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When cancer struck my pastor (part 9): Cancer and a Lesson in Stewardship

I am re-posting this blog which I wrote in August of 2014:

This is a season of transitions for us all.

– I am heading back to school, preparing to teach three classes: New Testament Survey, Psychology, and the Life of Christ.

– My wife has been transitioning to a new doctor and medication in order to help alleviate her pain with her increasing battle with fibro-myalgia.

– My daughter is about to enter the fourth grade as a student at Rivers Edge Christian Academy.

– The University of Tennessee football team is readying for the fall season, giving our local populace hope once again that we may see a team good enough to get a bowl bid.

– Our high school students reluctantly leave the outdoors and adjust to the rhythm of class periods, Power Point presentations and after-school athletics.

– Families around Knoxville transition for the autumn by painting, insulating and readying their homes for the colder months to come.

– Our senior pastor Tom Craig is transitioning, too, and expecting us to do so as well. On Sunday he kept using this term quite frequently. It seemed to be the theme on Sunday, woven throughout the entire morning. Let me give you an example…

During the course of the worship service, Greg Wilson read the 49th Psalm. I found this passage profoundly striking, considering its timing. The subject of the passage was about leaving this life unprepared:

(The rich man believes that) he might continue to live forever and not experience death. Surely one sees that even wise people die; fools and spiritually insensitive people all pass away and leave their wealth to others.

Their grave becomes their permanent residence, their eternal dwelling place. They name their lands after themselves, but, despite their wealth, people do not last, they are like animals that perish. This is the destiny of fools… They will travel to the grave like sheep, with death as their shepherd. The grave will consume their bodies and they will no longer live in impressive houses.

But …

… God will rescue my life from the power of the grave; certainly He will pull me to safety. Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich and his wealth multiplies! For he will take nothing with him when he dies; his wealth will not follow him down into the grave. He pronounces this blessing on himself while he is alive: “May men praise you, for you have done well!” But he will join his ancestors; they will never again see the light of day. Wealthy people do not understand; they are like animals that perish.

We pondered this reading. Is this a condemnation of people of wealth? Certainly not. It is a warning to those who think wealth – or fame – are the only important things in life. They never prepare for the Great Transition…

And we all look at Tom, leading us as an example of the preparation needed, both for us and for the assembly. He sat on a chair in the front of the auditorium. Cancer has made him yet thinner. “What I would like to do is to help our church transition.” He touched his chest. “A body in this church is leaving, but …” He waved a hand toward us all, “… the Body is not leaving. An under-shepherd is leaving, and there will be changes. There will be changes, though, within parameters. Let’s talk about those guidelines.”

Tom is weaker, obviously. Yes, he has once again lost weight within the last week. There is a barely noticeable change in his plosives and enunciation; he now speaks with a small back-of-the-mouth lisp. Ever open and honest, he freely admits his shortcomings.

“I am tired. But I want to be with people as much as possible,” he said, meeting our gaze. “After this service, I will use the couch in the back to rest, so I will need to leave a bit early”. He paused and took a drink. “I cannot hear well because of a growing problem with my sinuses, so I cannot tell if I am too loud. Please bear with me.”

He directed us to the second chapter of Philippians. “Let’s look at those transition guidelines. What do I earnestly desire for you? One thing we cannot miss as a group of Believers, we cannot miss, is found in this passage. There is one thing that I am concerned that we do not lose…”

He directed us to read the first four verses. “And what is the theme here?”

Someone called out: “Have the mind of Christ.”

Tom nodded. “Be convinced of this. Have no hesitation about this … we must make sure that we get it, that we have the mind of Christ. Find God’s mission with everyone we approach. We should be consumed with this.” He stopped.

“I want you to take a few minutes and write out how many times today that you have had the mind of yourself, of your own things. Take about four minutes and write out how many times you were concerned with yourself and sought your own self. Just today alone.”

I started writing a small list. It couldn’t be much, could it? I fancied myself somewhat of an average person, with a touch of humility thrown in. Yet I kept writing.

I grew impatient and wanted to get to church on my schedule…

I got up early and wanted total uninterrupted time to write…

In my reflections that morning I recalled an unpleasant situation that made me angry about a co-worker…

I wanted to cut my devotion and prayer time short…

I wanted to choose the best tie in my closet…

I kept writing, and the more I wrote the more I realized how selfish I really am. Good thing Tom didn’t have us read our lists aloud…

Pastor Tom spread his arms out. “You see my point? We make a ton of choices for ourselves. Perhaps we should start aiming our choices toward others. Verses 5 through 11 is all about where out mindset should be. Like Jesus, we should make ourselves of no reputation. I will so empty myself and be consumed with Christ, serving, so consumed that I would do this until I die. What if half of our assembly did that? What if a third of us did that?”

He paused and pointed at this passage in his Bible. “If this passage is taken out of the Scripture, then this is a simple Bible book on how to behave. But this is too important, and we see the examples of those who had the mind of Christ. Paul himself said ‘I am all poured out for Christ.’ Verse 20 tells us that Timothy naturally cared for others; it was not even his second nature, it was his very nature. ”

Tom’s point was driving home, driving hard into us: If we Christians like to believe we possess things and keep selfish control, then we cannot have the gift of stewardship and we cannot transition into a humble spirit. If we cannot transition to humility, we cannot transition into Christ-like service and attitude. If we cannot transition into Christ-likeness, the outside world will not understand how to properly transition from this world to the next; they will not understand our message of the Good News.

So in view of eternity, we must realize how hard is our grasp on the things of this world: material gain, self-righteousness, egotism, lust for money…

Tom’s eyes swept the room. “I am an owner of nothing.” He paused again.

“I am a steward of everything. We get victory in Christ when our life’s reality turns from ownership to stewardship.”

Ah, there are so many levels to the Godly teaching we’re getting. Sure, he’s telling us that the church will face a dramatic – and traumatic – transition, but he is also showing us how to transition even more – from this life to eternal life. The life in full uninterrupted fellowship with the Father.

Not just God the Sovereign. Not just God the Omnipotent.

God the Father.

Our Father. Time to keep in mind the Family Reunion to come. Transition time is time to ready up and prepare. Prepare our lives, I mean. That calls for a spiritual house cleaning, from attic to basement to garage. Get rid of so many petty little selfish possessions, you know?

Yeah, we all know.

Even our body is not our own. Tom’s shown us that; Tom does not own his own body, but he is a steward of it. And he’s using every ounce of it to serve the Lord and lead the flock into better understanding.

After the service I went over to see Tom as he gingerly came down the steps. He was weak. He was having trouble focusing. He was tired. But he wrapped his arm around my shoulder.

“I love you, brother,” he said.

You know what?

He just showed me his sermon in that one statement. He is suffering, but he never loses his compassion for others.

I choked up. “I love you, too, Tom.”

We all do.

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