David Robertson: What happened when I almost died
As we reach the end of another year it is always a good time to look back and give thanks, and to look forward with anticipation. I have been writing for Christian Today for a year and thought I would share this very personal story which I hope will be helpful to others.
In October of 2011 I had finished conducting a wedding when I collapsed and was taken to hospital, where they discovered that I had two bleeding ulcers, one over a main artery. In the words of one of the doctors, I was "gushing blood". After several endoscopies they were unable to stop the bleeding. The surgeon had to cut me open and try to save my life. I was in and out of a coma for several weeks, caught numerous infections, could not breathe (my lungs went down to 30 per cent capacity), developed e coli of the lung and for good measure almost died with pneumonia. Each time I appeared to be getting better I relapsed and each time that happened it appeared as though my prospects were getting worse.
Prayer for Healing
Of course, many people were praying for me. One man told me that he was woken at 3am and could not go back to sleep until he had cried out to the Lord for me. I heard this testimony afterwards from several different people. What was astonishing was that it came from people who did not really know me, from Malaysian Baptists to American Pentecostals, English Catholics and Scottish Presbyterians! My favourite was actually the two atheists who wrote me a card saying they were praying for me. When I recovered I could not resist thanking them and then asking 'to whom'?
The Free Church then issued a call for prayer one particular weekend. You can call it coincidence but from that weekend on I began to get better. How one interprets that will depends on your pre-suppositions. All I know is that with a haemoglobin rate of four, the medical staff do not understand how I am a) still alive and b) not severely brain damaged.
The experience was not just one of physical pain and suffering. For me it was a deep and profound spiritual experience, and not in a pleasant way. In some ways the spiritual blackness was harder to bear than the physical pain.
In hospital there were things that happened and a darkness of the soul that even today I cannot really talk about. I was on a lot of strong drugs that were psychotic. I became severely delusional. I was still able to write, even though I was in and out of a coma. They took my laptop away after a blog from me appeared in the local newspaper. I have no idea how that happened but apparently I am the only person to have successfully blogged from ICU. I was very delusional, even writing at one point "I want to see Justin Bieber"!
I certainly did know the terrors of the night. There were times I could not pray. One time especially Annabel remembers was when I told her I was in hell and could not pray. I asked her to pray and she couldn't because the blackness was so great. Instead my family just prayed the psalms. Ah, the psalms! What a treasure trove of wonderful medicine for the soul. How can any Christian survive without them? When I began to recover, because of the darkness of the experience and the anxiety, I used to watch this version of Ps 91 every night to help me go to sleep.
Family suffering and support
Another lesson I learned is that often the suffering of the family is worse than the suffering of the patient. When I got out and made a quite remarkable recovery the chief nursing staff spoke to me and agreed that there was little support for families whose relatives were in ICU for a long time. So we set up ICU Steps, which is a support group for relatives and those who have recovered and are trying to cope with life outwith the hospital.
God's amazing provision
There is so much to be thankful for. I find it somewhat sad that some of my atheist friends mock this and think that you cannot be thankful to God and to science at the same time. But I am thankful to God for science, as I am thankful to him for all the means he uses, including doctors and nurses and the NHS.
When I first got home for a couple of hours one Saturday it was an incredible feeling just to drink in fresh air. That is a feeling that I rarely lose. Likewise with the other simple things in life – water, food, music and Talisker. And food. I was 'nil by mouth' for several weeks. I remember the first time they allowed me to eat something. It was one small portion of Ambrosia creamed rice. I hate Ambrosia creamed rice, but that first small spoonful tasted like nectar.
I know that God delights in the details as well as the big stuff. Sometimes it is the wee tokens that speak so much of his loving and gracious provision. At the very moment I arrived home there was a parcel delivery of a large hamper of goodies from Marks and Spencer. This had been ordered by a friend in the US who knew that I was ill but had no idea if, and when, I was getting out. His hamper arrived at precisely the moment I crossed my own threshold. But that was not enough. Also at the time a large bunch of beautiful flowers arrived – again ordered by someone who had no idea I was going to be coming home at precisely the point they arrived. They had no idea. But Someone did. Coincidence?
The beauty of the Bride of Christ
Everywhere I go in the world I meet people who say, "We have been praying for you." The body of Christ can at times be ugly but when she is beautiful, she is really beautiful. I know of no family or community like it. It was quite ironic as well, that people who had a really strong dislike of me, or were upset at things I had said or done in the church, wrote and were genuinely concerned. One lesson I learned was that everyone loves you when you are dying!
One of the problems that so many people have, Christians and non-Christians alike, is that they do not grasp what faith is. I'm sure there are people who think my story is that I, or others, had enough faith and therefore God rewarded that and healed me. X hours of prayer equals Y healings. That is not how the God of the Bible works. And that is not faith. It's also why prayer is not open to laboratory experiments.
The best example of what real biblical faith is came from my son, Andrew. One day he came home from the hospital and wrote the following Facebook post: An update on Dad: There hasn't been much said in the past few days because things haven't been going well. His sedation was increased on Sunday and they've had him asleep since then. The damage to his lungs is still severe and today mum was told by the doctors that it's 50/50 whether he'll live or die. I write this with great anguish and a heavy heart but not without hope. There is still a hope that he'll make it through this, but there is a better hope he has and we have. A hope that does not waver and is 100% certain. That is the hope of eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. Jesus has already removed Dad's biggest problem, it's not the deterioration of his lungs but something more deadly... his sin. Christ has saved him from that. Tomorrow I go down with Becky to Dundee, knowing that this may be the last time I see my Dad... till Christ returns and "everything sad is made untrue". 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14
It's easy to write about faith in a theology essay. It's easy to talk about faith when everything is going well. It's easy to tell someone else that if only they have enough faith then they will be healed. But all of that is just hot air. It is faith to be able to write that after visiting your dying dad. Incredible. Beautiful. And true. Faith is not blind. Faith is not wishful thinking. It is absolute trust in the beautiful Christ.
Sally Magnusson asked me on the BBC about my near death experience. She wondered if I had had the experience of going to heaven, meeting St Peter at the pearly gates and being turned back. I said no and she smiled: "That's a shame, you could have made a fortune on the New York Times bestseller list," referring of course to the plethora of "I went to heaven and met Jesus" books that seem so popular.
Sally also asked me if the experience changed my theology. I told her that I did not think so. Before I almost died I genuinely believed in the afterlife, heaven and hell, Jesus and so on. Despite, or maybe because of, the dark spiritual experiences I still believed all of it. However, I said, there was a difference. Before I knew it in my mind, now I know it in my heart. I feel the fragility of life, the nearness of eternity and the hopelessness of life without Christ. The dark valleys and depths of spiritual experience have not completely gone. The battles are fierce but the beauty of Christ is more evident.
The Word of God is my meat, drink and medicine. That, by the way is why I am so strong in defending it – especially from those Christians who thinking that they are making it more palatable, water it down and distort it, in order to 'reach' the modern generation. No. Just as I fight the 'traditionalists' who want to imprison Christ in an idealised box of their own making, so I will fight to the end those who distort the Word of God and thus take away from the beauty and glory of Christ.
'Liberal' Christians damage the Word of God. Atheist and secularist philosophies damage those made in the image of God – all human beings. As GK Chesterton pointed out, once you cease to believe in God, you also cease to believe in humanity. I am a committed anti-fascist, anti-totalitarian and I believe that no matter the 'nice' words said, if our society moves away from its traditional Christian roots, then we will end up with an increasingly illiberal, confused and authoritarian society. I won't keep silent.
I have no idea how long I will live. But the Lord does. Meanwhile, although life is often hard and wearisome, yet it is also rich and full. I savour every moment with my family, my church family and every good gift that comes from the Father of lights.
A fuller version of this story can be read here.