Minister's Corner: Living in the Valley of the Shadow of Cancer
At the beginning of the 2009 movie Up in the Air, George Clooney’s character Ryan Bingham hears a flight attendant ask him, “Do you want the cancer?” He looks at her shocked, dumbfounded. “Huh, excuse me.” To everyone’s surprise, she holds up a can of Coke as she says, “Do you want the can, sir?”
Cancer is brutal, terrifying, and exhausting. No wants to hear that they or a loved one has the cancer. We don’t even like the sound of the dreaded C word, cancer. About 10 years ago, I was watching a TV special on cancer with our teenage son. An expert on the show said, “More than 1 in 3 Americans get cancer.” Our son exclaimed, “Wow. That’s scary. It could be one of us.” Little did he know.
After three months of severe health issues, multiple hospitalizations, and countless medical tests, a surgeon called to tell me, “Your wife Connie has cancer.” As tears filled my eyes, I felt like I was in a horrific dream. “Not us, it can’t be us! No, it can’t be Connie. She’s the love of my life!” But it wasn’t a dream. It was real. It still is real.
Cancer causes our prayer lives to change. I pray more – more often with more urgency. At times, I have been so emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted that I struggle to find the right words to pray. The pain-filled words of the Old Testament prayer book called Psalms shape the words of my prayers on my darkest days. Psalms helps us pour out our anxiety, fear, and pain to God.
I especially appreciate the 23rd Psalm. Psalm 23:4 says: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you (God) are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” Cancer feels like we are walking in the valley of the shadow of death.
God has taught me a great deal through our 18-month battle with cancer.
God is in control when life feels out of control. All of us like to be in control. A cancer diagnosis makes us quickly realize how little control we have with life or death. Psalm 23:1 begins: “The Lord is my shepherd.” In the imagery of Psalm 23, God is the shepherd who is in complete control. We are like helpless sheep who need a shepherd God to be in control. God created the universe by the power of his word and continues to sustain the universe. God can sustain our lives as well. Cancer doesn’t have the final word. God has the final word. God is in control. We’re not.
God is present with us in all our darkest days. As Psalm 23:4 reminds us, “I will fear no evil for you (God) are with me.” God loves us. God cares for us. God protects us. God hurts with us. God weeps with us. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). More than once, God has spoken to me in his still small voice of prayer. Connie was my daughter before she was your wife. I love her even more than you do. You can trust me with Connie.
Every day is a gift from God so cherish them. Psalm 23 images life on a wonderful spring day as green pastures and quiet waters. Every day of life is a gift from God. I can be a workaholic and rushaholic. God has reminded me to slow down and cherish life. God is with us – enjoy spending time with him. God has given our loved ones to us – enjoy every moment with them. Psalm 23:6 reminds us: “Surely your (God’s) goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” Like a family dog who follows us wherever we go, God’s goodness and love pursue us. Every day we can take time to count our blessings as God’s goodness and love pursue us. On painful days, it is especially important to focus on God’s goodness and love.
I am grateful for the wonderful medical professionals who care for my wife and countless others every day. Thanks to the office staff, chaplains, techs, nurses, and doctors who have cared for us during the most difficult 18 months of our lifetimes. You have been the healing presence of Jesus to us. You have been patient, kind, and caring to us. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be a health care provider during the pandemic. To our healthcare providers: We pray for you, and we thank God for you.