In August of 1993, my health had deteriorated to the point that I had approximately three days to live. The three-day reality was made clear, but only after life-saving surgery and a marvelous recovery. A few months following this life-saving hospital stay, my surgeon friend, visiting with me at our home in Carmel, Calif., told me that I had pushed the limits and was down for what he thought might have been the final count.
He said the first three days in the hospital enabled the medical team to restore my strength. Special nutrients, given to me intravenously, enabled me to survive the surgery itself. Fortunately, the pancreatic cancer diagnosis turned out to be in error. In its place was found a benign pretender, a pancreatic pseudo-cyst. Although its activity had become life-threatening, modern medical science responded effectively and here I am, with a better understanding of what is required for a faith for all seasons.
But how had I arrived at such a place? The saga had been unfolding for a couple of years. Stomach pains and weight loss had plagued me. In and out of several hospitals, each time denying the pain and reluctant to deal with the health issues precipitating dramatic weight loss that was now weakening me-I pressed on until I could go no further. Having lost 129 pounds, unable to sleep, eat, rest, relax or even think very clearly, literally, my time was running out, and I knew it.
But denial was comforting. As strong as my will had been to stay away from surgery, the clock was ticking and something needed to change. Now coming face-to-face with hard medical issues, listening was all that was left for me to do because my ability to continue fighting reality was over. I was ill, tired, and nearly despairing. What else was left to do but to listen? Two more physicians, in a long list of caring doctors, were telling me I was in trouble, serious trouble.
My personal fear grew when I observed the horror reflected in the eyes of a close friend who simply happened to be leaving the hospital when I arrived by ambulance. He came face-to-face with me as a stretcher was being lifted to the sidewalk to carry me from one hospital into yet another. The shock of my appearance left him speechless. Later he was to tell me that he had almost fainted at the sight of my deteriorated condition.
A patient in a fifth hospital in one year, I was thinking that I might yet wiggle off the hook one more time. But 20 minutes later I was to be confronted by even more overwhelming news. There are no easy words to describe the feeling of terror showing on the face of my wife when she was told by the radiologist that I was not to leave the hospital. They had seen a tumor and it was on my pancreas. All indications pointed to pancreatic cancer, which can be both vicious and brutal. From what we knew about pancreatic cancer, we knew it was likely to be a death sentence.
Even so, my situation was not unique. Individuals face crises every day, differing circumstances, but similar consequences. Death is, for any of us, but a heartbeat away. It can come, like a thief in the night, and we know not the hour it might come. However, when one arrives at a point, recognizing that they really are up against the wall, then they do know what is required. The need in such moments is one thing: real faith, the kind that does not crumble. Real faith is built upon a rock, a foundation of trust and confidence, knowing that God never gives larger burdens than we can carry. However, like so many who had preceded me, at that moment, I wished that God had not developed such confidence in me.
With my circulatory system collapsing and my body shutting down, two surgeons determined that a hole was to be cut in my jugular vein allowing fluids, vitamins and medications to enter my body. They knew that any other approach at this stage would not allow me to regain enough strength to survive invasive surgery. It is true that sometimes 72 hours really can be a lifetime. For me it was enough time to say good-bye to our only daughter-21 at the time-and my wife, passing along the only message that made any sense to me at that time. I told them I loved them and that we would be able to face whatever was to happen and that God would be there for us and with us. So, we hugged, kissed, prayed, sobbed and waited.
With concerned, loving and sober faces surrounding me while being poked and stuck for first one thing and then another, I wanted so very much to remember something of substance of my faith and values. The first night in my hospital room, located not so reassuringly on the oncology floor, my mind was working overtime because my body could not continue the battle any more. I knew I was tired.
Later into the night, staring at the dimly lit ceiling, hearing muffled footsteps of the medical team going about their duties, powerful words came to me. The message of hope that came to me arrived from far outside my immediate memory. From seemingly nowhere, simple words calmed and reassured me. I cannot tell you when I learned them, because at no time in my life could I recall ever having repeated them. But here they were, clear, crisp and powerful: "Thank you God for giving to me thy great salvation so rich and free." Over and over, like a piece of music that one cannot stop singing, my mind provided me with this faith-affirming phrase. It became my prayer. Those words have stayed with me every day since those threatening moments in August of 1993: "Thank you God for giving to me thy great salvation so rich and free."
From another of the lessons set aside for today, Psalm 46, we are reminded that "God is our refuge and our strength." Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, was challenged at seemingly every moment of his presidency. He was then assassinated at what turns out to have been the culmination of his life, immediately following his culture-changing decisions to lead a slave-free nation. President Lincoln is often revered because he was perfectly comfortable letting the world know that he "had been driven to his knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that he had nowhere else to go." It occurs to me that the reason we are confronted with life-shattering challenges may very well be to bring us to our knees, but not simply for the purposes of confirming our limitations as humans, but rather for the very real reminder that there are occasions when turning to our God is the only reasonable response.
Well, the pancreatic cancer diagnosis was hard to accept. Having visited friends and family in hospitals for nearly 25 years, I was aware that cancer of the pancreas is some of the toughest news to accept. However, the diagnosis was not the issue; my response was the key. How much time did I have left? How was this information to impact whatever time I had remaining? Would my faith be there in the ready position to sustain me and those I loved the most? Over and over these concerns filled my mind. There was little space for any other thoughts. Did I have a faith for all seasons? It was time for me to find out.
Devastating as the moment was, it never occurred to me to ask God: "Why me?" My feelings were really, "Why not me?" I knew the answer. Times of testing come to make us stronger. I did not want to die. But the circumstances in which I found myself dictated that I slow down and listen, really listen to the "still small voice" that seldom is heard in the hurried lives we live. My faith for all seasons suggested a different question: "Why not me?" With a daughter, who at the time was entering her senior year in college, and a wife capably handling our management consulting business, I knew they were going to be fine, with or with out me.
So the why question did not occur. Further, I did not ask, "Why now?" The truth was that I had pushed my physical limits, traveling hundreds of thousands of miles per year, in and out of airports, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, not taking proper care of my health. So maybe the problem was one that I had created with my own decisions. Whatever the buildup to the crisis, one reality was clear: It was crunch time. The faith necessary now, I knew, was a spiritual connectedness that would carry me through this cold winter of uncertainty.
Occasionally, new acquaintances ask me if I have a personal relationship with the Lord. My answer is yes. And, always, my desire is to tell them more. When one believes he or she is about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, it is reassuring to know the meaning of the 23rd Psalm: "I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Earlier in my life, it became clear to me that one is very much alone at least three times: at birth, at death and when making decisions. Often in my consulting assignments, when teaching executives about leadership, one of the big hurdles for many of them to get over is the loneliness of decision-making. Committees make recommendations, but it is leaders who take the responsibility for the decisions. The decision to believe, to have faith in that which cannot be seen, can be lonely. However, the loneliness ends the moment we invite God to be with us.
Dramatically, in August 1993, at age 48, I discovered a fourth time in which one is also completely alone: during surgery. You see, no one can do your birthing or your dying, nor can they make their decisions for you. There may be people all around, but no one can complete these acts for anyone else. And the only partnering possible is with God, who is the constant companion and protector. I understood the truth of God's singular presence, which I learned was enough to handle this particular season in my life.
And, how do I know this truth about God's presence? The very same way most people learned it. We sat with our parents who read faith stories to us. We grew when our teachers taught us and we were strengthened when caring friends confirmed their own confidence in God to us. Real faith is the same for all seasons, good times and bad, sunny summer days of happiness and hope along with the dreary and dreaded days of winter, infirmity and death. The faith is simple. Try as we will to sophisticate our words and orchestrate our worship, the basic message never changes.
One of the great theological minds of the 20th century was Karl Barth. He was wise, well read and thoughtful. So, when a man of his academic and theological stature was asked what he believed was the most important theological statement ever written, people took notice. After a long pause, it was reported that he smiled and then shared these words. The single most important twelve-word sentence ever written describing Christian faith is this: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Perhaps for you, as for me, these same words from a children's songbook were first introduced during earliest days in church school. And they continue to weather the storm. Then a little while later, these simple words from the Gospel of St. John (3:16) further cemented my faith and confidence. "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
A faith for all seasons is about the integrity of our beliefs. The integrity of our beliefs emerges from the integrity of our character. And our character, personally and professionally, in public and in private, in worship and in work, is evaluated by the answers we provide to this two-part question: Do you exhibit congruence between what you say and what you do, as well as what you say about what you did? As we began our search today for a faith for all seasons, let us conclude with the powerful challenge that Jesus provided for us in today's Gospel lesson:
"And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell - and great was its fall!"
To find a faith for all seasons, try starting here: "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."
Or from the Gospel of John: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, to the end that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life."
And from the Psalm: "God is our refuge and our strength."
And, finally: Thank you, God, for giving to me, thy great salvation so rich and free.
Let us pray.
God of all people, sustainer of life, we acknowledge our reluctance to be still, to hear your voice and then to listen to your wisdom. Help us to embrace silence and feel your presence. Make us mindful of your unconditional love. In our rush to discover, conquer, control and acquire, temper us so that we might retain the simple truths of childlike faith. Provide to us the courage to act upon a faith for all seasons. Enable us to share, with confidence, our trust that you will always be our mighty fortress, withstanding the rains of disease, the floods of despair and the winds of anxiety. Grant us the courage to risk, the humility to pray and the commitment to carry forward a sustaining faith for all seasons. Amen.