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.