Monday, February 12, 2007

February 12, 2007 - More Than Conquerors

Today, I read an e-mail from my friend, Bill, who sends me a link to some stuff Walter Wangerin has been publishing online. I’ve admired Walt’s work for some time, now. He’s a Lutheran college professor, novelist and preacher, who’s got a wonderful way with words.

What I learn, after visiting his website, is that Walt and I have something in common: cancer. His, too, is lodged in his lymph nodes, though it didn’t start out there. It’s lung cancer, that’s metastasized to several other parts of his body. He started treatments about the same time I did – both chemo and radiation – and his road has been harder than mine.

Walt’s written a series of letters to friends and family members, describing his ordeal. They’re posted online. This isn’t highly polished prose. He wrote some of them in the chemo suite, while hooked up to the I.V.

In his most recent installment (December 13, 2006), Walt reflects on the violent imagery many people use to describe cancer treatment. For a variety of reasons, that imagery makes him uneasy:

“I have never construed my cancer as my enemy. No, I do not judge others who do (thoughtfully) choose it, for whom ‘fighting’ may be a helpful stance and attitude. On the other hand I am critical of the media when, without genuine thought or analysis, it routinely declares in its death notices, that so-and-so died ‘after a long battle with cancer.’ Why does it have to be a ‘battle’? What: are folks with cancer good fighters if they win? Bad fighters, failing knights, if they lose? Can they be heroic only in triumph? It really isn't an issue of defeat or victory. We are all going to die: what a terrible, terribly total annihilation such language must make of our slaughters individual and wholesale, of our universal losses to sickness, disease and death.”

Walt’s musings put me in mind of some words I frequently use in my ministry, from chapter 8 of Romans. It’s one of the most beloved of all scripture passages, in which Paul triumphantly proclaims: “...neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38b-39). I read those words at nearly every funeral I conduct. I figure it’s a good thing to remind grieving people that, in the providence of God, love goes on.

Yet, just a few verses earlier, as Paul’s cranking up to deliver his soul-stirring theological riff, he blurts out a jarring verse, one that seems to contradict his otherwise triumphant language:

“As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered’”
(v. 36.)

Coming, as it does, between “If God is for us, who is against us?” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God,” the image of sheep waddling up the ramp into the slaughterhouse seems just a wee bit incongruous. Where’s the comfort in that?

Much as I hate to cut-and-paste the scriptures, for many years I used to skip over that verse at funerals. “Why inflict such graphic imagery on grieving people?” I used to reason.

I don’t skip over it anymore. The bereaved don’t need the easy certainties of feelgood religion. They already know the feeling of a sharpened knife to the neck. Paul didn’t intend those thrilling words about God’s invincible love for those whose lives are placid and calm, who are winning life’s battles. It’s for those who fear they’re losing, and worry that the time of slaughter is drawing near.

Walt Wangerin suggests that, rather than focusing on winning “battles with cancer,” we ought to talk, instead, about how cancer survivors find the courage to hold their heads high as they endure the disease, and even face death:

“Why not use the imagery that acknowledges how one experiences dying? – how one behaves in the face of death? – what one has to offer those who stand by in love and relationship?... Before sciences and the medical profession began (indirectly) to persuade us that cures could be possible for every disease we might diagnose, describe, explain and name; before commercials began to establish it as a principle that each affliction identified also had an antidote; before our society made ‘feeling good’ an individual human right (setting at enmity anything that made us feel bad) we did not have so self-centered, so childish, so simplistic, so unavailing and purposeless a frame of reference for the experience of sickness-unto-death.... Sickness is not an enemy. It is a rooster's crow, calling me to the truth of myself and to the precise condition of my relationships – God, society, nature.”

We live with cancer. After a while, it becomes like a member of our family (a meddlesome interloper, to be sure, but a member of the family nonetheless):

“For my own part, I recognize cancer cells as parts of me (of Walt, the body-soul continuum), tissue which is part of all my tissue – even as my children are a parts of our family (without whom the family itself would be something else). They (whether cells or kids) become selfish, demanding more of the resources of the family (of the body) than other members can receive. My children are not my enemy. And my diseases, far from acting the foe, are profound initiators of spiritual clarity, devout meditation, a faithful (a peaceful!) seeking after God, praying, shaping thanksgivings for Jesus’s re-building of the relationship between God the Father and me.”

Walt’s right – and so is Paul. Whether we win the cancer battle, or whether we lose, we are so very much more than conquerors.

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