Steve couldn't die. He was young, with two teenage boys at home. As a geologist, he practically lived outside, and looked perfectly healthy.
But one Friday, Steve came home early from work. He had a bad headache. Sunday he had a seizure. Monday he went into the hospital for tests. Thursday we heard the results: three inoperable tumors at the brain stem. They gave him eight to nine months.
But surely God would heal him.
Points of Connection
As a pastor, I had no idea what to say to Steve or his family, or even how to pray in light of his diagnosis. Sermons you can plan for, but not a friend's terminal illness. And Steve was certainly a friend.
A few years ago, Steve and his wife joined a small group of us for an eight-week Bible study. We met at our house over chocolate-chip cookies and coffee. During those times Steve and I discovered that we had more in common than just our church.
We were both pastor's kids for one thing. Both of our parents went to Moody Bible Institute, and were involved in the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. As a result, both Steve and I were raised with strict family rules—no movies, dancing, cards, rock-n-roll, or even fashionable clothes. "Come out from among them and be separate," meant "if they are having fun, then leave!"
Thanks in part to our bizarrely parallel upbringings, we became good friends. Steve was fun. He had a first-year (1985) Toyota MR2 sitting in his garage. We talked about getting it running. He and his wife Janet had dated in that car. The brown trim matched her eyes and they just couldn't bring themselves to sell it. Steve was frugal though, and couldn't justify spending money on parts. But it was fun to talk about all the same.
An Uncommon Prayer
While visiting at the hospital I told Steve that I didn't know how to pray for him.
"Just pray I will walk the walk God has for me," he replied. Throughout the days that followed, Steve never asked for healing. He didn't mind us praying for it, but he seemed to believe it wasn't the path God had for him.
Steve didn't fear death. He feared dying. He was afraid of the difficulties that cancer and its treatment might require. His greatest desire was that he would "walk the walk." He wanted to die well, to leave a strong legacy for his boys. He did, and he left one for me too.
We recruited a few guys to help take Steve to his radiation appointments in the following months. My day in the weekly rotation was Tuesday. During our time in the car, I struggled with how to talk about the future, about his boys and wife, about the process of him leaving us. Knowing I'm better at fixing cars than awkward conversations, Steve often helped me out. On our first trip he went through the list of songs he wanted at his funeral. This was difficult, but our conversation the following week was downright bizarre. Janet was driving; I was sitting in the back. Steve spoke from the passenger seat
"Hey Dan, know what I found on eBay?"
"Urns, Dan. The coolest urns ever! There's this guy in Washington State that makes them out of maple wood. Beautiful. They are half the price of what a funeral home charges, and you can specify how you want them made. I think I'll order two, so Janet will have one too." Janet was crying, but Steve kept going on about the urns. The next week Janet took Steve to radiation alone. I fixed the MR2.
Steve had a favorite scripture passage during this time, one that was not familiar to me at the time.
The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death (Isa. 57:1, NIV).