Prisoners of Hope: Living with Cancer

In preparing for today, I’ve decided that preaching just one sermon on living with cancer is as challenging as living with cancer! At my pharmacy this year, for several months there’s been a big sign at the front door that says, “Nothing is more important than your health.” Now I understand the wisdom of that statement. And I understand why one can be enthused about such a statement; health is important. But on behalf of many I want to say that there is something more important than your health, and that’s how you cope with the situation of not having the best of health. The issues that lie behind all of this are ultimately important to all of us; they’re human issues. They’re issues of how to cope with life, and I think they apply to all of us. That’s what I want to talk about this morning.

When Pastor Hasper asked me to do this sermon a few months ago, I immediately contacted two of my close friends who were cancer patients with incurable cancer with whom I had regular conversation, and I told them what my pastor asked me to do and asked for their help. Both of them have since died. I dedicate this sermon in loving memory of Linda Hegg, who died on May 14. She was a friend of thirty-five years, a dear friend, wife of an American Baptist pastor in Montana. And also to Margery Corben, who died on August 3, whom I’d known eleven years; she was an employee at Fuller Seminary. We were very close and shared much in our cancer journey. And then also to our brother Andrew Nyamweya, who was active in the church and a doctoral student, from Kenya, in the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Andrew died on September 3. These dear people struggled with cancer.

I want to talk about three things: how one lives with cancer in relationship to oneself; how one lives with cancer in relationship to family and friends, and how one lives with cancer in relationship to God.

First, relationship to oneself: When one learns that one has cancer, it’s a terrifying experience. One doesn’t like to hear it. When I knew I had cancer in February 2002, that first Sunday we went to a different church. I needed to go somewhere where nobody knew me. But unfortunately, the pastor recognized me in the congregation and drew attention to me. But most of the people didn’t know me. But when one faces this reality, one starts to think about one’s mortality in a new way. Just for the record, I have colorectal cancer, diagnosed three-and-a-half years ago. I had surgery. It has now metastasized; I have cancer in both lungs. It is medically incurable. I’m in constant daily treatment. I have significant daily negative effects. I have outlived some of the predictions already. And I have no idea how much more life I have.

I want to use an illustration, because one thing that everybody says to me is, “Well, we’re all going to die.” We know that. But knowing you have incurable cancer is like having a terrorist bomb strapped on your back–you don’t know when it’s going to go off. AngelFor some people, maybe a terrorist bomb will land someday. But you don’t think about it as strapped on your back. And facing that reality means one has to learn to deal with something that you’ve never dealt with before.

Margery Corben, who died on August 3, typed about four lines in her computer before she died. Her husband found it after she died and gave them to me, as advice for me. One of the things she typed was, “You and your life are not your cancer; cancer is not you and your life.” That’s a profound insight. I am much more than my cancer, for which I deeply thank God.

Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote a book about grief called Lament for a Son. In that book Wolterstorff talks about the difference between overcoming and coping. There are many difficulties in life we can overcome: he gives the mundane example that if it’s a really hot day, you can go into an air conditioned place, and you overcome a difficulty. But there are some difficulties you can’t overcome. One is facing death. You need to learn to cope, not to overcome. You need to live with that reality. It’s a kind of reality therapy.

Margery Corben said that people often said to her, “Cancer changes everything.” It does seem that way, but at the deepest level, it changes only a few things. I am still who I am. And the kind of person one is, is the kind of person you will be if you ever find out that you have a terminal disease. Cancer doesn’t change everything. But it does give everything a new perspective. One of the greatest lessons I have learned–I think–is the value of memory and recollection. I revel every day in remembering all the good things of my life–all the wonderful things that I have been given: my family, my friends. I can’t travel much anymore, so I think about all the places I have been. I used to be an executive premier flyer with United. I was all over the place lecturing. I never can do that again. But I think about all the places I went; all the people I met and how much joy it brought to my life. The joys and the achievements of the past don’t mean I live in the past, but I do celebrate with gratitude what has been. In and through it all, I like an image given to me by an old friend, Patrick Alexander, who is a publisher in New York. He suggested I’m a prisoner of hope. People like me, and like many of you, are prisoners, prisoners of incurable cancer. But I’m a prisoner of hope.

When I first had cancer, a lot of people talked about the “battle” with cancer. And I pooh-poohed that language. “I don’t battle with cancer,” I thought, “my doctors do. My surgeon does; my oncologist does; the medicine does.” And I promised myself I would never use the language about “battling” with cancer. But three-and-a-half years later, I’ve given in. You do battle with cancer. Every morning when I get out of bed, I have to confess one of my first thoughts is, “I wish I could have just one more normal day.” Within three minutes I’m painfully aware of my limits. Within five minutes I can predict how the day is going to go. And the battle is–to put it frankly–the will to keep going.

And that’s an important battle. To say each day, “I want to live. I want to enjoy today. I want to push forward with everything I am able to muster.”

And so you learn the limits of what you can do. There are certain limits. And I try to be sensitive to my limits. Sometimes I violate them. But I try very hard, because I know what I can do; I know what I can’t do. I’ve learned to be firm. I know when to say no. But within those limits, I seek to do those things that are fulfilling and enjoyable, and things that will do good for other people. Some think I should quit teaching. I love teaching! It’s harder to go to the classroom now. I’ve always lectured standing up; I now lecture sitting down. But I still love teaching. And apparently, I’m still succeeding. So I try to protect my schedule so I can do that and do things that contribute to others, no matter how small.

Relationship to family and friends: There is incredible power in the circle of one’s support. It is so important. There are many critical groups: first, one’s medical team whom it is vital to trust. You must find those persons you know will take good care of you. And I must say, I feel enormously blessed by my doctors and nurses and those folk. They’re wonderful.

Second, many patients have a chief caregiver. I have the best caregiver in the world. If your caregiver is your husband or wife or a family member, one of the most important things to remember is that you get so caught up in appreciating them as a caregiver that you could communicate that’s all they mean to you. And you need to remember that they’re more than a caregiver; they’re still your lover, your wife, your friend. You need to affirm all those other relationships that were already there.

Third, family can be very important. Nurture it. We got an email yesterday from a friend of ours who lives in Washington, D.C., whose brother died of cancer but the family was totally dysfunctional. They couldn’t rally together. That’s heartbreaking. For someone in my position, building family relations is important: your spouse, your children, your brothers and sisters, your cousins, your aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews. That family circle means a lot. And it’s worth nurturing.

Fourth, many of us have an inner core of very deep friends. Letting them into your space pays rich dividends; letting them walk the journey with you–people with whom you can say anything, be anything, do anything, the ones with whom you’ve built over some time deep bonds. And then we have larger circles of friends. Nurture them, too. All of these groups have so much to give to the cancer patient. Rejoice in them; be grateful for them.

And yet there are the issues of privacy and boundaries. We all need personal space. You don’t have to tell everybody everything. You don’t have to share with everyone all the emotions that you have, all the problems that you have.

It’s going to vary from person to person which people can get closer in your space and which people can’t. It’s very important to have boundaries. And if I may be so bold, I have some perspectives for the family and friends of cancer patients: Don’t trivialize what the patient is suffering. We all want to identify, so we say, “I know how you feel.” In truth, people don’t always know how you feel. But if they keep saying, “I know how you feel,” it trivializes your own journey. Family and friends, respect the boundaries that the patient puts up. There might be times when you could feel put off. You’re not being put off; the cancer person just needs a boundary.Yet don’t be afraid to talk about reality. One of the people in this congregation who has blessed me the most is young Marion Campbell. Almost every Sunday, young Marion comes up to me and says, “Dr. Scholer, how is your cancer? ” Her directness is a gift. She’s totally unabashed to ask me exactly what the score is. I like it. Now if two hundred people ask me on Sunday, I get tired of it. But don’t be afraid to talk about reality.Relationship to God: This is a big subject that ultimately ties in with the classic problem of evil: why do bad things happen if there’s a loving God? If I could answer that question, I’d be on the cover of Timemagazine next week. But one of the first things I did when I learned I had cancer was look up an old religious tract. Most churches used to have a rack of tracts on a variety of subjects.

I actually wrote one tract in my life. When I was dean of Northern Baptist Seminary, the president had a heart attack and almost died. The very next day I had to preach in chapel but had to scrap the sermon I had prepared, sitting up all night to write a new sermon on “Why does God allow evil?” Later I sent that sermon to Decisionmagazine, and they accepted it for publication. Later still the American Tract Society asked if they could reprint it as a tract titled, “Why Does God Allow Evil and Suffering?”So the first thing I did after I learned I had cancer was re-read my own tract! I said, “I better see if I actually now believe what I wrote!” So I got out my little tract, and I read it over. And these are the points I made: God is not the author or cause of evil; God never promised freedom from pain; God uses pain for God’s purposes; We have God’s promise of love and comfort; Evil and suffering are not experienced because of one’s sin; God has provided a triumph.Reading this I said to myself, “You know, I think it was all right.” I thought, well, those things are true. I can’t solve the problem of evil. I can’t solve it for cancer; I can’t solve it for Katrina; I can’t solve it for the tsunami; I can’t solve it for anything that happens in anyone’s life. But biblical faith teaches us that God is not the author of evil, that God is there to help us cope with this, and that God in Jesus Christ has provided, ultimately, the triumph of eternal life.

Psalm 40, which is one of my favorite psalms, has been especially meaningful to me of late.

I waited patiently for the LORD;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the LORD
and put their trust in him.
(Ps. 40:1-3 TNIV)

That’s an anchor for me. And then the psalm ends with this: “But as for me, I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me. You are my help and deliverer; you are my God, do not delay” (Ps. 40:17 TNIV). And I think of those words virtually every day.

But the greatest anchor text of my life has been Romans chapter 8. I keep thinking over and over again, “Is there a better anchor text for me? ” No. Romans 8:18-39 is it! I won’t read the whole paragraph, but it starts like this, and I’ll read a few verses: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (v. 18). Now that alone is a very, very powerful line, is it not? “Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. . . . In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (vv. 23, 26). And then, of course, that famous line: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (v. 28; all TNIV).

A prisoner of hope. We await the redemption of our body. We trust in the Spirit who prays for us with groans that cannot even be put into words and believe that God works all things for good.

There are two horizons of hope: this life and eternity. Death is an evil. The Bible always says death is anevil. No matter how we dress it up and make the dead body look attractive in the casket, death is an evil.

But it must be faced. We don’t embrace it for the evil and the ugliness. But what we want to embrace is the power of life. God is the giver of life, both in this earthly, earthy existence and in the reality of eternal life. And eternal life is something one enters now, in the promise of the gospel in Jesus Christ. Earlier I referred to Nick Wolterstorff saying we can’t overcome death; we have to cope with it. That’s true. But one of the ways we cope with it in the Christian faith is to believe that God is the giver of eternal life, which begins even now. And so, as an incurable cancer patient, I give myself to God.

My mother died in June. She loved to say, “Ever ybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die to get there! ” That’s true. It’s right and proper that we want to live and that we fight and struggle to live. God is the giver of life, even in this existence: embrace it! God is not the giver of death; death is the consequence of evil. Thus, it’s alright to fight for life. It’s alright to want to live. It’s not a rejection of the joys of eternal life. I’m, quite frankly, not somebody who says, “Oh, I can hardly wait until I die and can walk the golden streets.” I don’t want to die! God is the giver of life! We should embrace it.

Nels Ferre, a theologian from many years ago, once taught at A ndover Newton Theological School. One of his students and his wife had just recently had a baby, but suddenly one night the baby died. This student didn’t know what to do. He called his professor, Nels Ferre, at midnight, and said, “Our baby just died.” Nels Ferre went over to their student apartment and sat there for two hours. He never said a word; he just sat there. A nd when he got up to go he said, “God is cr ying too.” I find that ver y powerful. God is cr ying; Jesus wept; and the Holy Spirit groans. We have a caring God.

I want to close with a poem that I like ver y much from the British poet Minnie Louise Haskins, born in 1875. K ing George VI made this ver y famous in his Christmas broadcast of 1939–you realize that’s at the beginning of World War II–in which he quoted Minnie Louise Haskins’s poem:

I said to the man who stood at
the gate of the year,
“Give me a light that I may tread
safely into the unknown.”
A nd he replied, “Go out into the
darkness and put your hand
into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than
light and safer than a known
way!”

May God bless all of you in your journey of life as you commit yourself to the realities of life, the joys that God gives, and the promise of God’s triumph. Amen.

David Scholer is professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.