Four months–we have been home just four short months, but in some ways it seems like four years instead. So much has happened in that short time frame. After an absence of two years from our life, work, and home on the mission field, so much has changed–perhaps, nothing more than we ourselves.
You see, June 17 of 2016 is the date that God chose to allow our happy, little world to be turned completely upside down. It’s the day that separates life “before” and life “after” in our family. Not one aspect of our lives would remain unaffected. All of our dreams and hopes for the future, though they were good and God-glorifying, were to be completely shattered and broken at our feet. We were about to enter a realm in which we had no previous experience. One where the future is scary and uncertain. Where all one can do is just resolve to make it through whatever calamities the next moments may bring. There is no planning. No routine. No schedule. No dreams. There is only a weary determination and desperate hope to just somehow survive it all. This was to become our reality and life for two whole years–longer than we ever imagined possible at the time.
That rainy, June day, the day before Father’s Day week-end in the Philippines, we learned that our 23-month-old baby boy had a life-threatening, cancerous brain tumor. He also had a severe case of hydrocephalus (water on the brain) from the baseball-sized tumor growing near the brainstem and in his fourth ventricle, blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and causing swelling. He needed emergency surgery. His life hung in the balance with each passing moment. There was no time to process and absorb this life-altering, devastating news. Decisions had to be quickly made. We knew we had to get Jonathan back to the US if at all possible, where he’d have the best chance for a better outcome in the hands of a skilled pediatric neurosurgeon and top children’s hospital. I have no explanation for how our family of six were able to be packed up and start our long journey from the Philippines to the US in just three short days from when we had first learned of the tumor, leaving behind everything there. I can only tell you that God did it all!Miracle upon miracle we saw, even as it felt like we had almost reached the limits of our faith. Every time we found ourselves near our limit, God would always be right there to carry us, surround us in the comfort of His grace, and strengthen our weakened hearts once again. He brought Jonathan through three different flights that could have killed him from the negative affects of the changing cabin pressure on the swelling in his brain. God orchestrated our choice and arrival to one of the top three Children’s Hospitals in the US where Jonathan would have a successful 14-hour brain surgery to completely remove the medullablastoma tumor.
Our Healer helped our boy to make a full recovery after coming out of surgery like a helpless infant, not even able to hold up his head and having to relearn how to walk, talk, and swallow. God comforted us through the scariness of learning just how aggressive and prone to deadly relapse our son’s cancer really was. He guided us together with the help of our medical team to decide on the best treatment plan, so we could do all that was humanly possible to increase the chances of our son surviving this monster.
Our loving Father caught our every tear as we continued to watch our little one suffer through the dangerous side effects of the treatment meant to save his life. His chemo was so toxic and dangerous, it could possibly kill him too if the cancer didn’t. We had never felt more weak or discouraged in our lives. We didn’t know if our son’s little body could take all that he was enduring. Furthermore, we didn’t know how much more we could take in having to watch him suffer. Yet God’s grace was present in every dark moment. We gathered strength from His promises and hope from the grace He gave Jonathan to be able to play, even while in hospital beds and in treatment, letting his beautiful, child-like resilience shine brightly in spite of enduring so much.
We sat as little children at the feet of our Heavenly Father, humbled and broken. Our lives, our will, our plans and dreams before childhood cancer’s intrusion no longer existed. He truly had all of them. We would not have pushed our will or way in any matter. Our desire to eventually return home to our life and work in the Philippines never left our hearts, but it seemed like an impossible dream. So much was working against it. We thought we surely would lose most of our missionary support, seeing how we had to so suddenly leave the field with no idea of when we could return. That last Sunday before leaving the Philippines, we met with our church which we had planted just five years before. We met under some mango trees, not in a building, since our church was in the midst of moving from a rental property to property God had miraculously worked out for us to purchase in cash only a few weeks before. All we had was an empty lot. We had truly wondered how the church could possibly stay faithful and united under such incredibly difficult circumstances. No building to meet in, and the pastor and family so quickly gone with no idea of when they would return. No one prepared to take over the church in our absence, and never mind the well-known statistics of how often missionary churches fall apart when the missionary goes on a lengthy furlough. So many impossibilities; so much out of our control.Do you know what God taught us through the insecurity we felt and the lack of control over anything in our life? He taught us that the less we controlled, the more He controlled. So He completely took over it all, and we watched in awe as He worked everything out for good in the long run. While we took care of our son in the hospital, He took care of His church in the Philippines. He sent special people to oversee and keep the flock faithful through everything. He kept Jonathan safe through chemo, and gave us a special place to live in Cincinnati, with so many amazing friends to surround, support, and encourage us there. He enabled Nathan to take seven trips back-and-forth to the Philippines while Jonathan was in treatment. He gave us special time with our family who offered so much support in making the cancer journey with us. He got Jonathan through six surgeries, over 100 nights in the hospital, 11 harsh chemo cycles, over a year and a half of intense treatment protocol, countless blood draws, unending MRIs, tests, lumbar punctures, blood and platelet transfusions, and the inevitable and disheartening, middle-of-the-night ER visits for fevers and illnesses in his immune-compromised body.
Our family endured the pain of being separated as a family between hospital stays, Philippine trips, and sending ill siblings to stay with grandparents to keep Jonathan safe. All of this shook every member of our family to the core. We had more questions than we had answers, and wept more tears than we thought possible. Yet, through it all, God never stopped working. Even though we couldn’t always see it at the time, He was performing a transformation and new beginning in our own hearts. Prior to all this, I can now see that I was very much wrapped up in finding my value and worth as a Christian in what I was able to accomplish for God, or in the good deeds I did, and the righteous way I attempted to live before Him. Honestly, I can now see that I was simply wrapped up in self. I knew I was saved by grace alone, but then it seemed that grace ended when it came to living my Christian life. From my earliest years in ministry it had been so ingrained in me to work, produce, and put out for God that I inevitably began equating what I could accomplish for God with how pleased He was with me, or how I must surely have disappointed Him when I failed to measure up.
Sitting hour upon hour, night upon night, in hospital rooms or staying home in isolation to keep my immune-compromised child safe from germs made me feel so useless to God. Yet He so kindly and lovingly reminded me that I am His child and He loves me just as I love my own precious children. I don’t love them because of what they do or don’t do; I love them simply because they are my children. He showed me that as God, He is always all-knowing and all-powerful. There is NOTHING too hard for Him! Oh…and He is not dependent upon what I can do, for Him to be able to accomplish things. Neither is He utterly devastated or condemning of me for my sin or failures to measure up. He reminded me that after all, as Scripture says: “All of my righteousness is as filthy rags” in His holy eyes. That applies to before and after salvation.
He showed me that He is always at work and He is never without a plan even when I can’t see how this is possible. He covered me with His grace like never before and performed a miracle inside of me. I no longer serve out of fear of not measuring up or living up to someone else’s expectations of me. I serve out of love and out of a grateful heart that can’t keep quiet about the work God has performed in our life through a nightmare called pediatric brain cancer. My husband and I have said time and again that while we wish we could take away what cancer did to our precious son, we would never change what it did to us. We have been given a new set of eyes and a new perspective through which to view life straight from the heart of Christ found in the “fellowship of His suffering.” Though we still are not yet privileged to see how God will use cancer for good in every aspect of Jonathan’s life, we know our Abba loves him even more than we know how to, and He has a special purpose in so miraculously sparing his life time and again.
What began as a nightmare we couldn’t escape in June 2016 has ended in a dream we don’t want to wake up from in November 2018. Our family is home again, having stepped back into the life we knew before in the Philippines. We are so very thankful to be here. Every day we live with a heart of gratitude, so aware of every little thing we previously took for granted. We are made so much richer by the love and kindness God has showed to us from the prayers and support of people the world over for our boy. While we will always be more aware than most people of the uncertainties of the future, we are able to face it with hope and excitement for all God will do and is doing. So to others who may be entering a time of suffering or any kind of trial or darkness right now, may I just encourage you with this thought straight from I Peter 4:12-13: “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.” Rejoice? Be happy about trials? And not just any trials, but fiery ones at that? Why? Because we get to share in the sufferings of Christ which ultimately will make us rejoice more when we finally get to see Him in person and see all things clearly. We’ll know that He has a greater purpose for every pain we endure. In the meantime, we get to see His perfect grace at work in countless ways for us and in us. This strengthens our faith and brings us closer to Him than ever before, if only we will allow it to.