I’ve known my friend Paul Gingerich for years. But, we didn’t become close friends until we worked together on a service trip in Mexico, where we built a 20,000 water storage cistern for a goat farmer named Octavio.
We mixed concrete together, adding our sweat to the water in the cement. We leaned on our shovels and talked about our lives and how we met our wives. We discussed politics and religion over mole’ and fresh-picked avocados . We slept in cramped quarters, mere inches from each other, while braying donkeys and crowing roosters competed with the snores of the men around us.
Along the way, he became much more than a simple friend. He is one of those rare breeds that can have you doubled over in laughter one minute and thinking about the nature of wisdom and personal growth the next. He is one of those people who I listen to carefully, because listening carefully to him always makes me a better person.
About the second day into the project, Paul began to complain about back pain. At the time, we blamed the hard work. Back in the states, however, the pain didn’t subside. Paul went to see the doctor, where he found out he had a tumor on his spine. The diagnosis was stage four cancer, words none of us ever want to hear. The doctors gave him six months to live. That was three years ago.
Paul’s always been a deep thinker. Even before his cancer appeared, he saw the real meaning of life, where I often only see the next task to be completed. His battle with cancer has sidelined him from work, and given him lots of time to invest in this meditative and valuable pursuit. He’s in what can truly and without exaggeration be called the fight of his life. So, his thinking and the conversations I’ve had with him about life have taken on tremendous value for me.
Recently, he sent me this email:
“My Ladder List”
(July 1, 2011)
I have trouble with the thought of making a “Bucket List”. This term
projects the demise of one’s life and the desire to fill one’s life with
hoped-for events before one “kicks the bucket” and opportunities are
lost. A bucket invites a downward gaze, the focus of a “Ladder List”
directs one’s gaze in an upward direction.
What are the elements of a “Ladder List”? In this new focus, these would
be tangible acts of sacrifice for the sake of others. They would be
supportive, relationally-focused activities that enhance family, love for
others, generously giving life to those less fortunate and directing
praise to God. In our experience, we have received so much from others
in our cancer journey that to not reciprocate accordingly would betray
the good graces we have received.
My Ladder List has a “bottom-up” kind of focus. It is open-ended and
sacrificial. Its goal is to build up, restore and encourage. I give
credit to the Apostle Paul for this upside down, ladder list perspective
on the future. In Philippians 3:14, Paul highlights this inverted
perspective. He says, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for
which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” The focus is upward
and there is movement.
I’m going to start writing my ladder list and keep looking up!
Love To All,
We live in a world where we are encouraged to look out for ourselves, to seek the best, to demand the most. I’m unquestionably as good at those things as anybody is. Even before his cancer, my friend Paul was already on a different path. He’s always lived a life of filled with tangible acts of sacrifice. He’s always been focused on supportive and relational activities, for as long as I’ve known him.
His fight with cancer has allowed him to put into words something he was already modeling. And, for the first time, has given me the chance to really grasp what it takes to live for a ladder instead of for a bucket!
UPDATE: This post was originally published in September, 2011. On March 6, 2012, Paul ended his fight with cancer. A few days before he passed on, his wife talked about their hard but beautiful journey. She said, “We are very grateful to be together.”
We understand Paul’s death as being something that is good for him. His family talks about Paul having a peaceful “rebirth.” He will no longer suffer the pain of cancer and, we are confident that he now has a new life with God. But, we are left behind, without his presence, his compassion, his insight or his love.
A few days before he died, I wrote an email to him. In the email, I said, “You have shown me how to live and also how to die.” I never sent it. He may have been ready to accept his impending death, but I wasn’t ready to accept it. I regret not sending it now, because I know it would have made him happy to know that he had climbed another step on his “Ladder List.”
Now, I have two hopes. I hope that he knows how important his life was to so many people. And, I hope that I can leave a legacy as good as the one he left us.
Galen Lehman, President, Lehman’s