When I first heard his story, I was incredulous.
A well-loved pastor, David Beck, takes another pastoral position at a church hundreds of miles from his current home. Within a month of arriving, he’s diagnosed with the worst form of pancreatic cancer. Most patients die within months, few live a year. Now a year since diagnosis, David is still alive. And the most amazing thing in the Odyssey this year has been for him and his family, he has continued to lead this congregation and preaches when well-enough to do so. He’s led his leadership team in most of their weekly meetings and on their two training retreats and has kept up a Caring Bridge blog to keep people updated and praying. Here is one of his posts from November. This guy is going through the fire, understands pain and suffering, and is choosing life.
Journal entry by David Beck — Nov 16, 2018
I’ve said before that dealing with cancer is a roller coaster of emotions, and the ups and downs are caused by ongoing uncertainties. One day I have chills and a fever. What does this mean? Another day it’s a new rash. What does that mean? My CA 19-9 number just went up (it rose from 96 to 194). Is my chemo starting to fail? The unknowns are far greater than the knowns — and the knowns aren’t all that pleasant anyway. But here’s one thing I’ve become more acutely aware of lately: I can cut my actual suffering dramatically with a change in outlook. Whatever you’re going through, you can cut your suffering dramatically too. Let me explain how to do this.
In Martin Laird’s book Into the Silent Land, he tells the story of a woman named Elizabeth. She was one of the world’s authorities on iris flowers. She did lab research, tended her own greenhouse, attended conferences, and published her research. Then one day she contracted a rare autoimmune disease that resulted in her being in chronic pain. She became more and more housebound, and her life’s work came to a halt.
Elizabeth chewed on all the same questions any of us might have. “Why did this have to happen?” “Who is going to take care of me?” “How can I pay for this?” When the pain was especially intense, she had other thoughts: “Wouldn’t it be better to die?” “I don’t want to be a burden to others.” “Why is God punishing me?”
As her condition progressed, Elizabeth felt she needed to tend carefully to her spiritual condition. She craved connection with God, and more and more it took the form of silent prayer. Confined to her bed most of the time, she developed a routine of quietly communing with God several times throughout the day.
Silent prayer is, in its essence, connecting with God and letting go of everything. Silence is the ultimate prayer of loving trust. If you saw the movie Christopher Robin, there is a scene at the end where Christopher and Winnie are sitting on a log together. Words are few, but love is present. That’s what silent prayer is like. It is resting with complete security in God’s love for us. It can be like two lovers gazing intensely into each other’s eyes.
Silent prayer was especially helpful to Elizabeth because it didn’t require her to frame prayers with thoughts and words. In her pain, laying flat on her back in bed, all she had to do was be with God and let things go.
As Elizabeth settled into this daily routine, she made a key discovery: there was a difference between pain and suffering. Even in the midst of pain, she was more aware of God’s presence. As she was more aware of God’s presence, she also noticed how thinking about her pain – analyzing it, asking questions about it, trying to control it – drew her out of God’s presence and caused her great suffering.
Martin Laird describes Elizabeth’s insight: “Thoughts about pain are worse than pain by itself. ‘Suffering is what your mind does with your pain,’ she said. ‘A silent mind knows no suffering.’ Trying to push away pain increases suffering. In her case, there was no question of pain going away. But suffering she could do something about. If she could be still before the pain and not wrestle with it, she felt alive and aware. Gradually she was able to let go of the demand that the pain be gone, even if it didn’t happen to be gone.” (p. 108)
Like Elizabeth, I’ve noticed that the more compromised my physical condition, the more I am drawn to simple communion with God. Illness pushes me into a primal state, and I crave communion with God that is equally primal.
I have a long history of surrendering things into God’s hands, and it has been especially critical this year with questions of treatment options, side effects, and living or dying constantly in front of me. If I let myself think too much about cancer, I can go from contented calm to anxious torment in less than sixty seconds. Letting go has progressed from spiritual growth strategy to necessary survival skill.
Along the way, I’ve also noticed that I want to be silent with God more than ever before. As life gets stripped down to its fundamental core, silent prayer becomes a calling that can no longer be ignored.
Elizabeth came to differentiate pain and suffering. I have recently had my own experience with the difference between illness and suffering. I have now undergone 24 treatments of chemo. The toxic drugs have saturated my system so much that I have begun having additional side effects: a rash on my upper body and recurring bouts of chills and fever. For four weeks in a row, I’ve had a fever at least one day per week. Last week it was three days in a row.
It’s second nature to ask questions about the fevers. Is my body finally rejecting these chemo drugs? Will I have to go to a different treatment? What if the side effects of new drugs are worse? When will chemo stop working? Yet if I let these questions run away with me, there is great suffering. I become an emotional mess.
What I have done instead, partially inspired by Elizabeth’s discovery, is to sit quietly with the fevers. I let them come and go. I don’t ask what they mean. (I report the fevers to the doctors and let the doctors interpret them.) I let myself rest in God’s hands, releasing and re-releasing to him my physical condition, over and over, as often as it arises in my thinking.
When I take this approach, there is a noticeable decrease in stress. In fact, I find that often other people are more upset for me, than I am for myself. Peace is near at hand. And what is especially important, when I’m not wrapped up in analyzing or fretting over my fevers, I am more available to God and others.
I am an advocate of the Simple Way of Jesus. The Simple Way includes things like: avoiding spending energy on worrying so we can invest that energy into other ventures – like loving God and people. That’s where I want to be. With and without words, we can experience what the apostle Paul knew: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
For me, there is a difference between illness and suffering. Illness is here, and until God changes things, it’s going to stay. Suffering is something I can participate in or not, depending on where I let my thoughts go.
A few months ago when I was dealing directly with fear and worry, I said, “Cancer is scary. Fear is optional.”
Now I have learned something else: “Cancer is horrible. Suffering is optional.”
If you have a chance listen to one of his messages. He is an honest, vulnerable, authentic person in preaching as he is in writing. His experience is a good reminder that we have no guarantees in this life except one: God is Good, present, real and walking alongside us. In that, we can be confident in this Camino of life. Thanks for checking in!