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A Tumor and a Gracious and Kind God

Though Brian and Shawna White experienced a difficult health journey, they saw God’s faithfulness in numerous ways.
When Brian L. White found himself suddenly unable to hear out of his left ear in January 2016, he thought it was allergies. One doctor visit led to another and eventually to an MRI, which by March yielded a shocking diagnosis — a golf ball-sized tumor growing on the side of his brain.

Though benign, the tumor had to be removed. Surgery was scheduled for May 5, 2016.

White, now 47, and his wife, Shawna, serve as discipleship pastors at Carbondale Assembly of God in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time of his surgery, they served as college and young adult pastors.

“Not one aspect of life was untouched by the tumor,” Shawna says. “Yet God excels in rebuilding. And He uses His people to restore broken things.”

Around 3:30 the morning of his surgery, White opened his garage door to see a patrol car parked outside their home — a church member who was a highway patrolman, had arrived to ensure support and care for the family on the vital day, even escorting them to the hospital.

The surgery was largely successful in removing the tumor, yet damaged other nerves in the process. For three months White was unable to swallow, requiring tube feeding, and a paralyzed vocal cord rendered him essentially unable to speak for an indefinite amount of time.

“As a preaching pastor, that was difficult,” he says. “Dealing with the aftermath has been a long process. In 2019 the tumor seemed to be growing again. Additional treatments were successful. I believe the story has come full circle and is ready to be told.”

Three Verses, Three Angles, and a Crisis of Faith

Looking back, White connects three Scriptures with three aspects of his life-altering ordeal.

First, White says, “Someone gave me Isaiah 41:10 before my surgery and I clung to it. When we go through difficult times and unanswered questions, God walks with us. I do not understand why He asked me to walk the paths I walked — I just know He was with us.”

Second, he shares Romans 8:28. “I have been convinced God creates beauty and wonder out of even the most difficult things. I never want to go through our experience again, it was terrible. But I wouldn’t trade the lessons He gave us. When we feel that all is broken, He can transform.”

Third, White references Galatians 6:2. “The people in our church far exceeded expectations. People of God at their best are really good. If you are around people who are hurting, do not underestimate the importance of even small things that you can do to help. When we carry each other’s burdens, we do good.”

In many ways, those lessons were more visible in retrospect. Shawna shares that in the thick of the struggle, she experienced a crisis of faith as the reality set in that, with her husband being unable to speak, he was also unable to preach — a necessary function of the job paying the family’s bills.

“I began to question not only what God was doing, but whether I wanted to serve a God who seemed mean,” she says. “When He acted in a way I did not see coming, it caused a crisis of faith in me that I did not see coming. Eight years down the road I can now see His faithfulness. But at that time, we were trying to help lead a congregation, yet we wondered if we really believed what we were saying.”

The Whites feel that it was largely through the behavior of their congregation that God assured them of His presence, dealt with their fear, and led them to the other side of even the darkest moments.

They share that, on the Saturday before another surgery to repair his vocal cord on Monday, a deeply tragic accident occurred in their family, adding pain upon pain.

In evidence of God’s faithfulness, Shawna says, the congregation never shied away from their grief. “They came alongside us and became the ministers,” she says.

The Receiving End

During the month that White spent in the hospital, God’s profound care and provision were on full display.

Never once did Shawna have to pay for a meal — fellow believers provided. Never did a need go unmet — when a seemingly insurmountable medical bill arrived in the mail, so did a check, often from a stranger saying something like, “I heard about your situation.”

Shawna’s mother moved from Kansas City to Tulsa to help care for the couple’s children, Avery and Crosby, who were 9 and 4 years old at the time.

“She moved her life to help make sure ours was put back together,” Shawna says.

Congregation members also helped shield the children, providing pleasant distractions and refraining from adding to their fear by speaking inappropriately or oversharing about their own traumatic experiences.

At every step, they say, God seemed to be assuring them, “Stay close. It is going to be ok.”

They learned that as White could not speak, his sermons must come through the way he lived his life, not through the pulpit. White also saw this principle demonstrated by Phil Taylor, who retired in 2023 after 38 years as senior pastor of Carbondale Assembly. Taylor visited White every single day of his 29-day hospital stay.

“It was a scary time,” Taylor remembers. “It was important to assure the family that no matter how much time they needed, we would continue just to sit with them, to give incarnational presence. We weren’t going anywhere. Like Jacob becoming Israel, we all walk with a limp, and God walks with us.”

“Look How Gracious and Kind God Is”

When at last released from the hospital, White was given opportunity to greet the congregation. He remembers with gratitude that though his voice was extremely difficult to listen to due to the paralyzed vocal cord, the church leaned in and listened anyway.

“If we are just peripherally connected to church, we are doing it wrong,” he says. “The church should be family and we need to engage. And for those who are suffering, do this. Extend grace. Assure them of your real prayers. Actually pray for them. And give food! When people do those things, it does not seem like a big deal, but it is to those on the receiving end. As pastors we had always been the one doing those things, but we became on the receiving end.”

Behind all the kindness of His people at work, and all His healing grace, Jesus must ultimately receive all honor.

White concludes. “Just look. Look how gracious and kind God is.”

Kristel Zelaya

Kristel Zelaya is a freelance writer and editor with global experience. She served as marketing manager for Assemblies of God U.S. Missions and as a writer and editor for Assemblies of God World Missions. These experiences have led her to numerous countries and cultures — far from beaten paths — on behalf of many who did not know how deeply their stories matter. Zelaya is also a licensed Assemblies of God minister.