Living With Cancer, a Scholar Inspires Students

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. David M. Scholer, a prominent New Testament scholar at Fuller Theological Seminary, has lived with constant pain and side effects from the treatment since he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer 3 1/2 years ago.

The cancer is incurable, he says, and has spread to both lungs.

“I have outlived some of the predictions already. And I have no idea how much more life I have,” Scholer, 67, an ordained Baptist minister, told the First Baptist Church of Pasadena congregation during a recent sermon.

Living with incurable cancer is like having “a terrorist bomb strapped on your back,” said Scholer, who with his wife, Jeannette, is a member of the church. “You don’t know when it’s going to go off.”

Despite the illness and fatigue, Scholer continues to teach and supervise the PhD program and its 155 candidates at the Pasadena seminary’s Center for Advanced Theological Studies, where he has been associate dean since 1997.


The way he is continuing with his duties has made Scholer a role model for living with an incurable disease, many people at the seminary say.

Students, faculty and members of congregations where he speaks are deeply moved to see how he uses his suffering to minister to others.

At the beginning of every course, Scholer tells his students about his condition so they’re not surprised. In his teaching, however, he mostly sticks to the subject: the New Testament.

“The kind of [theological] knowledge we have doesn’t give us any special status,” he told seminarians in his class. “But there is a special responsibility we have to share it.”

His voice is hoarse, a side effect of the many medications he takes. And he lectures while seated, because it tires him to stand.

Until cancer struck, Scholer traveled the world to speak at seminaries, universities and conferences. Only a few months before his diagnosis, he taught a three-week course on the Book of Romans at Moscow Theological Seminary, the only Baptist seminary in Russia.

Now his destinations are mostly local churches, where he teaches from the New Testament and shares his journey of living with cancer. His next sermon, “Prisoners of Hope: Living With Cancer,” is scheduled for Nov. 13 at First Baptist Church of Los Angeles in Wilshire Center/Koreatown.

When you have cancer, Scholer said, it is important to know how you live with the disease -- in relationship to yourself, to your family and friends and to God.

“Cancer doesn’t change everything, but it does give everything a new perspective,” he said in his sermon at the Pasadena church.

“One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned is the value of memory and recollection,” said Scholer, a large man with an enthusiastic manner.

“I revel every day in remembering all the good things of my life -- all the wonderful things I have been given: my family, my friends,” he said. “I can’t travel much anymore, so I think of all the places I’ve been. The joys and achievements of the past don’t mean I live in the past, but I do celebrate with gratitude what has been.”

Jerry Ransom Wilkerson, a former Air Force captain who took Scholer’s New Testament course last year, described the teacher as “a walking testimony of his faith.”

“Every day I sat there and I was amazed,” said Wilkerson, who is working on a master’s degree in divinity in preparation for the ministry. “On the first day of the class, he said: ‘I have an incurable disease.’ He wasn’t mincing words. He had accepted it.”

A month ago, when Wilkerson was considering canceling a preaching engagement in Philadelphia because he was ill, he thought of his professor.

“I may have been sick, but Dr. Scholer is ill all the time,” he said. “He doesn’t let that sickness stop him from doing what God has called him to do.” Wilkerson kept the appointment.

Jill Williams, who will complete her master’s degree in divinity in June, says she was in Scholer’s class the quarter he learned his cancer had returned.

“Ironically, I do not remember a marked difference in his teaching before and after the diagnosis,” she said. “He consistently taught with joy, theological conviction and passion throughout the quarter.”

In a recent interview in his book-lined office, Scholer described his wife of 45 years as “the best caregiver in the world.” (They were classmates at Wheaton College in Illinois, and she is director of academic programs at Fuller’s School of Theology.)

Scholer talked about some of his daily challenges beyond the rounds of medical appointments. Fatigue means sleeping nine to 10 hours a night, and napping too. His fingers and toes tingle constantly. His colostomy bag causes a lot of difficulties.

“Every morning, when I get out of bed, I have to confess, one of my first thoughts is: I wish I could have just one more normal day,” he said.

“Within three minutes, I am painfully aware of my limitations. Within five minutes, I can predict how the day is going to go. And the battle is -- to put it frankly -- the will to keep going. To say each day, ‘I want to live. I want to enjoy today. I want to push forward with everything I am able to muster.’ ”

So, he said, you learn the limits of what you can do.

The theologian, a Minnesota native who received his doctorate at Harvard Divinity School, was ordained in the American Baptist Church USA in 1966 and worked as a pastor. After teaching at three other seminaries around the country, he came to Fuller in 1994.

Scholer is an authority on Gnosticism and has written books dealing with the ancient religious movement that stressed salvation by knowledge and found a home in early Christianity. He has also written books on New Testament interpretation and on the importance of having women in ministry.

His course “Women, the Bible and the Church” has been the most popular elective at Fuller.

He collects Bibles. In his home library is a personal collection of 400, including rare English translations.

As he continues with teaching and research, Scholer said, he is experiencing the meaning of living one day at a time.

“Nobody who went to the World Trade Center on 9/11 said, ‘Oh, I am going to die there today,’ ” he said.

When he thinks about his last day, he sometimes wants just his wife and their two adult daughters at his bedside.

But at other moments, he thinks of a hundred people he would want there.

In life’s ups and downs, what’s important to realize is that God’s ways are well “above our ways,” he said. “Maturity in faith is the ability to accept mystery and ambiguity.”

His message is this: “I really do trust in God. I believe in God’s comfort and love. I believe that God is the giver of life, and that means to affirm this life, as well as to have faith in the life to come. God has given me life. I feel I have a calling in life.”

But, for the terminally ill, a time comes when the will to live doesn’t work anymore, he said.

“So, as an incurable-cancer patient, I give myself to God,” Scholer said. “My life is in God’s hands.”