Tag Archives: cancer

Of Canes and Cancers


Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting the late Dr. Vernon Grounds, then Chancellor Emeritus of Denver Seminary. I never knew him well; my introduction came while the then-80-year-old theologian and scholar was in the middle of making himself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! But the few things I learned about him told me he was a very interesting man whom it would have been fun to know. For all his learning and influence in the world of today’s Christian leaders, my own takeaway from Dr. Grounds has nothing to do with theology. Instead, it is all about canes.

When I met with the Chancellor in his office, it wasn’t his personal library of some 25,00 volumes that caught my attention, but the dozens of canes from around the world hanging on his walls. Intrigued by this unique collection, I asked Dr. Grounds about it. Although I don’t recall the exact story, it began with one walking stick picked up as a souvenir during a trip. After that humble beginning, friends and co-workers began returning from their own travel adventures with a cane or walking stick to add to Dr. Grounds’ growing collection. Eventually the canes outgrew the stand by his office door and were hung on the wall. As I picture the scene in my mind, the collection adorned the upper third of the high-ceilinged office wall behind his desk.

I have been a collector since I was a child; in less-gracious times, my mother called me a packrat, but I prefer how Gallup’s Strengths Finder assessment describes it: I have the signature theme of Input. On my family’s first ski trip to Austria when I was fourteen—just a few months after we had moved to Germany—I bought my first cane, intended to display small souvenir shields from the places I would visit during our time in Europe. I picked up a dozen or so of the shields over the next few years living in Germany and later in England, and continued to collect them after returning to the the U.S. Today that cane is covered with reminders from Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, England, and Wales; as well as California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. As it filled, I began to add not more shields, but more canes.

I bought my second walking stick—a beautifully and intricately carved piece of mahogany (I think) inlaid with copper—when I went to Ethiopia for the first time. When I went into a shop and told the shopkeeper what I was looking for, he joked that “walking sticks are for old men going to church!” In the post-9/11 world I was not allowed to carry the cane home on the plane with me, so it joined the other luggage in the vast underbelly of the aircraft…where some of the carving broke.

My next cane was from my parents’ trip to North Africa, then I bought one in Liberia, then a long hiatus before I found one that may prove to have more significance than any other. The irony is that it was purchased not on some adventurous trip to a distant country, but in a souvenir shop at, of all places, Disneyland! But the significance of that particular outing was great.

In late summer 2013, my wife’s younger sister was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her battle has been long and hard. Days of tremendous struggle have been followed by reports of miraculous progress…only to be followed again by the cloud of a tumor that continued to spread in spite of every possible form of treatment. In late March, 2015, we learned that the treatments were not working and there was no other viable options. The news ripped into our family’s hearts. For me, it brought back too-vivid memories from decades earlier, when my brother’s battle with cancer reached a similar point.

Exhausted by the nearly two year fight to save her life for her childrens’ sake, my sister-in-law decided that the battle now was to live—really live—with her children as best she could, while she could. And so the next day (35 years to the day after my brother’s battle ended), the whole family—three sisters, their husbands, and seven kids—went to Disneyland! While the kids rode as many rides as they could, the adults spent as much time talking as possible, laughing at times, crying at times. And as we walked mindlessly through one of the many gift shops I saw it: a cane, nicely carved and beautifully painted. I picked it up to look closer and was surprised to find a label proclaiming that it was hand-carved in Africa. Maybe I just want to believe that and maybe it really was made there; in either case, the design and the price were both right, and now I have in my collection a walking stick that will forever be a reminder of my dear sister-in-law, her love for her husband and kids, and their love for the Magic Kingdom.

Jeaneen Blackinton Davis died peacefully on April 27, 2015, slipping from her cancer-stricken body into the eternally-healing arms of her savior, Jesus.

Bad Stories


Some stories are meant to be written by others and then read, not lived for real. Like the ones involving tumors, cancer, and other such evils. They’re meant to be written in books that you can just put back on the shelf whenever you want – whenever the chapter is too depressing or there’s too much pain. They should be written by bad people who are getting the just desserts for their wicked ways. These stories should never be written by good people, at least not if the stories are true and autobiographical. Because good people shouldn’t ever have to live with such evils.

I’m angry. And hurt. And sad. And a bit fearful. All because a good person I know and love has just started living one of these stories. Been there, done that. I’ve already lived one of these stories; lived it, wrote it, read it. I really don’t want another – not in my life, not in a friend’s life, not in a sister-in-law’s life. Even if it ends well and happily ever after and all that rot. In the midst of the living—in the midst of the writing—it stinks. Not very poetic, that, but I really don’t care. Cancer sucks. Tumors suck. Evil sucks.

But somehow, in the midst of all the rotten, stinking, unpoetic suckiness, I don’t feel anger or hurt or sadness or fear directed toward God. Somehow I know that even when it doesn’t feel like it, he’s still got the whole world in his hands. It’s still his show, his story. And whatever is going on in this chapter…well, it’s only a short chapter in a long, long story.

An old acquaintance recently wrote, “I want my kids to win so that every outcome is for their benefit.” I responded that there’s tremendous benefit in losing, too. Sometimes losing is just a moment in time, soon to be forgotten: a single goal in soccer, one point below an A (or below a D–), taking second in a two-person race. Sometimes it’s much bigger: losing an arm or a kidney or a breast…or a mom or dad or brother or wife. Somehow, in losing, we have a unique chance to gain something, too. Often – even usually, perhaps – we don’t get it or realize we did until much later; but I think it’s always there. It’s what Job said at the end: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.” He gained a new vision of God, a new understanding of the Divine. Hmmm…. Just thought of something: I’ve often sung songs that say, “open my eyes, Lord,” but I just realized that’s exactly what God did with Job. Do I really want God to open my eyes, if a Job-like experience might be the means he uses to do that?  I don’t know. Maybe not.

Tomorrow ends the introduction to a new story my sister-in-law is writing. The first chapter is just beginning. I’m praying it’ll be a short story, not a novel. I’m praying for a miracle. I’m praying for healing. But I’m also settling in for the long haul.

Open our eyes, Lord, and show us yourself.