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.