The Darkest Valley of Cancer
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me. — Psalm 23:4a
Having been a pastor since 1969, I have walked with many families through their darkest valleys . . . valleys of tragic accidents, unexpected death, serious and sudden medical diseases, gunshots, prison, loss of relationship or career, stillbirths, and domestic violence. Most families find their way into the darkest valley at some time, and many seem to experience it more than average.
The dark valley for me has been cancer. When I was 18, I had a malignant melanoma that involved a major surgery and lesser outpatient surgery to finish the treatment. When I was 34, I had stage 2 testicular cancer which involved two surgeries and several months of chemotherapy. This was before good anti-nausea drugs and it was tough. With three young children, I prayed to live long enough to see them reach adulthood. Fast forward to 2008 when I was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 leiomyosarcoma with numerous tumors in my liver and a large tumor around the tail of my pancreas. This has meant two years and nine months of chemotherapy, without an end in sight. Now my wife, Joy, and I pray that I will see our six grandchildren grow to adulthood.
I do not ask for sympathy. God has been with me through all of this. God’s grace has been shown in many ways. I have excellent family support. I serve a wonderful congregation with a very good staff. My D.S. and Bishop have been supportive with visits and prayers. I have an excellent doctor who has worked closely with us.
One thing has come to my attention. People know I am a reader. Since my diagnosis I have received over 45 books. These have included everything from good & helpful books to very superficial books. These latter books did not help either my faith or my health. Other people have asked me what I have read that has helped me.
I responded: Psalms.
They then have asked: “no really, what have you read?”
As pastors, we use the Psalms for worship. The Psalms are also very helpful in pastoral work as well. I learned this first in my experience, and then began using Psalms in my daily pastoral responsibilities.
In-hospital chemo especially worked on my body chemistry to cause me nightmares. At 2 am a nurse might see my light was on, to find me reading Psalm 1, or Psalm 8, or Psalm 20 or 23. The images of God’s offer refuge, protection, strength to complete my plans. Pleasant images guided me through a dark valley to a good table hosted by God, and I slept.
I’ve faced various surgeries which also were times of ‘night’, involving anesthesia. The words of Psalm speak of terror in the night and tears but “the Lord has heard my supplication." Psalm 91 explains that I need not fear the terror of the night, even if thousands fall beside me. God is my refuge and dwelling place. Psalm 4 thanks God for deliverance. I realize many times David’s deliverance is of a different kind, but the psalm still fits and is comforting.
The examples could go on and fill a book. Not only have these images guided me through the darkest valley, but I have been sharing the passages and images with parishioners as well. Even when their circumstances are quite different, the diverse images of Psalms still connect. In non-medical settings images from Psalms help as well.
Scripture is the record of how God has interacted with human beings. The word God has shared interacts with us in a way that connects us with the Word. Daily, as part of my own devotions, I read from Psalms so my mind and heart are marinated in these images and keep them fresh. Probably no person would choose to pass through the darkest valley, but few will escape it. Let’s maximize of this marvelous source of pastoral support for those going through the “darkest valley.” The Psalms will guide us, will restore our souls and will lead us beside still waters.
The author passed away in November 2011.