Body Image

Having cancer doesn’t do much for one’s body image. Shortly after coming home from hospital I visited a friend’s pool with my family. I’d undergone 2 surgeries and had some good looking scars where the tubes went between my ribs. I’d lost about 13 kilos, but without becoming trim and taut. It was like my muscles had melted and disappeared, and those that were left had slipped down my body and become fairly useless. I didn’t much like what I saw in the mirror. And neither did my youngest. Sitting beside the pool he said to me, “Just as well you’re married dad. Otherwise you’d never get anyone to marry you, looking like that!” Mmmm! ūüė¶

And a strange thing happened on Saturday. We’d been out watching the Brumbies demolish the Rebels in an awesome game of rugby, and I came home planning to check out the highlights on the television. As I was watching the wrap up after the game, the camera showed one of the Rebels players speaking with a bloke wearing a Brumbies hoodie on the field. I looked closely trying to work out who it was. And then I realised‚Ķ it was me! I didn’t recognise myself on the TV. A serious lack of hair. An unwanted increase in girth. And I seemed to have aged 10 years in 4 months.

Today I felt like a human pin cushion. One injection for blood tests. A cannula to pump radioactive fluid into my veins for CT scans to the torso and brain. A needle full of vitamin B12 to help me make blood cells. 29 acupuncture needles to strengthen my immune system and alleviate pain. Another 9 tiny needle tabs to continue the benefit of the acupuncture. All that in one day!

And the killer chemo drugs, the ‘weed killer’ they pump into my body. The steroids, anti-nauseals, antihistamines, pain killers, vitamins, iron tablets, herbal medicines, laxatives, reflux tablets, and more. My kitchen resembles a pharmacy. The only drug I enjoy is the one that comes out of the shiny machine in the corner!

It’s not just the treatments, or people’s comments, or looking at myself in the mirror. I know that things aren’t what they once were. Shortness of breath, aches and pains, muscular weakness, nanna naps during the day, waking up during the night to visit the toilet, and the list continues. I keep hoping things will get better, but they might not. Somethings improve, and others get worse. And I’m not going to reverse the ageing process. None of us are!

There are some things I can do. Eat less, or at least cut out some of the ‘comfort’ snacks. Exercise more, without compromising my capacity to recover from chemo and fight the cancer. Not get hung up about what I look like, although I am under instruction to have a shave every day!

Our culture makes things harder for us. We are obsessed with¬†image. We idolise youth and we’re constantly being tempted by strategies to make ourselves look and feel younger. But, why can’t we face the reality? People get sick. People grow old. Bodies wear out. One day we’ll die. We don’t like it, and nor should we, but we can’t change it.

The Bible candidly reminds us of this reality. One day every one of us will die and meet our Maker. We’re called to live in the light of this reality, not to try to hide it or avoid it. The ageing process reminds us to consider God while we can, to enjoy God as we live this life. Not to ignore him, or put him off until it’s too late. As it says in the book of Ecclesiastes:

 1 Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
‚ÄúI find no pleasure in them‚ÄĚ‚ÄĒ
2 before the sun and the light
and the moon and the stars grow dark,
and the clouds return after the rain;
3 when the keepers of the house tremble,
and the strong men stoop,
when the grinders cease because they are few,
and those looking through the windows grow dim;
4 when the doors to the street are closed
and the sound of grinding fades;
when men rise up at the sound of birds,
but all their songs grow faint;
5 when men are afraid of heights
and of dangers in the streets;
when the almond tree blossoms
and the grasshopper drags himself along
and desire no longer is stirred.
Then man goes to his eternal home
and mourners go about the streets.
6¬†Remember him‚ÄĒbefore the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,
and the spirit returns to God who gave it.
(Ecclesiastes 12:1-7)

These words were written hundreds of years before Jesus. The author reflects on the meaningless emptiness he sees in life. Life’s experiences can be wonderful, they can be awful, but either way death bringing everything to a halt. We come and go so quickly, like a mist or a vapour. Death is the big full stop to life.

Jesus frees us from this depressing analysis. Life is no longer without meaning or purpose, because we see clearly that death is not the end. The resurrection of Jesus offers purpose and hope, both for this life and the life to come. We don’t have to panic and fight the decay of our bodies at all costs. This life matters deeply, but it’s not all there is.

The Apostle Paul speaks of our bodies as being like a tent, a temporary dwelling. He contrasts this with the image of a permanent home, a heavenly building, a resurrected body:

1 Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. 2 Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, 3 because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. 4 For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.
6 Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. 7 We live by faith, not by sight. 8 We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  (2 Corinthians 5:1-8)

Jesus can free us from being obsessed with how we appear, with trying to stay young at any price. He can lift us beyond the depressing observation that one day we will be dead and gone, and ultimately forgotten. More than this, he reminds us that life is not all about our self image or how others see us. What matters much more is how God sees us, and what God is doing in and through us. If we’re willing to put our trust in Jesus, then we can be confident that‚Ķ

Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Corinthians 4:16)

Journey with cancer – Easter update

Dear family and friends,

This week marks 4 months since I was admitted to hospital with cancer and it’s certainly been quite a ride! We are so grateful for your ongoing prayers, support, encouragement and practical help from so many of you. It would be a very lonely experience without you.

I’ve just completed my fourth and final ‘full’ round of chemo – on carboplatinum, alimta and avastin. While this has knocked me round pretty seriously each time, I’ve been able to push on knowing that if it’s hurting me, then it should be hurting the cancer even more! Scans after the 2nd cycle showed that it was working, with the tumour shrinking substantially, and we are hoping for more of the same the next time around.

I go back for further scans on 16 April. They will do a CT of my chest and abdomen, so as to measure any reduction or growth of the tumour. They will also do a brain scan – just to check if I have one – so as to rule out any spread of the cancer! Please pray that the cancer will not have spread anywhere else in the body, and that the lung tumour will have shrunk even further.

The results of these scans will determine the best form of treatment to undergo next. Recent conversations with our oncologist suggest that they will simply drop out the carboplatinum and continue the other chemicals on a continued 3 weekly cycle. The idea is to try and keep the cancer from growing or spreading and, potentially God willing, to poison it out of existence. We don’t know how long this will continue, but we will have periodic scans to monitor what’s happening. Our hope and prayer is that these ‘maintenance cycles’ will have less severe side effects, and enable me to do a bit more.

On the family front, we continue to be encouraged. We thank God for our kids and continue to pray that God will help them to trust him through these events and circumstances. We’re all looking forward to a few days together at the south coast over the Easter week. A change of scenery, the beach, some surf, and some fish n chips, won’t do us any harm!

I’ve enjoyed getting back involved with some ministry at church and at the Brumbies. This has mainly involved meeting with people to encourage them, work through issues, or to discuss Christian beliefs. Ironically, having a life-threatening illness seems to open more doors than it closes. It has also been good to meet with some of the pastoral staff in a ‘mentor’ type capacity. After we get back from the coast I’m very excited to be giving my second talk for the year, on the topic of ‘Connecting’. You can tell I’m a frustrated preacher! Writing this blog is also becoming more and more enjoyable. Initially, I wasn’t keen to do it. In fact, I didn’t want to do it at all! But it’s been exciting to be able to encourage people, provoke their thinking, and support others in similar circumstances, through this medium.

Over the past few days, I’ve been involved in a few conversations about the heart of Christianity. Some have wanted to say that Christianity is just one religious phenomenon among others, that it’s not much more than good ethical teaching. Some have spoken of Jesus as an influential and important figure of history, but don’t believe we need to make anything more of him. I understand these perspectives are widespread and common, ¬†but I worry about these assessments. I don’t think it’s fair to Christianity (or Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or any other religion) to put all ‘religions’ in a bucket and assume they are different expressions of the same reality. Nor do I think it takes Jesus seriously to consider him ‘just a good man’ or an amazing moral teacher. A closer look at the New Testament reveals Jesus making claims to be God and the only way for people to know God personally. If I was to make these type of claims for myself today, then I think people would rightly see me as either crazy or dangerous – certainly not the ultimate good man.

Yesterday, I was having lunch with a mate, enjoying the beautiful sunshine. He and I believe very different things about God and Christianity. But we agree on one thing especially – the importance of keeping an open mind and being open to persuasion. In fact, it is very refreshing to be able to have honest conversation without covering over our differences. Can I ask you this week, is your mind open to the possibility that there is a God? Would you be willing to take a fresh look at the evidence for Christianity, at the claims and teaching of Jesus? Would you have a think about why Christians bizarrely call the execution day of Jesus, Good Friday? Would you consider the importance of this early * Christian record describing the events and meaning of the first Easter?

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also… (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)

* The creed of verses 3-5 is normally dated before the year AD 35 by Christian and non-Christian historians alike.

The truth or otherwise of Christianity is inextricably linked to events of history. It cannot be detached and left in the realm of ideas or philosophy. If Jesus died for our sins, and if he was raised on the third day, then it makes all the difference. But, if there was no resurrection, if the whole thing has been made up or misunderstood, then we need to take these words seriously:

13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19)

Christianity is based on verifiable events. Historians engage seriously with this stuff. They check out the sources, both Christian and and non-Christian sources. They assess the possible explanations, consider the impact of the events, and weigh up the evidence. I’m encouraged that world-class historians take the person of Jesus and the Gospel documents very seriously as facts of history. The question is, what do they mean and what difference does it make?

I believe the answer is as big as the difference between life and death for all eternity and something that big has to be worthy of serious investigation.

As I reflect on life and death this Easter, my prayer continues to be that God will take away my cancer – that I will be fully healed. But I want you to know that I thank God that he has already taken away something far worse than my cancer. He has healed me from my sin, from my selfish hostility to him. And while the price of chemotherapy is very high, the price of my spiritual cure is unbelievable – that Jesus should give his life for me, dying in my place, on that first Good Friday.

My prayer for you is that this will be the best Easter you have ever known.

Love from Dave

Beyond the darkness

I spent Tuesday in hospital getting my final ‘full-dose’ chemo treatment. Apparently, limiting this treatment to 4 cycles is the optimum and, if the cancer is not advancing, then they intend to keep me on a 3 weekly ‘maintenance’ chemo plan. This is supposed to reduce the impact of side effects, while preventing the cancer from growing or spreading further. The medical expectation is that the cancer will grow again at some point, and then I will be offered other options. We are hoping to be able to access a specially targeted drug, called Crizotinib, which is showing very good results in people with my specific cancer mutation. This should be available if there is evidence that the tumour is growing again – a bit of a Catch 22 really! But all this lies ahead of us.

This morning I received an email from a good friend overseas. In fact, he sent it three times, so I am guessing he really wanted me to take notice! This is part of what he wrote…

The comment you sent to me via Facebook about dark times and tears made me realize the deep personal struggle you are going through. Just wanted to encourage you to dip into that more as you write, because it counts for a lot. My feeling is that most people live in that realm, whether they have cancer or not. While the analogy doesn’t directly apply, I think it conveys the point: life is more Daily Telegraph than Sydney Morning Herald… or worse still!

I’ve been reflecting on this a bit. My desire is not to continually focus on myself as I write this blog. But I am seeking to be a blessing to others and that means being honest about the ups and downs. Not that everything needs to get said, and not that everything should be revealed in a public forum, but I will share a bit about the dark times.

On my first day in hospital, hearing that I likely had cancer a was huge thing. No one wants to hear the words tumour or cancer, and certainly not about themselves or someone they love. Tears welled up instantly, feelings of massive loss, fears for my kids, and my wife… they all flooded in. Seeing the tears in the eyes of my family and the friends who came to visit added to the pain. We were dealing with a bombshell and it was so hard.

My time in hospital was supposed to be pretty straightforward. Drain the fluid, be out in a few days. I even remember telling our church staff that I should be right to speak the following weekend! But it didn’t go to my¬†plan. I got sicker and weaker. Instead of my health improving, I just seemed to go backwards. At times I couldn’t even walk to the bathroom, or adjust my posture in bed. It was an effort to breath, painful to yawn and cough (let alone sneeze), and hard to talk with people when hooked up to oxygen. My digestive organs decided to shut up shop and 10 days of constipation resulted in violent vomiting. Immediately after one vomiting episode I was taken for a chest x-ray (why it had to be right then I do not know!) where I collapsed, resulting in an emergency team rushing to my aid. I started to think I wasn’t going to make it out of hospital.

My ignorance of medical things also added to my fears. On one occasion I saw my chest x-rays while they were being processed. I only had one functioning lung – the other had collapsed! I honestly thought, this meant I didn’t have much hope. For some reason, I assumed that I needed two good lungs to be able to breathe. Fiona set me straight on this and also pushed me to work hard on breathing exercises to get the lung re-inflated!

On one occasion they changed my drugs and this led to hallucinations. I don’t think I’d experienced this before. Dreams that you can’t turn off, even with your eyes wide open. It was a long, lonely, scary night being faced with weird and frightening experiences coming one after another.

Perhaps, the hardest experience in hospital was my first contact with the oncologist and his team. Up until their visit, things had focused pretty much exclusively on the surgery and the chest drains, and I hadn’t had to think too much about the cancer. This changed dramatically, as I was quickly told that that my cancer was incurable. I didn’t understand why they weren’t offering me hope of a cure (or for that matter why I needed to be told this on a first consult and without Fiona present), but this news was devastating!

Being faced with my mortality has led to some very sad times. In my weakness, sometimes I have become sullen, grumpy, melancholic, perhaps even depressed. I’ve often grieved what I may never be able to do, the loss of time with family and friends, not being able to do a lot of the fun things people do with their kids, or thinking of life events I may never be a part of. There have been times when I’ve felt a burden and useless, and thoughts have turned to thinking people would be better off without me. I’ve been reduced to tears – uncontrollable sobbing, overwhelmed, sometimes crying out in agony,¬†God please help me!¬†Fiona has been fantastic at urging and helping me not to slide into self-obsession or depression. And I’ve asked a couple of friends to keep an eye on me too.

I don’t want to go on and on in this vein but I must say that there’ve been some times when the struggle has been deeply spiritual. God has seemed very remote. His plans and purposes for me have been very unclear. I’ve had days where I’ve seriously questioned his existence, or the truthfulness of the gospel message. Does God love me, care for me? Can I trust him with my life, my death, my future, my family? Isn’t it a bit weird to base my confidence on the Bible, written so many hundreds of years ago? Did Jesus live? Was he crucified? Did he actually rise again from the dead? Is he alive today? Such ideas can seem pretty weak and foolish, and not exactly a confident platform to stake my life on.

I’ve found myself going back to the Bible and reading things over again. I’ve looked at interviews with leading historians and Biblical scholars. I’ve weighed up some of the critiques and arguments of sceptics and naysayers. And I’ve searched my heart. And in doing this, I’ve been encouraged to keep trusting in God and his promises.

Over the years a few Bible verses have spoken to me in the midst my struggles and doubts. Let me share a couple. The first is the response of a father, hoping that Jesus can help his son, where he says in Mark 9:24,¬†‚ÄúI believe;¬†help my unbelief!‚Ä̬†I’ve often identified with this man. Those who’ve told me it’s the strength, or otherwise, of my faith that will determine whether God will act (or even can act) need to reread this verse and see Jesus’ compassion in response to the man’s wavering. It’s not my faith that compels God to act. Rather it is God’s faithfulness to his character and promises that leads me to keep trusting in him.

Another part of the Bible I’ve found helpful comes from an incident after the resurrection. Jesus had recently appeared to many of his followers, but Thomas wasn’t with them, and he was unpersuaded that Jesus had really been raised from the dead. We read of this in John 20:24-29.

24¬†Now¬†Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin,¬†was not with them when Jesus came.¬†25¬†So the other disciples told him, ‚ÄúWe have seen the Lord.‚ÄĚ But he said to them,¬†‚ÄúUnless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.‚ÄĚ

26¬†Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them.Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said,‚ÄúPeace be with you.‚Ä̬†27¬†Then he said to Thomas,¬†‚ÄúPut your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.‚Ä̬†28¬†Thomas answered him,¬†‚ÄúMy Lord and my God!‚ÄĚ

Hence, Thomas becomes the disciple famous for doubting. Maybe you can relate to this too. But it’s the next comment from Jesus that has always given me encouragement and hope. Jesus understood it was hard for Thomas to be persuaded, but he also acknowledged that it would be hard for all who came after him. We sometimes say seeing is believing, but when we’re dealing with history before cameras and video, it becomes more a case of reading or hearing is believing. This doesn’t make it less true, it just means that our evidence is in a different form to that offered to Thomas. We get it as a record from the first eye, ear and hand witnesses, that has been recorded and passed on to us. Just because I wasn’t there doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

29¬†Jesus said to him,‚ÄúHave you believed because you have seen me?¬†Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.‚ÄĚ

I’ve also gone back over some of the Psalms from the Old Testament. Many of these are are open and honest accounts of people who are struggling to trust God in their difficult circumstances. Sometimes they question and challenge God. Sometimes they plead with God to do something about their circumstances. Sometimes they call for justice or mercy from God. What has struck me personally is that the writers are not afraid to let God know their thoughts and feelings, even when they are unhappy with God. They grapple with their struggles, but then they remind us of the way forward. Hope is not ultimately found in improving their condition or circumstances, but by resting in the trustworthy promises of God.

Soon after I became aware of my cancer a friend encouraged me to read over Psalm 62 again. I take heart from what this part of the Bible teaches us about God. It honestly shows the writer overwhelmed by how God appears to be standing back and allowing him to suffer, and yet it takes us back to the character of a God who can be trusted because he is both strong and loving. Have a read…

1 My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
2 He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

3 How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down‚ÄĒ
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
4 They fully intend to topple him
from his lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.

5 Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.
6 He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.
7 My salvation and my honor depend on God;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.
8 Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

9 Lowborn men are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie;
if weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.
10 Do not trust in extortion
or take pride in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

11 One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong, 
12 and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Surely you will reward each person
according to what he has done.

If God were strong but not loving, then he would be nothing less than a danger to everyone. If he were loving but not strong, then he could offer us sentiment but no help. The Bible affirms he is both strong and loving, infinitely so, and it is here that we find our true hope. I need look nowhere else. My experience of God is that he is both strong and loving. And I see this most clearly and persuasively in the death and resurrection of Jesus, where he paid the cost for my rebellion and offered me life for eternity.

On my way to heaven

Have you ever been given a gift by someone you’ve only just met? Last year my friend and colleague in Christian ministry was given two¬†copies of the same book by a person they didn’t know. It was a short book written by the guy’s recently deceased minister, Mark Ashton. The book was called On my way to heaven. My friend had no idea why he was being given one copy of this book, let alone two! That is, until he returned to Australia and a few days later discovered that I had been diagnosed with a ‘terminal’ cancer. He realised, in God’s providence, that he’d been given a copy for me too!

This is another little book that punches well above its weight. It’s only 24 pages long, and printed in large type. (Makes it easier for me to keep reading and reviewing books!) I would assume that the title of this of this book will be very confronting to many. Either because it presents us again with our mortality. Or, perhaps, because it seems so presumptuous – how can anyone be sure they are headed for heaven? Isn’t this is an arrogant claim?

On this latter point, the answer is very clear in the Bible. A Christian is not a religious person, trusting in their moral performance to be offered a place in heaven. Rather a Christian is one who has received forgiveness from God for having ignored him or pushed him away. This forgiveness is a completely free gift from God, that can be received by all who put their trust in Jesus to lead them and rescue them from God’s judgment. The New Testament makes it clear that the death and resurrection of Jesus, events that took place in human history, have a direct bearing on you and me today. Jesus died to pay the cost for our rejection of God, and God raised him to life to destroy the power that death has over us. A Christian is not a ‘self-righteous’ person, but one who has been given a pardon by God.

On the former point, Mark Ashton wants to do exactly this – get us to think seriously about where we’re headed. The one thing we can be assured of in this life is that one day it will come to an end. It may be later, or it may be sooner than we’d like. But it will happen. It often surprises me how much time and energy people (including me) spend distracting themselves with the unimportant and the trivial. We get all focused on ourselves, our hobbies, our bits and pieces, our aspirations for wealth or achievement or recognition, and we give little or no time to considering the profound question of what happens when we die. Please, if you you are avoiding this question – don’t! It’s too important!

Ashton was diagnosed with an incurable cancer of the gall bladder in 2008, informed that he had only months to live, and he passed away in 2010 at the age of 62. His book offers us a window into his thinking, his struggles and his faith over the final months of his life. I was deeply moved as I read how he faced death as a Christian believer.

The core of this book is Ashton’s conviction that resurrection awaits him. This is the basis of his hope and it is grounded in the evidence of the early witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. He does not dread death, or seek to extend his life at all costs, but rather sees resurrection as a prospect to be welcomed.

He doesn’t gloss over the hardship of sickness. Throughout his life he, like most of us, expected to recover from whatever sickness or injury he experienced. He’d rest up until he got better. But he came to know that he wasn’t going to get better, the cancer wasn’t going to go away, and that he was dying day by day. This is something I’ve also been coming to grips with. Physical pleasures such as eating, exercising, or resting, no longer offered the enjoyment they once did. He came to appreciate that they were God’s gift for a time, but not for all time. His love, affection, and appreciation for his wife and family was deepened over this time, but be also came to grasp that relationship with God gave meaning to them all.

Ashton is honest about his failures and foibles in life. He gently points out that funeral eulogies rarely present an honest picture of the person’s life. They end up magnifying the good points and excluding the bad (and maybe this is appropriate). But he leaves us in no doubt that he wants to be remembered not as a flawless saint, but as a forgiven sinner. ¬† God enabled Mark Ashton to be focused on others as he faced his final days. This is his prayer:

It is my prayer for my family and friends, that my death will be for them all a great strengthening and clarifying of their relationship with Jesus. Amen. (p24)

I agree!

Don’t waste your cancer

I mentioned to a friend at the Oxygen conference last year that my father had cancer and was receiving treatment. He then asked if I’d read a little booklet by John Piper called¬†Don’t waste your cancer. I hadn’t heard of it and, to be honest, I found the idea of the book a bit too intense. Maybe he picked up on this because soon after the conference he made contact with me to apologise if he’d been insensitive in speaking of it.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that I¬†also had cancer growing inside¬†me. I don’t think I’d even begun to put myself into my father’s shoes, to understand what he was going through. ‘Cancer’ was just a word – mind you a scary word. If I’d got hold of Piper’s book and given it to my father back then, it would have been rather academic, simply passing on the ideas of someone else. Of course, things are very different now. I’ve read the book, and passed it on ‘carefully’ to one or two others, including my dad (who is now in remission).

This was the first book that I read after being released from hospital – helped by the fact that it is only 15 pages long! It crams 11 chapters into its tiny size, but each one packs a punch, and really needs to be considered slowly and carefully. I don’t think this is a book for everyone. It’s useful and true, but I think to make the most of this book, you need to have begun to experience something of the pain and tragedy that gives rise to it. This is a booklet for Christians with cancer or some other serious condition, for their families and carers, for Christian doctors or medical staff, for pastors, and for people who want to seriously encourage those struggling with their suffering in a context of faith.

Let me offer you a snapshot of the booklet by outlining the title of each chapter:

We waste our cancer…

  1. if we don’t hear in our groanings the hope-filled labor pains of a fallen world.
  2. if we do not believe it is designed for us by God.
  3. if we believe it is a curse and not a gift.
  4. if we seek comfort from our odds rather than from God.
  5. if we refuse to think about death.
  6. if we think that “beating” our cancer is staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.
  7. if we spend too much time reading about our cancer and not enough time reading about God
  8. if we let it drive us into solitude instead of deepen our relationships with manifest affection.
  9. if we grieve as those who have no hope.
  10. if we treat our sin as casually as before.
  11. if we fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and the glory of Christ.

In some ways I’m not ready to review this book. I’m still working through each of the points. It’s one thing to give intellectual assent to an idea and another thing altogether to live it out. But I have come to appreciate the tough love in many of these reflections.

God has been pushing me to look forward to heaven. When life is so good here and now, it is hard to consider eternity with him as something better. He has been helping me to move through the pain and grief, to focus less on myself, and to appreciate him and all that he’s given me. God has been helping me to love what is good and hate what is evil, even as I see it in my own heart. I’m realising more and more that my hope lies not in medical advances, but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’m reminded that grief is normal, appropriate and healthy, but that I can grieve with a hope grounded in God’s promises.

Journey with cancer DV 20 Mar 2012

Dear family and friends,

Today is day 14 of my 3rd chemo cycle. The cycle starts with a day in hospital attached to a drip with nasty chemicals being pumped into the body. Then a roller coaster for the next 3 weeks, before you do it all over again. In theory, and based on previous cycles, I should be feeling pretty good and getting back into a semblance of normal life. But here is the problem – patterns, statistics, predictions, and even past experience, do not determine the future.

I ‘should’ be out and about, busy with work, and getting back into some gentle exercise. Instead, I’m lying in bed (with a laptop) trying to get rid of a chest infection and praying it doesn’t develop into anything worse. In fact, the past couple of days have made me rather fearful – fearful that I would end up in hospital again with pneumonia, fearful that I might compromise the chemo, fearful that something worse might happen.

Fiona reminded me last night that these things can often be two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes even the other way round for a while. I would do well to keep putting into practice the word of God that I believe:

6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)

We are being reminded again and again that only God knows what’s around the bend and he calls us to trust him. There is a Latin phrase,¬†deo volente, or¬†DV, which means ‘God willing’. In days gone by it was common for Christian people to use these words as they spoke of their plans. You don’t hear it much these days, but I’ve begun using it more and more as I appreciate that it is God who is working out his good plans and purposes. In fact, this whole experience of getting cancer has highlighted how much I am not in control of my life and circumstances.

Back in December everything pointed to us moving to Darwin to begin the second major chapter of our lives. We had people on board with us, support structures and finances in place, a house to move into, kids enrolled in schools, tenants for our house in Canberra, a successor in my role at church, belongings in transit, and excited about the future. And then… a visit to the hospital changed everything. These verses from the Bible came to mind very powerfully:

13¬†Now listen, you who say, ‚ÄúToday or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.‚Ä̬†14¬†Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.¬†15¬†Instead, you ought to say, ‚ÄúIf it is the Lord‚Äôs will, we will live and do this or that.‚ÄĚ
(James 4:13-15)

My life has been given to me by God. He calls me to make plans and to consider the circumstances and to do things wisely. But he also calls me to act with humility, to know that I belong to him, and that I can rely on him to do what is in my very best interests. Even when I would prefer things not to be happening! We’ve been learning this more and more.

But does this mean that all our preparations last year were going against God’s will, that somehow we were being disobedient and straying off the path? No, I don’t believe so. Our desire was to contribute to growing followers of Jesus in the Northern Territory. This desire was placed in our hearts by God and as we read the Bible we were reminded that this is pleasing to God. We sought wise council from many, and took years to come to our decision as a family. There was and is a big need, and we were drawn to respond. That need continues to exist and we pray that our passions to move north will be filled by others, or yet that I will be healed and one day serve God in that place, DV.

So is it possible to see the hand of God in what has happened? Absolutely. God has been at work in our hearts and minds, moving us to depend upon him more deeply than ever before. He has encouraged us, and literally thousands of others to pray. He has raised questions in the minds of friends that have nudged them to consider what we believe about God. He has deepened our empathy and love for people suffering under similar and worse circumstances. He has used our words to encourage others far and wide in their own struggles. He has caused us to appreciate our family and friends and church all the more. He has reminded us to number our days.

We can see God’s kindness in many of the details. My cancer was discovered because a doctor friend had the awareness to rush me to hospital when I complained of numbness and breathlessness. It was a time when all our family were at home. I had finished my final series of preaching at church. The church had already gone through a careful process of choosing my successor. It didn’t happen while we were on the road to Darwin. We still had our home in Canberra to move back into. Our friends have taken extraordinary care of us. Our church has continued to provide for us, and have welcomed my continued ministry among them. We’re receiving top shelf medical attention. I’m even allowed a tv in the bedroom! And there is so much more!

Let me tell you about the weekend just gone. It was a special time for our family (only we missed Matt). Fiona and Grace both entered large teams in the Cancer Council’s¬†Relay for Life.¬†They set up camp at the AIS athletics track and walked for 24 hours to raise money and awareness for cancer research and support. I wasn’t that keen to go – who wants to be surrounded by people with cancer?¬†But the relay had a carnival vibe about it, with music, dancing, stalls, fancy dress, and lots of people having fun in the sunshine (& rain). Some ran lap after lap, others walked as best they could. I did a few laps at different times of the day, and must have been the slowest walker on the track each time.

FamilyThe first lap was exclusively for people who had cancer (either now or previously) and for carers. I wore a sash saying ‘survivor’ and members of my family wore sashes saying ‘carer’. It seemed strange to wear the sash, as though I should’ve had to go into remission to ‘deserve’ it. But, I have cancer, I am alive – so I guess I’m a survivor! As we walked the lap it was very moving to be clapped by hundreds of people lining the track, including many friends in Grace and Fiona’s teams. I shed a few tears that I kept well hidden behind my sunglasses! I was glad that I’d gone along.

We joined in another event on Saturday – a commissioning for friends of ours, Klaus and Grace & MorphJudith and family, who are heading overseas. As we were making our plans to plant a church in Darwin, they were planning further afield in Germany. It was a thrill to share with them as they count down the days to leaving.¬†Klaus is German, and it is his great passion for his kin to know the good news of eternal life. As one friend reminded me on later, we had two celebrations over the weekend – one of life here and now, and the other of life for all eternity. Our prayer is that people will value their lives here and now, but not so much as to ignore God’s wonderful invitation of life forever with him. Some people seem to think that Christian faith is ‘life-denying’. Our experience is the exact opposite. Jesus came so that we might have life in all its fulness – now and forever.

Thank you again for your encouragement and support. The chemo roller coaster is a tough one, but made much easier in the knowledge that people are praying and helping us in so many ways. There is one cycle to go and we don’t know the plan after that. It could be more of the same, or part thereof. It could be something radically different. Our desire is for the treatment to completely destroy this cancer, and for us to be able to make new plans for a life beyond cancer,¬†deo volente.

With love,

Dave (and Fiona)

High points of marriage?

Some time back, Fiona and I attended a marriage enrichment workshop with other couples from our church. We were all encouraged to graph the high points and low points of our marriages. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly the point of the exercise. Perhaps it was to remind some of us that there have been highs as well as lows!

Well, I was thinking about this again recently, and there are three experiences in our relationship that stand out above all the others. They’ve drawn us closer together as a couple, we’ve come to appreciate each other more deeply, and they have enriched our relationship beyond all expectation. And they’ve each been hard – harder than we would have imagined we could bear.

The first took place 15 years ago. We’d just planted a new church, moved into a new house, and Fiona was expecting our third child. We decided to grab a holiday to catch our breath a few months before our baby was due. We were camping in a tent up the coast, and the next thing we knew our daughter was born – at 26 weeks, weighing 900 grams, and not much bigger than a can of coke. She spent the next three months in neo-natal intensive care and we made two or more trips to the hospital everyday. On many occasions we weren’t sure if she was going to make it. The social workers told us that events like this can damage marriages, pull couples apart and often result in divorce. It was hard – SO hard. But for us, it drew us together and deepened our love for each other.

The second experience is more recent. We were travelling on our long service leave, having just experienced the breathtaking wonder of the Kimberley and the Pilbara regions. Travelling across a remote cattle-station, we suddenly found ourselves – 4wd and camper – sideways, out of control, and rolling like a dice. The scene was awful. Our 12 year old had been thrown from the vehicle, my wife was badly hurt, and we were so far from anywhere or anyone. After ambulances, flying doctor, cross-continent travel, two surgeries and a shoulder replacement for Fiona, our family returned home with everyone alive and mending. It’s still hard to relive the experience of the accident. And the rehab and struggles continue for Fiona. But there is no doubt these experiences enriched our marriage, and our family. Petty conflicts, annoying habits and foibles, concerns for ‘possessions over people’ – were shown to be so stupid, so insignificant. We treasured each other, and thanked God that we still had each other. And realised that we needed to keep looking after each other.

The last situation is happening now. It’s been documented already in this blog. We were only days from leaving Canberra to start over in the Northern Territory. We’d been planning, building a team, getting excited and exciting others, and getting ready to begin a new church with a fresh vision in Palmerston. And then, out of the blue, no warning, no preparation – we discover that I have cancer, and all our plans go out the window. Hospital, sickness, surgery, weakness, fear, grief, sadness, tears, panic, and more. Let me say, in all truth, that I have never loved my wife as well as I should. But the last three months have helped me to see what a precious jewel she really is. She has been my deepest friend, carer, lover, pray-er, advocate, nurse, doctor, organiser, empathiser, researcher, communicator, caring mother to our children‚Ķ and so so much more. And I know she too has been hurting so deeply at times. The journey has a long way to go, but I thank God that we journey together.

Why do I share these three high points? Not so that we can plan for things to go wrong and then reap some magical benefits from our suffering. We can’t and don’t plan these things. But we have both learned, and it’s been confirmed through our experiences, that God works through our weaknesses and struggles. He gives us grace when we so desperately need it. He enables us to experience real joy in the midst of suffering. Not a superficial happiness, but a deeply contented joy that is not dependent on our circumstances.

Fiona and I have never been very good at reading the Bible together as a couple. But over the last three months we have done this quite a bit. I’d like to quote a few verses that have taken on a greater significance for us recently. Firstly, from 2 Corinthians 1:8-11:

8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11 as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

And from 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

‚Ķbut he said to me,¬†‚ÄúMy grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.‚Ä̬†Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ‚Äôs power may rest on me.¬†10¬†That is why, for Christ‚Äôs sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

The key thing in each of our experiences is that God has been at work. In the darkest of hours, God has always been there. He has picked us up, and carried us, and cared for us. He has reminded us of the foolish arrogance of thinking that we can do better on our own. He has taught us humility and patience, and these are among the hardest lessons to learn. (And we’re still in preschool in these matters!) God has given us a unity in our relationship – not by focusing on ourselves and our own needs, nor by simply focusing on each other, but profoundly by getting us both to focus on him.

Dave