Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Good News!

Monday was a day of non-stop imaging studies (including bone scan, CT of neck, chest, abdomen & pelvis, and MRI of the brain), lab tests and doctor visits at UVA. The preliminary results* indicate a response to the gamma knife surgery and Interleukin-2 therapy that Dr Grosh, my oncologist, describes as “remarkable” and “unique”. His carefully chosen words belie a suppressed enthusiasm and perhaps even a little amazement, given the advanced progression of the cancer at the time of initiating therapy.

Reviewing the usual response rate of 15%, he acknowledges that most responders start out with a much more limited tumor burden than did I. Then he smiles broadly as he concedes the significant role of prayer. The nurse who witnessed my earlier rapid deterioration fights back the tears as she observes the dramatic improvement in both my physical status and the evidence of tumor regression. This is GOOD NEWS!

I said publicly at the beginning of this journey that God must be up to something. This story of one man’s remarkable recovery from a life-threatening and devastating disease is not just so I can live a few more years (although I am so grateful for each day He grants me). None of us will likely escape physical death.

Is it possible that perhaps He is giving us a glimpse at His strategic plan to redeem all of His creation? The truly good news is that indeed God is in the business of restoring that which was lost as a result of man’s rebellion. This is the heart of the gospel (Latin for good news) – i.e., that Christ came not simply to provide us an escape from judgment and a ticket to heaven some day, but also to ultimately restore that which God originally intended when He made you, me and the earth we inhabit.

Jesus said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev 21:5) And Paul writes that along with our redemption “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Rom 8:21). While it is clear that complete restoration of fallen creation awaits future events, I believe He intends for that restoration to begin here and now as you and I participate by faith in His mission.

My recent experience is a parable of God’s loving intent to re-establish His dominion over both the spiritual and physical dimensions in our lives. Your prayers of faith on my behalf have been effective in this regard and I am most grateful. My prayer for you is that you too will know the full measure of His power to “make all things new.”

Learning to live fully in the light of His good news,

* MRI of the brain showed no evidence of tumor. The multiple tumors of the lung, liver and spleen have either disappeared or regressed significantly and findings in the skeleton are consistent with an active healing process with the formation of new bone. Lab studies were essentially normal. We now await repeat studies in six weeks and if any cancer persists, anticipate another round of Interleukin-2 therapy in mid June.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Faith in Free Fall

While on this journey that, by all expectations, should have landed me in hospice care by now, I have wrestled with the quality and nature of faith. For me it has been exhilarating and rejuvenating to discover once more the simplicity and power of child-like faith, the kind of faith that transformed my life in the first place.

As I have studied examples of faith in scripture, listened to many of you who have encouraged me to trust and persevere, and engaged my mind and spirit in the exercise of faith in the face of improbable odds, I have come to some conclusions I would like to share.

The first and foremost is that my faith needs to be directed toward a Person, not a phenomenon. In the famous “mountain-moving” passage, Jesus’ first instruction to His disciples is to “Have faith in God.” (Mark 11:22) My faith is to be directed not at moving the mountain, not at my healing, but at my Helper – the One who made me, loved me and sacrificed His own life to redeem me.

I have also noticed that there appears to be at least four sorts of faith:
· Filtered Faith – i.e., faith that must first pass through some grid that I create. If this can be said to be faith at all, it is the kind with strings attached. I will trust God only if He behaves in a certain way or meets certain expectations I have. Sometimes I am barely aware of creating a filter through which my faith must pass, as when I try to put God in a box, ensuring that He will not demand too much from me, make me uncomfortable, or disturb my sense of justice or rightness. The rich young ruler was interested in following Jesus until it meant giving up his riches. (Luke 18:18-23) I need to examine what filters I have interposed in the process of trusting God. I need to let God be God.

· Faltering Faith – i.e., that kind of faith that begins in earnest but is weakened by doubt, misgivings, or disbelief. The source of my doubt is usually circumstances that seem to contradict that for which I have trusted God, or it may originate from the tug of “reason”. The man whose son was exorcised and cured of seizures struggled in this way, saying “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:17-27) When my faith is thus weakened, I need to recognize the source of my doubts, refocus my confidence in the certainty of His words, and take courage in the manifest power of what He has already accomplished through His miraculous life, death, and resurrection.

· Forced Faith – i.e., the kind of faith that borders on presumption. Based on the premise that true faith must operate as if that for which I am trusting God has already (and actually) happened, I must never acknowledge any evidence to the contrary. This kind of faith assumes that God has accomplished that which He promised in the here and now and in a manner that I perceive most appropriate. Moses allowed himself this kind of faith when he struck the rock in the wilderness, with grave consequences to him personally. (Numbers 20:7-12) Rather I need to learn to rest in the quiet confidence that God will accomplish what He has promised in His time and in His way.

· Free-Falling Faith – this is the faith of a child falling confidently into the strong arms of her father. This is the kind of faith that, in spite of that which is uncertain, rests secure in the certainty of the loving intent of an all-powerful Heavenly Father. This is the quality of faith exemplified in Hebrews 11 in which many experienced great victory but others, “having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised” (Hebrews 11:39) Ultimately, faith is not about getting something I need or desire, but rather about growing in a relationship with the One who knows my end from the beginning.

I’m still learning how to live this way and grateful for each day. I’m learning how marvelous His love is and how earnestly He desires to have an intimate relationship with each one of us.

Thanks for adding your faith to mine,
PS – We leave this weekend to return to Charlottesville for an all-day session of testing and scanning on Monday, April 21, to assess the current status of the melanoma. I am looking forward to delivering a good report on our return!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Fog of Faith

Photo by Tobin Rogers
It is very early in the morning as I peer out my window at the Chesapeake Bay. The scene is unusual as I notice the air is calm and the familiar lights of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel are no longer visible. I know in my mind that the 20-mile long monumental structure is still out there but a dense and eerie fog has rolled in, obscuring it from view.

An involuntary yawn rolls over me and I am alarmed by a sensation deep in my gut. I've felt that before... when my liver was palpably swollen with multiple cancerous growths. I test it by taking another deep breath, then simply lean forward and there it is once more. Further self examination reveals tenderness high in the epigastrium. Yesterday, there was no such discomfort.

Here I thought my opponent was on the ropes, when he comes bounding back to land a punch in the gut. So now I begin to doubt, and the confidence I had regarding complete healing begins to erode. I ruminate on the "what if"...

John the Baptist knew what I am talking about. (Luke 7:19-21) He has introduced the world to "The Lamb of God", he has heralded in no uncertain terms the coming of the Messiah in the person of this carpenter from Nazareth. Now he is in a dark dank dungeon, his head about to be separated from his body, when he sends a message to Jesus: "Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?" I can imagine his honest misgivings.

How does Jesus respond? Does He castigate him for entertaining such doubts? Without condemnation, He simply instructs John's disciples to "Go and report to John what you hear and see" and then sings his praises in superlative terms: "Among those born of women there is no one greater than John..." Jesus' response to doubt: "Remember my words; contemplate my miraculous deeds."

Interestingly, He does not rescue John from prison, nor lobby against his mistreatment, nor intervene at his beheading. He points him to evidence that his mission (and his faith) was valid and not misplaced. He honors John's honest doubts with assurance that he is beloved.

Frankly, I was expecting the fog... this fog of faith, this crisis of belief. If there were no fog, the faith would go untested. The pain in my gut is real. The contest is not yet over, but I will not be in terror of the mist. Whether the fog clears or not, I am confident the bridge is still there. I will listen to His remarkable words and take encouragement from His miraculous victory over death. And I am assured of His love.

May you be as well,

PS -- please see Linda's most recent blog entry on Courage and Surrender to get a very insightful perspective on faith from the standpoint of the spouse of a cancer patient.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Body

You’ll forgive me if I have had a little preoccupation with my body lately. Some remarkable things have been happening to it. Most visible to me (at least after every shower), is the conspicuous loss of muscle mass and subcutaneous fat. My body image has dramatically changed as I have shed more than 25 pounds and 2 waist sizes. During the peak of fluid retention, every area of my body felt water-logged, including legs, lungs, and even abdominal viscera. In addition I have gone through something akin to a reptilian molt cycle, shedding several layers of skin in an itchy snowstorm of flaky epidermis. The new me is something like a shaggy scare crow with elephant feet!

During the period when I was wracked with pain, I had hoped to somehow detach my conscious self from my body to ameliorate the pain without the side effects of medication. And while progressive muscle relaxation, isolation of the sources of pain, prayer and praise proved to be potent pain modification techniques, I found myself still attached to this body. It would not be shaken off – it stubbornly remained a fully integrated and intrusively present part of my conscious experience.

Some of you may say “Duh!” Others may wish to point me to the benefits of transcendental meditation. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, I have concluded that it is a good thing, while on this side of the grass, to stay attached to, and in tune with, one’s body. With or without the pain, fully ensconced within this physical frame, I am fully alive, grateful for the parts that are functioning well and attentive to those that are not. In fact, I am never more alive than when I feel the full assault of pain in my body.

It is no accident that a major and powerful metaphor for the community of believers in the New Testament is “the body of Christ”, implying that the church is a vibrant living organism rather than a cold, insensate organization. Birthed in faith, it is an inter-dependent fellowship in which each member moves in concert with one another in response to and fully attached to the Head.

I have been in AWE of the practical demonstration of this reality as I have been the beneficiary of the genuine love and concern and offers of help from literally hundreds of Christians both in my local church and those around the world. These, each members of the “body” and in tune with the spirit of Christ, have related to this member in such a real way that they have been driven to fast and pray for my healing and to join me in this battle against cancer. The authentic caring for one another has been both palpable and powerful (1Cor 12:25-26) and an evidence that HE is fully alive and still in the process of accomplishing His redemptive work in our world.

I am grateful for my body, frail as it is, but especially for His body. My prayer for each of you is that you will know and experience full health and abundant life within your body and all the benefits of being attached to His body.


Sunday, April 6, 2008

Navel Battle

I have had plenty of opportunity lately to contemplate my navel… and my bowel, my liver & spleen, my lungs, my heart, my lymph nodes, my muscles, my spine, my joints, my skin, even my brain. As a patient who is also a physician, I have envisioned the battle going on at the cellular level as Interleukin-2 has modified the mind-boggling complex immune system to induce an all-out attack on those renegade melanoma cells, clusters of cells and tumors spread throughout my body. And although I have reeled under the collateral damage inflicted during this battle, I have also experienced the humbling and spirit-soaring sensation of the cancer’s steady retreat and the gradual restoration of energy, stamina, appetite, and vitality.

I’ve had a ring-side seat in a contest where the odds against victory were enormous. And although the final round has not yet been fought, I wouldn’t give you two cents for the other guy. He’s going down. This body has been battered but making a come back.

These are the sort of contests our God specializes in… consider scrawny David against Goliath (1Sam 17:49), Moses trapped between hordes of chariots and the Red Sea (Ex 14:16), Jehoshaphat against an alliance of nations formed to wipe out the Jewish people (2Chron 20:21-22), Hezekiah against a decree of certain death (2Kings 20:1-6), and the list goes on. In each of these cases God intervened through the agency of something that man offered to Him in faith – a tiny pebble, an uplifted staff, a choir singing His praise, tears shed in a desperate prayer – and used it to accomplish the miraculous.

The battle going on in this body is being won through the agency of a biologic agent that God created and we humbly have accepted as a tool in His hands to overcome all odds and demonstrate His power to heal and restore. Now as I contemplate my navel, I am in awe of His love, mercy and grace.

Thank you for your part in the ultimate victory.
PS -- The picture above is not really my navel... Mine is lint-free!

Friday, April 4, 2008

From This Day Forward...

“From this day forward… ‘til death do us part”
She could never have imagined what her words ordained…
Did she know what was in store when she first tried to shake off the thought “You’re going to marry that boy” as she eye balled an awkward towheaded scrawny guy trying to impress her with lame humor? Could she have anticipated the consequences?

The hardships of serving as sole bread-winner during those early years of training…
Teaching smelly third-graders, creating a home on a shoe-string, preparing meals, late-night lesson plans, surviving the flu, long lonely hours while her husband buried himself in medical books…
Nine full months of vomiting, walking an icy sidewalk while in labor, excruciating birth pangs, sleepless nights, colic, dirty diapers, living on borrowed money…
Adapting to inner city life, tracing helicopter spot lights overhead, enduring burglaries, fending off a vicious canine with babe in arms, surviving a house fire…
The rigors of residency, lungs laden with southern California smog, widow to the every third night call schedule, another nine months of vomiting, sore breasts, dirty diapers…
Suffering a brush with death due to meningitis, forced to recover quickly to save her small children from the care provided by a professionally distracted husband…
Then learning to live in the shadow of her husband’s new career, swallowing hard as he is adored and praised while she must be satisfied with his leftovers, aware of his warts…
Learning to serve as solo manager of household and family (and another “surprise” nine months of nausea), providing microwave meals to her late-night husband…
Silently adjusting to the unique compromises of the “doctor’s wife”, constantly sharing him with other women who bare their souls and their bodies in his presence…
Dramatic changes in her husband’s career uproot her from her dream home on the lake, familiar surroundings and lifetime friends; a subsequent series of biennial moves stretch her ability to cope with change…
The children grow, she launches a real estate career to support their college education, the nest empties…
Her roles as wife, matriarch, confidant, counselor, spiritual mentor, gourmet cook, perpetual hostess, never end and expand to enfold a larger church family…
She survives hurricanes, shares in the heartache of her daughters’ miscarriages, suffers the loss of a loving pet…
Then at the cusp of a promising season of ease, the news that her husband has malignant melanoma that is already rampant throughout body and brain…
While her future security is threatened, she becomes fulltime nurse and constant companion, endures more sleepless nights, witnesses his wasting while she coaxes him to eat, massaging swollen legs, reading to him for encouragement and comfort, all without complaint…

Could she ever have foreseen what those vows would bring her way, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”?
Yet her life of devotion and over-coming endurance flows not from a sense of obligation to a covenant – rather from a fathomless heart of self-giving love that this heart is still studying and aspiring to emulate. Her vows and her subsequent faithfulness flow from a capacity to love that astounds and confounds me, and inspires me to be more than I am.

My dearest Linda, this scrawny guy’s highest aim: to love you in kind