Dan Herron is the former pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, a gospel-centered church community for Bloomington, Indiana and Indiana University.
We have all, at different times in our life, struggled with challenges and obstacles, that at the time seem overwhelming.
Those who are particularly lucky to be surrounded by family and friends and the warm light of God’s grace have leaned on those around us, and on our faith, for the strength to carry on, and carry forward.
Booker T. Washington once remarked: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
I wanted to speak to Dan to better understand how his faith and devotion to God helped him through one of the darkest chapters of his life, when his wife Erica, was diagnosed with cancer.
In Dan’s words:
“Erica and I are focused and ambitious. Some of our hobbies as a young married couple were triathlon training, home renovation, and graduate school! But, even as active and ambitious as we are, we’re also finding that as our shepherd, God confronts our self-generated ambitions, gives us glimpses of our weakness, and restores our souls by the rest that comes through receiving and depending on Jesus’ presence.”
“Our family moved to Bloomington in June of 2012 to begin the work of scratch planting a church and RUF. We spent months praying, building relationships, relying on God to build a core group centered on the gospel. As we continued to gain momentum, and just as we were beginning to gel as a community, Erica was diagnosed with breast cancer. It felt like the shadow of death.”
“On February 8th, 2013 my beautiful, young wife, and wonderful mother to our 3 children was diagnosed with breast cancer. Erica is a doctoral-program-conquering, marathon-running, child raising, strong church planting partner wife. How could this word, “Cancer,” apply to her?
Many days, early on especially, it felt like we were in the dark, like we were groping for stability, like we were in a labyrinth of a valley. I had to explain to my children that their mommy was sick; in kid-language we had to prepare them for her surgery, for chemo and the loss of her long curly hair, for radiation and the tiredness and soreness that would come.”
“To help our kids, Erica and one of my boys created and illustrated superheroes named “Chemo” and “Radiator,” and at each treatment she wrote a new chapter in an adventure story where these guys rid the world of Dr. Smalls and his evil minions.”
“Erica wrote of her experience of this shadow: ‘Right now I’m at a loss for words. I’m being confronted by so many idols and fears. Yet, at the same time I have some peace in knowing that I can trust my heavenly Father and know that regardless, He can be glorified. How do I enjoy God and glorify Him forever while having cancer? Do I really have cancer? Is this really me? Father, I pray that this terrible time would be used in amazing ways. I pray that you would be glorified.
I pray that you would deepen my knowledge and understanding of you. I pray that you would expand my heart. I pray, though it somehow feels wrong to ask, but I pray that you would spare my life. Let me be cured and able to see who you grow my children into and how you use my husband. Use this in my life to use me also, but please let me live.’”
“In pouring out the healing for our souls, God leads us into the shadow.”
“So, how did we handle this? How did we continue the work of a scratch church plant—how did we survive as a family? Jesus asserted himself as our refuge. We were so shell-shocked that we didn’t have the capacity to reach out. We could only receive.”
“That day that we heard the news, Erica and I were at a meeting for the Central Indiana Presbytery. After receiving the call, all the elders and their wives gathered around us, laying hands upon us, kneeling at our feet, anointing our heads with oil, as she and I wept, hands woven together.”
“They prayed Psalm 23. In surrounding us with his body, Jesus made his presence known, his rod and his staff they comforted us. And, our little sprout of a church, our Presbytery, and this church were Jesus to us, and walked with us into the Valley. And, all we could do was receive. There was no ambition, there was no drive, there was no “handling it.” There was only frailty and weakness and need.”
“In leading us into the shadow, God forms us into receivers of his healing.”
“And, this is where we encountered rest through dependency on Jesus’ Spirit. John Owen wrote of this, ‘Affliction is part of the provision God hath made in his house for his children… for in our afflictions we find our need of the consolation of the Holy Ghost.’”
“Receiving this healing consolation of the Holy Spirit deepened our repentance and faith. We discovered entirely new forms of idolatry. We both found a temptation to enmesh our identities in cancer—I felt an impulse to assert my new status as “wonderful, supportive, cancer husband” as my claim to righteousness and glory. And, Erica, she felt the pull of others’ expectations, and a compulsion to see even cancer as that thing that grounded her identity.
Being receivers of God’s healing exposes us.”
“My loneliness and tendency toward self-sufficiency were exposed. We had a piano donated to us around that time, and I was teaching myself to play. On Chemo treatment days, we’d come home and Erica would go immediately to bed.
After the kids went to bed, I would be alone, sitting at the piano playing scales for hours with a glass of wine, just grieving and groaning in my heart to the Lord. There was one midnight in particular when my loneliness took me outside to pace in the grass, praying, and I was led to reflect on John 1:14 where we read that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…’”
“My gospel-mentor at the time had really been emphasizing the presence of Jesus in the midst of my fear, loneliness, anger, and grief; and, here, the Lord was truly meeting me through his Word and I found great consolation and strength. But, it was how God used all of this to lead me into deeper relationship and interdependency with trusted people that I have found the greatest transformation.
I sought out men in our Presbytery more frequently—Mike, Roger, Pat, and other friends throughout the country. God gave me grace to allow myself and my need to be exposed to others. And, I have experienced great freedom in this place.
“Erica was really the one who named our church — Hope. While we were driving to a chemo treatment. She saw this as what our city needed because it’s what she needed, what I needed — Hope. Hope of rest for our souls in Jesus. God’s healing comes only through the Valley of the shadow of death.
It’s in the shadow where the presence of Jesus is most intimately known, where our idols were confronted, where all of our supportive scaffolding of ambition and success was stripped away, where Erica and I were formed into a receiving and depending couple who really know the salvation and glory of God. It’s our faith-clinging to this living hope where we are becoming receivers and ultimately mediators of this healing to the people of our city.”
“We’re still ambitious, and we long to explore new ways God might work mightily through us in this world. But, this ambition has less and less of a grip on our identity as we find rest in being receivers of grace, and members of a community of need.”