Recent photo of my parents in my office

Recent photo of my parents in my office

July 15, 2007

The 70-Year Promise: 2004 Cancer

I have considered posting this blog for quite awhile, and now feel that it is right to do so. It has long been close to my heart, and I believe it the call of God to speak it out. So here goes.

One of my earlier blogs (A Foundation in Faith) recounted the story of how God spoke to me regarding my marriage to Margie, and how improbable it seemed at the time we broke up that we would ever get together again. Nevertheless, we reconnected EXACTLY at the date that God had told me we would. Upon discovering that the date matched up, that was a hilarious experience of God's power to fulfill his promises. Our marriage was full of joy and celebration. I learned what a sacramental union marriage is, as God became the center of what bound us together.

The reason I wrote the earlier marriage story is related to another word from the Lord that came to me in 2004 when I was recovering from cancer surgery and radiation. In August 2004, when we first found that I had brain cancer, we experienced a daily visitation of encouragement from God. It was like manna in the wilderness, water in the desert -- all of those biblical images of journeying through the valley of death. I'm experiencing many of those again, and finding how rich they are. I know I need to keep record of them, since they tend to fade with time. But this story is about one in particular.

First, however, the background: we discovered that I had a brain tumor because I had a grand mal seizure in the middle of the night, during which Margie thought I was dying -- convulsing in bed, moaning, incoherent. Such a thing had never happened to me before. My worst health problems had been headaches and colds. Margie called 911 in desperation, then family members, then our friends Dan & Sandy Kruse. Dan is an M.D., and he came over immediately. Apparently I put up quite a battle with the paramedics because I didn't want to be strapped down and taken to the hospital. Upon arrival, I came to consciousness gradually, and heard that a CT scan had revealed a tumor in the left temporal lobe of my brain. The doctor was reasonably sure that it was a meningioma -- one of the most common brain tumors, and nearly always benign. He suggested we might get a second opinion.

Through a connection in Chicago, we went to see a highly regarded neurosurgeon at Northwestern University Hospital, Dr. Hunt Batjer. He agreed to perform the surgery, and also thought it would be benign. I'll never forget entering the surgery with a high-hearted sense of humor. My sister Katherine, who home-schools my nephews and nieces, asked if they could have some of the tumor to examine. "No," the surgeon insisted. "Epidemiology will want the tumor -- but you can have the brain."

I thought that was hilarious (and still do!) But little did we know that the surgery would be much more serious, since the tumor was in fact a malignant hemangiopericytoma -- a very rare variant of the meningioma, one that often metastasizes within 5 years, and for which extended treatment methods are uncertain. Thanks be to God, the surgery went well, but I was required to go for 39 daily session of radiation to the brain. These were exhausting.

I was fixed to a slab with a plastic head mask so that I could not move in any direction where they were aiming the radiation. The door to the dungeon-like radiation room would slam, and the symbol of the experience felt like crucifixion. I had on a crown of thorns. I was alone. I was dying. I was told that I could lose my memory, my verbal skills, my learning abilities, all of my mental capacities. This, I must say, was not pleasant news. I came to rely more closely on the Lord at the time, and meditated much on the events at his own crucifixion, and how, in some ways, it was a privilege to share in his crucifixion. In other words, God was not punishing me by bringing me through this time of trial, but refining my faith and hope. [Incidentally, I had a couple songs that ministered to me at the time. I'm still figuring out how to load them onto the blog. Suggestions? I'll do it when I can or learn how.]

I chose during that time to trust in the goodness and hope of God, and to pray for recovery and healing. I kept working at 1/2 time, and then went back to work full time in January of 2005. I am grateful that I lost as few of my mental functions as I did (I notice some limitations in name/noun retrieval, and I fail to pick up new concepts as rapidly as before, but I'm also more tired by having two children!) In general, I'm blessed greatly with a functional recovery.

During that time of radiation and 1/2 day employment I sensed God's presence on a daily basis. I would go to my office, and there always seemed to be an e-mail message, a phone call, a Scripture reading, a piece of music, a gift -- some encouragement that was directly sent by the Lord to support me. This happened at home also. One time in the middle of the night I recall journaling and praying in our living room, and being aware of an angelic protection surrounding me. I was amazed that I would be the object of such a ministry, and asked "Why me?", meaning "Why would you descend to care or honor someone like myself, sinful and imperfect?" The answer was "Because my Lord took on your flesh." I was awed by the sense that the angels themselves do not share in the divine nature the way that we, fallen and broken though we are, are honored and called to do.

But on one occasion (and this is the central event of this entry), I received a word from the Lord that I will never forget. It came through a Wheaton graduate student from Ethiopia who had worked for me as a part-time employee. His name was Terefe, and he hadn't heard of my diagnosis and surgery until that very day. As soon as he did, he came to my office with a passage of Scripture he wanted to read, and then he wanted to pray for me. He began reading from Jeremiah 29, which many Christians will recognize as a frequent passage invoked for the future blessing of God. Beginning at verse 11, the text reads:

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."

But Terefe began reading at verse 10, which says,

This is what the Lord says, "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you..."

As Terefe read this text, I heard the very same voice that I had heard before, particularly with regard to Margie: "Give it two years" and "Do not fear, for I have given her to you." These words were not self-invented, and as a result I wasn't able fully to trust them, in the sense that they seemed to be coming as a fully external promise -- a gift that I would receive whether I had the means of obtaining it or not. Because as Terefe read verse 10, I heard the Lord say, "You are going to live to age 70, and possibly longer." Tears ran down my face, as it seemed God was confirming his promise, "For I know the plans I have for you..." with a specific encouragement to view life for the long term. It was also the nature of some of my soul's brokenness or longing that I had never had a vision for life beyond 40, and at the time I was 42. I didn't wish to die, but I simply didn't know what life could be like beyond 40. It was a powerfully healing moment. God was speaking to me of the length of my life, his promise, and my future hope.

Now, from an exegetical or historical/critical perspective, these words have nothing whatsoever to do with me personally. They were written to the exiles of Israel who had been sent to Babylon, and Jeremiah was telling them that after 70 years, they would return to Judea. But for some reason, these words came to me as though they were spoken by God for my situation. I certainly didn't seek for them or consciously elicit them. They simply came. It was an Abrahamic moment for me. I could only say, "Lord, be it done unto me according to your will. I may or may not live that long, but it seems to me that I have heard you say that. I believe -- help my unbelief."

Those words have sustained me for the last 2 and 1/2 years, and as cancer has recurred, I have had multiple opportunities to rethink that word. Do I believe it? Should I believe it? Lord, what should I think of this?

Here is what I have come to. First, I do not believe it is time for me to die. I believe that God still has a call on my life, and I desire to serve him as I can while I live. Next, changing and healing myself is not a possibility. This is a matter of God's work, and I can receive it from him, without at the same time considering it a matter of debt that I am owed. Obviously, continuing to live may not mean a life without pain!

But perhaps the most profound lesson I have been learning is my own need to submit to God's timing and calling for me. At one early time in my existence, perhaps in physical memories, perhaps in emotional wounds, in wrong or accurate perceptions, I came to the conclusion that life might simply be too painful or difficult to undertake, and I became willing to give up. I would become a victim, I would treat challenging circumstances as though life was unfair. Underlying this view was a hidden presumption that God himself was unfair to me. I have gradually repented of this sin (long hidden from my own eyes), not because God shamed me for needing his transforming grace, but because of his tenderness towards me. His loving plans for my life, refined even through discipline, had begun to show me how much my pride had led me to mistrust him.

In the evening prayer of Compline that Margie and I pray before bed, there is a quote from I Peter 5:8-9a: "Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith."

A few weeks ago, as I was praying, I felt the need to speak out a clear word of choice to the enemy. I basically said this: "You can amputate portions of my body, you can destroy my bones; you can rob me of memory and distort my brain; you can shorten my days and rend me with pain. But one thing I stand on: I will never turn from my love for the Lord or my faith in him. I choose life, I choose to live. I renounce my tendency to give in to the discouragement of death. In the name of Jesus Christ, be gone, and know that you have already lost the battle. My life is united with Christ, and I am secure in the promise of his resurrection. Death is swallowed up in victory!"

Then I had to say to the Lord, "Now, Lord, you must do this in me, since I am weak and can fail! I need you to sustain my faith and daily forgive my sin, since I carry this weakness within me. Continue to heal my soul, and strengthen me to accept challenges and pain as discipline for your glory."

So, at this point in my days, I ask all of you for these intercessions:

- that the Lord may sustain me for the length of days he has for me;
- that we may have great wisdom as we consult with Dr. Raizer (neurooncologist) on this Thursday, July 19th. He is likely to propose chemotherapy as my next treatment, and Margie and I have some questions about the wisdom of this;
- that the Lord give me the wisdom of how properly to spend the energy I have, that our children and Margie would be loved and nurtured, that I would do the ministry I should, and that I would know the most important things to do at my job.

If any of you are led to intercede for a clear release of energy for my life, or who believe that the promise I have received is from the Lord, I would thank you. I know that it may seem unbelievable or strange to many, yet for me it is a simply inescapable word that has focused my hope, even though it is not at all evident in my daily life or health or feelings. In fact, I think that living longer is not at all necessarily associated with less pain. I also don't think that it is necessarily a matter of detailed "truth" (e.g., 70 years or not). But the key point is that I know I am called to put my faith in God like Abraham did. This is not humanly possible. May God bring it to fulfillment in his own way, to his own glory.

In the meantime, God's blessings remain upon us all. All will become clear in his time!

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.



Anonymous said...

Dear John & Margie, God´s Word is faithful and true and ministers to our heart in all of our life´s moments. Just wanted to let you know my family and I are praying for you. I believe God speaks to us through the revealed Word in personal ways and uses it to strengthen, encourage and build us up when we are broken.
Let the Word that He has spoken to you be done according to His will as you have already prayed.
May your life´s testimony continue to be a testament to God´s faithful love for you and your wife and children. May His care during this time be all that you need.
We will pray God´s guidance for you and Margie for the appt. on the 19th.
Tania Tussuzian Berthault and family.

Henry Shuffle said...

Thanks so much for the update, John. I will continue to pray for you and your family. I'm really struck lately by how fragile hope can be, and therefore how we must guard it tenaciously and with God's daily ministry. Thank you for modeling that to me. Bless you!

Anonymous said...

John & Margie,

The only prayer I have been led to pray (regularly) for John is total and complete healing. I have no other prayers that feel appropriate at this time. It will continue to be my prayer as long as it seems so.

Jared Wilhelm

Sheila B. said...


Seventy, three-score and ten, very interesting and encouraging!

I've often thought that the Lord has led you through these troubling times that you might help the rest of us who are facing similar issues concerning our own mortality. I know I have been deeply blessed and encouraged.

Last week at this time I was in hospital. I'd awakened one morning with the left side of my face numb. I thought it was Bell's Palsy, but the next day it was accompanied by serious vertigo. Dan & Jonathan hustled me to the ER, and the physician, too, was convinced that I was exhibiting classic Bell's Palsy.

The CT revealed a small mass on the brain stem, but the ER physician remained fairly certain this was nothing important. To be cautious, however, he would order the MRI to check it out.

The small mass was a tiny (1 cm) hemorrhage in the brain-stem, pretty significant real-estate, an inoperable location where even a small bleed could affect my ability to swallow, to see, to hear, to speak, to live.

It was not until the third consulting physician informed me I could have died that I finally "twigged" to the seriousness of my situation.

In those night vigils in the hospital I thought about you and prayed for you.

Unlike you, I had no seizures, no particular unpleasantness at all once the vertigo departed. Just the facial numbness. In other words, I felt reasonably well though I had this time-bomb in my head.

Several years earlier in the same hospital, I'd been suffering violently after a rather complicated gall-bladder removal. At that time, though I was in no real danger of dying, I FELT that I was near death. This time, however, when I was in serious danger of dying, I FELT pretty good. A perfect illustration that the way things SEEM can be the antithesis of the way things ARE!

By God's mighty grace, I have returned home (with the long string of follow-up appointments ahead of me) with a thankful heart and a different viewpoint.

A friend who has experienced some prophetic gifting wrote me an email describing a dream she believes was from the Lord. In that dream she was attending my 70th birthday party! She was convinced that this was God's assurance that I was going to go on to live for a goodly while yet.

May each of us press on to know the Lord and to celebrate His amazing grace in our lives and to declare His wonderful works to the chidren of men!

You are hereby nvited to my 70th birthday party, dear brother!