A Most Noble Profession

nurse

This morning, my duties, among other things, took me to a local hospital.

There I visited a woman who survived an intense back surgery the other day. She beamed with joy as she demonstrated her ability to lift her legs without pain, something she could not do a matter of days ago. I rejoiced to find her in such good spirits and such improved circumstances.

Turns out she used to be a nurse (including chemo for a while). We talked about her days on the job. We reminisced together. Not because I ever served as a nurse. But it just so happened that today marks the 9th anniversary of my tongue and neck surgery to remove a cancerous tumor that threatened my life. I shared with my precious sheep just how grateful I was for every nurse that cared for me, not only through my surgery, but also through radiation and chemo treatment. I never found one of them to be anything but patient and thoroughly devoted to their noble calling.

Not surprisingly, the nurse attending my recovering congregant greeted me upon arrival with a smile of her own. She was caring for Teresa even as I arrived. I asked her is she would be kind enough to inquire if it would be OK for me to visit. She assured me she would. Then she walked over to me and said, “We just finished talking about the importance of being equally yoked and now look who shows up, her pastor!” Clearly she shared like precious faith. Angels of mercy abound in this noble profession of patient care.

To every nurse on the job who cares for pastors, congregants, believers, unbelievers, and everyone in between, I/we thank you. Bless you for answering the call and assuming the responsibilities of this most noble profession that is nursing. We need you so much. Bless you for what you do.

Keep calm and carry on.

Why This Cancer Survivor Loves Jesus

Every August since 2005 the same thing happens. I get nostalgic. For good reason.  The eight month of each year marks the anniversary of my finishing treatment for head and neck cancer. I tend to gravitate back to my journal from that year.

Here is a portion of my entry from August 7, 2005:

Felt nauseous much of the day, yesterday, but for the first time in a long while did not throw up [I learned to celebrate the slightest of victories]. I slept better last night too. Thanks be to God. [See what I mean?] I don’t think I was awake for more than an hour at any one stretch. I didn’t get up up yesterday until noon. Read the paper and then watched baseball. I was feeling pretty punk. Wondered if the anemia was affecting me. Nancy read me my Bible chapters [By God’s grace I managed to keep up with my through the Bible in a year reading]. I just didn’t feel up to it. Took a nap. Did some emails. We watched the celebration of Operation Mobilization honoring forty-five years of George and Drena Verwer’s ministry. It was exuberant, funny, touching, and inspiring all at the same time. The man has had a consistent, faithful run. I would really like to finish like that, however much time remains. Would you be gracious to me, Father, and allow that? Thank you for whatever is to come. Help me to be faithful. God is He who tests minds and hearts (Psalm 7:9) and He is righteous in all His ways.

God has answered that prayer, at least for the last eight years. I am exceedingly grateful. That’s one reason this cancer survivor loves Jesus. He answers prayer. Even if He had said no to my request for healing, I want to believe I still would love Him.

Yesterday I ran into a pastor friend of mine who suffered a bout with tongue cancer as well. It has been twenty years clean for him. He still runs the race well. I want to follow in his footsteps as well, Lord willing.

Lord, thank you for these eight years. I love you with all my heart. May I always do just that.

Why Don't You Hate God?

Someone actually put that question to me not long ago. Why don’t you hate God?

Granted, he had his own anger issues, by his own admission. It never ceases to amaze me how rage can grip the human heart so as to strangle superior affections.

He posed the question in light of my head and neck cancer battle back in 2005. I didn’t recall the occasion, but he told me he actually saw me curled up in a fetal position on my family room couch suffering from the effects of treatment, balancing precariously between life and death. Somehow, and I hurt for him on this, he couldn’t imagine that somehow I would feel anything towards God after such suffering than outright hatred.

I paused. It was a legitimate question. Of all the things I said to him to try and redeem pastorally the opportunity presented before me, I simply said, “Jesus was enough.”

I also quoted Psalm 73:25-26.

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Have you ever heard someone say, “As long as you have your health, you have everything?” I have. Among the things people tend to idolize, good health ranks near the top of the list along with lovers, wealth, power, and no doubt a few other so-called messiahs. I learned in 2005 that health makes a lousy functional savior. Cancer taught me, among other things, as long as you have Jesus, you have everything. And that’s why I don’t hate God.

The Antidote for Abandonment

Since 2005 and my bout with tongue cancer, two months out of every year tend to make me more reflective on my life than the remaining ten. They are March and this month, August.

March, because of the surgery on my tongue to remove the cancerous tumor threatening my life and the removal of all the lymph nodes from the right side of my neck (affectionately referred to as a radical neck dissection). Lovely. You can read my most recent musing about that event and time here.

Now I find myself in another August seven years removed from finishing treatment which followed that surgery. It consisted of no less than thirty-eight radiation treatments to the tongue and neck along with four separate infusions of two kinds of chemo, the last of which occurred as a continuous infusion over four LONG days 24/7 in August of 2005. For a description of that particularly nasty napalm-like drug click here.

I just finished reading several entries from my journal in August of ’05. Suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty. Not pretty at all. It almost pained me to read my relentless postings of nausea, vomiting, mucous, gagging, metallic taste, sleeplessness, fatigue, scabbing, gagging, peeling, etc., day in and day out. The cumulative effect took its toll. On September 6, 2005 I wrote:

I know I’m not, but I felt abandoned last night. I kept praying as I turned off the lights, “Please, don’t abandon me God.” It wasn’t a good day. I was more tired than usual. Slept till 1 PM. I did some reading while watching football and then just gave in to the TV. Felt nauseous much of the day. Threw up around dinner time. Tongue is still sore. Mouth is still sore. Cheeks are swollen. Lower lip is still scabbing. It just goes on forever. Mucous still forming. What a routine of drudgery. When will relief come? Lord, have mercy. I am rebuked by Bonhoeffer’s final letter to his wife. He never felt abandoned [in prison] for all the support he had. I feel ashamed.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. In seasons of such overwhelming agony where one wonders if ever the end will come and the temptation to believe that God indeed has abandoned you to your difficulty overwhelms, one and only one antidote suffices.

Pray for mercy.

Over and over again I prayed the same prayer. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

We must take our cue from the psalmist in Psalm 42:1-3a.

With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
you know my way!
Do you feel abandoned in your particular struggle or trial?
Take it from one who wondered if the suffering would ever end but today got to preach somewhere around his 250th sermon post-tongue cancer. He knows your way. Cry out to Him. Plead for His mercy. Pour out your complaint. Tell him your trouble. And never, never, never, cease to do so until you break through or He takes you home.
We have never done all we can do until we have prayed and prayed and prayed. Never give up. Pour out your heart before Him. Plead for mercy.
Mercy there is great and grace is free.
Lord, you never abandoned me through my year-long battle with tongue cancer. I am so very, very grateful. Help me to redeem that time for the sake 0f those wondering if you have abandoned them and may they employ the same antidote as I did even if the trial goes on and on – the simple prayer, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A Truth for Fighting Promise Envy

I must confess. I felt a twinge of envy last Sunday. As Scott worked his way through Genesis 15, verse 15 got my attention. There God promises Abram this: you shall be buried in a good old age. I immediately wondered if, among all the other stupendous promises Moses received from the Lord with that fascinating cutting of the covenant experience, he really appreciated that one very much. Did he sigh with relief that he didn’t have to worry about a premature demise and all the issues related to not living out a full length of days? I wonder.

I envy him for that promise. I do especially on this day, the seventh anniversary of my five-hour long surgery to remove cancer from my tongue, the month-long recuperation that followed, and ultimately the summer-long treatment process I endured. Those memories on top of attending three funerals in the last couple of weeks of men all of whom died in their fifties have me thinking much about the brevity of life and the lack of guarantee anyone has that tomorrow won’t be his last.

The truth I bring to bear on my fight with envy comes from Psalm 116:15. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. The Psalmist wrote this on the heels of some great deliverance that snatched him from the jaws of death. He concluded that for the believer God regards the precise timing of his death, whether in the prime of life or a ripe old age, as precious. The Hebrew word means weighty, valuable, or costly as in the price of a precious stone. In other words, it’s no insignificant thing in God’s eyes. It matters immensely when He takes one of His own out of this world to his home in the next.

So as I ponder God’s goodness today in giving me seven more years of service for Him that I might not otherwise have enjoyed, I choose to fight the envy of Moses who likely dismissed worry about an early demise with confidence in God who regards my/our termination so supremely significant that there will be nothing in the least untimely about it.

A Sure Cure for Evil Boasting & Temporal Arrogance

On Saturday, as we dressed for our third funeral in as many weeks, Nancy, my wife, said to me, “We’re dressing in back a little too often lately.” Indeed. Three funerals in three weeks even for a couple hovering around sixty years of age seems a bit much. It has me thinking a lot lately of those words in James 4:13-17 where that concept of life as a vapor appears in the writer’s plea for a certain kind of attitude shaping all of life.

Essentially James warns us about the folly of a certain kind of talk – “Come now you who say” (v. 13, emphasis added) – that talks big about the future, immediate and distant. He describes it in terms of saying things like “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit” (v. 13). It’s not the planning James objects to; it’s the arrogance that presumes certain outcomes he has a problem with (v. 16). He probably has Proverbs 27:1 in the back of his mind: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth.”

He objects for three reasons. First, boasting ignores the uncertainty of life (v. 14). Life is a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. The word for vapor in Greek is atmis from where we get the English atmosphere. What figure could better communicate the uncertainty of life? Nobody has any gilt edge guarantees about what tomorrow may bring. We number our lives in terms of years each birthday celebration, but God tells us in Psalm 90:12 “Lord, teach us to number our days aright” (emphasis added).

Second, boasting denies the sovereignty of God (v. 15). Here James describes how we ought to talk in all our planning, personal or business: “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.” Perhaps James has another proverb in view: “There are many plans in a man’s heart, nevertheless the Lord’s counsel – that will stand” (19:21). A well-placed, meaningful “If the Lord wills” that prefaces all our dreams for the future communicates intentional dependence upon God for the outcome in anything we endeavor and confidence that His purposes shall prevail.

Third, boasting constitutes the epitome of evil (vv. 16-17). James minces no words here: “All such boasting is evil” (v.16). The word evil is pornea from where we get pornographic. In other words it is obscene in God’s eyes when we make grandiose plans probably born of greed (notice the emphasis on buy and sell and make a profit in v. 13) that take no account of God in the process. That he calls plainly “sin” in v. 14.

Tomorrow I mark the seventh anniversary of my surgery on my tongue and neck and the joy of that many years cancer-free. On April 29 we hope to dedicate a new church building to the glory of God. That God would give me any additional years of service and that He would be pleased to let us have decades of prosperous ministry to come in our facility at 872 Maitland Avenue, and everything else we presume upon Him for the future, must come with the qualifier if the Lord wills, so that we might avoid evil boasting and temporal arrogance, sins that greatly offend Him.

Update on Our Brother Rick

After service today I traveled to Winter Park hospital to visit with Rick and Barb in ICU. Our brother remains on the respirator with his bride at his side.

The doctors have assured her that given his condition, they expect him to pass quite soon. Short of a miracle they see no hope of recovery. Certain complications have developed that make that prospect medically impossible in their opinion.

Barb remains firm in her trust on the solid rock, Jesus. Abby, Lord willing, will arrive from Singapore at 5 PM EST tomorrow night.

We spoke of things related to memorial services and the like. I assured her that OGC would supply everything she needs in the way of assistance as she walks with Rick through the valley of the shadow.

I suspect this week to make other updates as necessary from the office through email with Teddie’s help, but wanted to provide some outlet of information knowing that many have been praying. This seemed to be the most efficient way on a Sunday.

Please continue to pray for God’s grace to abound in every way in this hard providence in the lives of one of our covenant families.

Many thanks.

59 and ???

It started in ’05 with my 53rd birthday. I attached to September 15 that year and every year since a little rhyming ditty to capture the spirit of another year in my life post-cancer.

Allow me to review:

  • 53 and cancer free
  • 54 and ready for more
  • 55 and staying alive (with apologies to the US government)
  • 56 and up to the same old tricks
  • 57 and not ready for heaven
  • 58 and feeling great

Normally I know well in advance what the next year’s slogan will be, but not so for my 59th. That one didn’t gel until the day before on September 14 at 6 AM in the pantry. Why then and there I have no idea. But it hit me like an all-pro linebacker tackle on a 4th and one.

59 and gospel primed.

Let me explain. Not too long ago someone came to me after I embarrassed myself in one of our services with a tirade in our announcements. This brother confessed that he walked away from that Sunday suffering from an ecclesiastical identity crisis. It took a lot of guts for this person to confront me. To be honest I reacted at first rather defensively. The more I thought about it the more the Lord convicted me that he was right! I determined then and there that I would never let that happen again if I had any say in it. Since that time I have enjoyed something of a gospel renaissance in my personal and pastoral life that I never want to lose a grip on.

Ergo this year’s saying. At every turn I want to be primed for gospel-action, preaching, counseling, obedience and to commend the same to everyone with which I come into contact.

My prayer is very much that of Scotty Smith’s:

Lord Jesus, one of the many things I cherish about the Bible is the way it robs me of my penchant for hero worship. Who but God would write a book documenting the foibles and failures of so many of his sons and daughters? Who but God would chronicle the ways his chosen leaders, like Peter, limp along and prove themselves to be in constant need of mercy and grace?

This gives me great encouragement and hope. It also gives me freedom to acknowledge that I need the gospel today just as much as the first day I believed it. This will be just as true tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Keep me convinced, Jesus, because I’m much like Peter.

It’s one thing for me to get irritated and angry about the ways this generation is downplaying your work on the cross. But it’s quite another to see the subtle ways I try to keep you from the cross. Deal with me as you dealt with Peter.

When I mute my heart to the insult of grace, I deny your cross. When I think, even for one moment, that my obedience merits anything, I deny your cross. When I put others under the microscope and measure of performance-based living, I deny your cross. When I wallow in self-contempt and shame, I deny your cross. When I’d rather do penance than repent, I deny your cross.

When I gossip juicy tidbits more than I gossip the gospel, I deny your cross. When I pout more than I praise; when I show more fear than faith; when I want to be right more than I want to be righteous, I deny your cross. When I talk about people more than I pray for the same people, I deny your cross. When my grip on grudges is tighter than my grasp of the gospel, I deny your cross.

By the gospel, help me to mind the things of God more than the things of men. May your cross get bigger, and may my boast in it grow louder. Jesus, you’re the main hero in the Bible. The rest of us are totally dependent on you. That’s never going to change. I need fresh grace today. So very Amen I pray, in your patient and persistent name.

What he prayed.

Only 361 days until I turn sixty. For every day God gives me may they know fresh grace and gospel power for God’s glory, my joy, and the joy of those who attach themselves to my so often flesh-compromised ministry.

Biblical Resolutions Distilled from a Battle with Cancer Continued

Recently I introduced a new series of articles based upon my five year anniversary in August from finishing cancer treatment and remaining cancer-free.

When I first returned to the pulpit in November of 2005, I preached a series of three sermons from Psalm 116 entitled Seven Biblical Resolutions Distilled from a Battle with Cancer. You can listen to part one here. You can listen to part two here.

I articulated this theme from the text in light of the apparent deliverance enjoyed by the psalmist from some previous life-and-death threat:

Deliverance by God from desperate straits warrants renewed resolves in a relationship with God.

In the previous two posts I addressed the first two resolves: delight in God and pray to God. Now for the third.

Resolved – to rest on God (5-7).

Notice in v. 5 how he rehearses various aspects of God’s glorious character with which he has became even more fascinated. Gracious is the Lord. When God snatches you from the jaws death, what else can He be? And righteous. God was not unrighteous for permitting me to battle head and neck cancer. He does all things well. The Lord is good and righteous in all His ways. And He is merciful. Verse 6 – he preserves the simple.

The word simple means without guile or deceit, open and trusting in God. It’s similar to the idea of Jesus in Matt. 11:25 when he prayed I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children. The uncomplicated. The believing. Such God preserves. He exercises great care over. He watches and keeps. Psalm 121:5 says The Lord is your keeper, your shade on your right hand.

What difference should such truth make in our lives? How should we then live? Do we really reckon God as gracious, righteous, merciful, who watches over us such that He numbers every hair on our heads and not a sparrow drops to earth without His notice? If so how should we talk to ourselves? We must talk as the psalmist does in v. 7 – Return, O my soul, to your rest, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.

It’s as if his circumstances temporarily disrupted his spiritual gyroscope and led him to fret and worry. He strayed from the peace and confidence of a rest on God. Sometimes you have to talk to yourself this way. You have to remember the character of the nature of God and preach to yourself, Return O my soul to your rest, God has dealt bountifully with you. He has blessed you beyond your wildest imagination. So do not fret. Do not be anxious. Do not wig out. Do not melt down. None of those things glorify God. Psalm 37:1 says Fret not yourself because of evildoers; Verse 3 – Trust in the Lord and do good, dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

One of the most convicting and penetrating things I think Oswald Chambers ever wrote in his work My Utmost for His Highest has to do with this subject:

Fussing always ends in sin. We imagine that a little anxiety and worry are an indication of how really wise we are; it is much more an indication of how really wicked we are. Fretting springs from a determination to get our own way. Our Lord never worried and He was never anxious, because He was not “out” to realize His own ideas; He was “out” to realize God’s ideas. Fretting is wicked if you are a child of God.

Have you been bolstering up that stupid soul of yours with the idea that your circumstances are too much for God? Put all “supposing” on one side and dwell in the shadow of the Almighty. Deliberately tell God that you will not fret about that thing. All our fret and worry is caused by calculating without God.

How’s your self-talk these days? Take your cue from the psalmist if necessary. Tell your soul to return to your rest knowing how bountifully He has dealt with you.

That’s a resolve worth making whether He has delivered you from some desperate strait or not.

Big Day Tomorrow at OGC

The Lord’s Day tomorrow brings us a number of significant opportunities for gathering together as God’s people.

We begin at 8:30 AM with corporate prayer for those who can participate. As it is the last Sunday of the month, a group of us will gather for prayer on the property where we intend to build. Another group will pray in the SDA annex as usual, for those for whom  the prospect of the heat and other environmental conditions on the property seem too uncomfortable.

At 9:30 AM we have our midyear congregational meeting in the SDA sanctuary. We will begin with a building program report, followed by financial and ministry updates, and finishing with an Ask-the-Elders-Anything session. Members and regular attendees alike are welcome to join us for that meeting.

At 10:45 AM comes our regular service of worship. I hope to conclude the sixth in a series of messages from John 10:1-21 in the Good Shepherd discourse.

At 6:00 PM we will gather for a special service of thanksgiving to celebrate the 5th year anniversary this month of my being cancer-free. Dr. William Grow, my medical oncologist, will share his testimony. Pastor Danny Jones of Metro Life Church, himself an over ten year tongue cancer survivor will preach. We will also have a time of open sharing by the members of the congregation remembering how God worked in 2005. Pastor John Christiansen of Orlando Community Church, in many ways a pastor to me throughout my treatment, will close the celebration by leading in a prayer of thanksgiving. A reception in the fellowship hall will follow the service. Remember to bring your finger food to share! Beverages will be provided.

Would you please pray with me that God moves in a powerful way in our midst tomorrow?

I am immeasurably grateful for length of days and the continuing privilege of serving in your midst as pastor-teacher!