I have cancer – – a somewhat aggressive form of bladder cancer.
CANCER! That is a scary word, especially when the doctor says you have it. After all, about 600,000 Americans die every year of cancer.
Pondering one’s cancer certainly evokes what the Psalmist says about the temporal, transitory nature of our life here on this lovely planet: “As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Psalm 103:15-16; see also Psalm 90:5.). Another Psalm says that God “remembers that we are but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return”(Psalm 78:39).
The Psalmist is right. My life here on earth is just a flicker of time in a universe billions of years old. We all die – – whether from cancer, heart attack, car accidents, old age – – any number of things including blood clots ( thank you Lord for saving me from that near death experience on January 5 of this year. For that see my blog, “Miracle? Coincidence? Gratitude”, of February 1).
When the Psalms were written, they believed that death marked the end of human existence. “I depart and I am no more“(Psalm 39:13). And “it is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down in silence”(Psalm 115:17).
Thank God Jesus changes all that! Jesus promised the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise”(Luke 23:43). And Jesus rose from the dead! He promises that at our death we will immediately “be with him in paradise.” Even more amazing, he promises that he will return some day and we will also be bodily resurrected and live forever with him.
The resurrection changes everything! My advisor for my doctoral dissertation, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, was probably the most distinguished historian of the church in the second half of the 20th century. When he died, the Yale history department devoted a full page to citing all the vast array of honors that Dr. Pelikan received. But after listing all those honors, the story said that as Dr. Pelikan was dying of cancer, he composed the last of his many aphorisms: “ If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. If Jesus is risen, nothing else matters.”
Dr. Pelikan meant that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, then death marks the end of our personal existence forever. As the great secular philosopher, Bertrand Russell, said, we die and rot and that is the end. Dr. Pelikan was saying that if that is true, then all the academic achievements he received have no significance. But Dr. Pelikan also meant that if Jesus did rise from the dead (and he was convinced that Jesus did), then we will live forever with the Lord. And if that is true, then even the greatest honors and accomplishments here on earth, however important, pale in comparison with life eternal in the presence of the risen Lord.
With Dr. Pelikan, I am convinced that Jesus did rise from the dead. (If you want a superb scholarly book developing the historical evidence for that, read NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.) I am certain that my physical death here, whenever it comes, will just be a transition to an even more wonderful eternity with my Lord. That is a glorious assurance as I face the reality of my cancer. In the words of the Gaither’s wonderful song: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone.”
Well not entirely! I would not be honest if I suggested that I never have moments of anxiety and fear about the future.
Here is how I am thinking about the coming days.
First, I have some of the best doctors in the world at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I start weeks of treatment (radiology and chemotherapy) on Monday, February 22. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of such great medical care—a privilege that so many people in our world do not have.
Second, I intend to fight this cancer with all my might! I will fight it with all my mind and body. I am exercising vigorously to keep my body strong.
Third I know that hundreds and hundreds of friends around the world are praying for my healing. Thank you everyone for that wonderful gift.
Finally, I pray daily (often several times in the day and night) in the following way. I say: “Lord, I have already had 81 wonderful years of good health and surprising opportunity. I do not ‘deserve’ another day. But I am coming as a weak, frail human son to you my Heavenly Father. I know you love me more than I can imagine. And I’m asking for the gift of 10 more years: to walk with and care for my darling wife of 59 years; to enjoy my children and grandchildren; and to do whatever else you want me to do. I am not demanding any more years. I know that, as Isaiah said, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts’ (Isaiah 55:8). So not my will but thy will be done. I will accept whatever further years you give me. But as your frail son, I am asking you as my loving Heavenly Father for 10 more years on this lovely planet.”
As I live with excellent medicine, the prayers of thousands of friends, and most of all the assurance of life forever with the risen Lord, I am at peace. In fact, many times a day, during the day and night, I mentally sing this song from my childhood:
Peace, peace, wonderful peace,
Coming down from the Father above!
Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray,
In fathomless billows of love!
Feel free to pass this on to friends.