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January 27, 2018

On the boundary between Yancey and Mitchell Counties in North Carolina is the community of Toecane. Located just to the west of Loafers Glory, Toecane marks the confluence of the Toe River with Cane Creek. The places where waterways intersect are often some of the most scenic and historically significant points of interest.  In the midlands of South Carolina, the Broad and the Saluda Rivers meet south of Columbia to form the Congaree River.

One of the most picturesque confluences I have seen is at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. There the Shenandoah River flows into the Potomac River at the tripoint of the states of Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.

Our son Kris traveled the length of the Amazon River on a hammock boat. Along the way he visited a place called the Meeting of Waters, the confluence of the Rio Negro (black) and the Rio Solimões (turbid) near Manaus, Brazil.

Like the confluence of great rivers, I have learned that the events of our lives often merge. These points of intersection are worth our attention. Not only can they prove to be interesting, they may also be teachable moments, when, upon reflection, we move forward with a renewed sense of purpose in our lives.

During the past month two events have prompted me to spend time in introspection and contemplation. Let me explain.

Our family celebrated Christmas on Friday, December 22. It was the one day that all of us could be together.  On Saturday, December 23, several of our children and grandchildren decided to all go to a movie. “The Last Jedi” was playing, and this most recent Star Wars installment was the unanimous choice of the group. Though I rarely go to a movie, this was one I knew I would enjoy. I have been a Star Wars fan from the beginning. Besides, this was an opportunity to be with children and grandchildren. I wouldn’t have missed it for a tub of popcorn with unlimited refills.

Question: Should I say spoiler alert, just in case some of you still haven’t seen the movie?

In the early stages of the film we find Luke Skywalker in self-imposed exile on a planet far, far away. The scene was actually shot on an island off the coast of Ireland. The Skellig Islands lie eight miles off the Irish shore. Skellig Michael, the largest of the islands, towers 714 feet above sea level. On the summit of this awe-inspiring rock is a Celtic Christian monastery, founded between the 6th and 8th century. It is here that we encounter Luke living in isolation.

Ever since the first Star Wars movies I have thought of Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) as a man younger than myself. Indeed, in real life he is seven years younger than I am. But when we meet Luke Skywalker on Skellig Michael living among the stone ruins of an old Gaelic monastery, he is a tired old man. With his grey beard, his staff, and his hooded cloak he is enduring what might be termed a late-life crisis.

“The Last Jedi” is a movie about Luke accepting his insignificance. When he speaks with Yoda near the movie’s midpoint, he realizes that he is aging past the wisdom he can impart. He can train Rey, the young woman who is the last Jedi, but she has to make her own way.

We learn, Yoda says, not just from success, but also from weakness and failure. Luke isn’t a hero only because of his remarkable feats. A part of the meaning of his life is that he accepts his disappointments and his own limitations.

So, on the night before Christmas Eve, I received a gift from Luke Skywalker. I came face-to-face with an important truth about my own life.

When I was a student in seminary preparing for my work in Pastoral Care and Counseling, I was introduced to the writings of Erik Erikson. His Theory of Psychosocial Development is the centerpiece of his work. He emphasizes our developmental tasks for eight stages of life from childhood to late adulthood. Erickson presents these as eight stages of conflict that all individuals must negotiate successfully in order to adjust well to our particular time of life. The eighth and last of these stages Erickson identifies as the struggle between integrity and despair.

This eighth stage identifies people who are in their 70s or older and who are typically retirees. It is important for them to feel a sense of fulfillment knowing that they have spent their life doing something significant. When they look back on their life, they may feel content. It is a Sabbath time when we look back and can say, as the Almighty did after creation, “That’s good!”  If, on the other hand, they focus on their mistakes and their failures, it is likely that they will experience a sense of despair. This is Luke Skywalker’s inner conflict on Skellig Michael until his old mentor Yoda sets him straight.

The second major event occurred two weeks after I had seen “The Last Jedi.” On Saturday night, January 6, the Christian observance of Epiphany, I was preparing to preach the following Sunday morning at the Palmetto Moravian Fellowship. I put the finishing touches on my sermon, printed it out, and placed it in my Bible. I walked upstairs to go to bed. Clare was already asleep.

At the top of the stairs, I felt an intense burning pain in my chest. I got ready for bed, hoping the pain would subside. It did not. In fact, when I tried to lie down the pain increased. I paused for a moment, collecting my thoughts. I prayed. Then I knew I had to go to the hospital. I got dressed and awakened Clare. She was, of course, confused and concerned. I told her my plan. I would call our daughter Betsy to come and drive Clare so they could arrive at the hospital together. I would call EMS to transport me to the hospital immediately.

Downstairs, I e-mailed the folks at the Moravian Fellowship, gathered my insurance cards and driver’s license, and met the ambulance in the driveway. I kissed Clare goodbye. She said, in no uncertain terms, “Kirk Neely, don’t you dare die!”

Though two electrocardiograms (EKGs) were normal, blood tests revealed that I had experienced a heart attack. I was on the front end of the episode, and no apparent damage was done to my heart.

The hospital was crowded. No rooms were available. I was kept in the emergency area of the hospital most of the day on Sunday, pain free, with a nitroglycerin patch on my chest until a room was available.

On Monday morning Dr. Alejandro Lopez performed a heart catheterization. He found two blockages and corrected both with stents. As I was waiting for the procedure to begin, I thought, Have I said everything I need to say to the people I love? My answer was yes, for the most part. But I realized just before the anesthesia sent me to la-la land that I had more to say to my grandchildren before my time is up.

I want to add a note of gratitude to the administration, the medical staff, transportation, food service, housekeeping, and the entire staff of Spartanburg Regional Medical Center. From the paramedics who picked me up to the discharge nurse, every single person that I and my family encountered was personable and caring and always the consummate professional. Thank you all!

The first night I was home from the hospital I made a list of twenty things I want my grandchildren to know. I’ll share that here another time after I have the opportunity to refine the list. Who knows, it might even become a book.

Next Friday is Ground Hog Day. The plump marmot has the reputation of being afraid of his shadow. Luke Skywalker was afraid of the dark side until he confronted it. We all tend to be apprehensive when the shadows of life approach. I am still learning to face the shadows of life without fear.

The Psalmist put it best,

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I fear no evil; for thou art with me. (Psalm 23:4)

There are many valleys of the shadow.

Our great assurance is that through it all, our shepherd is with us.

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