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When cancer struck my pastor (part 7): The Summer Cancer Seminar

(Reprint from my 2014 blog)

I have one more week of summer left before I head back to the academy for teacher in-service. By my calculations it has been six weeks since our senior pastor Tom Craig announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. While for most teachers the summer months open up the door for the chance to “get away from it all” physically and mentally, it’s not been that way for me – or for a number of our assembly here in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It’s been important for us to stay here in the area and help wherever needed during this critical period. Oh, I’m not asking for pity, though. June and July have been amazingly significant for us folks. In those two months, the members of our church – from children to senior citizens – have gone through a battery of hard emotions and spiritual self-reflection. It’s been tough. It’s been good. It’s been necessary.

Yesterday, it finally happened. The pancreatic cancer and the chemotherapy were too overwhelming for our pastor.

Tom was unable to gather the energy to carry through the morning’s sermon.

He had warned his staff that this was inevitable; they should be ready to step in and take over. Assistant pastor Bobby McCoy was up to the task – literally at the last minute – as the Lord blessed his delivery of the message of Psalm 77 to the congregation.

Tom was only able to speak to us for a few minutes during the morning service, right before we prepared to take the offering. When I saw him approach the front of the auditorium, I noticed the continuing pattern of weight loss. Tom is even more thin than last week – seems almost impossible that he could lose more weight, but it is clearly evident. He appeared to have enough energy to give us a short exhortation. That’s just what he did.

Tom zoned in on Psalm 47. “You see that the King is on the throne of His holiness. He is ruling. He is reigning. His reign is unquestionable and the Believer says ‘Lord, take over my life and have control.'”

Tom looked at us with penetrating eyes. “Well, is God worth it?”

The auditorium was silent. He repeated his question.

“Is God worth it? You must ask yourself this. “Is the King worth your offering? Is the King worthy of your praises?”

I think we understood.

We have been enjoying some exciting things lately. Only a few days before, the children’s weeklong summer outreach concluded, going beyond anyone’s expectations, with more kids coming in than any other time in the church history. Little ones came to Christ. Children in need were given love, attention, food and in one case, clothing. In addition, our teens experienced a solid, energizing, and Christ-directed week at a Christian camp in North Carolina. They made decisions and memories. In addition to all this, our church volunteers have been involved in numerous projects around the church and around the city. It is an exciting time.

But activity does not equal accomplishment.

By that, I mean, we cannot be content with adding up figures and cheering over numerical results. It’s a good calculator of progress, but too many churches sit back and crow about increased numbers. Tom was reminding us about the most important part of all of the work of our little assembly: the honor and praise of the King Himself.

Psalm 47 verse 7 says “God is King over all the earth; Sing praises with understanding…”

Wait, what?

“Sing praises with understanding.”

Understanding, man. Tom’s shaking us in order to clear our focus. Think about the praises you’re lifting up to the Most High. Meditate upon God’s sovereignty and rejoice in His love.

Don’t go through the motions. Don’t do these things out of habit or tradition.

Understand why we are doing what we do. Understand the sole Source of our moving and breathing and happiness and existence. He’s God and He cares! Return your thanks and your energy of praise to Him!

These words coming from a man whose body is being ravaged by pancreatic cancer.

He’s in the midst of suffering and he’s telling us to rejoice. Tom doesn’t want us to look back on our lives with memories of conveyor-belt tasks that were done in the name of Christian church-ness. That would be too hollow; nothing more than mere civic behavior.

“Sing praises with understanding.” Selah; meditate on who God is and what His future is for us, both here and beyond this life. “Looking to Jesus…”

Tom is suffering, but he’s singing praises with understanding.

His wife Kim is about to lose her life’s mate to terminal cancer but she’s singing praises to God with understanding.

And so is one of our members who lost her little children in a car accident, then her husband to suicide.

So is another member who lost his wife to a brutal battle with cancer.

So is another member whose husband walked out on her, leaving her penniless and struggling.

So is another couple who were humiliated and mistreated while in the ministry years ago.

So are a number of women – my wife included – who suffer the daily painful experiences of fibromyalgia.

So is our assistant pastor who is a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic due to a car accident that was not his fault. He, as all the others in our church, are singing praises to God with understanding.

Why? Because in the midst of all that this sinful world throws at them, God is their refuge and strength. Though Jesus, they’ve all found a peace that cannot be explained.

I must stop, because I’m starting to weep and it’s getting hard to see the keyboard. I get emotional when I think about these folks who show me the “why” of God-directed worship. These people are my earthly heroes.

And I get to see them every Sunday. They love to sing praises with understanding.

Because to them, God is worth it.

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