Not long after my son’s birth, around the age of 47, I started to get sick. I was a pastor of a small church in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia where I could be hiking on the Appalachian Trail in a matter of minutes. It was an absolutely beautiful place to live! This small country church where I served was filled with the greatest people on the earth. I loved them. We grew close together through suffering; like a family that comes together at the death of a parent or a child. Once I arrived at my new church, it seemed that everyone had waited just long enough, so that they could die and have a pastor there to care for them and bury them properly. The old started dying one after the other. There were suicides. There were strange diseases brought about through environmental pollution. Cancer was everywhere. And we held each other, cried together, and relished the beauty of joy when it came to us amidst so many dark days.
With so much death and sickness, questions began to rise up from the congregation such as, “Is it God’s will that George die of cancer? Is Mary in hell because she committed suicide?” Several people began to come into my office confiding that they had thoughts of suicide. Others would open their hearts to me saying that, “God has abandoned me. I am lost.” I began to be proactive and started a counseling ministry for those who were dying. I also counseled the depressed, those in grief, and the lost and lonely. Many times I would refer people to therapists in the community, but many of them just couldn’t afford treatment. Others would go, but still come to me concerning the spiritual components of their suffering.
My “sickness” began with just being tired all the time. It was a bone tiredness that wouldn’t go away. At the same time I started to get headache after headache. I missed more and more days of work. Then something strange began to happen: my legs would not work. I could still walk, but they hurt and it was hard for me to stand for long periods of time. On Sundays it would take everything I had to walk up those steps to the pulpit. I even had to lean against the pulpit to keep standing during the sermon.
And then something much worse took place. When doing research for my sermons I found that I couldn’t understand what I was reading. Nothing I read made sense. Sometimes I didn’t know what the words meant. Sometimes I would read a page and come to discover that I didn’t understand a word of what I had just read. There was absolutely no comprehension! For someone who had been reading all his life it was as if I had become blind. My sermons also started to get weak. I was preaching what I call “puffy” sermons every week. Puffy sermons are sermons that tend make people feel good about themselves, and maybe we needed them at the time!? But the problem was that I didn’t have any concentration power. It seemed as if my brain was shutting down. It seemed as if my entire body was dying.
The final blow came when I stopped sleeping. I was always so tired that falling asleep was not a problem, but then, every night, I would awaken to the most horrific dreams. At two or three in the morning there I would be… awake, starring off into space. Sleep became fearful for me because of the dreams. But at the same time I prayed every night that I would sleep through to morning. I never did though. Every night before I went to bed I had a sense of dread.
And about this time my wife and I began to have problems as well. She was worried, and I became quiet. Our communication became less and less. She seemed so distant from me. I couldn’t understand anything she said, and she seemed angry all the time. Everything was slipping away from me. It was as if God had withdrawn his blessing, nailed me to a cross, and left me hanging there in the dark.
Finally, I came up with the only solution that made sense to me. I was dying of a brain tumor, and it was growing at a pretty good pace. My father was a surgeon and I had heard of some of the symptoms before… The headaches were increasing. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t concentrate. My ability to write was deteriating. I was having trouble walking and standing. I couldn’t sleep. At times it was hard to understand what others were saying to me, and my environment started to take on a kind of surreal nature.
However, at the time I came to this conclusion I was busier than ever. Holy Week was coming up. Easter Sunday was just around the corner and pastoral care was coming at me hard and fast. And so my plan was to get through Easter and make sure that I had everything and everyone looking as good as possible before the Monday after.
I made my appointment with the doctor… sure that I would be in an MRI tube the very next day. I was sure that my prognosis was not going to be good. I was sure that the tumor in my brain was killing me.
As I walked up to the pulpit on Easter Sunday it was as if I was walking to my death. I looked out at all these people who had become my family and felt a deep sadness on this day of great joy. I felt my eyes begin to tear… my words began to break… I smiled at them and told them just how much I loved them, and then began reading the Easter scripture about Jesus’ disciples finding an empty tomb. I read to my church family about the risen Christ walking the earth and sharing the good news that God has done something wonderful; that there was hope for new life and new beginnings. I read that we are not alone in this journey of life. As I stood there I again looked out upon these beautiful people and I thought, “Maybe there is hope for us after all. Maybe God is faithful. Maybe, God’s light of healing, grace, and mercy will shine the way for us in this world of darkness and suffering. Just maybe…”
The next day I found myself in the Doctor’s office describing my symptoms one by one. I was thorough and logical. I wanted to make sure he understood just how serious this was! My wife Angela was sitting in a chair in the corner, arms crossed, looking like she new exactly what the doctor was going to say. I sat on the edge of the doctor’s examining table with my feet dangling like a little boy. After I was done with my scientific dissertation on the nature of my problems; the doctor stood up with a look of concentration and a little bit of worry on his face. He asked me a couple of strange questions such as, “Do you find that you cry all of sudden? Have you been thinking about death more than usual? What has your mood been like?” And incredibly, about five minutes into the exam, instead of being sent immediately to get an MRI, I was being diagnosed with Depression. I was stunned! “How could that be? What about all the physical aspects of my symptoms? What about my headaches? Are you absolutely sure!” The doctor was confident of his rendering and looked concerned. My wife joined in with the doctor and pronounced, “John, can’t you see that this church is killing you?”
Ten minutes into the examination I was being prescribed my first antidepressant famously named Prozac. Twelve minutes into this mind bending revelation I was ordered to take some time off. Fourteen minutes into this, I was still an unbeliever, but regardless of my personal disbelief, the doctor referred me to a therapist. After fifteen minutes I walked out of the doctor’s office numb, confused at what had just taken place. In one hand I carried a piece of paper to give to the pharmacist. In the other hand I held a card with the name of my first therapist. Fifteen minutes ago I had this picture of dying from a brain tumor with grace and dignity, now, I had to continue to live in my messy life battling some unknown force named depression. What was the world coming to?