Final Words from the Valley of the Shadow of Death

I came across this post from one of my Facebook friends.  Amy Caldwell Bixby is dying from metastatic breast cancer.  I do not know her, her husband, or her family.  It is evident, however, that she is my sister in Christ.  Her post is written from the perspective of one who is on the precipice of eternity–and as her final message to those who read her blog.  Her terms are simple which is what makes them so eloquent.  Her expressions are emotionally raw which is what makes them so powerful.  Her words are the last we who don’t know her personally will hear which makes them so poignant.  In short, these are the final words from a young mother who will soon die and leave behind a husband and seven children and enter into the joyful presence of her Heavenly Father–cancer free.

I am copying the post in its entirety on my blog with tentative permission from the family.  To be sure, it is emotionally charged.  If your response is anything like mine, you will probably get choked up.  However, emotions are not the centerpiece of this post; Jesus Christ is.  This is a rare glimpse of the kind of genuine hope a believer has in the face of death because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished on the cross.  Please read it and consider how you would answer the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”  Amy’s answer is clear.  This is verbatim from her Wednesday, July 6, 2011 blog post, “The Valley of the Shadow of Death“.

Most of you probably thought I had posted my last update, and I thought I had too. Last week there were days when I was sure I wouldn’t live ’til the end of the day, although I can’t describe what’s going on as physical pain. My body is beginning to shut down. We were able to find a couple of simple ways to relieve the toxic buildup in my body, and although I can still feel that I am quickly coming to the end of my life here on earth, my eyes and skin are no longer yellow, I can think very clearly, the swelling I was beginning to have has gone away, my nausea is somewhat decreased, and I can eat and drink a little. My oncologist said that as long as we can keep the toxins drained, and keep a little food in me, this process will be eased considerably. One thing that has helped has been ionic foot baths. I’ve seen those things advertised and thought they were a bunch of baloney, but I immediately felt relief when I had one. So if you also thought they were baloney, think again.

I began having a marked decline at the end of May. After about a week of increasing symptoms, the discomfort settled down, and I was able to function better. I thought maybe I had just ingested too much of some kind of vitamin and needed a break from the greens. But then I began having trouble with regular nausea and could not chew my raw food without getting sick. The oncologist couldn’t see why I would be having these problems since my blood work was showing normal results, and my liver ultrasound didn’t show anything new. She scheduled a PET scan. Just last week she called me to say that my labs were not as good as she had thought. A portion of them had been signed by another doctor on the team, and she had not seen that part. But my tumor markers had quadrupled in May and my liver enzymes were messed up. I felt relieved in a way to know that what I was experiencing had an explanation – even though it was the cancer. The PET scan was cancelled at my request. (Lest any of you feel defensive on my behalf, this “mistake” would not have changed anything – it would just have given me longer to know what was happening. Once this process starts, only God could stop or reverse it, and He doesn’t usually choose to do so.)

I realized right away that we had entered the final phase of my life, and I am very, very ready for it. I’ve wished, as I’ve faced the surprising battles of the last few weeks, that someone could tell me what to expect, what I might struggle with, what to be prepared for. I’m so accustomed to researching and preparing for what is ahead. But people don’t come back from the dead to guide us, and Jesus Christ is the only one who has done it perfectly anyway. So I’m glad to say, I have that Someone I need and He is daily making Himself more dear to me. I truly cannot wait to see Him.

All that said, I do want to share some of my experience in this valley of the shadow of death before it’s too late. I want to acknowledge the struggles and let you know that God has overcome them. I want to tell all of you that He is doing and will do the same for you. Whether or not you see it is between you and God, but I want to shout from the rooftops that if you will just believe Him, even though you can’t understand now, even though some things hurt now, He will never truly hurt you. The pain we feel is a reminder that He is making it more than better – He’s redeeming things so perfectly, that the pleasure He’s preparing for me is beyond my comprehension; and so, even the pain is a grand evidence of His grace.

I have been blind-sided by some of my battles since the end of May. I went through a few days of being terrified that what I had placed my faith in was not real, that I had missed the truth somehow. God took my heart, my eyes, and my mind, and made me see how everything I have learned about Him, everything that has become dear and a comfort to me, is reinforced in every single area of our lives. He is constantly showing us His truth through what He gives us – the earth, people, and especially His Word. And suddenly, all those seeming contradictions we struggle with, all the whys, the unlikely reconciling of the effects of evil with the omniscient good, all those questions about ultimate truth, popped into focus. This is not the end. God has been preparing me for what comes next. And if trouble is part of the preparation, than I can view it as painful training, but not as ultimately powerful evil.

Another difficulty was the weight of my regrets. Everyone who knows me would say that I’ve lived a good life. And I have. I have been faithful to my husband, I haven’t abandoned myself to drugs, I’ve tried to do what’s good for others, I’ve gone to church regularly, I’ve prayed and read my Bible, I’ve invested in my children, I’ve striven to honor my parents, I’ve apologized when I was wrong. But it’s not enough. It’s not enough. My regrets were overwhelming me. Why did I yell at the kids? Why did I rip at my husband? Why didn’t I invest more in that lady? Why did I say those cutting things? Why didn’t I just resolve that bitterness I’ve been carrying? As well as I lived my life, it wasn’t anywhere near good enough. And the weight is heavy because now there isn’t time to re-do or fix. Jesus Christ took my memory and reminded me of the Scripture that my mother and others have poured into it. “Truly, I tell you, he who hears my word, and believes on Him who sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death into life.” John 5:25 “For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1) These Scripture reminders washed over me and reminded me that Jesus has taken care of all my regrets for me.

But then I thought of the people who have regrets that we all recognize for what they are – big, ugly, havoc-wreaking, self-centered, world-altering mistakes. How do you deal with your regrets when you get where I am? Because you will be here. The most healthy diet in the world will not help you avoid this moment. Look at God’s word and be comforted even more deeply than I have been. You also can have no condemnation in Christ Jesus. He doesn’t care how bad you or others think your mistakes are. Any mistake of any size is enough to separate you from God in your death, but no mistake of any size is enough to keep Christ from rescuing you just as He has done for me.

As I’ve become more and more unable to handle what have been my responsibilities, I have struggled viciously with giving up control. I am ashamed to say how many times in the last few days I have lost control of my temper as my duties were handled by someone else or not handled at all. I’ve felt panicked that I won’t be able to prepare my family for what’s coming, to live life without me. I have dragged my family on this emotional roller coaster of trying-to control. But God is getting a hold of my fears, and helping me to trust Him – that whatever He allows during this time is part of my preparation and the preparation of those around me to enjoy Him. My house and family do not have to be handled my way in order to accomplish God’s goals.

I’ve thought so often of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. That man must have lived in the valley of the shadow for a long time in order to be able to describe it so well. His description of Christian’s soul-scraping struggles and fears, and then victory, is the most accurate picture of what’s been raging inside me that I can think of. I’m so thankful that ultimate victory is waiting.

I am aware that many people from different perspectives read my blog. I have atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Jain, Wiccan, Buddhist, Christian, and wildly-searching friends and acquaintances. I don’t know the spiritual persuasions of many of you. But I know this. You will all face what I am facing now. I want for everyone of you to be blessed with the peace and confidence that Christ has given me. I wish that everyone could see during their whole lives what I am seeing so clearly now. God loves us all so completely. His plan has never been to destroy us, but to redeem us and all of His creation perfectly. There is another someone who hates us completely because we are the creation of his Enemy, and he never stops trying to deceive and destroy us as long as we are on this earth. Christ has offered the solution, but we have such a hard time trusting that He truly is the way. We are afraid that if He even is who He claims to be, He is just waiting to slap us into judgement, or at best to take us to a place where we will sit around and sing for eternity.(Sorry, but singing has never been one of my great pleasures, although I do love the words to songs. So I had a hard time getting excited about that view of Heaven.) He tells us so clearly what He wants for us, yet for some reason,  we usually don’t see it. But it’s there, and you will see it too. I hope you will embrace it when you do, that you will search for it when you don’t, that you will plead with God to prepare you for eternity with Him. Eternity is real, and you don’t want to live it without God and His redemption of all your mistakes. You don’t want to miss what is waiting for those who choose to trust God’s love.

For God so loved the world,
that He gave His only begotten Son,
that whosoever believes in Him should not perish
but have everlasting life.
John 3:16
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A Tragic Death

I just came across a news story in which a 29-year-old Southern Baptist pastor was tragically shot and killed by police.  You can read the story here.  This is a very difficult reminder that no one knows the amount of time that we have to serve God in any capacity.  We are bullet proof until the One who gives and takes life says it’s time.  An untimely death is only from our human perspectives.  Nevertheless, his wife, family, and the church at which he ministered will need much prayer during this time of a loss.  

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12) 

On Dying Well

It is all too easy to skip over a discussion on the inevitable.  Life is short.  No one escapes death.  The Bible reminds us through images that our days on earth are brief.  Psalm 144:4 uses two different metaphors to highlight the brevity of our lives,

Man is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow. 

Similarly James 4:14 says,

Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life?  For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

A breath.  A shadow.  A mist.  It’s no wonder that Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 7:2,

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

The Contemporary English Version renders the verse this way,

It’s better to go to a funeral than to attend a feast; funerals remind us that we must all die.

Morbid?  Yes.  But death is simply a reality we cannot escape.  To think about dying well is admittedly not on our radars every moment of the day.  However, there are occasions (and they increase as we grow older) when we are confronted with our own mortality whether it is through the death of a loved one or when he hear of someone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness.  Richard Sibbes had these insightful words on dying well,

Therefore if we desire to end our days in joy and comfort let us lay the foundation of a comfortable death now betimes. To die well is not a thing of that light moment as some imagine: it is no easy matter. But to die well is a matter of every day. Let us daily do some good that may help us at the time of our death. Every day by repentance pull out the sting of some sin that so when death comes we may have nothing to do but to die. To die well is the action of the whole life. He never dies well for the most part that dies not daily, as Paul saith of himself, ‘I die daily,’ 1 Cor xv 81; he laboured to loose his heart from the world and worldly things. If we loose our hearts from the world and die daily, how easy it will be to die at last! He that thinks of the vanity of the world, and of death and of being with Christ for ever, and is dying daily, it will be easy for him to end his days with comfort (Richard Sibbes, The Complete Works of Richard Sibbes, 1:349-50).