Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering (Isaiah 53:4a)
While on a retreat for ordained women in my denomination I began to experience persistent pain from a small bump near the edge of my jaw and just below my right ear. This was in October 2011 and about four days before I left for that retreat I felt for the first time that bump and a slight twinge of pain. But it became more painful while away in Woodbridge, Virginia and so at the end of the second day of the retreat, just after calling home and asking Gil to set up an appointment for me with my E. N. T. doctor for when I returned, I asked several women to lay hands on me and pray that the pain would abate.
Afterward my friend, Kathleen, a priest from Ohio, said that while praying for me the Lord had given her an image of a face being slapped. At that moment this image did not have meaning for me, but five weeks later, on the evening before Thanksgiving, it did. I was experiencing excruciating pain from the tumor (which was continuing to grow) and it was now pressing on my facial and neck nerves. I took some prescription pain medicine which my surgeon prescribed, but it barely touched the pain.
So, at 8:03 p.m on November 23. I sent a second email to friends, family and colleagues asking them to pray for pain relief. The first reply arrived within minutes, as it had the day before when I sent out my first email with news about my diagnosis. My friend, Lynn, wrote: “I am praying mightily that the pain would miraculously be relieved and that you would be able to sleep soundly all night tonight…” Many more replies followed in rapid succession – and within twenty minutes after sending out that email the pain stopped. It had reached the point of being unbearable but now, after asking for prayer, I felt it no more. The Lord had answered mightily.
I would continue to take the pain medication prescribed, making sure not to let more time than necessary pass between doses, as my doctor instructed. He did not want the pain to spike the way it did that night. But I give the glory to God because I never experienced such pain again – something remarkable considering the size of the tumor and where it was located. With this answer the Lord showed me how powerfully He could act on my behalf in response to prayer and it helped to increase my faith in His power and will to continue to act on my behalf. I began to keep a record of God’s answers to my prayer requests, starting with this one. The list grew in the weeks that would follow and it is now quite long.
I awoke the next morning and all was quiet; it was Thanksgiving day. Gil had gotten up early to get the turkey ready for the oven. This was not his first time preparing Thanksgiving dinner. For the first decade or so of our marriage he took charge of our Thanksgiving meal while I went off to church to preach or assist at the Thanksgiving service. Gil loves to cook and Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday, so he never minded all the work that goes into getting a feast ready for the table. But on this Thanksgiving his mood was somber. He later told me he couldn’t stop thinking this might be our last Thanksgiving together.
However for me, Thanksgiving 2011 was a good day. Although I was largely confined to bed, due to fatigue from stress and from the side-effects of the medications I was taking, I began to work, with great enthusiasm, on what would become my first blog post in this series. I can’t say that I love to write, because I find the process of searching for the right words to express what I’m thinking to be very trying; a blank computer screen intimidates me. However, writing is an important way in which I practice the presence of God. I write in order to understand and express what I believe, and as I face the fact that I am inadequate to do so under my own power, the Lord comes alongside me and makes his power perfect in my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
So writing is always a theological exercise for me. The Lord’s perspective on life is the only one that truly matters to me and as I write I seek to make sense of things by lining them up with what God says to us in Scripture. Therefore, it seemed perfectly natural, in the wake of being diagnosed with a deadly disease, to write about my struggle to set out before the Lord my fears and doubts and to listen patiently and expectantly for His word of hope to me.
So on Thanksgiving morning I sat on my bed with my computer in my lap and began to write. And the more I wrote the stronger my conviction became that the Lord had been preparing me for quite some time to face this disease – and that He would give me everything I would need in order to stand firm as he did battle and defeated it for me. A verse I had recently copied into my prayer journal gave me the theological perspective I was looking for: Praise be to the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle. (Psalm 144:1). Now was the time to draw on all God had taught me through the financial hardships and ecclesiastical upheavals Gil and I had encountered over the previous years. The Lord had powerfully answered our prayers before and we learned many important lessons about how to pray and wait upon him in a time of difficulty.
By mid-afternoon, after a morning of writing, napping and responding to uplifting emails from friends, the turkey was on the table and it was time to begin our feast. Emily and her fiancé, Andrew, joined Caleb, Gil and me around our dining room table. Observing the traditions of the day helped Gil and me to feel like there was still something about our life that was still normal. I enjoyed the meal, despite the fact that eating was becoming a challenge for me. Paralysis, due to the tumor pressing on my facial nerve, had begun to set in on the right side of my face – and the right side of my mouth was refusing to cooperate with the left side. My family graciously ignored the food that fell out and my attempts to keep it in. When it was time for dessert we moved from the table to the sofa in our family room to watch a series of football games. I napped there throughout the afternoon, content to have my family around me.
The day after Thanksgiving, Sean, Dr. Weissler’s nurse practitioner, called with good news: the scans I had undergone four days earlier at UNC – of my lungs and my thyroid – showed no sign of cancer. However, the scans did show that there was a small spot – not a tumor, and most likely scar tissue – on my left lung and on my thyroid. Sean said that follow-up scans in six months would be required just in case those spots morphed into something less benign, but he assured me they were nothing to worry about. This unexpected good news was another answer to prayer: the cancer had not spread.
Later that evening, as I talked by phone with my friend, Mary, we agreed that there are always blessings to be found in every situation, as Paul indicates by his instructions in chapter five of his first letter to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (verses 16-18, emphasis mine). As I thought aloud about what blessings the Lord had for me in this illness, I realized that the intimacy I was experiencing with him, as I poured out my heart in prayer and sought to discern his word back to me, was a gift. I was sensing his presence and his replies much more readily that I had when I was well. God was also teaching me how to pray for my healing as well as how to receive it. And those lessons would prove to be invaluable. Before going to bed that night I asked the Lord to show me what further blessings he had for me, in this illness. I discovered that when one dares to look for “gifts” in the middle of a very difficult and unpleasant situation, the Lord will honor that request. Practicing the discipline of giving thanks in all circumstances the weekend of Thanksgiving helped a great deal in keeping my focus, not on my diagnosis, but on the Lord.