Continuing Education

By Ryan Sanders

Jay Hohfeler is not an impressive figure. He’s 5'5" and slight. He dresses conservatively and smiles affably. But when he talks about suffering — about 130 days in a hospital bed — about a bone marrow transplant, one of the most painful treatments available — about the doctors who gave him a five percent chance of survival — he seems to embody strength. 

Jay is 59, married to Beth, and father to three daughters in their teens and twenties. They have attended IBC for nine years. In 2009, he retired from an executive position at Verizon and took a job as the director of a community school serving a low-income area of West Dallas. Everything seemed to be working for him. He had a beautiful family and a successful career that allowed him to retire early and give his second half to charitable causes. 

And then he almost lost it all. 

“My doctor still uses my scans to show his students,” Jay says, pointing to imaginary medical imaging on the wall at CUPPA. “Now, THAT’s lymphoma.” 

It was Stage Four, the worst his doctor had ever seen. Jay’s body was riddled with tumors. For the next three years, Jay would fight the cancer trying to kill him, then fight the treatment that nearly killed him, then fight God who was killing his idols. In the first year, he underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. The second year Jay’s system rejected the transplant, which meant that his immune system was attacking his own body. His digestive system started to shut down. The lining in his intestines was stripped away. He developed cataracts and diabetes. He couldn’t eat or drink by mouth for six weeks. The doctors responded by giving him huge doses of steroids, which led to other problems. He broke six vertebrae and two ribs. He broke bones just by getting dressed.

But suffering is a maturing agent, and half an hour with Jay unveils sage wisdom. It seems appropriate that Jay had been the headmaster of a school when his suffering started; it frames his lessons with an academic character. 

Here are the lessons of the Hohfeler School of Holy Suffering.

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Chapter 1:

It’s God’s fault. And that’s OK.

“God ordains suffering,” Jay says with an ironic smile. “That’s the first thing I learned. God either sent this to me or allowed it to be sent. It’s not like he wished it could have been different but couldn’t stop it. And so I thought, ‘If God ordained this, he is going to do something good.’ That didn’t mean that I knew that I would live. I didn’t know that. It meant he was going to make sense out of it. That settled me down. That got me through the hardest part of the cancer.” 

That may seem like the wrong kind of news to settle someone down, but Jay is at peace with paradox.

“One of my favorite scriptures is Isaiah 45:3:
‘I will give you the treasures of darkness
And hidden wealth of secret places,
So that you may know that it is I,
The Lord, the God of Israel,
who calls you by your name.’

Things that we run from and never want — he will give us treasures in that darkness.” 

Chapter 2:

Our loved ones need us, not our abundance.

“My first reaction when I heard I had cancer was to think of my life insurance policy,” Jay says. “I thought, ‘Beth and the kids will be set for life and I’ll go be with Jesus. This is a great plan!’ But what that revealed was that I had made an idol of money. I thought my highest value was in providing. I was the rich fool storing up grain in his barns.” 

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Chapter 3:

Our worth is not dependent on performance.

“I had this hole in my heart from childhood,” Jay says readily. He doesn’t shilly-shally over matters of faith or medicine. He’s past being modest about embarrassing topics, be they catheters or his sin nature. 

“My parents were emotionally distant. Over time, I always wondered if they loved me. I had a hole in my heart. When I got married, I thought that was going to fix this hole I had been carrying around. But, as it turned out, the pain was the same. I had to wonder, ‘Does she love me? Does she think about me?’ She did, of course, but I couldn’t receive it.

“Then at one point, when I had no hair, had lost 30 pounds, my mind was addled to the point where I couldn’t carry on a conversation. I was no longer the provider, no longer the funny guy. When I was at that point there was this day when she said, ‘I love you so much. You’re the bravest man I know.’ She said those things when I had nothing to offer. I would have paid a million bucks for that. The hole in my heart finally got fixed.”

Chapter 4:

God is not absent. 

“When I was in the hospital and didn’t think I would get out, I forgot what God was like. I had been a Christian for 40 years at this point. But I kind of got to thinking in the fog of all this, ‘Does God want to intervene, or is it some deist kind of thing where he’s not really engaged?’ 

So I thought, ‘This is what I’ll do: I’ll go to the scriptures and read one chapter a day and get my red pen out and underline every place where God intervened in someone’s life. Pretty soon, my Bible was filled with red. I saw that he’s good in these ways, he takes action in these ways. He gave Job this experience. He did this for David. And I realized who he is again.”

Chapter 5:

Suffering is not the ultimate evil. 

“I would do this again,” he says. “I was really changed. The hole in my heart got fixed. I reattached with my family. I learned how to walk in excruciating suffering. Wouldn’t you do that?

I’m not a spiritual giant; I’m only saying what anyone would say. If anyone had been through what I have been through and had been changed like I have, they would absolutely say, ‘I would do it again.’” 

Jay is quick to point out that his story might have ended differently. These chapters in his journey are, in fact, equally as important to someone about to die as someone about to be rescued from death. For much of his battle with lymphoma, Jay didn’t know which ending his story would have. 

These days, the institutions where Jay has invested move along without his service. Verizon is still selling phones. The West Dallas Community School is still graduating students in an area of great need. And IBC has rumbled along with its ministry. But there may be something in Jay’s unofficial course of study that all three could learn from. The most profound lessons in life may be those learned through the most profound pain. And the greatest sages among us may present in people we would never expect. 

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