The Roller Coaster
When I was younger I use to love riding a roller coaster. Although I was not a fan of heights so I hated that first climb up the rather high hill before you were let go for the twists and turns until you came to rest at the end of the ride. It always felt like I would not survive this insanity but I always did. To get on a roller coaster or not was always a choice. Sometimes though life throws you on a roller coaster and you have no idea when it will stop or even if you will survive the ride. That happened to me recently. After being responsible and pro active about my health by going for a regular physical the doctor informs me that some of my test results were not good and they needed to be followed up by a colonoscopy. Not really a word that was part of my vocabulary. Going to the dentist sounded like more fun. It was one of those experiences though where the idea is far worse then the experience. There was nothing humiliating or unpleasant about the experience. The la la land drugs that were given prior helped. It was the phone call after that let me know I might be in for a ride. The doctor informed me that he had discovered a growth he could not remove. He biopsied it and would have the results back in a few days. I needed to come in and see him. Nothing but questions. No answers. I was heading up the hill, even though I did not choose to get on this ride, with no idea of the twists and turns ahead. Was I prepared for this ride? Since I did not choose to get on it in my belief system that meant that God had thrown me on this ride, which also means that God was on the ride with me. If that was not true then God was not sovereign and I do believe that God is sovereign. There is a difference though between believing and knowing. “Remember I am with you always to the end of the age” Matthew 28:20b Did I know that to be true, or is it all just wishful thinking? The ride had started, time to hang on.
When words become flesh
Multiple times every week I lead a worship service and preach. It is an invitation or a call for people to embrace the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. The foundation of this proclamation is ” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God………and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory” (John 1:1 & 14) God entered history, became human in the person of Jesus Christ and lived among us and invites us into a relationship. Worship is about that relationship. Preaching is about that relationship. It is an invitation for us all to experience the “word made flesh”. We do not have control in this relationship and we never know how or if this experience will impact our life. But because we are talking about a relationship with God it often gets referred to as a mountain top experience, an experience of joy, and inspiration. An experience of peace and a sense that all is well. That we are loved. This relationship is not isolated to times of worship, or to “mountain top experiences” but to everyday life. Jesus proclaims to us “I will never leave you or forsake you”.
Today I am sitting in the doctors office waiting for my appointment. The appointment where I find out the results of the biopsy he took last week. We live in an electronic world so everything is on computer screens. My doctor has three screens on his desk where he can bring up all the medical reports he has ordered for whatever patient he is seeing. When I sit down across from him he is starring at the screens and sort of reading off the results. My resent blood work looks good, my biopsy though was positive so I will need a CT scan and referral to a surgeon. There has been no eye contact and he starts to talk about what is next. He has not said the word, so I stop him, get him to look at me and I say, so it is positive for cancer. He nods yes, and returns to talking about what is ahead of me. This word – cancer, is now part of my flesh.
After I leave the office, with really a “peace that surpasses all understanding” I sit in my van for a moment. I tell my Lord, my God, my saviour, that I am in need of communication from him. I am not on a mountain top, I am not really sure where I am, I don’t really feel like I am in a pit or a whole, I am on a roller coaster that has just made some fast twists and turns and I have no idea what direction I am facing or where I am heading. I feel disoriented. Not upset, just disoriented, I will head home, where I will have about an hour to myself before the other members of my family start coming home for the day and the evening chaos begins.
“I listened hard, but could not see”
That is a line from one of my favorite songs. Pausing, praying, listening, reflecting on scripture, and “seeing” had become a common experience for me. It is after all part of my call as a Priest. Hearing, seeing and proclaiming the “Word of The Lord”. Here I sat, alone in my house, disoriented at the news that cancer was now part of my flesh asking my Lord to help me get re-orientated. Asking my Lord for a word for me. A word that would speak into my life and help me to “see”. This is different from engaging in a passage of scripture and preparing a sermon to expound on that passage. In that process I am asking God to speak to me through prayer and through scripture. To get a glimpse into the “glory of the Word made flesh”. Now I am asking God to simply speak to me, to give me a word through scripture that will help me be less disorientated and better focused. I am asking God to give me direction. This is not the first time in my life I have done this. There have been many times that God has spoken into my life and given me direction. In the past it has always been more of a mountain top perspective when I was looking for direction. It is much easier to hear and “see” from that vantage point.
This is the only way I can put this. The word of The Lord did come to me. God did answer the cry of my heart. But it was not what I expected. It was not a comfort scripture passage. It was one that I had always found harsh, one that was difficult to digest. It seemed to add to my disorientation not take away from it. I was listening hard but I still could not see. What was the word of The Lord for me? “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60) “Let the dead bury their own dead” – that had always seemed such a harsh statement. The person only wanted to show their love and respect for their loved one and they got hammered for that. Now here I sit under this death shadow that the very word cancer casts and the word my Lord speaks into my disorientation is “let the dead bury the dead; but as for you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” How am I to internalize this, how am I to hear this, how am I to see this word? Here is how I heard this word, perhaps I will call it Al’s amplified version. “My son you belong to me the resurrection and the life, nothing has changed, go proclaim the kingdom, it is your home” I listened hard, I was beginning to see.
Thunder run is the name of a roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland. We went back to Southern Ontario last summer for a family vacation to visit family and see the sights. It had been over twenty years since I had been at Canada’s Wonderland. I remembered riding a number of the roller coasters, and looking at them again I was content with the memories. The teens raced off to embrace the wild and extremely high ones. Our youngest was a little too short to join them. There were only a few roller coasters he was tall enough to go on and Thunder Run was one. I had been on it before and remembered it as a rather tame coaster. Apparently my memory is not well either. Most of this ride is through dark tunnels. So dark in fact you cannot even see the people sitting in front of you until there is some flash of light or lit image designed to startle you or distract you. It is a strange feeling racing through a tunnel so dark you have no idea what is ahead.
Like most people I often wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes because of a noise or sometimes it’s the call of the bathroom. Getting back to sleep was never a problem. But now here I lie, fully awake, in the silent dark, with my mind racing. Sleep is very far away. We are all mortal beings, we know that, however at the same time we all do a good job of forgetting that. Like riding through a dark tunnel we do not know when the end will arrive. Knowing you have cancer, yet not knowing how serious it is, your mind races to the reality that your days are numbered. The reality that my days are numbered is not disturbing for me. Whether a person lives 50 years, 150 years, or 500 years death would still be cutting life short. Death is not the final word. “God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead will also give new life to our mortal bodies through God’s indwelling Spirit”. (Romans 8:11) My mind is not racing and consumed by what I will miss or what I might loose by an early unexpected death. My mind is racing trying to think of what I will need to do to help my family. We still have 4 teenagers and 1 pre teen living at home. All graciously part of our lives because of the miraculous working of our Lord. My mind is racing trying to think of what I can do now to help them thrive and move forward if I am no longer there to walk with my wife and my children. Then that scripture the Lord gave to me pops back into my head, “let the dead bury the dead”. I hear it as a call to focus on life not death. It is not easy to refocus a thundering racing mind in the middle of the night with no distractions. I come up with something to distract my mind. I will refocus on proclaiming the kingdom, the second part of the scripture passage the Lord gave me by preaching Sundays upcoming sermon to myself in my head. When I woke up in the morning I remembered the unsettling feelings of the “thunder run” I experienced through the night but not just that I am aware that listening to Sundays sermon in my head put me to sleep. It is not the first time I have dosed off in a sermon but the first time I have dosed of in one of my sermons. The Lord is right I need to alter my focus and concentrate more on preaching the kingdom. Do I really see it as the most exciting and glorious thing there is?
That is the title of a song by my favorite group. “I listened hard but could not see” is also a line from one of their songs. If you are a member of my family who will know of whom I speak, if you are not and you know of whom I speak we share the same musical taste, or your good at searching in the internet. Endless dream is one of their less know compositions.
It is not that I have been having an Endless Dream, but rather it seems I have been having endless nights of lying awake with a racing mind. Every night it is the same. Worrying about my family and how they would make out if this grew into a tsunami version of cancer and swallowed me quickly. Night after endless night I find my mind trying to work through how I could help them, how I could ease the transition for them if I was not to make it through this. I was trying to help the “dead bury the dead”. Every night at some point that scripture would come to mind. I would try to change the direction of my mind but that was not easy. Preaching my upcoming sermon to myself was not always sufficient to get me back to sleep. After three maybe four long nights of this endless dreamless state in the silent darkness of the night the light went on. I listened hard and I did see! The very best way for me to help the dead bury the dead was to be grounded in the kingdom of our Lord. The more grounded I became in my relationship to Christ, which is what he was telling me to do by preaching the kingdom, the easier it is for the dead to bury the dead because the one they are burying is not dead. That is what we are outside of the kingdom, dead, dead in our trespasses and sins. By focusing on Christ, the king of the kingdom of God, I would become more alive in the face of death not less alive, and that would be the greatest gift to those I love. The text is not harsh, as I had always thought it to be, it is an invitation to grace, it is a call to life, we just fail to see that outside the kingdom of our Lord we are just dead beings walking. It is not so much that we deny our own mortality, we deny our own reality, that we really do not know what it means to be alive. “In Him is life” John 1:4 Inside the kingdom there is life and at some point when we change bodies we go from life to life. There can be no greater gift to leave anyone with then to draw closer to Christ and be full of life. My Lord had not shared harsh words with me but an invitation to be filled with life while in the shadow of death.
All the Lonely People……
Seems like song lyrics keep popping into my mind as I reflect upon this ride. Today is CT scan day. The purpose of the scan for me is two fold. One is to look for signs of additional tumours which would probably be in the liver and or lungs. The other is to have some dye pumped into my veins to create a kind of road map for my surgeon so she knows where all my blood vessels are in the area she will be operating in. My scan is scheduled for early afternoon but I will not get the results until my visit with the surgeon tomorrow afternoon. Two of my teenagers are coming along with me for this ride so I will not be part of the lonely people crowd.
The waiting room is full of lonely people on their own. Unlike other waiting rooms there are very few people reading or even engaged with electronic devices. Many just sit quietly staring with little expression on their faces. How many have heard spoken words that leave them in the shadow of death? The three of us find a spot to sit together and cheerfully interact while I wait for my turn. Nothing too deep just being together and enjoying that. People occasionally look our way. Fun and laughter does not seem to be close at hand for the many lonely people waiting. I do wonder where they all come from. What life is like for them.
It’s my turn, my name has been called. I have to part from my children while I go for the scan. As I follow the clerk through the large door it feels like I am a part entering a factory. I am given instructions, change in here, put your clothes in this bag, bring them with you, wait in this chair. We are all lined up waiting to be processed. I overheard a clerk say they process 100 “parts” per day in this factory. (She did not use those words, she said they have 100 patients a day come through) The staff all do their job efficiently and pleasantly but that does not change the fact I feel like a part in a factory. The man on the assembly line behind me has been through these experiences many times before. He has bladder cancer and is now in a wheel chair. He looks like he is loosing the battle physically but worse then that he looks and acts more like a “part” then a suffering human. The time in this “factory” is short. A few minutes to get changed, about 5 minutes waiting with the other “parts”, about 5 minutes in the scan room, then if you had dye put in another 5 minutes waiting after before you are released. Very little time to interact with each stranger around you. How Lord would one bring the hope, and joy, and light of the kingdom of God into such an “industrial” place? How can one “proclaim the kingdom of God” in this place? This will not be my only time in the “factory”. Like many others this could become a regular experience. Proclaiming the kingdom is not so much something we do, it is the place where we are to live, it is our home. “I am with you always, to the end of the age” says Jesus. The King of the kingdom of God is always with me. It is not so much that I have been thrown on this “roller coaster”, Jesus has taken my hand and led me on this ride. He leads me into all this, to proclaim the kingdom I must be overjoyed with being in the presence of the King. Am I?
I am joyfully reunited with the two beautiful smiling faces that came to support me. Time to go get some comfort food together. I could not eat prior to the scan. Dairy Queen here we come. I wonder how many lonely people we will see there?
The Twists and Turns of the Ride
We all have major events in our lives that can end up changing the direction or focus of our lives. Some of these turning points are a result of decisions we make. Decisions such as getting married or the decision to have a child through adoption or birthing – they are the same actually. Although there is one difference between having a child by adoption or having a child by birth. When you adopt you will recognize the child from the picture you were first given, when the child arrives via birth hopefully you will not recognize the child from that ultra sound picture you have been carrying around. There are an unlimited number of other “turning points” that could happen to us that are never our decision. Learning you have cancer or any other serious health issue is one of those out of your control turning points. This afternoon I meet my surgeon and will find out the results of my CT scan. This will tell me if my cancer is currently swelling into a tsunami or not. These are not the kind of turning points you want to face alone. My beautiful wife will be getting off work early to be with me for this experience. That brings great comfort to me. I have a full day ahead before the appointment. I have concluded that this “ride” I am on is a result of Jesus taking me by the hand and leading me onboard. If you struggle with the idea of God taking us into places of danger, of God intentionally leading us into the valley of the shadow of death, go grab a Bible and read the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews. That chapter starts with “now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. Hope and conviction, the hope that Jesus will be with us always, the conviction that Jesus will be with us always. I need the assurance that this proclamation is true this day.
My cell phone is ringing, I love my ring tone, it is an uplifting rift from Close to the Edge, one of my favorite compositions by my favorite band. It is a 519 area code number calling me which means it is someone from Southern Ontario. When I answer I am greeted by an old friend whom I have not spoken to in a couple of years. This is a unique friendship. This friendship started through a pastors prayer gathering. We met once a week and prayed together for an hour. He helped us all be disciplined in that prayer time so it was an hour of prayer time. If we wanted to visit and share small talk we did it after or before. This was a relationship based in praying together. A rare occurrence. He said he had been going through his contact list noticed my name and thought he needed to call me now not later. “Faith is the assurance”, it is not wishful thinking, it is Christ touching our lives often in unexpected ways. I told my friend why he called, the remainder of the call was prayer. Yes Jesus is with us, Jesus will never leave or forsake us, we might not like the circumstances we are in, but we are never alone in them.
We wait in the surgeons waiting room. The peace that surpasses all understanding, not anxiety, is present. It is our turn, the surgeon comes in carrying a rather large poster of a colon and surrounding body parts. She reports that my CT scan showed only the tumour in the colon. She then proceeds using the image she brought in to explain what she is going to do to remove the tumour. She is personable and thorough. I now know my cancer is not as raging as it could be, but I will not know if it has ventured out beyond the tumour until after the surgery. “My son, you belong to me the resurrection and the life, nothing has changed, go proclaim the kingdom, it is your home” – an assurance that can handle twists and turns.
Does this ride have an eject button?
Mornings at our house start early. Half the family – 4 people – are out the door by 6:30. I get their lunches prepared so they can grab them as they leave. The rest of us don’t leave until around 8. That means every morning I have from 6:30 until about 7:15 when my grandson arrives to have breakfast and wait for his school bus and the other children get up, all to myself. I am not a ritual kind of person so I don’t do the same thing everyday. Some days I use the time for devotional, some days I read, or listen to a sermon, or answer emails, or maybe even do the breakfast dishes. One thing I never do is turn on the TV. The other morning though I turned on the TV. I wanted to see what was on Vision TV at 6:30 in the morning. It was a broadcast of a sermon in a large church. The preacher was preaching on Psalm 103. From the setting and the preacher I was expecting that it would come across like a pep rally. More of a plea to the emotions than a focus on the word of God. I was wrong. It was very much a focus on Psalm 103, on hearing the word, on “seeing the word”. It was a call to listen hard and see.
“Bless The Lord, O my soul and all that is within me, bless his holy name”. It was heard as a command I give my soul, my very being, to bless the Lord no matter how rough the “ride” one found themselves on. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” Again a comand to my soul to remember, to remember who I am in relationship with, the one by whom life itself came into existence, soul remember – remember the benefits on being in relationship with the one who created you! Who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the grave. Who heals all your diseases! That was the focus of the sermon. The healing of our diseases. I have a disease that if ignored will lead to the grave.
How am I to hear this passage? How am I to understand prayers for healing? Jesus has promised to never leave me or forsake me. Throughout this ride the presence of the “word made flesh” has brought a “peace that surpasses all understanding”, “light to the darkness”, comfort to my soul, the ride itself has deepened my relationship, my souls relationship with my Lord. The invitation presented to me here is to have faith in God and receive healing. It sounds like there is this big red “eject” button, I hit that and I am off this roller coaster ride floating back to safety under a giant parachute. I do not believe in coincidences, why did I turn the TV on this morning when I never watch TV in the morning, why was this proclamation on, this proclamation centred not on emotions but what I believe to be God’s word. I am disoriented all over again. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8)
That is so true, no wonder we get disoriented when we invite God to speak into our lives. “Stop and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14) Yes, God has given me much to stop and consider. Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me!
Healing and the Big Red Eject button
Red is my favorite colour. I love red cars, red walls – my home office has a beautiful bold red wall and sometimes I wish the whole room was that colour. Even for those who are not fans of red like me the idea that a healing prayer could end the roller coaster ride of a potentially deadly illness just like pushing a red eject button and getting off the ride is very appealing. There are many scripture passages that could be used to support such a concept of healing. Like Psalm 103:3 “who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases”. To reflect upon healing could take an entire book. I want to try and consider a “big picture view”. That is a good way to try and approach all scripture.
What is the purpose of the healings that Jesus did in the New Testament? They were a proclamation that in Jesus creation is restored to the fullness of life that God intended in creation before humanity put self first instead of God first. Look around the world now and throughout history and the resulting death and destruction that results from humanities decision is evident. Historically Jesus did not heal everyone when he walked upon the earth nor have all Christians throughout history in need of healing been healed. When presented with the news that Lazarus was ill Jesus responded by saying “this illness does not lead to death rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4) The big picture must take into account death. Lazarus was raised from the dead, but he eventually did die again. If pushing the “big red eject button” means escaping the disease and staying alive above cherishing Christ then the glory of Christ and the true “healing” that Christ offers us has been missed. The healing that Christ offers us is not temporary but eternal. “We obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.” (1 Thess 5: 9-10) Salvation by or through our Lord Jesus Christ. Not through our understanding of who he is or what he has done, nor even through faith in Christ, but through the Lord Jesus himself! The greatest gift is to draw closer to the Lord Jesus himself. The “red eject button” has no appeal to me because the illness has not got my attention Jesus has got my attention. It is what he spoke into my life right from the beginning of this ride. “My son, you belong to me the resurrection and the life, nothing has changed, go proclaim the kingdom, it is your home.” (Luke 9:60 – Al’s amplified version)
The early Christians went through many difficulties in life just like we do. When prayers are offered for them the prayers are actually not prayers to change their circumstances or the difficulty they are going through. “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge; so that you may be filled with the fullness of God” (Ephesians 4:18-19) The prayers were for them to see the glory of God in Christ. There is no bigger picture. Everything then becomes a means to witness to the truth and glory of Christ. Healing is for bearing witness, sickness is for bearing witness, because in all God supplies every need according to his riches in Christ Jesus. Healing and freedom is my inheritance in Christ. Not just for today and tomorrow but for all of eternity – the kingdom of God is my home! Yes I ask people to pray for me, to pray for the surgical team treating me, to pray for my healing and recovery, but more then anything that I will know the love of Christ that surpasses everything – in the end, whenever that may be, my life is in Him.
The visible invisible
Some siblings in Christ asked if I would like to have them get together with me for prayer and anointing with oil. “Is any one sick among you? Let them bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” (James 5:14) We gathered in a small chapel. I was both excited but anxious. There was an intentionality of coming before the Lord. It was a beautiful and biblical experience. First I was asked what I wanted The Lord to do for me. Jesus seemed to always ask people that question. What did they want Jesus to do for them? At this point I would not even know I had cancer if it was not for microbiology and technical developments that make it possible to see inside the human body with small cameras. Surgery then seems like a reasonable response. If I was to experience an accident where a large sliver of wood or glass imbedded itself in my body I would not pray that my body had the ability to push it out or consume it. I would have it removed and prayers be directed for healing after the fact. What I want Jesus to do then is to give wisdom and guidance to the surgical team that their work would be performed with extraordinary skill. Then to strengthen my body and help it to heal from the trauma of the surgery.
The chapel had a very peaceful feel. There were candles lit. Lit candles at a service remind us of the light of Christ. There was a jar of scented oil. I was present at the service where the Bishop blessed the oils that are used during prayers for healing. She asked that when the oil is used that a significant amount be used. A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It brings the reality of the grace of God into the physical world. “The Word became flesh and lived among us”. Sometimes I think because there are thousands of years between us and when the “Word became flesh” there can be a detachment from our physical life and our reality. But here we gather, as directed by James, the brother of Jesus, the head (Bishop) of the church in Jerusalem. There is a concrete physical connection between now and then. The physical connection is the proclamation that from that time until this time when a Bishop was consecrated hands would be laid on them by other Bishops dating all the way back to the apostles, the eye witnesses of Jesus “the Word made flesh”. Picture it as a long line of hands passing through time affirming, the work of the Holy Spirit in the flesh. Now this scented oil, blessed by the hands of my Bishop, is freely used to anoint me as a concrete sign of the Holy Spirit bringing healing and strength to my physical body now and after my surgery. Healing and grace because of the death and resurrection of my Lord. The scent is filling my nostrils and I am reminded of Mary anointing Jesus, pouring out her love on him prior to his death. The death that gives me life. This is indeed a sacred moment. All my senses are proclaiming and affirming it. The feel of the oil, the scent of the oil, the light of the candles, the feel of the hands upon me and the sound of the voices asking Jesus on my behalf to do what I want him to do for me. The invisible, the grace of God moving and working in my life is surrounding me and filling my senses in a very visible way. “Now faith is a well-grounded assurance of that for which we hope, and a conviction of the reality of things which we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) No wonder I felt excited and anxious The Lord of Heaven and Earth, The Lord of Eternity was assuring me I belong to Him and His kingdom is real. ” Taste and see that the LORD is good. Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him!” (Psalm 34:8)
Logic would dictate that this day would be a day of high anxiety. If facing an almost four hour operation did not create anxiety then certainly the knowledge that I would experience significant pain and discomfort post operation should be enough to raise the anxiety level. I am a person whose blood pressure tends to run on the high side. Everyone’s blood pressure elevates when they are experiencing stress or anxiety. The first thing that happened when I arrived at the hospital was that I got to put on the “fashionable hospital gown”, that experience alone should add to anxiety. The second thing that happened were my vitals were taken – temperature, heart rate and blood pressure. Everything, including my blood pressure, was “text book normal”, not even slightly elevated. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! …….The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phillipians 4: 4-7) This scripture, this promise, I was experiencing as literally true – in body, soul, and spirit! The peace of God, was transcending all logic and understanding as I rested in Christ.
When it was time for me to actually go for the surgery a surgical nurse came to fetch me. I got to hug and kiss my wife and one daughter goodbye who were able to come and wait with me up to this point but now I was off on my own. I was not wheeled into the operating room on a stretcher, or in a wheel chair, I walked in fully alert and able to see and experience the entire space. There were three large, very high resolution monitors displaying the colours of the rainbow in bold stripes. They had a festive look to them. I had considered calling this reflection “the party room” which as weird as that sounds does fit somewhat. I was celebrating that I was there. That the five people surrounding me were going to do all in their power to free me of this disease that was out to kill me. I was “rejoicing in the Lord”.
I jumped up and sat on the side of the operating table. The nurse that brought me in introduced me to the other two nurses who would be assisting. My surgeon I knew and I had also met the anesthesiologist previously. It was clear these five people were a team and worked together regularly. They teased each other a bit, they shared about themselves a bit and they wanted to get to know me. This was the opposite of the experience I had when I went for my CT scan. I did not in the least feel like a part in a factory, I felt like someone who was being genuinely cared for by these new friends, who wanted to connect with me and not treat me like a part that needed fixing but like a family member who needed to be cared for. We talked as they went about their work preparing the trays of tools that would be used for the operation. By the time it came for me to lie down, they all knew how long I had been married, how many children we had, where the adopted children were from, how many grandchildren we had and what I did and what my wife did for work. I also knew a little bit about them, if they were married, if they had children and where they grew up.
In a few moments my life would be in their hands literally. What a gift to have made a connection with them. My life was not going to be in the hands of strangers but new friends I trusted. “Remember I am with you always to the end of the age” says my Lord. (Matthew 28:20b) Yes in astounding ways He has assured me this is truth not wishful thinking. The big lights are being moved into position. Soon it will be lights on and action for my new friends and lights out for me as I rest in the presence of the “light of the world”.
Speaking through flesh not words
Overhead fluorescent tube lights have to be the harshest form of lighting ever. I never turn them on in my office at the church if I can help it. I use a floor light instead. The ceiling of the recovery room appears to be nothing but fluorescent tube lights glaring down at me. There is a nurse standing over me, not one of my friends from the operating room, a stranger, the lights overhead glow around her making it hard to make out her features. If a picture was snapped she might appear like an angel with light glowing around her. But I know she is not an angel. She is giving me endless demands. Squeeze her hand, move my arms, move my fingers, move my legs, move my toes, breathe deep, have a drink, and talk to her. She wants me to talk to her! I am coming out of a drug induced coma, I am nauseated, the room is spinning, I don’t feel very comfortable, a conversation is the last thing I want. I see a large clock hanging above the nurses station in the middle of the room. It is about 3:15. The spinning and the nausea get the best of me. I am sick a couple of times. That was the most painful experience of this entire procedure! The anesthesiologist comes to ask me if I experience motion sickness. Well when the room is spinning apparently I do.
The next couple of hours pass quickly. The next thing I know it is about 5:10 and there are two new nurses who have come to fetch me and take me up to my room. They are warned that I am experiencing nausea. My room is on the fourth floor and I am on the second. It is few twists and turns down a hallway, a ride up on an elevator, then some more twists and turns down another hall before I arrive at my room. Any roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland would have been tame in comparison. When I arrive at my room I discover I am not on a bed but a stretcher which is pulled along side the bed. There are now four nurses. I look over at the bed and and ask somewhat in disbelief if they want me to jump over onto the bed now? There response is no, they will do that and I won’t feel a thing. Did you know nurses are miracle workers?
My bed is beside a window. They elevate the head slightly which is very comfortable. My window faces north. For those of you not from around here that means I am looking out at the cascade mountains. There are white caps off in the distance, and lower foothills close. Chilliwack bumps right up against the mountains. It is a beautiful day. There is a large pine tree that is a focal point. As I look out the window an eagle appears and begins to soar in circles above the pine tree. He rides the air currents higher and higher until he appears to be higher than the mountains then swoops down and does it all over again. He repeats this three or four times. I am not sure if he left first or if I drifted off to sleep first.
Most people have a favorite scripture or two. I have one that I have framed that is written in calligraphy like a work of art that hangs in my office. It has been a favorite scripture for probably 30 years and I have had it framed and hanging prominent for 20 years. I see it every time I head out to lead worship. It is Isaiah 40:31 “those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” How amazing that my Lord would speak hope and encouragement into my life through His word at a time when I was too weak, too weary, too faint, to do anything but lie there and look out the window. I looked for the eagle everyday after that. His nest was not in that pine tree. In fact I never saw him again. It was not really an area where the eagles hang out. He was simply my Lord’s messenger putting flesh on God’s word for me! How amazing is that!!
“Remember I am with you always to the end of the age” Matthew 28:20b – that is reality not wishful thinking.
What about those prayers?
Prayer is a more complex communication than simply asking God for favours. Tim Keller proclaims that “the basic purpose of prayer is not to bend God’s will to mine, but to mold my will to God’s”. In other words prayer changes the way I see the world and changes the way I understand how God acts in my life. None the less when we pray we tend to envision what it might look like for that prayer to be answered. When I was asked what I wanted Jesus to do for me my response was that I wanted Jesus to give wisdom and guidance to the surgical team so that their work would be performed with extraordinary skill. Then to strengthen my body and help it to heal from the trauma of the surgery. What I envisioned then was that the surgical team would complete the surgery exhilarated by the experience, sensing that there was something supernatural in what they had just done. I have since learned that nothing could be further from the reality of their experience.
When I positioned myself on the operating table I commented that they should have ordered the queen size table. The nurse said it’s a one size fits all table. My arms were strapped tight against the side of my body so they would not fall off the table and so I could not move them during surgery. I thought I would be strapped to the table for the entire surgery, but I was not. During the operation it was necessary to tip me slightly to the left at one point then at another point slightly to the right. On one of those tips I moved at the same time they went to move me. Which meant the five foot two surgeon ended up holding up the two hundred pound, six foot three, unconscious man who was slipping off the table onto the floor. But that was only the start of the excitement. In the commotion, the (inflated anchor) intubation tube was wrenched out – which meant I had also stopped breathing. They got me stabilized on the table again, but needed to get me breathing again so the tube had to be reinserted “blind”. Inserting it is a delicate procedure because it must be carefully slipped past the vocal cords. Inserting it “blind” they had no idea if they had destroyed some or all of my vocal cords. They also had no idea if the length of time I was deprived of oxygen had affected my brain function or not. So they had to finish the operation with this adrenalin pumping potential disaster hanging over them, having no idea if I was seriously injured in the mishap or not. I was told after the policy was that only those with a high BMI were strapped down and I do not have a high BMI (I am not overweight for my body size).
I understand now why I was given multiple commands as I gained fuzzy consciousness while coming out of the anesthesia. Staff were assessing whether I had control over all body parts and especially to see if I could talk. When I was talking to my surgeon the morning after she still could not believe I did not even have a sore throat. She thought at the very least it would be scratched or bruised from the trauma, not to mention the fact my voice was not the least bit affected. Jesus did answer my prayer. The surgical team was given wisdom and guidance and extraordinary skill, so much so that they were able to do their job with perfection even when doing it “blind”. My operating room incident has resulted in a hospital policy change. Everybody gets strapped down to the table from now on.
The second half of my prayer request was that I would heal quickly after surgery. Now less than a week after surgery, I do not require pain medication and am recovering well. I believe that the prayers of others and my own have been moulding my will to God’s. We must surrender ourselves to God in prayer. Prayer must be, at its heart trust in God. Trust that extends beyond the current circumstances to the will and purposes of God. Consider the prayer of our Lord in the garden as He was in agony, knowing what was to come. He was soon to be banished from God’s presence which, in reality, was the true cost of our salvation.
“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”(Luke 22:42) How could we think for a moment that we know better than God how our prayer should be answered.
When twists and turns are not disorienting.
This ride has taken me through a number of milestones in a fairly short length of time. There were a number of times when the words spoken to me and the questions raised left me disoriented and uncertain. Throughout the experience though repeatedly my Lord has given me a peace that surpasses all understanding and assured me that he is with me on the ride and that I belong to Him – the resurrection and the life. When the twists and turns of life bring uncertainty and questions it can be disturbing because it sometimes feels like our life is literally falling apart. Our lack of control, no matter how hard we try to maintain control, becomes disarmingly evident.
Today I am facing one more “turning point”. I have an appointment with my surgeon for the first time since being released from hospital. She will inspect her handy-work (my incisions) to make sure everything is healing as expected, and she will inform me of the results of the pathology report. I will learn if my cancer has travelled to the surrounding lymph nodes and is consequently moving merrily through my body looking for a new place to grow. My beautiful wife is with me for this part of the ride. Once again we are resting in the “peace that surpasses all understanding”. The first thing the surgeon does is inform us that my pathology report was good. There was no cancer present in any of the 14 lymph nodes she removed for testing. As she said the “cancer has not left the building”. It was close, it had proceeded through the wall of the colon which meant I am stage 2 not stage 1. I will be referred to an oncologist (cancer specialist) to discuss the best course of treatment from here. She thinks it is unlikely that they will recommend chemo therapy. If cancer was present in any lymph nodes chemo therapy would be the next step. She then removes my wound dressings. I get to see my incision for the first time. It is crooked! I guess she did not have time to use a ruler with all the chaos in the operating room. My wife points out though that it looks like a cross etched in my abdomen, an appropriate reminder that it is because of the cross of Christ that life is offered to me.
I have found myself reflecting and wondering how I would have felt if I had been told cancer was present in the lymph nodes. The road a head would probably be going in a different direction with different experiences. But would there be any more uncertainties then there is now? Would I have less control then I do now? The answer to those questions is no. Life is full of twists and turns many of which we don’t see coming and many of which we have no control over. The one consistency between the two possible outcomes that I was facing is that my companion on those journeys would be the same. Jesus would be with me equally no matter which of those roads were true for me. The difference is that the one road would be harder. If cancer had “left the building” chemo would be a certainty and the risk of tumours growing in new spots would be significantly higher. It is a sad fact of human nature that when the road gets harder we cry out for God and long for God more. I have done that through this “ride”. God has answered, God has been there. Jesus promise to never leave us or forsake us has been made real to me in new, fresh life giving ways. I have been given the easier road. I am thankful for that. But my heart longs to draw closer and closer to my savoir. I pray that I although my road is easier my hearts desire for Christ will be the same as if I was on the harder road. It is not the twists and turns that cause one to be disoriented, it is loosing ones focus on the one of whom it is said – “in Him is life!” (John 1:4)
Free or Freedom?
Recently a number of people told me how thrilled they are that I am cancer free and may add that they are continuing to pray for me. I am humbled by their prayers, love and caring and appreciate the positive and encouraging words. Medically speaking though, I am not “cancer free” but NED – “no evidence of disease”. This is certainly worth celebrating, but one must have had NED for five years to be considered cancer free. Other “NEDs” whose cancer returns in that five year period report they are more devastated than when cancer was first diagnosed. I suppose believing yourself to be free from the tyranny of cancer and then discover that your life was once again going to be ruled by the disease would be traumatic if cancer defined your life. My life is not. Yes, having cancer brings one face to face with one’s own mortality, but cancer or dying does not limit my true existence. To deny one’s mortality is not “living in freedom”. The reality is I am still dying and so are you. As I said in an earlier post, our problem is not the denial of our own mortality, our problem is the denial of our reality. In reality, we allow ourselves to be slaves and not free at all. We allow ourselves to be slaves to our needs, our wants, our desires and our circumstances. We are slaves to the forces that move and shape the society in which we live. Our culture and society inform us what our wants and needs are. To use biblical language we are slaves to our sin, individually and collectively – our self centred, self preferring nature. Cancer has not been an “enslaving experience” that I long to be set free from. I am thrilled and very thankful that currently I have “no evidence of disease”. There are many things that I think my Lord still wants me to do which will take years to accomplish. The most important thing for me to be able to live out my call is not being “cancer free” it is being “free in Christ” which is true freedom.
This has been a difficult entry for me to write. My struggle emotionally and spiritually and now physically too is no less than when I first heard that I had cancer, but it is harder to articulate. I say I believe in miracles. Am I denying the miracle offered to me by not claiming I am cancer free? No I don’t think so. I am very thankful for all the Lord has done. Through this experience scripture proclamations like “taste and see that The Lord is good” became real to me. The Gospel and it’s promises became real. I tasted the reality – “remember I am with you always to the end of the age”. There are many proclamations throughout the New Testament that speak of our being free in Christ. I have read these words over the years but was aware this freedom in Christ was not something I fully understood or experienced in my life. My Lord has graciously allowed me to have a “taste” of that freedom and now I want to know it and experience it more fully and more deeply. “For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin.” (Romans 6:6) I want more than to be free of a deadly disease, I want freedom in Christ. “People are slaves to whatever masters them” (2 Peter 2:19b) When the shadow of death is not just a saying but a reality cast across your life, many of the things that might “master” your life lose their hold over us, and we begin to loosen our grip on those things which enslave us. At the end of our lives, the only master that will remain is Jesus. In Him is life, in Him is freedom. I long to know Him as my only master.
Hurry up and Wait
If you have ever been to an amusement park you know that is the way the rides work. You get off one ride and run to the next bigger and scarier one because you survived the one you just got off to get in the line ahead of the few people you out ran so you will only have to wait 90 minutes instead of 95 minutes to get on the new ride. Sometimes life feels like that. We go through one experience then we try to get to the next experience as fast as we can, but often there is just waiting in between. Everybody hopes for a new exhilarating experience. Hence the long lines to get on the newest coaster unless that coaster is called THE CANCER COASTER. That is a ride no one wants to get on.
Recently I had my appointment with the Regional Cancer Centre. It is the place where all cancer patients get referred to after surgery. Unless of course surgery was not possible for them then they would get a referral there right away. It was not like most medical facilities where you hurry up get to your appointment on time and then wait. They have a large reception area and you are greeted as soon as you enter the space. There is fresh coffee waiting if you would like some, or cold bottled water, comfortable chairs, and on your first visit you are given a package of material, including a binder for notes and information and an extensive questionnaire to fill out. The questionnaire covers pretty much all areas of your life. They really want to know how consumed your life has become by the uncertainty of this disease. Family members are encouraged to attend your appointments with you. There is only one other patient filling out the forms. There is a seriousness about this place. I suppose that would be expected since the shadow of death is a reality of this disease. My appointment was scheduled for three hours. Thirty minutes for me to fill out the paper work and two and a half hours for the oncologist to give my life a thorough going over. After about forty five minutes with the oncologist, who had given me a physical and carefully gone through my entire life’s health history up to this point, he smiled. I don’t think he does that very often. He told me that there would be no need for me to undergo Chemo therapy. In fact I would not remain a patient of the Cancer centre. My family doctor would arrange blood tests every 6 months and a CT scan every year, my surgeon had already booked a colonoscopy for next year all to catch any early signs of cancer if it was to return. That would be sufficient follow-up for me. It felt a little bit like the end of the ride. You know when you return to the platform and are escorted off, relieved it is over yet energized by the experience, marched past the overpriced “priceless” picture that caught how disoriented you were in the middle of the ride. If there was a picture I would not be in it alone, my Lord would be in it with me.
For the next five years it’s like I carry around a pager that could go off and call me back to the cancer coaster at any time. In the mean time, what’s next? The world is full of distractions that call and say come get on this ride it will be exhilarating, it will get your heart a pumping. If I have learned anything from my ride on the cancer coaster it is that there is only one thing worth waiting for, there is only one thing that can truly touch the heart, there is only one thing that can make life exhilarating, there is only one thing that matters in the end. The prophets proclaim it over and over, the Psalms call us make it central to everything we do, we sing about each year through Advent – “wait for The Lord, whose day is near, wait for The Lord be strong take heart.”
Waiting in our instant technological age is usually something we try to avoid. It is tempting just to find a “what’s next” and run off to make the most of the experience. When I needed my Lord the most in the depths of my disorientation “his rod and his staff brought me comfort”. He was my shepherd! He is my shepherd who revives my soul. What’s next?
“I wait for The Lord; my soul waits for him; in his word is my hope. My soul waits for The Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:4-5)