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‘Rejoice always’: a lesson in dying

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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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“I am not happy with today’s report on my CEA count (the cancer marker in my blood) from Tuesday; it has gone up again.”

He added: “The cracking and rash on my hands, from my chemo drug, is getting worse. Today is the first day in memory that I feel my hands burning all the time.”

THE voice of the teacher and minister ordained 41 years ago returned at the close of his e-mail: “Understand that I have so much for which to be thankful and positive; I thank God daily for life and energy to do things I enjoy. Thank you for your constant care and prayers.”

In April, Scholer began teaching a class on the “Prison Epistles of Paul” at Bel Air Presbyterian Church. It’s scheduled to last 12 weeks, and Scholer’s determination continues to offer his students yet another lesson.

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Watching Scholer has taught Fuller seminarian Allison Ash that “even facing death, I can be joyful and have a powerful impact on others.” Ash wants to become a professor some day.

Also in April, Scholer wrote another e-mail to friends, reporting that his cancer marker had gone up again:

“Please pray that Jeannette and I will be able to accept the results with vibrant faith and courage. When these results are available and have been interpreted by my oncologist, I will report on the state of things. I and we are enjoying life and are hoping for many more years together; yet, our lives are in God’s hands.”

On May 4, at the 101st annual pastors’ conference of the American Baptist churches of Los Angeles and the Southwest, Scholer spoke on “How the Gospel Shaped My Mind and Heart: My Long Journey of Faith and Obedience.”

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Walking slowly to the rostrum, he sat in a big chair in front of a microphone. While he spoke, he rubbed his knees, something he always does when his legs hurt, but he did it so naturally few seemed to notice.

Scholer then launched into one of his classic lectures, at turns funny, erudite and moving. At the end, after two standing ovations at the Mayfair Hotel near downtown Los Angeles, colleagues and former students spoke of his influence in their lives.

The Rev. W. James Kilinsky, pastor of One in Christ Church in National City, Calif., asked Scholer to share his wisdom in developing relationships with people he disagrees with.

“You have to have a good sense of yourself in your own convictions,” Scholer replied, “so that in any relationship, you never feel threatened.”

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Scholer explained how he handled a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who wrote a “particularly critical” piece about him.

When Scholer saw him, he threw his arms around his critic and said, ‘Hey, brother, how is it going? I don’t like what you wrote, but that’s OK.’ ” Then they laughed.

The Rev. Victor Olivas, pastor of Community Baptist Church of East Los Angeles, took Scholer’s course on women in ministry in the early 1990s.

“That really helped me deal with women in the church,” he said, adding that he has welcomed them into leadership roles in his congregation. “Nowadays,” he added, “it helps me with my wife.”

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Olivas went to the pastors conference, he said, to thank his former professor publicly. “I pray for him,” Olivas said. “I thank God for him. He is a pastor’s pastor.”

Fourteen days after the conference, Scholer sent another e-mail:

“My CEA count has gone up again; Last month it was 7.7; now it is 8.4.”

He reported that he had lost four more pounds. Though still a big man, he’s lost more than 50 pounds in the last year, and his jackets hang loose on his frame.

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“As always, I appreciate your prayers, care and love. I admit to having a low-level of anxiety at this time. I will keep you posted. Love, David.”

THERE was no road-to-Damascus moment, no sudden revelation. But over time Scholer came to realize that one of “the greatest lessons” from living with cancer is the value of memory.

Scholer says he revels in remembering the wonderful things he has been given -- his family, friends and all the places he has visited and the people he has met -- and how much joy that has brought to his life.

That doesn’t mean that he dwells in the past but, in remembering, he “celebrates with gratitude what has been,” he said.

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And there is still the chance to make yet more memories, which explains the hymn sings, the Rose Bowl, the cruise to Hawaii, the loyal correspondence, the teaching, the conference lecture.

In a way, it all leads back to the verse from Thessalonians -- Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances.

All circumstances. It’s the portion he had long resisted.

“But I have now learned that I should and I can,” he said.

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On May 29, Scholer sent out another e-mail:

“Today I was at the cancer center for my regular treatment and for a meeting with my oncologist to go over the results of Friday’s test. He pronounced the results ‘very good.’ The smallest of my cancer growths in my lungs did not show up. The two larger ones (one in each lung) have not grown. There are no evidences of new cancer growths anywhere.

“Jeannette and I are overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. Thank you for your care and many, many prayers.”

“This is great news to have 19 days before Abby and Nick’s wedding!” he added. “Blessings and love, David.”

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connie.kang@latimes.com


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