Today is the beginning of the end . . . of my "poison with a purpose". I go in for my last treatment at IU Medical Center trusting that it, along with the previous five treatments, has accomplished the intended purpose of eradicating the insurgent b-cells. From the CT scan after number four, it would seem that is the case. These last two have been necessary to kill any small cancer cells that still may be lurking around.
For the past several weeks, I have been reflecting on Luke 9:23,24, where Jesus said:
". . . if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
What does Jesus mean by "take up his cross daily"?
As a matter of groundwork, let's be clear that the "cross" he is referring to is not the piece of 18 carat gold jewelry many Christians (and even some non-Christians) wear around their necks. The cross in Jesus' day would have been known to be one of the most cruel forms of Roman torture and execution, a hideous process of asphyxiation where the victim would become like a pathetic human yo-yo, pushing themselves up on their nailed or tied feet to create the possibility of taking a breath, only to collapse again due to exhaustion and exposure. This process could go on for hours before death's grip held them fast. From a number of gospel passages, including this one, it seems clear that Jesus knew the cross was to be his means of physical death.
Even so, Jesus was using this term, "cross", metaphorically. While the cross clearly represents suffering and death, it does not represent meaningless, purposeless suffering and death. In Jesus' case, he embraced suffering and death as a means of sacrifice (satisfying the penalty for our treason against, and turning our backs on, our Creator God) and as an act of service (showing his followers the way to gain their lives by losing it for his sake).
If we are not called to literally die on a Roman execution stake, then how do we take up our crosses daily?
As I explored in an earlier blog, we must be first willing to "deny ourselves" and the notion that our lives are about self-focus and the accumulation of wealth and possessions to satisfy our desire for control, power, comfort, etc.
We must be willing to see suffering as a chosen mechanism that God uses in our lives to get our attention and to conform us to the image of his Son (see Romans 8:28,29). I know my experience with cancer has opened my eyes to how much I attempt to avoid pain and suffering, but when faced with unavoidable trials like the one I am going through, God has met me in unimaginable ways. The closeness I have felt with my Savior during these past five months has been a blessing that has overwhelmed any sense of loss or pain that I have felt. Having so many friends and family pour out their love and prayers on my behalf has deepened my appreciation of the power of others in my life. Indeed, suffering has marked all the characters we read about in the Bible, not to mention the key periods of growth for the church throughout history.
God has called each of us in different ways to sacrifice for his sake and to serve others. For some it may be through intercessory prayer, for others it may be through financial giving, still others it could be through their time and talents. It could be in small ways that we relate to family members or friends, choosing not to put them in a box but being willing to see them in a new light, giving them the benefit of the doubt when it is in our power to do so. Some may be called to bear what seems to be the unbearable grief of the loss of a child, or a spouse or a parent. Others may be called to leave family, friends and familiar surroundings to go and serve Christ in a foreign land.
I believe Jesus' words in Luke 9:23,24 hold the key to living a powerful, Spirit-filled life as his follower. It is only by denying ourselves and embracing the suffering and pain through the "crosses" in our lives that we will truly experience the resurrection power that God promises us in his word (see Romans 8:11).
Susan and I have had a wonderful picture of this truth as we have observed close friends of ours who suffered early in their marriage when one of them was stricken with cancer. Due to treatments, they were unable to have children of their own, but in the midst of their suffering heard Christ's calling in their lives. They have gone on to be a profound blessing in the lives of others with cancer, counselors to many hurting marriages, founders of inner-city ministries, adoptive parents, and leaders within the church. They can see in hindsight that cancer and trials early in their lives were gifts from God that produced much fruit that benefitted others.
These friends recently encouraged us to meditate for a "a few months" on the following words written by Jesus' half brother, James:
"Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." James 1:2-4
Remember, James had a front row seat in watching his half-brother, Jesus, put these words into practice. Knowing that he left his eternal home in heaven to break into our earthly realm, become a man with the intention of giving his life a ransom for many, must have given James tangible evidence that the words he wrote were trustworthy.
In Christ alone,