I have cancer–a somewhat aggressive form of bladder cancer. Cancer is a scary word, given that about 600,000 Americans die every year of cancer.
Pondering one’s cancer certainly evokes what the Psalmist says about the temporal, transitory nature of our life here on this lovely planet: “As for mortals, their days are like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more” (Ps. 103:15-16; see also Ps. 90:5.). Another psalm says that God “remembers that we are but flesh, a passing breeze that does not return” (Ps. 78:39).
The psalmist is right. My life here on earth is just a flicker in a universe billions of years old. We all die (and I almost did on January 5 of this year)!
When the Psalms were written, they believed that death marked the end of human existence. “I depart and I am no more” (Ps. 39:13); “it is not the dead who praise the Lord, those who go down in silence” (Ps. 115:17).
Thank God Jesus changes all that! Jesus promised the thief on the cross: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). And Jesus rose from the dead! He promises that at our death we will immediately “be with him in paradise.” Even more amazing, he promises that he will return some day and we will also be bodily resurrected and live forever with him.
The resurrection changes everything! My advisor for my doctoral dissertation, Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, was probably the most distinguished historian of the church in the second half of the 20th century. When he died, the Yale history department devoted a full page to the vast array of honors that Dr. Pelikan received. But after all those honors, the story ended with the last of Dr. Pelikan’s many aphorisms, spoken as he was dying of cancer: “If Jesus is not risen, nothing else matters. If Jesus is risen, nothing else matters.”
Like Dr. Pelikan, I am convinced that Jesus did rise from the dead. (If you want a superb scholarly book developing the historical evidence for that, read NT Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.) I am certain that my physical death here, whenever it comes, will just be a transition to an even more wonderful eternity with my Lord. That is a glorious assurance as I face the reality of my cancer. In the words of the Gaithers’ wonderful song, Because he lives, I can face tomorrow. Because he lives, all fear is gone.
Well, not entirely! I would not be honest if I suggested that I never have moments of anxiety and fear about the future.
Here is how I am thinking about the coming days.
First, I have some of the best doctors in the world at the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. I started treatment (radiology and chemotherapy) this week. I am deeply grateful for the privilege of such great medical care—a privilege that so many people in our world do not have.
Second, I intend to fight this cancer with all my might! I will fight it with all my mind and body. I am exercising vigorously to keep my body strong.
Third, I know that thousands of friends around the world are praying for my healing. Thank you, everyone, for that wonderful gift.
Finally, I pray daily (often several times in the day and night) in the following way: “Lord, I have already had 81 wonderful years of good health and surprising opportunity. I do not ‘deserve’ another day. But I am coming as a weak, frail human son to you my Heavenly Father. I know you love me more than I can imagine. And I’m asking for the gift of 10 more years: to walk with and care for my darling wife of 59 years; to enjoy my children and grandchildren; and to do whatever else you want me to do. I am not demanding any more years. I know that, as Isaiah said, ‘my thoughts are not your thoughts’ (Isa. 55:8). So not my will but thy will be done. I will accept whatever further years you give me. But as your frail son, I am asking you as my loving Heavenly Father for 10 more years on this lovely planet.”
As I live with excellent medicine, the prayers of thousands of friends, and most of all the assurance of life forever with the risen Lord, I am at peace. In fact, many times a day, during the day and night, I mentally sing this song from my childhood:
Peace, peace, wonderful peace, Coming down from the Father above! Sweep over my spirit forever, I pray, In fathomless billows of love!
Note from CSA staff: If you would like to send a card of encouragement to Ron, please do! Send it to his attention at CSA/Sider Center, 1300 Eagle Rd, St. Davids, PA 19087. Thank you!
Ron Sider is the Founder and President Emeritus of Christians for Social Action. For more updates and to access Ron’s regular commentary on faith and justice, please subscribe to his personal blog here.