Missing Out

It was a few days before Halloween and the McKinleyville High School Panthers football team was facing off with our rivals in Fortuna.  I debated whether to go to the game or to a costume party at church, finally settling on the party.  After all,  in the four years the school had existed we had yet to win a game, and it was always such a let-down after all the excitement of the pep rallies to ride home in a bus full of disappointed kids.

The party had not been so great and the next day I was already wishing I’d gone to the game when I ran into a friend.  I casually asked, “So, how bad was the score this time?”  But no, our team had finally won, and the celebration was—well, quite a celebration; and I’d missed it.

As I read the story of the ten virgins recently I recalled that weekend and realized that I had been like one of the five who were unprepared.  I had gotten tired of waiting and had stopped watching for the promised win that would surely come eventually; settling for something else because I didn’t have enough faith in my team.  But my disappointment was nothing compared to that of those who do not remain alert for the coming of the Lord—they will pay a much higher price than just missing out on the celebration of a winning game.

Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish.  Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.  But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.  And at midnight a cry was heard: “Behold, the bridegroom is coming;go out to meet him!”  Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps.  And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”   But the wise answered, saying, “No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.”  And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut.  Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, Lord, open to us!”  But he answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.”  Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
(Matthew 25:1-13)

Comfort Food

At the gym, sweating away on the elliptical and trying to distract myself from how much time was left to exercise, I was watching a cooking show on the TV in front of me.  The guest chef created a dish that looked and sounded delicious, and he described it as comfort food.  The host responded, “Well, that’s what food is all about—to provide comfort.”  I doubt that he even thought about what he was saying—it was just the polite response; but oh, how dangerous a comment if taken seriously.  To seek our comfort from food is to invite disaster, yet to be honest most of us probably do so on occasion.  Just smelling the dish this chef prepared would probably add ten pounds to my body, not to mention sending my cholesterol through the roof!

But the danger lies far deeper than the physical repercussions when we depend on anything or anyone other than God for our comfort.  Lives are wrecked because we try to sooth our wounds, not just with food, but with other things as well—everything from drugs, to shopping, to sex, to anything that gives us a temporary fix and makes us feel better. Even depending solely on a trusted friend can backfire because a time will always come when they will disappoint.

Every created thing to which we run for comfort will eventually fail, but God never will.  He can always be the place we go, whatever our need.

God is our refuge and strength,
A very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
Even though the earth be removed,
And though the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea;
Though its waters roar and be troubled,
Though the mountains shake with its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams shall make glad the city of God,
The holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved;
God shall help her, just at the break of dawn.
The nations raged, the kingdoms were moved;
He uttered His voice, the earth melted.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
Who has made desolations in the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
He breaks the bow and cuts the spear in two;
He burns the chariot in the fire.

Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!

The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

(Psalm 46)

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

(This is another excerpt from “I’m Still Standing” which deals with my journey through the battle with breast cancer.)

It was a normal Friday evening as I prepared for bed, gratefully anticipating the weekend ahead.  Whatever pleasant hopes that existed for the next two days were quickly dashed as a quick breast self-exam revealed, to my horror, a walnut-sized lump.  Though I worked as a registered nurse in a medical office, it was too late to call any of the doctors; there was nothing to do but wait until Monday morning.

The ensuing weekend was miserable, with thoughts of potential breast cancer looming in my mind—all of the “what-ifs?” were there, all of the fears of pain, loss, and the effect on myself and my family if I were to become seriously ill or to die.  There was never a moment when such thoughts were far away.

Monday morning finally arrived, and I doubt there was ever a time that I was so anxious to get to work in my entire life.  As soon as a doctor arrived I pulled him into an exam room to get checked out.  He was appalled and immediately called for an appointment with a surgeon and ordered a mammogram that same morning.  Filled with fear and dread, I walked over to the surgeon’s office and waited for the dire diagnosis that would surely come.  Imagine my relief when he was able to tell immediately that it was just a big cyst, which he proceeded to drain on the spot.  His diagnosis was quickly confirmed by further tests.

Thus started a pattern that lasted for more than ten years—cysts that appeared on my mammograms, generally causing enough concern to the radiologists that they performed ultrasound exams to rule out tumors.  Eventually I became complacent about it, never worrying when a lump was discovered, and never getting too excited when further tests were required.  So complacent that I finally skipped my regular mammogram for a year or so, thinking it was no big deal because it was always the same story.  Besides, not only did I reject the idea that I could be at risk for breast cancer, but life was very busy.  We had moved and it was a hassle to locate new doctors; numerous other health issues had overwhelmed me; and surely I was just too young for all of this and enough was enough.  Wrong.

It was another Friday.  I had finally gone for a regular mammogram and had been called back for another view.  No big deal.  I’d been through this before.  Besides, there wasn’t even a lump that could be felt manually.  The extra pictures were taken and it was no surprise when the technician said the radiologist would like to do an ultrasound.  But this time was different, for when the tech left the room to get the doctor to come and look at the results there was an air of trepidation in her manner that was unsettling.  Sure enough, the doctor was not pleased with what she saw and wanted to perform a needle biopsy on the spot.  I eventually walked out with her assurance that she would call me on Monday as soon as the biopsy result was received, but that she was sure it was cancer.

For the second time in my life I faced a weekend of not knowing, a weekend that could have been filled with the same fears as before, but this time it was different.  In the intervening years God had been at work in my life—teaching me to trust him in the most difficult circumstances.  I had been irritated when I turned 50 and needed an “overhaul.”  During that year I had two surgeries within one month, the first for kidney stones and the second for gallbladder removal.  I figured that since the maximum out-of-pocket expense on our insurance had been met and it was paying 100%, it would be a good idea to just get everything possible done during that year.  So I did—physical exams, colonoscopy, mammogram—even a long-term ingrown toenail finally got fixed.  By the time all was finished I figured I was good for another 50 years.  Wrong again.

Two years later I endured, from out of the blue, a frozen left shoulder for no apparent reason, a perforated colon with peritonitis that required a short-term colostomy and two surgeries, and (just when I thought it was all over) a fractured hip that also required two surgeries.  Added to this was the stress of fixing-up and selling our house, remodeling and downsizing to a condo one-third the size and an hour away; all of which contributed to a tremendous strain on my marriage.  Then, a couple of years later, an attack of diverticulitis threatened to perforate my colon again and required another hospitalization, seven days of IV fluids, and several weeks of recovery.  But God was faithful.  No matter how traumatic; from the words of a surgeon, “This is as bad as it gets.  There’s a team on the way in and we have to operate.  You may not make it;” to the frustration of being incapable of helping in any way with our move and having to depend totally upon others to make it happen; God was there, teaching me one small, painful step at a time to just trust him—no matter what.

So, again, this weekend of facing the threat of breast cancer was different, as was receiving and dealing with the dreaded diagnosis on Monday.  In my journal I recorded the following entries…

…Today I had a breast biopsy—today I was told it’s almost certainly a cancer—today I have been given another opportunity to live my faith.  Nothing can happen to me unless God allows it.  I am his and I am here to bring him honor—it’s all about him, not about me.  I submit to the hand of my Lord—yes, I ask for healing, but ultimately, cancer or not, I trust that the purposes of my Lord will be fulfilled in me…

…As I contemplate faith, I wonder how strong is my own.  I should find out today if I do, indeed, have breast cancer.  At the moment I have faith that God will bring me through it—that it will not bring me down.  But at some point we die—at some point I will die if I’ve heard correctly (as opposed to being alive for Christ’s return).  The time that was appointed before I was born will arrive.  I’ve faced it before when my colon perforated, but how would I handle the certain knowledge that I had a given amount of time?  How well would my faith hold?  Would I give into sorrow, or fear, or worry?  Or, would I embrace the moment with joy? God knows and he’ll never give me more than I can handle.  So, for today, for everyday of my life, I look to him—and Lord, while I certainly hope for a benign result, if this is something you’re allowing I’m determined to go through it in faith—to be a witness and to draw attention to your goodness—to your ability to see me through.  I trust that what the enemy means to destroy me will be used by you to make me stronger.  I have a destiny I know I will fulfill—I have a destiny, and as long as I hold on in faith it cannot be thwarted by the enemy.  So, my Lord, help me to hold on to you—my rock, my solid rock—my redeemer, my teacher, my friend, my strength…

…So, breast cancer it is.  How do I really feel about it?  The reaction of others ranges from shock, sorrow, or pity to calm acceptance.  It’s interesting that the calmest reaction came from a woman who expressed her faith in God.  She commented that she and I have it settled, and the worst thing that could happen in the long run is that we die and go home.  The most shaken was one who exhibits no apparent faith in God.  But again, what of my own reaction?  I say to others, “no big deal;” I claim faith; I sleep well; while I’m not thrilled with the idea of surgery and radiation, I have no need of a support group.  Yet I found myself on the verge of tears several times yesterday.  Lord, help me be honest with myself, with you, and with others.  This is happening with your permission.  My life is yours.  My body is yours.  I trust you to bring me through this in victory, with opportunities to share your love with others that I would never have otherwise.  I pray for good that is equal to sevenfold in damages against the enemy for this attack on my life.  Deliver me from fear for I choose to trust in you.

Again and again, in my journey from fear to faith, the cries and praises of the psalmists, the prophets, and Job have comforted me.  How I thank God that, as Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 1, there is nothing new under the sun—how I thank him that the comfort he provided to those Old Testament believers is still available to me today—how I thank him that I, too, can walk through the valley of the shadow of death and fear no evil.

Moving Mountains

“Moving Mountains” is an article that grew out of my journal entries during 2006 when I was fighting breast cancer.  It is included in my book, “I’m Still Standing”.

Mountains. How I love the mountains! And I’m not alone—any season of the year will find many heading to there to relax—from mountain climbing or biking to snow skiing or sledding; from swimming in a mountain lake to skating on its ice; from gathering around a campfire on a warm summer night to relaxing in front of a roaring fireplace on a snowy winter night, the mountains are an amazing retreat. Flower-carpeted hillsides in the spring or snow-capped peaks in the winter, they are things of such majestic beauty and grandeur that any description seems inadequate. But mountains also have another side. They are places of terrible danger. Every year we hear of hikers being lost, of people being stranded in the snow with tragic results, of swimming or skiing accidents, of avalanches. Perhaps the difficult, dangerous aspect is why we so often think of the problems or challenges in our lives as mountains that we must climb, ever straining to get to the top. Certainly cancer, or any other disease for that matter, can seem like a mountain. So, as I contemplated my diagnosis and the long and difficult treatment that it would entail, I also contemplated what Jesus had to say about mountains. In his words, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20b, NIV)

How often have I read this verse and visualized a physical mountain on the horizon; questioning or doubting the meaning—assuming that my faith is too weak because I know that the mountain is simply not going to get up and reposition itself no matter what I say or pray. Not that I doubt God’s word; I just don’t expect to see a mountain move.

But what if the mountain is really something in my life that is just too big for me to overcome? What if it’s financial trouble? What if it’s infertility? What if the mountain is cancer—or death? What if it’s a problem that’s so massive that I can’t see any way through or around it? Faith will move those mountains—yes it will—I know it will! In fact, it may appear to everyone else that the mountains are still there—but suddenly, for me, it can be as if they no longer exist. Even death? That’s a biggie. But yes again! Death is impending sooner or later for all of us—but death is only the end of physical life, and none of us is even promised a tomorrow, let alone a week, a month or a year. So if I really believe what God has told us—if I really believe that death is swallowed up in victory and has no sting—then what’s the big deal? The big deal is my own fear—fear of pain, fear of loss, fear of the unknown.

So, what will I do? I can cower in fear in the shadow of the mountain, worried about the very real dangers ahead—worried about the pain of surgery, the effects of chemotherapy and radiation. Or, I can worry about what will happen once I get to the top of the mountain—what if I find a mountain range ahead instead of a wide, pleasant valley flowing with abundance? What if I find an uncertain future filled with another illness or metastasis? I have to face those fears head-on and recognize them for what they are—challenges that have been placed in my way by a devious, cruel enemy which can be removed with faith. I get to decide who wins. Fear or faith is my choice. Which will it be? Two reactions that are diametrically opposed; but one leads to anxiety, sorrow and defeat, and the other results in peace, joy and victory. No contest—faith is my only choice.

This is the foundation of my life—God is real—his Word is true—my life is his—he is my refuge, my place of rest, my peace and my hope. Oh, he may deliver me in different ways—sometimes he will take me through a mountain before he removes it. I may come to a mountain and realize there’s a tunnel—a day by day way to keep on keeping on. I can’t see any light at the other end, but I know it’s there and I just have to keep going. Once I’m through, I look back and the mountain has disappeared—vanished into thin air as if it never existed. By faith, the mountain has moved. Or, if it can still be seen, it’s now just a little blip up against a far-away horizon, nothing more than a molehill.

Other times I may have to climb a mountain, encountering one challenge after another along the way—the landslides, storms, wild animals, hunger and pain of life—but I keep on—and finally I arrive at a summit to find a vast panorama of beauty ahead. So I continue on my journey, occasionally glancing back, and once again the mountain has disappeared—it’s shrunk down to the size of the distant hills.

I’ve lost count of the mountains my Lord has moved for me. He’s proven himself over and over, even when my faith was so weak there was hardly any at all—so weak that it wasn’t any bigger than a mustard seed. And so, as I consider the fact that the cancer is something for which I must be treated; as I recognize that it’s not an easy battle; I also realize it’s really a non-issue because my God is the mover of my mountains.