What an incredible week! I haven’t slept much. For the last ten nights, with the exception of two, I’ve slept little more than 2 to 3 hours per bedtime. No naps during the day, just a jazzed-up version of me; like a 14 year-old boy on a one-week all-nighter sustained daily by gallons of Mountain Dew. Only the sustenance in my case came from a steroid I was taking with the chemo. But that was for my body – we know what hard-pressed fatigue can do to a mind – way down deep, the Spirit of God’s been uplifting my heart.
I began tapering off the steroid late last week, finishing my last dose Sunday. It’s a crazy experience, really. Like an emotional and mental mid-western prairie thunderboomer – fun to watch from a distance, but really crazy underneath. These next couple of days should see some return to normalcy, if not a brief afternoon nap or two. I’ve got this week off to recover my white blood counts, which have been battered quite a bunch by these latest treatments. But aside from mouth sores and things of that sort, we haven’t seen any infections.
There really have been rich moments amidst the frantic physical and mental activity spawned by the medications. My long nights awake in bed (or at the keyboard) have been sweet. Even during the day, in the midst of conversations I’ve had with friends (or in some cases, total strangers) I’ve found myself a bit wet around the eyes sharing or discovering how GOOD God has been to Jen & I this last year.
Good? Did I forget? A little sunshine in the head maybe? Delusional? Selective memory?
No, I remember. I remember well enough never to want to do it again, nor would I, in my most carnal state, wish the same experience on anyone in the world.
But I’ve been processing the bits and pieces of the whole lately. The experience itself is too much to package nicely, and I don’t intend to ever oversimplify the horrors of suffering or the work of God in the midst of it. But there’ve been moments, and conversations, that have helped make clearer to me what was going on in the long dark of Moriah.
Most specifically this last weekend, as I chatted with several close friends of mine out at the Association Retreat Center (WI), gathered there for a youth worker’s retreat. (I loved the drive between here and there so much I locked my keys in my car Saturday afternoon so I could drive back and forth from Bloomington again for a spare).
There was a day in the middle of October – I’ve written of it before – that I’ll remember as the darkest day of my soul. Two weeks of treatment – spinal taps, injections, pills, IVs – had left me for dead. I was so incredibly tired and sick that every day the darkness hung about me like a cloak of death, though the autumn weather beyond our walls was the finest we’d had in years. I would slowly step around the house like a zombie, lips and legs quivering, stomach reeling, with a backache and a heavy, heavy heart. Those two weeks were to be the first of five of the same. I couldn’t even console myself with the thought of being “halfway through.”
It was the long day and night before I was to go in for the top of week 3. My communion with God the previous week had included listening to a few messages on suffering and praying grateful prayers in response to the truths made plain. But mostly, what I had been saying to Him for days on end was just “Would you quit this, God? I can’t take it anymore!” Clenched fists and jaw and all.
To contrast that attitude with the one in which I welcomed the diagnosis in May is to start seeing why my heart had become so heavy. I had thought myself willing to go through whatever pains God would see fit to lead me through, knowing He intended good to come of it, and that His ways of doing things really were the best, especially for those who believe. (Ever notice psalm 23’s “paths of righteousness” lead INTO and “through the valley of the shadow of death?”)
Now here I was in October telling God that if He wanted me to go further, if He wanted me to go deeper in – to take another week of chemo and submit my body to the smashing once again – that I wasn’t going to do it. (I’ve told the details of this story elsewhere. Here I only wish to lift the curtain on what was going on in my heart.)
In those moments, I began to wonder what that meant for my God and me. Was my devotion so fickle? Was my faith so weak? Was my love so fair-weathered? If the Shepherd leads on, and the sheep refuses to follow, does that sheep still belong to its Shepherd?
I discovered in those moments that I didn’t love God as deeply as I thought I did. I saw my devotion to Yahweh for the shriveled, leprous hands they were, and my heart for Him as the pitiful mess it was. And with clenched fists and jaw and all, I asked the question, now what?
“Am I still yours, Abba?”
The answer I got I’ll give with an image, rather than a word. But being that image exists only in my imagination I must first give you words:
Our son Eli is a month old now. He sleeps well most of the time – often on top of the covers between Jen and I in our bed. One night recently he woke startled and upset. He was screaming scared, eyes closed tight so as not to see the darkness that really was around him, clumsy little arms flailing about in front his face. I leaned into him, put my face next to his, where my breath could mingle with his own. His flailing hands caught my cheek, and he calmed instantly.
In my darkest moments, I too closed my eyes tight. I too flailed the arms of my heart about in front of my screaming soul, grasping in the spiritual for something solid to hold on to. Something steady like an anchor, or a hand…
But what I found was a face. A face I could feel in the darkness. A face right next to mine. And not a fair face, either. But a whiskery face. A face that knew suffering, that knew the darkness, that knew the pain. And on those whiskery cheeks, as He pressed them to mine, I felt the warm, salty tears of One who could care for me like no other.
Abba loves His own not because we’re lovable, and not because we love Him, but because we are His. And we are His only because of Christ.
And we do Him a dishonor if we are not as honest with Him in and about our pain as we are with each other. Acknowledging the realness of our hurts in real words to God affirms how real we know Him to be. And this, I believe, really does bring Him glory.
I hope to unpack more in the days to come. Or years, for that matter. For it seems God has seen fit to let me see His goodness in the land of the living.
Next Tuesday (January 24), I’m scheduled to check back into Regions for my final crash, pending my counts recover enough between now and then to proceed. My friend Jessica, who’s neck and neck with me in this protocol (she was diagnosed with Leukemia as I was with Lymphoma – our treatments are identical) will be there that week as well. When we check out after 3 to 4 days (this is the expectation, at least) we’ve only one more week of the Round at home, then have a full month or more to recover before beginning maintenance therapy.
I’ll need time to rebuild my body, and I intend to – better than before, we hope. It’d be nice to come out the other end liberated from the problems I’ve had previously with my wrists, my jaw, and my gut. Health is good for ministry and life (while necessary for much of life it’s not as necessary for ministry). And I got a used set of golf clubs for Christmas I’d really like to be able to swing by next fall.
So we continue to depend upon your prayers for much, and are grateful daily that there are people praying. We are excited here for the opportunities to come express our gratitude in person. Some sort of road trip someday, perhaps? I like driving.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35,38-39
I believe this now more than ever.