Suffering well: Pastor's faith tested by cancer

By Eric Gorski, The Associated Press

DALLAS — Matt Chandler doesn't feel anything when the radiation penetrates his brain. It could start to burn later in treatment. But it hasn't been bad, this time lying on the slab. Not yet, anyway.
Chandler's lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame rests on a table at Baylor University Medical Center. He wears the same kind of jeans he wears preaching to 6,000 people at The Village Church in suburban Flower Mound, where the 35-year-old pastor is a rising star of evangelical Christianity.

Another cancer patient Chandler has gotten to know spends his time in radiation imagining that he's playing a round of golf. Chandler on this first Monday in January is reflecting on Colossians 1:15-23, about the pre-eminence of Christ and making peace through the blood of his cross.

Chandler wears a mask with white webbing that keeps his head still as the radiation machine delivers the highest possible dose to what is considered to be fatal and incurable brain cancer.

This is Matt Chandler's new normal. Each weekday, he spends two hours in the car — driven from his suburban home to downtown Dallas — for eight minutes of radiation and Scripture.

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Chandler is trying to suffer well. He would never ask for such a trial, but in some ways he welcomes this cancer. He says he feels grateful that God has counted him worthy to endure it. He has always preached that God will bring both joy and suffering but is only recently learning to experience the latter.

Since all this began on Thanksgiving morning, Chandler says he has asked "why me?" just once, in a moment of weakness.

He is praying that God will heal him. He wants to grow old, to walk his two daughters down the aisle and see his son become a better athlete than he ever was.

Whatever happens, he says, is God's will, and God has his reasons. For Chandler, that does not mean waiting for his fate. It means fighting for his life.


Thanksgiving morning. Chandler pours himself a cup of coffee, feeds 6-month-old Norah a bottle and — as he is about to sit down — collapses in front of the fireplace.

Chandler has no recollection of the seizure. He bit through his tongue and punched a medic in the face.

At a hospital, Chandler gets a CT scan, followed by an MRI.

Not long afterward, the ER doctor delivers the news: "You have a small mass on your frontal lobe. You need to see a specialist."

It was Thanksgiving. Chandler had not seen his kids — Audrey, 7, Reid, 4, and the baby — for hours.

He had collapsed in front of them. For whatever reason, those grim words from a doctor he'd never met did not cause his heart to drop. What Chandler thought was, "OK, we'll deal with that." Getting the news meant he could go home.


Chandler can be sober and silly, charming and tough. He'll call men "bro" and women "mama." He drives a 2001 Chevy Impala with 144,000 miles and a broken radio. He calls it the "Gimpala"

One of Chandler's sayings is, "It's OK to not be OK — just don't stay there."

Chandler's long, meaty messages untangle large chunks of Scripture. His challenging approach appeals, he believes, to a generation looking for transcendence and power.

His theology teaches that all men are wicked, that human beings have offended a loving and sovereign God, and that God saves through Jesus' death, burial and resurrection — not because people do good deeds. In short, Chandler is a Calvinist, holding to a belief system growing more popular with young evangelicals.

Chandler grew up a military kid, moving around the country until landing in Galveston, Texas. He was taught that Christianity meant not listening to secular music or seeing R-rated movies. His views began to change when a high school football teammate started talking about the Gospel.

After college Chandler became a fiery evangelist who led a college Bible study and traveled the Christian speaking circuit. He was hired from another church in 2002 at age 28 to lead what is now The Village Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that claimed 160 members at the time.

The church now meets in a renovated former grocery store with a 1,430-seat auditorium; two satellite campuses are flourishing in Denton and Dallas, and Chandler speaks to large conferences.

"What Matt does works because it resonates with the deep longing of the soul the average person can't even identify," said Anne Lincoln Holibaugh, the church's children's ministry director.


Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Chandler and his wife, Lauren, meet with Dr. David Barnett, chief of neurosurgery at Baylor University Medical Center.

The weekend had brought hope: A well-meaning church member who is a radiologist looked at Matt's MRI and concluded the mass was encapsulated, or contained to a specific area.

But Barnett delivers very different news. He saw what appeared to be a primary brain tumor — meaning a tumor that had formed in the brain — that was not contained. It had branches.

Chandler is facing brain surgery. He schedules it for that Friday, Dec. 4.

Questions start to haunt him. Am I going to wake up and be me? Am I going to wake up and remember Lauren?

The surgery begins around 2 p.m. A biopsy determines that it is, indeed, a primary brain tumor.

As far as Chandler knows, there is no history of cancer in his family. His tumor, like most others, was likely caused by a genetic abnormality, Barnett says.

The surgeon is aggressive, pushing to remove as much of the mass as possible.

"You cannot be a timid neurosurgeon when you deal with these things," Barnett says later. "Your first shot is your best shot at treating this."

Seven hours after entering surgery, Chandler is wheeled to intensive care.

He wakes to Barnett's voice.

"Matt ... Matt ... Who am I?"

He knows the answer. Relief. His left side is numb. His facial expressions are frozen and his voice has no pitch, what doctors call a "flat affect."

This is all good, leading Barnett to believe he pushed hard but not too hard.

Each day after the surgery, Chandler gets better, stronger.

"The first four days were just ... not scary, but hard," Lauren says. "I'm wondering, 'How much of this will stay? ... How much of this will be the new normal?'"

Tuesday after surgery. Barnett meets with Lauren and Brian Miller, chairman of the church's elder board. Barnett tells them the tumor was malignant. Such tumors send tiny fingers of cells beyond their borders — and eventually a branch will reach back and grow another brain tumor, Barnett says.

Barnett asks Lauren and Miller to keep the diagnosis to themselves for a week so Matt can concentrate fully on recovering from surgery.

On Dec. 15, Barnett shares the pathology results with the Chandlers. Tumors are designated by grade — with Grade 1 being the least aggressive and Grade 4 being the most.

Chandler's tumor is a Grade 3.

The average life expectancy, Barnett says, is two to three years. The doctor says he believes Chandler will live longer because of the aggressive surgery, treatment and Chandler's otherwise good health. There's also a chance the cancer goes into remission for years.

Before the meeting ends, Matt prays that his children and others do not grow resentful.

"Lord, you gave this to me for a reason. Let me run with it and do the best I can with it."

Chandler says learning he had brain cancer was "kind of like getting punched in the gut. You take the shot, you try not to vomit, then you get back to doing what you do, believing what you believe.

"We never felt — still have not felt — betrayed by the Lord or abandoned by the Lord. I can honestly say, we haven't asked the question, 'Why?' or wondered, 'Why me, why not somebody else?' We just haven't gotten to that place. I'm not saying we won't get there. I'm just saying it hasn't happened yet."

Later, Chandler clarified that. There was one moment when he saw a picture on a Christmas card of a man who chronically cheated on his wife and thought, "Why not that guy?" He says it was wicked to think that.


Monday, Jan. 4, a month after surgery. Morning breaks with Reid singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." Chandler sits at his laptop in the dining room, nursing a cup of green tea.

He's preparing to drive to a clinic for an infusion of Vitamin C to bolster the immune system, followed by radiation in downtown Dallas. He's in the midst of a six-week program of radiation and chemotherapy, to be followed by a break and more treatment.

Chandler never thought such a trial would shake his faith. But until now, that was just hope.

"This has not surprised God," Chandler says on the drive home. "He is not in a panic right now trying to figure out what to do with me or this disease. Those things have been warm blankets, man."

Chandler has, however, wrestled with the tension between belief in an all-powerful God and what he can do about his situation. He believes he has responsibilities: to use his brain, to take advantage of technology, to walk in faith and hope, to pray for healing and then "see what God wants to do."

"Knowing that if God is outside time and I am inside time, that puts some severe limitations on my ability to crack all the codes," he says.

Chandler has preached the last two weekends and is planning trips to South Africa and England. He lost his hair to radiation but got a positive lab report last week and feels strong.

"If he suffers well, that might be the most important sermon he's ever preached," said Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church and a friend of Chandler's.

Chandler is drinking life in — watching his son build sandcastles at the park, preaching each sermon as if eternity is at stake — and feeling a heightened sense of reality.

"It's carpe diem on steroids," he says.

At the dinner table on the sixth day of radiation, new normal looks like this: Reid in Spiderman pajamas. Peanut butter and jelly dipped in honey for the kids, turkey chili for the adults.

And peppermint ice cream.

It is a diaper changed, dishes done.

Matt Chandler takes his chemo pills and goes to bed, grateful for another day.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Spiritual LIfe: The Foundation of Preaching by Westerhoff

The purpose of this short paper is to provide the reader with background information about John H Westerhoff, author of Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, a short summary of the book, and an evaluation of his work.

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Westerhoff can best be described as a theologically liberal religious educator and Episcopalian priest who really loves God, his parish and all of creation. His early life and education significantly contributed to who Westerhoff is as a professor and author. Westerhoff graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology in 1955 from a liberal arts college. During Westerhoff’s time in college, he organized and led a small group of skeptics seeking to know religious truth. Sensing God’s call in his life for vocational ministry, Westerhoff attended Harvard Divinity School and received a Masters of Divinity degree. Concerning this time at Harvard, Paul Bramer writes:
There he was exposed to influential professors from a broad spectrum of the Christian faith and theological disciplines. From Paul Tillich in particular he learned a dialectical approach to thinking and he reconciled his internal civil wars between faith and doubt, commitment and openness, reasoning and intuiting, practice and theory, by affirming the paradoxical and complex nature of much of truth and life.

There is no question that this “broad spectrum” has continued to influence Westerhoff through his life.
After graduating from Harvard, Westerhoff worked within the United Church of Christ (UCC) for several years in various positions. On staff with the UCC, he traveled around the world interviewing people in religious and secular education while writing articles on how the church could improve spiritual formation in its parishioners. Bramer states that “Ivan Illich reinforced Westerhoff’s skepticism about traditional schooling” and “Paulo Freire persuaded him of the need for liberation theology and pedagogy.” Westerhoff went on to serve at Duke University’s Divinity School. After a twenty year career and numerous books, he retired as Professor of Theology and Christian Nurture. In 1978, he became an Episcopalian priest where, according to Westerhoff, he could embrace both the "Catholic substance and the Protestant principle." He then went on to found an institute for pastoral studies at St. John’s Episcopalian Church and presently serves as an associate priest and theologian in residence at St. Anne’s Church in Atlanta Georgia.

Westerhoff is convinced that pastors, lay preachers, and church-school teachers can take their preaching and discipleship ministry to a level of excellence they have never experienced before by significantly increasing their focus on the development of their spiritual life through certain spiritual disciplines involving themselves, all people, and most importantly—God (Westerhoff 1994, xi, 1). After a brief introduction as to why Westerhoff felt the need to write Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching, he goes into a chapter discussion of the spiritual life. Then he goes into a presentation as to why this is a new day in preaching and teaching and follows this with two chapters on spirituality in preaching and teaching. Finally, he closes with application.
In “Exploring the Spiritual Life,” Westerhoff explains the relationship between one’s relationship with God, others and themselves. For example, he writes about the ridiculousness of saying my relationship with God is fine while one is displaying behavior that is prejudicial or another is refusing to be reconciled to a brother in Christ (Ibid., 2). He stresses that all of life must be viewed as spiritual, but that spiritual life has two dimensions…a physical dimension and a nonphysical dimension (Ibid., 3). The importance of one’s view of God is presented with an emphasis on the intimacy Christians should be experiencing with God. Then in chapter 2, Westerhoff presents his case that spiritual life is the basis or “foundation” for preaching and teaching (Ibid., 15). He argues that in the past, unpacking a biblical passage from a historical-critical method may have been acceptable, but it will not work in this new day and age. He argues that the Christian tradition is not just about doctrine, but about life—all of life—calling for a balance between the intellectual and intuitional aspects of life (Ibid., 21). He says that the imagination is the basis for one’s spiritual life and calls for preaching and teaching to engage the imagination (lbid., 25).
Two chapters are packed with the importance of the spiritual life for anyone who holds up the Bible and speaks for God. Westerhoff tells a lot of stories to make his case. He emphasizes the importance of silence, solitude, paying attention to the restlessness of life, and stresses the importance of living in a community that views its members as a reflection of God (Ibid., 37). He puts weight upon continuing to be a learner and challenges his reader to consider if anyone is really learning anything when they preach or teach, or are they merely regurgitating information (Ibid., 42-43). He closes the chapter with the importance of modeling.
Then Westerhoff focuses on the practical development of the spiritual life in two chapters devoted toward application. He puts a premium on the spiritual balance between schools of spirituality, religious orders, and denominations—for they are all part of the entire body of Christ (Ibid., 63). Westerhoff believes that a combination of prayer, reading scholarly works, and exercise is an excellent balance. He provides some very encouraging words of advice on how to start small and move into a more significant regiment of spiritual disciplines balancing prayer, study, work and leisure. He stresses worship, community, and simplicity of life with deep compassion for others (Ibid., 74). Then in a short conclusion, he pleads for revival in the church through the spiritual renewal of those who teach and preach to all the people of God.

What one’s worldview is will determine whether or not Westerhoff made his case that the spiritual life of the man is the foundation of his preaching or teaching ministry. If one subscribes to the existence of absolute truth and verbal inspiration of the Word of God as the supreme authority in the life of the believer, then he may struggle with Westerhoff’s theological liberalism and argue with his failure to make his case from a biblical perspective. However, if a reader is open to the Bible as another good piece of literature, then he will most likely embrace Westerhoff’s perspective as an appropriate alternative to the Bible being the foundation for preaching and teaching.
In so much as theological liberals love God and desire to reflect his love to all of creation, Westerhoff’s work is full of great points of value to any disciple seeking to grow in their relationship with Christ. Westerhoff properly stresses the importance of reflecting the vertical relationship with God in the horizontal plane we live upon with other humans also made in the image of God. He rightly stresses the importance of not living in a state of hypocrisy and duplicity. It would be hard to deny that the importance of being real, as a spiritual being, is of critical importance to the effectiveness of one’s pulpit ministry, but that is not what Westerhoff says—he takes it a step further. He makes one’s spiritual life of greater importance than doctrine. In fact, he struggles greatly with what he classifies as dogmatism and states that “a heresy is a truth taken too far” (Ibid., 54). In this definition, Westerhoff gives away his liberal bias. For example, one could easily wonder how you could take the exclusivity of Christ, as the only way to God the Father too far. However, if the Word of God is not the foundation for preaching and teaching, then the foundation becomes a moving target.
By Westerhoff’s tremendous reliance upon establishing the authority for his position from non-biblical sources, one should not be surprised by the absence of scripture references through a book that is supposed to improve the preacher’s spiritual life. Instead, Westerhoff suggests that reading scholarly books for one hour a day is a vital component to spiritual development, but he does not mention or give a particular time to reading the Bible (Ibid., 66). He does not mention a daily reading plan. While he does stress the importance of journaling, a very valuable discipline, he states that it is more important to record one’s conversation with God than what one got out of his reading of the Word of God. While respecting his position on the importance of not reading the Bible like a textbook, one may wonder what makes his position different from a charismatic perspective in which experience trumps everything else.
Westerhoff rejects the idea that there is only one correct interpretation with multiple applications in every text. He suggests that a singular perspective is a relatively new thing—post nineteenth century. He is more than willing to take parables and change what the symbols represent contrary to the Word of God. He suggests the seeds that Jesus spoke about could be a Christian’s life, but he does not explain the legitimacy of such a position (Ibid., 70-71). Yet Jesus is very specific in identifying the seed as the Word of God (Matthew 13). If the spiritual life is the foundation for preaching, one can be very free to change what the text says to support the objective of the sermon, but if one is committed to exegeting the text, it will be very hard to make the spiritual life “king” with the text subordinate to the experience. Or, in another example of this upside down perspective, Westerhoff suggests that the usual understanding of the Song of Solomon can be reversed and God can be made the bride and the believer the groom. Then he writes, “imagine …God is about to enter into intimate lovemaking with you” (73). This is in fact, one of the effects of not having the Bible as the foundation to preaching and teaching. The author reveals the freedom to alter the text during the sermon from the willingness he presents in a work about setting the conditions for improving one’s preaching ministry.
While Westerhoff’s work is packed full of valuable and important points that can be sifted through when viewed with the lens of a biblical worldview, the book has limited value to anyone other than those already bent on rejecting the supremacy of the Bible in preaching or those whose worldview cannot be altered by a cleverly written book full of quotes from scholars. This book could really confuse a young Bible college student who does not understand that the biblical text must be “king” when preaching or teaching, or a Pandora’s Box of anything and everything is opened every time one says, “thus says the Lord.” One has only to examine the Word Faith Movement of Copeland, Hagin, Osteen etc. to see what happens when any preacher can say, “The Lord gave me a word for you.” Yet, even the most conservative pastors can benefit from some of Westerhoff’s points about the importance of having a partner to grow with in one’s walk with the Lord (Ibid., 69). His recommendation of establishing a routine and sticking to the routine, including turning the phone off for an hour of prayer, is a suggestion that both conservatives and liberals can agree upon (Ibid.,66). Likewise, his insistence upon finding a balance between daily prayer, study, work and leisure is a reminder that every vocational pastor/teacher should be reminded of often (Ibid., 74). Finally, who can argue with the premium Westerhoff puts upon God and one’s relationship with God, yet one may wonder why references to Christ were so absent. Could it be that Westerhoff is not that insistent upon the exclusivity of Christ?

Bramer, Paul. Talbots School of Theology. “Listing of Christian Educators,” [accessed March 28, 2010].

Westerhoff, John H. Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.

Westerhoff, John H., III. “A Journey into Self-understanding.” In Marlene Mayr (Ed.), Modern masters of religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press, 1983.