NewWay Ministries

The Search for my Center:
Four Days Before Cancer Surgery

Larry Crabb
Aug. 11, 2011

It's now 8:15 Monday morning August 8, 2011. Last evening 20 or so friends gathered to pray. It was Sunday, but Friday's coming, the day of my surgery. Dr. Neff, my surgeon, expects good results - liver malignancy, local lymph node involvement, plus a stone-loaded gall bladder he'll remove while he's in the vicinity. Prognosis is positive, guarantees are unavailable.

Literally thousands are praying. If you're reading this, you are likely among them. In His darkest night, our Lord prayed alone. All His friends had deserted Him. Mine have gathered around me and my wife. As always, my suffering in not worthy to be compared with His.

Dozens of concerned friends have raised the "how're you doing" question to a level of genuine sincerity. Until a couple of days ago, my best answer was trite. For whatever reason, a heavy travel schedule right up to a week before surgery included, I hadn't searched for my center. I had little awareness of what was going on in my heart, mind, and soul.

That realization startled me. I'm known, justifiably so, as someone who looks inside, who explores his inner depths. But I had deflected serious questions with light humor, telling people my surgeon was throwing in a tummy tuck and face lift for free. Why? Was I living in denial? Had fear conquered me? Was I afraid I'd find too little of God to sustain me? Tough questions began my search.

On Sunday, August 7, I woke up at 5, got up right away, and was sipping on extra hot latte by 6 at a nearby coffee shop with a pad of paper in front of me, a Bible next to it on the table, and a pen in my hand. Two hours later I had scribbled 8 pages that chronicled my search to discover what was going on in me as I faced cancer surgery.
What I wrote early Sunday morning I read Sunday evening to my friends as they prepared to pray for Rachael and me. She preceded me in a wonderful display of faith-grounded authenticity. With tears she shared that her "Psalm 119: 164 commitment" to praise God 7 times a day (read the psalm) was running into trouble. That morning we had together listened to a sermon on heaven. Five days earlier at a conference in England, we heard a plenary address on heaven. Was God preparing her? Was He telling her I'd soon be there? Rachael was troubled. And yet she embraced her fear because she saw it as soil in which soul-anchoring trust could grow.

Then it was my turn. To wonderful friends, I read my unedited effort to search for my center, to put into words a real answer to the question, "How are you doing?" The following is now a typed, lightly edited version of what I read to my prayer group last night. I want to share it with you, a larger group of praying friends. It's long. But an honest search takes time. Here it is.

* * *

It's no coincidence that yesterday's mail brought me a copy of Dr. James Houston's most recent book, in pre-published manuscript form. The title drew me to know that Aslan was moving ahead of me, guiding my search. The title? A Vision for the Ageing Church: Renewing Ministry for and by Seniors. As of July 13 and August 3, Rachael and I (in reverse order) were positioned exactly 3 years away from turning 70. Was God opening our eyes to a new vision?

As I'm now skimming the book (it's about 6:30), Jeremiah 32: 40 and 41 have appeared in my mind. The Spirit? I think so.

"...I will never stop doing good for them. I will put a desire in their hearts to worship me, and they will never leave me. I will find joy doing good for them and will faithfully and wholeheartedly replant them in the land".

As I read those verses, I remembered what the nurse said to me last Friday after my successful pre-op evaluation. It felt provocatively odd. "You're in great health. You're good to go for cancer surgery next Friday." That deserved a quick chuckle then. But now, as I reflect on that strange sentence, my search is getting underway. God, let me see the good You're up to. What's the "great health" of soul that's preparing me for medical work on my diseased body?

My search is beginning in an unexpected direction. I was looking for difficult but denied emotions, things like worry, fear, frustration, doubt, guilt. Instead, the word dialectic is coming to mind. I barely know what the word means. But I just now read in Dr. Houston's book that the Danish word for dialectic (Gjentagelse) means that something we see (Gjen = already in existence) is re-interpreted in a original way (at tage = a truly new reality). As Dr. Houston put it, "the same" is cast in a new light as "the other".

I wonder if it can be put yet another way. Dialectic involves looking at a fact, what I experience as a presently felt reality, and viewing it in a context that infuses it with new meaning, interpreting what I can see and feel, a visible fact, by what only the eyes of faith opened by God can see and only the God-enlivened Spirit within me can feel, invisible truth.

Recently, Dr. Houston said goodbye to a close friend and colleague as his friend's long, slow battle with cancer brought him near death. "I learned from this experience," Dr. Houston wrote, "that the despair of death in our culture points to a despair of love as something fickle and easily lost".

I'm confident that my community tonight will not wallow in the despair of death that would be appropriate if we were to despair of love as fickle and easily lost. Neither will we glibly depend on a presumptuous guarantee of answered prayer for restored health, but rather on the triumph of love, a love always present that will empower me to reveal Christ no matter what happens. That desire is in my center. The celebration of love-provided life re-interprets the reality of cancer's uncertainty. Only such a dialectic gives my wife and me reason to "not be afraid of the terrors of the night" and to "not dread the disease that stalks in darkness nor the disaster that strikes at midday". Thanks, Joe, for the sculpture that visualizes those verses in Psalm 91: 5 and 6. It just occurred to me that surgery begins Friday at 8:30 and ends at midday, a fact that scares me as I read the last phrase in that verse but a fact that the FACT of God re-interprets.

Last week in Cambridge, a British Anglican bishop reminded me of Lewis's idea of heaven working backward. Those words strike me now as a kind of gospel dialectic. His illustration from Luke 24 of what Lewis meant is bringing an obvious thought to mind as I'm now re-reading that passage. Christ's resurrection anticipates my resurrection into heaven's life that can be lived now in any circumstance.

I'm tearing up as I write this - I want to re-interpret the unsettling fact revealed by a CATscan in the light of a truth God's Spirit revealed in the Bible and is now confirming in my soul. Heaven is right now shining light backward on to a fact that scares me, and forward on to a surgeon's table. All will be will, and all manner of things will be well. Julian of Norwich's words have never meant more. The dialectic transforms "the disease that stalks in darkness" into an awesome opportunity not only to anticipate the shadowlands yielding to the noonday sun but also to reveal unseen reality by the way I relate to others during this trouble. That anticipation and privilege are emerging in my being as sustaining hope when fear suddenly gets the upper hand. This is good! The truth I know is now reaching deeper, deep enough that I'm moved by my desire to reveal Christ through me no matter what happens to me. It will soon be Friday, but Sunday's coming.

I just noticed that the women who saw Sunday's empty tomb were puzzled, not pleased, and terrified, not comforted. Maybe those responses to truth are a necessary prelude to the response of joy. They soon rushed to tell the disciples what had happened. Friday's seeming disaster was being slowly re-interpreted by Sunday's surprise, from despair into confusion, then terror, then excitement, with confident joy on the horizon. Heaven was working backward.

Peter heard the women's report, ran to the tomb, found it empty, and jumped for joy. No! Not yet! He "went home again, wondering what happened". He knew something was up, but whatever was up took a while to get down into Peter's center. Same with me.
And then later that day, still Sunday, two disciples were walking slowly on the 7 mile road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They were caught up with Friday's uninterpreted fact. But as they were glumly discussing what had happened, seeing it only as a terrible fact, a stranger suddenly appeared on the road and began walking with them.

In a few hours, Rachael and I will be sitting with friends in Marcia and Randy's living room, gathered around a man with cancer and a woman who is finding praise difficult. If Jesus doesn't join us, all we will do, all we will be able to do, will be to grieve, admit our fear, cling to advances in medical science, force a smile and try to be brave, and maybe stir up groundless optimism propped up with banal God-talk. The dark fact will remain gloomily uninterpreted. Unless Jesus shows up.

He did exactly that on the Emmaus road. But He remained unrecognized. (Will I recognize Him tonight? I know He'll be there). He explained nothing at first, He just asked questions. (Will I hear Him as our prayer time begins? Or will I be more aware of disturbing questions filling my mind?). The Gospels record people asking Jesus 183 questions. He directly answered 3, but asked more than 300 questions of others.
Here's one of them. "What are you two talking about that's making you so sad?" I hear Him asking, what uninterpreted difficultly is getting you down? Their response? "You don't know? You must be the only person in Jerusalem who doesn't know what happened last Friday".

How did Jesus manage to keep a straight face as He asked, "What happened?" The two disciples then recited visible facts, "A man named Jesus who we thought would be our Savior died, and our hope died with Him. But now we hear His body is missing. Maybe someone stole it. We don't know what's going on."

I wonder if Jesus paused a moment, looked up into heaven the same way Elisha did when his servant saw a great enemy army surrounding them and cried out, "Oh, sir, what will we do now?" I imagine Elisha looking at his foolish servant, then looking up to heaven and praying "O Lord, open his eyes and let him see". See what? God's army filling the hills. No danger. Heaven was working backward.

Jesus called the two disciples foolish. Interpreting facts only by what we see and how we feel is foolish. Then He led them in a several hours long Bible study. I imagine Him talking about Abraham offering Isaac, of Jonah spending 3 nights in a dark belly, of unblemished lambs sacrificed so blemished people could live, of Isaiah's Suffering Servant bearing the sins of others.

They felt only heartburn as Jesus talked, until His Sunday teaching re-interpreted Friday's fact. Then they realized their heartburn was a burning awareness that something big was going on. Heaven worked backward, slowly. When Jesus revealed who He was later that evening, He suddenly disappeared, perhaps as a way of saying, "You now have what you need to re-interpret Friday's fact by Sunday's truth". I hear God's Spirit telling me to re-interpret my Friday as an opportunity to live in Sunday's miracle.

How am I doing as I face next Friday? Sober, aware that life is uncertain, that my life as I know it will end, perhaps not this Friday, but some Friday. A fearful awe rises in me that shoves what I enjoy in this world to the periphery, that reduces me to fervent pray that my life will somehow bring more of God's kingdom into my sons and daughters-in-law and my 5 grandchildren. That thought stirs me, deeply.

And yet the more I focus on Sunday's resurrection, the more surprised I am by the joy and the adventure of hope that lies deep in my center, and by the privilege God has given to me to reveal Him in hard times. I'm discovering that is in my center as well. The new covenant feels less like a doctrine to affirm and more like music that calls me to dance.

Friday's fact impacts me. I wish it were different. But Sunday's truth lifts me into the heavens. And heaven is working backward. That's how I'm doing. Thanks for asking.

* * *

Fittingly, all that you've just read came out of me early one Sunday morning, on Resurrection Day. No, not Easter as our calendar knows it, but Easter every Sunday as faith knows it. If you're reading this before August 12, pray. Pray for successful surgery but not that God will do good for me. He will. Pray that I'll recognize it.

If you're reading this after August 12, celebrate God's good plan. It did move forward. I know I'll have been led deeper into my center so I can live further up and further in, where I'll dance a bit more rhythmically at the Eternal Party, whether in this world or the next.

I wish I were walking with you right now, discussing our Fridays in light of God's Sunday. For now, email will have to do; until heaven, when email will be hurled into the lake of fire where it belongs, and we'll enjoy, not Facebook, but face-to-face community. Sorry, just had to throw that in.

Warmly In Christ,


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