On October 30, 2007, a colonoscopy dropped a diagnosis of cancer on my wife Joanne. A few days later that verdict was reversed. And, then it came roaring back.
Over the following six months, we lived in that shadowland of wildly conflicting reports, a confusing range of treatment options, continuous testing and waiting and the financial hurdles of modern medicine. Her doctor grew increasingly pessimistic. His darkest pronouncement raised the possibility of choosing “palliative measures” over surgery.
In the early morning hours of March 6, 2008, I thought Joanne was dying. I have no medical training. But, after a difficult night and in the face of ominous symptoms, the swirling dark water of human imagination pulled me into the Psalmist’s “valley of the shadow.”
I was convinced that March 6, 2008 would soon become a milestone date.
The moment carried a searing numbness of grief and surrender. My heart was broken and so was my mind. In that, the lowest point of my life, I felt immobilized; I could not call our children, my brothers, my friends, our pastor or even a doctor. I felt boxed in by God.
The Terrible Tour
Throughout the predawn darkness, the Lord pulled me through our house in a guided tour of my “Edness.” We stopped at several “scenic overviews” so He could point out the broad sweep of my foolishness.
At the first stop, I stood in her office. My gaze fell on the large cork board of her pen pal photos. And, right there, the Lord confronted my cynicism about that part of my wife. Although I never said it, I had been privately dismissive of the 40 women she writes to, prays for and encourages in phone calls.
The illusion of looming death enabled me to see her in a completely different way.
I could see the pure heart which compelled her to reach out to these women. For the first time, I could see that her generosity and great kindness reflected the Spirit of Christ. What kind of jerk would dismiss that?
The tour continued; I saw the box of neatly organized sheets of stickers on her desk. Joanne has long carried a childlike giggling joy for brightly-colored little adhesive stickers – cats and candy canes, flowers and frogs, bicycles and butterflies. She spreads them bountifully across letters, greeting cards, calendars and scrapbooks.
The Lord reminded me of my eye-rolling resentment of the money she spent for the stickers. What kind of small-spirit would turn such delightful marks of feminine personality into something needing correction? Why couldn’t I just freely enjoy her colorful and whimsical indulgence?
The tour moved on into her laundry room. There stood the floor lamp which she moved in after the ceiling light died long ago. I always seemed to find time for reading, TV, surfing the net – anything except fixing the light. And, she didn’t nag. She just borrowed some light.
The next scenic overview was our closet. My fingers brushed along the silks, cottons, leathers and linens which had adorned this fine lady. My throat burned as her fragrance rose from the fabrics. I was ashamed to remember how I had grumbled about the money she spent on clothes.
Suddenly, a question seemed to drop down from heaven: “What can you afford for her funeral dress?”
Joanne and I have had a long and wonderful marriage – ask our children or any of our friends. But, throughout that terrible morning, I had to deal with a much higher standard of measurement – and this one didn’t come from our family, friends or culture. This measuring line was held by the One who created marriage and all human relationships.
As His judgment burned, the long-ago words of Job became my own: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42: 5-6).
Eyes on the Prize
One of the great human mysteries is why we cannot see people as they really are until they die. Our view of the living seems to withhold blessing until they somehow prove themselves. The jury is always out. But, the moment they leave this earth, our view of them – as revealed in funerals – becomes profoundly gracious and transcendent.
So, can we arrive at that higher view before they die? Is it possible to find a clear resolve of full approval and blessing on those great treasures – like our spouses – whom God has placed in our lives?
Let me suggest some attitudes or acts which may help keep our eyes on that incalculable prize wrapped up in our spouse and other loved ones.
Pope John XXIII famously advised, “See everything. Correct a little. Overlook a lot.” For too much of my life (including my marriage and family life), I corrected too much of what I saw and overlooked almost nothing.
But, people cannot flourish when trapped in that kind of severe and controlling relationship. We all need safe places. Learning to overlook human frailty helps to create zones of safety.
2. Seek Buried Treasure
The Bible speaks of humans as treasures in earthen vessels.
Pastor Glen Roachelle has observed that we always walk in a choice: we can behold the treasure or we can fixate on the flaws and weaknesses of human vessels. We cannot keep both – treasure and vessel – in simultaneous focus.
What if we seek to find the buried treasure in one another? Is it possible to find an Indiana Jones kind of excavating passion for discovering the real treasure in his or her heart?
Too much of the modern landscape of marriage is charred by unforgiveness. That’s why one of the best ways to focus on the prize it to forgive. Let it go. Freely and wholeheartedly grant freedom and blessing to your spouse (and everyone else).
In the words of Lily Tomlin, “to forgive is to give up all hope for a better past.” When we give that up, our demanding and self-serving view of relationships begins to fall away. Forgiveness helps us to move a little closer to God’s view.
Since March 6, I have learned how to mop, vacuum, empty the dishwasher, help with the laundry, and assorted over ways of serving this lady who has poured out so much of her life for me for so long. Yes, I am embarrassed that it took this long.
Something radical and mysterious happens when we serve another human. I’ve learned that I cannot mow your grass, polish your shoes, pay your bills, or wash your feet without releasing my full blessing on you. And, serving also releases God to do surgery on the eyes of my heart.
On April 2, Joanne’s surgeon removed a softball-sized tumor. He said it was the largest non-cancerous tumor he had ever seen. At last, our long journey was over. Joanne’s health is better today than anytime in many years.
We are frankly overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. We passed through the valley of the shadow of death – a cold midnight ride of low-hanging branches and eerie shrieks from the forest. And, we came out of it with Joanne’s good health and a renewed future.
But, I came out of it with more than that. The “severe mercy” of God gave me the immeasurable gift of seeing my wife with new eyes.
Ed Chinn is an organizational consultant and freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas (email@example.com). His work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, OpinionJournalcom, and the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
Copyright 2008 Ed Chinn. Used with permission. All rights reserved.