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Pastor tells of ‘maximized’ life in midst of battle with cancer

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–“These last few months, I’ve had to learn how to swallow all over again,” Ernest Easley told a chapel audience at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This was no clever sermon illustration or play on words by the pastor of First Baptist Church, Odessa, Texas. This was his life. Forty-four radiation treatments to stop a fast-growing cancer in Easley’s throat had had the effect of “burning him up on the inside,” leaving numerous ulcers in his mouth and throat and making swallowing an impossibility.

Sixteen months ago, Easley said he was 40 years old and in the “prime of life.” He had just completed his fifth year at First Baptist and had seen the church baptize a record 232 people the previous year.

But when he discovered a lump near the lymph node on the side of his neck, in the next few days a series of examinations and painful biopsies revealed a fast-growing malignant cancer in one lymph node with the primary source unknown.

Easley remembers when the doctor told him and his wife, Julie, the bad news.

“We sat there in his office on Oct. 12 [1998], never dreaming in a million worlds what I was about to hear,” Easley said.

In the next couple of days, his doctor took more biopsies from his esophagus and nasal areas and found that Easley’s right tonsil was the primary source. The doctor removed the tonsil and a day later recommended a much more invasive surgery — an ear-to-ear incision and removal of every lymph node and all muscle tissue that might be infected.

The doctor also told Easley, “There’s a good possibility that I may have to remove your voice box” because being sure to remove all the cancer was a matter of life and death.

During his March 22 chapel message, Easley likened his situation to that of King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20:1-6. In the text, Hezekiah was deathly ill and had been told by the prophet Isaiah to “set your house in order for you shall die.” With much weeping, Hezekiah petitioned God to extend his life, and God did so.

Faced with invasive surgery, Easley sought a second opinion from doctors at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. After seeing seven head-and-neck oncologists, Easley was given an alternative — 44 radiation treatments, which would require Easley to move to Houston.

Scared and confused, Easley and his wife returned home to Odessa to tell their family and the church the news.

Like Hezekiah, he knew he needed to set his house in order, which he did by meeting with his attorney. And like Hezekiah, he prayed and wept before the Lord.

Before leaving for Houston, Easley went to his backyard, which he called his Gethsemane, to be alone with God. There, he raised his hands to God and with tears flowing from his eyes prayed: “God, I have begged you to maximize my life for you. And, God, I know you’re aware of what’s happening here in my life right now. … God, I believe with all my heart there’s absolutely nothing that can come to me except what comes through you. And … God for that reason I thank you for this cancer.”

“I didn’t like it, I didn’t understand it, but I thanked him for the cancer,” Easley said. “I said, ‘God, I don’t know if I’m going to live or die, but I do know this, I know that I trust you with everything that I have.'”

For a couple of years, Easley said he had been praying for God to “maximize” his life.

“Whether it’s painful or painless, whether it’s difficult or not difficult, God, I lay my life before you and, God, I plead with you to maximize my life for you,” Easley remembered praying.

He warned the chapel audience not to pray that prayer unless they mean it.

In Houston, a mask was made of his face to help doctors direct the radiation more accurately. As he thought about how he would handle the coming weeks, he said he thought of Paul and Silas in prison singing and praising.

“So as [the doctors] lay me on that table for that first treatment, I began praising God. I began thanking him for the day, thanking him for saving me,” Easley said, adding that he also thanked God for his family, his church, the opportunity to preach and God’s goodness.

He continued giving thanks throughout the 10-minute treatments, five days a week for six weeks. Although the treatments were relatively painless, the side effects were not.

Easley’s weight dropped from 190 to 144 pounds, because, as the doctors told him, he was starving himself to death. By the fourth week of treatments, he could no longer swallow because the radiation had caused thousands of ulcers in his mouth and throat and on his tongue.

Doctors put a feeding tube in his stomach, and he didn’t swallow food for the next six months. The treatments were also destroying his taste buds and his salivary glands.

And again like Hezekiah, Easley recalled, “I prayed to God and I wept bitterly.”

Easley said he didn’t have to “cut a deal” with God to spare his life. Instead, he said, his prayer was, “God, if you’ll spare my life I’ll continue doing what I’ve been doing. God, I’ll just keep preaching your Word the best I can like I’ve been doing. God, I’ll try to be a soul-winner every week like I’ve been doing for years if you’ll let me live.”

His family and other Christians nationwide also prayed for healing.

God granted Hezekiah 15 more years of life, Easley pointed out, and the king continued to worship God and began to record the word of God. Easley said he believed that the 15 Psalms of Ascent were written by Hezekiah, one for every additional year the king had been granted.

“What would you do differently if God gave you an extension? I mean, would you do anything differently than you are doing right now?” Easley asked.

“Never assume that you have tomorrow,” he warned. “It doesn’t matter how young you are. It doesn’t matter how old you are, how educated you are. Don’t ever assume that you have tomorrow.”

“Don’t put off something that needs to be done today,” he continued. “Whether it’s getting right with God, whether it’s getting right with a spouse, whether it’s getting right with a friend, whether it’s sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with a friend, a neighbor.”

As God extended Hezekiah’s life, he did the same for Easley.

“I am a recipient of the very power of God,” Easley affirmed. “Sixteen months have passed, and I am standing here as a testimony to tell you that I am cancer free.”

In addition to learning how to swallow again, Easley said in recent weeks his taste buds are back and he is back to preaching four to five times a week.

“I’ve learned in the past 16 months that absolutely nothing can take your life until God has fulfilled his plan and his purpose,” Easley said. “Cancer can’t take you, a car accident can’t take you. There’s absolutely nothing that can take you from here until you have fulfilled the plan and the purposes of God.”

But, he added, “there’s absolutely nothing that can keep you here after you have fulfilled the purposes and plans of God.”

Quoting 18th-century evangelist George Whitefield, Easley said, “I am immortal until my work is done.”

“What Whitefield said so many years ago … is still true today,” he said. “There’s nothing that can take you until God’s purposes and plans are fulfilled and there’s nothing that can keep you here after that plan has been fulfilled.”

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  • Matt Sanders