In the summer 1989, Shenendoah, Iowa eighth-grader Brent Foster had a leg amputated because of cancer. Brent went on to play high school baseball, basketball, and tennis. He was elected president of the student body. The cancer reappeared with tumors in his lungs during Brent’s senior year. In the Fall (1993) he entered Harvard University. The day before Thanksgiving 1994, test results showed that inoperable bone cancer had spread throughout his body. “I guess I’m realizing that dreams don’t always come true,” Brent reflected. Brent concentrated his studies in history because, he said, “I like to learn about people in the past, and what they lived and died for.”
“Facing Death, Embracing Life” by Brent Foster (1975-1995), in Finding God at Harvard, ed. by Kelly Monroe, pages 129-132, Zondervan, 1996.
My old friends and acquaintances back in rural Iowa would describe me as a very bright person with an even brighter future. In fact, the largest paper in the state covered my graduation, calling me “the most accomplished, polished, and courageous student ever to wear the maroon and white” (my school colors). Success followed me everywhere in high school. My peers elected me president of just about every major organization in school, and my academic might won state and nationwide recognition. I more than once found myself in the governor’s office accepting official recognition for my achievements, and locally I was famous for playing high school basketball on an artificial leg. All of this culminated in being made a valedictorian my senior year and gaining admission to the most prestigious college in the nation (according to U.S. News and World Report, anyway), the first person of my school ever to have done so. Now, here I am an accomplished Harvard student, the world seemingly at my feet. However, there is one little catch to all of this success: I have widespread bone cancer and only several weeks left to live.
These were supposed to have been the best days of my life. Instead I am at the losing end of an eight-year battle with cancer. And although only twenty-one, my body has grown extremely weak and will soon fail me altogether. In fact, every breath has itself become a struggle. After a total of eleven surgeries, a year of chemotherapy, and a month of high-dose radiation, the doctors can do nothing more. From my experiences, I have sometimes wondered if humans were created with more capacity for pain than happiness. Solomon’s words from Ecclesiastes often ring in my ears (along with the other ringing noises I constantly hear from chemotherapy damage):
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” —before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars grow dark, and the clouds return after the rain… “Meaningless! Meaningless! ” says the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”
For me, the days of trouble came early, and I have found little pleasure in them. I know now that the crosses we are sometimes allowed to bear in this world would not be worth the pain if not for Christ. During my darkest hours, such as while lying in an intensive-care bed with seven or eight tubes protruding from my ravaged body, all the neat Sunday school answers I had learned as a kid seemed terribly hollow. There are no pat answers for many terrible and contradictory things in this broken world. Mere words are meaningless, especially in the face of death. At such times as these, the only respite for me is to “remember my Creator.” For in Christ there is a meaning deeper than our understanding and ability to formulate into human speech. As Paul so correctly wrote in I Corinthians 4:20: “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.”
God himself suffered much more than even I could imagine when he became a man, and can therefore understand our deepest sorrows. I am always moved when I read the account of Jesus visiting the tomb of Lazarus. After seeing the considerable grief that death had inflicted on his people, Jesus himself wept. Even though he would soon revive Lazarus, Jesus was overcome with sorrow that humanity had been reduced to such a state and consequently forced to endure such pain. I have always placed my hope in the promise that, just as Christ revived Lazarus, he will come and fix our brokenness also.
It is easy to forget this compassion of Christ’s, even though he actually chose to save mankind by subjecting himself to suffering. There is a mystery in God’s use of suffering to bring renewal and redemption which I don’t completely understand. But this redemptive quality of suffering and tribulation is alluded to many times in the Bible and then underscored by numerous examples. For in the words of Paul, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character, and character, hope. And this hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 3:3-5).
He even tells us that weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and difficulties are necessary “so that Christ’s power may rest” on us (II Corinthians 12:9-10). My life has certainly shown these words to be true, filling many with hope. Through my hardships, much of God’s glory has been revealed to me and to others. But if the only good that had come from my hellish years painfully fighting off death was for healthy people around me to passively be inspired, then I would consider God to be the cruelest villain in the universe. Quite the opposite though, God has used suffering primarily to help me, to remake me into someone capable of knowing him better. Although outwardly wasting away, yet inwardly I am being renewed day by day (see II Corinthians 4:16). The operation has been very painful, but the Great Physician has begun to heal my spirit. It is impossible to describe in a logical manner this transformation, especially to someone who has never been tempered in God’s furnace. But all the same, I have come to know a Creator who loves me so much that he is not even willing to spare me a great amount of pain so that I might have real life with him. (continued…)