SOS Ryan Woods
Ryan Woods is a church planter, pastor and community organizer leading a movement in downtown Vancouver, WA called Grassroots Conspiracy, marked by people trying to live like Jesus with and for those in their neighborhood.
My story of sifting is neither tidy nor complete. As I write this, everything is still unresolved and messy, as we wait daily to receive test results telling me if I’m closer to dying or to further living.
In May of 2011, shortly before my 29th birthday, we discovered that the strange limp that had developed in my right leg was in fact caused by a stage four cancerous tumor in the middle of my spine separating my spinal cord in two. Prior to this discovery I had never been admitted into the hospital, never made an emergency room visit for myself, never had an IV, never broken a bone, nothing. As a young, active, healthy, organic-eating, almost vegetarian who recycles and prays, this was absolutely unexpected. Two months prior I had been sent by my previous church to downtown Vancouver, Washington, to plant their daughter church. Three weeks prior I had finished my graduate degree (the last hurdle before fully delving into being a lead church planter). And three days prior I had returned from taking my wife and kids to Disneyland.
On May 31st I went in for surgery. At the time the doctors were confident that it was a benign self-encapsulated tumor. But by the time I emerged from surgery, the doctors revealed that while they still believed it to be benign, it was in fact completely entangled in my spinal tissue and they could not remove all of it. Additionally, I woke up from surgery paralyzed from the abdomen down. The next two weeks in the hospital were a whirlwind of ups and downs as my body healed from the surgery. As I began the long process of re-learning to walk. As I learned how dress myself again, put on shoes without being able to life my legs. As my wife learned to give me shots, and as we waited tenuously for official pathology results. As I stated in the beginning, contrary to doctors’ original assessment, the tumor was not benign and was in fact a high level incurable tumor known as an Glioblastoma Astrocytoma. At the age of 28, I was given a short shelf life.
Once back home from the hospital, we began the next stage of the journey which included extensive work with a naturopath, radiation treatments, and oral chemotherapy. Routine MRI’s would show over this time period that neither the initial six weeks of daily radiation nor the chemo would have any affect on the tumor—and in fact the tumor appeared to be growing (though few new physical symptoms emerged). There were all the usual physical obstacles along the way: back pain, infections, blood clotting, and a pulmonary embolism. Today I am on a regimen of stronger chemotherapy pills that I take for five days every month leaving me sick for about two weeks at a time.
The most mysterious thing throughout this entire journey has been the manner in which God’s story has been told. God has not promised me another day, I do not believe he has promised healing (though I do believe he can bring it!), but he has made an audacious claim to restore beauty for ashes, to give joy instead of sorrow, praise over despair—he has promised to tell a beautiful and redeeming story in our life and our death. And that is exactly what I have experienced him doing. The timing of my sickness was such that it seemed to interrupt our work of initiating a new gospel movement in downtown Vancouver, called the Grassroots Conspiracy. But the reality is that the gospel movement has not been interrupted, rather it has been given a new canvas for fresh interpretation.
Our ministry here is almost exclusively focused on those who are very far from faith, who have never set foot in church, and who find the usual rhythms of church practice foreign to their lives. But what God has been doing through my sickness is to create a portrait of the gospel that is drawing new people to him. Fighting cancer has not stopped our church planting; it has transformed it! This is not an interruption to the story; it is the story! So whether the gospel story is revealed in my neighborhood through my death or through my miraculous recovery, what we are learning is that God’s grace is extended through his ability to redeem every moment, every sickness, every interruption and make it a mirror of love to the world. The question is: will we allow God to enter into our story and thus transform our sifting into something beautiful?