Monday, December 21, 2020

Against All Odds - Hope (Smith & Carter Story)

 Hope.  It’s a powerful thing.  


It energizes the weary, encourages those in despair and empowers the fearful to rise up and fight another day.


Hope is life giving.


It quiets the mind’s frantic thoughts.  It searches the heart of God and returns confident that He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it.  


Two men sit among us today – their stories similar, yet different.  Both have faced incredible difficulties.  Difficulties that threaten to knock the very breath from your body and leave you paralyzed with fear.  But hidden among the struggles of these two men and their families, we find reasons to hope.

Wayne & Jack together at church


Their testimonies remind us this Christmas season that no matter how great the battle, hope can always be found.  Sometimes we just have to step away from the noise and strengthen ourselves in the Lord in order to be reminded of the hope that only God can give.


It was 2018 when they both came face to face with the ugly giant called cancer.


For Wayne Carter, it came in the form of Non-Hodgkins Follicular Lymphoma.  While reviewing the diagnosis with Wayne and his wife, Dawn, doctors told them that the cancer was asymptomatic and he could go a lifetime without treatment being required.


But in September 2019, the cancer became aggressive.  Scared and uncertain, Wayne and Dawn reached out to his oncologist.  To their dismay, they learned that now, when they needed him most, their oncologist had left the practice with no one to replace him.


Time was not on Wayne’s side.  His primary care physician was extremely concerned and told Dawn that Wayne’s life was in very real danger and would need help within the next few days.


Helpless, Wayne and Dawn prayed.


On Wednesday of that week, Dawn went to the FFM Women’s Bible study where she met a woman named Mary Ellen Smith. Through conversation, she discovered that Mary Ellen’s husband, Jack, was also battling cancer.  Hearing of Wayne’s dilemma, Mary Ellen suggested that Dawn contact Goshen Cancer Center where Jack had been going for treatment.


The following morning, Dawn called GCC and to her amazement, Wayne was being seen by an oncologist within 48 hours!


Time was critical.  Over the next five days, Wayne had a biopsy, a CT scan, a port placed in his chest and his first dose of chemotherapy.  Things like this don’t often happen so quickly – but God was going before them and opening doors they couldn’t have opened on their own.


As Wayne began the seven cycles of his chemotherapy schedule, Dawn was facing a battle of her own.  Fear and doubt filled her mind.


“Why?”  She asked.  “Why would Jesus give her her beloved husband, only to take him back?”  This isn’t how gift giving works!


Dawn’s questions were left unanswered as she sat with Wayne through his first round of chemo.  Sometimes the answers we long to hear are slow in coming so all Dawn could do, was wait.


Wayne’s body did not respond well to the chemo.  During his first round, treatment was stopped early in order to deal with the severe reaction his body was having to the strong medications.


Through the following days and weeks, the weight of their situation hung heavy over their home.


Wayne lost his hair and experienced a variety of other side effects from the chemo treatments.  And then the bills started arriving in the mail.  Each chemo treatment produced a bill of $80,000.00 and with seven cycles to Wayne’s treatment the cost was staggering.  Some bills were so high that if the Carters sold everything they owned, they would still be unable to cover the costs.


In spite of Wayne’s health condition, both he and Dawn were able to continue working, grateful for the medical insurance which helped them navigate the mounting costs.


Through December 2019, the Carter’s felt the love of you, their church family, as they were blessed in various ways – a love offering, prayer support and a stack of fire wood to heat their home from their FFM Life Group.


Then came the last week of December.  Wayne got sick.  Each day he was more ill than the day before.  Though they had had plans to spend New Year’s Eve with their life group, instead they found themselves face down on their floor crying out for Jesus to spare Wayne’s life.


By now, Wayne was struggling to breathe and was unable to walk from one room to the next so their son, Ben, drove his father back down to GCC where they ran labs, various scans and a variety of tests until they were able to determine that Wayne had bacterial pneumonia which could be treated with an antibiotic.


Relieved, Dawn thanked God for once again sparing her husband’s life.

In February, more good news!  After the sixth round of chemo, Wayne’s PET scan returned with the exciting news that Wayne was cancer free! 


Feeling as though they could breathe again, the Carters jumped back into the welcome reality of normal life! They traveled, worked on projects around the house and cherished these days they had waited for so long.


But then, it was back. 


Only several months later, a PET scan revealed that the cancer had returned.  Cancer on its own is hard enough, the Carters already knew this.  But now they would be maneuvering the world of cancer with COVID in the mix.   No one would be allowed to go with Wayne for his chemo treatments, plus Dawn was not yet eligible for a family medical leave of absence.


As doctors discussed the next plan of attack, Wayne and Dawn’s son and daughter, Ben and Victoria, rearranged their work schedules in order to be able to take their father to his appointments – this time to Indianapolis in addition to the chemo appointments in Goshen.


This new regimen would be stronger with different and more difficult side effects.  Wayne was plagued by nausea, headaches, bone pain, fatigue and sleeplessness.  And since the chemo was given weekly, his body didn’t have time to recover before the next round was administered.  


Their days were mentally and physically trying – filled with moments of despair.


Without this treatment though, Wayne was told he had only 3 to 6 months to live.  And so, they pressed on.


Victoria encouraged her parents with the words from Isaiah 35:3 & 4 ‘With this news, strengthen those who have tired hands, and encourage those who have weak knees. Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, and do not fear, for your God is coming to destroy your enemies. He is coming to save you.”’


You see, the Carters have learned that no matter what the outcome will be, cancer doesn’t get the last word.


During this hardest battle of their lives, Dawn had a vision of the monster called cancer coming before the throne of God.  As she watched, the very thing that looked big and ugly and scary, suddenly lost its ability to continue its reign of terror as it was cast into the lake of fire.


Cancer will bow to the name of Jesus!


Three times now, Wayne has been told he had months to live.  

But against all odds, God has stepped in.  Though none of us know what lies ahead, we can have hope that God is ready, willing and desiring to go through it with us!  He wants to be our peace, our comfort, our hope no matter how the story ends.


A year ago, Wayne and Dawn celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary.  They couldn’t help but wonder if it would be their last.  But just this past week, they celebrated their 31st. anniversary.  


And though this past year has been difficult, God, in His kindness, also brought a ray of sunshine into their lives in June with the arrival of their grandson, Roman Wayne.  How like God to remind us of the hope new life brings through the birth of a child.


Wayne and Dawn, against the odds, you came through this past year.  It has been hard – but you persevered and you have discovered some amazing secrets – secrets you’re willing to share with us today.  (Married couples, we would do well to listen.)


Dawn, you admitted that though you wrestled with Jesus over your husband’s diagnosis, through it you have found peace because you have recognized that Wayne belongs to Jesus first. 


And while many struggle over petty disappointments, you two discovered the strength that is found in mornings spent reading the Word of God and praying together.


You learned that arguing over everyday things (like dishes left on the table) are moments wasted – moments you will never get back.  Moments that could be spent so much more wisely.


You learned that being in the desert doesn’t mean being apart from God.


And you were reminded that the prayers of the body of Christ are powerful and wonderful.


In fact, your journey has brought a friendship into your lives that has found added value because of cancer.  Your friendship with Jack and Mary Ellen Smith.  It is one that has been a source of encouragement and support.   Mary Ellen encouraged Dawn to connect with their oncologist in Indiana and later Dawn was able to help connect Mary Ellen with doctors at U of M.  Two wives linking arms and hearts as they help their husbands fight for their lives.  To watch them is inspiring.


Like Wayne, Jack had also received a cancer diagnosis in 2018.    


It was November 28, 2018 when the doctors told them the news.  Jack’s body had been invaded by an aggressive prostate cancer which had already metastasized and he was now in Stage 4. His PSA levels, which should normally read at 4 points or less was at a whopping 33.0.  


Mary Ellen and Jack sat in disbelief as they were told that Jack had approximately nine to twelve months to live.  Should the doctors be able to get the cancer under control, they could hope for three to three and a half years max.


Jack was given his first treatment of shots with hopes it would help lower his PSA and was sent home to wait until his next appointment.


Time seemed to stand still as the words swirled around them leaving them feeling as though the earth had swallowed them into a deep, dark hole.


The following days were much the same.  A heaviness loomed over them as doubt, fear and worry took up residence in their minds. 


By this time, Jack and Mary Ellen had been attending Firm Foundation Ministries for about two months.  Before the service, Pastor Don walked by and stopped to greet them. 


“How are you doing?” he asked.


“Fine,” Jack replied.


Mary Ellen burst into tears and said, “He just lied to you, Pastor Don.  Jack has stage 4 cancer and we are in a fight for his life!”  Pastor Don immediately prayed over the Jack and Mary Ellen.  That alone brought some measure of comfort.  


And then came worship.  Every song seemed as though it had been chosen specifically for them.  More heaviness lifted.


That Sunday, we lit an Advent candle and I wonder if God smiled that day.  For though the Smiths’ couldn’t have known, God knew.  He knew that we would be here, two years later telling their story and once again lighting that same Advent candle – the candle of hope. 


But on that day, two years ago, Jack and Mary Ellen didn’t have God’s perspective.  They couldn’t see today.  They could only place their hope in God and trust Him for the outcome. 


Like Advent, the message that day was focused on hope.  Several times throughout the sermon, Pastor Don pointed right at Jack and encouraged him to hope!  It felt as though the sermon had been tailor made for them!


After the service, a group of people surrounded the Smiths and asked God for a miracle for Jack.  They left church that morning feeling uplifted and renewed by the hope that had been poured into them.


The holidays were different that year – how could they not be when one spends their days gripping onto hope without any guarantees of what the new year would hold bring.  


Finally, it was January 10th and time for another doctor visit.  The doctor scratched his head in amazement.  While most patients with Jack’s type of cancer suffer from a variety of side effects, Jack had none.


On top of that, his PSA level had dropped from 33.0 to 3.72!  




Their doctor warned them to expect the PSA level to spike again.  


But it never has. 


In fact, in April of 2020, his PSA was summed up in one beautiful measurement - “undetectable”.


Mary Ellen remembered those life sentences and had to ask.  “So, what is Jack’s life expectancy now?”  And together they heard another beautiful word – ‘indefinitely!’


God stepped in.  


He stepped in and interrupted the expected outcome.  


He stepped in and filled Jack and Mary Ellen with hope even when they had nothing tangible to base their hopes on.


Nothing, that is, but their hope in the Lord.


And is there really anything better to build your hope on than a hope like only God can give?


Life hasn’t been perfect for Jack and Mary Ellen since that day this past April.  Jack’s cancer is undetectable but he has since developed non-stop gastrointestinal symptoms.  The effects of this has stolen much of his health and caused a myriad of complications.


Like Wayne, the setback came out of nowhere and threatens to wear one down emotionally more than the original diagnosis.


Yet, like the Carters, Jack and Mary Ellen used these long days of discomfort to develop a set time each day to read the word of God and pray together.  It has become a source of comfort and renewal.  According to them, this exercise alone has removed all concern because they recognized that they were going through this hardship for a reason.  They used their experiences to minister to others dealing with cancer and discovered that because of this, God was able to use them in ways they had never imagined.


Ironic, isn’t it?  How two couples who had everything to lose, stand here today and remind us of what really matters when all seems lost and you’re staring death in the face.


And if they, after all they’ve faced can still tell us to hope – then what’s our problem?  


We live in a world that is desperate for something to believe in.  To cling to.  To hope in. And we have a choice – feed on the false narratives of the enemy and let it dictate our mind, will and emotions.  Or renew our focus with the promises of who God is and discover the freedom that comes when we rest in that confidence.


This Christmas, let us remember to fix our eyes on Jesus.  To cut out anything in our lives that keeps us from finding hope in His presence.  For He is the author of life and the reason for our hope. 

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