Last Friday afternoon, I got a call from my neurologist’s office. I had recently gotten an MRI, and my doctor’s secretary had called to say my doctor wanted me to see an oncologist. I didn’t know why my doctor wanted me to see a cancer specialist; and unfortunately, the secretary didn’t either.
“Please, if you know what this is about, tell me,” I said.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I don’t, but I’ll have the doctor call you back today.”
When I hung up the phone, my hands were shaking, and my mind was racing. I realized life was about to change.
For a year, I had been dealing with strange, visual disturbances that are often associated with migraines or epilepsy. When I hung up the phone, it dawned on me that I had probably been ignoring the symptoms of brain cancer all along. By now, the cancer had probably spread everywhere.
A battery of imaginations raced into my mind – my widowed wife, radiation, hair loss, sick leave, scars, needles, life insurance, and being too weak to lift small objects (like my baby girl).
After panicking for 30 minutes, I called and left an urgent message for my wife’s uncle, an oncologist at the same clinic as my neurologist. Perhaps he knew the oncologist who was reviewing my case – I hoped he might even be the one treating me.
The only prayer I could muster was, “God, maybe I don’t have much faith, and I’m sorry. But I’m scared. Amen.” Then I stared at my desk, waiting for the neurologist to call back and break the news.
My wife’s uncle got back to me first, and I nervously explained that my neurologist wanted me to speak with an oncologist at his clinic. I asked him if he knew what this was about or which oncologist would be handling my case. He chuckled.
“Joshua, you’re going to be meeting with me. You said you wanted to keep me in the loop about your MRI, so he invited me to be there with you. You don’t have cancer. This was just a really unfortunate miscommunication.”
I burst into nervous laughter. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “I thought I was going to die. What a relief.”
But I wasn’t quite relieved. My medical fire drill had left me unnerved – not for my health, but for my faith.
In the hour-and-a-half I had to contemplate the end of my life, I was a hopeless, faithless wreck. The most positive thought I had come up with during the whole ordeal was, “Well, if I make it another year, at least I’ll die at 33 – just like Jesus.”
How I had changed since childhood. Back then, I saw death as a door that opened into the arms of Jesus, the watchful shepherd pictured in My Jesus Pocketbook of the 23rd Psalm.
Heaven was a place where I would see my brother and sister, who had died when I was a toddler. There would be no fences or chicken pox or thorns – only flying, singing, laughing, and running without ever getting tired. When my dad vividly described Heaven to me one night, I got so excited that I leapt around the living room, literally trying to jump out of my skin and up into Heaven.
But a couple of decades later, I had grown up, and Jesus’ promise of a home in the afterlife had all but faded, packed away in the attic with colorful children’s books and board games. With nothing to hope for but the things I could see, death meant the loss of everything.
The day after my medical mix-up, I went on a camping trip with some friends and, while building the fire, I had time to talk to God about my faithless meltdown. As I prayed, I realized that during my crazed fit of fear, I hadn’t thought of Heaven once. In fact, I realized that, as a general matter, I rarely thought of it at all.
“God,” I said, “I hate to admit it, but I think I’ve forgotten how to hope for Heaven. Can You please bring that hope alive in me again?”
The next morning, we had a little church service in the woods, and my friend Randy asked me to lead us in some songs. I led the group in a few hymns and choruses, and then I uncharacteristically decided to end with the old Sunday School song, “Jesus Loves Me.”
A couple of lines into the song, I felt an unexpected, childlike innocence stirring inside, overwhelming me. I quickly became too choked-up to do anything more than mouth the words to the song and brush away my tears. When we finished the song, Randy said, “Is there a second verse?”
“Yeah,” I said, wiping my nose with my sleeve, “But I’m not sure I could sing it without falling apart.”
I nonetheless went ahead and tried to sing the verse, barely uttering the line, “He will love me, He who died, Heaven’s gates to open wide.” And as I sang the verse, I found myself up in the attic of my mind, dusting off my child-like belief that Jesus really is preparing a home for us (John 14:3). My heart followed, reaching upward, responding to my longing for an eternal home.
It wasn’t that I had shaken all my fears of death or had a heavenly epiphany that would last a lifetime. But sharing my doubts with God and singing to Him like a child was awakening something in me that I had forgotten. He had answered my prayer – my hope for Heaven, for a life that would complete and surpass all I knew here, was coming alive again.