As some of you may know, I have been battling cancer (chronic lymphocytic leukemia, to be exact) for almost seven years now. Without going through many of the details (you can find more in my personal blog and in this blog prior to last July), this battle is not one that I am winning; at least not if winning means being cured. Last August, we decided to stop aggressive treatment as there is little to no chance that it really will do any good. In January my health really began to decline and while I have stabilized since then after we found the proper mixture of steroids, supplementary oxygen and medication, I know that it is only a matter of time before I decline even further.
Recently, Faith Today published an interview that they did with me in the spring. While I don’t want my health to be the focus of my ministry or the thing that people think of when they think of Glenn Penner or The Voice of the Martyrs (which is why I moved my health updates to my personal blog), I do want people to know how much knowing and working with persecuted Christians has influenced the way that I have responded to cancer. Karen Stiller did a very nice job with the interview and I am grateful for having had the opportunity to share a bit of what God has been doing in my life. And so, I thought I would share it with you. While much of this isn’t really all that new to those of you who know me, it does reflect a lot of what I have been thinking of as I continue on this journey that God has set my feet on. I hope you find it helpful.
Inspired by the Persecuted Church
A Faith Today Interview With Glenn Penner
May/June 2009: 30-32
Glenn Penner is chief executive officer of The Voice of the Martyrs Canada, a ministry to the persecuted church around the world, and the author of In the Shadow of the Cross: A Biblical Theology of Persecution and Discipleship (VOM Canada, 2007). He was diagnosed with cancer in 2002 and, recently, his doctors told him he has" months, not years" left. Glenn Penner is 47. He agreed to speak with Faith Today's Karen Stiller about living and about dying.
KS: Glenn, how are you approaching what appears to be the final home stretch in your battle with cancer? Where is your head at these days?
GP: I believe people are remembered for how they end the journey, not necessarily how they start it. When people have left this ministry [VOM] over the years, I have said to them, "Leave well," because that's how you'll be remembered. I've had a few years to think about this question of how I can finish well. It has sometimes actually become a bit of a preoccupation. I have to learn to relax about it and realize that we are finishing well. When I started with VOM, we were four people and a tiny budget. We're not huge now but we're doing quite a bit better. We have a bigger staff and a number of people doing the job I was doing, and doing it better.
KS: You work with a ministry that deals with hurting, suffering people around the world. How has that shaped your journey now?
GP: One of the things that has helped me through this has been working with a ministry that deals with suffering and death on a daily basis. It's a rare privilege. I've never struggled with anger, which may sound a bit weird or super- spiritual, but I haven't gone through a lot of the disappointment with God that many people do when facing their own mortality. I see it on a daily basis and, as I study the Word of God about suffering and persecution, I see that God has not promised us a break from these things. Suffering and death are normal things for anyone who is going to work for the purpose of God.
KS: So you have found a kind of inspiration from the persecuted church?
GP: When I was first diagnosed, it was a shock of course. And I remember lying in bed and thinking. My mind went back to some young women I had met a few years earlier in Ethiopia. I had helped start our work there and worked with women kicked out of their homes because of their faith. They were forced to beg on the streets and live in a hovel. And I asked them, "What does Jesus mean to you?"
They said: "He means everything to us. He gives us everything we need. He loves us. He's our Father." I looked around at what they had and I was amazed at their faith.
That night, as I was thinking about c these things, I said to the Lord: "If those people can stay faithful to You, so can I. Help me not to dishonour you through this." I've held on to that. One of the great joys for me is having people around the world who are being persecuted praying for me too. I've had the honour of meeting them. It's the fellowship of suffering.
KS: Sometimes, people who are suffering actually have to work to help others come to terms with it. Friends or acquaintances might ask: "How could God let this happen to you?" Have you faced that?
GP: I haven't had too many people come with that perspective. They know that in my mind, God doesn't protect us in many cases from the nastier things of life. He doesn't promise we'll live in a rose garden all the time. I think what I've had to struggle more with is everyone and their dog wanting me to try this diet or that supplement. And occasionally the person who doesn't know me very well who thinks he or she has a right to intrude and say things that are out of line -like I only need to accept Jesus as Saviour. Thanks, I never thought of that! Thankfully there hasn't been a lot of that. And I wouldn't have had the patience to put up with a lot of it.
KS: Have you felt supported by your community?
GP: I've felt tremendous support. And I think others have been encouraged that I have tried to exemplify trust. I've never had a sense that God is going to heal me. I let people pray for me if they want to. I've been anointed with oil a number of times and I welcomed that. But deep down in my heart, I never had a sense I would be healed. And I don't consider that a lack of faith. I felt it was the path God was calling me to - that I was to continue to glorify Him by living in an unchanging situation.
KS: How is your wife coping?
GP: She's tired. Sometimes I feel worse for the caregiver. She ends up having to take care of some mundane things for me. If I want a glass of water I have to ask her to get me one. That can happen a lot during the day. I do worry about her.
KS: Do you think about what heaven will be like?
GP: I've certainly thought about heaven a whole lot more than I would have ordinarily. There are times I think I'm not ready to go because I still have things to do. There are unfinished paths. One of my great passions in life is working on a theology of persecution. I wrote a book on that and so badly wanted to rework it. I feel I probably won't have the time or energy. There's a disappointment of things that are unfinished. There are times when I say "Lord, do I have to go now?" I'm not dreading heaven. I look forward to it. Some days I really do because it's really hard. I've always been a very purpose-driven person. I'm still struggling with the sense that I know heaven is not static - we're not going to be sitting there doing nothing.
KS: Are you thinking you might get bored?
GP: If heaven were only sitting around singing praise choruses, it wouldn't be my idea of heaven. I'm not the world's greatest singer.
KS: I see that you have kept your sense of humour. How important is that?
GP: Yes I have. It goes along in this ministry. You'd be surprised at how much humour there is, both with persecuted Christians and those who work alongside them. I always say I miss the old Soviet Union because they had the best jokes about Communists. If you study suffering Christians through history, you will find there is humour there as well. Maybe that is what Paul means when he talks about joy in suffering.
KS: What is the one message you would like to give to the Evangelical church in Canada?
GP: The fact of the reality of suffering Christians around the world. That suffering is normal for Christians. I was a pastor before I joined VOM. I don't understand how people can run away from God in the midst of suffering but they often do. When we need God the most, we often run away from Him. I have been so blessed, so honoured to work with our suffering brothers and sisters. They are so thankful when we come and serve them and show them we care. If the Canadian Church could see how impoverished we are because we've robbed ourselves of part of the Body of Christ ....
KS: We're not very good at suffering, are we?
GP: We see suffering as the worst thing that can happen whereas our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church see disobedience as the worst thing. I couldn't have gone through this time without having had my life enriched by them, by their faithfulness and trusting even when things don't get better. One of our problems is we expect God to protect us.
KS: And God's not going to do that?
GP: He has greater priorities in our life than keeping us from harm. His priority is to make us into the image of His Son. We serve a suffering God.
KS: Glenn, what do you wish you had done more of during your life?
GP: I wish I'd spent more time with my kids. I spent a lot of time on the road. But I'm not sure how it could have been done differently. I wish I could have touched base with my kids a little more. I wish I hadn't gotten caught up in things that actually weren't so important. I spent a lot of time on things that, in the grand scheme, probably didn't matter. There are not a lot of regrets. There are some. I've had some failures in my life and when I look back it saddens me. If anything I've learned to love God's grace. It's all there is. And this is grace, when people are able to suffer persecution and remain faithful.
KS: What gives you comfort and pleasure right now?
GP: Pleasure is something I'm struggling with right now. I'm struggling for breath a lot of the time. I'm not comfortable. I love to read when my eyes allow me to, but my eyes get very dry. Occasionally I listen to music. My iPod is my good buddy. There is some music that really does touch me.
KS: You have seen a lot of the world. You have written on your blog about being thankful for a Sudanese sunset. Are you glad you lived the life you lived?
GP: I'm thankful for the opportunities I've had to visit the places I've seen. It saddens me that I probably won't get back there. My favourite country on the planet is Sri Lanka. I love these places.
KS: It's been an extraordinary life.
GP: It hasn't been boring. I think my wife would have enjoyed a slightly more boring life sometimes. I'm feeling a little bit torn between here and there. Wanting to stay here but knowing that things will be better there.
KS: Are you afraid?
GP: The biggest fear I have - and that's not a bad thing to say - is not being able to breathe. That is troubling to me. Things will get worse here. I don't really know the path or how it's going to show itself. It takes a very different attitude to know that you've turned a corner you're probably not going to come back from. I'm getting to the point where I can't breathe. But we shall face that.
KS: What is the one message you want to leave your children?
GP: Live a life that matters. Live such a life that at the end of it someone will glorify God that you've been alive. That is something that has come to me so many times - that somebody somewhere is thanking God I'm alive and I've been willing to be used by Him. I think that is how we glorify God so people will say "Thank God this person was."
KS: It has been my privilege to talk to you. Thank you.