The Friendly Chanter

I Corinthians 15:19:  If Christ is our hope in this life only, we deserve more pity than any other people.

Without fail chemo infusion days bring encounters with people that go beyond the friendly chit chat.  I hear stories that cause me to think, pray and wonder on a deeper level.  Thursday was no exception.

The story:

While waiting for the pre-infusion check-in with my oncologist I was approached by an engaging woman. She had just finished her routine mammogram.  Cancer free since 1999!

As an aside; it is refreshing news to hear such a thing because typically I meet people who are dealing with reoccurrences which tend to unnerve me. David helps me put these encounters in perspective. “Dona, you are in a cancer institute where people are here for cancer treatment of all varieties and reoccurrences. The others who have been cured or in long term remission are in Starbucks having lattés with friends”. (Fair enough).

Back to the story:

The stranger approached me smiling and said, “I noticed you because you seem to be so upbeat and light filled and I just had to meet you.”  I returned the compliment genuinely and she told me her excitement to be cancer-free for so long and then surprised me with a discussion of hope.  She handed me a pamphlet and card with her name on it. It wasn’t what I expected because as she gave me the pamphlet she said, “I am not a proselytizer but I have experienced the benefits of chanting through a particular Buddhist sect’s practice. It is all explained in the brochure and if you have any questions please feel free to call me.”  She went on to explain that chanting in this way can even change things on a cellular level.  I thanked her because I realized this came out of a genuine liking and concern of me. But I told her that I was receiving therapeutic benefits from blogging through the lens of my Christian faith and gave her the address of my blog and invited her to read it.  I hope she does and I hope she’s in no way offended in reading this post.

Another aside: David wanted to weigh in on this discussion so offered his experience of “chanting” to our new acquaintance.  I quote him, “I did something like chanting when my wife was being diagnosed and I felt helpless and too anxious to even pray. All I could manage was to say, aloud when alone or silently to myself when in public, ‘God is my refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’  I said it over and over again and it helped.”

I am not sure this was the kind of “ chanting”  she  was referencing but I admired David’s transparency and humility as he described the importance of quoting a piece of scripture over and over again as a way of drawing comfort.

Spiritual insight on the nature of Hope:

It seemed that hope for my new friendly acquaintance was related to the benefits that her spiritual practice could give her in this life. To quote the pamphlet, “we believe that happiness is being able to experience profound joy that comes from never being defeated by any problems in life,” and “We have the power to take charge of our own destiny.”  Perhaps she also believes as many Buddhists do that there is the hope of a progressive awareness of reaching nirvana where all desire, and attachment is absorbed into the universal life force of all things absent of any individuality. “This kind of chanting practice gives hope”, she reiterated.

It struck me that the Christian hope has a lot to do with this life but ultimately because it is part and parcel of a tangible, transformative, redemptive eternal life.  Distinct personal beings like a “real distinct you” and a “real distinct me” are transformed and in communion with a tangible God in His trinity with absolutely no loss of our distinctive selves. I want this kind of hope- A hope that goes beyond this life. Because whatever spiritual practice we do or whatever medical intervention helps us we will all eventually die. We do not possess ultimate power to stop certain forces at work that threaten to undo us. But we can rely with hope on the One who holds all things in his Hand and whose purposes though inscrutable at times are at the same time meant for our good.  So, why not really hope big. Hope with a capital H that carries us into an eternal glorious future while we wait out patiently the infinite glory of God to be revealed in us and in this world and the world to come.

1 Peter 1:3-4

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade-kept in heaven for you

Postscript:  Goldie Eley, David’s 90 year old mother, departed this life on May 21st. She collapsed from congested heart failure walking back to her home from a bible study a 100 yards from her home. Her Glorious Hope is now being realized.

 

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I am a “6” and my husband is a “7”

I am a “6” and David is a “7” on the enneagram personality inventory.

Who cares and so what?

I enjoy this popular personality inventory stuff.  Bear with me.  Later, I will lead you to some of the most inspiring thoughts.   Not mine (be gone chemo-brain hubris!) but quotes from recently published, must-read book.

A ‘six’ personality type is a natural doubter and questioner. So, I did not have to have cancer to wonder why God allows suffering.  I have questioned others within theological circles and read numerous publications in an attempt to make peace with suffering from a Christian faith perspective. Caring about suffering did not just happen when I found myself enduring some of it because of cancer treatment. I have questioned smarter people than me and I have, I admit, questioned God on this matter. Theodicy (defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of pain  and suffering) has been topic of theological and practical struggle for me for the past 4 decades.  But like Peter one of Christ’s followers, when asked whether he too would leave Jesus like many following Him did because of the hard teaching Jesus had just laid out, Peter’s (Dona’s) response was “where else would I go as you have the words of eternal life.”  (John 6:68)

But occasionally the doubt and unease woven throughout my ‘six’ personality type rears its worried head like a watchful seal in the Juneau harbor – casting about looking for potential threats until soothed and reassured only then to slowly submerge beneath the surface.  I trust in the goodness of God afresh.

The ‘Six’ personality type is also the loyalist with strong convictions.  So, being a Six is not all bad.  However it gets funky when the six’s spouse is a ‘seven’ personality type.  ‘Sevens’ are the adventurers and enthusiasts. They naturally trust that everything is going to work out in the end. David’s personality though 90 percent perfect for me, has not generally made for long, long philosophical discussions.  Manna from Heaven for me but more like prison food for David.   Ironically, David will tell you that what caused him to leave the faith as a teenager – the problem of pain, evil, suffering and injustice in the world- would be what brought him back in his early 20’s.  In David’s view, some worldviews logically account for suffering, but only one, Christianity, addresses the problem while offering hope.  (See John 6:68, again).  He’s a man with a vision who wants to do something, shake it out on the fly.  In the classic words of President Arnold Schwarzenegger in ‘The Simpsons Movie,’ he ‘wants to lead not read.’   I am not suggesting that David does not have his own private devotionals but long, long discussions with me has not been his forte.  This is just the nature of a ‘seven’ on the enneagram which is incongruent with the ‘six” which naturally wrings her hands on many issues, philosophical or not.

But along came cancer carrying a book by Timothy Keller, Walking with God in the Midst of Pain and Suffering (Dutton 2013).  Now, almost every morning David and I get our coffee and he reads out loud to me from this book and we discuss and discuss and it has become manna from Heaven for both of us.  I’ll never have all my answers but I’m grateful to Keller and others who without pat answers or arrogance towards those of a different view, honestly and competently engage with the issues.  I highly commend this most-readable book.  I’ll conclude this post with a few Keller quotes:

“Part of the genius of the Bible as a resource for sufferers is its rich multidimensional approach. It recognizes a great diversity of forms, reasons for, and right responses to suffering.” (9)

“In the secular view, suffering is never seen as a meaningful part of life but only as an interruption.” (26)

“Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.” (30)

“While Christianity was able to agree with pagan writers that inordinate attachment to earthly goods can lead to unnecessary pain and grief, it also taught that the answer to this was not to love things less but to love God more than anything else. Only when our greatest love is God, a love that we cannot lose even in death, can we face all things with peace. Grief was not to be eliminated but seasoned and buoyed up with love and hope.” (44)

“But resurrection is not just consolation — it is restoration. We get it all back — the love, the loved ones, the goods, the beauties of this life — but in new, unimaginable degrees of glory and joy and strength.” (59)

“Suffering is actually at the heart of the Christian story.” (77)

“The best people often have terrible lives. Job is one example, and Jesus—the ultimate ‘Job,’ the only truly, fully innocent sufferer — is another.” (133)

“The only love that won’t disappoint you is one that can’t change, that can’t be lost, that is not based on the ups and downs of life or of how well you live. It is something that not even death can take away from you. God’s love is the only thing like that.” (304)

Mother’s Day 2014

dona and maria
32-years ago: Maria (the one without hair) and me

I didn’t think I could take another poignant sweet anniversary or holiday.  David’s and mine 35th anniversary (I had my chest port inserted) was poignant enough without Mother’s day coming in a close second.  But here I was the day before mother’s day with an unexpected text from my oldest daughter, wanting to shave her own head in mother/daughter solidarity for my cancer treatment.  My initial and steadfast response was NO. But that was after I just swallowed a big lump of sweetness that still sticks in my heart from such an offer. The other daughter didn’t know of this as she was too busy texting me every 30 minutes from Syracuse to remind me to take my anti-nausea meds and eat anything I want, get plenty of rest, etc. and all the while entertaining in-laws from all over to celebrate her husband’s graduation festivities having earned a PhD in Business Administration (well done, Rob).

Hair was falling out in clumps.  So mother’s day was the day that we felt that the shaving of the head ceremony would occur with Maria, oldest daughter, assisting her dad.

It’s now the day after mother’s day and I couldn’t go through with it.  It couldn’t be mother’s day – not the day that 32 years ago this child made my first mother’s day a reality.  Toting her around on my hip with her little bald head was not the image I could escape as I realized that 32 years later on Mother’s day that bald baby was a grown women with children of her own  helping her mother weather a challenge.   Not on mother’s day; the poignancy was too much for even me who adores poignant moments, not just mine, but anyone’s. Deeply moving moments enrich my life – probably another reason that psychotherapy has been my career and passion for years.

Doing a minimal amount of research on the psychology of poignancy did not yield the wealth of readymade quotes to inspire but there were simple descriptions worth mentioning.

  • Poignancy is cognizance of happy-sad emotions related to meaningful endings:  parents watching their child marry or wave goodbye from her new freshman dorm room.
  • Poignant moments increase as we get older because we are more aware of the passing of time. We are more aware of the limits of time here on earth and therefore transitions are more bittersweet.
  • It is not that the young cannot experience poignant or bittersweet moments.  Look no further than high school graduations and all other graduations after that to see the tears in some eyes and the feelings of sadness of an era ended, never to return, but still the satisfaction, even joy, of a necessary milestone achieved.

Anticipating Maria shaving my head on mother’s day showcased an era ended and another begun – a daughter competently trading places with her mom.  Poignant for me but more utilitarian for her.  She can do something for me, her Mom, which I can’t do for myself – pure and simple for her but bittersweet for me; not soon to be forgotten.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you 
did,
but people will 
never forget how you made them feel.
– Maya Angelou

 All of this makes me wonder if Christ had bittersweet experiences or moments of poignancy.  I don’t believe the word is used in the Bible but I can’t help but think that as Christ buddied around with his followers and friends at dinner parties that there were not moments when He knew this would end, and His to approach the bitter cross would begin.  The meaningful end of fellowship with friends was at hand. And perhaps He felt an emotion akin to poignancy. Bitter but sweet because He also knew that the resurrection would follow that separation and usher in something infinitely better and new in the future of all concerned.  Including you and me.

 

An exclusive moment within diversity

blessedThere was only one black man in the phlebotomy waiting room. Unusual because the waiting room was crowded and usually representative of ethnic origins and different races living in this city. One of the many reasons I love Buffalo.

I came in first and was seated. I noticed him because he was also the only one of us wearing a mouth mask, not an uncommon site in a cancer institute but noticeable. He sat across the room from me and I smiled at him.  His eyes told me he had smiled back.  I had not had much luck with anyone else (smiles are important to me; see my post, Duchene’s Smiles, Please).  Everyone seemed wrapped in their world of worry or boredom with yet another routine to follow for the care they need.

He pulled down his mask so I could see him smile and said, “Are you having a nice day?”

I answered back, “I have no complaints.”

As if talking to himself he said, “You trust in God and leave everything up to him” to which I answered “amen.”

He then directed his comments back at me as if returning from a place of prayer. “I am a blessed man, a very blessed man”.

Since we were talking across the room from each other I wondered what people were thinking.But it was like the two of us were there alone.  I continued, “I can tell you are a blessed man because of your ball cap.”

He seemed momentarily confused until he took it off, exposing his baldness, and read the words on the cap, “I AM A BLESSED MAN.” He laughed as he explained he forgot that he had that particular ball cap on but agreed with it wholeheartedly.  At this point I was called in to have blood drawn.  I left the waiting room feeling the exclusivity of a tender moment with a man who openly and unabashedly shared my hope.

“Always be ready to give account for the hope you have……”

–          I Peter 3:16

Nick, the barber, says, “Trust God, then your doctors.”

Since my cancer diagnosis a year ago my husband’s barber, Nick, has given him two pieces of advice. 

 
“You tell Dona like I told my wife. You stay aliveyou stay healthyyou stay upbeat!  Not just for yourselfnot just for the people who love you, but for the people who hate youWhen they see you walking down the sidewalkthey say, ‘that woman still around?!’  And when they see you look-in good it will give themclinch in the gut.”

And….tell Dona

“Trust God, and then your doctors.” 

 Although left speechless after hearing the first bit of advice I appreciated the second. But how can I trust God for my well-being and trust doctors at the same time for my cure?  I think about this all the time.  I say that I trust God but yet I find myself hanging on every word of a medical provider as if I’m hearing from ancient oracles pronouncing my destiny.  I don’t like the feeling of smallness that happens when I talk to a provider at the cancer institute.  The little girl inside me is saying, “Please be nice to me because you are bigger and I am small right now so you can hurt or help me.”  

It’s not quite that pathetic but exaggeration serves the point.  I defer to medical providers as if they hold the balance of my life in their hands.  But this flies in the face of everything I believe about who truly holds my fate in His hands.

I have said all these things to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you have trouble: but take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jesus quoted in John 16:33)

I am not disabusing modern medicine in light of faith.  I am grateful for the medical advances in the care of those with illnesses.  I thank God for those who use their intelligence, ingenuity and compassion to develop treatments and cures for the myriad of diseases that plague humanity. 

 But what is the role of God in a person’s life when the material world offers so many empirical, concrete procedures and assurances?

My husband said that we treat science as God, technology as the Holy Spirit, and I’ll complete this false trinity by noting that the mental health profession is seen as Christ.

 

“Trust God first and then trust the doctors.”  But as a person who worships the Creator of the material world rather than the material world itself, how is this to look?  How is this played out in a way that moves me away from spiritual platitudes to words that reflect my deepest convictions and hope?  Well, for starters I must believe that God exists and that He can be trusted.  I don’t get there easily and I don’t get there by hard work.  I get there by being inspired, or more to the point, something is opened up to me and I enter in.  At the same time there is work, some soul work, involving curiosity and study.  For God knows that this world is not going to hand God’s trust to me on a platter.

Ultimately, there will come a point where the pursuing, studying, questioning and reflecting demand a leap of faith.  But it won’t be a blind leap. It will be a wide eyed here I go, for better for worse, for richer or poorer kind of leap.  Do these words remind me of another leap?  Yes, belief in God is like the decision to say ‘I do’ at the altar of marriage – not blind but certainly not a 100 percent certain. But there is enough information, time, dialogue and togetherness invested to make the leap seem more than reasonable – almost compulsive or desperate!  It is an I-have-to-have-this-person-in-my-life kind of leap. 

 So what is it to trust in God? It’s knowing we belong together; pure and simple.  He is mine and I am his, no matter what happens. Medical science and its allies are created to lighten a burden but we are not on intimate terms.  I am not their “darling” but I am God’s and so it goes for each one of us that trust Him. 

 Dona Eley is a cancer survivor and a mental health therapist for the Community Christian Counseling Center in Juneau.  She blogs at donaeley.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

world you have trouble: but take heart! I have overcome the world.

(Jesus quoted in John 16:33)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The would-ofs, could-ofs, should-ofs

Post-Traumatic Stress and the Blame Game

As a trained critical incident stress management debrief-er, I know something of “the could-of’s, would- of’s, should- of’s” that are recited, ruminated, or replayed by victims of trauma (a natural response after a traumatic incident).  Being diagnosed with a life threatening disease is considered a traumatic incident as is a host of others.  Very few of us will escape this world without experiencing or witnessing a trauma.  Helplessness and fear will come uninvited and we will be unhinged for a period of time.  Although experiencing or witnessing trauma is all too common in our world, the severity or duration of the symptoms is very individualistic.

I was in the chemo infusion reception area with call beeper in hand when I struck up a conversation with a young woman.  The young are a particularly disconcerting sight in this area of the hospital so I was drawn to her.  Without probing she volunteered that starting 5 years ago she was diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer, then breast cancer and now lymphoma.  She talked for a while and just as my beeper went off she said,

“I can’t stop blaming myself because I smoked. I quit 7 years before being diagnosed with thyroid cancer but I can’t stop thinking how I should have never smoked at all.” 

In other words, she shouldn’t have done something but she did it anyway. If she had only known what the ramifications would be she would have done something differently to keep herself from this situation.  She believed that she could have prevented her illness.  So, she has herself to blame and that torments her.

I had only moments as I was preparing to leave for my first infusion.  I essentially told her what I just told you in the first paragraph.  She thanked me.  Who knows what relief, if any, was given.  I would have liked to have talked to her more.

Having received a life threatening diagnosis myself I am no stranger to the “would of, could of, should of’s”.  I unscientifically ruled out a genetic cause of my cancer. My 88-year old mother and care giver to my 91-year old father is as sturdy and illness-free a woman as you will meet.  So, having ruled out genetics, I thought of ways to blame myself for my diagnosis.  I began to think of all the things I should have done differently or would have done instead. The internal dialogue went like this:

“Maybe I should have eaten more organic foods or at least done a better job of washing the vegetables before consuming them. I should have not had a glass of red wine with dinner (some links to breast cancer in recent studies) or maybe I could have managed my life better so there would have been less stress from worrying about the family from which I lived so far away. Oh, and let me not forget the insomnia that I tried to manage on my own for 8 years before getting help. or the virtually forgotten phrase, “taking a vacation”. I should have, could have, or would have done something differently if I had only known that stress “might” tip my cancer fighting properties to exhaustion and make its break through.”

 “The would-of, could-of, should-of’s” are Useless……….or are they???????

….after all there are some very definite links to cancer from our behaviors. Smoking leads to lung cancer. Alcohol abuse can lead to liver cancer and there are other harmful consequences to our behaviors that are not directly linked to cancer but to other human ailments.  We are warned about these woes because the science is clear but many of us take our chances, especially when young and our mortality is irrelevant in eking out the best and happiest existence we can for ourselves.  I personally may not have done those particular abuses but I have done other things along the way that I thought little of.  My faith teaches me that there is an operating function in my soul that demands gratification or at least having it my way without the restriction of healthy boundaries or unwanted consequences.

Galatians 5:17 in the New Testament says.  “What my corrupt nature wants is contrary to what my spiritual nature wants, and what my spiritual nature wants is contrary to what my corrupt nature wants. They are opposed to each other. As a result, I don’t always do what I intend to do.”

Copyright © 1995 by God’s Word to the Nations. Used by permission of Baker Publishing

My Christian faith not only gives me the diagnosis of the human condition but also insights and helps to deal with “the would-of, could-of, should-of’s”, when they come to accuse me after a trauma or bad news

First:   I need to admit the possibility that some of my suffering (I am not only speaking of cancer when I reference suffering or trauma) may be my fault.   As one friend said long ago, “there ought to be a support group for people who have no one to blame but themselves.”  If we are honest all of us would be right at home in one of those support groups from time to time.  But thankfully I am not left waddling in the miry clay of self-blame. No, in this grand cosmic meaning of life that I cling to accepting blame is not so demoralizing and debilitating if I accept the truth of God’s ready and willing forgiveness held out to me even when I don’t deserve it.  This is the heart of God for me and for you.

Two:    I try not to let the blame game distract me from a possible more important issue for which God is attempting to get my attention. Hyper-focusing on the current dilemma can be too narrowing a view of myself, creating a tunnel vision that precludes more expansive, reflective soul searching – reflection that could lead to depth of understanding that actually strengthens and enriches the fabric of life.

Three:  Sometimes there is no personal fault in suffering or even deeper meaning to be found.  We live in a broken world and that brokenness sometimes sweeps us up. My infinite God has not chosen to reveal all there is about himself and his purposes to my finite reasoning. But one thing I lay hold of is that I worship a suffering God.  The late John Stott wrote in his book “Evangelical Essentials” that he could not worship a God who had not suffered in the midst of all the suffering to which humanity is subjected.

So what is my take home? 

When the “would-of’s, could-of’s, should-of’s” accompany pain and suffering I will rely (I hope, I hope!) on trusting God for forgiveness and grace when it my fault.  When personal fault is not found then I will trust (please Lord make this so!) in the inexplicable mystery of Jesus for redemption now and forever and trust Him for healing, maybe now, but definitely forever.