Guest Speaker Alex Costanzo shares how she's been able to rely on God's nature to keep glowing in spite of personal darkness that has come into her and her family's lives.
Good morning, everybody. I am very excited to be here. It’s Memorial Day weekend. Happy Memorial Day weekend to you all. I’ve been living here for about four and a half years now. I’m still not quite used to the weather phenomenon that happens right about now. Everywhere else in the United States, Memorial Day weekend ushers in something called summer. Have you heard of it? Summer? Yeah, but not here. In San Francisco, we have something called June Gloom. It’s when the marine layer comes off the ocean, hunkers down in our city, and we get that foggy, chilly weather for a few months. I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I visited San Francisco. I think it was the month of August. We landed at SFO in shorts and tank tops, to a balmy 55 degrees. Three hours later, we each bought a $40 sweatshirt that said Alcatraz on it. It was sort of a rite of passage for tourists. As Pastor Terry mentioned, I had the privilege to share with you all about a year ago. A few weeks later, June Gloom entered our city. It also, in a figurative way, entered my life. Little did I know that the message that I shared with all of you was, first and foremost, meant for me. Here are some highlights.
I think sometimes we forget how powerful God is. He’s inviting all of us to journey with Him, to see what kind of adventure and missions we can have together. He wants to do amazing things in your life. But it’s your choice. A friend of mine once told me, “We can’t limit God, but we can limit how we experience God.” If we say we believe we need to act on that belief, then is God calling you to a mission? Maybe it’s going to seem a little risky, a little foolish, maybe even impossible. Sometimes a mission is simply to endure. But God says, “No, you don’t have to freak out about the hard part.” He says, “It doesn’t matter where you are in that journey of faith.” If you’re just starting out or in the trenches with me, He says we can keep calm and choose joy. We can. We can overcome even the most impossible missions because we know that with God, the giver of peace of life of faith is unfailing love. We know that with God all things are possible.
I had been feeling some pain up and down my arm for a while and finally went in to get it checked out. To my shock, I had several cancerous tumors in my underarm area. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer back in 2010 and underwent fairly aggressive treatment. The doctors told me that I had a 98% chance of being cured. I thought those are great odds. Thank you, Lord, for healing me. I moved on with my life. Cancer was something I never fathom that I would have to deal with again. On June 8th of last year, my husband and I drove through the fog to my oncologist’s office. We wanted to get all the results of my tests and the cancer was back. This time it was in my lymph nodes and it had spread to my bones, spine, shoulder, and hip. My Harvard-educated doctor told me very matter of factly, “it’s stage four now. There is no cure.” No cure, what was he saying?
I just couldn’t believe my ears. It was such a tense surreal moment. Michael and I just sat there in silence for a while. It was almost like a scene from a bad movie. I heard myself ask him, “How long do I have to live,” me and my big mouth. Let me give you a tip, if you don’t want to know the answer to a question, don’t ask the question. But I asked it. I blurted it out and he answered it. He said, “If you respond well to treatment, maybe a few years, maybe five would be the best-case scenario. If you don’t respond to treatment at all, it could be as quick as six months.” Six months to five years, I was stunned.
Have you ever experienced something where in the course of just a couple of seconds, everything changes forever? He went on to talk about treatments and all that. But it was like the wa wa wa in the peanuts. I was not hearing a thing he was saying. All I could think was I think I’m dying. In the next few days, I was just trying to process everything. I was also madly researching different treatment options and trying to learn more about my particular type of cancer. I have a background in economics and was trained as a business analyst. I’m very partial at data and all the data that I found corroborated my doctor’s prognosis. I was convinced I wasn’t going to make it to six months. I wasn’t going to make it to Christmas. I felt so hopeless. I couldn’t stop thinking about my family. To say that I was in an emotional tailspin is probably an understatement. My husband of over 20 years, my three amazing boys at the time were just 15, 12, and 7. My little guy was just seven.
I know that God loves my children more than I do. I know that. I also know that He’d take good care of them if I were gone. I just didn’t want to miss out. Is that selfish, not wanting to miss out? I want to be a grandmother. I have it all planned out. I’m going to feed my grandkids lots of sugar at 10 o’clock at night, round them up, and then drop them back off at their parents’ house. Well, I have a plan, but I was also trying to reconcile this with my faith because I do believe that God’s grace is sufficient. I do believe that heaven is waiting for me, but I just couldn’t get excited about it. I couldn’t get excited about seeing Jesus. What kind of Christ-follower does that make me, to be honest? I felt abandoned. I felt like, I don’t know, God just didn’t want to bless me anymore. Wasn’t I useful to Him anymore? There aren’t that many Korean blind girls with cancer running around, down here. I could be useful to Him.
I want to make Jesus famous. Lord use me. It’s as if He stamped me with an expiration date and I was to be thrown out. I found myself slowly but surely slithering toward that deep dark pit of despair and depression. I think some of you know what I’m talking about. I want to pause right here and give you a narrative of what was going on with me. I believe that I was being tempted. When things go south in our lives, we’re tempted to take our focus off of God and focus on our daunting circumstances. We get so overwhelmed. I believe that I was tempted to question His promises, His truths, His goodness, and His love for me. But God doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. He wants to pursue us. He’s going to come after us. He wants to bring our focus back to Him. That’s what He did with me. I called this the next part of the story, the pursuit.
About a week after my prognosis, I had to fly out to Maryland, to fetch my son, my oldest son, who was at a science camp. I remember moving through the airport. My heart was so heavy I was like a zombie. All I could keep thinking was all these people are living and I’m dying. I got to security, took the hand of the security guard who led me through the metal detector. When I got to the other side, I loosened my grip, but then he tightened his, and said to me, “Hey, I know you, I just saw you at cornerstone a couple of weeks ago. I heard your message. What a great message. Thank you.” I thought, what are the odds of that? That’s funny. You never know who you’re going to meet.
When I landed in Baltimore, my ride was late. So I settled down in baggage claim and started talking to a lady next to me. It turned out that she had a daughter who was exactly my same age who was also blind and had the exact same eye condition I did. It’s kind of strange having two coincidences in one day. A few days later, my son and I went to church with some friends at church near Baltimore. On the drive there, we somehow got on the topic of skinny jeans. Roco was saying how he wouldn’t be caught dead in them, but that his brothers loved to wear them. San Francisco was the epicenter for skinny jeans. I’m sure you would agree. Imagine our surprise when the pastor got up to speak. The first thing he did was he held up a pair of skinny jeans. Yeah. We were elbowing each other. “Hey, we’re just talking about that.”
He was talking about putting on Christ as clothing. In the intro, he was all about what kind of clothes you like to wear. After his message, he brought up the youth group and prayed for them. They were going on a mission trip to San Francisco. At the end of the service, they brought up a staff member who had served at the church for 30 years. They were doing a tribute for him and all that. Guess where he was born and raised? California, he was from California. As I watched his family come up on stage and love on him, I thought to myself, “Wow, 30 years, I would love to have 30 more years to serve the Lord. But I don’t. I only have six months.”
Right then and there, I had this realization. God was sending me some data points of His own. I felt like He was saying to me, “Alex, I see you. Do you think I forgot about you? No, I haven’t taken my eye off of you for one second. I see you. The airport security, the baggage claim lady, the skin agents. I’m trying to show you that I’m right here. I see you.” Right then, I remember the title of the message that I gave a few weeks before Mission Possible. God wanted me to remember that all things are possible with Him. I got on a plane to go home. I was thinking about Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding in all your ways, submit to Him. He will make your path straight.”
God was inviting me to trust Him despite the impossible circumstances. The word that really stood out to me here was ‘submit’ and what it means to submit. I thought about it a lot. I thought about Jesus, the night of His betrayal in the garden. His prayer, the passage is Luke 22. Jesus is deeply troubled. He knows that He has to face the cross. He goes to be with His father. He goes to the garden to pray. I believe that this prayer is the best example of submission in the Bible that we have. Let’s look at it. It’s verse 42. He prays “Father if you are willing, take this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”
It’s such a simple, concise prayer. Isn’t it? Yet it’s so profound. It’s so profound and difficult for us to do. Sometimes note that there are two parts to the prayer. In the first part, Jesus asks God boldly for what the desire of His heart is. Lord take this cup from me if there’s any other way. In the second part, He just lays it down before His Lord. He lets go. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I pray one part and sometimes I pray the other part, but I don’t pray them both necessarily to get the other. I think that’s what true submission is. When we clearly articulate what we want. But then we say, Lord, we trust you. We know that you are always good. We know that you want what’s best for us. Therefore, I’m going to lay it down and let your will be done, not mine. That is true submission.
When I got home from my trip, a couple of days later, I had to face a bone biopsy. Doesn’t that sound like fun? For a bone biopsy, they take a giant needle and run it through your bones and take out a bunch of chunks to test. I hate needles. I hate pain. I faint at the mere sight of needles. That’s supposed to be a joke. I can’t see anything, remember, I can’t see the needles. Come on, keep up with me here. A few hours before I had to go into the hospital, I just fell on my knees on the cold bathroom floor. I started weeping. I was home alone. I just let it fly. Sure, my neighbors thought I was crazy. They think we’re crazy anyway with my crazy boys, but I just had to lay it all out before the Lord. I couldn’t hold it back any longer. I just cried “Jesus, please help me. Help me, I’m so scared. I’m so scared. I’m confused. I’m not handling this very well. I’m freaking out and falling apart. Lord help me.”
I knew I had to submit to Him. I prayed just as Jesus prayed in that garden. Following that example, I prayed “Father, if you are willing, please give me 30 more years. That kind of sounds greedy Lord. I know that. But if I ask for 30, maybe you’ll give me 15, but Lord give me 30 years.” I knew I had to let go of it and trust His perfect will. Your will Lord, not mine. Your agenda, not mine. Take a look. We’re going to put up verse 43 in that Luke passage. Let’s take a look at what happens to Jesus right after He prays His prayer of submission in the garden, “There appear to Him an angel from heaven, strengthening Him.” I don’t know how I was on that bathroom floor, but when my tears finally dried, I felt different. I felt a little bit more at peace.
God had comforted me like a father embracing a sobbing child. My circumstances hadn’t changed. I still had to face that giant needle, the ambiguity of the treatment, and the months ahead, but something in my heart had shifted. Almost like I was resuscitated, refueled. I felt a little stronger over the course of the next few weeks. I began to feel more hope and less despair, more courage, and less fear. When we put our focus back on God. He will not only comfort us, but He will also strengthen us. Let’s take a look at Isaiah 40:31. It’s such a beautiful promise about how God gives us His strength. “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings of eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.” So beautiful. The word renew here in the original Hebrew means to revive, to restore from a state of decay to make, to flourish again.
I love that Isaiah mentions the eagle. The agents believe that the Eagle was the one creature that could fly closer to the sun than any other creature. When we put our hope in God, we’re like eagles flying toward the sun. It’s so beautiful. Do you know what that makes me think of though? Superman. Can you tell, I have all boys? I was recently tutored on the mythology of Superman by a friend. I always knew that kryptonite drained Superman’s strength, but I didn’t realize that the sun renewed and restored it. Some of you might have seen the latest movie. Superman saves the world and it almost kills him. He flies toward the sun and his shriveled body is floating above the atmosphere. Then you see the sun’s healing face starting to shine on him. It brings him back to life. The beautiful life-giving sun completely revives him.
Don’t you just love it when the sun comes out right after it’s been dark and dreary? It finally starts to come out, the clouds begin to dissipate, the rays start to peek through a little bit, and you turn your face up toward it to feel the warmth. I can’t see sunlight anymore, but I can feel it. It feels so good, doesn’t it? When the sun is out, life just seems a little bit better. God is our sun. He is our life-giving sun. We are Superman. When you feel like you’ve had the life sucked out of you, you have to fly toward that sun. I don’t know what kind of kryptonite you might be dealing with today. Maybe it’s health issues like mine. Maybe it’s stuff at work, your marriage, an addiction, or a broken dream. But God sees you. Know that He sees you. Know that He wants you to put your focus back on Him. The answer is always to move closer to Him.
What does it mean to move closer to Him? It means to get to know Him better and get to know His Son better. Wherever you are, just get to know Him a little bit better. You can trust Him. Do you find that it’s hard to trust Him? Sometimes I certainly do. What helps me is when I find that the trust is hard, I remember and look back on my life. I think about the times that Jesus got me through those difficult times and storms. That gives me strength. It helps to remember. When I have trouble trusting God, I think about the cross. I think about what Christ did at that cross for us so that we could have a relationship with Him. We have eternity to look forward to. Submit to Him. Hope in Him. Hoping, what does that look like? Sometimes it’s being in God’s Words.
I spent the entire month of June last year reading the book of Psalms. I don’t know, 20 times maybe. It gave me so much comfort. The Bible is full of so many comforting scriptures and promises. Another way we can feel hope is to glam onto other people. Hope in community, be around other people who know and love Jesus and who hope in Jesus. Help each other through. I think the most important thing is to just talk to Him. God loves you. Just talk to Him. We call it prayer, but it’s really just talking to Him, telling Him how you feel. You could be completely honest, ask Him for what you need. He’ll give you what you need. I remember years ago I heard a speaker, afterward I went up to her and said, “I just wish I had more faith.”
She said, “Have you asked God for more?” I said, “What, I can do that, is that allowed?” Yes, it’s allowed. It’s allowed. She said, “We worship a limitless God, with limitless resources. We can ask Him for anything, more faith, more hope, more peace, more patience, whatever we need.” Remember we can’t limit God, but we can limit how we experience God. So whatever you’re dealing with today, just keep moving toward Him. Move toward the sun, move toward Jesus. He will strengthen you. Amen. Well, let me give you an update. Obviously, I’m still here. So I made it past six months. This past year, I have been doing an experimental treatment at UCSF with a clinical trial. The bad news is that I probably have to stay in treatment indefinitely. That’s how we manage stage four cancer. Many times I don’t feel that great because of the side effects and treatment. But the good and amazing miraculous news is that there are no tumors in my body today. Amen. Thank you, God.
I didn’t think it was possible, but it’s possible. I want to take a couple of minutes to thank those of you in the Cornerstone here that have been praying for me. So many of my amazing prayer warriors out there. Thank you so much. My friends and family have recruited probably thousands. They were praying for me all over the country and even abroad. My son Bruno said to me the other day, “Mom, I know God’s going to heal you because He’s going to get so sick and tired of hearing about you from all these people. Stop nagging me about this Alex lady.” So thank you for your prayers, but my prognosis hasn’t changed, five years is still the number to beat. I know that the cancer can come back at any time, but I feel His presence stronger than ever. I feel good.
I don’t know how my story’s going to end. I don’t know if I’ll get my 30 years or my 15 or even my five. I know the author of my story and the author of your story. I know that His will is perfect. In the meantime, what do we do? We’re going to trust, submit, hope, and repeat. In the time that we have left, I want to talk a little bit about how this fits into our theme. Our series of glow. When Pastor Terry first asked me to share during this glow series, I had to laugh out loud. I laughed pretty hard actually because I have had 20 plus CT scans, MRIs, and pet scans. I’m pretty sure that I am literally glowing from radiation. That song ‘radioactive,’ when it comes on the radio, my kids are like, “That’s to you, mom.”
How does the glow of our faith impact others? If you are struggling with something right now, I want to encourage you because maybe your trial has a higher purpose. My first thought is that your glow shines brighter in the darkness. What do I mean by that? Consider the glow of a lamp in a room that’s lit. Let’s say that the room is lit by an overhead light. You can see the glow from the lamp; it’s discernible, but it doesn’t necessarily jump out at you. I think this is a good picture of what our faith is like when our life is good. When things are cruising along. Now, turn that overhead light off. That room is completely dark. But then, that same glow from that same lamp shines relatively, so much more brightly. Doesn’t it? It illuminates the entire room. There’s no way you can miss it.
I believe that when we go through the difficult times in life, we have the potential to make a bigger impact on people around us. God will use our trials to reach other people. I kept a blog this past year on a site called Caring Bridge. It’s a great way to keep my friends and family updated about my treatment. I love reading the different comments that people post. It’s so encouraging to me. One of my friends who is not a Christ-follower posted a comment once, said something to the effect of “Alex, if you keep this up, I might change my mind about the faith thing.” Amen. Yeah. Right. Wow. I was jumping up and down. I was so ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it. If my journey helps my friend get a couple of steps closer to Jesus, it’s so worth it. The whole thing is worth it. I was a little puzzled too because you know, what does he mean by ‘keep this up?’ What does this right?
My blog gets pretty raw. It’s pretty obnoxious. It is easy saying that I have to keep being obnoxious. I don’t know. What does he mean? I thought about that and I think he means simply keeping the faith, simply believing, and continuing to follow Jesus through the difficult times. It can point others to Jesus. It’s very powerful. Moreover, the glow of our faith can take it into somebody else’s darkness. We can take it into somebody else’s set of difficult circumstances. That brings me to my second thought, go help somebody. Somebody out there needs you desperately. I say this from the perspective of someone who has received so much help this year. There’s this whole dimension to my story and I don’t have time to do it justice. Hundreds of people have given of their time and resources and that has been such a blessing to me.
I’ll give you one example. I’ve had, I don’t know, 25 chemo treatments. I’ve never had to go alone. I think only a few people have taken me more than once. Even my nurse said to me one day, “Man, you got a lot of friends” and I know I might be bragging about myself. I’m not, I’m bragging about the body of Christ. Isn’t it beautiful? I feel so loved and so grateful. The same nurse told me that there’s a lady who comes in every week, all by herself, completely alone. Evidently, nobody else knows what’s going on with her. It just breaks my heart. I know what breaks God’s heart too. Let’s take a look at a second Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ. The Father of compassion and the God of all comfort. Who comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort those in any trouble. With the comfort, we ourselves receive from God.”
Apostle Paul is saying is that God comforts us so that we can comfort others. He comforts us in our time and need. We become conduits of His comfort and grace. We give it away to the next person who needs it. You know, trials are good in the sense that they make us more compassionate. They make us more sensitive to other people’s needs. There’s somebody out there that needs your comfort today. Comfort them and let yourself be comforted when you’re in a time of need. Finally, my last thought is don’t let the pain steal the joy. We should expect life to be hard. We shouldn’t be surprised by the difficult times that we have to go through. Even Jesus said that we would have many troubles in this world, but we can live in such a way that bad stuff doesn’t have to snuff the joy of the good stuff.
About a year ago my family and I went shopping in Union Square. We had a great day. We shopped on mission street and lost track of time. I think you might know where this is going. Have you ever had that sinking feeling when you’re standing in front of a spot where your car is supposed to be and it’s not? Yeah, it got towed. $500 later to bail that car out. That’s not even including the parking ticket. We drove home in silence. Michael and I were pretty darn grumpy at that point, to say the least. We heard a little voice pipe up from the backseat. “Well, we still had a good day, right? Just because dad parked the car on mission street and got towed, doesn’t mean that the entire day was ruined. Right?”
Attitude is everything. Did we have a good day with some bumps or was the whole day ruined? The pain is commingled with joy on this side of heaven. Celebrations and laughter come hand in hand with the tears and the struggles, but earth is not our final destination. It isn’t. We look forward to a perfect eternity with Jesus. We can have an eternal perspective. We can lift our eyes beyond what’s right in front of us so we can live life to the fullest here, despite the pain. Yes, this past has been extremely painful for me. It has also been immensely joyful. I’ve learned to make every day count. I don’t want to take anything for granted anymore. It’s good to have a sense of humor. Wouldn’t you agree?
I look for every excuse and feel an urgency to share Jesus with others. Isn’t that how we should all be living anyway. Isn’t that how I should be living before all this cancer business came up again? Isn’t that what others should see in our glow? Let me leave you with one last story. Last year, in July, I guess I was in the thick of treatment. My then seven-year-old Julio went to the East Coast to spend some time with my in-laws. One night, he asked them a bunch of questions about my cancer. We weren’t quite sure how much he was grasping. Some of his questions are really cute. Like, “Can I hug her? Will it hurt her? Is her cancer contagious?” Some of them were pretty sobering, like, “Is my mom going to die?”
My in-laws told me that they answered his questions best they could. Afterward, he paused for a moment and said, “Well, if Jesus has to take my mom home early. I’m sure going to miss her, but I’m not afraid.” A little seven-year-old is not afraid. We don’t have to be afraid. Even when it seems like we’re in the most impossible circumstances, we do not have to be afraid. I want to put one last verse for you. This is the verse that was the central scripture last year in my message Joshua 1:9 “Yes, Lord, I am learning to walk the talk. Have I not commanded you be strong and courageous, do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged because the Lord, your God who created the glorious sun itself will be with you wherever you go.”
In a minute, I’m going to have the band come up. We’re going to have our time of giving. I want to talk about the song that I requested. Are you ready to hear some Beatles this morning? “Here Comes the Sun.” This sun has so many meanings for me. Of course, it’s about the physical sun and just how wonderful it is to have such a life-giving heavenly star in our universe. It also, of course, figuratively is about how God is our sun and how He gives us everything that we need. If you change the spelling of son, SU N to S O N, it gives you a whole nother meaning. It’s about Jesus, how He died, rose, and ascended. How He’s going to be back and has claimed victory over sin. We don’t have to be afraid.
Let’s pray, Father God, you are like the sun and we thank you for your son. We know you are always present. Help us to keep our focus on you lord. We confess that we struggle during the dark times. Comfort and strengthen us, Lord. We know that the answer is always draw closer to you. We pray that the glow of our faith will lead others to you. Thank you for your unfailing love through your Son, Jesus, and His precious saying we pray. Amen.