Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cancer's Unexpected Blessings - by Tony Snow

A friend recently shared this moving essay by Tony Snow. You may or may not know the former White House Press Secretary was a devout Christian. This was his response when asked what spiritual lessons he had learned from his fight with cancer. It was published in Christianity Today in July of 2007. In July of this year, he passed away at the age of 53. It is quite long, but truly one of the most beautiful, impacting, faith-filled testimonies I've ever read. If you or someone you love currently has cancer, or if you've previously lost someone you love to cancer, I pray this will be an encouragement.

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'Blessings arrive in unexpected packages, in my case - cancer.

Those of us with potentially fatal diseases - and there are millions in America today -find ourselves in the odd position of coping with our mortality while trying to fathom God's will. Although it would be the height of presumption to declare with confidence 'What It All Means,' scripture provides powerful hints and consolations.

The first is that we shouldn't spend too much time trying to answer the 'why' questions: Why me? Why must people suffer? Why can't someone else get sick? We can't answer such things, and the questions themselves often are designed more to express our anguish than to solicit an answer.

I don't know why I have cancer, and I don't much care. It is what it is, a plain and indisputable fact. Yet even while staring into a mirror darkly, great and stunning truths began to take shape. Our maladies define a central feature of our existence: We are fallen. We are imperfect. Our bodies give out.

But, despite this, or because of it, God offers the possibility of salvation and grace. We don't know how the narrative of our lives will end, but we get to choose how to use the interval between now and the moment we meet our Creator face-to-face.

Second, we need to get past the anxiety. The mere thought of dying can send adrenaline flooding through your system. A dizzy, unfocused panic seizes you. Your heart thumps; your head swims. You think of nothingness and swoon. You fear partings; you worry about the impact on family and friends. You fidget and get nowhere.

To regain footing, remember that we were born not into death, but into life - and that the journey continues after we have finished our days on this earth. We accept this on faith, but that faith is nourished by a conviction that stirs even within many non-believing hearts, an institution that the gift of life, once given, cannot be taken away. Those who have been stricken enjoy the special privilege of being able to fight with their might, main, and faith to live fully, richly, exuberantly - no matter how their days may be numbered.

Third, we can open our eyes and hearts. God relishes surprise. We want lives of simple, predictable ease, smooth, even trails as far as the eye can see, but God likes to go off-road. He provokes us with twists and turns. He places us in predicaments that seem to defy our endurance and comprehension and yet don't. By His love and grace, we persevere. The challenges that make our hearts leap and stomachs churn invariably strengthen our faith and grant measures of wisdom and joy we would not experience otherwise.

'You Have Been Called'
Picture yourself in a hospital bed. The fog of anesthesia has begun to wear away. A doctor stands at your feet, a loved one holds your hand at the side. 'It's cancer,' the healer announces.

The natural reaction is to turn to God and ask him to serve as a cosmic Santa. 'Dear God, make it all go away. Make everything simpler.' But another voice whispers: 'You have been called.' Your quandary has drawn you closer to God, closer to those you love, closer to the issues that matter, and has dragged into insignificance the banal concerns that occupy our 'normal time.'

There's another kind of response, although usually short-lived, an inexplicable shudder of excitement as if a clarifying moment of calamity has swept away everything trivial and tiny, and placed before us the challenge of important questions.

The moment you enter the Valley of the Shadow of Death, things change. You discover that Christianity is not something doughy, passive, pious, and soft. Faith may be the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. But it also draws you into a world shorn of fearful caution. The life of belief teems with thrills, boldness, danger, shocks, reversals, triumphs, and epiphanies. Think of Paul, traipsing through the known world and comtemplating trips to what must have seemed the antipodes ( Spain ), shaking the dust from his sandals, worrying not about the morrow, but only about the moment.

There's nothing wilder than a life of humble virtue, for it is through selflessness and service that God wrings from our bodies and spirits the most we ever could give, the most we ever could offer, and the most we ever could do.

Finally, we can let love change everything. When Jesus was faced with the prospect of crucifixion, he grieved not for himself, but for us. He cried for Jerusalem before entering the Holy City. From the Cross, he took on the cumulative burden of human sin and weakness, and begged for forgiveness on our behalf.

We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us, that we acquired purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others. Sickness gets us part way there. It reminds us of our limitations and dependence. But it also gives us a chance to serve the healthy. A minister friend of mine observes that people suffering grave afflictions often acquire the faith of two people, while loved ones accept the burden of two peoples' worries and fears.

'Learning How to Live'
Most of us have watched friends as they drifted toward God's arms, not with resignation, but with peace and hope. In so doing, they have taught us not how to die, but how to live. They have emulated Christ by transmitting the power and authority of love.

I sat by my best friend's bedside a few years ago as a wasting cancer took him away. He kept at his table a worn Bible and a 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer. A shattering grief disabled his family, many of his old friends, and at least one priest. Here was an humble and very good guy, someone who apologized when he winced with pain because he thought it made his guest uncomfortable. He restrained his equanimity and good humor literally until his last conscious moment. 'I'm going to try to beat [this cancer],' he told me several months before he died. 'But if I don't, I'll see you on the other side.'

His gift was to remind everyone around him that even though God doesn't promise us tomorrow, he does promise us eternity filled with life and love we cannot comprehend, and that one can, in the throes of sickness, point the rest of us toward timeless truths that will help us weather future storms.

Through such trials, God bids us to choose: Do we believe, or do we not? Will we be bold enough to love, daring enough to serve, humble enough to submit, and strong enough to acknowledge our limitations? Can we surrender our concern in things that don't matter so that we might devote our remaining days to things that do?

When our faith flags, He throws reminders in our way. Think of the prayer warriors in our midst. They change things, and those of us who have been on the receiving end of their petitions and intercessions know it.

It is hard to describe, but there are times when suddenly the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and you feel a surge of the Spirit. Somehow you just know: Others have chosen, when talking to the Author of all creation, to lift us up, to speak of us!

This is love of a very special order. But so is the ability to sit back and appreciate the wonder of every created thing. The mere thought of death somehow makes every blessing vivid, every happiness more luminous and intense. We may not know how our contest with sickness will end, but we have felt the ineluctable touch of God.

What is man that Thou are mindful of him? We don't know much, but we know this: No matter where we are, no matter what we do, no matter how bleak or frightening our prospects, each and every one of us who believe each and every day, lies in the same safe and impregnable place, in the hollow of God's hand.'


Melanie said...

Oh, my... that IS beautiful! What a testimony is in everyone of those words. I am so glad that you posted this today, Tracy.

Becoming Me said...

Thank you soooo much for posting this...very powerful

Anonymous said...

I so needed this today. I was told there are unexplained masses on my liver and will be going through the diagnostic process for the next few weeks. Whatever my diagnosis is, I know I need to rest in God's arms. Tony Snow's speech is a good reminder. Thanks.

Debra said...


I was a Tony Snow fan before, but, Wow, this was awesome to read. I truly needed to hear it.

I actually go to my cardiologist tomorrow to find out the course of treatment they wish to pursue for my heart condition. A little scared but I find myself doing what Tony said for my family...having the faith of 2.

I know I'm in the palm of God's Hands and there is no greater place to be. Blessings to you, sweet sister.

Krista said...

Wow! This is wonderful! What a wonderful testimony. Thanks for sharing!


Anonymous said...

Beautifully penned. "We get repeated chances to learn that life is not about us, that we acquired purpose and satisfaction by sharing in God's love for others." To me, that says it all.


Kathy S. said...

thank you for sharing this, it is beautiful. I have never heard of Mr. Snow, but what hope and joy he conveyed here!

Tricia said...

That is sooooo good, thanks for sharing it. It makes me want to have a stronger resolve to live in light of eternity....


Cheryl said...

Hey there!

It seems cancer is everywhere and touching so many more. Thank you so much for sharing this!


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. My husband is an oncology nurse and because he isn't a big reader himself, I read portions of it to him...
I also have a friend who went through surgery, and is going through preventative chemo.
I can only hope to have the faith and courage in the face of difficulties that is displayed here.
May God strengthen us all to face the challenges we have, and to fall in our knees when we feel no hope, because only there are we really strong... when we are weak, He shines through as our strength for us.

God bless,

Cindy said...

I have heard and read this before but it is always a great reminder. My post last night dealt with issues surrounding death and the importance of relationships.

Thank you for sharing this.

Tonya said...

What an amazing attitude to have! Truly, if we could even comprehend what awaits us (as followers of Christ) then we'd be LONGING to leave this world, rather than grow old in it.

I've learned from our own battles that it's in the darkest hour that you SEE and FEEL GOD the MOST!

Thanks for sharing this - it's VERY ENCOURAGING!

lori said...

Tracy...a friend just lost her son to cancer and this is amazing...I hadn't read this..I was a fan of Tony Snow before and this just confirms the integrity and faith that he had....thank you for sharing..

I'm just getting around from WFW..seems Wednesdays spiral out of control and it's not until Thursday night that I can really sit and enjoy them....and get a few extra bonus posts too:) and a recipe or two!!

Your WFW was wonderful...and peaceful...no dwelling in the past...I need that too!

It's been a triple blessing tonight...see sometimes it pays to be late:)


Peggy said...

Blessings again my sweet friend Tracy, I'm getting closer to catching up...I know I read this one because it followed my going "pink" for TSMSS when I highlighted Cancer for this month! This is so powerful! I could not read it through though I attempted 3xs. I'm not sure why but I think it has to do with just having lost my uncle to cancer & so many in my early life than I think about my own family...and it just males this so difficult to read! Perhaps it's because of how wonderful this Spirit was able to accept all of this! Such faith & awesome integrity! I'm blessed to finally finish it and without tears say it's not how you die but how you live for we may never know the whys
yet be so thankful for an aMazing God who gave His all so we may have His grace to meet Him on the other side face to face! Thanks for sharing this testimony of faith!

Susan said...

Thanks Tracey,

I've read this before, and it was great reading again!!

What an encouragement it was. He was a man who truly knew God!!