I was in the village of Kaliane in the Casamance, southern Senegal, on Saturday, February 24, and I began to feel horrible. It was an amazing day, actually. We had a couple of gatherings planned with kids, arranged by my translator Alioune. We showed up for the morning session and found about 30 children, most much younger than I had expected. I told them a Bible story and then shared the gospel with them. We walked back to Jean Batiste and Isabelle’s home and came back in the afternoon. This time there was a slightly older group of nearly 60 children and young teens and I got to tell them about Christ. But as the day went on I could feel “it” coming on. It had happened the last time I was in Senegal. As we walked back to the house, it dropped on me like a ton of bricks. I laid in the bed from Saturday night until Monday morning, when it was time to pack up and head back. I was seeing dead relatives and pearly gates and stuff!
Toward the end of March, my doctor finally decided that it was time to figure out what was going on. We had assumed this was some kind of parasite or bug I was picking up when I ate in Africa – where we stay there is no electricity, no running water, no indoor plumbing, and things are not exactly “antiseptic.” But I wasn’t getting better, even after the antibiotics that should have knocked all of that out of my system, so she ordered some blood work.
That led to another month of apprehension and testing. The internet is a great thing but when you hear you have irregular pancreatic enzyme levels and you check the interwebs to see what that could mean and one of the possibilities is pancreatic cancer, sleep is going to be elusive that night. My doctor, also a good friend, said, “stop reading the internet!” I went through just about every test they have – ultrasound, MRI (that was torture), and something called a HIPA – and they finally narrowed down to two culprits, my gallbladder and my spleen. The surgery I had six weeks ago removed both of those.
But one Tuesday night in April I got a call from my doctor and she that sound in her voice. “Dave, we found something we weren’t expecting.” You never want to hear that. When they were poking around my gallbladder figuring out how diseased it was (the spleen was worse – that was probably what was causing all my sickness in Africa, but that isn’t germane here) they noticed something on my right kidney that wasn’t supposed to be there.
“Dave, you have cancer.”
You are never prepared to hear those words and I walked around in a daze the rest of the evening. They sent me in for a biopsy and when I went to see the surgeon I got the whole story. Here’s the story.
The sickness that plagued me and made me feel awful for so long may have saved my life.
My cancer is so early it is barely stage 1. In 5 or 6 years I would have had symptoms (it is in my right kidney – you can guess the symptoms) and gone to the doctor and they’d have found the tumor. By then, it would have been much larger and likely would have metastasized. Treatment would have been a real problem at that point. But by God’s grace, I had a diseased gallbladder and by my surgeon’s declaration one of the worst spleens he’d ever seen. And God used all of this sickness to find a tumor early so that my life and health could be spared.
My diseased gallbladder and bloated spleen were God’s blessed mess to save me from a much worse disease down the road.
My point is not subtle is it?
Illness in the SBC
The SBC has had quite a few illnesses recently. We have had an explosive confrontation at one of our seminaries that led to the dismissal of the president of the seminary, some pretty nasty social media exchanges, and a floor fight at the convention. One of the architects of the Conservative Resurgence stands accused of molestation. Three prominent seminary professors have resigned recently because of moral indiscretions as well as the beloved president of the Executive Committee. Issues over the way that women have been treated in churches and in some of our institutions have become a prominent scandal. And, of course, our ACP report shows that our evangelistic decline seems to be continuing. This is anything but a complete listing.
I love the SBC and want it to prosper, but it is clear that we are going through a time of illness right now. We are today where I was in February and March. We are a diseased body in many ways. I say it with a tear and with hope, but I say it nonetheless. If it is in any way appropriate to use the body metaphor for the SBC, that body is not healthy. The evidence is in and the diagnosis is clear.
Dr. Mohler wrote an article in CT on May 23 called “The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention” which accurately diagnosed many of our problems. He claimed that our current problems were the outpouring of God’s judgment on us because of our sin.
Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.
In an effort to encourage Bible reading among my church members, we do a “through the Bible” reading program and I write a daily devotional. This year we have been working through the Bible chronologically and we have been reading the Old Testament prophets. That can be pretty discouraging. Judgment. Death. Destruction. Nothing you’d want to hear about in our “positive, encouraging” Christian world.
But when we see the prophets as simply Divine Downers we miss the point. Every one of the prophets that spoke to Israel or Judah ended on the same positive note. Restoration. Renewal. God judged sin so that he could restore Israel – he never gives up on his people. Even when God judges it is for the purpose of blessing. When our lives become a mess it is so that God’s grace can bless.
God’s power to restore and renew is greater than sin’s power to destroy and degrade.
I am not trying to be a pollyanna here. The SBC has serious problems. My body had serious problems and my doctors reacted violently. I was operated on May 3 and I thought to myself that I might be able to get back into the pulpit on May 13, or at least by May 20. My doctor laughed at me and told me absolutely not. My surgeon said that the removal of either one of organs they removed would have been traumatic but doing both together was a huge shock to my system. The work God needs to do on the SBC is not going to be easy or quick and it may continue to be painful as icons are replaced and unjust systems are reworked and we seek to become more like Christ and less like the world. God is shocking our system, but the purpose is to heal it.
But my point is that the disease that we may be seeing in the SBC is not evidence that God has abandoned us but that God is at work to heal us. Maybe he has, by his grace, shown us that sexual impurity will not be tolerated and is graciously holding up the plumb line of holiness for us. Maybe he has allowed us to see the diseases we are seeing – evangelistic apathy, mistreatment of women, racial injustice – so that by his Spirit he can revitalize us, renew us, and conform us to Christ. When God shows us these diseases he is not trying to destroy us but to heal us.
God’s power to heal is always greater than sin’s power to destroy.
Another Blessed Mess
On June 29, 2017, I poked my head out of my front door and looked down the street and what I saw scared me. The weathermen say the tornado didn’t touch down until it was a mile or two past our house, but what I saw about 150 yards from our house provoked me to send my family to the basement. A few moments later, looking out the windows on the walk-out side of the basement, I was surprised not to see Dorothy, Toto, or the Wicked Witch fly by. An hour or so later the storm had passed and our yard was a true mess. Awful. We spent the rest of that day and parts of several more getting it back in shape.
A few days later, when I was getting out of my truck at the church, I noticed a pockmark or two denting the top and hood. They were barely visible but they were there. I called Nationwide and a guy came out to the office and before he left, he handed me a check for nearly $5000. I used it to pay down my loan and recently paid that vehicle off – a true hallelujah moment for the Millers.
I began to hear from everyone that their roofs had been damaged and were getting replaced. We had a cedar shake roof that was aging and badly needed to be replaced. We were fresh out of $30,000 bills to pay for it. I could see no damage and the roof wasn’t leaking but I thought it couldn’t hurt to get the insurance man out to look at it. They sent their guy out and he walked around for a bit and he came down. He told me that our roof wasn’t even a close call. The hail had totally trashed it and it had to be replaced.
So, that terrible storm (they say it wasn’t a tornado but I will always have my doubts) that left such a mess in our yard helped me pay off my truck and got us a new roof and gutters, which we badly needed.
The mess was a blessing. God does that. He can take terrible messes and make them into great blessings.
The SBC is in a mess right now in so many ways. We need to be serious about our problems. But we also need to realize that this mess can be a blessing. The God of heaven restores and renews those who repent and seek him.
I am having surgery today and I have every reason to believe that when it is done I will be cancer free. Without my diseased gallbladder and bloated spleen I hope to have better health than I have had in some time. I am thankful for the mess I was in because of the blessing it is producing.
Maybe the messes the SBC is experiencing will produce greater blessings, as we are conformed to Christ and walk more in his ways daily.