Cancer and the Cooperative Program


On March 21, 1973, White House Counsel John Dean told the president the harsh truth: “We have a cancer — within — close to the Presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it compounds itself.”

The process Dean described to President Nixon involves something the medical community calls “angiogenesis.” That is, when a cancer cell begins to divide, it wants to grow fast. That rapid, irregular growth can only happen if the vascular system supplies the growing cancer with oxygen and nutrient rich blood.

So the body begins to work against itself. New blood vessels are formed and stretch to feed the growing cancer. The tumor begins to take shape, and the more geometrically and quickly the cancer grows, the more the healthy cells begin to die. The body literally reconfigures itself to feed a metastasis and starve healthy tissues.

I remember the first time I saw this in action.  The patient’s name was Lela Kate Butler, and she was 82.

I had spent every night for about a week at Arlington Memorial Hospital visiting Mrs. Butler. On Friday night and into Saturday, I stayed alone in her room with her.  By that point, she was pretty much sleeping all the time.  The doctors had told us that she would probably not make it through the weekend.

I stayed up that evening reading the Bible aloud to her and praying, at times through tears.  Just the previous Sunday, Mrs. Butler had been in church, seated at her regular place with her daughter, Bertha, by her side. But on Monday or Tuesday, she had fallen in her home and was rushed to the hospital less than a mile away. What we thought was going to be a fracture turned into something much, much worse.

It was ovarian cancer, and it was bad.  Very bad. She probably had a week at most.

Mrs. Butler didn’t want to go through chemotherapy or radiation. She’d been down that path before.  She just wanted to be comfortable and prepare her soul to meet Jesus while her body wasted away.  I anticipated she would get increasingly weak, and shriveled, and her eyes would become cloudy.  And I hoped she would die peacefully.

But that’s not how things went down.  Lela Kate Butler stopped eating by mid-week, and the doctors continued to supply her with nourishment intravenously. But we were warned: “The cancer cells are the hungry cells. Most of the nourishment she’s receiving is only going to feed those cells.”

Her family couldn’t bare the thought of her starving to death. And to be honest, none of us were really prepared for what happened next.

Lela Kate began to grow. Every day over the next several days — and almost every few hours — we could see a change.  Her abdomen was swelling, like she was being pumped full of air.  But the doctors told us that can happen.  It was the cancer, getting larger, feasting on the nourishment which the sustained food source supplied.

By the time she died, Mrs. Butler had more than doubled in size. The pain and the pressure was immense.  She stopped talking.  All she could do was groan. It was, to that point, one of the more horrifying deaths I’d ever witnessed.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about cancer recently, and studying almost every night about various forms of cancer, their treatments, the effects of those treatments, and survivability rates.  According to the National Cancer Institute, there are more than 100 different types of cancer cells.  But they all have one thing in common.

They grow faster than healthy cells.  And the faster they grow, the more of the body’s healthy blood supply they need.

A radiologist looking at test results will tell you that a pattern of rapid, irregular, and unexplained cell growth could indicate the presence of cancer. Something the body tries to conceal at first — even compensate for — but that eventually reveals itself when the right tests are performed and the right questions asked.

This biomedical evidence of cancer can also be true of institutions, organizations, and corporations.

Think of Enron’s meteoric revenue growth or Krispy Kreme’s ambitious expansions.

But it can also be true of churches, associations, conventions, and seminaries.

Now to be sure, the Book of Acts records the unprecedented, culture-transforming, politically-destabilizing, and miraculous growth of the early church.  On day one there were 3,000 souls added to the church.  Within a few more days, the number grew to 5,000.  Even the modern church has seen the kind of growth that only God can do: Billy Graham’s Los Angeles crusade in 1949 saw 350,000 come to hear the evangelist and several thousand decisions. Just last month, Saddleback Church announced it had baptized 50,000 people.

When growth like that happens in the church, the instinct of any believer should be to trust that God is working among his people and adding to their number by the power of the Spirit.

But in the Southern Baptist Convention, rapid growth — like precipitous decline — can indicate that something else is happening.  And questions should be asked.  And second opinions sought.

Because it could be a sign of something very unhealthy in the Body of Christ.  Or it could be God at work.  Either way, the Southern Baptist Convention’s funding formula — for all its strengths — is designed to work like an ecclesial angiogenesis.

Rapid growth will result in more blood flow, i.e. Cooperative Program dollars.

You might call it the jugular.

To be continued . . .


9 thoughts on “Cancer and the Cooperative Program

  1. This dramatic story of your poor friend is not helpful in anyway. In fact, to those of us who have witnessed the cancer death of a loved one, and are now facing it personally, it only preys on our fears and our hard-to-control emotions. Rather than exploit her death for your own purposes, you should use her death to help others see how the death of a saint is precious in the sight of the Lord. You used her experience to dramatize your own agenda, and this hurt me personally. I agree changes need to be made, but this tactic came across as exploitive. Don’t use the cancer card to further your argument. It’s too personal to too many suffering brothers and sisters.

    1. Mamo Spunk Poodle:
      Your comment was published without any edit. Your perspective is welcome, albeit invalid.
      Lela Kate Butler was a dear saint of God, indeed. As a mother of four wonderful daughters, she would be horrified that women have been treated as they have in some circles of Southern Baptist life. She would also be proud that her pastor shared her story, in any context, because she was very explicit that she did not want a sterilized narrative about her diagnosis and suffering. The things I wrote were almost exactly the words I shared at her funeral. It isn’t a cancer card, and I resent that YOU — not I — would reduce the illustration of this precious woman’s short battle to the realm of political. You also have no idea where this is headed, but I’m confident you’ll keep coming back to read more. That’s how much you feel “preyed upon” and “hurt personally.”

      Do you often go back to places where you’ve been “preyed upon” and “hurt personally?” It seems you may have some unresolved issues of the Stockholm variety, if so.

      The Baptist Blogger.

  2. Who are you to say someone’s opinion is invalid? You are a bully and I question your actual relationship with the Lord. Jesus would not speak to anyone the way you have spoken. This article is entirely inappropriate and your response to a comment is belittling and offensive.

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