realize he had been giving me a piece of advice.” The protagonist goes on: “…but when a person loses the ability to take pleasure in the mundane—in the cigarette on the stoop or the gingersnap in the bath—she has probably put herself in unnecessary danger.”

    I encourage you to find some other icon of God’s grace to look forward to each morning, if you can’t have it in your favorite cup. Certainly the gingersnap in the bath, but avoid the cigarette on the stoop. That’ll kill you.

    Sorry. A little dark humor there.

    Your quote from Saint Augustine is also poignant, especially in your case—“All those who belong to Jesus Christ are fastened with Him to the Cross.” The best description of Christ’s crucifixion I’ve ever read is from Julian of Norwich, who describes the “drying” of his flesh, perhaps similar to what you’re going through.

    I didn’t want to include such a long quote, but I don’t know how to stop. Here’s Julian’s description:

    Thus I saw the sweet flesh dry in my sight, part after part drying with marvelous pain. And as long as any spirit had life in Christ’s flesh, so long suffered he. This long pain seemed to me as if he had been sevennight dead, dying, at the point of out passing, always suffering the great pain. And there I say it seemed as he had been sevennight dead, it specifieth that the sweet body was so discoloured , so dry, so clinging, so deadly, and so piteous as he had been sevennight dead, continually dying. And me thought the drying of Christ’s flesh was the most pain and the last of his passion.

    And in this drying was brought to my mind this word that Christ said, “I thirst.” For I saw in Christ a double thirst, one bodily and another ghostly. This word was showed for the bodily thirst, and for the ghostly thirst was showed as I shall say after. And I understood by the bodily thirst that the body had feeling of moisture, for the blessed flesh and bones was left all alone without blood and moisture. The blessed body dried all a lone long time with wringing of the nails and weight of the body. For I understood that for tenderness of the sweet hands and the sweet feet by the great hardness and grievous of the nails the wounds waxed wide and the body saddled for weight, by long time hanging and piercing and raising of the head and binding of the crown all baking with dry blood, with the sweet hair clinging the dry flesh to the thorns and the thorns to the flesh drying.

    Fastened with Him to the cross indeed. God bless you, brother.

  11. I am in awe of the courage and grace of your writing. You are not useless, you are a blessing. Love and prayers.

  12. Hauntingly powerful, beautifully written, and profoundly encouraging.

    Thank you.

  13. Dear Jeff, thank you. May our Lord continue to grant you consolation, and your family as well, especially in the Sacraments. I pray for a pious, kind priest to walk with you, and much peace for you and yours along the way..

    Dana

  14. “But I have longed to say goodbye to the false self, the self constantly in need of approval and acceptance, the self that talked a good game about the love of God but didn’t believe he loved me or even knew I existed.“

    ^^^

    From one who will probably always feel like an outsider I sure appreciate this. It will take a lifetime to figure this one out.

    Thank you Jeff

  15. Burro (Mule) says

    Well, we prayed for you and will continue to pray. That God would enlarge your life, indeed, even lengthen it. That you would have time and health to do all the things you still want to do, talk to the people who matter, read the books you’ve been putting off, pray the prayers that need to be prayed, release the grudges, forgive the wrongs, delight in what remains, and give thanks for all things.

    I have no business entering my eighth decade in ridiculous good health, relative prosperity, and relative family tranquility when good people like you and Susan are suffering so much. I’m thankful, but the theology that comes so naturally to us; the God prospers the righteous and punishes the wicked, is just wrong. There really doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it, or if there is, its written in a medium too subtle for me to discern.

  16. All those who belong to Jesus Christ are fastened with Him to the Cross. A Christian during the whole course of his life should, like Jesus, be on the Cross. It would be an act of rashness to descend therefrom, since Jesus Christ did not descend, even when the Jews offered to believe in Him. The time for driving out the nails of this Cross is only after death; there is then no time to extract the nails whilst we live; we must wait until our sacrifice is consummated. So strong sometimes are the storms of life that strength of arm is of no avail, and there is no other means to save us from shipwreck than trusting in the Cross of Jesus Christ by which we are consecrated.

    How much these words ring true today. May God have mercy on us all.

  17. “Nothing—and I mean absolutely nothing—matters outside of God.”
    Thank you Jeff, for the gift you have given us.
    Godspeed

  18. John Notestein says

    I have grown a lot reading your thoughts in past years. This post is no different and I thank you for sharing your life. Thank you for your presence in our lives.

  19. Jeff,

    As I usually breeze through here once every few days I started reading the beginning, then looked at the author and I thought, ah, like an old acquaintance, this will be good…. and I am reading and somewhat relating and then came the shock, like getting hit with a board, similar to Michael’s blog entry over 10 years ago….

    Jeff – I have always enjoyed what you wrote, your journey, your struggles, things I am relating more to now that I am getting older, and your journey into the Church. My prayer to you is that as you experience your new normal each day know that there is a virtual cloud of followers out here who are with you as well. Please share when you can as I will be eager to hear.

  20. Jeff,

    What Radagast said. And thank you for your witness.

  21. Jeff,
    That was the most poignant and moving piece I’ve read from you. I just released an album (CJ Fitz Thursday Night Sessions From January Sound). It’s on YouTube. There is a song called Funny One that is my love song to the Lord. It’s about the oddness of God and us and living and dying. If you have a moment give it a listen. It touches on some of that intimacy you are describing. Warmest thoughts and prayers. P.s. I live in Dallas so if you have a real hankering and can still put it down I would be happy to execute a mission of mercy and bring you an In and Out burger like next Sunday.

  22. Deeply moving and full of truth and wisdom. Thank you for these words. Whatever turns your difficult journey takes, may you continue to go with God’s presence and love and peace beyond comprehension.