I don’t know of a word quite like cancer that can immediately strike such dread in the heart. One year ago today, I heard that word when my son Josiah’s biopsy came back positive. We were visiting good friends in Tarrytown when the doctor’s call came in, confirming our worst fears. To hear that your strapping nineteen year old son, whose whole life is before him, has cancer, is a surreal experience. Life went on that day, we had dinner with our friends, visited Tarrytown’s quaint waterfront, and then drove home as darkness began to fall on the city. But in the car that night there was the uneasy feeling that we were about to enter an even greater “darkness” in the days ahead.
Today, those dark days are behind us, but the memories remain vivid, jogged by songs I listened to, streets where doctor’s offices are, supermarket aisles where certain foods had to be gotten. And with the memories, the darkness and the sorrow of that time can easily revive. But most of all, above every painful memory, I remember just one thing: the nearness of God. There is a verse which says, “The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) I can now attest to how wonderfully true this is: how near and dear does God become to us when we are at our most crushed, even the lowest point of our life. I know I will not be able to fully explain what the presence of God was to me during this time, but I would be remiss if I did not attempt to glorify Him for His goodness to my son, my family and myself.
These are some of the things that stand out to me as I refect back on this one year anniversary.
1. The Fragility of Life
The words cancer and death go hand in hand. While there are many cancer survivors, there are many more who have not survived. To hear cancer is to think, “This could be it.” It is a word that is hard for anyone at any age to hear, but when it is pronounced over your nineteen year old son, it is especially hard. The day after the diagnosis, I wrote this:
My son Joey is an amazing young man. He has a single passion and a drive for life. He is pressing forward in college in preparation to be a prison chaplain. He is so looking forward to God bringing into his life a special young lady with whom to raise a godly family. He at times is so anxious for the good things that tomorrow holds that he needs the Lord to comfort him and help him enjoy the blessings and challenges of today.
Yesterday he was given a diagnosis of cancer. As we sat together shortly after receiving the news, he told me he indeed wants that long and full life, (and this is what we are believing and praying for.) But then he added, “Yet for me to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
What comfort there is in knowing that our children know the Lord! I pray for each of you whose children do not yet have this relationship with Christ. May you also one day have this comfort that we have now.
I came to realize that the value of a life is not in the quantity of years that one has lived, but the quality of those years, whether they be many or few.
We are so afraid of death, especially a premature death, one which cuts short our hopes and dreams. We push the thought out of our mind. Parents yearn to see their children grow and experience a “full life.” We are sad to hear when tragedy strikes someone else’s home, when someone else’s child is taken away, but we are happy to know that our children are safe and sound and moving forward in life. But what is “life?” Life is more than marriage, children, career; life is knowing God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent. (John 17:3)
Joey was not waiting to realize his life, he had been experiencing life, an abundant life, ever since he had surrendered his life to Christ when he was thirteen. I came to realize that the value of a life is not in the quantity of years that one has lived, but the quality of those years, whether they be many or few. What a comfort it was to know that my son had been living a dedicated life before God. His repeating the words of the Apostle, “For me to live is Christ,” were no idle words. Such was his experience. I immediately thought, “As painful as this is, how much more pain are parents experiencing whose children are not living for Christ, and whose sudden death would not be gain but eternal loss.” My heart went out to every parent whose children were living apart from Christ. If my Joey was to die, I would yet have comfort and hope, but if their beloved child was to go, what unutterable pain and sorrow would strike their heart. I was grateful, even in the midst of my pain.
2. Desperate Prayer
While it was indeed my greatest comfort to know that, should he be called home, my son was ready to go, I was not ready to let him go. How often did I cry out to the God I love and serve, with tears streaming down my face, for the life of my son. I can understand the desperation of blind Bartimaeus who demanded the attention of Jesus. When told to stop making such a scene with his cries, he would not shut up, but “cried the more a great deal, Thou Son of David, have mercy on me!” Desperate prayer is not a pretty thing, that’s why it is best done in a closet, a secluded garden, or a car when you’re driving alone. Someone might say, “Well, if you had just believed, you wouldn’t have had to put yourself through so much, you would have already known it was done.” Sounds good, but that works better on paper and in theory than in real life. I suppose some could charge Jesus with being too “wimpy,” or too overwrought in the Garden. Maybe they think He could have avoided that bloody, messy scene if He had believed better. But of Him we are told: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Hebrews 5:7).
Prayer takes on a different dimension when we are in desperate trouble. Never was I so sure that I was talking one on one with my God then during this season in which I was compelled to pour out my heart before Him. But something interesting happened as I was telling God how much I loved my son and how much he meant to me. The Lord told me that Joey was His son too, and that He loved him even more than I did. It was comforting to know that one father was talking to another Father about their mutual and beloved son.
3. Jesus my Wisdom
There are so many decisions that need to be made when dealing with cancer. What doctor to see? What plan of action to take? What “expert” to listen to? So many voices and often so little agreement between them. I discovered early on that the “experts” themselves were making “educated guesses” based upon the current research and science. They even acknowledged upon questioning that there were different opinions even in the medical community about how to approach this cancer, and ultimately it was up to us to decide which way to go. I already determined that I would have to educate myself about this “monster” called cancer. So I spent many nights, hours on end, sometimes up till the break of dawn, researching and trying to understand all I could. Some of what I read was helpful, but even more served to frighten me. Joey had thyroid cancer. People called it the “good” cancer. After what I read about it, that made me laugh. I would go to bed, but my mind was still racing with all I had read about this “evil” cancer.
It was not I, and all my research, that would make the difference in this battle, it would be God Himself.
Our souls naturally look for comfort in knowledge. But my search for understanding had not delivered to my soul peace, it had increased my turmoil. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18) I needed a peace that “passed my understanding.” After awhile I heard the Lord tell me I had to stop researching and simply trust Him to give us wisdom. I needed to cast all my cares upon Him, knowing He cared for us. It was not I, and all my research, that would make the difference in this battle, it would be God Himself. My trust could not be in doctors, in my own ability to “know better” than our doctors, not in alternative therapies that some were advocating. My head was spinning with so many “voices.” Ultimately, the Lord would have to be my Wisdom. He would have to guide us and He would have to keep my son alive.
“Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:1,2)
4. Jesus my Refuge
Having cancer would have been easier for me to have than to see it coming after my son. To know that your child has a hateful, deadly enemy pursuing them is unsettling. Jacob knew the power of Esau’s anger and desire for revenge. He knew that his family was at risk. Even after he did all he knew to do to protect his family, Jacob was compelled to wrestle all night with God.
Cancer is a persecutor, an enemy committed to destruction. It lies in wait within the body, wanting to eventually overtake and bring one down to the ground. Not only Jacob, but David also knew what it was like to have an enemy hunting you down. He wrote Psalm 142 when he took refuge from king Saul in a mountain cave.
“I cried unto the LORD with my voice; with my voice unto the LORD did I make my supplication.
I poured out my complaint before him; I shewed before him my trouble.
When my spirit was overwhelmed within me, then thou knewest my path. In the way wherein I walked have they privily laid a snare for me.
I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.
I cried unto thee, O LORD: I said, Thou art my refuge and my portion in the land of the living.
Attend unto my cry; for I am brought very low: deliver me from my persecutors; for they are stronger than I.
Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.” (Psalm 142:1-7)
David’s cave was his refuge. Typically, such caves were rock enclaves situated high up on a hill or mountainside. During the “day of his trouble” this cave became the “rock” of David’s salvation. I’m sure he wouldn’t have chosen to live in this cave if he didn’t have to. Likewise, if one has a storm shelter on their property they’re only going to get into it when a tornado or hurricane is bearing down on them.
The Lord became my “soundproof” shelter. Many times when the blast was at its most ferocious, my only resort for peace was in the shelter of the Lord’s arms.
A few years ago I had taught a whole series on Jesus being our Refuge, but nothing ever quite drove me to Him like this personal experience. “And a man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest; as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” (Isaiah 32:2)
Cancer is an enemy and a storm like none other, because of its unrelenting character. It is a dogged foe. It seeks to wear you down with fear and worry. There is one thing to be in a violent thunderstorm that suddenly whips up, but then passes over. But to be in a hurricane where there is incessant wind, battering against the walls of your home, is a different thing altogether. The Lord became my “soundproof” shelter. Many times when the blast was at its most ferocious, my only resort for peace was in the shelter of the Lord’s arms. There I committed all things into His hands, and He “brought down” the “noise of strangers” so I could go to sleep.
“For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.” (Isaiah 25:4,5)
I thank God for the many people who communicated their love and concern during the days when the storm was raging. People from all over the world were praying for Joey. The smallest expression of compassion meant so much. But no person, not the closest, dearest, most faithful friend or family member, can be the ultimate refuge that our soul needs when real trouble has found us. Cancer can do more than ravage the body, it can pull your soul apart. Jesus kept me together. While others may have marvelled that I was holding up so well, they didn’t see the eternal refuge and everlasting arms that were cradling me.
No person, not the closest, dearest, most faithful friend or family member, can be the ultimate refuge that our soul needs when real trouble has found us.
I will never glory in my own strength, I have felt my weakness too deeply. I will glory in the Rock which is higher than I am. He was and is my Refuge and Strength, a very present help in trouble.
“My soul, wait thou only upon God; for my expectation is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation: he is my defence; I shall not be moved.
In God is my salvation and my glory: the rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God.
Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah.” (Psalm 62:5-8)
5. Jesus my Light
If there was one word to characterize the season where cancer loomed large over our lives, I would say “dark.” It was a night when weeping endured and we could only wait for the morning light. During this time someone remarked, “Thank God for the light at the end of the tunnel.” But at that point, I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Lord then whispered to my heart, “Light in the tunnel is better than light at the end of the tunnel. I am with you in this darkness and I am your light.”
In one sense, having to go through such a time of trouble made God seem very far away. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?” (Psalm 22:1) But God’s nearness was found in His word becoming so alive. So much of God’s Word was quickened by the Holy Spirit, and became a balm to my soul. “This is my comfort in my affliction: for thy word hath quickened me.” (Psalm 119:50) What would I have done without the Word of God! How do people hold up when the floods come, and the winds blow, beating down upon their “house.” In a “wilderness” especially, our souls live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. His voice to me became His hand in mine.
I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. The Lord then whispered to my heart, “Light in the tunnel is better than light at the end of the tunnel. I am with you in this darkness and I am your light.”
The season has changed, the joy of the morning has come, but how I remember the Friend that loved at all times, the brother that was “born for adversity,” the Light in the tunnel. My hand was already in His hand before cancer struck. But how much more precious did He become as I squeezed that hand tighter than ever before!
The only real preparation we have for whatever befalls us is a living relationship and walk with the Lord. He drew near to me through His Word. It was His way of grabbing my hand. I squeezed it for dear life. Going forward I have one simple piece of advice for those who have entered a dark night that seems to have no end: look for God’s hand, grab it and just keep walking “hand in hand” until the morning light finally appears.
6. Jesus my Lord
Jesus has been given a name above every name, and that includes cancer.
It is always a relief to wake up from a bad dream and realize it was just a nightmare. But what do you do when you wake up to a reality that is a nightmare? During this nightmarish time I would wake up and before the first conscious thought concerning the day would enter my mind, I heard these words: “Joey has cancer.” Those three words brought a dark cloud of heaviness and sorrow over my head even before I took my first step out of bed. This went on for some time until one day I heard the Lord speak to me, “Every time you hear those three words: Joey has cancer; answer back these three words: Jesus is Lord.” In that first moment, I didn’t understand why I should be saying this. I had confessed Jesus as Lord for over thirty years, what would my saying “Jesus is Lord” mean any different at this time? And then the Holy Spirit began to show me just how powerful a confession that was. Jesus has been given a name above every name, and that includes cancer. Cancer is indeed a force that has the power to kill. Cancer wanted to vaunt itself as the power that had final say over my son’s life. In the same way Pontius Pilate told Jesus: “Don’t you know that I have the power to crucify you? Your life is in my hands!” But scripture says Jesus professed a good profession before Pilate, saying, “You would have no power unless it was given you from above.” By confessing that Jesus is Lord, I was declaring my faith that only He had the final say over my son’s life. Cancer would not decide how long my son lived on the earth, Only Jesus would. He and not cancer was Lord. This brought me great peace and no longer was I tormented by those three words: Joey has cancer.
7. A New Heart of Compassion
To enter the fellowship of the afflicted one must experience affliction. Jesus is a compassionate high priest who is touched by the feeling of our infirmities because He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. I don’t know whether Jesus would want to come back to earth and relive the nightmare of Calvary. If someone asked me if I would ever want to go through this past year again, I would without hesitancy say, “No, thank you!” But having gone through it, I am forever grateful, not only for how wonderful my God became to me, but for how he enlarged my heart when I was in distress. How I can weep with those who are weeping now! It does not take much to trigger open a floodgate of compassion when I encounter a hurting soul. I want to let them know not only that I understand, but that I know One who understands even more and can help them in a way far beyond my ability.
To enter the fellowship of the afflicted one must experience affliction.
Jesus is so wonderful because He has gone before us. He did not remain in heaven, aloof and distant from the suffering and pain that is part of life in this world. He is a Rock and Refuge; He is Wisdom and Light; and He is above all, Lord.
The Lord showed Himself mighty in our circumstance, shrinking Joey’s tumor from 3.0 cm to 1.3 cm. Today, Joey is still showing no signs of recurrence. God brought us through so many “twists” and “turns” during a six month period that seemed so much longer. I have given here some of the highlights of what God did, but only eternity will fully tell how good He was. For now, this is my offering of praise and thanksgiving.
“I will go into thy house with burnt offerings: I will pay thee my vows,
Which my lips have uttered, and my mouth hath spoken, when I was in trouble.
I will offer unto thee burnt sacrifices of fatlings, with the incense of rams; I will offer bullocks with goats. Selah.
Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.
I cried unto him with my mouth, and he was extolled with my tongue.” (Psalm 66:13-17)