This is the Reflection I offered to a Palm Sunday breakfast of about 75 men from various churches in the Vincentown (NJ) area . . .

          offered by Jim Gleason 4/5/2009

Vincentown Grange Hall, Vincentown, NJ

 

Good morning.  My name is Jim Gleason, a member of Asbury United Methodist Church over in Cinnaminson, New Jersey.  Its good to be here, more so than most who say that, since I have been blessed with a life saving heart transplant almost 15 years ago now. 

 

Thank you, Paul, for offering me this opportunity to share life with you all on this Palm Sunday men’s breakfast. 

 

Let’s start by sharing the gospel account of this day’s events those many years ago….

 

The gospel account of Jesus’ triumphant ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday according to Matthew 21:1-11 (Life Application Bible)

 

Jesus’ Triumphal Ride into Jerusalem

As Jesus and the disciples approached Jerusalem, they came to the town of Bethphage on the Mount of Olives. Jesus sent two of them on ahead. 2 “Go into the village over there,” he said, “and you will see a donkey tied there, with its colt beside it. Untie them and bring them here. 3If anyone asks what you are doing, just say, ‘the Lord needs them,’ and he will immediately send them.” 4This was done to fulfill the prophecy,

5“Tell the people of Israel,

‘Look, your King is coming to you.

He is humble, riding on a donkey—

even on a donkey’s colt.’”

6The two disciples did as Jesus said. 7They brought the animals to him and threw their garments over the colt, and he sat on it.

8 Most of the crowd spread their coats on the road ahead of Jesus, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9He was in the center of the procession, and the crowds all around him were shouting,

“Praise God for the Son of David!

Bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Praise God in highest heaven!”

10The entire city of Jerusalem was stirred as he entered. “Who is this?” they asked.

11 And the crowds replied, “It’s Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.”

 

 

“Can you imagine what Jesus might have been thinking?”

            Did you ever wonder what Jesus might have been thinking at this time of celebration?  I confess I hadn’t – until now.  I’ve always heard or read just the simple story – Jesus riding high in his ministry – enjoying the adulation of the crowds – but in reflecting on this now I found something I had missed.  Was Jesus aware of His future?  Didn’t He constantly tell us and His followers that He was fulfilling the prophecies, living out a preordained plan?  Let’s accept that premise and now go back to that simple question: What can we imagine that Jesus might have been thinking about as He sent the disciples off to get that donkey?  What would YOU have been thinking if you were in His sandals?  (give men a moment to think through their answer to that…)

 

            Would you imagine He was feeling like the band leader in a parade?  Maybe like the returning hero in a NYC ticker tape parade?  Doesn’t seem like His style to me, not consistent with the Jesus I have seen in the life story we read in these gospel accounts.  So then, what do you imagine He was thinking?

 

            Jesus knew what was happening and more importantly, what the future held for Him, what this week that began with the parade we hear in the Palm Sunday story was going to turn into – this week we call Passion Week.  If you were in His place, wouldn’t you have been thinking of death – the painful climax of this long week when this same crowd would turn against Him, when His most trusted friends, Peter for example, would deny Him; Judas would sell Him out for a few silver pieces; when He would face the pain of the human condition known as dying.

 

Have you thought about your death?

            What about YOU?  Have you given any thought about dying?   Here on Palm Sunday, as you sit over breakfast enjoying the fellowship of the men around you, it should feel good, yes?  But what lies ahead for you, for each one of us? Being mortal means that in our future there will be death – hopefully nothing as painful as what Jesus faced on our behalf – the crown of thorns, the scourging, exhaustingly carrying His heavy cross up that hill, being nailed to that cross, hanging without drink until His body finally gives out – with trusted disciples hiding in fear from being recognized as associates of His.

 

            So, what is death like for YOU in thinking about that question?

 

How many have faced death already?         

            How many of you have faced your own death already – have come face to face with that event and lived to be here today to recall that experience? (ask for show of hands…)  Has anyone experienced that more than once? (again, show hands…)

 

            If we had more time today, I would invite each of those who raised their hands to share their experience – what that event involved – what were your physical pains like – what emotions did you feel – fear?  Acceptance?  Life flashbacks?  Tunnel leading to light? We have all heard such stories and they are repeated enough to add credibility to those accounts, each different in their own way, yet similar in so many ways too.  But we don’t have such time today, yet I invite you to come share such experiences with others and myself later today if you have time.

 

I have been blessed . . .

            I have been blessed – and yes, it was a blessing – to have faced my own death not just once, but three times.  Each was a life altering experience that I had no control over, so it truly was like being held down by God to accept that experience, leaving me with only the power of choice of how to react in my heart (and mind) to the moment.  Each left me with less and less fear of that final moment and that has made life richer for the experience, left with the question of “What was to be my purpose in staying alive beyond this moment?” hence the term “blessing” to describe it.  And those are the three points I want to share with you in the following three life/death experiences.

 

Life/Death experience #1

            Come back with me to July of 1961.  I was an 18 year old “invincible” young college youth working that summer for my grandfather’s lumber and supply company in Fords, New Jersey.  It was hot summer day – and we had a load of 75 pieces of 4 by 8 – ¾ inch wallboard to deliver to a worksite over in East Brunswick – read that “very heavy load!”  There were 4 of us going out to deliver that very heavy load and I was “the kid!”  – so when the men crowded into the truck’s cab it was “Hey, kid, why don’t you ride up on top?”  Sure, sounded like fun and thus I found myself up on top of that load, enjoying the sun and breeze as we drove down route 18, finally taking a jug handle turn when it happened.  The load shifted and the truck began to flip.  I did what came naturally, jumping toward the side the truck was leaning and in an instant found myself pinned under that flipped load, the side of my face scraped and being held tightly against the scorching black asphalt pavement.  I was awake and in pain, unable to move or even breathe, but surprisingly, not scared.  Helpless, but conscious and thinking, all I could do was face and accept my situation, and my first thoughts were of the fact that here in the middle of summer, I had very unusually just gone and made peace with God through His forgiveness in the Catholic sacrament of Confession that Saturday.  Peace came over me as I gave in to what must have been a lack of oxygen as my body remained pressed under that 75 sheets of wallboard and I lost consciousness.  No formal prayer, but definitely awareness of God in that moment.  No fear, just peace and acceptance. 

 

            Outside of my instant “coffin” things happened over which I had no control or knowledge.  The driver had turned off the engine, so there was no fire.  A stranger (some may say, “my angel”) came out of the crowd of onlookers to begin grabbing and throwing those heavy sheets off of the flipped pile.  Only the truck’s passengers joined in, the rest not knowing there was a body under that load.  An ambulance driving by stopped by the accident scene and eventually took the only victim of that accident to St. Peter’s hospital in New Brunswick where, given my padded body and young frame, there was no broken bones or internal damage – only strained muscles and that face scraped through the skin by that burning asphalt.  Coincidently, I had been a volunteer for our local first aid squad for five years and they took me to the hospital where I had been born.  After several days of hospital care, the only remaining damage was to my eyesight and I was told I would have to wear corrective glasses for the rest of my life.  Those glasses lasted for about a year when my vision returned to 20/20 even until today, some 50 years later.  It wasn’t my time yet.  Just the open question of what was in store for me?  What purpose in still being alive?

 

            And so life continued uneventfully for many years, until….

 

Life/Death experience #2

            Come forward in time a quarter of a century.  As a young child of 6, I grew up in Australia for several wonderful years, where even back then I was fascinated with Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – one of the 7 Wonders of the World.  I was now a father with a growing family of three children, working for Unisys Corporation over in Blue Bell, PA – enjoying a successful and very satisfying career now on 25 years with them.  Despite having been diagnosed with a failing and enlarged heart two ears earlier, I continued enjoying a busy and full life.  It was 1994 and I grabbed at an opportunity to go on a business trip that offered the opportunity to fulfill a life long dream of actually visiting that wonderland in the Pacific Ocean.   After a week of meetings in Sydney, I took a two hour flight up to Port Edward for a quick one day “vacation” that allowed for a catamaran ride out several miles into the open Pacific known for its beauty of coral – the Great Barrier Reef!  With a much too tight wet suit I ventured out with a grey haired group under direction of a marine biologist to experience the reef up close and personal, snorkeling far away from the floating dock “island” and ship.  How many of you have ever gone snorkeling?  Then you know what I mean when I describe how our body feels about the very unnatural condition of breathing while your face is under water – it gets very nervous, and that along with that tight wet suit got my weakened heart beating fast and hard.  When that happens with a cardiomyothopic heart, it fails to do its job, letting the blood build up in the lungs.  With ears under water, every body sound, like that beating heart is magnified, and that in turn lets me hear my drowning lungs actually gurgle, and that sound and knowledge of what is happening heightens the nervousness causing the catch-22 even faster heart beat, etc. 

 

            Finally I couldn’t take it any more and stood up, chest deep, on that “living coral.  The marine biologist admonishes me for standing on the living coral to which I reply that “Its either it or me!”  Explaining my racing heart condition, he takes my mask and says he will go back to our launch (way off in the distance) but has to take his charges – i.e., everyone else – with him.  So here I am, alone, chest deep in the huge expanse of nothingness that is the Pacific Ocean, with a racing heart. 

 

            What do I feel?  Quiet (there are no sounds way out there) – no land in sight – acceptance of my desperate situation.  I look up and pray aloud in a very different way, laughing as I say, “Well, I sure did it this time Lord!  I hope that when they come to my funeral back home, friends will say: ‘Leave it to Jim, he did it his way, on the Great Barrier Reef down in Australia!’ – smiling together at the thought of how unique that parting would be.”  No fear, not even a formal prayer, just a friendly, joking conversation between a loving Father and His son.  No, I wasn’t alone.  He was there with me.  But it still wasn’t my time yet.  They came back with that launch, I floated over and climbed in, refusing their offer to take me back to the distant ship.  My heart had calmed down and was working normally again, clearing those drowning lungs of their backed up blood.

As the group returned to complete their coral reef water tour, I remained on the launch, but discovered another of our group left behind in the water.  He was having the same difficulties and I reached down to rescue him onto the launch.  Quieting down, he accepted my explanation of what had happened, a new experience for him, but something I knew about from two years of living with heart failure.

 

            Again, I ask myself, why is it not yet my time?  What life plan has He yet in store for me?

 

Life/Death experience #3

            Later that same year, in September of 1994, enjoying life to the fullest (as you can imagine from that summer story above), that same cardiomyopathy brought me to the edge for a third time.  With a busy career, back from that Australian trip of a lifetime, the failing heart’s function had dropped to an ejection fraction of just 17% and it now was time – as my cardiologist said, “time to cease employment and see the experts” about a life saving heart transplant.  At HUP – that’s the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania – I found myself facing death for yet a 3rd time, confined to the hospital, waiting – but I ask you, “Waiting for what?” (pause waiting for everyone to reflect on their answers) 

 

            I was waiting to die, or, hopefully for someone else to die – someone who would have to die in just the right way – less than 1% will die in a way that allows for them to be an organ donor – and, upon that death, to say yes to being an organ donor – and only half of that 1% will have opted to become an organ donor.  So hope was slim as I passed each day there, waiting, praying.  After 5 weeks, the heart finally began to fail despite the powerful medications that were keeping it going.  They had raised those meds as high as they could go and back in 1994, there were no heart pumps as there are today to mechanically support me until that heart offer came.  Doctor Loh confirmed that I was still only number 3 on the waiting list and that there had been no movement on that list for the past three weeks.  I asked him to share my thanks with my team for all their care, but I wasn’t giving up.  That night I sent to sleep praying for my miracle, this time, as I did every night, with a formal prayer,  “Our Father, who art in heaven…” – wow, how meaningful those words, “Thy will be done” become.  Total acceptance of God’s will, no feeling of fear, even knowing I might not wake up the next day. 

 

Yet another’s of God’s plan

            That night still wasn’t my time yet, but over in Brooklyn, God’s plan for another was different.  Roberto Quebas, celebrating his 38th birthday had been attacked, beaten about the head with a baseball bat, and, after 8 days in a coma, progressed to brain death.  His family said yes to donating his organs and a very athletic young heart ended up over here in Philadelphia, saving the life of this dying man. 

 

The “call”

            On the morning of October 19th, 1994, I was directed to come take a very early morning phone call at the nurse’s station.  It was Heather, my transplant coordinator nurse, and by now, very good and close friend, who said words I will never forget: “Mr. Gleason, I think we have a heart for you!”  I said “Thank you,” and then looked up and prayed, “Thank YOU!” 

 

            The rest is history. 

 

Why me, and not them?

            It was still not my time.  I was spared while at the same time my 26 year old nephew, Bill, newly married and young co-owner with his brothers of a thriving business, was loosing his battle with leukemia.  My mother, a nurse, still doing duty in her 77th year, left me as I was recovering from that heart transplant to go and be there for Bill.  It was coming up on Easter week in 1995 and he lay dying. 

 

            Unexpectedly, my mother dropped dead of an aneurism in her lung.  My brother in law and I drove from NJ to N Carolina to deliver the news to Bill and his wife, as they were there undergoing a bone marrow transplant and radiation as a last resort treatment for that leukemia.  A very sort time later, on Good Friday, Bill lost that battle and went on to join his grandmother, my mother, in life with the Lord.

 

            Bill died at age 26.  Mom died at 77.  I was spared and still alive with a new heart beating inside, a gift from 38 year old Roberto, who gave life in his own dying.  Again that same question, why not me?  What further purpose to my life? 

 

Some answers

            Each day I get more of His answer to that question, such as being here with all of you today, sharing life experiences as part of His message to you – and me – in the reflection resulting in this message.  Through God’s help and Roberto’s gift, I have been blessed to live on to raise a family of three now adult children and blessed even more so to now be enjoying life with seven grandchildren.

 

Epilogue #1

            Three years ago, this heart transplant survivor gave this donated heart back to a donor family when I married a local “donor mom” – a friend who had donated her own 13 year old sons’ organs when he was killed, hit on his bike by a speeding motorist talking on her cell phone.

 

Epilogue #2

            My nephew, Bill, several years after his death became a father when his widow, Maria, decided to undergo artificial insemination using his frozen sperm.  She is now the mother to twin girls, one who is the mirror image of her beautiful mom, the other a spitting image of her blonde dad, Bill.

 

Life’s success

            How do we define success in life?  One definition is that Success is knowing God’s will and living in harmony, following His will.  Today, I pray that I may live a life of success by that definition, serving His church in ministry, my family and community with love now three years into retirement following a long and enjoyable career.

 

What’s my point?

            So what am I saying to you with these stories?  First, just as with Jesus on Palm Sunday, we all have to face our human condition, our mortality – the fact that some day in the much too soon future (no matter when that is) you too will find yourself in a situation when you have no control of your life – you will face death up close and much too personal.  While you will have no choice in that, you will still have the choice of how to react to that moment – whether that be a long term chronic illness or the suddenness of a fatal accident – or, as I am offering you today, on this Palm Sunday, to walk along with Jesus in reflecting on that unavoidable end of life as we know it here today.

 

            My experience has taught me that death CAN be a moment without fear.  How can that be, facing our death without fear?  We have been gifted – I like to think of it as “blessed” – with a faith through Christ that He has forgiven us our sins making it possible to face a new life beyond this mortal one where all will be very different. 

 

Do you believe that?  (ask until we get a full response) 

 

Do you believe that the hero of that Palm Sunday parade died to save you? 

 

That He bought for each of us eternal life through that salvation event? 

 

            If you do believe that, then death itself isn’t something to be feared, maybe how we die is scary,  but rather death itself is to be welcomed – a natural (well supernatural) next step in this existence that we accept as going far beyond this natural life we live today, one that will go on for eternity.  Thus in this context any suffering we might experience in that death experience is only temporary, an instant in time that will pass into timelessness of that never ending eternity with God.

 

            So in death we find opportunity for hope.  In that moment of no choice, we find opportunity for acceptance, a moment of extreme prayer, a choice of how we will respond to the event we seemingly have no control over. In that moment of facing the inevitable we can find acceptance and God.  In that moment of potential terror and fear, we as Christians, followers of Christ who endured Palm Sunday, Passion Week, can find the joy of the Easter message, that we still will rise again in life after death.  Our end is just our beginning, the “real” life we were created for, life with God for eternity.

 

What does that mean for us today?

            So, what does that all mean in terms of our lives here today, sitting together in Christian fellowship from various faiths, fulfilled in our physical needs with this wonderful meal we have just shared together in prayer? 

 

            We have so many ways to live out that meaning of life in service to others, in our daily acceptance of the Serenity prayer…  So what can you do to live out this message in your own lives today and tomorrow and every day with the acceptance of that death, knowing that in death there is life and His promise of salvation.  Living a full and purposeful life of prayer,  a life without fear.  Finding ways to serve our families, our church, our community…

 

            Just as Jesus accepted His own death, we can imitate His life, celebrating life today on this beautiful Palm Sunday, returning to our home churches to share this message of hope, of acceptance, of living the gift of life each day to its fullest.….

 

Coming full circle – from death to life

            So, what was Jesus thinking on that Palm Sunday those many years ago?  While we can never know what God is thinking, I can imagine Him thinking about His future – that in just a few days He would be going home – a transition that would include accepting a painful death through which He would be giving each of us the forgiveness that leads to our salvation – what a gift! And so my message comes full circle, from the celebration of Palm Sunday to His and our deaths, on to His defeat of death in rising on Easter Sunday morning that promises us the glorious life after death that makes this life we are living today full of meaning and hope.

 

Go – and serve the Lord

            Let us now return to our home churches in peace to love and serve the Lord, empowered in the fearless acceptance of our own mortality, living a successful life of daily prayer in service to His plan for our lives.  

 

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