Guest Post: I Gave Her Bad Advice

Can a positive attitude affect breast cancer survival? No. It can even hurt.

Since we learned that Dona’s cancer had returned and spread, I have encouraged her to stay positive, think positive, be optimistic. I told her studies have shown that a positive attitude is linked to survival. img_3576

As it turns out, I was wrong. I was giving her bad advice; advice that was not just unhelpful but potentially harmful.

A 9-year study of nearly 1100 cancer patients by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found no relationship between positive outlook and cancer progression and death. At least two additional well designed and implemented studies support these findings. Based on what researchers know now about how cancer starts and grows, there’s no reason to believe that negative emotions can cause cancer or help it grow.

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Not always the best plan

And, as I learned, encouraging a cancer sufferer to stay positive can be anti-therapeutic. It can hurt, particularly when the ‘encourager’ links positive outlook to longevity, like I did.  I placed an additional burden on Dona, who has enough on her plate managing fear, side-effects, and me. Although she never said so, I was likely creating guilt and discouragement during the times she was unable to muster up a positive attitude.

But the impulse is natural. We want to believe that we have the will-power to control the outcomes of a serious illnesses.

Moreover, amongst Christians, we link healing to faith. On the extreme end, the ‘health-and-wealth gospel’ purveyors contend that healing can only come from the certainty of our belief in God’s promise of physical well-being. Without knowing, I may have been playing in to this.

Do I believe that God can heal Dona miraculously? Yes, I’m praying He will. Do I believe He must heal if she or I have unwavering faith? I can’t convince myself that is true. God can heal anyone, anytime, with or without my faith. Linking the certainty of my faith directly and solely to healing places too much burden and power on me. But at the same time, I’m reminded that Jesus told us to believe that we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer (Mark 11:22-24; Matthew 21:19-22). I’m asking Jesus to take my mustard seed of faith and use it however He wants. (Matthew 17:20) If this sounds like I’m waffling, I am. Looking at my own weakness, I take comfort in the father who asked Jesus to heal his child who was afflicted with terrible seizures. He told Jesus, “Lord, I believe, help me in my unbelief.” (Mark 9:21-29)

And then, almost a companion piece to the name-it-and-claim-it Christians is the typical American temperament which ignores mortality and promotes self-determination.

“Fix it, avoid it, or fight it. It is entirely within your control. You can prevail!”
“Cancer won’t win. Just believe you are going to beat it! Be a fighter!”

Dona hates the term, ‘she was a fighter’. She asks, “What’s the corollary for someone who dies of cancer? She was a loser?”

The way forward

Dona is not at death’s door. She has a cancer that is not curable, but it is treatable. She is getting the best treatments for the best possible outcome.

But delusional optimism, that positive thinking will control cancer, is, well,  delusional. Living with hope, however, is essential.  Author and pastor, Tim Keller says,

“The way you live now is completely controlled by what you believe about your future.”

Our pastor, Steve Schenk, told us in a recent sermon:

“Despair is believing there is no way forward. Hope, for the sufferer, is believing there is a path forward.”

How does Dona see a way forward in hope with metastatic cancer? She combines deep theology with practical behavior. To date, I have watched her employ over a dozen different techniques in constructing a path ahead. I would like to list them, but Dona nixed that. She reasons that, one, it would make this post over 2000 words and, two, it places undo emphasis on her behavior.  Fair enough.

But I will write that her efforts, habits, and musings promote hope and joy. And experiencing joy where we can find it has been one of our objectives since we started this journey.  Joy, as we Christians know it, has less to do with our circumstances and more to do with a settled assurance that God knows our condition and that nothing: cancer, grief or even death itself, can separate us from his love. (Romans 8:35-39)

So, how can I help Dona? I asked her and she told me,

“Pray for me, read scripture to me, point me to the reason for my existence, remind me that this reality is not the only reality, and have fun with me. And do these again and again and again and again.”

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More on finding comfort in God

He hears me crying.

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One of my creek stone art creations

Mornings can be tough. I wake and face a day where side effects of treatment must be managed, including the worst of all, fatigue which challenges every movement. As I texted to a friend, yesterday, “This ‘whack-a-mole’ existence, the bane of all of us Stage 4 types, will be endless. Do I have the strength for this?”

And so I cry, and David hears.

The other day he encouraged me to read my posts from 2014-2016.
“I read them, Dona, and they are good and comforting. Perhaps you would receive comfort, too.”

I have taken his encouragement to heart so I am reading a few here and there (see companion piece that I wrote earlier on finding God’s comfort) but with some trepidation; fearing that that which was so real back then will not feel as real now that the diagnosis is so much harsher. And not only have I been reluctant to read my previous cancer blog posts, but I enter the cancer hospital feeling less familial with my fellow tribe of cancer sufferers. An unhealthy envy creeps into my psyche for all those folks who have cancer but are in the treatment for the cure. I was one of them in the “good old days of stage 3” but now metastatic singles me out, isolates me from the others or so it feels. It is as if I wish there was a clinic within the hospital with its own private entrance that was reserved for all stage 4 cancer patients. I imagine myself talking more with these folks, mining their thoughts and feelings, sharing something helpful with them and they with me. I’m thinking of joining a Stage 4 support group. Meanwhile, I am reading my earlier posts and breathing sighs of relief that it is still the comforting truth for me then and for me now.

As bleak, sad and angry as I can feel sometimes it always comes down to something that the apostle Peter said when many followers left Christ after He delivered a hard teaching. Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Peter, will you leave me, also?” Of which Peter responded, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Life as we all well know can be cruel, indifferent and unbearable at times. If not for us its no doubt been hard for people we know and love. And if somehow we and all our family and friends have escaped the vicissitudes of life, well, then just read news about places and people who struggle through unimaginable loss and suffering. Where do they all go when it gets tough? A lot die, no doubt, but did they die with hope? I don’t know and nor do I presume to answer for them but I have found no greater answer to my despair than what Peter said to Jesus.

“Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life”. (John 60:68)

When I am struggling with the demon of despair it’s the reality that Christ has the words of eternal life that throws me the life ring of hope and faith. There is something about the words of Christ and the words of his followers who wrote gospels and letters in a text we dandelioncall the New Testament that awakens something in me that feels alive, organic, true and full of conviction, promise and hope. The scriptures give me comfort in my grief but also the scriptures give me needed chastisement from time to time that feels oddly hopeful, too. The scriptures challenge me to think outside my pre-occupation with self – the mandate to serve and pray for the poor and others brings comfort.  The scriptures prompt me to think about the cosmos (I’m binge watching Netflix’s the “Fabric of the Universe”). The big bang of our big God excites and reassures. Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  I like contemplating the bigness and mysteries of God and His creation and I imagine his delight as humans are driven to discover and explore the grandeur of it all.

One of my favorite quotes from Jerome, one of the early Christian fathers, concerning the gospel captures wonderfully what these words of eternal life are like for me:

“The Scriptures are shallow enough for a babe to come and drink without fear of drowning and deep enough for a theologian to swim in without ever touching the bottom.” ― Jerome.

I am more than fond of this Jerome quote. It is one of my favorites. I like to think that suffering when I am at my best moves me beyond treading water to  diving deep for those words of eternal life.

A Post of Lament

I walk into the Roswell Park Cancer Institute with my senses sharp-focused and on high alert. I’m in another culture and whether I like it or not, it’s now my culture. I belong. I can speak the language, navigate the geography and obey the protocols. But I am determined to remain who I am before I was initiated into this new culture, so I smile a lot for no other reason than to maintain some normalcy. I am a smiler by nature, but smiles are not common in a cancer hospital, hardly surprising but I refuse to stop smiling, just yet. (For more reflection on my Roswell culture and smiling see Duchenne Smiles Only, Please of March 2014.)

Other than smiling, I am scanning the population, looking carefully at faces. The faces resemble mine – lined and showing some wear.

This fact brings me around to a beauty tip that will keep you baby boomers from spending your retirement at the cosmetic counter for one of the billion products promising to be age-defying. Smiling lifts those sagging nasolabial folds, so you look younger. Better yet, you don’t look grumpy even if grumpiness is the furthest thing from your disposition.

My point? The vast majority of the people at Roswell Cancer Institute look like they are 60 and older and that’s a good thing. Cancer is predominantly a condition of the aged. I am reassured by that. Occasionally in the  breast cancer clinic I see a young mom with a helper who is attempting to corral a small child as she waits to be seen. It breaks my heart. It just shouldn’t be. I think of my daughters with their young children and my heart’s response is, “Can I take it for the family?” But we know it doesn’t work that way. Cancer is not a respecter of family life nor of anything remotely related to matters of fairness, kindness or common decency.

When I was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer in 2014 my youngest daughter said, “Mom, as awful as this is going to be for you what I know for sure is that if this was happening to me or my sister you would be a basket case.” Yep, at that moment I had my first moment of thankfulness. Grateful it was me and not them.

african-american-mother-praying-clipart-6Weird back story: when my first child was a toddler a good family friend died of lymphoma. I became obsessed with the fear of cancer. My neck was bruised from searching, prodding and poking for swollen lymph nodes. I went to the doctor pointing out some swollen bits. The doctor was annoyingly unimpressed. I went to another doctor. No satisfaction there either. I drove my poor husband crazy with the “what ifs.” (David lovingly refers to that period of our lives as the neurotic imaginary cancer scare of the 80’s). So, what was going on? The therapist in me analyzes that period of my life as a sort of coming of age process. Motherhood, with its great love for a vulnerable dependent human being, also came with great anxiety, realizing that life held little control. A  little toddler needed her mother and I developed a neurotic need to reassure myself that we could never be separated. Time passed and more life happened (another child was born) there was less time to focus on the scary “what ifs” of this life. My neurosis took a rest. But I am not apologizing nor thinking its neurotic to hold to the view that there is something terribly wrong with a world that takes loving mothers or fathers from their vulnerable young children.

Kate Bowler is a young professor of Christian history at Duke Theological Seminary, author and speaker. She also happens to have stage 4 cancer and has written sharply, poignantly and honestly about how she is supposed to make sense of a young mother dying, leaving behind a husband and young son. She is a Christian trying to make sense of her new reality. Her articles and books are hard reading at times. The caustic wit and   honesty are not typical of female Christian writers who attempt to make us feel better. Be prepared to squirm.

grown daughter and mother_standingBowler is living out my younger self’s worst fear. Now, I have stage 4 metastatic breast cancer but I am long past being that young mother of a small child who lived in dreaded fear of cancer. I’m saddened and anxious about an unknown future but grateful that I saw my little children grow up to be amazing women. But before I come across as too ready to cross the finish line of motherhood, clarity is needed. I am pursuing the best medical treatment, staying as positive as possible, and praying for miraculous healing. I love my adult children and long to see them grow into their 40’s with all the self-awareness and maturity that awaits them. I adore my grandsons and long to live long enough for them to have memories of their Nona. I fret about my 93 year old mother being without her only child. I love, love my best friend and husband of almost 40 years and grieve as I think of his loneliness and aging beyond his 65 years without me. But the utter panic of leaving small children behind has thankfully been replaced with a swipe of my brow that a bullet has been dodged.

What’s the point to this post? Hmm… not exactly sure except to answer the question my husband asked me as I was going down the other day into an abyss of miserable complaining (and it was not the first time) about a miserable world where so much miserable suffering happens to women and children and innocents through disease, cruelty, poverty, corruption, and greed.

“So, Dona, where would you be right now without a hope of an eternity where all injustice and suffering has its comeuppance and end? where all wrongs are made right?”

Hard to know where I would be. I have piled up decades attempting to live the life of a faithful follower of Christ so its hard to imagine living a reality without thought of Him and its implications. But I will say that that belief includes something so important to my spiritual and psychological well being that I quake to imagine myself without it. It’s the belief that I am loved by a “thick-skinned God” who can take my many complaints without flinching, frowning or regretting he knows and loves me. I take my cue from the psalms of lament and the book of Job and the Old testament prophets and from Christ, Himself. As Kate Bowler says, “This life is hard, and this life is beautiful.” I’m just so thankful that I can live my remaining life steeped in the meaning and mystery of a thick–skinned God who gets me even when I struggle to get Him.

Go figure.

Footnote:  In the Hebrew Bible there are approximately 67 Psalms of Lament.  In them the Psalmist complains to God directly about an injustice or tragedy and unabashedly asks God to do something.  With only the rare exception, these poems start with grief and end with trust in God, even joy.  My personal favorite, Psalm 22, is quoted in part by Jesus on the cross, and serves as a wonderful companion to the famous Psalm 23.

lamet scriptures

Guest post from my husband: For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll

Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory

Preamble: I took note of Dona’s post, the Clarity of Ink where she contends that writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking and reins in anxious thoughts. So, I began to write about my worries and hopes for my wife who is living so valiantly with Stage 4 cancer. Dona suggested when I was ready I could guest-post on her blog. I’m a bit uncertain making this public. Writing is quite therapeutic, but it is likely only a help to me. Moreover, as I reread this post just before publishing, I realized there is much essential stuff not in it: what it means to trust and pursue God, the necessity of prayer, the hope for miracles, the need for a positive outlook, the understandable disconnection and feeling of helplessness that the lover has for the much loved sufferer. Well, perhaps those are the subject of future posts.

– Dave Eley

The atrium lobby within the Roswell Park Cancer Institute is what all good atriums should be – bright, airy, cavernous (4 stories), full of activity, welcoming – an excellent stab at normalizing the experience of entering an institution with a fearful name. RPCI has the practice of ringing a bell in the atrium each time a patient finishes their treatment regimen. Everyone scuttling through the lobby stops and applauds. The finish of a tough race in the fight against cancer. Victory for a person who has prevailed, with his or her team, over a great challenge.

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Winter concert in the Roswell Park atrium taken while I waited for Dona to finish a CAT scan

By in large, the bell rings for patients that have Stage 1-3 cancers. Dona was Stage 3 in 2014. In the words of Dona’s surgeon, “the horse was still in the barn.” Like others, she enjoyed the huge relief and encouragement that her cancer was quite possibly curable (see Dona’s post, The Bad News Ends Today ). But to survive, she endured a range of harsh treatments. With late-stage non-metastatic cancer, she got the full nine yards: surgery, uncomfortable surgical incision drains, subdermal medication port implant (actually quite a convenience), chemotherapy, hair loss (but she had a half-dozen great wigs), fatigue, infections (one landed her in the ICU), shingles, endless radiation which compromised my health from eating endless donuts while waiting for her in the hospitality suite. Yet, there was always an endpoint; a horizon to labor towards. At some point the bell in the atrium would toll and there would be the ‘victory dance’ of a person who has prevailed, with her team, over a great challenge.

Then there is the group for whom no bell tolls. This is the stage 4 group, or descriptively, people whose cancer has spread to distal organs. The horse is now out of the barn.  We discovered shortly before Christmas 2018 that Dona was now in this group – the ‘new metastatic me’ as she now calls herself.

Although a full array of treatment options can be marshalled to fight the disease, the cancer is not curable.  Simplistically speaking, medically, the treatment is whack-a-mole; like an endless fight against urban insurgency. Battles will be won but these folks must develop a new definition for victory over cancer.

Mission Objectives
Roswell Park’s vision is “to free our world from the fear, pain and loss due to cancer — one act of compassion, one breakthrough discovery, one life-changing therapy at a time — until cancer is gone.”  I love that: big, vivid, energizing, inspiring.  It holistically covers both the process and the objective. But it is the mission and vision of science and human endeavor. It is not complete for the incredible woman who is my wife that is now picking her way through the Stage 4 scree. (See: Nick, the barber, says, “Trust God, then your doctors.


Dona needed a new plan for metastatic cancer
I am a retired military officer. The sailor in me loves well-crafted mission objectives. The man-child in me wants to tamp down anxiety by doing something, ANYTHING.  So, shortly after Dona’s setback we worked together to draw up a plan of 3 parts:

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.

We will stay informed and be our best advocates. But it is a relief that this mission is mostly in the hands of the excellent, caring, encouraging Roswell Park team. There are new therapies today that were not available when Dona was first treated in 2014.  We are grateful.  We are maintaining a positive outlook.

2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it. 

Ordinary experiences are much more intense now.

Two weeks into a new treatment regimen, Dona developed incredibly painful mouth sores. That, coupled with a low blood cell count and worries about an infection kept her in bed and PJ’s most of the week; working on a blog piece titled, ‘Loneliness.’

Our daughter provided therapy and distraction when she asked me to pick up our two grandsons from school. Dona wanted in. She arrived at school armed with treats. She had purchased two bottles of flavored milk – chocolate and mint green. I told her not to present two different bottles of milk for the kids would argue over one in favor of the other. She said she knew which flavor each preferred. No problem. Once in the car kids began to argue, push and shove over the green milk. I smirked. I love being right. Dona demanded that we immediately return to Wegman’s to exchange the chocolate for another green. Though annoyed, I dutifully pulled into Wegman’s and Dona leaped from the car. The boys and I sat in the car for what seemed like less than a minute before she was back. We were startled at her speed. Each boy now had their own delicious bottle of green mint milk, or what the younger called booger-milk. The older boy, having more academic training, called it, mucous-milk. Much laughter. That was joy for us.
Not always, but sometimes suffering can make the little things, even silliness, seem so much more. At that moment joy was the vivid green of the ‘mucous-milk.’

I love my wife. Strong and courageous, longsuffering without being stoic. Looking for rays from a pale winter sun and finding them.

3. Think deep about eternity.
This, of course, is the endeavor of a lifetime. Much to think about and write here. Tim Keller has the jest it:

“Suffering takes away the loves, joys, and comforts we rely on to give our life meaning. How can we maintain our poise, and even our peace and joy, when that happens? The answer is that we can do that only if we locate our meaning in things that cannot be touched by death.”

Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, (Dutton, 2013), p. 36

What then is victory over cancer?

The Apostle Paul writes:

“Then what is written will come true. It says,
“Death has been swallowed up. It has lost the battle.” (Isaiah 25:8)
“Death, where is the victory you thought you had? Death, where is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14)
The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But let us give thanks to God! He gives us the victory because of what our Lord Jesus Christ has done.

– I Corinthians 15:54-56

‘Cancer can’t win’ is a frequently used banner for fundraisers. I Googled it. Most of the hits referenced Christian hope in the face of the disease. Many hits reproduced a poem written in the 1970’s by Robert Lynn for a friend. This poem was passed around pre-internet hand-to-hand as the words of an anonymous author and was eventually posted on line by people wanting to comfort friends and family. In the mid-2000’s, Lynn discovered his work had garnered over 160 million hits. It was time for a copyright!

CANCER IS SO LIMITED

Robert L. Lynn

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

For cancer is so limited—

It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot kill friendship.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot reduce eternal life.
It cannot quench the spirit.
It cannot cancel Resurrection.

Can cancer conquer you? I doubt it, for the strengths I see in you have nothing to do with cells and blood and muscle.

© 2007 by Robert L. Lynn
Permission to publish the poem has been requested

 

Farther Along: New Song for the New Metastatic Me

I recommend you view and listen to the following on YouTube.  I know I’m milking the ‘New Metastatic Me’ theme. But NMM allows me so many liberties I never had before………..

Farther Along, sung by Josh Garrels. (YouTube)
https://youtu.be/IctD9l4F-ag

You know what I’m talking about. A song seizes you with an intimate knowledge of yourself. It comes out of nowhere. You weren’t looking for it and even if you were you wouldn’t have found it. It’s not your preferred genre of music and you were not familiar with the artist. It would never be recommended on your Pandora stations.  You listen to other songs on the album and you are disappointed. You want the emotional high to go higher, but it is not to be. Its locked up in just one song: a mystical combination of lyrics, voice, instruments, video images (YouTube version), timing in your life, and whatever else can’t be explained about music and its effect on the soul. So, this new song is comforting the “new metastatic me.”

we humans are sharers

There is always the risk in sharing something deeply personal that it will not be received with the same awe. I know better. I have had people recommend songs, books, articles, art work, movies, etc. that have been meaningful and soul-grabbing for them but I have not been completely on board with their enthusiasm.  But I get it. They can’t help promoting it and nor can I with this song. We humans are “sharers” at our core. We desperately need and cherish connection and never so much as when we are in the storms of life. This is not so surprising as I consider that we are the only created beings made in His image. The Maker of Heaven and Earth who is Love and the ultimate Sharer of love has instilled that aspect of his nature into us. His longing, if such an emotion can be ascribed to the “all-sufficient God within himself,” is for us to be sharers of love with him and extend it to others.

So, no apologies for sending this on to you and you likewise keep sending out your soul’s longings captured in whatever form they come to you. God may very well have something for one of his children to share with another of his children. He’s the ultimate sharing Being after all.

“For God so loved the world that He gave (shared) His One and Only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life. God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world guilty, but to save the world through Him.” 

– John 3:16-17

So, thanks Jessica for sharing and sending Josh Garrels’ ‘Farther Along’ to me. I am feeling its love.

The Man ‘With Nobody’ but Cancer

“At least you have somebody,” said the man leaving the cancer consultation room.

waitingWe were waiting our turn. This was one of several high anxiety medical appointments. We would be told the extent of the metastasis. Our daughter had offered to come with us and we gratefully accepted. To tap down the tension she was telling us the most recent knucklehead antic of one of our grandsons. We were laughing.

Shamefully, I didn’t notice the gentleman until those arresting words broke through the self-absorption and family comradery. I was speechless, literally. I said nothing to him. He walked by without receiving any personal acknowledgement. My husband and daughter felt it too; guilt for not offering some encouragement. David later told me that he thought of chasing the man down and saying something. But what was there to say?

“Sorry, man, that you don’t have a family or friend to be with you in a time like this?”

It was all so awkward, but my guilt was slightly assuaged by the justification that I was caught by surprise. But why surprised? Perhaps it was the surprise of a man’s spontaneous vulnerability to complete strangers. Or maybe it was the surprise of being shaken out of my consuming suffering to realize that I was part of a suffering humanity – no more or less special than anyone else; certainly not in the eyes of God.

Suffering is suffering for several reasons but one of its most devastating attributes is loneliness. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me;” the memorialized words of our Savior God who too experienced the human condition of loneliness as he hung on the cross suffering an agonized death of pain, shame and abandonment.

loneliness-quote-by-mother-teresaHardly shocking are the numerous studies showing loneliness as adverse to physical health. More than depression or anxiety, loneliness predicts a lower mortality rate. People live longer who don’t report chronic feelings of loneliness. Consider the Roseto Effect; a 50-year study of the residents of Roseto, Pennsylvania, a community of Italian immigrants who lived sedentary lifestyles, were overweight, had high alcohol consumption, smoked stogies (whatever those are) and were exposed to toxic particles through their work at the quarries. Bottom line: they lived way longer than the average person in the US during the 1950’s. Being a descendent of Italian immigrants I was happily prepared to read that it was genetics that brought their good fortune of longevity. However, family members of the Roseto residents who lived in neighboring towns were not beneficiaries of the same great health. So, what was it? As it turned out no one in Roseto owned a TV and nightly group dinners were a common occurrence. Researchers, after controlling for about everything, concluded that these folks were dodging the bullets of loneliness’s bad health effects because they did use technology to entertain themselves in isolation. They just had each other and consequently lived longer for it.

Loneliness is awful on many levels. And just to be clear I’m talking about a distressful emotional condition; people that feel lonely, not people who live alone. Background: I was the only child of a career military father and a working mom. Loneliness was the constant background noise of my existence, but I compensated by developing people skills. Actually, I perfected very sophisticated kid skills. “Hey, you want to play with me at my house? My mom has candy in big dishes all through the house. (She really did. I didn’t care about candy, but I knew greedy, candy-starved children did.)

I told myself that I would never marry anyone in the military service, thus putting my kids through the never-establishing-roots-anywhere-lonely-existence that I had. But falling in love breaks a lot of promises made to one’s self.

I’m grateful for family and close friends. And I’m grateful for each of my adopted church families. Over the decades as an adult I have lived in ten communities spread over 11 time zones. In each I have enjoyed and loved the commitment each little band of Jesus followers had for me and me to them before I had to geographically move on.

“Family” is one of the most used metaphors in the New Testament for describing the church; a perk that has never been missed on this only child as she traipsed around the world. As David, my daughter and I sat waiting to learn the extent of my metastasis my adopted family sat in the wings, praying for us, bringing food, visiting, comforting, and laughing with us as appropriate.

I hope, I pray that the gentleman ‘with nobody’ but cancer will find his family. I pray that an adopted family, a church, will find him. It is our scared responsibility, as the church, to love our neighbor as we want to be loved. This challenges me, within my own little church, to make sure when someone is facing a health crisis to ask,

“Who is going with you to your appointment? How about me?”

“At least you will have somebody.”

I like the new me – the metastatic me

In Flannery O’Connor’s controversial, dark short story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” a petty, conniving, vain, selfish grandmother is accosted by escaped convicts while on a road trip with her son, daughter-in-law and 3 grandchildren. She and her family (spoiler alert) are shot and killed by the cons. Near the very end, the grandmother shows elements of humility and compassion as she reasons with and even tries to comfort the lead killer, named ‘The Misfit.’ It doesn’t work. But after he shoots her, the Misfit claims, in a moment of perverse remorse, that the grandmother “would have been a good woman, if there had been someone there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

I read it and immediately felt like I had been shot through (no pun) with a moment of painful clarity into human nature, or at least mine. I was just given a gift of insight and self-awareness. After all, Isn’t that what separates literary geniuses from the rest of the gifted writers. These geniuses give us images that expose us, enlighten us, humble us and, if we are lucky, transform us

Commentators believe O’Connor, a devout Catholic, makes two main points in this brutal short story.

One, the grandma and the Misfit are two sides of the same coin; deeply flawed sinners in need of the saving grace of Christ. O’Conner, a uniquely Southern writer, captures the essence of the ‘White Southern sinner’ of her time – full of pretense, false hospitality and graciousness that mask a deep suspiciousness and dislike of “the other,” and the willingness to use Jesus when convenient. The Misfit, more base in nature, lacks the pretense of the grandma. Neither measure up. All have sinned and fallen short.

Second, one traumatic event will not change your life necessarily for the better or forever.

I endured a great trial when I suffered through treatment in 2014 – mastectomy, chemotherapy, near-death infection, radiation. I was a better person through all that, or so I thought. I was gentler, less anxious and petty. I trusted God more and consequently enjoyed His presence more. In 2015, after treatment, I began to revert to my old self as i gained a false confidence that I was going to live mythically forever (to be explained). I don’t want to overstate this to make a point. I didn’t shoot a family along the roadside. I didn’t start manipulating and guilting my family, like the Grandma, to get my way. I hope I didn’t. But I did notice a subtle taking advantage of the grace of God and feeling a pressure to have my own way seeping its way back into my personality.

It is now 2019. I have Stage 4 cancer, which is not curable. In a sense I do have a gun to my head every minute of my life. And as a result, the petty vain things of this world are sloughing off faster than I can say Amazon Prime and faster than I can think up an endless list of what my husband should be doing for me  or faster than I can complete a critical or judgmental thought of how someone has disappointed me. I like the new me, the metastatic me. Don’t get me wrong I’m not a masochist. I don’t want this disease. I don’t want this. I will say it again so I’m clear, I don’t want this! Nor would I have chosen it in order to get to the new improved version of me. And I am not sure that I will continue to like this new me. It could get ugly and so could my mood. But now, I am kind of feeling good about myself-my gentler personality . When I am not in pain that is. Methadone helps with that.

Here is what I’m learning


…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.
Flannery O’Connor


Much of life is not cherished when we live in the “mythical state of immortality.” I am seeing how much of life is lived carelessly, vainly, judgmentally, critically, trivially, selfishly and proudful. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. The myth that I live forever, physically; a myth we can’t help but believe if our strongest desire is to live for ourselves and for our own happiness or at the least for the happiness of our own little tribe. When I live in this state, I find that my opinions and sentiments are imbedded deeply in the soil of self-righteous indignation. Everything matters; from the inanest to the most profound. There’s little wiggle room to separate out the important opinions from the trite. It’s all emotionally equal and meaningful because it originates with me and I am the master gardener of this creation – my life. Along the way of this mythical immortal self becomes the thin skinned, gossipy, greedy, worried, envious behaviors that are so common that I hardly notice them as being anything, but the way life is lived by all.


‘Mythical immortality’ is the belief that other people die, I don’t.


But then – Kapow! – the gun is at the head and the myth evaporates: a nice doctor gives me not very nice news. I am sick, really sick and not going to be allowed to live within the mythical boundaries of forever future plans. Within minutes of the news, however, I am given an invisible blank memory stick and I begin to upload two files. First file: a list of all that I am going to be “cheated” out of.  Second file: what there is to be grateful for. It is easy to download what I might be cheated out of.  Its not so easy to do the other bit.

worshipBut here is the catch, what is there to be grateful for if I don’t have someone to say, ‘thank you’ to? Thank you to my husband for the endless times as he serves me selflessly and generously. Thank you to medical scientists and doctors who show compassion within their expertise. Thank you to my daughters and their spouses for their support and love. Thank you to my many friends who show me extraordinary kindness and love. But unless there is a cosmic creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning:


In everything give thanks; for this God’s will for you.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:18


Postscript:
1. Giving ‘thanks in everything’ is not the same as ‘there is a reason for everything.’ I should blog about this sometime.
2. There is a better way to be better without having a gun held to your head every minute of your life or to have metastatic cancer. I should blog about this sometime.

The Clarity of Ink

 


I’m on an unruly horse on a journey; an earthly journey that only God knows where we are headed. Only God knows and my blog posts will be my attempt to be ok with that.


penI have not written a blog post since the summer of 2015. Apparently, the absence of cancer in the following years anesthetized deep thinking. That was fine by me. I like to write but what I really like to do is talk and anybody who has met me can attest within 5 minutes that I like to talk and I can do so in a variety of formats: teaching, storytelling (my favorite), presenting sermons, sale pitches, chitchatting , joking, and just generally yucking it up. I’m an extrovert, obviously, so talking is not just fun; it’s a blood transfusion that keeps me feeling alive, energetic and vibrant.

However, it is discipline I need when a curve ball of life is thrown at me (is that the right sports metaphor? I don’t play basketball.) I need boot camp training to keep me focused on my values, to my higher nature, and to the best of what makes me a thoughtful human. Talking is necessary as the means of vital human connection but talking is not a discipline; not for me anyway. Writing is the spiritual discipline that keeps me grounded. And it has good science to back its claims to stress reduction and trauma healing. Several theories attempt to explain this. I prefer the one that describes the process of writing as forcibly imposing boundaries on thinking – boundaries of grammar, syntax and sentence construction. Grammar, and not even necessarily correct grammar,writing forcibly imposes boundaries on thinking reins in free-floating anxious thoughts that tend to run off into numberless rabbit trails causing untold feelings of misery, fear and confusion.

I’ve been counseled by family and friends to pick up the computer again to begin a phase 2 of this cancer journey (Stage 4, metastasis). For several reasons, I have been reluctant to write. Laziness stands out as the most obvious. It takes time and mental work to write even if it turns out to be therapeutic. Replacing tissues with word documents feels a bit cold and a betrayal to the tragedy and intimacy of suffering. Going public with written reflections can also feel egocentric or worse, a kind of romantic display of “look at me, a suffering cancer victim with big poignant thoughts.” Another reason to avoid the blog world is the fear that I will write something now in the early stage of metastatic cancer that will seem sentimental or naïve considering the later stages of this disease. But despite self-doubt and laziness I’m doing it. I hope some of you who read my blog posts a few years ago will join me as I try to make sense of the ‘new normal’ of living with metastatic cancer. By the way, some of my blog posts will be reworkings of earlier ones as they seem upon re-reading them to have held on to their relevancy. (See ‘Fear of Dying from March 15, 2014.) Also, I will invite guests to submit an article from time to time.

So, here am I on this unruly horse going on our journey; an earthly journey that only God knows where we are headed. And when I say, “only God knows,” I mean it literally and respectfully. Only God knows and this blog will be my attempt to be ok with that.

The Horse is Out of the Barn

Shucks, the horse just got out of the barn…..

On March 15, 2014horse-leaving-barn, I posted a blog titled, “Fear of Dying.” It described my anxiety while undergoing a CT scan to determine whether my breast cancer had metastasized. It had not. My worst fear was not realized. The “horse was still in the barn,” to use my surgeon’s phrase.

 

That was then, this is now. Shortly before Christmas 2018 we discovered that the breast cancer of 2014 had metastasized to bone and liver. This begins a new journey. The horse is out of the barn, cannot be returned (it is not curable), but can be chased around the pasture (it is treatable). I have been started on a promising new drug that was not available in 2014. My doctors are encouraging me, I’m feeling God’s peace. That does not mean I don’t have a fear of death or more accurately a fear of dying. But I’m learned that my worst fear, then or now, is not metastatic cancer. I’m learning what I only got a glimpse of in March 2014, that my worst fear – to be abandoned by God – can never be realized.

Here is an insert from that post almost 5 years ago; a time when the horse was still in the barn. It holds true today with that darn horse out of the barn.

“I can’t say with confidence that the fear of dying will never find its way back to me again or that the way out of it will be to always quote scripture but there is a scripture verse I am taking to the bank of heaven. It’s a verse that doesn’t depend on me to muster up a no-fear-of-dying feeling in order for it to be operative.”

In Romans 8 verses 37-39 of the New Testament the Apostle Paul writes,

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The Race you have been trained to run

passing the batonHebrews 12:1-3

I heard a sermon by Earl Palmer,the former senior pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle years ago. I have since used parts of this sermon in several presentations, including a presentation to a group of young Christian Palestinians, Messianic believers and Norwegian Christians agreeing to meet and socialize together in order to better understand each other.

I will begin todays post by a question: if you call yourself a follower of Jesus do you realize you have been called to a race? And it is not just any kind of race.  You have been invited to participate in a relay race.

Several aspects of a relay race are helpful to our understanding of who we are.

start blocks in relay racePalmer points out that in a relay race the time and place are established and set by someone else. The starting blocks and the times of the race are determined by someone other than the runners.  And so it begins that way with each of us. None of us had a say as to when or where or to whom we would be born to. Feeling guilty that I was born in the West during the 20th century and not in some desperately poor country is a useless waste of emotional energy as is feeling resentful for the circumstances outside my  control that I wish were different.

So what happens when someone realizes that God determines the place and time of their existence?  If there is trust in the goodness of God and His love, a lot can happen that is healing and purposeful. Something spiritually powerful can begin to take root that belies historical distrusts and hurts.  The Holy Spirit shows up and begins to speak forgiveness and hope into the most recalcitrant personal or culturally loaded grievance.  As a follower of Christ understanding takes root that someone of holy splendor, power and love is ruler of you, me and of everything.  And He is at work which includes determining our time and place of existence to do a foreordained job. So, what is that job? The relay race metaphor can help with this.   It is not just the time and place of the race that has been given to us but also the baton.  No one brings their own baton to a relay race.  But if there is no baton then there is no relay race to run.

The baton? Well, it is the gospel of Christ. It did not originate with us but was handed to us to do what with? Well, to pass it on, of course.  Would it not be a ridiculous race if one of the athletes after having the baton passed to her, ran off the course, yelling, “I got it, I got it- I win!”  We in the crowd would be perplexed and distressed that the race had been corrupted, ruined or at least misunderstood and pointless. The gospel is good news to who? You, certainly but not only to you or me. To everyone it is good news whether it’s accepted and appropriated or not. But just like in a relay race, the baton doesn’t just float along like some low flying UFO. It is person handled –held on to with care, seriousness and determination to make sure it reaches its next destination-the next runner who grabs it to begin her part of the race – This is God’s race of bringing His rule to fruition.

Now, what do we bring to the race? What is it that is not assigned to a runner? The running shoes are unique to each of the runners in much the same way that each of us bring our unique gifts, talents and experiences to the race of God’s time sensitive growing rule of truth, love and justice. The parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) that Jesus told his audience made it crystal clear that God has expectations of us being invested in His kingdom growth investment plan.  we are to do something with our uniqueness and that something presupposes that God’s purposes are good and worth whatever the cost. “Thy will be done on earth as it in heaven”. Are we all equally gifted to perform in the same way? Not from the way I read the Jesus parable. Maybe some of us will come to the race with designer athletic shoes, others’ with off brand knock-offs and others might come to the race with worn down, worn out thrift shop specials. The question in the parable is not how snazzy your shoes are but whether you believe the race is well worth the demands. So, how can we all do this race thing with winning success?

“Running the race with perseverance keeping our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 13:1-3) is our cheer, our call and our finish line. Is it really that hard if it doesn’t depend on the level of our abilities? Yes, it is! It’s really very hard. After all, it comes with training, sacrifice, pushing against all kinds of resistance and even occasional booing from watchers of the race.  But is it worth it to participate in the race? To quote the disciple, Peter, after Jesus asked him whether he was going to leave him like other disciples had left him, “Where else would I go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Look around! Is there or has there ever been anyone else like Jesus? Are there any heroes out there like Jesus Christ?   Don’t even try to look for a hero within the Christian faith. There is none but Christ and that is why he is the only goal and prize well worth the call and cost of the race.