When the Pastor Suffers
Few understand cancer better than pastors. They regularly visit hospitals and counsel church members who suffer from this devastating illness. Cancer strikes nearly every family at some point. But for pastors caring for multiple families at all times, cancer is a never-ending fight. They watch beloved friends who formerly looked so healthy begin to whither away as they withstand bouts of chemotherapy treatments. In the worst cases, pastors are left to comfort the grieving family and conduct the funeral.
But who is left to comfort pastors when they get the dreaded diagnosis? Cancer doesn't exempt pastors, either, no matter how sizable their influence. John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis announced in January 2006 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Then on Thanksgiving last month, rising young pastor Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas suffered a seizure and hit his head. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where doctors eventually discovered a tumor in the frontal lobe of his brain. Surgeons removed the tumor on December 4, but the pathology report has not yet returned. Meanwhile, the rapidly growing church that draws about 6,000 each week waits anxiously to learn the diagnosis.
The spotlight turns on pastors in these cases because we're accustomed to them offering words of comfort and wisdom to the suffering. Perhaps we wonder if they will heed their own advice to trust God despite the circumstances. Maybe they will forsake what they have been telling the grieving all these years and forsake God. But good shepherds don't stop shepherding when danger threatens. That's when their work really begins. Both Piper and Chandler have modeled for their congregations how to turn the dreaded diagnosis into cause for thanksgiving, praise, and sanctification.
Chandler wrote shortly before his surgery that he felt "anxiety, fear, sadness and a deep and unmovable joy simultaneously and in deeper ways than I have felt before." In the aftermath of his Thanksgiving seizure, he expressed gratitude for a "heightened sense of things." Then he offered a list of 10 things for which he gives thanks. The list included health insurance, his friends on the pastoral staff, his wife Lauren, his three children, the doctors, and the people of Village Church. Chandler acknowledged the support from thousands who heard of his condition through the Internet. Their prayer and fasting "has brought far more tears to Lauren's and my eyes to receive this kind of attention from the Church universal than this tumor has."
Then in a widely distributed video recorded between the seizure and surgery, Chandler shared reflections on his career and future. Chandler has been preaching lately about the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, the moving description of leaders such as Samson, David, and Samuel who stopped the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight (Heb. 11:32-34).
"I'm 35 years old, and up until this point in my life, we've shut the mouths of lions and put foreign armies to flight and we've fought against injustice," Chandler said. "Nothing but good has come."
But Chandler observed how the passage's tone abruptly changes in 11:35. Some of these champions of faith were tortured. Some were sawn in two. Some were destitute. How did they still walk by faith? Chandler is learning, because God has now counted him worthy to suffer. If God should allow Chandler to preach from Hebrews 11 again, no one will ever wonder if he truly understands the implications of God's Word. Speaking as a "guy who could lose everything," Chandler promised that he would demonstrate through his suffering that God is enough, come what may.