Saturday, October 11, 2014

Will John Ellis Be Dead Soon?

In answer to the title, I can’t say for sure. I do live down the road from the Ronald Reagan National Airport; so, I suppose that a plane could fall on my head at any moment. If the answer is in regards to my heart, probably not. Most likely not. Of course, that all depends on your definition of “soon,” I guess.

But, since the subject has been broached, I should probably say a word or two about my heart. Two days ago (Thursday the 9th) I had my last stress test until January. My heart has no structural damage and there are zero blockages. My heart rate is fine, and my blood pressure, though a tad high, is fine. The bundle branch block is rate related. The thyroid tests came back negative, or normal (whichever is the good one). What is unknown is whether or not I’ve had the bundle branch block for a long time or if it’s a new. They don’t know because until my trip to the E.R. I had never had an EKG done, and so no one knows my heart history. If I have had it for a long time, that’s a good thing, I think. Many people have bundle branch blocks, and never have any symptoms or problems from it. But, if it’s new, they want to make sure that it’s not progressing. Hence, more tests in January. If it is new and progressing, which I think they are assuming that it isn’t, the best case scenario is a pacemaker. Pacemaker surgery is outpatient and, all things being equal, no big deal. Worst case scenario, … well, the worst case scenario doesn’t matter because it is statistically unlikely. So, the cardiologist sent me home until January with these instructions – live your life, including exercise and basketball, unless you feel symptoms, and take one aspirin a day. Oh, and my lightheadedness is probably just anxiety, so I’m supposed to stop being anxious.

Now, I’m willing to admit that my anxiety and fears were/are silly at best and downright self-centered at worst; but, that being confessed, contemplating mortality isn’t necessarily easy. I don’t know what it will be like at the age of eighty nine, but at the age of thirty nine, and with a wife and two young kids, being reminded of the fragility of life brought me to the end of myself and the end of my faith – and that was a good thing.

It wasn’t until after I was discharged from the hospital and home that I was confronted with doubt and despair. I was only in the hospital for one night, and the activity in the E.R. and my room was so frenetic and new to me, that I felt like I was watching a tv show in which I happened to be an extra – a featured extra, but still just an extra[1]. The first night home I was so exhausted that I didn’t think about anything but the fact that I would get to go to sleep without needles in my arm. But, by the second night, fear had begun to creep in.

I sat around the entire next day, just resting, which also gave me a lot of time to think and google my symptoms. By bedtime I had convinced myself that I was on the verge of having a stroke[2]. My left foot was tingling and I felt lightheaded. Before going to bed, I always look in on the kids. That night was no different, except this time I stood over them for several minutes and cried. Thinking that I was going to die in my sleep, I contemplated writing each of my kids a goodbye letter. I didn’t, partially because I knew that my fear wasn’t rational and partially because the irrational side of me thought that by not writing the letters I could stave off something happening. Anyway, I woke up the next morning, my anxiety much less but still there.

Over the last two and a half weeks, my struggle with fear and despair has been up and down (I wrote about it here). Thankfully, I have friends who have emailed me, called me, and sent me text messages letting me know that they are praying for me; many included passages from the Bible that have been comforting to them during times of fear and doubt.  

I’ve been brought to the end of myself once before; you can read about it here. This time however, my despair was different. I knew that God was in control; my despair was a product of my unwillingness to trust that God being in control is a good thing. And, thankfully, the Holy Spirit kept directing me back to the Bible, specifically the Psalms, time and time again, and to my knees in prayer. One of the things that I was struck with during my Bible reading and prayer was the fact that how I live my life says something about what I believe about God.

It also caused me to contemplate where my identity is placed and how our society shapes what I believe is important; or, better yet, what I want to be important but use our society as an excuse. For the last couple of years I’ve struggled with the fact that my theatre closed and that the career that I poured much of my resources (physical resources, mental resources, and intellectual resources) is seemingly over. I am an almost middle-aged man with no career and no prospects of one. I struggle with feeling sorry for myself, feeling like a failure, and, since moving to DC, loneliness. But, the reality is that the way I view my identity is wrapped up in our Western free-market worldview that determines the value of human being by what they produce. Even as an artist I’ve fallen into that trap – especially as an artist. My identity should not be wrapped up in what I do or what I produce. That’s not how we relate to God, so why should it be the way we relate to fellow Image Bearers or even ourselves?

Psalm 49 states, “For he sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others. Their graves are their homes forever, their dwelling places to all generations, though they called lands by their own names. Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish. This is the path of those who have foolish confidence; yet after them people approve of their boast.”

The fact that humans are mortal is not a new concept. Human mortality was not discovered during the so-called Age of Reason. People have known for a really long time that they were going to die and that they were going to stay dead. The idea of resurrection was as wacky in the first century as it is in the twenty first century as it was way back whenever who wrote Psalm 49 wrote Psalm 49. People way back then were not living eschatologically any more than I have been. My fellow yet ancient buddies' and my primary concern is/has been building monuments to ourselves in the here and now. The pursuit of immortality lives in what we leave behind. Will we make it into the history books? Will I at least get a bridge overpass named after me once I’m dead? You know what the Psalmist says? Not only is that foolish, but those who “approve of their boast” are foolish, too. Not that the person who names the bridge overpass after me is necessarily foolish, but it may demonstrate a misguided understanding of what’s important.

At some point during the last two and a half weeks I read an article praising Steve Jobs[3]  – boasting in his accomplishments. Normally, when I read something like that, my first and probably only response is to contrast the monuments left behind by people like Jobs with the monuments that I will most likely not be leaving behind. That thought always troubles me and causes me to despair over my past mistakes and bad “luck.” But this time, and in context of having also recently read Psalm 49, I was struck with the thought that all the praise heaped on Steve Jobs and all the great accomplishments mean nothing to Steve Jobs now. Does that mean it was all a waste? No, of course not – maybe not, I can’t say for sure; and, in the context of what I’m writing, I’d have to be privy to his motives and thoughts when he was doing, building, and accomplishing. But what I do know is that my desire for temporal monuments reflects my lack of faith in that God has created me as an eschatological being and has adopted me into His eschatological family. When I die, be it tomorrow from a plane falling on my head or be it forty years from now while grousing at the poor nursing home staff, I will continue to live, but within the full eschatological blessings of God. And, to bring it home, my self-serving and foolish desire and pursuit for monuments to myself (theatre glory and respect or an impactful career that prompts respect from others) besides demonstrating a lack of faith in God’s good plan for my life is also demonstrating my disdain for the overwhelming good gifts that God has blessed me with in the here and now. Why should I care at all about having bridge overpasses named after me when God, in a completely undeserved act of grace, has blessed me with a beautiful and wonderful wife and two fun-loving and wonderful children – not to mention the many friends and family members that God has graciously heaped on my head. When I’m dead will I care that today I enjoyed God’s gift of my family instead of pursuing monuments? The answer is a resounding “NO! I won’t care.” And, in enjoying my wife and kids and God and His love for me today instead of pursuing monuments, today is far more blessed than it would have been otherwise. I don’t need a bridge overpass named after me because God has called me His own and has and will continue through all eternity to heap good gifts on me. In fact, God calling me as His own is all the blessing  I should need to enjoy today. I need Holy Spirit given faith to live in that reality.

[1] Featured extras get paid more, and their faces are on screen long enough for their friends and family to get excited and tell their coworkers about their “movie-star” second cousin.
[2] I’m not completely sure why I was thinking a stroke and not a heart attack. I think partially because in the hospital they had put things on my legs to help prevent a stroke – standard practice in the cardiovascular wings. In fact, the night nurse let me take them off.
[3] I don’t really know much about Steve Jobs, and please understand that I’m not trying to denigrate him. For all I may know, he may not deserve it, or he may. I don’t know. But, I’m writing about what I read and how I responded; my apologies to Steve Jobs notwithstanding.


  1. Lovely post, John. I will continue to pray that your medical condition is stable, and that you will have your chance to grouse at staff in a old age home. If one looks at life in the eternal sense, even the accomplishments of people like Steve Jobs pale. All the technology he introduced will date and fall by the wayside. Not that I don't appreciate the efforts of people like Steve Jobs, I do. But I also appreciate the efforts of people who try to make their little part of the world a better place by raising children who are loved and contribute to the happiness of the people around them. (And you still have many productive years ahead of you to pursue theatrical interests. Trust me.)

  2. I've been praying for you my brother and friend. I've been where you've been, laying in an Er (I had 3 pulmonary emboli at the time) and not being bale to hear what everyone is whispering about you. There's nothing like that experience to make us evaluate what's important. We need to get together again soon and compare notes. Meanwhile you can smile and listen to this:
    (Hamilton Camp-Oklahoma Cirty Times) BTW, I wouldn't want any of you stuff. Our music and beverage tastes are too different. Love you!

    1. Oh, I bet that I have some music that you like. Like you said, we'll have to get together soon and discuss it.