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Life’s unexpected turning point

Two weeks ago I did not know that I had heart disease. I had gone to the cardiologist at the bidding of the doctor who would be working on a problem in my neck, discovered at a recent physical. The cardiologist had some misgivings as he looked at my information, deciding a stress test was in order. That exposed what he described as anomalies, leading on Friday to an angiogram. This, in turn, revealed that I am now a candidate for open-heart surgery.

The week has been a rollercoaster. On the morning that this whole process began, I had done a demanding ninety-minute workout at the Y, and now I find myself sitting and waiting for an appointment with the surgeon, wondering about second opinions, and waking with starts in the middle of the night with my body shaking in sheer terror, and reaching for my wife for comfort.

I recently came home to Tennessee from working in England with the hope of enjoying my “retirement” and the life of St. George’s Church, Nashville, only to discover that I am caught in a snare. I am seeking that the heavenly Hunter, with the aid of skilled medical men and women, will deliver me from “the deadly pestilence” that has secretly been engulfing my heart for a lifetime.

It is good to be encouraged by doctors (including my own daughter), as well as those who have already walked this journey, that I appear to be a fine candidate for successful surgery, and that I will feel so much better and more energetic when it is done; but, from where I am sitting, I have come face to face with my own mortality in no uncertain terms. I suddenly feel very fragile, despite the fact that I am attempting to live my life as normally as I can.

I had not been aware of the symptoms of heart disease creeping up on me, maybe because I have been in denial, maybe because they have been masked by other things going on in my life and body, and maybe because I had misinterpreted them. Besides, I think that as we age we tend to discount certain aches and pains as part of the process. Because I have kept myself reasonably fit through the years it would appear my body might have found other ways of coping with the buildup of plaque in my system, but I am now in a position where I have to face up to the realities.

A former colleague from Cambridge, England used the words “discouraging” and “scary” of this, and it is just that — and more. In forty-seven years of ordained ministry, I have sat with many parishioners at such crossroads in their lives. I have empathized, but without experience. As a colleague who had similar surgery a year or so ago said yesterday, “You know, this will make you a better pastor.”

If I am spared, I am sure it will, and I pray that the Lord is preparing me for a final chapter of ministry in old age that will draw upon this experience.

Just recently, Elisabeth Elliot, a former parishioner of mine, died. Her most famous book, written after the death of her first husband, Jim, murdered by Auca tribesmen in the Ecuadorian jungle in early 1956, was Shadow of the Almighty, the title taken from the first verse of Psalm 91. I am seeking to put myself under the shadow of the Almighty, now aware in an intense way just how precious this life is. Even the Paul who said to the Philippians that to live is Christ and to die is gain, went on to say that he wanted to continue to live in order to come to them again and see their smiling faces. My sentiments exactly.

I write this to you who are part of this Covenant group not to be didactic, but to seek your fellowship and prayers as Rosemary (my wife) and I make this journey together. It is our desire that we will be able to devote any bonus years that might accrue from all this to the service of the Christ who has been with us in so many ways throughout our lives — especially when we have stumbled and fallen.

Doesn’t Psalm 91 say that this Lord will give his angels charge over us, and that they will bear us up lest we dash our foot against a stone?

The featured image is “Modlitwa różańcowa” (2010) by Flickr user FotoKatolik. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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