I’ve been spending a lot of time researching and reading articles by Jonathan Alter, the former Newsweek editor I discovered last week that was diagnosed with stage IV mantle cell lymphoma in 2004, received the same treatment Jeremy is scheduled to receive, and is still going strong, cancer-free today. During one of my searches, I discovered an article he wrote for Newsweek in 2007 in which he discusses what was, at that time, the recent news that Elizabeth Edwards was suffering from a recurrence of her cancer. The article begins by describing how that impacted Edwards’ view of God.
[Elizabeth Edwards tells Newsweek that she's not praying for God to save her from cancer. "I'm not. God will enlighten me when the time comes. And if I've done the right thing, I will be enlightened. And if I believe, I'll be saved. And that's all he promises me."
Alter asks Edwards about her keeping God out of the public discussion of her recurrence of cancer. She says she has a different view of God after her 16-year-old son Wade's death 11 years ago in a car accident. "I had to think about a God who would not save my son," says Edwards, who describes Wade as someone who would reach out to people who were misfits and outcasts all the time. "You'd think that if God was going to protect somebody, he'd protect that boy. But not only did he not protect him, the wind blew him from the road. The hand of God blew him from the road. So I had to think, 'What kind of God do I have that doesn't intervene -- in fact, may even participate -- in the death of this good boy?' I talk about it in [her book'Saving Graces'], that I had to accept that my God was a God who promised enlightenment and salvation. And that’s all. Didn’t promise us protection. I’ve had to come to grips with a God that fits my own experience, which is, my God could not be offering protection and not have protected my boy.”]
In many ways (although not all), I can relate to what Edwards says here, especially when she describes the special qualities of her teenage son, Wade, thinking he would be a good candidate for God’s protection. Those of you who know Jeremy well know that he is beyond your average guy. He has been blessed with so many rare gifts and talents – he is a great artist, singer, a linguistical freak of nature, highly intelligent, literate and academic, yet compassionate, engaging and kind. I believe there is a special ray of light straight from heaven shining down on him, and that God made him the way he is to be used for something amazing. It has always been my privilege to stand close, even if just in the shadow, of that ray of heavenly light. Jeremy could have used his gifts to achieve a lot of worldly, financial or professional success yet he didn’t want to do that. He intentionally chose to live his life in service to others, especially those that don’t readily have access to service or supports, to be their advocate, their champion and friend.
Time after time people come up to me, after learning of his situation, to tell me how much Jeremy impacted their lives, what a difference he made. Recently one man that Jeremy worked with in the past teared up while talking to me and said “You will never find a better man than him. Never. ” While I’ve known that to be true from the beginning of our relationship it is moving to see so many people come out of the past, out of the shadows to proclaim it.
So how can it be that someone that is so amazing, who has impacted so many others, would now be suffering from this horrific battle with cancer? I can’t help thinking if God should save anyone, it should be Jeremy. How could the God we believe in give him these gifts, impact so many people through him and then “allow” him to go through what he is currently experiencing? What does this say to us, Jeremy and I, about the God we believe in?
We have relied very heavily on our faith these past two months and, in spite of the cancer diagnosis, it has only gotten stronger. There are a few particular reflections from Scripture that have frequently come to mind that remind us of God’s provision through crisis and His unending faithfulness.
When I am at the lowest point, aching, crying out to God to restore Jeremy’s health, bring him home and allow him to be the husband and father he was made to be, I often am reminded that even Christ, while on the cross, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I wonder what Christ was truly feeling in that moment? Did he feel abandoned, perhaps even confused, as to how he could go through so much only to get to the point of complete brokenness, such pain, and potentially (at least at that moment) no reprieve? What was he thinking at the depths of his very soul that pushed those cries out?
These days when I pray, usually in the dark hours of night, I feel as though I’m holding Jeremy’s bald, broken, frail body in both hands, as if lifting him up before the alter and all I can cry out is “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy….Have mercy on this amazing man who has desired to grow in knowledge of You and pushes himself to follow You in all things….And have mercy on Eliana, Nehemiah and Anelise. Have mercy on these precious children that need their father. They need to grow up under his care and influence. Have mercy on them. Don’t take away their father so soon when they are so young. Lord, have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on us.” While we do not feel forsaken, we are weeping, crying out before our God to save us, not ultimately knowing what “saving us” will look like.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a highly anxious person but these last two months have brought out a whole new side of me. I feel like I’m going crazy, mostly because I don’t know how this will play out, and I don’t have any control. The conversations I have with myself in my head would be rather amusing if the situation we are in weren’t so dire. For example, when I hear the doctors making rounds and talking in lowered voices outside of Jeremy’s hospital room, my heart immediately begins pounding and I imagine they are discussing the various procedures on Jeremy as if they are just futile experiments for academic purposes, as if these doctors are all-knowing and know precisely how this will end and, for the sake of power, control or other terrible reasons, simply aren’t telling us. When this happens, I immediately begin telling myself none of that is true, each procedure is necessary, important, and for Jeremy’s best interest. I tell myself the doctors want Jeremy to get well, they want to beat this cancer and they aren’t just playing with our heads and hearts. The most important thing I tell myself is that the doctors believe Jeremy can handle each procedure, they believe the chemo is working and they won’t do the procedure or intervention if it could lead to his demise. I tell myself, repeatedly, now is not the time to give up hope. While they can’t predict the future, the doctors, too, are hoping and wanting Jeremy to make a full recovery. Ultimately, though, we are not in control, hence my head spins round and round as I have these anxious conversations with myself.
When I think about anxiety as it relates to faith, Abraham, Sarah and Isaac often come to mind. How could Abraham and Sarah not have had long seasons full of tremendous anxiety when their faith was tested? I mean, here is a couple that were told they would have a son. And it didn’t happen for a very long time. Eventually Sarah gave up and laughed at the thought of a child in her old age. Even though that had been promised by God of this truth, it was so long in coming it was nearly impossible to believe. Abraham even took matters into his own hands and addressed his own anxiety by having Ishmael with the handmaiden Hagar. Things had to be pretty bleak for the family at this point. Eventually, God kept his promise and Sarah had Isaac at a miraculously old age. What was the point of waiting, of being tested, failing those tests, only to have the promised filled so long after? What does it say about the God we believe in that he would make such promise and have his people experience all those years, likely full of anxiety, only to fulfill the promise in the end?
What does it say about the God we believe in that He would then, just a few years after Isaac’s birth, tell Abraham to take Isaac up the mountain and use him as a sacrifice? Why was Abraham put through that test? As Abraham and Isaac travel up the mountain, Isaac notices they have no lamb to sacrifice and ask his father where it is. This is when Abraham says “God will provide the sacrifice”. I like to think that after everything Abraham had been through in regard to the promise of Isaac’s birth, the various tests and trails, that Abraham had a great deal more confidence that God would provide and even spare Isaac. Maybe he wondered, though, how it would work out. Maybe he feared he would lose Isaac so God could bless him in some other miraculous way. I like to think that Abraham remembered all of his experiences with God to that point, especially the miracles, and his tremendous faith in God and great love for his son kept him walking up that mountain in spite of the challenge laid before him. And I’d like to think this is what this all says about the God that we believe in – that He delights in making promises to us and teaching us how to trust him so that we can profoundly and miraculously experience His faithfulness at the perfect point in time. After all, he did provide Abraham a ram at the last moment, protecting Isaac and demonstrating once again His faithfulness to those who trust in Him as Abraham did.
In the 11 years we’ve known each other, Jeremy and I have experienced too many direct blessings and promises fulfilled by God to type here. Our marriage is built on answered prayers that come with expectations of the fulfillment of future promises. So now that we are battling cancer, how will this all work? What does this say about our God?
For us, it doesn’t change Him or how we view Him. We never held a prosperity gospel belief that He promised us nothing but good things in this life. Rather, He has promised us His Faithfulness, Presence and Unending Love, which we have consistently experienced before and through this. We have always held the belief that He is in control, and He has been and remains good. He gave us each other, three beautiful children and a wonderful life together. As hard as it is to fully understand, this amazing God we love and trust is also the God of lymphoma and is here with us during this battle.
As we walk up this mountain, crying out to God, placing Jeremy at the alter, we have faith that this will work out, somehow, in fulfillment of His promises. I mentioned before that there is a ray of light shining down on Jeremy straight from heaven and that God made Jeremy everything he is for some big purpose. I wonder at times if this is it. Perhaps Jeremy, and all that he is was called into being, was for this season when people are coming together to pray for him, to draw nearer to God because of their concern for him. Or, that through this and the many blessings we are receiving in spite of the lymphoma, many others are blessed. I can’t say for sure. I can say that the ray of light shining down on Jeremy has only gotten brighter during these past two months. And that is what this – all of this – tells us about the God that we believe in.