On Sunday, March 1, I stood in church for the first time in weeks. Our pastor encouraged us to lift our hands to receive life—to receive the benediction. In that moment, it was as if my two raised hands held in equal tension a deep gratefulness for the life God had given me and a desperate desire for even more. With tears in my eyes, I heard my pastor say, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” Enveloped in this blessing, I begged God for more strength and more hope, as well as more days and more years.
On December 27th a doctor told my husband and me that I had breast cancer. A week later, a biopsy confirmed it was Stage 1, triple-positive invasive carcinoma. I had started the new year trusting in the Lord’s sovereignty and goodness. I could rest in Him—even as I looked ahead toward an unknown battle against cancer. In early January, the days got scarier when the doctors discovered I also had metastatic melanoma. The next two months were filled with tests and scans to learn if there was any spreading to other organs. My oncologist would, as he said, “throw every test in the book” at me. On February 27—after one final CT scan—my doctors were convinced that melanoma had spread to the top of my intestine, moving me to Stage 4 cancer. Treatment plans were finally set in place, including immunotherapy in the spring, breast surgery in the summer, then later, more immunotherapy. My first infusion of Nivolumab and Ipilimumab would happen March 4, 2020.
What does it look like to receive life from Jesus when He has called me to walk through this valley?
I know, as the Apostle John stresses through his gospel, that if I look to Jesus as the Son of God and believe in Him, I will have eternal life, and that He will raise me up on the last day. What a great hope and comfort we have been given in this—one I have held onto even as the veil of heaven seems a little thinner now. But what does it look like to receive life from Jesus when He has called me to walk through this valley of the shadow of death? What does it look like to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of living, now, while I wait on Him, still desiring to make a life with my husband, family, and community?
What does it look like to have open hands to receive Jesus’ life, but the me in my skin and spirit is struggling to keep from drowning in a whirlwind of weariness and weakness?
Friends have shared that my heart and my words have been an encouragement to them as they read my Caring Bridge updates, looked at my Instagram posts, or spent time talking and praying with me on my sofa. They even said I look more radiant than ever. How can that be? If it is true, that radiance can only be because of Jesus in me…
…it is Jesus in me, made real as He abundantly gives me courage to get through one more doctor’s appointment, scan, test, or day of waiting for results.
…it is Jesus in me, His overflowing care made real to me through all the gifts and cards which arrive in doubles or triples each day, for weeks.
…it is Jesus in me, made real through the Bible verses that are sent to me from friends through texts, messages, and emails.
…it is Jesus saying to me in a myriad of ways I cannot miss, “I go before you.”
Malcolm Guite’s sonnets in After Prayer have been lifting me these many weeks. The first poem in this collection, “The Church’s Banquet”, arrested my attention, and for days I could not let it go; each time I re-read it, a deep desire to experience these truths pounded in my heart.
Not some strict modicum, exact allowance,
Precise prescription, rigid regimen,
But beauty and gratuitous abundance,
Capacious grace, beyond comparison.
Not just something hasty, always snatched alone;
Junkets of junk food, fuelling our dis-ease,
Not little snacklets eaten on the run,
But peace and plenty, taken at our ease.
Not to be worked for, not another task,
But love that’s lavished on us, full and free,
Course after course of hospitality,
And rich wine flowing from an unstopped flask.
He paid the price before we reached the inn,
And all he asks of us is to begin.
And as the days continued in this valley of the shadow of death, the Lord offered me a course-after-course banquet, in the presence of my enemies, with a cup of rich wine that flowed from an unstopped flask. Sometimes during those many weeks of waiting, His generosity to me through family and friends was so much that I could only weep at it all. Through these days, in a tangible way, Jesus showed me He truly is the Bread of Life.
My wilderness of waiting was not barren; it was full of His care.
Following the surgery to insert my port, I lost most of my appetite. The only food I cared about was white bread toast with butter and raspberry jam. I usually ate this combination for most meals, despite church members giving us dinners. One day, after seeing a friend’s Facebook post of homemade blueberry scones, I found myself wandering the aisles of Wegman’s looking for something similar to those dreamy baked goods. As a way to care for me, friends made a “Happy Snacks for Leslie” sign up list. When they learned that I really wanted bread or scones, I started receiving bread in many different, yummy forms. One morning—looking at all the bread on my kitchen table and trying to decide what would go into the freezer—I thought, “Jesus said, I am the Bread of Life.” When I ate bread, whether it was a homemade wheat roll, a slice of artisan bread, a scone, or a sticky bun, I could taste and see that Jesus was good and was being good to me.
I was walking through this wilderness of waiting, and He was tangibly showing me that He was giving me his life. My wilderness was not barren; it was full of his care.
This life from the Lord was not given to me just because I prayed the right prayers or prayed enough. Most of the time, I simply recited the Lord’s Prayer or confessed “I am weak, please help me.” Although I know these short prayers are enough for God to move, I cannot shake the feeling that I was given this abundance because my family and friends have been interceding for me, day in and day out. Their prayers have been more than I could ask or imagine. Truly, I am the paralytic needing to be healed, and my friends have broken a hole in the roof to get me to Jesus.
Held together by the grace of Jesus Christ, I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
On the morning of March 5, I stand at the stove, holding in both hands farm-fresh eggs. I feel their weight, and I enjoy their muted hues. After a few minutes of staring at them, I crack them open over the pan, and their bright yellow yokes form perfect circles. I lightly scramble them with freshly ground pepper, goat cheese, and cherry tomatoes; it tastes just right. I haven’t made a breakfast like this in weeks. In this moment—with medication coursing through me and still not knowing what lies ahead of me—I gratefully receive new life, sweet and ordinary. Held together by the grace of Jesus Christ, I see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I am one who has been given God’s love—lavished on me, full and free.
The featured image is courtesy of Aaron Burden via Unsplash. We are grateful for Aaron’s good company as a team member of The Cultivating Project.
Leslie Anne Bustard takes great joy in loving people and places, whether at church, around her kitchen table, in a classroom, or traveling around. She delights in words and the way poets and storytellers put them together, and marvels at the beauty found in the details of ordinary life. Reading, writing, teaching literature, baking, producing high school theater, and museum-ing are some of Leslie’s favorite things. Leslie is the host of The Square Halo, a podcast for Square Halo Books (https://www.squarehalobooks.com/podcasts) and is developing a book titled Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to the Best Children’s Books. She and her husband Ned have been married for 30 years and live in a century-old row house in Lancaster City, where they raised their three daughters.