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Life is fleeting, and perhaps this is more realized by those of us who have already lived the bulk of it. But no matter one’s age, to be told you have cancer is a dire pronouncement against life itself. Against repeating joyful moments of life you have come to rely on. Against your dreams, your hopes, your goals, against your innermost yearnings to complete what is still unaccomplished. 

Despite this, it is predicted by the U.S. Government National Library of Medicine that during this current year 2,001,140 in the U.S. will receive a cancer diagnosis. Nearly 612,000 are expected to lose their lives to it. One out of four people are expected to get cancer in their lifetime. There are some bright spots in this ominous sounding news. The odds of getting cancer in one’s lifetime are lower today than ten years ago. Today there are also cures for several cancer types. Among those are: prostate, thyroid, testicular, melanoma, breast. Men are at a slightly higher risk than women—41 percent and 39 percent accordingly (Cancer in U.S. Statistics and Facts).

As Christians, we stand fallible to the same physical ailments and diseases as everyone else, including cancer. Some of the two million plus hearing the words “you have cancer” this year, will be believers. This will be their trial, their suffering. Not only for those with the actual diagnosis but also for those of us who stand by them as they begin that journey. Many people pull away then, even brothers and sisters in Christ. 

It isn’t a comfortable walk. It is unsettling. As my reading in Real Identity by Thaddeus Barnum today pointed out, sometimes we don’t want to walk through suffering when someone needs us to or asks us to, but we say we will because we know that’s the right answer. The Christian answer. But really, we don’t want to. “Give me those special days of revival when Aslan is in town and the sick are always healed. The suffering suffer no more. Our prayers are always answered. And I don’t have to take these journeys. These long, costly journeys,” Barnum writes. One he is personally familiar with now, having lost his wife to cancer a few years ago.

“ Give me those special days of revival when Aslan is in town and the sick are always healed. ”

 

He goes on to say the road of suffering is only part of the journey and ultimately leads to the road of revival. The road is one in the same. In fact, Barnum says, “[Jesus] tells us the road of suffering is the only way to His glory. And if we wish to go with Him, certain things are required. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him (Mark 8:34). I always find myself fighting this….I don’t want to go. Not on that road.”

As Barnum further points out though, going the whole distance is the whole story. The trials that may begin by shredding our hope, filling us with fear, loss, and despair—those very trials are the same that lead us down pathways where we will be certain to find Jesus. Where He will show Himself to us unmistakenly. Incomprehensibly. Powerfully. Intimately. A taste of the divine. Till we are aware that were it not for the suffering, we would have failed to know Jesus like this. 

And when we walk this journey with others, we are given the rare privilege of watching Jesus gather His saints to Himself. Like a furious storm that disrupted their lives and also rocked ours, we are led through a dark stormy night to a glorious dawn on a tranquil blue sea. They may be gone and sorely missed, but we are left viewing that sunrise with peace in our souls.

***

My dad was about five months past his 94th birthday when it was discovered he had lung cancer. The man had never smoked a day in his life, but he had worked years in a rubber factory. The cancer had been slow growing, the doctors said, and had been missed in regular check-ups. But at his age, Dad chose to not have surgery or treatment of any kind. He did have a procedure done to place a tube to relieve excess fluid from his lungs that involved a short hospital stay.

My dad was a strong man, having worked hard physically his entire life. He got things done! That mindset didn’t stop with his cancer diagnosis. My brother who had recently retired, flew to Arizona where my father lived to help him as he made decisions on how to proceed. None of our family lived near him and he wanted family around him now. The decision was made for him to be flown back to Ohio where he had lived most of his life. He would stay with my brother and sister-in-law, a home he was very familiar with. 

From everything I have been told, my father took everything in stride, planning and preparing everything the best he could. On one of the last evenings in Arizona, he had all his close friends (who were from church) come over for dessert and a time of fellowship. How he enjoyed that, and my brother said it was hard to realize that he was treating this so normally. Like an I-am-moving-away party.

Settling into my brother’s home was much of the same. Getting up each day, getting dressed, eating with the family. Until he couldn’t. Never wanting to be a burden to anyone. His mind was keen and he read, listened to his gospel music. He never opted to take the full dosage of pain medication he was offered.

“ As he prepared for his exit from this earth, he wanted most of all to let his children and grandchildren know that they needed to follow Christ... ”

 

On 9/11/2001, he heard about the attacks on the U.S. and although he rarely left his room at this point, he went to the living room so he could watch TV. I remember him saying in that emphatic, no-nonsense way of his when I talked to him on the phone later that day, “This is sin. Just pure evil.” It wasn’t so much a national issue for him, although he was the first-born child of immigrants. Even throughout his working years, we heard nightly around the supper table, how much people needed Christ. I’m sure he was known at his place of employment as a preacher of sorts. 

As he prepared for his exit from this earth, he wanted most of all to let his children and grandchildren know that they needed to follow Christ, that he hoped and even expected them to meet him in heaven someday. So it was that six days before his last, he gathered all his immediate family who were in the local vicinity to come in his room. He had gotten up and dressed, which he hadn’t done in a while. Sitting in the easy chair in his room he said good-bye and that he was ready to go. His fight to stay was over. 

He talked about his younger brother who had died at the age of six when my dad was in his teens. Hours before his brother would pass, my dad was holding him. Looking into my dad’s face, his brother asked if he would see him in heaven someday. That hard question prompted my dad to seek Jesus and Jesus found him. Now my dad was ready to meet Jesus and his little brother again. At that meeting, he prayed and so did several other family members. Afterwards Dad got back in bed, never to get out of it again, and never to be fully awake again.

***

When my husband, children, and I moved to New Jersey in early 1989, and found a church to attend, I distinctly remember an energetic and attractive older woman (maybe 50ish) who often wore a hat to church, coming and introducing herself to me on one of our first Sundays. Her name was Barbara Stuber. Over the years, I would count her as one of my dearest friends. But I would soon learn that was how everyone else viewed her, too. As one of their dearest friends. That was even true of my children as they grew up. Who can do that? Well Barbara could!

She and her husband often invited large groups over to their home for dinner after church on Sunday morning. She was a wonder at hospitality. She was also my children’s Sunday School teacher. She made a point of talking to everyone after a church service. She phoned often, readily shared her own life, and we increasingly sought each other out to talk. This was especially true when my marriage ended. She was one person who truly loved my husband, and was so sad to see how things were going with us. She often talked to him about her concerns, and never offended him, though the truth she spoke often hit home. It was easy for me to share my heart with her, knowing she loved us both.

“ As he prepared for his exit from this earth, he wanted most of all to let his children and grandchildren know that they needed to follow Christ ”

 

As the years went on, we taught together at our Friday night girls’ meetings. Before our own church building was completed, these occasions often took place at her house. Other times she would just call a group of us over to play games together. She was always up to attend overnight conferences together. Then came her very serious cancer diagnosis. She lived for over a year, I think. Probably more. I dreaded thinking that we would lose her. Still, numerous times during that period she invited me over for dinner. She was an encourager. I think that’s why we all loved her so much. “You have a book in you,” she would often say to me. She didn’t want me to forget it.

She accepted her diagnosis with courage, and the true testimony of someone who knew and loved Jesus. It was obvious on her face. She planned last outings with her grandchildren. Really special times like Broadway plays in NYC. I remember her saying one perk of all she was experiencing was that she could get into clothes she hadn’t worn in years. We knew she was sad to leave us. But she was going to be with Jesus—something she looked forward to in the midst of her pain and suffering. 

That’s what is so cool to watch as Christians prepare to leave this earth. They never lose their zest for living or the feeling of responsibility to the people in their lives, but they get excited that the end of suffering is in sight. Once near Barbara’s end when she slept more than she was awake, I heard she opened her eyes and spoke to whomever was with her, suggesting the menu and details of the fellowship meal after her funeral.

***

It was at Barbara’s funeral dinner, that a friend quietly told me her father had just been diagnosed with cancer. It was very advanced. He didn’t have long to live. This news would break my youngest four children’s hearts. Steve Bruder was a big, burly man, who without ever being asked by me, had become a mentor to them after their dad left. He had them do chores around his home and in his office and paid them well. He took them deep sea fishing in his boat. He attended their sports activities. He was a member of our church and had long talks with all of them about spiritual things. Once he let them each invite a friend and took them for a weekend in Washington DC. They couldn’t have had a better mentor and role model.

“ He was readying himself for meeting Jesus. ”

 

He was a Navy man, and when my youngest son went into Army ROTC at Penn State, he teased him, but he was proud of him. My son was due to graduate in May and had asked Steve to be one of his ‘pinners’ at his graduation ceremony. When Steve found out he had cancer, about three months prior, he said he hoped he lived long enough to do that. The last time we saw him was when we stopped for a visit on the way back to Penn State after spring break. My son had just had his new uniform fitted while he was home and he tried it on for Mr. Bruder. We have a picture of the two of them together. Mr. Bruder prayed with us before we left that day, and for his blessing on David and his upcoming wedding. Physically, he was past the point of getting out of his favorite chair, yet his voice still boomed and he may have been more content than I had ever seen him. He was readying himself for meeting Jesus. That was our final memory.

I do not know how any of these took their initial diagnosis. Maybe there were traces of Psalm 73:21-22. Who could blame them for that as they entered their suffering.

When my soul was embittered,
    when I was pricked in heart,
22 I was brutish and ignorant;
    I was like a beast toward you.

 

But it became increasingly clear to those of us who were travelling the road alongside them, that the mindset that quickly won them over and carried them were verses 25 and 26 of that same Psalm.

 

Whom have I in heaven but you?
    And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
    but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

 

***

 

I was never personally acquainted with Bill Slack. My son goes to the church he pastored, and during the last couple of years I have been there with my son frequently. I have always known of Bill and was impressed with what I knew. He wasn’t brought up in a Christian home and was saved as a young man. In the early 70’s, he had been the product of the age—all about peace and love and rock music. He even played in a couple of bands himself. I heard how much Jesus had changed him. He had a heart for the unsaved—at his memorial service one of his sons put it this way: “He never thought anyone was a lost cause.” He interpreted the great commission to mean going deep into your neighborhood, caring for everyone without exception and preaching the gospel to them.

 

Consequently, the church he would lead for 30 years was on Main Street, Phillipsburg, New Jersey, where spotting addicts and the homeless were not uncommon. The church has long run a food panty and clothing closet, free services for those in need and recognized by the city and chamber of commerce, with whom Bill worked closely. Not to mention the free-of-charge annual Thanksgiving dinner served by the church to the community. Most of all, it was common knowledge on the street that anybody and everybody was welcome at the church’s services and dinners.

 

Bill never lost his love for music and he would lead the singing in the Sunday service, as he played the keyboard, tapping his feet to the music. He preached with a quiet passion knowing it was truth he spoke. He seemed always to be listening to his own words—readily admitting his need for the saving grace and mercy he spoke about. There was a longing in his words that every one of his listeners might hear that truth and receive it. That they would know Jesus. And stay fixed on Him and abide in His Word. My son told me that once during a sermon, Bill had said he couldn’t stress enough the importance of staying in God’s Word, and that if he could when he passed, he wished he could sit up in the middle of his funeral and remind them of that. 

 

One of my favorite sermons that I heard him preach was on the topic of suffering. Bill already had a cancer diagnosis.  He’d had it for a while, but about six months after this sermon, he would get another that would erase hope of remission, short of a miracle. There will be suffering for those who are in Christ, Bill said preaching from Colossians 1:24-29. But there is purpose in it. To give ourselves to it for the sake of making God known, defending Him, and living before others, even other believers, pointing them to Christ.  For that reason, for this purpose, enduring suffering is a cause to rejoice. Bill lived this sermon right up to the end of his life. 

There will be suffering for those who are in Christ, Bill said preaching from Colossians 1:24-29. But there is purpose in it.

I know because he chose to share his last weeks in Facebook videos. I marvel that anyone could do that. To be that transparent right up to death. He would update his condition and his wife’s. (She also has a serious medical condition and wasn’t able to be his caretaker.) But God provided a Christian couple who came from Florida to live with the Slacks. Bill had nothing but praise for them and how God so lovingly and miraculously arranged that. We sensed his moods, his struggles, but always and foremost his trust in the Lord. He sometimes read Scripture and talked about it, continuing to preach to the viewers and to himself. He talked of pain and his bad attitude that could stem from it, if he let it. Made me think of the hymn he liked to sing in worship: “Our sins they are many, His mercy is more.” We, the viewers, knew that beyond all that he said, he had discovered this:

 

23 Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
    you hold my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel. 

Psalm 73:23-24

He would have liked to be healed, and he openly acknowledged that, with God, that was possible; but at the same time, he recognized and acquiesced to God’s sovereignty. I could appreciate how he explained it, understanding this is who we all are. Bill said, “It is better for me not to know God’s will. I’m too much of a rebel. I think I know better. I’m trying to be honest on these videos. The bottom line is I want to be a testimony of God’s grace and mercy.” 

 

And he was! Through the ambiguities in his dialogues, the wanting, and then the resignation that can come when we are looking death in the face, Jesus was there with him. We saw thankfulness. Confidence. The assurance that “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Bill was banking on that promise and he was never shy to admit it. Then he was gone from the earth, only eight days after making his final video.

 

And afterward you will receive me to glory. 

Psalm 73:24b

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