"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9
I consider any opportunity to be willingly used of the Lord to be a foretaste of heaven. But that didn't come to mind as I stared at the hospital room ceiling, taking stock of my situation following surgery. I was thinking more about all the plastic tubes and bags attached to different points of my body, as well as the 20-or-so staples holding part of me together. I was also wondering why the Lord allowed this to happen to me. Surely He knew that in my present condition I couldn't fulfill the ministry to which He had called me. Furthermore, my friend Dave Hunt had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer while he was struggling to recover from a replacement of an artificial hip that deteriorated after a decade of use. Why would God allow us both to be afflicted? Truthfully, compared to what I knew others were suffering, I'm embarrassed to use the term "afflicted," but thinking of others occupied little, if any, of my thoughts at the time. My primary focus was my own condition.
Great news from my surgeon was soon disturbed by an incidental complication. The technique used in the successful removal of a portion of my colon along with a large tumor (that against all odds proved to be cancer free!) had resulted in nerve damage to my bladder. It had stopped functioning. My thankfulness for God's mercy in my not having to deal with cancer quickly got lost in a host of unsuccessful catheter trials, which led to months of self-catheterizations. The only Scripture verse I could think of when informed that I would have to undergo the latter procedures three to four times a day, perhaps indefinitely, was Job 3:25: "For the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me...." True, but not exactly comforting.
Another Bible verse came to mind many times during my ordeal—one that I had previously preached, taught, encouraged others by, wrestled over, and ministered with, over the years: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). That familiar verse came home to roost as I lay on my hospital bed. What possible "good" could come of this experience? Not much, I thought—given I couldn't see beyond my discomfort, occasional pain, fear, worry, anxiety, and my worst-case-scenario-stimulated imagination.
Before I completely buried myself in the pit of self-preoccupation, however, the Lord got my attention. It must have been a thought from Him because I certainly wasn't on that page: "Why don't you shift your focus from yourself so you can see some of what I'm doing in all of this?" Conviction pierced my heart immediately. There was no follow-up "why?" or "yes, but"—it was simply "yes, Lord," from a guilty party blinded by himself. Nothing has impacted my life like that in recent years.
What followed from that point had a transforming effect on me. I began to see and learn things that I knew of from Scripture but that were rarely a part of my practical experience. I believe I grew more in the Lord in the last nine months than I had in many years prior. I had a taste of the Lord's superintending of my life when I was helpless (I'm sure He does a great deal more of the same even when I think I'm able!). Let me share some of what He taught me, especially with those of you who, like me, are among the first wave of baby boomers dealing with the destructive consequences of our aging bodies.
A friend gave me a Scripture verse (in jest, I thought) that captured what the Lord was doing (I believe) through my physical and spiritual trials: "He maketh me to lie down..." (Psalm 23:2). That described my condition perfectly, and I wasn't thrilled about it, but here is one of the first things I learned. One of my daily prayers is that the Lord will provide opportunities for me to be used of Him. I couldn't see that happening in my condition, flat on my back, with bags and tubes sticking out of my body.
To me, "opportunities" meant being able to minister to someone. What I learned is that the Lord has another way to use us. He allowed me to become the opportunity for someone else to minister. That disturbed my attitude of self-sufficiency. I was also humbled by the fact that this revelation wasn't exactly new to me. Some years ago, I ran that possibility by a very elderly man who couldn't understand why the Lord saw fit to sustain his wife, who couldn't even feed herself—a task that had fallen on him in the weeks prior to our conversation. Would this man consider that the Lord was using his believing wife, who loved him dearly, to help him to grow in things like compassion, helps, service, and love, and to draw him closer to Himself? He tearfully realized that this was indeed taking place, and we wept together as we were overwhelmed by God's gracious hand upon both of them.
I knew that their experience was true to the Word and to the character of God, but it was not my experience—until last year, that is. After the first of my four surgeries, I began to see the doctors and nurses as those whom the Lord had provided to minister to me. I was their opportunity. Those who were believers (a number were) were fulfilling their ministries. Seeing myself as their God-appointed opportunity, my thinking shifted to "How can I contribute to helping them fulfill their ministry?" Those who were not Christians were no less appreciative of my attitude of cooperation. Still, I wondered what someone in my condition could do that might be helpful. My agenda began with a "thank you," a smile, a kind word, remembering their names, and showing real interest in them.
Opportunities, I soon discovered, beget opportunities. After a few days, I could see the Lord creating occasions for me to minister to them. My favorite decree for every doctor and nurse ministering to me was boldly declaring "my two rules":
1) Trust in the Lord, and
2) Do what the doctors and nurses tell me. That always received either a hearty "amen" or a thankful smile.
Living up to my own rules, however, wasn't as easy as I thought. When I was given instructions to get up a certain number of times for walks, or to continually use the lung-strengthening apparatus (neither of my favorite things), it initially took God's grace and enablement to meet the minimum goals. Soon, however, I was breaking my own records. The nurses quickly got the idea that I was there to help them help me, and my room became a place for some of them to hang out on their breaks and just chat. The conversations usually picked up where something briefly discussed during their rounds left off. Much of it was about the Lord and the Bible.
I was always looking for ways to talk about Jesus and His Word without "preaching" to my ministers. One day I noticed that the sign on the mirror over the sink was a directive for the nurses to wash their hands. As mundane as that was, it provided a wonderful opportunity for me to talk about the Bible. As each nurse stood at the sink I would ask her if she ever heard of a doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis. Some said the name sounded familiar. I would then explain that he introduced the practice of hand washing at his Viennese hospital in the mid-1800s as a method of preventing disease, particularly that which caused the deaths of newborn babies.
He observed that doctors and medical students often went directly from working on cadavers to assisting with childbirths, sometimes using the same medical instruments. The death rate of newborns in his hospital was close to 30 %. After directing his staff members to wash their hands and instruments in a solution of water and chlorine, the death rate dropped below 2 %.
Such a hygienic procedure preceded the discovery of germs as transmitters of diseases by a few decades, yet it was indicated in the Scriptures 3,000 years before this Jewish doctor instituted the hand-washing practice. Semmelweis believed what Moses had to say on the subject although, tragically, the medical profession did not believe Semmelweis. He was driven from his hospital, the high death rate among newborns returned, and Semmelweis was committed to an insane asylum where he died. He could not fathom his profession's rejection of his simple plan for saving babies. Sad as that story is, it provided a few opportunities to bring up the Good News of the Bible, the simple truth of God's plan for saving souls.
I love what I do at The Berean Call, and my calling in that ministry has primarily been to help Dave do what God has put on his heart to do. I've been privileged to work with him in different ways over the past 30 years. Last year, however, I was fearful at times that I couldn't fulfill that calling, especially in light of the fact that Dave was suffering from a number of quite debilitating ailments. Again I questioned the Lord: "How can I contribute to TBC when I'm here in the hospital?" I'm not in the habit of questioning the Lord, but sometimes circumstances have driven me to it. Or, I should say, my flesh drove me to it. The answer that nearly always floods my heart is, "Trust and obey Me, Tom." I did, and what followed was both amazing to me, and a true adventure.
First of all, I learned that every waking moment is an opportunity to be used of the Lord in ministry, inside or outside of TBC—whether talking to Him in prayer, meditating upon His Word, or doing whatever He wants wherever He wants. I've learned that He allows conditions to take place and then uses them for His glory and for beneficial results. We need only to follow His lead as He prayed to His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane: "...not what I will, but what thou wilt" (Mark 14:36).
What brings me great joy as I look back is seeing that each hospital experience following my surgeries was wonderfully fruitful as a time of ministering and being ministered to. No dramatic healing took place. In fact, there were complications and setbacks. Nevertheless, I was released earlier than expected following each surgery and back to work within a couple of days (or sooner) after each hospital stay.
What about the adventure? That came, in part, from learning to function (at work and traveling to speaking engagements across the country) with catheter and ileostomy bags! They became temporary parts of my body for a number of months, followed by additional months of self-catheterization. When fear overcame me in anticipation of not being able to function ministry-wise because of my new devices and procedures, the Lord arranged an unexpected divine appointment with a brother-in-Christ whose condition involved the same apparatus—yet on a permanent basis.
He was incredibly encouraging as a "been there, done that" resource of what I could be facing. That's when my mind shifted from dread to "I know the Lord can help me through this." Moreover, I knew He could give me a new attitude about it all that would be a blessing to those ministering to me. That began with the restoration of my sense of humor, which had dried up for a while and which I would need for some of the adventures (or mis-adventures!) ahead. Did you know that an ileostomy bag will explode right off one's body after dining on spicy chili? I didn't, but I do now. Or that same bag will inflate like a life-preserver as one drives over a very high-altitude mountain pass? Self-catheterization (the anticipation of which was my worst nightmare) was, to my surprise, a practice that I got used to after about a week. Never fun, but then again I'm still laughing about attempting the procedure during some of the worst turbulence I've ever experienced on an airplane!
The hundreds of letters and emails I've received from saints all over the world telling me they were continually praying for Dave and me were a comfort beyond description, and that became especially meaningful when the Lord opened my eyes to what He was accomplishing. His ways and means were not mine; they were exceedingly beyond what I could have imagined or even hoped for. Best of all was how He made His Word absolutely real to me as it spoke to my heart more during that time than ever before in my life in Christ.
Here are two of the many verses that greatly encouraged me:
For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace might through the thanksgiving of many rebound to the glory of God. For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal." (2 Corinthians 4:15-18)
For he hath not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither hath he hid his face from him; but when he cried unto him, he heard. (Psalm 22:24)
Because of His Son, He not only hears us, but He allows us to experience that which "worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory."
All of my surgeries were completely successful (no more bags of any kind!), but the experience for which I will be eternally thankful is the Lord's graciousness in enabling me to see the things to which I was previously blinded, and for His unseen renewing of my inward man.
Show me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths. Lead me in thy truth, and teach me: for thou art the God of my salvation; on thee do I wait all the day. Psalm 25:4-5