I haven’t written the last few days because I came down with a bug, starting with a scratchy throat and ending with laryngitis, a cough, and a low-grade fever. It was probably something I picked up at church last weekend, so I stayed home this weekend to avoid the germs. It’s hard to believe that seven days ago, I was hiking 2+ miles per day and feeling wonderful and optimistic. Since Wednesday, the dominant feelings have been lethargy, discomfort, and concern as my symptoms accumulated. Having lung cancer makes one a bit skittish about what would otherwise be normal winter blahs.
It has been just three months since I got my diagnosis, and meanwhile I have undergone three rounds of chemotherapy and 45-Gray (4500 rads) of radiation. In those months of active treatment, God met me at a very tender place and carried me through the discomforts of such a rigorous routine. After all, we had something to do: assault the Beast and slay it once and for all. Just last week, I had a very palpable sense that God was healing me, and I rejoiced.
But the proactive fight has morphed into dull waiting. The initial challenge and newness of this experience has passed, and the first phase of treatment is complete. I am now in the midst of five complete weeks off from doctors’ appointments, infusions, and tests. The waiting routine consists of the slow, steady climb toward strength and fitness in preparation for surgery—nothing really exciting about that, just uphill ordinary life.
And then I started to cough again, which is kind of scary for a lung cancer patient. For three days I gutted it out, somewhat discouraged and tired, with nothing to write about and spiritually feeling a bit beat up. It was late Friday afternoon and my pastor was over visiting and praying for me when the Lord seemed to nudge me. The word was, “The fact you feel sick again doesn’t change what I am accomplishing in you. Don’t let this momentary setback rob you of the hope I have given you. Keep your eyes on the goal and let my joy be your strength!”
I’ve dragged myself out of this feverish stupor today to reflect on how my experience might parallel the experience of the people of God through New Testament history: Early exuberance, fruitful ministry, doldrums and difficulties, strengthened hope.
Think about it: those who had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection—or heard about it directly from his disciples—were high on the gospel. We have ample evidence of this in the book of Acts. God used Spirit-empowered but otherwise ordinary men and women to tell the story, demonstrate the Kingdom of God, heal and forgive and evangelize. Nothing could stop them and miracles were many. They were energized not only by past events, including Pentecost, but by a future hope: the return of their beloved friend and Savior, Jesus. They understood and embraced the challenge of the Great Commission, and their new life in Christ was high motivation to remain faithful to the task.
For decades they held on to that hope, without seeing Christ return in their lifetimes. And then the Roman persecution started, endangering their lives and tempting them to forget the hope that rested within them. They died with “Maranatha!” on their lips and the hope of the resurrection in their hearts. Many died as martyrs. But none of them saw Jesus return in glory before they did. What carried them was faith, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
It may have been part of your personal experience to have felt, upon getting to know Jesus, that you could do all things through Christ who strengthened you, only to feel the glow wear off after a few months or years. My sense is that God gently withdraws some of the exciting elements of Christian experience over time in order to build our trust in the ordinary steadfast love of God. This is part of the process of Christian maturity that builds our faith and enables us to endure the ups and downs of life, the boredom of waiting periods, and to be fruitful and productive for the Kingdom in the meantime. And waiting does come with the territory, as do the earthly afflictions that remind us to hang on to the hope that does not disappoint. Keep this in mind when you are tempted to let the day’s circumstances pull you under a cloud like what happened to me this week. Jesus is sustaining you and giving meaning to your existence. Expect and receive that miracle, and all of life will look a lot different!
Two weeks ago today I had my last chemotherapy infusion for Round 3. By all accounts, my recovery from its negative effects has been unusually quick and thorough, much more so than Round 2. I am hiking at least two miles a day now to build up my strength and to regain cardio-pulmonary endurance for surgery March 3. God has been very good to squash any queasiness or sleepiness I had in previous rounds, and it is nice to say life is getting back to normal. The drugs continue to create an extremely inhospitable environment for the Beast in my body, if there is any life in it yet, which I doubt.
There is one drug in my infusion protocol that is a mixed bag, so to speak. It is a steroid designed to amp up the effectiveness of the anti-nausea drugs. Its side effects include one of the more frustrating (weight gain) and a serendipitously therapeutic condition (joint pain relief). Just about now, two weeks out, I am feeling my normal joint discomforts come back, a signal that the steroid is finally wearing off. I must pay attention once again to body mechanics and stretching exercises, along with my walking/hiking routine, to maintain physical comfort, especially in that pesky right shoulder. Even though I have a love-hate relationship with the drug, right now I’m sorry to see this one positive side-effect fade.
There is a similar spiritual effect that the people of God experience, simply because of the limitations of our human existence. On this side of Eden, human beings are touched with the healing power of God’s presence and power, but the effects of these close encounters often fade over time. Our eyes grow dim to the glory of God, we slip into bad habits, we come down off the mountain only to trip over something in the valley. It is safe to say that every stellar Bible character, with the possible exception of Joseph (Genesis 37ff) experiences the come-down in one way or another. It is as if we are subject to a spiritual force of gravity that pulls us earthward, away from the freeing effects of God’s love and power.
Moses had his moments of spiritual ecstasy, face-to-face encounters with the living God in the Tent of Meeting. He would go in to meet YHWH on a regular basis, and come out with such a extraordinary glow in his face that he wore a veil to keep from blinding the Israelites (Exodus 34:33f). What the people didn’t know was that the veil also covered up the fading of that glorious light. Moses was enamored with the status symbol that accompanied his special access to the Almighty, so he kept the veil on long after the glory had faded to create the lasting impression that elevated his reputation among the people. All he was hiding was his humanness, which limits one’s capacity to hold on to the blessings of God. [Paul tells the story in 2 Corinthians 3:7-18.] It’s as if we leak: there are holes in us, making it impossible to stay filled with the glory of God.
The fading glory and the leaking of blessing are evident in my tribe, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am sorry to say it, but the data are clear: the glory days of the PC(USA) are over. Its membership is declining, its missionary movement is shrinking, morale is sinking, and its very identity is forgotten (as in the loss of confessional, constitutional, and connectional focus). In its effort to “always reform”—interpreted to mean “keep up with the culture”— the denomination has lost sight of the true meaning of Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda (“The church reformed and always to be reformed”) and strained its connection to secundum verbum Dei, “according to the Word of God” (PCUSA Book of Order, F-2.02). The church’s various presbyteries are attempting to retain the impression of glory by filling their coffers with “exit fees” lobbied against those congregations leaving the denomination over issues of biblical interpretation and mission. A case in point, San Francisco Presbytery’s extortion of $8.9M from Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, which will have the nice effect of filling the presbytery’s coffers for a very long time while members disperse to other places preaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ, leaving a cash-rich but people-poor shell of an organization. As a member of San Francisco Presbytery, I say this with great sadness and shame. The glory has left the temple.
For the day-to-day Christian, the only answer to this problem of spiritual leakage is to continue to trust and rely upon the infilling of the Holy Spirit on a daily basis. What would otherwise fade in us (the faith, hope, and love of our Savior and the glory of Almighty God) is renewed everyday by the power of the Holy Spirit according to the Word of God. Appropriating God’s Spirit keeps us on the path, and his Word is a light unto our feet (Psalm 119:105). Abandoning either one, Word or Spirit, puts us in a perilous position, though it might take a long time to see the full effect of faded glory. Rather, how important it is for us to pay attention to the dynamics of spiritual discipline and daily-manna nourishment in order to retain our strength and spiritual health in the days to come. For all those congregations that strive to foster these spiritual habits, I offer encouragement and prayers for your continued faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the fullness of his Spirit. For those that do not, the discipline will be painful in the short term, but later will yield “the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” which I urge upon you, for the sake of your own spiritual health and that of the church-at-large.
Somewhere and some time last fall, I lost my car keys and accompanying house key. Thank heaven my church keys were on a separate ring at the time. It happened just about the time I was finding out about my cancer, still in the hub-bub of unpacking from a long vacation, switching purses, re-organizing for “normal” life. Because I wasn’t driving once treatment started, the car key was not needed; but the house key had sentimental value because it was covered with Stanford logos. A small thing, I know, but I was ticked to have lost it.
For a long time, I said, “It must be around here someplace, and it will turn up,” but I had other fish to fry and concentrated my effort on coping with radiation and chemo. Cancer patients talk about “chemo brain,” a fuzzy headed inability to keep thoughts flowing and retain memory. I don’t think I ever had that condition, except losing my keys gave evidence to the contrary. Whatever. After searching all my pockets, retracing steps, and otherwise turning the house upside down looking for them, I gave up on the keys by Christmas.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Last Friday night, my husband and I decided it was time to start testing hiking muscles, so we made a plan for a couple of modest hikes this past weekend to assess my strength and stamina. The weather here in the Bay Area has been stellar, a balmy 70 degrees most days, unlike our friends just about everywhere else in the icebox called “the winter of 2014.” The trails were anticipated to be dry and dusty—really, summer conditions around here—so I decided to get out my nylon hiking pants, packed away for the season last fall.
You guessed it. As I unfurled the pants, out dropped my car keys onto the floor, their familiar little clatter sounding like music to my ears. I hooted and screamed in delight, relieved that I had been right and they were in a “safe” place all this time. It was a wonderful moment, later shared in phone calls to two friends who had helped me look for them along the way.
So you know now how much I identify with the woman in Jesus’ parable about the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10). She focused on her search, scrutinized and swept every corner, and searched high and low for something of value to her. And when she found it, she called together her friends and neighbors to celebrate. Jesus used this ordinary life occurrence to illustrate the joy in heaven when one sinner repents.
To God, we are like the lost coin (or the lost sheep, or the lost son, in the two stories surrounding this one in Luke’s gospel). God searches for us when we go wayward, and all of heaven rejoices when we turn around to be found by him. Our lostness is of great concern to God, and it is worth pondering the lengths he has gone to find us and bring us back where we belong. His search is motivated by love and “ownership,” in the sense that we along with all of God’s creation are his; we belong to God. We are cherished by God, and missed when we assert our independence and walk out of fellowship with him. We are embraced and forgiven as we turn around, leave our errant path, and face the Savior.
The first time I truly repented, I was seventeen and gripped by the gospel of Jesus Christ. I have repented many times since, as God has shown me those areas where I have served myself or mammon instead of him, where I have embraced a habit more tightly than him, where I have asserted my way contrary to his. The great turnaround underway in this season of my life is from busy blindness to contemplative reflection, from feeling driven to called, and from procrastinator to proactive servant. There’s a lot of rejoicing in heaven yet to come, as these reversals—otherwise known as repentance—are built into my life.
So how about you? Are you lost in any area of your life, wandering off the path, distracted into disobedience? Are you asserting independence or self-reliance, rebuffing God’s grace and help? You realize, don’t you, that maintaining such a position is postponing a great party in heaven not to mention the redemption of that part of your life.
I’m really glad I found my keys. I’m even more glad that God found me and has been working his transformation in me all these years. But my joy is miniscule, compared to the ecstatic celebration God is hosting as one of his own repents and returns to the party.