By Stephen Lahood —
His doctor said, “You’ve got cancer,” but John Mark Hall, lead singer of Casting Crowns, heard, “You’re going to die.”
It was 2015 and the Grammy-winning Christian worship band was approaching 10 million sales of its albums. Mark was youth pastor in Georgia, happily married and fulfilling his call in God. He consulted a doctor friend about what he imagined to be acid reflux.
After getting the results of some scans, the doctor texted Mark: Dude, you need to call me.
In a subsequent phone call he told Mark there was a mass on his kidney. “It looks solid. I think it’s cancer,” he said.
Mark was thunderstruck.
“I hung up and walked to my car in a daze, wondering how I was going to break the news to my wife, Melanie; our four kids; our church; the youth group; the band,” Mark recalls in Guideposts. “The idea of telling them all made my head spin.”
God felt far away.
Two weeks before his surgery, Mark was singing with Casting Crowns at the Carson Center in Paducah, Kentucky, wondering what would happen. The band’s next song was “Just Be Held.” Unlike most of their songs, there was no story behind the song – until that night.
At that moment he had the stunning realization that God had inspired him to pen lyrics that would speak to him later in life, in the midst of his cancer.
Hold it all together
Everybody needs you strong
But life hits you out of nowhere
And barely leaves you holding on
“It was as though I was hearing those words for the very first time. Suddenly I knew who this song had been written for, and why. God in his infinite wisdom had given it to me two years earlier, knowing how desperate I would be after my diagnosis,” Mark explained. “I didn’t need to hold it together. I needed to be held, to accept his love from as many people as wanted to share it with me, to receive their prayers, all the prayers I could get.”
Doctors removed his cancerous kidney and later told him it was an aggressive form of the deadly disease, but mercifully, it was self-contained and had not spread.
The weeks following the surgery were sometimes difficult. The band cancelled a week of shows before Mark could rejoin them.
God has helped the band continue to reach hundreds of thousands with their inspirational music. Casting Crowns has won Dove, Billboard and American Music awards. The group is one of the only American bands to ever perform in North Korea, playing at the 2009 Spring Friendship Arts Festival in Pyongyang. Their single “Slow Fade” was included in Kirk Cameron’s blockbuster movie Fireproof.
Mark’s bout with cancer was not his only trial. As a child, he struggled in school with ADHD and dyslexia. He quips that the test for dyslexia in the third grade was “the only test I ever passed.”
Humor aside, not being able to read was a constant source of humiliation. He would deliberately sit in the back of youth group, and deliberately not bring his Bible, just so the youth pastor wouldn’t call on him to read scripture.
He felt like a loser. He hid his hurt behind a facade of clowning around and joking. But in school he intentionally went to class tardy every day, just so friends wouldn’t see he was in the “dumb” classes for special ed. Not even his best friends knew his painful secret.
“Satan started whispering to me that I was small and weak,” Mark says.
After high school graduation, he wanted to go to Bible college and sing for Jesus, but self-doubt plagued him.
“Any time I felt God was leading me to do something, it was as if this little voice said, ‘Look, if you try this, they’re all going to find out,’” he admitted to Christianity Today. “Satan convinced me to keep quiet and not try bigger things. It worked. I was an adult before I admitted having dyslexia.”
When Mark was 21, the fear of spilling his secret broke. At a Bible conference, the speaker shared his own testimony of struggling with dyslexia. Mark was amazed. Could God use him too?
“God doesn’t choose people who are ‘good enough’ to do his work but those who will listen,” Mark says.
Mark got his 4-year degree in six years and launched his music ministry. Who would ever think that that man behind so much inspiration went through so many battles?
“The little inadequacies that scare me don’t bother God,” he says. “I’m often reminded of 2 Corinthians 12:9: ‘God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.’”
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Steven Lahood studies at the Lighthouse Christian Academy in Santa Monica.