If life is really the race the Bible tells us it in fact is, then there lies
ahead for each one of us a finish line. This we tend to forget or ignore or
even deny until someone we love crosses it for themselves and we are forced
to see that our own feet are placed in the middle of the track. Unlike a
real life race where often the runners do not last as far as the tape, we
must all, of necessity, cross the finish line of the race of life, which is
of course death.
The question John Eaves poses, as he finds the finish line within sight in
his own experience, is how do we finish well? How do we cross the line as
champions and not as hopeless and disheartened losers? How is it that death
can be transformed into the victory our faith tells us it is?
We were together at Western Kentucky University, studying under William
Lane. At first, I knew him only by reputation, by the repeated references
that Dr. Lane would make concerning him. John, I learned, had been the first
white member of the African American church that later became my home,
Cecelia Memorial Presbyterian Church. John had already established a
presence in the community as a person who personified the gospel loved out.
He had sacrificed a promising career in the oil business in Kentucky in
order to be obedient to the call of Jesus on his life. Later he would leave
for the mission field to serve in the Philippines. Later he would return
home and discover a new and more effective way to reach out to the world
though working with international students at places like Harvard, Boston
College and finally Vanderbilt University.
All along in the race, John was always way out ahead of me and for this I
was glad. I was happy to cheer him on, out of breath, from the back of the
pack for he had become for me a sort of “faith-hero,” a friend, though for
most of those years a distant one.
When he and his wife Kay finally moved back to Tennessee, we would be able
to spend more time together, usually in the context of ministering together
with his beloved international students. In time, when our mentor William
Lane moved to Franklin, John and I spent every spare moment we could find at
Bill’s side until he crossed the finish line on March 7, 1999. Bill had
come, in his own words, to “show us how a Christian man dies.” On the night
of his death, John and I were there together at his bedside.
I had thought that during our last eighteen months together with Dr. Lane
that I had learned all I needed to know about crossing that final finish
line, that I was ready now to finish well. After all, Bill had crossed the
line a champion. But I would come to understand that John was looking more
closely and listening more intently to the final poem of Bill’s life than I
When, several months ago, John and Kay received the abrupt news that,
without chemo-therapy, he had only four months to live, my response seemed
to reveal that I had learned virtually nothing from my time with Bill. All
of the same angry questions resurfaced. “Why John?” I fumed at God, who I
knew had the power to heal him in an instant.
John’s response couldn’t have been more different, as different as night to
day. In his illness he discovered a new boldness. I am in the “Cancer Club,”
he says with a smile. People who would never listen to me before are open to
hearing the gospel. And so he “cruises” the Oncology ward where he receives
chemo, talking to anyone who will listen about his faith and his God, the
same God with whom I still struggle in frustration and anger; an anger
through which I believe He has invited me into the ring to wrestle Him in
and through. Believe me, I know, after all, Who is going to win!
Nevertheless I sense His loving invitation to the ring. I am beginning to
wonder if this struggle is not a part of what He knows I need to experience
before I can finish well. Perhaps you too need to take off the gloves and
get into this same arena. Perhaps some of us need to wrestle before we can
In the meantime, John speaks at churches and other groups about his victory
over cancer and what finishing well is supposed to look like. He answers
difficult questions with his own unique sense of humor and irony, always
substantiating his words with the Word of God.
John will sometimes invite the audience to give a victors shout (ala Mel
Gibson’s Braveheart) in the face of fallen-ness, sickness and death. John’s
life has become such a roar. As he draws near his own finish line, he shouts
in defiance, in joy, in a victory that he will tell you was won by Someone
else who crossed the line with such a shout on His lips.
From the very beginning, on first having heard of his cancer, John started
communicating with his friends and partners in ministry via e-mail. The
beneficiaries of his ministry from all over the world started responding
with countless “cancer cures” and pledges for prayer support. John likened
his prayer supporters to the friends of the crippled man who tore the hole
through Peter’s roof and lowered him down in front of Jesus for healing.
John reminded us all that it was precisely the friends whom Jesus commended
and not the man who was healed. We, who promised to pray, had become John’s
“litter bearers.” Our calling was to tear a hole in the roof of heaven with
our persistent prayers and help carry John to the presence of Jesus. If and
when John is healed, we would be the ones who might receive the commendation
of Jesus. In this scenario, our faith was as important as John’s. And so we
At first the chemo had a beneficial effect, as the doctors had indicated it
might. We all thanked God and wondered if this could be the precursor to the
complete healing for which we were all asking. Could God be moving John’s
finish line farther down the course?
Just yesterday we talked long distance. “I’ve begun wasting,” John
whispered. By his own acknowledgement, John sees his finish line coming
closer. That is where we are as of today.
I can only describe our experience thus far together in this struggle as
“incarnational.” By that I mean that something is being “fleshed out”
through this experience that I’m not sure any of us can learn any other way.
Because of, in and through John’s disease, suffering and faithful response,
something of Jesus is becoming more real to all of us. I have begun to
faintly understand, as if it were being whispered from another room, that
there is a purpose in suffering that outweighs the pain. Even as I write
those words, I cringe, fully knowing that it ill behooves me, in the midst
of my health and currently painless position in life to make conclusions as
if I were understanding things from John’s place in the midst of his
suffering. But, having said that, I do understand more now than before. I do
hope more and I have come to realize that I will never face the prospect of
suffering and death the same after this.
I have actually begun to hope that as I cross the finish line (which will
happen sooner rather than later) the same shout of triumph I have heard
forming on John’s lips might come from mine. It is the same call I hear
echoing across the valley from the hill of Calvary.
John Eaves went home to with the Lord on Sunday, February 22, the week after
Michael wrote this column which was intended to serve as the foreword of
John’s as-of-yet unpublished book about his battle with cancer titled
From the Study is a monthly syndicated column by Michael Card. For more
information about Michael Card please visit www.michaelcard.com
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