Huck Finn snuck in on his own funeral. He wasn’t dead, but everyone thought he was. Ever wonder what that’d be like: to sneak in on your own funeral… to listen in as your closest friends give your eulogy? Once in college, my friend Wes gave my eulogy for our speech class. For effect, he had me lying on a table just behind him. It was really kind of funny. But I wouldn’t call it surreal. I’d save that adjective for the experience I had this last Sunday night as our church hosted a benefit concert for Jen, Aedan, & me. I was well enough to be there as several of my closest friends performed and led worship for a packed house. Most of them had a little story to tell or something to say between the songs they sang. Some were funny. And embarrassing. Some just plain made me weep.
A stretched-out season of cancer & chemotherapy does some strange things to a guy. There’s a whole lot of waiting, days of cancelled or changed plans, a good deal of discomfort, and the occasional barely bearable pain. There’s hope that’s shattered, hope fulfilled, hope that gets knocked down and slowly rises again. There’s much time for thought, like it or not (a guy can’t watch movies forever). The occasional doozy sweeps through – an experience, or more often than not, a reaction to an experience – that serves a blow to something I thought I knew about myself, taking a particularly comfy paradigm out at the knees.
To speak specifically, I’ve had a hard time with things, but not the things you might expect. Ticked off at traffic and day-to-day inconveniences like never before, I’ve been troubled by what bugs me. Here I am, by the grace of God, surviving a life-threatening illness, and I’m going nuts over the littlest things. Not just grumpy, either, but shaking my fist at God from time to time. Not about cancer, but about things as insignificant as poor customer service at a suburban DQ Grill & Chill. Haven’t felt like the most pleasant, edifying person.
The backdrop for this is the relentless care and concern of entire communities for my family and me, emails and cards referring to a deep and deepening faith made so obvious to many by this whole experience with cancer, and an initial two-month-long, fortifying encounter with God in His Word and through His people, affirming that this affliction was from Him and for His purposes – changing me and the people around us for Him and His glory.
Then my pharmacy refills the wrong prescription and proceeds to tell me it’s up to me to fix the problem, and I’m crankier than the unredeemed on a bad day. In July, I was deeply disturbed by my response to the disappointments in my life at the time. I became very sick, and was troubled to the core by my heart’s inability to grasp firmly the promises of God; my incapacitated soul, refusing to be comforted by the freely offered Spirit of Christ. And even now, my slowness in embracing what opportunity I have to follow hard after God, preferring the comforts of this world to the deeply fulfilling presence of the Almighty.
Then I feel like a fraud. I feel like there’s no way people would love me like they do if they really knew; if they could observe regularly what I’m like on my not-so-good days. I even begin to consider how difficult it must be for a holy God to put up with me, positive His frustration with me must run right alongside the temptation to bail; to write me off as an investment badly made.
At the benefit Sunday night, I cried much. There were many worship songs I could not sing, for I felt them too deeply. Specifically the songs that declared our need for a Savior in the same breath as God’s Provision. The gifts our friends offered us with their music and their words, and the sincerity with which they offered them, moved me deeply. For of all the people in the room at the time, they were among those who knew me most intimately, and at my worst. Yet they were the ones speaking clearly of their deep and genuine love for me (sometimes with little more than their tears), and their gratitude for the visibility of my faith at this time.
After Jen and I returned home later that evening, I was still a bit numb to it all, suspicious that people were somehow misled, seeing in me someone I wasn’t. Then a very liberating thought began to settle in… a whisper first spoken in the preparation for the evening, then again a little louder during the concert, and in the love expressed by all there that night… finally audible as I sat at home with my son in bed, my wife and I holding each other on the couch: “perhaps all these people really do know who I am – the bad with the good – and love me still.”
I’ll never forget when it became clear to me that Jenny loved me this way. First it made tangible to me the relentless and wondrous (meaning it made me wonder, as it was beyond comprehension) love God had for me, and all those who are His; as it seemed Jen had every right to hold my past against me (I wrote about it in a song once: “I was the hand that destroyed the dream I once inspired…”). I figured God had all the more right to do so, and the Bible said that in Christ, He didn’t. And doesn’t. My love for a God who could do this became more real that day than it had been since I was a little kid.
It wasn’t till much later that it occurred to me I should marry someone who loved me like that. And my slowness remains still, for it took what amounted to a happier version of my funeral – without having to die and all – to remind me again how we are loved as God’s children. The care of the congregation made tangible to me the relentless love of God the Forgiver. And I offer this portion of my story to you as a reminder that He is this to mankind.
There is injustice and hatred in this world, and we are often very much a part of it, on one end or the other. We are in need of deliverance – from ourselves and the rage and apathy around us – and there is a Deliverer whose justice is and will be fulfilled: in us, or to us, depending on where we are in relation to the Shepherd who gave His life for His sheep. He invites all to follow where He leads – we, His sheep, in the care of a Good Shepherd who understands sheep. Call me small-minded if you’d like, but I believe this is what the Bible teaches, and I believe it is right. And I am both grateful and in awe that there is a God who offers this kindness to men. Men like me, who don’t deserve it in the least.
And I am thankful for the friends who made this tangible to me again. Not just those who were at the benefit in Bloomington last weekend, but all who’ve been so kind to this undeserving fool and his family, here, at home, and wherever. Thank you all for so much!
Concerning cancer and my continuing journey away from its clutches, I am through with 3 of what will be 8 months of the “intense” phases of treatment. The tumor is gone. All subsequent therapy is intended to deep-clean every corner and closet of my physical being, so as to assure I will be among the 90% of those with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma to attain complete remission.
My third round, a three-month course including 5 spinal-taps and 2 weeks of cranial-radiation aimed at my central nervous system, was postponed once again. This is my second week in a holding pattern as a result of my not-so-resilient white blood cells. My counts were just a hair too low on Monday to begin. Apparently, 18 months on a mild chemo drug for Crohn’s disease, prior to my cancer diagnosis, has made my bone marrow rather lazy.
I don’t mind. Another week to prepare for the fall and the final stretch before baby number two is welcomed here. I cleaned out our garage yesterday. Might be the first time we’ve parked a car there in two years. It’s crazy how many cardboard boxes one can accumulate with a wee one growing in and out of things in as much time as it takes to dispose of all the packaging.
Aedan’s sick again. An autumn cold this time, we think. Please pray he heals quickly and that I may once again be spared of whatever it is he has.
Jen’s well and is enjoying the calm there is after launching a ministry year with an abundant staff of eager and gifted volunteers.
The three of us spent last Friday on the north shore. Took a day trip to enjoy the fall colors and the big lake. Aedan learned how to say “boat” and “bridge” in one afternoon. Spent some time at Gooseberry Falls tossing rocks into the water. Aedan got his first pair of sunglasses and hammed it up for Mom & Dad often. It was one of those memorable trips so necessary to sustain sanity through such an unpredictable season.
My back continues to be bothersome, but not debilitating. Still on pain meds and muscle relaxants, I’m eagerly looking forward to the day I can spend time with a physical trainer/therapist learning what I can do to both rightly relax and strengthen the muscles there so messed up due to all this bed rest and weight loss. My hair continues to grow in overnight, a touch grayer than before, but the same cowlicks I’ve had since I was two. Radiation is likely to thin it out some, if not take it out altogether. Hats are good. I like hats.
Many thanks to Jeff Olsen for writing another article for the Roseau Times Region. Good to have someone with a bullhorn letting everyone back home know how things are here. You’re a good storyteller, Bro. Thanks for considering ours a story worth telling.
I like fall. Hard to believe the summer’s gone already. Guess that means I’m that much closer to life in the next chapter, on the other side of this fire. Trees that look dead in November look very much alive six months later. Fernando Ortega sings a song called “I Will Wait for My Change.” In my slowness, I will trust the faithfulness of my God, and I will wait for my change to come. As I feel the chill of this season, the foliage of my assumptions – the faith I thought I had – withering and falling away, I will remember spring, and how good it is when buds blossom and branches fill once again. Sometimes faith must be received as a gift only God can give. I spread wide my branches once again, and wait for my change to come.
Gifted only by the kindness of God, undeserving,
Yet grateful again,
“My Portion & My Cup” is available for order. Please see the music page for disc and ordering information.