Saturday, February 27, 2016

No One Wanted to Be There: When You Face Death Like a Coward

*GRAPHIC CONTENT WARNING: The details given in this personal account of medical events are accurate, descriptive, and disturbing. Also, it's pretty long. Reader discretion is advised.*

The second-to-the-last time I was admitted to the hospital through the ER (not a novel occurrence, I am what they call a "frequent flyer"), I was forced to refuse a visit from the senior pastor at my husband's—and of course my—church who is also a friend. The next time I saw him, I explained that I was in no condition to receive visitors at the time. "You didn't want to be in there," I said, giving him my own version of a light apology the following Sunday at service. Of course we both knew that he understood I hadn't wanted him to see me in the state that I was in at the time. But then tears flooded my eyes before I knew I felt tearful.

"No one wanted to be in there," I managed to admit the truth around the hardening lump in my throat before mumbling another apology and leaving as quickly as I could without actually running so that I could burst into tears in private; not an easy thing for a pastor's wife to do in church on Sunday morning, but I've come to know all the nooks and crannies of our church out of necessity.
The truth of importance here is that
not every devout Christian is a willing martyr.
I knew that. What I didn't know is that I wasn't one.

That is the truth I'm writing about here. And like the truth so often does, it hurts like hell. No one wanted to see what kind of a coward I'd turned into in that ER room. More truthfully still, I didn't want anyone to see what kind of coward this self-proclaimed woman of God reverted to when I was under the impression that my earthly life was being torn away from me after nearly a decade of fighting to keep it intact by yet another simple reaction to a new medication.

What follows now is my pitiable account of the one and only time I was (incorrectly) certain that I was going to die, and it went nothing at all like I'd expected it to go. No one wanted to be there: not the doctors, not the nurses, the aides, the technicians, certainly not the housekeepers, and least of all me because I was a disgusting physical and emotional wreck of a human being who apart from Christ the angels wouldn't condescend to spare more than a revolted glance before turning their glorious backs on me. And if you don't want to be there either, please stop reading now. It wasn't an easy experience, and it won't not be easy to read.
* * *
"Then Moses summoned Joshua & said to him in the sight of all Israel, Be strong & courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them, & you shall put them in possession of it.
He will be with you;
>>> He will not leave you or forsake you<<<
Do not fear or be dismayed.”
(Deuteronomy 31:7-8)
*  *  *
Before my chronic disease (Ulcerative Colitis) became too severe for me to hold down a job, I worked as a hospital deaconess and later a hospice deaconess. That means I was generally involved in only the most dire and most tragic of medical cases that almost always ended in death (especially in hospice, naturally). I have learned a million of things about man and God and life and death and how they all interact, but no rule sticks out as plainly as the fact that there are no rules when it comes to dying—neither physical nor emotional—save that we all do finally die when God desires it so.

We are such woefully imperfect and fickle creatures, every single sinful and saintly one of us (Romans 3:23), so please do not think me too much of a hypocrite to read my story now because my personal story of near-death, as hard as it is for me to share, as hard as it is for me to believe it even happened, is only one of many I've borne witness to, and it might help you understand yourself or someone you love who didn't (or won't) meet their death with the stoic certainty and happy bravery with which our good Lord calls us to His gracious and merciful side for eternity.

Although I've witnessed countless fearful and decidedly un-peaceable fights against death throughout my short hospital career, I honestly never thought mine would be one of them. Before this incident, I was comfortable, if not proud, in my unwavering belief in the afterlife that Christ has won for me. Aren't we all at our proudest and most comfortable before the walls of Jericho fall? I assumed that when my time to die came, I would be brave and composed, aware of what glories awaited me, aware that my suffering was finally over, and aware of where my God was, trusting Him to care for my family and friends and help them through any sadness resulting from missing me.

But when my time to die actually came,
I was SO ANGRY that I swore at my God.
I was SO AFRAiD that I threatened my God.
and now I am SO ASHAMED of myself that I cannot breathe.

This is a child of God. A theologian, even, a church worker who has miles of theological prose published via the Internet proclaiming I that should have died in a very different way. I don't want to publish this account of my personal brush with death in the first person and put myself out there as evidence of yet one more weak, hypocritical Christian who's not strong enough to practice what she teaches everyone else. I don't want to be mocked for the beliefs I failed to uphold when upholding those beliefs really counted. But the secret existence of these events in my brain haunts me somehow in a way that won't allow me to hide their existence in order to gratify still more of my own cowardice.

"For the wages of sin is death,
but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
(Romans 6:23)

I am not the only Christian with this dirty little secret scratched into my sinful soul: I've watched this very same thing happen to people just like me, only they did die in the end, cursing God and their death with their very last breath. It didn't happen often, but it did happen, and so I am not the only Christian in need of comfort and assurance in the wake of my own dismal weakness, and I likewise know that I am not the only child of God whom He comforts in their time of bitter shame regardless of the fact that I do not deserve one iota of His endless mercy. All I ask from my readers in return for this true and painful account of what happened to me in that small space between life and death is your patience, your understanding, maybe your forgiveness, but most of all I am in need of your prayers.

My Story: A Real Person Facing Death *Careful, here is where it gets very descriptive.

One morning a few weeks ago when I was home alone with my 2 and 1/2 year old daughter, I took a new medication as prescribed by my doctor. The doctor's nurse warned me that I "might feel a little sick," and if I did, I should stop taking the pills and call the doctor's office. Within an hour of swallowing that wretched thing as directed, I was lying on my bathroom floor unable to stand up, unable to even pull down my pants and sit on the toilet though had no control over any of my bodily functions. I was throwing up literally without ceasing, the kind of throwing up where you can't stop long enough to take a decent breath.

And if the worst pain I could imagine before this was a 10, the pain I was in then was at least a 12, and I know pain (remember the cesarean birth I had without anesthesia? Well I do, and if that was a 10, this was still an l2—see "My Mom With Chronic Illness Story" on this site for the details of that medical debacle if you like).

The extent of what was happening to me that morning is difficult to express. I wasn't "all there," to turn a phrase, and when I was there, I wasn't exactly cogent. The physical pain I was experiencing was unbearable, and the emotional pain suffered by my bright 2-year-old daughter as she heard my pain despite my efforts to keep quiet was infinitely worse. My writhing body was contorted with spasms, convulsions my doctor later called them, which made any type of controlled movement or speech impossible, and so I was unable to comfort her. I know she heard the pleas to God I couldn't stifle by shoving a towel into my mouth until my jaw popped. I know she heard my retching and dry-heaves as my bile ran dry. She heard my terrified, gasping sobs through which I begged God to end this torture and send me help and was met with the icy silence and inactivity so many of us know so well.

And I was cold. I was so cold, cold in a way I can't even begin to describe because it's nothing like anything I'd ever even imagined. It began in my bones; the cold WAS my bones and it permeated all through my muscle, organs, skin and my whole body until it became worse than the pain. Somehow I got it into my head that this demonic cold was my only tether to this world. Then, I began beating myself on the chest as hard as I could. I couldn't help it. My muscles wouldn't cooperate with my brain anymore. More convulsions, they later said.  

I tried desperately to comfort my baby girl, who was standing at the foot of our stairs kept away by the baby gate we thankfully hadn't removed yet. She was asking me what was wrong. Then finally she yelled for me to come down there to her or for me to let her to come up the stairs to where I was, but I couldn't actually say anything. I couldn't comfort my poor baby girl who was alone at the bottom of the stairs fully aware, "Something wrong with you, Mama?" No pain in the world could possibly be worse than hearing those words and being the cause of them. My anger towards that omnipotent and loving being I'd spent so much of my life worshipping was rising steadily.

I was dying.

Although all this took me ages to write and it took you ages to read, it only took minutes to all actually happen. I somehow army-crawled to my cell phone and called my husband at work. I gasped as much of the situation as I could to him, and he called an ambulance and then came home. After what felt like hours, I was finally being carried down my stairs and through my kitchen by several men in navy blue coveralls. I will never forget the look on my baby girl's sweet face as she watched me be carried away from where she sat in her Daddy's arms, her bright baby blue-eyes wider than a whole ocean of confusion and fear. But she didn't cry; not a tear. She stayed remarkably calm and composed. She continued to tell her father with admirable determination as if he was missing something,
"Something wrong with Mama. I come, too." 
Through the continuing bouts of the most intense vomiting of my life and other shame—thankfully hidden under thick blankets—I tried to tell her that I would be okay even though I didn't believe it for a second. I believed I was looking at my baby for the last time on this side of heaven and that when I saw her next, she would be more than grown. She was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
All I could say was something like, 
"Mama loves you, Baby, always and always. Promise to remember."
I looked at her and her Dad as much as I could as the EMTs carried me by, believing I was making the clearest memory possible of the last time I would see them on this earth. I left my house through the garage into the mercilessly frigid air and I began having convulsions inside the ambulance again, or so I was told. I heard the EMT tell the driver, "We gotta go now!" Then the sirens blared and we picked up speed, hitting potholes and speedbumps with painful necessity. I babbled and cursed the whole way despite being told to (or yelled at to, really) breathe instead of talk. I apologized to the EMTs. I just kept repeating, "I'm sorry," "I'm going to die," "Please help me," "My baby won't have a mom."

God somehow became a traitor to me in my mind and in my heart. I prayed to Jesus to help me and swore at Him when He didn't. I threatened God the Father—with what, I have no idea. I bargained with the whole Trinity. I reminded Christ that I'd suffered more than enough for ten lifetimes in just 34 short years, so DON'T YOU DARE make my daughter suffer, too! Not like this! DON'T YOU EVEN THINK OF making her ask for me, making her beg for her Mama, making her miss me and want me and love me and then not have me come home to her ever again!!!

At this point I was BEYOND what a normal person thinks of as cold. I was cold like I have never been in all my 30-plus northern Dakota winters, SO bitterly cold with no hope of ever being warm again. I knew I was dying, and I said so out loud. Sure the ER staff argued with me, but I knew. And I was every bit as mad as I was scared. My little girl wouldn't have a Mom anymore, and my husband would lose his wife of only 9 years. God could stop it, God could help me, God could save me or at least spare me all this torture and take me quickly, but He refused to listen to a word  I was saying ( or do a thing I was asking Him to do). So I suddenly hated God for all of it with all that I am, and I didn't care who knew it.

The Truth About the StormThe calm after the storm isn't calm at all.

This matter has to do with the way I treated God in that ER room, in my agony, in my shameful unwillingness to die, and in my refusal to give Him the thanks and praise He so rightly deserves for giving me every one of my blessings no matter when He chose to take them away. Even after all my education, my endless church attendance, my prayers, my devotions and lessons, my years of studying the great theologians and bygone saints and listening to wizened lecturers, after all my work of teaching Christ and Him crucified to the sick and the dying, after my baptism and time spent at the Lord's Supper, after all my earthly and spiritual matters were laid to rest, all my sinful eyes could still see was what He was taking away from me. My sinful heart couldn't trust Him, and my sinful soul could not rest in His promise I know so well. When you rest your hope and trust and faith on the shifting ground of your own work, of your own person-ness, of your own Christianity, of course you're going to fall over. And as well you should and get the hurt out before you drown in your own pride in the icy bed of an ER.

So now it's the middle of that same night somewhere quieter in that same hospital. My once-bustling room is dark and silent and empty. Shift change just happened, so I'm awake and I'm feeling quite a bit better, comparatively, with death nowhere in sight. Now it's just me and God and the deepest, most profound shame a Christian can feel.

When it came down to it, I'd lost the race,
the faith I was supposed have kept was lying somewhere on that ER floor.
(2 Timothy 4:7)

While I was in the deepest throes of death I've ever had the misfortune of experiencing while conscious, while I knew I was moments from meeting my Lord, I did not react with the brave stoicism and courageous acceptance of the practiced Christian theologian I thought I was: I reacted with all the bitter, angry disappointment of a young wife and mother whose child has so much growing up left to do. I reacted with all the cowardliness, distrust, and selfishness of a naive brat who has so much learning left to do. I reacted with all the deflated pride of someone who'd given nearly ten years to a battle with an illness and lost. I cursed God like a person who still carried all the hate of Satan, yes of Satan, in my baptized, broken heart.

I shouted at Him. He was hurting my baby—MY BABY—by taking me away from her! He had no right! Don't you understand?!? She wouldn't even remember me! She would get a better mother, and she would forget I ever existed! I demanded He give me my life back as though I didn't know full good and well that "my" life, and my baby's life, had already been bought with a price too high to for my weak little sheep's mind to imagine, and that "my" life was and always will be His to do with as He sees fit. (1 Corinthians 7:23)

Well, surprise. God let me live, though I seriously doubt my shameful, cowardly begging and belittling helped to change His mind. It was never His plan for me to die in that ER. I don't know all His plan surrounding this additional medical faux pas of mine completely, but I have an inkling it might have something to do with showing me a glimpse of the real me apart from Christ. And oh, how ugly I can be. Just plain ugly. And now that the worst is over and the nurses have turned friendlier (because they have the time and don't have the worry), and I want so badly to be able to tell God that I'm sorry I spat at His beautiful gift of heaven because accepting that gift meant giving away all the things I ought to love less then Him, but I can't tell Him that I didn't mean those awful things that I said and thought and swore at Him ...because I did.

God help me, I meant all that anger, fear, hate, & cursing
with all the disease and sin that is in me.

But I can tell God that I am sorry because I am deeply, mortifyingly, sickeningly sorry for all my thoughts, words and deeds while I was sure the life He'd given me and saved for me was being taken away from me. I can also hope that had it really been my time to die, things might have been different, that I would have been different because Jesus has made peace with God the Father FOR ME and for all who are baptized in His name and meet their death hating God for taking them away from their baby girls so cruelly soon while they sob and shout in an ER room to a bunch of strangers.

One of the worst parts of all this is that I'm scared it's going to happen again and I have one new medication to try at the end of next week (please pray for me, I am so, so, so scared that something will go wrong with this medication; the human body is so fragile, and now I know my human spirit is in even worse shape). But there was a key phrase in my opening paragraph that ought to give me and all of us poor creatures who are so vividly aware of our glaring imperfection. Did you catch it?
"...apart from Christ..."
Thanks to my baptism, I wasn't apart from Christ even while I was cursing Him. He died for that grievous sin of mine, and all the sins of mine, and even though I was vehemently trying to reject the fact that God was letting me die, sinful thought I was, I did not reject that He was (is) my God and had died for me and the sins of the world. Death isn't something only to be longed for or embraced: sometimes it is something to be fought. It may be the way by which we get to Heaven, but it is still the wages of sin brought about by Satan and the Fall of Mankind (Romans 6:23; Genesis 3). In hindsight, my powerful, spineless, hate-filled reaction to my impending death wasn't meant for God at all: it was meant for Satan, for sin and all its consequences. I should have been shouting at the real cause of my death, berating the heartbreaking temporary separation from those I love, but instead, I misdirected my rage for all things ungodly and in a very sinful and irreligious way, I aimed them at God, He who has done all for me and owes me nothing: least of all a long, happy life followed by a peaceful death surrounded by faithful loved ones.

Jesus will forever be our last hope: the final cry on the lips of the desperate. So even if you've met death and it was nowhere near a "heavenly portal," but the greatest fear and disappointment of your life, believe me, or rather believe Him:

God still loves you (and me) just the same if nothing ever happened because sometimes even a Christian, even a theologian, even a church worker who has something to live for doesn't want to die even though "to die [ought to be] gain." (Philippians 1:21) Jesus died for the sin of not wanting to die, and for that sin of being 100% human. And if you die fighting for your earthly life with all that you can think of to throw at that which would take your beloved from you, you will still wake up in Paradise on that same day and with that same Savior—your Savior—because it's not the willingness, nobility, and sinlessness of your death that you're banking on: it's the willingness, nobility, and sinlessness of His death for you that finally wins the race in the end, that keeps the faith for all of us: the Simil Justus et Peccator, the simultaneous weak and strong in every one of our moments, our finest and our worst.

That's His promise to you. Forget your promises to Him once they've been broken: He can't count on our keeping them any more than we can. We're like a virile young soldier in the prime of his fighting life dropping his shield and running for cover when the battle finally culminates. Shameful. Mortifying. Human. Beloved. And if you are too proud to think that fleeing soldier might turn out to be you, turn and look again at just how human you are. Maybe at the end of your life you will be brave. And maybe you talked badly about a friend today. Maybe you did yesterday. Maybe you threw a dirty look at that mother in the grocery store line with her stack WIC vouchers that was going to set you back ten minutes. Maybe you lashed out at someone "beneath" you. Maybe you cursed in traffic. Maybe you skipped church. Maybe your church doesn't get any of your time. Maybe you looked lustfully at another woman or at another man. Maybe you...

We all know what sins we've committed today and we all know the sins we continue to commit and all the godly things we fail to do. We all know that in the great big scheme of things, facing death like a coward is no better and no worse than any of them. But in the end—in every end—the simple fact that it's Christ we are counting on and not ourselves is what that matters, because that one particular human is also fully God and unwaveringly perfect and has fulfilled all the laws God ever graced man with to absolute perfection in our place. All we are asked to do in the wake of Christ crucified and risen is to believe that He is in fact God and we are not and that we cannot save ourselves, but trust that He can.

A task easier said than done, I so harshly came to realize
in that unforgiving and frigid ER room.

God asks us to try to be brave, trusting, and faithful when we're faced with death (or worse) and to not fall back on the sins our fear drives us to, such as blame, anger, and bitterness, especially when we are tempted to direct those sins at God Himself. What's more, we are (I AM)—and it will take some time after all this—told to trust that I am already forgiven through Christ and His all-atoning sacrifice on the Cross for all those terrible sins I sinned when I thought I was going to be separated from my baby girl so soon in life. The best way to do any of this is to go to church regularly, read the Bible daily, love yourself as if it were God loving you and love those near you—whoever they are—to the best of our ability. (5 Ephesians 5:29Deuteronomy 10:17Psalm 100:3Matthew 5:48; 1 Corinthians 7:23; 1 John 4:8)

There will come a day when I can look myself in the mirror again and not think about that cowering person I am capable of being. Christ won that for me. In the meantime, the work doesn't stop just because I am at the moment both shame and bed-ridden. I am asked to teach my baby girl as much about God and all His suffering, glory, and forgiveness as I am able. But those works are not going to save this scratched soul that deserves no saving. God alone can tear my eyes from my shame and make me stronger so that when I face death again, I am ready, and I will pray from Him to do just that, and that He forgives this flighty little sheep who had to nearly die in order to live.

"No one has ever seen God; if we love one another,
God abides in us and His love is perfected in us."
(1 John 4:12)

* * *
"...Wrejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, & endurance produces character, * character produces hope& hope does not put us to shame, because God's LOVE has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time CHRISdied for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous personthough perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—BUT God shows His LOVE for us in that >>> while we were still sinners <<< CHRISdied for us. Since, therefore, we have now been Justified by His Blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Sonmuch more, now that we are reconciled, shall we bsaved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our LORD Jesus CHRISt, through whom we have now Received Reconciliation." (Romans 5:3-11)

*  *  *
My Soul Waits for God Alone

"For God alone my soul waits in silence; 
from Him comes my salvation. 
He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; 
I shall not be greatly shaken. 

How long will all of you attack a man to batter him, 
like a leaning wall, a tottering fence? 
They only plan to thrust him down from his high position. 
They take pleasure in falsehood. 
They bless with their mouths, but inwardly they curse.

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, 
for my hope is from Him. 
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; 
I shall not be shaken. 
On God rests my salvation and my glory; 
my mighty rock, my refuge is God. 

Trust in him at all times, O people; 
pour out your heart before Him;
God is a refuge for us.

Those of low estate are but a breath; 
those of high estate are a delusion; 
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
Put no trust in extortion; set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: 
that power belongs to God, and that to you,
O Lord, belongs steadfast love. 
For you will render to a man according to his work."