Almost twelve years ago, on a sunny day somewhere near the middle of the year 2000, Annie and I began planning for perhaps the most significant and wonderful day of our lives together. I’m being vague about specifics because I don’t have the exact dates either to mind or to hand! But as we experience and enjoy the beginning of this present summer heatwave, all of my senses are heightened, directed and employed in recollecting that evening when I asked Annie to marry me and the joyful year that followed when we began planning our wedding day.
I’m not entirely sure if the whole ‘Professional Wedding Planner Industry’ was as big here in the UK then as it is now but even if it was we were blissfully oblivious to it. As far as Annie and I were concerned, why on earth would you want to hand over the most exciting and wonderful responsibility for the greatest party you were going to enjoy this side of heaven to somebody else? I can almost feel the woosh-wave of heads shaking in reaction to that question! I guess some of us are more persuaded that ‘Big day + Wedding Planner = Less Stress + Maximum Enjoyment’ formula (sounds like a business card strap-line!) But as for Annie and I, every single thing we could do, we did do. Not because we were control freaks, not even because we were on a budget, but more because we were love junkies! Whenever time and energy allowed (and sometimes, even when it didn’t) we loved and enjoyed every second talking about, planning and arranging our wedding day together.
As seasoned married couples often reminded us “Your big day will be over in a flash! So make the most of it!”; we took that advice from the moment I put Annie’s engagement ring onto her finger! It was an opportunity for adventure and discovery. I actually went fabric shopping with Annie and enjoyed it! I remember that humid day we drove into the famous Indian fabric markets in Southall perusing and stroking endless towering pipes of silk and cotton, engaging Annie in serious discussion about the pros and cons of fabric weight and colour combinations, as if we were seasoned journalists for Vogue magazine. In fact, I even recall flicking through that very magazine with Annie for inspiration and ideas at one point – a short-lived subscription as I realised that my spindly physique had more in common with the female models than it did their suit-cutting male counterparts! We designed, hand-made and even hand-drew every single invitation and I remember many hours, whether together or apart, gleefully applying labour and dexterity to our production line of two. Every table place name, every favour, everything we could do, we did; everything we couldn’t do, we at least tried to or wished we could. As time passes you reflect on things you might have done differently for your wedding day – especially as our wedding seemed to start the ball rolling for so many of our friends (was it coincidence or influence? I sometimes enjoy the delusion of believing it was the latter!) and we attended more and more special days. But one thing we can both be sure of, there was not one single ounce of joy left to be squeezed out of both our wedding day preparations or the day itself; and as a result we are both able to continue to enjoy our memory and recollection of both.
Yesterday morning our home was once again a hive of medical activity with district, student and hospice nurses and a number of doctors. When there is such high volume of medical traffic, rather than crowd the ward which is our bedroom, it’s been my custom to leave them to tend to Annie as I remain downstairs listening and loitering with the intent of being available for any non-medical assistance! Yesterday, I was in a meeting here (actually, in our garden because it was so warm!) with a fellow church-planting elder to pray and plan and so I occasionally rubbernecked to see how things were and each time witnessed a gridlock of much medical discussion.
Once the house was free of nurses and doctors I went upstairs to find that Annie had been crying. She explained that the doctor had spent a little time alone with her to talk about where she thought that Annie was at this stage. As followers of this blog will know, the three musketeers of cancer’s assualt have been nausea, fatigue and pain. Recently a fourth has joined in, namely breathlessness. It’s not a new recruit. In fact, it’s an old nemesis which was there right at the very beginning of this second recurrence of the cancer. Back in August-October last year, it was more a side-effect of the initial discomfort Annie experienced in her ribs; but now it’s different; now it appears to be acting alone, along with and independent of the other three more familiar sicknesses.
The doctor’s assessment was that this was a physical sign that the cancer was now rapidly progressing towards its bitter end.
Later on we had to call another doctor back out to assess Annie’s breathing as it was becoming difficult again to the point of hyperventilation. If I understand his verdict correctly, it was a pain reaction that was keeping Annie from breathing regularly – even though she was not experiencing any pain. He explained that while the morphine may be numbing some of the pain, Annie’s own body might also be regulating her breathing depth in order to restrict her from the pain threshold. He did not rule out the possibility of it being an embolus (a clot of some sort) in her diaphragm but felt that it was unlikely from his assessment of her condition. Before the doctor arrived we prayed that God would grant him wisdom to know how to help Annie effectively. He gave her what he called ‘a stack dose’ of morphine delivered directly into her through an injection in her bottom to help with the pain (however little her sensation of it) and subsequently her breathing. There was certainly a notable difference once he administered that injection and we thank the Lord for that.
With the weather being so beautiful I grabbed the opportunity to take Annie for a walk in her wheelchair. It was a memorable walk. Annie shared with me more of the conversation she had with the doctor earlier in the day. She said the doctor had asked if we had talked much about ‘the end’.
If you counted the number of occurrences on our blog alone of the words ‘death’, ‘dying’, ‘cancer’, ‘suffering’, ‘grave’ etc. you’d probably conclude that Annie and I are no strangers to those subjects. In fact, as Christians, irrespective of sickness, we face up to the reality of that subject more than the sum of all the nurses, doctors, coroners and funeral directors on the face of the planet. The heartbeat of our faith begins and continues with the death of Jesus and His empty grave. It’s part of our daily vocabulary and spiritual vitality!
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. – 2 Corinthians 5:15
Nobody talks about ‘the end’ or prepares for ‘the end’ more or better than followers of Jesus Christ do.
But honestly, when that time is drawing near, yes it’s hard to face.
It says in the book of Ecclesiastes 3:2 that ‘…there is a time to be born and a time to die…’ and in the book of Psalms (Psalm 90:10) the Psalmist writes of a man’s natural life expectancy being 70, maybe 80 years. And so I can tell you why it’s difficult to talk about ‘the end’ in the way that the doctor was referring to: there’s something unnatural and untimely about a couple of mid-thirty year olds talking about ‘the end’ half-way into their average life-expectancy. There are places in my mind I don’t really want to go. Places that I know I’ll probably have to go at some point, but not yet – it’s always “Not yet, Lord! Not yet!”
As we took our little walk yesterday, we were reading through the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel. You might remember it as the chapter where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
If you’ve read the chapter before, yes, you ought to be struck by Jesus’ incredible power over death; but have you ever been struck by the events leading up to it?
So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, – John 11:6
Jesus got news that Lazarus – a very close friend of His – was very sick. No doubt, Lazarus’ sisters (Mary and Martha) sent that message with the purpose of attracting Jesus’ compassion and care. When Jesus got this news – quite shockingly – His response was “Not yet!” Jesus loved Lazarus, Martha and Mary dearly, He wasn’t without at least three good reasons to restore Lazarus to his sisters; and as the Son of God, Jesus wasn’t restricted by time or distance. Jesus could have easily stayed where He was and just said the word and Lazarus would have been healed, Lazarus’ sisters’ relieved and the family restored – just as He had done before (Matthew 5:8-13).
But Jesus decided not to do that and not even to do so much as a pastoral visit to at least go and see this morbidly sick friend. When Jesus said “Not yet.” He was once again demonstrating that He acted according to His Heavenly Father’s plan and timing. He was in effect saying: “I love Lazarus. I love Mary and Martha. I love my Father in Heaven. And the best way that I can show my love to them all is to do what my Father in Heaven says, when He says. And right now, my Father says ‘Not yet!’ ”
“This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” – John 11:4
Another thing that struck me in this passage of scripture is the fact that Jesus is full of peace, full of faith and full of compassion. There’s a lot of fearful people in that passage. Lazarus probably fears for his own life and the life of his sisters once he is gone; Martha and Mary fear for their brother and their own lives if they were to be without him; and Jesus’ disciples are fearful for Jesus and their own lives, fearful of the angry religious mob that may await Him (and them!) if they go back to Judea to see Lazarus. But not Jesus. Jesus is very calm. He’s walking according to His Father’s will and He has peace and assurance that Lazarus’ sickness would not end in death.
“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. – John 11:11-13
In fact, Jesus is so full of assurance that He even goes as far as telling the disciples that He’s actually GLAD that He didn’t go!
So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” – John 11:14,15
Whoa! You might say, Jesus sounds a little insensitive.
But being full of peace and assurance doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent of deep sensitivity, compassion and care. When He arrives, and stands outside the tomb of Lazarus who had been dead for four days:
…he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. – John 11:33-35
The God who knew exactly how things were going to turn out, and was consequently full of peace and assurance, arrives at the tomb of His dear friend, four days dead and decaying, and He is troubled and cannot hold back His tears.
I’ve heard the words “Jesus wept!” used as a curse/swear word. Please, I have tears in my eyes as I write this, whoever you are and wherever you are with faith and God…don’t be so quick to ever let those profound words leave your lips as profanity.
As we talked and pondered that chapter, I was reminded, challenged and encouraged that denying myself and following Jesus means a change of vocabulary which – as we experienced last night – resulted in such a wonderful in dwelling of peace, joy and confidence that I just lack the vocabulary to express it!
Firstly, I was reminded that I need to stop saying to Him “Not yet, Lord!” In fact, that’s a contradiction if there ever was one! He is my Lord. That means I don’t tell Him when and how He should do things. He knows best. He knows when is best. He knows which way is best. He’s my Lord and Shepherd, my Way, and where He goes I want to follow and when I do follow I can (and have done so) experience joy and peace where there is fear and trouble. Secondly, I can redefine that phrase ‘the end’. To talk about where Annie wants to be when the doctors think ‘the end’ is close, to talk about funerals and burials, is not to talk about the end or even loss, so to speak. When we walk close to Jesus, death is not the end, neither is it loss. Of course, no doubt that at the funeral of a follower of Jesus, we weep at what might be defined as ‘our loss’ or ‘the end’ of something as we presently know it. But from God’s perspective, it is far from ‘end’ or ‘loss’.
Our little walk yesterday evening was no more than half a mile, but it was a monumental walk. It felt like we had walked to Judea with Jesus that day.
We specifically prayed that we would get back home and have the faith and peace to talk through some of those things regarding what doctors call ‘the end’. And as we prayed, that in dwelling and filling of His Holy Spirit was as real and as experiential and as beautiful as the sunshine filling our lounge as I type right now.
Nobody wants to talk about their death or their funeral.
It’s not something anybody wants to do, least of all a relatively young couple. We all spend most of our lives trying to avoid even thinking about it. But that’s exactly what we were able to do last night, together as we sat outside while the sun gently ebbed behind the horizon. There were tears – just as there were tears at the tomb of Lazarus. And there was hope and peace too. We were very mindful that we were not planning or thinking about the end this side of heaven but rather the beginning of something real and wonderful, the other side of heaven, with Jesus…
…with Christ, which is better by far – Philippians 1:23
We don’t know whether God wants us to file what we did last night away in the vault or keep it to hand. He can heal or He will call home. Either way, it’s done and we love Him and trust Him even more so for taking us through that difficult experience.
In His Hands,