The Thistle

Poems in the Park: My Cancer and God’s Grace – Dr. David Calhoun

Poems in the Park: My Cancer and God’s Grace 

By Dr. David Calhoun
Professor Emeritus of Church History


The most profound poetry—describing our joy and our suffering in their many dimensions and giving voice to our cries of lament—is the poetry of the Bible. Close to one-third of the Old Testament is poetry—comprising a little in the narrative books, more in the prophets, and large sections of Psalms, Proverbs, Lamentations, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Theologian John Calvin described the Psalms as “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul, for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn to the life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities . . . with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.”

Many centuries ago a great poet reflected on this life and what lies beyond it. His immortal words are found in the twenty-third Psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow
me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house
of the Lord forever.

Hebrew poetry is characterized by terseness, parallelism, repetition, chiasm, fi gures of speech, and sometimes assonance—most of which can be preserved in translations. We find in the words of the psalms not only the wisdom to teach and convince but also the power to comfort and sustain. The Psalms provide us with thoughts to think and words to speak when we don’t know how to think and what to say.

Poetry’s Ministry

During a period of intensive chemotherapy treatment some years ago, I found that it helped me to walk. Day after day I walked around and around a half-mile path in a park across the street from my house and next to a hospital. I usually took with me a little book of poems or a small hymnbook. As I walked, I read the poems and hymns slowly, out loud. As the medicine flowed into my body each week, so the words of the poetry flowed into my heart and mind every day as I walked, giving me a new infusion of courage, patience, hope, and trust.

There was no plan to my reading in the park. My choice of books and poets was almost accidental—which is another way of saying that it was completely providential. The book had to be small, so I could hold it easily and read as I walked. And the poems had to be, for the most part, plain. The Lord commanded Habakkuk to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it” (Hab. 2:2). I did not have the mental energy to struggle over obscure poetry.

The poets who helped me most were those who shared my Christian convictions. They represented many parts of the Christian tradition and refl ected diverse theological and spiritual perceptions. I tried to avoid the sentimental, the falsely triumphant, the overly pious, the dishonest, and the sloppy in thought or language. Poetry did not have to be great poetry to help me, but it had to be honest and true.

Through poetry I began to see and hear things in a new way. In his Refl ections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis describes the poetry of the Psalms as “a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible.” The Psalms, as well as hymns and the words of honest and thoughtful poets, can become little incarnations, enabling us to see the “many splendoured things.”

Those who have suffered and endured are often compelled to write about it. This is especially true for Christians. The meaning that many sufferers have found in poetry has given them hope and helped them survive everything from the relentless brutality of wartime prison camps to cruel persecution to the ravages of devastating illnesses.

Psalm 23 shaped and organized the lessons that I learned through my reading of poems in the park.

My Shepherd

“The Lord is my shepherd.” Those words tell me who God is—and who I am. Human beings are not, as former Princeton professor Bernhard Anderson wrote, “the ultimate measure of things, the controller of their world, or the determiner of their destiny.” God is in control. I am not. He is the shepherd. I am one of his sheep. This basic truth (on which all other truths are based) is expressed in the Bible, hymns, and poetry in many different ways. Psalm 23 draws a lovely and peaceful picture (although it is not without deep trouble). The Shepherd leads his sheep into pleasant and refreshing places and along the best paths. He calms us down, strengthens our trust, and restores our souls.

I walked, almost everyday, on the path around a small pond with ducks and geese. Above me were the sky and clouds; below, the grass and trees. In the spring the wildflowers grew in the sun and waved in the wind. In the fall the trees turned from green to a variety of colors, often on the same tree, almost overnight. In the winter ice formed on the pond and snow sometimes covered the ground, bringing its own freshness and interpreting God’s creation in yet another delightful way. The psalmists and the poets helped me to see God’s creation with greater appreciation and understanding. Was Jesus helped by the quietness and beauty of nature? Did he even notice the trees?

Valley of the Shadow of Death

The first three verses of Psalm 23 describe the delightful experiences of the Christian’s life—green pastures, still waters, paths of righteousness. But in verse four the picture changes and we fi nd ourselves in the valley of the shadow of death.

The valley of the shadow of death is not death itself but a place of darkness, sadness, affl iction, and trial. In John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian came to this valley, and he “must needs go through it, because the way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it.” “Now this valley,” Bunyan explains, “is a very solitary place. The prophet Jeremiah thus describes it: ‘a wilderness, a land of deserts and of pits; a land of drought, and of the shadow of death.…’ ” We experience this dark valley in different ways—in trials of illness, depression, addiction, abuse, rejection, bitter disappointment, and other hard experiences of life. Until that day when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev. 21:4), there will be the valley of the shadow of death. And like Bunyan’s Christian, we “must needs go through it.”

Psalm 88 (sometimes described as the one Psalm without hope) ends with the words, “You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend” (verse 18). For all its darkness, however, Psalm 88 contains a message of hope. It is a cry to the Lord. If we keep on reading beyond Psalm 88, we will come to Psalm 139:12—“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with you.”

One day, as I walked in the park and through my own personal valley, I read “Litany to the Holy Spirit” by Robert Herrick. The poet prays for the Spirit’s comfort when temptation oppresses, when doubts confuse, and when doctors fail.

When the artless doctor sees
No one hope, but of his fees,
And his skill runs on the lees,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!
When his portion and his pill
Has or none or little skill,
Meet for nothing but to kill,
Sweet Spirit, comfort me!

This is not a cry for deliverance from the troubles of life but a plea for comfort and help in all that comes. I read these words at a time when the chemotherapy threatened to kill me before the cancer did. Herrick’s poem comforted (as it amused) me. Most of my doctors and nurses have been skillful and sympathetic, but one experience deeply distressed me. The poet helped me to pray for comfort from the “Sweet Spirit” of God.

African-American spirituals are songs of sorrow and strength—from a people who knew plenty of both. One of those songs often puzzled me.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Nobody knows like Jesus;
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,
Glory, Hallelujah.

The last two words did not seem to fi t. I could understand, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, woe is me!” But “Glory, Hallelujah”? One day as I was reading these words in the park, I remembered Paul’s encouragement to the Corinthians: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Today’s cross is tomorrow’s crown. Glory, hallelujah!

Trouble comes back, as sure as winter comes again, and it has, in fact, for me. I write these words just after learning that my cancer, in remission for three years, has returned.

William Cowper helps me to “fresh courage take” as I experience the mystery of God’s providence in taking me through the valley.

God moves in a mysterious way,
his wonders to perform;
he plants his footsteps in the sea,
and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never failing skill
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds ye so much dread
are big with mercy, and shall break
in blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust him for his grace;
behind a frowning providence
he hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the fl ow’r.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
and he will make it plain.

Every line, almost every word, is, like the clouds, “big” with meaning and mercy. Large books have been written about God’s providence with less success than Cowper’s hymn.

I experienced extreme hoarseness and diffi culty in speaking after a course of radiation burned my vocal cords. As a teacher who could talk only fifteen minutes at a time, I felt that I had become useless. The Good Shepherd who leads us in the valley of the shadow of death is also the Great Physician, who, wounded himself, knows fi rsthand our pain and who is so compassionate that he hurts to heal.

We are pilgrims, not wanderers. Or, to follow the image of Psalm 23, we are sheep. Our shepherd knows what is the best path for us to take. Sometimes our lives may seem disconnected and erratic. We may find it difficult or impossible to see any pattern. But there is a plan. There is a pattern, and someday (perhaps to some extent in this life, certainly and completely in heaven) we will look back over it all and be amazed at how perfect it was. Time spent in the valley is not wasted; it is part of God’s plan for us. There we are blessed with his presence, comforted by his rod and staff, and learn more fully what it means to be “his people and the sheep of his pasture” (Ps. 100:3).