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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Otsego Festival Question Series: How Do You Know God Is Real?

In January of 2005, Bobby Henderson, an Oregon State physics graduate, sent an open letter to the Kansas School Board. This was when the school board was debating over whether or not intelligent design should be taught in science classes. He wrote:

We have evidence that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created the universe. None of us, of course, were around to see it, but we have written accounts of it. We have several lengthy volumes explaining all details of His power. Also, you may be surprised to hear that there are over 10 million of us, and growing. We tend to be very secretive, as many people claim our beliefs are not substantiated by observable evidence.

The school board did not respond to the letter, but when he posted it on the internet, it became an instant hit with some 350 million hits since it was posted. It was intended to be a spoof; a tongue-in-cheek response to claim that Intelligent Design (ID) is not science. Whether one can lay claim that ID is science, I am not qualified to say but I have a sneaking suspicion that there is a problem with the claim that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the creator of all things. Henderson’s point is that if it lacks evidence, it cannot be taught as science and should be disallowed. What this means is that if God lacks evidence, creationism should also be discredited and not taught.

The line of reasoning for Flying Spaghetti Monsterism seems to be:
1. There is no evidence for the existence of God.
2. There is no evidence for the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
3. Therefore, belief in the Judeo-Christian God and belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster are on equal epistemic grounds. (This means the evidence through which we verify their existence is equal).

The problem is that the first premise, there is no evidence for the existence of God, is an a priori rejection of any evidence, were it given. I contend that God is real and there is evidence for the existence of God. If we could find forensic evidence that would support the existence of God, the fingerprints of God, as it were, in the world, we can list at least three: God’s creation, God’s word, and God’s Son

The Bible assumes the existence of God. What this means is that the Bible is not an apologetic for the existence of God, rather it reveals who God is and how He works in the world. It is like a person’s biography. The biographer does not take the first chapter to provide proofs of the individual’s existence. The biographer clearly assumes the existence of the person about whom he is writing.

While the Bible assumes the existence of God, there are some places where evidences of God’s existence are found. It may be that these proofs are incorporated throughout the Bible because God Himself is invisible (Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 1:17; Hebrews 11:27).

1. God’s creation
The first fingerprint of God in the world is creation. Personally, I find this to be a compelling argument for the existence of God. To observe (what we can observe) about creation points us to the intricate, artistic mind of a Creator. This is, in fact, intentional according to Psalm 19:1.

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

It is the height of folly to credit evolutionary chance with the order of the natural world and its beauty.

The microscope and the telescope have given us entry into whole new worlds and universes. Yet before we had these, all we had to do was look up with what we can see with the naked eye. So the Apostle Paul says to the men of Athens

Yet God is actually not far from each one of us (Acts 17:27).

How could Paul say this?  Because of creation!  According to Romans 1:20, no one can plead ignorance concerning the existence of God when they have the gigantic canvas of creation to behold.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

Michael Newdow, known for suing to have the words “under God” removed from the pledge of allegiance, argued that if he could not see, hear, touch, or smell God he does not exist (Hal Seed, The God Questions, 23).  While creation is not God, it lets us know that a Creator exists.

2. God’s word
The second fingerprint of God in the world is the Bible. Hebrews 1:1 make the clear statement: “God spoke!”

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke . . .

God’s word provides us what we know about God. The Bible is the collection of what God has revealed that He wants us to know,

All Scripture is breathed out by God . . . (2 Timothy 3:16)

When you consider the time span as well as the number and diversity of authors of the Bible, the internal consistency is flawless and difficult to explain other than attributing it to its Divine Author.

To be sure, its accuracy does not prove the Bible to be divine—human beings are also sometimes quite accurate—but it is what we should expect if the Bible is the result of God’s effort (James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 59).

3. God’s Son
The third fingerprint of God in the world in Jesus Christ. There are very few who would deny that Jesus of Nazareth existed. In fact, even the most liberal of scholars seek to disprove His claims more than His existence because His life is so well documented. But throughout history people have longed to know what God is like.  In fact, if one could not see God one wanted to make a representation of Him, which God forbids in the second commandment in Exodus 20:4.  Remember Philip’s question to Jesus in John 14:8,

Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.’

There is a desire for something greater in every person (incidentally, we call this “the image of God”).  Also consider Colossians 2:9.

For in [Jesus] the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.

This means that Jesus was fully God and as such He can truly manifest God to us.

No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known (John 1:18).

And

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1:15).

Not only has God spoken as I mentioned above, but He has spoken to us through His Son according to Hebrews 1:1-2,

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, [2] but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

In conclusion, there are at least three fingerprints of God in the world: God’s creation, God’s word, and God’s son. To reject the existence of God has several severe consequences:

  • To reject God’s existence and authority over us is the height of folly.

The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 14:1).

We could add “for me” at the end of the fool’s statement, “There is no God” to express the idea of the statement.

  • To reject God’s existence is to reject for that which we were made, we exists for Him (1 Corinthians 8:6).

yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.

  • To reject God’s existence is to reject the creative power of salvation and spiritual renewal He provides in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. [18 ] All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;

I’ll conlcude my answer to this question with an anecdote.

In The Dust of Death Os Guinness makes this point [that the key to knowledge of God eludes us if God does not exist or if the failure to know God is God’s fault] by describing a comedy skit performed by the German comedian Karl Vallentin. In this routine the comic comes onto a stage illuminated only by one small circle of light. He paces around and around this circle with a worried face. He is searching for something. After a while a policeman joins him and asks what h has lost. “I’ve lost the key to my house to my house,” Vallentin answers. The policeman joins the hunt, but the search eventually appears useless.
“Are you sure you lost it here?” asks the policeman.
“Oh no!” says Vallentin, pointing to a dark corner. “It was over there.”
“Then why are you looking here?”
“There’s no light over there,” answers the comic.
(Os Guinness, The Dust of Death (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), 148 in Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 28-9).

God does exist and He has revealed Himself so that we can know Him. But we must look where He can be found. Those places are creation, the Bible, and Jesus Christ. Each of these cast a brilliant light on the existence of God.

John Stott on the Swoon Theory

The swoon theory was advanced by the German theologian and Biblical critic Heinrich Paulus (Miller, Jesus Christ is Alive, 38). This idea asserts that Christ suffered terribly on the cross, He suffered from shock, and swooned but did not die. The disciples thought he was dead (and apparently so did the Roman guards and Dr. Luke) so Jesus was buried in haste due to the approaching Sabbath. While in the cool air of the tomb, Jesus awakened. John Stott responds,

[Can we really believe] that after the rigours and pains of trial, mockery, flogging and crucifixion he could survive…in a stone sepulcher with neither warmth nor food nor medical care? That he could then rally sufficiently to perform the superhuman feat of shifting the boulder which secured the mouth of the tomb…without disturbing the Roman guard? That he could appear to the disciples in such a way as to give them the impression that he had vanquished death? … Such credulity is more incredible than Thomas’ unbelief (Stott, Basic Christianity, 49).

Biblical Miracles: The Difference Between Two Diverse Religions

I revisited a citation from Machen’s classic, Christianity and Liberalism.  You may be aware that J. Gresham Machen was a professor at Princeton during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. Though he was hesitant to identify himself with much of fundamentalism, he had a robust mind with a vigorous desire for truth. He writes in his book Christianity and Liberalism, originally published in 1923, that a Christianity that denies miracles is not authentic Christianity. Regarding the liberal dogma that miracles should be rejected, among them the Virgin birth of Christ and His resurrection, Machen responds,

The issue does not concern individual miracles, even so important a miracle as the Virgin birth. It really concerns all miracles. And the question concerning all miracles is simply the question of the acceptance or rejection of the Saviour that the New Testament presents. Reject the miracles and you have in Jesus the fairest flower of humanity who made such an impression upon His followers that after His death they could not believe that He had perished but experienced hallucinations in which they thought they saw Him risen from the dead; accept the miracles, and you have a Saviour who came voluntarily into this world for our salvation, suffered for our sins upon the Cross, rose again from the dead by the power of God, and ever lives to make intercession for us. The difference between those two views is the difference between two totally diverse religions. It is high time that this issue should be faced; it is high time that the misleading use of traditional phrases should be abandoned and men should speak their full mind. Shall we accept the Jesus of the New Testament as our Saviour, or shall we reject Him with the liberal church” (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 109, emphasis added).

Though his work is nearly 90 years old, it remains as true today as when he wrote it.