Joshua battled and beat the disease, but not before his family had to reconcile what it means to believe in God despite a broken world. His dad’s personal account of that fight to survive sparks a larger discussion of how Christians must learn to walk in the light of Christ’s promises despite the dark shadows of earthly pain. Indeed, it’s pain that sometimes opens the door to a deeper experience with Jesus, an authentic relationship that holds steady even when life loses the comfort of normalcy.
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About the Author
Michael Kelley is director of Discipleship at LifeWay Christian Resources and author of Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. His previous works include Holy Vocabulary, The Tough Sayings of Jesus, and Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. Michael and his wife have three children and live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
My son likes his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into long, thin strips. It's a little extra effort, but every time I make him a sandwich, I spread a thick layer of peanut butter on one piece of bread and an equally thick layer of jelly on the other. Then I mash the two onto each other, bringing together the classic blend of sweet and salty, and I cut off the crusts. I read somewhere that the crust is good for you, like the skin of potatoes, but Joshua doesn't like it. Even now at seven years old, he hasn't grasped the need for nutrition yet, and sometimes I count it a moral victory that he's getting in his fruit group from the jelly side, so I don't press the crust issue. Then I cut the sandwich into four long, thin pieces.
His name is Joshua Michael Kelley — not very original, I know. When he was born in 2004, Joshua was the third most popular name for boys in the United States; "Michael" was second most popular. No points to us for creativity.
But we didn't consult the lists for trendy names during those days. We named our first-born child "Joshua" for two reasons. First and foremost, we loved the name. We thought it inspired strength and conviction. We still hope the day never comes when his name gets shortened to "Josh" — I think that shortened version takes away from the power of the original. We wanted him to be named Joshua — the whole name, with the whole meaning. That's the second reason for our choice.
Joshua is a Jewish name, and while we have no physical Hebrew lineage, we resonate with the meaning: "the Lord is salvation." Being a family of faith, we enjoy the implication of the name and hope that someday he'll grow to appreciate it as well. We want Joshua to live a life in which he knows who God is and is confident in himself because he's confident in God. We don't necessarily expect him to be a tremendous scholar or someone of great prestige or fame (though watching my son play for the Atlanta Braves would be just fine with me). No angels came down out of heaven to make a grand prediction about his future. But we do want him to walk in confidence, knowing that God is salvation — nothing else. Even in hopeless times, God is salvation, regardless of what career or family track he chooses.
So that's the name we chose. We decorated his room in blue and red; we had a picture framed commemorating his name and the meaning behind it. And we expected to live happily ever after. In 2004 we imagined Joshua standing up for his moral convictions throughout his teenage years. I think we hoped that he would choose to believe rather than doubt as he made career and educational decisions. We did not, however, expect the reality of life to come crashing into our insulated world as quickly as it did.
PB & J
My wife, Jana, picked up Joshua from Parents' Day Out on October 17. That in itself was a little unusual because I usually picked him up. About eight months earlier we had made the decision to drastically alter our lifestyle. I loved to teach and write, and so we decided to make a go of my being an independently employed freelance communicator. Catchy job title, right?
I left my job working as a student pastor in Nashville, Tennessee, to try to make it happen. In true romantic fashion, Jana went back to work teaching fourth grade while I went to chase dreams. Our hope was that she would do this for two years until my work was steady enough for her to be a stay-at-homemom again for a while. In the meantime I would stay at home with Joshua and work during his naps and on the days he went to his preschool. That's why he was at Parents' Day Out rather than Mother's Day Out; I was too insecure to call it Mothers' Day Out since, well, I'm not a mother. But on this particular day, Jana was on fall break from her school, so I took that Tuesday to work all day while she had full Joshua duty.
After Jana picked him up from his day at school, we hit the park in downtown Nashville. Joshua still has a half-broken front tooth as a reminder of the day because I got a little too ambitious on a teeter-totter. As we scoured the ground around the playground looking for a miniscule piece of a two-year-old incisor, Jana mentioned that one of the workers at the day care had noticed a rash on Joshua's belly when she was changing his diaper. That was trouble because it violated one of the cardinal rules of day care: Don't send a sick kid to be around the well kids. Just to confirm it was nothing, I dutifully promised to take Joshua to the doctor the next day — always an interesting adventure for a dad.
The next day was Wednesday, October 18, and Joshua and I gathered up some trucks into his bag. We set out for Harpeth Pediatrics to get what I was sure would amount to some overly smelly cream that I would have to spread onto the trunk of his body for a week. While I didn't relish the thought of smelling like an old man with skin problems, I did like the idea of being able to stride into the preschool and assure everyone that I had taken the appropriate steps to make sure Joshua was well. I made him a sandwich so we could have a picnic after the doctor's visit. I made it just the way he likes it. Peanut butter on one side, jelly on the other. Smash it together, and cut it into long, thin strips.
It's not that difficult to tell when someone has something he needs to tell you but really doesn't want to — you can almost always sense the news coming. It's the same feeling you have right before a news broadcaster interrupts the regularly scheduled programming for a special message. Or when your spouse is talking on the telephone to someone in grave, hushed tones, only to hang up and invite you to "have a seat. I have something to tell you." It's that feeling where you hold your breath without knowing it and you feel your heart beating inside your head.
Dr. Collins had ordered a blood test after examining Joshua; while the blood test came and went, I tried to keep a two-year-old preoccupied in the prison-cell-sized examination room. We played with trucks. Then we played with a lot of medical instruments that I'm sure we weren't supposed to touch. Joshua ate one strip of his sandwich. Then the doctor came back. He sat across from me. Looking at him, Isubconsciously held my breath. My heart started beating in my head. Why was I nervous? We had been to the doctor before. But something was different this time. Then he started saying words that I never expected to hear: "hematology," "children's hospital," "call your wife." Then he said the word that would become part of our everyday vocabulary at heartbreaking speed: leukemia.
What do you do with a word like that? How do you respond? What questions do you ask? I didn't know; I still don't know. But I think I do know that some words in our vocabulary are heavier than others, words that linger in the air long after they are said. They echo in your mind and pierce your heart over and over again, and when they are first spoken, they drop to the pit of your stomach like lead. Leukemia.
Two hours later Joshua was still playing with his trucks, but he was playing with them on the floor of an examination room at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital. My wife had joined us, and we were waiting for the results of a secondary blood test they had done. We didn't speak. We didn't cry — much. We hoped, we tried to pray, we wanted to believe. And then we had another sit-down moment.
Amid Joshua's truck sound effects and laughter, we heard the confirmation that our two-and-a-half-year-old boy had a childhood cancer of the blood. And it felt as if someone had punched me as hard as they could in the gut. Leukemia. There was that word again, and there was the lead-heavy residue in the air. It echoed in my heart.
Over and over again the words punched. The emotion welled behind my eyes until I thought my head would explode. How could 82 percent of his blood cells be affected? He's playing with trucks! How could he have cancer? I made him a sandwich this morning! And it wasn't just the emotion that throbbed; it was the questions. So many questions that I didn't even know where to begin.
There were the questions you'd expect:
Is Joshua going to die?
How can he be sick? He looks fine!
Isn't it just a rash?
How do you treat leukemia?
What does this mean about the future?
But then there were the other questions:
Why this little boy, God?
How could You let this happen?
Is this punishment for something we have done?
Are You even real?
Joshua finished his sandwich, and I started to cry. I cried because there he was, eating his strips of PB & J the same way he had hundreds of times before. And while he ate, I wondered how many more times he would.
In a span of moments that seemed like months, we had become "those people." You know those people — the ones with the sick kid. The ones with the terminal disease. The ones with "issues." The ones you don't get too close to, not because you don't care but because you don't want to think about what life would be like if that happened to you. You know, those people.
The worst part is that we were not those people — we were the people who were supposed to "be there" for those people. I went to seminary for crying out loud! I was a professional Christian! We were a family of faith who believed in Jesus and His way of life, and as such we prepared ourselves to counsel those people. We filled our spiritual tool bag with Bible verses and theological sayings. We practiced good eye contact and carried tissues in our pockets to give to someone else. In all of our preparation to be with those people, we never prepared to be those people ourselves.
But I guess nobody ever really does. Nobody is ever prepared for the weight of the words, for the suddenness of the diagnosis. And maybe that's why nobody really knows the right way to act when you become those people. But when you become those people, some things have to be done. Like, for example, making the phone calls.
Talk about being unequipped. I did not have the skill set to talk to the grandparents. The aunts and uncles. The friends. I didn't have the emotional equipment. Heck, I didn't even have the informational equipment. I certainly didn't have the spiritual equipment, but the calls had to be made, and made they were. At great length I was able to articulate the diagnosis to both sets of our parents. The effort of squeezing those thousand-pound words out of my mouth made me gag several times, but after a long time in the courtyard of the hospital, I walked back inside to join my wife.
I found her eating pizza. Can you believe it? Freaking pizza!
But here's the thing — she had to eat pizza; when Joshua was diagnosed, Jana was two months pregnant with our second child. I don't think either one of us realized how hungry we were until the sweet nectar of pork and cheese hit our lips, and we devoured what was in front of us. And then, in the middle of the feast, we started to laugh.
Truth be told, I'm not sure what it was that we laughed about, but something was funny and we laughed. And we laughed. Then we laughed more. I quoted a line from Steel Magnolias about laughter through tears; then we laughed at how ridiculous it was that I quoted Steel Magnolias. She made fun of me for my knowledge of chick flicks. I made fun of her for her inability to stop eating pizza.
The pizza helped a lot for some reason. Maybe it was a reminder that some things in life would still be stable and regular, like our need for food that's bad for us. We would still sleep, still work, still live. And as we settled down a little bit and the initial shock of how life had just changed started to sink in, I had time to start processing some of those questions we were just beginning to have.
What does one do — one who believes in the gospel of Jesus Christ and gets paid for speaking and writing to others about how to do so better — what does someone like that do with news like this? At least in part, I think the right answer is to believe. Have faith. But what I began to realize is that up to that point in my life, faith had largely just been a noun.
A condition. An emotion. A feeling. Something like that. But sitting there with greasy pizza fingers, I knew the noun wasn't going to cut it any more. I couldn't just sit there and have faith, like I could just sit there and grow fat off pizza. Faith had to become a verb. Having grown up in an upper-middle-class household, never facing any major disease, poverty, racism, or even shortage of money; having never been without work, never been without education, and never been without cause to believe that all those things would just be there tomorrow, I realized that faith had never been hard. It had never been work. But it surely was now.
But this was a moment when we couldn't just have faith; we had to choose faith. It had to be as conscious as any other decision; like choosing to exercise in the morning, faith needed to be discipline. And just like hauling yourself out of bed to go for a jog at 5:00 a.m., choosing faith was hard. Annoyingly hard. Frustratingly hard. But in its hardness, I also began to realize that I don't get the old adage that faith is a crutch for the weak to lean on.
That's what enlightened people say. They say that faith is for the weak minded and the heavy laden. They say that faith is for those who find their circumstances too difficult to face. So these weak-minded simpletons feebly turn to the idea that there is something more, someone more, out there with a grand design of the universe because the reality they are in is simply too much to bear. They can't accept that everything happens by chance, and they happen to be the victim of a cosmic lottery that hands down cancer to peanut-butter eating, truck-playing two-year-olds. They can't face reality so they believe.
I don't think so. In that moment it would have been much easier not to believe than to believe. See, if you choose to believe in the God of the Bible, the God of David and Abraham and Jesus and Paul, you have to believe everything about Him. You can't just pick and choose parts of Christian theology to take in and others to reject. To take God's love is also to take His justice; to take His compassion is also to accept His wrath. It's not like a cafeteria line where you can just take mac and cheese and key lime pie because that's what your appetite tells you to take. You also have to take the asparagus.
You see the problem just as I did. If my family was really going to choose faith, then we would have to come to grips with the fact that there are parts of God and His plan that at best we don't understand; at worst we don't even like. We could no longer pick and choose certain parts of our belief system; we had to embrace all of it.
As we picked through the pages of the Bible during those first days, some promises jumped off the page at us. Verses like Psalm 112:7: "He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast trusting in the Lord" (niv). Or the well-worn favorite Romans 8:28, where Paul reminds us that God "works all things for the good of those that love Him and are called according to His purpose" (niv). We wanted to believe those verses. Badly. But the problem was that we feared bad news. Daily. Hourly. We were very much afraid. And Romans 8:28 felt like a pill that good Christian people were trying to shove down our throats. It's not that we doubted the truth of those verses; it was simply that we didn't see or feel how our pain was matching up to them. So began the collision of those well-worn Bible passages with our real-life experience. In my spirit, if not out loud, there was always a pause when I read a passage of hope. I was crying out almost constantly for the reconciliation of what I believed to be true with what I was experiencing.
I remember clearly feeling that collision on one particular instance regarding one particular psalm, and I was both gratified and disturbed to see that this psalm acknowledged the inherent difficulty of our situation. Psalm 46:10a reads: "Be still, and know that I am God" (niv). Now that's a great verse. In the chaos of blood tests and diagnoses, we would have loved nothing more than just to be quiet. Not just verbally, but in our minds and hearts, too — to calm down and just trust. Unfortunately, we couldn't. But then again, neither could the psalmist.
The psalm starts with encouraging words: "God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil" (Ps. 46:1). That's a pretty good description of what those moments feel like when you have to choose faith. Everything that just moments before you would have considered unshakable starts shaking. You want to emotionally crawl under a table or stand in the doorway in the midst of your circumstantial earthquake because the things of greatest strength, the things of most stability, the mountains and the earth and the oceans are falling down. But God, the most stable thing of all, is your help. He is ever present. He is not absent even in times of trouble. That is, He is safety; He is security; He is a place to hide from the elements outside, the destination to run to when no one else will take you. He is your refuge.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Wednesdays were Pretty Normal"
Copyright © 2012 Michael Kelley.
Excerpted by permission of B&H Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Diagnosis,
Chapter 2: Doubt,
Chapter 3: Medication,
Chapter 4: Tears,
Chapter 5: Identity,
Chapter 6: Between,
Chapter 7: Recovery,
Chapter 8: Together,
Chapter 9: Hope,
Chapter 10: Faith,
Chapter 11: Redemption,
Chapter 12: Wisdom,
Chapter 13: Peace,
Chapter 14: Limp,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Two-year-old Joshua Kelley was diagnosed with leukemia. Michael Kelley, his father, wrote Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal, looking for a bright spot in the course of Joshua’s chemotherapy routine for three years. This is a book that takes you through the throes of anger at seeing your child suffer, questioning God, disillusionment, depression, loss of faith, recapturing faith, hope, trust, love, and everything else you can imagine that parents go through when their child receives the C-diagnosis. Though this is a fallen world of sin, sickness and loss, Michael does not leave you aloft with these struggles. He shows you how God takes you through the process of working through you as the parent(s), the trust and hope that He provides for you to sustain you through the horrendous ordeal, the gift of friends and family so you aren’t alone, and the promises in His Word. You can choose to allow the journey to leave you angry at God or lead you to a closer relationship with Jesus, one that holds you together while you traverse this world that lacks normalcy. Michael Kelley’s book is transparent. He unabashedly opens up every avenue and frustration within himself during those difficult years. His personal story will let you know that what you think and/or say isn’t out of the ordinary. But most of all, he leaves you with hope and trust in Jesus, regardless of the circumstances, the dark days of cancer and the possibilities of a relapse. Michael’s book will minister to you and help you through the rough times. It’s part of God’s gift to you. (See 2 Corinthians 1:3-7) “These things I have spoken to your, that in Me you may have peace. In this world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. And my favorite, “In the multitude of my anxieties with in me, Your comforts delight my soul.” Ps. 94:19. Though this book is about family stress, strain and struggling with God’s intervention of childhood cancer, it can also be used for other areas of life where normalcy has been disrupted. I found it useful for my own situation as well. Special thanks to Haverly Pennington of Lifeway for sending me a review copy.
In my own personal cancer crisis, I stumbled on this book. It was no accident. The author puts all of your real questions out there. He pulls no punches. The answers make sense and have brought me much needed relief. I suggest this book to everyone.
I can't imagine getting the news that a child has leukemia. In "Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal" that's the news that Michael and his wife Jana hear about their two year old son Joshua. The author doesn't sugar coat the story, instead his honesty as his family comes to terms with the diagnosis, gives the reader a true glimpse of how anyone's life can quickly change. Michael allows us to see his struggles and doubts but more than that we see God's love and faithfulness in the pages of this story. Overall, a story that I felt would be emotionally wrenching, instead it left me feeling uplifted and encouraged. A complimentary copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.
I can't imagine getting the news that a child has leukemia. In "Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal" that's the news that Michael and his wife Jana hear about their two year old son Joshua. The author doesn't sugar coat the story, instead his honesty as his family comes to terms with the diagnosis, gives the reader a true glimpse of how anyone's life can quickly change. Michael allows us to see his struggles and doubts but more than that we see God's love and faithfulness in the pages of this story.Overall, a story that I felt would be emotionally wrenching, instead it left me feeling uplifted and encouraged.A complimentary copy of this book was provided in exchange for an honest review.
Story was good