A man went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later.
The doctor said, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
“What’s the news?” the man asked. “Well, you have only 48 hours to live.”
“That is bad news!” said the shocked patient.
” I’m afraid I have even worse news,” the doctor continued.
“What could be worse than what you’ve already told me?” the patient stammered.
“I’ve been trying to call you since yesterday.”
A Desperate Prayer, a Quiet Answer
In his important book, The Crucifixion of Ministry, seminary professor Andrew Purves describes what he needed as he faced down a cancer diagnosis and the upcoming chemotherapy he would soon endure:
I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place. Not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.
God is Bigger Than Cancer
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!” My tears started to flow as I read these words. They were from a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome in my congregation. Less than a week earlier, the doctor spoke the diagnosis to me, about which he had no doubt: a cancer of the bone marrow, multiple myeloma—an incurable cancer, a fatal disease. I had been in a fog ever since. How was I to face each day when my future—which had seemed wide open—had suddenly narrowed? My “world” seemed to be caving in on itself with fog in each direction I turned, so that no light could shine in.
While I had received many cards in the previous days, this one was different. “God is bigger than cancer!” Yes. She did not say, “God will cure you of this cancer,” or “God will suffer with you.” God is bigger than cancer. The fog is thick, but God is bigger. My cancer story was already developing its own sense of drama. The sky was closing in, enveloping my whole world so that nothing else could creep in.
But God’s story, the drama of God’s action in the world, was bigger. The girl in my church wasn’t denying the fog or the loss but testifying to a God who was greater, the God made known in Jesus Christ, who shows us that 1R ejoicing in Lament “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5). In my tears, there was not only grief but also joy that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by professional theologians. God’s story in Christ is bigger than my cancer story, period.
Into the Fish Bowl
Whether or not cancer patients intend to share their journey openly with others, they generally find that the cancer situation itself has put their lives into a fish bowl—for public viewing—whether they like it or not. “What were your most recent test results?” “What did the doctor say?” Those questions used to be for me and my family. Now, with a “terminal illness,” they are relevant questions for all who care about my family and me.
My body—its test results, its symptoms—has become a public spectacle, something for public commentary. Some things are kept private. But much that was formerly private is no longer so. Sharing the cancer story, however, can also open the door for many blessings to flow. One blessing is that I have been able to explore—and bear witness to—the ways in which God’s story intersects with the cancer story; how my cancer story is complicated and mysterious but not nearly as compelling as the mystery of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ.
This opportunity came with the initial announcement of my diagnosis, where—in all of the various venues—I included the 3R ejoicing in Lament following words from Question and Answer 1 of the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but that I belong—in body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
Like the note from the fifteen-year-old girl in my church, it breaks through the fog of “terminal” and “incurable” and “cancer” by pointing us to the bedrock of what matters: that I belong, in life and in death, to Jesus Christ. My life is not my own.
More Alive With This Friend
In his book, The Enormous Exception, Earl Palmer tells about a pre-med undergrad at the University of California, Berkley, who became a Christian after a long journey through doubts and questions. A bout with the flu kept him out of classes for 10 days. During that critical absence from his organic chemistry class, a Christian classmate carefully collected all his missed lectures and assignments. The person took time from his own studies to help his friend catch up with the class.
Years later, the pre-med student, now a committed Christian, told Palmer, “You know that this just isn’t done, and I probably wouldn’t have done it, but he gave that help to me without any fanfare or complaints. I wanted to know what made this friend of mine act the way he did. I found myself asking him if I could go to church with him.” Palmer wrote, “I think the best tribute I ever heard concerning a Christian was the tribute spoken of this student. ‘I felt more alive when I was around this friend.’
The Symptoms & The Illness
The symptoms and the illness are not the same thing. The illness exists long before the symptoms. Rather than being the illness, the symptoms are the beginning of its cures. The fact that they are unwanted makes them all the more a phenomenon of grace—a gift of God, a message from the unconscious, if you will, to initiate self-examination and repair.