As I write this it’s 11pm and that’s a fitting time to share something that has been on my mind over the last few days. ‘The eleventh hour’; I’m assuming the expression translates well if you are reading this outside of the UK. It’s a phrase (which actually originates from the bible, Matthew 20:6) we use to mean the latest possible time before something becomes too late. Although strictly speaking, it’s the 23rd hour right now, that’s neither here nor there!
Following a few stormy days of sudden sickness, the Nau Sea is calm once again! By Thursday the ondansetron anti-sickness medication had established its anchor and salvaged Annie from any further battering – at least for the immediate future. While, in the course of the following few days, Annie has gradually recovered strength, we have both experienced a different kind of battering, namely a spiritual one.
I could see Annie looked upset on Thursday morning after she weighed herself, “I’ve lost weight again.” My stomach sinks when I hear those words; not figuratively, literally. A physical sickness immediately falls on me and I find it hard to focus and continue whatever it was I was doing before. She’s down to something like 8 stone 6 pounds. That’s a five pounds loss in as many days. Five pounds is a lot of weight. You can try to rationalize it (as I did); the last couple of days Annie hasn’t really eaten much and anything she has attempted to eat has been violently rejected and ejected by and from her body. But deep down you know, as does Annie, that the weight loss is accounted for by more than just a couple of days of sickness.
On the same day one of the healthcare professionals popped round with a brochure (actually, brochure is too professional a description, it’s more several pages of colour printed A4 paper sheets stapled together). It’s called an ‘Advance Care Plan’ and it’s not exactly something we want to read. I haven’t even cracked the spine of it; I know what it’s about as the care professionals have been talking about it since they first crossed the threshold of our home. The purpose of the document is to make you think and plan how and where you want to spend your last days. This (the Advance Care Plan and its messenger) all arrives while I am talking to the Department for Employment who – after finally appreciating my wish that they stop sending us endless piles of conflicting forms for Annie to complete – agree to conduct their data collection over the phone. At the point where our other form-bearing professional arrives I am being asked over the phone about Annie’s suitability and availability for work. Our visitor overhears and says, quite matter-of-factly: “They shouldn’t be asking that, Annie has a DS1500.” The ‘DS1500’ they allude to is the government issued form that basically states Annie is unlikely to survive longer than 6 months after her diagnosis; so when they say ‘DS1500’ it’s like some bureaucratic euphemism that allows them to talk glibly about how long you’re going to live, without them having to feel awkward. And sometimes it makes me wonder if the ‘DS’ part doesn’t actually mean ‘Death Sentence’!
If ‘insensitivity’ was a radio programme, then at that precise moment I felt like I was listening to it in stereo! What’s more, Annie told me later that day, that as our visitor talked a little bit about the Advance Care Plan with her, she was told: “So if you ever have a fall and become unconscious, you can state in here a request that the ambulance services don’t resuscitate you – it’s things like that where this plan can help.”
I know that these care professionals are just doing their job…but that’s just it: they are just doing their job. We know our visitor means well, but we both find it difficult to feel that this visitor is anything other than a harbinger of hopelessness.
This is not a rant at government services or health care professionals – at least I don’t mean for it to be. I struggle with the ‘I demand better’ attitude that we can harbour towards sections of our society as Christians. In fact, Jesus said we should be prepared for the fact that the world would hate us on account of Him (John 15:18,19); we shouldn’t be surprised, antagonistic or ungracious.
But I’m not even attributing the events of Thursday to persecution from the world.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. – 1 Peter 5:8
Both Annie and I sensed the enemy behind this – the discourager, the devourer, the devil. He’s an enemy who likes to kick you when you are down and that is exactly how it felt by Thursday afternoon. We were beginning to feel deflated and discouraged. I just kept having those moments when I was continually troubled by the thought of being without Annie. And then even the small things I had to do just look overwhelming.
The enemy does give you options when that happens. One thing he’s willing to let you do is get a dose of worldly escapism: go shopping, put the TV on, watch a movie, walk it off. But in recognising the scheming of our enemy, we turned down his destructive generosity in favour of once again fleeing to God’s Word for comfort and restoration as we just fell to our knees in prayer.
Rescue me from my enemies, O LORD, for I hide myself in you. – Psalm 143:9
Turning to God in moments like this isn’t just another form of escapism. Hiding in Him doesn’t mean hiding away from the reality of our problems and circumstances. God understands our reality and time with Him always strengthens us and equips us to face it and even overcome it.
As the weight falls off Annie, and the nausea engulfs her, the coughing fits smother her, the pain ravages her bones, we know that the cancer is still present within her. That’s what Annie said this week: “This is cancer pain, I know.” So is there a point where we simply assume that God’s way is not to heal Annie and resign ourselves in that direction? Well, as we have said before, we know that whatever happens, we trust God. We know that He loves us and that all our days are in His hands (not inked on some surreptitiously coded form) and neither of us will leave this earth one second later or sooner than He has planned. But without wanting to dodge that question, I ask it of myself again: is there a point at which we simply give up hope that God will heal?
Often in the bible we see people of great faith have faith that stretches right past the eleventh hour. Abraham comes to mind. When God asked Abraham to offer his precious son Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham had to embark on a three day journey, ascend a mountain with Isaac, prepare an altar, bound Isaac up, even lay him on the altar…and it wasn’t until he raised the knife that God intervened with the substitute sacrifice; talk about the eleventh hour!
But you know, I think Abraham’s faith stretched way past the eleventh hour. Put yourself in Abraham’s sandals and the eleventh hour probably elapsed much earlier. Surely Abraham had demonstrated enough faith by even getting up that morning and deciding to head out on that difficult trip. By day three of that trip surely it was clear that Abraham’s faith was real. I think Abraham’s faith was able to stretch way past the eleventh hour because ultimately He trusted the Lord’s goodness and faithfulness to His promises. It says in Hebrews 11:
Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death. – Hebrews 11:19
I have not been promised by God that Annie will be healed. I have not been promised by God that Annie won’t be healed. But we both have a vast amount of promises (before the grave and beyond it) from a God who is loving, faithful, good and powerful. And as we uncover more of those promises, we know we will find faith that will take us up to and even past the eleventh hour. What lies past the eleventh hour doesn’t really matter; what really matters is who you pass through it with.
Annie and I continue to be realistic and we don’t seek to escape that reality. But while we complete wills, and eventually crack the back of that ‘Advance Care Plan’, we continue to trust that our God is able to heal and with each day He gives life and breath, we seek healing from Him as much as we seek to bring Him glory with whatever time and health we both have.
“For nothing is impossible with God.” – Luke 1:37