by Kenon Neal
The holidays have a way of bringing to the surface our dreams and hopes, and often a more acute realization of our current state of happiness and fulfillment, longing, loss or suffering. I am thankful for the opportunity to share my experiences with suffering — and the great compassion that the Lord has shown me through our local community and more specifically the body of Christ at SBCC. It is a privilege to look back on His faithfulness and share a glimpse of dreams that are coming to fruition in our growing Compassion Ministry at SBCC.
Eugene Peterson, in a chapter he wrote titled Hope, shares his perspective that with suffering/waiting, there’s a boundary and God is there- but with hope, the boundary is boundless:
And this, of course, is why we are able to face, acknowledge, accept and live through suffering: we know that it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries…The ‘bottom’ has a bottom; the heights are boundless. Knowing that, we are helped to go ahead and learn the skills of waiting and watching and hoping – by which God has given room to work out our salvation and develop our faith while we fix our attention on his ways of grace and resurrection.
The ways of God are truly mysterious. I have the honor of saying I have seen His ‘ways of grace’ in amazing ways over the last twenty years. As a Westmont College student in the late eighties, I began attending SBCC. I never dreamed my life would be replete with examples of his tender presence and an immense dose of compassion expressed toward me through the body of Christ at SBCC — through the challenging opportunity of cancer. I do not choose this word lightly as this unusual opportunity can end in death or continued life with many challenges. Cancer can be an opportunity, and even a gift, as we have the unique privilege of watching God at work. In my life, opportunity times four. My first two cancer experiences (Hodgkin’s diagnosis — surgery and radiation, and a year later recurrence with intense chemotherapy over 10 months) were as a student finishing Westmont, and later working at Bethel College in Minnesota. I was young, and during the chemo treatments began dating my husband Matt. God provided a lightness and shield of love to help us deflect the daily trials. Two years later (in 1990) we moved back to Santa Barbara and prayerfully decided to embrace SBCC as our home church. The very next year my bone marrow began showing the effects of my prolonged treatments. In 1992 I was told that I was going through premature menopause — devastating for a couple who so strongly desired a large family.
A year later, my wonderful doctors at the Cancer Center discovered an over abundance of crowding white cells in my bone marrow and a dangerously low platelet count — I was headed toward leukemia and would need a bone marrow transplant to save my life. This was the season that brought our SBCC family literally to their knees on our behalf. Besides the overwhelming outpouring of prayer, blood donors began to make the journey to City of Hope, my home for three months. Nurses told me that there was quite a curiosity in the lab — they had never seen such a volume of individual blood donors for any one patient. It was a shining hour for our body as so many lived out what it means to lay down their lives for another- and I
was simply dumbfounded that the ‘another’ was me! During this season, my appreciation for our body deepened by leaps and bounds. It was no longer just the ‘church I attended’ — SBCC became a true family to Matt and I. Fast forward 13 years: through three adoptions and a move to Arizona and back. The past year has been another amazing opportunity to see God working through the body at SBCC. From the discovery of my lump — the night Matt Steele went to Heaven — to my diagnosis and surgery the week of Thanksgiving last year, the body of Christ has been beside our family. Several dear friends volunteered for significant roles: coordinating meals, gathering women to pray, caring for my children after school and during the day when Matt was out of town for work. Several men consistently checked in with Matt, taking him to lunch or coffee. Women created a plan to call me on the hard days of my treatment schedule- and drove me to appointments. Twelve dear friends rearranged their busy lives to sit with me one by one at during my twelve chemo days at the cancer center. The body of Christ- what a beautiful thing… Ephesians1:22 and 3:10-13 express the privilege we have as the church, the body of Christ, to display His glory:
And God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way… His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to His eternal purpose which He accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord. In Him and through faith in Him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. I ask you, therefore, not to be discouraged because of my sufferings… (emphasis mine)
These verses encourage me that the body, caring for itself and giving God the glory (the church expressing active compassion), is a testimony not only to the world around us- but even to the angels in heaven. I am so grateful to have experienced the compassion of the body of Christ in such a phenomenal way. I truly believe these offerings of kindness and care have given glory to our God! Recently He has inspired many at SBCC to be involved in the creation of a more formalized ‘Compassion Ministry.’ So far we have seen Him raise up a point person to oversee this ministry, Rosemary Maione, and a small group around her to develop structure designed to address needs as they come to our attention. We have a dream that those grieving and experiencing loss and extreme challenges will not walk alone. We desire to be the body in action — giving Glory to God, and testimony to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. There are many, many ways to be involved in the growing Compassion Ministry. Forms with areas of need were passed around the homegroups with opportunities to sign up in various ways. Offering your services in an area of your understanding will expand the base we have to offer those experiencing a variety of serious challenges. A few of the listed suggestions for help are: financial planning, meals, childcare, repairs and maintenance, hospital advocates, companions for walks/lunch, prayer partners… and, those familiar with depression, loss of hope, caring for elderly parents, sexual abuse issues, health challenges, unemployment, divorce, death of a loved one, troubled marriage, death of a child, parenting challenges,… etc.! We are so deeply grateful for the enormous blessing of receiving these helps over the many years of my cancer experiences. It is with great joy that I encourage the body to continue giving glory to God through active compassion. I Corinthians 12 is rich concerning our roles in the body of Christ. In verse 12:24-26 Paul encourages us,
But God has combined the members of the body… so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
As we suffer and rejoice with one another through the next season of life at SBCC, may we eagerly seek opportunities to be a funnel for His ways of grace in each other’s lives.