Sunday, May 24, 2009

"For when I am weak, then I am strong."

Dear Friends and Family,

Life is filled with paradoxes - seemingly self-contradictory statements with an underlying truth - including literary, mathematical, philosophical and even certain folk riddles. Some are rather technical, others inane. While the Apostle Paul was not employing a literary technique when he penned these words - "For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10) - he was making a profound statement about a spiritual truth that he had experienced first hand. To this day, countless followers of Jesus Christ can also affirm the same in their own lives.

As I write today, it has been 10 days since my first chemotherapy treatment. While I have not experienced many side-effects, I do feel weak, tired and my body has ached at times like I have the flu. I take all these symptoms as signs the medicines are working. Although I am thankful that I am not experiencing greater side-effects, I must confess that I wish I had my pre-treatment level of energy. Like most, I don't want to be weak; I want to be strong, substantial, self-sufficient.

Weakness has an interesting effect, however, as it causes us to look to other sources of strength. I think this is Paul's point in his second letter to the church at Corinth. Paul (like me) had some physical malady - he called it a "thorn in the flesh".  He prayed to the Lord Jesus three times for him to take it away. This was Jesus' answer to him:

"My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness". (2 Corinthians 12:9)

I am learning, as Paul learned, to call on a power far greater than my own meager strength, even at its peak. Unfortunately, when I am strong, my tendency is to rely on my own strength far too often, even though I know it pales in comparison to what Christ has availed to us by his Spirit. His power is perfected in weakness, in part then, because we are willing to lay aside our own self-sufficiency and call on his other-worldly power.

This is not easy for me, but I find myself in a place where I have no choice, which is in fact a severe mercy - severe in my diseased circumstances, merciful because I am moved to call upon the One who has the power to heal, transform and even raise the dead.

Others likely have much deeper, fire-forged insights into this spiritual truth of Christ's power being perfected in weakness. Please share them on the blog. I and others will be encouraged and benefit from your experiences.

I'll close with what many believe to be the greatest, most important paradox in human history - a cruel form of Roman torture and death (the crucifix) represents hope, redemption and new life. This paradox can only be true because Jesus took his own prescribed course for God's power being perfected in weakness. In laying down his life willingly (John 10:11), he conquered death. In becoming sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21), he payed the penalty for sin, satisfying God's holy wrath. In being swallowed by the powers of darkness, he defeated them and sealed their doom (Revelation 12:9-11). We know these truths are not the stuff of fairy tales, because the tomb was empty (Luke 24:6, 1 Corinthians 15).

I am glad that paradox exists.

In Christ alone,

Sunday, May 17, 2009

So Good. . . So Far . . .

Dear Friends and Family,

Thank you for your prayers and thoughts this past Thursday when I experienced my first cycle of chemotherapy. God answered your many prayers as I did not suffer the predicted side effects during the first infusion of one of the drugs, nor have I dealt with any significant side effects at all with the exception of a headache that evening. I am grateful.

I have a confidence that the tough medicine is working, even though the side effects are not manifesting themselves. It may be my imagination, but I do sense some sort of activity in the areas where the tumors are present in my body, within my chest and pancreas. Please continue to pray that they will kill the "insurgents" and minimize the "civilian casualties and collateral damage". One down. Five to go.

I have signed my recent notes "In Christ Alone". His presence has been with me from my first day in the hospital over a month ago until now. In addition to being blessed by the recent Christian hymn by that title, I would like to quote a few words by A. W. Tozer from his book "The Pursuit of God" that amplify my own reflections and experience of Christ during this trial:

"When religion has said its last word, there is little that we need other than God Himself. The evil habit of seeking "God - and. . ." effectively prevents us from finding God in full revelation. In the "and" lies our great woe. If we omit the "and", we shall soon find God, and in Him we shall find that for which we have all our lives been secretly longing.

We need not fear that in seeking God only we may narrow our lives or restrict the motions of our expanding hearts. The opposite is true. We can well afford to make God our All, to concentrate, to sacrifice the many for the One (Christ alone). . . 

The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One. Many ordinary treasures may be denied him, or if he is allowed to have them, the enjoyment of them will be so tempered that they will never be necessary to his happiness. Or if he must see them go, one after one, he will scarcely feel a sense of loss, for having the Source of all things he has in One all satisfaction, all pleasure, all delight. Whatever he may lose he has actually lost nothing, for he now has it all in One, and he has it purely, legitimately and forever."

Tozer's words are worthy of reflection, especially in a world of "much-ness" and and "many-ness" - so many distractions, so many things competing for our ultimate affections. According to the scriptures and in my experience, there is only One who is worthy of our complete devotion and adoration. . .

In Christ alone,


Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Poison with a Purpose

Dear Friends,

I am writing to you on the "eve of destruction" - of my cancer cells, that is - as my first chemotherapy infusion starts tomorrow at 9 am at IU Medical Center. I like to think of this next phase as "poison with a purpose" since the drugs I will be given will attack the cancer cells, but at the same time, kill many types of good cells in my body. Four of the five drugs are not targeted in any way, so as they destroy fast growing cancer cells, they will also kill other cells which replicate frequently, such as white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets and cells lining my stomach and intestines. The other medicine is a monoclonal antibody targeted to a specific antigen on the surface of the aberrant b-cells. It will attach itself to those cancer cells and call on my body's death squads to kill the intruders.

So, the goal is to wipe out the insurgents, knowingly suffer collateral damage and civilian casualties, then secure the perimeter and build up sustainable defenses so there will be no more enemy infiltration. Heavy artillery. Special forces. Tough medicine.

There are times when tough medicine is called for, especially when the illness is terminal, or the prospects dire. I along with 66,000 others who are diagnosed with b-cell lymphoma every year are fortunate to have medicines which provide some solid hope of a cure, although there is still room for significant improvement. There are, however,  tens of thousands of patients with other types of cancers and diseases who are not so fortunate - a clarion call for continued bio-medical research and development around the globe, both public and private.

In all aspects of life, not just medicine or the military, drastic measures and harsh solutions are often required. In politics and foreign policy great risks need to be taken to "sue for peace"; in parenting we may need to take stern measures to reign in a wayward child; even in sports, like my beloved baseball, we have the late inning tactic of the "suicide squeeze play" to bring home a runner on third base to score a run, or to be mercilessly tagged out by the catcher.

From a spiritual perspective, there is a disease which is worse than cancer, Alzheimers or serious heart disease. The Bible calls it "sin". It is not a very popular topic during cocktail parties, or on blogs, nor is it often brought up in many of the pulpits in our churches today for fear of turning off the congregants, but it is serious and deserves our resolute attention.

In the midst of his "sermon on the mount" found in Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus spoke of various types of sin that often befall us - anger, lust/adultery, divorce/broken relationships, swearing, retaliation, dealing with your enemies, attitudes toward the poor, judging others, and so on. At one point (Mt. 5:29-30), he sternly warns: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell."

I mentioned in an earlier blog that Christ is doing surgery on me of a spiritual kind, even if I thankfully avoided my scheduled pancreatic surgery. This type of surgery is dealing with sin in my life that still needs to be removed, or in Jesus' words, torn out and cut off. I am motivated to take this deep look and employ this tough medicine because I see how far short I fall from God's holy standard, and Christ's sinless example while he was on this earth. I am motivated by gratitude towards him for the sacrifice he made on my behalf on the cross. Even if I know my sins are forgiven based Jesus' death and resurrection, I want to hear "well done, good and faithful servant" when we meet face-to-face.

I wish it did not take cancer, or difficult situations and suffering, to motivate us to take the hard, deep look and use the tough medicine of repentance. God designed us so that pain often has a purpose, requiring us to poison those areas of our lives that keep us from following him. Our time is shorter than we often imagine, as I have been clearly reminded, so a bona fide "sense of urgency" regarding these matters is justified.

Here's to dead cancer cells and dead sin in our lives. . .

In Christ alone,


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Post from Susan

(The following is a post from my wonderful wife, Susan.)

Dearest friends,
True to my nature, I have been researching nutrition and supplements to help build Newt's immunity before, during and after chemo.  I am learning a lot even in the midst of conflicting theories and advice.  Mostly, for now, I am focusing on preparing a variety of healthy foods and supplementing with basic vitamins, and trusting God to lead us each step as we take one day/week at a time.
I have been reflecting on Psalm 33 this week.  I wrote it out and posted it on my refrigerator so I will remember it on our journey:
The plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of His heart through all generations.
No king is saved by the size of His army; no warrior escapes by His great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance, despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love
to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the LORD;
He is our help and our shield.
In Him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in His Holy Name.
May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD,
even as we put our hope in you.
Psalms 33: 11, 16-22
Our hearts are at peace knowing that despite the uncertainty of the past weeks and the uncertainty of the next, God's purposes for us and this trial He has given us have been established from before the foundation of the world.  What an amazing thought that is!  It is so humbling, sobering and yet, what a gift.  God has chosen to do and teach us something through this that in His unfailing love for us, He knows we could not learn some other way and we need in order to make us trust Him more.
I have been tempted more than once to take comfort in the statistics and stories of those "cured" of lymphoma, both through chemotherapy and nutritional supplements.  I look at Newt and he is so strong, and I think that surely he can beat this. How I am prone to rely upon what I can see and do.  But God has shown me in these verses from the Psalms that "a horse," whether it be a chemo horse or a nutritional horse, is a vain hope for deliverance. Despite great strength of both, they cannot save Newt, or me.  Even Newt's strength, "goodness," or integrity cannot save him.  But GOD, whose eyes are on us who fear Him, who love Him, whose hope is in HIM, is the one who delivers from death, even as He kills the cancer in Newt's body and restores him to health.
This verse reminds us and focuses our sight so that we wait in hope for the LORD.  HE is our help and our shield (though we walk through the fire we will not be burned...see Isaiah 43:1-7).  
While there have been many worrisome moments and the night is darkest on those occasions when we have not been able to sleep because of Newt's pain, we turn in trust to God to deliver and help us.  As Isaiah says later in verse 11 of that same chapter, Is. 43, "I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me, there is no Savior."  How our hearts rejoice in that truth because we know that He has redeemed us with His own blood, through the death of His own Son, and that nothing can be against us if God is for us.
Thank you so much for your continued prayers.  Newt's first chemo treatment is on Thursday so please pray for him as we begin this phase of the battle. We are so honored that you are praying for or thinking of us; know that we are praying for you as you pray for or think of us.  Please keep joining us as together we hope in God's abundant and unfailing love for each of us.
With much love in Christ,

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Definitive Diagnosis and Treatment Plan

Dear Friends,

Thank you for your prayers and for your comments on the blog, your emails, your cards and calls. You have been a source of deep encouragement for Susan, me and the children. We are grateful for your support and friendship.

We met today with my oncologist/hematologist at IU Med Center. The pathology results were back from the Nat'l Institute of Health  as well as the latest testing at IU. My diagnosis is diffuse large b-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It is one of the more common forms of lymphoma and has a standard chemotherapy treatment protocol. This is much better news than the original diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and certainly is better than having some rare form of lymphoma where the treatment would be less clear. Thanks be to God for answering our prayers.

The bone marrow biopsy revealed no detectable cancer in my bone marrow or blood. Further, the PET scan revealed no detectable cancer in any other tissue besides the pancreas and the mediastinal area in my chest. Again, thanks be to God for answering our prayers.

While the disease will be staged as IV because it has spread outside the lymph nodes, my prognostic index is still fairly good. In fact, the doctor indicated that my situation would suggest an 80% "cure rate" is possible should they be able to kill all the cancer during this first round of chemotherapy.

I will be starting chemotherapy next week (no surgery and likely no radiation required, another answer to prayer!). I will have six cycles, one every three weeks. The side effects are problematic with this therapy (R-CHOP), so please pray that it will kill all the cancer cells, but that I will also tolerate the side-effects.

Remaining cancer free for two years will be an important hurdle; however, the "cured" label will not be used until five years of being cancer free. I am in the Lord's hands in this regard, but I can assure you we plan to follow this plan of attack and win.

We have been so encouraged by the testimonies of how God is meeting different people who are praying for me in unique ways. If you are so moved, please continue to share how the Lord God is working in your life in specific ways as you pray and reflect on what he is teaching you.

I will close with a passage of scripture that our family has been meditating on that has aptly described our situation and also provided a spiritual roadmap:

"Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen."
(I Peter 5:6-11)

In Christ alone,


Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Waiting is the Hardest Part. . .

Dear Friends,

A young Tom Petty sang that "the waiting is the hardest part", and my guess is we can all agree with him on one level or another. Today is the four week anniversary of my medical odyssey dealing with pancreatitis, blood work and IV's, ultrasounds, CT scans, supposed pancreatic cancer, a scheduled Whipple surgery, X-rays and EKG's, MRI's,  needle biopsies, a surgical biopsy, PET scan, and bone marrow aspiration. So, you might be asking, where are we after this "full meal plan" of diagnostics?

We're still waiting.

On Friday, we received the pathology report from my surgical chest biopsy. While the results are consistent with large b-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, there are some elements which are puzzling to the IU pathologists, so they have sent the sample to the National Institutes of Health to have a top cancer pathologist render her opinion. 

We hope to learn more about her views by next Wednesday when I have an appointment with an Oncologist/Hematologist at IU. On Monday, I meet with a supportive care doctor to determine how to best build and support my immune system. Later in the week, we plan to travel to Northwestern University Medical School to consult with an oncologist/hematologist who specializes in rarer forms of lymphoma, as it seems that mine is not quite "garden variety".

So, why is waiting so difficult for most of us? It seems to first be an issue of control - as in, who's in control. When we are waiting on someone or something, that person or event has a measure of control over our lives. Whether we are waiting at a stoplight, waiting for a friend to show up at a meeting place, waiting on your spouse to head out the door, waiting on a response to a job application, waiting on a medical diagnosis, even waiting to see a loved one again in heaven, waiting can be frustrating and create impatience and anxiety in our lives.

In the midst of my health uncertainties, however, God is teaching me an important truth that I know intellectually, but often behave as if I do not: I am not ultimately in control of my own existence, but God is. It is easy with our technology and wealth in the USA to fool ourselves into thinking we have more control over our lives than we really do. This line of thinking may seem like a giving up of control, but I would suggest that it is closer to surrendering the illusion that we were in ultimate control to begin with. 

If we are not ultimately in control, then who/what is? A high percentage of people today might say "chance", even "fate", or possibly some form of impersonal "providence". Many would say "God"; however, their conception of God is closer to the deist's notion of him as the absent clockmaker who created the world and then went off on some cosmic vacation in another galaxy. Not only should we reject the modernists' belief in random chance or the notion of blind fate, but also the view that God is somehow uninvolved in the lives of his people. This absent God is certainly not the Heavenly Father to whom Jesus Christ bore witness in the gospels: "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows." (Mt. 10:29-31)

If control is the first issue making the wait hard, then trust becomes the second. If I cannot ultimately trust in myself or the randomness of life, then is God trustworthy?  I believe He is. Jesus taught and demonstrated to his disciples, "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened." (Mt. 7:7,8) He also promised, "I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." (Jn 11:25,26)  In the shortest statement of God's trustworthiness, the apostle Paul writes in Romans 5:8 "but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."

Ok, if God - in and through Christ - has demonstrated his trustworthiness, why does He make us wait? Control and trust. He knows that by making us wait on Him, even in the midst of suffering, pain and confusion, we will come to know that He is in control and we are not. Further, when we turn to Him and ask in Jesus' name, we discover Him to be loving and faithful on our behalf. . . always. Read the Bible, and you will see that nearly all of its stories have to do with people waiting on the Lord to save them, reveal himself to them, or deliver them. Noah waited for months on the rain, Abraham and Sarah waited for decades for a son, Job waited in pain and in loss for restoration, Moses and the Israelites waited and wandered for two generations in the desert, David waited in exile for 13 years for the promised throne of Israel, and Mary and Martha even waited on Jesus while Lazarus lay in the grave for four days.

I am forced, then, to disagree with Tom Petty. Waiting is not necessarily the hardest part, it is often the essential part, because it drives us to the only One who has satisfying answers to our deepest questions. Psalm 40, written by King David (quite possibly while in exile), has meant much to me during these past four weeks. "I waited patiently for the Lord, he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my footsteps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord."

Waiting on a difficult diagnosis has not been easy, but it has been good in many ways. I am not in ultimate control of my destiny, as I have been abruptly reminded over the past few weeks, but I know the One who is. And He is good and trustworthy and always faithful. . . regardless of the circumstances.

In Christ alone,