Cancer comes: ‘There will be no more ordinary days’

Ray Giles had tolerated the soreness near his abdomen for weeks. A man who had lived in the back country of Ethiopia for years could handle some discomfort. He thought it might be gall stones.

But one night in July the pain grew so agonizing that his wife, Effie, drove him to the emergency room at the Johnson City (Tenn.) Medical Center. After a battery of tests the next day, the physicians brought bad news.

Advanced cancer of the liver. Also in the pancreas. Inoperable. “It’s not a pretty picture,” said Ray’s physician.

The typical survival rate is about six months, but Ray’s doctors refused to set a time. Some patients live for years, they told him. Chemotherapy was an option.

“This was not an ordinary day,” Ray wrote in his journal the night they heard the diagnosis. “There will be no more ordinary days for me or Effie. Each day is a gift … gilded by the beauty God has made in the world.”

Ray and Effie Giles, now in their 70s, retired to Johnson City nine years ago, following a long career as missionaries in Ethiopia. (I wrote about their work last week.) They stayed active – teaching, mentoring young missionaries, regularly traveling to visit children and grandchildren or back to Africa. The cancer brought that to an abrupt halt.

“I never felt, ‘Why me?’” Ray said last week, sitting in their living room. “I never felt I needed to be exempt. Rather than focus on the problem of suffering, it forced the light to shine on the good.”

Even so, the news hit Effie hard.

“We all know we’re going to die,” she said. “But it’s different if you know the mechanism is already at work. You know one day we’ll not be the ones walking out of the hospital room.”

About two months ago it looked as if that day had come, when the cancer or the chemo pitched Ray into severe nausea, pain and disorientation.

“I couldn’t focus, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t pray,” he said. “I thought if it’s going to be like this, I don’t know if I want to live.”

He seemed to turn a corner a few weeks ago, however, and he feels good for now. So he and Effie are doing all they can to enjoy these days – “to use the time wisely,” he said – knowing they are not likely to last.

They try to bask in each other’s companionship. They revel in regular visits from family and friends. Ray feels strong enough to restart a few of his old church responsibilities, and he recently taught at a senior citizens rally.

“All we have assurance of is now,” Effie said. “I have a tendency to look ahead to the big event. Maybe it comes from our days on the (mission) field, when we’d look forward to the mail drops or to having the kids home from boarding school. But I’m learning to live as much as possible in the NOW.”

On a recent morning, watching a sunrise from the living room, she found herself thanking God as she mentally traced a list of blessings: Family. Friends. Phone calls and notes of encouragement. A good church. A full life. Time with Ray.

Each day, they agreed, is an answer to prayer.

“We usually think about praying for THE answer, as if there were one thing,” Ray said. “But we pray for good days, and we have good days. I don’t know what the one answer is. I’ll take each day as a gift of God.”

Ray draws comfort from a familiar verse in Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’”

He recalled what the late Anglican priest David Watson wrote before his own death from cancer: “We know the evil will come. We just don’t have to fear it.”

Is that true for him? Ray paused. Yes, he said in a steady voice. Then he looked over at his wife of 55 years and his eyes filled with tears.

“I suppose if there’s anything, it’s thinking about leaving one another, the separation,” he said. “But other than that – no, not really.”

They try not to dwell on fear, Ray said.

“That psalm ends, ‘Goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life,’” he said. “And they have. God has blessed us. He’s been there in every time.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 21 Nov 2009.

With Ethiopia in turmoil, a calm commitment

image from CMF International

Ray Giles had reason to be nervous. It was Ethiopia in the 1970s and he was an American missionary in a strained land.

With a few colleagues, he had traveled to a small town miles from his own home base to visit three Ethiopian evangelists who had been jailed on false accusations of branding converts. Local authorities were agitating the townspeople.

Ray and his companions stayed at a friend’s house, and a large, menacing crowd started gathering there. Missionaries had been attacked elsewhere, and people seemed primed for violence. The homeowner went out and offered himself to the mob. “Take me,” he pleaded. “Please don’t hurt my friends!”

“It got dark and things quieted down,” Ray recalled this week. “Nothing happened, but it could have easily erupted into violence. People went home after a while, and the next day we went about our business.”

Such calm commitment is fairly typical of Ray and Effie, his wife of 55 years. In 1968, they and their four young children left a church ministry in Greenville, N.C., for the Ethiopian highlands, after being gradually convinced by the Holy Spirit, they say, to join a team from Indianapolis-based Christian Missionary Fellowship. First with the Oromo people and later with the Gumuz people in the lowlands, they offered general education, basic medical care, Bible teaching and leadership for the new congregations.

“The time I most delighted in was a village meeting at night,” said Ray, now 74. “I’d often walk about 20 miles and go into a smoke-filed house to have a meeting of eight to 12 people. I’d do that on a regular basis, week by week.”

They moved to Africa during the turbulent post-colonial period, when dozens of nations on the continent were gaining independence and the Cold War was at its height. Unlike most African nations, Ethiopia avoided colonial rule almost completely, but resentment of the West could cross borders. Politicians and war lords exploited suspicions about Western domination.

Ethiopia mapAll the missionaries in Ethiopia were evacuated when the Marxists took power in 1977. The Gileses briefly assisted with relief efforts during a 1985 famine. They finally returned in 1992, a year after the regime was pushed out, and stayed seven more years. When they retired in 2000, they settled in Johnson City, where they had connections through Milligan College and Emmanuel School of Religion.

“Our experience in Africa gave us an appreciation for the many different ways of life and of understanding reality,” Ray said. “As a visitor, you see the poor people and think how unfortunate they are. But you see more laughter there than in the U.S.”

They were also impressed by the ingenuity of the people and their ability “to live within the environment without changing the environment.” Ray and Effie’s dedication to a simple life was a gift from Africa.

 “People haven’t heard that being content with what you have is what you should pursue,” Ray said. “Family and friends are more important than things. Hospitality is important.”

He fondly recalled visits in homes, where drinking coffee – in the land where coffee was first cultivated – was a once- or twice-daily ritual that allowed time for long conversations.

“We have gained more than we have been given,” said Effie, 73. “We have been accepted by people even though we are so different, really in spite of our differences.”

Not that the Gileses idealize Ethiopia. Governmental corruption and a deep-seated culture of nepotism still cause problems, not to mention regular threats of drought, famine or regional conflicts.

But they look past those troubles. What motivated them, Effie said, was to see people transformed. In animistic societies, she explained, people will do almost anything to appease the spirits that control their lives, even sacrificing humans.

“It was exciting to see the change,” she said, “to see their freedom from fear.”

Their days are still full. There’s family: 11 grandchildren and 11 great-children (“with four more on the way,” Effie noted). There’s Lone Oak Christian Church, where Ray serves as an elder. They often teach in seminars and at colleges as guest lecturers. They are mentoring a new generation of missionaries, including some of their own children and grandchildren.

And as of July, there has been Ray’s cancer.

So that typically calm commitment, which has served them so well before, is being tested in a new way. That’s the story for next week.

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 14 Nov 2009.