Suffering well: Faith tested by pastor's cancer
DALLAS — Matt Chandler doesn't feel anything when the radiation penetrates his brain. It could start to burn later in treatment. But it hasn't been bad, this time lying on the slab. Not yet, anyway.
Chandler's lanky 6-foot-5-inch frame rests on a table at Baylor University Medical Center. He wears the same kind of jeans he wears preaching to 6,000 people at The Village Church in suburban Flower Mound, where the 35-year-old pastor is a rising star of evangelical Christianity.
Another cancer patient Chandler has gotten to know spends his time in radiation imagining that he's playing a round of golf at his favorite course. Chandler on this first Monday in January is reflecting on Colossians 1:15-23, about the pre-eminence of Christ and making peace through the blood of his cross.
Chandler's hands are crossed over his chest. He wears a mask with white webbing that keeps his head still when metal fingers slide into place on the radiation machine, delivering the highest possible dose to what is considered to be fatal and incurable brain cancer.
This is Matt Chandler's new normal. Each weekday, he spends two hours in the car — driven from his suburban home to downtown Dallas — for eight minutes of radiation and Scripture.
At the hospital, Chandler sees other patients in gowns who get chemotherapy through catheters in their chests and is thankful he gets his in pills before going to sleep at home next to his wife.
Chandler is trying to suffer well. He would never ask for such a trial, but in some ways he welcomes this cancer. He says he feels grateful that God has counted him worthy to endure it. He has always preached that God will bring both joy and suffering but is only recently learning to experience the latter.
Since all this beganon Thanksgiving morning, Chandler says he has asked "why me?" just once, in a moment of weakness.
He is praying that God will heal him. He wants to grow old, to walk his two daughters down the aisle and see his son become a better athlete than he ever was.
Whatever happens, he says, is God's will, and God has his reasons. For Chandler, that does not mean waiting for his fate. It means fighting for his life.
Thanksgiving morning, a normal morning at the Chandler home.
The coffee brews itself. Matt wakes up, pours himself a cup, black and strong like always, and sits on the couch. He feeds 6-month-old Norah from a bottle. Burps her. Puts her in her bouncy seat.
The next thing Chandler knows, he is lying in a hospital bed.
What Chandler does not remember is that he suffered a seizure and collapsed in front of the fireplace, rattling the pokers. He does not remember biting through his tongue.
He does not remember his wife, Lauren, shielding the kids as he shook on the floor. Or, later, ripping the IV out of his arm and punching a medic in the face.
During the ambulance ride, Lauren, 29, looks back from the passenger seat at her husband in restraints.
He is looking at her but through her.
She texts the women in her Bible study and asks them to pray.
At the hospital, Matt comes to.
"Honey, what happened?"
"You had a seizure."
He realizes that their two older children — Audrey, 7, and Reid, 4 — had seen it.
"Are the kids OK?"
Tears well up in his eyes.
"They're fine. They're fine."
He dozes off, wakes up and asks about the kids again. The same exchange repeats itself five times, always ending the sameway, with Matt tearing up.
In short order, Chandler is wheeled back for a CT scan, followed by an MRI.
Not long afterward, the ER doctor walks in and sits next to him.
"You have a small mass on your frontal lobe. You need to see a specialist."
It was Thanksgiving. Chandler had not seen his kids for hours. He had collapsed in front of them. For whatever reason, those grim words from a doctor he'd never met did not cause his heart to drop. What Chandler thought was, "OK, we'll deal with that." Getting the news meant he could go home.
Chandler can be sober and silly, charming and tough. He'll call men "bro" and women "mama." He drives a 2001 Chevy Impala with 144,000 miles and a broken radio. He calls it the "Gimpala"
One of Chandler's sayings is, "It's OK to not be OK — just don't stay there." In other words, your doubts and questions are welcome at The Village Church, but eventually you need to pull it together.
He's also been known to begin sermons with the warning, "I'm going to yell at you from the Bible."
Chandler's long, meaty messages untangle large chunks of Scripture, a stark contrast to the "Eight Ways to Overcome Fear" sermons common to evangelical megachurches that took off in the 1980s. His approach appeals, he believes, to a generation looking for transcendence and power.
His theology teaches that all men are wicked, that human beings have offended a loving and sovereign God, and that God saves through Jesus' death, burial and resurrection — not because people do good deeds. In short, Chandler is a Calvinist, holding to a belief system growing more popular with young evangelicals.
"Matt goes right at Bible Belt Christianity and exposes the problems with it," says Collin Hansen, author of "Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist's Journey with the New Calvinists." ''He says, 'Enough of this playing around and trying to be relevant and using cultural touch points. Let's talk God's words.'"
Chandler's background does not suggest someone suited to the role. He grew up a military kid, drifting from Olympia, Wash., to Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Alameda, Calif., and Galveston, Texas.
Chandler was taught that Christianity meant not listening to secular music or seeing R-rated movies. He developed what he calls a small and "man-centered" view of God — that God will bless people who are good. That began to change when a high school football teammate started talking about the Gospel.
After graduating from a small Baptist college, Chandler became a fiery evangelist who led a popular college Bible study and traveled the Christian speaking circuit. He was hired from another church in 2002 at age 28 to lead what is now The Village Church, a Southern Baptist congregation that claimed 160 members at the time.
The church now meets in a newly renovated former Albertson's grocery store with a 1,430-seat auditorium; two satellite campuses are flourishing in Denton and Dallas. Chandler has a podcast following in the thousands and speaks at large conferences.
"What Matt does works because it resonates with the deep longing of the soul the average person can't even identify," said Anne Lincoln Holibaugh, the church's children's ministry director.
Tuesday after Thanksgiving. The Chandlers meet with Dr. David Barnett, chief of neurosurgery at Baylor University Medical Center.
The weekend had brought hope: A well-meaning church member who is a radiologist looked at Matt's MRI and concluded the mass was encapsulated, or contained to a specific area.
But Barnett delivers very different news. He saw what appeared to be a primary brain tumor — meaning a tumor that had formed in the brain — that was not contained. It had branches.
"Matt, I think you're dealing with something serious," Barnett says. "We need to do something about it quickly. Go home. Talk it over with your wife. Pray about it."
Chandler is facing brain surgery. He schedules it for that Friday, Dec. 4.
He is scared.
Questions start to haunt him. Am I going to wake up and be me? Am I going to wake up and remember Lauren?
The surgery begins around 2 p.m. A biopsy determines that it is, indeed, a primary brain tumor.
As far as Chandler knows, there is no history of cancer in his family. His tumor, like most others, was likely caused by a genetic abnormality, Barnett says. There's no way of knowing how long it's been there.
The surgeon is aggressive, pushing to remove as much of the mass as possible. It's in a relatively good place in the brain's "silent hemisphere," removed from areas that control most language skills.
The hospital has an intraoperative MRI, which allows surgeons to remove part of a tumor, stop, take a picture, look more closely, then go in and remove more. Barnett uses it twice during Chandler's surgery.
"You cannot be a timid neurosurgeon when you deal with these things," Barnett says later. "Your first shot is your best shot at treating this. I wanted to get as much of the tumor out as humanly possible, but I also wanted to be careful not to permanently injure him. It's a fine balance between the two."
Seven hours after entering surgery, Matt is wheeled to intensive care.
His head is swollen and wrapped in a bandage.
His irises are quivering.
Chandler wakes to Barnett's voice.
"Matt ... Matt ... Who am I?"
He knows the answer. Relief. His left side is numb. His facial expressions are frozen andhis voice has no pitch, what doctors call a "flat affect."
This is all good, leading Barnett to believe he pushed hard but not too hard.
Each day after the surgery, Chandler gets better, stronger.
"The first four days were just ... not scary, but hard," Lauren says. "I'm wondering, 'How much of this will stay? How much of this will be normal? How much of this will be the new normal?'"
Tuesday after surgery. Barnett meets with Lauren and Brian Miller, chairman of the church's elder board. The final pathology results are not in, but Barnett shares what he knows — the tumor was malignant, fast-growing and mean.
Though he removed what he could see, such tumors send tiny fingers of cells beyond their borders — and eventually a branch will reach back and grow another brain tumor, Barnett says.
Barnett asks Lauren and Miller to keep the diagnosis to themselves for a week so Matt can concentrate fully on recovering from surgery.
On Dec. 15, Barnett shares the pathology results with the Chandlers. Tumors are designated by grade — with Grade 1 being the least aggressive and Grade 4 being the most.
Chandler's tumor is a Grade 3.
The average life expectancy in such cases, Barnett says, is approximately two to three years. The doctor says later, in an interview, he believes Chandler will live longer because of the aggressive surgery, treatment and Chandler's otherwise good health.
There's also a chance that "God smiles upon us" and the cancer goes into remission for years, says Barnett, a devout Christian.
Before the meeting ends, Matt prays that his children and others do not grow resentful.
"Lord, you gave this to me for a reason. Let me run with it and do the best I can with it."
Barnett says later that he's witnessed many tragedies andmiracles. He has seen how people handle life-changing moments. He called Chandler's attitude one of the most amazing he's seen.
Chandler says learning he had brain cancer was "kind of like getting punched in the gut. You take the shot, you try not to vomit, then you get back to doing what you do, believing what you believe.
"We never felt — still have not felt — betrayed by the Lord or abandoned by the Lord. I can honestly say, we haven't asked the question, 'Why?' or wondered, 'Why me, why not somebody else?' We just haven't gotten to that place. I'm not saying we won't get there. I'm just saying it hasn't happened yet."
Later, Chandler clarified that. There was one moment when he looked at a Christmas card, saw a picture of a man who chronically cheated on his wife and thought, "Why not that guy?"
Chandler confessed to Lauren that his thoughts were wicked and wrong.
Monday, Jan. 4, a month after surgery. Morning breaks with 4-year-old Reid singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" at full volume. Matt sits at his laptop in the dining room, nursing a cup of green tea.
He's preparing to drive to a homeopathic clinic for an infusion of Vitamin C to bolster the immune system, followed by the long drive to downtown Dallas for radiation. He's in the midst of a six-week program of radiation and chemotherapy, to be followed by a break and more treatment.
Chandler never thought such a trial would shake his faith. But until now, that was just hope in the abstract.
"This has not surprised God," Chandler says on the drive home. "He is not in a panic right now trying to figure out what to do with me or this disease. Those things have been warm blankets, man."
Chandler has, however, wrestled with the tension between belief in an all-powerful God and what he, as a mere mortal, can do about his situation. He believes he has responsibilities: to use his brain, to take advantage of technology, to walk in faith and hope, to pray for healing and then "see what God wants to do."
"Knowing that if God is outside time and I am inside time, that puts some severe limitations on my ability to crack all the codes," he says. "The more I've studied, the more I go, 'Yes, God is sovereign, and he does ask us to pray ... and he does change his mind.' How all that will work is in some aspects a mystery."
Since falling ill, Chandler has gotten letters from the governor and pastors in Sudan. He has tried to steer attention to others, including a 6-year-old Arizona girl with cancer.
At church, he has deflected sympathy with reassurances that this is a good thing, that he is not shrinking back. Chandler has preached the last two weekends and is planning trips to South Africa and England. He recently lost his hair to radiation but got a positive lab report last week and feels strong.
"The human experience commonly shared is suffering," said Mark Driscoll, pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church and a friend of Chandler's. "If he suffers well, that might be the most important sermon he's ever preached."
Chandler would rather this not have happened. But he is drinking life in — watching his son build sandcastles at the park, preaching each sermon as if eternity is at stake — and feeling a heightened sense of reality.
"It's carpe diem on steroids," he says.
At the dinner table on the sixth day of radiation, new normal looks like this: Reid in Spiderman pajamas. Peanut butter and jelly dipped in honey for the kids, turkey chili for the adults.
And peppermint ice cream.
It is a diaper changed, dishes done.
Matt Chandler takes his chemo pills and goes to bed, grateful for another day.