July 24 Essay By Chip Conyers In The Waco Tribune-HeraldJuly 25, 2004
Shortly after his arrival in Waco to accept a position as the first professor of theology at Baylor University's George W. Truett Seminary more than 10 years ago, Dr. A.J. "Chip" Conyers discovered that he had leukemia. He later also had to battle skin cancer and a lung tumor. In the midst of all this, Conyers wrote the following essay detailing how he confronted his terminal illness. Conyers died Sunday, July 18.
Re-published with permission by the Waco Tribune-Herald.
An anchor for troubled times; In midst of illness, God makes his presence known
By A. J. "Chip" Conyers
Occasionally someone will ask me how I have been able to continue any kind of normal life during a time in which it was disclosed that I had leukemia, an aggressive skin cancer, and an incurable lung tumor.
Their remarks, intended and taken as a kindness and a consolation, unfortunately also tempt me to want to believe that at least part of what they say is true. How I would like to be as brave and cheerful as they say! How I would like to be the victorious Christian who faces trials with light-heartedness, rather than self-pity or preoccupation with his own rescue.
But the pain returns. In quiet moments the shadow of doubt makes itself known even on the sunniest of days.
The interaction of these moods is fortunate. They cause me to reflect on my real reactions, not only as a human being who loves life passionately, but as a believer who has learned slowly and still inadequately to trust a kind and merciful God.
Because of these well-meaning inquiries, I feel that I owe my friends, my students, and others a more adequate response than I am usually able to muster in a hallway conversation. I owe them that because we all will face these trials, and because I have represented myself to them as one who wants to help others understand the ways of God. I am a minister and a theology professor. Surely someone who speaks so glibly and confidently about ultimate things can share what it means to face the Ultimate himself.
The first thing I am reminded of in these circumstances is a poem written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his imprisonment by the Hitler regime, which eventually took his life. He knew that the way he was perceived by others was not always the way he understood himself.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
He wondered which was nearer to the truth, those images or the image he had of himself.
Am I only what I know of myself:
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
I know myself to be caught up in this same double bind, a frail human being who believes and yet fears, who prays continually, "Lord, help thou mine unbelief." We are all skilled in the art of denial. When we face circumstances that overwhelm us, we anesthetize ourselves to the pain of opening our eyes.
In his book, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn marked out the distinction between people who participated in the transparent lies of communism, thus securing their own chains of enslavement, and people who refused to participate in a lie, preferring to die knowing the truth than merely to exist in a half-life of self-deception.
This self-deception I want to avoid, not only because it is the safest policy for a cancer patient, but because it paralyzes and prevents us from living fully alert to, and fully engaged with, the reality of each day. It is the product of fear, which is the opposite of faith.
Yet I know also that this determined resolution not to deceive myself would not be enough to sustain me. My determination only keeps me in the midst of a struggle in which I vacillate to and fro, affected by the circumstances of the moment, the disposition of my companions, or even the weather.
Troubled times have this virtue: They drive us "outside of ourselves." I asked very basic questions and got what I have taken to be answers. I was driven ever deeper into a desperate search for a place to stand. The "answers" were not a reasoned approach to my situation, or an answer to my troubles. It is more a sentiment that grew stronger with time and, I believe, will always do so if there is even the "mustard seed" of it before. It had nothing to do with my moving toward God; it was about God's moving toward us, making his presence known. It is on this note that Bonhoeffer ended his poem: "Thou knowest, O Lord, I am thine."
In theology, this reality is called Providence. It means that whatever we face is from first to last in God's hands and that He works through each circumstance.
Providence means that while we "work out our own salvation with fear and trembling," we are also to remember that "it is God that works in us" (Philippians 2:12).
Providence means that everything that happens has meaning, that the world is purposeful, and that the meaning and purpose are good: It is the goodness of a God who is fully disclosed in the life of one who gave himself up for others out of confidence in a good and merciful Father.
This self-giving out of a profound confidence in the goodness of Reality is at the center of the gospel. It is not something that we work our way into, but something that works its way into us. And it is in this growing disposition toward God, his good creation, and his mighty redemption that we are able to be free.
I cannot yet say what Solzhenitsyn said of his prison experience. Bless you prison! But I am beginning to see what he saw: I sought to be physically whole, not realizing that through pain and fear God was giving me the means to be free. Once I was terrified of cancer. No longer. And if being thrown back on Providence means learning to trust God amidst even our greatest fears, then it is that very Providence that frees us from the bondage of dread and panic.
"Fear not, for I am with thee." These are the words that bind us to a destiny, even while they free us to live without fear.