Who Prays for Whom?

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I almost saw him cry. It was at lunch yesterday afternoon. A local civic group was hosting a fundraiser on the grounds of the farmer’s market. A few minutes earlier, dad remembered he’d purchased two tickets for BBQ chicken lunch plates. He couldn’t eat until after his surgery, which was still a couple of hours away.  We weren’t scheduled to check in until 1:45. He thought my mother, my wife, and I might want some lunch, and the food was already paid for. Why not try and eat? I didn’t have much of an appetite. It seemed like a good time to take a break and breathe fresh air. The ride might give us a chance to talk.

The farmer’s market is less than ten minutes from their house.  We pulled up alongside the long row of tables where volunteers were preparing the to-go plates and rolled down our window. Three of his old friends and colleagues greeted us and took our tickets, two men and one woman. Two of them are members of his church community. They had only recently heard of his diagnosis. As one touched his arm and said, “We are praying for you,” another held back tears. At that instant, my dad turned his head away from me, and he, too, did the same. I had never witnessed this level of emotion in my father. The old man choked up. This was uncharted territory. We were picking up BBQ chicken lunches, at a farmers’ market, under a water tower, a place I’d been to hundreds of times before, and I saw a person I’d never met. To paraphrase the words of God at Jesus’ baptism: this is my beloved father in whom I am briefly amazed and well-pleased.

The moment ended as quickly as it came. He composed himself.  I took the two plates of food, and he told me about the importance of supporting local civic organizations.  

I spend a great deal of time writing prayers and praying for others. I’m glad people are praying for my dad. He even mentioned that the surgeon prayed with him before his procedure. He didn’t ask me to pray with him. I tried to say something just as they were taking him back to be prepped. I couldn’t quite get the words out. They, like me, were jumbled. All I managed to utter was, “Go with God.” I hope somehow, someway, he and the deity I intended to hear them knew what I meant.

–Richard Bryant

Praying for Cancer

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Tomorrow afternoon, one of my father’s lymph nodes is being biopsied. He will be placed under general anesthesia. The entire procedure should take a little over one hour. The biopsy will likely show what an earlier bone marrow test revealed. In other words, small-cell lymphoma is the good news we hope to receive. The irony I confront tonight is this; I’m praying for his cancer, as it stands, to remain as initially diagnosed. (You might ask why I, a pastor, am not praying for miraculous healing. I’ve been doing this too long and have seen too many sick people, whom I’m not related to, die while praying for miracles. I’m praying at a pace I can handle. God will work at God’s speed.) What a strange thing for which to pray. As the oncologists and hematologists first confirmed, to pray that cancer is “just this one cancer” is as unsettling a prayer request as I’ve ever considered. It’s certainly not one I anticipated praying for. Humans pray for all manner of physical, material, and immaterial things. I guess this is my thing now. In the name of the Father, Son, the Holy Spirit (and the eternally disconcerting uncomfortable present). Amen.

–Richard Bryant

Welcome To The Journey

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Yet, I am.

My father has small-cell lymphoma. I have a parent with cancer. So what? That makes me, what, normal? Within the middle of the bell curve? It’s still hard to hear when you’re in the hot seat. I’m used to other people’s parents having and dying of cancer. I’m the pastor. I stand on the other side of the pulpit, read scripture and prayers, and try to put suffering, illness, and death into perspective. Now, I’m talking to myself, listening to the voices in my head, and I don’t like what I’m hearing. The words I’d usually say to someone like me ring hollow at a time like this.  Something’s not right. It’s not that I don’t believe the words. I do like the Psalms of Lament. The minor prophets are all over my nightstand.

I’m perpetually nauseous.  Sleep is fleeting, and daily life feels more like clothes that don’t quite fit.  I’m uncomfortable being me. There are cracks in the façade. I wonder if people will see through the preacher’s exterior who acts like he got it all together and answers life’s most pressing questions.  Here’s the Good News:  I’ve never had it all together, and I don’t know the answers to any existential questions.

On a good day, I can guess. On a bad day, I will admit that I don’t know anything. The more I do this job, the more I realize how little I know about the God I worship. God’s business is above my pay grade. I’m okay with letting God be God. Now that the father who loved me, nurtured, and helped me become who I am today (for good or ill) is on this journey; what does my dad’s diagnosis have to do with my relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Jesus? It’s early in the game. I’m not too fond of platitudes or lying to myself. I want to be authentic with the world, my congregation, and my dad. Scripture and prayers may not make this all better. Sometimes we will have to sit in the valley of the shadow of suck. We will have to name it as such and not be afraid of offending those whose sensibilities cannot deal with Christians who say to hell with a stiff upper lip.

This diagnosis unmoors me from the manageable relationship I’ve created between myself and my father. I do not know the rules of the road any longer. There is a void between us that years of watching Fox News and listening to Rush Limbaugh have made it hard for us to have regular conversations. We talk about family, friends, and the church, but it’s all superficial, and this breaks my heart. I miss my dad and he’s not even dead yet. I’ve missed him for years. Part of me hopes lymphoma might give us part of our old relationship back. I hate to say that, but it’s true. I’m not hopeful this will occur. Now, I don’t have the time to dwell on hope. A boy can hope, can’t he? Probably not.

I will focus on being present here and there, in my home and his home. Here, my congregation needs Rev. Richard. There, I’m called to be a son to my father, love my mother, and do what only children do; be present. Presence, that great Eucharistic word, somehow rings true. My duty as a son is to check my religious identity at the door. I’m not a preacher; I’m a son in a semi-dysfunctional relationship with his father in early 21st America, wrestling with a cancer diagnosis and trying to stay sane in the meantime. I’ll manage to be a United Methodist at all other times. If, as the expression goes, the Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise, I’ll write another day.

–Richard Bryant

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