When does a person think about health? For me, this question surfaced when I was sick, when I was far from healthy. For years I thought I was a healthy person. My doctors had declared how healthy and strong I was for my age. Then, very much to my surprise, I discovered that I had cancer. Health flew from my mind and disease and debilitation and death took health’s place. The plain and simple fact that a biopsy had found a significant cancer in my body immediately effected my identity. My sense of self was instantaneously altered . I became, from that hour of discovery, different. I was no longer healthy. Who was I? I was no longer even myself, but a cancer victim, and might soon become a cancer survivor. Whatever the outcome of this dread discovery, I thought I would never be the same. I was right, but I never dreamed what the difference would turn out to be.
Although I was more conscious of the disease within me than the health left in me, I was, in one respect, dealing with a common definition of health, as the absence of disease. My focus became, what do I do? The flip side naturally became, what do I stop doing?. The answers were obvious. We would immediately cancel our vacation. Any other personal concerns and commitments would be set aside without a second thought. I would concentrate only on the horrendous fact of the cancer inside my body and my response to it became one thought: Get rid of the cancer somehow, some way, somewhere and soon! Then I can get on being who I really am a healthy person.
I would only consider myself healthy when the disease was absent. The many options before me felt bewildering. I had to choose between ten different treatment possibilities. Each had its pros and cons. As I prayed and shared my dilemma, I became aware that all my energy was focused on one outcome: to annihilate the cancer as quickly as possible.
So, I chose surgery. It had the best track record. All the other treatments required long stretches of time, ranging from a year to many years, with frequent visits to doctors. Surgery would only take a few hours and I knew I could not be at peace with the thought that the cancer was growing, larger and more deadly each day. I wanted it over and done. Any delay was unacceptable to me.
I recalled that whenever Jesus encountered illness, he never delayed. He healed on the spot. He drove out the demons. To me, the cancer was not mine. It was demonic. I would not embrace it nor own it. It was an invasion that had only one purpose – death. I would wage war against this demon with all my strength, with as many allies as I could muster, and with the skills of the surgeon. After I had the surgery, I told myself, I would recapture my old healthy self again. I had much to learn.
The surgery was an enormous success. The cancer, according to the surgeon, was all gone. He cheerfully proclaimed, We got it all! I was relieved and thankful. My wife and daughters wept tears of joy. My friends rejoiced with them. I was on my feet the day following the surgery and discharged the next. I was home free. A lucky break? A healthy and strong patient? A brilliant surgeon? Yes, to some extent, all could be true. Yet, far more significant to me than good fortune, my robust health, or the peerless skill of the surgeon, was the immense reality of God. I knew somehow God made it all happen. God produced and prompted my healing. The facts stared me in the face. Even more amazing, is that God gave me his gracious gift of health in spite of my self-centered efforts to control events. This was my surgery, I thought. I was in charge. How wrong I was!
God did not favor me because of my goodness, obedience, faith, energy, will, determination or any aspect of my being or behavior. God acted so wonderfully in my crisis to make the outcome a blessing, because God is God. The reality was and is, as it has always been: This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes. (Psalm 118:23). The scriptures, which have long nurtured me, flooded my spirit with the same counter message to my self-centered focus, to the only reality that matters: God’s grace alone. From Psalm 115:1, I heard, Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory, for the sake of thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness! From Zechariah 4:6, I hard, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts. Finally, the message that defined my entire experience came from St. Paul in 1Corinthians 15:10, It was not I, but the grace of God which is in me.
How foolish even to think for a moment that if I believed in myself or any human being I would be the recipient of God’s grace? Yet God is so gracious, patient and understanding. He permitted me to trust myself, the doctors, friends, the famous hospital, until I saw, heard and felt with all my being as much of his being as I could contain. Of course, I was grateful to everyone involved in my care, but above all I am grateful to God for his mercy, love and saving health. I pray I never forget this momentous truth.
I must confess that the confidence I now place in God came from concrete and inescapable facts, not my initial faith. St. Anselm said, Believe in order to understand. God, in his wisdom, let me strive and strain to understand before I truly believed. In this backward way, faith found me, even though I was going about it in the reverse order of Anselm. . God’s unseen hand led me all the way through my denial, fear and unbelief. He led me through actual events, including conflicting medical advice, puzzling ideas and unexpected coincidences . . . to him. When I finally slid my body onto the gurney that took me into the operating room, I experienced a composure and a peace within that could only be God’s gift of grace. I was flooded with as much of God’s presence as I could dare to receive. I felt his love. I felt his healing energy.
God prepared me, step by step, to trust in the moment of my greatest need and in the midst of what could have been my most fearful moment. Instead of fear, I was filled with what I really needed, acceptance and courage. I received an inward and spiritual grace beforehand. He healed my spirit before he healed my body. The spiritual gifts prior to the surgery were sufficient. Whatever happened in the operating room no longer mattered. I was already experiencing real health. God led me to understand that health is not the absence of disease, but the presence of God. I did not take myself on the journey to healing. I was led. I tried to take the lead in the beginning.
It was exactly one month from the time I knew the bad news of cancer until I arrived at the hospital. In that time God lovingly pushed me entirely out of the driver’s seat. At first I was convinced that I could manage this crisis on my terms. I would not be the compliant patient. I would take charge of my own destiny. I would choose my course of action. No doctor would lead me by the nose. After all, I had more than thirty years experience as a minister, hospital chaplain, and mental health professional. I had helped others; surely I could help myself. My self-confidence was enormous. God would soon handle that.
The day following my diagnosis, I traveled to the West Coast to attend a conference on Spirituality and Healing sponsored by Harvard Medical School. This trip had been planned for months and hardly coincidental. What could I possibly need more than a huge dose of God’s spirit and his healing love? Immediately upon registering at the conference, I ran into a dear friend of mine, then another, finally an old college classmate I had not seen in forty-five years. I kept the cancer secret within me, but not for long. Not only did I need to get the cancer out, but I also need to get my feelings out. The next day, after a troubled sleep, I eagerly sought out my friends to listen to my plight. I asked for prayers. I asked for laying on of hands and anointing.
What I received in response to my fear and confusion was beyond my hopes. I received some of the most stirring, gracious and loving prayers in my life. I heard from speakers some of the most exciting, and yet humbling testimonies to God’s healing I had ever heard. Half of these witnesses were in the medical field and the other half in the religious arena. What a gift to receive the day after I uncovered the cancer.
My proud, confident spirit received its first drenching and dilution. My bravado was beginning to be whittled away. Tears came to my eyes. I shared my anxiety with my friends of old and new ones I found. I received a new baptism of new love. The discovery of how much I was loved by at least a few friends was like a miracle of new birth. More than any learning in my life, I could never again deny the staggering fact of how much love there is, not only for me but also for everyone.
This concrete, personal and genuine love I first received from my close friend, was quickly followed by more at the conference. This new appreciation of being loved so much has become a fountain of gratitude within me. I realized well in advance of my surgery, that the real source of health is love and that the most supreme love comes from the supreme lover, our Lord Jesus Christ. I sincerely believe that each gift of love has his stamp of approval on it.
All the love-experiences I received from family, friends and caring strangers, which could easily be discounted as coincidences, were so numerous, so powerful and so full o compassion, that I could not ignore them as the facts that God used to lead me closer to faith in him. This trip was just the beginning. The additional mega doses of love dispensed to me so generously by my precious wife, daughters, grandkids, in-laws and hundreds of friends, colleagues, conselees, and church companions were beyond my comprehension. The showering of love so filled my spirit, that I became healthier than I have ever been, long before the cancer was removed. Recapturing my old healthy self was denied. Instead I received a new and truly healthy self from the inside out. This was surely accomplished through Christ and his active and ever-present plan of salvation.
Being a cancer victim or a cancer survivor became irrelevant. My identity was no longer shaped by disease, but by God and his saving health. The surgical outcome could have turned out differently, and I would still be inwardly healthy in Christ. No further visitations of disease, ill fortune or death will ever be able to take away what God has given.
My scripture emblem for this knowledge became Romans 8: Neither life nor death nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God taught me as never before that health and salvation are one and the same gift of grace. I was reminded that a state of grace is a state of health as well as a state of salvation. In fact, I recalled that the word salvation comes from the Latin, salvus which also means both salvation and health. The word salve comes from the same root word. I knew God was the salve of my soul. , my savior and my healer.
I think it is interesting that some doctors speak of not saving their patients when they do not improve. No doubt the salvation of patients is crucial to most doctors. Part of God’s plan of salvation has always been mediated by our great physician, Jesus Christ. His will is health. His will is salvation. Here and now, as well as there and then.
Facing this recent cancer event was like being ushered into an old familiar life but wonderfully refreshed and renewed and recreated in and through the love of God in Christ Jesus, who mediated and presented health to me in every encounter and love experience. There were no coincidences, only God-incidences. God’s love happens. It happened to me and will continue. The same goes for everyone, who receive his love, even unrecognized and unacknowledged. As I have reflected on this reality, all persons depend on God in Christ, whether they know it or not. This conviction has guided my ministry, even though I often did not recognize this guidance. All the years I have served Christ as a parish minister and as a pastoral counselor, I was devoted to the same saving health without my total conscious knowledge.
Now looking back, I am aware that the saving words, redeeming insights, emotional encouragement, unspoken prayers, holy moments of awe, confronting care and startling healings that have taken place in the midst of my stumbling efforts and in spite of my mistakes are sure and certain proofs of God. He is the source of healing. He heals by and through his love. That is how I have experienced it.