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)
I could hardly believe my eyes, or ears for that matter. It was the evening of the American Cancer Society’s “Relay for Life” and we were right in the midst of the opening ceremony—the survivor’s lap. As I walked around the far end of the track, surrounded by hundreds of cancer survivors walking side-by-side together, I looked up and there, just beyond the other end of the field, was the most beautiful rainbow. So beautiful and amazing was this rainbow that the relay facilitators called for the whole group of survivors to quickly make their way back to the other end of the field for a big group picture of us all standing together beneath the rainbow. Then, the announcer called out: “Waianuenue (Rainbow) is in the house!” I almost “lost it” completely! I stumbled forward through the tears, my head spinning, making my way toward the rainbow, thinking of my little, deceased Nui boy (Rainbow) and the trials, tribulations, courage, and hope he symbolized. That those events would unfold in such sequence at just such a moment gave me the most profound assurance of God’s abiding presence.
As discussed earlier in these memoirs, if confronted seriously enough with a potentially life-threatening situation, one cannot help but be confronted with his or her own mortality. It happens to soldiers on the battlefield, to firefighters and emergency personnel, to people on the front lines of the medical industry, to people who have faced severe accident, harm, and injury; and, to one degree or another, to those who have survived a serious illness.
We hear a lot about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) today, especially with regard to men and women returning from the battlefield in war zones around the globe. I can’t help but believe that a significant component of that phenomenon is our human consciousness—heart, soul—trying to come to terms with the reality of our mortality. I mean, it’s one thing to know that every living thing, and everyone, eventually dies. But it is quite another to stand face-to-face with the brevity of life and be made to live with the fact that our own lives, and the lives of those we cherish, hang by a thread and can be snuffed out in less than a heartbeat.
We want more control than that. We want to think that our destiny lies in our own hands. We want to believe that we’ve got some kind of a lease on life, that time is on our side, that death can’t, or at least won’t, touch us or the ones we love and that we won’t have to face it anytime in the foreseeable future. And so we push death way back into the dark recesses of our brain; out of sight, out of mind. And there it remains, hidden, but lurking; until the day the bullets start flying or the doctor walks into the office and says, “Yes, it’s cancer!”
As I’ve tried to persevere on this faith-walk through the stormy clouds of cancer, only one person has dared ask of me, whether or not I felt as though I had “found my peace” with regard to facing death. I wanted to say, “Well, of course, after all, I’m a ‘preacher’ aren’t I?” But in reality, I wasn’t quite sure how to answer.
The question, you see, wasn’t, “are you prepared to die if you ever have to?” or, “have you gotten your affairs in order in case you die?” or even, “are you good with God and ready to meet Him whenever you die?” The question was, “have you found your peace?” The person asking me that question wasn’t at all concerned with my “preparedness” for death or for life after death. She was inquiring into the present state of my heart. She understood, in the measure of wisdom that God had granted her, that it’s one thing to accept the fact that we’re all going to die, some sooner than others, and quite another to be able to live with peace and joy in our hearts in the face of that fact. Although it had been asked in the context of the subject of death, it really wasn’t a “death” question at all; it was a “life” question. And, for me, it was nothing short of a “faith” challenge.
I’m convinced that most of today’s Christian community is in need of a serious spiritual paradigm shift. I say this because it appears to me, from the way we talk, the way we pray, the things we’re most concerned about, and the things we’re most likely to celebrate, that we’re far too wrapped up in this material world. Take a step back and listen, sometime, to the way we pray and communicate with one another; the things that seriously disturb us and the things we get really excited about. Tell me we’re not mostly about fleshly concerns and material needs! We talk about and pray almost continually for people’s physical healing and material welfare, but how much energy and concern is directed toward people’s spiritual needs?
I’m remembering, again, the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and how he asked the Lord three times that it be removed, but God refused, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, NASB). Paul needed to suffer in the flesh to fulfill the will of God for him. So why do we seem to feel as if the most important thing to ask from God is physical healing and material blessing? Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se, it’s just not the most important thing; at least, not to me anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I do ask God, almost daily, for physical well-being. I want to be healthy and have the strength and energy to do all the things I feel like I want and need to do to take care of my family and to accomplish the work God has set before me. But, ultimately, I know that physical healing is of little consequence. What matters most is whether or not I’m willing to be used by God to accomplish His purpose and to allow my lot in life—rich, poor, healthy, or ill—to glorify my Lord. So, perhaps, the most important things we need to be praying about, both for ourselves and for those we’re called to love and serve, is for surrender—true discipleship—and for the grace and wisdom to truly yield our hearts and lives to the will of God.
I walked out into the sea last evening at sunset. The ocean had taken on a metallic golden-grayish hue, impossible to describe to all but those who’ve witnessed it. A big red sun hung in the western sky, its mirrored image rippling across the water and terminating at my feet like a puddle of liquid gold. I breathed deeply of the soft, salty, sea breezes and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves on the shoreline some distance behind me. Cool water embraced my legs up to my knees as my toes snuggled into the warm sand beneath. It was all so magical, so perfect. And then the old song jumped into my head: “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through!”
One might think that such a thought would pretty much spoil the occasion. But that was not my experience. Rather, a flurry of scripture rushed through my brain and I found myself in a state of intense meditation. I thought of the Apostles Paul and his “desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better” (Philippians 1:23, NASB). I thought of the Apostle John’s admonition: “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” (I John 2:15, NASB). I thought of Jesus’ teaching, “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26, NASB). I even thought of Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross, “today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43, NASB). And I thought to myself, this is not paradise, THAT’S paradise!
I think most people have a longing for a place called “home.” We seek connection. We relish community. We want a place where we belong, where we can know and be known intimately; and be accepted for who we are—the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful. We look for it in our churches; we look for it in our family circles; we look for it when we come together to celebrate our holidays or when we try to meaningfully connect with some age-old social tradition—often to no avail.
I believe that religion and culture have more to do with humanity’s desire for these connections than they do anything else. Both religion and culture seek to provide people with a sense of belonging, an identity, a pathway to connectivity, to community, to hearth and home. But when dispossessed of one’s culture, or when family seems scattered to the wind, or when faith flounders, our hearts reel with emptiness. We may fool ourselves for a while—trying to fill the void with materialistic gratification and endless diversions—but, eventually, we will be made to face our mortality. And when we do, may God grant us the presence of mind to ask, “Where is my peace?”
I love King Solomon’s statement, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NIV). As I stood there, knee deep in a golden sunset ocean, pure beauty unleashed all about me, I felt a deep emptiness and longing for something more; something that I knew couldn’t be found this side of death’s dark portal. And, with eternity tugging at my heart, another passage, one that I dearly love, came to mind:
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives. (Hebrews 2:14-15, NASB)
People, in general, do fear death; no one wants to die! But our Lord Jesus has stepped into this world, cloaked Himself with flesh and blood, and, through His own sacrificial death and resurrection, taken away the fear of death for all those who love Him. He rendered death nothing more than our ticket “home.”
It’s been ten months, now, since my diagnosis. They’re still doing regular blood work on me every other month, trying to regulate my thyroid hormone. There is another lump steadily growing in the right side of my throat near the thyroid bed. I’m tempted to despair at the dreadful thought, “here we go again!” But it’s probably nothing; still, it could be something—a lymph node do you suppose? That seems to be how it is when you’ve been through cancer or a similar kind of illness. A close thyca friend, Karen, who lives in Florida writes:
I know what you mean about water under the bridge, but I fear there are waters out there we have yet to tread. I think that it will always be in my mind: will it return or is it gone? Every new bump or lump I get scares me, fearing that the cancer has spread; but trusting God it’s dormant and that it will stay that way. I have a place on the inside of my lip—they are calling it a fibroma—and I will have it taken off next week; of course, they have to biopsy it as precaution. I never worried about any of these kinds of things before diagnosis of thyroid cancer. But even with all of this I still trust God to see me thru whatever happens.
As for this lump in my throat, I will have another battery of tests, along with an ultrasound later this month; and a WBS (whole body scan) if necessary in order to see if there is any metastatic recurrence going on in that location; or anywhere else in my body.
It’s a little disconcerting for me to have two other dear friends who are both continuing to battle reoccurring metastatic thyroid cancer. Lolly, who lives here in the islands, and Julie, who lives on the U.S. Mainland, both started out with the same diagnosis as I, went through precisely the same treatment, and were handed the same “all clear for now” verdict by their endocrinologists, just as I was. Today, even as I sit here writing this journal, Lolly is undergoing a radical neck dissection to remove multiple metastatic lymph nodes. Julie has recently been diagnosed with two metastatic thyroid tumors in her lungs; which must soon be surgically removed. What has happened with these two precious friends serves as a stern reminder for me not to take anything for granted; and that, when it comes to cancer, it’s never really over unless, and until, God says it’s over.
It’s no fun living without a thyroid. It’s one of those invisible amputations that nobody pays much attention to, except the one who is having to deal with it each day; and, as I’m discovering, there are a myriad of subtle symptoms—and some not so subtle—that one has to deal with each day. Energy levels, as well as emotions, can fluctuate wildly.
For now, I’m just trying to live each day as it comes and be “in the moment.” I find myself living with a deep sense of gratitude. If there is any good thing that has come out of my skirmish with cancer, and I do believe 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), it is that cancer has revealed my “peace.” It has helped me come to terms with my own mortality.
What I mean is, I know that, should this be the day of my departure, the world will go on spinning without me; and I’m quite alright with that. I know that God holds the hearts and lives of my dearest loved ones in His holy and compassionate hands; and that they’ll be okay without me. He has a plan for each of them; and it’s His plan that matters, not mine.
But here’s the ultimate rainbow: I also know that separation from loved ones in this world heralds a reunion with loved ones in the world beyond who’ve gone on before me; and, furthermore, I know that the separation of death is only temporary. Soon, all who have surrendered their hearts and lives to Jesus, and who have put their faith in Him and His atoning sacrifice, will be together again in that “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13, NASB). We will be home!
This world is not my home I’m just a passing through
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
(Burton & Graham, 2011)
Please feel free to comment below; or to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org