The cold slows me down. I’m not used to my bones aching, and it is difficult to move in the mornings. Since my shoulder surgery last summer, there have been pains in my arms that keep coming back despite the physical therapy regimen I’ve done for 18 months. Yes, when you step outside, the wind hits your face and reminds us that you are alive; the temperature tells our bodies to tell us we are mortal, and we reach for the hot chocolate, soup recipes, and warm blankets as we turn up the Christmas music. We’ll do just about anything to stay warm.
As it becomes cold outside, we physically slow down, and all we can do is layer up. You can wear gloves, a hat, a scarf, and a heavy coat. All those items will keep you warm on the outside. However, don’t let yourself and your spirit grow cold on the inside. There is a spark of divinity within each of us, and I always worry in the winter that we’ll let that holy fire, the spark of creation that rests in our souls, grow cold.
We can’t allow cold weather, illness, distance, travel, and holiday obligations to turn us into cold, unfeeling people. It’s easy to fall into the holiday rat race; we put on our blinders, block out the world, and focus on the superficialities of warmth. We too easily neglect our inner spiritual fire. Just as I sit down with a hot bowl of soup to keep my body functioning, I need to do the same with my soul. A cold soul leads to a cold heart. If I have a cold heart, my feet may be warm and my stomach full, but my soul also needs to be fed. If I go spiritually hungry, the grief and fear will gnaw away at my spirit until the sun never rises again.
What was it like to receive tragic news by telegram? Over the past six days, I’ve been told that someone died over the phone (a 19th century means of communication), updated on my father’s possible chemotheraphy treatment options via email, and heard similar concerns from my parishioners through electonrically circulated lists. What would it have been like to receive one of those tiny pieces of paper from Western Union? What was the emotional impact of a telegram?
Perhaps I’m wrong; grief doesn’t appear as a neat and tidy gift. It doesn’t arrive in a box, waiting for the right time and place to open. Sometimes, grief is a folded piece of paper. Grief lands in your life like an awkward glance you were never meant to see but can’t unsee. Grief is two-dimensional, flat, and waits for a three-dimensional existence. It need not be a response to death. Grief arrives with spiritual indifference. Grief cares not about what God we worship or the creed we confess. Like the self it inhabits, it wants to be acknowledged as real, valued, and worthy of love.
It is impossible to separate the cancers in our souls from those in our vital organs and bloodstreams. Toxic physical environments lead to cancer. Toxic churches lead to toxic theology and spiritual cancer. We have treatments for the former. I’ve met no one serious about undergoing spiritual chemotherapy. It’s too hard on our cherished assumptions, theological preconceptions, and well-defined notions of God.
He went to see the hematologist this morning. I called him to see how the visit went.
“Well, what did the doctor say?” I sounded impatient. I knew he’d been back for at least an hour and the fact I’d not received an email or a phone call meant he probably didn’t receive good news.
“It’s stage IV”.
“That’s the worst stage,” I said. “There is no stage V.”
“Yes,” he replied. “They think it was probably at stage I back in the summer but it’s moved pretty fast.”
Why did the doctors drag their feet between blood tests and scheduling his diagnostic appointments if this thing was moving so fast? Of course, I didn’t say that though I was pretty sure we were both thinking the same thing. What good would it do now to state the obvious?
Now it’s on to the committee. We know it’s aggressive and moving at speed. I have the feeling his medical treatment and doctor visits will grow more frequent in the coming weeks. The words “Stage IV” convey a sense of urgency that is impossible to ignore. I hope the cancer committee will place us on their agenda.
Do I need to make a motion to be on God’s agenda? Isn’t that the formal definition of a prayer request? In working through this morning’s prayer concerns for my church community, I wondered: what right do I have to be heard amidst all the suffering, pain, and illness present in the world today? Does that assumed privilege reside in my humanity, faith, baptism, or somewhere else? So many people with cancer and cancer in their families are ahead of us on the global prayer list. If prayer is a first come, first serve proposition, my family is near the bottom. Are prayers for cancer answered by the severity and type of cancer? Who knows?
Here’s the honest truth: I don’t want to bother God with my problems when I know others are suffering worse than me. That’s my nature. It’s who I am as a person. I don’t like to put people out. I know the answer I’d give if someone said something like this to me (as a pastor). I’d say, “that’s nonsense.” But honestly, I know how I feel. There are so many people suffering in the world. Why should I share my baggage while people freeze to death in Ukraine and children die of cancer? Yet here I sit, typing away, trying to make sense of the nonsense and hoping God is reading along.
8:38 AM. The biopsy results arrived this morning. They were delivered to his email via MyChart, the ubiquitous bearer of all medical news in 21st-century America. He forwarded a copy to me. The diagnosis, read by a pathologist, confirmed the earlier findings from the bone marrow biopsy: lymphocytic leukemia/small lymphocytic lymphoma.
He tells me the next step is a meeting with a committee of hematologists and oncologists who will examine his blood tests and earlier biopsy to determine how best to treat his form of leukemia. A committee? I don’t like committees. Having served, chaired, and still sitting on numerous committees, I have an inherent distrust of the deliberative process made manifest in committees, particularly church committees. Committees are one of the most dysfunctional means humans have found for making decisions. Putting human life into a committee’s hands is almost too dystopian to consider, especially when it’s happening to your father.
Do the members of this cancer committee get along with one another? How do their egos impact their decisions? Do they see their patients as people or just names on a page? Will they hold a vote on the right course of action? Are their votes determined by a simple majority, two-thirds of those present, or like a jury (since man’s life is at stake)? In other words, do their decisions need to be unanimous? Do family members have any voice in their process? They don’t answer those questions if you send the doctor a message via MyChart. So here I sit, in the waiting room called today.
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.