The consultant was frank. “You have bowel cancer which has spread to your liver. Cancel all your plans. I have arranged for you to see a surgeon who can operate next Monday.”
Today was Tuesday. My wife Dorothy and I were stunned at this sudden change of direction in our lives. Having retired from Frinton Free Church, I had taken on the European leadership of ‘Purpose Driven’ ministries and had a full diary of engagements. Later that day the surgeon confirmed that he would remove the bowel tumour, but said the liver was inoperable. A course of chemotherapy would begin in a few weeks time. My future on earth seemed uncertain.
It was hard breaking that news to children and grandchildren. In the run-up to the operation I read 2 Kings 20:1 - ‘About that time Hezekiah became deathly ill, and the prophet Isaiah...went to visit him. He gave the king this message: “This is what the Lord says: Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.”’ So as I was wheeled down the corridors to the operating theatre I consciously let go of everything except God. I let go of my wife, my family, my ministry - everything. He was the one thing I could take with me into eternity. As I became conscious my first thought was, “God hasn’t finished with me yet.” I returned to the story of Hezekiah. Isaiah was given another message for him. “I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will heal you, and three days from now you will get out of bed and go to the Temple of the Lord. I will add 15 years to your life.” I sensed God saying to me, “You have survived the operation and I will give you an ‘interval of health’.” I did not take this as a guarantee of healing, but that phrase burned itself into my mind.
The surgeon said my recovery was excellent and in just four days I was on my way home. From February to June life was pretty well back to normal except for the discomfort of the chemotherapy. The time came for the inevitable CT scan which would determine how effective the chemotherapy had been. As I sat outside the office of the oncologist and the surgeon, I could hear the sound of xray charts being flipped back and forth. They seemed to be talking for ages. Were they discussing which one of them would tell me the bad news? Finally I said to myself, “The question is not ‘Has the chemo worked?’ but ‘What has God done through the chemo?’” As it turned out, there had been a marked reduction in the size of the tumours in the liver. But – talk about good news and bad news in the same sentence - it meant another operation since my liver was now operable.
The anaesthetist met me on the morning of the surgery and asked me to sign the consent form. “Now there are risks,” he said. “Number one, you could die. Two, you could have a stroke. Three, you could have a heart attack, and four, you could be paralysed.” But I knew I could not resist what God had made possible for me. The surgery was huge. Three quarters of my liver has been removed. The surgeon has confirmed there were no further signs of cancer, and, of course, the liver is one organ that regenerates itself. I was discharged from hospital after eight days. Could this be the beginning of my ‘interval of health’ which may be significantly longer than I originally anticipated?
This year I learned two truths in a much more powerful way than I had ever experienced before. First, I knew God was in control. Second, whatever has happened he has allowed, and I must try to work with him. There have been many obvious touches of God’s hand along this journey. Little things such as a common cold that caused the last chemotherapy session to be cancelled, bringing the liver resection forward by three weeks, enabling the specialist surgeon to be available. Some may say it is mere coincidence. I have chosen to trust in God for such large and small issues. God speaks through events. I do not always hear or understand what he is saying, but sometimes I do. His generosity and grace are marvellous. I thank God for his healing grace.