I could not think of a more uplifting message to share with the readers of the Character Building Project during the Christmas season than the following address of my friend and neighbor, David Rathburn, the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Grove City College. While currently undergoing the traumatic challenges of stage three cancer, David has kept the faith that he learned many years ago from his parents and his college community.
When I was a student here I didn’t have very much money, so I found numerous jobs to allow me to buy gas and late night food at Pizza Villa – a place long since closed that few around here probably remember it right by the Guthrie Theater.
I shoveled snow (and we had a lot of it in the late 70’s), I wrote sports stories about Grove City athletics for the Butler Eagle and Sharon Herald, and I went to the Pittsburgh airport to pick up important people who were coming to campus – most often to give a lecture. I picked up the great actor Vincent Price, the sports participant/writer George Plimpton, and Richard Bach, author of Johnathon Livingston Seagull.
For those that don’t remember, his novella was based on a seagull that was searching out the meaning of life, and makes friends with two other birds who convince him there is a higher plain of existence, either above or instead of heaven.
Apparently, I was so fervent in my perspective about Grove City and its connection with my faith and a campus of believers that Mr. Bach was afraid he would get booed and receive an unfavorable reception. He didn’t want to give the speech. I didn’t know until long after the speech he gave that President Mackenzie had convinced him to go on stage, that the nature of our students and our academic community would be respectful to him.
In fact, the reason he was here was so that we could hear a different point of view, and Dr. MacKenzie assured him that we treated all visitors with respect and he had nothing to be concerned about in regard to his reception. His speech was interesting and I disagreed with much of it, but I was happy that I went to hear someone else’s point of view. Dr. MacKenzie was delighted that our community lived up to his expectations related to an appropriate reception of an invited guest on our campus.
Now, more than 35 years later I find myself thinking every day about this community and how much it means to me. It is why I can title today’s address as “The Blessing of Cancer” and sincerely mean it.
Now I suspect that some of you are thinking that I have lost my mind, that the fog of Chemo brain has overtaken my good senses – how can you possibly talk about this disease that has taken my taste buds, made it difficult for me to drink anything colder than 80 degrees in the first two weeks after chemo, made it impossible for me to take anything out of the freezer without wearing gloves, caused my teeth to chatter in the middle of the night because three blankets on top of me were not enough, the photo sensitivity of my skin, a continual upset stomach as well as other things. The other day I reached into the refrigerator to grab some mustard – no big deal right? Well it was too cold and I instinctively dropped it – can you imagine a mustard bomb?
It was on the walls, the refrigerator, the light fixture, the cabinets, and of course me. What a sight – but I have to tell you that my wife and I both got a laugh out of the experience because it reminded us how much we are blessed to do the normal things in life that many can’t – three days later we were still finding mustard all around the kitchen.
So you might be wondering to yourself – tell me again how is it possible that this is a blessing in your life?
Much of the reason I describe it as a blessing is a result of the College Community, or family as my good friend Dr. Morledge likes to call it.
It is difficult for me to describe how humbled I am by the outpouring of love, support, and prayer for me. I have received personal notes of encouragement from the Student Government Association – handwritten with bible verses or words of support or simply we are praying for you messages. I have received cards or letters from multiple sports teams, retired housekeepers and administrators alike, from professors and students and staff members – the collection of cards and notes is nearly a foot tall on my counter. I got a signed picture of Mark Andre Fleury with a note attached encouraging me to “shut-out cancer”.
I received an autographed Bill Mazeroski baseball bat encouraging me to “hit a grand slam against cancer”. The list goes on and on about these messages from my family here at the College.
I attribute it all to faithfulness and love. C.S. Lewis wrote about the problem of pain. We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Indeed it certainly has my attention, and I feel as if I am now His instrument to help arouse the world to the importance of His grace and faithfulness.
Faithfulness is so important to the trustees that we made it the first of our five values in the strategic plan. That plan is named “Building for a strong and faithful future.” The Lord has provided greatly for this institution over the years because we have been faithful to our mission and to Him. It is easy to get lost along the way, and there are numerous institutions that we can point to that have fallen off the tracks or as they would say becoming more open minded – the fact is that they have lost their heritage and strayed from the intent of their founding fathers – schools like Harvard and Princeton are but two of multiple examples who lost their connection to God and the scriptures and abandoned the Christian nature of their founding.
Thankfully, we are not in that category – we have been faithful to our roots because not only is it the right thing to do but because we are called by God at this time to be a shining light in the world of higher education. Our journey is not without challenges, both those that we have overcome and those we know are in the future. One only has to open the Chronicle of Higher Education or frankly any of the contemporary newspapers to understand the challenge of enrollment at this time. We also face the challenge of funding scholarship to continue to meet our stated intention of an affordable education.
While our campus is among the most beautiful in the country, we have challenges that face us in the future, from a field house to updating the library to dealing with men’s dormitories and solving the needs we have in the STEM area relative to space and quality.
But I believe, and I think you do as well that God’s faithfulness will sustain us, enrich us and provide for us as we meet the challenges of today and tomorrow. How do I know this, because I have seen what He has done in my own life – each time there was a challenge big or small my faithfulness was rewarded in full measure by God’s gifts – not always the answer I wanted but always one where I could understand God’s plan for my life.
That is the fruit of His gift of faithfulness, and I believe it is our collective faithfulness that will help us meet whatever challenges come our way.
We are a community of people – your love, prayers and caring for me in this time of illness demonstrate that to me in a way that is almost incomprehensible for my family – what a blessing you have been in our lives, especially in this last 90 days. I don’t know what the future will bring, but we are optimistic that a summer of daily radiation and additional chemo will lead to a result that allows me to continue to do the things I believe I am called to do before my time on earth is complete.
Romans 5, verses 1-5 reminds us: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, character, and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God has poured out his love into our hearts by His Holy Spirit.
May that hope lift you up for whatever issues you have in your lives as it has lifted me up?
I know with every fiber in my body that God has a plan for my life as He does for yours. Whatever suffering you may have, embrace it with the perseverance Paul talks about, and let your character, through God’s grace, receive the hope that we all find in Jesus Christ.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May he make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
May he lift up His countenance upon you,
And grant you peace.”’