Doug Weaver is my longtime friend who is a professor of Baptist studies in the department of religion at Baylor University. He is the current president of the Baptist History and Heritage Society and past-president of the National Association of Baptist Professors of Religion.
In spite of the fact that I am a recovering Southern Baptist, I highly respect Doug’s opinion. Also, please note that “Southern” is nowhere listed in his credentials even though he is a Virginian.
It is Well
By Doug Weaver
It is well with my soul. Is that an elusive ideal, a hauntingly compelling confession of hope, or both?
In 1983, my father died of colon cancer. In 1984, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer but thankfully survived it and was later declared cured. My older brother’s doctor once told him, “It is not if you and your younger brother get colon cancer, but when.” After more purifying colonoscopies than I can count, the cancer never came. But, I never really fasted from the fear of the possibility.
Fast forward. In 2006, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I was told that it was a good cancer to get – the cancer was just in the lining and was not invasive. My hearing is pretty bad and I see with trifocals, but trust me, I can feel with the best of them. The cancer and the side effects of my treatments constantly bent me over with knife-like pain. Depends were not dependable; no wonder I started wearing black pants to work. The doctor in Waco where I live thought the medications which turned my flow into Texas burnt orange would lessen the pain, but I told him I was burning horrifically and unless he had magical Baylor green and gold, it was not going to help. And it didn’t. The treatments, however, worked.
In 2009, the bladder cancer came back – same situation – in the lining, not invasive, burning like a Gehenna fire. I was again on the extreme end of the spectrum with bodily reactions to the condition and the medication. However, what scared me was the doctor’s suggestion that cancer cells might be in a kidney too. I visited a specialist in Dallas who said it was so rare for bladder cancer to go into the kidney that it must be a tainted test. So do not fear.
The treatments worked again, but one more time, in 2013, the C word returned. This time cancer cells were in the lining of the bladder and both kidneys. So much for fasting from fear. Even though I had been his patient for seven years, I left the Waco doctor for good since he had said if the cancer ever got to the kidneys he’d have to try voodoo medicine to treat it. To confront the fear, I headed to MD Anderson Hospital in Houston. They put two nephrostomy tubes in my back (an amazing procedure), administered the medicine, and the treatments worked. The tubes dangled, hidden under my shirt for months, but at least voodoo stayed in Waco.
I made the 185-mile trip to MD Anderson in Houston every three months from spring 2013 to fall 2016 with good checkups, but once again I received word that the cancer cells had returned to the lining of both kidneys, now my fourth time. I did the standard treatments and kept the tubes in for a few months as we awaited results. I threatened a few colleagues with a “lift-the-shirt” presentation on a couple of occasions but other than being a Baptist who couldn’t be immersed in water, I did fine. But, I wasn’t fasting from an increasing fear.
I have now reached the one-year anniversary of surgery to remove a cancerous kidney. (The good news was that one kidney and the bladder didn’t reveal cancer cells anymore.) After the surgery, my wife and I heard the line many people living with cancer hear: “You had some microscopic cancer in lymph nodes, so we need to do some chemotherapy.” So, we did.
Today, I am fine – good, actually. My hair returned, curly (and unruly) like it was when I was a teenager. Subsequent scans (yes, cancer survivors often date the calendar by their regular three-month checkups) have been good. I am feeling hopeful.
Yet, during this journey, I haven’t been one of those patients who has “conquered” fear. On rare occasions, I was able to confront the repeated news of cancer returning with a bit of confidence. Most of the time, I was forced to my knees by the demon of cancer and begged God for a miracle my dad never received. Sometimes I have been near despair.
I knew my situation wasn’t as bad as patients I saw walking alongside me in the halls of MD Anderson; yet to compare cancer cases is not fair to anybody. Along the way, I have told friends too many details. My wife has had to hear me ask questions that I either already know the answer to or know that there are no answers. I love the church, but it isn’t always the best place to fast from fear (although, in my case at our church in Waco I am gifted with the wonderful pastoral presence of Mary Alice Birdwhistell). Baptists have a few saints.
One of my favorite Holy Week phrases is from Tony Campolo’s powerful old sermon: “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.” I need to repeat that. “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!” When you are sick, sometimes it is Friday. In fact, it can be months or years of mostly Fridays. It is hard and physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing. The Easter we just celebrated tells us that Sunday is now here, and that means hope amid fear. I think that is what the earliest disciples experienced.
Ah, that word “experience.” The longer I study Baptist history, the more I am confronted by that compelling word. We interpret our faith through our experience. Heretical? Ha, call me Harry Emerson Fosdick who once said that if dispensationalism is orthodoxy, then call me a heretic. The role of experience is at the core of Baptist DNA: voluntary faith, dissenting conscience as an act of faith, believer’s church and so on.
I’ve been researching in recent years the role of the Holy Spirit in Baptist identity (shameless plug: stay tuned for the book this fall). The desire for an ever increasing awareness of the Spirit – an experience of the power of the Spirit – is not absent in Baptist life. As we approach the observance of Pentecost in a few weeks, I understand standing on that promise of presence.
Fear needs the experience of hope.
I am a cancer survivor. This is the first time I have used those words in a public forum. I am still hesitant to call myself that because of others whose lives have been hit so much harder. Friday’s coming, Sunday’s here, and Pentecost promises glory. I am healthy(!), but I still can’t say hope without fear, and I refuse to say fear without hope.
It is well with my soul. I love the hymn that bears that title. It is an elusive ideal and a hauntingly compelling confession of hope.