[Editor's Note: Below is the true story behind Michael Kelley's new book, Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God.]
There are some words that are heavier than others. These are the words that hang in the air after they’re said; they thump to the bottom of your stomach like lead and you know—know—your life will be different from that point forward.
Just from one word. And you know the words.
For our family, the word was leukemia. It was a word I’d heard before, but never expected to be said in reference to my 2-year-old son while he was quietly playing with his trucks on the floor of our pediatrician’s office. But there it was. And life was forever changed.
My wife and I were suddenly thrust into the world of blood counts, chemotherapy, and children’s hospitals at break neck speed. After the initial diagnosis of leukemia, we found ourselves sitting in a room at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital hearing a confirmation of that same diagnosis, albeit an expanded version.
Joshua Michael Kelley, my seemingly healthy looking 27-month-old son, sat again on the floor of an examination room playing with trucks and eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while his mother and I heard that 86% of his blood cells were cancerous.
That number was staggering in the way the word leukemia was staggering. And in the midst of the emotional vertigo that overcame us, we sorted through the haze to find a number of questions bubbling to the surface:
What is chemotherapy like for a 2-year-old?
Is Joshua going to die?
How are we going to pay for this?
And then there were the other questions. These are the ones that are perhaps even more uncomfortable than the first set. These were questions about the foundation of life as we knew it. These were questions about good and evil, about suffering and children. These were fundamental questions about God:
Is this my fault? Is God punishing us for something?
Is God really good?
Or is God even really real?
I grew up in an upper middle class white family in a small town in Texas. I had never been in need, much less want, for anything. I’d never dealt with the struggle of prejudice or oppression or persecution. This was, in truth, the first time I had ever really had difficulty in believing the truths that had been taught to me since childhood.
Or to put it another way—this was the first time faith, for me, had ever been hard. Really, really hard. And it wasn’t going to get any easier. Childhood cancer treatment isn’t a matter of days or weeks or even months. The doctor that day explained to us that the treatment cycle for Joshua’s type of leukemia was over 3 years.
That’s three years of chemo pills taken everyday, with eight taken every Wednesday. Then, every fourth Wednesday, those pills would be accompanied with an intravenous dose of direct chemotherapy given through a port that was to be surgically implanted in his chest. Then, on every eighth Wednesday, the pills and the intravenous chemo would have another addition: A spinal tap with more medicine designed to ensure that the cancer would not spread into that part of his system. For over three years, that was our life.
Faith was definitely hard. It was hard through all the pills, the sickness, and the pain. It was hard on the nights when Joshua woke up at 3 am in the hospital sick because of the mouth sore side effects of the medicine. It was hard when he couldn’t walk up the steps in our home due to leg pain. It was hard when his hair fell out and none of his clothes fit any more because his little body was retaining so much water. It was hard to believe.
But then again, faith isn’t supposed to be easy. It is, after all by its very nature, choosing to believe in something that isn’t apparent to the physical senses. It’s counterintuitive; choosing to look past the evidence of your circumstances in order to place confidence in something different than you can perceive.
We don’t expect that though. We trick ourselves into thinking that believing is a matter of the intellect; it’s about the mind. There are a certain set of facts out there, and intellectually, we choose to believe those facts. But faith—really believing—isn’t just about the mind. Real faith has legs. It’s action oriented. It’s work.
Exodus 17 is the old Bible story where General Joshua was sent out to fight the Amelakites. Moses presided over the battle, watching it take place below him in the valley. The account goes on to say that the pivotal action in the battle wasn’t a matter of strategic military planning or weaponry. The battle ebbed and flowed according to the position of Moses’ hands, far above the valley. When Moses held his hands in the air, the Israelites would win the battle. When he lowered them, the tide turned in favor of the Amelakites:
When Moses’ hands grew heavy, they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat down on it. Then Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other so that his hands remained steady until the sun went down (Exodus 17:12).
Where’s the “belief” in this passage? The word “believe” is the same as the words translated into English as “remained steady.” Now that’s interesting, and pretty revelatory about the Hebrew concept of belief.
In that understanding, believing isn’t something you float in and out of. It’s not just about the intellect; it’s about perseverance. It’s about remaining steady. And it reinforces what we were learning – that if we wanted to believe, it wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take work.
How do you believe? You work at it. And sometimes—many times—it’s hard work to believe. As hard as holding your hands above your head for an entire day. It’s hard to believe God when the circumstances of life are as heavy as your arms at 3 pm. Yet even in this, we believe that God will help us believe. We are, in some sense, fighting the battle for belief far below in the valley. And in our story, there is someone on the hill with His hands in the air. But unlike Moses, we are confident that the one on the hill—our Advocate—does not grow tired and weary. Instead, Jesus is continually at the throne of the Father interceding on our behalf, praying for us as we pray for strength in the battle. His hands never go down.