Anna Cancer Update: On Hope and Suffering

It was late fall 2017 that we last titled a blog post: “Anna Update.” For months there just wasn’t much to report. Anna was feeling good and we were encouraged by her progress. Her December scan showed that her tumor and lymph node activity was the same as the previous scan at the end of the summer. It wasn’t until her scan in early May that we received new news. The news was such that a blog post was the last thing on our minds. The news was that the tumor had grown in size and beyond the original location of the body. After we gathered ourselves and considered viable next steps, we decided together for Anna to begin a 3-6 month regimen of chemotherapy. We are 5 treatments in, and are just now beginning to catch our breath.

I looked back at that last “Anna Update” post and the subject was Waiting and Hoping. Turns out we may not be very good at either. We thought we had learned a few things over the years about waiting and hoping, and perhaps we have, but we know very little about how to actually do it. How do you wait and hope? There is a section of Romans 5 on hope that I have not ever liked,

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not disappoint…” (Romans 5:1-5a)”

The part I don’t like is suffering. Paul says that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Anna and I want to learn to hope but we don’t want to suffer. Who does?!

Suffering isn’t a popular word in our culture. According to Dan Bruner, “Becoming Christ-like will involve suffering. Suffering is what causes us to trace our lives after the example of the suffering King. Suffering is not about pain. Suffering is about giving up and losing control.” Maybe that is what it means to wait and hope. Maybe it’s about embracing suffering, releasing control. And perhaps that is why Paul mentions suffering as the precursor to endurance, character and hope. We want all of those things, but we pushback against the suffering.

So, as I mentioned, we are just now beginning to catch our breath. We don’t know what the days and weeks ahead hold, but we are certain that God is with us in the suffering, in the hoping. The learning process this past year since Anna’s diagnosis has been so valuable for us. We have asked God from the beginning to direct our steps, and to specifically show us the next step along the way. This has been a source of comfort as He has answered that prayer over and over this past year. We see this current treatment as the next step of trusting God in the process.

It’s almost hard to type because it doesn’t make sense on paper, but we are finding ourselves more and more grateful – grateful for the suffering; grateful for the hope that we have in Jesus. And, grateful for the many friends and family who are with us. We have been overwhelmed at the care and support of so many who love us. We are not in this alone, not by a long shot!

Thanks be to God!

Doing Nothing

A few years after my commitment to spend time each morning with God, I found myself longing for even deeper connection with Him. But I didn’t have the faintest clue where to start.

I remember pulling up to a morning meeting a few minutes early and doing a Google search on my phone: “intimacy with God.” A book by Thomas Keating titled, you guessed it, Intimacy with God, popped up on my search. I ordered the book and awaited its arrival on our front porch. As I read the first few pages, I realized it was speaking to that very longing in my heart! I was being invited deeper into the journey of silence and solitude with God.

In the book, the author, Father Thomas Keating, describes a silent prayer practice that helped him (and me!) more closely experience God’s presence. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. It’s called “centering prayer.”

Now, if you think it’s an arduous task to commit to occasionally spend a day away with God in a culture that screams out that you are as valuable as you are useful, try doing nothing for 20 minutes a day. It will either make you crazy or . . . you just might discover the secret that Jesus often leaned on: silence and solitude in the presence of the Father.

(Am I Loved? Chapter 8 Introduction)

Hearing the Voice of God

After a number of years of spending daily time alone with God, I have realized that perhaps the most significant thing we can do in our time with Him is listen to His voice. You may be thinking, What? Come on now, Shawn. How do you do that? What does that even mean? I hear you. Developing the discipline of listening for God’s voice did not come easily for me. In fact, in the early days I would get distracted by a thousand different things in one sitting. I was annoyed, impatient, and constantly looked at my watch to see when the pain was going to end. Yet slowly, over time, as I continued to return to this place of listening, I began to hear the voice of God.

Now, it wasn’t an audible, booming voice that shot down from Heaven. Sometimes it was simply through Scripture, a passage in a book I was reading, or journaling. Other times it was through the still calmness that overcame me in the moment. But surely and incrementally, over the past 17 years of consistently showing up to listen each morning, God has given me the ability to hear Him. He gives direction for my day, wisdom in decisions, discernment in the moment, and assurance that I am His son. And more than anything, His quiet whisper assures me that I am loved.

Give it a try. Do you best sometime in the next few days to sit with God. Maybe just repeat a verse in your head to get the time started like, “The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want.” (Ps 23) Pay attention to your breathing. Breathe in calmness and peace, breathe out worry and fear. Allow yourself to just be.

Embracing Solitude

Solitude is so counterintuitive to our culture. It takes a lot effort to learn to cultivate this spiritual discipline, but we can see in the Gospel accounts that time alone with God was very important to Jesus:

In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there. (Mark 1:35, NASB)

 So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:1,5 NASB)

It was at this time that He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, NASB)

We don’t know what happened between Jesus and the Father in these times of solitude, but we do know that quiet, reflective time with the Father was a priority to Jesus.

By the world’s standards, some might have said Jesus was “wasting” time. Not being “productive.” Not “accomplishing” anything. The truth is that Jesus was operating on a completely different value system, one that we are wise to consider if we, too, want to draw close to the Father.

The Psalmist David also experienced this, saying, “My heart has heard you say, ‘Come and talk with me.’ And my heart responds, ‘Lord, I am coming’” (Psalm 27:8, NLT). In that place, he could open himself up to the Lord and commune deeply with Him. David wrote of this practice: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. (Psalm 139:23, NLT). When we sit quietly in the presence of the Lord and invite Him to search us, we join David and a long line of spiritual giants who have experienced this before us.

(from Chapter 8 Am I Loved?)

Do You Believe that You too are God’s Beloved?

In his talk “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry,” Henry Nouwen said,

“God has become so vulnerable, so little, so dependent in a manger and on a cross and is begging us, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you really love me?’ That’s where ministry starts, because your freedom is anchored in claiming your belovedness. That allows you to go into this world and touch people, heal them, speak with them, and make them aware that they are beloved, chosen, and blessed. When you discover your belovedness by God, you see the belovedness of other people and call that forth. It’s an incredible mystery of God’s love that the more you know how deeply you are loved, the more you will see how deeply your sisters and your brothers in the human family are loved.”

Let this sink in: as we consider the offer of intimacy— true, meaningful intimacy with Jesus— it changes the way we carry ourselves. All of the subconscious questions most of us ask when we enter a room are already answered: Will I be accepted? Noticed? Does my presence here make any difference? Does anyone care that I am here? Will I be true to my conviction? Am I loved? Am I known? Am I understood? All of these questions are already answered by the only One who has authority to truly answer them.

If we don’t get these question(s) answered from God, nor come to believe in a deep place that we too are God’s beloved, we will keep asking others to answer these questions for us. The only question worth asking is, “Am I loved?”—and the answer is unequivocally YES!

How do you answer this question?

The Humanness of Jesus

The apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians tells us, “…But (Jesus) emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and became as human beings are” (Phil. 2:7, Phillips). A lot of people have argued about what Jesus emptied Himself of, exactly. Most Christian scholars agree that when Jesus came to Earth as a human, He emptied Himself, or set aside, His divine attributes—that is, His omniscience (knowing everything), His omnipresence (being everywhere, always present), and His omnipotence (limitless in His power). As a human, He was limited in all these qualities simply because of He had a human body. But let’s set that thought aside for now.

My question is this: what if He didn’t just empty Himself, but also added something? What if that something was human nature? If that were the case, then of course Jesus would have had to limit the access He had to His divine nature. He couldn’t fully operate out of His divine nature and still have the full experience of being human. Those two natures contradict one another.

This is the really challenging part. How human was Jesus, really? He was born of human flesh, grew physically like any other human would, had veins of actual blood, got hungry, thirsty, and tired. He died a physical death. He felt human emotions including anger, despair, joy, grief, sadness, excitement, and wonder. Jesus struggled—He was tempted, confused at times, limited by others’ lack of response, frustrated, and often lonely. It all sounds pretty human to me.

If I were Jesus and had a “God card” I could access anytime I wanted, I would have certainly used it to avoid the daily struggles of being human. However, although Jesus possessed His divine nature throughout His life on Earth, He mysteriously gave up His access to this nature in order to fully possess humanness. Let that sink in for a moment. God, through Jesus, became like us. I don’t know about you, but this makes Jesus—and in turn God the Father—much more relatable and “follow-able” than a super-human, superhero-like God.

To be open to the idea that we are loved is to respond to a God who chose to be human and vulnerable. As Dan Brunner said in a lecture at Soul Formation Academy, “A human Jesus is a broken Jesus who identifies with our brokenness.” Jesus, in His human nature, completely identifies with us! He gets it—our joy, our sorrow, our loneliness, our longings. Jesus meets us in our humanity. He is, after all, the fullest expression and example of what it is to be human.

Belief On Ramp #4: Identity Statement

In this exercise, revisit the lies you realize you have believed about yourself. For some, this may mean you are recognizing for the first time that those voices in your head telling you that you are less than, not enough, imperfect, unworthy, etc., are not true, and are in fact, flat-out lies! Whatever those lies are, identify them and jot them down.

In addition, write down specific negative words or phrases that come to mind about yourself (such as for me, things like “I am a boy, not a man”). Then write down the opposite of those words. That is often where the truth is revealed about who we really are!

This is my personal identity statement that I have been reading each morning for the past 12 years:

My name is Shawn Raymond Petree, Beloved, I am loved.

I am Your chosen son. I am family.

Your Spirit is in me. Jesus is formed (and is forming) in me.

I am an heir of Your Kingdom, a prince, a saint. I chose joy today!

I am a strong, confident, warm, truthful, assertive,

creative, courageous man; a warrior.

Husband to a beautiful, godly wife.

Father to three provided children.

Friend to many.

I am loved.