NewWay Ministries

Reflections: Looking Back, In, and Ahead
Sixteen Days After Cancer Surgery

Larry Crabb
Sept. 6, 2011

Surgery took place Friday morning, August 12, from about 7:00 A.M. to I think around 3:30 P.M. (including prep). Literally thousands prayed. Hundreds sent emails, cards and notes. Dozens called. (One card assured me that my surgeon had the latest technological equipment. Turn the page and "He just bought a 54" flat screen High Def TV"). If I knew a stronger word than grateful, I'd use it. If the sincerity of a "thank you" depends on whether those words come from the center of our souls, then Rachael's thank you and mine are deeply genuine.

Reading all the wonderfully warm words you sent to us made me realize how hesitantly I receive love. Maybe a good psychologist could explain my resistance. But whatever the defensive crust might be that foolishly and wrongly protects my heart from the nourishment it longs for, it's been penetrated by you. In my pre-surgery ramblings, I spoke about searching for my center. In these post-surgery reflections, I think I can speak from the center of my penetrated heart, opened in large measure by so many of you. For 16 days, I've been looking back on what was happening in me since August 12, I've been paying attention to what's going on in me each moment, and I've been looking down the narrow road as my slow journey towards maturity continues.

But first: after cutting out 1/8 of my cancer-spotted liver, removing 2 suspicious lymph nodes (one turned out to be cancerous), and leaving no remnant of my stone-infested gall bladder, my surgeon emerged from the operating room to greet nearly 2 dozen family and friends with a reassuring smile. He spoke surgeon-speak, but his message was clear: "GOT IT ALL". No further treatment needed just follow-up blood tests. Your prayers for successful surgery were answered. God is worthy of praise whether surgery succeeds or fails, but a certain level of grateful praise comes more easily with good news. So, thank you for joining Rachael and me and our family in praising the Lord.

But a question arises as I praise. Do I know what it means, like Paul, to be content with whatever happens? Would richer praise emerge from deeper places within me if the news were different, even terrifying? Along with much appreciated prayers for my health, many of you asked God to give me a satisfying sense of His presence no matter what happened. I don't know if that prayer was answered. I don't think it was.

As I lay in the hospital, epiduraled, IV'ed, catheterized, and oxygenated, I remembered something my then 79 year old father said after his open heart surgery. Serious complications kept him in the hospital for 21 days. When he was finally discharged, as I was driving him to his home in South Carolina, mother in the front seat, dad lying down as best he could in the back, my father broke a sober silence with a weak voice: "I'm grateful for all the friends who came to visit me in the hospital. But the visitor I most wanted never came".

"Who, dad?," I asked with more than a little curiousity.

"God", he plaintively replied.

I had no idea what to say, so, uncharacteristically when I'm at a loss for words, I said nothing.

Without any prompt from me, dad waited a few seconds and then, in a voice trembling with joy, added, "I'm so grateful".

"For what?", I blurted out. "God's absence?"

"Oh, Larry, God gave me the privilege of trusting His Word in the absence of His felt presence. He must see a kind of faith in me that I can't see in myself. I was able to rest in His written promises. I think that pleases Him."

I remember thinking to myself as my father spoke, "Would I count it a grace-provided privilege to draw near to God when I had no sense at all of His drawing near to me? Or do I feel entitled to some felt awareness that He is with me before I'd be strongly interested in pleasing Him?"

All that happened more than a decade ago. For the past 2 weeks, after reading a little Chesterton, after slowly devouring Lewis's book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, after re-reading and finally understanding a little of Till We Have Faces, Lewis's last and favorite of all his books, I've spent the last week soaking my soul in The Message of the Cross by British scholar Derek Tidball. I wanted to see God's ultimate expression of love (Calvary) whether I experienced His love or not. I knew my faith required content and could best be nourished by meditating on the content that most clearly evidences the God of love.

Here's one sentence (among hundreds) that grabbed me: "... an evangelical spirituality is developing which, in its search for self-affirmation and comfort, can only be described as cross-avoiding rather than cross-carrying". "Calvary," Tidball suggested, "has been replaced by Pentecost". That sentence did more than grab me. Has the wonder of the ongoing value and presence of Calvary dimmed as I've been depending on the felt experience of the Spirit? When I feel empty, scared, alone, discouraged, or defeated, do I pray for the Spirit to replace those feelings with fullness, joy, and hope more than I trust Him to bring me back to the one Event on which my faith depends?

Tidball quotes charismatic thinker Tom Smail, "Experience of the Spirit has for many become more central than faith in the Crucified, so that the Christian centre has moved from Calvary to Pentecost". "The way to Pentecost is Calvary," Smail declares; "The Spirit comes from the Cross".

God gave me an opportunity to bring those lofty thoughts into my immediate reality on August 16, around midnight in my hospital room, 4 days post surgery. Thanks to morphine, I had little pain. Thanks to a skilled surgeon, I had little worry. Thanks to an attentive nursing staff, I had little need. I was coasting in the river of shallow praise. Then, God seized the opportunity to fix my focus on Calvary in a way that released, not without struggle, deeper trust and richer praise.

I'll spare you the graphic details, but I will tell you they were not pretty. Unexpected complications arose suddenly at midnight, leaving me in terrible pain, fear, and frustration. Before I pressed the "Get in here now button", I prayed:

"God, I know You're here. I believe You love me. And I know You're aware of what's happening right now. And I know You could relieve my difficulty in seconds. God, that's what I want You to do so I'm asking You, begging You, in faith, to do what only You can do. Please, solve this problem!"

I paused, for only a few seconds. Then, with neither cynicism nor disappointment but with a strangely calm settledness, I went on, "God, I really don't expect that You'll answer that prayer. And I don't believe that if I had faith that You would, then my prayer would be answered. So, in line with James' encouragement, I pray now for wisdom. What do You want me to see in my suffering? How have You empowered me to please You in my trouble? What would it mean to consider this misery as an opportunity for great joy like You said in James 1? God, I know You're good. I believe You're doing me good right now. Help me define good the way You do so that I can see how You are using Your power, right now, to do me good."

That prayer was answered. My by then lesser but still strong desire for pain relief was non-miraculously, uncomfortably and slowly satisfied (in measure) by standard medical means offered by competent medical personnel. But in those difficult moments, I became quietly aware of a desire to reveal the Christ I knew on the Cross, the One who lived to honor His Father and to bless others at any cost to Himself, who remained profoundly other-centered even while enduring pain that would seem to justify an obsession with His own relief. I discovered in my center a primary longing to be spiritually formed, to relate like Jesus, in any circumstance. I had no overwhelming experience of His loving presence. God still seemed distant, unnear in the way I was thinking of nearness.

But thoughts of Calvary aroused a compelling desire to reveal to others that I had been crucified with Christ by now crucifying every desire in me that competed with my longing to reveal Christ to others and release Christ into others by the way I related, all for the Father's pleasure and in the Spirit's power. Calvary became the center. Resurrection became a personal vision. Pentecost supplied the power to stumble toward the vision.

I've just described what took place Tuesday night, August 16, beginning near midnight and slowly growing clearer during a sleepless early morning. Looking back on that miserable opportunity to move another small step on the narrow road to life, and now looking in to see if anything remains from that night, I think something I've believed and taught for years has taken deeper root in my soul. It's this: whether the truth excites me or not, my supreme good in this world lies not in the enjoyment of blessings I legitimately desire such as good health, loving responses from others, good income, well-received ministry, respect and recognition from people important to me, godly kids and grandkids who fulfill my dreams for them. My supreme good in this world, the source of my deepest joy, lies rather in the Cross-dependant, Resurrection-affirmed, Pentecost-supplied power to relate like Jesus through any trial in a way that reveals God's heart to others and releases God's life into others.

That Terrible Tuesday became a window that let me see a beam of glory, a door opening that drew me to walk more closely with Jesus, to keep Him company as He continues to bring His light and love into the dark places of our human experience, to take more seriously my calling to love God with all my heart (releasing the pure longings that fill my center), with all my soul (releasing by choice the power to live from my center), with all my mind (releasing my capacity to think, study, meditate and believe what I can know of God as I sit at the foot of the Cross and immerse myself in God's 66 love letters), and with all my strength (releasing the already supplied courage to persevere in love when I fail others badly or slightly and when I am failed badly or slightly by others.

I've just re-read these rambling reflections. If I take my eyes off Christ, I want to burn everything I've written, leaving only my expressions of thanks to you for your prayers and the good news of successful surgery. I write better than I live. When I see Jesus remaining on the Cross during those 3 hours of darkness when He felt Satan's presence and His Father's absence, when I hear the call to be formed like Jesus, I realize how far beneath my calling I live, how too often I lose sight of my calling and want only those blessings that provide immediate satisfaction and comfort, how easily I let boredom, sleeping troubles, health and money worries, ministry pressures that feel like inconveniences, and debilitating weariness of soul and body reduce my calling to little more than an irritant, a lovely but unrealistic, unreachable, and only weakly desired goal. I so easily slip into complacent satisfaction with a hoped for good life as I naturally define it.

The battle continues. But my Terrible Tuesday has wakened me to so much more that is available to me in the Gospel of our Creator God, our Incarnate God, our Crucified God, our Resurrected God, our Pentecost-released God, and our Soon Coming God. Father, Lord Jesus, indwelling Spirit, expand my capacity to know You, to believe You, to trust You, to enjoy You, to be formed like Jesus and to keep in step with Your Spirit, all for Your glory, which means my good.

Well, that's it. Brevity is not among my gifts. My only excuse for so many words lies in the stewardship opportunity that burdened me to honor all your kindnesses to Rachael and me by sharing what I discern to be how God has been (and will continue to be) working in response to your prayers. Thanks for listening. Be encouraged. I am.


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