Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Five Minutes With Rob - by Ben Irwin

I don't know Rob Lacey nor do I know Ben Irwin. I wish I did.

This is just too powerful to not share with whomever decides to read it.

Recently my wife and I traveled to Wales to visit a friend who was dying of cancer. When we left a week later, I wondered how to begin putting the pieces of my faith back together.

As my wife and I navigated the maze of hospital corridors, I braced myself to face the worst. But nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted us as we walked into Rob's room. The person lying in front of me barely resembled the one I had last seen less than a year before. The weight loss was dramatic; he looked like a skeleton with flesh hung loosely over his bones. The only difference was that I know what Rob is supposed to look like. It took all his might to prop himself on his elbows as I sat down beside him.

He was a shell of the person he had been just a month before.

It was the third time in 10 years Rob had battled cancer. The first diagnosis came six months after he was married. The cancer returned a few years later, about the time Rob and his wife were expecting their first child.

A couple of years into Rob's second bout with cancer—-one that was supposed to end his life—it began to look like a miracle was happening. Gradually the cancer disappeared; the doctors could only scratch their heads. There was, the doctors admitted, no medical explanation for the cancer's disappearance. So Rob and his family did the only thing anyone can do in a situation like this: they basked in God's incomprehensible favor.

Fast-forward four years. The cancer came back—initially in his bladder, then his lymph nodes, too. To add a touch of cruel irony, less than a month before he died, Rob's wife gave birth to their second child, a beautiful baby girl.

It seems almost trivial, reflecting on what happened to me that day we visited my friend lying in a hospital bed, clinging to his life. But the fact is, I left the hospital a different person: my theology—all my neatly arranged ideas about God and His role in our lives—came crashing down.

If God is in complete control, doesn't that make Him responsible for Rob's slow, torturous death? Isn't He to blame for robbing a wife of her husband, depriving a son of his dad and denying a baby girl even the memory of her father? What grand purpose, what divine scheme could ever justify this cruelty?

On the other hand, even if God doesn't actually cause these things to happen—if He simply allows them to take place—is He any less responsible? If I had the cure for AIDS but did not share it with those suffering from the virus, society would hold me accountable for their deaths. Is God any less responsible if He has the power to cure cancer but does nothing?

That night when I crawled into bed, I was raging on the inside—furious with God for allowing my friend to die. Stunned that He was making Rob's wife and children endure all this.

The next day we went to see Rob one last time. He was asleep. Rest being such a precious commodity in his weakened condition, we chose not to disturb him. But as I sat at the nurse's station, writing our goodbye on a scrap of paper, I sensed something that felt absent the day before: God's presence.

It wasn't overpowering. The air was not thick with it. It was small, subtle—barely perceptible.

I didn't leave the hospital with answers to any of the questions that plagued my mind the day before. My theology and my ideas about God were still in a state of upheaval. But in their place emerged a new idea: Whatever else God may or may not be, He is present in our pain. He suffers with us.

Why He doesn't step in and simply put an end to the suffering now, I don't know. Believing that someday He'll make everything right doesn't make life easier now. But still, the fact that God was with Rob in the midst of his suffering was, at least, something. It was almost as if, on some level, God had cancer, too.

"He took up our infirmities and bore our diseases …" (Matthew 8:17, TNIV).

He didn't just "sympathize" with us. And He didn't just bear our "spiritual" sickness. The text says He actually carried our diseases.

When my wife and I decided to make the last-minute trip to Wales, we didn't know what to expect. We didn't know how we would be able to help. We simply couldn't stand the idea of sitting at home, sending up the occasional prayer while our friend across the ocean lay dying of cancer.

In the end, we traveled 4,000 miles to spend five minutes with Rob. But I wouldn't trade those five minutes for anything in the world.

Even though I had imagined us helping in more tangible ways, there was something about being physically present and standing at Rob's side and gripping his hand—it communicated something that couldn't be said in an email or a phone call. Sometimes it's not enough to tell a suffering friend you're praying for them. Sometimes you have to become the answer to your own prayer. When you ask God to send help, you have to be ready to become that help. What else could we possibly mean when we talk about being the hands and feet of Christ?

Our last night in Wales, as we gathered with mutual friends to pray for Rob, I realized that God is present in the midst of suffering because we are present in it.

We are God's presence.

Editor's Note: Rob Lacey, father, husband and author of The Word on the Street, a modern retelling of the Bible, passed away on May 1, 2006. You can learn more about his books at his website www.thewordonthestreet.co.uk.

Ben Irwin left the tropical state of Texas seven years ago to study theology in the frozen tundra of Michigan. These days he passes the time creating product for a Christian publishing company. He and his wife attend Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids.