This week I was watching the Q&A session from the 2011 ‘Desiring God’ Pastors’ Conference. The panel included Francis Chan, Paul Miller, Joel Beeke, Jerry Rankin and John Piper. During the session the pastors were each asked to comment on ‘prayerlessness’ in the church today. It may surprise you that some of these Pastors recognised this as something they too struggle with in their own lives and ministries from time to time.
Pastor, Joel Beeke gave a personal anecdote:
“I visited a parishioner in the hospital…a very close friend…one day I came in and she was in great pain and I prayed, I prayed earnestly for her and then I shook her hand and I told her “I just wish I could do something more!” and she said “Pastor, I rebuke you! You just did more for me than any physician in this hospital could do for me! You prayed to Almighty God for me!” I just realised I was subjecting myself to the whole spirit of the age of not believing in prayer. I thought the doctor coming in behind me was much more important and prayer was just a parenthesis.” – Joel Beeke, Desiring God Pastors’ Conference, 2011
For every story that a seasoned Pastor like Joel Beeke shares, I could share a thousand similar tales of my own subjecting myself to the spirit of prayerlessness. But I have one slightly different story as recent as Monday which I’ll share as a means of keeping you updated on how Annie is doing.
On Monday morning we called the hospice, expecting that Annie would be ushered in and perhaps monitored and stabilised for a period. However, it worked out that we were told we needed to have visit from our GP (Doctor) before any actions could be taken. Annie’s doctor arrived promptly and gave Annie a couple of options. The first was to go to the hospice, the second was to go back on the syringe driver with some anti-sickness (Cyclizine) and some morphine for the pain control. With the hospice no longer being an unknown quantity we decided for the latter option first before arranging to spend another spell at the hospice. We have great memories of the hospice but if Annie can avoid that difficult transition from hospice to home again, she’d prefer it. The doctor was happy and arranged for the district nurse to hook Annie up again to the syringe driver the following day.
On Tuesday, we waited hours for the district nurse. It wasn’t too much of a problem because Annie was continuing to take the oral cocktail of Paracetemol (Tylenol) and Oxynorm (morphine) which helped to take some of the edge off the pain. Since Sunday afternoon, Annie had been taking those pills in four hour cycles. By the fourth hour the pills would wear off and the pain would surface. Annie needed to lay off those pills until the nurse arrived and could connect her up to the driver. Unfortunately the fourth hour passed and sure enough the vice-grip of pain was starting to tighten. It was beginning to look like Sunday afternoon all over again. I called the hospice nurse to see if she could give us an ETA and she told us to leave it with her. We continued to wait but the pain was intensifying.
I prayed. It wasn’t a pretty prayer. But then battle is never pretty.
To give you a sense of how desperate my plea was, as I was winding up my prayer – pleading for the Lord to supernaturally (yes, I used that word) take the edge off of the pain and to give His precious child the grace to endure the wait – when Milo’s bark pierced the air and my ears as he was sat right next to me. The air was so dense and tense with spiritual and physical anguish it was about all I could do to not lash out and beat his butt with the bible I had on my lap at the time! I think my prayer was punctuated with “MILO!” instead of “AMEN!” Before I could unleash a little post-prayer biblical discipline on Milo, he was running downstairs, not so much in fear of my wrath but to show me why he was barking: the district nurse had arrived!
The story doesn’t end there.
You see, I wondered if the nurse’s arrival had more to do with my phone-call than it did my prayer. And so quietly in my head I suppose I settled the matter by concluding that I probably would never know but I had no regrets that I prayed or that I made the phone-call.
God often uses our actions to deliver His answers to our prayers. I am reminded of the account where Jesus fed the five thousand in Matthew 14:13-21. Before He did, the disciples came up to Him, reported a problem and recommended a solution:
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” – Matthew 14:15
This acted as a kind of prayer. They came to Jesus, talked to Him about all the hungry people in the world and then suggested to Him a way that He could make the problem go away – the arm’s length solutions we all often recommend to God when we pray. But I love the way Jesus responded:
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” – Matthew 14:16
Jesus’ response was for the disciples to do something about the hunger of the hungry. He didn’t ask that the disciples would send them packing, but rather send them snacking!
I only wished I might have made the phonecall to the hospice nurse after I had prayed but all the same, I recognised that sometimes God, in His Sovereignty, sometimes uses us to deliver His answer, His healing, His wisdom.
But some how – and some times in life – you long for the clearly supernatural answers to prayer. In the case of the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus does do something supernatural irrespective of His disciples’ lack of faith. He takes a little kid’s lunch and not only feeds, but fills up, five thousand men PLUS their families! Christian brothers and sisters, don’t you just sometimes long to see some prayers answered in a way that is…supernatural…purely, entirely of God? I’m not alone in this feeling am I? It doesn’t need to be in the huge things in life; it can even be in the mundane, everyday things. But just some times we want those glimpses of the supernatural hand of God in our lives and/or in the lives of others.
Somehow, on Monday afternoon I had still secretly wished that the coinciding of my prayer and the nurse’s arrival were exclusively linked without my previous call to the hospice nurse.
While the nurse was setting up the syringe driver I heard her mobile phone ring. I could hear the voice on the other end but couldn’t make out the words. I knew it was the hospice nurse. But again, I was a little skeptical. The district nurse responded with words to the effect of “It’s okay I am here now.” and then the phone conversation ended. I figured that the hospice nurse had previously called the district nurse to usher her quickly to us and was then calling to double check that she had arrived. But as the nurse was packing up she started to apologise for the delay. She explained that there was a mix up in the morphine dose and type at the pharmacist. With morphine being such a specialist drug, she had to go through several long drawn out admin procedures with the GP and the Pharmacist before she could come out with the correct kind and dose of morphine. So I just asked her, “Did you not get a call from anyone to tell you that we had called?” she responded “No. Just the one you heard me pick up when I was already here.” She told me that as soon as the morphine was re-prescribed, ordered and dispatched, she headed straight for us – without the prodding of any phone-calls.
Not only did God give me one of those sometimes needed supernatural encouragements to pray in all things at all times and trust in His great power; but He also reminded me that through the endurance of pain and unwanted delay, He is able to show us great glimpses of His sovereign power and perfect timing in a way that we would not have appreciated so clearly had things just gone the way we would have preferred them to.
It might just sound like a very mundane and small thing, but it was important to us. In fact, it was timely in other ways too.
Tuesday night was a very difficult night. The morphine has helped with the pain but one adverse side effect is the way it effects Annie’s mind. The drug makes her so tired that it frequently puts her mind into a state where she is awake, and talking, but she’s making no sense (I wonder if there’s been any study into the the use of morphine in the field of politics!) On Tuesday night neither of us slept. Annie spent the night talking to me about the most random and strangest things. Sometimes she was talking about things that had happened in the day and the next she was weaving them with her dreams which she was also narrating to me! It sounds funny now but at the time it was really hard. I kept wondering if the cancer was now effecting Annie’s brain in some way. I tried to respond to Annie without being patronising and without telling her to snap out of it. Where possible I gave my best attempt at a rational response which seemed to neither alarm Annie nor confuse her. I say “…rational response…” but at around 3:30am when Annie commended me for my primary school mathematics by telling me “You’re good at hundreds, tens and units.” I just agreed and thanked her! We laughed at that in the morning but it wasn’t easy to keep the worrying thoughts out of my head at the time, during the dark of night. I was lying down next to Annie in bed, but I felt lonely simply because it wasn’t like I was talking to my wife.
But by 7am on Wednesday morning, I was very, very tired. I was out from early morning until early afternoon at ministry meetings. It was good to come home and see Annie looking so well. I wondered whether the morphine would still be effecting her mind and waited to see how our conversation would unfold. Thankfully it was as rationale as is the norm for us both!
On Wednesday afternoon the phlebotomist (a person whose expertise it is to suck blood out of veins…not to be confused with their fictitious counterpart!) came and took blood from Annie. We thank the Lord that it was a very straight forward visit and didn’t require the usual uncomfortable digging around with pins and needles. They were taking blood to ascertain whether Annie’s calcium levels were high again. This would result in Annie being re-administered to the hospice for the infusion that she had last time. We got the blood results this morning and were really pleased. Not only are the calcium levels normal but even the haemoglobin level (Hb) which is the one they watch to see if Annie will ever need a transfusion, is now in the range of normal (first time in nearly 6 months), surprising even the hospice nurse! The last time Annie had blood results her Hb showed signs of improvement following a real dip. In January the level was 9.8, in March 9.2 and in April (the previous blood test) it stood at 10.3. Today we were told it is 11.5 which is in the lower range of normal.
Of course, these aren’t cancer eliminating results. The little lumps are still evident on Annie’s neck and the best explanation of the pain she experienced recently is bone gnawing cancer pain. But it is what our Almighty loving Father has granted us for today. And whether He allows the bad news of pain or the good news of good blood test results, we will praise Him, trust Him and testify of His goodness.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. – 1 John 1:5-7
Yours, redeemed and cleansed by the blood of Jesus,