Well of course before five years ago this week I knew I was going to die, but only in the way that you know you are going to die when a preacher reminds you that you are going to die and that you need to think about what is beyond your death.
This was different. The main difference being that sitting in the endocrinologist’s office with your wife you tend to ask the question “How long have I got?” – something that may not immediately cross your mind in the church service.
“Six to twelve months,” he said soberly, before a cheerful segue-way that he’d seen one case worse than mine come back from the brink and be cured. One? Sure it wasn’t two? Or a handful? What about a thousand? One.
I still remember Jill and I walking in shock through the balmy December evening to the car, driving home, and clearing up the half-eaten steak dinner we’d left to go cold after the shock phone call summonsing us down to the clinic.
I didn’t die. I am still going to. But I didn’t. Chronic case of misdiagnosis. Had something pretty serious, but it was a great mimic of something even more serious. Five years on, however, I have, upon reflection, become a very different man. And this week, five years on, I have been reflecting on what that event left me with.
Well, this for a start…
Now isn’t that the most kick-butt scar? I am justly proud of that baby (looks like they took one out – Ed). It is the best scar I am ever going to have the pleasure to have. I defy you other anaemic scar-bearers and your tales of power-tool slip ups and surfing accidents. And that’s only what you can see. What they did on the inside had me walking around like an extra from the Walking Dead for about six months.
Anyway I digress too easily (he digests much more easily now also – Ed), the emotional, psychological and spiritual changes that the event left me with over the past five years have been far more permanent than the physical changes.
Despite being a Christian with a firm conviction about the age to come and my security in the risen Christ and the hope of the resurrection of the dead, facing death was confronting in the extreme. The thought of one’s non-existence (earthly speaking at least) is a huge challenge, as is the thought of standing before God in judgement.
But not-dying has been a challenge in a whole other way. In the five years since I have certainly found a focus to my energies, a strength in Christ and a realisation that he can achieve his work without me quite easily thank you very much, which has humbled me. Not that my Christian life has simply been onward and upward since (there have been the usual struggles with sin/pride/fear etc etc), but something inside me “clicked”. The event made me more urgent, more focussed, more liberated; as if everything I had been training for up until that time actually worked! Did I get angry at God, blame God, cajole him, reject him when I heard the initial news? No! Did I find that I trusted him in the valley of the shadow of death? Praise him, yes! And so did Jill. We have found that event to be an important boundary marker in our individual and married lives. We are grateful to God for the support of his Holy Spirit and for the love of his people during that time.
My biggest emotional discovery during that time is also the biggest cliche one hears about such “going to die” situations; I instantly regretted not enjoying life more. The shock of that feeling – that I had been too busy, too intense, too focussed on performing, too distracted to truly enjoy the creation and the good things God gave me (yes, including my family) – all that brought me to tears. How could I have lived such a withered life? That is exactly what I felt. And you could not have convinced me of that before that illness. I would have scorned you. I would especially have told you that since I was busy doing ministry work for much of the time that it was worthwhile. That brought little comfort in the moment. I simply realised that I should have lived life more joyously in Jesus first – and then watched that bear fruit in ministry, family life, leisure and so on.
Have I changed? Yep – a little. Actually, a good deal if I’m honest. But there is still more to go. I still “lock in” about work/ministry and I still allow myself to become too frustrated and intense about things that I cannot change. But it’s certainly a vast improvement. I actually organise and enjoy family holidays now!
I have gone from being a people pleaser to someone who pretty much says what they need to say to people even if it renders me unpopular. I have lost “the fear of man”. One of my good friends said, when I remarked that I used to be passive aggressive, “Yeah, and now you are just aggressive!” He was kinda jesting, but people have noted that change in me.
Now is that spiritual, is it psychological or is it both? I am not sure. But what I realised with death seemingly looming is exactly what Jesus said in Matthew 10:28:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Not that I feared hell, but I did wonder why it took me so long, and why it took something as drastic as a severe illness to banish the fear of what humans can do or say about me.
That loss of fear, if I can call it that, has served me well in the confronting role of planting a church and discipling people. It has served me well dealing with conflict and not reacting with impotent anger when people push me hard on matters.
So here I am, five years on. It’s been a good five years – the best five years of my life if truth be told. I have never had as much energy and focus as I have now. Can I attribute that all to a “you’re going to die” experience? No. I think that to simply have considered my survival as having “dodged a bullet” would have resulted in a very different experience. I think it would have made me more self-focussed, more determined to seize the day, grasp it closer to my chest; rather than loosen my grip and release the time I have left into the hands of the One who has graciously given me another 1826 days so far.
P.S – I appreciate my wife’s amazingness even more.