“In an intimate conversation with Hayner this October, when Hayner transitioned out of the presidency of Columbia Theological Seminary, Labberton said, “It would be hard to think of anyone other than my brother who has more fully bracketed my life as a person, a pastor, a leader, a disciple, a friend.”
Of the thousands of people affected by the ministry of Steve Hayner—the former president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who died Saturday after battling pancreatic cancer—Mark Labberton was one of the closest. Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, met Hayner while a freshman and brand-new Christian attending Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. The two ministry leaders went on to form a deep friendship as each grew in their respective roles and responsibilites.
In an intimate conversation with Hayner this October, when Hayner transitioned out of the presidency of Columbia Theological Seminary, Labberton said, “It would be hard to think of anyone other than my brother who has more fully bracketed my life as a person, a pastor, a leader, a disciple, a friend. There’s hardly been a decision since I was 18 where your friendship or example or encouragement or invitation hasn’t helped clear the ground for me to take the next step.”
Hayner reflected on his cancer diagnosis, following Christ when death is imminent, and eternal life in one of his and Labberton’s final conversations, which is edited below for clarity and length.
The Saturday before Easter, I remember calling you to wish you and Sharol a happy Easter, and you were feeling ill. The next three days, between that moment and Tuesday, life…
… changed virtually immediately. I went to the doctor first thing Monday, and by Tuesday we had a tentative, 95 percent diagnosis that I had pancreatic cancer. Normally the only thing they can do with this cancer is what they call a Whipple procedure. It basically means removing most of the organs in your upper abdomen, including the main tumor, then “replumbing” everything.
In my case, the surgeon wanted to do a biopsy to make sure everything else was clear. A pathologist in the operating room confirmed that I had metastatic pancreatic cancer and that there were already lesions in my liver. So it had already metastasized. That meant surgery was off the table. They were going to have to treat it another way.
Did you feel like just running into a brick wall?
It felt like, we’re going to do what we have always done, which is to be faithful day to day. To realize that whatever you face in life, there are no guarantees. And that, even though I felt like the least likely person to get a terminal cancer, it still was our situation.
Having conversations about something like cancer—those are awkward conversations. So many people want to live in denial. There’s a funny Christian view out there that if you acknowledge you have a terminal disease, that you’re somehow not being faithful or letting God down or not trusting God for healing. But however you want to talk about it, it’s awkward.
At the end of June, we got our three kids and their spouses and the grandchildren together in our family room. We went over the story of how amazingly faithful God had been throughout almost two months, going through the scans and chemotherapy. Then we told our children point-blank, “I now am terminal. The official diagnosis is this: We’re looking at my life on this earth in terms of months or weeks, not in terms of years.”
Some wanted to know all the medical details—what it was going to look like toward the end when I was really sick, and what my death was going to be like. Other people in the room didn’t want to go there at all; they mostly needed to cry together. We did all of those things that afternoon.