Friday, September 21, 2018

If the Lord Wills, We Shall Live

hospital

It has been some time since I last posted anything here at www.miykael.com, but in view of recent issues regarding my physical health it seems like a good time to end such silence. This year has posed no shortage of challenges to me, beginning with the discovery of a bulging disc in my lower back, lung cancer in my right middle lobe, and (most recently) the revelation that I have several broken bones in my right jaw (more on that at the end). Though the first and last items on this hit list of maladies have been the most painful, I will first give attention to that which is the most serious: lung cancer. In short, I will share the events surrounding my lung cancer surgery, dealing with the facts of my condition as well as the lessons I continue to learn as a result of this trial:

The Facts of my Condition: In late June of this year, while getting ready for work, I had an episode whereby I completely lost the feel and function of my left arm. This only lasted for about 15 seconds, but it seemed to be reason enough to be seen by a medical professional at a local ER. The medical personnel who saw me classified this as a small stroke, or a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA). This launched an investigation into the source of this TIA, one of which was the possibility of cancer. In the process of this examination, a chest X-Ray revealed that I had a spot on my right lung. As a result, I was hospitalized for further tests. Over the course of my hospital stay, the preliminary concerns over the TIA faded while concerns over the mass in my lung became more prominent. Following this brief stay in the hospital and, after a month of coordinating efforts between the VA Medical Administration and Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, I was able to receive counsel from a pulmonologist and a thoracic surgeon regarding a treatment plan. Upon their review of my CT & PET scan images, the consensus opinion was that the mass I had in my right lung would likely be cancerous. In view of this, I was then scheduled for a surgical procedure called a robotic lobectomy, in which my right middle lobe would be completely removed. Thus, on August 23rd of this year, this procedure was performed without a prior biopsy. The reason why no biopsy was performed is that even if the mass proved to be benign it would still need to be removed as a potential threat to my health. On the day of the surgery, immediate analysis of the removed tumor revealed that it was indeed cancerous, though a more detailed analysis would be required to discern its exact type of cancer, and whether or not it had spread to any neighboring lymph nodes. For this latter and most important detail, we had to wait for a week for test results. I was discharged from the hospital on Sunday afternoon, August 26th. On Friday, August 31st, I received a call from my thoracic surgeon in which he shared with me the final pathology report: the mass was a carcinoid cancerous tumor with no evidence of any spread to the neighboring lymph nodes (11 lymph nodes in total were tested). In short, this is the best possible outcome for a lung cancer surgery such that no chemotherapy or radiation therapy will be sought. The only follow up that I anticipate having will be periodic chest x-rays. These are the facts of my condition and I am deeply thankful for God’s kind and generous providence in it all.

The Lessons I Continue to Learn: Beyond the facts of these events are the more important lessons that I have learned, and continue to learn, as I consider the circumstances of the last few months:

God’s Merciful Providence: I am especially struck by the timing and circumstances of these aforementioned events, especially since I had no significant symptoms that would give me a clear pre-indication of lung cancer. Despite my painful struggles with my bulging disc at the time, I felt as though I was in very good health. The TIA I experienced, though alarming and unpleasant as it was, became the very means by which this silent threat was discovered. It was no accident that brought about this discovery, it was God’s kind and merciful providence for which I am deeply grateful.

The Blessings and Dangers of Modern Technology: As one who isn’t always a fan of modern technology, I must say that I am thankful for the surgical advances which made my lobectomy minimally invasive. It is quite remarkable to consider that my surgery was on August 23rd; I was discharged on August 26th; I preached the next Sunday (September 2nd); and I was able to bow hunt in my hang-on tree stand on the opening day of deer hunting season (September 8th). Though I am still healing and recovering, I must say that things have moved faster than I originally expected. Had this procedure been performed without the use of robotic technology, my recovery would have been much, much slower. But with this acclaim of medical technology comes a needful confession: there is a great danger that often comes with the use of, and reliance upon, modern technology. Simply put, there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of modern technology, but there is everything wrong with relying on it such that it becomes the basis of one’s hope and confidence in life. I mention this because too much of our society has bought into this latter deception whereby many think that their lives depend upon the know-how of the medical community rather than on Lord of life Himself. I must confess, I too have slipped into this deception at times. It is a rudimentary lesson that we abandon all too quickly, but the very life and breath that we have on a daily basis ultimately comes from God alone, or as Paul declared to the Athenians: “[God is not…] served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things” Acts 17:25. Thus, God is not sustained by anyone or anything since he is the One who sustains His creation, including every member of the human race. Without His sustaining providence, none of us would have life or breath for one more second. This then leads me to the important lesson of James 4:13-16.

The Lessons of James 4:13-16: Earlier this year I had the great privilege of completing a preaching series on the book of James. For myself and our flock it proved to be a rich epistle with an abundance of needed wisdom. One such element of wisdom that we focused on deals with mankind’s natural proclivity to presume upon God: James 4:13–16: 13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” 14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. 15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. What James teaches in this passage is both powerful and piercing. By it he reveals something very important about our fallen human nature: we all are deeply prone to presume that we will have our lives tomorrow at all. James calls such presumption arrogant boasting which is, in fact, evil. That is a strong indictment, but it is a necessary one. This very text is one that I have been thinking about for many years. In fact, I wrote an article based upon James 4:13-16 for the Winston Salem Journal in 2004 in response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami which instantly swept away an estimated 228,000 souls in one day. That tragedy gripped a watching world, and shockingly fleshed out the reality of James’ grave warning to us all: none of us can know if we will be alive tomorrow, or if we will be alive in the next hour. Yet with all this writing, contemplation, and preaching on James 4:13-16, nothing accelerated my tutelage on this important subject than when I was given a diagnosis of lung cancer. Suddenly, James’ wisdom came closer to my soul in a way that transcended all my previous studies and consideration. I found myself cherishing my family devotions with my children far more; contemplating my blessings in Christ more readily; and considering the sweetness of being with Christ in His eternal kingdom. It is certainly not the case that these things were absent prior to my diagnosis; it is just that the diagnosis intensified my appreciation of that which matters most. All of this came to me quite profoundly because I had grown a little in my small grasp of just how impotent I am at securing my tomorrow. I still remain a fledgling student of James’ wisdom, but these recent events have opened my eyes a little more to the evil of presuming upon God for the future. Each day in which I have life and breath is a gift from Him, and I pray daily for grace to be a better steward of such life for His ultimate glory.

Since the surgery, it seems that I have been under a post-surgical rock of sorts. My online activity has been uniquely thin. I am behind on responding to some messages and queries, but I hope to get caught up shortly. This is partly due to the complications I experienced just after the surgery. Strangely, the pain from the surgery was quickly eclipsed by the trauma I experienced in my right jaw. The pain has been so intense that it has often been difficult to concentrate. On the afternoon of my surgery, just after I awoke from sedation, I noticed that something was amiss with my right jaw. In particular, I had deep impressions in my gum on the inside of my right jaw. These impressions felt like cut marks that went back towards my throat. Also, I had a small lesion and blister in the same location. Filled with pain killers at the time, I sensed nothing else significant and assumed that it was the odd aftermath of what proved to be a difficult intubation process (I was told that it took a full hour to intubate me). I generally ignored the sensation in my mouth until the pain killers wore off. Then, upon visual inspection, I noticed that I had multiple lesions as well as a lengthy blister in my mouth which yielded crippling pain. I couldn’t eat solid food very easily and resorted to a liquid diet for some time. I finally visited my dentist who was “stumped” by what he saw, thus he referred me to an oral surgeon who, after obtaining a panoramic x-ray of my mouth, informed me that I had broken bones in my right jaw. This accounts for the painful infection that kept getting worse over time. Hopefully, the bones will “exfoliate” (or pass through the gum tissue inside my mouth). Yes, you read that right: It is my sincere hope that over the next several weeks, I will be spitting out pieces of my jaw bone (if you have the stomach for it, here is an example of such an exfoliation process). If such exfoliation does not take place, I will have to undergo oral surgery to have the necrotic fragments removed; and this will not be a cheap procedure. And so we continue to pray, taking one day at a time.

As a pastor I have overseen over 40 funerals in the last 25 years. One thing that I encounter at these somber events is this: the stark reminder that we mortals avoid the subject of our mortality until it is staring us in the face. When we do contemplate our mortality, suddenly all of the superficial things in this life vanish like a vapor. I am persuaded that this is why the wisdom of James 4:13-16 is so important. We need to forsake all that is superficial and cling to that which is truly important: the risen Christ and His true wisdom. Overall, I am reminded that though my outer man is decaying (and I can affirm that it is readily decaying), the inner man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). And while I cannot know the future, including the time, place, and circumstances of my departure from this world, one thing is for certain: I will not add a single cubit to my lifespan by being anxious about the cares of this life (Matthew 6:27). In the end, with all that has gone on before, during, and after the surgery, I continue to look to the Lord’s kindness and tender mercies in everything. I remain mindful that my condition and suffering could be far worse than it is. Ultimately, I am especially thankful that, today, I have the life, breath, and vitality with which to serve my Lord and Master, and this is a privilege for which I am deeply grateful.