With the Christian world continuing to mourn the loss of the Rev. Steve Hayner, a pastor, author and the former president of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, friends and loved ones have spoken out about the faith leader's stellar character and unbridled bravery as he publicly battled terminal cancer over the past year.
But what some might not realize is that Hayner, who was 66 years old when he passed away on January 31 after a nearly year-long battle with pancreatic cancer, had kept an online journal where he documented his entire journey through the disease from start to finish.
After reading through his emotional posts, which included his candid struggles, his hopes and the lessons he learned about his Christian faith as he battled for his life, it's easy to understand why two people who once spent time with Hayner and his wife, Sharol, described feeling as though they were "on holy ground" in their presence.
In addition to the inspiring sentiment sprinkled throughout, Hayner's blog offers readers a rare opportunity to see the emotional, physical and spiritual struggles one goes through when faced with terminal cancer. TheBlaze has chosen to recap 15 of the most inspirational posts from May 2014 through January 2015, offering you a glimpse into Hayner's journey:
"God Is Good!"
When Hayner launched his journal on May 1, 2014, he described some of the pitfalls of his disease, though his strong Christian faith was already on full display. While he admitted that he didn't feel very well and was in pain, documenting some of the difficulties he was going through, he concluded his post with the words "God is good!"
"Given the range of possibilities as the biliruben level in my blood continues to rise, my symptoms have been pretty manageable," he wrote. "The hardest part is that I have no appetite, can't eat animal fats, and am continuing to lose weight. I'm lighter now than at any time since i was in junior high."
He continued, "We have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have written email, cards, and letters indicating that they are praying. It is humbling, and it brings great joy."
"My Energy Is Very Low"
Just days later on May 7, Hayner revealed that doctors had also found small lesions on his liver in an MRI that turned out to be cancerous, meaning that a surgery they had been planning at the time was no longer an option, thus delaying the start of his treatment.
"The hardest part of this is not the seeming setback, but rather the delay in starting some sort of treatment that will begin to relieve the increasing symptoms of the jaundice," Hayner admitted. "My energy is very low. I continue to lose weight. And I just plain feel sick most of the time."
He went on, though, to thank friends and family for their prayers: "We continue to be carried along by the prayers of many. I’m sorry that I cannot respond to each of the incredible cards, emails and texts which continue to pour in. We feel so loved."
Steve Hayner (Twitter)
"We Are All Rejoicing"
In posts throughout the month of May, Hayner began sharing the additional changes his body was going through, including his 15-pound weight loss. He also joked about his ability to eat all the "healthy" things he wanted and expressed gratitude that some of his energy was returning.
Then, on May 26 he shared news that his fifth grandchild had been born, rejoicing over the development despite his dire circumstances.
"Last evening our 5th grandchild, Jack William Hayner (10 lbs. 4 ozs), was born. Parents, Chip & Kristen Hayner (in Nashville), and sister, Lainey (3), are all doing well," he wrote. '"He's big enough to carry his mom home!' We are all rejoicing."
"Life Is Lived in the Grace of Jesus"
Hayner opened his blog post on May 27 with scripture from Romans 5:1-5, a portion of the New Testament that speaks about being justified by faith, while also touching upon the peace that believers can find through Jesus Christ.
Most notably, though, the scripture also mentions the trials that believers will go through — troubles that, though oft-times painful, can bring about "patient endurance" and "mature character."
After sharing the scripture, Hayner said that the words were particularly relevant to him, writing:
These were great verses to wake up to this morning. Life is lived in the grace of Jesus through and through--whether the grace is obvious in our immediate circumstances or not. With Jesus at work in our lives, God's "good" is always being done and we always continue to grow and to be transformed.
I realized this morning that the next chapter of this journey is the scariest part for me so far. It's easier for me to think about dying than it is to think about feeling sick all the time--or having the quality of my life and ministry thoroughly compromised. And there are so many unknowns that come with chemotherapy. "Full of joy here and now even in our trials and troubles ..." That's where I want to stand.
A Lesson About "Simple Faith"
And new challenges did arise. After his journey with chemo began, Hayner candidly shared the trials and tribulations he was facing in a June 6 blog post, including nausea and exhaustion, noting that his blog posts were become more scant due to his health condition at the time.
Rather than hide what he was feeling, he shared that some days he was discouraged, as he was highly medicated and feeling out of sorts.He also reflected on the advice he had given others when faced with the challenges he was now going through — and he realized something profound about his own faith and the faith of others supporting him:
I have thought about how often I have advised people to let others carry them in their faith during these times, too. Like the 4 friends in the story about Jesus in Mark 2:1-12. It was not the paralytic's faith to which Jesus responded initially, but the simple faith of the man's friends. I woke up one day this week and realized that i couldn't locate anything like a genuine "faith" inside me which would provide enough strength to pray or to reflect or to meditate. But then it occurred to me that I didn't need any. God's grace is not about me. So whatever God has for me is going to come from outside anyway. There are so many people who have asked us how they can help--and that morning I realized that they were helping by simply "being faith" for me. They were welcoming God's grace when I couldn't even do that much.
And so, I nestled into my pillow, and enjoyed a moment of realization that I was simply being held by joy.
"I'm Living Into Whatever Today's Version of My 'Calling' Is"
Perhaps one of the more intriguing themes observed when reading Hayner's blog is his reflection on and reaction to major life milestones and holidays. Consider that he wrote a post on June 23, his 66th birthday, expressing his "joy" despite his pain and explaining how he was no longer looking to seize the day, but was, instead, focusing on being grateful for what he had.
"But today, on my 66th birthday, I have much less of a desire to 'seize the day' and a greater desire to welcome it--with all it's twists and turns, surprises and disappointments, moments of delight and discoveries of a yet other areas to which I must pray my 'good-byes' and let the grieving roll," he wrote. "So, today, on my 66th, I'm living into whatever today's version of my 'calling' is. I'm going to be as curious, as attentive, as genuinely joyful, and as grateful for every hug and every pill as God gives me the grace to be."
Steve Hayner (Columbia Theological Seminary)
"My Life on This Earth Is Now to Be Counted in Weeks and Months"
It was on July 23, though, that Hayner penned the post that indicated a turning point in his journey. Despite four rounds of chemotherapy, there was only marginal shrinkage of the cancer and, as he wrote at the time, the disease still had the "upper hand." Though he said he was praying for a miracle, he and his family were being realistic about the outcome.
"What now seems clear from a purely physical perspective is that in all probability the remainder of my life on this earth is now to be counted in weeks and months. This was not completely unexpected news for either [my wife] Sharol or me. We have known all along that this cancer was virulent and aggressive," he wrote. "We feel good that we have given it a strong fight from what is available from medical science. I have an exceptional oncology team, and an even better team of those who are continuing to pray and to support us in this battle."
Hayner proceeded to discuss how he would balance his treatment with the quality of the life he had left, using his struggles to remind readers about the nature of the world we live in. He continued:
This is an "in your face" reminder of the nature of our broken world. None of this is the way that God intended for life to be, and yet it is one part of destiny which we will all share one day.
There is a much bigger story of which this is only a tiny part. And it is God's story of love, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation, and joy. We went into this journey choosing to trust God and to offer our fears to God. We've been so grateful for the freedom from fear and the abundance of peace that we have experienced. There are, of course, times of discouragement, grief, pain, and wonder. After all, there are a lot of unknowns ahead of us.
Many are praying for one of God's "big" miracles. We are as well. But it is not how God answers prayer that determines our response to God. God is committed to my ultimate healing. But being cured of my cancer may or may not be a part of that healing work.
"This Is a 'Darker' Time for Me"
On September 3, Hayner said he was possibly depressed, but that "depression is hard to measure" as it comes in "so many shades and levels with so many varying symptoms. What he was sure of, though, was that he was experiencing a "darker" time in his life, as chemo treatments were forging on.
"I do know that this is a 'darker' time for me as the accumulative side effects of the chemo extends farther into every week, as the fatigue confines me for longer periods to my bed or the couch, and the general sense of feeling rotten clouds my days," Hayner wrote. "It's definitely not a 'happy' time. Despite a common view that a person can simply 'will' his or her way out of darkness, it is generally not that simple. Depression includes a complex cluster of chemical and psychological components."
Living in the darkness means that I have to shift gears. And I don't like having to do that. I don't mind slowing down, but to shift into a mode where the best that I can do is to listen to something from the internet or TV, to pray, or to have a very short text conversation with a friend is discouraging.
I'm not experiencing this every day, but I am experiencing it with increasing regularity right now. I'm hoping that this is temporary and that I will see some recovery once this current series of chemo is over. When i am not on chemo, I feel so much better. But, of course, during these times I also don't know how the cancer is continuing to progress.
So what is there to do in the dark times? The first thing is not to be afraid or embarrassed to identify it. Unfortunately in our culture, there is still a kind of shame connected with depression, as if we should never experience it. And after all, I'm the guy who signs every letter with "joyfully". But joy is dependent on who I am and how I am loved more than on my circumstances. It is happiness that takes the hit when circumstances go bad. Not joy.
But in a September 7 post, Hayner said he was feeling encouraged and much better from a health perspective, proceeding to thank those praying for him.
"From Life to Life"
Hayner briefly updated readers about his condition in a September 17 post, but warned them that he would mainly be "theologizing." Fully aware that the cancer was posing a serious threat to his life, Hayner admitted that he had been thinking about "eternal life," which he said is a concept that differs a bit from how many people define "heaven":
Eternal life in the Bible is defined as the present reality of knowing God as revealed in Jesus. In John 17:13 Jesus prays, "And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent." Especially through the Gospel of John it is clear that "eternal life" is to be considered the primary identity or state of a person who knows God. We have eternal life NOW, not only as an expectation for the future.
One of the hardest realities about eternal life seen this way is that our experience of eternal life is almost always in transition. Our lives and our perceptions are constantly changing as we grow and develop.
I choose to call all of these transitions, particularly the bigger ones, "conversions" precisely because they signal the movement from one understanding or way of being to another.
Hayner said that the first conversion in eternal life is when one accepts Jesus; other conversions follow in life, he argued, noting that he was aware that he would be moving from "life to Life" — a reference to his impending death.
'"Conversions' are happening in my life, and, I assume, that they will continue to happen until the moment of my final 'conversion,'" he wrote. "Or perhaps my movement from life to Life won't be the final change. Maybe there is a lot more. All of that is still ahead of me, and I confidence that it will be nothing short of spectacular."
Steve Hayner (CaringBridge)
"Why Should Death Be an Awkward Topic?"
In an October 15 post, Hayner dove back into uncomfortable territory, writing about death and noting that people, many times, want to avoid the "awkward conversation," but that he wanted to provide a forum to help their unease with the subject.
"Conversations about death and dying are often awkward in our culture. We want to think more positively, or more optimistically. We want to be encouraging," he wrote. "For people of faith there is often the feeling that to talk about death is the opposite of talking about hope, and we want to be people who offer hope. It is our awkwardness around the subject of death that keeps us from considering our own deaths, or planning our funerals, or even making sure that we have written a will."
He admitted that he had been in the midst of some uncomfortable conversations on the subject of late, but that he wanted to help those around him become more comfortable speaking about the subject.
"Now that I am the one living with the dying process on a daily basis, I am trying to help people around me feel more comfortable with it all," he added. "After all, why should death be an awkward topic? One of the Presbyterian creeds begins with the words, 'In life and and I death we belong to the Lord.' Believers of other time and cultures have often spoken about death with anticipation and even enthusiasm."
"I Feel a Little Embarrassed"
As his health struggles intensified, Hayner opened up further about his fears, admitting in an October 20 blog post the new-found uncomfortableness he felt when he was away from home for too long — something that he said developed during his illness:
I feel a little embarrassed talking about a fear that I have just identified. There are are so many ultimate fears that I could have right now, and this one seems so petty. Nevertheless it has emerged, and like most fears needs to be faced.
My fear has to do with security in my day to day living. For over five months now I have been generally house bound. It's not that I don't go out of the house. I go over to the campus; I go for walks; I go to the hospital and and doctor's office (though these excursions are not generally happy); and I have occasionally gone out for a meal. But my place of security is at home -- close to Sharol, close to my bed, tethered to my familiar life patterns, my medications and all the things that give me comfort. When I'm sick I just want to be home and close to the familiar.
As the days have progressed I now recognize that I've grown dependent. And with this dependence has come a fear of being away from home for too long. Thinking about travel for more than a few hours makes me anxious.
He went on to describe facing his fear one night by staying out late with friends.
"I Wonder Some Days How God Regards My Time"
Also evident throughout the blog posts is Hayner's concern for his time and his quest to use his remaining days the best he possibly could — the focus of an entry he published on November 26, the day before Thanksgiving.
"Recently I've been plagued by questions about how I am using my time. Knowing that my time on this earth is limited is a strong motivation to use the days I have left to the fullest. Some days, of course, I have little choice because I don't feel well enough to do much. There are natural, health-related limitations," he wrote. "But on the days that I feel relatively good, I do have options. I look back some days and wonder whether I have been as faithful as I could be in how I have used my time."
Hayner continued, "I wonder some days how God regards my time. I'm sure that just being busy isn't the right criterion. Yesterday I was taking a little rest and found myself wondering whether resting was the right thing to be doing when I actually felt good enough to do more."
He admitted, though, that there are times that reflection and thought are more important than being active and accomplishing things. He shared some of the questions he began asking to assess the viability and appropriateness of his activities:
Internally I find that I am developing questions to help me in my discernment. They include, for example: 1) Is this activity something where my joy intersects with my perception of what brings joy to God? 2) Am I living into this activity with gratitude for the opportunity given to me? 3) Am I able to receive the time before me as a gift, or does it actually feel like a waste or a burden? 4) Does this activity play into old patterns of procrastination on the one hand or overwork on the other? 5) How does this activity express love--for God, for each other, and for God's work in the world?
In the end, he said the real question about his days isn't how productive they were, but, instead, how much joy and how much love and gratitude his acts expressed.
"I Don't Want to Be a Complainer"
Even during the times when Hayner noted that he wasn't feeling well, he was quick to say that he didn't "want to be a complainer," as he proclaimed in a December 15 blog post, written just six weeks before his death.
"But I don't want to be a complainer. I am committed to living into joy no matter what the circumstances," he said. "So what helps? Focusing on an eternal perspective, which I have written about recently, certainly helps me to look outwardly rather than inwardly even when my body is screaming for my attention."
He continued, "I am discovering that so much of living with chronic disease depends on my attitude. And my attitude requires that I be intentional. To what will I give my attention? What will I value? For what am I grateful? Among other things I know i am grateful for each of you!"
"The Last Time My Family and I Will Spend This Celebration Together"
Then came Christmas — the final holiday that Hayner anticipated celebrating with his family. While his blog post was joyous, he admitted that he had struggled with his attitude the day before and revealed that, despite his best efforts to make Christmas Eve memorable, the day didn't come without its challenges:
It's Christmas morning--likely the last time my family and I will spend this celebration together. I feel a certain responsibility to make it memorable, or to somehow do it right. But I'm not sure what that means. And I'm not off to a very good start. Yesterday I tried. And I practically ruined the day, at least for myself.
Christmas Eve is a big day of traditions in our home, and the family was all gathered. But, instead of just enjoying the day, I found myself getting grumpy about the little things that went wrong. The grandkids were frequently unable to get along. One of our kids had a stomach virus and couldn't participate. The schedule kept having to be changed. And I kept feeling that I was the only one who really cared about making this a really good day. So instead of delighting in the family and in the activities, I found myself muttering under my breath--as unhappy with myself as I was with everyone else.
Yet despite my bad attitude, it was a pretty good day. The children had a lot of fun. Our traditional birthday party for Jesus in the evening was festive and meaningful. Our wooden nativity scene, which has not included the baby Jesus throughout Advent, secretly received the baby Jesus between dinner and dessert as it does every year. We had our traditional ice cream cake. And after dessert we all enjoyed the family Christmas pageant. This year the highlight for me was watching our 8 month old grandson crawling around dressed up like a sheep between the legs of Joseph and two Marys (we had two granddaughters who both wanted to be Mary).
In the end, he said it was a nice holiday after all.
"The Cancer Is on the Move in My Body."
And on January 1, just weeks before he passed away, Hayner proclaimed that with the new year had come a new chapter in his cancer journey: he had officially entered hospice care and had suspended treatments.
"The cancer is on the move in my body. There are new tumors throughout my liver, and the tumor on the head of my pancreas has almost doubled in size," he wrote. "There was the possibility that I could go into a phase one clinical trial, but the big question for me was how I wanted to spend my last months. A drug trial guarantees nothing, and optimistically could only give me an extra month or two of life if it were effective."
Hayner continued, "We decided that there are better ways that we would like to spend these last months. I remain committed to the conviction that everyday still contains both a call from God and journey from which I need to learn. So with this New Year comes a new chapter. I am now officially under hospice care. This new team will walk me to the finish line of this life. I will have whatever medical, social, and spiritual support I need from both the hospice team and our family, friends, church and seminary families."
Hayner died January 31, with his wife, Sharol, writing on the blog that he passed away while surrounded by his friends and family and "without pain."
"We are grieved, but not as those who have no hope," she wrote. "Truly, it was beautiful to walk him home together and we trust that he is now experiencing the fullness of joy in Jesus’ presence."
After reading his blog posts, it's no surprise that so many in the Christian world have showered praise upon him. Consider the words of Fuller Theological Seminary president Mark Labberton, who explained just how massive Hayner's impact had been on his own life.
"It would be hard to think of anyone other than my brother who has more fully bracketed my life as a person, a pastor, a leader, a disciple, a friend," he explained. "There's hardly been a decision since I was 18 where your friendship or example or encouragement or invitation hasn't helped clear the ground for me to take the next step."
Rich Stearns, president of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian aid group, also spoke recently about Hayner's character traits — the ideals that so many others are also praising in the wake of his passing.
"Steve’s faithful leadership was marked by the godly wisdom described in James 3:17 — wisdom that ‘is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere,'" Stearns said in a statement issued to TheBlaze. "He modeled for all of us how to glorify Christ in all things and at all times — forever and always pointing the way to Christ."
Columbia Theological Seminary similarly praised its former president, noting that he always worked "to always live to and for an audience of One," while ensuring he operated through and with integrity.