25.) Team HOPE

“For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Romans 8:24-25, NASB).

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Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master!  What shall we do?”  So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”  Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. (2 Kings 6:15-17, NASB)

“O Lord, I pray, open my eyes that I, too, may see!”  I know that there are forces—physical and spiritual—of which I am not aware, but that are very much hard at work on my behalf.  But every once in a while, as I bounce along in the eye of this storm, I am astounded by something, or someone, that God surfaces and brings to the forefront of my vision to remind me that I am never alone in this battle.

I have to admit, I’ve been feeling kind of blue lately, kind of worn down and apprehensive about that upcoming liver ultrasound.  I’m still more than a little depressed by the hypothyroidism and experiencing moments of doubt and sadness; even while trying to be brave and keep my smiley face on.

Then today, I received a message from someone that I didn’t even know existed, but who has been reading my journal on the ThyCa (Thyroid Cancer Online Support Community) website.  She, too, is a thyroid cancer patient and she said:

Salty, dear, my prayers and lots of good vibes are for you alone at the moment.  I just don’t know what to say, other than my hopes are that you get through this health problem sooner than later. If nothing else I can offer you, I can offer my understanding.

Then, after sharing some of her own recent experiences with thyroid cancer, she told me:

…we do our best to smile even when we don’t feel like smiling. Honestly, it’s okay to be afraid sometimes, it’s okay to be tired and take a nap, it’s okay to feel your feelings. It doesn’t mean that you’re giving up, it just means you are human. Keep smiling. You are a rainbow on a cloudy day.

Later, in closing, she said:

Your story gives me pause for a big sigh. At the moment, all of my prayers are for you. Your faith in God, as is my faith in God, is precious; but remember, it’s okay to feel your feelings once in a while. It’s okay to be afraid once in a while. Just don’t sit in it.

While I don’t even know her real name—she goes by Tree Song online—her message touched my heart very deeply.  I don’t always believe it when people tell me, “I’ll be praying for you” or “You’re in my prayers.”  But, I don’t doubt this one; and the best part, I didn’t even see it coming!

I’ve got to tell you, while I’m a little like the Apostle Peter, not wanting to submit to others washing my feet, still, it is wonderful seeing people taking care of one another, being alert to one another’s needs, and moving to meet those needs without even being prompted—except by the love in their hearts.  I love people who are not always trying to second guess what the real needs are;  people who don’t feel it necessary to, first, make contact and ask if there is anything they can do; hoping that there isn’t.  In fact, I’m beginning to despise that old cliché:  “call us if you need anything” — (ummmm, yeah right, like I would actually DO that).  I love people whose plain old common sense is enough to inform them that some very real needs exist, that there is something that can be done; so, motivated by love, they simply do it; whether it’s offering a kind word, a prayer, a gift of some sort, or an act of service.

I’m beginning to feel a little like Elisha—surrounded by the Lord’s army riding in flaming chariots of love; an army much bigger than I had ever imagined.  This morning, while sitting out in the sun in front of my uncompleted greenhouse—I’ll get to it someday—and talking with God in prayer, I felt myself not only honored to be the recipient of such love, but also convicted with regard to my role in doing my part in loving and serving others.  I was thinking to myself, and asking God, “Why is it that, down through the years, despite the numerous bedside deaths I’ve attended and many funerals I’ve officiated, with few exceptions, I really haven’t seemed to care all that much about what other people are actually going through—the details, I mean… the feelings, the fears, the trepidation, the emotional turmoil; not until now, when it’s my turn to have to walk through the fiery furnace?”

If cancer has taught me anything at all—and, believe me, it’s taught me “plenty”—I thing it is teaching me to get out of myself. I’m learning to get out of my own little world, and out of my own little programs, projects, and ministries, and look anew, through eyes of compassion, at a bigger, broader, more expansive world of opportunity.  Opportunities to love, to serve, to reach, and to teach abound. And, while continuing in prayer, I was reminded of Jesus, of whom it is written:

Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.  Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.   Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matthew 9:36-38, NASB)

While I’ve preached that passage a hundred times over the past thirty years of ministry, it has never meant what it means to me now.  And I felt a momentary flash of anger:  “So many wasted years!  Why don’t they teach you what it really means to “minister” as you study and work toward your degree in Biblical studies?”

I have a Bachelor’s Degree in Theology, as well as a Masters of Education—so what?  So I know a lot about the Bible, about Bible history, about church history, about doctrine and dogma and tradition, about church administration and mission—so what?

Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36, NASB).  In that same vein, I asked myself, “What does it profit a man to know the Bible forward and backward, and even to gain some degree of recognition among men for one’s ministerial and academic pursuits, and yet lack the vision and the compassion to see and touch a heart that is hurting?”  I guess some things just can’t be taught in the context of some university or school of preaching; they can only be fully appreciated by “a broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17, NASB) over the course of a lifelong sojourn with God.

And so, today, as I poured out my heart to God in prayer and pondered my continued purpose in this world—for however long He sees fit to keep me here—I’m determined to walk with greater awareness of the needs of those around me, near and far, whom God has, in one way or another, swept into the course of my life.  I’m determined to try to reach out and touch the heart that may be hurting with the reassurance of God’s love and His providential care; not because it is my “ministry” or because it will make “me” feel better—no one wants to be the object of somebody else’s “ministry”—but because, at a personal level, I really do care.

I’m also determined to look for every opportunity to engage the world beyond the narrow confines of my little day-to-day existence; to try to participate more fully and meaningfully with the beautiful people in my world who say they love me, and to work more closely with them in striving to make this world a better place for all of us.

Wouldn’t you know it, no sooner had I finished recommitting my heart to more authentic ministry, than God laid one such opportunity right at my doorstep. You see, for the past three years, I’ve given a bit of “lip-service,” and thrown a few bucks in the direction of, a local, regional, national cause—the American Cancer Society’s “Relay For Life.”  But I’ve always been somewhat hesitant to get very deeply involved.  For one thing, I don’t trust the whole industrialized, pharmaceutical, medical research industry.  “Do they really want to “cure” cancer, or are they content to just keep the money flowing for endless alleged ‘research’ projects?”  For another, I don’t trust the corporate world, large or small, any more than I trust the government; and especially giant corporations, even non-profits, with millions in income and assets. I’ve often wondered, “At what point does the mission cease to be about helping people and becomes all about keeping the institution solvent?”  As a result, I’ve often excused myself from participating in wonderful opportunities to love and serve others. I’ve excused myself by first asking:  “Yeah, well, how much of every dollar actually goes toward helping others, and how much goes toward greasing the palms and pockets of the so-called administration?”  And then, having arrogantly tossed out that rhetorical question, I summarily let myself “off the hook”—convinced that I didn’t have to allow myself to actually care all that much.

However, I have to admit that, after doing a bit of research on Charity Navigator (2013), I was surprised to learn that the American Cancer Society has a pretty good overall rating.  Last year, 71.2% of all their income went toward actual program services—patient support 28%, research 16%, prevention 16%, detection and treatment 12% (American, 2013)—while 21.8% went to fundraising activities, and only 6.8% went toward administrative expenses.  “Uh oh, now I might have to actually care a little bit—and especially since I myself have now become a direct recipient of research, information, and other benefits derived from the work of the American Cancer Society.”  This is yet another example of God’s vast army of support, spiritual and physical, that He has in place for me; and of which I have remained, to this point, woefully unappreciative.

Research funded, in part or in whole, by the American Cancer Society has helped me understand, contextualize, and proceed with appropriate medical treatment.  Furthermore, the American Cancer Society has a wonderful way of partnering collaboratively with many other institutions to form a vast network of services that benefit hundreds of thousands of people annually.

For example, on the community level, I just read in our local newspaper about the “I Can Cope” cancer classes, being offered at our local Kaiser Permanente Kona Clinic; which are designed to provide “practical information about cancer, and understanding of the various treatments used to fight it and strategies for self-care” (Editor, 2013).  According to West Hawaii Today:

The program is a component of the American Cancer Society Cancer Resource Network—a free, comprehensive resource to help patients and their caregivers manage the impact of cancer on their lives through up-to-date cancer information and referrals to society programs and other community resources. (Editor, 2013)

Of equal importance, I think, is how the American Cancer Society draws people together to help foster awareness and strengthen community bonds at the local level through events such as the “Relay For Life” and other such activities.

So, this year, because of the way God has been working on my heart through this cancer, and because a close friend dared to ask, I am getting involved at a much deeper level than ever before.  In fact, I have become an official member of Team HOPE.  I am committed not only to helping my team reach our financial goals, but to actually participating, with my whole heart, in this year’s relay.

If there is one famous—or, shall we say, quasi-famous—person in the whole world that I would most love to meet personally, it would be Christa Wells. In my wildest dreams, she and I actually write a song together.  :o)  Anyway, this song by Christa speaks directly, I think, to everything I’m trying to say in this reflection.  I hope it ministers to you as it does to me.

I’m afraid of the space where you suffer
Where you sit in the smoke and the burn
I can’t handle the choke or the danger
Of my own foolish, inadequate words
I’ll be right outside if you need me
Right outside

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

So we left you to fight your own battle
And you buried your hope with your faith
‘Cause you heard no song of deliverance
There on the nights that followed the wake
We never thought to go with you
Afraid to ask

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

Lay down our plans
Lay down our sure-fire fix
Grief’s gonna stay a while
There is no cure for this
We watch for return
We speak what we’ve heard
We sit together
In the burn

What can I bring to your fire?
Shall I sing while the roof is coming down
Can I hold you while the flames grow higher
Shall I brave the heat and come close with you now
Can I come close now?

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