Ever heard of these …
“It’s darkest just before it goes pitch black.”
“That light at the end of a tunnel? It’s an on-coming train.”
“Maybe the purpose of your life is to serve as a warning to others?”
“Whenever things are going your way, you're in the wrong lane.”
It’s “graveyard” irony, but it’s funny. (Did you know there’s even a company called despair.com whose sole business is this kind of stuff?)
And then came 2020. I remember listening to a pastor so excited about the turn of this second decade of this amazing twenty-first century. What would happen? What great things?
Well, now we know what happened! For many of us, 2020 will be remembered as the year of fatigue. My own cancer journey is found in this blog, but I’ve purposely wanted to stay away from that area because, well, fatigue; I’m tired of talking about it as I’m sure you’re tired of reading about it. Add to that the election year, the COVID lock-down and protocols, I was tired just figuring out what to write about.
And like a bitter, resentful, old man trying to shake his fist at me with a dying vengeance, 2020 spat at me. And I got COVID-19 and the bonus pneumonia. For some - mostly the young - it’s an inconvenience - if they notice at all. For me, it meant, two trips to the ER, four weeks of real illness (the “can’t get out of bed, feverish, delirious, no appetite, not bathing for days, losing almost 20 pounds kind of real illness”), and the frightening reality of not being able to breathe. I can say with no guile: I have never felt sickness like this before - prolonged, powerful, persistent, and debilitating illness. Undergoing six months of chemotherapy was a cinch compared to the last five weeks of my life.
When I first started to write this, I just got the confirmation – but didn’t know I was about to get sick again. I was also about to start a journey to a new experience of fear: why can’t I walk 20 feet without feeling lightheaded and can’t catch my breath? Is this how I die – wasting away, gasping for breath? Why aren’t I getting any better? After I learned about bilateral interstitial pneumonia, my mind raced: How damaged are my lungs, will I be able to be active again, what if I can never run, cycle, or swim again. Dr. Martinez even found I have a heart murmur – is that caused by COVID? What will that mean? Fear had gripped me.
Then the Spirit of the Lord reminded me of what he told David:
When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me? (Ps. 56:3-4)
This bout with COVID has been terrible. I want my life back: my routine, my freedom, my health, my ability to be a functional husband, to be more than a feeble, old, sick guy to my children, to exercise my calling and ministry as a pastor. I’ve already had to disengage from people that I love and ministry that I love because of cancer – why this?
But what I want more is to know that my Master is pleased.
Dr. Martinez told me: “You need to get some fresh air and sunshine. Just go sit in your car for 15 minutes.” At first, I couldn’t go in the car because I was still tethered to O2, but after a while, I grew to a point I could disconnect for 15 minutes. I tried to read the Bible; too hard to read and focus; I was not unhappy with God, but I was glum in my circumstances. So I listened to a song that my daughter sent to me: “Still In Control” by Jesus Culture. The first words caused me to weep (hard to do when it is still hard to breath, you know?):
How can I say it is well when my voice can barely speak?
How can I sing you a song in the midst of suffering?
Jesus will you meet me here?
Let your peace wash over me.
‘Cause I need you now more than ever
Teach my soul to sing:
My God is still in control
And still he reigns on His throne
Though mountains my tremble,
and sea billows roll,
I’ll sing “It is well with my soul;
My God is still in control
I just worshipped. Indeed, the mountains of my presumptions were shaking; I was drowning in disease. So, I let his peace wash over me. After a while, I whispered something like: “Father, I can’t sing; I can’t even carry on a conversation. But I say to you: I love you and trust the dispensation of your grace – even in, no especially because, of this affliction. I say in my heart “It is well!” because YOU are good and can do no wrong or make a mistake. “It is well” because you will use this – and it does not matter if I see the fruit or not – I trust you will use it.
And that’s it. If you’ve been hit by COVID, or job loss, or income decrease, or cancer, or any myriad of things that drag you down, take heart friend! It is the Lord Jesus who says this unbreakable universal Truth: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
And that is the truth. You WILL overcome because He overcame every conceivable enemy you’ll ever face. And He means for you and I to be a trophy of grace to display to the world how He overcomes for us. The greater degree of difficulty, the greater degree of glory. And in the end, the great Restoration.
Another important thing: I’ve been humiliated in the best possible way – again – (the first time when I went through cancer) when people from my past, folks I have not seen or talked with since I graduated high school and college, sent me cards and support. I truly believe I was supernaturally aided and did not die because of the prayers of God’s people near and far. This is a beautiful reminder of the importance of being a vital part of the local church. And no matter the span of time, or distance, it means that the Body instantly reacts to pain. I got immediate help. That’s why it’s important – an honor – for us to be a vital member of a local Body.
The other day, I had a consult with a pulmonologist who gave me truthful words. “Well, you’re out of the danger zone. And you just need to take it easy and be patient. It will be better in another month, but don’t expect any feeling of “normal” for at least three months. It may take six months to a year before you achieve maximum health again.”
Thought one: Wait – what do you mean “danger zone?” I just thought I couldn’t breathe! I guess based on my CT scan, the “broken glass” look of COVID pneumonia was all over. My brother-in-law, who is an oncologist at KU, told us: you should have been hospitalized, but because of “triage” protocols right now, you were sick enough to be on O2, but not so sick you were going to die just yet. Oh …
Thought two: restraint. I don’t consider myself an impatient person. But apparently, there are degrees to patience that I hadn’t thought of. I shall learn this.
Convalescence is not a word we use often – it’s usually associated with nursing homes. But its real meaning, from French, means “a gradual recovery of strength and health after a sickness”. So, that is what I am doing. But not only for my body, but my spirit, my inner man. Repentance is not the feeling of guilt but the process of recovery – it is spiritual convalescence. This too, I shall endeavor to learn. I'm getting better! I'm mostly off the O2, taking 15-minute walks, and even started to go back to work in the morning. But I'm going to take it easy.
This is really the end. Sorry so long. Get an ice cream for yourself if you made it this far!