[This was prepared to be shared with the people of the Logan Cancer Recovery Group this evening.]
Since my last visit with you several years ago, a few things have happened in my life.
In 2010, I suffered a heart attack that took out 40% of my heart. Since then, a stent was implanted in an artery that had been 100% blocked and in 2011, as a precautionary measure, I received a defibrillator/pacemaker.
Also in 2011, a small spot of melanoma was found on my left leg and I underwent an outpatient surgical procedure at the James Center at Ohio State. A biopsy showed that there was no cancer in the surrounding area.
In 2012, I developed a stubborn rash that ultimately proved to be a symptom of Celiac Disease, a genetic condition that may or may not show up in he course of a person’s life. The thinking is that all that whole wheat I was eating to keep my heart healthy triggered the activation of the Celiac Disease. Because I still had a rash and both my wife and I were getting acclimated to the new gluten-free, wheat-free diet that is the only treatment that exists for Celiac, we had to cancel a planned visit with friends who live in France.
Shortly after the Celiac diagnosis, I told an old high school classmate: “It’s no biggie. Heart, cancer, and Celiac were all on my bucket list.” We laughed and he said, “Man, you gotta get a different list.”
Now, I’m doing well. Most days I do several miles of brisk walking. My heart is steady at about 60 beats per minute. My blood pressure, which has never been an issue, is, my doctor says, “perfect.”
There’s been no hint of skin cancer on any other part of my body.
And I’m actually enjoying the gluten-free diet.
After my last physical, my doctor declared that I was in "great shape."
I can’t claim to have experienced anything like what many of you have gone through. But I have learned some things I either didn’t know or didn’t pay much attention to before my last visit with you. They’re probably things all of you know from your experiences. Nonetheless, they’re worth remembering.
So what are some of these lessons I’ve learned?
First: Any time we receive bad news about our health, we should remember that it isn’t always our faults. We know that smoking leaves us at heightened risk for heart attack and cancer. We know that not exercising and not getting immunized leaves us susceptible to all sorts of diseases. We know that it’s not wise to drive without securing our seat belts. There are common sense precautions we all can take to reduce our risk for diseases or accidents.
But sometimes bad things happen even to cautious people.
In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says that the Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
In Romans, the apostle Paul says that the whole universe groans under the weight of the condition of sin, that condition of enmity between God and the creation that you and I have inherited from Adam and Eve.
For nearly two years after my heart attack, I beat myself up for it. Although I had been unaware of feeling stressed, I assumed since I had none of the other risk factors for a heart attack that I had stressed myself into it. I even said so publicly. And stress may have played some role in it.
But only recently, my doctor said that he didn’t think my heart attack was caused by stress. “What was it then?” I asked. He paused for a long time and then said, “Maybe just bad luck.”
Now, I don’t believe in luck. But I do believe that there are some things that happen to us over which we have no control. In fact, most of the things that happen to us are probably in that category.
My doctor told me, “Mark, you may have been born with a partially occluded artery that simply took fifty-seven years to become completely blocked.” He went on to say that given the numbers of collateral arteries that had developed near the blocked one, something that would have taken decades to develop, I probably was born with that blockage.
Again, common sense dictates that we control those negative behaviors or habits that may endanger our health and instead, engage in other habits, like exercise, that can help us. But not every illness we’re hit with has anything to do with our behaviors. Our genes, our environments, or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time can all work against us.
The last thing we need to do when we’re hit with a negative medical diagnosis is to send ourselves on a guilt trip. That will not help us feel better.
A second lesson is really one I have re-learned. It’s summarized in the words of Pastor Chuck Swindoll. “I am convinced,” Swindoll has said, “that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.” Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived time in a Nazi concentration camp said much the same thing when he wrote that, “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing; the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances...”
Every one of you here this evening knows well that while we may not control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it.
I have known people who suffered minor health setbacks and allowed them to become death sentences. These people withdrew from life, proclaimed themselves to be suffering from the terminal disease of being human, shuttered their spirits, metaphorically wrapped themselves in cotton balls, and waited for the Grim Reaper.
Others recognize though that life, even in the midst of adversity, is a precious, undeserved gift from God worth living, worth cherishing.
Some of you know "B" from our congregation. B will turn 99 years old in a few days. A few years back, her sons and she decided that she could no longer fend for herself in her home. So, she moved to an assisted care facility.
B is legally blind and has to wear hearing aids. Last year, she had Shingles.
She could be bitter, wondering why she’s still around despite her afflictions. But that isn’t the choice she’s made. Always an avid reader, now largely unable to read, she listens to about five novels on CD every week. She works out every day, is a member of the garden club, participates in the crossword puzzle group, laughs, and keeps me on the straight and narrow.
B once told me that after the decision was made that she needed to leave her home, “I could have felt sorry for myself. But I decided to be happy.” We can control how we react to what happens to us.
A third lesson I’ve re-learned in a powerful way over the past few years is the most important one of all. It’s this. When Jesus tells those who believe in Him, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age,” you can bank on it.
I have never felt the closeness of Jesus, the One Who died and rose to set me free from bondage to sin and death, more than I have in the two-and-a-half years since my heart attack.
And belief in Jesus, Emmanuel--God with us--is good for our health and good for our recovery from health challenges.
This is borne out by research. In the book, The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, Dr. Dale Matthews and co-author Connie Clark write: “Scientific studies show that religious involvement helps people prevent illness, recover from illness, and--most remarkably--live longer.” [The authors' italics.]
They go on to cite several studies that prove that point. For example, a 1972 study of 91,909 people in Washington County, Maryland “found that those who attended church once or more a week had significantly lower death rates from” coronary disease, emphysema, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. They also had less tuberculosis and other diseases.
In 1995, a Dartmouth University study of 232 elderly patients who underwent open-heart surgery showed that the “overall death rate among these patients was 9 percent the first six months after surgery. But for patients who said they attended church regularly, the death rate was 5 percent; the death rate for non-church attenders was nearly three times what it was for churchgoers.” Even more impressively, among the believers, the 37 patients who said they received “significant ‘strength and comfort’ from their beliefs all survived the six-month period.”
The authors go on to document study after study that show the positive effect that faith has on cancer patients, those suffering from depression and grief, and those who have addictions.
Now, we all know, as one of my seminary professors used to remind us, that, except for Jesus, God in the flesh, Who rose from the dead, and Enoch and Elijah, two Old Testament figures who never died, the ratio of births to deaths among the human race remains 1 to 1.
But I have learned that belonging to a Savior Who gives new and everlasting life to all who repent--disavowing the power of sin over their lives--and believe in Jesus--surrendering their whole lives to Him--have a power for living and dealing with life’s adversities that those who don’t have a relationship with Christ don't enjoy.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus describes Himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life.” When we have a relationship with Jesus, we know that we belong to God now and for all eternity and that nothing can separate us from God or His love for us.
If that doesn’t give us strength to handle anything, nothing will!
So, these are the lessons I have learned or relearned these past few years, lessons I’m sure you all know well.
Number one, when we get a bad medical diagnosis, we need to change what behaviors and habits we can, but we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for things we can’t control.
Number two, we can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we react to what happens to us.
Number three, we need to embrace and maintain a strong personal relationship with Christ through prayer, reading God’s Word, regular worship attendance, service in Christ’s Name, and sharing our faith in Christ with others.
When we undertake these steps, we will ensure that however long we live, we will truly live, making full use of the gift of life with which God has blessed each of us. Thank you.