December 6, 7, and 8 can’t pass without Prince Philip and me pausing and remembering. It’s like driving by a chapel on a country road and you just have to stop, get out of the car and stand to look at what is before you — a holy place built where the people of God met Him. That’s what these early days in December mean to us. We just have to stop and look at what God has done.
December 6, 2011 I had an MRI on my right breast. I was nervous, frightened. But the Lord gave me this passage to carry me through what would be a truly awful day. From Luke 6:47-48 “Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, [she] is like someone building a house who dug deep and laid a foundation on a rock so that when a flood occurs, the torrent burst against that house but the house could not be shaken, because it had been well built.” I knew I was that well-built house, but the storm that struck that day would be fierce.
On December 7, after an MRI, a diagnostic mammogram, ultra-sound and needle biopsy, I wrote this, “I guess this is where we find out if faith is real. Lord, a mass. Not sure what to say or feel. I will need You like I’ve never needed You before. To do this at all will be hard — to do it in front of people will be even harder.”
And so began our 2-year journey of suffering. On December 8, I was diagnosed with advanced invasive breast cancer. It was all through my right breast and later we would find it had invaded my lymph nodes. Death came knocking … the storm that struck was fierce.
Year One 2012 was the treatment year: double-mastectomy, a surgery to place a porta-cath, 6 months of chemotherapy, 6 weeks of daily radiation, and an anti-cancer drug that I will take for five years. Finally, 2012 and the cancer treatment ended but the suffering wasn’t over.
Year Two 2013 was the year of surgeries to reconstruct the breasts. That brought its own pain and the level of suffering surprised me. One big surgery in February and a small one in May. Then another really big one in August. There’s at least one more to go, but we are putting that one off until 2014. We want a Christmas that’s not about cancer or cancer treatment.
So tomorrow, December 8, after our three church services, Philip and I will have lunch at one of our favorite restaurants. When I called to make the reservation, I asked them for a special table because this was for “an anniversary celebration”. And it is — both an anniversary and a celebration.
On February 1, 2011 as I anticipated the beginning of 6 months of chemotherapy, I wrote in my journal, “Oh, dear Jesus. I don’t want to do this. But You know all that. I want my old life back. I just want it to be the way it was.”
Now, standing in front of the chapel that this last two years have become, I can say I was misguided when I wrote that. I may have been sincere, but the truth now is, I don’t want my old life back. Oh, I admit it was much more carefree, much less complicated, certainly much healthier and with much less pain!
But cancer diagnosis, treatment, surgeries, pain, suffering — all that nasty, awful stuff has brought me something precious that I didn’t have before in my sweet life unblemished with hard suffering. You see, I have Jesus in a way I didn’t have Him before. Oh, I had the Savior Jesus, the Shepherd Jesus, the Healer Jesus, the Triumphant Jesus, the warm, inviting Son of God Jesus.
But I didn’t have, didn’t know, the Suffering Jesus.
On February 21, 2011, I wrote in my journal something the Lord said to my heart that day, “I want to give you something in this time that you could not otherwise receive.” I couldn’t have known that what He was to give me was Himself, the Suffering Jesus. I met Him, experienced Him, and have grown to love Him, the Suffering Jesus, in the past two years. A precious gift, far too valuable to want any longer to exchange for my “old life”.
When my suffering was too great and I begged God to take it from me, the Suffering Jesus came and reminded me that in a garden long ago, He asked His Father to take away His suffering too. But in the end, He surrendered to the will of the Father, and because He surrendered even unto death, He would give me the power to surrender also. And surrender I did. I lived Year One in 2012 by surrendering every day. As I surrendered to God, I also surrendered to each doctor and test, to losing my breasts, to every chemo infusion, every radiation treatment. And as I surrendered, the Suffering Jesus carried me every step of the way, and “the house could not be shaken.”
And I admit, I expected that God would carry me through in that same way in Year 2 of my suffering journey! But in 2013 with surgery after surgery, things changed. The physical pain was greater, believe it or not. It was incessant, unyeilding. And that pain wore down my commitment to surrender. I wanted it all to STOP. After a year of treatment, I wanted to get on with my life!
But the Suffering Jesus had something else in mind. He didn’t want me to “get on with my life”. He wanted me to learn a whole different way of living. A year of surrender was good, but it hadn’t yet changed me to the depth He desired me to change!
So Year 2 I felt like a piece on a chess board, being moved one place, then another, then another. One day, one week was about learning to suffer pain while holding onto Jesus. Another day, another week was about leaning in to the suffering of others and as I did, my own suffering lessened somehow. Yet another day, another week was about despair when it was hard to find Jesus — knowing He was there, but His sustaining grace was dimmed by the pain which took the forefront of my focus.
Yet no matter where I moved on the board, I would find Him. On most days through Scripture and in prayer. Many days in the touch or sweet words of a faithful husband. Or the way a loving congregation cared and prayed for me. And most recently in the way the Lord has brought my mother back from the edge of death to renewed health in her body, soul and spirit!
Yes, Year 2 has been tough but I can say in retrospect that again, “the house has not been shaken”. And in God’s Story, the years are not separate and distinct as they appear to me to be as I stand before this “chapel” of my two-year suffering. In God’s story, the two years of my suffering are woven together, joined in a bigger story that is the story of Jesus being revealed in me and my insignificant little life.
As Philip and I come to the close of two years of suffering, I am beginning to see more clearly that bigger story — the God story revealed in my life. I’ve loved Jesus all my life, but it was only in these past two years that I’ve come to know and embrace the Suffering side of Jesus. And in so doing, Jesus has become MORE in me and I in Him.
It is little to say, “I am forever changed”. It is little but it is true. I have hated cancer, but it is the horse the Suffering Jesus road in on as He came into my heart in a new, deeper, profound and irreversible way. I cannot go back to my previous existence, to my sweet life unblemished with hard suffering.
And I don’t want to go back. This life is harder for sure. But I have learned that until we know suffering, we cannot fully know Jesus. Hebrews 5:8 tells us that, “Though He was God’s Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered.” If suffering played such a huge role in the life of Jesus, I must expect that it can do the same for me.
I’m glad the 2-year journey of suffering may be coming to an end. But it’s not its ending that Philip and I will celebrate tomorrow at our “anniversary lunch”. It’s the chapel that God built these past two years. Made from the timbers of suffering, the bricks of pain, the mortar of faith. Tomorrow we will stand before this 2-year chapel of suffering and we will celebrate the privilege of knowing and embracing the Suffering Jesus, my dear, dear Friend.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.