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`Rejoice always': a lesson in dying

The verse had perplexed the biblical scholar for years. But now, fighting cancer, he understands the gifts of his life.

June 05, 2007|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

FOR much of his career studying scripture, professor David Scholer of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena puzzled over a line from 1 Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

He resisted a part of the verse: How did one "give thanks in all circumstances"? In tragedy? Sickness?

Then came cancer and Scholer, a teacher all his life, embarked on what may be his greatest lesson, for his students and for himself.

Every morning, when the 68-year-old Scholer gets out of bed, one of his first thoughts is: " I wish I could have just one more normal day."

But since Scholer was diagnosed with colorectal cancer five years ago that has spread to both lungs, normal days are rare. His fingers and toes tingle constantly, and his voice, once a pipe organ, is hoarse: side effects of chemotherapy and nine other medications he takes daily. He must use a colostomy bag and he requires nine to 10 hours of nightly rest and sometimes a nap as well.

He has surprised his doctors by surviving this long. His oncologist, Dr. Kalust Ucar, says Scholer's case is unique.

"It's off the books and off the charts," he said.

Scholer, an internationally renowned New Testament scholar, keeps up a global ministry through hundreds of e-mails, letters and cards each day. He remains one of the most popular professors on campus.

At the beginning of each course, Scholer announces that he has incurable cancer, but he is so animated when he speaks, it's hard to remember that. The only give-away is that he lectures sitting down -- and, when he walks, takes careful steps and uses a cane.

During one class on the Acts of the Apostles and Pentecost, Scholer, with a big smile on his face, lifted his Bible to make a point. When discussing a class paper, he told his students they could pray for God's guidance, but "the Holy Spirit is not going to write your assignment for you. It only comes by sweat -- hard work." His remark made them smile.

He's widely known for his support of feminists and other groups not accepted in some Christian circles.

"He has the love in his heart for people, regardless of any situation and where they are," said the Rev. Gary Clark, an American Baptist minister who went to seminary with Scholer when they were in their 20s. "That's what bonds people with him."

Students will often hear him say that a sign of maturity is to be able to "live with ambiguity."

As he describes it, he tells each class something like this:

"People who think they have all the answers to all of life's questions are fake. You have no right to oppose women in ministry until you have made a friend who is called to ministry and you've listened to her story. You have no right to make a statement about homosexuality until you have made friends with a Christian homosexual person. The conclusion you draw is another issue."

Clarissa Chng, a former student, remembers what he said on her first day in his class: Seminarians are called to a higher standard and greater responsibility. "You have burned the bridges of naivete, and there is no more turning back," he said.

Chng said she often reflects on Scholer's words.

"Every time I am faced with a difficult decision and find myself wishing that I could take the easy way out by feigning ignorance, I remember his words and realize that I must take responsibility for the knowledge I have and use it to inform my decision-making, even if that means going through a period of discomfort," she said.

Scholer also has asthma, diabetes and arthritis but stills counts the "wonderful" blessings of his life: Jeannette, his wife of 46 years; two grown daughters, Emily and Abigail; extended family; friends; students; and his calling. He is excited about walking down the aisle with Abigail at her wedding in Pasadena on June 16, the day before Father's Day.

And he is grateful he can still teach. He is the recipient of top faculty awards from the students and the seminary, and his classes are always full, including "The Bible, Women and Ministry," the most popular elective at Fuller.

On and outside campus, Scholer takes a small camera to record events minor and major. Every person in his pictures receives a print within days.

The Scholers still host a regular "hymn sing" at their home in Pasadena, where people of various ages and denominations join in songs of praise. At one get-together last winter, Scholer was a picture of contentment, seated in a big blue-gray armchair. But every so often, he couldn't keep up and had to take a break from singing, holding his red hymnal with his left hand and making tiny conducting motions with his right hand -- his lips silently following the lyrics.

Friends marveled when he found the strength to attend the Rose Bowl on New Year's. In February, he and Jeannette took a two-week cruise to Hawaii. But the next month he sent a mass e-mail to friends:

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