It’s Monday morning and before leaving the hospice last night Annie said to me, “Don’t come so early tomorrow, you need to sleep!”. She’s right. Over the last week, I’ve reached the end of each day exhausted despite the fact that it’s not exactly been a physically demanding week: making five minute trips to the very nearby hospice, sitting at Annie’s bedside and making frequent ten metre trips to the hospice kitchen. I took my wife’s caring advice, starting my slightly later morning with a cup of coffee in the company of the ancient saints of Ephesus.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. – Ephesians 1:3,9,10
Reading this portion of God’s Word this morning I was reminded one thing that sin does well is that it tears apart. It tears apart the good things that God has done and designed. Sin tore man apart from God – tearing apart Adam, Eve and all mankind from a wonderful relationship with God. Sin tore man apart from man – brutally tearing apart brothers like Cain and Abel. Follow the story of sin through the bible and you’ll see sin wrecks, ruins, destroys, devastates and tears apart. Follow sin and its effects through history as old as time and as recent as this very minute and you’ll see that sin and its effects still tear apart; tearing apart nations, communities, friendships, marriages and families; tearing us apart as individuals: mentally, emotionally and even our physical bodies.
But Jesus unites. Jesus brings things together. Jesus restores and reconciles bringing unity. His death on the cross is able to restore sinners like us into a relationship with God even more wonderful than the one Adam and Eve had. I’ve been meditating on verse 10 of Ephesians 1 over the last couple of days. I am genuinely awestruck by this beautiful picture of Jesus bringing unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Himself. Being awestruck doesn’t mean I understand everything and I am still meditating on that one verse. But one thing I learn from this is when Jesus brings together things formerly torn apart, nothing is able to tear apart His work because it is sin-conquering work. The spotless blood of Jesus is the glue that bonds His people together to the Father.
This continues to be our experience. Even as cancer advances, Annie and I find ourselves advancing nearer and nearer to Jesus. We have a TV and DVD player in Annie’s room; we have internet access; we have a nearby lounge filled with board games and puzzles and books (and another TV); there’s a cupboard in the lounge filled with DVDs and we even have a few of our own favourites in the room. There’s a beautiful garden right on the doorstep of the french windows at the foot of Annie’s bed. We have iPods and a CD player and plenty of music to keep us entertained. Every day there are opportunities for Annie to have makeovers and a myriad of other special treatments. This place has a generous sample of every means of distraction and escape from reality and pain; but all we find ourselves really wanting to do is to be in God’s Word more and more and more. Because God’s Word leads us to Jesus.
When I arrived this morning Annie told me she was unable to get to sleep until 5am this morning. The whole time she was up she was reading the Word of God and praying. We spent some of the morning together reading the Word of God and praying together. This afternoon, I went to walk Milo and get lunch. I was gone for about an hour and when I came back there I found Annie sat down with the Word of God on her lap. God’s Word leads us to Jesus.
I bumped into a guy in Tesco on Friday. I’d never met him before but organic bananas somehow sparked a conversation. Before I had said anything to him about Annie, he told me that his wife had Multiple Sclerosis. He asked me about my wife (seeing that I had already disclosed that I was running this banana errand for Annie!) and that lead onto conversation about where I was going next, namely, the hospice. He asked what was wrong with Annie and I told him that she had cancer. He then asked me how advanced it was and I told him that we were in month seven of Annie’s six-month life expectancy. His facial expression added the exclamation mark to the expletive words he reacted with. When other folks have asked me about Annie, lost for words some will reach for one of the numerous phrases and expletives that end with the word ‘Hell’.
For some people cancer (at any age in life) is a ‘hellish’ experience. I want to guard my doctrine carefully but I can understand what people mean when they say that but it’s not our experience. It’s tough, painful, sad, heart-breaking but it’s not hellish. That’s because the harder it gets for us, rather than tear us apart or tear us apart from God, it draws us nearer to Him and we experience wholeness. And the closer we are to Jesus the more we experience our foretaste of heaven with the Lord of heaven and earth.
Without wishing to expound the biblical doctrine of hell, there isn’t a place that more acutely and accurately describes the full and final extent of being torn apart from a wonderful relationship with God than hell. But while a person has life on this earth, Jesus is willing and able to drive out the fear, foretaste and finality of hell for anyone that comes to Him.
We can testify that this is not theory, it’s reality.
For Annie and I, it began when we asked Jesus, the Lord of Heaven to be the Lord of our lives on this earth. Jesus is able to unify our experience of life on earth with life in heaven. For now it comes as a foretaste. It is accompanied with pain, tears and sadness; but one day we will enjoy and experience the reality and fullness and sweetness of heaven – with the accompaniment of fellow saints rejoicing and praising.
Blessing, and thanks, and love, and might,
Be to our Jesus giv’n,
Who turns our darkness into light
Who turns our hell to Heav’n.
In terms of Annie’s physical health, she has now had three full days uninterrupted by nausea. We recently reported that the medical staff here were adopting a back-to-basics approach to the anti-sickness medication. They started by taking Annie off the Ondansetron and Cyclizine pills in favour of Cyclizine administered through a driver which is slowly distributed intravenously through the stomach. The doctors suggested she really road-tested the medication, even recommending she take a few brief walks and perhaps visit home for an hour or so.
On Saturday Annie enjoyed a surprise visit from our dear friend and sister in the Lord, Anna – whom we often refer to as ‘Anna from Czech Republic’ even though she now lives and works in Leeds, England! We were very thankful that Annie was able to experience better well-being for Anna’s visit. During the afternoon we took a visit back home. That was actually a bittersweet experience. The transition from home to hospice last week was very significant. We thank God for the way in which Annie was able to transition into the hospice so well. Like I had said in previous posts, the hospice is lovely, but the stigma attached to it is that this is a place where you come to die. Somehow, when Annie arrived back at our home on Saturday afternoon she said it felt cold and lonely. I knew what she meant; that ‘not lived in’ feeling you get when you come back from a vacation. But it’s the empty place I have to come home to every evening and I am already having to wrestle with how much home doesn’t feel like home without my Annie.
On Saturday evening, once Anna had left us, we began reading a book that our friend Debbie bought for us. I’ve said before that Annie gets given a lot of books (and so do I!) and the honest truth is that we start more books than we finish. Sickness makes you picky and often the books get put aside in favour of just picking up the Word of God. However, we have found this book very engaging not only because it is a book about suffering and healing but it is written by a person who is no stranger to a life of suffering. The book is titled ‘A Place of Healing’ and it’s written by Joni Eareckson Tada. And each evening we read a chapter together. If God gives us the days, this is definitely one book we will finish together.
Part of me wants to recommend it to everyone but then another part of me wonders if I would have even added it to my Amazon wishlist had we not been a place of suffering. One thing I would do is recommend it to any skeptics still asking ‘How can God be good if he allows suffering?’ Quit listening to philosophers and atheists theorize and philosophize; quit listening to the fool within you that insists this is the question that heaven is unable to answer and let God testify through His people firsthand.
Sunday morning I arrived at the hospice early in the morning before our morning worship service started. It was great to see Annie well and well rested. I showered Annie and then tuned her in to John Piper’s Easter message of hope: ‘The Risen Christ – His peace, power and purpose’ from John 20:19-23. Meanwhile, at Manor Park I was nourished and uplifted by being gathered together with the Lord’s people there. The message that God brought to us through our Pastor Roy that morning seemed to bring together so many of the scriptures God had been bringing to me in the last week! I’ll be adding a post soon with three sermons that I have recently mentioned (including that one).
Annie’s brother and his family made the early morning journey from Hayes to Worcester, meeting me at our morning worship service. We then spent the afternoon at the hospice together and enjoyed great fellowship and family time and a hospice roast beef Sunday lunch that reminded me of those really good Amish-style home-cooked food restaurants that make Pennsylvania such a great place to eat!
Sunday evening was the first evening that I ever had to lead our young people’s discipleship bible study without Annie being home. I anticipated it being really difficult but again, that which seeks to tear God’s people apart, draws them nearer to Jesus. Sat at home alone on Sunday evening, in an empty lounge, awaiting the young people to start coming through our door one by one, I just sat down and asked the Lord to fill our lounge with His presence. This isn’t home. Heaven is home. And to have the High King of Heaven in our lounge was a great foretaste of home.