From the outside, my father was living a rich and full life. He was married with four children, two grandchildren and three more on the way. He owned a big house, had a steady job and a great pension plan for when he retired. He loved classic cars and had a sizeable collection of old bangers that didn’t start, much to my mother’s annoyance. He went to a good church, heard biblical preaching every week, and enjoyed lots of Christian fellowship.
But in his own words, he had become spiritually complacent and far too invested in this life. He’d developed a ludicrous sense of entitlement to the life he lived, and although he enjoyed many aspects of a Christian lifestyle, his heart was far from God and he wasn’t living a life of true surrender. Jesus had become just a heavenly insurance policy for him, not the centre of his life. He bickered with his wife, collected car parts and watched too much TV.
And then in January 2016 aged 61, he was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer. He had surgery within two weeks and had his entire large bowel removed. The plan was to try two different chemotherapy drugs to shrink the tumours on his liver before attempting to operate on that too.
We were all totally devastated.
But Dad was not.
The best year of his life
When he first heard the diagnosis, he instantly felt God put the words from Hebrews 13:14 into his mouth, and he heard himself say to the consultant: ‘Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.’ He described feeling a peace that transcended all understanding, literally guarding his heart and mind. From then on, he woke up. Christ became everything again. The gospel was all that mattered. He began to seek a different city.
And so began a gruelling year of chemo, scans and bad news. He made the best of it, taking chemo selfies, and drinking free cups of tea at the Maggie’s centre. But he endured months of aggressive treatment that made him feel horrendous, only to be told after each scan that the cancer had spread further. He developed infections that hospitalised him at times, and when he was at home, he spent most of his days on the sofa.
But curiously, he described it all as the best year of his life.
An eternal perspective
He certainly suffered, but he said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world because of what it all did for his soul. It drew him near to God, into total dependence upon him, and many times during his illness, he heard the Lord speak clearly to him.
It gave him an eternal perspective as he was confronted with his own mortality, and he began to think much more about the world to come. He experienced time and time again that God is with us in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and his grace is sufficient for us. It made him see that the only life worth living was one lived out wholeheartedly for the gospel, because only what you do for the kingdom lasts forever. So he resolved to take every opportunity to contribute to someone’s journey in coming to know Jesus.
He shared the peace he had with every doctor, nurse and healthcare professional he met. During one hospital stay, he was able to share the gospel with a patient in the bed next to him, who asked to stay in touch. He read the Bible and prayed with another. When he had the energy, he spoke at various church events and shared his experiences and insights. Let’s be clear; he was still my same old Dad. He still bought useless car parts and watched reruns of Star Trek. But more than ever before, Jesus mattered most.
My Dad was an optimist, and always hoped and prayed for healing. But when he was asked about it, he said that actually going to heaven would mean healing, that being in the presence of Christ, as a just man made perfect, would bring the greatest restoration. He wanted to live, but he knew that earthly healing is only ever temporary anyway. Jesus’ friend Lazarus was gloriously raised, but he still eventually died.
My dear Dad wasn’t healed. But I believe I witnessed a far more profound healing in his life than a good response to chemo.
His soul was healed of spiritual complacency, his eyes were opened afresh to the beauty of Christ, and his heart beat with new vigour for the gospel. The more ill he became, the more gracious, wise and Christ-like he seemed. He embodied 2 Corinthians 4:16, though outwardly he was wasting away, inwardly he was being renewed day by day. God did much greater healing than fixing his liver. My parents’ marriage was transformed, all the niggles and frustrations in our family relationships evaporated, and many of his friendships were deepened and strengthened.
But the joys and encouragements don’t take away the pain. Because of the cross, we know death has lost its power, but it still hurts. One day in the final weeks, I saw him shuffling slowly on a zimmer-frame from the bathroom back to the sofa, looking like he’d run a marathon, and I remember thinking, ‘How did we get here?’ Just a few days later, my brother and I carried him up the stairs to spend one last night in his own bed before the hospital bed came. He sobbed all the way up the stairs. It hurt the most to see my Mum holding his hand on the very last day, asking him to stay with us just a little bit longer. Death is terrible. And no matter how much warning you have, nothing can prepare you for the profound finality of it and the utter separation. We still grieve deeply.
But God has used my Dad’s illness and death to change and shape me. I would never have chosen this for us, but I wouldn’t undo it either. I’ve seen too many provisions and too many answers to my prayers along the way to question God’s goodness. My trust in the Lord’s sovereignty has only deepened, and my Dad’s words echo in my ears each time I struggle – ‘God’s got a perfect plan. You’ve just got to grind out the plan.’
Treasure in heaven
The pain of bereavement has also helped me to understand the gospel in a new way. Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.’ My Dad lives! And losing him has made me think about heaven a hundred times more. He has lifted my eyes to the city that is to come. More than ever, I want to live for the things that last for eternity. I want treasure in heaven.
I am so sad that I can’t see my Dad anymore. We miss him so much, he was the life and soul of our family, and he leaves such a gaping hole. But I am so proud of who he became, of his humility, his pragmatic faith and his courage. I wish I could tell him how his funeral went, and laugh with him about what we wrote in the eulogy and how this random guy he never really liked turned up. But I know that one day I will see him again, standing tall and strong at the throne of God, cancer-free, and we’ll spend eternity together. And as he said so often, in the context of eternity, this time without him now will feel like just the blink of an eye.