Last month I had the opportunity to go on a family trip to Italy. Here I am in the Coliseum with my brother, Ron.
Like every tourist, the biggest challenge I faced was how to get my souvenirs back to the United States. That’s where this backpack comes in. All my clothes would fit into a small suitcase. All the souvenirs would fit into the backpack.
At first, the backpack worked like a charm. I bought a necklace with a pendant, a roman soldier, a miniature coliseum, a t-shirt, Caesar bookends, a sweatshirt. But it started getting full. And how was this Roman vase for my garden going to fit? I needed a bigger backpack! I actually wasted a day searching for a larger one to no avail.
Looking back, I think I was like the Rich Fool in Jesus’ parable, who blessed with farmland that produced a bountiful harvest, focused on building bigger barns, only to die that night and learn the hard way, “You can’t take it with you.”
For me, the story is not so much about a God of judgment seeking retribution as it is a God of grace who is warning us about the importance of community and destructiveness of greed. The threat of sudden death acts as a wake-up call to focus on what lasts, to what builds up, not what tears down.
I should know. Last year my doctor told me after a battery of tests that I had two unrelated types of malignant tumors, in my lungs and rectal colon, both of which could lead to sudden death.
12 months of radiation and chemotherapy and surgery, including the removal of the upper lobe on my left lung, has left me weak and humbled. At the end of all these treatments, the doctor called me at home and said, “I have two words you are waiting to hear, “No cancer.” There’s still a way to go in my recovery but now my future is filled with hope.
The hardest part has been the loneliness. I don’t think I could’ve made it this far without the support of family and friends, especially my presbytery family.
You’ve sent cards and gifts and food. What joy these bring me.
The saddest thing about the rich man in Jesus’ story is that he has no one. Yes, he has all that grain but no neighbors to share it with. “Watch out!” Jesus says, “life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
I almost forgot how blessed I’ve been. I spent all that time collecting souvenirs. My eyes were opened again when I took a day trip to Pompeii—talk about a place of sudden death. It’s a powerful reminder that our lives belong not to ourselves but to God.
The trip started out on a bad foot. It was a two-for-one tour, so on the way, we first stopped at Mt Vesuvius—which our tour guide informed us—we were supposed to climb together. Mt Vesuvius is the largest active volcano in the continental Europe! I mumbled under my breath, “I don’t think so.”
But the tour guide encouraged me to at least get out and stretch. That’s when I saw the man at the park entrance. He was passing out walking sticks. I thought that maybe with that extra support I could get part of the way up. So I took a chance and with my stick started hiking. All along the way, people encouraged me, “You can do it! Go Tom!”
At this point, I need to make a disclaimer. I didn’t hike up the entire mountain. I’m not sure I could have done that in my teens. The bus took us up to within a mile of the peak. Still, when you’re facing an uphill climb that seemed like an ascent of 90 degrees, with half a lung missing, a mile looked impossible. And the hike about killed me. But with the help of God and a walking stick I made it to the top.
Here I am on the way down. I was so happy that at the entrance I asked the gatekeeper if I could keep the walking stick. Forget the backpack stuffed with all those souvenirs; the walking stick was the most important thing I could bring back. It represented not just the ascent up Mt Vesuvius but the support I have received during my illness. At first, the gatekeeper shook his head “No.” I felt helpless.
What do you do when you have no power, no voice? You do what people in the Bible do. You do what we all do. You tell your story.
So I blurted out, “Sir, this walking stick is the most important thing I can bring back from your beautiful country. I was stuffing my backpack with all sorts of trinkets that I don’t want anymore. You see, I had two types of cancer but I’ve done the impossible. I made it to the top of Mt Vesuvius and the stick represents all the support I have received. Please, sir.”
After a few moments, his stern face melted into a smile and he handed back the stick. He even signed it. “Mimmo.”
Here’s the lesson. We are becoming a different kind of people, a different kind of presbytery. In our business meetings, in our Christmas shopping, we won’t be stuffing our backpacks with things anymore. We have a mountain to climb.