A Christmas letter in July (news about my dad’s cancer and what he taught me about prayer)

I titled this post “a Christmas letter in July” because the first part will read like the letters my parents send out with their Christmas cards every year.

Yes, my parents still send out a “Christmas letter” (and it’s delightful).

If you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, a Christmas letter is what people used to send before email and social media. A family’s annual Christmas letter reports all the big news from the year before.

The big news in this “Christmas letter in July” from the Irwin family is that my dad’s cancer is back being gone for five years. The difference is that this time, it is all over his body and not just in one place. The doctors tell us that the best they can do is make Dad comfortable and try to prolong his life using treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy. These treatments could keep him alive for a few months or a few years.

I feel bad for Dad and Mom for obvious reasons, but I also feel bad because they are only a little more than half a year into their retirement. They just bought and moved into the home they were looking forward to enjoying together for the rest of their lives. They had plans to minister and teach and travel and write. They had plans to spend more time than ever with family and friends.

Dad and Mom have one grandchild, my son, who will turn nine in September. But we got amazing news a few weeks ago: My sister, whose doctors once told her that she could/should/would never be a mother, is expecting. My parents’ second grandchild is due in December. It was already going to be a white knuckle kind of thing because of my sister’s health, but now Dad is talking about staying alive long enough for his next grandchild to meet and remember him.

Dad told me a story a couple of weeks ago before he knew what was about to happen. As I’ve been wrestling with Dad’s diagnosis, that story keeps coming back to me like a flash of lightning in the night.

A few months ago, Dad and I started a podcast called ‘Minister in the Making’, in which he is sharing stories and wisdom from his life in ministry. In the first 13 episodes, we worked through Dad’s childhood in the 1950s and his youth in the 1960s. We spent several episodes in the 1970s, when Dad met Mom, graduated from college, and ministered to his first two churches.

In 1981, Dad started his work with the Steele Avenue Church of Christ in Ashland, Ohio, where he ministered for almost 23 years. I struggled to figure out how to break down 23 years into one-hour episodes. So I asked Dad and Mom to make a timeline of their Ashland years and to mark things that were of great significance to their time there.

They wrote something for almost every year that they were in Ashland, but they bolded and circled one year: 1994.

I thought it might be because I graduated from high school that year, but I gave myself too much credit. Dad and Mom bolded and circled 1994 because that was the year Dorothy Abels died.

Dorothy was one of the brightest of the leading lights in our congregation. You could say she put the “steel” in the Steele Avenue Church of Christ. At least that is how I thought of her. She was one of my Sunday school teachers and I got in my fair share of trouble for cutting up in her classes. But she took care of my parents in ways that I did not know until now.

Just a few days before Dad found out that his cancer is back, he and I spent about an hour talking about the timeline he sent me. I asked him about Dorothy and why her death was so significant.

“Dorothy Abels prayed for me every day,” Dad said. “She prayed for my ministry. She prayed for my family. She prayed for the church. She prayed for the people of the church.”

Dad got choked up.

“When Dorothy died, I felt it. I felt that her prayers were gone.”

Even though the church grew for the next decade, Dorothy’s death–and the absence of her prayers–was the start of Dad’s long, slow burn into the depression and exhaustion that eventually ended his ministry in Ashland.

When Dad got cancer for the first time five years ago, some of us did not think he would live for more than a few months. For me, the most amazing thing about that experience was not that Dad got well. What amazed me the most was how many people around the world prayed for Dad.

Those people saved Dad’s life through their prayers. I really believe that.

This post could be a long way of asking you to pray for Dad again as you did before. Actually, it is.

But Dad, being a minister through and through, might want you to take something more from his experiences. That is, when you pray, you become what the old hymn calls a “channel of blessing” through which the power of life enters the dead and dying spaces of this world. Dad is proof that your prayers change things in bodies, hearts, and minds.

So, pray for Dad. He will feel it and he will be thankful.

But if you have this kind of power available to you, think today about who else might need your prayers. For someone in your life, you are their Dorothy Abels. If God has given you this power to sustain the people in your circle, what keeps you from using it now?

Grace and peace.


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