Counseling, Features, Pastorate, Theology
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The Gospel through Cancer

[Editor’s note: This article was first published in Tabletalk magazine in 2011. Given its continued relevance in our pandemic age, we are publishing it here.]

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I recently sat with my wife in the waiting room at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. We were there to meet with Dr. Lupe Salazar to receive the results of Julia’s latest PET/CT scans. The goal: to determine if the cancer was progressing. This drill is an example of our “new normal” since the diagnosis of stage 4-breast cancer on Mother’s Day weekend in 2009.

Julia and I talk a lot. In fact, there is no one I would rather visit with on a daily basis. But in oncology waiting rooms we often find ourselves quiet. Cancer clinics have a way of making you measure your words. And as you consider and feel the weight of why you’re there, common conversations often yield to silence.

Of course, the iPhone is never far away and in the silence of one’s thoughts, the urge to tweet can become irresistible. Here’s what I wrote that day:

Seminary course suggestion: spend three afternoons a week for a semester in a cancer clinic with your mouth shut watching and listening.

I was moved to write those words because of what I was witnessing in the waiting room all around me. Emotions like concern, despair, anger, and bitterness were obvious as I studied the faces, watched the body language, and listened to some of the spoken words. But there were also clear examples of hope and joy as individuals and families came and went. I was gripped by the fact that one of the front-desk assistants spoke to us freely about the “bad day” she was having and how unfortunate it was given that it wasn’t yet noon. Clearly the fact that the couple dozen people in the waiting room were fighting cancer was lost on her—at least for the moment. The cancer patients could just as well have been waiting for a haircut. Alas, for this employee it was just another day at work filled with mundane tasks of checking in and scheduling people.

The pastorate is all about God and people. As pastors, we have the wonderful (and terrible) privilege of shepherding people to God in Christ every day. Cancer clinics are an indispensable resource for pastors as we strive for faithfulness in our calling because they keep us grounded in the greatest realities in the universe. The idea of having seminary students spend consistent time in oncology waiting rooms (not to mention surgery center waiting rooms) seems more-than-appropriate given the things these students will be facing in their churches once called. This practice has the added benefit of helping train the future pastor to make sure his doctrine is always meeting life. Pity the church that has a pastor with mere book knowledge.

But these laboratories are not just for pastors. Cancer clinic waiting rooms can be a tremendous resource for all people regardless of vocation.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the cancer clinic waiting room reminds us that our lives are a vapor; that our days are all numbered; that He gives us life and breath and all things and, therefore, we are utterly dependent creatures; that sin is real and has a million tragic consequences; that pride is ridiculously ugly and meekness wonderfully beautiful; that we are called to rejoice with those who are rejoicing and weep with those who weep; that people are either saved or lost; that God’s grace is real, His Son all-sufficient, and through the cross cancer will one day be no more.

We must demand that pastors live in these awesome realities so that local churches are filled with members who live in these awesome realities—because they will in one form or another, sooner or later.

Cancer clinics (if I may adapt one of C.S. Lewis’ more recognized phrases) are God’s megaphone to a chronically amused people. Through cancer clinics, God brings the significance of the present and the weight of glory to bear on us in ways unlike anything else. Few things, by God’s grace, capture the mind and the heart like an oncology waiting room. And we need to be captured by God—pulled away from the numbing effects of the world. Our default instinct is to avoid pain, grief, and sorrow by covering these emotions with fun, levity, and leisure of all kinds. And I’m not immune to this sinful weakness that leaves me anesthetized to God. In other words, I need the cancer clinic waiting room because I need God.

When the waiting was over and our nurse called us back to Dr. Salazar’s office, we learned that Julia’s cancer was indeed progressing. But given her relatively young age (40) and the chemotherapy drugs still at our disposal, we re-staged and within a week began a new treatment regimen that is successfully pushing back on the tumors. We press on. And as we do we are, by God’s grace, watching and listening, praying for eyes to see and ears to hear the gospel through cancer.

Filed under: Counseling, Features, Pastorate, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is founder and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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