Feeding Faith vs. Fueling Fear

Fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you,
I will help you,
I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
   Isaiah 41:10

Feed your faith and your fears will starve to death.
— Anonymous

Every cancer patient and cancer family member knows that fear is every bit as great a foe as cancer itself. Fear floods in when the news is bad and quietly creeps in when the news is good. Those who’ve felt betrayed by their body once, never fully trust it to stay healthy again. They know too well what can happen.

Questions born of fear swirl in the background of our lives.
Is the chemotherapy working? Is the cancer truly gone? What are the chances it will return? Will our child suffer lasting, long term effects from this treatment? Will she be fully cured? Will she live a normal life?

Jesus himself repeatedly tells us NOT to fear in the gospels and the rest of Scripture is full of the same admonition from beginning to end. If God tells us not to do something, it must be possible — but how do we NOT FEAR when faced with a threat like cancer? Our family hasn’t arrived at a place of “no fear” yet, but we are determined to pursue that destination. Our little girl likely has a long life ahead of her that should be lived apart from the shadow of fear.

Though we haven’t fully stamped out the flames of fear, we know not to add fuel to the fire. Our imaginations can take us places we were never meant to go. We should be well-informed about leukemia, but not obsessed with knowing every possible problem that might develop. Leukemia is a part of our lives, but not the center of it. That place is reserved for better things.

My granddaughter has regained much of her vigor after the scorched earth of earlier phases of treatment and often happily plays throughout her day. Yet in some ways, we are afraid to feel too hopeful that things are getting easier and that she will feel better from here on out. We’ve had bumps in the road, like leg pain flaring up and a concerning lab result that will be followed up with a re-test on Friday. We know she could still have a setback or suffer a relapse — then all our hopes would be dashed. Isn’t it easier to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised if it turns out better? It’s how we humans cope, but that kind of living is one of diminutive faith and lackluster joy. Jesus calls us to an abundant life, a life of growing joy and greater faith. He always calls us to fear less and trust more. We are to welcome every good day with thanksgiving, and trust that His loving provision covers tomorrow.

The faithfulness of God throughout our cancer journey has fed and built up our faith, and by His grace, we are seeking out those things that will make our faith grow even more. We believe His promises. We study His Word. We sing His praises. We bow our knee to His will. We trust in His goodness.
  Keep feeding faith and it will grow.
  These are the words He keeps whispering to us.
  Keep feeding faith and it will grow.
  When faith is fed, the flames of fear die down, begin to smolder . . . and fade away.

Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life in fear. Rather look at them with full hope that as they arise, God, whose you are, will deliver you out of them. He has kept you hitherto; do you but hold fast to His dear hand, and He will lead you safely through all things; and when you cannot stand, He will bear you in His arms.

The same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then. Put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.
      Frances de Sales

Endurance for the Off-Road Experience

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God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease—smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see—but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension—and yet don’t. By his love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.
      Tony Snow, former Press Secretary to President George W. Bush
     Christianity Today, 7/20/2007

At this point in our cancer story, we are simply tired of it. We would love to just quit, close our eyes and forget about upcoming infusions, spinal taps and the oral medications waiting to be picked up at the pharmacy. Wouldn’t it be nice to receive an infusion of extra energy at the Cancer Clinic instead of more chemotherapy! A supportive friend once told us that fighting cancer is like running a marathon every day. At some point, you’re just tired of running, tired of fighting, tired of doing unpleasant things — but there is no furlough from running a race against leukemia until the finish line is crossed. Looking back, we’re encouraged to see how far we’ve come. Looking ahead, we remember the goal — a cure for our little girl. Yes, that is the finish line and we won’t stop until we get there. We are determined to press on.

This week we received a lab result that was concerning. The doctor says we must check it again in a month and if it still looks concerning, more ominous testing will be required. We are so weary of worrying. We need a faith infusion.

These are the times when your prayers are particularly needed and felt. Endurance is bolstered by the prayers of God’s people. Tony Snow, writing about his own battle with cancer, knew all about the power of prayer:

When our faith flags, He throws reminders in our way. We think of the prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions know it.

It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit. Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author of all creation, to lift us up—to speak of us!

Your prayers cheer us on in this cancer marathon. God’s Spirit shows up and we find strength to make it through one more appointment. You are a catalyst for His love and grace to be poured out. This is the thrilling part of going “off-road” with God. Stomachs churn from the twists and turns, and often you’d just like to get out of the jeep, but then suddenly around the next bend you’re thrilled to witness another miracle of answered prayer. Exhausting? Yes — but oh what a ride.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,
let us throw off everything that hinders
and the sin that so easily entangles.
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us,
fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
Hebrews 12:1-2

Finding Grace in Times of Need

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It’s like a treasure hunt.
Looking for glimpses of grace,
signs of God’s presence and provision for us,
has become a habit.
Grace comes.
But sometimes you need to look for it.
     Sharol Haynor
“Joy in the Journey”

The grace that’s in this moment is your manna.
Wish for the past and you drink poison.
Worry about the future and you eat fire.
Stay in the moment and you eat the manna needed for now.
     Ann Voscamp

On the long cancer fighting journey, periodically the intensity cranks up and everyone is pushed closer to the edge of the “I give up” zone. Just the presence of a common cold virus can set it all in motion for us. Any significant fever sends our little one to the hospital ER for a blood culture to make sure she’s not harboring an infection. When parents and kids are already run down and cranky with a festering virus, you can imagine how well such a trip is received. Tears, cries, screams, flailing — frustrated and sad parents — all sitting in one unhappy lump for much too long in a busy ER at night.

When times are tough, it’s easy to feel like everything is just simply BAD. We become blind to the grace moments sown among the harvest of woe. Those grace moments are put there for a reason. They are the manna, the bread of life divinely supplied, providing us with what we need to keep going. If we fail to hunt for grace and consume it as our daily bread, weariness wins and faith fails.

We welcomed grace moments in the midst of hardship — moments when God showed up with His unmerited favor, His lovingkindness towards His children, His presence and provision in difficult circumstances.

God’s grace came once again in the midst of our rough bit of road. Our chemo girl did not have an infection and avoided a hospital stay once again! Everyone was knocked down by the virus, but by His grace, recovery is coming. No, it wasn’t easy, but by His grace we will persevere. It could have been so much worse. Thank you, Lord, for bodies that heal!

Let us then approach
God’s throne of grace with confidence,
so that
we may receive mercy and find grace
to help us in our time of need.

Hebrews 4:16

The Prize that Awaits Us

mary-jane-bafusMy mother died two weeks ago today. She was 83 years old and lived with health problems and pain for most of the last decade. Friends offer comforting words, telling me that perhaps it was a blessing for her to pass on to a better place. I agree with that and yet, any death in the immediate family is a kick in the gut. Life is changed forever for those left behind. Things will never be the same again. She was the last of that generation in my family. All of my aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas, and now my mother and father are gone. Today I’m going to the local funeral home to pick out a plot for myself. Having buried two parents, I want to make it as easy as possible when my own children are faced with what I’ve just gone through. To many people this sounds morose, but death — much like cancer — brings us face to face with our own mortality. That’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing, and I’m not just talking about making funeral plans. Eternity is a long time compared to this short life. We need to be ready for it. God desperately wants us to be ready for it. A day will come when we stand before His throne. Will He acknowledge me as someone ready to enter His Kingdom? Someone who has known and loved Him, a true child of God, ready to obey His will? (Matthew 7:21-23)

Losing a loved one inevitably ushers in a time of reflection, and I don’t want to waste that moment. Scripture implores us to reflect on what is most important:

“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”
2 Corinthians 13:5

Be ready because eventually, being ready to meet God face to face is the only thing that will matter.

Last night a friend and I were discussing how the second half of life seems so much more difficult than the first. How can we joyfully march toward the finish line when our path is littered with the inevitable loss of friends and family, physical decline, or even feebleness? Firstly, we remind ourselves that God has blessed us with many good things to enjoy along the way: grandchildren, resources and opportunities to love and serve others, wisdom, maturity, time to travel and play — but more importantly, we fix our eyes on our eternal hope, the prize awaiting us at the end of the journey. Today I’m one day closer to being with my Jesus. Hallelujah! I think by the time I’ve run my last lap around the track, I will be ready and grateful that I have no further to run except into His arms.

 

Trusting the Shepherd

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The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil,
For you are with me;
Your rod and Your staff,
They comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You have anointed my head with oil;
My cup overflows.
Surely goodness and lovingkindness
will follow me all the days of my life.
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
                     Psalm 23

The Scriptures use many words to describe our walk with God. “Belief” engages the intellect, “submission” involves the will, “obey” requires action from the body, but the word “TRUST” is all about the heart. Trials and difficulties magnify and expose the true inclinations of our hearts, and what I have seen in my own heart regarding TRUST — well, it hasn’t always made me proud. When you’re looking down the barrel of a chemotherapy bazooka aimed at your loved one, the temptation is to mutter, “God, do You really know what You’re doing here? Why have You led us to this place? What if You don’t show up this time to help us? Something bad might happen!”

The Good Shepherd leads us beside still waters, but also through shadowy valleys. Sheep may be sweet and wooly white as stuffed animals, but in reality they’re stubborn, fearful, easily spooked, and uncooperative. “No! I’m not following you down there! It looks scary!”  A good shepherd delights in earning the trust of his sheep, and he cares for them tenderly. He understands their propensity to fear and to run away. He sees the dangers that are near and far ahead, then leads the flock safely onward to green pastures. We have a Good Shepherd who is trustworthy in every sense of the word. He not only leads, but provides for every need on the journey.

I opened my copy of World Magazine awhile ago and discovered the obituary of a much admired campus pastor I knew from college. Steve Hayner lost his battle with aggressive pancreatic cancer last year. Intervarsity Press chose to honor his memory by publishing a small book of Caringbridge entries written by the Hayners. They titled it, “Joy in the Journey”. In one entry, Sharol Hayner writes:

At this time in my life, I read Psalm 23 differently. I wonder if the valley of the shadow of death is also where we are treated to an abundant meal even though surrounded by enemies. I wonder if it is in that same shadowed valley where the Shepherd offers rest in green pastures, beside still waters.
Perhaps we lack nothing, not in the idyllic destination, but in the place of darkness, pain and suffering where the Shepherd provides rest and healing. Steve and I are discovering that we truly lack nothing and are finding peaceful rest in the valley of pancreatic cancer and chemo.
The Shepherd is so faithful.
We are grateful.

These are sheep who have learned to completely trust the Shepherd. They find rest in the midst of troubles because they trust Him. He is the Good Shepherd who will never forsake the beloved sheep entrusted to His care.

Lord, give us hearts that will trust You more fully in the valley of leukemia and chemotherapy. Grant us the peaceful rest that comes from trusting You completely.
Amen

This is the blessed life —
not anxious to see far in front,
nor careful about the next step,
not eager to choose the path,
nor weighted with the heavy responsibilities of the future,
but quietly following behind the Shepherd,
one step at a time.
       Streams in the Desert, 1/14 entry

The Gift of a Child

From the fullness of His grace
we have received
one blessing after another.
                                John 1:16

During this Christmas season, I look back and remember God’s amazing Christmas gift, the gift of His Son wrapped in human form. Together we celebrate a child named Jesus, whose name literally means “God saves”. Our Lord’s unfolding gift of love won us eternal salvation. The birth of a child brought deliverance from sin for all people on whom His favor rests. That single gift should be enough to cause me never to doubt His goodness or His love for me ever again. Yet He keeps on giving down through the ages, gift upon gift, one blessing after another.

As this year draws to an end, I have an opportunity to look back and count my blessings. I am so thankful for the gift of my granddaughter’s life and that she is still with us here on earth. I am so thankful for all the miraculous answers to prayer I have seen these many months since her diagnosis. I am thankful for all of you who have prayed and supported my family on this journey. The gift of one child’s life can never be taken for granted. That much I have learned. I was afraid the joy of Christmas would be dimmed by the shadow of cancer, but in some ways these Christmas celebrations since her diagnosis have become even more precious to me. Everything we enjoy together as a family is more special, just because we know it could have been so different without our little girl.

My granddaughter often draws my attention to a framed picture on her mother’s desk. “Nana, this is me when I was a baby with my mommy and daddy. I grew and grew and grew until I got to be a big girl!” I love to hear her tell me this story over and over again. I’m so grateful that she will continue to grow in the year ahead. By God’s grace, she will become even more brave and strong — and free of cancer.  I praise Him this Christmas for one blessing after another. I praise Him for the gift of a child.

A Steeper Climb

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“If you have gone a little way ahead of me, call back –
‘Twill cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track;
And if, perchance, Faith’s light is dim, because the oil is low,
Your call will guide my lagging course as wearily I go.”

Life is a steep climb, and it does the heart good to have somebody “call back” and cheerily beckon us on up the high hill. We are all climbers together, and we must help one another. This mountain climbing is serious business, but glorious. It takes strength and steady step to find the summits. The outlook widens with the altitude. If anyone among us has found anything worthwhile, we ought to “call back.”
              Streams in the Desert, 12/19 entry

Recently, I was flipping through my calendar for 2015 and lingered over some of the clinic appointments I had marked for this time last year. Those were days of intensified chemotherapy and steroids. I remember well our little one’s swollen abdomen, aching legs, irritable disposition, disrupted sleep and voracious appetite. She woke up one night and wanted pizza delivered at 2 a.m.! After a week on steroids, she would stop playing entirely and simply want to be held or rocked throughout the day. By week’s end, stomach pains kicked in and the bi-monthly trip to the cancer clinic for blood-work became a huge emotional hurdle. Those were days of great weariness and a steeper climb.

During those tough days of our journey, we would cling to the hopeful stories of those ahead of us on the recovery road. They “called back” to us from up ahead on the trail, “You’re in a tough place right now, but it gets better just around the bend!” We lost sight of the summit, shrouded in foggy mists, but their voices called back to us that they could see it clearly. Recovery is possible. It’s coming. Don’t give up.

We are still climbing. Maintenance phase may not be quite as intense and the side effects not quite as devastating, but the road is still steep and wearisome. Our little cancer warrior has lost hair 3 times in this process. She still does a 5 day course of steroids every month after her infusion. Her face and tummy often look swollen. She still takes daily oral chemo that sometimes makes her nauseated or sick. We are grateful to be further up the trail, but those calls from others up ahead are every bit as essential to keep us going.

More than anything, we hear the voice of our Lord calling back to us. “Courage, dear heart. Courage. I know this is difficult right now. Oh, so difficult. Take My hand and we’ll walk it together.”

We have several avid hikers in our family. They know that every trail has its hard segment of miserable uphill climbing and endless switchbacks. Yet if they press through it, sometimes using every reserve bit of strength, they eventually break through the tree line to enjoy an amazing vista opening up before them. That is their reward, and that will be our reward as well. We won’t reach the summit until we stand at heaven’s door, but we trust that many awesome outlooks and viewpoints still lie ahead for our little girl. And someday, she may be the one calling back down the mountain to those climbing the rocky terrain behind her, “Courage, dear heart.  It’s well worth the climb.  Just wait and see!”

He makes my feet like hinds’ feet,
And sets me upon my high places.
            Psalm 18:33

Though He Slay Me

Faith in the Bible is faith in God against every thing that contradicts Him, saying
“I will remain true to God’s character whatever He may do.”
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15) —
this is the most sublime utterance of faith
in the whole of the Bible.

If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.
 Oswald Chambers
My Utmost for His Highest

Supportive relationships with other leukemia mothers, whether online or in person, have been a great encouragement for my daughter. These moms share a common burden that uniquely knits their hearts together. Somehow it helps to know others are fighting similar battles to your own. Yet recently, she read a post that was simply heart-wrenching. The short account was written by a mother whose child had relapsed. After finishing the entire chemotherapy protocol, her child’s leukemia returned. The little girl passed away only a short while later. That’s the hard part of opening your heart to others in the cancer community. Not every story ends the way we hope it would. When our fellow warriors face something like this, we are reminded of our own vulnerability to this terrible thief called cancer.  With heavy hearts, we mourn deeply with those who mourn.

We don’t talk much about worst possible outcomes when fighting cancer, but it doesn’t take much for our thoughts to go there. Losing a child is every parent’s greatest fear. When cancer is part of the mix, that fear enlarges and occupies major territory.

Job knew what it meant to lose a child. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Job’s story is thought to be the very first one written down, even before Moses wrote Genesis. God knew that heartbreak and calamity would become a significant part of our lives in a fallen world, and He had something to tell us about it.

Job had it all — family, fortune and faith. He was a righteous man whom God blessed and loved. One day, Satan approached God and said, “Job may trust You when things are good, but will he trust You if it’s all taken away?” God then allowed Satan’s accusation — that men only love God for the blessings He gives — to be proven one way or the other. He allowed Satan to bring sudden tragedy on Job and his family. Job lost his children, his health, and his livelihood in one day. He was put to the test.

Like Job, a time may come when we too will face the ultimate test of faith, whether it be with our family, our resources or a personal health crisis. Job’s declaration,

“Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him”

was uttered, I’m sure, with many tears and much questioning on his part. The second half of that very same verse reads,

“Nevertheless, I will argue my ways before Him.” 

When God acts in a way that defies our understanding, He asks us to trust Him — but He also understands our questioning, hears our lamenting, and longs to heal our broken hearts. Insight and restoration didn’t come to Job overnight, nor does it for most broken-hearted people. This side of heaven, Job never saw the spiritual contest between God and Satan which led to his calamity. He never knew the key part of the story that would have helped him make sense of it. He had to trust solely and completely in the goodness of God’s character, regardless of his circumstances. As he argued his ways before God, ultimately he came to a place of greater humility and trust in God’s sovereign ways. Only then did the work of restoration begin, but there would be no bringing his children back. His life was forever changed by what he endured.

I hope and pray that we are never put to that ultimate test of faith with my granddaughter, though we know it remains a possibility. Perhaps it is best to say it now, while we still have courage and strength, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”  We may not respond with the faith of Job if that day of testing ever comes, but we know God’s grace will be made available to us in that hour. Help will come. By faith we also declare along with Job,

“I know my Redeemer lives!” (Job 19:25) and,

“When He has tested me, I will come forth as gold.” (Job 23:10)

Ultimately, we love God not because of what He does or does not do for us, but simply because He is worthy. Someday when we reach heaven’s gates, it may make more sense. In the meantime, we choose to have courage, we choose to hope, and we choose to be grateful for the days given to us. Above all, we choose to trust in His goodness, and thank we Him for the blessing He gave us in our little girl.

In fact, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us again. On Him we have set our hope that He will continue to deliver us, 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.
          2 Corinthians 1:9-11

A Way Through It

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Hope is not a way around,
it’s a way through.
  Nancy Keen
“Childhood Leukemia”

Countless times I have prayed that God would take this disease away from my grandchild. I know He is completely capable of miraculously removing it TODAY, but I also know that more often than not, He chooses instead to grant extra grace and strength — so that we can walk through it to the other side.

Hope in Jesus is the way through difficulty, not around it.

It came to me as I lay in bed praying one night, that this brief earthly life is my only opportunity to shine for Jesus in a mortal body — a body filled with frailty, fear, and sometimes disease. Once I pass into eternity, I will walk by sight and the faith once needed to obey without seeing Him face to face will no longer be required.

Walking through the struggles of this mortal life with hope fueled by faith is a glory-filled activity. It bears testimony to my trust in Him, a trust that holds firm no matter how hard I am buffeted by earthly storms. This kind of faith, the faith of a mortal being, bears what Paul once called, a “weight of glory”.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that His life may also be revealed in our mortal body.

Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.
2 Corinthians 4:7-11, 16-18

I link arms with you, the “Unseen Army” of prayer warriors. I know there will be many more difficult days ahead as we fight this cancer with our little one. There is no other way but through it, refusing to relinquish our hope to any and every faith-bashing adversary. God is merciful. He has not left us alone or defenseless. The battle belongs to the Lord, and the victory is His to procure. (2 Chronicles 20:15)  He is our unfailing hope and the One who provides a way through it.

Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
              Romans 12:12