On One Church’s Suffering and Stubborn Faith
Introductory Note: I would say that the chief thing I learned during my relatively short ministry time in Vermont was how to pastor a suffering church. The Lord seemed to really have his crosshairs on us, and we saw an inordinate amount of people suffer and die. But we learned also that God is sweet and gracious and what it actually means for the death of his saints to be precious to him. Below is a reflection of mine written in the midst of some very trying times. I hope it will encourage you:
The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.—Job 1:21
The left side of Richard's face is starting to droop. Oddly enough, it is the left eye he sees best out of. He told me so today in the store when I was standing to his right and he couldn't follow our conversation well because I was outside his peripheral vision. Richard has brain cancer. Stage 4. He was diagnosed before he and his wife and two young children showed up at our church, had already had a couple of surgeries. I baptized him and his wife last year. They have found, as most who engage in the Middletown community do, that our church is full of sweet, gracious people who love to love on each other. Richard and his family drive an hour to worship with us on Sundays, and the distance has made it a bit difficult to do life-on-life community with them week-to-week, but we do our best, and so do they. Both Richard and his wife see his suffering as a blessing, and in a way, so does our church. They are being used by God to teach us how to suffer and how to love.
Middletown, in my fleshly-spirited and finite-minded estimation anyway, did not need this lesson. I'm sure I may be missing somebody in this calculation, but in my counting, we have had eight instances of cancer in our church over the last four years. That may not seem like a lot to you, but ours is a church of about 120. When you add in multiple people with multiple sclerosis, multiple ICU events involving toddlers and babies, and multiple bouts of serious depression, it's beginning to feel like Middletown is a dangerous church to be in.
I confess that all last week, I felt God was being unfair and mean. You see, the Sunday before last the elders laid hands on Richard in our church service and anointed him with oil (per James 5:14). After a few months of encouraging reports in his battle, Richard suffered a seizure a couple of months ago that increased doctors' concerns. A few more experimental treatments were suggested. Richard declined the only chemotherapy they said might work, as it ravaged his body once before in a way he determined worse than cancer. His most recent scan a couple of weeks ago shows the tumor in his brain is growing rapidly. He is out of medical options. They have given him a few months. But we're not even to the part where I got mad at God for being mean yet.
So we laid hands on Richard and anointed him with oil, explaining to the congregation that this wasn't magic or any kind of miraculous guarantee. We are trusting God—pleading with God—for Richard's healing, but we totally understand that God doesn't normally do that in the way we're asking. So, like Daniel's friends declared in Daniel 3:17-18, we know God is able to deliver Richard; "but if not," we are committed to worshiping this God anyway. We know that in the end, Richard's own prayer of faith will heal him and God will raise him up (per James 5:15).
Two days later, very early Tuesday morning, my phone rang. I know when my phone rings this early, it is not usually good news. I was not prepared for this news, however. On the other end was Elder Dale. He said he was up north in the hospital with two of our members, Jeff and Anne. Anne has been struggling with bizarre symptoms of nausea over the last month or two and local doctors have not been able to figure out what is wrong. After the last late-night ER visit, Jeff requested a CT scan. The words Dale said to me on the phone still sit in my ears like lodged rocks: "brain tumor."
Anne had a brain tumor the size of a golf ball sitting behind her left eye. None of us could believe it. (Her husband Jeff had his battle with prostate cancer two years ago.) They removed 80% of the tumor in surgery last Thursday. The pathology report still remains to be seen, but the tumor has been classified "aggressive" and "fast-growing," and the expectation is that Anne will need 60 days of chemotherapy to begin with.
Our little church is feeling a little beat up right now. What is God doing?
We have enjoyed many blessings, of course. In the last four years, we have seen increases in baptisms and discipleship. Our attendance has more than doubled and continues to grow. We have seen no "summer slump" this year and now that the fall is upon us, we are again wondering where we might put everybody when we stop having multiple vacationers out on a Sunday. We are running out of parking spaces and class rooms. We prayed for more young families and young singles, and God started sending them. In terms of souls and energy, our cup runneth over.
But I feel (fear?) that God is seasoning us. I mean, I know he is. I know what suffering is for. I've had my own. God crushing me was honestly the best thing he ever did for me. But I feel protective right now. And overwhelmed. The caregivers in our community—which is most of our community—are running on fumes. We feel unprepared, incapable, dumb.
But I know that when we are weak is actually when we are strong (2 Corinthians 12:10). I know that the Spirit-powered ability to suffer well is a filling up of what is lacking in Christ's afflictions (Colossians 1:24), a witness as it were for the gospel by the gospel, an opportunity to reveal what our boast is (2 Corinthians 12:9), where our hope is (2 Corinthians 1:7), who our glory is (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Speaking of jars of clay: Today we visited Richard and his wife Erin. Richard, who once feasted on the Puritans and the Reformers, all the "old dead guys" of theological genius, is having more and more trouble reading. He's having more and more trouble comprehending the words on a page. So I read to him today for a little while. The request was for Romans, so I began in Romans 5. We only made it halfway through Romans 6, because Richard needs little breaks to rest and because after every few verses, he would ask me to sum up what I had just read. Here is a little bit of the ground we covered, on suffering and hope:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:1-11)
The text goes on to talk a lot about life and death. Christ's. And ours. And Christ's becoming ours. When I reminded Richard several times in different ways that when he died, he would be secured from wrath because Christ had already died for him, he would close his eyes.
What were we doing? We were breaking open the Scripture like a jar of clay and enjoying the glory inside. Or, rather, we were breaking open the Scripture like an alabaster flask and standing under the sweet-smelling oil.
In the car on the way to the store to get some lunch, Richard said, "Do you know what you're going to say at the… after?" He's not stupid. He understands what you say and he understands what he wants to say but the tumor has made it difficult for him to access certain words and concepts. He has trouble with his memory, and in this instance, after I recalled him asking earlier about plans for a prayer service for him that his wife and I were discussing—"Will that be before I… or after I?" he said—I knew what he was asking.
"At your funeral?" I said.
"Well, please tell me if there's a particular Bible passage or specific points you want me to make, but basically I'm going to preach the gospel."
"Yeah," he said, "that's what I want."
The oil is sweet.
Anne is making her own drive. Her daughter Ally is getting married in Lake Tahoe next week. Anne has been forbidden from flying for obvious reasons. But not from riding in a car. So her son Mark is driving her across the country, from Vermont to Tahoe, so she can be at her daughter's wedding. There's another set of words sitting in my ears like lodged stones. They are from Anne's husband Jeff. As he was giving Becky and me a tour of the Hope Lodge in Burlington, a free residence for families of cancer patients, he said, "I have no doubts about who's on the throne."
Here is my fear: My church—well, or, more honestly, I—will grow weary in doing good. We will have some doubts about who is on the throne. Or we will doubt his goodness. We may doubt his love. Or his sovereign omnipotence. Or both.
Vermonters are a stubborn people. They are hard-changers. I think this is part of the reason Becky and I feel so at home here. My prayer is that we can devote this stubbornness, this resilience, this dogged grip on "the way things are" to the glory of the Lord of hosts. By God's grace, we will not lose heart or hope. By the Spirit's power, Job's confession will be ours: "Though he slay me, I will hope in him… " (Job 13:15).
And I confess the other part is true too: "… yet I will argue my ways to his face." I say to the Lord it feels like enough. I tell him I think a little suffering will do. As I played Hungry-Hungry Hippos with Richard's three year-old son today, I thought it should be Richard down here enjoying this game with his son. And during lunch, his son said to me, "My dad talks weird," and I thought, "This isn't fair, God! It's not right." God doesn't need Richard or Anne. But their families do. Yes? No?
I know the Lord's wisdom is unsearchable. And we know now just how heavy it is.
I am learning so much from Middletown Church. They are, in fact, teaching me how to suffer. I suppose they are teaching me how to die. I think we might all be learning together that despite the happiness of our ongoing increase, because of what Christ has done to death (Romans 6:5,9), joy comes in the mourning, that somehow that way is actually better (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
"Everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?" (John 11:26)
We believe, Lord. Help our unbelief.
Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.—Psalm 42:7-8