Healing Through the Valley

About a week and a half ago I was invited to a dinner to speak to a group of about 300 or so other pastors and leaders from the Presbyterian Church in America while we gathered for our General Assembly. The theme of the evening was “A Healing Denomination.” And, I was asked to share about the journey Erica and I have been on these past 2 years. I was nervous– this was a room full of other preachers and leaders (people I admired and am seeking to emulate in my own ministry calling). Who was I to share to a group of people like this? Yet, I also had confidence that God wanted to bring glory to himself through our story, and that he would use it in the lives of these colleagues, mentors, and heroes.

I share the transcript of this talk with you all knowing that there are many others out there who need a gospel-oriented vision to make sense of the affliction in life, and in order to experience real hope that is ours by faith in Christ, even in the midst of our times of darkness in the valley of the shadow of death.

 

Healing Through the Valley. Dan & Erica Herron, 2014

Thank you for inviting Erica and I to share tonight. She obviously isn’t with me, otherwise I’d look a lot better—due to some recent health issues with 2 of our kids, we had to cancel her trip—which is a real bummer, she’s really the one y’all really need to meet and hear from.

Now, I don’t have any life lessons for you, nothing that refined or sterile. But, I do offer you some glimpses into the story of healing Jesus is bringing about in our life.

We’re driven and ambitious. Two of our hobbies as a young married couple were triathlon training and home renovation.

We’re finding that as our shepherd, God confronts our driveness, gives us glimpses of our weakness, restores our souls by the rest that comes through receiving and depending on Jesus’ presence.

We moved to Bloomington, Indiana 2 years ago to till the ground for a new church and an RUF at Indiana University. We had a core group of 9 people—me and Erica, RUF campus minister Brad Tubbesing and his wife Caroline, and our combined 5 kids, all under 6. We’re like The Goonies of church planting. We prayed, made friends, shared the gospel, strategized, and saw a little community begin in our dining room.

Then— the shadow of death.

On February 8th, 2013 my beautiful, young wife, and wonderful mother to our 3 children was diagnosed with breast cancer. Erica is a doctoral-program-conquering, marathon-running, child raising, strong church planting partner wife. How could this, this word, “Cancer,” apply to her?

Many of you might really want to know, “How did you handle this?”

Many days, early on especially, it felt like we were in the dark, like we were groping for stability, like we were in a labyrinth of a valley. I had to explain to my children that their mommy was sick; in kid-language we had to prepare them for her surgery, for chemo and the loss of her long curly hair, for radiation and the tiredness and soreness that would come. To help our kids, Erica and one of my boys created and illustrated superheroes named “Chemo” and “Radiator,” and at each treatment she wrote a new chapter in an adventure story where these guys rid the world of Dr. Smalls and his evil minions.

Erica wrote of her experience of this shadow: “Right now I’m at a loss for words. I’m being confronted by so many idols and fears. Yet, at the same time I have some peace in knowing that I can trust my heavenly Father and know that regardless, He can be glorified. How do I enjoy God and glorify Him forever while having cancer? Do I really have cancer? Is this really me? Father, I pray that this terrible time would be used in amazing ways. I pray that you would be glorified. I pray that you would deepen my knowledge and understanding of you. I pray that you would expand my heart. I pray, though it somehow feels wrong to ask, but I pray that you would spare my life. Let me be cured and able to see who you grow my children into and how you use my husband. Use this in my life to use me also, but please let me live.

In pouring out his healing, God leads us into the shadow.

So, how did we handle this? How did we continue the work of a parachute plant—how did we survive as a family?

Jesus asserted himself as our refuge. We were so shell-shocked that we didn’t have the capacity to reach out. We could only receive.

That day that we heard the news, Erica and I were at a meeting for the Central Indiana Presbytery. After receiving the call, all the elders and their wives gathered around us, laying hands upon us, kneeling at our feet, anointing our heads with oil, as she and I wept, hands woven together.

They prayed Psalm 23. In surrounding us with his body, Jesus made his presence known, his rod and his staff they comforted us. And, our little sprout of a church, our Presbytery, and this church were Jesus to us, and walked with us into the Valley.

And, all we could do was receive. There was no ambition, there was no drive, there was no “handling it.” There was only frailty and weakness and need.

In leading us into the shadow, God forms us into receivers of his healing.

And, this is where we encountered rest through dependency on Jesus’ Spirit. John Owen wrote of this, “Affliction is part of the provision God hath made in his house for his children… for in our afflictions we find our need of the consolation of the Holy Ghost.”

Receiving this healing consolation of the Holy Spirit it deepened our repentance and faith. We discovered our drive to enmesh our identities in cancer—I felt an impulse to assert my new status as “wonderful supportive cancer husband” as my claim to righteousness and glory. And, Erica, she felt the pull of others’ expectations, and a compulsion to see even cancer as that thing that grounded her identity.

Being receivers of God’s healing exposes us.

Erica wrote about this too. In November, after her treatments were complete, she reflected through the lens of Psalm 62, writing: “God alone as our refuge applies to everything that comes in life—church planting, Dr. of Physical Therapy, raising children. I do not get to claim a self-righteousness from these things. I also don’t get to claim a glory for how I made it through cancer, how I’ve done chemo and lost my hair…that I endured 7 weeks of radiation… that I worked the whole time… that cancer is now a part of my story. I do not get my righteousness from being a cancer survivor. I want to claim this, but this is not my glory to claim. On God alone rests my salvation and my glory. It is my story, not someone else’s…It shapes who I am but it does not make me better or worse. God alone is my mighty rock, my refuge. In him is my identity.”

Erica was really the one who named our church—Hope. While we were driving to a chemo treatment. She saw this as what our city needed because it’s what she needed, what I needed—Hope. Hope of rest for our souls in Jesus.

God’s healing comes only through the Valley of the shadow of death. It’s in the shadow where the presence of Jesus is most intimately known, where our idols were confronted, where all of our supportive scaffolding of ambition was stripped away, where Erica and I were formed into a receiving and depending people who really know the salvation and glory of God. It’s our faith-clinging to this living hope where we are becoming receivers and ultimately mediators of this healing to our place.

We’re still ambitious. Erica just finished training for a half-marathon, HopePres began weekly services at the end of March. But, this ambition has less and less of a grip on our identity as we find rest in being receivers, and members in a community of need like this one, like this one, is called to be.

The Vision of Flight

I’m looking out my window at 25,000 feet.

To my left there’s a stunning view of the clouds resting upon the ground—a great white cover of translucent down. A river snaking through the landscape in the distance, curling upon itself in the most inefficient way, reversing its course unpredictably across the Texas plains. I see black patches of lakes, nonsensical outlines, like Rourshack tests. Hints of human habitation in traces of roads and the green-brown patchwork smudges of cleared forest.

If I were standing on the ground I never would have seen these visions. I wouldn’t have even known they were there. All I would have been able to see were those things right in front of me, accessible to my immediate senses from my 6’2” vantage point. Granted, flying in a jet still requires me to make use of my senses. I’m never without them and I interpret my surrounding world through them. However, what being in a jet provides is a transcendent perspective over the normal.

I’m privy to a view that those on the ground don’t have access to—unless they also join me in this speeding tube of steel. In order to see all of this in this way requires me to become elevated, and would require you to become elevated as well. There’s only a certain amount of description that I could provide you in order to see what I see, there are only so many adjectives that I can conjur up to help you experience what I’m living at this moment. There is nothing to describe the sense of flying so near to a towering thundercloud that you can feel moved in your bones by both the beauty and the power that you are almost apart of, that you can just begin to taste in the sublimity of seeing.

This very thing happens each week. Every Sunday morning as we enter the basketball court at Harmony School our vision is elevated. What looks to be a building of brick, stone, oak and tile, a basketball court of hardwood, Hoosier basketball backboards, tall windows covered in chain-link, walls of brown tile—this becomes for us our meeting place, and God’s sanctuary, God’s Temple, a thin place where he meets with and interacts with his people gathered in Jesus’ Name, united in one-anotherness through the common sharing in of Christ’s body and blood and participation in the renewal life of the Holy Spirit.

The faith given us by God the Spirit himself, raises us up, causing us to ascend into the heavenlies by virtue of our union with Christ, so that we can see the things before us with new eyes, cleared vision, and hearts attuned to the significance of the gathering of God’s people for worship, and his meeting with us through his means of grace—the prayers, the Word, the sacraments.

I don’t look out my window and see something “pretty” nor do I see something mundane enough for my indifference. I am flying. This is one of the greatest fantasies of humanity since before Icarus, and I have it. I am not watching it, I am not being told about it, I am living it, participating in it. No indeed, I don’t shrug my shoulders unimpressed. I don’t glance at the meeting of the heavens and the earth and offer a consolation wink at the nice view. I am flying. And, so I marvel.

Marvel is meant to characterize the worship of the people of God. Worship is not meant to be something that happens to us, something we go and watch, something we just take part in here and there. Worship is meant to call us out in fullness of participation because it is not a human who calls to us or initiates with us, it is the Living God himself. The Covenant God. The Blessed One. A Consuming Fire.

Do we not marvel at him? Or, do we look with indifference, a shrug of the shoulders, and go back to our SkyMall? Do we fixate on the irritations of the momentary imperfections in our comfort? The context for our beholding may subtly change from week to week—different songs, different prayers, good sermons, not so good sermons, tasty coffee, bitter coffee. Yet, to allow the smudges on my window, or the smells of the passengers near me, or my lack of leg room to become scales over my eyes, or grumblings to obsess over denies the most fundamental reality of my moment—

I am flying.