“Choosing life and blessing” was the theme of last Sunday’s first reading. In his last words to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land, Moses exhorts the beloved and frustrating band he’s led for 40+ years. “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live” (Deut 30:19).
What does “choosing life” mean in the day-to-day? I had breakfast last week with one inspiring example. From his late teens on, my friend “Jesse” has gone through trials that remind one of Job. They began when he suffered multiple injuries while in combat in Vietnam. One of these made him unable to have children.
In the last few years, Jesse’s wife has been diagnosed with early Parkinson’s. Jesse himself has suffered work-related injuries that disqualified him from continuing at his long-time job. His job required checking and maintaining equipment that, if mishandled, could explode and cause devastating injury or death. Shortly after his work injuries, a teen driver was taking her friends on a joy-ride that was illegal under her permit. She plowed into Jesse’s stopped car at 60 mph. The resultant injuries left him permanently disabled. He’s had to have surgeries that burned out the nerves in his back to alleviate the relentless, severe pain. He can’t walk now without a cane.
About a year ago, Jesse’s 30-something son contacted him. Jesse had no idea that he even existed. The son was conceived before Jesse’s combat injury, in a brief relationship. The mother, in order not to jeopardize Jesse’s military career, never told him of the pregnancy. Jesse’s son had been searching for him for years. After having accepted he’d never have children, Jesse and his wife had a chance to meet this son, his wife, and their grandchildren. Things were good, despite some red flags. For example, when Jesse mispronounced his daughter-in-law’s Hispanic name during their first meeting, she left the table in anger. But they all celebrated Christmas together that year. Jesse gave his newfound family an album full of memorabilia and photos going back to Jesse’s kindergarten report card, so that they could get an idea of Grandpa’s life before their reunion.
Abruptly, his son and daughter-in-law broke off contact. In a scathing text, his daughter-in-law told Jesse that she’d destroyed the album. His son didn’t respond to Jesse’s followup texts. When Jesse continued to attempt reconciliation, his daughter-in-law texted him. If he contacted them again, she’d put out a restraining order against him. No reasons given.
Through it all, Jesse is choosing life and blessing. A man of deep faith, he knows that God has permitted all of this to happen for some greater good. He continues to witness to God’s love. He is deeply hurt by the loss of contact with his son and grandchildren. But he harbors no resentment. “If people don’t want me in their lives, I don’t force myself on them.” He has forgiven the teen driver that left him disabled. “She was just a dumb kid.”
Jesse has a soft heart for animals and for people. A gentle, quiet soul, he rarely shows anger. But you don’t want to mistreat an animal in front of him. “Hell hath no fury…” He rescues cats. I don’t know how many he and his wife now have, but there are a lot. His own suffering has made him sensitive to all suffering creatures.
Jesse’s finances are limited. But when we go out to breakfast, I practically have to arm-wrestle him to pay for the meal. As one of two Protestants who attend the Catholic Bible study I co-facilitate, he made a substantial donation that more than covered paper goods, coffee, and sugar for that year. His medical issues haven’t allowed him to attend much lately. But when he has, his rare but insightful comments are unfailingly positive. This is despite the occasional “where Protestants go wrong” orations by a couple of the blunter members. But he generally just chooses to listen.
Jesse and I are unlikely friends, by most standards. I’m a clinical psychologist. Although he was initially studying to go into nursing, most of Jesse’s career has been as a sanitation engineer. But God put us into each other’s hearts from almost our first meeting. I want to be more like Jesse. I want to have his positivity, his perseverance, and his uncomplaining good humor in the midst of difficulties. He inspires me. His choosing life and blessing in very trying circumstances makes me want to do so, too. He shows me the power of a life lived for and with Jesus. He passes on the life and blessing he himself has chosen.