The first thing I saw, when I came round from my recent major heart surgery, was Julia’s lovely face grinning at me through a forest of arms, legs, tubes, drains and so on! I would like to tell you that my first words on waking up were a heroic statement of faith and confidence, such as ‘Why were you all so worried? I told you that I would come through it all without any problem or pain!’ The reality, however was that I apparently muttered a rather feeble, ‘I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable?’ The truth of the matter was that I actually felt, as the French somewhat indelicately put it, like merde!
I felt as though a herd of elephants had trampled all over my chest – which was not too far off the mark – since they had opened my chest, deliberately broken the breast bone to get to my heart, ‘harvested’ veins from inside my chest and left leg, deliberately stopped my heart and collapsed my lungs, put in a double bypass and closed off the rogue fistulas that had been ‘stealing oxygenated blood’, sewn me all up again very neatly, inside and out, but inserting various tubes, drains and cannulas in to aid me in my recovery!? To be really honest with you, my initial thought was, ‘Why the heck did I have this operation?’ Of course, I had this operation because without it I would have died, sooner rather than later, and the heart bypass operation will – as the surgeon’s report succinctly states – ‘extend the quantity and quality’ of my life, hopefully in a way which will enable me to continue to live a life and exercise my ministry, for the glory of God and the good of others, in a more dynamic and effective way for a further ten years at least! But at that initial stage of recovery, ‘Thank God for morphine!’ was all I could say!
My wonderful surgeon, Mr Ohri, was very confident that I would come through the operation with ‘flying colours’. ‘I have a 99% success rate!’ he told me, ‘and since you are otherwise in excellent health, this operation will be quite straightforward!’ And then he added, ‘As long as I can find the fistulas that need closing, that is!’ Fortunately is turned out to indeed be straightforward, and he found the rogue fistulas easily and was able to close them off. However, I couldn’t help but think, ‘He may have a 99% success rate … but what if I am amongst the remaining 1%?’ Laying awake the night before the operation, Psalm 27 came into my mind and I opened my Bible and began to read it to myself. It is one of my favourite Psalms, and begins with those familiar words, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation – whom shall fear?’ It was not these words, however, that I felt drawn to but rather a verse later in the Psalm – ‘I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27:13). This verse seemed to stand out from the page – as Scripture can sometimes do – in a way that suggested that this was God’s ‘now word’ for me at this time in this place, just before major surgery. In his Letter to the Ephesians Paul speaks of ‘the word of God’ being ‘the sword of [God’s] Spirit’ (Ephesians 6:17). The Greek word here is rhema which is indicative of ‘a particular word that comes to us underlined by the Holy Spirit’. And that is just what Psalm 27:13 seemed to be for me in that moment – a word from God assuring me that I would come through this major surgery o.k. and that I would continue to see – in future days – ‘the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’!
My stay in hospital was estimated at five days. This seemed to me to be an incredibly short stay given the nature of my operation, and the way I felt immediately after surgery!? I was assured, however, that this would be the case and that I would be back home in a week’s time. They even gave me an A4 sheet of paper listing what I would be able to do each day from Day 1 (the day after my operation) to Day 5 (the day when I would be discharged and sent home). It provided a step-by-step expectation list of what I would be able to achieve day-by-day while still in hospital – everything from getting out of bed, through having all the tubes and cannulas removed, to being able to walk down the corridor and climb stairs. This was very helpful, especially as it gave me a realistic assessment of what I would, and would not, be able to achieve, over the first few days after the operation. I was also given a short booklet to take home with me that did much the same thing – although week-by-week this time – for the next 12 weeks when I would be in the process of recovery. This booklet dealt with the highs and lows, the various aches and pains, that I would experience over this period, as well as the various goals and objectives I would undoubtedly reach week-by-week. This too has proved extremely helpful – especially when one starts to experience times when one feels ‘down’ for no explicable reason or starts to feel weird pains after going for a longer than usual walk caused by the muscles being exercised and bones mending. Reflecting on this, underlined for me the wise saying that churches ‘overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what can be achieved in five’! How true this is! As with the human body, so with the local church, healing and progress take time. How many Pastors, I wonder, have found themselves on the ‘receiving end’ of criticism from their churches because the hoped for growth and development didn’t happen in the first year of the new pastorate? How many local churches have grown despondent because their ‘short-term plan’ for reviving the church didn’t actually produce the hoped for fruit? I know that the Bible exhorts us to ‘redeem the time’ (Ephesians 5:16), but it also tells us that ‘there is a time for everything’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). We have to learn that things – in the healing of the human body and the growth of the local church – take as long as they take. In both cases we have to play our part of course, but we cannot go faster than God wills it without doing damage to ourselves!? Just as I am having to learn to be a ‘patient patient’, so as churches we need to learn to be prayerfully patient!
I have to confess, as alluded to earlier, that I was anxious before my operation. Invasive surgery of any kind is a big thing and, despite my surgeon’s assurances I did wonder if I would wake up in the recovery ward or in Heaven? In actual fact I did wake up in the recovery ward, even though it felt as though I had actually been through Hell?! Now I did not want to die. For various reasons I wanted to survive and, hopefully, experience a greater measure of fitness and energy than I have had for a long time. But even though I did not want to die, I was not afraid of dying. I could honestly say with the Apostle Paul, ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:55). I settled this issue a number of years ago when I put my personal trust in Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord. I recently listened to Murray Walker, the semi-retired Formula One motor racing commentator, being interviewed on the Sunday Programme by Sian Williams. In this programme he said that he didn’t believe in ‘life after death’ because no one had ever come back from the dead?! Well, with due respect to Murray Walker, he is wrong! Jesus Christ died on Calvary’s Cross but three days later came back from the dead – with the joyful news that death is not the end! As the Apostle Paul also tells us, ‘I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me. Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. Last of all, as though I had been born at the wrong time, I also saw him’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). The whole Christian Faith stands on this remarkable truth, and the experience of every Christian is similar (although unique to each individual) to that of the Apostle Paul, in that we too have come to know the Risen Jesus in a personal way. Whilst in hospital I had an hour long conversation with a young, highly intelligent nurse (at her instigation), who had just qualified as a Staff Nurse and was about to undertake a PhD. She did not want to know what I knew academically about Jesus Christ – she wanted to know how I had come to know Jesus Christ in a personal way, and how she might experience the same! It is clearly not just the elderly who have questions about death, and life for that matter? For many years now I have believed that one of the major things we can do for people as Pastors is to prepare them for death. I do not mean this in a morbid way, but my conviction is that people cannot really enjoy life, live it to the full, live really useful lives if you like, until they have dealt with that old enemy, death!
My discharge letter from the hospital written by my surgeon, which I also alluded to earlier, states that the purpose of my heart bypass operation was to ‘extend the quantity and quality’ of my life! I am still in the recovery period but already I feel so much the better for it. The pains associated with a possible imminent heart attack have gone. I have the ability to breathe really deeply in a way I have never known before (I have had a heart condition since birth apparently). I can actually walk faster and longer than for a long time, and feel that the best is still yet to come. I have a new energy and alertness. This has affected me spiritually as well as physically and mentally. I have a renewed enthusiasm for the work of ministry and the work of the Kingdom. Perhaps this is akin to that which Jesus promised us when he said that he had come ‘to bring life – life that can be lived to the full’ (John 10:10). One of the reason why I didn’t want to die on the operating table was because I still believed that God had important stuff for me to do. I didn’t want to leave my wife Julia (who is also an ordained and accredited Baptist Minister, and 15 years younger than me) but be around to support her when she returns to the Baptist Ministry after a period of absence due to illness, hopefully in the near future. I don’t want to ‘interfere’ with her ministry, but I do want to be there as a support. Of late, however, I have also felt a renewed sense of my own ‘call to ministry’ – a feeling that ‘God hasn’t finished with me yet’ and that I still have something to contribute to the cause of Christ and the work of the Kingdom. In fact, I felt this so strongly that, prior to my operation, I asked God ‘for at least another 10 years of effective and dynamic life and ministry’. I recognise that there is a dangerous precedent here – King Hezekiah asked God for an extension to his life and God gave him an extra 15 years (Isaiah 38; 2 Kings 20:1-11; 2 Chronicles 32:24-26) although it is questionable as to whether or not he made ‘best use’ of this time?! For me, however, it seemed somehow right. I have had four years ‘retirement’ and, quite frankly, have found it rather boring even though we have managed to travel quite a bit during this time. Retirement may be fine for some Ministers – I don’t pass any judgment on others – but as for me, I am anxious to be more involved once again. Partly this is because of the state of the Christian Church in the UK – there is so much that remains to be done. I feel a bit like the Apostle Paul who in one way was happy to die and go to be with the Lord, but felt that he still needed to ‘stick around’ a bit longer in order to help the Church in its mission (Philippians 1:23). How this will all ‘work out’ I don’t know? Perhaps it will be acting as an ‘Associate’ with Julia when she returns to the Pastorate, or just helping out in the local church or Association in some way, or doing something I have never thought of before? Time will tell!