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17 / COURAGE

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I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord; “plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

the CULTIVATING

journal

Courage for the Now, Now, and Now and Now

June 17, 2021

. . . here I am, still present in this place and time,
alive to live this day that is today, 

still moved by beauty, stirred by song and story,

yet comforted by the good company of friends,

still capable of rich conversation and laughter

and moments of joy and right sorrow . . .[1]

Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy, Volume 2

 

It’s been seventeen months since I learned I had both Stage 2 breast cancer and Stage 4 melanoma cancer. I know that my length of time is not the longest any one has had to endure; it is just the length of my valley-of-the-shadow-of-death story so far. During this time I have learned what it means to be sustained and cared for by God. And now it has become the time for me to learn what it means to abide in Christ, the one who also walked in the valley, as I learn of his courage and fortitude.

When last January both cancers were confirmed, I was sad and tired. Simultaneously, I felt a real sense of God’s sustaining presence. The words in Joshua 1:9,“Do not be afraid… for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” had already been rooted in my heart from years of meditating on Scripture and seeing this beautiful promise repeated over and over throughout the Old New Testaments. 

With a seeking heart, I tried to pay attention to how God’s presence was real in my life. Along the way, I was given a multitude of prayers, cards, gifts, encouraging messages, time with family and friends, and faithful words. The Body of Christ was used by God to show his tangible presence in these sorrowful days. My friend Katy, during her hard breast cancer fight, found community, listening ears, poetry, the Psalms, music, and writing to be a means of grace for her. This was true for me, too. Although I knew what was happening had a real heaviness to it, I felt wrapped in a cocoon of on-going goodness.

I sought to follow the words of Walter Wangerin as he reflected on the winter walks he took while battling cancer:

“Maybe this is my last opportunity to walk in a winter’s snowfall. Not to make a memory of it, but to know it now.” [2]

 

Paying attention and delighting in what I saw around me became a daily goal; I loved the beauty of blue skies, the music of birds’ songs, and the vibrant pinks, yellows, and greens in the flowers and trees. The sunlight shining through leaves and through leaf-filled branches was a particular favorite on my long morning walks. Like Walter Wangerin, I wanted to do more then make a memory of the world around me, as if storing up experiences before I died; I wanted to know this beauty now. “However short or long my personal journey hereafter (a year, years, or half a year) time present remains for me what it always was before: an opportunity to pay attention. Time doesn’t become more intense. Time is . . . time. I am now. It is enough.”[3]

Being sustained was the theme of my first year of cancer—sustained through all the tears and tests, the waiting for results, the medications’ hard side effects, the ongoing tiredness, as well as surgery and recovery from surgery. If someone asked me how I was doing, one quick (and truthful) answer would be: “I feel sustained by God. I don’t know how God’s sovereignty and this cancer He has called me to go together. But I know He is good and He has it in hand.”

As a dear friend who also battled breast cancer said to me, “I think of the friends that brought the paralytic to Jesus through the roof.  They carried him on a mat and lifted him down to the feet of Jesus. In Mark it says that ‘when Jesus saw THEIR faith, he said to the paralytic, son your sins are forgiven.’  When you have cancer you are on the mat.  And it is those who surround you with prayer and love who are carrying you to Jesus.” I learned this to be true in my experience, as well. When all I could pray was the Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, or just “Lord, have mercy,” I rested in being the paralytic on the mat, with my friends taking me to Jesus.

Starting this new year, my heart and mind have been stumbling along this path I have been given to walk. Doubt of God’s goodness and presence is not what I am struggling with, but the new questions that have been tumbling around in my mind. In March a new, aggressive tumor showed up in my left arm. A couple weeks after surgery to remove it, and twenty-four lymph nodes, two more tumors showed up on a PET scan. At one point I said to God, “I figured more tumors would come, but so soon after surgery? I thought I would get a chance to recover first.”

The reality of the mystery of my days loomed larger in my head, especially after my oncologist reminded me the word “remission” would not be part of my vocabulary in the years ahead. I would need to get my head around living with cancer like one lives with a chronic disease.  My doctor said we would be playing whack-a-mole—when something comes up, we would deal with it. I had been told this last year, but the reality of it was becoming more concrete in my mind now.

How can I live well in this, not knowing how long I will have? Stage 4 melanoma patients usually live for five years. Add to that the complications of fighting stage 2 breast cancer, it’s easy to get stuck in the quicksand of sorrow. My length of days is more of a mystery. As folks will remind me, “We all know we will die, but you just have it hanging over your everyday life.” How does Jesus help me through this? What does courage and fortitude look like now?

Timothy Keller, in an Atlantic essay, shared his thoughts on learning of his pancreatic cancer, “But as death, the last enemy, became real to my heart, I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day. Theoretical ideas about God’s love and the future resurrection had to become life-gripping truths, or be discarded as useless.”[4] This had been my reality, but I need more of the hope of the resurrection in my everyday life, so I don’t obsess over how long God knows I will live.

My favorite band gives voice to my plight as they sing,

I’m lost in the waves that crush me . . .

I see the light but never find the surface
I don’t know if I can swim no more
White knuckles and wild horses
One day we’ll wash up on mercy’s shore[5]

 

“Fortitude . . .is not just the gutsy determination to stare death in the face and laugh

. . . [it is] the long slow fortitude of bearing up under the recognition that life may never be quite the same as it was, the recognition that some hopes and dreams will need to be painfully and persistently rebuilt, [6]

I am asking God to help me dig deeper into the “now” of my days. This is what I need the courage and fortitude for. When did Jesus first realize that he was walking a road to a gruesome death? Was it when he was young, standing among the religious teachers in the Temple? Perhaps it was when he heard the Suffering Servant passages in the writings of Isaiah? Did his mother Mary tell him? Or did he remember the whispers of a far away conversation before time began of the plans to redeem a people through a great sacrifice? I wonder about this often.

Christ walked as one who knew He was living for love and for death and for resurrection. I want to be like Him, loving well the people God has given me, sharing my gifts with those around me, enjoying all the good things that come to me, and not ruled by the questions of the future.  Wendell Berry’s character Hannah Coulter says it well, “And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.”

I want to live now, now, and now and now. The hope of seeing Jesus is real, and I look forward to eternity in his New Creation, but before then, I want to grab hold of my family and friends, and love, laugh, dance, travel, read books, go to museums, and sit on the beach.

 

The presence of Jesus in my days gives me courage and the desire to keep going; knowing he loved and served his people as he walked toward a violent death on a cross means I have a sympathetic high priest hearing my prayers and making available to me all that I need to live like him. The promise to be strong and courageous because he will not leave me or forsake me is still true, even if my struggles with this cancer grow harder and heavier.

Still every week, I am reminded of the reality behind the reality I see. Each Sunday, my pastor proclaims, “The gifts of God for the people of God” and “This Table is a place of nourishment for followers of Jesus Christ. All baptized Christians who trust in Christ alone . . . and seek strength to live more faithfully are welcome to eat this meal.” After taking in the bread and the wine, in unison we pray, “Everliving God, thank you for feeding us with these holy mysteries—the spiritual food of the Body and Blood of your Son. Heavenly Father, please assist us with your grace, that we may continue in holy fellowship with you, and do all such good works that you have prepared for us to walk in; through Jesus Christ our Lord… Amen.”

Communion each Sunday has been a reminder that God is present in my life. He is the source of my strength and my courage to keep living in the now, no matter the mystery and the shadows, while still hoping in a forever future of living before Him. How good God is to not only sustain me in this time, but also to give me gifts like these to enlarge the growing fortitude in my heart.

 

For all these blessings I give you praise.

Knowing that today—this day—

is a day you have decreed I should live;

and so I can trust it is also a day

in which you will supply

every grace that is necessary

for my soul to flourish, though my body weakens. 

Even when I stand at that utter edge of mortal life, 
I would . . .praise you for your long faithfulness[7]



The featured image – surely an image of courage in shadowed times – is courtesy of Julie Jablonski and is used here with her gracious permission for Cultivating and The Cultivating Project. 



[1] Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy, Volume 2 (Nashville, Rabbit Room Press 2021), page 42.

[2] Walter Wangerin, Jr., Letters from the Land of Cancer (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010), page 49.

[3] Walter Wangerin, Jr., Letters from the Land of Cancer (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2010), page 50.

4 Keller, Timothy. “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, March 7, 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/tim-keller-growing-my-faith-face-death/618219/. 

[5] NeedtoBreathe, “Mercy’s Shore,”, track 1 one Out of Body, Electra Records, 2020.

[6] Littlejohn, Brad. “Walkng by the Light of Virtue in the Twilight of a Pandemic.” Breaking Ground, May 11, 2021. https://breakingground.us/walking-by-the-light-of-virtue-in-the-twilight-of-a-pandemic/.

[7] Douglas McKelvey, Every Moment Holy, Volume 2 (Nashville, Rabbit Room Press 2021), page 43



 

Leslie Bustard

comments

  1. Nicole says:

    So beautiful. And something I very much needed to read today.

    Thank you.
    Nicole

  2. Tessa says:

    “I need more of the hope of the resurrection in my every day life…”. Amen. How we need to rehearse that hope daily, hourly, every minute!

    thank you, Leslie, for your courage in sharing this beautiful reflection.

  3. Amy says:

    Your wrestling with how to live now, and now and now is such a gift, Leslie. Thank you for inviting me to step into this sacred place with you. It’s holy business you’re tending to, and inviting your reader to tend to. May you meet I AM in your wrestling in tender and powerful ways. I long for that for both of us.

  4. Kim says:

    You are so beautiful, Leslie. Peace be with you.
    Kim

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