Just over six months ago, a member of our congregation announced he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer: Steve Hayner, the outgoing president of Columbia Theological Seminary, and his wife Sharol, have come to be most associated in my mind with joy; yet Steve’s announcement could not have been sadder. Still, and miraculously, over the last six months I have been “surprised by joy” (to borrow the expression from C.S. Lewis), insofar as Steve and Sharol’s capacity for faith, hope and love even in the midst of great sorrow and pain has touched many of us with a foretaste of heaven’s joys. This gift can only be a sign of God’s grace; I can think of no other explanation—and this morning I give thanks for it. Here is Steve sharing spiritual lessons from living with a terminal illness, via his latest post on CaringBridge:
This past week I was asked by World Vision (a large world-wide relief & development non-profit on whose board I have served) to prepare a devotional for their staff about what I have been learning spiritually during my illness. I know that many of you who have been reading about my journey on CaringBridge do not share my faith convictions, and I respect that. But for me this is definitely a journey of faith so I thought that many of you might want to hear this part of my story, too.
Over the last six months my life has completely changed. I haven’t been able to go back to my former job. I have had several surgical procedures, and I’m on a chemo-therapy every two weeks. On the weeks that I don’t have chemo, I currently feel pretty good and am able to carry on with a good schedule that includes time with people and projects. But I don’t know how long any of this will last, and I seldom know from day to day how much I can plan to do. The only certainty that I have related to this world is that someday, sooner than I had planned, I will go home to be with Jesus.
Facing death has a way of clarifying life. So let me tell you a few things that I’ve learned in the lasts months.
1. When Jesus is all you have, you soon discover that Jesus is all you really need. One of the creeds of my denomination opens with the phrase, “In life and in death we belong to God.” God created us …Jesus has redeemed us … and the Spirit transforms and gifts us for life everyday. It is Christ who gives us meaning, purpose, worth, and security. We look for these things in a variety of places: in our families, in our jobs, in our churches, in our convictions, in our health, or wherever we think it can be found. But only in Jesus will we find Life with a capital “L”–abundant Life which we experience now and will last forever. I’m in the process of losing everything that I have known on this earth, but I will never lose what God has given me in Christ.
2. As long as I have life on this earth, I have a call. God has given me work to do and continues to give me work to do. Over my lifetime I have had many roles to play and many jobs to fulfill. But it is not the particulars of being a husband, a father, a grandfather, a friend, a seminary president, a World Vision board member, or anything else that ultimately matters so much as the underlying call to be faithful. God has called me to follow Jesus in everything I do: to love the way Jesus loved; to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings; and to be obedient to God’s commands. Every day no matter how sick I become, I still have a call.
3. God will never give up in his work to transform me into the likeness of Jesus. I fail every day at being and doing what God has intended. But God has promised to use everything in my life to continue the process of helping me to become more like Jesus in my thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors. At this stage in my life God is using my disease to teach me. It’s not easy and I don’t like to change. But God loves me too much to give up on me. Therefore, God uses my circumstances, whatever they are, to continue the process of transformation.
4. Joy is not about my circumstances, but rather about being held and sustained by God’s love. Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God–not suffering, not want, not abundance, not sin, not anything. God loves us from beginning to end and through every circumstance. If there is one thing that I can trust, it is God’s love for me in Christ Jesus.
There is nothing new about any of these lessons. But God continues to remind me. And I continue to be grateful for every reminder. On Halloween an unexpected reminder came from a trick-or-treater, who was about 8 years old and was dressed like a little sheep. Surrounded by a flock of siblings, who were also dressed as sheep, he blurted out that they knew I was sick and were all praying for me. “Thank you,” I replied. And then with big sincere eyes, he looked at me, smiled and said, “Heaven is going to be wonderful, you know?” All I could think to say was, “It already is.”
May God continue to bless, encourage, sustain, and energize you for your call, too. Who you are in Christ and what you are becoming really matters in this world—as well as the next.