Below are 7 Bible passages that have taken on new meaning and new encouragement for us in light of Valor's illness. We hope they will bring you encouragement in your own illness or suffering. This chapter of the Valor Chronicles is abbreviated from a sermon preached at Resurrection Church on March 31, 2019.
1. "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well" (Psalm 139:14).
When we first got to Duke our tears were primarily tears of sadness. "What's this going to mean for our family? How long will Valor live?" But gradually our tears turned into tears of beauty...
Even with his illness, Valor was fearfully and wonderfully made. We told our kids Valor would be their new home school science teacher. Through him they would learn about their pancreas, cells that make up their blood stream, vitamins and minerals our body needs. Pulling into the hospital parking deck one morning I saw a sparrow looking for food on the ground and started to cry. Even the sparrow receives care from God.
One afternoon a nurse watched Valor so Brandi and I could take the older 4 kids to nearby Duke Gardens. It was a beautiful sight with cherry blossoms in full bloom. I also see beauty in that this trial is unfolding during the season of Lent, when Jesus likewise went through his trials and suffering. Has our family ever been this close to the wounds and cross of Christ? I don't think so.
2. "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love" (1 John 4:18).
Adam has named the animals, but we have named the diseases. Just try saying the word "leukemia" or "multiple myeloma" and thinking about yourself, your child or someone close to you. We quake in our shoes with fear at the sound of these words. But perfect love casts out fear. Is it any wonder that Jesus' most frequent command in the gospels is, "Do not be afraid." Jesus knows how quickly fear can paralyze our heart, crowding out joy, peace, faith and love for others. The gospel stories repeatedly communicate, "Yes, there are scary things in the world, but Jesus is bigger and "scarier" than all of them. 'Who is this, that the winds and waves obey him?'"
3. "Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this [thorn in my flesh], that it should leave me. But [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
The Lord has a consistent habit in the Old & New Testament of revealing our weakness before revealing his strength. Whether it's choosing David, the runt of the litter, to be king of Israel, weakening Gideon's army down to 300 men before battle, blessing the earth through childless Abraham and Sarah or saving the world through a crucified homeless man named Jesus...weakness, suffering, humility and apparent failure are often God's favorite calling cards.
Like Paul, David and Jesus in their own tragic situations, we have prayed many times for God to heal Valor and remove this illness from him. But also like Paul, David and Jesus in their prayers, God has not granted our request. We have, however, seen the grace of God in abundance. If our whole family were healthy, would Brandi and I see the selfish areas of our lives that need to change as clearly? Would our kids be as eager to serve and encourage one another instead of fight? Would we be praying and valuing life (our own, yours and other sick children) as highly? Would the sufferings of Jesus and the power of his resurrection be as sweet and real to us? Probably not.
Luke 17 says 10 lepers were healed, but only 1 leper, a Samaritan, returned to worship Jesus and was saved. Mysteriously, healing and health don't always lead to our salvation. While we still believe God heals and will always pray for that, sometimes God can accomplish more through sickness or weakness than through immediate healing. Even in the midst of unanswered prayer, as God told Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you."
4. "The appointed time has grown very short" (1 Corinthians 7:29).
I now know the average life expectancy of an SDS patient. This may not be Valor's life expectancy. But knowing your days are numbered and why changes your view of life and time. Jesus says much the same thing in a parable from Luke 12 about a rich man who built larger and larger barns to store his crops and live a life of ease until God says, "You fool, this night your soul is required of you."
Seminary professor and missionary Jack Miller, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer but still preaching, used to introduce himself to his audience saying, "I'm a dying man speaking to dying men and women." If I were to adopt and modify Miller's phrase, it would be, "I'm a dying man with a dying son, speaking to dying men and women with dying friends and family."
In other words, don't let this land of wealth and prosperity fool you. We don't have as much time as we think. Most of us just haven't received our diagnosis yet. But death is coming soon. Facing Jesus' judgment seat and giving an account for our life is coming soon. What are we doing with our time? Our resources? Our energy? Do we spend them in gossip, complaining and frivolous pursuits? Or do we pray, care for and love others as if their days were numbered? Because they are. "The appointed time has grown very short."
5. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek." Hebrews 5:7-10
Reflecting on this passage, British Pastor Charles Spurgeon living in the mid-1800s wrote, "We are told that the Captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering, therefore we who are sinful, and who are far from being perfect, must not wonder if we are called to pass through suffering too. Shall the head be crowned with thorns, and the other members be rocked upon a dainty lap of ease? Must Christ pass through seas of His own blood to win the crown, and are we to walk to heaven dryshod in silver slippers? No, our Master's experience teaches us that suffering is necessary, and the true-born child of God must not, would not, escape it if he might...
Just so far as the Lord shall give us grace to suffer for Christ, to suffer with Christ, so far does He honor us. The jewels of a Christian are his afflictions. The regalia of the kings whom God hath anointed are their troubles, their sorrows, and their griefs. Let us not, therefore shun being honored. Let us not turn aside from being exalted. Griefs exalt us, and troubles lift us up. 'If we suffer, we shall also reign with Him' (2 Timothy 2:12)."
If even Jesus prayed to His Heavenly Father with "loud cries and tears," should we not expect the same from time to time as we follow Christ?
6. "Rejoice in hope, be patient in affliction, be constant in prayer" (Romans 12:12).
As Brandi and I sat in Valor's hospital room one morning, we heard a girl in a nearby room cry out in pain for a sustained period of time. I had almost forgotten about the other children and families on our hall. It took this girl's screams to jolt me out of a fixation on my own pain, sorrow and suffering. Slowly after several days, I began to walk the hospital halls of our children's ward, praying for the other sick children, their parents and the nurses and doctors who cared for them. Has suffering, pain, calamity or just life closed you up in a navel-gazing bubble, like it did me? Can you see the needs, hopes and joys of others around you? Paul says, "Rejoice in hope."
Second, "Be patient in affliction." Being an assertive, type-A, problem solver personality, I don't like the idea that some things must be patiently endured and can't be fixed this side of Jesus' return. But increasingly I see beauty, holiness and worship happening in the moments we patiently endure affliction. Jesus says when we sit and visit the sick, we are sitting down with Him. When Deacon Stephen was stoned to death in the book of Acts, Luke says, "Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him." And when a woman spent a year's wages to buy very expensive perfume and poured it on Jesus, many saw waste. But Jesus saw a beautiful sacrificial act of worship to anoint him for burial. Don't lose hope, and don't be ashamed of suffering (yours or other peoples). Suffering is opportunity to grow in beauty, holiness and worship, as we care for one another.
7. "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body" (2 Corinthians 4:10).
The death of a church plant 10 years ago and studying Scripture during that crisis led me to believe deeply in death and resurrection with Jesus as the defining rhythm of the Christian life. Now I only believe it more. Valor needs a new body of power to replace his body of weakness. Don't you? Valor has faced poverty, calamity and perplexity. Haven't you? It is only Jesus' bodily death and historical resurrection that fully address the reality of human brokenness and suffering, but then also point to concrete hope and victory through a renewed body in a renewed world.
Brandi and I are currently in season of painful death, but we both believe, in fact we already see, many ways Jesus is bringing about resurrection. And we know this is just the first fruits of what God will do. God's Wonder, Elijah & Brandi Lovejoy
Meet the Authors: Elijah & Brandi Lovejoy
On March 15, 2019 nine days before his 6 month birthday, our son, Valor Emmanuel Lovejoy, entered Duke Children's Hospital for the second time with a recent fever, low white and red blood cell counts and a below 1% weight chart gain. Doctors suspect Valor has Shwachman-Diamond Syndrome, a disease that effects bone marrow health, pancreatic function and sometimes skeletal structure, among other symptoms. You can learn more about SDS here: www.shwachman-diamond.org. I (Elijah) am a pastor, and I (Brandi) am a volunteer Children's Ministry Director and home school mom to our five children.
These Chronicles are written from a Christian perspective in the spirit of 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ." We believe the Lord does his best and deepest work through profound patterns of death and resurrection, particularly as pioneered and embodied in Jesus Christ's own death and resurrection. Through faith and ongoing participation in Jesus' death and resurrection, we offer these Valor Chronicles in hope that others will find comfort, hope, peace and resurrection life with us in Jesus.