The Thorns in Our Flesh: how living unhealed has taught us to live hopeful

This past Sunday, Jesse and I shared some of our story with our church, and videoed it. Below, you will find the piece of writing I read at the end of the video (if you need to read to comprehend like I do, this is for you!). If you want to hear more of the story (and/or if you would just really like to hear the southern drawl of this one-armed gal accompanied by the buzz of my i-limb whirring when I move it because I talk with my hands…the real and fake ones), there is a link to the full video at the end of this post.

**The drawing featured in this post is the work of a gifted artist friend, Shawn Collins of christlifeart.com  He has a tremendous ability to tell stories through pen and ink, bringing scripture to life with vivid imagery. I encourage you all to go explore his website. You’ll find his drawings, his writings, and information about his Made for Glory ministry, there. But, mostly, you’ll see his heart for helping people find hope, pouring out of every crevice. He’s good people. You won’t regret taking a few minutes to see what he’s doing!**

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  In march of 2018, Jesse had his routine brain scans. When the images pulled up on the screen that day in his doctor’s office, it was instantly evident to our eyes that his tumor had spread, crossing the boundaries of his midline and infiltrating the right side of his brain…something we had been fighting to keep from happening since his diagnosis in September of 2015. We were referred to our surgeon at MD Anderson for a follow up scan and appointment there. It would be a stealth MRI, a scan using a piece of equipment that gives clearer results, something we know from experience to be a precursor to brain surgery. It would be his fourth.

  There are moments in this life-horrible, wonderful moments-that I would not give up but also would not want to relive…sitting around our dining room table with our four kids, Jesse sleeping in our room from exhaustion, telling them their daddy was dying sooner than we had hoped…that is one of them.

I do not shy away from truth with our kids. This is their life, their father, and they need to know the truth about life and death to understand the truth about who God is and Who He is not. So I told them their daddy’s tumor had crossed the midline, that the cancer was likely in his spinal fluid. We talked about what they could expect his body to endure, about how he would probably lose his ability to walk, to speak, to think…to remember them. We talked about how hard it is to watch him suffer, how hard it is to suffer ourselves. And then we talked about what a gift we’ve been given with the bonus days we’ve had with him where he has been near and (mostly) himself, we talked about how thankful we are that he has lived-really LIVED, and how incredibly grateful we are that we know our time with daddy doesn’t end when his body wastes away, because eternity together does not diminish in time. God has been merciful and gracious to us, granting us such peace in the midst of so much sorrow, giving our children understanding beyond their tender years.

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  After I talked with them, we sent the kids to my parents’ home for a week so we could make plans for Jesse’s coming medical needs, and for his funeral. They came home a week later. We celebrated Easter, and then we planned a trip to get out of the house and live this life together. We had a month between the awful scans and the follow up with his surgeon, so we took the kids to Enchanted Rock to hike around the smooth granite and run free in the open air. I was walking a bit behind Jesse, watching him guide our two youngest down a steep slope. If you aren’t familiar with it, Enchanted Rock is exactly what it sounds like, a series of…well, rocks. Huge expanses of the granite is smooth with no interruption in the surface. But on the path we took, there was a crack. In that crack was a tiny cactus, and growing out of that cactus was an even tinier flower, thorns sticking out all around it. Beauty growing out of the dry and seemingly dead, I thought. When I saw it, a dream that felt more like a memory came rushing forward, and something I had read dozens of times over the past few months came alive to me…the thorn in the flesh.

 

We returned home, I sketched out a rough image of what was in my mind… and put it aside. A little less than a month later, after Jesse’s follow up scan with MD Anderson had shown us the tumor had not spread as we had previously seen with the other piece of scanning equipment and was, in fact, markedly better than before he went through radiation, I contacted a college friend of ours, who is a gifted artist. I told him I wasn’t sure exactly what this was for but did he do commission work and could he work with my poorly drawn out sketch to bring to life this image in my mind. We had a phone conversation. I explained my thoughts. A few days later, He sent me this completed image.

Thorn in the flesh

Image courtesy of Christ Life Art creator, Shawn Collins

Unless you’ve lived alongside a terminal, incurable illness, this next part may be difficult to understand: The way you learn to pray. The way you come to understand healing. For example, most people don’t know, or expect to hear, that the focal point of most of our prayers is not healing. I mean, we do ask for healing. We do. But, more than that, we ask to bear the wounding well.

We were told so clearly that instantaneous and total earthly healing would not be our path, that we were to suffer and do what we can with our sorrow to bring people to Christ. It’s just not our focal point. We have spent nearly 4 years now holding fast to the knowledge that earthly healing is only temporary. Jesse healed of brain cancer here only means he will die later. Physical healing… it’s a delay, not a deliverance. We also understand that God uses pain purposefully. So, we stopped spending time begging God to heal, and started begging Him, instead, to help us put to death every bit of our flesh for the sake of proclaiming His glory. It’s the dead things that fertilize the soil and nourish the plants to help the flowers grow, you know.

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Three times…more than that…I pleaded with the Lord, “Take this from us. Heal him, God. What good is he to your kingdom, dead? What love is this, making children fatherless?” And He answered with a tiny flower growing out of thorns in the middle of my wilderness as I watched a dying father guide his children down a steep path.

“My grace is sufficient-enough-abundant, for you.”

Daily, I ask the Lord, “God, if you’re not going to remove this thorn, then use the parts of me that have to die to my own desires to fertilize this sorrow and grow Hope. Make it a wounding that proclaims the beauty of God’s glory.” Daily, I ask Him. Because daily I grieve and long for Jesse to be healthy. Daily, I ache for our children. Daily, I awaken to the throbbing pain of the thorn of my husband, whom I deeply love, dying of brain cancer. But. When I wake up at 3 in the morning physically hurting from the emotional and mental long-suffering, I think about my Jesus who cried out in the garden to be free from the suffering He knew was coming. I think about the intensity of his human desire to make the pain stop. And I think about His surrender to the life He was given. I remember how His willingness to wear a crown of thorns made the way for my own thorn to bloom Hope, instead of despair.