Dying A Journey of Mystery
The word adenocarcinoma was not in our vocabulary. The doctor pronounced it slowly, then continued—“It’s the kind of lung cancer non-smokers get. It’s incurable and inoperable.”
Further tests confirmed that the cancer had spread to both of Jim’s lungs, his lymph nodes, spine, and brain. We were told he was at Stage Four—and there’s not a Stage Five! The date was July 17, 2010.
From the beginning Jim was a fighter. He believed God does and could heal, but he knew he had to do his part. So on August 1, 2010, he made a public declaration of war on the disease. He wrote in his journal:
These past several weeks have been an emotional time for Margaret and me. We never imagined that I would face cancer. We have come to view this challenge as a call to battle. It is a battle with a physical worldly enemy that is all too common, the enemy cancer. The mountain we must climb will be steep, but we know that we do not climb it alone.
So God’s call, found in Hebrews 12, is not simply to battle in prayer and determination, but also to throw off everything that hinders us from victory, and to fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith.
By the end of August, Jim had finished 15 rounds of radiation on his brain and qualified to receive Tarceva, a targeted oral drug for the tumors in his lungs.
I’m learning as I climb to focus on the unseen; it’s where life really is. I’m gaining new insight into this mysterious journey and the journey’s battle. The journey and accompanying battle are both physical and spiritual. I’m aware that it has always been that way, but now I understand it more clearly. I entered the journey when I said yes to Jesus as my Lord and Savior and accepted His gift of eternal life.
What confronts and challenges me are the two dimensions I live in now, the physical, wasting away one, and the spiritual, eternal one. Presently I am living in the beautiful world God has made. As I live here my focus is consumed with my earthly life filled with daily cares. But it is a wastingaway world. Now I’m finding as I bring these daily cares to Jesus, He does exactly what He promised. He gives me rest. I’m learning to set new priorities and a new focus. There is inward renewal taking place. I see God’s glory beginning to shine in new ways and in others’ lives.
I’m choosing to listen to gifted doctors and trust God to guide them as we travel the physical journey together. They become God’s instruments in the outcome of healing, but, of course, they do not determine the outcome. God does. So why should I worry about the physical outcome? It is in God’s hands. I’m free to focus on the spiritual with a new sense that Christ is really with me.
In August, the leadership team of First Chinese Baptist Church, Dallas, led by Pastor Paul Tong, came to our home to pray for Jim and anoint him with oil as instructed in James 5. The meeting was a conclusion of four weeks of a 24- hour prayer chain, and a time of fasting every Friday through Saturday.
Yesterday, as I knelt on the floor in the middle of our living room, the pastor wiped oil on my forehead, and twelve church leaders surrounded me, placing their hands on my body. Everyone began to pray in unison, some in English, some in Mandarin, others in Cantonese. God’s presence was very real. It was one of the most powerful spiritual moments in my life! I understood more clearly that something more than physical healing takes place. God becomes our focus, troubled hearts gain courage, weak faith becomes strong, and strained relationships are healed. It was a powerful moment—and a wonderful learning experience that I will continue to ponder.
One Saturday in late September, sixteen international students and volunteers came to help with work around our house, cleaning windows, trimming trees and hedges, clearing a very over-grown garden.
It is very humbling to have so much kindness and love shown to us. We feel unworthy of all the blessings showered on us and we find it difficult to be good “receivers.” So we are asking the Lord Jesus to help us become people who can receive graciously. We are asking that He help us receive in the same spirit that the love and kindness has been given to us.
By October, Jim was struggling to stay focused on the blessings and opportunities of each day—not on an unknowable future.
I’m still on the mountain, but some days I don’t know if I’m going up or coming down. At times the situation going on in my body makes me feel disoriented and my oft-repeated comment is “If only I knew….” I keep thinking if I knew I was going up the mountain, I’d be able to accept and adjust to the circumstances. And, if I knew I was going down the mountain, I’d be able to accept and adjust to the circumstances. But God has not chosen to reveal the future to us. I don’t know about tomorrow…and neither do you. We must live by faith and not by sight.
As I’ve begun the tedious mountain climb of cancer, Margaret is by my side, and I’ve become increasingly aware of God’s wise and wonderful plan of making two become one. It means more than having a loving wife who willingly serves my needs. It means more than facing the uncertain future together with faith. Our oneness is the inseparable purpose we share together in glorifying the Lord who made us one. This mysterious oneness gives us incomprehensible joy and comfort as we face the future and climb the mountain together.
At Thanksgiving, Jim offered a sacrifice of praise for the fact that throughout his life God had never forsaken him, and even with cancer, he felt blessed.
As I’ve gone through the mental adjustment to having a serious illness, with the pain and discomfort of treatment, God has opened my eyes to experience blessings that perhaps only having cancer can bring. I can testify that I have found a deeper relationship with God. I have had time to reflect and meditate on God’s word. And I’ve been enormously blessed by everyone who has prayed and encouraged us as I climb this challenging mountain. Having a thankful heart has given me hope, peace, and joy. “Do not be anxious about anything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
In January, 2011, Jim’s treatment turned a different direction. We were told when Jim began the oral drug that at some point it would become ineffective. Our doctor advised that Jim begin a secondline of treatment, the traditional chemo infusions.
Each day’s climb has become a little more difficult than the day before. I haven’t been able to think too clearly. But when I am thinking, I’m reminding myself that “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not be in want.” Every day God’s grace has been sufficient. Every day I have had a comfortable bed to sleep in, warm blankets, soup prepared by loving hands, loving attention from caring friends, and kind neighbors who brought us the DVD classic collections of comedians Victor Borge and Lucille Ball.
A lot of what we are facing involves waiting—and living with the fact that we just don’t know. So, we are learning and relearning to wait patiently, and as many people remind us—“Take one day at a time.”
We viewed the beautiful snow from our windows this week—and thanked God for eyes to see.
On March 1st, Jim and I celebrated our 53rd wedding anniversary.
At the top of the list of earthly blessings is my soul mate and dearest friend Margaret. God has blessed my life through her and my love for her has increased and deepened through the years.
During these days of trial and uncertainty I cannot help but see her steadfast faith growing. People are always welcomed to our home with warmth and a cup of tea. She gives herself completely to honoring God and seeing to my needs. Never has she complained about this. When I express regret about all the time and attention she gives to me, her response is always, “It’s my joy!” I thank God for the gift of my loving wife who holds me as we climb this mountain together.
In was also in March when a group of missionary colleagues and friends came for lunch and three hours of joyfilled, non-stop sharing. They gathered around Jim and prayed for God’s touch of healing.
God has designed us to need each other. We are made in His image, and just as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit take pleasure in each other’s companionship, so do we. From the very beginning God said that it is not good for human beings to be alone. We can know for sure that heaven involves a community of human beings in happy, meaningful relationships with God, and with each other.
May found us waiting for the next CAT scan.
Having to wait and not knowing what the next CAT scan is going to show makes me feel grumpy. Being grumpy hasn’t helped and it certainly isn’t fun! God’s word reminds me that when I experience trials I must do so with joy. Though I haven’t always been able to practice it, I know a positive, grateful attitude is important in both the spiritual and physical healing process.
On June 5th, we received the positive report that the large tumor in Jim’s lung had reduced in size. He was put on a low-dose of chemo—for maintenance.
I want to accept whatever God permits in life and understand how I might view each thing as His best for me. The fight to overcome cancer is a daily reminder that I live in a temporal world. God has shown me that the spiritual is far more important. We live on earth for a short span to prepare for eternity. Spiritual growth is a mysterious experience. It is like encountering the wind. I cannot see it but I do feel and experience it.
In July, Jim celebrated his one-year anniversary with cancer. The church leaders gathered as they had done the year before and laid hands on him and prayed for his healing.
My Prayer today: “Thank you, Father, for giving me a year to live and love you. Thank you for grace extended each day. Thank you for providing the skilled and caring people who have provided treatment that continues to bring healing.”
Our confidence and faith in God’s purposes for the future has given us peace and thankfulness. We are held tightly in the Lord’s land, and we know He will never leave us or forsake us.
In August, tests revealed the maintenance drug was no longer working. The tumors had grown. Jim entered a clinical trial at a cancer center in Dallas.
In October we received more disappointing news.
Three small lesions on my brain are the culprits. There’s the possibility I may have gamma knife surgery on my brain, and the cancer in my spine is causing bulging of the spinal canal—and that too has to have radiation. I’m ready, because the pain is becoming more and more unbearable. Even so, we do not lose heart. Our heart is steadfast in the Lord.
During November and December, Jim underwent surgery and radiation, then had to wait before being considered for another trial study.
At times and places the climbing gets steep. It’s not always easy to apply the admonition of James 1:2, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” Every day I must remind myself to “lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence my help comes” – and also that “neither death nor life…will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).
In January, 2012, an MRI revealed numerous smal l sol id tumor s throughout Jim’s brain—like pepper, the doctor said. He recommended Jim enter Hospice care.
In our 2-hour interview with the Hospice nurse, she told me my doctor had said I was the healthiest sick person he’d ever seen. Even so, I’m not in the mood to sprint to the top of this mountain. In fact, I’m dragging my feet. It’s not that I don’t believe that “eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man, the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” It’s just that this side of heaven is so familiar, and I’m with the people I love.
My hope is in the love and purpose of God for me and my family at this juncture of the climb.
Throughout February, Jim became weaker. He talked less, but sang more. One day as the Hospice chaplain was at our home reading scripture to him, I heard a song coming from the bedroom. It was the beautiful words to “I Am Thine, O Lord.” With a raspy voice, Jim sang the first and last verses perfectly:
“I am Thine, O Lord,
I have heard Thy voice,
And it told Thy love to me;
But I long to rise
in the arms of faith,
And be closer drawn to Thee.
Draw me nearer, blessed Lord,
To the cross where Thou hast died;
Draw me nearer, blessed Lord,
To Thy precious, bleeding side.
There are depths of love
that I cannot know
Till I cross the narrow sea;
There are heights of joy
that I may not reach
Till I rest in peace with Thee.”
On March 1st, Jim and I celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary. We snuggled together on the small hospital bed that had been moved into our bedroom and talked of the wonder of God’s peace, a peace that Christ left us—a peace that passes understanding. We knew we were most blessed to be going through the dying process with such peace.
On a Sunday evening, March 11, 2012, Jim finished his climb. He rose through the arms of faith to the precious side of Jesus, to experience the full “depths of love” and “heights of joy” that this side of heaven he could only sing about.
The same peace that carried Jim to the top of the mountain remains with us who are left behind. And Jim’s words, spoken often to family and friends, have added to our peace.
“When I die, celebrate with happiness, for I will have a new life with Jesus. Death is not the end but the beginning.”
(Jim and Margaret served nearly 25 years as missionaries in Southeast Asia. Back in the States they devoted themselves to international student ministry, and for the last twelve years enjoyed the fellowship of First Chinese Baptist Church, Dallas. Margaret has worked as Assistant Editor of Challenger since 2005.)