Grab a pen and a piece of paper and prepare to make a list. On that piece of paper list the ten most treasured material items in your home.
Now imagine that you arrived home one night to find that your house was on fire. The firemen – especially brave and sympathetic with it being New Year’s eve and all – are already there and they ask if there’s anything precious that you’d like them to try and retrieve. You have no list but you have no trouble recalling those ten items. The house is burning rapidly and the fireman tells you that there is only time for them to retrieve three of those items. Which three on your list would you most want retrieved? Now, replay the event but this time the fireman tells you that there’s only time to retrieve one item. Which item would be your most treasured possession?
From time to time, an exercise just like this one was used in the church and youth group I grew up in, to illustrate how much (or little) we valued the Word of God, the bible. As teenagers, the repackaged and repeated exercise gradually lost it punch as we learned to pre-empt the answer we should be looking for: “My three items are my walkman, my wallet…oh, and the Word of God, my bible.” Either that or we’d find smart ways of excusing our three worldly treasures “My little sister will be presented a bible for good Sunday school attendance real soon anyway!”
Those default answers and creative excuses have been the story of most of my Christian life. I know I should treasure the bible but that is all. Like the treasure of swashbuckling pirate stories – real and fictitious – the bible has been to me like buried treasure. I am certain that all over this planet, there are countless great earthly treasures waiting to be unearthed; long forgotten chests and troves filled with a wealth of rare beauty, free to the first person who will lay shovel, eye and hand upon them. I am about as sure of that as I could be sure about anything else. But I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I am unlikely to search, locate and unearth it – it’s too much like hard work. Yes, it lies there waiting for someone to claim it and enjoy it: someone else; and good for them them. Someone whose story of tenacious adventure and success will engage me and amaze me for a moment. And similarly, so it has been for most of my Christian life experience. I’ve met and heard people who have unearthed the bible’s treasure. And my share in the booty has been a vicarious one. For too long I’ve settled for second-hand. For too long I’ve treasured second-hand experience. Second-hand joy. Second-hand assurance. Second-hand peace. Second-hand hope. The preacher behind the pulpit has built his sermon and his life on that good book and that’s been good enough for me; the author of that Christian classic had their life transformed by the God of the bible and I applaud heartily and direct others to them confidently with a nod which masks and betrays my experience. And how often I’ve settled for third-hand; I’ve lost count of how many Christian biographies I’ve enjoyed and quoted from!
Run the list exercise by me today and a lot of things will have changed. No gadgets. No personal belongings. Nothing that reminds me of my attachment to this world. I’m no longer precious or possessed by that which I am dying to daily. The most expensive item would probably be my Annie’s wedding and engagement rings but their symbolic value far outweighs any other value they hold. Other than that, the rest would be paper: photographs of and letters from my sweetheart, my dear Annie. Replay the exercise with flames and I won’t need a third item; without any doubt or hesitation the two most precious things I have are both books. The first is the Word of God – particularly the little orange bible that belonged to my Annie; the second is the journal she kept during the last year of her life here on earth. Yes, there is a sentimentality about both which connects me to the memory of her but there is something about both – especially the first – which connects me to the reality of her, both now and forever.
I rarely go anywhere without that little orange bible. Open it up and it reads like a road-map of my Annie’s journey of hope through cancer as you navigate the wobbly lines of ink that travel beneath so many of those precious words she highlighted. And, in the borders around the pages, I love to read those personal annotations suffixed with multiple exclamation marks – echoes of her assurance, her peace and her joy through suffering. What makes that little orange bible most special is not so much that it connects me to my Annie, but that it directs me and connects me to her Jesus: my Jesus – my God-Saviour and my Shepherd-King. Why is this little orange bible more precious than my treasured photographs of Annie? It’s simple: because through the Word of God I see a better picture, a better reality of who Annie is now and where she is now and that picture will never fade with time but rather improve the closer to the grave I get!
I’m currently reading the biography of John Bunyan. When he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress it was – and often still is – described as the next best book to the bible. The bible was written by men under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit of God. There is no other book like it. It is more than a book. God is the author of the bible. It is the living Word of the one and only true God – the God who created the universe. It is the true story of His love for mankind. It is the greater reality behind every other love story, every other story of redemption and deliverance. It is not only the greatest book of all time, it is the narrative of all time – past, present and future. It is beyond mere literature. It is loftier than man’s most profound wisdom and deeper and wider than all the work of philosophy. Compared with the bible, every other work of literature (Christian or otherwise) is – as John Piper put it – “…just chicken scratch…”; without reference to the bible, anything else in print is like the incoherent ramblings of a toddler armed with a six-pack of worn Crayola. I make no apologies to any Hemingway-nursing hipsters that may read this and choke on their flat-white! Don’t mistake confidence for arrogance or truth for opinion. The source of my confidence is the Jesus of history who conquered the grave. He does not share a shelf with dead and dying poets, philosophers and leaders of religious movements et al. He now sits on the throne that He does not share with any other. And from that throne He grants real power and real peace and real hope and real joy exclusively with all those who receive Him as God, Saviour and King.
To me personally, in many ways, Annie’s last journal is the book that best sits next to the bible. Each night before bed I read one of those short paragraphs she would write before she slept on her bed of pain. It is the true story of one pilgrim’s progress. Annie’s journal was written under the experience of suffering and the sentence of death while leaning upon the everlasting arms and nail-pierced hands of the God who gave her life, gave her His Son, forgave her sin, and gave her life eternal. This is why that book is so precious to me.
Someone recently asked me “What would you say to someone who argues ‘How can there be a God if there is so much suffering?'” I’m not sure that words are always the best vehicle of communication for succinct answers to questions like that. I’m even more sure that slick answers are not what the seeker is looking for – if indeed they are seeking at all and not just regurgitating second-hand old-chestnuts. I’m gladly not as good as I used to be with abstract questions and answers about God and life that are detached from reality. I want to know more about the real person asking that question. “What’s your story?”, “What’s happened in your life?”, “Who do you know?”, “What’s important to you?”, “What do you value most in life?”, “What’s on your list of ten?”
Christian brothers and sisters, before you attempt to answer the big ‘God and suffering’ questions, you should ask yourself a question: “Will my words be immersed in personal testimony?”; “Will my answer be the overflow of my mind only or of my heart?”; “Will my response be a well-crafted forgery or one forged in the flames?” In fact, this should apply for giving a response to any question about God and the gospel. Christian friend, if you cannot give a testimony, can you give an answer at all?
“I’ve experienced His Presence in the deepest darkest hell that men can create … I have tested the promises of the Bible, and believe me, you can count on them.” – Corrie ten Boom
There’s a lot I don’t have in common with that dear saint, Corrie ten Boom, but I can say this along with her, “I have tested the promises of the Bible and I have counted on them.” The Word of God is without any doubt my greatest treasure and the heartbeat of my testimony.
In this last post of 2013, I would like to give my Annie the closing words.
In the week leading up to Christmas 2012, Annie penned an extended journal entry following the beginning of a tumultuous and very painful term in hospital which eventually would usher her to the hospice where she would spend the last of her days. It’s real. It’s recent. It’s raw. It reveals one of those many precious little glimpses of the reality and power and love of the living Lord Jesus in the eye of one of many, many storms we experienced. This is what life looks like built on the Word of God.
Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. – Luke 9:26
In His Arms and On His Word,
HOSPITAL WEEK – DECEMBER 17th – 21st, 2012
In the early hours of Monday morning (2am) I was taken by ambulance to the hospital. My oxygen was down to 87 (it’s supposed to be 97-100) and I had a 39c temperature, was burning up and in a lot of pain – I could hardly breathe. Ry said I was delirious. Our first set of twilight nurses apparently were lovely to Ryan, really caring and concerned…I remember them vaguely. Later on in the week, one of them visited me and was so sweet. I felt very blessed by her. Two doctors also came out at different times. Then I had a second set of nurses. They were lovely. I remember them a bit more. [As I waited for the ambulance] I shared the love of Jesus for her with her as she held my hand.
Once at the hospital on oxygen, I was a bit clearer in my mind. I sat in the Emergency Room for a couple of hours in the corridor on the bed with Ry who was so tired. Then we were moved to a curtained area where I was ‘cannulated’ and given intravenous antibiotics. Around 7am I was moved into a small room. Ry went home to sort out MIlo and get some sleep. Fran and Rosey came up. We chatted and prayed. It was lovely.
The doctor came and visited and said it looked as though I had pneumonia and infected fluid on my lungs. Around 4pm I was moved to the Acute Medical Unit and given fluids and pain relief, oxygen and more antibiotics. It was a super busy ward – crazy really! I did manage to sleep some after Ry left but it was very interrupted sleep. It was so hot and everyone was coughing – I was so glad to be next to a window! I spent a couple of days in the intensive section as I fought the temperature and pain and had my dreaded ‘fluid extraction’ from my lung. It wasn’t near as hideous as last time with the Professor who just stuck the needle straight in (Ry’s note: without anaesthetic!). This time I was marked up with ultrasound, then in my bed, given anaesthetic, then the extraction as a nurse held my hand. They only got a sample – not a whole lot of fluid…just to test for its reason for being there. I cried so much that day. I don’t think through all of this, have I ever felt that fear (I guess from the bad last experience). But God was with me as I called on His name.
One night I stayed up and watched ‘Narnia’…it is such a beautiful parallel with the gospel. The last quarter I was in non-stop tears of just praise and worship to Jesus. After I was just praying and praising in prayer. That night I was moved down the hall to a ward of four (less intensive). In the morning I was coming back from the loo and I noticed a lady in her bed struggling to breathe, so I sat with her and rubbed her back. As I was rubbing her back she began pouring out her life to me. She and her husband have very few friends and she described her life as Job’s in the bible – not being able to stand up before the next thing knocks her down. I shared how I too have experienced that but how I have found hope in the Bible and real living joy and peace through God’s Spirit – we talked about loads. Then she asked if I’d pray for her – so I did. Then as soon as I finished, the nurses came and moved her to the respiratory ward. She asked if I’d visit her before I left. I said I’d try but if not, I’d get a letter to her. So I spent the morning writing her and her husband a letter to encourage them and shared what God did through Job’s suffering – amazing opportunity. Oh that they’d drink it in and find Jesus!!!
Whilst in hospital I chatted to one of the McMillan nurses and saw one of the hospice Drs. Had a great conversation with them, sharing the power of prayer and [seeing] things of this life with [an] eternal perspective. They said it had been a real pleasure talking. I hope God’s Spirit shone thorough me.
Ryan finally was allowed to bring me home…Milo was happy to have us all together again and he sat loyally by my side most of the night.
I love You, Lord!!!