Chapter OneA Bend in the Road
Sometimes we come to life's crossroads And we view what we think is the end. But God has a much wider vision And He knows that it's only a bend-The road will go on and get smoother And after we've stopped for a rest, The path that lies hidden beyond us Is often the path that is best. So rest and relax and grow stronger, Let go and let God share your load And have faith in a brighter tomorrow. You've just come to a bend in the road.
It all began on an ordinary Monday morning.
I pulled the van out of my garage, turned onto the road, and drove toward the highway, where I merged into the familiar flow of traffic. How many times in my life had I performed this simple action-thousands? Tens of thousands?
I had no particularly pressing concerns during the forty-minute drive to La Jolla, California. I glided by the trees and shops and traffic lights that formed the reassuring backdrop of my world. I was thinking typical Monday-morning thoughts, reflecting on how tired I was.
How had I let myself get roped into this excursion to be poked and prodded by doctors? Mondays were good for many things: getting a jump-start into a new week, collecting my thoughts, reviewing another Lord's day, and catching my breath before thinking about the next one. Physical examinations weren't on my list of preferred Monday-morning activities. (To be honest, I have yet to find a suitable day for visiting the doctor.) But on this particular bright morning-September 26, 1994-I was thinking about Sunday's three sermons and the toll they had taken on my tired blood. I was reflecting dolefully on the rest and rehabilitation I could have been enjoying at that moment, instead of a forty-minute drive to Scripps Clinic for a full physical.
Those were my idle thoughts during a mundane drive on a Monday morning. But the clock was ticking: Forty minutes of peace and contentment were draining away before chaos struck.
On this day, the road of life on which I was traveling led to a sudden, sharp turn for which I was completely unprepared. I had no dark premonitions, no particular reason to cherish the simple securities and comforts that would be stripped away from me at the end of this journey.
I was blissfully unaware of the rapid approach of a bend in the road. It was still early as I arrived at the Center for Executive Health in La Jolla. The exam got underway at 7:45 A.M. with the interview, and I handled the usual barrage of questions from the nurses armed with their clipboards. Then I was ushered over into another part of the clinic for an EKG stress test. It went smoothly, and I could tell my numbers were good ones.
So far, so good. I smiled with satisfaction as the doctors nodded and made little checks on their notepads. They stroked their chins and admitted that I was in pretty fair shape for a grizzled fifty-three-year-old veteran of life's trenches. Better still, the physical exam was downhill all the way after the EKG. I had been through all this before, and it was easy to tell that I was checking out fine on the remaining tests. The men in the white coats gave me the thumbs-up at every point; I was beginning to think that maybe this was a smart way to spend a Monday after all.
Late in the morning, I was taken to an examining room, where I met the head physician. He asked me to lie faceup on the table, and I complied. The doctor began to go over my body from head to toe.
Soon I'll have this whole thing behind me, I thought. It will feel good to have another successful physical in the books. The white-coats will hand me the bill and show me the door. I'll be free to climb into my van, drive back down the highway, and get on with my crowded agenda. And I'll have a little extra spring in my step, knowing that for one more round, I've come out victorious in the battle against time and corruption.
Those were my thoughts.
That's when the bomb fell.
As the doctor probed the left side of my abdomen, he said, "Dr. Jeremiah, you have a mass here in your abdomen that causes me some concern. It feels to me as if your spleen is greatly enlarged."
I felt my heart skip a beat. "What do you think it is?" I asked.
"I can't say," he replied quietly, "until we see a CAT scan of that part of your body."
That's it. Two sentences-a handful of words-brought a crowded, thriving life to a screeching halt. As I sat up and dressed myself, I struggled to absorb the doctor's words. My mind launched into "spin-control" mode, searching for positive angles.
I had my scan late that afternoon in the radiology center across the street and was informed that results would be available the following day. At least the suspense wouldn't be prolonged; within hours I would be given words of comfort-or something else.
I was shell-shocked that afternoon as I went through the motions of the scan and closed out my business with the clinic. I was still in a daze as I made my way back to my home in El Cajon.
How was I going to handle this news bulletin there? This was something I needed to handle carefully-it was, after all, a bomb. I knew that Donna, my wife, planned to leave the next day to visit her mother in New Hampshire. She would be scrambling around the house, packing suitcases and orchestrating last-minute arrangements. She'd have that happy, busy glow about her, energized by the anticipation of her trip.
That's why I decided to keep silent. Why rain on her parade? At this point, everything was preliminary and tentative. I decided to let this evening be a bright one for at least one of us. I refused to ruin a pleasant trip for my loving wife.
So I kept the curtains tightly shut on the black clouds inside me. I smiled and made the best I could of the situation. The next morning, I drove Donna to the airport and watched her plane disappear into the blue, trouble-free sky that still existed for other people. Then I headed to my office, where I sat and watched my telephone, waiting for the call that would reveal my earthly fate. The moments ticked by slowly, and every ring was a false alarm.
Finally that afternoon, I picked up the receiver and heard the doctor's calm voice on the other end of the line. I listened desperately for a victorious affirmation-words about tests that came back negative, about lumps that were less than they seemed. I wanted those words desperately, and I poured out my soul praying for them. But those words were not available to me. Instead, the doctor's fears were confirmed-I had a mass on my spleen.
The doctor carefully explained to me that three radiologists examined the scan and shared the firm opinion that I had lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the lymphatic system, of which the spleen is the center. We talked for a few minutes, then I returned the receiver to the cradle of the telephone. The most terrible phone call of my life was over. I felt emptiness and despair rising up inside me.
It was Tuesday, the day for staff meeting at our church-another difficult hurdle in my current state of turmoil. I kept the meeting short, dismissing it after a brief time of prayer. Then I sought out my close friend and staff member Dr. Ken Nichols and beckoned him into my office. I closed the door carefully, sat down beside him, and shared with him the details of my physical and the prognosis. He was the first person with whom I shared the crisis. We cried, embraced, and prayed. Then we pulled ourselves together and began to think about what to do.
Ken had an idea. He remembered a longtime friend of mine-Dr. Marv Eastlund of Fort Wayne, Indiana. I've known him since I was a pastor there many years ago. Dr. Eastlund is not only a knowledgeable physician, but he is also an experienced sufferer who spent six weeks in Mayo Clinic for a pancreatic disorder. (I'll give you his story in greater detail in chapter 9.)
Ken thought Dr. Eastlund might be able to help, and that sounded good to me. I made the call, and Dr. Eastlund didn't hesitate before issuing a directive: Go to Mayo Clinic immediately. My kind friend promised to make a phone call to expedite things for me. And in a matter of hours, I had an appointment at the Mayo Clinic.
On Thursday morning of that same week, I boarded a plane heading eastward. I was traveling on business-I was scheduled to speak at rallies in New Hampshire and Maine to support our Turning Point radio ministry. My friends Steve and Susan Caudill were flying with me. The plan was for Donna to meet us in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the first rally. As so often happens with air travel, the connections were perilously tight; we arrived at the rally with just enough time for me to kiss Donna hello and hurry to the platform.
The event was thrilling, and it lifted my spirits. The building was packed with fifteen hundred excited listeners. Several of them gave their hearts to Christ that night, securing their eternal destinies. Just at the time I was having a close encounter with death, these wonderful souls were having their first encounters with eternal life. I shook hands, chatted with folks, and signed books and Bibles until the last of the crowd went home.
On the way back to the hotel, Donna and I stopped for a late dinner. That's where the thrill of the evening wore off. I became pensive over my plate because I knew that the time had come to level with my wife about the week's events.
We found our hotel and settled into the room, unpacking our things and turning down the sheets. Then I sat down on the bed and opened to Donna those dark curtains of my soul. I told her the whole story of three days of despair. When I finished, we cried and prayed and held each other through most of the night. A bend in the road took us to that room. There, far from our home, on the other side of the continent-there, in a strange hotel-we huddled together to face the most challenging moment of thirty-plus years of marriage.
"You're Going to the Mayo Clinic!"
The rallies came to an end, and Donna and I returned home at last. There were more doctors' examinations and troublesome hours of sorting out insurance questions. Our ministry had begun a new insurance plan at the beginning of October, and that coverage would not extend to a trip to Mayo. It looked as if we'd have to settle for surgery in San Diego. I had a date with the doctors for Tuesday morning at Sharp Hospital, at which time my spleen would be removed.
My condition was no longer a secret; I'd begun to call some of my network of ministry friends around the country. I coveted their prayers. One of these men was Lowell Davey, president of the Bible Broadcasting Network. When I called him and described my situation, he responded without hesitation, "David, you are going to Mayo Clinic! If your insurance will not cover it, I'll raise the money myself."
I think you'll understand that by this time, Donna and I were spent. The emotional roller coaster had left us dizzy and exhausted. I told Lowell that my surgery was scheduled for Tuesday morning at 7:45-only five days from now. I set a condition. "If you can get me into Mayo Clinic on Monday morning," I said, "then I'll go."
Two hours later, I received a phone call from a doctor at Mayo Clinic, calling to confirm my appointment at 7:45 Monday morning. I was astounded, to put it mildly. True friendship is a powerful force for strength and encouragement.
With our minds finally set on a course of action, I began to prepare myself for the weekend. I was scheduled to officiate at a wedding for the daughter of my administrative secretary on Saturday afternoon at 3:00. Once again, I was mindful of my personal situation casting a pall over someone else's joyful occasion-particularly in the case of a wedding. I asked for the couple to be kept in the dark about my crisis until after the ceremony. This was their once-in-a-lifetime day, and it should be filled with joy.
The next morning, I preached at both services. The Lord once again honored His Word. But this was not just another Sunday for me. Afterward, I told Donna that in twenty-five years of preaching, I'd never felt the presence of the Lord as I did that day. Other preachers know this feeling-at times it was almost as if I were sitting on a pew in the back of my mind, listening to someone else preach. I was deeply aware of Paul's statement, "When I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:10). I'd never been so weak, and He'd never seemed so strong.
That afternoon, we flew east, this time toward Mayo Clinic.
During my first appointment, there were rounds of blood tests, physical examinations, and more questions. Finally I met with the first doctor. She went over the results and confirmed the diagnosis of lymphoma. She also made the arrangements for my next appointment, in the department of hematology.
When she called hematology, she was told that no opening would be available until Thursday. My heart sank. This was Monday! Three days seemed like an eternity, and I had work to do back home. How could we wait here for seventy-two hours? The doctor sensed my desperation. She considered quietly for a minute and finally said, "I know one of the doctors in that department. Let me call him."
The doctor called her friend, and I heard her say into the phone, "He's a pastor from San Diego. His name is David Jeremiah." Then a look of surprise splashed across her face. She put her hand over the mouthpiece and turned to me. "He knows you!" she said. Speaking into the phone, she said, "Does that mean you'll see him this afternoon?"
It did. I was instructed to head right over.
My doctor had been speaking to a colleague named Dr. Thomas Witzig, who had once heard me speak at Moody Founder's Week. Dr. Witzig is a wonderful Christ-follower, and it pleased me greatly to discover that he would be the lead physician. When we sat down to talk, he walked me through the procedures to come during the next few days. Dr. Witzig agreed that surgery was required, and it was scheduled for Tuesday morning at the Methodist Hospital in the Mayo Clinic complex.
That's where I went the next morning. The surgery lasted about two hours and revealed that the lymphoma was centered in the area immediately around my spleen. The surgeons decided to leave the spleen in place; it was actually not as diseased as they had anticipated. This was the first tentatively hopeful medical news we'd received, and you can imagine our gratitude.
The doctors patiently educated Donna and me about my condition. They explained that lymphoma is a treatable form of cancer. There are never any guarantees with this dreaded enemy, but we at least had the possibility for recovery through chemotherapy-and that made hope possible.
We held tightly to that hope. Our spirits basked in the prayers, support, and encouragement of our church family and friends; we fed on their support and felt strengthened for the battle ahead. But in the midst of all the love and affirmation, it was the Lord, "a stronghold in the day of trouble" (Nah. 1:7), who knew the needs of my body and soul most deeply. It was He who walked with me through the valley of the shadow, He who lavished upon me a deeper, more personal experience of His presence than I'd ever known before. As I sought refuge in His Word, I found consolation beyond description for my troubled spirit.
Again and again I was reminded of the words of the apostle Paul. Long ago he was confronted with death and fear, and perhaps he experienced emotions a bit like my own. Paul was so gifted and had a heart eager to minister, yet he was forced to bide his time in a dark prison. I know Paul asked God the same questions I have asked, and I'm grateful he recorded God's answers: "And He said to me, `My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Cor. 12:9).
God's grace is sufficient-I can tell you it's true.
Life Is Difficult
Somewhere along your own path, you've likely encountered a bend in the road too. Suddenly you faced circumstances you never expected or wished to encounter. I hope you've found it helpful, as I have, to read encouraging words from fellow strugglers.
Gordon MacDonald is a friend and fellow struggler. His fine book The Life God Blesses has ministered to me more richly than I can tell you. Gordon writes with wonderful insight about the methods God uses to bring blessing into the lives of His servants. In one chapter, he coins a term to describe one of those tools. He calls them "disruptive moments." According to Gordon, disruptive moments are "those unanticipated events, most of which one would usually have chosen to avoid had it been possible."