One of the questions that I am never asked, but which I sense is on everyone’s lips since my recent heart attack, and the news that I am to have heart bypass surgery, is ‘Are you worried about the possibility of dying on the operating table?’ Well, of course, I am a bit anxious, even nervous, about having such a major operation – it would be surprising if I wasn’t? For a start I have never ever had such a major operation before, although I did have to live through my son, David, having major heart surgery a few years ago. His surgery was more serious than mine is going to be in as much as his problems were with the heart itself, whereas mine are to do with problems around the heart. For the medical minded among you (or for those who just like gory stuff) David has ‘Ebstein’s Anomaly’ – a congenital heart defect in which ‘the septal leaflet of the tricuspid valve is displaced towards the apex of the right ventricle of the heart’ and he also has a ‘hole in the heart’. I, on the other hand, have an unnamed condition where numerous fistulas or branches run off the main arteries – some that lead nowhere, and others between the artery and the lungs resulting in shunting of blood and improperly oxygenated blood. Both conditions are quite rare and, as far as we know, there is no connection between our heart problems other than us being father and son – and both of us being ‘unique’ of course!? Having said that, however, I am reliably informed by some of the medical staff at Dorchester Hospital that there is a PhD out there for someone who can discover the connection between our two conditions?!
But back to the question I posed at the beginning of this blog – ‘Am I worried about my impending major heart surgery?’ Well, to answer that question, I would have to say that I am somewhat anxious and a little nervous, but not really worried. In fact, I would really just like to ‘get on with it’. If I could go into Southampton Hospital and have the operation tomorrow I would do so – instead of having to wait seemingly endlessly for an initial appointment with a Heart Consultant at Southampton leave alone the apparent 16 weeks wait for the operation following that?! I am not worried about the operation itself because I am reliably informed that although heart bypass surgery sounds somewhat horrendous – look it up on the internet if you want to know all the gory details – it is pretty straightforward these days and the vast majority of those who have the operation make an excellent recovery and enjoy great benefit as a result. My friend David Harper (who is somewhat older than I am) tells me that he had a similar operation ten years ago and feels so fit now that he even goes to the gym three times a week?! Apparently most people are out of bed two days after the operation, back home after a week, and back to living a normal life after about 12 weeks.
Perhaps the main reason why I am not worried about having impending major heart surgery, however, is because I firmly believe that ‘our times are in God’s hands’ as the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 31! The poor Psalmist appears to have suffered a great deal – mentally as well as physically – with everyone seemingly against him, and yet the Psalm concludes by emphasising that whatever our circumstances, ‘the Lord preserves the faithful’ (v.23). This Psalm has impressed itself on more than one biblical character deeply enough to come to mind at moments of supreme crisis. Thus we find Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the great fish draws upon it (v.6), Jeremiah haunted by a phrase found in v.13, David (in old age) opening his prayer in Psalm 71 with the substance of vs.1-3, and Jesus himself quoting from it in his last utterance from the Cross (v.5).
Psalm 31 is an excellent illustration of the way in which the Psalms meet a great variety of human need beyond the boundaries of use in formal worship and the original experience of the authors. This, of course, is how it should be. Biblical hermeneutics (the science of interpreting the Scriptures) places great stress on what is called ‘reader response’ – what the particular verse or passage of Scripture in question says to us personally when we read it for ourselves. Whilst this can be abused (and a reason why there are other ‘rules’ for interpreting the Scriptures as well as ‘reader response’) we must never rule out the way in which the Holy Spirit (who inspired the various biblical authors to write what they did) can ‘underline’ a particular verse or passage of Scripture in our own hearts and lives. This is the thought behind Paul’s insightful phrase describing the word of God as ‘the sword of the Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17). For me, personally, at this particular time in my life, it is that little phrase, found in v.15, that stands out from the page – ‘My times are in your hands’! The reference here is not simply to what we may call ‘clock time’ but to those special moments in life when something memorable happens – marriage, the birth of a baby, falling ill, recovering from illness, a sudden awareness of beauty, hearing ‘the lost chord’ (as one commentator puts it), and so on – moments of deep meaning that never return but which we can never forget! These all come from God – they are moments of eternity breaking into time. And the most profound of these moments is when we suddenly become aware that God’s face is shining upon us! Awareness of this wonder drives out all the horror that may be confronting us if we find ourselves in circumstances that make us fearful about the future. As the old saying has it, ‘We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future!’ The fact that ‘Our times are in God’s hands’ – and that therefore nothing can befall me that is outside of his will – is a truth that has sustained me for many years now!
There is one final point that needs to be made, however, before I conclude this blog – something that needs to be confronted, and which follows on from the point that I have just made, and which brings us back to the question I started this blog with – ‘Am I worried about the possibility of dying on the operating table?’ Even though I am assured that having a heart bypass operation these days is standard, and that the vast majority of people who have the operation make an excellent recovery and discover a new level of fitness that surpasses their expectations, there is a risk!? Now, to be honest, I don’t want to die right now. It’s not that I am afraid of death – I settled that question a long time ago when I accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord. I can now honestly say with the Apostle Paul (who contemplating the significance of Christ’s death upon the Cross for us, cries out), ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Romans 15:54-56)!
Now part of me is happy to die anytime. I have lived a full and exciting and rewarding life. I have not lived a ‘perfect life’ by any means, but for the most part I have sought to live my life to the full, for the glory of God and the good of others. Not that I think for one moment that any good I have achieved will earn me my salvation – salvation is by God’s grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). Nevertheless it is good to look back over 70 years and see so many lives and situations touched in a significant way for the glory of God and the good of others! But, like the Apostle Paul, I also find myself caught in two minds about dying?! Writing to the Philippian Church he tells them: ‘I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live’ (Philippians 1:21-24). On one hand I would welcome death, but on the other hand I feel have so much that I believe God still wants me to do. I would hate to leave Julia, although I know that one day that is inevitable since I am 15 years older than she is. She is my ‘soul mate’ and my best friend and my partner in ministry, and we just love being together and working together for the Lord and the Kingdom of God. But above and beyond even that, I believe that there is so much yet to do to help the Church recover its place in God’s great scheme of things and to turn this broken and hurting world of ours ‘right side up’ once again. My conviction is that God wants me to be involved in that, and that he hasn’t finished with me yet!
So for me dying or living is a ‘win-win’ situation! Ever the optimist, however, I am believing that I will come through this pending major heart surgery with flying colours and be fitter and stronger than I have been for a long time – in preparation for whatever it is that God has for us both in the future. Even my recent heart attack, and the opportunity to get everything finally ‘sorted’ is not a ‘negative’ but a ‘positive’ – a God-given opportunity to get me into a better place for the next exciting chapter in God’s great plan and purpose for our lives!
My times are in Thy hand;
My God, I wish them there;
My life, my friends, my soul I leave
Entirely to Thy care.
My times are in Thy hand;
Whatever they may be;
Pleasing or painful, dark or bright,
As best may seem to Thee.
My times are in Thy hand;
Why should I doubt or fear?
My Father’s hand will never cause
His child a needless tear.
My times are in Thy hand,
Jesus, the crucified!
Those hands my cruel sins had pierced
Are now my guard and guide.
My times are in Thy hand,
Jesus, my Advocate:
Nor shall Thine hand be stretched in vain,
For me to supplicate.
My times are in Thy hand,
I’ll always trust in Thee;
And, after death, at Thy right hand
I shall forever be.
~ William Freeman Lloyd (1791-1853)
I do agree with you Jim. Whilest there is the draw to remain with our loved ones and continue to work for the Lord there is also the undeniable peace deep down that acknowledges ‘for me to live is Christ but to die is gain’. It is a certain win, win situation. Prayer for your complete recovery is assured from all of us who love and cherish you as our friend and brother in Christ. Knocking at the Throne of Grace with petitions of healing for you is a daily (some times more often!) joy. And so dear brother be encouraged and although you are impatient to ‘get it over with’ God is the one whom we acknowledge as having the perfect timing!!!!