Summer is almost over and my most recent visit to the Duke Cancer Center revealed that my tumors were “stable.” It may be the only time in my life I have ever been happy to maintain the “status quo.” Two years ago in July, 2013, I was sitting in a hospital room in Erie, Pennsylvania wondering if I’d even make it to Christmas. Being told you have metastatic cancer that has invaded your liver and may be pancreatic in origin is really tough to hear. Now, two years later I’m still here and, thanks to improved treatment options with some serious radio-peptide chemotherapy, it looks like I might be around for far longer than I originally anticipated. To say that this has been like riding a chaotic, emotional roller coaster is an understatement. God has been faithful and I have been blessed to be surrounded by people who have loved, supported, and prayed for me all along the way. The journey is changing from being a sprint, to being a marathon of managing a chronic disease for, perhaps, a decade or maybe more. The process will involve continuing cancer treatments every month for the rest of my life, the eventual possibility of significant surgical intervention or more radio-chemotherapy, and dealing with a variety of symptoms that are likely to arise as the disease continues to be part of my daily life. My prayer is that I can say, like Paul, “living serves Christ…If I continue to live in this world, I will get results from my work.”
What have I learned amidst the chaos? What am I gleaning on this roller coaster of my mortality? My goal moving forward is to maintain my focus and not drift back into survival mode and lose focus again now that God has allowed me to re-boot my life. As I look back on the last couple of years a few things come immediately to mind: I have had my faith in humanity restored; I am getting clearer about separating the important from the urgent; and I am learning that relationships are more important that accomplishments.
Faith in Humanity
Ministry can make you cynical. Like my friends who work with social services or in the mental health field, I have often had to deal with people who are in a difficult time in their lives. Whether it is due to a broken system, a broken relationship, or broken choices, pastors strive to bring the good news of the gospel into people’s lives. Because desperate people do desperate things we often see the darker side of life. Also, because so much of what is done in ministry is immeasurable, there are very few ways to quantify whether you are making a difference. You work tirelessly and seemingly endlessly, but often do not see the product of your efforts. Oh, certainly, I know the scriptures about how “some scatter, some water, but God brings the harvest,” but occasionally it would be good to be the harvester and not just the planter. In my present place of ministry, coaching and consulting with churches and leaders, it is difficult to determine a “measure of effectiveness.” I am leaning into the truth of Scripture and investing heavily in those who will outlive me in ministry and striving to bring comfort to those who are struggling physically and spiritually, counting on God to bring the harvest even if I never see it.
When I returned from Pennsylvania, fresh with a terminal diagnosis and staggering from the shock that I may be dead before the new year, I was blown away by the prayer, support, and affection that I received. My congregation, in my absence, had a prayer vigil and the altar was filled with people from St. Paul as well as friends from the community, who came together to pray for me and my family. The outpouring of love and concern was almost overwhelming. Then somebody we don’t know offered us the chance to get away to the Outer Banks for a week to process the news we had received and to recover from my recent attack. Friends raised money to send me and my family to Florida for a family vacation and arranged lodging for us at no cost. Others donated money to assist with medical expenses, opened their hearts and homes to us, and provided strong shoulders to cry upon whenever needed. To say that my family has been blessed during this difficult time is an understatement. Never in my life have I received so many blessings in such a short time. I grew up with a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with it” philosophy of life, never asking for anything and just getting by when times were tough. These past five months have allowed me to jettison some of that building cynicism about people and renewed my faith in humanity. When given the chance, and the excuse, people rise to be the best version of themselves. God is still at work through the lives of everyday people like you and me.
Clarity of Conviction
Another gift the awareness of my mortality has given me is an increased clarity of conviction. The urgent is always pressing upon me. Deadlines are always looming. The urgent is so loud that often the important gets shoved to the side and neglected.
Since my diagnosis I have to manage my life at a level I never have in the past. Suddenly my endless energy has limits. Every day I am forced to look at the myriad of demands that come my way and decide which ones are actually important and which ones, if left undone, will have little consequence. When you believe your time is short, when you really believe that your life is “a vapor” you become extremely careful where you invest it. I have resigned organization boards, realigned my schedule, and been intentional about scheduling vacations, all because I’m gaining clarity of conviction. I want to have a full life, and a fulfilled life, not just a busy one. Crammed calendars are not indicators of worth, but of chaos. I now look at opportunities and ask, “Is this worth investing my life in?” If not, then I respectfully decline.
Saying no is hard for somebody who has spent most of his life trying to prove his worth. One of the things that is becoming clearer in my life is my interior motivations. I realize that I have never felt worthy of love. As such I have tried desperately to earn affection through academic achievement, professional advancement, and community involvement. All of these things are good and worthwhile endeavors and I'm glad I am invested in them, but the conviction that has become clearest for me in the past five months is that God loves me for me, not for what I do or how many degrees I obtain. With that in mind I am free to invest my life where my convictions lead me and not where I feel obligated in pursuit of recognition. I can give myself to making a difference. “Living serves Christ…” I want to live like Christ.
Relationships over Accomplishments
I am learning that the most important thing I can do is to invest in relationships. One of the greatest gifts the awareness of my mortality has given me is the reconnection with people from my past who have reached out to me and let me know that the time we spent together, however brief, made a difference in their lives. Like the letter I received from a former staff person, Andrea, who I love like a daughter. Her letter came on one of those dark days when I doubted whether anything I had done in ministry would amount to more than “wood, hay, and stubble.” Her letter, handwritten and laced with a sprinkling of sarcastic humor, humbled me with expressions of affection and outlining the impact I had made upon her life as she struggled with her call to be a Christian leader as a woman and pastor. Another note from Rob, a U.S. Army chaplain who outlined how our time together prepared him for the challenges he would face in ministry. Literally dozens of people from my past of all ages reached out to me and shared how our interaction had helped them learn to love God and answer His call in some way.
More importantly than those in my past, several of the people in the congregation I serve now approached me to let me know that their relationship with God was growing because of my time with them. Suddenly the immeasurable was becoming tangible. This showed me that all of those conversations over coffee, those times sitting in homes during difficult days, and just the daily interaction with people as I tried to let them see the small part of me that reflected Christ actually had an impact. That even though I wasn’t serving the “mega-church” that I dreamed of serving in my youth that I was making a difference in a lot of people’s lives. That the investment in relationships far outweighs any accomplishment I could ever attain.
What’s next after these two years of living chaotically? My prayer is that some sense of equilibrium will return to my life this year though I’m not sure that is even possible in this crazy world in which we live. I guess my best hope is to strive to keep living what I'm learning.
In some ways it feels as though I have been born again—again. Two years ago my prayer had been to share one more Christmas with my family. Now, after some serious prayer, lots of shots, and serious injected radiation, I have been gifted with a new life to live. I have been gifted with a new life that will require greater focus and intense clarity of my convictions. It will demand a focus on relationships over accomplishments and I will strive to maintain my renewed faith in humanity. So my prayer, like Paul’s above, is that as long as God gives me to live, I will live as a servant of Christ.
Gracious God, thank you for the chaotic life I lead. Thank you for the gift of the awareness of my mortality that I have received in the past several months. Help me to live a life worthy of the calling you have placed in my life, a life focused on relationships rather than accomplishments, a life with clarity of conviction, and faith in humanity. Allow me to live for You that You may shine through me. In the name of the One who died that I might live, Jesus, I pray. Amen.
One of my new goals is to use my new book to sprinkle some hope into 10,000 lives. In some ways that seems impossible, but with God anything is possible. I hope you will get a copy and pass it along. Also, in a couple of weeks I will offer the Kindle version free for four days so that more people can read the story. This is made possible by the generous support of my friends supporting my Indiegogo campaign.
If you want a copy of the book, you can get the Kindle version here or the print version here.
If you want to help me give even more copies away, support my Indiegogo campaign here.