Monday, December 31, 2007

A Steadfast Heart

It has been a week since my first round of chemotherapy, and we are amazed by how much the tumor on my right tibia has decreased in size. The pain has lessened to the degree that I have discontinued pain medication, and I am starting to put some weight on my right leg. The side effects have been minimal – fatigue (nothing that naps can’t cure!), a little bit of nausea (I’ve got drugs for that!), and a few headaches. Overall, I have been feeling quite well. I am scheduled to have blood work done on Wednesday to check my immune system. In the meantime, I will remain somewhat secluded and require visitors to bathe in germicidal soap!

In the past week, we have been overwhelmed by the love of God as expressed by the body of Christ. To think that several thousand saints – many of whom we do not know - are praying for us! We have been overwhelmed with notes of encouragement, special gifts, and offers to help us with everything from taking care of our children to cleaning our home. As Merrily read a few weeks ago, we cannot repay love, but we can pass it on. The love of God and the love of others compels us to share that love with others and to love God more.

There have been countless stories in the past week of how God has used these circumstances to bring people back to Himself and to bring people together to rally behind our family. It has been a blessing to see how God uses difficult circumstances to honor and glorify Himself. Just two of many examples . . .

A few days after dropping off our pet dog at the local animal shelter – we simply were not going to be able to care for her in the next year – a friend of a friend adopted her with the intent of returning her to us at the end of the year. What a blessing for our youngest son, who had a difficult time understanding why we had to give her away. He will even be able to visit her at times. God cares about the little things as well as the big things.

For Christmas, James received a West Point sweatshirt (He received His appointment the day before my diagnosis.) and money order with a note that read: From your friends at West Point. We look forward to having you here. We learned that the niece of a close friend is a junior at the military academy, and having heard about James and our family, took it upon herself to collect a dollar from 130 different cadets – during finals week – so that she could send the sweatshirt and money order to James.

Part of my daily routine has included reading four books: 31 Days Toward Overcoming Adversity by Joni Eareckson Tada, A Steadfast Heart by Elyse Fitzpatrick, When the Game Is Over It All Goes Back in the Box by John Ortberg, and As Silver Refined by Kay Arthur.

Here are a few notes on what I have gleaned from the reading to date . . .

Joni Eareckson Tada reminds her readers, in the first few chapters, that suffering is to be expected in the life of a follower of Jesus Christ. The results of suffering depend on us – how we respond. Do we use our suffering or do we allow it to use us? When we suffer, it is okay to ask God “Why?” God can handle our questions, but we must be prepared to handle His answers. Suffering is designed to produce in us Christlike character.

Elyse Fitzpatrick’s book is a personal commentary on Psalm 57, verse 7 has become one of my favorite verses: “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast! I will sing and make melody.” By God’s grace, we can have a steadfast heart in any circumstance. And in any circumstance, we can sing praises to God, because He is always good and always worthy of our praise. She reminds us that God is at work in our circumstances, bringing us to a greater recognition of our brokenness and dependence on Him. It is in difficult circumstances that we realize our own weakness and see His Great strength. In times of adversity, we are to focus on Him, because He has promised to be with us and to give us all the resources we need to glorify Him in the circumstances. Like Tada, she reminds us that we are called to a life of suffering as followers of Jesus Christ, and God uses this suffering to perfect our character.

The title of John Ortberg’s book is also his thesis. When the game is over, it all goes back in the box. We need to distinguish between what is temporal and what is eternal. What really matters is being rich toward God – this begins by giving ourselves to Him. Being rich toward God consists of loving God and loving others. Ortberg writes that serving in self-giving love is the most Godlike thing a human being an do. Commenting on the life of Paul, the author distinguishes between the outer man and the inner man – I’m dying on the outside, but inside I’m coming to life. We need to live our lives in such a way that we are preparing for eternity.

Kay Arthur’s book focuses on helping the believer to embrace life’s disappointments, knowing that God is using difficult circumstances to refine us – to make us into the image of Jesus Christ. His goal is to see Jesus Christ in us. Disappointments are God’s training in disguise. The ultimate question in each trial is: Am I going to believe God or not? Am I going to live according to the truth of His Word? She spends a great deal of time talking about meekness as demonstrated in the life of our Savior. Meekness is the key to acting rather than reacting when disappointments come.

I am thankful that I have a heavenly Father that loves me, and can be counted on to always do what is right and good and just. I am thankful for the body of Christ, which demonstrates its love for God and love for others. I am thankful for the prayers of many saints – God answers prayer! I am thankful for good friends who are making great sacrifices to care for my family. I am thankful for my wife and best friend, who is a great example of “loving in sickness and in health.” I am thankful for three beautiful children who bring me great joy every single day.

For those of you reading this blog, thank you for taking the time. May our testimony of what God is doing in the midst of our circumstances be an encouragement to you. May you seek to give all of yourselves to Him, to determine each day to please Him. May you know the peace and assurance that is only found in a relationship with the God who gave Himself to us that we might live with Him for ever. May God bless you beyond measure in the new year!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

An Unexpected Blessing and a Few Lessons

I returned home this afternoon, after my first cycle of chemotherapy. I was expecting to be in through Christmas day, but was pleasantly surprised when the oncologist told me that they could expedite things and complete the cycle in two days. An unexpected blessing.

I am resting comfortably at home, but do have to return to Lehigh Valley tomorrow for an injection to stimulate my bone marrow to produce blood cells destroyed by the chemotherapy. I decided to include a chronology of my illness to date, in case anyone is curious how this all came to be (some have asked!). I also included some notes I recorded in the past few weeks. If even one person is encouraged through reading this blog, may God be glorified.

A Chronology of My Illness:

April - Easter weekend, I had pain in both shins and was unable to walk.
Throughout the summer, the pain came and went, limiting many physical activities.
In late July, the pain was constant and keeping me awake at night.
On August 1, I visited my primary care physician. An x-ray and blood work showed no abnormality.
In September, I visited a chiropractor several times and had some pain relief.
In late October, a small mass appeared on my right tibia.
On November 19, I had an appointment with an orthopedist. An x-ray showed no abnormality in the bone, so he ordered an MRI.
On November 20, I had an MRI of my lower right leg.
On November 26, the orthopedist called and was concerned about a spot on my tibia. He set up an appointment with an orthopedic oncologist in Lancaster.
On November 29, I met with the orthopedic oncologist and had a needle biopsy of the mass on my right tibia.
On December 7, I had a follow-up visit with the orthopedic oncologist and he confirmed that I had a malignant tumor on my tibia.
On Tuesday, December 11 the final pathology report confirmed that I had a Ewing’s tumor on my right tibia.
On Tuesday, December 18, I met with an oncologist at the Lehigh Valley Cancer Center to discuss my treatment plan. I also had a bone scan, CAT scan, and blood work.
On December 19, I had a heart scan and additional X-rays.On December 21, I had a vascular port surgically implanted in my chest.
On Dec 22-23, I had my first cycle of chemotherapy at Lehigh Valley Hospital.

Notes from December 3, a few days before my diagnosis:

All of our desires, aspirations and affections should be governed by a prior determination to please God. – Allister Begg

We have made a prior determination to please God – and that is our daily prayer –that He will give us the wisdom, grace, and strength to do that very thing. In difficult circumstances, we can turn our backs on God and wallow in self-pity, OR we can embrace God and allow Him to see us through. That is the only choice for one that desires to follow Jesus Christ and glorify God.

I am confident that He will use my circumstances for His glory and my refinement.

Notes from Sunday, December 16:

I had an interesting conversation with Isaac today. He was wondering why I had to keep my feet up so much and use crutches to walk. I basically avoided the question (!) and shared with him that am thankful that I can use my hands and arms to hug him and play with him; I am thankful that I have two eyes to see him and to be able read to him; I am thankful that I have two ears to be able to listen to him talk and sing to me; I am thankful for a voice to be able to tell him that I love him. How often have I taken these things for granted? We all need to be thankful for what we have and not spend so much time and energy complaining about what we do not have. Whatever God has given me is more than I need to glorify Him!

Notes from Monday, December 17:

Today is my 45th birthday! I received some great gifts from family and friends, but I already have everything I could ever want or need. I have a relationship with the God who created and sustains the universe. I have the promise of eternal life with God the Father because of the sacrifice of His Son. I have a great wife and three wonderful children – all of whom bring me more joy than I could ever ask for.

I spent an extended period of time this morning looking at some passages of scripture related to suffering. In the big picture, my suffering is minimal. I am not suffering persecution for serving the LORD. But I do know that, like in any instance of suffering, my suffering can have many positive outcomes – in bringing glory to God, in refining me, and in encouraging others who are observing.

Job 23:26. Job had lived his life, as far as he knew, in a right relationship with God. Yet he suffered. And he took his complaint to God. As is our tendency in difficult circumstances, he began to lose perspective, to lose sight of what really matters. Life is not really about me, my plans, or my success and happiness. It is about God – His glory and His honor. When everything else is stripped away, what is most important is God’s love for us, and our love for Him.

Job 12-14. Knowing what to believe is not enough to please God. God desires obedience. Suffering drives us beyond our doctrine and forces us to depend on the One who gives us truth, hope, and life.

Job 21-22. How we respond to suffering shows what we really believe about God. Is God in control? Is God good – all the time? Is God always right? Is God just? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Philippians 1:12-14. Paul did not view his present circumstances – imprisonment – as an obstacle. He did not see it as an interruption in his plans. He did not get bitter or resentful. He embraced it as an opportunity to serve and glorify God. I know what you have called me to do, Lord – I suppose I can do it right here. We can spend a lot of time asking why or complaining, OR we can be committed to serving God in any or every circumstance of life. God, how can you use me right here, right now? How can I glorify you in my present circumstances? If we make a prior determination to please God, then any situation will not be an obstacle, but an opportunity for our refinement and His glory.

We are to be lights shining in the darkness, reflecting God’s glory.

When we are faithful to God in the difficult circumstances of life, we serve as an encouragement to others.

Encourage others by the way you live.

Here are two (of many) promises we can cling to as we suffer:
1. God is always with us. Matthew 18:20. He will never leave us or forsake us. Hebrews 13:5.
2. God has promised us eternal life. Revelation 21:1-4.

2 Corinthians 12:9. It is during times of suffering that God demonstrates His greatness. As we admit our weakness, we affirm God’s strength.

It is amazing how suffering removes the distractions of earthly comforts. And things that were yesterday so urgent are patiently waiting in the background. The things that really matter really matter now. My relationship with God. My family. My friends. Relationships. Community. Sharing in God’s life and love.

Adversity strengthens our faith. It’s like a recent drive home (actually, six days before we were aware of the possibility that I might have cancer) from church on a snowy Sunday evening. We prayed as God allowed our little car to climb up one side of a hill and safely down the other side. One hill after another. One at a time. Each time, we recalled God’s faithfulness and prayed for His guidance, knowing that He was with us whether we stayed on the road or not. With each new hill, God brought us closer to home and closer to Him, as we recognized our dependence upon Him. That drive home was an object lesson of God’s guidance and faithfulness, a pattern for us to follow as we face this new journey with Him.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Trusting God

There is so much to tell about what God is doing and what He is teaching me. Lord willing, I will have time next week, after my first round of chemotherapy (which begins tomorrow morning), to share with you all what's been going on up to this point. Until then, we can all be confident that God will do what is good, what is right, and what is just. God bless you.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Battle Begins

We continue to be overwhelmed by the love of God as demonstrated by the body of Christ. Each day, God shows that He is more than sufficient to meet all of our needs. He is strong when we are weak. He gives grace when we begin to fall.

It has been a week since we received word that I have a Ewing's sarcoma. Since then, I have had a bone scan of my entire body, a CT scan of my chest and pelvic area, a heart scan, and x-rays of my left humerus and right femur. The prayers of many saints, many of whom I do not even know, have helped me to endure the numerous needles and IV's.

I met with the oncologist at Lehigh Valley Cancer Center on Tuesday. He said that the tumor is in the tibia and is bursting out into the soft tissue of the lower leg. He wants to start chemotherapy ASAP. I am scheduled to have a vascular port surgically implanted in my chest. This will alllow simple access for chemotherapy, blood draws, etc. At this point, I will probably be admitted to the cancer center this Saturday for 3-5 days of in-patient chemotherapy. This will be followed by 18-21 days at home. This three-week cycle will repeat itself for a total of about 40 weeks. At the end of the 12th week, I will most likely have surgery to remove the affected part of the tibia and have it replaced with a steel rod. The chemotherapy will continue about two weeks after recovery from the surgery. Radiation will be added to the regimen as needed.

The most painful news that I received from the doctor is that I will probably not be strong enough to continue teaching. The intensive chemotherapy will take its toll on this 45-year old body. He basically said that there is a fine line between killing the cancer and killing me. All of my efforts will need to be focused on this one battle for the next ten months.

We have shed many tears over this in the past few days. At times, I am scared. At times, the pain is unbearable. But, we have never questioned God's purpose in this. We have never asked, "Why us?". We have not been angry. We are trusting God. We know that this is for our refinement (and perhaps for the refinement of others) and His glory. We are determined to please God. We are weak. We falter. But, by His grace, we seek to please Him through all of this. The more intense this battle becomes, the more we are leaning on Him.