Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. (Psalm 20:7)
In the days that followed my appointment in July of 2012 with Dr. Haithcock – at which he gave me the news that the small tumor removed from my left lung had metastasized from the parotid gland tumor removed the previous December – I spent a lot of time thinking about the possibility that I now might have to undergo an intensive round of chemotherapy in an attempt to halt any further spread of the disease. I had undergone chemotherapy treatments five months earlier, and although the dose was comparatively light, and my hair did not fall out, I suffered greatly from nausea. The thought that I might be given a much greater dose this time around was almost more than I could bear. My daughter Emily was getting married in October and I feared not only the loss of hair, but also that the treatments might break me physically.
However, when I met with my oncologist the following Monday his response took me by surprise. He told me that there was no treatment for parotid gland cancer once it had metastasized. Nothing was known to halt its progress and, as far as he knew, no one at any hospital was conducting a clinical trial for which I would be suitable. My condition was now considered to be incurable and I had come to the end of my options, from a medical standpoint. He even wondered whether there was any point in removing the two miniscule tumors in my right lung; he just assumed more would grow in both lungs, and throughout my body, in the months to come.
I was startled by this news, but I decided immediately that I would not allow his words to be a pronouncement over me. As he looked away for a moment, I wrote on my pad of paper, which I always brought along to every appointment, the following statement: “incurable doesn’t mean anything to God,” and I handed it over to Gil so he could see it. I knew that the Lord could make a way where there was no way (He had done so the previous December) and I was not going to allow my oncologist’s assessment of my condition to determine how I thought about my future. As we left his office I was relieved that I would not have to undergo an intensive treatment of chemotherapy, after all. I said to myself, “Now it will be absolutely clear to everyone that God alone is responsible for my healing.”
That afternoon, Gil made some calls to the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He wanted to make absolutely sure there was no further medical option for me. Meanwhile, I tried to write something to post on my CaringBridge site, but I couldn’t find the right words. As I sat at my desk with a blank computer screen in front of me, I turned my thoughts to the worship service I had attended the previous Sunday afternoon at Holy Trinity Church. I had not intended to go to it, but I felt a strong prompting from the Lord, so I went, despite my inclination to stay home.
The preacher had preached on a passage from the fourteenth chapter of the book of Exodus, focusing on the desperate situation in which the Israelites found themselves shortly after from their captors in Egypt. She made note of how the Lord intentionally directed the Israelites to turn back and follow a path that would place them in direct contact with the Egyptian army – and that the only way to escape them would be to cross the Red Sea, which was impassable by foot:
“Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth…you shall encamp facing it, by the sea. For Pharaoh will say of the people of Israel, ‘They are wandering in the land; the wilderness had shut them it.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them, and I will get glory over Pharaoh and all his host, and the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord.’ (vv. 1-4)
This is a stunning and disquieting passage, yet, it is clear that the Lord is in complete control and that He will save His people from impending disaster. Moses says to the Israelites, “…Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again.” (v. 13)
The answer to her question about why the Lord allowed the Egyptian army another opportunity to annihilate the Israelites, just after He had freed them from their clutches, was on my lips even before she finished asking it: so that the name of the Lord would be glorified (v. 4). I had matured in my faith to the point where I understood that my purpose on earth is to glorify the Lord, so the answer seemed fairly obvious. However, on that Sunday afternoon the passage did not hit home the way it did after meeting with my oncologist. Now it was deeply personal. Now I knew for certain that the only way out from under this dreadful disease would be through the Lord’s miraculous intervention – He would have to “part the Red Sea” so to speak, by healing me outright.
As I pondered this passage some more, I began to weep. “O, Lord,” I prayed. “I am so scared. I have no way out but through you – the Egyptians are bearing down on me as I stand on the shore of an impassable Sea. Now I know just how the Israelites felt. Yet, I also know why you allowed this – so that your name would be glorified. I trust you to heal me. May my healing bring glory to your name.” I sat there for and prayed for a little while longer and then I dried my eyes. I decided it would be better to turn my attention to something else because I just wasn’t ready to write a post for my CaringBridge site. I would be better to wait, I thought, until after my appointment with Dr. Haithcock, my thoracic oncology surgeon, which was scheduled for the following day.
The next morning, Dr. Haithcock was surprised to hear the report about my visit with the oncologist the day before. He was not convinced more tumors would develop and he wanted to remove the ones in my right lung as soon as possible. He said with a smile, “Once the tumors are out, you will be cancer-free. No one knows for sure that more tumors will develop; maybe they won’t.” I think he said this, not just because he had years of experience dealing with cancer, but also because he is a Christian – and he knows that the Lord can make a way where no way exists.
Gil and I were delighted by his response and I readily agreed to undergo a second surgery, this time on my right lung. Dr. Haithcock left the room briefly to check on the next available date for surgery and he returned with good news: someone had cancelled for Friday morning, just three days away. “So, what are you doing on Friday?” he asked. I grinned and said, “I suppose I’m having surgery.” Dr. Haithcock then filled out the required forms, which I signed, and sent us over to the pre-op clinic so I could fill out more paperwork. When Gil and I left the hospital at noon, we were in much higher spirits than we had been the day before.
Once I returned home, I was eager to organize and clean the one remaining closet in the house which hadn’t yet been cleaned. I had begun this project in late May after we found out we would need extensive repairs to our kitchen and hallway and two of our bathrooms due to damage caused by two leaking toilets. The last of the closets was my personal closet in the master bedroom. In it was stored sentimental remembrances dating as far back as grade school, but also including items collected from more than twenty years of ministry. So with the afternoon free, I began my work.
Among the treasures stored in my closet were several wooden plaques, called icons. An icon is a stylized portrait of a scene from one of the gospels, in which Jesus is figured prominently. What I like about these portraits is that all the events of the particular story are represented, not just an aspect of it. It is said of such portrayals that they are “written” and not drawn – and that one “reads” them, instead of simply looking at them, emphasizing that a story is being told in them. One of the icons was from the story of the raising of Lazarus, in chapter eleven of John’s gospel. I looked at it briefly, and then placed it, along with the others, in a container which I labeled, “icons,” and stored them on a shelf in my closet. I was eager to get to all the items in the closet, so I moved on. Within a couple of hours I was done; it felt so good to finish this project before my next surgery.
That night, some friends came over to our house to lay hands on me and pray for healing and I told them about the report from my oncologist and the good news that I would be going in for surgery on my right lung in a little more than two days. We began our time of prayer by offering praise to the Lord, lifting up his name in word and in song, and then we turned to intercession on my behalf. As the prayer team paused for a moment to listen for direction from the Holy Spirit, one person asked me whether I might be beset by fear. As I thought about the question, I realized that it was cancer I feared, something I had not recognized before.
However, as a pastor and a theologian, I knew that idolatry is at the root of all fears, because we “worship” whatever it is that we fear, giving it in inordinate amount of attention – attention which the Lord alone deserves.
So, I took that opportunity to renounce the fear of cancer, confessing it as sin, and surrendered my fear to Jesus. I then invited him to fill me anew with his life and root me and ground me in his love, just as the apostle Paul prays in the third chapter of his letter to the Ephesians (vv. 14-19).
The next morning, as I awoke, the name “Lazarus,” came immediately to mind. I wondered whether this name was a word from the Lord or just the result of having come across the icon the day before, which depicted the story of the raising of Lazarus. I prayed, asking the Lord to clarify whether this was a message from him or not. At breakfast, I told Gil about what I had “heard” and we discussed the story of the raising of Lazarus, since it is a favorite of ours. I focused on the second clause of verse forty-four, “Unbind him and set him free,” and recalled a sermon on that verse which had been preached at a friend’s ordination. Yet, despite a fruitful discussion on the story, I had no sense that the Lord was speaking to me through it.
The next day, the day before my surgery, Caleb was invited to join a friend from school and his family on their trip to the beach. Gil and I offered thanks to the Lord for their thoughtfulness, because this meant that Gil would be free to stay with me at the hospital for as long he wanted and that Caleb would be pleasantly distracted from his concerns about my health. That night, before I went to bed, Gil anointed me with oil and laid his hands on my head and prayed for healing. Before I drifted off to sleep, I asked the Lord, again, to confirm whether “Lazarus,” was a message from him. I heard nothing and soon I was fast asleep.