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What I Learned From Cancer

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A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., May 22, 2011.

Romans 8:28

Morning Prayer:

O, Lord, we confess that we live in a world where your goodness and presence is easily hidden.  Like the psalmist, we sometimes wonder where you have gone and why you are so far away from our groaning, both for the world and for ourselves.  Why are you so far away from our cries for help when we need you?  Forgive us, but we wonder why we bear illness.  We wonder why friends die untimely deaths.  We wonder why our relationships suffer and why children and parents alike disappoint us.  O, God, why?  In the midst of sorrows and burdens, we pray that you would restore to us our confidence in your presence and the assurance of your love.  Remind us of those many times when you have sustained us and our faith in you provided the victory over things that seemed insurmountable.  Use these memories today to remind us of your faithfulness and the strength that you provided to us in past moments of need.  Give us confidence today that in whatever crisis we may be in your grace will, once again, be sufficient for our needs.  In this very moment now as we bow in prayer, give us new hope and new faith that you are able.  Our Father, replace our fears and worries with memories of your promises that you are with us always, that you are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, that through your son, Jesus Christ, you have overcome the world, and that nothing is too great for you.  Remind us that you are both Great Physician and Good Shepherd.  Hold us in your arms until our strength is renewed and your love is real to us once again.  In Jesus Christ, we pray.  Amen.

Meditation Text:

Dr. Edward Wilson, who accompanied Scott’s expedition to the Antarctic and who perished there, wrote in his diary, “This I know is God’s own truth, that pain and troubles and trials and disappointments are one thing or another.  To all who love God, they are tokens from him. To all who do not love God and who do not want to love him, they are merely a nuisance.”  It requires more than a built-in or developed strength of character to rise above bitterness and cynicism and to find a positive meaning in negative circumstances.  According to Paul, it requires a new relationship to God, a relationship which he describes by the word Love.  “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him.”

                                                –A. Leonard Griffith in What Is A Christian?

Many of you know that a few days before Christmas of last year, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Four months ago this past week, I had surgery to remove the gland and the cancer, and it has, obviously, had an impact on my life.

In thinking through how to address this, I thought I would just save it all up and have one message and say as much of it as I can at once.  I want to talk to you today as friends about the spiritual dimension and the impact on faith that this journey has had for me.

Before I talk about the faith component, I need to say just a couple of words about the physical component.  Many of you are very kind to ask me how I am.  I am doing well.  While it is certainly not perfect, my recovery has actually been most excellent.  I have four or five years of monitoring as most of you who have had the same cancer know.  At this point, surgery is all that I needed.  There is no prospect at the moment for chemo or radiation. 

I was talking with a friend about being called a cancer survivor, and we agreed that, based on our experience, we did not feel worthy of the term.  A lot of other people who have endured so much more continue bouts of radiation, chemo, and on-going treatment.  I will just have to say that my recovery is simple.  To those who have endured so much more in recovery from the illness, I would just want to acknowledge to you that I recognize how far short my experience falls with yours.

I would also like to point out today that each of the lay participants in worship today are cancer survivors.  Pam Dempsey who lead the Confession to Faith, Bill Morris who read the scripture, and Lee Ann Head who will pray the Stewardship Prayer.  The Musical Offering today was placed by the Potts.  Willis has had cancer.  There are members of the handbells and choir as well who are also survivors.  Hopefully, what I say today in some way reflects the experience that others have had.

These are three of the most important things that I have learned.  The first comes from the 4th chapter of James.  “Come now you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ You don’t even know what tomorrow will bring.  What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills it, we will live and do this or that.’”

I remember my grandmother would add “God willing” to almost everything she described.  I have heard Bible studies on this where people have argued, “Should we plan for retirement?  Should we plan for our children’s college?  Should we plan for these different things?  Maybe this is a statement that you should not plan but just trust for every day.”  Cancer has taught me, and particularly looking at this particular verse, that this is not about whether or not we should ever make plans.  It is about trying to strip us of the illusion of control.  We all think we can control the outcome of our lives if we just do everything right.  The statement that James makes is that it is an invitation to faith as a way of life as opposed to the illusion that we can control everything. 

When I received the diagnosis, I will have to tell you that I thought it was a joke.  Doctors don’t joke, but I thought they had the wrong person.  This can’t be me.  Why me?  All of my adult life, I have exercised.  At least for the last ten years, I have tried to eat right and to take good care of myself and I thought, I have done all the right things that should lead to good health.  This is not right.  This should not happen to me. 

I can tell you that I have known two people in my life who had cirrhosis of the liver who never drank.  One of my best friends from seminary died of lung cancer in his 30’s and he never smoked a cigarette.  I have done a funeral for a woman who never drank a drop of alcohol who was killed by a drunk driver.  All of these people did the right things.  It is evidence that if we think we can control everything that happens in our lives despite all the advertisements that tell us to take control of our investments or this or that, it just doesn’t happen.

I should be responsible for the way that I take care of myself but I should not think that I can control the outcome.  And I will also add that if parents think they can control the outcome of their children by putting them under their thumbs, it just doesn’t work.  What James invites us to is a deeper understanding of life.  Instead of trying to think that we are superhuman, that we are God ourselves and that we can control everything that happens, we need to live a life of faith.  Instead of trying to create better mechanisms to control, we need to learn a deeper faith.  I find for myself again, anew, afresh, deeper that faith in God, and I have struggled for the right way to say this, is it smarter, is it wiser?  I know it is much more satisfying and I know it is a greater help to me than to try to think I can control everything that happens in life.

I remember that the great preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, said, “All things come to all people.”  If you live long enough, sooner or later, something comes to you that you think, I should be reading about this happening to somebody in the newspaper but it should not be happening to me.  All things come to all people. 

If we have built our life on the illusion that we can control everything that is going to happen in our lives and we have a perfect map that nothing will ever come in and sidetrack it because we have done everything right and have not developed faith, we will be bitterly disappointed.  If we have developed the faith in God that God invites us to and that God offers to us as a gift, then we find that in those moments when things come that are unexpected and unwanted, the faith sustains us.

The first thing I have learned is that I need to take responsibility for my life, but I can’t control it.  Therefore, I find that faith in God is what carries me in those moments that are out of my control. 

The second thing may be unique to my situation.   I know this is not true for everybody who has cancer, particularly for those who have many rounds of treatment, but I discovered the importance of rest.  After surgery, all I had to do for a month was get better.  For the first time in my adult life, I had no responsibility.  I had no one expecting me to do anything.  All I had was the need to be home.  The only thing on my schedule was to get up every hour and to walk from bedroom to bedroom until I got well enough to go outside and walk around the cul de sac.  That was all that was on my schedule for days.  Out of this, I came with a renewal that was very important.  I have almost come to believe that fatigue, at least the kind of self-induced fatigue that we live with as a culture, is almost a sin in itself. 

With children, we say, “They are cranky because they have not gotten their nap out.”  Do you work with anybody who is cranky because they did not get their nap out?  Have you ever been short or snapped at someone and realized you did it because you were fatigued?  Of course, I have never done that, but I realized what a great gift true rest is. 

I think about the passage from Mark near the end of the second chapter where Jesus has been debating with religious leaders about the nature of the Sabbath.  He said, “We were not created to obey the Sabbath.”  God created the Sabbath for us because God knows that we need rest.  I have to tell you that I have come out of this period in my life rested at a level that I have not known in a long time.  I think I am a better husband, father, friend, and I hope I am a better pastor because of the rest.  Isn’t it a shame that we have to get sick, have surgery, and have time to recover to learn that?

The third thing comes from Romans 8:28.  I guess one of the most honest things I can say about the experience is that I wish I had my pre-cancer body back.  I think most people who have had cancer would say the same thing.  I have had a wonderful recovery but it hasn’t been perfect.

I think many of you know I took up cycling a couple of years ago.  In September, I started training for a trip this fall that will be a 400-mile cycling trip.  I can tell you I wish I had my conditioning and I wish I had the four months back that I lost in getting ready for that.  I am just absolutely not the same person in that regard.  I have lost things in this, and I think most people who have had cancer would say the same thing.  But I know I have also found things.

I think I have found a new level of sensitivity as a pastor.  Both of Cherry’s parents have passed away, and I think back to the times when they died and the sense of personal grief.  While I try to comfort people in their grief, having it yourself makes you realize just how deep a pain it is.  I try to comfort people in their illnesses, but having had that kind of illness, I think I have gained a deeper level of sensitivity.  I hope I am a better pastor.

The two Sundays that Cherry and I  sat at home and watched church on television, I was absolutely inspired by the preaching of Dr. Kathy Richardson and Dr. Larry McSwain.  I remember thinking, I need to be a better preacher.  This may sound odd to you, but a great piece of my own spiritual relationship with Christ comes from preaching.  I decided that I was not putting enough into my preaching to have the full relationship with Christ that I ought to have.  So I have reinvested myself in the task, and I don’t know if it shows to you or not, but I can tell you that it has made a difference in my own life.  That is an unexpected blessing that I have received.

I think I have a clearer understanding of what you, as a congregation, need from me as a pastor in providing leadership.  When I think about the gift of rest, what I have learned about faith as opposed to control, I realize that all of these things have been unexpected gifts that I would have never had if I had not had cancer. 

A couple of weeks ago, I preached about the tornadoes in Alabama and I made the comment that I don’t think God causes those things to happen.  The statement, Everything happens for a reason, is not in the Bible.  The phrase that people have dumb-downed—that people have taken and reduced—is the passage from Romans 8:28.   “In all things, God works them together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.”  For those people who have a relationship with God, God is willing to take all things, even the darkest things,  transform those things, and provide for us a gift we would not have gotten any other way.

I know that some of the things that happen to us cannot be undone.  Friends  have had untimely deaths in their family.  God cannot redeem that in a way that brings that person back to physical life.  That is not the way it works.  I have known people who have lost jobs who have never recovered in terms of salary, etc. but in all of these instances, I have known people who would tell you that God has blessed them in some way that they would not have anticipated.  In the vast majority of cases, people would say, “and I wouldn’t trade what God has blessed me with to go back for anything.”  Did God cause them?  No, but God did redeem them.  God did take these situations and mold them and shape them into things that you would never expect or anticipate.  There is something that comes to your life that you would not give up for anything.  Of course, the model for this is the cross. 

German theologian Jürgen Moltmann says, “If you say you love the cross, you don’t understand the cross.”  During the time of Jesus, the cross was a tremendous symbol of torture and death.  For Christ, it was a symbol of abandonment and humiliation when everybody left him.  If you say you love the cross, you don’t understand it. 

It was meant as the rejection of God’s love, God’s own son.  Somehow the cross is taken in the love of God and transformed into the symbol of our life, life for us through the cross so that now we look at the cross and we realize, That’s life for me.  That’s not what the cross was in the time of Jesus. 

God can take the worst and, in some way, shape it and mold it for our good.  If God can do that with the cross of Jesus Christ, then I know God can, and God has done that with my cancer.  I wish I had my pre-cancer body back.  But if I had to choose between that and the things that I have learned and experienced for good, I would not give them up.  God loves us.  God does not cause cancer.  God does not cause tornadoes to drop from the sky and wipe out whole towns, but God, even in these things, can bring about something that we would have never anticipated, something that in years to come, we would say, I wish I had it back (whatever it is I have lost). 

But would you trade the blessing that you have learned for that?  In many cases, the answer is no.  What a good God we serve!  What a gracious God it is that loves us!