Nine years ago life took an unexpected turn.
At the age of 32 I was diagnosed with cancer. Overnight I was faced with a future that was far less certain and the reality that in an instant everything in life can change.
Over the course of about 2 weeks I was tested, diagnosed, had surgery, and began radiation treatments. I distinctly remember the day after being diagnosed. It was a beautiful Saturday in May. We held a birthday party for our son, and as I walked around our backyard, chatting with family and friends, I felt like I was dreaming – living in an alternate reality.
Except it was my new reality.
This new reality came on the heels of a season where we had waited and waited for God to move us, literally, into a new chapter of life. Shortly after moving to Pennsylvania to accept the position of worship leader at Living Word, the economy collapsed, and with it the housing market. We relocated based on the assumption that we would be able to sell our home in Arizona relatively quickly and move into our own place. Wrong. What was to be a temporary housing situation, a resident house the church graciously allowed us to live in, became a 2-1/2-year occupancy.
During that time my wife and I often wondered whether we had made the right decision to move east, as we felt unsettled without a place of our own to call home. Finally, in February of 2010, our house in Arizona sold and we began the adventure of looking for our own house in York. As excited as we were, we soon experienced the emotional roller coaster of having offer after offer rejected on homes we really liked.
The day we placed a down payment on our eventual new home was the same day I was diagnosed with cancer.
Life was hard and hopeful at the same time.
Surgery happened 3 days later with the cancerous spot being successfully removed. After 2 weeks of recovery, I began 3 weeks of radiation treatments. At a physical level the radiation brought fatigue and nausea, and most afternoons I just wanted to sleep. Emotionally, walking into a radiation waiting room where there were people twice my age was sobering and, to be honest, depressing. My sense of invincibility was shattered as I recognized my own mortality. I knew that the type of cancer I had was highly curable, and I wasn’t worried about dying, but I did have to face the fact that as healthy as I may try to be, I could not control things like cancer from happening.
About a month after finishing radiation treatments we moved into our new home.
I wish I could tell you that during this whole time I ran to God, fully relied on him, and embraced the opportunity to reassess my own spiritual life. It would be more accurate to say that God lovingly but firmly led me into a deeper sense of dependency on him as he removed some of the idols in my life.
- Control – I thought that I was the captain of my own fate and it was up to me to maintain control over my life, relationships, and calendar. God used my 2-plus year journey of waiting for our own house and then cancer to displace the illusion of my control. Instead, he offered me a fresh opportunity to see his sovereign care at work in the details of my life and to trust that his ways were higher and better.
- Identity – Although I believed that I was first and foremost a child of God, at a functional level I had been operating as if my primary identity was that of a competent worship leader who had to prove himself each Sunday. Being forced to step away from leading worship for a month caused me to come face to face with the truth that I was using my performance as a leader as the basis of my acceptance with God. It was a humbling experience.
God used my cancer diagnosis as a redemptive opportunity to do “heart” work in my life. He exposed these idols and then slowly replaced them with dependency on him over the months and years to come. I pressed further into him as I began to see cancer as an invitation to slow down and be attentive to what God wanted to reveal and reorder. I also realized that I had often struggled with accepting help and support from others, and cancer put me in a position where I had to humble myself and embrace the help of others.
There were two spiritual practices in that season of suffering that became very significant for me.
The first was one that I had already been practicing but it took on a new-found importance – encountering God through worship music. The song “Our God” by Chris Tomlin had been released a month or so before my diagnosis, and that song became a part of the soundtrack for that season in my life. On a number of occasions, tears would be streaming down my face as I listened and sang along. It was a way for me to declare victory and express that nothing – no height, depth, diagnosis, circumstance – could separate me from the love of God (Romans 8:39). “Our God is healer, awesome in power…our God.”
The second significant practice was learning to read God’s Word in a more devotional way. I became familiar with the lectio divina approach to reading Scripture and realized God was not only speaking to my head, but more importantly, to my heart. The Psalms were especially meaningful and gave me permission to express my emotions to God while becoming more attuned to his presence.
Nine years later I am cancer-free and grateful for how God met me in that valley and led me into a deeper dependency on him!
– Pastor Chris Smith