Do you ever struggle in the journey of trying to stay healthy? I find myself fluctuating between two resolutions: avoid all unhealthy foods and exercise every day to try your best to eat healthy but don’t become obsessed with what you eat and how your body looks.
Each approach contains wisdom. What we put into our body matters. It’s good for us to move and exercise our body, to keep it feeling good, operating well, and prepared for the mission God gives us. We can do this faithfully, but at times we might become either overly obsessed, or too apathetic and indifferent towards the bodily temple we’ve been given. We don’t often think of this in terms of life of death though.
When we look at our bodies and our health in the context of the mission God has given us, it might be easier to accept the call to work on our health. A father providing for a family of seven will likely need to be energetic, positive, and free to do all he can to provide for and lead his family. A mother will need to be physically and mentally available to tend to her children. We’d all hope that a heart or brain surgeon who operates on us thinks straight, is awake, alert, and feeling well enough to bring us through surgery alive!
My grandfather was never a health freak kind of guy. He lived somewhat of a hard-knock-life as a sharecropper in Texas beginning in the 1920s/30s and eventually served in the US Army in WWII. After a dedicated tenure at a railroad company, he retired to a peaceful life focused on family, God, and good deeds.
While he believed in keeping his body healthy, he enjoyed a lot of the “unhealthy” things as well: hot [processed] tortillas with breakfast, a dessert following every meal, lots of fried things, etc. He had ups and downs with weight management at times; however, whenever the doctors told him to lose weight or that he needed to eat healthier or avoid certain foods, he showed tremendous resolve. Every time he set out to do something that he understood as the necessary, “right” thing to do, he just did it, simple as that.
In his earlier years, he struggled with overconsuming alcohol. In his older, wiser age, he limited it to a few Budweisers after a good, noble day’s work. I don’t remember why, but one day in his early 70s, he left behind beer and any kind of alcohol altogether. From that deciding moment on, no one could tempt him to consume any adult beverage in the slightest–not even a toast at a special occasion or a sip of a cold Corona at a summer gathering. He would not budge.
My hunch is that my grandfather reached a pivotal moment in his walk with God, and he wanted to deny himself of something that he took much pleasure from, and something he likely considered a vice. He walked away from drinking because he wanted to walk even more closely with Christ.
My grandfather was my favorite person on the planet. He meant so much and was such a life anchor for me, that I always feared his getting old and sick, and final departure from this earth.
Then, one day, my greatest fears began to materialize.
I received a panicked, frenzied call from my mom telling me that they were taking him to the hospital because he completely lost energy and fell in his home. He was on blood thinners at the time to regulate a health problem–-butthe docs who prescribed the meds neglected to see that the blood thinners were causing significant, negative effects on a separate, existing heart condition.
Though the mistake was corrected, this event became the first domino to fall in a series of deteriorating moments in my grandfather’s health.
During that hospitalization, doctors took a tissue sample to run a biopsy to determine whether there was an underlying problem. We wouldn’t receive results at that time, and he was doing okay, so my grandfather was released from the hospital and brought home.
Because my grandpa was so important, I decided to change some things in my life. I wanted spend the maximum possible amount of time with him.
I stayed at my grandparents’ house every night, so I could wish him goodnight and see him before leaving for work. Each morning, I’d leave his house to head to my home and get ready for work. I’d leave work, go to my house to make sure everything was good there, and then head back to my grandparents’ home for the night. That became my daily routine. Normal life was put on hold, and I focused solely on fulfilling work duties and being at my grandfather’s side.
The doctors said early on that my grandfather needed to start eating healthier, so I went grocery shopping for him and told my mom and grandmother about all the things he should and should not eat. It was a coping mechanism for me, wanting to improve his health and do everything I could to delay his health from declining even more.
After a few weeks of everyone being hyper-focused on my grandfather’s compromised health (a level of attention and concern he cringed at!), he seemed to be doing better; and I felt the freedom to ease up on my new routine a bit. I started going back to a few hobbies, socializing, and sleeping in my own home.
Then came the second domino.
On my way home from work on a weekday in February of 2017, my mom told me that the biopsy determined my grandfather had stomach cancer. I immediately panicked, something dropped in the pit of my stomach, and I was afraid. I was terrified that I was, indeed, going to lose him.
It was hard to believe that the man I’d seen so strong, determined, and good could possibly succumb to fatal illness. Everything about him seemed powerful to me–his mind, spirit, heart, determination, ability to do the “right” and “good” thing at all times, and all costs.
How could this man be threatened by his own body in this way?
It was time to let go of those rose-eyed depictions of my grandfather’s superhero status, and face the reality of his human frailty. He was an old, sick man–with the outcome of his life and death dependent on what was going on inside his body–and the hands of God.
As hard as all of this was, I knew I could not give in to despair. My grandfather was a man of strong, sturdy faith. He was a powerful role model for me, and I felt I owed it to him, and to God, to be faithful during this difficult time. So, I immediately prayed, asking God to spare my grandfather from death, but also praised God for this bad news.
I praised God for the cancer, pain, and any hardship my grandfather and my family would go through during this time. I sang to God, claiming that He was good and worthy of all praise, even though my grandfather was terribly sick and could die soon.
I knew that God was in control and that nothing I could do would alter what the future held. I did the only thing I believed could–provide blessing and reprieve. I praised God for every ounce of it.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18
To give thanks “in all circumstances” was by no means easy. While I praised God for the fact that my grandfather was dying from cancer, my heart was in pain, and I was afraid of losing him.
His plight with illness continues to challenge me in my pursuit of physical wellness today. I’m left wondering what lengths does God want me to strive for health, and how much of it does He want me to leave to Him? A friend recently put it quite well for me: “It’s striving vs. abiding.” To what lengths do I strive to make sure every ounce of food I consume is organic, grass-fed, Non-GMO, green, clean food item, and when do I say, “Lord, you take care of it”?
I understand that God wants me, and all of us, to make good and sound choices when it concerns our health and taking care of these bodily temples He gave us. But, as the reality of old age, disease, and death remind us, we are ultimately never in control.
My family received a glimmer of hope that chemotherapy might help cure my grandfather’s cancer. He decided to give it a shot, but after continued time, prayer, and understanding the effects of chemotherapy, he changed his mind and decided against it.
I did not want to accept this and pleaded with him to reconsider, to go to whatever lengths possible to preserve his body from defeat. But I knew his decision was firm, and there was no breaking through his ironclad brand of resolve.
As the weeks went by, my grandfather’s health continued to decline. I watched as his movements slowed, his pain increased, and his coherence lessened. There were, perhaps, many things he should not have done, or things he should not have eaten, in those final days to keep him alive longer. He “should” not have strained himself to go to his last Mass, eaten those ice cream sandwiches, or braced through a road trip with my mom and me weeks before his death.
In those final moments, however, the shoulds of his health didn’t matter as much. We didn’t have to keep his body in tip-top shape for a special life mission he had anymore. The reality was that my grandfather was a man of service in every moment of his life, and his earthly mission was nearing its end.
Of his life, he could say,
I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me, but to all who have longed for his appearance.”2 Timothy 4: 7-8
And he finally went to be with the Lord on April 2, 2017. In my grief, I held onto the hope and joy that my grandpa was with God. In the last years of his life, following God was all that really mattered to him anyway. He went Home, and I knew he would be happier than he ever was on earth.
My grandfather’s life of commitment, service, and generosity places a different spin on my responsibility for my health in my eyes. God has called me into existence as His daughter, and He has an idea and mission for my life. To properly walk in the ways of that mission, I must have some degree of wellness and energy to be faithful to the work I must do.
If you struggle with the need to live a healthy life as I do, remember that it’s ultimately not about you anyway. God created us for a reason and purpose, and if we can arise to at least a basic level of health (God only asks that we try and are faithful), then He will help us along the rest of the way.