Three words changed my life: “You have cancer.”
I can still feel my doctor’s steady gaze as he presented the pathology report. I was blindsided. How could this be? To say it was a shock is an understatement. I had just moved to Maryland, started a new job, and was settling into a new life. A lingering cough and a routine wellness exam led to a bevy of tests culminating in that moment. Upon hearing the diagnosis, friends and family offered encouragement: “Treatment options are excellent now” or “Don’t worry, you’re young. You’ll be fine!” While I heard these words, they didn’t bring any peace.
I remember one stressful cycle of coming home after a full day at work, getting on the computer and searching for hours, looking up every word from the test results and pathology reports; reading research about life expectancies, survival rates, and various treatment options; and the stories of other people. I learned that in the United States, one in eight women are diagnosed with breast cancer yearly. Globally, the disease represents one in four cancers, surpassing lung cancer. In women under 45 years of age, breast cancer is more common in Black women, who are also more likely to die from the disease. A person’s risk doubles if he or she has a first-degree relative (a mother or a sister) who has had breast cancer. For 85 percent of the 2.3 million who will be diagnosed globally, though, there is no family history. As a Black woman under age 45 with a strong family history of cancer, I checked several boxes.
I became obsessed with reading the stories of others. I remember diligently following one particular blogger as she navigated her diagnosis. Her candid stories, upbeat and captivating, sparked hope. For several months her words gave me courage until I came upon a final post, written not by her but by a family member, thanking all of her followers for their concern and prayers. She had succumbed to the disease. I was crushed.
Inundated with scans, biopsies, blood tests, surgeries, treatment options, and volumes of information on the Internet, I could not shut down the worry, anxiety, and stress. As a result, I couldn’t sleep or be at peace. I needed to find a way to continue to trust God. And so it was during this dark, uncertain period that I replaced the three words that scared me, “You have cancer,” with three words that encouraged me as I moved through this difficult time: prayer, praise, and promises.
THE POWER OF PRAYER
One evening, I confided in a dear friend that I was having difficulty concentrating while praying. I would begin to pray, and all these worries and worst-case scenarios would flood my mind. She said, “Don’t worry. I’m praying for you,” and proceeded to offer a heartfelt prayer over the telephone. It might seem like such a simple thing, but her prayer shifted the atmosphere for me. I remember listening to her words and realizing that all I had to do at that moment was agree with her words as she interceded on my behalf. There is power in intercessory prayer, and on that evening, I experienced it firsthand. Matthew 18:10 records the words of Jesus saying, “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you.” This is a powerful promise from the Intercessor Himself, Jesus. We learn in Romans 8:34 that Jesus “is at the right hand of God interceding for us”; in 1 John 2:1, we learn that He is our “Advocate with the Father”; and in Hebrews 7:25, that He lives to intercede for each one of us. He extends to us this same privilege to pray with and for each other.
Writing down my prayers also helped me focus my thoughts. My sister reminded me, “Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend. . . . Prayer does not bring God down to us, but brings us up to Him.” She said, “Listen to me, you need to shut down that computer and write a letter to God.” So, I turned off my computer and began writing my prayers in a prayer journal. Some journal entries were long, some short. Some were hopeful, and others were angry and filled with frustration. The writing process allowed me to put the dark thoughts down on paper and clear them from my mind. Reading these many years later, I can see God’s hand at work in a very tangible way during that dark period. Many of the things I worried about never happened. However, this is not always the case: sometimes, our worst fears come true. What do we do when this happens? How do we, as Christiansliving in a decaying, sin-ravaged world, face the challenges and crucibles that are sure to come?
PRAISE THROUGH SONG
We are encouraged to praise and reminded that in everycircumstance, God is with us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you” (Isa. 43:2). We have confidence in Jesus’ words: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13).
Sometimes, words like “praise” and “give glory” are used so often that they lose their meaning. What does praising God and giving Him glory look like in tough times? Cultivating a spirit of praise is not easy when things go opposite to what we anticipate. One author, Gavin Anthony, offers a practical suggestion: “Write down a short list of what [we] know to be the truth about God. Go through the list and praise God for each item.”And, as we reflect on these truths, we’re encouraged to consider how our feelings may change about our situation.
It was uplifting to thank those around me--the chaplains who sat and prayed with me after that first three-hour surgery and the follow-up 10-hour one; the hospital and oncology nurses; and the various physicians who managed my care.
For me, music and singing had always been a big part of my praise experience. I love music—playing, singing, listening—all of it. But as a music lover, I found it difficult to sing or even listen to music: when I did, it triggered bouts of sadness. Sitting in silence was not an option either since my mind would just gravitate to my worries once more in the quiet stillness. So I had to make a conscious decision, moment by moment, to praise God for what He would allow; in line with my prayers or not, I had to decide to trust God’s will. I found that listening to energetic, upbeat music kept me hopeful. J. Carl Laney, in “Cultivating a Spirit of Thankfulness,” says that to cultivate a spirit of praise, one must “acknowledge the sovereignty of God, appreciate everyday things, maintain proper perspective, and recognize that God has given us more than we deserve.”
Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name!” In addition to thanking God for being God in the situation, it was uplifting to thank those around me--the chaplains who sat and prayed with me after that first three-hour surgery and the follow-up 10-hour one; the hospital and oncology nurses; and the various physicians who managed my care. Writing notes and delivering them was cathartic. This spirit of gratitude was also extended to family members, friends, and co-workers who prayed, called, and visited since each encounter provided an opportunity to praise and thank God for His care during a difficult time.
Within a few months, I rejoined my local church choir and resumed singing with a community of believers. Researchers from Oxford University focusing on the mood-boosting effects of choral music found that full-throated joyful noises (specific reference to amateur, non-professional singers), can do so much for the immune system. Within a choir setting, a rich social bonding takes place and increases feelings of well-being; singing with others also improves breathing, posture, and memory. In some studies, the act of singing releases tense muscles and can reduce pain by increasing positive neurochemicals such as beta-endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Singing significantly improved my healing journey.
Yet, as the psalmist asked, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange and foreign land” (Ps. 137:4)? As exiles on this earth, we face sickness, both physical and mental; death and loss; economic crises; increased crime; global and national conflicts; and a host of crises. Like the exiles of Israel, we only know this crumbling world. We must place our hope in a future that we can only trust exists.
The truth is that we can engage in many practical activities to help guide us through difficult circumstances; we can steel our minds and make conscious decisions to trust and praise God. These are all excellent steps, but ultimately, it is God’s supernatural power that gives abiding peace, the courage to face trials, and confident assurance through each circumstance. We must exercise faith beyond what our eyes can see: “Now faith is the confidence in what we hope for and the assurance about what we do not see” (Heb. 11:1). We must believe that God is and that He is true to his word.
STANDING ON HIS PROMISES
The promises in God’s Word are a sure and constant source of strength. There are two guarantees in this life: First, we will face difficult times, and second, we can stand on God’s promises to walk us through it all. In Psalm 23:4, we are reminded that, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me; and, in Isaiah 41:10, we are told, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isa. 41:10).
PEACE AND STRENGTH FOR THE FUTURE
Throughout my bout with cancer, prayer, praise, and God’s promises helped me find peace in the assurance that Jesus has conquered sin and its many consequences. Jesus said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). What a great comfort and reminder!
We can also participate by strengthening each other as God strengthens us: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:3-6). I pray that we find opportunities to strengthen each other and those who cross our paths—in the grocery store, at the gas station, or wherever we may find ourselves—with words of encouragement, the simple act of presence, or by “speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (Eph. 5:9).
Faith-Ann McGarrell is the editor of The Journal of Adventist Education. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Thirty-nine years ago I entered the fourthgrade at a small Seventh-day Adventist school. It was late September, several weeks after the official start of the school year.
My parents had just moved our family from Georgetown, Guyana, to a quiet, rural town in the midwest United States—from the equator to what felt like the Arctic.
Being a shy child, I did not readily adapt to the new school setting. My teachers were kind and I kept up with my work; but as one would imagine, I experienced culture shock in this my first Adventist school. As each day passed, I knew I could count on one person: Mr. G. Although not my homeroom teacher, Mr. G somehow knew my name and would merrily greet me whenever our paths crossed with a hearty “And how is Faith-Ann this morning?”
This simple act made me feel welcome when navigating the transition to a new culture seemed overwhelming, and I was certain I would never adjust.
I soon learned that Mr. G’s whole heart was intertwined with his students—from the quiet ones to those who had much to say. In Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, Ellen White notes that Christ in His ministry always remembered the children: “His large heart of love could comprehend their trials and necessities.”1 And in True Education, “[Teachers]. . . should possess not only strength but breadth of mind; they should be not only whole-souled but large-hearted.”2 Mr. G made it his mission to be “large-hearted” and “whole-souled” with his time, interest, and resources.
As part of what is now known as the Pathfinder Investiture Achievement program, I would later volunteer in Mr. G’s classroom—emptying trash cans, vacuuming, cleaning the chalkboards and erasers, and grading spelling and math quizzes. During the eight years that I either volunteered or worked as a reader in his classroom, he often “volunteered” me for activities I would not have pursued on my own, such as working in the school’s main office during the summer, answering the telephone, assisting with registration, and tutoring. His favorite cheer was: “I know you can do it!”
It is more than prestige and status in a given community or enjoying the perks of the profession.
When asked what I would study in college, I presented several choices, to which he chuckled and said, “I think you’re going to be a teacher.”
I, of course, disagreed.
My family relocated to Trinidad, and in subsequent years I found myself gravitating toward teacher-like activities: tutoring, teaching Sabbath School, and assisting teachers with grading papers. Before I knew it, I was passionately pursuing teaching as my profession. I felt “at home” in the classroom and could hardly wait to have my own.
As I began my journey toward becoming a teacher, I learned that teaching comprised more than just the delivery of content. Parker Palmer, in his classic book The Courage to Teach,writes: “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together.”3
While an undergraduate student at an Adventist college in the Caribbean, I had the privilege of seeing this modeled by many committed professors. One memorable experience took place during the semester I enrolled in World Civilization I. I experienced the powerful impact of the teacher’s faith on students’ faith journey.
This was a dreaded course. The reading load, legendary. Professor L encouraged the class and gave suggestions for navigating the seemingly massive reading assignments; nevertheless, I was stressed out and on a path to certain failure.
Professor L began each class period by reading portions of the Gospel of John. He would engage the class in discussion about the passage shared, then he would pray for each of us. These were not hastily constructed prayers, but earnest prayers for our success and future endeavors. We were encouraged to form study teams and distribute the reading load. Some of us took the suggestion. The study team I was in decided to use John 14 as our focus, copying what we saw modeled each class period.
That semester, that course, is seared into my memory because I personally experienced the integration of faith with learning and found a path to a friendship with Jesus Christ—a friend interested in every aspect of not just the world and civilization, but of my daily concerns. While discussing world civilization, we also wrestled with God’s plan for humanity, and that led to thoughts about God’s plans for each of us individually. The Bible and prayer became more than a collection of words or eloquent utterances.
We prayed more for each other during those study sessions than we did to pass the course: we prayed about our families (some were far away from home with little to no support), our finances, and future hopes and aspirations. For my remaining undergraduate years, through graduate and postgraduate education, and even in my professional life, principles applied during that semester—personal and intercessory prayer, Bible reading and claiming God’s promises, and sharing the workload—have helped strengthen my faith walk and personal friendship with Jesus.
And so I became a teacher! One Sabbath while attending services at Pioneer Memorial church on the campus of Andrews University, I spotted a familiar profile. It was Mr. G! I had the privilege of “surprising” him with the news that I had indeed become a teacher. He laughed and said with confidence: “I knew it!”
Teaching is a sacred act. For the Seventh-day Adventist teacher, it is not just about completing lesson plans, grading student work, or supervising students in various activities; it is more than prestige and status in a given community or enjoying the perks of the profession. Instead, it is living simultaneously in the present and the future.4 Teachers “consider the highest good of their students as individuals, the duties that life will lay on them, the service it requires, and the preparation demanded.”5 Teachers’ work and calling involves guarding the condition of their own soul, for this has a marked impact on the lives of those within their care.
In Educating for Eternity George Knight reminds us that “the primary aim of Christian education in the school, the home, and the church is to lead people into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ.”6 This is not a humanly directed task; it requires partnership with the divine—God, through the Holy Spirit. To partner with the divine is a “noble work”7—one of building character, both teacher and student; and it is work that “cannot be completed in this life, but will be continued in the life to come.”8
And yet, this is what Adventist, Christian educators are called to do every day! Individually and collectively, we engage in thinking about how best to prepare our students to live in this world, while anticipating a future world. The task may seem difficult and overwhelming; but we have help. We have a cheerleader who says, “You can do it!” In Jeremiah God says, “Call to me, and I will answer you” (Jer. 33:3); and we’re reminded: “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all” (James 1:5).
Each school year, regardless of what grade level I teach, I see students who remind me of myself: looking to belong, seeking faith, or navigating a path to service. Many, like me, find their way because of countless committed, dedicated Adventist educators like Mr. G and Professor L—educators who inspire hope, model large-hearted service, and see their students as God sees each of us: as characters fit for the kingdom.9
With whole-souled, large-hearted devotion, we can each continue to grow in Him “more fully to reflect . . . the light of the knowledge of His glory”10 through all eternity.
Faith-Ann McGarrell is editor ofThe Journal of Adventist Education.
Curtains drawn, lights dimmed, an anxious hush reverberated through the sixth-grade classroom. The Bible teacher’s rich baritone bellowed, “Turn your lives over to Jesus! He is coming soon!”
Fear gripped my heart as I watched, spellbound, mesmerized by images of multiheaded, fork-tongued beasts and creatures swathed in blacklight, seemingly floating on air. This was real! The end of the world was near! I needed to give my heart to Jesus.
Forty minutes later, curtains opened, lights on, our sixth-grade classroom looked familiar once again: a maze of desks and chairs, books and binders, pencil shavings and chalk dust. Bible class was over, and we were free to run outside and enjoy recess.
Yet the unsettling nature of the images refused to go away. Years later, haunted by those images, I could not remember much of what my well-intentioned Bible teacher said, but I remembered the timbre of his voice. The urgency. He believed with all his heart that the end of the world was near.
This fear began to abate during a pivotal Week of Prayer in the middle of my tenth-grade year. Different speaker. Different tone. “Come to Jesus,” he pleaded. “He loves you just as you are!” That week, after listening to stories of how much Jesus sacrificed for me personally, I saw for the first time a Savior who loved me, called me to serve, and had a plan for my life—not only an earthly plan, but an eternal one, as well.
When Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli first read the Bible for themselves and realized that God loved humanity not because of their good works, but because God, by His very nature, is love, it transformed their world—and the whole world—forever. They were compelled to share, serve, and love with fidelity.1 And, the more they studied, the more their devotion to God increased.
The Reformers paved the way for what millions now embrace.
Invigorated by newfound truth, these Reformers paved the way for what millions now embrace as sola scriptura—truth is established by Scripture alone; sola fide—we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ alone; sola gratia—we are saved by grace alone; solus Christus—Jesus Christ, alone, is our Savior; and soli Deo gloria—we live and exist for the glory of God, alone.2 Fear dissipated in the presence and awareness of God’s eternal love. Today, we believers embrace these truths born out of their struggle.
What, then, does this have to do with Adventist education? Adventist education rests on the gospel truth that God is love (1 John 4:8), and that the foundation of an Adventist Christian education is love: “Love, the basis of creation and of redemption, is the basis of true education.”3 Understanding that true education and redemption perform the same function,4 Adventist education seeks to share with everyone, whether directly (as in the classroom), or incidentally (as in day-to-day existence), the truth of God’s love, faithfulness, and abundant grace, as revealed in His written Word, and exemplified by Jesus Christ, God’s Word incarnate. Adventist education seeks to reciprocate God’s faithfulness to us in salvation, by faithfulness to Him in communicating His love to all.
Fidelity, another word for “faithfulness” (from the Latin fides [faith] and fidelis [faithful]), denotes loyalty, devotion, and accuracy, the degree to which a copy of something reflects the original.5 Charles Hodge notes that fidelity requires three obligations: (1) knowledge; (2) grounds (reason/rationale); and (3) an understanding of how obligations supersede everything else.6 The word “obligation” brings to mind those things we have to do, rather than those we want to do. Another definition, however, is a debt of gratitude, a commitment to someone or something to whom or for which a great debt is owed.
Adventist educators know the One to whom we owe a great debt. Our faithfulness to Him is demonstrated in service. A knowledge of who God is and what He would have us do—in our relationship with Him and with those around us—is necessary for each of us as we participate in the partnership of education and redemption. There is comfort and assurance in knowing that God sought to know us long before we knew Him: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jer. 1:5). We love God because He first loved us, not out of mere obligation, but because we want to! In Him we find purpose and life: He came “that [we] may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).
And there is more, more than just love and service. George R. Knight reminds us that Adventist Christian education has another role to play: an apocalyptic one. He writes: “The third aspect of Adventist educational identity relates to its grasp of the denomination’s apocalyptic understanding and the implications of that understanding for worldwide mission and the Second Advent.”7
We have a Great Commission—a biblical mandate that is more than humanly determined: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). The call extends “to every nation, tribe, language and people” (Rev. 14:6).
True Christian education answers and echoes Christ’s call to partner with Him in the highest noblest work possible: that of building characters for heaven.
Yes, we are called to love as Christ loves; we are compelled to serve out of gratitude for what Christ did for humanity. But true education is called to do more. True Christian education answers and echoes Christ’s call to partner with Him in the highest, noblest work possible: that of building characters for heaven8—characters trained to seek after God’s heart, willing to be transformed by His Spirit; prepared to face the challenges of the times with confidence, assurance, and power rooted in God’s Word; unafraid because they know how the story ends, but, by the same token, driven by a sense of urgency to let the whole world know.
During a required Daniel and Revelation course in college, and under the tutelage of a caring, erudite professor, I began to comprehend more clearly the love story between God and humanity. The fear-inducing images of beasts shrouded in ultraviolet light transformed into big-picture symbols: messages of hope, assurance, and God’s ultimate plan for every individual, regardless of birth or status. That descendant of the Reformation, and practitioner of truly Christian Adventist education, urged the entire class to read the apocalyptic passages for ourselves. And with each assignment and careful instruction, understanding bloomed.
For Christians this collective journey toward understanding continues. Five hundred years beyond Martin Luther and the Reformers, Bibles are no longer chained to podiums. We read and listen to them on our own computers and mobile devices, and by faith accept the rule of Scripture in our lives, even while many still struggle to accept God’s unconditional love. But Adventist Christian inheritors of Reformation truth rest in the assurance of God’s saving, keeping love, and rejoice in Christ’s witness to “what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:16).
As an Adventist educator I know, without fear or doubt, that God loves me. My purpose is tied up in His. Where authentic Adventist education is disseminated, teachers and students experience this love fo
r themselves, and grow in appreciation of the true character of God in ways that nurture and cultivate their eternal love for Him (see Deut. 6:4-9). Teachers “see in every pupil the handiwork of God”9 that they are preparing for another school—the Eden School—where we all shall delight together in reflecting “throughout endless ages the light of the knowledge of His glory.”10
Faith-Ann McGarrell is editor of The Journal of Adventist Education.