Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Giving Thanks, Gathering Joy

“In everything give thanks…” (1Thes 5:18)

As I write this entry in the journal of my journey with cancer, a quiet and gathering joy inhabits my thoughts. And I am as intrigued by the phenomenon as I am pleased at the opportunity to express my gratitude.

Words are hardly adequate to describe my appreciation to the hundreds of you who have prayed earnestly for me, sent cards, offered practical acts of kindness, and buoyed me up with words of encouragement. I have also received excellent professional care and the well wishes and support of many colleagues. The outpouring of love, genuine concern and generosity has overwhelmed both me and my family. We thank God for each one of you.

Of course He is the One to whom all praise is due – for demonstrating His steadfast love, His faithful presence, His power to heal, His mercy and grace. I smile as I contemplate the beauty of how He has worked “all things together for good.” (Rom 8:28) Among the many lessons learned over the past several months is a new understanding of the transforming power of irrepressible gratitude and pervasive praise. Let me review…

Before any of us drew our first breath God saw our brokenness and the consequences of a creation gone astray. While still in a state of rebellion, He declared clemency for us through the sacrifice of His own Son, (Rom 5:8) thereby sealing forever the certainty of His love. (1John 4:10) With faith enough to recognize this gift, as a young man I turned myself in and received His forgiveness. My life was changed and my future secured.

Relative prosperity, excellent health, a fulfilling career, a wonderful family, and pleasant circumstances engendered an attitude of gratitude over the years that was reinforced by numerous examples of divine protection and providence. Almost everywhere I turned and everything I touched affirmed I am loved of God, a beneficiary of His goodness. Under such circumstances, what's not to be thankful for?

Then in January of this year dramatic events shattered this pollyanna perception of what constitutes God’s blessing. I was given six months to live and by my professional experience I knew that it likely would not be a tranquil passage. From the stunning moment I learned that I had disseminated cancer, through the nights of intractable pain, during the rampant decline in strength, amidst all the side effects of Interleukin-2 therapy, He graciously reassured me that He had not changed. His love had not diminished and He was no less deserving of my praise. In fact, it was often in those moments of extremis that His intimate presence was most palpable.

So I learned to give thanks in the midst of the pain. As I related in a previous entry, I would combat the pain with anthems of praise or humming to recorded hymns. Notice I gave thanks not for the pain, but in the pain. For it was in the pain I could appreciate the quality of love that constrained His Son to suffer unimaginable agony for me while uttering “Father forgive them…” (Luke 23:34) And it was in the pain that, without answering why, I was aware of His personal favor.

I also learned that the surprising consequence of giving thanks in the midst of suffering was an exhilaration and imperturbable joy that both eased the pain and produced a settled peace impervious to further adversity. I am aware that there are biological correlates to this phenomenon that to me only reinforce the wisdom of the Creator’s instructions: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks...” Sow gratitude; reap joy.

Through this experience and in my astounding recovery I have gained a new certitude and capacity to celebrate the profound and changeless love of God.

My wish for you and your family is not simply a “Happy Thanksgiving” but rather the lasting joy of giving thanks.


PS – We return Monday, December 1, to Charlottesville for a full day of imaging studies and follow-up exam. I will keep you posted.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Wrestling with God

Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. (Gen 32:24)

One of the strangest stories in the entire Bible is that of a man who, during one troubled and sleepless night, literally wrestles with God. The man, of course, is Jacob, who finds himself facing what he believes to be almost certain death at the hands of his brother whom, years earlier, he cunningly robbed of his rightful inheritance. Left alone to contemplate his fate, fearful for himself and his family, he is desperate and destitute. He grapples with God.

It is a long night…

When the struggle is over, he is left with a gimp and a new name. His life will never be the same. Having been “touched [in] the socket of his thigh”, he is told by his contender that his name will no longer be Jacob (deceiver, supplanter) but Israel (one who prevails with God). (Gen 32:25-28) He walks away with a physical reminder of the encounter in his hip and a brand new identity. The God of covenant not only saved his life, but protected his family, gave him a new purpose for living, and fulfilled the promise to make him the father of a great nation.

Two weeks ago I found myself lying on a table, left alone as a remotely controlled machine directed a powerful invisible beam of ionizing radiation to my left hip. As I lay there looking up at the artificial skylight created through back-lit ceiling panels, I thought of Jacob.

Our experience has taken us through many long nights. Spent of human resources, desperate for answers, we wrestled with God – and came away with His blessing. The permanent marker used on my thigh to map out the precise direction of focused radiation reminded me that I am now a marked man and will never be the same. I have encountered a faithful God who has assured me of His lovingkindness and secured my destiny.

As I contemplate this story further, I am impressed with the honesty of Scripture. The One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might “have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10) is not dismayed at our honest contending with Him. In the story of Jacob, He invites the wrestling match. (Gen 32:24) The God of the universe is not too busy to set aside time for a one-on-One encounter that, though it may last the long night, leads us to a clearer understanding of His ultimate plans for our good. If we don’t give up, we not only survive the night, but face the day with a new confidence and hope.

A friend and former patient is still going through that long night. Some years ago, he lost his teenage son, a boy that I was privileged to deliver while practicing in Michigan. I cannot imagine the pain. He has an honest grievance with God. He recently wrote me, “If God loves us, why does He keep hurting us?” My heart aches for him and many like him who have suffered an enormity of loss I will never know. What I do know is that God does not shrink away when we honestly grapple with Him. Even His own Son, whose love constrained him to lay down his life for us, experienced the struggle. (Luke 22:42-44)

Having prevailed through our own long night, I have experienced His touch and the blessing that follows. In Jacob's own words: "I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant." (Gen 32:10) Daybreak has illumined a clearer confidence in the reality of His promise, the fulfillment and unimpeachable joy that comes with a new identity as His child. My prayer is that my friend will someday know the same.

Glad for the gimp,


PS – There is no more powerful and effective treatment concerning the dilemma of personal pain in the presence of a loving God than the best-selling novel called The Shack. I highly recommend it to you.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The Race Set Before Us

“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1)

One of the delights I have had during this lengthy period of convalescence has been the opportunity to spend more time with my grandchildren. And our favorite family activity when the weather turns cold (next to one of Mama Crabtree’s homemade pizza parties) is to compete with one another on the popular and highly interactive Wii video game system. Everyone from 3-year-old Evie to Grandma and me enjoy manipulating their look-alike Wii characters as they perform super-human feats of athleticism, high-speed vehicular stunts, or goofy bare-back competitions on cud-chewing farm animals.

In the midst of all the fun, there is plenty of opportunity to work on building character: persistence, patience, the value of teamwork, how to lose with grace, and (one I am still working on) how to win with humility :-) Clearly the lessons are not all aimed at the little ones.

The other day, my 7 year old grandson Matthew enthusiastically took charge of the Wii remote to enter the long-distance island run, an event among the Wii Fit games that requires running (in place) with a cadence that optimizes aerobic endurance. As his Wii character strode through parks, over green hills, past a beautiful waterfall, and dozens of encouraging on-lookers, I noticed that he was required to follow a pace-setting guide. His guide not only set the pace according to his ability, but also directed him all along the course, sometimes taking him off the beaten path. When he slowed down, his guide did not leave him in the dust, but waited for him to catch up. And when on occasion he ran ahead of his guide, his Wii character would inevitably fall flat on his face, then dust himself off and resume a more measured stride behind his vanguard.

I am so grateful that we have had a Great Guide along this journey, that He is setting the pace, ensuring our well-being, and marking out our course. (Hebrews 12:2) Past experience has taught us to keep Him in sight, avoid running ahead or lagging far behind. We have also learned He will sometimes take us off the beaten path. The words of the late Tony Snow come to mind and are worth repeating: “We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don't. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.”

It is tremendously reassuring to know that He has set the course that lays before us; He knows the terrain and has personally conquered every obstacle. Ours is to keep pace, follow His lead, get up when we stumble, and share the joy in the journey. This is an exciting and highly interactive enterprise, which invites neither resignation nor hubris, but a growing confidence in the beneficent purpose and plans of the One who has run the race before us (2Cor 12:9). This is not a game for couch potatoes!

These past few weeks have demonstrated that He is indeed setting the course before us. Linda and I had the opportunity to visit family and friends in five states, witnessing with joy their response to the remarkable story of my battle with cancer, accentuated by the visible evidence of God’s power and grace. (Matthew 10:27) We also attended a Christian Medical & Dental Association conference aimed at exploring what new directions our Pacesetter may have in mind for those of us who have the finish line in view.

Then last week I alone returned to Charlottesville for consultation with my oncologist as well as the radiation oncologist to determine the best course of action to address the persistent tumor in my left femur. After some deliberation and authorization from my insurance carrier, a specially focused high-intensity radiation protocol was set up to take place in three daily sessions. (“Standard” radiation therapy protocols call for up to thirty sessions spread over six weeks.) As there was an excellent continuing medical education course offered at UVA later in the week, I had already arranged to stay in the area in our cozy camper, commuting to the conference and enjoying the fall colors. I simply excused myself when needed to jump over to the radiation therapy center for the 15-20 minute treatment session and ducked back into the conference. I have had no pain, nor worsening fatigue, nor other side effects usually associated with radiation therapy.

Clearly the course had already been set out before me. I am now scheduled to return to Charlottesville December 1 for repeat imaging studies and follow up. Thanks once more for cheering us on.

Keeping the pace with gladness,

PS -- And hoping to finish well...