The words had inadvertently found their way on the printed page; they were obviously not meant for anyone to read. Only two words: “No hope.” But they said so much. Too much.
They were printed next to the name of a cancer patient for whom we prayed. I flinched when I read them. No one is beyond hope - not even those who appear to be victims in the last stages of cancer.
Cancer is indeed a powerful foe. It’s taken down the tough (Lyle Alzado, Mickey Mantle, Walter Payton), the entertaining (Bette Davis, Milton Berle, Jack Benny), the rugged (Yul Brenner, U.S. Grant, John Wayne), and the brilliant (James Baldwin, Steve Jobs, Enrico Fermi), just to mention a few. There is no vaccination against cancer, and no society is cancer free. You have a relative, or a friend or a neighbor with cancer.
Maybe you have cancer.
According to Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” because we are living longer, cancer has more time to strike us, making it a “new normal” in our lives. In advanced nations, cancer attacks two out of three people during their lifetime. But we are making progress in the fight against cancer. Although the incidence of cancer is rising, cancer mortality is actually going down, says Dr. Mukherjee.
And so we hope.
Yet even as we hope in advances of medical technology and the benefits of healthier lifestyles, we know our time is limited. As cancer victim Steve Jobs said in his commencement address at Stanford University shortly after his cancer diagnosis in 2003: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one had escaped it.”
I’m not sure what Jobs’ concept of the afterlife was. A convert to Zen Buddhism, perhaps his hope was in an enlightened state of rebirth, or a dissolving into a blissful nothingness. Or maybe Zen provided the underpinnings for a more secular form of hope with no need of dogma or revelation, where this world is all there is and all we need. Christianity Today editor Andy Crouch’s observation in The Wall Street Journal seems quite correct: “Mr. Jobs’ Apple is a religion of hope in a hopeless world — hope that your mortal life can be elegant and meaningful, even if it will soon be discarded like a 2001 iPod.” As Crouch notes, for many in this secular age, that’s enough. But for others it’s not.
For the one whose future was mistakenly labeled, “no hope,” it wasn’t. He clings to hope, a hope that he, still in the prime of young adulthood, will by God’s mercy overcome cancer and avoid death, at least for a while; at least until he can leave the hospital where he has been confined for more months than he cares to count, imprisoned in a bed where he hears of life on the outside, of days other people enjoy, days of sunshine and fun, of breathtaking sunrises and glowing sunsets, of weddings and parties with friends, days stolen from him by cancer’s curse; days forever gone, dissolved by the slow drip of chemotherapy.
As I conclude my prayer, he signs the cross — a motion of his faith — and I join him, as we both hope in something more than a miracle cure, something that’s beyond death, something grounded in the hope expressed by the apostle Paul, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all."
In the hope of that eternal glory we can rest, finding within it reason to live in a world bounded on its four corners by death, breathing the oxygen of a hope that survives the misery of our happenstance because it’s a hope in the one who takes us by the hand now and promises to carry us home then.
In that hope, we find reason enough to live for another day.
And rest in peace forever.
Contact Dr. David B. Whitlock at email@example.com or visit his website at davidbwhitlock.com. Whitlock is teaches as an adjunct professor at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville.