Combat medics have always fascinated me. They are a rare breed that carry weapons in combat but tasked to provide help to those in need. They fight alongside their brothers in arms. Their guns are in the firefight until someone gets hit at which point they put their guns down in the midst of the battle to tend to their wounded comrades. Image that if you can. Bullets are flying and adrenalin is free flowing. The defense mechanism is pegged to fight; there is no running away. Someone gets shot and in an instant the mental arena switches from firefight to two brothers helping each other through the mess as chaos ensues around them. A medic will put down his means of defending himself to bring necessary treatment to sustain life at best or provide companionship in death at worst. When a medic is in the fight with you, you know you’re never alone.
According the Geneva Convention, if someone knowingly fires on a medic wearing an insignia (often the red cross) it is considered a war crime. Even though this protection exists for those combatants that adhere to the Geneva Convention, most combat medics decide to forgo the insignia in order to better support their brothers. If they wear the insignia, they can’t carry a weapon. If they choose not to, they can carry a weapon. Fight when they need to fight. Serve when they need to serve. Medics are mentally and physically as tough as they come.
Medics provide treatment without the benefit of sterile hospital environments. They provide surgeries without the benefit of case study or time for treatment analysis. They provide comfort in someone’s darkest hour. They offer a hand in moments of uncertainty. They’re with you until the chaos of battle subsides. In the direst moments of life they’re your best friend. They’re your family. They walk with you through the mess. They are physical representation of hope.
There is mention in the Bible of people called ‘repairers of the breach.’ A time in Israel’s story in which, after generations of exile in a foreign land they’re able to a return home only to find Jerusalem in shambles. The temple destroyed. The walls broken down. Means for worship and defense of the city didn’t exist. They were a weak nation exposed to anyone and everyone who didn’t want them to exist. Something had to be done and quick. As they begin to rebuild the walls they’re faced with opposition from the neighboring nations. They literally find themselves repairing the walls of the city with a tool in one hand and a sword in the other. These repairers of the breach were called to build and fight at the same time. I bet these guys would have made good medics.
I’ve never been in combat. I’ve never had to fight and repair at the same time. I don’t know what it’s like to have someone actively trying to kill me. I do have an enemy.
I also have a friend named Zach. I met him a few years back through a mutual friend when he was about 30 years old. We started to meet up for coffee and lunch on occasion. He’s the kind of guy that just shows up. I like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Zach lately. Reflecting on his story. Reflecting on his friendship. Reflecting on the hope Zach has.
I didn’t know Zach as a kid but from what I hear he was quite the character. Zach was a pretty funny kid, and extremely intelligent from what I gather. As a kid, he would tell you what he thought and love you in same breath. Zach’s as true and real as they come.
Zach’s story is a beautiful and challenging story to say the least. You see, Zach story really isn’t his story. If it was only a story about him it would be small. Zach’s story really is a much larger story that the God he loves, and who relentlessly loves him, speaks through his life.
Much like God’s story, Zach’s begins beautifully. During the pregnancy Zach’s parents, Ray and Sheila, found themselves in the hospital speaking to a doctor that told them they were going to lose Zach before he was ever born. There were complications with the pregnancy that were certain to lead to the loss of their first child. As Ray and Sheila prayed they surrendered Zach to Jesus with the realization that Zach wasn’t their child, he belonged to God. Zach was a gift. Peace that came with that truth was their comfort. By God’s grace they gave birth to a beautiful, healthy baby boy. Zach’s entry into this world started with surrender to God’s goodness and trust in Him.
Again, much like God’s story it’s not long until brokenness enters the picture. At four years old Zach became seriously ill. It was another opportunity for Ray and Sheila to surrender and trust. This trend of illness would repeat and God faithfully walked the family through those dark times. Zach’s parents demonstrated a trust and hope in God that is evident in Zach’s life and an anchor for him as he became an adult. His parents’ response to uncertainty became a foundation that Zach would build on as he faced uncertainty as an adult.
Intrigued by Zach’s story I asked him to write it down. Here’s what he sent me:
Three years ago, God, in a moment of perspective, led me to look over my life. What I saw was a string of checkpoints, plans, and dreams, all centered on me and what I wanted my life to look like. Many of them were good things, serving 30+ hours a week at church, leading a community group, biblical training, working hard at my career. But built into my life were guardrails; I’d given God permission to do with my life as he pleased as long as he stayed within them and took me through the checkpoints by my predetermined deadlines.
God brought me to this realization during a season of incredible closeness to Him as He miraculously answered every prayer and gave me a hunger for His word and intimacy with Him. He taught me to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance and put a love for Him and hope in His promises and grace that would serve as an anchor for my soul in the rough times ahead. (Not that I have obtained this or am perfect in it, but this is what He was teaching me and continues to teach me.) Looking back, I know that God gave me this season solely in grace, so that I could reflect on His goodness when my faith would be pushed to breaking.
“Look at your life, this is the American dream. There is so much more I have for you.” I couldn’t shake that feeling after reading through The Heavenly Man, a book about the sweeping power of the gospel as the house church in China was establish amidst great persecution in the 80s and 90s. I began to pray, “God give me a hard life, one that I will need you to live. Test the foundation of my life, bring the high waters so that what I haven’t built upon the rock will fall away. Refine me with fire into the image of Christ.”
This was difficult to pray. In this season God had been giving me prayers and answering them almost immediately. After I prayed, the Holy Spirit gave me a list of things to pray into God’s hands. In patience and gentleness God asked me to take down the guardrails on my life, though He certainly wasn’t constrained by them. I gave up the checkpoints I’d had my whole life: GPA, graduation, career, home, wife, family; and vowed that Christ was enough.
A knock on the door, a person I’d never seen before. God was going to answer my prayer, and He wasted no time in telling me. Angel or not, it doesn’t make much difference, the message was clear and the Holy Spirit confirmed it in my own heart. I had cancer and I needed to go see a doctor.
At the appointment, the doctor pretty much laughed at me. He said, ‘That’s ridiculous, if every person in your family had colon cancer we wouldn’t test you until you're 50.’” But he ran the tests. The results came. It was confirmed. I had colon cancer at 27.
Any semblance of a neat story ends here. Three years later I still have cancer. I’ve experienced emotional and physical pain and loss. Many have experienced and are experiencing worse than what I have and I look up to them. In the midst of cancer, I’ve had good days and bad, good months and bad years. I’ve found joy and beauty during some of the most painful parts and then rebelled and hated God during reprieves.
When asked what encouragement I could offer someone else in my shoes, I don’t think this goes over super well to say to people, but suffer well. It really is an opportunity. It’s so counterintuitive, but there’s an opportunity (in cancer) to grow so much more than you could without it. It’s silly to waste it. I have a palpable trust that God has a plan. And in the face of an undecided future, a good plan at that.
Perhaps the days God has allotted to me end with cancer, perhaps this is preparation for something else, or perhaps God is simply not content with sharing my heart, will, or obedience. And in love He won’t stop working on me until He has all of them. That I would be His and He would be mine, the God whose glory, mystery, and beauty infinitely outshine the sum of all that can found in all the universe.