I got a good report from my cancer doctor yesterday. It has been almost three years now since a surgeon cut my throat and pulled out a cancerous thyroid. This makes the third time I've made the trip to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to hear that it worked. I'm still cancer-free.
Good news never gets old.
But every time I hear that news I'm struck by the reality that my news is good because it could have been bad. The phrase "You're cancer-free" sounds completely different to someone who has had cancer than to someone who hasn't. And walking out of that hospital, past rows of people wearing their mortality on their hospital-braceleted wrists, feels like walking out of prison, leaving the other inmates behind.
MD Anderson is a cancer hospital. Cancer is all they do. So everyone there has cancer of some kind. You can almost stage them by appearance. Hair loss? That person has battled long. Rail-thin? His body is giving way. Surgical mask? Her immune system can barely keep up with the treatment.
Last year, while I was in the middle of a celebratory phone call to Christine, I stepped out the hospital doors past three women on a bench holding hands and weeping. The one in middle had the bracelet, and the bald head, and the deepest sobs. It felt unfair. Why should I get to fist-pump and call home while these poor women despaired and made funeral plans? I wanted to say something. I still wish I had. But what to say? "Ma'am, I'm sorry you've gotten bad news from the best doctors on the planet. But chin up; you can live your best life now"?
There is nothing to say; no words I could have shared that would have made the injustice make sense.
I felt it again yesterday: deep gratitude for the gift of life, and heartbreak for those still waiting for the gift. Enjoying my Uber ride back to the airport, I was tempted to think it's a feeling unique to ex-cons and cancer patients. I was thinking of commiserating with my fellow cancer-club comrades, when the truth hit me.
We should all know this feeling.
Everyone who has received the gift of grace has escaped a death sentence. We all know the cancer ward; we live in it every day. And we have rejoiced in the promise of a better "treatment." To whatever extent we don't feel a profound mixture of gratitude at our good fortune and heartbreak for those still under death's curse, we trivialize the rescue of heaven. Brothers and sisters, Jesus hasn't just saved us from our bad habits, or theological error, or a far-away judgement we can barely imagine. He has saved us from death in all its bald and despairing forms. He has sprung us from death row. He has given us life. He has turned our mourning into dancing, our tears into tears of joy.
And the only appropriate response is to call home, rejoice deeply, say a prayer, and grieve for the lost. This is what it means to be rescued. This is what it means to be cancer-free.