Bryan Lair serves as the pastor of Trinity City Church (EFCA) in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
A Collision of Catastrophes
How the Lord prepared me for the dumpster fire of 2020 and beyond
I waited in a hospital bed for surgery on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The day before included news of suspended sports seasons due to the threat of the COVID-19 virus. As I waited, I drafted an email to my congregation about the coming restrictions that would be in place on Sunday due to COVID-19. It’s a moment where the suffering of the last several months collided with the overturing of the next year.
We ended up having an online service that Sunday, and services continue to look different to this day.
Of course, COVID-19 wasn’t the only challenge from 2020. I’m a pastor in St Paul, Minnesota, at Trinity City Church just across the river from Minneapolis. In the last full week of May, the murder of George Floyd ignited unrest in both cities. In addition to just and peaceful protests, riots and looting occurred along Lake Street in Minneapolis; this street crosses the river into St Paul and becomes Marshall Avenue—the street my church building is on. Convenience stores and businesses were burned and vandalized blocks from my home.
Meanwhile, the pandemic continued on, and a divisive presidential election closed out the year. All the experiences my family, church and city survived in 2020 warrant their own reflections. Instead, I’m going further back into 2019, when the Lord started to prepare me for 2020 and beyond.
A lump in my neck
In July of 2019, I noticed a lump in my neck while waiting to get on a ride at Universal Studios. My wife Tracy and I had stayed an extra day after a church conference in Orlando for some continued rest and recreation during my sabbatical.
Before my sabbatical started, I filled out a sabbatical plan that focused on different areas of health. One area included physical health and I committed to getting a routine physical. I decided if the lump was still there during my physical, I’d have the physician assistant (PA) take a look at it. I went to this physical the first Monday back at work after sabbatical. The PA told me the lump was a swollen lymph node. He eventually sent me to get an ultrasound on my neck.
The ultrasound was inconclusive, so I had a CT scan. By this time I discovered another swollen lymph node in my right shoulder. The CT scan ruled out a viral cause, so a biopsy was required to determine the cause. At the end of September, a medical team took a biopsy from the lymph node in my right shoulder. They told me the results would take up to five business days.
I went to another church conference the following week at a camp in central Minnesota where I agreed to emcee. Between that job, the wonderful content at the conference and the beauty of central Minnesota during autumn, I almost forgot about the imminent results.
At the end of the first session, my cell phone went off in my pocket as I was closing the session in front of the conference. Once I finished, I went to my room to see who called. It was my PA: the initial results had come in. I called him back right away, and that’s when he told me, “You have lymphoma.”
I sat in my bunk feeling numb. What did he just say? I thought to myself. I searched “lymphoma” online to confirm what I already knew. I said it out loud in disbelief, “I have cancer.”
I decided to stay the night at the camp, finish emceeing two of the next three sessions and then leave the conference a little early to go home. That way, I could tell my wife before we picked up our four children from school.
She experienced the shock that most people felt when they found out my diagnosis, but with the intensity only a spouse can experience. I held her hand as we processed silently; she never really thought this outcome would be possible.
Until we found out more specifics about treatment and staging, we decided to only share the news with a close circle of family, friends and church leaders. We even waited to tell our kids. The next couple weeks included tests and waiting. I had a PET scan, an echocardiogram and a bone biopsy. We waited for the results.
Telling loved ones
On Wednesday, October 16, I picked up my kids from school and got takeout for dinner. While we were waiting in the van, I received a call from my oncologist. He told me I had stage four cancer. The cancer was throughout my lymphatic system and had started to enter my left collar bone. I was shocked.
My wife and I told our kids that evening. We gathered in our living room in front of the fireplace. I started the conversation reading a kid's devotional that reflected on Matthew 14:27, “But Jesus spoke to them at once. ‘Don't be afraid,’ He said. ‘Take courage. I am here!’” When I finally said, “I have cancer,” we all started to cry. We talked about our hope in Jesus Christ and we prayed together.
I also knew I needed to tell my congregation before I made this news public. I had been preaching through the book of Philippians, which provided an important framework for sharing this story with my congregation. That Sunday we cried, prayed and laughed (my dry humor is a coping mechanism).
The following Tuesday, I started my first of six treatments of chemotherapy. With each passing holiday—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years—I lost more hair and strength. At the start of 2020, I had two more treatments and a post-treatment PET scan. My oncologist shared the results with me at the beginning of March. “Complete response!” he said. I’ve been in remission ever since.
So on Thursday, March 12, I waited on the hospital bed for the surgery to remove my port—a device placed under my skin that was used to draw blood and give treatments. Getting the port removed marked the end of this battle and the beginning of a longer season of waiting to see if the cancer is going to return. I’m still in this season. And while that deeply personal season of grief and tumult led into a very communal season of anxiety and uncertainty, the things I learned in 2019 provided nourishment to feast on in 2020.
The significance of lament
Lament is a life-giving expression when facing a life-threatening situation. The enjoyment and grief of everyday life intensified during my battle with cancer. When my hair started to fall out with reckless abandon, I planned an evening “haircut” with a friend who cut my hair for years. She is a cancer survivor and understood my experience.
My wife and four young kids participated, with each person buzzing some of my hair. We tried different looks along the way: the 1900s mobster style as well as the 1980s mohawk before going all the way down to the Daddy Warbucks look. These moments gave me so much joy but also intense grief; I wondered, Are these the final memories I’m making with those I love? Why, Lord? Why is cancer threatening my life?
Lament is expressing grief and frustration because things are not as they ought to be. The world is broken and creation groans. Lament in Scripture is honest and authentic. Lament recognizes that we can bring anything to the Lord no matter how raw our grief or how difficult the experience.
Although many laments may sound like a person or community has lost their faith, in reality, lament is an expression of faith because it recognizes, in many instances, that the Lord is our ultimate source of comfort and hope.
In these moments, I joined the Psalmists and cried out in prayer:
“Do not hide your face from me when I am in distress. Turn your ear to me; when I call, answer me quickly. For my days vanish like smoke; my bones burn like glowing embers...But you, Lord, sit enthroned forever; Your renown endures through all generations.” Psalm 102:2-3,12
My days felt like they were vanishing like smoke, yet I knew God’s power and purposes did not vanish. Though cancer was in my body and chemo took my hair and energy, my family “will rejoice in the LORD, we will be joyful in God our Savior” (Hab 3:17-18, emphasis mine).
Although I’m in remission, I’m still lamenting. As Christians, we lament for a variety of reasons—poor health, injustices in the world or sins within the people of God—but they are all due to things being not as they ought to be. So I lament with my brothers and sisters in the African-American community when they witness another one of their sons or daughters killed in the streets. I lament the political idols of the left and the right that are blinding our eyes and deafening our ears. I lament the cracks in Christian unity by opinions about policies during a pandemic.
Yet God continues to sit enthroned forever. He will bring His justice, crush our idols and make His Church one according to His plan.
And yet, we rejoice
Rejoicing is always possible because in Christ both life and death are win-win situations. Each year our church chooses a theme for the ministry year. Going into the 2019-2020 ministry year, we chose “rejoice” because of the encouraging momentum in our ministry. Little did we know that we’d experience rejoicing in not only encouraging momentum but also unexpected personal suffering and global challenges.
Why can the apostle Paul write from prison, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4)? Because “to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). To continue living means “fruitful labor” for the glory of Christ (1:22). To die means to “be with Christ, which is better by far” (1:23). Both outcomes include Christ.
Paul did not face cancer but a potential execution while in prison for his faith. Nonetheless, his faith in Christ when facing the threat of death deeply resonates with me. For Christians, the fear and sting of death is taken away because we gain Christ no matter what. Christ is with me whether I beat cancer or I don’t.
If I live, then I’ll bear fruit in my numerous vocations as a husband, father, friend, volunteer, son, brother, pastor, etc. If I die, then I’ll enjoy the everlasting joy in the presence of Christ forever.
Our current moment is certainly challenging on many fronts. Our cities are restless, our lives are isolated, and our families and friendships are divided. Yet this present experience isn’t justification for a joyless church. We’re not only called to lament, but also to rejoice always because our source of joy, in life and death, is Jesus Christ.
The hope of the gospel
Hope is not a blissful ignorance during hard times. For Christians, it’s the confidence in the fulfillment of God’s promises in the future based on God’s actions in the past (Rom 8:24-25, Heb 11:1).
I remember circling Easter 2020 back in the fall of 2019. I finished chemotherapy right before the season of Lent started, and my oncologist said I was in remission right after Lent began.
The Ash Wednesday service was one of the final gatherings before everything shut down in 2020. In Minnesota, Easter 2020 landed during a stay-at-home order. My congregation, like others around the country, watched the service at home, and for good measure, the northern climate dumped over six inches of snow on Easter Sunday.
I didn’t experience Easter the way I pictured it. This season was supposed to be my comeback tour from cancer, not extended time social-distancing.
But here’s the truth: Jesus Christ died for our sins and raised from the grave. This was true when I was diagnosed with cancer and it was true when COVID-19 spread around the globe. It's true whether I continue in remission or relapse. It's true whether churches meet in their buildings or they don't. Circumstances don't change the truth. The truth brings stability when circumstances keep changing.
On this truth we put our hope: “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20).
It’s fitting for the church to celebrate Lent and Easter during spring. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is like the first tree that blossoms after winter. It may still feel like winter, and some storms may continue to dump snow, but spring will come. In Christ, the days will get longer and the world will burst forth with more life.
God is ruling, Jesus Christ is alive and the Holy Spirit is giving life to those who believe, creating the counter-cultural community of the church, and making all things new.
There is no better news to carry us through life’s most crushing seasons. I’m all in with the gospel. Are you?