It was a pleasant afternoon in Naples, Florida.
The gentle breeze and mild temperature reminded me of why people always assume you’re on vacation if you’re here in late February.
Actually I had just finished attending Haggai Institute’s annual meeting in nearby Bonita Springs. I had risen at 4:00 AM this Monday to make three trips to the local airport with some of our guests and staff.
Now that was completed and Frank, my former colleague at Prison Fellowship, had picked me up and we headed for Naples. I would attend a one-day ministry conference on the persecution of Christians around the world scheduled the next day.
But first, it was visiting with some of my old friends at PF over dinner that evening.
I was a little tired but felt great.
We would meet in the hotel lobby at 5:30.
In my room, I had just lifted my suitcase onto the bed.
The sharp pain shot through my stomach. I assumed it was heartburn and took some medicine. While it eased, in a few minutes it returned. It was spreading to my chest and left shoulder.
I took more medicine but this was relentless and intensifying.
It might not be heartburn.
I made it the lobby on time but I had a growing sense that there would be no dinner – not for me.
“Jack, are you OK? You don’t look so well.” I told Dick that I was having very bad pain in my stomach. He found an Urgent Care on his phone and Tommie volunteered to drive me there.
“Thank you, Lord, for these friends.”
After an EKG cleared me of a heart attack, I found myself strapped to an ambulance gurney headed for the emergency room.
This wasn’t on my itinerary for the evening. It was on God’s.
Every short breath was followed by a violent stab just beneath my sternum. I hoped I’d pass out.
The emergency room nurse was unable to attach an EKG because I was drenched in sweat.
Finally I got something for the pain but not until a CAT scan revealed either a hole in my small intestine or a perforated ulcer. The doctor told me he hoped it was the ulcer. Both were potentially life -threatening and emergency surgery was required.
Dick appeared from behind the curtain.
“Do you want me to call Beth?”
I had no right to be blessed with a friend like this.
“Don’t alarm her,” I said. And Dick, always a bundle of calm reassurance, handled it perfectly. Then he prayed with me just before they took me in.
Praise God for a perforated ulcer!
I was blessed to be alive.
Over the next several days my friends Dick, Frank and Dave formed a trinity of care and support while I lay in a hospital room far from home.
Dick picked Beth up at the airport.
Frank drove her to and from the hospital each day. He took her to get dinner. When I was released the next Sunday, Frank drove us to Tampa to Dave’s home, where we stayed three more days until I was able to fly back to Dallas.
“Count where all man’s glory most begins and ends,” wrote Yeats, “and let my glory be that I had such friends.”
In the prayers and well wishes of so many, I realized again that the greatest family on earth is the family of God.
The “one-anothers” of the New Testament are eagerly affirmed by all good Christians. They are only truly tested, however, in the unplanned crisis. In the race of life, only a true friend will stop to help a fallen runner.
Friendship is defined not by convivial convenience but by unforeseen interruption and self-denying sacrifice.
My best friend in this life came immediately to be by my side. She didn’t hesitate or complain – not once. Instead, she patiently and tenderly cared for me, encouraged me and watched over me.
Florence Nightingale had nothing on Beth.
Even as I write this, she daily injects me with antibiotics – a nurse showed her how. Yes, it’s a good thing I trust her.
I look back now and marvel in praise and thanksgiving to God. How quickly our well-ordered lives can, in a moment, be suddenly disordered. Our supposed self-sufficiency can be rendered impotent and with one sharp pain our strength can be turned to utter weakness. And then we are totally dependent on the kindness of others and ultimately on the unchanging providence of a sovereign God.
God spared my life. Underneath were his everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33:27).
C.S. Lewis was right: Pain is the megaphone through which God often shouts to get our attention.
He got mine and I’m grateful.
I must learn to depend more on him, less on myself. I am so very weak and he is so incredibly strong.
And the thread by which we each hang is so amazingly slender.
We are fearfully and wonderfully made. I must take better care of this body God gave me.
Like Paul, we have the opportunity, even through intense pain, to glory in our infirmities and to experience in them the power of an almighty and loving God, the compassion of his people and the gift of his healing.
You never know when that will happen.
Sometimes it will be just a half hour before dinner.
May God bles you and your family.