Two seminary professors, Mark McGinniss and Rod Decker, found themselves in a conversation about their journeys of suffering. When Rod was diagnosed with aggressive cancer, Mark stopped by his study and mentioned that Rod certainly had it worse than he. But Rod quickly turned it and compassionately said that he would be delivered far earlier from his suffering than Mark. From this transparent conversation between two colleagues and friends, they share their intimate journeys of suffering so others in the Body of Christ might find solace and peace as they walk the same or similar paths.
It is no surprise that we will all one day die. We all will, for Scripture promises that we are “destined to die once” (Hebrews 9:27, NIV). We often live as if that is not the case. We think we are invincible, especially when we are younger. True, most younger folks who die do so as a result of traumatic injury, but disease strikes more often than we like, even then. It tends to get one’s attention, however, when the doctor says, “Six months if we do nothing; six months when we run out of treatment options. This disease will one day take your life.”
Although I did not hear words that blunt until the fall of 2013, I had suspected that was the case when first diagnosed with a very aggressive recurrence of treatment-resistant cancer the year before. I had been told last winter my cancer was stage 4 and incurable. I am now on a fourth type of treatment, three in less than a year. Beginning with radiation when the cancer first occurred three years ago, and then continuing with new forms of treatment last winter, I have typically gotten positive responses for three or four months. Each shift in medical strategy is hopeful of being more effective, but there are no guarantees. So I now live with a six-month outlook on life. What does life look like when there is a six-month timer set and ready to tick?
In the big picture I can say with all confidence that I am not afraid to die. My Savior has conquered death: “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54, NIV, fulfilling the promise of Isaiah 25:7, 8). Although death came into our world through Adam, the sure promise of resurrection comes through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20–22). Death is not the end. Although my body will be buried in the earth one day, I will be very much alive.
“We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. . . . While we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 5:1, 4, 5, NIV). That wording is certainly poetic and metaphorical, but the reality it describes is very real—just as real as our life now. Those promises are not, of course, given to everyone. They belong only to those who have relinquished their own efforts to earn God’s favor and have trusted in His free gift of grace alone based on Jesus’ finished work on the cross (Ephesians 2:8, 9)—and that I have done.
Does that mean I am rapturous at the thought of dying? Not at all; I am not a fool. Death is an enemy, even though a defeated one. Though I fear neither the event of death itself nor what lies beyond, I am concerned that I may not “die well”—that I will not honor my Savior as I ought in the pain that (especially with my form of cancer) often precedes stepping into eternity. So I pray I will have “sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body . . . by death” (Philippians 1:20).
That which most often brings tears unbidden to my eyes is thinking of my dear wife, who will be left alone when I go Home. We have lived, loved, and ministered together for nearly 40 years, she caring for me and I for her. Though I have done what I can to prepare and provide for her down the road, there is a personal sense of helplessness that sometimes overwhelms. But at that point I must trust my Savior, Who will never leave her nor forsake her (Hebrews 13:5) and Who has special concern for widows and orphans (Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 68:5). Our three grown children will, of course, pitch in along with 10 young grandchildren (1 Timothy 5:4). He has also provided us with a healthy, caring church family where pure religion, looking after orphans and widows (James 1:27), is not just theory. Yes, there will be sorrow when we part, but thankfully it is not the hopeless sorrow of the world (1 Thessalonians 4:13).
I once hoped I would have another 10 or 15 years of active ministry in the classroom, in the church, and in writing. In that time I once dreamed of another four books in print, books that would minister to students as well as the church, books that would in some way repay some of my debt to Baptist Bible Seminary, where I first trained for ministry 40 years ago. At this point, however, it appears that God is telling me that my work is largely done. No one is indispensable, least of all me.That God took a farm boy and placed him in the ministry, eventually into graduate studies, and then into the classroom to train young pastors is grace from the beginning. Unless God should surprise me (and, I suspect, my oncologist) with a renewed lease on health and strength beyond what seems medically probable, I am not many years from Glory.
Living with the reality of death, there is nothing to be done differently. I have no plans to distract myself from the realities of life and death. I will not buy a new sports car, take an exotic vacation, or make dramatic changes in lifestyle. I am not attempting to escape or ignore what inevitably lies ahead. I continue to teach and minister as God enables, both in the classroom and in my church, though now with considerably less vigor and energy than I once brought to those challenging ministries that I have enjoyed for many years. My goal is to be faithful to what God has given me to do as long as I have the strength to do it, whether that be for six months or six years.
Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of Greek and New Testament at Baptist Bible Seminary when he wrote this article. His specialty was the Gospel of Mark. He went home to Heaven on May 25, 2014.