Greetings from Central Asia! Larry and I are here to lead a strategic conference for forty of our Athletes in Action leaders from ten countries. While I am traveling, my dear friend and colleague, Susie Thomas, has written this guest post.
Susie Thomas has been living as God’s child for more than 30 years, a mother for 12, and the wife of a crazy visionary leader for 16. She recently started teaching fifth grade in conjunction with her family’s current assignment in Kigali, Rwanda. She and her husband have been on staff with Cru since 2002.
There's nothing like a terminal illness to give you a new enthusiasm for life. Right?
Five and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, which is notoriously aggressive and incurable. I was pregnant with our fourth child. I believe the doctor’s exact words (although the large space of air that now exists where part of my brain used to be suggests I may have some memory problems) were, “there is a 100% recurrence rate and no cure.” What he wanted me to understand was that the good news of the successful surgery was temporary good news. It will come back. It always comes back. Go to Disney now, pregnant and on steroids, because you will not be around to take Annie when she is in a stroller instead of in your belly.
The doctors often felt they had to really drill down on the bad news and reality checks because my constant giggling and unlimited supply of tasteless cancer jokes were indicative of denial or something.
The truth was that it wasn't denial. I remember sitting at Chick-fil-a with my poor mom who had just asked her 32-year-old daughter, “do you really think you're going to die from this?” The fact that I was giving bad news to the person who it would hurt the most put tears in my eyes as I said, “I know this is going to kill me. That's just what's true about this cancer. And a God hasn't asked me to believe him for anything different.” My laughter wasn't denial. It was actual, real, Spirit-given Joy.
There was one other time in my life that I felt impossibly happy alongside a deep sadness. We were living in India and I'd just given birth to our still-born second son at 18 weeks gestation. It was a grief I hadn't experienced before, along with some ugly anger. But it didn't sit like a rock in my gut. The scripture on my heart during that time was from Psalm 28: “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” On some days that verse meant I have no joy, so the Lord’s is going to have to stand in for mine. On other days it meant I can't explain why I am happy and functional today without giving credit to the Lord.
Five years later that verse came back, accompanied by another. This one was spoken by that woman that Debby has already reminded us of that we (I) love to roll our eyes at: the Proverbs 31 Woman: “She laughs at the days to come,” alternatively translated as, “She laughs without fear of the future.” I held that verse close, along with the lines of my favorite hymn for the season, “All Must be Well” by Mary Bowley Peters:
We expect a bright tomorrow; all will be well
Faith can sing through days of sorrow, all is well
On our Father’s love relying
Jesus every need supplying
Yes in living or in dying
All must be well
It's important for me to emphasize that my joy was not in my future healing, whether I expected it to come on earth or in heaven (I expected heaven). My joy was a gift given to me to accompany me in my submission to God’s plan of sickness and death and a goodbye to the life I loved.
I've come to see suffering or hardship as a bonding experience that Jesus offers us. Scripture is clear that He offers good in the bad, and he kept that promise to me.
But then God really turned everything upside down. A couple years later, in a service at our new church in Rwanda, God asked me to trust him for something new - healing. This was a really difficult thing for me. I had spent the last two years defending God’s goodness as expressed in my sickness. I had adamantly declared that my death was His will and my worship was submission to it. Changing my tune would be to accept a beautiful gift (physical healing) at some expense to my fragile pride.
And here I am. Living healed. Now past the initial prognosis given me by all the doctors.* Dreaming with my kids about their future without feeling like I'm lying to them. Taking Annie to meet her kindergarten teacher. Ordering a couch because it turns out we're not just in Rwanda temporarily until I need to go home and die.
But, you know what is a little more elusive on this side of cancer? That Spirit-given, irrepressible joy. Turns out cancer doesn't give you magic perspective for life. Turns out it doesn't make whining sound melodic or gray hair feel sexy or traffic feel fun just because you get to live to experience it.
Turns out I'm still in desperate need of repentance every day for all the same sins I was before, plus a few more.
Jesus is still present with me. But cancer was like the honeymoon of a marriage -unlimited time and feeling and fun. (I know that sounds weird. It's a figure of speech). Living healed is like living married - so much joy and fulfillment available to me, but I need to prioritize, I need to make date night happen, and exercise some self control and breathe in the Spirit when I'm tempted with judgment, criticism, over-sensitivity, and unfair anger.
The joy of the Lord is still my strength. And I can still laugh at the days to come. But now I have to remind myself to do so.
*disclaimer in the interest of accuracy:
No doctor would ever give a medical opinion that I am healed. They would gently remind me about that 100% recurrence rate and that everyone is different. And guess what? I'm still going to die someday, so let's not quibble.