I am beginning this article in a hospital waiting room. It is August. Susan Perlman, my close colleague, First Assistant and very dear friend is undergoing surgery to remove a tumor that is probably malignant—20 years after having survived a bout with cancer.
No stranger to that hospital, I’d sat anxiously awaiting word of my wife Patti’s surgery for thyroid cancer eight years ago. The same waiting room, same surgeon—same pervasive sense of how truly fragile life is—weighed heavily upon me.
Patti came through her surgery just fine. It resulted in decreased energy and a need for synthetic thyroid medication, but other than that, our lives returned to “normal.” It is likely that before I finish writing this article I will hear the results of Susan’s surgery as well. What news will I hear? What will life be like for her and for those of us who know and love her?
Most of us go through life without much thought as to how fragile our lives really are until we are brought up short by these kinds of events. And it is these times of crisis that remind us of what really is normal—human mortality. Every crisis gives us an opportunity to honestly ask ourselves, “From where will we find our strength and our hope?”
We ought to find ourselves different from the majority of people, meaning those who are in denial about the brevity of life because they have no everlasting hope. Have you noticed how our culture is designed to protect us from the realities of death?
Some months ago I was flying home from a meeting when the man sitting behind me began gasping for breath. An announcement over the plane’s intercom called for a physician. Soon a doctor and several nurses came to the man’s aid, but to no avail. I began to pray for the man and his wife, who was sitting beside him. The pilot announced that due to a medical emergency the plane was going to land in Edmonton. I could hear the activity behind me escalate as the doctor and nurses took turns doing CPR. If you’ve never been near a person who is dying despite these efforts, I can assure you that it is much worse than what we see on television. The sound of air being forced out of a human being’s lungs, the sounds and smells of the death rattle were horrific. I heard the doctor pronounce, “Time of death, 10:25 A.M.”
And then the captain announced that the passenger’s situation had “stabilized,” and therefore we would continue on to San Francisco. I don’t know how many people realized that what was announced as though it was the passing of the emergency was actually a veiled announcement of the passing of this man’s life. Certainly those of us nearby knew. The flight attendants pulled a blanket over his head. His wife, still beside him, was sobbing and moaning. And then the flight attendants began to come through the aisles . . . serving lunch! Lunch!? How could anyone in that cabin eat after what had just happened? But they did.
I have to say that the flight attendants did everything they could to help people go on with what most would regard as some degree of normalcy. They handled it very professionally as, no doubt, they were trained to do. Understandably, they did not want the remainder of the flight to be . . . unpleasant. The result was surreal.
I am still haunted by the images and sounds and smells of death. For me that airplane cabin is a metaphor for the world in which we live. All around us people are dying, not just physically but spiritually. Some, like the dear wife on that plane, are devastated and broken over the loss and pain death brings. Many others go through life pretending not to see, trying to distract themselves or gloss over the grim realities that surround them.
When I wrote this article, I’d been re-reading Psalm 46 many times over: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, Even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea; Though its waters roar and be troubled, Though the mountains shake with its swelling. . . . Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth! The LORD of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our refuge” (v. 1-3,10-11).
This world teaches us to avoid trouble and to hide our weakness. But Scriptures teach us that trouble becomes the occasion for us to discover God’s very present help, that in our weakness we discover His strength and it is at the point of danger that we find our refuge is in Him.
The world teaches us to live life as though we were invincible, as though trouble were far off. The constant temptation is to presume upon—and greatly waste—the amount of time allotted to us. In reality, trouble is all around us and life is very fragile indeed. Mountains do shake. Waters roar. We don’t need to deny those realities for fear of what they will do to us. Accepting the fragility of life crystallizes our understanding of what is most important, teaching us to treasure life and to invest ourselves in activities that bring lasting fruit. Along with the psalmist we pray, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).
We cannot literally count our days and determine exactly how much time we have before our lives here will end. No one has a birth certificate with an expiration date on it. But to number our days means that we realize they are limited and use them accordingly.
Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live” (John 11:25). This life is merely the beginning, and death is not the end of it all. It is a doorway into eternity. That is why we who know the Lord must do all that is possible to point people to the Savior before they step across that threshold. This is the urgent truth that drives me and drives Jews for Jesus. A poet once wrote “. . . only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” May God waken our sleeping hearts to care for those all around us who need the resurrection and the life of our Messiah Jesus.
When the illusion of our own invincibility is shattered, we look to our all-powerful God. When illness or trouble touch our lives, we are compelled to be still and know that He is God. And after the stillness, we proclaim His honor and glory.
I am not thankful for cancer, but I am thankful for the keen awareness it’s given me of how fragile and how precious life is. I am thankful for a renewed appreciation of God’s gifts, of a renewed gratitude and quietude in worship to Him—and a renewed sense of urgency to obey His calling.
Susan came through her surgery with flying colors but as many of you know, the tumor was malignant. All tests indicated that the cancer had not spread, which is a wonderful answer to prayer. By the time this reaches you, Susan will be a little less than half way through the chemotherapy the doctor recommended.
I do not know when or what the next crisis will be but I do know that for all of us who know Him, the God of Jacob is our refuge. He is the invincible shield over our fragile lives.
May we exalt His name in all that we do in this life, the prelude to an eternity of praise and worship to the Lord and giver of life.