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When an Icy Storm Grips Your Life…

Recently, in an exchange with a friend who is going through a trial, he mentioned the introduction of “Off Script”—the book I wrote during my cancer battle seven years ago. To identify with what he referred to, I re-read the introduction. So many years removed, I marvel at God’s work of grace through that perplexing season of life.

The first thing that jumped off the page was the word “snowflakes!” I laughed at how God so subtly foreshadowed how very many millions of snowflakes would be a part of my future life and ministry, in large part due to cancer.

Reading that introduction reminded me of so many hurting people that I know and love; who I wish I could read these words into their present suffering or trial. So, I decided to post this, in hopes that perhaps you or someone you know would gain a different perspective on what’s hurting you right now.

I pray these words will encourage and strengthen you…

Sincerely,

Cary
____________________________

January 2011

Snowflakes fall just outside my window—gently, silently, beautifully finding their rest upon gradually growing rows of white. Sun has set. Temperatures have dropped. A new year has dawned; the house is quiet. I am alone as I write these words. This is a Sunday night like I’ve never experienced. Normally for my life—the only script I’ve known—I would be in church.

Tonight happens to be “Vision Night”—the first Sunday night of the new year. My role, usually, is to be immersed with the team in the energy, the spirit, and the development of this exciting service—from planning, to media, to special music, to new year goals. But not this time. For the first time in twenty-one years, I am removed from this script. It moves on without me. It’s surreal.

This night is beautiful but cold. It’s snowing in the desert. Outside my window is a wonderland of snow on an icy evening. A paradox. A conflict. The child in me wants to don wintery clothing and rush into the billowing flakes with innocent abandon. The more rational adult in me feels the cold, the wet, the dark—the starkness of the elements, the dangers of the night, the unknowns of the storm. Part of me wants to laugh and play in the beauty of the snow, but part of me wants to stay safe and close to a warm fire and forget about the bitter cold just outside.

And such is my life. Beautiful, but cold at the moment. Storming outside, but warm inside. Outside it is stark, cloudy, dangerous, and risky—leading to unknown outcomes. Just outside of my reach—beyond anything I can control—life has become messy and icy. It has become wintery gray. But that’s not the whole picture. There’s a certain beauty here as well. There’s something inviting, something of sovereignty, grace, strength, and purpose etched in patterned snowflakes that fall on my soul.

The sky is falling, but beautifully so. There’s a warmth, a glow, an embrace that shelters me from the raging storm that God has ordained. And sheltered from the storm, there are beautiful moments, incredible relationships, blessed details that infuse my life from every direction. I couldn’t ask for a greater blizzard of blessings on a cold winter night.

Hence, the paradox—winter and snow. Winter: cold, icy, and treacherous at times. Snow: light, beautiful, and even delightful.

The storm is cancer. The diagnosis and the present treatments and side-effects have descended upon my life, family, and ministry like an unexpected winter storm—in many ways sequestering me and holding me hostage from the life I have known for a long time. Unpredictable has become the norm.

In the storm, I wrestle with things beyond my control. I wrestle with feeling removed from the “doing” of ministry. I wrestle with feeling useless to those around me. I wrestle with the remaining months of difficult treatments ahead. I wrestle with knowing there are no guarantees of outcomes—no certainty of healing, no promise of remission, no assurance that cancer will never return. I wrestle with the sadness of being a burden to others. I wrestle with not being able to participate with my church family in normal body life. I wrestle with having no energy and not being able to function normally during treatment weeks. I wrestle with concern for my wife Dana and my children. I wrestle with even dreaming about the future—will I be here for it? I wrestle with this wintery experience of life.

I wrestle, not with a bad attitude or wrong spirit, but with the unfamiliar nature of these experiences. I can’t say that I like them. I accept them, but each of them, in their own way, wraps their ghoulish arms around my spirit attempting to wrench my heart away from faith and hope. They may attempt, but by God’s grace, they will not succeed.

Inside, safe from the storm, near the warmth of the fire, I do not wrestle. I rest. In God’s presence, with the warmth of His grace and the strength of His embrace, there is no wrestling. The uncertainty remains. The elements remain. Circumstances beyond my control continue. The questions remain unanswered. The trial remains unabated. The future remains uncertain and gray. But near the heart of God, everything is different.

It is His sovereignty that makes the difference.

The storm is in His hand. The flakes fall from His fingers. The cold comes from His control. The struggle streams from His sovereign plan. And He is good.

We all have a script for our lives. It resides in our minds and hearts—perhaps a good bit in our imaginations. And we’re generous to ourselves there. Things are good in our script. Stuff works out. Events unfold in our favor. Circumstances are easily manipulated in our minds. In a human sense, it may be fantasy. In a more biblical sense, it may be hope and vision. Either way, in our hearts, we usually don’t daydream about the trials we will one day face. No one gets sick, people don’t die, nothing bad happens in our mental screenplays. Our scripts are predictable and positive, and sanitized of trouble.

And, in God’s good grace, He often allows much of what we envision to actually happen. A lot of what you planned last week, last month, or last summer probably came to pass. The majority of your script probably unfolded just as you wrote it.

But if we’re honest with our hearts, we know that a trouble-free script is not realistic. Every now and then, God takes our lives off script. He reaches into our circumstances with events we never imagined and factors we would never choose. He leads us into intersections where the path of our expectations collides with the path of His choosing—places where He doesn’t follow our predetermined dreams.

These unexpected adventures are often alarming, painful, uncomfortable, and scary. Sometimes we think of them as detours. We immediately start strategizing how we can get back onto our own script. At other times, the irreversible events that unfold make returning to our script entirely impossible. But these off script journeys are anything but detours, for they are intricately a part of His script—His heart and purpose for our lives.

Recently, God took my life suddenly off script. The coming chapters will describe how He has done so in more detail. I would have never expected to be writing these words from this place. Frankly, it’s bizarre. There’s a part of my human logic that still has a hard time wrapping my brain around the word “cancer” and all of its implications—both short term and long term. My script would have never unfolded as the last few months have, and as the future seems to be. And yet, like a winter storm, there are elements of both struggle and strength, burden and blessing, trouble and triumph in this place of uncertainty.

When God takes our lives off script (and He does with all of us eventually) we enter a most unusual paradox. Hardship and storms either flatten us or fortify us. They become catalysts that thrust us in one of two directions—closer to God and forward in growth in His grace, or further from God in doubt and despair. Off script seasons teach us much, reveal in us even more, and call us to deeper and different living. These are not trivial times. They are pivotal. They are defining moments, and their implications are huge!

These pages flow from the midst of an off script life. The raw experience of sickness and uncertainty is ever present and very real. I write with no certainty of the outcome and no knowledge of where this journey is leading—what kind of struggle, medical procedures, test results, or physical developments lie ahead. This is the middle—or perhaps, the very beginning—of the trial. It’s far from over.

And it’s from this position that I hope these words will be an encouragement to your life. If your world has gone awry, if your life is off script, perhaps together we can discover God’s heart, God’s joy, and God’s truth in the fog of an uncertain reality. If your life hasn’t gone off script, perhaps these chapters will prepare you for the moment that it does. Either way, I’m choosing intentionally to write from within the trial. Why?

First, because so many of God’s servants did so with raw and unvarnished reality. Much of God’s Word speaks to us from the middle of His children’s trials. We will see some of these passages up close.

Second, because I have no guarantee that I will be able to write “after the trial”—whenever and if ever that may be.

Third, because right now the trial is very fresh and real. The presence of God is more so! The place where God has led me in recent months is abundant with both hurt and hope, struggle and strength, and I’d like to share what He is teaching me.

Finally, because speaking from the midst of my light affliction, I can be a bit bolder to speak to you in the midst of yours, and challenge you in ways that God is challenging me.

Providential Pause

Outside, the snow is no longer falling. The night is quiet and still. The landscape is draped in white, and the night glows with a radiance of peace and solitude. The storm that was, now holds the night in a still, ghostly blanket. It’s as if the sky is holding its breath, awaiting instructions. It’s as if the world is wondering “what next?”

Will the night last forever? Will the icy hold remain unchanged through the morning? Or will the warm rays of the morning sun instruct the night freeze to break its chains? How long will this icy pause last? How long before spring blossoms with new life and energy?

How long? God knows how long—and that is enough. He has ordained the winter. He has chosen the cold. He has called the storm. It’s really up to Him. As long as He desires. As long as He requires. As long as it takes Him to accomplish His purposes. Winter is in His hands, and thankfully I am too.

So I accept this pause—this life that has gone wildly off script. Having no idea what God is really doing, where I am, or where I’m headed, I admire the artistry of God’s paradoxical power—the beauty of His grace and majesty, unveiled amidst the coldness of a wintery trial.

Just outside my window are bare-limbed trees covered in layers of white flakes. At the tips of every limb is a tiny bulb—a blossom waiting to open. But those blossoms are held hostage. The winter has enfolded them and refuses their potential. But they are there. Waiting. Patient. And they give evidence of new life and growth in the days ahead. About the time I’m done writing this book, those bulbs will be beautifully blossoming in the sun-filled arms of spring.

Even so, I belong to a God who has filled my life with bountiful, abundant, innumerable blessings that are now held like expectant blossoms in a still white blanket of cold interruption. Suspended. Halted. Awaiting instructions. I look forward to spring, but for now life is blessedly halted. Graciously interrupted by Divine interlude. Suspended by nothing less than the hand of God. Held in a providential pause that is dark and cold, but also in a sovereign hand that is good and gracious.

And so I resolve to rest. I choose to trust. I determine to walk this wintery path, hoping for spring but marveling in the midnight.

This is not the script I imagined. This is not the script I was writing. This is not the script I hoped for. But this is the script my Father has ordained for my life.

(Excerpted from the introduction of the Book “Off Script.”)

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