Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
Our Bible Study group visited the residents of a local nursing home every few months for song and fellowship. Every resident reacted differently to the time spent together. Some of the residents sang along with the familiar hymns and songs. Some preferred to listen. Some stared into space or rested their tired heads on their fists. It didn’t matter. We were happy they were there. This day, the group of residents was able to participate more than others in the past. Most were able to flip through the pages of the song books and a few requested particular songs; but the group was quiet and their faces were difficult to read. I always hoped it was a good experience for them; but sometimes, it was hard to tell.
My pastor delivered a message in the middle of our sing-a-long. He talked about places we looked forward to going and asked the residents about vacations they remembered. One by one, they raised their hands. One woman joyfully called out “Niagara Falls”. Then another talked about the many trips she took to Florida to visit family. Another talked about the beautiful views she remembered from vacations along the coast of California. Those voices that struggled to sing along with a hymn were suddenly exuberant and spirited. Those eyes that seemed so far away moments ago came alive as the memories of days gone by came rushing back. It was such a joy to see.
Isn’t it funny how you do something to bless others, it always seemed that you were the one who received the blessing? That conversation between my pastor and those residents stayed on my mind and in my heart long after I wheeled some of the residents back to their rooms and said ‘goodbye’. The memories will linger in my heart forever.
I took some time to process the events of the morning, the moments that filled that short, but eye-opening, hour. The Bible told us that we shouldn’t store up treasures, that we shouldn’t be concerned with ‘things’ that will not stand the test of time. We couldn’t take any of these earthly possessions with us. We didn’t need our debit cards to access the pearly gates. We didn’t need to pack a suitcase or grab our valuables before we left this earth. None of that stuff mattered. But what we could take with us were the memories of the life we lived, the lessons we learned, the good we did in the world. The Bible said that where our treasure were, our hearts would be also.
I felt like I saw this Scripture come alive in front of me. I felt like God used that sing-along to bring home something that had been weighing on my mind. I had read that verse many times. I felt confident that I understood what it meant. I was not a person who worried about material things. I was not a person who compared what I had to what others had. I read that verse and moved on – like it wasn’t meant for me. I didn’t need reminded that things didn’t matter and that we couldn’t find happiness in material possessions.
I thought I could check that verse off the list….consider it memorized and applied.
But I was wrong.
I might have known what it meant. I might have been right on track with the ‘not storing up treasures’ part and even well on my way to learning some of those big lessons and collecting a pretty big stockpile of ‘treasures’ in heaven. I treated people well. I had a relationship with Jesus Christ and I built relationships with others on earth. I used my gifts to help others. I thought that verse was one that was already on my heart.
But spending time in the nursing home that morning, observing these people who have lived their years, some more years than they may have wanted; confined to wheelchairs, dependent upon others for their most basic needs, some detached from what was going on; it was easy to forget that these residents had lived full lives. They were once children. They were once young adults. They built a life, raised families, climbed the corporate ladder… they lived!
Some of the residents didn’t seem very happy with their stage of life right then – but when asked about a time in their lives that they really enjoyed, they remembered. Vividly. They remembered the majesty of Niagara Falls, the precious time spent with family in Florida, and the beautiful landscape of the California coast. Those memories may have been made so long ago, buried deep within their aging minds; but they were still alive in their hearts. The light in their eyes and the excitement in their voices was proof of a life lived and treasures stored.
The resident’s rooms were small and the worldly treasures they possessed were minimal. They didn’t have space to ‘store up treasures’ but they had no need to do so. Their treasures didn’t fit in boxes or drawers or under their beds. They didn’t need to keep up with their neighbors. They didn’t need to boast of the newest car, the biggest house, or the finest of clothes. Those were the things that the thieves stole and the vermin destroyed; but, just as the verse said, the real treasures were stored in their hearts.
I got to see it that morning — I got to see it and hear it and feel it.
Over the past month, I had some symptoms that prompted a scan. All signs pointed to the fact that my cancer had probably progressed. I prepared for the worst.
After a stressful night and a lot of prayer, by the Grace of God, my scans showed no progression.
I was relieved. I was joyful. I was terrified.
I didn’t want to minimize the wonderful news I received. I didn’t want to seem ungrateful; but that period of time when I didn’t know what my future held, when I was forced to rehearse ‘that conversation’ with my children, when I had to think about the reality of my family suffering a devastating loss — it sent me into a tailspin of sadness, fear, and anxiety. I was happy and overjoyed and so very, very grateful for the good news, for God’s faithfulness in taking care of me; but at the same time, I was forced to stare my mortality in the face again, reminded that I had a terminal illness and my prognosis wasn’t good, hit with the fact that although this scan was a good one, ‘that scan’ I dreaded would inevitably come one day.
It made me rethink everything… EVERYTHING! This wasn’t my first diagnosis, my first scan, my first scare … but this was a big one. I took a step back. I took inventory of my life — the people in it, the things that filled my time, the things I still wanted to do. I asked myself the tough questions. Was I happy? Was I doing what I wanted to do? Was I using my time wisely? Would I die with regrets?
I had a lot of questions…and I prayed for answers.
My women’s bible study group had been exploring contentment…and maybe, more so, discontentment. We talked about being content with the season we are in right now; enjoying our current situation, be it good or not so good. During a small group discussion, I shared that I was pretty content with my life right now… you know, aside from the cancer thing, of course. I said I was content. And I meant it. There wasn’t anything I needed or wanted or wished to be different.
Still, it may not have been discontentment; but my soul didn’t feel settled.
We talked about being present. Fully in attendance. We talked about being an active participant in what was going on right now instead of looking ahead to ‘what was next’. So much to think about, right? I knew that in my younger years, when my children were young and I was working to build a career; I was most definitely not fully in attendance. I was not focused on right now. I was focused on what was ahead. I wanted to get to that next step in my career. I wanted my kids to reach that next milestone. I wanted to ‘hurry up and get there’. Wow. Did I have it all wrong!!!
That all changed in 2012. My first cancer diagnosis got me back on track. My life changed immediately. Things that were once important were meaningless. Things that had taken a back seat were front and center. I learned to focus on the right things. I learned to prioritize what was important. I learned to let the little things go. I learned a lot through that first diagnosis and those lessons got more intense with my stage four diagnosis.
I thought I had my act together.
But that last scan, that last scare … it had me rattled. I was afraid I was still focusing on the wrong things. I loved to write. But I couldn’t find the words. I wanted to do things for my kids but I wanted to teach them to do things on their own. I wanted to live right now but I wanted to prepare for the future. I wanted to focus on what mattered. But outside of my family, I wasn’t sure what that was anymore. When I was faced with the thought of my life being cut short, I was overwhelmed trying to figure out what I should do with the short time I had left.
In some ways, knowing that you were dying, was freeing. In other ways, it was paralyzing.
I felt more pressure than ever to do the right things, to spend time with my family, to focus on what I really wanted. I even gave myself permission to be selfish! That went against every fiber of my being but I made myself explore the possibilities. If I could do anything I wanted, anything at all… what would that be?
I came up with nothing. I came up with no grand plans. No bucket lists. No crazy ambitions.
And then I wondered why I didn’t. Was there something wrong with me?
Those last few weeks, I felt ‘stuck’, not sure what to do. I wasn’t sure why. You would think I would want to paint the town, dance the night away, shout from the rooftops.
But I didn’t. I didn’t want to do anything.
In the past, we celebrated. My family and I would go to dinner, bake a cake, do something to welcome the good news. During those couple of weeks after I got the news about my scan, there were a lot of deaths of fellow metastatic breast cancer patients. There was a lot of bad news. I scrolled through the feeds of my cancer pages on social media. I saw pictures of women who had lost their lives to this awful disease. I saw pictures of their families, their young children who would grow up without them. I read their obituaries.
I asked God, “Why me?”
But this time, I asked in a different context. I wasn’t asking why God would allow me to beat cancer, only to get a worse form of cancer two years later. I asked why God would take all those other women away from their families … and leave me here. My desire to know the answer to that question kept me up at night. I asked. I prayed. But I got nothing.
I had been praying for God to let me know why I was still here. I knew I shouldn’t have questioned Him. I knew I should have just taken the blessing and been grateful for more time. I felt like I needed to do something big, something worthy of getting this gift of time.
I couldn’t make sense of it all, though….and I asked Him to make things more clear.
Then, on a Saturday morning, in the lounge of a nursing home, He did.
I witnessed bodies that were broken and minds that were impaired. I saw people, nearer to the end than the beginning of their lives. They were sick. They were frail. They were tired. Still, as they sat in wheelchairs, with their vacant eyes, not quite sure what to make of all these people that came to sing to them; they showed me exactly what I was supposed to do with the rest of this time I was given.
God answered my question.
I thought about the joy in the hearts of those beautiful people when they talked about experiences from an earlier time. Those images in their minds must have been so vivid. Those images must have been pressed so firmly on their hearts. Remembering them brought them joy, brought the life back into their eyes. Although they sat there that morning confined to wheelchairs or needing help to get around; at one time, they experienced moments that they collected inside their hearts. They collected treasures that they could take with them forever. Being there to see it was like we were children sitting on the bed watching our parents pack their suitcases. I felt as though I got to see some of the treasures they packed to take with them. What an honor that was!
Through their memories, through their treasures, I realized that it didn’t matter what I did with my gift of time. It didn’t matter whether I spent the rest of my days traveling the world or rarely stepping outside of my own house. It didn’t matter whether I spent the rest of my days baking cookies and reading my favorite books; or going on endless adventures across the country.
What mattered was that whatever I did, I had to do it with joy. I had to be “all in”. I had to be present. Fully present. Ridiculously present.
I couldn’t just look at something, I had to SEE it. I shouldn’t just listen to something, I had to HEAR it. I had to SMELL, TASTE, TOUCH … I had to JUMP IN, HOLD ON TIGHT, FILL UP.
I had to drink in every last drop of whatever I was doing. Only then would I store up those treasures. Only then would I live a life so well that I would remember those treasures vividly at the end of my days and take them with me to heaven. Only then would I have memories worthy of packing in my own suitcase. I had been so busy trying to figure out WHAT I was going to do that I missed the point. It didn’t matter WHAT I did, it was HOW I did it..
How big, how full, how much, how tightly, how deep…
I didn’t have to do anything. God’s mercy didn’t come with an agenda. God’s faithfulness didn’t come with a ‘catch’. God gave me this time because He loved me. God gave me this time because He had a plan for me, just like He had a plan for you.
What I had forgotten is that it was God’s plan, not mine.
As long as I stayed faithful, as long as I stayed focused on Him; He would make my path straight and I would end up exactly where I was supposed to be. I was getting caught up trying to do His job that I forgot that it wasn’t my responsibility. As long as I had faith in my heart, I didn’t have to orchestrate a thing.
Phew! What a relief. What a weight that was lifted.
All I had to do I was simply live my life, the way God intended.
With joy. With hope. With love.
I will be forever grateful to the residents of our local nursing home for sharing their treasures and for teaching me that the only thing I had to do was to work on “storing up” my own.
Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you will abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)