“Fear not! For I am with you. Do not be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”
Context: Isa 41: 8-10 – The prophet Isaiah speaks words of encouragement to God’s people who are discouraged, disconnected from God, and fearful.
Five years ago: My Dad had stroke which descended into dementia. Every Sunday eve we used to talk on the phone for over an hour – shared memories, stories, & laughter – all are now lost. Sometimes the happy pills work, other times he’s just an angry old man and alone.
Four years ago: (My wife) Kathy was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer There has been 2 years of remission, but last week the cancer returned in the lymph glands in her sternum, lungs, & aorta
Three years ago: I was diagnosed with vocal cord paralysis. After six operations it has been good since Aug., but I still never know if a voice will come out in the morning.
Two years ago: I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Among other challenges is standing in the pulpit: my left leg will go numb & my left foot will clench – so I have to balance while speaking – kind of like the Godfather meets the Karate Kid.
My doctor prescribed some meds. I asked if there were any side effects. He said that a few people experienced an overwhelming urge to gamble. One week later I called the Doc – from Vegas. I was ready to draw to an inside straight, and asked my doctor what he thought I should do. He said it was time to fold & time to stop the pills (only part of this story is true).
So this is the hand my wife & I have been dealt. But mysteriously, we are okay – it is well with our souls.
Over the past five years, I’ve had the privilege of being asked to play in a poker game with some interesting gentlemen from The Neighborhood Church:
- Harry Peck – who in the middle of dealing the cards would launch into war stories. Barney Barnett would have to eventually interrupt him: “Deal Harry!”
- Barney – would often insert a theology Q into the game: “George, Why are you teaching the book Revelation?” To which I would always reply, “Because it’s the most encouraging book in the Bible to me.” Barney would scoff and next game the same banter would arise.
- And Al Hughes was there. He would mostly just chuckle to himself about all of it.
They each had a ‘tell’ – a mannerism that would tell whether they had good cards or were bluffing. Al was the easiest to tell. When he had good cards his eyebrows would rise, along with his hat. When Harry had good cards, his face beamed. When he was bluffing it was written all over his face – he is “a man in whom there is no guile.” Barney was shrewder. He would tell folks how good of a poker player I was – I think he was trying to make me overconfident so as to overplay my hand (but he’ll never tell).
And they all told stories.
I learned a lot about life from playing poker with such characters, (the game was fun, but mostly I came for the stories). More than poker, their stories showed how to play the hands we’re dealt in life.
You’d think that strong cards would win every time, but you can win with weak cards, if you know how to deal with the hand you’re dealt. So it is with the challenges of life: we are dealt strong cards & weak cards – what’s important is how we play the hand we’re dealt.
I’d like to share some of the ways my wife & I are learning to play our challenging hand. I’ll deal you seven cards & hope that at least one of them might help you play the hand you’ve been dealt.
1st Card: Sense of Humor (The Joker)
- “Your wife has Stage 4 Cancer – how can you crack jokes”, some might say.
- Laughter can keep things in perspective: ‘Life is too important to be taken seriously’
I was in Target, right after the cancer diagnosis and saw two women arguing over a Kleenex box. I thought, “Now here are some people who need a real problem. They could learn something from some folks we met along the cancer journey…
They gather in Harbor City at 3:00 everyday – all shapes & sizes, colors and ages – all with one thing in common: they have some kind of cancer that needs radiation. Fifteen people board a shuttle that heads through LA traffic to the hospital in Hollywood. It’s about a 45 min trip. I call it the Glow in the Dark Express.
Along the way they tell stories: An 82-year old Italian woman with a brain tumor jumped out of a plane for her 80th birthday (she brought pictures); The African-American mailman, shy at first, told of growing up as the only black in his school. He played on the basketball team, but it was difficult because all the white kids “looked alike.” He wound up encouraging the Caucasian woman who was worried about the wounds her cat had inflicted on her dog.
Over the five-week, every weekday trip, folks begin to share: One brings chocolate for everybody, another makes a hat, another shares a book. When the driver drives a little crazy, or the brakes go out, or they have a near accident, they laugh and scheme practical jokes, and some even pray. When they arrive, each person goes through their period of radiation. They wait for each other. Though it might take a while, they wait until the last person is done before they head for home.
And they celebrate their hope. On the last day of my wife’s radiation, as she stepped on the shuttle, they all applauded.
This handful of human beings has been walking through the valley of the shadow of death together, and as they do, they glow in the dark – in more ways than one.
- Laughter can be healing: “A merry heart does good, like a medicine. But a broken spirit dries the bones“ Proverbs 17:22
(My last memory) of Mae Landauer (who was suffering from encephalitis + lung cancer) was in the ladies’ restroom. Mae was sitting, on a chair near the mirror, calling out to me and cracking jokes. We were laughing, when I said, ‘Mae, we’re in the Ladies restroom” – which sent her into hysterics. There we were, partying like 5-year-olds when hope arrives (and for Mae & I it had) – laughter can be healing.
- Laughter can also be a Weapon of the Spirit – defying fear & death. We can laugh because we know that in the end we are holding the winning card – we’re betting on the resurrection.
2nd Card: Cultivating Gratitude
- The Apostle Paul (who was dealt some very difficult hands) said, “Give thanks in all things for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
Kathy & I have had 4 years of unexpected grace (family week-ends, holidays, trips to Japan, & our 20th Anniversary in Israel) – it’s all been grace. (And therefore)whatever hand we may have been dealt, we are learning how important it is to make the most of each day, each moment, each person, and each opportunity to serve– and to do it thankfully.
3rd Card: Choosing our Focus
- In Matthew’s story (ch. 14): The wind & waves arise, a storm kicks up on the Sea of Galilee where the disciples – who had been fishing – are now greatly concerned. And here comes Jesus, in the middle of the storm, walking on the water. Peter boldly asks, “Lord, bid me to come” – and Jesus does. Lo, and behold, Peter is able to walk on the water – when he’s focused on Jesus he is held up. When Peter focused on the wind & waves, he began to sink.
Our testimony the past four years has been: God finds some way, every day to hold us up. We are being held up by our ‘scouts’- those who’ve gone before us & played their difficult hands well; we are held up by ‘training wheels’ – those who come alongside us and steady us when we wobble. We have been held up by all the cards & calls & expressions of care from so many of you. God shows up, just like we do, in his Body – the Body of Christ – walking on the water – in the storms of life.
It may be a scripture, a book, an encouraging word, a providential circumstance, or an internal assurance from God’s spirit, but in some way, every day, we’ve been held up.
A couple of days ago, I asked my wife how she was. “I’m okay as long as I remember Jesus is in the boat with us. If I look at the storm, I sink.”
- It’s a matter of focus – Will I focus on the storms or the Lord of nature? It’s a choice – that comes with a promise…
- “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee – why? because he trusts in Thee.”
4th Card: Keep moving /keep playing/ don’t fold/don’t quit
- Don’t get stuck in the valley, or lost in the shadow of death.
- Death is the elephant in everyone’s room – casting its shadow on everything.
- We are intimidated into playing life safe, folding too soon, making weak bets.
Recently I had my first MRI – and it freaked me out. I was stuck in this strange capsule, panicking for 15 minutes. I finally got out & told the technician I barely made it. She said, “Your have 20 more minutes to go.” I was ready to run. But she wisely gave me a ‘life line’ to squeeze if I needed to get out and she patted my foot with assurance that part of my body was already out – which all helped – especially my prayer life.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil. “ Why? “For Thou art with me.
The Lord really is our shepherd. We can follow him through the valley and out of the shadows, beside still waters, where he restores our souls. Keep moving – stay in the game – this is how we play our hand.
5th Card: Turn out
- When we are dealt difficult cards, the temptation is to turn in on ourselves – like a tooth-ache that commands all our attention.
- Jesus said, “If you try to keep your life, you will lose it. If you lose it for my sake, you will find it.” So, turn out!
- Kathy, after hearing of her bad scan report last week, spent the same afternoon encouraging a mother whose son has brain cancer.
- My wife continues her bi-lingual blog: (http://breastcancer.agrainofwheat.org/ ). A Japanese woman with cancer recently read all 300 of Kathy’s archived entries and wept – and she came to Kathy’s cancer support group yesterday.
- My wife recently visited Japan and she met with some cancer patients – folks who were previously strangers, but who had connected through her blog. One woman came to faith in Jesus Christ through reading about Kathy’s journey.
- How do we play a difficult hand? By turning out – serving, comforting, encouraging others.
6th Card: Trust the process
- Paul: “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment.” Romans 5: 3-4
- Rejoice in your sufferings – for they can be productive as we trust that we are in God’s hands (What better place to be?).
I was able to take woodcarving lessons from Geo Brauer, a master woodcarver from Oberammergau, Germany. He handed me a block of wood and said, “Make a shoe.” I carefully and gently made some small cuts, but little progress. He took the wood in his hands and made 4 or 5 deep cuts – and behold, a shoe! So it seems to be with suffering. The deep cuts can produce endurance and then character. And a lasting hope is the result of the process.
- Trusting this process helps in playing the hands we’re dealt.
7th Card: Remembering God’s Faithfulness
- Remembering God’s faithfulness in our past helps us play our hand in the present & future.
- This is a Biblical pattern: God did ‘x’ in the past (cf. Exodus or Jesus), therefore trust God to be so & do so in the present.
- Examples of recent faithfulness: Through Kathy’s blog and our continued prayers we were led to Dr. Michiko – a liver specialist in Japan – who has the same kind of cancer as Kathy. Dr. Michiko is the one who came up with the chemo combination that worked causing a 2-year remission.
- This year we wanted to go to Israel for our 20th anniversary, but were not making much progress in our plans. Then we had a lunch with my brother and his wife who heard our story. They said they were going to Israel the next month, had room, and invited us to come. The path cleared for us to go. A relative gave us an unexpected gift which paid for most of the trip. And we got to renew our vows in Cana of Galilee – where Jesus did his first miracle – at a wedding.
- When we first came to this church our insurance changed. This proved to be providential in Kathy’s health care, leading us to just the right doctors. And last week we received a very generous gift to help with our health needs.
- It’s important to remember these things – God is faithful and will be faithful – you can bet on it!
Jeremiah said to the discouraged exiles of Israel: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. They are plans for good and not disaster, to give you a future & a hope.” (29:11)
- Cancer does not have the last word – God does.
- Death has been defeated. Death has lost its sting.
- Our ace-in-the-hole is the resurrection of Jesus.
- We need not be ruled by the elephant in the room.
We are at peace knowing we are in God’s hands – what better place to be!
Kathy continues to honor God and serve others. She will not be taken until God’s purpose is fulfilled (that’s why we’re all here anyway) Then, on to a new body and being with the Lord forever – “In his presence there is fullness of joy.” – not a bad deal! Death has been swallowed up in victory – of that we are confidently hopeful.
Meanwhile, we will play the hand we’ve been dealt: making the most of each moment, each person, each opportunity we are given – and living gratefully, remembering God’s faithfulness, giving thanks in all things. We’ll keep moving & turning out – trusting the process and keeping our eyes on Jesus.
For God is good, all the time! So, as you play the hand you’ve been dealt:
- “Fear not! For I am with you.
- Do not be discouraged, for I am your God.
- I will strengthen you, and help you.
- I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.”
It’s your deal – ante up!
Born in New Jersey, George’s family moved to CA when he was 17. His Christian education heralds from the Pacific Christian College, the Westwood Christian Foundation and The University of Judaism. George completed graduate studies in Education, ESL and Technology at UCLA, Pepperdine, and Chapman. George has served as the Associate Minister for The Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes, CA since 1996. Additionally, along with his wife Kathy, he has worked in the ESL program for the Torrance Unified School District for more than 17 years.