This week, my family and I are preparing to return to our church-planting ministry in Italy after a three month furlough in the US. This is both an answer to prayer and a request for more prayer. What I means is this: what was originally supposed to be a three month period dedicated to visiting and reporting to our supporting churches turned out to be essentially a three month medical leave as I faced some serious and debilitating health issues. I am thankful that God has graciously allowed me to see some improvement, enough at least that I feel able to return to Italy. At the same time, concerns remain, and I would be lying if I said that I have no anxiety about leaving the medical resources and support network that I enjoy here in the US.
Of particular concern is the fact that this summer I was diagnosed with three abdominal aneurysms. Back in June I had gone to the emergency room on account of abdominal pain that was nearly making me delirious. While not the cause of the pain, the CT scan that I underwent in the ER revealed three aneurysms in my abdominal aorta and iliac arteries. Needless to say, my wife and I were a bit in shock. When we met with a vascular surgeon in July, we were told that the best course of action at this point is simply to monitor the aneurysms on a regular basis to chart their growth. From what I understand, given the size of the aneurysms, the risks of performing a repair operation outweight the benefits. The vascular surgeon assured me that I am in no imminent danger.
Although I was, and am, reassured to some extent by his expert opinion, I am unable to eliminate all sense of fear and doubt. Sure, the odds of a rupture occurring are low. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that I have what amounts to a time bomb in my body that at any moment could potentially explode, small as the risks may be. Moreover, this is only complicated by the fact that this week I am leaving a place where I have immediate access to superior health care and going to another place where…well let’s just say, I’d be better served by staying where I am.
The upshot of all this is that I have thought quite a bit about death in these last three months, and especially this week as I prepare to enter a situation in which I may not have access in sufficient time to life-saving medical intervention should any of my aneurysms rupture. The vascular surgeon was quite clear: the majority of people who manifest symptoms of an aneurysm rupture do not make it to a hospital in time. How much more then do I risk in going to a country where the last time I went to the emergency room with severe abdominal pain (which can be one of the signs of a ruptured aneurysm!), I was not even able to be seen by a doctor and simply had to go home after waiting many fruitless hours. I do not want to depict the situation in overly dramatic terms, but I also do not want to paper over reality with an illusion. Although I can’t say that I’m walking in the valley of death’s darkness, I can say at least that I am walking in the valley of death’s shadow.
While it is not consuming me, this concern is certainly on my mind as we pack our bags to leave. Something that has helped me to deal with it, as I have been re-reading Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation, is his description of, to borrow the title of another famous work, ‘the death of death in the death of Christ”. Fear of death is perhaps the most primal and instinctual of all human fears. It is that which to some degree underlies all of our other fears and anxieties. And it is precisely this fear that Christ has defeated and destroyed in his death and resurrection. Athanasius writes:
For that death is destroyed, and that the Cross is become the victory over it, and that it has no more power but is verily dead, this is no small proof, or rather an evident warrant, that it is despised by all Christ’s disciples, and that they all take the aggressive against it and no longer fear it; but by the sign of the Cross and by faith in Christ tread it down as dead. For of old, before the divine sojourn of the Saviour took place, even to the saints death was terrible, and all wept for the dead as though they perished. But now that the Saviour has raised His body, death is no longer terrible; for all who believe in Christ tread him under as nought, and choose rather to die than to deny their faith in Christ. For they verily know that when they die they are not destroyed, but actually [begin to] live, and become incorruptible through the Resurrection. And that devil that once maliciously exulted in death, now that its pains were loosed, remained the only one truly dead.
And a proof of this is, that before men believe Christ, they see in death an object of terror, and play the coward before him. But when they are gone over to Christ’s faith and teaching, their contempt for death is so great that they even eagerly rush upon it, and become witnesses for the Resurrection the Saviour has accomplished against it. For while still tender in years they make haste to die, and not men only, but women also, exercise themselves by bodily discipline against it. So weak has he become, that even women who were formerly deceived by him, now mock at him as dead and paralyzed. For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him; so also, death having been conquered and exposed by the Saviour on the Cross, and bound hand and foot, all they who are in Christ, as they pass by, trample on him, and witnessing to Christ scoff at death, jesting at him, and saying what has been written against him of old: “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting.”
I find great comfort in these words inasmuch as they faithfully reflect the biblical witness to the death-destroying work of Christ. As I prepare to leave this week, I am attempting to follow the wise advise of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who observed that one of the biggest sources of our fear and anxiety is the fact that we listen to ourselves rather than preaching to ourselves. These words from Athanasius preach to me, and I am pondering them, and through them the Scriptures themselves, with the hope that the truth that they communicate will sink deep into the marrow of my bones. Even though I don’t feel like it, I am endeavouring to rejoice with Paul that death has lost its victory and the grave no longer has any sting. I am trying to remind myself, over and over again, that I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live. In Christ I have already passed through death and into resurrection; so why should I fear death?
It is this hope that is enabling me, despite my fear and trepidation, to take up my cross and follow wherever my Savior leads, even if he takes me into the valley of the shadow. I do not say this to exalt myself. Far from it. I often feel like the weakest person I know. But I share this so that it might encourage you and also so that I will come to believe it a little more myself.
*By way of a postscript, my travels and subsequent readjustment to life in Italy may result in a slowdown, if not a bit of silence, here on the blog. Never fear, however, for I fully intend to continue to post when I return to Italy, and I plan on doing so by returning to my series on Reforming Calvinism. Stay tuned!
Prayers are also greatly appreciated for my family and I during this transition – for our travels, our readjustment, and for my continued health concerns.
 Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 50–51.