Devastating Disappointment, and the Continuing Story
As I mentioned in ending Part One, it is inevitably true for roller coaster aficionados that thrill rides are at their best when they give you surprises. With God being both the designer of life’s roller coaster and the one at the controls, we should expect to encounter rides replete with surprises. Sometimes those surprises are initially delightful and sometimes they are initially disappointing, occasionally devastatingly so. You can guess which type I experienced when my cancer diagnosis was reversed, right? You will likely assume what the nature of my disappointment was as well, but you won’t get that part right until you read this article. But it was for me a devasting experience that put me back in the pits. God knows that we can never appreciate the exhilarations of life without visiting the pits occasionally at least. After such a visit recently in my cancer saga, I deleted both the article and the Facebook post of February 8. The article is now republished along with this second one, which means God has continued to work on my mind, heart and soul (successfully).
The Most Basic Principle
In Part One, I mentioned a principle that might have been passed over too briefly. The principle begins with the premise that life on planet earth is not only brief but highly significant – a preparation ground for eternity with God. This being true, God is constantly attempting to mold us into his own character so that heaven might be, well, heaven, with like-minded beings totally connected. This development process centers around building faith in a God who is good and only good, and whose love for us is unfathomable. But how does that faith come and then become a growing process through all the days of our lives? It must be tested over and over and over. The testing is the fundamental method of developing and strengthening our faith. Hence the roller coaster ride analogy. I know of none better, at least to me as a lover of roller coasters.
I keep making one fundamental mistake in how I view this most basic principle. It provides a life lesson with many applications. I keep putting periods when God is using commas. That’s what we do in the midst of struggles. We see the struggle as the final result, and it ain’t good! All the while God is saying, “Patience, patience – we aren’t done yet; the solution is coming, and you will get through it.” In my present situation, I get past one challenge, the scary part of the ride, sometimes absolutely terrifying, and want to put a period on it. End of ride. Challenge met and challenge over. I keep making that mistake. Don’t you? But when we do that, we forget the principle – God builds faith precisely by testing it. And that principle demands a constant series of commas, not periods. Let’s just be happy to see the occasional semicolon when the challenges are spaced out with some needed pauses inserted to allow us time to process the challenges and get ready for the next one. God knows exactly what he is doing in your life. Chill out and try to enjoy the ride. You are strapped in with him as your safety belt. You will be jerked halfway out of your seat at times, but the safety belt will never break.
An Ice Storm? Really?
I didn’t forget one scary part of my earlier ride, but I did leave it out of Part One, due to space and the length of the article already. But since it was to me a significant part of the adventure God was determined to provide, I will include it now. After the exhilarating revelation that my very important test series was amazingly moved up from February 14 to February 3, I was relieved and elated. Peace had arrived, so I put in a period. Challenge over in one regard at least. But God then said, “Oh yeah? Watch this!” As the new date of testing approached, something else also approached – the worst weather day of the year, an ice storm. “Lord, you have got to be kidding! How can this be happening?” It quickly became obvious that driving from my house in North Dallas to the hospital near downtown Dallas was going to be literally impossible. It was predicted to start raining the evening before my test day and by midnight, the temperature would start dropping into the 20’s. Good grief, Charlie Brown! I thought roller coasters had some lower heights and gentler curves somewhere. Maybe so, but obviously not yet.
Being determined to take those tests, my mind started racing in looking for solutions. I thought of finding a hotel near the hospital, near enough so that I could walk to it if necessary. In looking at a map of the area, I discovered the closest hotel about a mile away and booked it for two nights. Not only was it nearby, it was cheap. Great! After I booked it, I decided to take a look at the reviews by former guests. Uh Oh! It was in a bad area and most reviews mentioned drug dealers and fearful nights full of loud talking by numerous people doing drug deals. Great location for my purposes, but a scary location in a bad part of town. Oh well, you can’t have everything go your way, right? It was a scary place, obviously built originally as an apartment complex with lots of separate buildings containing four one-bedroom suites apiece. When I walked into the lobby to check in, I encountered a younger man, a black one for those of you with racial presuppositions, dressed in street clothes with a glock in a holster strapped to his side. That didn’t alarm me, actually. It’s the hidden pistols that concern me. I asked him if he were an officer, and as expected, he answered in the affirmative. He explained that this was a rough part of town, and he did some patrolling here regularly. Those reviews weren’t wrong.
The weather report was also regrettably accurate. Ice covered the roads by morning. Fortunately, some sleet had also fallen, making driving slightly more plausible. I left the hotel early, dressed warmly, determined to leave my car and walk if I couldn’t drive all the way to the hospital. Having lived in Boston for sixteen years, I wasn’t a novice at driving on slick roads and I managed to make it all the way to the hospital without incident. My worst fears were of other drivers who didn’t have the same experiences of driving on frozen roads that I had. But only a few brave (or not-too-bright) souls had ventured out, and I managed to dodge those few.
I would like to say that God finally put a period or at least a semicolon on my day once I arrived at the hospital. No chance of that. I won’t go into the details, but nothing worked quite the way it should have. At one point, I ended up in the middle of a difference of opinion between my oncologist and the doctor in charge of my MRI regarding necessary preparations for the procedure. I will mention that the written instructions from the MRI department itself failed to include instructions for those preparations, which I pulled up on my phone and showed to the nurse. Oh, well… The nurses of the two doctors went back and forth to their respective doctors and me for some time until the MRI specialist finally asked to talk to me on the phone. It was a weird process which shouldn’t have happened, but I finally decided to go with the MRI guy since I was in his house at the time, his department.
I stayed calm but registered my concern that a medical facility with their reputation should never have such an issue arise in the first place. No one disagreed with me, and they assured me that it would be addressed and corrected for the future. The delays involved resulted in a long day, just under seven hours, to take one blood test and two scans. But by then, I was pretty much expecting the unexpected. My thrill ride continued. Back to the hotel, I was thankful that the weather kept most people holed up inside rather than engaging in their usual activities in that place. The main roads were clear enough by the next afternoon to drive home on mostly clear roads, although the news stations were repeatedly urging people not to drive unless absolutely necessary. For me, it was absolutely necessary. I had had enough – time to go home, and I did.
The Nature of My Disappointment
The secondary title of this present article includes the term, “devastating disappointment.” If you assumed that the disappointment was finding out I still had cancer after three tests saying otherwise, you would assume wrongly. Oddly, the diagnosis of cancer was not that big a deal to me. Quite a number of other diagnoses would have hit me emotionally a lot harder than a cancer diagnosis. I’m not quite sure why that is the case, but it has been from the beginning to the present. Maybe it’s because I know a number of cancer survivors, although my father and many other relatives and friends have died from cancer. Maybe it’s because I have lived my fourscore years already, counting my time in my mother’s womb. I’m old enough to die at what most would consider a “ripe old age.” So grateful for that fact. Really grateful. Really blessed.
In this present situation, my biggest disappointment was informing hundreds or thousands of people who had prayed for me that the “no cancer” diagnosis had proved to be premature and inaccurate. As I stated somewhere along the way, my oncologist requested the pathology slides from my former surgeon just to make sure. Once those were reexamined, the cancer was present as expected, but no margins were found. That being the case, I was referred to a surgeon to take a closer look and have another tissue sample tested. Once again, the cancer showed up, although it was seemingly confined to a small space and had not spread. Their concern was not only what was discovered, but what might have been present and not discovered – microscopic cancer cells in the surrounding area. Thus, the next step recommended was to have the area treated with both radiation and chemotherapy. That was the original recommendation before I went to UT Southwestern, so we hadn’t lost any ground. We had actually gained ground by discovering more about the cancer, since the chemo treatment is now going to be milder than the other medical oncology practice had prescribed.
But here was what disturbed me the most, by a wide margin. By announcing the “no cancer” test results, many people who had prayed for me were using the term “miraculous” in answer to their prayers. Honestly, we need to believe in the power of prayer to move God to answer them, at times answering miraculously. I didn’t want the reversal in diagnosis to hurt the faith of those dear to me, to put it bluntly. I pray that this “partial” reversal doesn’t discourage any who have prayed and will continue to pray for me. Personally, I am holding on to the principle mentioned earlier: building faith demands testing faith. I can handle that truth. I’ve had lots of practice through nearly eight decades of life, most of those decades spent walking with God. I understand the principle and the process – most of the time, at least in looking back at it. My hindsight is better than my foresight, to be sure, but somewhere in the processes, the light bulb comes back on and I see clearly once again. I greatly appreciate all of the prayers offered for my health challenge, pre-diagnosis and post-diagnosis. I believe they made a difference. The tests could have shown a much more aggressive form of cancer and one that had spread throughout my body. Although I am dreading the upcoming treatments with their potential side effects, the prognosis is good. I have faith that the cancer will be stopped. Keep praying for that result, please.
Looking for the Big Picture View
No human being has all of the answers to life, and death. I can explain why bad things happen to good people, at least reasonably well on an intellectual basis. But when you are the one to whom bad things happen unexplainably, the emotional understanding and acceptance is the real challenge. No pat answers will do in those moments, nor will any answers totally satisfy. Much in life remains a mystery, which is why we must live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Although we are inclined to ask, “Why me?” when tragedy strikes, the Christian would do better asking, “Why not me?” We are prepared, and thus we trust by faith these statements of Paul.
For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
2 Corinthians 5:6-9
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 For we live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Fairly recently, I watched a sad but very inspirational movie. One scene in the movie was especially helpful. The movie is “Greater,” and I would urge you strongly to see it. It is a spiritual movie based on a true story, quite inspiring. The scene to which I refer is when a mother and her oldest son are talking about the death of her youngest son and the kid brother of the older son. The son in the scene was struggling mightily with his faith in God and expressing his doubts angrily to his mother. She at one point simply said something to this effect: “Son, there are things we don’t understand and will never understand on this side because we cannot see the big picture that God sees.” That has helped me more than I would have imagined, including in my present health struggle. I don’t ask “Why?” much anymore, because I know I have but little slivers of the big picture. God has it all. But prior to playing the end game and reaching home, we as believers are equipped to handle whatever challenges come our way, simply because we see enough of God to know what life is about.
Understanding the Mystery of Miracles
In my Facebook post on February 8, giving a health update, here are a few comments from it (since it was later deleted as a result of the altered diagnosis). “Back to the call yesterday. None of the tests showed any cancer. The doctor is looking for answers, requesting the actual pathology slides to have her pathology department read them. She is also having me see a surgeon to examine me and make sure there is no suspicious tissue that could later develop into cancer. For them, it is understandably a mystery. Not for me. Your prayers moved God and he answered them. He doesn’t always answer with a yes and one day he will have to say no to other prayers to sustain my life, but not this time. I have been waiting to have more information before posting an update. I have it and now you have it. May God bless each of you in unexpected ways, as he has me.”
Since those conclusions turned out to not be entirely accurate, I removed both that FB post and the article (now called Part One and republished). I was perplexed and perturbed, but almost entirely about how to explain this unexpected phenomenon to my readers and friends who had prayed so much for me to be healed. I write and preach to build faith and encourage, not to do anything that might negatively affect those goals. My dilemma led to some wrestling with God, as such challenges usually do. It is a part of the faith tested, faith increased, process. I live on the roller coaster of life with its ups and downs. Sometimes the ride pauses long enough to allow for a wrestling match between me and God, to use mixed metaphors. He always wins but knowing that doesn’t stop the match. Thankfully, it usually shortens it. This one lasted for just under two weeks. I wish it had lasted less time, but I just couldn’t get there. I at times wished that the “no cancer” report had never come, setting up expectations that proved to be invalid. But God is always in the middle of the process. I just had to get okay with that once again and to trust him.
Miracles have more than one definition. Most think of them as instantaneous and otherwise impossible changes, like the healings we read about in the earthly ministry of Jesus. I call these direct miracles. Then we have what I call providential miracles. These can be identified as events that could not have occurred coincidentally but had to be orchestrated by God in his providential working together of the details. The old saying that the devil is in the details is an interesting concept, and can be true when humans make bad choices. But mark this down as an absolute certainty: God is in the details. I have always felt that providential miracles were the greatest type. Just doing a direct miracle instantaneously is impressive, and I do believe that God still does those at times. I have examples from personal observation and sometimes personal participation. But for me, I am more impressed with providential miracles, for they involve humans with freedom of choice and details too intricate to even grasp.
In my initial cancer free diagnosis, I wasn’t sure which category the apparent healing miracle fit. I had one possible explanation involving what would have been an inadvertent removal of the cancer by my first surgeon in collecting tissue for pathology. That would have fallen into the providential miracle category. And then, of course, the other possibility would have involved a direct miracle. I didn’t care which it was at the time. Hearing “no cancer” was enough for me. My first thought upon finding out that that diagnosis was replaced by “little cancer” was simply contemplating how others might be affected by hearing it after expectations had been raised through the initial diagnosis. For me, these back-and-forth diagnoses have been going on for months now. I’m used to them and probably will need to remain used to them. I just didn’t want others to be hurt or disappointed. That was my primary concern and still is. It accounted for my wrestling match and ultimately for this present article. I want us all to develop a bigger picture of life and death, mine and eventually yours.
The Bigger Picture…
Only God has the big picture, but we must strive to enlarge our own picture, combining what God said in the Bible and what we allow our experiences to teach us. On January 1, in keeping with what my home church was doing in making out lists of impossible prayers, miracle prayers, I wrote my list. The first thing on my list was that I not have cancer, but that if I did, it could be cured. A later item on that list involved my thinking processes, described thusly: “To eliminate negative thinking by looking at best case scenarios rather than worst case scenarios, and to see positive ways of viewing things that appear negative. If something ends up being negative, let it come as a surprise because I will be looking for best case scenarios.”
After my list of impossible prayers was another list with this subheading: “Miracle Sightings and Spiritual Insights.” Near the top of that list, on Sunday, January 2, as I was anxiously (too anxiously) awaiting the initial pathology reports, I wrote this: “I may need cancer to help me spiritually or to help others through my experience. I have seen both happen with friends and heard of both happening in the lives of others many times. If this is your will, Father, please increase my faith enough to help me handle it well.” This insight gave me the opportunity to put into practice the above concept of looking for best case scenarios rather than worst case ones. It took some work to get there, but by God’s grace, I have.
Many have prayed for my healing, and still are. They are asking for cancer to not have the final word in what ends my life. Good prayer. Thank you for it. I pray for that result too. But there are many more important aspects to the bigger picture. One may well be that I and others need spiritual healing far more than physical healing. My cancer journey thus far has taken me to places with God I have never been before. My prayer is that my example will affect others similarly in their journey with him too.
I don’t know all of what God has planned for this bigger picture. I know that some of it involves my relationship with him. I believe that some of it includes my preparation for my eventual death, whenever and however it may come. I’ll have more to say about that one in a moment. I believe that some of that bigger picture involves how my having cancer will affect others in various ways. Recently I received a call from a woman at the medical center to set up an appointment with my chemotherapy specialist. We talked for 30 minutes, not a normal conversation for her I am sure. I started a spiritual discussion that took on a life of its own. It ended up with me going to my appointment (of which she was a part) and my giving her two of my books, one of which she had requested. During the appointment about the technicalities of chemo treatment, she shared what she and I had talked about with the doctor, which pulled him into the discussion. Where will that all lead? I don’t know, but God knows.
Then a few days ago, I went in for my final scan, a mapping scan to help determine exactly where the radiation treatments will be aimed. This visit began with a nurse collecting my vitals. Then came the IV nurse to puncture my arm once more. Then another person to explain and have me sign permission documents. (Does anyone actually read those?) Then came the two scan specialists to put me in that big apparatus, explain the process and carry it out. Then came my oncologist’s PA and finally the oncologist herself. Maybe there were more. Starting spiritual conversations is second nature to me, and I did it repeatedly with everyone who had to deal with me, or nearly everyone. What will come of that? I don’t know, but God knows. How many people have I shared my faith with thus far as a result of developing cancer? How many will I yet share my faith with due to having this disease? Do you not think this is all a part of God’s bigger picture?
So how bad is it to still have cancer? Gee, I don’t know that it is bad at all. It has already accomplished some really good things in my life with God. I wouldn’t give them up to be rid of the cancer, that much I know for sure. I also know that many spiritual seeds are being sown with many different medical people. One of them may wake up one morning facing the biggest challenge of their life and think of the old crazy preacher guy that they just cared for recently and try to figure out how to get back in touch with me. With many of my books listed on Amazon and having two web sites, it wouldn’t take a lot of effort on their parts to find me. Plus, I give out cards with my web sites and phone numbers listed. God does work in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. I love that old hymn with those words in it, and I love having seen God do it in my life time and time again. There is a much bigger picture than we now see, but I have no doubt that God will keep revealing more of it to us, especially if we are looking for it. There is a God who sees, wants to be seen and most certainly can be seen. And finally, we have one more part of the bigger picture to consider.
The Final Road Home
I am a teacher. God gifted me to be a teacher and called me to use that gift. I have used it all over the world for many, many years. As I watch the news and the reports about the current Ukraine conflict, I weep. Theresa and I made many trips to Kiev to teach the Bible to the ministry staff, the shepherding students from all over the old Soviet Union countries and to the average members in the church. We poured our hearts out doing so and loved it immensely. It was a rare privilege. But it was only one example of that rare privilege being enjoyed in teaching about God and his plan for our lives. In Acts 20:27, Paul said that he had “not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God.” That is my calling as well.
I have spent the years trying to teach the whole counsel of God, focusing primarily on teaching others how to live. Before I pack it in, I have the responsibility and opportunity to also teach others how to die. Some might be thinking, “Gordon, that’s morbid!” The dictionary might agree, with this definition: “characterized by or appealing to an abnormal and unhealthy interest in disturbing and unpleasant subjects, especially death and disease.” But I most certainly do not agree that these subjects are morbid. They are a part of life. Something will stop our heart and we will leave this realm and journey into the next. None of us are exempt. God is trying to prepare us for life and for death. I am a teacher and I want to be used by God to do my best to help you with both parts. That’s not morbid; that’s life, life with God.
My fellow teacher and friend, Douglas Jacoby, recently set up a phone conversation with me just to catch up and see how I was doing. I think he knew by then that I had cancer. He told me about a book that a man wrote about his life which was in the process of winding to a close through a terminal disease. Doug suggested that if the cancer was going to take me down that road, I could contribute to helping people by following a similar course. I appreciated his suggestion and awoke the next morning with a title in mind, which I wrote into a document designed as a book cover. “Cancer – From Diagnosis to Death” Unless I die suddenly, I will write that book in some form or another, even if death comes from something besides cancer. You are going to die too, and I want to do it well in order to help you do it well. I have been blessed to see some do it admirably and inspiringly. I want to follow their example so that you can follow mine.
We must come to peace with our mortality. It most often is going to be a process. If we are fortunate enough to live to an old age, aging itself should usher in the process. One of my great friends during our Phoenix years was Jerry Jones. We served as elders for some years after the initial appointment of elders in the church there. Jerry was a classic disciple of Jesus, although he was converted later in life. He had such a soft heart, but such a courageous heart. We faced some tough times during several years when the church was going through a firestorm. Jerry was a rare bird as a leader. I taught repeatedly and insistently that as leaders, we couldn’t let concerns about reactions and responses determine the decisions we made and the paths we chose, but only what was right and what was righteous before God. Jerry in response was all in, like few leaders are capable of being, conflict avoidance and sentimentality being what they are. I couldn’t have made it through those tough years without him. I was blessed to speak at his memorial last year on the one-year anniversary of his death.
His view of death was beautiful. Once when I was with him and his wonderful wife, Karen, on a trip to serve in an orphanage just over the Arizona border in Mexico, he asked me a question. He said something to this effect, “Given our ages, you and Theresa do talk about what to do when one of you croaks, don’t you?” I burst out laughing and when I later shared his question with Theresa, she just cackled. After that, she bought him birthday cards with pictures of frogs on the front and the inside captions saying in some form, “Glad you haven’t croaked yet!” But he did croak. He was in the hospital on dialysis when he decided it was his time. He came home to die and did within a few days. The last time I called to speak to him, Karen said that he was asleep and had only brief periods of being lucid when awake, but that if he had another such period, she would call. He did and she did. Jerry and I had such a wonderful talk and he encouraged me greatly. He died the next day. I was his teacher, but he taught me that day about dying well, a lesson that I want to pass on to others.
In a wonderful book entitled, “An Aging Grace,” edited by and written in by Jeanie Shaw and many others, I wrote two chapters. Although that was only about seven years ago, I was not in the best place to write about aging and death. Yet, those were the topics Jeanie assigned me. God has such a sense of humor, as does Jeanie. You should read the book, and I think you will enjoy my two chapters. I am nothing if not candid in them. My title for chapter two of the book was, “Aging Grace, How Sweet the Sound?” and my title for chapter thirty-four, the final chapter, was, “The Best Is Yet to Be.” I needed to write those chapters, for they were a part of my preparation for playing my own end game. What I wrote then I fully believed intellectually but hadn’t fully reached the point of accepting it emotionally. I’m there now, thanks to cancer – a part of the bigger picture. I close with a quote from the last section of that final chapter.
As it is with aging, death is all a matter of perspective—seeing the material world or seeing the spiritual world. Both are real, but the former one just barely so by comparison. It’s a nice place to hang out for a few decades, but it’s merely a launching pad to the really real world. I’m thankful to have lived on planet earth, but I was here for only one main reason: to get prepared for blastoff to the next. A baby in the womb is comfortable and peaceful, and when they start to make their entrance into a big new world, it is probably very scary. Life in the womb of this earth is sometimes comfortable and peaceful, and the thought of leaving it might still be a bit scary. But let’s allow it to be scary in the same way that astronauts must feel as the flames of rocket fuel start pushing them into a world they have heretofore only imagined.