Getting Slammed with Unwelcome News
The text below began as the first in a series of reflections on where to find God when cancer strikes. In the meantime, the new coronavirus, COVID-19, has bulldozed its way onto the world stage, bringing with it death, suffering, fear, and profound change. It strikes me that some of the same questions we wrestle with when dealing with cancer can apply to the new, uncharted territory of COVID-19. While the following article chronicles my experience with a cancer diagnosis, the search for God and hope is just as relevant in the face of COVID-19.
“It’s cancer.” How many of us have been on the receiving end of those words from a doctor? And how many more of us have heard them spoken about someone who is dear to us, someone we would do anything to spare from pain? If you have heard these words, then maybe you’ve wrestled with questions of why this has happened to you or a person you love. It’s possible you’ve also wondered how a good God could allow the suffering, fear, distress, and hollowed out feelings that come with cancer…and whether God can help us.
My breast cancer diagnosis in 2018 has led me to ponder these questions, and to see what others have had to say about them. Along the way, two points have become clear: first, people propose a broad spectrum of answers; and, second, there is an enormous range of cancer experiences, each highly personal and individualized. I’m indebted to so many people who have been willing to go out on a limb and share their reflections, nurturing me and many others out of the depths of their experiences.
In light of the breadth and depth of what has already been written, it’s overwhelming and intimidating to attempt to write about my search for God in the midst of cancer, and, now COVID-19. For some time, though, I’ve felt a nudge to do just that, and Luther Memorial Church is kindly providing space for my own reflections. God willing, I’ll be writing on this site periodically to share where I think I’ve seen God in cancer, and how these sightings intersect with the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ll be writing from my perspective as a believer in an all-loving God revealed through Jesus Christ. Whether you share this belief or not, I pray God will use these reflections as a blessing for you, and I sincerely apologize if they cause you distress or frustration. If you or a loved one is dealing with cancer, you are already experiencing plenty of distress and frustration (as we all are now in the COVID-19 crisis).
For me, the question of God, cancer, and COVID-19 is part of a larger question of why a good God allows suffering. And I just don’t know the answer to this question. However, the God I follow says in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Speaking of trouble, Jesus didn’t exactly avoid it in this world – the Bible says that He, as God, actually died, too. So, although I’m going to die at some point, either from cancer, COVID-19, or some other cause, God has already gone ahead of my departed loved ones and me, paving the way, and promising the victory of life over death.
If God doesn’t promise a problem-free life, what promises does God provide that might make cancer, COVID-19, and other suffering more bearable? One of the most precious ones to me is found in Hebrews 13:5: “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.” Another breathtakingly beautiful one is in Isaiah 49:15: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” I John 4:7 and 8 tell us that love comes from God, and that God is love. And, throughout my cancer journey, I’ve clung to John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
For me, it has helped enormously to look for God in the glimmers of light and love along the cancer road. Consciously identifying these glimmers, dwelling on their beauty, letting them caress me with peace, thanking God for them: these steps have provided immeasurable comfort and strength. This doesn’t mean I haven’t had many ups and downs, and times of anxiety and distress. I’ll talk about some of these in the future, if you’ll bear with me. For now, let me close by telling about one of these glimmers of light, when God used Girl Scouts and art to touch me when I really needed it, right after my cancer diagnosis.
I had just been diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer. At the surgeon’s office, my husband, Karl, and I learned that the medical response would involve words I didn’t want to hear, like “chemotherapy” and “mastectomy” (and, eventually, other treatments). Even then, there would be no guarantees, although, by the grace of God, scientists have developed remarkable medicines that weren’t available to treat this type of cancer not too many years ago.
As we walked from the surgeon’s office to the car in a daze, Karl asked what I wanted to do next. The answer came to me instantly: “Let’s go to church and look at the mural.” Just the previous week, for their Girl Scout silver award project, our daughter Ellen and her friends Lauren and Heather had completed a beautiful mural illustrating Ezekiel 47:12, which provides a vision of a world full of beauty, free of cancer, COVID-19, and all other suffering: “Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.” [my italics]
Karl and I stood in the hallway, gazed up at the mural, and cried.
I had delighted in that mural ever since Ellen, Lauren, and Heather began painting it, and had pictured the comfort that it might bring to people walking down that hall who needed healing. Never had I pictured myself as the one who would be needing healing, and so soon after the mural’s completion. But this mural was a gift from God, a glimmer of light, a safe space to cry and decompress, gently ushering in a vision of peace and loveliness for all, shining through the darkness of all cancer, suffering, worry, and heartache.
Mary Carol, a member of Luther Memorial Church, felt a call to use her gift of writing to offer hope and encouragement to others who may find themselves in times of special need. In addition to teaching Humanities at York College of Pennsylvania, she, along with her husband, is raising two children.