I have cancer. Here’s how I’m dealing with it. (Or, “Some thoughts about how to deal with suffering before it ever arrives.”)
I’m a pastor, someone whose job includes getting up in front of a group of people on a weekly basis and delivering a message. The expectation from those who are in attendance is that they will receive something new and helpful, perhaps even inspired. They look to me as someone with authority to speak on a subject — an expert, if you will, who has arrived at my expertise through prayer, study, and/or personal experience.
Consider this a little hint for those of you who are not pastors, or a license to be real for those who are pastors: we are rarely experts. We may spend time studying and might have personal experience in the areas in which we are teaching, but often our words are more accurately described as humble attempts to follow the direction of God’s Spirit to help us understand something we have little business speaking of authoritatively.
A chief example of this occurred two months ago as I preached from the Narrative Lectionary passage for the day, a text about persecution and perseverance. Here’s what I said at the time:
I have been fortunate to not be a victim of great tragedy. I have lost grandparents, but not a parent, not a wife, not a child. I am reasonably healthy, have money that allows me to eat and put a roof over my head. As a result, I wonder sometimes what my response to suffering would be. I wonder if I were to discover that my body was riddled with cancer whether I would handle it gracefully. I wonder whether I would say, “Well, God is in charge and this is not the end so all good!” I’ve watched people go through periods of suffering and hold their head high and be commended for their incredible faith. But I really don’t know how I would/will react. BUT I’m comforted that in Jesus we see God, and in Jesus we see God not responding all neat and tidy to his experience of suffering. Yes, he said not my will but yours be done. BUT he also said, “If there’s any way to take this cup from me, let’s do that.” Yes, he said father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing. BUT he also said, “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?” I even wonder if he was fully convinced what would occur when he said, “Into my hands I place my spirit.” Or maybe he did. Maybe he trusted in a glimmer of light where darkness was only visible. And maybe holding onto a mere glimmer of hope can be seen as perseverance.
Is it possible to speak authoritatively about a topic on which you are not an expert? I suppose it depends on whether what is being said “bears fruit” when tested in realtime.
The week of July 25–30 will not be remembered for my trip to Southern California. It won’t be remembered for the late-night deep dish pizza and local beer over which I shared discussions of urban ministry and community development. It will not even be remembered for paddle boarding on a cove beside the Pacific Ocean with fish jumping from the water on either side of me.
No, the week of July 25–30 will be remembered for the phone call for which I had been anxiously awaiting for twenty-four hours. It was my dermatologist. I have melanoma.
For those of you who know as much about the diagnosis as I did (nil), melanoma is the most aggressive form of skin cancer. If not treated quickly, the cancer can spread to the surrounding skin, the surrounding lymph nodes, and to the rest of the body. It appears that my melanoma was caught soon enough (Stage 1B) to prevent extensive spread, though I’ll be having surgery next week to remove a large section of skin from my lower leg where the other spot was found.
Even a favorable cancer diagnosis is still a cancer diagnosis, and this at a time when my family and my church need me more than ever. Having completed my master’s degree in May, we were excited to find our stride in a “new normal,” able to redirect my attention toward being a dad and a pastor rather than merely accomplishing the required tasks of each role. So much for that plan.
Apparently normalcy will have to wait, which — let’s not mince words — is kind of a shitty deal. It sucks that my body is letting me down. It sucks that my full attention will once again be redirected from my family and my church. It sucks that at a time when I feel I most need God’s blessing that I instead feel cursed.
How do I — or anyone else — talk to and about God in the midst of unexplainable suffering like this?
Over the past two weeks since that phone call, I’ve had a number of people ask me how I’m doing. By this they are interested in my overall emotional state. I suppose I’m fine, which I have begun defining as better than bad and worse than good. Whether right or not, I’m much less concerned with how my emotional state is than with how I’m learning to navigate the situation in which I find myself.
Somehow within God’s grace our church just completed a study on the book of Job. If you’re unfamiliar with the Bible, Job is a story constructed in order to explore unexplainable suffering and how people of faith might respond to it. The most wealthy and morally exemplary man someone could imagine loses everything in an instant. Such suffering like that experienced by Job leads us to ask some scathing questions.
+ Did God do all of this? If he did, is he actually good?
+ Did Job bring this upon himself? If he did, why did God allow him such freedom to hurt himself?
+ Are there rules about what you can or cannot say to/about God when you are suffering?
+ Can a God who exists in power amidst such evil in the world be trusted?
Over the course of forty-two chapters, Job discovers answers to some of these questions. Others remain unanswered but shape the way he responds to his loss. Here are some of the things that Job finds:
+ Simple answers like “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away” (Job 1.20–21) are neither helpful nor theologically accurate.
+ Putting limits on what you can say to and about God in the midst of suffering discredits the reality of human experience and misrepresents God.
+ Speaking bluntly about our experiences of suffering is a holy exercise of vigilant faith which displays no satisfaction with the world as it is.
+ The world is a complex place in which complicated things happen apart from any God-ordained “plan.”
+ God is not an angry enforcer nor a stoic bystander. God is a faithful comforter who keeps his promise to be with us, even — or especially — when life turns sour.
These were issues through which Job was forced to sort, but they also become informative and formative issues for any and all of us. Informative because they give us the freedom and framework by which we can wrestle with our suffering. Formative because they shape our faith and our imagination of who God is — not just in times of trouble but also in ordinary time. Job, after all, is not a story about some dude who lived thousands of years ago. It’s the story of anyone enduring suffering today and every day.
Two years ago, I left a stable job in a growing outer ring suburb to plant a community-based church in an urban neighborhood. I could have gone into other professions or other paradigms in other places — pursing careers and causes and contexts that are more flashy, more profitable, more stable. This is a life which I chose, a life which I agreed to under the conviction that it was “God’s call on my life.”
And so on July 29 as I sat on my deck staring out over my backyard with both my diagnosis and “God’s plan” resting heavily upon my weary shoulders, I laid into God. “I have given up so much for you. If this is your plan, I don’t $*&%*(!} want it.”
Here’s the thing: I have no misconceptions that this is all part of God’s plan. I do not believe that before the world came into existence that God knit together an intricate tapestry of how all of history would unfold. I refuse to be convinced that God ordained my diagnosis — along with all suffering in human history — in order to carry out his agenda.
These are things of which I have been convinced in advance of a time such as this. And these are things that Job has given me new freedom to express now that a time of suffering has arrived.
+ Job reminded me that simple answers like “God has a plan for this” and “something good will come of this” are more comforting to those saying them than they are theologically accurate or helpful to those enduring suffering.
+ Job reminded me that God invites us to push back, to question him, even to curse at him as an expression that we are not satisfied with the world as it is.
+ Job reminded me that a God who works to bring order out of our chaos is much more helpful, comforting, loving, and even powerful than a God who orders our chaos as a part of his plan.
+ And Job reminds me of the importance of reading all scripture through the lens of Jesus — the one whom we believe perfectly represents God, who loved the unlovable, who cared for the uncared-for, who suffered for the insufferable, who even felt and challenged God’s absence in the midst of his suffering.
I haven’t the slightest idea who might find themselves reading this. Honestly, if a single other person besides myself finds it helpful, I’ll count it as a bonus. As a result, I don’t want to make any assumptions — whether you’re a Christian, whether you have ever read the Bible, whether you ever care to read the Bible, whether you believe the idea of God is merely a human fabrication to either exercise authority over others or to make us feel better about ourselves.
Perhaps you’ve grown up in and grown comfortable with a God who works within formulas. Perhaps you have come under the weight of what others would understand as God’s curse. Perhaps people who call themselves “Christians” have said and done things that have tainted your view of God in general and Jesus in particular. Or perhaps, whether religious or not, you have lived a fairly comfortable life free of suffering.
Whatever you bring to the conversation, this is how I am dealing with my diagnosis. So how am I doing navigating the tenuous situation in which I find myself? I am walking forward with a limp — literally and metaphorically.
Often cancer is something that sneaks along without any cause for suspicion. This had certainly been the case with my melanoma, a dangerous affliction growing within my body outside of the grasp of my five senses. But within forty-eight hours of my diagnosis, the cancer was causing injury to my entire body. My leg in which the original spot was found to be sure, but also my head, my eyes, my joints, my muscles — all of these things ached within me as the reality of the diagnosis washed over me like a violent ocean wave the likes of which I witnessed in Southern California just a couple weeks ago.
Even so, I got up — or more accurately sat down on a stool — and preached that night from Job 38–41, a passage in which God finally responds to his servant Job’s questions and anger. God does not give him answers nor guarantees that everything is going to be okay. Instead, God reintroduces himself to Job as the one who brings order out of the deepest, darkest, and most monstrous chaos. The message is clear: God is good, even when our present experience is not good.
Situations like cancer diagnoses are those which commonly precipitate a “faith crisis,” but (so far) I have experienced nothing of the sort. I have been broken … and have experienced no crisis of faith. I have no idea how this might end … and I trust that it’s all going to be okay.
Though I believe in the God who has a good future awaiting, my faith is not in some divine, unknowable plan that must involve my suffering. No, my faith is in a God who looks like Jesus, who is not only powerful but trustworthy. I trust that a God who looks like Jesus sees what I’m going through, cares about what I’m going through, and wants to do something about what I’m going through. I trust that Jesus gives us the clearest picture of what God is like (Jn 17.7–14; Col 1.15, 2.9; Heb 1.3). I trust that Jesus wants to be involved with me, no matter the personal cost. I trust that Jesus cries and suffers alongside of me.
The waves continue to knock me down, but trusting in that God has prevented them from overtaking me.
There is a story from the Gospel According to Luke in which Jesus confronts the presumption that bad things happen only as a result of bad behavior. In response, he changes the conversation and issues a warning for those who are announcing judgment on others to repent — to turn — and to consider whether such a view of the world bears any fruit. If it doesn’t, it ought to be cut down.
“A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’” (Luke 13.7–8)
There may be some reading this who cast off such faith in a deity — not to mention one who became human — as pure lunacy. What I really need is to get in touch with reality.
Others who are Christians might disregard my perspective for my rejection of God’s ordination of every minute detail of history. What I really need is to have greater faith in the sovereignty of God.
I cannot prove otherwise and cannot argue you into adoption of my perspective. I can, however, tell you that such “blind faith” and “foolish trust” have already provided much fruit. How I’m doing emotionally or physically can change from one minute to the next; how I’m doing living into this new reality need not be so sporadic.
I am hurt, but I am not crippled.
I am sad, but I am not distraught.
I am angry, but I am not violent.
I am scared, but I fear not.
I am lacking in belief, but not without trust.
In many respects this post has been a helpful exercise in channeling my own thoughts and reflections from the past couple weeks of uncertainty. But it is also meant for others — those who have not gotten the phone call, who have not said goodbye to a close friend or family member, who have not had everything they own taken from them, who have not yet experienced unexplainable suffering that leads to questioning if tomorrow will ever come. These are thoughts and paradigms to explore before suffering inevitably lays you bear, before you have to question why these things are happening, before you ask whether God is good, and before well-intentioned friends and family offer careless explanations.
It is to this group — whether Christian, “None,” atheist, agnostic, or otherwise — that I commend the story of a God who looks like Jesus and a world that looks like his kingdom. It’s a story which makes the absurd assertion that God took on human flesh and made his dwelling among us in order that he might embrace the fullness of the human experience, including the feeling of suffering and death and God’s absence. It’s a story that suggests that God is in the business of empathy not apathy, healing not hurting, comforting not condemning. It’s a story that changes our view of God, ourselves, the world, and our activity within it. It’s a story that I sometimes struggle to believe but resolve to trust.
So, honest question: am I handling my melanoma diagnosis gracefully? I’m not so sure. I hope, however, that I’m handling it faithfully.
Note: For anyone who is interested, I discussed in my sermon on August 7 my final reflections on Job and how it has informed my diagnosis. You can listen to it here.