By Harriet P. Gross
Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, I find unusual treasures in medical settings. One came to me recently in a hospital outpatient treatment room where I waited as my husband received his infusion. Instead of reaching for the usual magazine, I picked up “My Stronghold,” intriguingly subtitled “A Pastor’s Battle with Cancer and Doubts.” The “doubts” part did it. How could I resist?
This little 2009 book, not much over 125 pages, is the first-person account of Joe Fornear, who was diagnosed in 2002 with a malignant melanoma that later spread to 14 of his internal organs. Surely, this disease was a death sentence. And yet its sufferer lived to tell his own tale.
Fornear was, at that time, 42 years old and leading the flock of Fellowship Bible Church in the White Rock area of Dallas — as devout a Christian as you’d find anywhere. So of course his story is filled with the words of Jesus and the experiences of Paul the Apostle. But the book’s repeated theme is its title. Over and over, in different ways, Pastor Fornear says that “God had a strong hold on me.” And near his small volume’s conclusion, he makes this profound statement, which I think people of all faiths might take to heart: “Sometimes the Lord’s strong hold on us is through the extended hands of other people.”
Each brief Fornear chapter begins with a Biblical quote, many — naturally enough — from the New Testament. But the very first is Psalm 139:5-6, as it comes from the Protestants’ New American Standard Bible: “You have enclosed me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me…” And the second is introduced by Job 18:10, from the same translation source: “A noose for him is hidden in the ground, and a trap for him on the path.” My Bible — our Holy Scriptures according to the Masoretic text — renders both these passages quite similarly.
Throughout his personal ordeal (and, believe me, just reading about what he went through is itself an ordeal!), Pastor Fornear says he “gave myself to God’s will,” a very Christian way of expressing exactly how Job acted when tested with more ills than any righteous person should ever be asked to suffer. Fornear’s own understanding of this concept rings loud and clear when he acknowledges his cancer as a lesson-teacher as well as a giver of suffering: “When you are ill, pray boldly…but if your prayers are not answered, God has another purpose…”
And so I turned to a wise Jew, Rabbi Harold Kushner, for his take on this situation. In his book “When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person,” the author of the earlier best-seller “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” imagines what God might have said directly to Job:
“I could have created a perfect world…I chose instead to make a world of challenge and response…a world with no shortage of problems, but a world blessed with great minds and great souls to solve these problems, to invent things, to discover cures…And most important, I did not abandon this world when I finished making it. I was always here, comforting, inspiring, strengthening. Where do you think people would get strength to overcome sorrow, to fight injustice, to heal the wounds of body and soul, if I were not there to infuse My spirit into them?”
I read all these things, too, into Joe Fornear’s much shorter related and often repeated declaration: “When I lost my grip, God had his grip on me.”
Pastor Fornear is still listed in the Dallas telephone directory; he and his wife have founded Stronghold Ministry, whose purpose is “to provide spiritual support and comfort to cancer patients and others in major life crisis.” I think I may call him up and try to put him in touch with Rabbi Kushner. Somehow, I think the two would like each other. I’m sure they would have much to talk about.