As soon as I learned of my diagnosis, I made a list of about 15 people that I wanted to call personally and tell them about my bad news. Mom, sisters Jill and Judi (who is battling ovarian cancer right now), and a select group of friends that needed to hear the news directly from my mouth. The phone calls were tough, some very emotional, but thankfully I was able to get a hold of everyone within two days.
One of the friends that I called was Steve Denton, the head men’s tennis coach at Texas A&M University. When we set out to hire a new tennis coach in 2006, Steve was one of the applicants and I said to our small search committee, “we need to take a close look at this guy.” Having played tennis in college, I recognized Steve’s name. He was one of the best players in the world back in the 1980’s.
When Steve came to town for the official interview, I really liked the guy and I told the committee “this is the person we need to hire.” We did and A&M is lucky to have him on board. Not just because he’s a great coach but because he’s also a good man. Steve has a neat spirit and he cares deeply about others, especially each and every one of his players.
Most people don’t know it, because Steve isn’t one of those shout it from the roof top types, but he’s a deeply religious man. He has the mind of a theologian and in any discussion we have about the bible, Steve is way above my head in a matter of minutes. I also know he is a man of prayer, spending time each day (wouldn’t surprise if it’s an hour or more) at what he calls “the throne of Grace.”
Steve is an emotional guy, quick with a smile…and sometimes even quicker with a tear…because he really cares about people and he wasn’t shy about sharing his love for Maria and me. So I wondered how he would handle the news. Turned out, it was the least emotional of all my calls. In a nutshell, Steve said, “God has perfect timing for your life and when your time on earth is over, the timing will be perfect.” He closed by saying, “I know God is going to use your sickness in other people’s lives because you have such an encouraging nature. Definitely, God is going to use you, Jeff.”
After hanging up, I smiled and shook my head and thought, “no Steve, you don’t know the whole picture, God benched me from His team a long time ago. He has no interest anymore in using me.”
After being raised in a church-going Lutheran family all my life, I became one of those “born again” Christians in 1978 during my senior year in college. I was on fire for the Lord, and in typical Jeff Schmahl fashion I went all in, leading bible studies, teaching Sunday School, proselytizing, and leading people to the Lord.
This went on for a number of years, but then slowly my priorities started to change with a family and thriving career. I also began to get turned off because of the hypocrisy and cruelness that I began seeing at the highest levels of the churches we attended…some really nasty stuff.
For instance, the pastor who married us, the most godly, kind, caring person I had ever met, was fired over a minor theological difference with the head pastor. I saw a family totally fall apart when they followed what the church told them to do and “shunned” (totally cut off contact) their son because he was gay.
I kept seeing more and more hypocrisy at church. People saying all the right “religious” words but acting totally different. Proud Christians who couldn’t wait to work into the conversation how many bible studies they were leading and how great their devotions were each day with God. An arrogance by so many that the way they believed and their doctrine was so much better than alI those other “so called Christians.” It went on and on and I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy. Then came the final blow.
Maria and I were attending a church in College Station, Texas and we loved going there. A lot of college kids attended, the services were so uplifting, and most of all the head pastor was the best preacher I had ever heard. Dwight had a special fervency when it came to “preaching the gospel.” He was funny, emotional, intelligent, a really gifted speaker. I loved listening to the sermons of this Godly man. My mom was in town and I couldn’t wait to take her to church so she could see in person just how special this place was. I was disappointed when I saw in the bulletin that Dwight wasn’t preaching that day and soon thereafter I could sense that something was wrong, really wrong. When the assistant pastor came to the pulpit to start the service I knew there was bad news. He said, “I have something terrible and tragic to tell y’all. Dwight has been fired. We recently found out that Dwight has been having an affair for the last two years. He has left his family and moved to Colorado to be with this woman.”
I was shocked, stunned, and very angry. People in the congregation immediately started weeping. You could feel the heartfelt pain and anguish in the room. We knew his wife was a kind and beautiful woman and that they had three special needs children. I was so embarrassed that my mother was at my side experiencing this terrible situation. We left that church and never returned.
There is a tremendous responsibility heading up a church and I believe that God will judge “spiritual leaders” much more harshly than those sitting in the pews. Because when a pastor goes off the cliff, he or she will take some of the flock with them over the edge.
Maria and I switched churches yet again…and then 10 years ago, I had my own very personal falling out with God. I was bitter and resentful towards God, I disliked going to church so I quit. I didn’t ever stop believing in God but I stopped caring about God. I knew He had benched me and I couldn’t have cared less. This was obviously a very deep and emotional time for me, it’s something I’ll probably share in more detail in a later topic, but I might not. While the wounds have healed there is still some scar tissue left behind and to this day I am still grappling with the question of why God would do this to me and my family. Having the big c is helping me get some answers.
But you know what? In writing The Last Train I have a feeling that God hasn’t totally given up on me yet.
I won’t be trying to convert anyone in The Last Train. I don’t feel that’s my job anymore. I have so many friends of different faiths, some even agnostic or aetheist. They are all wonderful people, with good hearts, who demonstrate God’s love in a way that would put many “strong” Christians to shame. I want to be used to encourage others who are battling an illness and encourage everyone to make the most of the time they have left on earth.
It feels good to be back on God’s team and whether I just get to pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth or actually have more than one at bat, I know He is going to use me in the lives of others. It’s nice to know that while I gave up on God that He never gave up on me. Thank you Lord!
In the obituary section of the New York Times this weekend, I read about Susan Spencer-Wendel who died of ALS at the age of 47. During her four-year battle, Susan wrote a book about living life to the fullest called “Until I Say Good-bye: My Year of Living With Joy.” She also wrote a number of farewell articles in her “final, wonderful year” when she was only able to type with her right thumb the only digit she could control.
Susan traveled to many wonderful places in her final years as she resolved to do everything she wanted while she was still able.
I have the same attitude and will share with you the adventures I take here on The Last Train.
The Human Spirit is a marvelous thing and what people are able to accomplish despite obstacles, misfortune, and illness is inspiring. It all comes down to making the most of every single day you are here on earth. That’s what I plan to do!
Next Stop: Should I call? What Should I Say?