Mic in hand, I looked out at the thousands of people standing on their feet, singing at the top of their lungs. I’m the lead singer for Casting Crowns, and the feeling of that many people singing my songs never gets old. That Saturday night, February 28, 2015, we were playing the Carson Center in Paducah, Kentucky, our last show before heading home to Georgia and church the next day.
Almost all of the songs I’ve written over the years have a story behind them, a real-life person or experience, often from leading the youth group at my home church. That night, the opening chords of our song “Voice of Truth” rang out and the crowd responded. I sang, “Oh, what I would do to have the kind of faith it takes to climb out of this boat I’m in.”
The audience sang along. It’s why they were there, to be uplifted by our music, and even more, by the message in it. But I wasn’t feeling it. It was like my own lyrics were taunting me: Dude, you don’t have that kind of faith, not to weather this storm.
Somehow I got through the song. As the crowd cheered, I stood quietly for a moment, thinking about how my life had been turned upside down just a few weeks earlier.
We’d been near the end of our tour, 80 concerts spread over six months, and I hadn’t been myself. It was like my get-up-and-go got up and went. My back hurt. I was having stomach pains, acid reflux. I felt worn out. I needed a break.
Not that I was going to get it. I work full-time as a youth pastor at Eagles Landing First Baptist Church, just south of Atlanta, part of the reason we only tour Thursday through Saturday. I lead worship for a group of more than 300 middle- and high-school kids. Answer their questions about their faith, about God. Comfort them when they’re feeling down, when someone in their family’s sick or struggling.
That’s my true calling. It’s the job I was doing before Casting Crowns was even a thing. In the beginning, writing and performing songs was just a way for me to connect with the kids.
I’d called my doctor, who’s a good friend, and told him my symptoms.
“Dude, you’ve gotta lay off the pizza,” he’d said. “Let’s do some tests. I want to make sure that you don’t have a stomach ulcer.” Wednesday, february 11, first thing in the morning, I went in for a CT scan. Right after that, I went to a funeral for a church member. Near the end of the service, I felt my phone buzz. I sneaked it out of my pocket. There was a text from my doctor: Bro, I need you to call me.
I went out to the parking lot and called him back. “We found something on the scan,” he said. “There’s a mass on your kidney. It looks solid. I think it’s cancer.”
What I heard was, “You’re going to die.”
“Listen, if you were to lay every type of cancer there is out on a table, this would be the type of cancer you’d want,” my doctor said.
I wondered why I couldn’t just get a whole different table. I hung up and walked to my car in a daze, wondering how I was going to break the news to my wife, Melanie. Our four kids. Our church. The youth group. The band. The idea of telling them all made my head spin.
I thought, Maybe no one besides Melanie needs to know. I didn’t want to scare our kids. I definitely didn’t want everyone feeling sorry for me or making a fuss. I didn’t want people sharing inspirational pick-me-ups they saw on Twitter. Telling me everything happens for a reason. All the stuff I’d seen happen to other people who were hurting.
My job, my calling, was to be a comfort for them. To give them strength. I wasn’t going to be the guy who needed help and prayers. No way. This was between God and me. A private battle.
I called Melanie, told her about the tumor, that the doctor had said not to stress about it. I avoided using the word…
“Is it cancer?” Melanie asked.
“Yeah, that’s what they’re saying.”
Our youth group Bible study met that night. I tried to joke around, be present for the kids—including my own—act like everything was normal. But all I could think about was that there was something malignant inside of me, trying to kill me. At the end of Bible study, I went to my office and sat down at the keyboard. Started noodling around.
Slowly words came: “No one would blame you, though, if you cried in private, if you tried to hide it away, so no one knows, no one will see, if you stop believing.” Was that what I was most afraid of? Not dying but, rather, not believing and having people see my faith falter?
The next day, Melanie and I went to see a urologist. He agreed it was likely cancer and ordered a second CT scan for confirmation. We drove home in silence. “How do you want to tell the kids?” Melanie finally asked.
“I don’t want to upset them,” I said.
“They’ll be okay,” she said. “We’re going to get through this together.”
I talked to each of our kids individually, from youngest to oldest. I tried to be strong, but they saw right through me. What if by being open, I’d made everything worse?
Friday the urologist told me my kidney would have to be removed. I’d be laid up for at least four weeks. “You won’t feel one hundred percent for a while longer,” he said.
There was no way I could keep this a secret.
I had to let everyone at church know, but I was too chicken to do it. So I told one of the pastors and he announced it at the end of Sunday service. I’d hightailed it out of there before anyone could catch me. I couldn’t take having all eyes on me, the looks of pity. By the time I got home there were, like, 90 texts on my phone.
I told the kids in youth group that Wednesday night. That was hard. “How could God let this happen to you?” some asked. I tried to explain that faith doesn’t spare us from hardship, but I could tell they were shaken, questioning everything I’d taught them. I told my bandmates the next day. It never got easier. Each time, it felt like the words were being pried out of me.
Now, with less than two weeks till my surgery, I stood onstage at the Carson Center in Paducah, staring out at the crowd. They were moved by our music. Why wasn’t I? Why did God feel so far away?
The next song on our set list was “Just Be Held,” one of the few that didn’t have a specific story or person behind it. I’d written it two years earlier and had never been entirely sure why. The band started up. There was no time to think. I had to sing.
“There’s freedom in surrender… when you’re on your knees and answers seem so far away, you’re not alone, stop holding on and just be held….”
It was as though I was hearing those words for the very first time. Suddenly I knew who this song had been written for, and why. God in his infinite wisdom had given it to me two years earlier, knowing how desperate I would be after my diagnosis. I didn’t need to hold it together. I needed to be held, to accept his love from as many people as wanted to share it with me, to receive their prayers, all the prayers I could get.
I didn’t quite have the nerve to tell the crowd then and there. But back home the next day, I e-mailed the morning-show hosts at The Joy FM in Atlanta. “I wanted you to know I have kidney cancer,” I wrote. “Please ask your listeners to pray for me.”
Almost instantly they e-mailed back. Could they come interview me live? I could almost feel the ground shifting under my feet. I’d have to put my cancer, my fears, my hurt, myself, out there. I would have to be vulnerable. Then I remembered the ultimate vulnerability of Jesus when he was nailed to the cross for all mankind to behold. It gave me the strength I needed.
The interview didn’t take long. That afternoon, on Facebook, I had messages, prayers and love from more than 90,000 people! Someone started a Twitter hashtag, #prayformark. By the next morning, it was trending number three around the world. I wasn’t totally sure what trending even meant. All I knew was I could feel the love coming from all directions. I felt lifted. God was cradling me in his arms, holding me tight.
That love helped me through the surgery and the 11 days I spent in the hospital, recovering from complications. It got me through the next four weeks while I was laid up in bed. Melanie and our kids and I hung out, watching movies, talking and praying. Cards arrived from all over the world. Prayer quilts. Photos of youth groups. It was humbling. Overwhelming.
I carry that love with me even now, two years later. These days I tell my story at every concert, asking cancer survivors to stand and be recognized. I don’t mind being the hurting guy, the vulnerable one, anymore. Because I know we’re all in the same boat, arms outstretched in the storm, just needing to be held.
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