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?

24.) Sitting Here in Limbo

Well, the news was not what I had hoped it would be.   As I walked into the hospital yesterday and headed up to nuclear medicine, I was quietly rejoicing that my battle with cancer, at least this immediate round of warfare, would be completely over with, done, resolved, finished, or as we say here in Hawai’i, “pau.”  I’m so ready to close the book on this chapter of my life and move on.  I’m ready to just sort of melt once more into the background of my family and friend’s thoughts and prayers and for them to be able to pretty much forget about me and my needs for a while.  I was looking forward to the WBS (whole body scan), expecting clean scans that would, by the end of the day, provide a sense of relief that this cancer had been conquered.  Instead, I find myself right back where virtually all cancer patients often find themselves—just sort of hanging in limbo, waiting for more information, hoping for definitive answers.

The whole RAI (radioactive iodine therapy) and WBS has been an amazing experience; like something right out of a science fiction novel.  By the Lord’s grace, I didn’t get as sick as I had feared.  Far from the dungeon that I anticipated, the accommodations at Moanalua Hospital were wonderful; especially the giant, wall-sized, plate glass window overlooking Moanalua Valley that dominated my room.

Of course, everything was covered in plastic or paper, even the floor.  I was responsible for cleaning up after every meal, rinsing everything, and sorting all my own rubbish into separate hazardous wastes bags.  I was also responsible for taking all my own vitals every four hours and calling them in to the nurses’ station—blood pressure, pulse, oxygen level, temperature—and, if I forgot or was sleeping, they didn’t send in a robot spider to punish me; rather, they would simply buzz me on the intercom to remind me. My diet was extremely restricted and I basically ate the same three meals each day for three days with only slight variations.

The hardest part was just the isolation.  Not seeing or talking to anyone, except the nurses by intercom, for three whole days.  But that was okay, too, in that it provided some great “retreat” time to just be with the Lord.  I spent a lot of time looking out over the valley and talking with God.  Plus, I was allowed to open the windows and let the strong island trade winds blow through, which was nice for sleeping.  I also did a lot of reading.

The RAI itself was a simple procedure.  There was no hazmat team, as I had imagined, only a lovely young woman who arrived with a thick, solid lead cylinder—about 4 inches high and 6 inches thick, with a half-inch hole drilled down the middle.  It looked like a large, plump, metal doughnut.  The cylinder, along with a full glass of water, was sitting on a rolling metal cart.  She pushed the cart into my room, gave me instructions, and then stepped back out into the center of the hallway to observe.  I pulled a black plastic tab which caused a glass vial to protrude up out of the hole in the middle of the cylinder.

I took the vial, opened it, and poured a little capsule into a clear, plastic cup. The capsule looked like a small, clear Tylenol capsule. It had two red rings around the middle and was filled with a white powder.  I simply poured the capsule from the cup directly into my mouth and washed it down with the glass of water; then dropped the vial back into the cylinder.  The woman approached with a measuring rod, about six feet in length, placing one end of it against my chest while holding up a Geiger counter type device at her end.

“Yup, you’re hot,” she said.

“Why, thank you,” I replied, “I haven’t been told that in quite a while.”

She smiled, “Don’t forget to take your calcium and constipation meds.”  She then quickly retrieved the table, closed the door, and, like the wind, was gone!

While the hospital stay was only three days, the isolation continued after I returned to Kona.  We rented a little condo downtown where I stayed alone for the next five days.  Rene’ came over for a little while each evening, being sure to always keep at least six feet away from me, and prepared my supper.  It was good to be with somebody each day, even if it was just for a few minutes. But it was definitely “look, don’t touch!”

Then, yesterday, I had to fly back to Honolulu for the whole body scan. That, too, was in interesting experience. I was placed in a comfortable, cocoon-shaped, half-cylinder like bed, wrapped up tight with Velcro strapping—like a straight jacket—covered with a thin blanket, and told to try not to squirm.

The bed, mounted to a track, then moved, ever so slowly, through a long, body-length tube.  The “camera” itself, was less than an eighth-inch from my nose while I was down in the tube; which was a little disconcerting.  I couldn’t stand it for long; I had to close my eyes and just try to go somewhere else in my mind. But, as my head emerged from the tube, I was able to open them and watch the rest of the scan on a screen directly above me. The whole thing took a little over an hour.

The nuclear techies allowed me to view the scans both during and after the tests.  The scans looked like star fields—like looking at a distant galaxy—with all these tiny pinpoints of light scattered throughout the dark silhouette of my body.  What was most amazing, though, was the region of the thyroid bed in my throat.  It was a brilliant glow with, what appeared to be, sort of foggy, shimmering rays streaming forth, terminating in tiny lines of light, straight as arrows, in all directions—like a star-burst.  I asked if that was just some kind of glare, like you might see in your windshield when headlights are coming at you on the highway at night.  They said, no, that what we were seeing were the actual beams of beta-particle radiation streaming forth as detected by the camera.

I couldn’t help but reach for my throat and swallow hard.  It made me mindful of the Holy Spirit who dwells within every child of God (I Corinthians 3:16) and, though we cannot detect His presence with the naked eye, or any mechanical device, His power and presence is very much there.

And then, we noticed what we all didn’t want to see.  A brightly lit cluster of stars emerged on the left side of my chest.  There had been some kind of substantial uptake of the I-131 in that region.  Was it in the lungs?  Was it a lymph node?  The nuclear technicians, of course, couldn’t tell me anything; but their moods turned somber.  I was told that only the radiologist, in consultation with my endocrinologist, would be able to interpret the readings accurately and determine what was going on.

My endocrinologist called only one day after the WBS to tell me that she had already received the report and that they were concerned enough about this cluster of stars that she was ordering up an ultrasound for me right away.  She said they thought that the cancer may have spread to my liver.

While it is unusual that thyroid cancer would metastasize to the liver—usually it goes to the lungs or bones—it is not impossible.  She has already scheduled the ultrasound for the coming week and said that she would have the results, along with the full report from radiology and a possible prognosis, by our next consultation; which is still about two weeks away.

She said that, if the ultrasound reveals a nodule in the liver, they’ll have to go in and get it right away.  However, she was quick to reassure me that it is probably nothing, just an area where some radioactivity may have pooled before being strained and eliminated from the body; it could even be a spot on the skin due to sweating or some other bodily fluid.  I remember shedding a few radioactive tears that morning on the way to the hospital, and wiping them on my shirt in that general area, because an old friend had called to check on me.

Furthermore, even if it is metastasis—wherein the cancer cells have spread—it may not be a growing nodule and the radioactivity may very well do its job of tracking down and ablating the cancer cells once and for all.  But, for now, something is definitely showing up on the scans and I would very much like to know why.

This is yet another example of how my Kaiser Permanente team has responded to this whole ordeal.  I’ve never had to wait for approval for anything.  The medical staff quickly jumps on every little concern that arises, orders up tests, makes my appointments for me, and keeps the ball rolling.  I guess it is in their corporate interests, as well as their patient’s best interest, for them to try to nip every problem in the bud as quickly as possible and keep each client as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

Anyway, so I guess I will now be getting an ultrasound of my liver.  So goes the many twists and turns of battling cancer.  I will know more about these readings and, hopefully, finally receive an official staging of the cancer, along with a prognosis, when I visit with my endocrinologist in a couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’m sitting here in the eye of the storm—not knowing, for sure, what to expect next; something every cancer patient just has to get used to, I guess.

But, hey, you can’t let cancer dictate your life for you.  Starting today, I’m back on my hormone replacement therapy and, already, feeling much better.  The head nurse in the endocrinology department in Honolulu, Annie, called to check on me today.  I told her that I can feel myself emerging from that sad and sorry state of hypothyroidism and getting stronger hour-by-hour.  I also apologized for anything I may have said to her while in “hypo-stupor.”  She just laughed and said, “It’s okay, I’m used to it!”  She’s an amazing person—like a “life-line” for me.

Just finally getting off the LID (low iodine diet) is a huge relief.  I can finally eat whatever I want and, I’ve got to tell you, I’ll never look at a simple hotdog the same ever again; not that I plan to eat a lot of hotdogs—ha!  But, not being allowed to eat one really made me relish (no pun intended) the thought of eating one. It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul said:

I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’  But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind. (Romans 7:7-9, NASB)

I’m so glad that we don’t have to worry ourselves sick with guilt, fear, and anxiety in our struggle to live lives of decency that bring honor and glory to God; and that make Him smile.  Why not?  Because, here again, the Biblical principle of freedom in Christ comes into play. Paul, in that same letter to the Christians at Rome, goes on to say:

I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.  For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man[hotdogs are not good for me], but I see a different law in the members of my body [I know I shouldn’t have a hotdog, therefore I want one], waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members[stolen water is sweeter, so I’m going to eat this hotdog]. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:21-25, NASB)

This goes hand-in-hand, I believe, with what the Apostle John said:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin [hey, don’t eat that hotdog, it’s not good for you].  And if anyone sins [if you do what you know you shouldn’t and eat that hotdog], we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world [WHAT?  You ATE the hotdog?  God is NOT smiling!!!  >>> siiiigh <<< Good thing you’re covered by the blood of Christ]. (I John 2:1-2, NASB)

Does all that sound a little too “liberal” for you; like maybe we’re just excusing sin, or something?  humph…

But here’s what’s really interesting:  that being the case, now that off the LID—free from the law—I really don’t find hotdogs all that attractive anymore.  My desires seem to have changed.  There are plenty of others good things to eat that are far more enjoyable and much better for me. Funny how freedom from sin and its consequences, and the freedom to serve Christ out of love rather than being strictly regulated by law, greatly diminishes the desire to sin.

Of course, we must be careful with this concept.  God’s grace is not a license to sin.  The scriptures condemn those “ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness” (Jude 1:4, NASB).  We must still, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14, NASB).  But that sanctification does not rest upon some single moment of weakness [OMGoodness, I’ve broken down and eaten that hotdog]; but, rather, it’s a matter of the heart—a walk of life!

How on earth did I get so carried away with hotdogs?  Anyway, while I’m sitting here in limbo with regard to the cancer, I’ve no intention of simply letting life slip by me.  Yes, anything could happen.  But, anything could happen to any one of us on any given day.  Nobody is  assured of tomorrow.  I was reminded of this yesterday when, following the ordeal with the scans, I was sitting in the hospital waiting for a prescription to be filled and I noticed a plaque up on the wall which read, “Yesterday is HISTORY, Tomorrow is a MYSTERY, Today is a GIFT.”

When you think about it, today is all we really have.  No wonder the scripture says, “This is the day which the Lord has made; Let us rejoice and be glad in it!” (Psalm 118:24, NASB).  This is where “faith” comes into play.  The Apostle Paul also exhorts us, saying, “Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord—for we walk by faith, not by sight—we are of good courage, I say, and prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord.  Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Corinthians 5:6-9, NASB).

I’ve got things to do, people to love, opportunities to reach and teach, a life to live, and a God to serve.  I refuse to allow what “might happen” to get in the way of all of that!

22.) Going Froggy

In preparation for internal radiation therapy next week, my doctors have taken me completely off the T3—thyroid hormone replacement—and are plunging me into a state of complete thyroid hormone withdrawal and hypothyroidism.  This, I’m told, is designed to send my TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) levels, produced by the pituitary gland, through the roof and help facilitate the uptake of the 131-I (radioactive iodine) that I am to receive.

I am now one full week into the withdrawal period, which I have to endure for more than three weeks due to the WBS (whole body scan) which follows one week after the RAI (radioactive iodine) ablation.  Symptoms of hypothyroidism are setting in, including: strange sensations of anxiety—over what, I’m not sure—mixed with thirst—but I’m not thirsty—mixed with hunger—but I’m not hungry.

I’m also experiencing a general weakness, fatigue, and lethargy—I want to do stuff, but can’t seem to find the energy or willpower; although I did get all my yard work and landscaping done this weekend.  I also, somehow, managed to negotiate DMV—hours of waiting in line and filling out paperwork—in order to get my driver’s license renewed. However, I’m letting my wife do all the driving because I fear my reflexes are somewhat delayed and my reaction times are slower. The experts warn that “all patients who are hypothyroid should avoid making important decisions and driving or operating heavy machinery for one to two weeks before and after the scan or treatment” (Thyca, 2012a).

I notice, too, that my skin is drying out and becoming crinkly, my hair is becoming brittle, I’m experiencing muscle aches and joint pain, and my internal thermostat seems to be aligning more with my wife’s.  Around our house, we’ve always engaged in that age-old battle of the sexes over the thermostat:  she’s always complaining about being cold, while I’m typically too hot.  But lately, I’m feeling cold a lot, too—yes, even here in tropical Hawai’i—especially at nights.

Mostly, I’m just feeling somewhat “froggy”—my head is being overrun with what Ne’ and I refer to as “brain frogs”—producing bouts of dizziness, lightheadedness, or detachment from reality; like I have been mildly sedated or something.  This is often accompanied by a mild headache and a woozy nausea; like you get on a spinny carnival ride—just writing about it makes me want to go lay down.

These frogs, when they really get to hopping and playing, often cause me to forget what I was just thinking about, or to get all emotional over some incident, or thought, or memory; and then wonder to myself what it was that I was just getting all worked up about.  They cause me to forget people’s names, or how to pronounce highfalutin words, or how to spell even the most common words like, “fog”… I, I mean, “frog!”

I know, I know, some of you reading this are probably thinking to yourself, “huh — sounds like regular ole Salty to me, in fact, he may have actually improved!”

In addition to all that hormonal stuff, and the creepy brain frogs, I’m now into the second week of what has got to be one of the strictest diets in the world—affectionately known to those of us in the ThyCa community as, “The LID” (low iodine diet).  To borrow a phrase from the character, Peter Pan, in Steven Spielberg’s motion picture Hook (1991), “Gandhi ate more than this!” What is the LID?

  • Absolutely no iodized salt or sea salt or any foods or products that may contain iodized salt or sea salt.
  • No seafood or sea products, or products containing sea products (including: carrageenan, agar-agar, algin, alginate, nori) because all products from the ocean tend to be high in iodine.
  • No dairy products (milk, cheese, cream, yogurt, butter, ice cream, powdered dairy creamers, whey, casein, other dairy products) or products that may contain dairy products.
  • No egg yolks or whole eggs or foods or food products that may contain whole eggs.
  • No soybeans or soy products (soy sauce, soy milk, tofu) or food products containing soy products.
  • No corn products or food products containing corn products.
  • No beans, including: red kidney beans, lima beans, navy beans, pinto beans, or cowpeas – black-eyed peas… (can have black beans and white beans).
  • No Swiss chard, broccoli, spinach, turnips & turnip greens, radish, eggplant, rhubarb, potato (with skins), cranberries, strawberries, prunes, bananas (can have 1 occasionally).
  • No chocolate (for its milk or salt content), molasses, or any other sweets, candies, or products that may contain dairy or salt.
  • No iodine-containing medications (check with doctor), vitamins, and food supplements. Also products containing iodate or iodide. Check the label and ingredients and discontinue completely if iodine is included. Most vitamins with minerals contain iodine.
  • No products that may contain Red Dye #3 (erythrosine — contains iodine).  Avoid all red, orange, or brown processed food, food products, or pills and capsules.
  • No restaurant food and fast food.
  • No commercial baked goods or bakery products.
  • No manufactured or processed foods.

     (Thyca, 2012b – adapted)

So what, then, CAN I eat?  Pretty much everything else; which amounts to pretty much, “NOTHING!”  Not really, it just seems like it whenever we go shopping.  Actually, I somehow manage to eat pretty good, all-in-all.  In fact, tonight, I will eat better than most of the children of the world… hummm!

The “official” list says that I can have:

  • Fresh meats, up to 5 ounces per day (beef, chicken, turkey—if not broth injected).
  • Whole grains and cereals, up to 4 servings per day (grains, cereals, pasta, and breads without iodine-containing ingredients). Homemade baked goods and cereals are best on this diet.
  • Basmati rice—like grains, rices vary in the amount of iodine depending on the region where grown, so rice should be eaten only in limited amounts.
  • Fresh fruits and fruit squeezed juices—homemade.
  • Fresh vegetables, preferably raw and fresh-cooked or frozen without salt.
  • Unsalted nuts and unsalted nut butters.
  • Honey, maple syrup—some jellies.
  • Black pepper, most fresh or dried herbs.
  • Vegetable oils without additives.
  • Clear sodas, non-instant coffee and tea, beer, red wine, distilled water—some sparkling waters.
  • And all the imaginary “Never Food” I care to eat.

     (ThyCa, 2012b – adapted)

Sooooo, I’ve got my new Nutribullet, along with my new Cuisine Art hand-held stick blender/chopper, standing at readiness.  My cupboards are chalked full of fresh whole, organic nuts, and whole grains, along with simple seasonings; my fridge is full of fresh veggies; and my counters runneth over with all kinds of fresh fruit.

I’m finding myself spending a lot of time in the kitchen these days.  In fact, I think the place is beginning to take on the look, feel, and smell of a Master Chef kitchen—or, at least, a real kitchen anyway;  you know, like the one grandma used to have.  I’m making my own Salty’s Sass-Ass V-8 cocktail, my own Salty’s Kick-Ass Salsa, and even learning to milk my own oats—because all alternative milks seem to contain salt—all with somewhat moderate success.

By the way, ever try to milk oats?  YOU try it!  You’ll find out it’s not as easy as it sounds.  First, you’ve got to herd them up, then get them to stand still long enough, and always, always beware of swishing tails. Ah, but I digress…

My poor little wife—my principal care giver—is having to learn how to cook, or completely relearn how to cook in some old-timey ways; not the easiest of tasks for a modern, professional, working woman—and I of course, I’m “helping” her learn, but…

We’re learning to make a lot of things dairy free and salt free using lots and lots of oats and oat flour—because we’re trying to remain gluten free—i.e., oat tortillas, oat pancakes, oat bread, oat biscuits, various and sorted oat snackers.  All in an effort to help keep me alive and relatively happy through all of this.

It leaves me feeling both appreciative and apologetic.  Appreciative for all the extra trouble she, and others, have gone to on my behalf; and apologetic for my abnormal, hormonal behavior and all the goofy antics she’s, and others, are having to put up with.

But, at least, in some ways, I can now relate to a woman, I think, in a few ways that most men can’t; if you catch my drift. Furthermore, and most importantly, I can reassure and comfort her by saying, “Honey, now relax, this too shall pass; after all, all of this is only due to those terrible, vile things my mean ole doctors are doing to me. It’s not like it’s going to last forever, you know… not gender related or something that will keep reoccurring on a ‘periodic’ basis.”

She scowls!

I flee…

Now where did those frogs go… has anybody seen my frogs???

21.) Feels Like Roulette

I’m learning not to ask cancer patients, or anyone walking in the shadow of their own mortality, how they’re feeling—unless I am fully prepared for the answer, because there is a high likelihood that they just might tell me; or, sensing my insincerity, they’ll just lie. It’s funny, sometimes, how that, when people ask me how I’m feeling, and I start to tell them, their face begins to glaze over and their eyes take on that “deer in the headlights” stare.  Or, they begin to get fidgety and start looking around like, “Oh no, he’s actually telling me, somebody get me outta this.”

Meanwhile, I’m thinking:  “Haha… I’ve got you now!  Soooo, should I keep on talking for the pure pleasure of punishing you for having the audacity to ask? Or, do I show you some mercy and quickly set the brakes, and just say, ‘but, you know what, all-in-all, I’m feeling great!’ and just leave it at that?”

Being the compassionate person that I am—well, most of the time, with most people—I typically just lie from the start and tell them, “I’m feeling just fine!” Which is all they really want to hear, anyway.

But sometimes I’m tempted to be just plain mean to those who are totally clueless and, when they ask how I’m feeling, I want to get all grumpy and say to them, “Well, have you been to my website lately and read my blog? Because, if you cared enough to have done that, then you would know about the hospital stays, the crazy hormone imbalances, and the upcoming radiation treatment. And then, at least, you could ask me a more specific and intelligent question!”  But then I hear sweet Taylor Swift’s (2011) voice echoing in my mind, singing: “Why you gotta be so mean?”— doouughh!!!

Something that is really hard to deal with, at this point, and that is hard to talk about, is the uncertainty regarding my future plans and goals. Looking back over my writing, I note that I’ve made some rather bold statements about not letting cancer define me or be the controlling factor in my life. Those statements were obviously posted on days when I felt a whole lot better than I do right now – ha! Again, I can already relate to Jeff Tomczek’s (2012) insight when he says, “…cancer will always be a part of you. It will define how you see the world moving forward. You’re going to feel like the future is a funny thing to think about because the present is going to suddenly seem incredibly important.”

The fact of the matter is, like it or not, this cancer has been a huge disruption to my life; and has changed everything. Just before discovering that I had cancer, I was running 5 days a week (5 miles/day @ 9.00 minutes/mile). Today, I’ll be lucky if I can walk 2 miles. I lost over 60 lbs. during 2012, all the way down to 197.  Now, it’s only mid-January and, despite adopting a vegan diet and eating less, I’ve gained over 20 lbs., back up to 220 – yuck! While I still seem to look sort of okay, and people don’t seem to notice the weight—or at least, if they do, they don’t say anything—it sends a shiver through me every time I step on the scales. I feel so out of control of this whole situation.

Just a “side note” about going vegan. I’ve discovered that “vegan” doesn’t necessarily translate into “healthy.” In fact, many people who are vegan are incurring much higher rates of cancer and other chronic diseases because they’ve simply substituted one bad eating habit for another. For example, many give up eating every kind of meat and dairy, but then flood their bodies with all kinds of soy products—which has got to be one of the most poisonous substances we can consume—as well as processed carbs, sugars, glutens, etc… They would do better to eat a little free-range chicken, or grass-fed beef from time-to-time, rather than that poisonous tofu junk!

On another note, I was becoming so confident in my new lifestyle of controlled weight loss, physical discipline, and amateur athleticism that I was already in the process of initiating plans to inaugurate a new health and fitness club called “Missio Dei”—Mission of God—and had begun encouraging people to join me in training, running, biking, and racing in behalf of impoverished children around the world. All of that seems to have evaporated before my very eyes!

During the coming year, my plan was to travel back to the U.S. Mainland to visit family, friends, and churches in an effort to raise additional, and severely needed, mission support funds for our work and ministry here in the islands. I was planning to launch a new, comprehensive missions outreach project that would greatly enhance our evangelism outreach efforts here in Hawai‘i and throughout the Pacific; including the resurrection and continuation of our local Christian home-schooling network. It broke my heart to have to tell my son this past week, after a difficult consultation with my endocrinologist, that the homeschooling portion of the project would likely not be happening. My granddaughter, whom I love more than life itself, was supposed to have been my first new client!

So, for better or for worse, this cancer is changing my life and causing me to reevaluate everything—all my plans, all my goals, all my dreams and aspirations—short-term and long. But one thing I’ve been warned about is making important life decisions while still in the midst of the fire. It is better, I’m told, not to overreact, but to just focus on my health and doing what I need to do to get better; and give the fires time to die down. Then, when I’m in a “better place” and positioned to face the future, I can make critical decisions about the goals and dreams I want to pursue. However, that is so hard for me to do. I’m one of those emotional, passionate, type “A” personalities who find it tough not to overreact, but to simply wait, to put it all in God’s hands, and to let things unfold naturally. I’m too much the doer! And, I feel like, if I can’t get the job done, then I just need to get out of the way and let someone else come in who can.

As a cancer patient, I just need people to know, if they care to know, that these life changes that are happening all around me are not phantoms, they are very real—at least to my mind. Okay, maybe some of them are phantoms; but please treat my phantoms respectfully – ha! And please don’t talk to me about your Aunty Margaret who had some kind of something wrong with her thyroid, but that was years ago and now she’s taking her tiny pills and doing just fine. And don’t say a word to me about thyroid cancer being one of those “good cancers.” There is no “good cancer”—even if, as with papillary thyroid, the casualty rate is only around 11% for people over 45.  It’s still a roulette with 10 chambers and 1 live round… YOU wanna play?

Furthermore, every cancer is different, every person is different, and every treatment is different in its effects, consequences, and outcomes. Everyone who faces a potentially deadly disease, or who is dealing with any kind of serious, chronic illness, is going to endure a plethora of life-changing experiences—physical, psychological, spiritual. And, there will be death—if not physical, certainly the death of dreams, goals, ambitions, and lifestyle; and maybe even a few relationships. None of us are in a position to second guess or presume to know what someone else is going through, or to make light of that; or to tell them how they should feel about it, or how they should handle their unique situation. Nor do we know God’s plan for that person or the endgame He may have in mind.

The best encouragement I can find regarding my own circumstances, comes from the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Christians living in Rome who were enduring immense persecutions and suffering. He said, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB). Note that the passage does not say “all things are good,” or that “only good things will happen,” to those who love God. In fact, in another Bible passage, wise King Solomon said:

I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, NASB)

God’s promise is not that bad things will not happen to good people. Bad things happen to everyone. But the promise is that He “causes all things to work together for good” to those who love Him.

We can rest assured that, even when things seem to be spiraling out of control and our dreams are dying all around us, God is still in control. No matter how bad it seems to get, He will work it all together for our good.  That promise, by the way, is not for everybody. That promise, the Bible says, is one that God has made to those who love Him.

______________________________

So, do you really want to know how I feel—how a lot of people feel, I guess—when battling cancer, or some other potentially life-threatening situation; especially when you’re really not sure just what you’re up against, and the future seems so uncertain?  Well, here’s a song by Rihanna which, I think, pretty well describes where I am at the moment; and where a lot of cancer patients often find themselves:

______________________________

Please feel free to comment below; or write to me: mybiblestudy777@gmail.com

20.) Preparations for RAI

Herewith commences what may well prove to be a somewhat lonely season of life. I’m in the thick of the storm. The surgeries are done, I hope, but I’m still six weeks out from the I-131 internal radiation ablation. In a telephone conference today with my new lead nurse, Annie, from endocrinology, I received notice that I need to start limiting my contact with people in the public sphere because it’s flu season; and, though it’s not yet rampaging through Hawai’i, like it is in other parts of the country, the flu will soon make its annual debut here in the islands. Furthermore, she said that, when I go in for blood work in a couple of days, I also have to get a flu shot.

I argued, of course, that I didn’t believe in or want the vaccine, but she strong-armed me—yes, over the telephone—saying: “Well, the flu is coming. We’re getting lots of visitors from the mainland this time of year, your wife is a teacher, and you are a minister, so you’re already at risk. Plus, you’re going to be in and out of the clinic and the hospital, and sitting in a lot of waiting rooms, over the next couple of months. If you contract the flu, all your treatment plans go down the tank and we’ll just have to reschedule for later in the year. Your call!”

Dooouuugghhhhh!!! So, have I mentioned that I’ll be getting the flu shot in a couple of days? And then, I guess, I’ll have to try to limit having close contact with people in general for the next month or so; until I get beyond the radiation treatment and the whole body scan to follow.

This is really a bummer because I’m a fairly sociable guy and I enjoy being around people; it’s just a huge part of my life, my work, my ministry. But, all-in-all, the temporary isolation is probably a good thing, given the roller coaster hormonal ride that I’m enduring as the doctors try to regulate my blood serum leading up the radiation treatment. Right now, they’re still trying to regulate my vitamin D and calcium levels. They have taken me off calcitriol, meant to foster the uptake of calcium, because they think it is interfering with my absorption of the Liothyronine (T3)—the thyroid replacement hormone. So I’m being constantly monitored for hypocalcaemia.

At the same time, my endocrinologist doubled the dosage of liothyronine—the most potent form of thyroid hormone—to produce somewhat of a hyperthyroidism effect prior to the whole body scan. Potential symptoms include: rapid heartbeat (tachycardia); irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) or pounding of your heart (palpitations); nervousness, anxiety and irritability; tremor—usually a fine trembling in your hands and fingers; sweating; increased sensitivity to heat; changes in bowel patterns; fatigue, muscle weakness; difficulty sleeping.

Then, two weeks before the radiation treatment, I’m told, she will take me completely off the thyroid hormone, which will plunge me into a state of hypothyroidism; and my TSH (thyroid stimulation hormone) levels, produced by the pituitary gland, will skyrocket. Symptoms will include: fatigue; increased sensitivity to cold; constipation; puffy face; hoarseness; muscle weakness; muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness; pain, stiffness or swelling in the joints; slowed heart rate; depression; impaired memory. All of this is supposed to help facilitate the cellular uptake of the radioactive iodine when they give it to me.

Worst of all, they’re forbidding the use of my beloved floticasone (Flonase), as well as Afrin and any and all other antihistamines or steroids. So now I have to go around with a swollen, sniffling, stuffy nose.

This is typically how it goes. It’s not so much the cancer itself that makes you feel like “junk,” but all the related treatment that you have to endure and the therapies you have to go through to eventually, hopefully, get better.

I feel sorry for my family and friends. After all, who wants to be around somebody like that? Not only will I not be very pleasant company, but, due to increasing levels of what they call, “brain fog,” I may not even be able to remember people’s names. It’s like getting a little taste of “old age” long before you’re due—uggg!

However, despite my terrible treatment of them, I do find myself coveting the love, support, and encouragement of family and friends. It means the world to me when people correspond, leave a text message, or just find little ways to help cheer me up. I’m leaning heavily these days on email, Facebook, and my friends in the ThyCa—Thyroid Cancer Survivors Association—online support community. I’ve got to say, I am more than a little amazed at those who want to stay informed on my progress and who take the time to check for my blog updates. I’m already finding that what Jeff Tomczek (2012) said is true:

Your relationships are about to change. All of them. Some will get stronger. They will probably not be with the people you would expect. The people you want to handle this well might not be able to for a variety of reasons. Some of the reasons will be selfish. Some of them will be entirely innocent and circumstantial. All of them will be forgivable because no one plans for cancer. Carrying bitterness or anger won’t help your recovery. Fighting for anyone to stick with you won’t cure you. Those who can, will.

It humbles me, though, and even makes me feel a little guilty, just knowing that a few friends and loved ones actually bother to whisper a little prayer for me from time-to-time. After all, it seems like we’ve all got so much on our plates these days. I know that the time and energy that we have available to give to others, even in prayer, is often pretty limited; no matter how much we may care.

I find myself not wanting to impose on anybody. Furthermore, there are so many people with dire needs far exceeding my own. It makes me feel kind of strange even just writing about my feelings—it feels too much about “me.” But I guess this, too, is just a part of the journey that all who are dealing with cancer, and similar circumstances, are forced to deal with.

So, I’ll continue to write in order to acknowledge this sojourn and, perhaps, to encourage other lonely sojourners as well. And I do give thanks that these dark days of relative isolation and chemical craziness are made significantly less lonely and endurable by the support of others and, of course, by Him:

Where can I go from Your Spirit?

Or where can I flee from Your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, You are there;

If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.

If I take the wings of the dawn,

If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,

Even there Your hand will lead me,

And Your right hand will lay hold of me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,

And the light around me will be night,”

Even the darkness is not dark to You,

And the night is as bright as the day.

Darkness and light are alike to You.

(Psalm 139:7-12, NASB)

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19.) The “Good Cancer” Bus

I was recently told—by a medical technician no less—that, “Well, at least you’ve got the good cancer!”   Hummmmm…  I wasn’t sure whether to breath a little sigh of thankfulness for that, or to clobber her!  I mean, good cancer? Really???

You know, all this “waiting” has got to be one of the hardest parts! It has now been three months since I first discovered the lump in my throat and that initial doctor visit; and, since that day, my life has been pretty much turned on end. While I’m blessed to have a medical provider that jumps on things pretty quickly and keeps the ball rolling—I’ve never had to sit and wait for insurance approval—still, it sure seems like a lot has had to happen just to get to this juncture. I’ve been through a couple of ultrasounds, a five sample needle biopsy, more consultations—phone & clinic—than I can count, more lab tests and blood work than I can possibly keep track of, two surgeries—one requiring a five day hospital stay—and eight flights to and from the island of Oahu. And I just now, finally, have some preliminary inkling of the extent and staging of the cancer—maybe.

However, even now, both the ENT surgeon and my endocrinologist have warned that they can only offer a “preliminary” prognosis at this point because nothing will be known for sure—if it ever is—until after the WBS (whole body scan), which will occur one week following the internal radiation treatment, or RAI—radioactive iodine ablation—which is still more than a month away. And even then, more will be known only after months of testing and a second WBS, yet to be scheduled six months after the first one.

But, according to my doctors, the cancer is “currently” designated as T2N0M0 Stage II differentiated papillary carcinoma of the left thyroid. “T2″ means that the initial tumor was larger than 2 cm but not larger than 4 cm across—it was 3.5 cm—and that it did not appear to have grown outside the thyroid. “N0″ means that there appears to be no spread to the lymph nodes. “M0″ means that it doesn’t look—for now—like the cancer metastasized to any other organs of the body. In consultation with my endocrinologist following the second surgery, I was informed that the pathology report revealed a second tumor had been found in the right hemisphere of the thyroid—about .5 cm—but that did not change the current staging.

I guess age 45 is the “cut-off” date used to help determine general prognosis for those dealing with thyroid cancer. I’m 10 years beyond that cut-off—yikes!—meaning that, even though the cancer does not appear to have spread, I am automatically assigned a higher level of staging based upon my age. According to Columbia University Medical Center, using information “extrapolated from a number of sources including the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, among others,” for my age, stage, and type of cancer there is a 7% chance of recurrence, a 7% chance of distant recurrence, and an 89% survival rate at the 10 year mark (Columbia, 2011, para. 7). Other sources state:

While the prognosis for most people with thyroid cancer is very good, the rate of recurrence or persistence can be up to 30%, and recurrences can occur even decades after the initial treatment. Therefore, it is important that you have regular follow-up examinations to detect whether the cancer has recurred. Health monitoring should continue throughout your lifetime. (ThyCa, 2011)

What does all this mean? I don’t know for sure. I guess it means that, initially, for every 100 people over the age of 45 who are diagnosed with this particular cancer, 89 of us will still be here in 10 years, while 11 of us will have died from this disease. I’m not sure just how I should take that. Do I just relax, smile, and say, “Oh, well, that’s only 11 people out of every one hundred, or 110 out of every one thousand, or 1,100 out of every ten thousand of us; so, why be overly concerned?”

It’s kind of like being walked out into a huge parking lot and being shown a whole row of deadly buses destined to crash sooner or later. There’s the melanoma cancer bus, the breast cancer bus, the pancreatic cancer bus, the liver cancer bus, the leukemia bus, the lymphoma bus, etc., etc., on and on, and let’s not forget that damned ole Ewings sarcoma bus, chalked full of kiddos—very deadly. Oh, but then there is that bus way down near the end, one of the “good cancer” buses—the thyca (thyroid cancer) bus.

crashed school bus

Yes sir, if you’ve got to ride a bus, this is one of the buses you wanna ride! Sure, it will crash sooner or later and, yes, you’re going to get hurt, beat up, broken up, cut up, and poisoned. You’ll probably spend a few days or, perhaps, even weeks in the hospital by the time it’s all said and done. And, yes, your life will certainly be seriously disrupted, to say the least. But, hey, the good news—only a little more than 10% of you are gonna die from your injuries. Oh, and you should probably know that, once you’re on the bus, you’re always on the bus and, for every 100 of you that survive the initial crash, up to 30 of you may have to go through yet another crash somewhere on down the road…  “Hmmmmmm…. and that’s the ‘good cancer,’ hunh?”

Like most cancer patients, I’m often suspicious that I’m not being told the whole story. I feel like I’ve been put on a “need to know” status and my doctors are not going to tell me anything more than I really need to know at any given time; which, in my case, is probably a good thing because I can barely process what little I do know as it is carefully threaded out to me. Probably better to leave room for my imagination to run a little wild than to fuel my nightmares with the actual facts—ha!

Still, I find it amusing how that my doctors and technicians continually use “qualifiers” when discussing any results or prognosis with me; how they are always careful to “encourage” without “promising” anything.

When I went to my local doctor for the first time, she told me, “It’s ‘probably’ nothing serious, ‘but’…”

Then, before the first surgery, the ENT said, “It is ‘unlikely’ you will need a second surgery, ‘but’…”

Later, just before the second surgery, he said, “You ‘should’ come through this just fine and be on your way home tomorrow, ‘but’…”

Five days later, as they prepared to wheel me out of the hospital, he said, “I ‘doubt’ you’ll ever have to come back and see me, ‘but’…”

Now my endocrinologist is saying, “Everything ‘looks’ good at this point and I ‘think’ you’re going to do just fine, ‘but’ there is still that “minimal” chance that you may have to deal with more treatment beyond the initial radiation therapy.”

So, remembering my research, I asked her, “About a 30% chance of recurrence?”

She smiled, “Well, yes, about that!”

I just laughed and told her, “Well, with the way my luck has been running with all these percentages you guys keep throwing around, please make sure to keep me outta Vegas!”

For some reason, that didn’t seem to amuse her as much as it did me. Which, again, made me wonder, “What is she ‘not’ telling me?”

But, for now, I just keep waiting and trying to be a “patient patient,” enduring each new procedure and this crazy hormonal roller coaster they’ve got me on, while awaiting further analysis and trying to salvage the ragged pieces of my life following the bus crash. I also try to do what little I can to help other crash victims—some far more banged up than I—while playing the percentages and hoping the dice finally roll favorably in my direction.

Of course, I know that, for the child of God, life is a whole lot more than just a grand and glorious “crapshoot.” The Bible says: “The mind of man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9, NASB).

Oh, and by the way, people, there is no “good cancer.”

18.) Hospital Antics

Wow! – the second surgery pretty much kicked the stuffing out of me! I was in no way prepared for it to the degree I thought I was. I guess I was taking too much for granted. I figured it would just go pretty much the same as the first one; after all, wasn’t the whole thing simply the completion of the first surgery? They had taken out half of my thyroid, now they just had to go back in and finish the job—same song, second verse—right? I was feeling pretty confident and had it in my mind that this was only another “out-patient” procedure, like the first. I even had everything timed this time, right down to the minute: check-in at 7:30AM, a couple of hours prep-time and then surgery at 9:30AM, back in recovery by 11:00AM, and then released two hours later. I figured Ne’ and I would be back in our hotel room by 3:00PM at the latest. Then, after a simple post-op consultation the next day, we would be on an afternoon flight back to Kona. Whole episode, less than 36 hours—start to finish. Well, that’s what I figured, anyway.

Five days—four nights—later, after finally being released from the hospital, I crawled out of a wheelchair and into the airport shuttle feeling like I had been put through a meat grinder and wondering to myself, “What was I thinking?” I mean, I should have known better than to be so presumptuous. Surely I have learned by now that every time I get up on my high-horse and get to thinking to myself, “I’ve got this,” I get knocked off again. While it’s okay, I guess, to look confidently toward the future and to try to put a positive spin on things, how dare I get so cocky about it and make such bold assumptions all the time. When will I ever learn?

I first knew I was in a little trouble when the doctor came to me in the recovery room and said something about how well the surgery had gone, with the exception—“Wait! What? There’s an exception?”—that they had to use a much larger trachea tube, the largest they had, for the intubation (please, save the preacher jokes till I’m feeling a little better). He also said that the anesthesiology team had problems inserting the tube due to residual swelling from the first surgery. He said that only their clinically administered pain control measures would spare me the kind of suffering inevitably heading my way. The other unsettling news was that my calcium level was exceedingly low due to trauma to the parathyroid glands during surgery; and he could not release me until it leveled out. He then described possible symptoms of low calcium levels for which they would be monitoring me, including: facial tingling, tightening, and lack of control; severe muscle cramps and seizures; even interference with my cardio rhythm; and, well, death. Okaaayyyy—so, yeah, I’m staying!

The first night in the hospital was frightening. Not only was I suffering with the “sore throat from hell,” which the 4mg of morphine every two hours didn’t seem to faze, but my semi-private roommate, Uncle Miguel, kept me spooked all night. He was 83 years old and recovering from gall bladder surgery. He was an old, proud, fiercely independent “paniolo” (Hawaiian cowboy). And, of course, they would put “me” with Uncle Miguel, right? I mean, who better to bunk with the old salty than another old salty?

I didn’t realize it at first, but soon discovered that Uncle’s one goal was to break out of that joint that very night. Furthermore, he was determined to fight anybody that stood between him and his goal. And, as my luck would have it, my bed was right between his and the door. His wife, Aunty Margarita, was of no help at all. While she was the only one who could control him, keeping him on a pretty short leash while she was awake, still, she slept deeply and soundly; and, I might add, she snored like a Harley Davidson—I kid you not, even the nurses were amazed! So, Uncle would lay there, biding his time, waiting until the Harley was really revving, then he’d attempt an escape.

His first attempt came about 11:00PM. I’m lying there, trying to doze off and on between the Aunty’s rumblings, when I see the divider curtain swing back and there stands Uncle ready to fight. Now, I don’t care who you are, or how weak and feeble he is, the first sight of a crazy, old, angry and determined—not to mention, virtually naked—paniolo swaying back and forth in his flimsy hospital gown in the middle of the night, eyes as wide as silver dollars, is enough to send a shiver down anybody’s spine. It might as well have been an angry pit bull coming after me. What could I do?

There was only one thing to do—scream! I pushed the button on the call gadget and screamed into the microphone, “Uncle’s up, Uncle’s up, he’s wandering around the room!” To which I received a response that sounded vaguely like laughter. Well, they didn’t laugh long because Uncle, being sufficiently discombobulated by my screams no doubt, began to lose his balance and bounce this way and that off the various items around the room, much like a pinball. Finally, he hit the wall, bounced off, spun around and fell backwards over an aluminum tray stand, scattering debris of all kinds in all directions. It sounded like a train wreck.

Finally, people arrived—rushing in the door like it was a code blue “stat” or something. I’m sitting up in bed, in searing pain, all hooked up to the IV lines and quite under the influence, crying out, “Where were you, I called for help, nobody came? Where were you?” But I also found myself profusely apologizing for not being a quick thinker and hopping out of bed to try to catch uncle before he fell.

The nurses quietly reassured me that I did the right thing, that it was not my responsibility to catch uncle, that doing so might have been worse, and that, since he landed on his butt, nothing was hurt except maybe the floor. Aunty gradually awoke from her slumber, asking the nurses what had happened.

Uncle tried to escape four or five more times that night; however, they now had him hooked to some kind of monitor that sounded an alarm each time his feet hit the floor. Needless to say, between the pain, the alarms, the Harley next door, the regular hospital hubbub—the room was right across the hall from the nurses’ station—and visions of a skinny, pit bull, attack ghost threatening me in the night, I didn’t get much rest. In fact, I went more than 36 hours without sleep—not a situation conducive to healing. The next morning I was profusely thanked by the nursing team for helping “save” Uncle the night before. I modestly, and a bit shamefully, accepted their praise. Later that day, as a reward for my heroism I presume—or maybe to silence any potential formal complaint (not that I was planning one, but how would they know)—I was moved to my own, private room—yesssssssss!!!

But, while life in my private room was peaceful enough, somehow, it seemed a bit boring; despite the vampires who kept coming to draw my blood every four hours around the clock for four solid days.  Actually, I found myself rather missing the entertainment value of bunking with Uncle.  I think I’m going to have to add him to my collection of “rainbows.”

The day after surgery, things began to progress from bad to worse. Because my calcium level was going down, rather than improving, and because of the blistering pain in my throat, all the meds were increased. The oral calcium dosage was doubled and they began giving me calcium glutamate intravenously. In addition to the morphine every two hours, I was also given an oral dose of liquid acetaminophen and codeine elixir every four hours.

The combined effect of these meds produced the predictable outcome of assailing me with the absolute worst case of constipation one could ever fathom. I mean, I’m serious when I tell you that I now think I’ve come as close as any man ever wants to come to experiencing what it must be like to give birth. I had never imagined myself begging for a suppository; and then sooooo regretting it when the thing finally went to work. I’m telling you, I nearly passed out!

After that second night, I made the commitment to quickly wean myself off of the pain meds. The way I figured it, at least I’d only have grueling pain at one end, rather than both. A couple of nurses warned me about putting off the pain medication, rather than taking it at regularly scheduled intervals, but they couldn’t “make” me take it. I was kind of proud of myself for being so rebellious and tough. I even dared to envision myself as a younger version of Uncle Miguel; that is, until the pain in my neck and throat really got to raging and I began to realize how much good those meds really had been doing all along. I soon found myself again the beggar. It did nothing for my ego when the nurse finally showed up with the morphine; and with a haughty, little Filipina “I told you so” look in her eye.

I do want to pause and say a word to, and about, my sweet wife. While they wouldn’t allow her to stay with me in the hospital that first night, she was determined to stay every night thereafter, even though I tried to send her back home to the Big Island. But she was having none of that; choosing, instead, to sleep night-after-night on three old, hard chairs that she lined up under the window beside my bed. This was against hospital policy, of course—she wasn’t supposed to stay overnight—but the nurses soon figured out that this cute little gal was virtually as tough as any old paniolo; and that no one would be sending her anywhere. So they decided that they might just as well go ahead and bring her a blanket and pillow.

As far too many of us already know, battling cancer is quite an ordeal—filled with all too subtle “ups” and way too obvious, and often crushing, “downs.” It’s easy, I think, to focus on the hardships, the pain, the fear, the setbacks, and the disappointments. But even in the middle of all that, there can still be found a deep and profound joy; a particular joy that, perhaps, cannot be experienced in any other context. Throughout this whole ordeal, while in the hospital and after returning home to recover, there have been those people—near and far—who have checked in on me, encouraged me, prayed for me, and who have gone out of their way to minister to me in a variety of ways. I know I’m not always the easiest person to get along with, even under the best of circumstances. And so, for that reason, I’m all the more grateful, beyond words, to be the recipient of such undeserved and unconditional love—yet another rainbow!

cowboy sillouette

17.) Pomp and Circumstance

I don’t particularly relish accolades—well, at least, not overt ones—and much prefer remaining in the background most of the time; working behind the scenes, doing what I can to help others, particularly my students, to shine. That’s neither bragging nor pretending to be humble, that’s sincerely me. But, today, daggonit, I’m gonna brag, at least, a little bit—I’m no “Texan,” so my bragging can only go so far, I suppose.

But, you see, I should be on an airplane to Texas right now because this coming weekend is the semiannual graduation ceremony at Abilene Christian University. I have been steadily working toward this academic goal for more than 30 years.  Now, finally, after 26 months of rigorous, grueling, academic pursuit, I have successfully completed the ACU College of Education and Human Services Graduate School program for the Master of Education degree—and have earned my M.Ed. in Leadership of Learning.

Many esteem this ACU graduate program as one of the finest in the nation. From my perspective, it is certainly expensive enough. Because our government graciously cancels the balance due on anyone’s student loan debt should they die—which is the “only” reason they cancel it—I’ll probably be paying for this till the day of my death. But, at least, my kids won’t inherit the debt – ha!

I have, somehow, by the Lord’s grace, managed to keep a 4.0 GPA throughout the program—98.84 average for all 39 hours of graduate course work—and will graduate with highest honors. During my coursework, I was inducted into the Texas Psi Chapter of the Alpha Chi National Honor Society.   Just this past week I received an email saying:

Your name has been passed along from the graduate faculty as someone who we should spotlight because of your upcoming graduation and academic accomplishments during the course of the program. With your permission, we would like to shoot a few photos while you are on campus this Friday. Please let me know if you would be willing to have a few spotlight photos taken this Friday between 4 and 6 p.m.

I share these things with you only because these few, brief paragraphs are pretty much all the celebration—“pomp and circumstance”—that I’m going to get. You see, rather than flying to Abilene, Texas to meet up with dear friends that I’ve made over the past couple of years, and walking across the stage to receive my degree, and being properly “hooded” by my professors in the presence of many astute witnesses, and then being whisked away to be honored at two receptions to which I’ve been invited, I’ll be hopping another plane to Honolulu to undergo more surgery—round two in this fight against cancer. That’s just real exciting, now isn’t it?

Am I whining? Me, the guy who invented the bumper sticker, “STOP GLOBAL WHINING,” or at least wish that he had, whining??? No, I tell you!!!! Well… okay, maybe, a little! So, how can one brag and whine all at the same time? I’m rolling my eyes at myself here.

Oh well, I’m a big boy, now. I don’t suppose I need a graduation ceremony, or the applause of family and friends, to acknowledge my achievements any more. I’ll leave all that “pomp and circumstance” to those teenyboppers who need it. What I’ve got to somehow manage to deal with is all this nitty-gritty stuff we call “real life.” Ah, “life”—yes, that great contradiction: so full of failure, so full of victory, so full of heartache, so full of joy!

The Apostle Paul encourages us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15, NASB). For those of us dealing with cancer, and other potentially life-threatening circumstances, that’s often a simultaneous sort of thing; rejoicing and weeping—the little rainbows in the midst of the storm.

This experience reminds me that cancer sometimes takes its toll in many more ways than the casual observer might imagine—in ways both seen and unseen. It’s a huge “DISRUPTOR,” and tends to interfere with virtually everything in one’s life.  It’s a spoiled brat of a child constantly demanding more time and attention than should ever be due.  It’s a deal breaker, a plan shaker, a spoiler of so many dreams.  I’m just so frustrated by all of this!

Well, anyway, I just want to say thank you for giving me these few moments of your time and letting me “celebrate” with you this occasion in my life; which, in the face of this dark storm, is just another little rainbow in which to rejoice!

Hey, I know, why don’t I just throw my own little graduation party?  Here’s just the music for the occasion:

You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down
And you can’t keep draggin’ that dead weight around.
If there ain’t all that much to lug around,
Better run like hell when you hit the ground.

When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

You can’t stop these kids from dancin’.
Why would you want to?
Especially when yor already gettin’ yours.
‘Cause if your mind don’t move and your knees don’t bend,
well don’t go blamin’ the kids again.

When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

When the morning comes.
When the morning comes.

Let it go, this too shall pass.
Let it go, this too shall pass.

Let it go, this too shall pass.
(You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. No, you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

Let it go, this too shall pass.
(You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. No, you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

Hey!

Let it go, this too shall pass.
(You know you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. No, you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

When the morning comes.
(You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

When the morning comes.
(You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. No, you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

When the morning comes.
(You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

When the morning comes.
(You can’t keep lettin’ it get you down. No, you can’t keep lettin’ it get you down.)

When the morning comes!

16.) A Trip to the FARMacy

But Daniel said to the overseer whom the commander of the officials had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days, and let us be given some vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then let our appearance be observed in your presence and the appearance of the youths who are eating the king’s choice food; and deal with your servants according to what you see.” So he listened to them in this matter and tested them for ten days. At the end of ten days their appearance seemed better and they were fatter than all the youths who had been eating the king’s choice food. So the overseer continued to withhold their choice food and the wine they were to drink, and kept giving them vegetables. (Daniel 1:11-16, NASB)

I was looking over various bottles of fruit and vegetable juices at Safeway and carefully examining labels, which, I guess, looked kind of odd for an old rough-neck like me. Finally this woman, who had been watching me, tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I see you’re really spending a lot of time checking out the information. What’s the deal? Are you price shopping, looking for the best deal for the money, or what?”

To which I responded, “No, I’m checking out ingredients, sugar content, and, especially this”—as I pointed to a little green symbol that read: “USDA Organic.”

The gal got all “head up” and indignant, proudly declaring in a condescending sort of way, “Oh, right! Whatever! I’m too old to care about all that kind of stuff!”

I look at her and noted that she was about my age and appeared healthy, vibrant, and attractive. So I said, “You know, I was thinking pretty much that same way up until a couple of months ago. Now, I’m fighting cancer. So now I have to care about ‘all that kind of stuff’.”

The woman immediately dropped her ego, lowered her head, and quietly muttered, “Oh, oh, I’m sorry; God bless you!” as she pushed her shopping cart on by me.

I laughed to myself and thought, “She’s embarrassed, but I’m just like her.” Why are we all so stubborn? Why does it take such a drastic change of events in our lives just to get us to care about basic things like healthy eating, or adopting a lifestyle that nurtures vibrant living?” Granted, it’s not an easy choice. In fact, just a few minutes later, after my encounter with the woman, I was standing with Ne’ in the checkout line feeling frustrated, worrying that I was going to starve to death, and hopelessly throwing my hands up as I declared, rather loudly I’m afraid, “THIS STORE CANNOT FEED ME!”

So, the next day I was at our local “health food” store—Island Naturals. Now, there are few things funnier than an old cowboy in a health food store. I mean, of course, I’ve stepped in and out of a health food store or two over the course of my life; usually accompanied by someone else who was looking for something special that they just couldn’t find elsewhere. But this was, honestly, the first time I had ever walked into that place with a feeling of need, bordering on dependence; and it was frightening. Someone probably should have had a camera phone out, just for the comic relief. But it didn’t seem too funny to me at the time

I spent a couple of hours carefully canvassing row after row—all six or so of them—looking for things that appeared halfway edible. I couldn’t even pronounce the names of most of the items on the shelves. To make matters worse, I soon found myself surrounded by several zany, freaky—albeit beautiful—people who looked like they just tumbled off a Bob Marley toke wagon, dreadlocks and all. I thought, “Really, this is what I’ve now become? What next, a move to Puna?” – (well, you Big Islanders will get it). Anyway, fortunately, there are already more than a few people in my life who share that particular sub-culture, and who I love dearly, and thinking about some of them, and how proud they might be of me at that moment, kind of softened the overall impact of the whole experience and made me smile.

But another thing I began to note was how “old fashion” our health food store really is. It comforted me to see a lot of products that my grandpa would probably have been very familiar with—black strap molasses, malted barley, assorted whole grains, fresh organic vegetables, even homemade organic ice-cream. In fact, this place wasn’t too much unlike my grandmothers canning kitchen. It even smelled the same. I began to have visions of an older, simpler, more—dare I say it—“organic” way of life; you know, farm life.

I really started getting excited when I discovered a free-range, organic chicken. Then, when I finally found the free-range, organic, grass-fed beef, I thought to myself, “Yessssss… the cowboy can do this!” In fact, I actually bought a couple of things that very day: a bag of organic whole rolled oats, and a small, organic, underarm deodorant. Not much for a two hour expedition, perhaps, but it’s all I could bring myself to do on a first trip.

Of course, just because it’s in the “health food” store doesn’t automatically mean that it’s good for me. I noted that our “health food” store is stocked with all manner of highly processed foods containing sugars, glutens, dairy products, and all kinds of other things that should be avoided by a lot of cancer patients. While I don’t claim to understand much of it, my research consistently indicates that there are certain things I should be doing and eating, and other things that I should be avoiding.

For example, there seems to be a lot of evidence that cancer thrives in an acidic environment. Most people’s pH runs toward the acidic side—from 6.5 to 7. But to effectively fight cancer, to prevent cancer from reoccurring, or to help avoid cancer altogether, it is optimum to keep one’s pH slightly base—above 7, with 7.3 to 7.5 being optimum. So things that produce acidity in the bloodstream, not necessarily the digestive tract, should be avoided or, at least, limited. Animal protein is one of those things. Not only is it hard to digest and interferes with nutritional absorption, but, apparently, it contributes to an acidic environment within the body. So, “organic,” “free-range,” and “grass-fed” notwithstanding, still, I can only have my beef once or twice a month; same with chicken, and fish—which should only be cold-water fish like salmon or cod; or occasional pelagic fish, so long as they are well under 50 lbs. Apparently, large pelagic fish, like the bottom feeders, accumulate and concentrate all manner of toxins.

Also, it seems pretty obvious, from virtually every source I’ve consulted, that cancer cells thrive on sugar—they need their glucose. Therefore, all foods with a relatively high “glycemic index”—the measure of how quickly blood sugar levels (i.e. levels of glucose in the blood) rise after eating a particular type of food—should pretty much be avoided because they produce a “sugar spike,” flooding the body with glucose. Dangerous foods that should be limited would be those with a “GI” of 55 or greater.

Then, there’s gluten; which isn’t so much of a problem, perhaps, for most people; but I think it may well be for me. “Gluten is a protein found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye, malts, and triticale. It is used as a food additive in the form of a flavoring, stabilizing, or thickening agent, often as ‘dextrin’” (Kalmus, 2011, para. 2). When it comes to gluten, we should remember that our body’s first line of defense against mutating cancer cells is our immune system. According to the Livestrong website:

“Every person, regardless of health, produces periodic mutated cells that could potentially turn cancerous. In most healthy people, the immune system eradicates these problematic cells handily. But when the immune system is compromised in some way, these mutated cells are more likely to proliferate and cause cancer. Certain peptides in gluten called exorphins have been found to compromise immunity in just such a way, thereby elevating cancer risk and, in people who already have cancer, aiding its proliferation” (Kalmus, 2011).

Maximizing my own immune system to fight cancer is but one reason that I think I need to avoid gluten; there are many other associated reasons, ranging from alleviating digestive issues to dealing with various inflammations throughout the body. Havens (2008) reveals that “. . . gluten is inflammatory and inflammation has been linked to most chronic illnesses and pain syndromes . . . including heart disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, systemic lupus, arthritis and many others” (para. 6). He goes on to note, “Clinically what we see is that if we get a patient off gluten 100%, they heal at a predictable rate; they stay well and they can get on with their lives in a pain-free way. Clinically what we see is that the clients who take in gluten don’t heal very well; they have significant ups and downs; they don’t have good outcomes” (para. 7).

So, I think, what I need to do is avoid foods that produce an acid environment within my body and gravitate toward those that will help me maintain a balanced pH, preferably a little toward the base. I think I need to avoid foods that have a high glycemic index and move toward those that release their carbohydrates gradually. I also think that I need higher concentrations of antioxidants in my diet to help manage those destructive free-radicals that tend to damage or kill healthy cells. And, I need my Omega-3 to help facilitate the healthy transfer of oxygen through cell walls and to assist metabolism.

Most of all, I just need to avoid poisoning my system with all manner of toxic chemicals, as if my body doesn’t have enough to do with just taking care of the natural ones. And I need to try to “beef up” with all the good vitamins and minerals that are necessary to maintaining a super-strong immune system. I don’t want my body overwhelmed with fighting all the continual little internal infections while, at the same time, trying to mop up any number of continually mutating miscreant cancer cells.

Well, anyway, all that is just the tip of the head-spinning iceberg. The big question is, when I get past all the processed foods, the sugars, glutens, toxins, hormones, GMOs, and the rest of the smorgasbord of bad food entrées being continually offered up on today’s modern menu, what am I left with? Just a bunch of organic greens and an occasional bite of old, scrawny, grass-fed cow? Well, that’s enough to keep many an old trail-hand alive and kickin, I suppose.

healthy fridgeHowever, I’m joyfully discovering that it doesn’t have to stop there. In fact, believe it or not, there really is a big, wonderful world of healthy food choices still in existence on the planet. The whole world of agriculture hasn’t gone completely corporate, just yet. There are still enough local, organic farmers and ranchers to feed us—well some of us. Basically, with a few exceptions, it all comes down to this: “if God made it edible, then it’s fine to eat it; just try to eat it in the same form that God made it!” Now that sounds like something my grandpa would say.

 

By the way, I’m thinking “dreads”—if I could just get my hair to grow… doouugghhhhh!!!

______________________________

Feel free to comment below; or write to me: mybiblestudy777@gmail.com

15.) Okay, So Let’s Fight this Thing!

Okay, so I thought I was pretty much done with all of this already. After all, I’ve had the surgery to remove the tumor, I’ve had a few weeks of to recover; so, end of story, right? But battling cancer is seldom that easy.

I’m not feeling particularly “tough” right now. I rebounded from the first surgery, last week, pretty well. But the thought of having to do it all over again next week kind of knocks the wind out of me—like I’ve been “sucker punched” or something. It also makes me kind of mad. I mean, I already look like somebody cut my throat—four-inch scar across the bottom of my neck—now I’m supposed to let them do it all over again? That’s enough to saddle anybody with a few “anger issues.” But, at this point, I don’t see that I have any options; so I guess I’ve just gotta toughen up and climb back in the ring for “round two.”

I don’t think it helps anybody who is facing cancer, or any other potentially life-threatening situation, to just roll over and play the victim. I know that feeling sorry for myself, and throwing a huge pity-party, is a pretty quick way to diminish my overall health; and lose friends – ha! If it’s true, and I think it is, that “the best defense is a strong offense,” then the best strategy I can take is to stand up and fight this thing.

However, just exactly how to go about fighting it is a bit of a conundrum because this kind of battle—combination physical, mental, emotional, spiritual—presents a wide assortment of challenges on many different fronts. One thing I need, for sure, is to keep a strong, positive spirit and a fighter’s attitude. I love the Bible passage wherein the Apostle Paul tells the Christians of the first century—who, by the way, were suffering terrible, life-threatening persecutions—“Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (I Corinthians 16:13, NASB). Paul knew that whining and feeling sorry for themselves wasn’t going to get them too far down the road toward heaven’s glory; nor would that kind of attitude do much to promote the Christian faith.

There are times when God needs warriors—people who have surveyed the battlefield with all its risks and hazards and step up to the challenge with faith and gusto. So a big part of the fight, for me I know, will be constant attitude checks; along with occasional swift kicks in the butt—hey, don’t be so quick to get in line!

Another important element in waging a successful campaign is cultivating an effective intelligence network. Every battlefield commander knows you don’t just throw your troops at the enemy without some kind of plan based on strategic information. At the very least, one should know something of his enemy’s profile—tendencies, strengths, potential, vulnerabilities. While medical tests and doctors’ advice may take precedence, I can’t rely solely on what they choose to tell me. I need to do my own research—good, quality research. I need to read up and get familiar with the enemy that confronts me so that I can, at least, ask halfway intelligent questions of my medical team, so that I can help improve the effectiveness of whatever medical treatment I receive, and so that I can maintain the highest quality of lifestyle and health possible; thereby beating back any advances my enemy threatens.

One of the best sources of information, I’m finding, comes from people who have walked this trail ahead of me. Of course, not everything they have to share relates directly to my scenario; every person is different, every disease is different, every situation is different. I tend to shy away from people who come on too strong and try to tell me that I should do this, or I should do that. But I love people sharing their experiences, even if they’re significantly different than mine, and telling me how this worked for them, or how that worked for them.

Actually saddling up to the ole bronc and doing what I know I need to do is, yet, another aspect of the fight; and it’s tougher than one might think. I know that having all the good information in the world at my fingertips is of no benefit if I don’t use it. I know I need to stay active, even when I don’t particularly feel like it. I need to maintain a good work ethic and exercise regimen. But, sometimes, implementing important lifestyle changes that I know I need to make seems overwhelming. For example, going “organic.” Worse, going “vegetarian.” And, worse still, going “vegan” – OMGoodness!!! I don’t want to do it—nope, nope, nope! I just want to keep on reveling in my toxic, chemical laden, hormone-stuffed, highly acidic, artificial, sugar-filled, overly-processed way of existing. After all, do I really expect my wife to have to actually learn to cook, I mean, like, “real” food—like grandma used to make—after 35 years of marriage? Come on! You know how much time real cooking takes? And worse, what if I have to take some responsibility for preparing some of my own dietary needs, or actually learn to cook for myself – yikes! Must that “warrior mentality” extend all the way into the kitchen?

But, all kidding aside, perhaps the most important thing for me, and every child of God, to remember when we’re in the throes of the storm, is that these tribulations—be they cancer, or whatever other potentially life-threatening challenges we may face—are not, actually, the true enemy. They are only weapons in our real enemy’s arsenal. I’m thinking of Job:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “From where do you come?” Then Satan answered the Lord and said, “From roaming about on the earth and walking around on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:6-12, NASB)

If you know the whole story, then you know what Job was in for—unimaginable heartache, loss, grief, and pain. And this was only the first meeting between Satan and God regarding Job. Satan would soon be back to ask for even more latitude. After losing all his wealth and possessions, and even seeing all his children die—yes, other people died because of this raging spiritual battle over Job—God finally agreed to let Satan “touch” Job himself with a terribly painful, debilitating disease.

The death, destruction, and disease that Job endured did not come from the hand of God, but from Satan. However, God did permit it and, later in the Biblical text, even took responsibility for it. Furthermore, it was never explained to Job, in this life anyway, why he had to endure all the trials and tribulations that he was put through. But, while he may not have realized the scope of the incredible physical-spiritual battle raging all around him, Job did understand what was truly at stake—his own spiritual integrity, his personal walk with the Lord, and his testimony to the world. His, so-called “friends” offered their own lame explanations for what was happening to him and even accused him of sinning against God. His own wife begged him saying, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9, NASB). But Job, faithful warrior that he was, simply answered, “You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (v. 10) and the Bible says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (v. 10).

Our true enemy, Satan, that old adversary, didn’t care in the least how long Job—or for that matter, any of us—was ordained to live upon the earth. He doesn’t care about lifespans, or quality of life, or what measures he may or may not be allowed to bring against us during our time of stay on the earth. He’s just in it for the end-game. All he cares about is getting us to give up on our faith. He wants us to blame God, to curse God, to give up hope and faith in God, to forsake our relationship with God; rather than to be a positive influence for righteousness and an example of what a faith-filled life of hope and love looks like. He wants us to simply “curse God and die!” That’s the true enemy. That’s where the real battle is raging.

I’m just so glad for God’s divine promise that, “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13, NASB).

boxing glovesSo, yeah, let’s fight this thing! But let’s not get sidetracked and end up fighting Satan’s “straw-man.” What we’re fighting, ultimately, isn’t cancer, or any other potentially life-threatening situation. There’s an eternal “end-game” to keep in view. As warriors of the cross, we’re all in this fight together and we need to be there for one another, in so far as possible, because it’s the same fight we’re all fighting every day. We’re fighting to live quality lives of integrity and truth. We’re fighting to help one another live strong, be bold, and, like Job, never, ever throw in the towel; regardless of the challenges assailing us. We’re fighting to maintain and manifest the “faith, hope, and love” (I Corinthians 13:13, NASB) that Christ lived and died to give us. And, we’re fighting to dispel fear and hopelessness by helping others experience “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension” (Philippians 4:7, NASB) through their own life-giving relationship with Him. The Apostle Peter exhorts:

Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. To Him be dominion forever and ever. Amen. (I Peter 5:6-11, NASB)

14.) Wait, wait, wait… What?

My surgeon called and left a message early this morning—less than 48 hours after the surgery. He said he was onboard an airplane at Honolulu International, taxying toward the runway, and getting ready to take off for a ten day trip to California; and that, while he should be putting his cell phone away, he just couldn’t leave town without trying to get in touch with me one more time. Apparently he had made several attempts to reach me and finally just left a voice mail. Fearing the worst—I mean, what kind of doctor, especially a surgeon, does that kind of thing?—I quickly called him back hoping to contact him before he had to turn off his cellphone. The news: he had received the post-op pathology report late last night and it didn’t look as good as we had hoped.

The comprehensive biopsy indicated a differentiated papillary thyroid cancer that is probably at either a stage II or III—but “staging” was yet to be determined. What this meant was that more surgery would be needed and, in fact, had already been scheduled for only two weeks away. The second surgery will be to remove the rest of my thyroid—the isthmus and right hemisphere—as well as nearby tissue in the neck and the lymph nodes.

The surgeon said that about four weeks following, I would have to undergo a treatment called radioactive iodine ablation; which is meant to track down, reveal, and annihilate any remaining thyroid tissue or miscreant cancer cells, regardless of where they may have spread. He took the time to reassure me that the prognosis for this type of cancer is generally very good. Papillary thyroid cancer typically responds well to treatment.

My wife cried at this latest news. Step-by-step, I just have to keep moving forward, trying to live one day at a time, trying to just be “in the moment.” I may have cancer, but I don’t have to let cancer define me. It may demand a lot of my time, my energy, and my resources, but I refuse to let it dominate my life. I have a purpose in living—to glorify God with my life and to help others be ready to go home and be with Him forever in that “new heavens and new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13). I have beautiful plans for ministry, for loving and serving others in His name; and, by His grace, I intend to continue pursuing them. I’m leaning hard now on one of my daughter’s favorite passages of scripture:

For I know the plans that I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11-13, NASB)

My hope and prayer is that this next surgery, and the following protocol, will do the trick; that it will get this all behind me, and enable me to move on with life—forever changed, of course, but cancer free—Lord willing!

13.) Is This What It’s Like to Die?

I’m afraid that “rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated!” (Twain, 1897). I feel like I have to clarify that fact because, earlier this evening, I was on a certain social media outlet and saw a posting in which my sister, Judy, was being consoled upon the death of her brother – yikes! Talk about disconcerting; that was kind of weird to read right after going through surgery. It made me want to pinch myself, you know, just to make sure that I’m still really here.

Actually, I’m up late on the evening following surgery, sipping some nice green tea sweetened with the nectar of blue agave—no, not the good stuff, the heath food stuff—and waiting for it to get late enough to take a little more pain medication so I can, hopefully, get some sleep. I’m also reflecting on the events of the past couple of days, which almost seem like weeks already.

The surgery went very well, I’m told. As I understand it, there were two surgeons present so that they could both evaluate the situation and provide instant “second opinion” analysis as to how far they should go with the initial surgery. Both determined that it appeared as if the tumor was contained; and that only removal of the nodule, along with the left hemisphere of the thyroid, was necessary—a really encouraging sign. However, both the nodule and the thyroid have been sent off to the lab for a comprehensive biopsy to determine, officially, whether or not more surgery or any follow-up protocol may be necessary. I should get the results by the end of the week. So, I guess a little more waiting—something a cancer patient gets really good at—is in order.

I want to, again, take a moment to brag on the marvels of modern medicine—only God provides miracles, but modern medicine is chocked full of marvels—and, in particular, my personal, local health care system. I hear people complaining about their insurance providers, their doctors, and the level of treatment they receive all the time and maybe I’m just ignorant and don’t know what I should expect, but my team at Kaiser Permanente has been absolutely marvelous. From my hometown doctor here in Kona, who has been on top of this whole thing from the get-go, to the surgical team in Honolulu, who call regularly to check on me, keep me informed, and monitor my progress—they’ve all been just top-notch.

I especially enjoyed the rather “blue-collar” working man’s, nitty-gritty, down to business kind of environment that I encountered at Moanalua Medical Center in Honolulu. The fact that they were remodeling half the building, so I was always walking through construction zones, just added to that whole effect. The sound of clanking tools, nail guns, drills, and skill saws, and the sight of passing workers in hardhats, right alongside medical personnel in their scrubs, sort of calmed my nerves; I liked it! It made me feel sort of like an old 1957 jalopy just going in for little more body work – ha!

But the main thing I’m pondering this evening—and I hope you don’t imagine me in some kind of a morbid stupor for sharing this—is how incredibly close to the whole death experience it must be to undergo anesthesia. I mean, think about it: one moment you’re lying on the bed, feeling kind of woozy, the next moment you’re out like a light, and the next you’re waking up already—like no time at all has gone by. Is this what it’s like to die? There was nothing particularly painful about the experience itself, nothing particularly frightening; even though we are all well aware of the fact that, sometimes, people don’t wake up. But, like getting on an airplane, we don’t worry about that, much; we just expect it to get us where we need to be—to go to sleep and then wake up all fixed. And we do, usually.

How far different can the death experience be, I mean, really? Think about it: one moment you’re lying there, feeling kind of woozy, the next moment you’re out like a light, and the next you’re waking up already—only in a whole new realm! For the child of God, there is absolutely nothing to fear. We just expect to wake up right where we need to be—in the arms of Jesus. And we do, by His grace. And, I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to fall into the arms of my Lord and then turn to see the menagerie of wonderful people who are waiting to greet me in that new realm.

12.) Eve Before Surgery

There is a deep, unexplainable “peace” in my heart tonight. Is this the peace Paul wrote about to the church at Philippi, when he said:

The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:5-7, NASB)

I saw my primary physician this afternoon so she could put me through my pre-op paces and sign-off on the final approval for surgery tomorrow. Everything looks to be in good order, except the high blood pressure—160/98—which is not good, but not high enough to forestall surgery. She also found a few other things that will need attention following the surgery, but I don’t have the energy to think too much about those issues right now—one thing at a time, please.

You know, I’m so grateful for the gift of good medical care. While I may not have the very best medical insurance plan in the whole wide world, still, it is so much more than what people living in most of the rest of the world can ever hope to expect. What if I lived in one of the “developing countries” of the world where medical care is always hit and miss? I am so blessed; thank you, Lord, for the marvels of modern medicine.

Following the doctor visit, we had to, of course, make the obligatory “therapeutic” trip to good ole Walmart for last minute supplies. Nothing helps ready you for travel like a trip to Wally World to get some “stuff.” My grand prize of the day—“Dear Foams”—yes, house slippers, for getting from the house, through the airport, and around the hospital. Plenty of us ole cowpokes love our Dear Foams; contrary to popular stereotype, it’s not always about the boots – ha!

We’ll have a light meal tonight, nothing to eat or drink after midnight—you know that routine—then up at 4:00AM to catch an early morning flight to Honolulu. We arrive at 6:55AM, catch the shuttle to Moanalua Medical Center at 7:30AM, and I go into surgery at 8:30AM. That’s as far ahead as I can realistically plan, for now—interesting feeling.

I’m convinced that no matter which way this thing breaks, regardless of the extent of the surgery—and they won’t know until they get in there just how far they’ll have to go—and no matter the prognosis that might lie before me—and that won’t be determined until after the post-surgical biopsy and staging of the cancer—there are, really, only two possible outcomes: “good” and “better!”   I’m taking my cue from the Apostle Paul’s statement with regard to his possible impending departure from this world, when he said:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. (Philippians 1:21-24, NASB)

There was a time in my life, not so very long ago, when I really had a hard time relating to Paul’s statement. I simply could not imagine not knowing which to choose—life or death—let alone being “hard-pressed from both directions.” While mentally acquiescing to the idea that “to depart and be with Christ” is, in reality, “very much better,” still, I wasn’t ready to go any time soon. Like the old adage: “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go today!”

I can honestly say, however, that, for me, that has changed; at least for the moment. In all sincerity, I can think of nothing sweeter right now than to step through death’s portal and fall into the arms of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like to draw that first sweet breath of spiritual sustenance in that beautiful and comforting place Jesus referred to as “Paradise.” I don’t know if I’ll still be able to say this next week—for me, spiritual growth is often one step forward and two steps back—but, for tonight, I almost envious of the thief on the cross to whom Jesus said: “today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, NASB). I just hope my journey to paradise is a little less challenging than was his – yikes!

If my soul is a little unsettled this evening, it has nothing to do with me per se, but rather is due to the fact that so many of my loved ones are not yet at this same place in their own hearts—even many who have been “Christians” for years. I know, as my own experience reveals, that having this kind of spiritual perspective is not something that can be inculcated upon another simply by teaching. Rather, it’s something the Holy Spirit of God has to grow us into. Paul was speaking from the viewpoint of an incredible spiritual maturity; a maturity that I am just now beginning to comprehend and appreciate. I understand, all too well, that it has taken more than thirty years of ministry and a potentially life-threatening illness to bring me around to actually embracing this philosophical viewpoint and making it my own.

Still, I can’t help but find it a little irritating, and not at all comforting, when people come up to me and they’re just all about me getting well and being restored to my physical health in this present world; you know, like some kind of cheerleader: “yay, yay, whatta ya say, I’ve prayed for you, and you’ll be okay!” (That’s supposed to rhyme somehow – ha!) Don’t get me wrong, please, I “do” want to be okay. I’m praying for a safe surgery, no complications, and no infections; as well as for a rapid recovery and a great prognosis. Every day I ask the Lord for healing. But, in light of God’s grand spiritual scheme of things, my physical health seems to pale to insignificance.

I’m laughing right now, thinking about our poor brother Lazarus; you know, Jesus’ good friend whom He raised from the dead. I’m just imagining what that must have been like for Lazarus. He’s led a life of relative poverty, he’s been terribly sick, then he dies; and now he’s being comforted in paradise. Man, I mean he’s got it made, the victory is his, things are finally good, really, really good!

Then, Jesus calls, “Lazarus come forth” (John 11:43, NASB).

“Ohhhhh man! Seriously? I’ve got to go back to all that? Really? I’ve got to finish living out my life and then die all over again?”

Poor guy! I can just hear it now, some of his old buddies coming around saying, “Hey, Laz, great to have you back, man!”

And Lazarus shaking his head in response, “Yeah, yeah, great… just great!”

But, you know, when the Lord beckons, every faithful servant answers with that same response demonstrated by Jesus Himself when, facing the cross and all that was about to happen to Him there, He said to the Father, “not my will, but Yours be done!” (Luke 22:42, NASB).

I’ve tried to share this Biblical perspective with a few people of late; only to be met with resistance. In fact, I’ve actually been accused of not having enough faith, or not understanding God’s promise to grant physical healing. One person even hinted that I’m being selfish when I talk like this because I’m not taking into consideration other people’s feelings.

But, just for the record, I want you to know that I had a good talk with the Lord today about my future plans for ministry and He reminded me of how much work there is still left to do. And, for these reasons, like Lazarus, I’m probably not going to get off all “that easy.” I fear Paul’s final words in the statement above likely ring true for me as well, “. . . to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake” (Philippians 1:24, NASB).

That having been said, regardless of when the Lord decides to take me on home, I don’t want to meet Him like some vagabond who’s been drifting along without any direction or aim in life other than just trying to survive and avoid taxes. Rather, I want to meet Him having a divine “purpose” in one hand and a “plan” in the other. So I know what I need to do during the recovery process following this surgery and whatever medical protocol is to follow: I need to inventory, evaluate, and rethink my mission as it currently exists; and I need to outline a strategic plan of ministry as I think about moving forward. Well, anyway, when you’re staring cancer in the eye, and you’re face-to-face with your first surgery, it sure is nice to at least contemplate having some kind of a life after cancer.

Back to those passionate, redneck, borderline fanatical loved ones of mine; my encouragement to you this evening is to remember what really matters. I’m thankful that I live in the time of this current presidential administration, and not under the Pharaohs, or the Caesars, or even the King Kamehameha dynasty. And, while the man in the oval office may not be the best president we’ve ever had, neither is he the antichrist some of you are making him out to be. The constitution is still intact. The republic is still alive and well. So why don’t we just focus on the things that really matter. Pray for the prez, but keep your eyes on the King!

Furthermore, let’s not forget the mission our Lord has set before us. As children of God, we do the cause of Christ little good, and perhaps much harm, by grandstanding on one political or social issue or another—I’m thinking about some of the things that get posted on various social media sites. We need to remember that, ultimately, we’re not about patriotism, constitutional rights, or making this world a better place in which to live. Because, even if we do somehow manage to improve as a society—that is, if our great nation should, indeed, one day find the heart to pursue righteousness and to actually implement “liberty and justice for all”—if people lose sight of Jesus and fail to surrender their hearts and lives to Him, well, it just doesn’t matter all that much, does it?

I’m reminded of Jesus’ passionate plea when He looked out over the people and 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). I know many of you have a lot of political, social, and even moral issues that you feel must be addressed. But let’s never forget that the most important thing of all is that people learn to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33, NASB).

11.) A Philosophy to Live, or Die, By!

“And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained for me,

When as yet there was not one of them.”

(Psalm 139:16, NASB)

As I observe the gathering storm clouds, dark on the horizon, my thoughts are scattered; but I know I’ve got to get a handle on all of this. This cancer could very well take my life. We’re not sure just what variety of thyroid cancer I have, nor what the staging may be. Has it already metastasized? Are my days numbered?

I believe the day and hour of my departure from this old world is already known to God. I believe, from this passage of scripture—Psalm 139:16—that He has known it long before I ever came into this world. The days of my life are “ordained” for me.

What I’m not wise enough to know is how much the decisions that I make in life have helped determined that day and hour. On the one hand, if the Lord already knew that I was going to choose to live an unhealthy, undisciplined, and self-indulgent lifestyle, or that I would make stupid decisions that would lead to an early grave, did He, then, ordain my days accordingly? Or, on the other hand, if the Lord already knew that I was going to choose to live a healthy, wholesome, and disciplined life, and make intelligent, insightful decisions that would enable me to live long and prosper, did He, then, ordain a longer life-span for me? Some say it doesn’t matter what choices we make; that when your time is up, it’s up; and if it’s your day to go, you go—by one means or another. Others say it does matter and that the day of our departure is scheduled, at least to some extent, according to the decisions God knows we, and others, will make as we go through life.

James, the elder in Jerusalem, and physical, younger brother of Jesus, exhorts us saying: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5, NASB). So, I ask for wisdom in all matters pertaining to life, health, and living to the glory of God during my time on earth. Whether it extends my life-span or not, I want to make good choices and live healthy and strong. I want to be an example of the quality of life that we can have if we choose to live God’s way—with spiritual and physical discipline. Perhaps these choices have already extended the days that have been ordained for me, even before there was a one of them. Perhaps these choices have nothing to do with my lifespan, but do provide a healthier lifestyle and a higher quality of life for however long I’m here. Either way, wisdom dictates that God is far more pleased with me when I make good decisions than when I don’t; and that’s enough motivation for me these days!

So, should I go vegetarian? Vegan? Should I adopt some strange therapeutic diet that has me pulping and juicing all day long? Should I give up coffee, tea, chocolate, ice-cream, along with all other processed sugars and carbohydrates; fruit or no fruit, or only certain fruits? Can I eat fish; pelagic fish, only farm-raised fish, shellfish? Do I go with high protein, low protein, or whole foods only? I know I can always have all the “green leafy vegetables” that I can eat—(someone just shoot me in the head, already).

And why does eating a fresh, healthy, organic diet have to cost THREE TIMES MORE than eating the normal, chemical laden, toxic diet that we typical Americans have become accustomed to? Should I get into a high-powered exercise routine, running, resistance training, or cross-fit? Will more moderate exercise, walking, swimming, biking suffice?

When it comes to treatment for what ails me, do I agree to surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation? I know that whole “cut, poison, and burn” therapy is highly controversial and condemned by many. So, what about alternative medicines and therapies? Should I, really, be placing raw seaweed under my tongue for a few minutes, before swallowing, everyday? Do I agree to coffee enemas five times daily—yikes! And at what point does the treatment become worse than the disease? When does having some measure of quality in one’s life outweigh any possible life-extending benefits that some treatment might provide? How many have been put through hell on earth, only to die anyway, when foregoing the “life-saving” treatment may have ensured a higher-quality existence and a far more peaceful death process?

If the day of my departure is already determined, and any decision I make while here on earth does not change that, then I’m going to go for whatever treatment or therapy I think will give me the highest quality life experience possible while I’m here, regardless of whether or not it promises to extend my days. If the day of my departure, while already ordained, is determined by decisions I will make while here on earth, then I’m going to go for whatever treatment or therapy I think will extend my days, unless those days are going to be miserable; then, I think I’d rather just go out peacefully; with grace and dignity. Either way, I think I’m saying the same thing, aren’t I? Quality of life outweighs length of life! And, being the big “chicken” that I am, I’d rather avoid as much pain as possible.

It wasn’t long after I shared the diagnosis with others—in fact, about two seconds—before people started advising me on how best to treat this illness. While I do appreciate every concern and each person’s kind word of advice, I have to tell you that it all gets pretty confusing really fast. Sometimes I feel myself buried under an avalanche of conflicting, contrary, and opposing opinions and so-called “research.” Even people in the medical profession, for whom I hold a very high esteem these days, seem to continually contradict one another.

So, what can I do? I can follow James’ advice and ask God for wisdom. Then, trust the wisdom He gives me. Right now, that wisdom points me in the direction of trusting my doctors and their medical team, almost implicitly. They’ve told me nothing, so far, that doesn’t make sense or that would appear to eventually lead to a lower quality of existence.

Forgive me, those of you who love me, if I appear to, at least temporarily, shelve some of your good advice and alternative suggestions. Right now, I don’t really feel like I have the luxury of indulging in various medical or philosophical alternatives. I only have the mental fortitude and emotional strength to focus on the course that is clearly set before me. However, as things progress and change, I do reserve the right to hold on to all conceivable options.

But know this, Ne’ and I have talked it over and neither one of us is into extending our lives on earth at all cost. I’m not afraid of death—at least that’s what I keep telling myself upfront; as the storm gradually swells all around me. While I don’t relish the thought of being separated from the people I love in this world, even if only for a little while, death itself holds only the promise of beauty, joy, and happy reunions for me. As I face the storm, those thoughts fill my heart with courage and my limbs with strength. What I’m about, first and foremost, as far as this world goes, is quality of life; living each day for the glory of my Lord with as much energy and exuberance as I can muster. It’s a philosophy, I know, by which I am choosing both to live and, perhaps, to die. I want, so much, to identify with the Apostle Paul’s take on his own mortality when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21-24, NASB).

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Please feel free to comment below, or write to me: mybiblestudy777@gmail.com

10.) God’s Forever Family

In bracing for the coming storm, I can tell you right now that I really don’t want to have to “go it alone.” I find myself reaching out to others, seeking any level of support and camaraderie—like, “all hands on deck!” I’m reminded of King Solomon’s wise counsel, when he said:

Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For, if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, NASB)

I’m finding that one of the hardest things about facing cancer or, I suppose, any potentially life-threatening illness, serious hardship, trial, or tribulation in life, is finding someone, anyone, who will talk with you on something more than just a superficial level. But, for some reason, it’s hard to get beyond logistics, statistics, medical reports, or just general surface talk. It’s hard to discuss feelings and emotions; even with those who are near and dear. It’s hard to share those deeper matters of the heart—fear, loneliness, worry—or to talk about the changes going on within me and, I know, within those closest to me. I think there are several reasons for this.

First of all, I feel the need to protect those closest to me. They, like me, are standing so close to the “dragon” that I fear for them more than for myself. Why expose them to any more negative emotions than necessary? We all seem happier, at least outwardly, when we “keep it light” and don’t probe too deeply. I know that, perhaps, this is not the healthiest approach for any of us. I know that not only me, but also some of those closest to me, long to tear down those protective walls and share our feelings heart-to-heart. But I’ve also come to understand the reality of Jeff Tomczek’s (2012) observations when he says:

The people that love you will be just as scared as you are. Probably more. They will be worrying even when they are smiling. They will assume you are in more pain than you are. They will be thinking about you dying and preparing for life without you. They will go through a process that you will never understand just like they will never understand the process you are going through. (para. 4)

I know I need to have more faith in God’s ability to strengthen and protect each of our hearts; and I pray that He grants me the wisdom and grace to share what should be shared with those who love me most in this world.

Second, when it comes to people with whom I am, perhaps, not quite so intimate, it’s very difficult to “trust” because I feel so vulnerable—emotionally, spiritually, and physically. People, even with the kindest of intentions, say some of the goofiest and self-absorbed things. When they do, the trust factor, at least as far as my being able to confide in them, goes right out the window. I get the impression that, ultimately, it’s really just all about them and their agenda.

There have already been moments when I’ve felt my emotional and physical energy—and I’m finding the two becoming ever more inextricably connected—being sapped by specific, little things people have said and done. Sometimes the world seems fraught with vampires—people who just seem to suck the emotional energy right of me—yikes!

But please understand, I know it’s not just them; it’s me! Bracing for the coming storm has made me somewhat hypersensitive. So, I don’t trust myself to respond appropriately to other people’s words or behavior. I find myself having to fight down certain emotions, button my lips, or stop my fingers from typing some overly emotional reply. Again, healthy or not, it just seems easier to “internalize” it all and say little or nothing, rather than to risk hurting someone’s feelings.

As for seeking professional counseling, as some who have walked this trail ahead of me advocate, and even my medical doctors have encouraged, maybe it’s just me, but I have a hard time coming to terms with having to pay somebody to let me talk to them – ha! I know, I know, call me “old fashioned,” but I’m an old guy who comes from a long line of farmers, ranchers, tradesmen, and tough, independent types who have a hard enough time just talking with family and friends about the hardships we encounter in life; let alone some complete stranger who needs to be paid to listen. Somehow, that just doesn’t quite fit this old cowboy’s upbringing.

What does fit my global paradigm, however, is God’s wisdom manifested in that beautiful organization we call “the church”—the “body of Christ,” “the household of God,” the “kingdom of God among men.” The Apostle Paul says:

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many… (I Corinthians 12:12-14, NASB)

Then, in describing how that one spiritual body—the church—functions, he compares it to our physical bodies, saying:

But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.   And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (I Corinthians 12:24-26, NASB)

I think that’s a really beautiful concept; though, perhaps, some of you are thinking it’s a bit “Pollyannaish” in today’s world. And I do have to admit that, in more than thirty years of ministry, I’ve rarely seen a church actually function in a manner wherein all the members had “the same care for one another.” Yet, the passage still speaks to me of the importance of the “priesthood of every believer,” as we seek to mutually minister one to another. In its purest and simplest form, this is “community” taken to a whole new level—both physically and spiritually.

I long for this kind of community in my life. This is a Biblical picture of the community of Christ on earth, God’s forever family; sharing life, sharing love, praising God in unison, and being devoted to one another in brotherly love. I feel like, if I had that, I might be better able to find out who it is that God has selected to “minister to the minister” – ha!

So why, on this week when I’m about to face my first—and, prayerfully, my only—major surgery, do I feel so incredibly lonely as we gather together for our Sunday morning worship? Don’t get me wrong, I’m really grateful, and even inspired, by the small group of friends who surround me today, standing hand-in-hand to pray with me and for me. But my heart is panged by the absence of particular faces; faces of people who are dear to me and who, my heart says, should be here, but aren’t.

So yeah, it makes me kind of lonely; but only on a social-emotional level, I guess; because, on a spiritual level, I’ve never felt more complete, fulfilled, satisfied, or whole.  I know that I will face the upcoming surgery in a few days with courage and confidence. My prayer time with God is awesome, His word is ever sweeter to my taste, and I’m becoming more enraptured with my Jesus each day. How does one begin to explain what it feels like to finally “let go” of certain dreams, goals, and ambitions so closely allied with this carnal world and to choose, instead, to focus on those spiritual aspects of an abundant life with Christ?

But, still, I can’t help but feel a little sad today. I know there are a lot of precious people “out there” who love me and I’m grateful for every expression of love and support they’ve managed to send my way—I need them! But, yeah, today, as I brace myself for the approaching stormy squalls coming my way, I’m feeling kind of lonely; not for corporate church, not for some denominational organization, not for all the doctrine and dogma that some people insist on assigning to organized religion; but just for the warmth, the refuge, the safe harbor of God’s forever family.

9.) Living in the Moment

It was just another typical day at the airport; mundane routines playing themselves out: people standing in line to check baggage, then standing in line for security, then waiting at the gate to finally begin boarding. Whewwww… good just to sit down for a little bit; even though the dreaded thought of “sitting” for hours on a trip back to the U.S. mainland made one want to jump back up and get in a few rounds of jumping-jacks; well, almost.

Thoughts of all the adventures of the past week were already beginning to be contextualized by what lay ahead. Time now to get back to “real life”: work, school, busy schedules, hectic routines, and all the daily fanfare that dictates our lives. But there were still the pictures and video clips to remind of good times past, of the freedom and adventure out there, never too far away, always beckoning return. And the promise of an eventual return made departure a little easier to stomach. But, for now, the return to “normalcy” demanded full attention.

Finally, the call came for boarding, and people dutifully filed onto the plane looking for seats and scouting for overhead bins. Everyone, perhaps with the exception of a few children, looked tired, bored, ready for a nap; or just ready to get this leg of the journey over with. The flight attendants went through their typical routine: “this is how you fasten a seat-belt, this is where the emergency exits are located, a life vest is located under your seat and this is how to use it, etc., etc., etc.,”—but no one paid much attention. Some had heard the same spiel dozens of times, some just wanted to appear that they had, and no one wanted to be reminded that air travel is inherently dangerous, or of the remote possibility that there could actually be some kind of emergency, someday.

All settled in, departure—1:37PM (PST)—take off, and the plane reached for the clouds. A familiar, gentle relaxation pervaded the cabin. The plane soon reached cruising altitude—on this flight, 31,000 feet. Some, covered with their little blankets, fought with their tiny airplane pillows—adjusting, readjusting—and tried to nap. Some just propped up their heads and gazed out the window to daydream. Others immediately took out Notebooks or IPads and got to work.

It was mid-afternoon over the broad, blue Pacific, but the cabin was dark so a few turned on their overhead lamps for reading. The flight crew was busy, but pacing themselves; it was just another routine flight. Early snacks and drinks were handed out to those who wanted them. Some purchased head-sets for music or waited for the in-flight movie.

Relaxation, bordering on boredom, turned thoughts toward hours already traveled—only two and half so far—and the number of hours still ahead. Stiff legs and sore backs began to ache for some relief. Some got up to go to the lavatory, some just to stretch. There would be a break in about another hour. For some, it would mark the end of their journey; but most would re-board the plane and continue. There had been a few mischievous bumps over the past half hour, despite an otherwise clear, smooth sky. But no one paid much attention. It was just typical air travel—you readjust, nestle down, and keep reading, watching, listening, snacking, and thinking about getting back to “real life.”

Suddenly the plane lunged forward, the nose dropped radically downward, and everyone felt themselves pressed hard against their seats. The three flight attendants, and a few others who were out of their seats, struggled for balance, grasping for whatever was in their reach; a few went down hard. The next eighty seconds seemed like a lifetime. “What is happening? No – This can’t be! Are we really going down?” Sheer terror seized everyone—fear and panic mingled with thoughts of loved ones, of so much left behind, of so much left undone. There was screaming. There was crying. Some tried to reach out to hold on to others. Most just clutched whatever was handy. Then, at about 23,000 feet, the plane began to level out.

To say people were “totally freaked” is an understatement. But, for the next eight to ten minutes hope returned, life returned: “Maybe we’re not going to die today!” There were feelings of gratefulness, feelings of anger, but, most of all, feelings of continue fear and the dread prospect that, perhaps, we’re not out of this yet. Everyone just wanted to feel good ole “terra firma” under their feet once more. A few found grim humor in the idea of comparing this experience with scary airplane stories that others had been through—they know that, from now on, they were probably going to win every such contest for the rest of their lives. One or two vowed that they would never fly again. Few were actually talking though; most were silently praying. A tense anxiety continued to grip the cabin.

Then, as if expected, everyone’s greatest fear was confirmed with a rapid series of loud thumps followed, about 15 seconds later, by the sound of some kind of explosion. Terror again gripped the cabin as the nose of the plane dropped radically earthward. This time, the dive was even more pressing; descending at a rate of more than 13,300 feet per minute. Everyone was pushed up hard against their seat-backs. There was a loss of cabin pressure and oxygen masks dropped; but few were able to reach them or even think about trying to retrieve the life-vest under their seat.

The plane went into a gentle roll and, within seconds, people found themselves hanging upside down gasping for breath in shear panic. Arms flailed! There was a sense of weightlessness; as if, were it not for their seat-belts, one might free-float about the cabin. In wide-eyed terror, some managed to eek out a scream. There was a discernible sobbing. Indistinguishable voices called out to one another, to God, to anyone; and, from somewhere in the chaos, there emerged that deep, dark, lonely, heart-rending wail of utter hopelessness.

At 4:22PM (PST), January 31, 2000, Alaska Airlines flight 261—from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to San Francisco, then on to Seattle—hit the ocean 2.7 miles north of Anacapa Island, California. The MD-83 was destroyed on impact. All 88 people onboard—crew and passengers—were killed instantly. (Alaska, 2012)

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 This is the story I was remembering and thinking about while flying high above the wide, blue Pacific on Hawaiian Airlines flight 107—from Kona to Honolulu—for pre-surgical consultations and tests. Looking out over the clouds and thinking about that Alaska flight got me to contemplating my perceptions of the past, the present, and the future. I was struck by the simple fact that the people who died that day had no idea it was going to be their last.

The story reminded me that anything can happen to any one of us at any time. This plane that I’m on right now, I thought, may or may not get me over to Oahu, and then back home to Kona later today. In fact, I could be battling cancer and die of a heart attack, or a shark attack while out body-boarding with my granddaughters. So why am I always thinking about what needs to happen tomorrow, or worrying about what that mystical fantasy—“the future”—may hold for me, rather than simply living in the moment? The Bible says:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”   Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16, NASB)

Yes, I’ll admit, this cancer has me a little spooked. I’m concerned about facing surgery next week, and what might follow. But I’m also convicted by the fact that yesterday is but a memory and tomorrow is just a fantasy—it’s not yet real. So, in a very real sense, today—this very moment—is all I have.

I can already relate to Jeff Tomczek’s wisdom when he talks about how cancer reshapes our outlook on life and says, “You’re going to feel like the future is a funny thing to think about because the present is going to suddenly seem incredibly important” (Tomczek, 2012). Already, I’m finding that thinking too far ahead—more than a couple of weeks, or even a few days—evokes an emptiness deep within me. I feel a pressing need to just “live in the moment,” without stressing over what “might be.” I feel the need to try to celebrate every day that God chooses to give me. I feel compelled to make it my goal, each day, to just love the people God scoots into my life.

Furthermore, I don’t want to just survive, or exist, or even “get ahead,” like so many who are forever pursuing the material concerns of this carnal world—as though this is really all there is. I don’t want to get so wrapped up in preparing for the future that I miss living in the present. Didn’t Jesus say, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34, NASB)?

As for focusing on what’s really important, I’m reminded of the little story of Mary and Martha when Jesus came to have dinner at their house.   As the story goes:

…Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things;   but only one thing is necessary, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40-42, NASB)

As I sailed across the ocean that day on “the wings of the islands”—Hawaiian Airlines—I was also contemplating what happens within us when everything seems to spiral out of control; when the future becomes more than a little uncertain. I’ve been contemplating how I face the trials, tribulations, and tragedies of life. What if my “plane” is really going down? I want to be brave, but I wonder, am I just another panic stricken chicken—“Oh no, no, no, no, no – I’m not ready for this”? Or, do I move forward with the calm assurance of faith knowing that every step I take is another step closer home and to the beautiful realm God has waiting for me? Oh Lord, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NASB).

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So anyway, my visit with the eye, nose, and throat (ENT) surgeon at Moanalua Medical Center in Honolulu went well enough, I suppose. However, I thought it was supposed to be only a verbal consultation—boy did I misinterpret that one! What I thought would be a thirty-minute meeting with the surgeon turned out to be a full day of testing, lab work, body probes, EKG, x-rays, and all kinds of pre-admission requirements and procedures. But the good news—if you want to call it that—is that the surgery, only one month after diagnosis, is now officially scheduled. The order says: “Thyroidectomy—remove a portion or all of thyroid gland and surrounding lymph nodes.”

“This is the day which the Lord has made;

Let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

(Psalm 118:24, NASB)

airliner circled

8.) His Plan – Bigger than Me

I don’t mean to stand in judgment of anybody’s personal commitment or relationship with God, but I get more than a little irritated at those “religious” people among us who make what they call “faith” all about gaining earthly rewards, securing physical healing, and obtaining the material blessings of this present world. You know the kind I’m talking about: those, “Holy Roller, Hallelujah, Thank Ya Jeeezzzzus!” so-called “faith healers” who claim to have some kind of greater spiritual connections to God than the rest of us and who are, they think, endowed with special powers whereby they are able to miraculously make us all better. Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the power of God and the miracle of prayer. But I don’t believe in these people who get in your face and tell you that the reason you’re sick, or the reason you’re not being healed, is because you don’t have enough faith.

I remember when we invited some people to come up to our house to pray with our family, we thought, while my 14 year old nephew, Gatlin, who was battling cancer, was visiting with us here in Hawai’i. No sooner had they sat down than one of them got right in Gatlin’s face and began literally preaching right at him and telling him that the reason he had not been cured of cancer was because he had so little faith; and that he was certainly going to die if he didn’t get some soon. Gatlin, a sweet and gentle child who loved the Lord with all his heart, and who had more “faith” in his little finger than their whole party combined, just sat there, eyes as wide as silver dollars, looking dazed and confused.

I could feel myself becoming a little unhinged and, were it not for the restraining power of the Holy Spirit, along with some severe glances from my wife and my sister Judy—Gatlin’s mom—both shaking their heads at me, things might have gotten ugly. I was thinking to myself, “How dare these people make it their aim to strike fear in this beautiful little boy’s heart, take away his peace, and make him feel as though something was wrong in His relationship with God; even while he was facing something as monstrous as cancer and in need of all the strength and encouragement he could get.” Needless to say, that fellow’s “sermon” got cut pretty short and we soon escorted him and his party out of our house has gently and efficiently as possible.

Now, the fact is that, sometimes, in the historical record contained in scripture, people were miraculously healed because of their faith. And, sometimes, they were miraculously healed, despite their unbelief, in order to create faith. But, in either case, the power to heal did not depend on the person being healed, but on the authentic working of the Holy Spirit through humble men of God.

I’m all about the power of prayer. What I believe is what the scriptures teach when James says:

Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 5:14-17, NASB)

I also believe what the scriptures say about prayer when we’re told that,

This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. (I John 5:14-15, NASB)

But let’s not stop there, and run off “half-cocked” in our arrogant and self-willed religious piety; thinking that, just because we ask, God is bound to deliver exactly what we ask for in just the way we imagine that He should. That is not what this passage is saying. Notice, that the text includes the clause “according to His will” (verse 14).

So, okay, what does it mean to ask “according to His will”? Remember, the Apostle Paul’s story about his own sickness:

…to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NASB)

Did Paul ask for healing in faith? Sure he did! Was Paul’s prayer heard by his heavenly Father? Of course! And, did the Father answer him? Yes! But it wasn’t exactly the answer Paul was expecting. God had a bigger plan. There were ways in which Paul’s sickness—whatever it was—served God’s purpose more than his health would have.

Do you remember the story of Lazarus, the close friend of Jesus, who fell ill and died? As the story goes:

… the sisters sent word to Him, saying, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “This sickness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it. Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He then stayed two days longer in the place where He was. (John 11:3-5, NASB)

Interesting, isn’t it, that rather than rushing back to Bethany, as Mary and Martha expected, Jesus deliberately lingered up in Galilee until He knew that Lazarus was dead. And yet, Jesus had stated that “this sickness is not to end in death” (verse 5). Of course, those of us who’ve read our Bibles know the rest of the story. When Jesus finally got back to Bethany, “Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died’” (verse 32). There was much weeping; even “Jesus wept” (verse 35). None of their requests had been answered in the ways they had wanted, or expected. Why not? Because God had a bigger plan! A few minutes later, Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth” (verse 43), and “The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (verse 44).

I learn from this that, typically, when it comes to God’s children, the good that comes out of our suffering, and even our death, is incredibly greater than anything we might have originally imagined. Can we trust that God knows what He’s doing with us?

But, perhaps, the greatest example of what it means to pray “according to His will,” is demonstrated by Jesus Himself in His prayer at Gethsemane the night before His crucifixion. 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. And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. When He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping from sorrow, and said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not enter into temptation. (Luke 22:39-46, NASB)

Wow! I don’t know how prayer gets any more intense than that. Jesus didn’t want to have to die on that cross. Apparently, He was exploring other alternatives whereby the mission might be accomplished. But He couched both His agony and His request in the context of “Father, if You are willing…” Ultimately, we know the answer to that one, don’t we? The pain and agony associated with the cross was big, not to mention the spiritual suffering of taking upon Himself the sin of the world and tasting the death that we all deserve. That’s big! But the heavenly Father’s plan was BIGGER! What followed His suffering was a beautiful resurrection, a wondrous ascension, a glorious enthronement to “the right hand of the Majesty on High” (Hebrews 1:3, NASB), and here’s the clincher, our eternal “redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7, NASB).

Sometimes we let our hearts get so wrapped up in the “here and now” that we forget the bigger picture. God always has a plan, and it’s big—bigger than we can ever imagine. We get to be a little part of it all. Can we trust God with that?

For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. (Romans 14:7-9, NASB)

7.) Why Me, Lord?

Sad Violin ArtisticSooner or later, somewhere along the line, when confronted with a potentially life-threatening illness, or some other tragic situation involving people we love, the thought crosses our mind: “Why? Why me? Why now? Why is God doing this, or allowing this, to happen?”

And you know, there are plenty of half-hitched people with some pretty goofy ideas out there who think they have all the answers for us. Some say that it’s God punishing people for their bad behavior. But while I’m sure that I do deserve plenty of punishment for all my bad behavior, I’m not convinced that God works like that. In fact, Jesus, Himself, discounts that kind of thinking in His teaching about the need for authentic repentance. As the story goes:

… there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And Jesus said to them, “Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-5, NASB)

So, there you have it. We are all sinners and we all need to repent of the selfishness in our lives. But God doesn’t punish some of us physically, here on earth, for the sin in our lives while letting others go scot-free. Rest assured, people will be held accountable for their sin; and those who choose not to repent of sin, but to embrace it during their time here on earth, will meet their fate in the final judgment. Check out Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus for more information about that (See: Luke 16:19-31). But, according to Jesus, the bad things that happen to us here on earth are not due to God’s direct punishment.

That having been said, the Bible does teach us that God “disciplines” the children He loves. Consider this incredible teaching written to the Hebrew children (Jewish Christians) who were suffering tremendous hardships and persecutions at the hands of their fellow countrymen, as well as the Romans, during the first century:

…you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:5-13, NASB)

It seems as if, having been confronted with cancer and the fact of my own mortality, and in light of eternity, my personal goals and ambitions don’t seem to matter to me so much anymore. Somehow, it’s not about my plans and what I want to do for God anymore, but about His plans and what God wants to do with me in whatever remaining time He has designated for me here upon the earth.

It’s not that I no longer have the right and the privilege to pursue my personal dreams, goals, and ambitions. These are the things that make our lives unique and wonderful. But it’s more like God wants me to give those dreams and ambitions to Him, completely and without reservation. He is calling me to surrender them to Him at the foot of the cross, along with everything and everyone else in my life; so that He can take them and do with them whatever He sees fit. Perhaps they need to evaporate before my very eyes. Or, perhaps He will work with them, mold and shape them, and make of them something more beautiful than I could ever imagine. But, I’m convinced, He won’t do that until I let go—until I give them up by giving Him utter control of my destiny—and that includes a willingness to be content with whatever He decides to do with them.

Furthermore, I don’t think God is content to leave me at my current level of discipleship. And why should He be? When I think of all the trials and tribulations our brothers and sisters in Christ have had to go through as they lived out their Christian faith—losing their homes, their families, their livelihood, even their very lives for the sake of Christ—why should He be content with my lukewarm approach to faith. The Apostle Peter reminds us of the purpose behind God’s discipline, saying:

In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (I Peter 1:6-7, NASB)

God wants and deserves my unadulterated allegiance—a refined faith, purified, as necessary, through the fires of tribulation. It is written even of Jesus that, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8, NASB). So, if even my Lord Jesus needed to suffer in order to experience the true value and significance of obedience, then who am I to argue against it, or run from it? “Oh, God, my Father, give me the faith, hope, love, joy, and peace to embrace your discipline, in whatever form it comes!”

Now that’s just me and God at work in my life. We are all individuals and God is intimately working His will in different ways and in different measures within all of us who love Him. I don’t believe that the discipline God is working in my life applies equally to everybody, or anybody, else. I don’t believe God’s reasons for confronting me with thyroid cancer are the same reasons my little nephew, Gatlin, had to endure Ewing’s sarcoma at such a young age and die at age 14; or the same reasons our sweet Jessica had to deal with Fanconi anemia and succumb to it at age 11. I don’t believe God’s purpose in suddenly taking Tim’s life, at age 23, bears any resemblance to His purpose in disciplining me with cancer.

While some of the same disciplinary benefits may be inculcated upon the hearts and lives of the parents, families, and loved ones left behind, the only sure connection that I can see between any of us, and the trials we’re individually required to face, is “FAITH”—the uncompromising belief that, “…we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28, NASB).

6.) Givers and Takers

Okay, I guess this is where I start offending people and losing friends! Last night I was feeling humbled and vulnerable; and, to a large extent, I still do. But, for some reason, I woke up this morning in a “fightin mood!” I guess all this pent up emotion needs to go somewhere. Fortunately, I’ve been alone all day with nobody to take it out on—no dog to kick, no cat to tromp, only four little guinea pigs; and who in their right, or wrong, mind could ever bring themselves to harm a sweet little guinea pig? (Except, I guess, those cold-blooded, laboratory scientists types; and we all know they’ve gotta be more than a little “cuckoo.”) So, with no punching bag to let loose on, I guess I’ll just write – huh!

No doubt about it, dark clouds are brewing on the horizon and the storm will soon be breaking upon me, so it’s time to batten down the hatches, get a good grip the wheel, set my jaw, grit my teeth, and brace for the coming storm—“dam the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

I think a big part of the preparedness necessary to weather potentially life-threatening situations lies in the realm of our emotions. There are a few things we can do on the physical front, but none of that it going to get us very far without the emotional stamina necessary to engage the battle with all the strength we can muster.

Some say anger, after denial, is a natural response when facing traumatic struggles; you know, that whole “fight or flight” scenario. Don’t get me wrong, I would definitely take the “flight” option if it was available. Trouble is, this cancer is one of those persistent enemies. It has put me on notice that it’s not going to just go away and leave me alone; not without a fight.

That does make me angry! But I’m not angry at God; and, oddly enough, I don’t even think I’m particularly angry at cancer. So, what am I angry about? Well, as I look toward the horizon and survey the coming storm, I find myself needing to gain some perspective on my life; to, somehow, get a handle on who I am, where I am now, and where my life seems to be heading—especially in view of the brevity of life. And, as I seek to gain that perspective, I’m finding that, number one, I’m angry at myself.

That’s right, contemplating the upcoming battles that lie before me, I’m angry at myself and how selfish I am, and always have been all my life. Looking back, it seems to me that I’ve done very little in life that was motivated simply by love and goodwill toward others. There has always been an ulterior motive lurking just beneath the surface. Most of what I’ve accomplished has been motivated by “self” in some form or fashion. My wants, my needs, my fears, my pleasures, my desires, my dreams, my goals, my feelings, my opinions, my education, my career, my ministry, my lifestyle, my religion, my image, my reputation, my relationships—my, my, my, I, I, I, me, me, me!!! And, today, I’m so sick of me that I really feel like kicking my butt!

I am amazed at all the people who have been putting up with me all these years; and who still say that they love me. Believe me, there have been moments when, due to my conduct and behavior, people could have, and maybe should have, “written me off.” They would have been fully justified in doing so; and maybe some have, but many, to my amazement, apparently haven’t—yet!

But now this! After all I’ve put my sweet wife, and other loved ones, through in life; now they have to deal with something like this; and focus on me and my needs to an even greater degree; on top of everything else on their busy plates. I’m like, “seriously?” And I know that, sometimes, sickness can make us so selfish, so needy. But what right do I have to impose like this upon any of my loved ones, or their time, or their energy, or their emotions? I feel like such a “taker.”

When will I ever get around to being the “giver” that I want to be? When will I ever really learn to love like Jesus calls me to love, the way He loves us? When will I start authentically living like Him and begin to really, from the heart out, put other people’s wants, desires, and needs ahead of my own? And when will simply serving God’s master plan, whatever that plan is, become more important to me than getting what I want?

Do I want this cancer to go away? I do! Do I want to heal and get better? Certainly! And not just for me, but for the people I love who have to put up with me, as well. But what if, in God’s divine wisdom, His plan for the redemption of humanity is better served by my being sick, or even dying long before I had intended? I mean, I would like to think that I do have more to offer by living and serving a few more years on this globe, than by dying. But, lets face it, I’m a little bias; and it’s not my call. Furthermore, whose story is this anyway, mine, or His? I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Romans when talking about God’s sovereignty as He works His will in our hearts and lives; he says, “…who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, “Why did you make me like this,” will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay…” (Romans 9:20-21, NASB).

I also remember how that the Apostle Paul, himself, had some kind of a debilitating disease. We’re not sure just what it was, but it was so bad that it was hard for people to be around him. He said to the church at Galatia:

…but you know that it was because of a bodily illness that I preached the gospel to you the first time; and that which was a trial to you in my bodily condition you did not despise or loathe, but you received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus Himself. (Galatians 4:13-14, NASB)

Paul must have felt a deep sense of love and gratitude toward these people who loved him and received him so warmly, even though his condition was an imposition upon them. And, you know, Paul really wanted to be rid of this sickness, illness, or disease—whatever it was—and he said to the church at Corinth:

…there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NASB)

Well, it’s about time I stop “exalting myself.” And if that requires a “thorn in the flesh”—cancer, or whatever—to help me overcome my pride, surrender my heart completely to my Lord Jesus, and learn to be a “giver” more than a “taker” before my life on earth is done, then I need to embrace that as a gift from God; and not fear it. God’s grace is sufficient!

The other thing I’m fighting mad about today, besides my own foolish pride, is the carnality—the fleshly, worldly, materialistic stranglehold—that this world seems to have on me; and virtually all of us it seems. I’m just so weary of me, and people dear to me, getting so wrapped up in this world, and the things of this world, that we lose sight of what is truly important. I remember the Apostle John telling us:

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. (I John 2:15-17, NASB)

The world seems so full of injustice. People die daily. Last I heard, every single day 29,000 children lay down in the dirt and die of malnutrition, starvation, and the pestilence associated with war and famine (Unicef, 2013). Yet, we in the Western world, so blessed, are so obsessed with our carefully manicured lawns, our beautifully decorated homes, our luxury automobiles—and they’re all “luxury” compared to getting around on a donkey—our financial investments and retirement plans, and our political platforms and social issues, that we seldom cast more than a token glance in the direction of the desperate.

They call it “compassion fatigue,” or “humanitarian burnout.” We’ve grow weary of seeing all the pictures of poverty ridden children on television. It is as though we no longer share the world with them; it just doesn’t bother us anymore.

While I’m all for having nice grass and clean homes, it’s amazing how far down the priority ladder all our worldly, materialistic concerns tumble when confronted by impending disaster or a potentially life-threatening illness. Yet, as soon as things are going half-way well again, we’re right back at it—indulging ourselves while the world goes wanting. I don’t know what I can do about it. I know I can’t solve the problem of 29,000 children a day dying of starvation. But maybe I can help one. Maybe we could all decide to make one less trip to Starbucks each week, if necessary, in order to reach out and help just one; and then, somewhere down the line, maybe, another one?

But an even more pressing concern on my heart today is the apparent apathy, sometimes even embarrassment, that people seem to feel toward spiritual matters; as though being a spiritual person, one who believes in God, or who openly follows Christ, is something to be ashamed of and kept secret. Why do even Christians find it easier to talk about everything in the world other than our Lord, our mission, our spiritual struggles, and the incredible spiritual gifts, joys, and victories that are ours in Christ? It is almost as if we don’t know how to talk, even to one another, about the things that matter most—so we talk about football. Meanwhile, family, friends, neighbors, and other people God brings into our lives, end up going their separate ways and eventually die; maybe knowing that we were different, that we had something they might have wanted or needed, but having never been made to feel comfortable in asking us about the beautiful love God has for us and the abundant life to which His love calls us.

To live and die without hope of eternal life with God has got to be the greatest tragedy I can imagine. As Jesus put it, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, NASB). I’m disappointed in myself for not letting my colors fly more boldly; for not being more open and approachable with my faith on a personal level—and I’m not talking about grandstanding on some social media platform, or going out and getting in people’s faces, or whacking them up alongside the head with my Bible. I’m just talking about living my faith.

All-in-all, I really do think that I would rather someone feel a little uncomfortable around me because I was open with my faith, than for them to feel uncomfortable in approaching and asking me about spiritual things because I was so closed. I’m just talking about sharing my values and convictions as the Lord gives me opportunity, being approachable, and making it easy for people I care about to ask questions of me, or to share their feelings about those things that really matter most to them.

So today, yeah, I feel like I just want to rip to shreds those imaginary social ramparts that seem to have been erected all around us and to find a way to breach the silly social barriers that keep us from sharing intimately, heart-to-heart, one with another.

ripping through paper 2

4.) Coming to Terms With Mortality

CowboySkullI have been told that one of the first things anyone facing cancer, or any potentially life-threatening situation, needs to do is come to terms with their own mortality. But I don’t think we have to be told that. In fact, I don’t think we really have any choice in the matter. Mortality, the brevity of life, just seems to jump up and slap you in the face. But I guess there are those who try to run away from it in fear, or who bury it away and try not to think about it; and I can see how that could be unhealthy, lead to even greater anxiety, and, potentially, get in the way of healing.

While we all readily agree that death is no respecter of persons, that the young die, too, and that we all should try to live in the moment because any day could be our last, still, we pretty much tend to live as though we’ve got some kind of a “lease on life” don’t we? That is, until something like cancer comes along to sober us up to the reality of just how brief the time remaining to us might actually be. I remember a Psalm ascribed to Moses in which he says, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, NASB).

But, I’ve got to tell you, coming to terms with reality can really be a difficult process; especially when “reality” appears somewhat illusive. I’m still trying to fully comprehend some of the implications of what it means to have cancer and how my life, and the lives of others I know and love, will be changed. In my heart I’ve determined to be courageous and do my best to keep any impact upon others as minimal as possible. I hesitate even calling the people I know I should and telling them about it.

For the past few months, as a result of my Master’s studies at ACU, and other disciplines God has duly and justly wrought upon me, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my mission in life. I’ve been talking to God and asking Him to narrow my mission vision, and to focus my ministry and my purpose. I’ve been asking Him to bring forward opportunities to demonstrate to others His nature, His glory, His power, His love. I’ve been asking Him to reveal the best avenues whereby I might seek to love, to serve, to reach, to teach, and to communicate the Gospel of Jesus Christ to others. I’ve had all sorts of great ideas come to mind, but I never, in my wildest imagination, expected that He would answer my prayer with cancer.

People want me to be “strong”—some for their own sake, I think, more than for mine. I’ve already been called a “hero of faith” and one who will “fly through these tribulations on eagle’s wings.” I can’t tell you how much I hope that is true; and, at this point, it still seems easy to, at least, “appear” bold, courageous, and a pillar of faith. That is until, deep in my heart, I’m confronted by the proverbial “rubber meets the road,” where theology becomes reality, and it’s my turn to “take up the cross.”

Now, I consider myself a pretty “tough” guy—although some of my former students, not to mention my grandchildren, might laugh at that—but it’s only been a few days since I learned of my diagnosis and, already, I feel like I’ve been riding that proverbial “emotional roller coaster” of which people so often speak. One moment I’m feeling positive, energized, in full command of my emotions, almost euphoric; and I think to myself, “God and I have got this!” The next moment I’m feeling emotionally drained, empty, depressed, almost hopeless, and nothing seems to matter much anymore—like, “whatever!” Again, I guess some of this could just be my thyroid acting up. Is it okay to admit to you some of my weakness, my fears, and my failure of nerve?

For those of you who have faced similar, potentially life-threatening situations, perhaps you can relate to the scary dreams. Did you, or do you, sometimes have scary dreams? Now, this is no “preacher story”—you know, the kind of license preachers sometime take to make up stories that get their points across, leaving you to guess whether or not the story is actually true—but last night, I actually dreamed that I died and was floating in an endless sea of total darkness and isolation, completely alone and without hope of ever seeing or communicating with anyone ever again. It was so scary that it woke me and, for a few moments, the deep emptiness persisted as I wondered to myself, “surely that’s not what it’s really going to be like, is it?” Of course, for those who love the Lord, we know death isn’t anything like that. I remember Jesus’ words:

I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?  (John 11:25-26, NASB)

And I repeated Jesus’ words to myself, “do you believe this?” And I smiled because, in my heart, I know that I do. I also remember Jesus talking about the reality of the resurrection, saying:

But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the burning bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now He is not the God of the dead but of the living; for all live to Him. (Luke 20:37-38, NASB)

Still, I can’t help but wonder, “What would the world be like without Captain Hook?” (Spielberg, 1991)—a few of my former students will laugh at that one, too!

I can’t help but think about my wife, and how life would be different for her; although I’m comforted in knowing that, while she is extremely softhearted, she’s also pretty tough stuff. More importantly, she’s filled with faith, hope, and love for the Lord and for others. I also can’t help but think about my children and grandchildren and the legacy of faith and failure that I’ve left for them. My prayer is that the examples of faith will somehow dwarf the failure and that they’ll not shirk the paths of righteousness that the Lord is calling them to just because one old “salty” who has gone before them walked a little wobbly at times.

I look out my window and see little doves going about their daily business, scratching, pecking, and fussing with each other. I know the wind will keep blowing, the rain will keep falling, rainbows will appear, and people will continue to pursue their busy lives without me; all as it should be. Meanwhile, I will have taken my place at the side of Jesus, among those I love who’ve gone before me, to cheer on those who are still running the race as we all await the resurrection, and, “according to His promise,” that “new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NASB).

Still, having said all that, a little tremor runs through me as I gaze out the window toward the sea and think of the “reality” now set before me. Is it really “my turn” to have to sail such stormy seas? Feelings of frustration, fatigue, and emptiness set in. I wish it would all just “go away”—you know, like, “okay, I get it, and I’m over it, so let’s just be done with it now, and move on with life already!” But, it won’t just go away. And, on an intellectual level, I know that I’ve not yet even set foot on that trek toward Golgotha; I’m still in the courtyard, kneeling on the pavement, awaiting my sentence. It is here to stay, this new reality; it’s not going anywhere. My own mortality has jumped up and slapped me in the face; and so, I guess, I’ve just gotta deal with it.

But, of course, I know that some of this emotion and speculation is, perhaps, a bit premature. After all, who’s to say just what the coming “reality” will actually consist of in the weeks, months, or years that lay before me? I’m not dead, yet! This is still my life and I’m privileged with the right to pursue it with all the joy, gusto, and stamina that I can muster for however long I’m here. After all, “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7, NASB).