This summer (2010), my family and I went through quite a traumatic series of events involving a large brain tumor. Below are the letters that I sent to my friends and family just before and just after the surgery. I’ve left them essentially unedited, so forgive the spelling and grammatical errors.
Letter from Neil – June 7th, 2010
I have some sad news. Last night, I had a seizure. We went to the UNC hosptial where they did a CAT scan and an MRI. The results showed a brain tumor. The growth is operable, but there is a significant risk as with any operation. So I wanted to take this opportunity to share the gospel with you. I have tried to share this message in bits and pieces over the years through our friendship and some of my essays, but in light of the occassion, I wanted to share it more fully.
All of you know what I used to be like in high school and college, and although I may have been fun-loving, I could also easily have been called profane, cruel, and arrogant. Then I put my trust in Jesus, through knowing my wife Christina, and a change happened. Obviously, I am still the same person. I still love you guys from the depths of my heart and spouting Pritkzur-isms and Dok-isms is still a staple in the Shenvi household. And I still sin in many ways. But in another way, I am not the same person. I have a new love for mercy, compassion, gentleness, patience, self-control. All of these things are the work of God in my life as he remakes me. And yet in spite of the radical change that occurred in my own life and that inevitably takes place whenever anyone grows in Christian maturity, the central message of Christianity is not moral self-improvement. The central message of Christianity is the gospel or “Good News” of Jesus, that he came to rescue us from eternal punishment and win for us eternal life.
For most of my adolescence and early adulthood, I thought I understood the basic message of Christianity, but later I realized that I had never really heard it at all. Without really exploring it or reading about it, I had assumed that the message of the gospel was essentially the message of every religion: Live a good life, do good works, care for the poor, love your neighbor, and you will be acceptable to God. In other words, God accepts and blesses good people. But after actually reading the Bible and talking with Christians, I discovered that the message of Christianity is quite different. In fact, the message of Christianity is the exact opposite of what I had thought. The apostle Paul summarizes this message in his letter to the Romans: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The message of the gospel is that God rescues bad people.
Why is this “Good News”? Because ultimately, all of us are bad people. All of us -no matter how moral or good or upright or decent we consider ourselves to be- are lost in God’s eyes and in need of radical forgiveness. The Bible comes to the best of us and to the worst of us and says that we are all spiritually dead an that we need to be born again. Whether we are the most moral, decent person in the world or the most immoral, disreputable person in the world, we are all guilty of breaking God’’s commandments and when we die, we will all fae God’s judgment. Our only hope is to put our trust not in our own goodness, but in God’’s mercy in Christ. I can imagine tht many of us are indeed offended by the insinuation that we are sinners. I myself would have strenuously objected: “ I’m not perfect; I have my faults. But frankly, I’m far better than most people. I’ve never done anything really bad, so I’m sure that God will forgive my sins, whatever they may be.” But the Bible gives us two clear reasons that our objections are hopeless.
First, our objections ignore the depth of our sin and second, they ignore the goodness of God. First, if we believe that our sin really isn’’t so bad, it shows we haven’’t ever taken Jesus’ teaching seriously. Almost everyone acknowledges that Jesus was a great moral teacher, perhaps the greatest in human history. And yet, if we begin to seriously consider his moral teaching it should frighten us. What is it that God requires of human beings? Love. Jesus taught that all of God’s commandments can be summed up by two commandments: Love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself. And something in us recognizes that Jesus’ teaching is true. Deep inside, we know that we ought to keep these commandments.
But the question is: do we keep these commandments? Do we love God with our whole heart? I know I don’t. Even my best deeds are tainted by pride, self-righteousness, and self-centeredness; I spend far more time thinking about myself than honoring God and living as he commands. What would you say of a man who found it completely natural to go weeks, perhaps months, without speaking a word to his wife, whom he claimed to love? That would be terrible. And yet, we can easily go just as long ignoring God, who ought to be even closer to us than our spouse. What about loving our neighbor? Do we truly love other people as we love ourselves? If we are honest with ourselves, we must answer no. We often avoid people with problems because we don’t want to be burdened with their poverty, their emotional needs, or their hurts. The Bible says very clearly that there is not one of us who is righteous, that all of us have broken God’s laws in terrible ways, and that all of us are guilty before God. What about loving our neighbor? Do we truly love other people as we love ourselves? If I am honest with myself, I must again answer no. I avoid people with problems because I don’t want to be burdened with their poverty, their emotional needs, or their hurts. From out of these two failures to love God and love others all of the terrible actions like murder, adultery, theft, and greed that we recognize so easily in others yet fail to see in ourselves. But the Bible says very clearly that there is not one of us who is righteous, that all of us have broken God’s laws in terrible ways, and that all of us are guilty before God.
But second, our objections are silenced in the face of God’s goodness. We might assume that God will overlook our sin because he is good. But in fact, the Bible tells us that God cannot overlook our sin for precisely that reason. If someone told me that my wife had been kidnapped and were being tortured in a nearby building, what would you say to me if I responded placidly: “ That’s ok; I’m a very loving person”? You would not conclude that I was loving, but that I was a sociopath. What then must God feel when he sees billions of men and women and children all over the world suffering starvation, oppression, and injustice? A God who did not care about the misery that we inflict on ourselves and on others would not be a God of love. Instead, the Bible says that because God is a God of goodness and love, he hates evil and injustice and greed and adultery and theft and murder. Because God is a father to the fatherless and a friend of widows and orphans, he will see that they get justice one day. But as a result, all of us stand condemned. We are all guilty of breaking God’s good commands, and of creating the misery that we see all around us. And one day, God will call us all to account for our evil deeds.
What hope is there, then? If we are all guilty and deserve God’s judgment, how can we be rescued? How can God be both a just judge and a friend of sinners? The answer is found only in the cross of Jesus. All of us stand condemned before God’s justice. But God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son to rescue us from our sin. Rather than punish us, God punished Jesus. On the cross, God poured out his wrath against sin and on the cross God Himself, in the person of Jesus, absorbed that wrath so that forgiveness could be offered to all who will receive it. Three days after his crucifixion, God raised Jesus from the dead, vindicating him as the Savior of all mankind and showing that the debt had been paid in full: through the death and Resurrection of Christ, God is reconciling all people to himself, not counting men’s sins against them. The good news of the gospel can be summed up by the phrase “Jesus in our place.” Jesus obeyed God perfectly on my behalf, loving God and loving his neighbor as Himself. And on the cross, this same sinless man was punished on my behalf, so that I could be forgiven. It’s the Great Exchange: Jesus gets the punishment that I deserve so that I can receive the blessing that He deserves. This is how God rescue sinners like you and me.
What does this mean? First, it means that we all need Christ. The entire verse that I quoted at the beginning about the universal sinfulness of man concludes “Al have sinned and fall short of the glory of God and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” If we hope to avoid God’ wrath on the basis of our good deeds or our religious works, we have no hope at all. Not because God is unfair or unjust or bad, but precisely because he is just and good. A good judge gives people what they deserve, and we all deserve punishment. Only by turning to Jesus, who lived and suffered and died in our place, can we escape God’s just condemnation. Christianity alone claims that people in heave getwhat they do not deserve; instead they are justified “freely by his grace.” But second, it means that salvation is a free gift which anyone can have. The crack addict, the prostitute, the doctor, the lawyer, the pastor – all can be accepted on the basis of what Christ did for us. There is no room for boasting, pride, or superiority, because salvation from first to last is a free gift. Third, it means that anyone who has received this gift must and will live a transformed life. When we turn to Christ, God fills us with his Spirit. We are literally a new creation. If our life is unchanged and there is no new love, patience, gentleness and self-control in our hearts, then we have probably never really trusted in Jesus.
Thank you for reading this far. I wish the circumstances were more pleasant, but I trust that God knows what He’’s doing. In fact, I am surer today of His grace and mercy than I was before my diagnosis, having seen so much of evidence to His care towards me in the hospital. When something like this happens, I think we ought to consider carefully what we are living for. Certainly, it should make us realize how relatively unimportant career and success are compared to family and friends. But if we don’t also stop to consider whether eternity is at stake, whether there is even a possibility that death is not the end, then we are severely missing the point. Life is either ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ or it has eternal significance. Even when we rise out of them, we seldom look beyond family or country or philosophy to give us our ultimate purpose in life. But if God exists, and if eternity depends on our response to Him, there is nothing that ought to be more important to us in our daily lives. At least give Christianity a hearing by reading the gospels, the biographies of Jesus in the Bible. There are also many excellent spiritual and apologetic resources on shelves that I’d be happy to send to you.
Even more urgently, recognize your sin, turn from it, and trust in Jesus alone to rescue you. He is not just a historical figure, but the living Lord of heaven, who stoops down to knock at our doors and beg us to be forgiven. Don’t turn him away; embrace him. I hope that I will see you all again in person soon, but if not, I hope see you in eternity.
Postsurgery Letter from Christina #1
This is a hard update to write. Neil made it through the surgery and was extubated. He is… neurologically intact. However, there was a lot of brain swelling when they opened him up, suggesting it is a more aggressive tumor. Also, the pathology showed that it is not a meningioma as we had strongly hoped. They will not know until the end of the week whether it is a medulloblastoma or a GBM (glioblastoma multiforme). Both of these are much worse than the meningioma that we had hoped for. He will likely need chemo and radiation. I am deeply saddened by this, but I know that good will ultimately come of it. Neil said yesterday that even if he died from this tumor, as much as the idea of leaving a widow and orphans was incredibly sad… that if some of his friends and family came to know Jesus through it, that it would be worth it. I know that God can heal him, either through a miracle, or through chemo/radiation. But I know that even if he does not have a good outcome here, that we will be together forever rejoicing in heaven, and will be able to look back at this and see the thread of goodness running through it and where it lead us. He loved you all so much.
Postsurgery Letter from Christina #2
One last update…. “I’m with Neil now. He’s totally himself (although a little loopy from having just been under anesthesia), but is making jokes and his memory is intact. He has a ‘splitting headache’ but I reminded him that they’d just split his head open. He knows that it is not a meningioma, and we are just waiting for the final pathology report (which will take a week) to know exactly what it is. Within medulloblastomas and GBMs there are different grades etc (I am not an expert) which will determine treatment regimen and prognosis. He is in good spirits and says he loves you all.
He is in room 2729, but he isn’t in a condition for visitors or phone calls right now. Watch facebook for updates about when he feels ready, or else call me. Neil says… God was so good to me throughout the surgery. He was good in giving me this tumor, and He is always good. With best wishes –
Letter from Neil – June 14th, 2010
Dear friends and family,
It’s times like these that words are insufficient. They are insufficient to express our gratitutde and they are insufficient to express the thoughts of our hearts. But I will try to do both. I wanted to say two things in this e-mail: first, to give you an update about my physical condition and second, to share what is on my heart spiritually.
At 11:52pm on Friday June 4th, I had a grand mal seizure, complete with shaking, babbling and rigidity. Christina quickly realized what was happening, and responded like a true ER doctor, stabilizing me and making sure I was safe. When I awoke 15 minutes later, I had no recollection of what had happened. We rode into UNC hospital in an ambulance and were taken to the Emergency Department. What we expected to be a routine, pro forma CT scan instead revealed two lesions in my cerebellum/occipital lobe. An MRI later Saturday morning confirmed the presence of a 5 cm mass penetrating my tentorium, the tough lining which separates the two lobes. We were shocked. I had been having some minor headaches, which we attributed to the stress of moving, but had no other major symptoms. On Monday, I had an extended brain surgery to remove the tumor. After several days in the surgical ICU and the neuro ward, I am now at home where I am recovering slowly but happily surrounded by relatives, friends, and lots of delicious homemade food. The tumor is highly atypical and has been sent to some outside specialists at Washington University for pathological analysis, which will determine my future course of treatment. Radiation and chemotherapy are both likely, but the prognosis is still unsure.
Obviously, our first thoughts were of the possibility of immanent death. Christina and I have been married eight wonderful years, and I cannot imagine what my life would have been without her. Adrian arrived fifteen months ago and only increased our joy. He is bubbly, happy, playful. My dreams are full of teaching him and guiding him as he navigates a wondrous, confusing, and difficult world. Baby #2 (a girl) will arrive in early October. Our life was full to overflowing and was full of plans for the future. This brain cancer suddenly changed everything.
But really, the brain cancer changed nothing and that’s the second and primary point of this e-mail. As many of you know, I became a Christian in graduate school, sometime after meeting Christina. Like many faith journeys, my path was long, confusing, and traumatic. I didn’t know where it would end. I didn’t even know that it had begun. But looking back, I can see so clearly that the story of my life is the story of a passionate, holy, perfect God seeking a lost sheep who desperately wanted to remain unfound. I’m writing this e-mail to you now because I love all of you. I have no idea how much longer I have with you, and I want to share with you what is most important to me and now has an added urgency that I cannot ignore. I beg you all to read this e-mail and take it to heart.
The main hope of this letter is a simple one and can be simply stated: take Jesus seriously. I can’t make you a Christian. I can’t convince you to turn to Jesus for forgiveness of sins, for mercy, for love, for grace, for fellowship in life and in death. But I hope to convince you to take him seriously. It is so easy to take the broad road: to see Jesus as one more great and noble sage along the path of history. It is so easy to dismiss Jesus, to ignore him, to smile faintly and wander away. But that is not a valid response. Reject him if you must. Despise him. Flout him. Curse him. But at least listen to him. At least hear what he has to say. Please don’t take my word for it. Go to the Bible and read what He Himself said. Listen to Him.
Everyone seems to have a special place in their heart for Jesus, and how can we not? How can we look at this historial figure, what he taught, what he did, and not be moved? One of the blessings of my experience with apologetics is that I am fully convinced by the archaeological and documentary evidenece of the histiorical accuracy of the New Testament accounts. Through my conversations with atheists and through my own research, I have become more and more convinced that in the Bible we have the real words and real deeds of a real man. We read teaching like “Love your enemies” and “bless those who curse you” and we are melted. No one ever spoke like this man. We see a man of love, touching lepers, lifting up widows and orphans, reaching out to the outcasts and the dispised, and our hearts break. This is the life that we ought to be living. This is the love and gentleness that we know deep inside is right. All our concerns about career and money and sports and entertainment are exposed as superficial trash. Here is the real and the good. Here is life as it should be lived.
But here the tendency to muzzle Jesus becomes almost unbearable. Yes, he is a man of love and compassion. Yes, he is gentle and good. But he calls us wholly, simply, and completely to Himself. Come to me, he says. I must be more important than your job, your mother, your family, or your children. I must be more important than your health, your safety, yes even your own life. I must be your everything. And this is where we falter. Jesus never claims to be one way among many. He claims to be the way. He does not claim to be one hope. He claims to be our only hope. He says that we are either his disciples or we are lost. We are either for him or against him. He says we must either worship Him as our Lord and God or crucify him as a madman. There is no middle way.
The sad, almost unbearable truth that we all need to hear and that Jesus tells us is that we are sinners. We have rejected God. We have substituted all sorts of things in His place: family, career, money, success, sex, country, pogress, our own moral goodness, our own moral sufficiency, our religious attainment. And the tremendous distaster and misery that is human history is this story of idloatry written cosmically as we worship created things instead of our Creator. If our sin were not so great, then we would not need so great a salvation. If our fundamental problem were superficial then it could be cured by therapy or self-esteem or good deeds. But our sin is great beyond reckoning. The offense of our rebellion is dragging us all down into hell and will one day do exactly that. Jesus comes to us and says: I am your only hope.
What we could not and cannot do for ourselves, Jesus can do for us. He lived a life of perfect love for God and He forfeited that life for us. He offers salvation to us as a free gift. Not as a reward for our merit – we don’t have any. Not as recompense for our good deeds – we have none. But purely out of his mercy to the undeserving. This is Jesus’ message. He calls us completely to Himself and He offers Himself completely to us. He was betrayed and flogged and whipped and crucified and killed and raised to life on the third day all for our salvation. This is what is so offensive to us and what will utterly transform our lives if we accept it. It is either true or false. He demands our complete love, our total devotion, our comprehensive worship. This man is either the God to whom we owe absolutely everything or the devil himself. Either this is God come to rescue us, or this is a Liar. There is no other alternative.
Again, my aim is not to convert you. My aim is not even that you would accept my words or the words of some particular church or denomination. The church is certainly full of error and hypocrisy. I am certainly full of error and hypocrisy. I just want you to listen to Jesus. Read what he said. Take Him seriously. Open up the Bible and listen to Him. It really has nothing to do with me. I know many of you admire my faith and have complimented me on my courage. I count these things as dung. It is not the quality or quantity of my faith that matters, but the object of my faith. Either my sins are forgiven and I will live for all eternity with the God who has forgiven me, or Jesus is a liar. Either Jesus is able to save me to the uttermost, or Christianity is the greatest fraud ever perpetrated on mankind. The truth matters. I thank God for this tumor because it has forced me to see him as he truly is, as my greatest treasure and my only real hope.
My prayer is of course for life. For my wife to have a husband and my children to have a father. But even deeper is my desire that God would rescue all of you, that He would make Himself your treasure and that we could rejoice together not just for a few years but for all eternity. You all know me. I would be overjoyed to talk to you, to converse with you, to try to answer your questions. But ultimately, it is not me you have to deal with. I will be here and fighting as long as God gives me the strength and I would love to hear from any of you. But again, it’s Jesus himself who is pleading with you.
Please consider what I’ve said in this letter. We don’t get many moments of honesty in this life, but this is one of them. As I’ve already said, I love you all and will love you all as long as I live.
Letter from Neil – June 18th, 2010
“I would have despaired if I had not believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the LORD; be strong and let your heart take courage; yes, wait for the LORD. ” – Psalm 27:13 (NASB)
This passage was written by the psalmist thousands of years ago and was sent to me by a friend just this morning. I thought it a very appropriate way to begin this email.
After my seizure on Friday, June 4th I was taken to UNC hospital where I was diagnosed with a 5-cm brain tumor. Surgery was scheduled for Monday, June 7th based on the urgency of the case. From the CT scan and MRI, Christina had hoped that the tumor was benign (such as a meningioma). When he opened up my skull, the neurosurgeon, Dr. Germanwala, found dramatic brain swelling consistent with a more aggressive tumor type. What was scheduled to be a five hour surgery lasted almost seven hours. Christina and the rest of the family shed many tears when they found out the initial results right after the surgery. Based on the brain swelling, the bloodiness of the tumor, the fact that it seemed to be growing through the tentorium, and the initial biopsy results, the expected diagonsis was that of a medullobalstoma or a glioblastoma, malignant tumors of the brain cells which affect appproximately 500,000 people per year. I’m writing to tell you what God, in his glory, has done instead.
Today, we were told by our surgeon that based on the pathology results from St. Louis (they had sent a sample of the tumor to some specialists at Washington University), the mass is a solitary fibrous tumor (SFT). It is not a cancer of the brain tissue itself, but of the dural matter that lines the brain. It is usually a benign tumor. There are about 70-80 cases of this type of tumor reported worldwide each year. Again, I am not a trained statitstician, but I know enough about Bayes’ Theorem to know that this is a miracle. Based on all the data we had in our possession, this tumor ought to have been aggressive and malignant. It is not. God has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. It has nothing to do with my inherent goodness or niceness or religiosity or piety. He has done this because this is who He is. He is a friend to the unrighteous, the godless, and the sinners.
I know that all of you will rejoice along with me. I cannot sing and shout and tell enough about the great thing that God has done, how He ordained from all eternity that we should go through this, how He has sat up with me through the nights comforting me, how I have felt His love and His presence throughout this ordeal, how He has assured me of His forgiveness in Christ, how He has strengthened my trust in Him. But I pray and pray that none of us will lose sight of the essential lesson for me and for all of us in this trial: God is all that matters. God has given me a glorious and joyful and wonderful reprieve, but it is only a reprieve. I will still face death one day, as will all of us. What God has shown me so clearly during these last few weeks is that the only thing that really matters is my eternal relationship with Him. Either He has forgiven me through Jesus or He has not. Either Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection were sufficient to pay the debt of my sin and completely reconcile me to Himself or they were not. This difference matters. It is all that matters. As you rejoice with me during this time, please consider these questions. I am so glad that you will hug your children, care for the poor, live with love and justice and kindness and compassion. I celebrate with tears that my experience has made you realize that people are more important than things, that life is short, that love is supreme. But the final and ultimate and essential question is: am I reconciled to God? Has He forgiven me? Am I a sinner in need of radical forgiveness that only Jesus can offer? In the midst of your joy, please don’t forget these questions. I am a miserable sinner who has found grace and loove through the cross of Christ. I pray that you will too.