Today is February 7. One year ago on this day my wife received news that a mole which had been removed from her skin and biopsied had returned positive for stage one melanoma. In the grand scheme of cancer diagnosis, this is not that big a deal. The cancer was less than 1mm deep into her skin and we were immediately assured that this sort of thing had a 99% positive prognosis. So you’d think we’d be able to move on, be thankful for the early catch, and forget about it.
One year ago today began a journey that is hard to put into words. Both Shalene and I fell deep into a world of serious anxiety, fear, depression, doubt, pain, and questioning of our faith. There were several times when I almost left this faith which has defined me for my entire life.
To put our whole journey into words would require a book, not a blog. But today, on February 7, I want to share with you one of our stories. To tell this story properly will require me telling you several preface stories. Eight to be exact.
Preface story one.
My family moved to Ancaster to start a church almost two years ago this week. Ancaster is a white collar city: educated people, professors, lawyers, CEOs, and that sort of crowd. This is a city with an intense radar for BS — where people won’t get duped by slick sales jobs. So if you’d asked me two years ago why I thought God directed my path towards Ancaster, I would have responded with a level of foolish pride in my answer. I would have suggested to you that the fit made sense; that I fancied myself a well-read, educated, sort of guy. And that we were going to do church in such a way that it was going to convince people in a way they’d never heard before that this Christianity thing made sense (my fingers tremble even writing such nonsense now).
Fast forward to November 2012. I remember sitting in one of my favourite Ancaster hangouts with a member of our church’s leadership team. Something had been building inside of me and I shared it with my friend.
“I’m pretty sure that the only way that this church is going to work is if Jesus shows up and starts doing some crazy things — stuff we just can’t explain. I think that’s all we’ve got. And I’ll be really honest with you; that scares the shit out of me.” My friend looked at me. He began to tear up. And he said, “I absolutely agree.” And in that moment I knew that that’s what had to happen. But I was a skeptic. I grew up believing that Jesus was powerful, able to do the miraculous, able to heal — all that kind of stuff. But in that moment I knew that I only believed those things on paper. I had serious internal doubts. What I wanted was something I wasn’t sure that I could believe in.
Preface story two.
I serve on the Ancaster Ministerial. Around the same time as the previous story took place, the Ministerial had a meeting wherein we were deciding what to do for the 2013 Lenten Lunch series we host and run in the city. For seven weeks during Lent we host a lunch and provide a short Lent-themed devotional. About 80 wonderful senior citizens from the community show up each week.
We distributed the dates that we were each going to lead a devotional and decided that the series would focus on the seven miracles of Jesus from the Gospel of John. I received my date and plugged it into my calendar. I received my text and put it in a folder, not to be thought of again until a few days before I had to speak.
Preface story three.
Shalene’s favourite flower is the tulip. And here’s something sad: I didn’t know that until this past year. Chalk one up for the husband of the year.
Then came February 7, 2013.
As I mentioned, we fell apart on this day. Days turned into weeks turned into months, in most of which you would have usually found us crumpled in a ball in front of our fireplace, in bed, or barely getting through each day. We were in counseling. We had a steady flow of amazing people coming to care for us. I lost 30 pounds from not eating. Our kids were suffering. We had so many questions. We spent hours in tears, prayer, and journaling (these were often the only times we felt peace). Some of my worst moments included contemplating driving our vehicle, with my family in it, into oncoming traffic. Yes, it was that bad.
Preface story four.
On the night of February 7th an amazing couple from our church came over to be with and pray for us. As they prayed, they felt compelled to tell Shalene that somehow in the midst of the journey ahead, God was going to help her realize just how much he loved her. This was pretty significant for Shalene. Shalene feared God. And not in the healthy way, but in the “He’s out to get me” way. Her getting cancer seemed only a validation of this deep internal fear. Accepting Jesus and the Spirit was easy for Shalene. But Father God was not someone to be trusted.
Preface story five.
During several of our journaling times, both Shalene and I felt like Jesus was telling us that the coming of spring had something to do with our healing. This puzzled us, but we clung to it.
One morning during a time of journaling, Shalene began to think about our circumstances as a time of trial, testing, and intentional shaping. She felt compelled to count the days between her diagnosis and the first day of spring. It just so happened to be 40 days. She mentioned this to me and I responded with an intrigued but casual shrug of the shoulders.
Preface story six.
Several weeks after her diagnosis, Shalene was reading through the Gospel of John. She read John 9:1-7.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
Reading her own sickness into the story, she read the story aloud for me and then asked what I thought. I said this: “I’ll tell you what I think. I think it’s stupid. If God wants to make us sick just so that he can show up and make himself look good, then he can keep his goodness to himself. I don’t ever want to hear that story again.”
And that was that.
Preface story seven.
A couple of weeks later I remembered that I had to speak at the upcoming Lenten lunch service on March 20th. I wasn’t doing much of anything work-related, but I was trying to keep up with some responsibilities. I went into my office, picked up my Ministerial folder, opened it, and found the passage on which I was to speak: John 9:1-7. Are you kidding me? I was angry. Really angry.
I sat down, pulled out some commentaries, and began to read. Slowly my eyes started to open to a teaching that I hadn’t grasped upon first reading. We all want to know why. Why does crap happen? The disciple’s question is often our question. Did I do something? Is this a consequence for something? But Jesus doesn’t even really respond to that line of questioning. His response is concerning what he’s going to do right now. When Jesus says “this happened,” I think he’s referring to what he’s about to do. He’s about to show his power, love, and presence by intervening into the brokenness of our humanity and doing something crazy. He’s about to give people a story — a story that will demonstrate to the world that The Light of the World is in our midst.
I began to get excited. Still incredibly anxious and depressed about my own circumstances, but I could find hope in this story. And hope was something I found hard to come by.
Preface story eight.
The night before I was to speak at the Lenten lunch was a bad night. Shalene and I put the kids to bed and then collapsed (again) on the living room floor. Our anxiety was through the roof. We cried and cried. And then I did something I’d never done before. As I knelt on the ground I began to pray. “God, I need something I’ve never asked for before. I need an angel. I need you to send someone to tell me that everything’s going to be okay. It was really great of you to send an angel to tell those around Jesus’ empty tomb that it was going to be okay. Well I need the same thing. I’m so desperate.”
Of course in my mind this angel was to be large, wearing a bright white gown, and ideally with a flashing billboard over its head reading, “I’m an angel.” Trumpets would have been nice, too. To be honest, I had little expectation of this sort of prayer being answered.
And with that, we made our way to bed.
The story. (Finally)
The next day I got ready for the lunch. It was a cold, snowy, and blistery day — the kind of day that makes a bad mood even worse. As I was getting ready, Shalene reminded me of something: today, March 20th, was the first day of spring. I guess I knew it, but I didn’t want to think about it much because I was pretty convinced I was going to be let down — that it was just going to be like any other day: a day filled with worry, anxiety, depression, and doubt. But so it was, the first day of spring. A snowy, cold, blistery, crappy day.
I arrived at the church in which the event was being hosted. I went and sat down at a table awaiting my time to go up and speak the message which I’d prepared. A little old lady came and sat down beside me. We exchanged names, though for the life of me I can’t remember hers. I didn’t think anything of this new acquaintance and when my time came to speak, I got up and instantly forgot I’d even met the woman. I shared a bit of our story since Shalene’s diagnosis, my first run-in with the text from John, and then my understanding of the text upon doing some research. And although I shared how the text gave me hope, I didn’t shy away from saying that I was still filled with worry and anxiety. I finished speaking and took my seat. When I returned to my table I didn’t even notice that the little old lady wasn’t there anymore.
When the service concluded I was greeted by several well-meaning people who came over to give me a hug and offer their prayer support. I admit that all I wanted to do was get home and go back to bed.
Then it happened.
The little old lady returned. She stood behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and she placed into my hands a large bouquet of flowers. Tulips, to be exact. She looked into my eyes and said, “I want you to give these to your wife. Tell her spring is coming and everything is going to be okay. I have to go now. Someone is waiting for me.” Then she smiled and left.
“Where on earth did she get these flowers from?” was all I thought. I left the church and returned home.
When I got home I gave the flowers to Shalene and told her what the lady had said. Neither of us thought much of it except that it was a little bizarre that this lady had a bunch of tulips on hand on such a cold and crappy day.
Later that day we’d planned to have some friends over, and it just happened to be the same couple that was with us the night of February 7th. As we sat down in the living room for coffee they asked us how our day was (knowing that most of our days were pretty awful). I began to tell them about my day: the speaking, the little old lady, the flowers… and then Shalene stopped me. “Aaron, do you remember what you prayed about last night?” We both looked at each other stunned — like what the heck just happened here? And slowly we began to remember all of the prefacing stories that I just shared above. One by one we reminded each other of the moments along the journey: the conversations, the journaling, the connecting dots — all of it.
Our friend’s eyes lit up. “Don’t you see it?” they asked. “He’s chasing you; he’s wooing you; he’s revealing himself all around you; he’s answering you with angels. He gave you flowers!”
Our eyes filled with tears. We still had the anxiety, the questions, the doubts, and our journey was far from over. But on that day — the first day of spring — God brought us tulips.
He’s all around us. He is so good. He is so loving. He is with us. And the same Jesus who said, “this happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him,” is still at it. He’s still doing his thing and giving us stories to tell.
All we have are our stories. Looking back to that conversation with my friend in the coffee shop, I believe now that the only way God could use me to lead a church where the unexplainable could be a part of our story, was to walk me through the unexplainable so that I could live it firsthand. Now I have my stories. I have a testimony of God’s loving presence that I never had before. And now I expect the unbelievable.
Some will read this and call it simple coincidence. Maybe they’re right.
Some will read this and think I’m nuts. Maybe they’re right, too.
But for me, and I pray for you, this has deepened my faith. This has turned a skeptic (which is an exhausting way to live, by the way) into a believer (who still has more questions than answers).
We are doing much better these days. Shalene is in the clear health-wise, though we have a monthly routine which includes mole-checking and doctor’s visits. We have both learned all sorts of things about the human battle with fear, anxiety, worry, and depression. We continue to get help for these powerfully debilitating mental health issues. Our journey with this isn’t over; it will likely never be over. And this isn’t the sort of thing we’d wish on anyone and we pray we never have to walk through this again. But we are so thankful for our time in the valley. It changed us. It’s made us into something better for one reason: God met us in the darkness so that we could know his light.
Today, on February 7th, I brought tulips home for Shalene. They’re sitting directly in front of me as I type this. They represent far more than just flowers on what is another cold, snowy, blistery day.
May you recognize that God is all around you, walking with you, and constantly wooing you into his presence.
May you receive your tulips.