Last Monday afternoon I held Annie’s head upright in my hands as I tried to keep her conscious. Her pupils were dilated and her skin clammy and ashen. Monday was another difficult day in this battle with cancer. As I wrote in our previous post, all I remember that we did that day was pray and cry. The reason for our tears was obvious. There were a million reasons for our prayers, but ultimately, for me, I prayed because I desperately wanted and needed to be closer and closer to Jesus our Shepherd as the darkness closed in on us.
A few days later and once again I was gazing into Annie’s eyes only this time from across a table in a coffee house while sipping iced lattes on a rare sun-kissed afternoon! All I remember we did that day was pray and smile. The reason for our smiles was obvious. Since Tuesday, the dark cloud that had descended on Annie’s mind had begun to pass. The natural explanation is that a cumulative side effect of the steroid (dexamethazone) had gathered up a storm. In that respect, Annie’s self-diagnosis and surgery – which involved ripping out the syringe driver from her stomach in the early hours of the morning – was astute and successful.
So what was the reason for our prayers this time?
As we sat in that cafe we talked: “The sun is shining, but the battle isn’t over, is it?”
Annie knew exactly what I was talking about. I’m not talking about the battle with cancer. As the doctor recently pointed out to us, cancer – especially at this stage – can be very unpredictable. One moment you look like you’re at death’s door, the next you’re looking for the best place to get an iced latte. Even this week, for some reason, the swelling that Annie was experiencing in her foot and leg has suddenly stopped of it’s own accord. We are learning that unpredictability is par for the course with cancer.
The battle I was referring to was the spiritual battle.
If there’s one thing that can be said for the ‘last Monday’ experiences of life as Christians, it’s that our perspective of life is rarely clearer than it is on those days; and as a consequence we rarely respond more appropriately, live more effectively, than we do on days like that. I love the way the poet, John Donne put it, in a very honest sonnet about life and faith:
“Those are my best days, when I shake with fear.” – Holy Sonnet #19, John Donne
This life isn’t all. This life isn’t everything. This earth isn’t home.
They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. – John 17:16
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. – 2 Corinthians 5:1
But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, – Philippians 3:20
There are days when those thoughts feel like tough medicine and there are days when those words are life itself.
Last Monday, once again we realised how frail we are, how temporary this life is, how impotent any comfort this world offers, how great God is and how great our need of Him. Those are indeed our best days, when we shake with fear. But while sipping iced lattes and gazing into the eyes of your beloved from across the table of a friendly coffee house on a brilliant sun-rich afternoon might feel like heaven…it will more likely become the pick-pocket of heaven’s joy from our souls if not watched. Those are our worst days, when we sit in complacency.
With what’s being dubbed as the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle this week, scientists, society and Madonna are singing and dancing in unison: “We live in a material world!” But the Apostle Paul reminds Christians that this world operates within a spiritual dimension and all that glitters is not gold. As Christians, life in this world is like battle on a minefield.
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12
I am learning that one of the most common causalities of that battle is the Christian who lives too casually in this world; too comfortably.
If we’re not careful, it’s those iced latte moments in life that can easily become the most distracting, even the most dangerous for us as Christians. Those are the moments where we can become most ignorant about the spiritual battle that continues to exist in this dark world. Those are the moments in life when we are less inclined to pray. Those are the moments in life when we are most likely to form habits that lead to making home and heaven of this world. Those are the moments when it’s easier to trade in the Truth of God’s Word for the lies of the prince of this world.
I’m not suggesting for one minute that we should live like monks or abstain from the High Street – or nice coffee! Jesus told us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Him. I don’t believe that simply means denying the enjoyment of an iced-latte or some of the other pleasures in this world; Jesus Himself was a guest at many a dining table and banquet. I do believe that it means (among many other things) being on our guard against the attitude that life is best when life is good. It means weeding out worldly phrases from our vocabulary like “I deserve this!” or “I have rights!” Some phrases we consider virtuous. You often hear folks say things like “I don’t want to be rich, I just want to have enough to live comfortably.” I’m just not sure that this is a motto for self-denying, cross-carrying followers of Jesus.
One thing Annie and I really miss this time of the year is getting a vacation. Our tradition has been to get a flight to the US to be with family. We’re so thankful to God for the many material and spiritual blessings that result from having some time away. But we need to be careful of the attitude that ‘a good vacation is what we need’. A vacation is never really an escape from reality. Wherever we go on this planet, we never fly away from the spiritual battles and we certainly don’t tear down spiritual strongholds with sun, sand and sea-water.
Physically, the last few days have been amazing for Annie. We know many people were joining us in the battle. We are so thankful to God for the many brothers and sisters who have made great sacrifice of time, energy and sleep in order to uproot any spiritual stronghold or foothold that the enemy sought to take. I can testify that even before the nasty side-effect of the steroid had worn off, Annie was declaring her faith in Jesus. Even while Annie lay on the bed after she had fainted, she was ministering the gospel to me as I cried. Yes, the natural explanation of the storm and the calm was a pharmaceutical one, but we know that there was a greater spiritual battle behind this; one where we felt the cold breath of the enemy; and one where we experienced the conquering presence and power of our Captain, Victor and Deliverer, Jesus Christ!
But the battle isn’t over.
If I am honest with you, praying and meditating on God’s word is harder today than it was last Monday! With so much health there’s so many things we’d like to do and enjoy with the time that we have. But our first priority is to put on the full armour of God – and sometimes, it seems that just putting that armour on is the greatest battle we will face in the day!
Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. – Ephesians 6:13