Looking For A Rainbow

A Faith-Walk with Salty Through the Stormy Clouds of Cancer

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1: STORM CLOUDS GATHER

1. No, This is Impossible

2. Seeking Some Perspective

3. Why I’m Writing to You

4. Coming to Terms with Mortality

5. My Birthday, Come and Gone

CHAPTER 2: BRACING FOR THE STORM

6. Givers and Takers

7. Why Me, Lord?

8. His Plan—Bigger than Me

9. Living in the Moment

10. God’s Forever Family

11. A Philosophy to Live or Die By

CHAPTER 3: THE THROES OF THE STORM

12. Eve Before Surgery

13. Is This What It’s Like to Die?

14. Wait, wait, wait… What?

15. Okay, So Let’s Fight this Thing!

16. A Trip to the FARMacy

CHAPTER 4: THE STORM INTENSIFIES

17. Pomp and Circumstance

18. Hospital Antics

19. The “Good Cancer” Bus?

20. Preparations for RAI

21. Feels Like Roulette

CHAPTER 5: IN THE EYE OF THE STORM

22. Going Froggy

23. I’m Radioactive, Radioactive

24. Sitting Here in Limbo

25. Team HOPE

26. Sharing the Love

CHAPTER 6: CALMER WATERS

27. I Think I’m a Survivor

28. The Comeback Trail

29. How Did You Know I’m Alone?

30. Have You Found Your Peace?

EPILOGUE:

31. The One Year Review

References

Copyright © 2018 Salty Sails – All Rights Reserved

All Rights Reserved

 

31.) The One Year Review

This morning, I woke up with Willie Nelson’s voice streaming through my mind, only he was singing:

musical notes“On the LID again, just can’t wait to get on the LID again; the life I love is complaining to my friends, and I can’t wait to get on the LID again!”

Okay, a lil goofy, I know.  But, hey, might as well have a lil fun with it! Do you remember me telling you about the “LID”—the most RADICAL DIET ever invented by man?  LID stands for “Low Iodine Diet” — and it’s a killer, what I’m talkin bout!!!  What makes it so radical is the fact that virtually everything we eat has iodine in it and, therefore, in order to starve your body of iodine, one must eat practically NOTHING—well, nothing that tastes good to humans, anyway.  People have to go on the LID before being administered radioactive iodine-131 for internal radiation therapy in their fight against certain kinds of cancers, such as thyroid cancer.  I had to endure the LID last year, when I went through the therapy, but I wasn’t expecting to have to go back on the LID again just for the WBS—whole body scan—my second, so far.

I don’t know what I was expecting, really.  Perhaps I thought the annual scans would be more like a regular MRI, or other internal scans, where they say, “Here, drink this and lay down!”—and then they immediately send you down the tube.  It just hadn’t registered that a follow-up WBS with I-131 would be pretty much the same as when I went through the initial radiation therapy and following scans a year ago.

It’s all a bit disconcerting because, in the back of my mind, I’ve already told myself, “Okay, been there, done that!  That’s all behind me now; I’ve beaten this cancer; moving on to greener pastures!”  I had pretty much pushed last year’s horror show—all the tests, the surgeries, the creepy diet, the radiation, the isolation—to the back of my mind.  Now, I’ve come up on the one year mark and, like a reoccurring nightmare, it all jumps back up to slap me in the face, like:  “What?  Oh, you thought you were through with all this, boy? Well, here’s a little REMINDER!!!  Muaahahahahaha…”

And it’s not that I didn’t know that these labs, tests, and scans were coming.  I knew they would have to check to see what has worked and what didn’t, and to what extent the initial radiation therapy did its job.  They need to continually monitor me, as they do most cancer patients, to make sure there is no reoccurrence or distant metastasis going on.  It’s like, “once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient!”  I just didn’t realize that it would all be so extensive and exhausting.  I was thinking, “Okay, I’ll get a couple of thyrogen injections, they’ll give me a lil ole tracer dose of I-131, after which I’ll do the ‘tube thing’ and be done with it — a three day affair, at most!”

Well, much to my surprise, not to mention my chagrin, the testing commenced this past week with an extensive ultrasound, followed by 10 days on the LID, three days of every kind of lab work imaginable, two days of thyrogen injections, three flights to Honolulu, and four days of radioactive isolation—yup, I gotta get all “glowy” again.  It’s turning out to be a three-week ordeal and a face-slapping reminder that life never unfolds quite the way I tend to imagine that it will!

But I think there is really only one way to successfully deal with cancer, or with any potentially life-threatening situation, and that is to approach it in just the way that our Lord Jesus said we should always be living our lives.  Remember, He said:

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith! Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.  (Matthew 6:25-34, NASB)

Wow!  Jesus, how is it that You just keep getting all over my heart???  And so, I made up my mind early in this struggle, that I will do my best to surrender, to give it all up to Him, to put the whole matter in His hands, and just seek to live in the moment, be in the present, and take it one day at a time.  I decided from the get-go—well, after about three days of anger, fear, and worry, anyway—that, no matter how all this played out, I wasn’t going to play the victim and lollygag around while life passed me by.  Kinda like old Gus (Robert Duvall) said to Woodrow (Tommy Lee Jones) in McMurtry’s (1989) Lonesome Dove:  “It ain’t dying I’m talkin bout, it’s livin!”  Jesus wants us to LIVE!  He said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, NASB).

So, I choose not to worry about the next round of injections until I see the nurse coming at me with a needle.  I choose not to worry about the next series of tests or scans, and what they may reveal, unless and until I sit down with my endocrinologist and she gives me something to worry about.  I choose not to worry about how much longer I have to be on this creepy diet which consists pretty much of just drinking water and eating air—and even the water I drink and the air I’m allowed to breath is strictly controlled.  I’m just going to enjoy eating my raw oats today and let tomorrow take care of itself.  After all, how many hungry children around the world wished that they had a handful of raw oats to eat today?  And, who knows, I might even lose a pound or two—or “FIFTY”—before this round of testing is all over!

Anyway, I guess the point is we can always point to someone else who has it a lot worse than we do. My dad also happens to be fighting cancer now—diagnosed just a couple of months ago—and has a surgery coming up this next week; he’ll be going under the knife at the same time I’m getting “nuked!”  We can also always point to someone else who, we think, has it a lot better or worse than we do, but comparing our lot in life with that of others is a futile.  We really don’t know what’s going on with people on the inside.  Best that we just play the hand we’ve been dealt:

musical notes“You’ve got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em, know when to walk away, know when to run; You never count your money while you’re sittin at the table, there’ll be time enough for countin, when the dealin’s done!”  (Schlitz, 1978)

 And WE’RE ALL still “sittin at the table.” Dude! I am so into all this old country music today—must be the diet, you know, all this horse feed I’m eating!  Thank you, Lord, I’ve so much for which to be grateful.

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There are no words, really, to describe my gratitude to the people in my life—family and friends, old and new—who have encouraged me, strengthened me, prayed for me, and just helped brighten my day here and there over this past year or so, as I have been having to deal with cancer.  I feel like there have been times when, seemingly out of nowhere, another angel pops up to remind me of God’s love and providence.  I could list the names of all of you who are near and dear to my heart, but it would take all evening and my cloudy mind would surely leave someone out who is vital to my survival; so I won’t risk it!

I really don’t like sharing, too much, about my own struggles and hardships.  I was brought up to “cowboy up” and to not draw too much attention to my own injuries because, ultimately, it’s not about how badly you’re hurt, but about how quickly you can get up and get back in the saddle.  Still, I’ve come to deeply appreciate those compassionate people in my life who, without a lot of fanfare, have found simple, yet meaningful, ways to help me do just that—to get back in the saddle and to get on with pursuing the mission.

You know, even Jesus, as the cross drew nearer, needed a little consoling, a little strengthening, a little shoring up in order to see His mission through to its completion.  I was reading, earlier today, about that event in Jesus’ life that we refer to as the “transfiguration.”  Do you remember that?  The Bible says:

He took along Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while He was praying, the appearance of His face became different, and His clothing became white and gleaming. And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:28-31)

I’ve noted through the years that, when people remember or refer to this event in Jesus’ life, they always tend to focus on that fuzzy line between this material dimension and the spiritual realm beyond—and, I’ve got to admit, that’s pretty cool.  I mean, the fact that Jesus could step across that boundary, or that Moses and Elijah could step across that boundary, and meet together in that border zone between here and there and have conversation, well, that’s pretty remarkable.  It says a lot, to me, about life in the hereafter and how that, at least for Jesus, moving between dimensions was really no big deal.

But what people often seem to fail to recognize in this passage is the purpose for this little inter-dimensional pow-wow; and that’s what I like to zoom-in on.  Why did Jesus have this experience?  What was the purpose for it?  Had it been prearranged ahead of time?  Did He know beforehand that it was coming, that He had a date with Moses and Elijah?  Is that why He climbed to the top of Mount Hermon—9,232 feet—and took three faithful witnesses along with Him?  Was the experience more for Jesus, or for the apostles who were with Him, or for us who would one day read about it?  And what really WAS this little conference all about?  I’m so glad the Bible text tells us—we don’t have to guess—they “were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”  I love that!  I love that because it speaks to me of the need that we all have for a little encouragement along the way—even Jesus!  God didn’t leave His only begotten Son to face the trials and tribulations of this life, or the doubts, fears, and misgivings of facing a fast approaching cross that was drawing nearer every day, all by Himself.  Even Jesus, as He faced His destiny, didn’t have to go it alone!

A little later, at the very end of His ministry, with the cross now looming huge before Him, on the night before His crucifixion, Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane; and do you remember who visited with Him?  It was another trans-dimensional experience.  The Bible says:

And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. When He arrived at the place, He said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”  And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him. (Luke 22:39-43, NASB)

When it came right down to it, Jesus did, indeed, have to bear the cross alone; and taste the bitter hell that we all deserve as He cried out to the Heavenly Father, “’Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matthew 27:46, NASB).  No angel could help bear that agony.  Even Moses and Elijah could but watch from a distance, as did all of Jesus’ earthly disciples.  But Jesus had been well prepared for the mission.  His elite training—if you will—had been of the highest caliber.  He had been groomed by love and shorn up by immortal faith.  He understood completely the price that had to be paid and the consequences if it was not.  And it was for this reason that, “for the joy set before Him” He “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2, NASB).

Sometimes, when we think we’re having to “go it alone,” really, we’re not.  Yes, there are moments that only we, all by ourselves, must endure.  Tomorrow, I will fly back to Honolulu and they will stick an IV in my arm, flood my heart with a radioactive tracer, put me on a treadmill and make me jog till I drop—they say, “no worry, we won’t let you die!” — yikes!  They’re doing this because it appears that all this cancer treatment has, perhaps, messed with my heart a little bit and they need to find out what’s going on.  I’m not looking forward to it, and none of you can get up there and ride that treadmill with me, I have to do it by myself, just like I did the surgeries, and the internal radiation therapy, and all the other junk that goes with fighting a major illness.

But, while I have to do it by myself, I know I’m never really alone.  I’ve been shorn up.  I’ve been encouraged.  I’ve been prayed for.  My peeps and, more importantly, my Lord have strengthened my weaknesses.  Their prayers and His love enfolds me.  And, I know, that regardless of the outcome, God’s got this!

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On a happier note, the conference with my endocrinologist this past Friday was exceptionally positive—best conference I’ve ever had with her to date.  Oh, have I ever mentioned that I have the most beautiful endocrinologist in the whole, wide world?  I didn’t know they even made doctors as beautiful as her—almost makes these inter-island flights to Honolulu worth the time and trouble.  Anyway, she just got a whole lot prettier in my eyes when she came right out and told me, with the biggest, brightest smile, that as far as she is concerned:  “You’re cured, for now!”

Wait!  Did she just use the word, “cured”?  I had to pause and catch my breath.  Of course, I kinda wish she had left off the “for now” part; but, hey, I’ll take it!  She said there is, currently, no sign or indication of the cancer anywhere in my body and that she doesn’t want to see me again for an entire year.  While I did feel the tiniest twinge of heartbreak that a creature so lovely had just told me that she didn’t “want” to see me again—did she have to put it in those exact words?—still, pretty as she is, that’s TOTALLY GOOD with me!

In closing this little chapter of my life, I want to go back to something Jeff Tomczek (2012) mentioned after battling leukemia for a year and hearing his doctors pronounce him cured. He said:

When you get to the other side you won’t believe it. They will tell you the disease is gone. Everyone you know will rejoice and return back to their lives. You’ll constantly wonder if it is coming back. Slowly this feeling will fade, but cancer will always be a part of you. It will define how you see the world moving forward.

I, too, am having a hard time actually believing my endocrinologist. Something deep inside tells me not to trust that word, “cured!” I’m afraid of letting down my guard, as if keeping up my guard could make any difference at all in what might happen in the future. But I know I’m being called to “walk by faith” (I Corinthians 5:7). And, ultimately, to walk by faith means heeding Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount concerning how God provides for His children in this world. He said:  “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:32-34, NASB).

How do I find the words to thank all of you enough for praying to this end—that I might be healed.  I know God has heard and has answered your prayers on my behalf. I love HIM for it; and I love you.

Cowboy Goodbye 2

29.) How Did You Know I’m Alone?

I want to speak, now, to yet one other “bump in the road” that people seem to want to avoid discussing—and it IS somewhat hard to talk about—and that is, the deeply emotional aspects of facing adversity and recovery. It has been my experience that there is a certain profound sense of “isolation” that sets in when facing difficult personal struggles or going through times of adversity.  I don’t know just what it is, really, but when facing any situation that forces us to confront our own mortality, the experience is often accompanied by an abject sense of loneliness.  In discussing his own experience with cancer, Jeff Tomczek (2012) put it this way:

Be grateful for every message. Be appreciative of each gift and each visit. There will be moments where all of this attention will make you feel lonelier than you have ever felt in your life. In a hospital room full of people with messages stuffing your inbox, voicemail and mailbox you will find yourself feeling completely alone. This is when you will realize that you could afford to have a stronger relationship with yourself. That only you walk this earth with 100% investment in you.

This is not only true of the hospital room, but even the ole “comeback trail” can sometimes feel pretty lonesome. As the intensity of the dramatic moment distills into the mundane struggle for normalcy, and people begin to realize that you’re probably NOT going to die—at least not anytime soon—they lose interest. That incredible support network that once surrounded you begins to fade and dissipate.

Well, we all know that “life goes on,” and that is how it should be. Personally, I don’t want people trifling over me. I’m ready to be taken off of a few “prayer lists”—I hate prayer lists anyway; nobody wants to be a line item on somebody else’s “list.” Don’t get me wrong, however, I do love the notion of spontaneous, heartfelt prayer. But, while I am more than ready to fade from some people’s short-term memories, that doesn’t mean I’m ready to lose EVERYone—yikes!

I’m reminded, again, of Jeff Tomczek’s wisdom as he shared some of his personal insights into his own cancer recovery. He said:

You’ll understand who truly loves you because they will still be there. You’ll want to meet new people that connect to the newly evolved version of your old self. You’ll want to let go of those that don’t ‘get’ who you are now. You’ll feel a little guilty doing it. Then, you’ll move on. You don’t have time to waste. The greatest gift you’ve been given is that you now understand that and you’re going to make the most of every second. (Tomczek, 2012)

Well, it’s okay with me if some of the buzzards who’ve been sitting around on the wires, wondering whether or not I’m going to die, take flight and head off in search of the next poor victim that they can hone in on for their dramatic amusement. However, there are a few sweethearts with whom I feel like I’ve drawn much closer through all of this; and I really don’t want to lose contact with them. But I know that even some of them will need to fly away because life is demanding, there are other people who need our attention, and we all have only so much room in our lives for those first, second, and third level relationships. In fact, I myself have been seriously contemplating cutting my Facebook “friends” list down from over 200 to only about 50, or maybe 20, or perhaps just 10—huuahhh!

I know that I’m not quite myself these days.  I’m not really over all the effects from the surgeries, the internal radiation therapy, and the additional minor—albeit often painful—medical procedures. I’m still on some pretty tough antibiotics, an occasional pain med, and my thyroid hormone replacement levels still need to be moderated.  In fact, my endocrinologist is upping my daily dose of levothyroxine (T4)—thyroid hormone replacement—to 200 mcg; which is, typically, as high as they will go.  Hopefully, that will be enough to get me out of this residual hypothyroid stupor I’ve been contending with for months on end now.

Well, these are some of my excuses, anyway, for the continued heightened state of general “discombobulation” and “emotionalism” that tends to plague me these days.   But, I have to admit, some of this “emotionalism” may have less to do with all these chemical imbalances, or even dealing with cancer, and more to do with just gettin old—sort of a “mid-life crisis,” perhaps?  Let’s face it, life does get a bit “freaky” after you turn 50 and it begins to dawn on you that the average life expectancy in the U.S. for people your age is only about 70 years—67 for men, 74 for women (Information, 2011)—and that means you have, in all likelihood, lived at least two-thirds of your life, already.

It’s funny how, when you think back to how fast life seems to have flown by, and how little of it remains, your priorities begin to shift and a number of new and unfamiliar emotions begin to come into play.  To be more specific, you begin to ask yourself questions like, “What are the most important things, really, in life?” and “What does God want me to do with whatever little time is remaining to me?”  These are questions which, to be fair, many of us have asked often throughout life.  But, when you get much past 50, these kinds of questions seem to take on a new urgency.  Here are a few related items I’ve been contemplating lately:

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 THINGS don’t really matter much!

Now, I know that I am somewhat of an “odd bird” to begin with.  Material wealth and financial security have never ranked particularly high among my personal values in life.  Sometimes I am tempted to regret that fact and sort of wish that I had given more attention to making money; and that I had been a better provider for my wife and family.  But when one feels compelled to buy in, completely, to the work Christ has set before us—to the extent that he or she is willing to forego possessing or enjoying very many of this world’s amenities—life, for better or for worse, becomes all about “the mission.”  And, I suppose that, to wish I had been a better provider is, in a way, denigrating the providential care of God; as though He, in some way, has not been a good enough provider or taken care of us the way I expected Him to.

I remember, when our children were still very young, my wife and I were visiting with some friends of ours, another young family, who had just purchased some land and had moved a pre-manufactured home onto the property.  They walked us around the premises showing us their new garden, their lawn, their chickens and other animals; and we rejoiced with them and were, genuinely, happy for them.

But, after dinner, while we were relaxing, talking together, and rejoicing over the acquisition of their little slice of the proverbial “American dream,” one of them asked the question of us, “So, tell us, what is YOUR dream?”

I shot a quick glance in the direction of my wife, our eyes meeting in telepathic connection, and we simultaneously smiled at one another.  Then, turning back to our friends, she answered for both of us, saying:  “We’re living it!”

Our friends, quite aware of our meager subsistence and minimalist lifestyle, stared at us with blank expressions and queried, “What do you mean?”

She went on to explain to them how that, for us, living, loving, serving, reaching, preaching, and teaching WAS our dream.  It’s all we’ve ever really wanted, and, aside from our health and well-being, all we’ve really ever asked for—and, well, we’re living it! I fell in love with my wife all over again that evening.

That being said, still, there have been times when—and forgive me, Lord, if I disparage Your providential care for us in any way—I wish that we could enjoy the lifestyle and financial security that some of our family and friends seem to have achieved.  We still live in a house that is not our own; and I get sort of tired of looking at our hodge-podge, hand-me-down furnishings—leftovers from garage sales, unclaimed stuff left in storage units, and worn out items that some hotel or resort was trying to get rid of.  What is our fashion theme?  We call it, “Contemporary Missionary!”  Some of you may recognize it as the “Rag-Tag Gypsy Wanderer” motif!

But I know that, compared with 97% or more of the world’s population, we still manage to live like royalty—we are not paupers by any stretch of the imagination.  And, really, I have nothing to complain about except, perhaps, that I have not been a better steward of the material resources that God has blessed us with over the years.

While we’ve done better than most, still, I wish I had completely refrained from that whole credit/debt trap.  That is not a good way to fund mission trips, or local ministry, or moving and relocation expenses, or education, or to pay for other goods and services.  It’s walking by sight, rather than by faith.

I also wish I had given more to others in need, or to worthy causes along the way; and that I had spent less on material things to which I felt entitled.  But, most of all, I just wish that I would have done a better job of simply being there for people.

My commitment going forward is not only to try to get out of debt as soon as possible, but to do a better job of investing our material resources, to the greatest extent possible, in eternal treasure and kingdom expansion.  Yes, I’m still all about “the mission!”  And, somehow, the idea of “making it” in this old world—whatever definition we individually assign to that idea—seems to pale in comparison with just “living it”—to the glory of God.

Jesus, after confronting the rich young ruler, who just could not let go of his material possessions in order to follow Him, said:

 “How hard it will be for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!”  The disciples were amazed at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!   It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”  They were even more astonished and said to Him, “Then who can be saved?”  Looking at them, Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”

Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.”   Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake,   but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.” (Mark 10:23-31, NASB).

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 TIME is a precious and fleeting commodity!

In his bestselling book, The 5 Love Languages, Gary D. Chapman (2010) outlines five mediums by which we all communicate and interpret our love one for another.  These include:  words of affirmation; physical touch; acts of service; giving and receiving gifts; and spending quality time together.  While we all “speak” each of these languages to one degree or another, individual hearts typically resonate at a higher level with one or two of them.  But regardless of what one’s first love language may be, I believe all are important to establishing and maintaining beautiful relationships; and we each need to be aware of how all five may play out in the various relationships we hold dear.

If there is one thing that has been drilled into my mind through my confrontation with cancer, it is the importance of treasuring the time we are afforded one with another.  And, yet, it seems to me as if this may be the very “love language” that is most often neglected.  For some reason, when it comes to loving and being loved, simply spending time together seems to take a back seat to verbal expression, intimate touch, acts of service, and gift giving.  Why is that?

Perhaps our high-powered, hectic, busy lifestyle has much to do with it.  The demands of today’s professional world—what it takes in terms of effort and energy just to keep a business financially solvent or a family afloat—are incredible.  Add to that all the organized activities to which we attach ourselves and our children in an effort have what society deems a “well-balanced” lifestyle, and it seems we have little time left for sharing some of life’s simple pleasures with one another, things like:  walking and talking together, sitting on the front porch and sharing our day, playing a simple game, throwing a football, listening to and sharing some music, or even praying and praising our Lord together.

When I look back on my life, I wish I could say that I have no regrets; but I do.  In fact, people who say “I have no regrets” are, I think, being incredibly arrogant.  Of course we have regrets; things we wish we would have done differently.  But one of the areas of my life that I regret the most is not spending enough quality time with the people I love.  Seems like there was always some immediate, pressing concern that was driving me:  academic pursuits, ministerial pursuits, deadlines, appointments, various commitments, or just financial considerations to take into account.

My mother battled with cancer over the last two years of her life.  While we often talked on the phone, I never seemed to make it “home” to see her during all that time—until near the very end.  Even then, I had commitments to speak at various places while on that trip and spent most of my time gallivanting around the great Southwest meeting with elders and mission committees, trying to hang on to the mission support that helped sustain us on this field of labor, rather than being at my mother’s side.

I remember my mom calling me in the middle of that trip, she in a hospital in New Mexico, me at a speaking engagement in Dallas, asking—no, begging—that I return and see her one more time before flying back to Hawaii.  I did, but it was only a short visit in the hospital at Las Cruces. The doctors had assured us that she was getting stronger and would be driving again by summer; so I took my leave, promising myself and her that I would return that summer to spend more time with her.

But summer, for her, never came.  Only two weeks after my return to Hawaii, my sister called to tell me that our mother had died. Looking back, I would give anything for a few more days or weeks, filled with long, boring, difficult hours just sitting in a hospital room at her bedside talking, sharing, reminiscing, rubbing her back (she loved that), and just giving her my time.

My little nephew, Gatlin, battled cancer over the last four years of his life.  I talked with my sister on the phone often, but, again, I never seemed to make it “home” to see her and the family during all that time.  Near the end of Gatlin’s life—he was only 14—we were blessed that he and my sister were able to come spend a couple of weeks with us here in Hawai‘i.  I don’t remember all the particular things we did, but that doesn’t matter so much as just the memory of his being here, his smile, his unique personal interactions—quite the tease—and the time that we shared together.

A couple of months later, my sister called to tell me that the time of Gatlin’s departure from this life was nearing and that he really wanted me to come see him while he had a few good days left.  However, due to local responsibilities here at home, I felt that I couldn’t just pick up and go.  So, I waited.  I waited until it was almost too late.  Even then, when I finally made it back to see him, he was on his final leg and died only 3 days after my arrival.

Looking back, while I was glad that I was there when the Lord called him home, I find myself wondering just what was so incredibly important that I couldn’t have hopped a plane and gone back to spend that last two or three weeks with him.  It wouldn’t have mattered what he was capable of doing, or what we would have done in the time we had together; only that I was there—but I wasn’t.

My little student, Jessica, battled Fanconi’s anemia the last couple of years of her life.  This little gal seemed to capture my heart in no time flat; and not just mine—people who knew her just couldn’t help but love her immensely.  Jessica had to have a bone marrow transplant in Honolulu and we had developed plans for me to travel over to visit and help Jessica with her school work while she was in the hospital.  We planned to continue with her home schooling needs when she returned to Kona.  But Jessica never returned to Kona and I never made it over to Honolulu to see her.

You see, while funds were available, they were limited; and we didn’t want to spend the money on travel until Jessica regained enough strength to actually be able to engage with me at some appreciable academic level.  But that never happened.  After 97 days in the hospital, the Lord took Jessica home just a few days after her 12th birthday.

Looking back, I’m wondering what the big deal was about making “appropriate use” of those designated funds.  I should have followed my intuition at the time and just hopped as many planes as I could to be there with her as often as I could; if only to give her a hug and a kiss, to pray with her and her family, and to let them know how much I love them.  No amount of money, raised or saved, can compensate for the time I missed out on being with Jessica in those last few months of her little life.

Are you starting to get my point?  I’m sitting here wiping tears and hoping that, perhaps, you are already well ahead of me and can relate stories of people in your own life to whom you wish you would have, somehow, managed to give a little more of your time.  And all the important agendas, busy schedules, deadlines and appointments, financial considerations, and other extenuating circumstances just seem to have paled, most now long-forgotten, in comparison to the time we had, or would like to have had, with those precious loved ones.

In considering our walk of life with the Lord, and the opportunities He gives us to love and share our lives with others, perhaps we would do well to heed the Apostle Paul’s admonition when he said to the church at Ephesus,  “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time [the KJV says, “redeeming the time”] because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16, NASB).

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 RELATIONSHIPS are what matter most!

And this is what has me a little “teary-eyed” today: while material things and so-called “financial security” continues to sink ever lower on my priority index, my emotions are steeped in thoughts of friendship and fond memories of precious moments spent with people I love.

You see, this past week, a couple of long-time friends who live on the U.S. Mainland—Craig and Danelle—dropped in to spend a couple of days with me.  They were in the islands to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary and to spend some time with their daughter on the island of Kauai.  But on their return trip home, they deliberately diverted their travel schedule—at the cost of a few hundred extra bucks—to hop on over here to our island and to see me.  These are, by the way, the first people I talked to on the day I found out that I had cancer—they knew my diagnosis, even before my wife did.  They have encouraged me often throughout this entire ordeal with a calm, steady, reassuring faith; and, now, they’ve even taken the extra time and expense to drop by and aggravate me for a few days.   Do you have any idea what that means to someone living in exile on a rock out in the remotest parts of the sea?

While the time we were able to spend together was sweet indeed, you should know that they didn’t come to cradle and coddle me—cudgel, perhaps, but not coddle (look it up).  Rather, as evidence of their true friendship, the very first thing they did on the morning after their arrival was to kick my butt into high gear by forcing me into a 5 mile cross-country run with some serious up-hill; which, while helping me with my pacing and breathing, as I try to adjust to my new running regimen, nearly killed me in the process. I wanted to quit so many times on that run, but they wouldn’t let me and kept challenging me to “push the envelope” just a little further.  I wanted to throw up, then collapse; or collapse then throw up—the only reason I didn’t is because I couldn’t decide the order.

Then, when I finally found some shade and a patch of grass beside the sea on which to collapse, they wouldn’t allow me to rest for long.  Before I could even recover, they had me out in the sea fighting turbulent ocean waters in the midst of a big swell with strong currents that threatened to sweep all of us off to Tahiti.  In fact, Craig got caught up in that current and was helplessly swept away, like a rag-doll, between a couple of giant lava pillars protruding from the ocean floor; causing Danelle and I to have to search for him in vain for more than 5 minutes.

I shot a quick prayer to God and, just when I was giving in to the possibility of his early demise, he reemerged some distance away from us.  A flood of relief swept over me in knowing that I had not, by God’s grace, as of yet, lost anyone I love on “my watch.”  However, due to the physiological impact of the whole episode, I was simply too physically and emotionally spent to make it back into shore at the spot where we had entered.  Rather, I gave in to the forceful current and just let it take me at will, Danelle following suit, until it washed both of us up on a rocky formation jutting out into the sea not far away.

Then, on the way home, these two dear friends manipulated me into stopping by Sports Authority to purchase a firm styrofoam roller—a device invented at Gitmo, no doubt.  They then induced me to practice several tortuous exercises using this instrument of malevolence; which not only inculcated excruciating affliction, but left me nauseous for hours afterwards.

However, because it was my granddaughter’s birthday and we had a party to attend, like the brave trooper I portend to be, I was able to “cowboy up” and not let on to anybody how totally whipped I really was by day’s end.  And this was just the FIRST day of their visit!  Ahhhh… “What ARE friends for?!?”  

Now, of course, I make no claim to infallibility in my documentation of the foregoing events.  As in all my storytelling, I can only assert that these are, indeed, the facts as I remember them.  And you, already knowing my distaste for hyperbole, are, I’m sure, convinced of the accuracy and reliability thereof.

Then, this past week, another long-time and more, shall we say, “benign” (at least from a distance) friend—David—called to cheer me up and talk about various matters related to ministry.  He said that he wants to print out and use my interactive, online Bible lessons in his Sunday morning Bible class.  Of course I gave my permission—”Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8, NASB).

As with Craig and Danelle, David and I have spent quite a bit of time “down in the trenches” laboring together in behalf of the cause of Christ on one mission campaign or another.  Now he reminds me once again that, time zones and distances notwithstanding, and even though I sometimes feel like John the revelator—exiled to the island of Patmos—we still need one another; and nothing binds our hearts together like active participation in mutual ministry.

On yet another note, I have an ever growing and evolving relationship with someone who has always just kind of “been there,” out on the peripheral margins of my life, but with whom I never really connected until recently.  My little cousin—Constance—who is several years younger than I, lives in the Middle East, out on a small peninsula surrounded by the Persian Gulf, in the nation of Qatar.

We’ve never talked to one another very much, or even seen one another more than just a few times in our lives.  But working through this cancer, as well as other adversities in our lives—she recently lost both her father, my Uncle Coleman and, just last week her mother, my Aunt Shirley—seems to have thrown us back together in quite an unexpected fashion.  It has been such a joy to learn about her family, her life, and all her adventures abroad.

Brief notes from her seem to appear out of the blue via one form of communication or another; dropping in, as it were, from the wings of the wind right when I most need them.  Yesterday another one of her messages drifted in, saying:  “The miles or oceans do not create a distance that can keep me from feeling you close!”

Wiping eyes, again, and looking out my window at the thousands upon thousands of miles of ocean waters surrounding me in all directions, I quietly give thanks to my God that, in this modern world of cyber connectivity, we don’t have to remain isolated from the people we love.  And, while I would hop the very next plane to go see her if I could, the inter-web will have to suffice for now.

These are but three, among many, relationships I’ve grown to cherish even more through this battle with cancer. However, I’ve also noted that some people, apparently, seem to have trouble relating to others, even “friends,” who are in distress; and, for various reasons, seem to need to take a step back and withdraw their friendship and support.  Then, of course, there are those who always seem to rally around tragedy, and are very attentive to those going through the fire, but then seem to disappear from the scene as the flames die down.

But there are people who, whether I fully appreciated it or not, were there for me before I ever entered into my “trial by cancer.”  They have encouraged me through it and they will still be there when it’s over—if it ever truly is.  And, when you’re beginning to “feel the years,” and start to realize just how few of them may be remaining to you in this present realm, precious relationships like these seem to skyrocket to the very pinnacle of one’s value system.

I guess I just need to learn to be grateful for any amount of love and friendship that I am allowed to experience with anyone during my short tenure here on earth—whether they are life-long relationships, or only for a little while. Are you familiar with the little poem entitled, “Reason, Season, Lifetime”—attributed to Brian Andrew “Drew” Chalker? I wasn’t, until recently, but I think it helps express what I’m feeling and trying to say about relationships:

REASON, SEASON, LIFETIME

When someone is in your life for a reason, it is usually to meet a need you have expressed. They have come to assist you through a difficulty; to provide you with guidance and support; to aid you physically, emotionally or spiritually. They may seem like a godsend, and they are. They are there for the reason you need them to be.

Then, without any wrongdoing on your part or at an inconvenient time, this person will say or do something to bring the relationship to an end. Sometimes they die. Sometimes they walk away. Sometimes they act up and force you to take a stand. What we must realize is that our need has been met, our desire fulfilled; their work is done. The prayer you sent up has been answered and now it is time to move on.

Some people come into your life for a season, because your turn has come to share, grow or learn. They bring you an experience of peace or make you laugh. They may teach you something you have never done. They usually give you an unbelievable amount of joy. Believe it. It is real. But only for a season.

Lifetime relationships teach you lifetime lessons; things you must build upon in order to have a solid emotional foundation. Your job is to accept the lesson, love the person, and put what you have learned to use in all other relationships and areas of your life. It is said that love is blind but friendship is clairvoyant.

 Thank you for being a part of my life, whether you were a reason, a season or a lifetime.

______________________________

How did you know
That I’m all alone today
Oh, I feel so scared
And I want to go away
I bleed so deep underneath
My soul is screaming

[Chorus:]
I’m not gonna hide
I’m not gonna run away
I’ll uncover the scars
And show you every mistake
Your love is mending my blisters
And the bruising shame
Here with you
I am safe

Drowning the tears
Won’t make it go away
It’s robbing my soul
I’m taking this mask off my face
To discover love
And uncover all
It means to live and breathe

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?