Friday, October 3, 2014

Hearing the Words You Never Wanted to Hear

(This is the first of multiple posts that deal with my son's diagnosis with cancer and the days and weeks that followed. We praise God for his faithfulness to Jesse, who is healthy, strong, and causing all the trouble a normal 8-year-old boy might be expected to.) 

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."   -Romans 8:18

My family has carried on a very blessed life in our little home.  I've always been amazed by how good God has been to us. I have a wonderful wife, a great job, and four beautiful children. Both my parents and my wife's parents are in good health and enjoying the blessing of being grandparents... the list could go on and on. No family is perfect, and we certainly have our little problems and issues here and there. But our problems weren't major... nothing you would write a blog about, anyway.

I guess there has always been a part of me that wondered when problems would show up. It's not that I'm a pessimist or anything... I like to think I'm more of a realist. I could see others dealing with big problems in their lives. And I knew I didn't deserve a better life than them. There was something else, too. As a Christian, I knew that suffering and hardships are unavoidable in this life. The scripture is absolutely clear on the explanation for the hardships of life: we live in a post-Fall world. The roots of all our problems go back to Genesis 3. And that is a great equalizer. Every life, no matter how seemingly care-free things might be from time to time, will ultimately face hardship. 

The $5 seminary word for the problem of defending God's goodness and sovereignty in a world that includes suffering and pain is theodicy. Since I began studying theology and apologetics, it has been a pet interest of mine. In fact, I posted a few reflective thoughts on God's goodness in the midst of hardship on this blog a while back. Of course I think it's a decent read, but it was definitely written when I had very little personal experience in the area of suffering. In hindsight, I can definitely say that God had a plan to educate me on a more personal level. Over the next several blog posts, I hope to come back to the concept of how God shows His goodness through suffering and hardship.

It began with my mom. We learned in 2011 that she had Hepatitis C, and that she would need treatment. Long story short, she had a number of complications and had some close calls during that treatment. My dad did everything for her. Eventually, her doctors ended the treatment prematurely, because things had gotten so bad. When I say that she suffered, I mean it... it was like something biblical. She was exhausted, sick, and increasingly weak. On top of all that, she was covered with sores that bled, drained and itched constantly, and her hair fell out. Needless to say, we were stunned. We had never known anything like that kind of health difficulty in our family. Thankfully, mom recovered completely from the treatment, and, despite having ended early, she shows no signs of having Hep C.

I probably would have told you that this journey with mom was the answer to my previously mentioned questions. My wondering about when and how hardship and suffering might come for us had been answered. And certainly God had been faithful- He provided a successful treatment for mom, and though she suffered greatly, He healed her of both disease and side-effects of treatment. We were all so thankful. I'm glad we had a season to just be thankful. I'm glad we didn't know what was coming next.

In the first few weeks of 2013, we noticed something a little strange while bathing my oldest son. I'm going to try to keep it PG, here, both for the readers and for my son's future embarrassment level. He was swelling up on one side of his scrotum. I knew that was not good, but everything I could read suggested that if something was really badly amiss, he would be in pain... and he wasn't. Not knowing what else to do, we made an appointment to see our pediatrician. After seeing my son, she referred us to a urologist. We went across town to have imaging done. I remember the doctor saying, "Obviously, we want to get it out quickly, but it's probably nothing to worry about." Others reassured us: "Little kids don't get cancer there, so at least you know it isn't that."

One by one, though, the other possibilities began to fade. The ultrasound ruled out a cyst or hydrocele. The technician said, "Whatever that is, its tissue..."  and I watched her mark the area on-screen:  "? ? ?"  My heart felt the first tremor of fear. "Well that isn't good," I thought. We scheduled our son to have surgery. Over the next 2 days, the doctor called us back for 2 more ultrasounds. First the bladder, then the kidneys. We wondered what our doctor was trying to rule out. Each scan on the other areas came back clear. Ultimately, the doctor said, he wouldn't know what it was until the surgery. 

Finally, the morning of March 8th, 2013, we headed into Baton Rouge with our 7-year-old boy to have something removed from his scrotum. The doctor had told us that, depending on what he found, he might have to perform an orchiectomy. He assured us that even in that worst-case scenario, there wasn't any reason to think our son wouldn't be just fine. After our little man was taken back to surgery, we waited patiently. We prayed. I worked on a sermon I would never wind up preaching. Then, finally, we were called into the consultation room. 

Our urologist said, "the surgery went ok..." "unfortunately, we did have to take out everything from that side..."

"...Your son has cancer."

My ears rang so loudly, I couldn't hear what the doctor was saying. I felt my face suddenly go cold, and then hot, and I recognized the feeling of immanent unconsciousness. I thought to myself, "don't faint... don't faint... Nell really needs you to not faint right now." I put my head down and recovered a little, and began to hear things again... "Rhabdomyosarcoma..." "...maybe New Orleans or even Memphis..." "...will definitely require treatment including chemotherapy..."

When we walked out of that room, we were sad, fearful, and shaken to the very core. All we had were questions and the name of a cancer we could barely pronounce. It wouldn't be the last word I would come to wish I'd never heard. But we had a little boy in the back of that surgery center who was going to need us to wake him up, take him home, and tell him... I remember praying, "Oh Lord, Jesus, however will I tell him?" And that was the beginning of me being at just about the lowest, saddest point I had ever known. 

But that is the exact moment that God started doing peculiar, amazing things. And it started right when we walked out of the consultation with the surgeon. We had just begun to gather our things when a couple from our church (one of my co-pastors and his wife) walked in to find us. What timing. Just when we needed them most. And they were just the right people- a couple who had personally walked through an extremely difficult childhood illness with their own son. They sat with us, prayed with us... and their very presence reminded us that God is faithful.

Over the next few weeks, we faced a number of challenges, decisions, and hardships... and God met us in every single one of them. We began to see how God was using the past to make us ready for what was coming. When we eventually told my son he would lose his hair, he wasn't happy. We assured him it would grow back. "Just like Meme's?" he asked. "Yes, buddy, just like Meme's, it will all grow back." God answered our prayers in ways that were so gracious, so loving... I can't wait to tell you all about them in subsequent posts. And that is the main point of my writing this - to reassure everyone I know that God is faithful when things are at their worst. He really can bring you past the "words you never wanted to hear", to the place where you can affirm His goodness. Past the place of complete shock and dismay, to the place of wanting to tell people all He's done for you. He is that good, and that faithful. Of course, that doesn't mean the hurt and sorrow go away, but it does mean that He can see you through.
So how do I explain theodicy? It's a work in progress, but here's a start: I believe there are depths of God's grace and goodness that can only be experienced by personally passing through the crucible of human suffering. That has certainly been proven true in our home. If you're interested, stay tuned for more of the story.

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