Saturday, January 21, 2006

January 21, 2006 - Limits

Except for the Thursday-morning staff meeting, I've stayed home all week, communicating with people by telephone and e-mail, doing what ministry I can in vicarious ways. My main goal has been preaching tomorrow, at our Sunday services. I've figured that I could probably pace myself well enough to get through those two one-hour worship services, even if I had to go home and crash immediately afterwards.

What I haven't counted on is the progressive deterioration of energy that is the result of the chemo treatments. I've heard our friends Don and Charlotte talk about this, and have grasped the concept in the abstract, but somehow I didn't fully understand what it feels like until now, as I'm living through it, day by day.

If I felt tomorrow the way I felt yesterday, I could have done it. But I knew almost immediately, after getting up this morning, that I felt just a little bit worse. With the known effects of the medication, I can expect to feel incrementally worse tomorrow, and the next day, and the next – until I finally reach that nadir point, after which I can expect to gradually feel better.

So I've asked Claire to activate our backup plan, and preach for me tomorrow. She's a Presbyterian minister like me, but works as a hospice chaplain rather than in a local church. She does a fair bit of supply preaching among the churches of Monmouth Presbytery, filling in for ministers on vacation. There was a time, before Robin was called as our associate pastor, when Claire was on the paid staff of our church, so our people know her well – not only as their pastor's wife, but also as a minister in her own right. She's a very good preacher, and will do a fine job – I have absolutely no worries there.

It's just so hard to let go. More than any other ministry activity, preaching is what I do. It's at the heart of my personhood and sense of calling. If God has called me to do this work, then why would God call me out of it for a time – not to do something else, but rather to just be sick? It's a mystery.

Two summers ago, I had a wonderful, three-month sabbatical, funded by a generous grant from the Lilly Endowment. I spent time at a Benedictine monastery in New Mexico, went away to our cabin in the Adirondacks for a number of weeks to work on some writing projects, and traveled with Claire and Ania to Ireland and Scotland. After nearly fifteen years of serving this church, it was good to get away and focus my energies on some other things for a season. The terms of the Lilly grant provided some money for the church to hire a retired minister from our Presbytery to fill in and assist Robin with various tasks, so my temporary absence wasn't too much of a burden to others.

But this is different. There's no sabbatical grant to pick up the slack. My absence is surely beginning to be a burden on others. But it is what it is. I'm grateful that the church staff and leaders have been so understanding, and so willing to go the extra mile to cover for me.

In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul speaks of a mysterious "thorn in the flesh" that tormented him for a time. No one knows what he meant by that phrase, exactly, but it was evidently some physical complaint that was very troubling. He turned to God in prayer: "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me" (2 Cor. 12:8-9).

I'm not doing much boasting these days, and certainly not of my weaknesses. But maybe someday, by God's grace, I will learn how to do so.


Mandy said...

Today I feel your pain. Your entry brought tears to my eyes because I, too have questioned why God has brought me to the place where the calling I have dicovered has been threatened by the illness I have also been "blessed" with. Lupus is a draining disease and youth work requires much energy. How could God want this for me? How could I continue to carry out his will when I can't even get out of bed in the morning?
I have found that there is a purpose to this gift. It has taught me many lessons, but mainly to understand that there are important limits in life... dietary, physical and emotional. We need to respect those limits and learn how to give freely to others without hurting ourselves, or we aren't honoring God's work at all.
It is amazing how our perspective changes when the consequences are made more prominent. Those meals that were not so great for you before suddenly hurt you in a more viable way. I, too have had to change my eating habits, exercise habits and work habits. Funny, but it suddenly became easier to justify some of these changes to myself when illness plays a part. Could those changes we make now possibly have prevented the illness if we had just adhered to them sooner? Who knows, but we now need to try harder to take care of our own needs, despite the "calling to serve others". God has given us a reminder to take care of our temples.
You have entered a unique view of ministry... one from the other side of those you minister. There is hope in knowing that a changed viewpoint provides us with even better understanding of others.
God never asks more of you than you can handle. You have been given the strength to get through this challenge. You may have a lot more strength in you than you imagine. I now know that I do. I even found I have the energy and courage to raise another child. Who knew?

Anonymous said...

God's ways sure are a mystery to me, but I wonder if rather than calling you out of your ministry "just to be sick" God has instead called you out so you can get well? I recall you quoting an author who said conquering cancer requires your attention 24/7. Your congregation knows you need to be totally focused on regaining your health. We will miss you at tomorrow's service and it hurts us to know you are suffering but we are all willing to help so please, take care of yourself and think only of getting well.
Just one more thought: You haven't really stopped ministering to us. I doubt I'm the only one in your congregation who has fears about facing a serious illness. And I know for a fact I'm not the only one who is grateful to you for sharing your difficulties with us. It can't be easy. JP

Carlos ("Carl") said...

JP wrote,

> I wonder if rather than calling
> you out of your ministry "just
> to be sick" God has instead
> called you out so you can get
> well?

Well, you've got me there. I guess I let of bit of pessmism show through. You're right - better to accentuate the positive, to think of it as a healing journey.

Thanks again for your concern and support. (And thanks to Mandy, too, to whom I've responded personally.)


min_curtis@yahoo said...


Please don't feel that you're not preaching. Through your journal you ARE preaching!You are showing us how to live faith - how to "walk the walk". Thank you for sharing your pain, frustrations, feelings with us. We continue to learn anew each day that the Lord is with us through all things. Thank you for teaching us.

Cousin Dotsy said...

Hi, Carl.

I agree with min_Curtis. Indeed you are still sharing your gift and calling to preach -- just doing it using a very current medium. And by evidence of the responses on your blog, reaching people who would never have the opportunity to hear you in your church.

And I do think the choice to go through chemo is courageous. You are thinking of all the others in your life, and not only yourself. After all, how could you minister if you weren't here? (Although the written word continues to be a source of help and guidance, as we know from the Evangelists and the many philosophers and survivors you have quoted.)

We were away for a visit to Regina in Pittsburgh, and so it has been over a week since I was able to check your blog. Congratulations on facing the initial chemo experience. I think the insight of your friend to do with love whatever you are capable of each day is a liberating and en-couraging one.

Please know that we continue to think of you daily. Thank you for giving us an inside view of your experience, and especially of your spiritual journey.

Love, Dotsy