(occasional theological reflections on my journey with the Lord through cancer)
Praise be to the Lord, my Rock, who trains my hands for war and my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1)
I knew something was amiss when the nurse averted her eyes as she answered my question. I had asked if the pathology report had come back concerning the needle-aspiration the doctor had done the previous Friday. It was now Monday afternoon. “Yes,” she replied, “and the doctor will be in shortly to go over it with you.” “How odd,” I thought, “surely there can’t be anything bad in the report? After all, it’s just an infection.” The doctor entered cordially, took a quick look at the report and then drew in his breath, sharply. With a look of puzzlement still on his face he turned and looked me in the eye and gave me the news that I have cancer – an extremely aggressive cancer.
For five weeks I had watched the lump grow on the side of my neck. It’s located just below my right ear and it’s now the size of a golf ball. But I was being treated for an infected gland, not cancer. When the lump refused to stop growing, despite an aggressive round of antibiotics, my ENT doctor suggested that I undergo a needle-aspiration procedure, whereby he would extract fluid from the lump, put it on a slide, and send it off to a pathology lab for examination — just to make sure it wasn’t, “something else.” He really didn’t think it was anything to be overly concerned about and was as stunned as I by the report that came back.
It’s been two weeks, 1 MRI and 2 C/T scans since that diagnosis and I am now awaiting surgery at a hospital in Chapel Hill. I haven’t spent time questioning why this happened to me. The answer is obvious enough: cancer is pure evil and everyone, especially those doing the Lord’s work, comes up against evil. What is more important to me is Who is waging the battle on my behalf against such evil. I‘ve learned (the hard way) to trust in the Lord’s strength, not my own, no matter what I do in life. I know all about the exercise of will-power and I can tell you that relying on one’s own strength results only in frustration and heartache. (You may want to check out my series, Losing Control, for a full discussion of this topic). So, I am thankful the issue of Who is in charge is settled.
As I look back over the past nine years of my life, I can see how God has been preparing me for this battle. For instance, when my husband and I launched a non-profit ministry about six years ago, and we quickly found ourselves running short on resources, the Lord taught us how to depend wholly on him as we petitioned him day after day, week after week, to provide the most basic necessities of life. And he did.
And the Lord used that season of want to teach me the importance of gratitude. I began with awkward attempts to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18) but in time, as I became more intentional about developing this habit, resentment and a sense of entitlement — which I had carried around for decades — began to fade. I stopped complaining about all that I felt I didn’t have (but was owed) and learned to give thanks for everything, including the very air God gives me to breathe.
Also during this time the Holy Spirit pointed out some of my more intractable sins, such as pride, idolatry, unbelief and self-pity, sins that were blocking his presence and power in my life — and had done so for years. He instilled in me the desire to repent of them and — although I must still repent to this day — by God’s grace, the frequency with which I have to do so is much less. As a result, I’m a far happier person than I ever was before and it is much more pleasant to be in my company. The bottom line is this: the sin we harbor blocks God’s power working in (and through) us. I wouldn’t want to face what I’m facing now with such primal and pervasive sins keeping God at bay.
And just last fall I re-discovered the insightful and deeply theological teachings by Leanne Payne about healing for the soul wounded by sin, self-hatred and the debilitating habit of introspection. Her work has greatly influenced my ministry and has helped me to grow, in profound ways, in my knowledge and love of the Lord. So, as I look back, now, at all the work of spiritual re-formation God has done in my life since 2002, it almost seems to me that he was preparing me for such a time as this. I am so profoundly grateful because I would not want to come up against this enemy without having first learned how to stand my ground (Ephesians 6:13). That is why I can say, along with King David, “Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” (Psalm 144:1)