Wednesday, January 31, 2007

January 31, 2007 - Feet of Clay

One of the strange and uncomfortable aspects of being a pastor with cancer is the reversal of roles. Congregations look to their ministers to be strong, to be there for them in all circumstances, to present the sort of reliable public image pastoral-care professors describe as a “non-anxious presence.” Yet, when we fall sick, our human frailty is suddenly out there, for all to see.

That’s not a bad thing. I’d be the last one to pretend to any sort of invincibility. Some congregants may be eager to put their preachers on a pedestal, but that’s certainly not where we belong.

Most ministers have had the experience of hearing the parents of some young child confide, with a sheepish grin, that their son or daughter actually thinks we’re God (or, at least, Jesus). Parents shouldn’t be dumbfounded when their children come up with such an idea. After all, they teach their kids the church is God’s house, don’t they? When they bring them there, what do the children see? They see a person standing up front, lifted high, set apart from the rest of the people. This person is wearing strange garments and speaks with a booming voice (assisted by a microphone, though the kids don’t know that). Deeper than that, many children are highly intuitive. They pick up on the psychological dynamic, in their family system, known as “projection.” Knowing that their parents revere God, they transfer – or project – that authority onto us, the people who have the most prominent role in church.

It’s not only young children who do this. Some adult church members, consciously or unconsciously, strive mightily to do the same to their ministers. Sometimes, in a limited way, this can be in service to the Gospel – as people use us as a sort of transitional stepping-stone on the way to God, the only true object of devotion. At other times, it can verge on the pathological. A few people place such unreasonable expectations on their ministers, that when those hopes are inevitably dashed, they either lash out against us or depart for another church (where, as often as not, they begin the projection-and-disappointment cycle all over again).

Cancer has exposed my own feet of clay, for all to see. It’s a fascinating phrase, “feet of clay.” It comes from a little-known biblical reference, Daniel 2:31-40, in which the prophet interprets a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar. It’s a dream about a monumental royal statue, coated in precious metals and iron, but with feet of clay. A great stone strikes the feet of clay, which causes the statue itself to collapse. Daniel, of course, interprets this vision as a bad omen for the future of the Babylonian king’s dynasty.

When we say a person has “feet of clay,” we mean he or she is only human. Clay, according to the Genesis creation story, is the material out of which God fashioned the first humans. African-American poet James Weldon Johnson envisions that scene in these powerful words from his poem, The Creation:

“Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul...”

We are clay: all of us, ministers and laypeople alike. But we also have within us the breath of the Spirit. It’s but one more lesson cancer teaches.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

January 24, 2007 - Rock Star?

My journey, as a cancer patient, has taken me to places I never imagined I’d ever visit. Claire and I have just returned from what may be - for people like us, anyway - the most unlikely destination of all: Las Vegas.

Our friend, Dana – the member of our church who organized the local Lymphomathon walk last Spring – is a sales representative for Genentech, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures Rituxan. When her company was looking for the names of patients who have benefitted from Genentech’s products to address their national sales meeting, Dana submitted my name. I knew nothing of this until I received an e-mail from her, telling me I’d soon be receiving an invitation, and that she hoped I'd accept.

The company paid for all the necessities: our flights, our meals and a couple of nights at the posh Venetian Hotel (where the meetings took place). It was a short stay, with precious little free time, but Claire and I decided to blow my honorarium on a couple of shows: Phantom of the Opera one night, and a Cirque-du-Soleil-type show called La Rève on the other. Both were fabulous.

What was even more interesting was the opportunity to simply absorb the Las Vegas ambience: “Disneyland for adults,” somebody called it. The only real industry out there, it seems, is entertainment. It’s staggering to imagine the vast amounts of money exchanged every day in those huge hotels, for the sole purpose of amusement. I’m not talking just about the gambling casinos, either, nor the notorious “showgirl” lounge acts of the city’s bad old days. Vegas has reinvented itself in recent years, going upscale, becoming a sort of Broadway of the West.

But, I digress. My speaking assignment was among the shortest I’ve ever had: fifteen seconds before a gathering of 2,000 or so Genentech staffers, followed by a two-minute talk to a “breakout group” of 800 salespeople who work specifically with the company’s oncology drugs.

“You’re going to feel like a rock star!” gushed Brenda, the consultant Genentech had hired to coach our little group of twelve patients on our presentations. Brenda’s company had arranged for photographers to snap portraits of each of us ahead of time, and these images became part of a video montage projected on large, stadium-style screens, as the nominators told their colleagues a few things about each one of us. Then, the booming voice of an offstage announcer informed the crowd that each of the people whose stories they’d just heard were actually present in the room. Upbeat rock music started pouring out of the speakers. Spotlights tracked each one of us, as we strode down various aisles, to take our prearranged places on the circular stage.

It was very Vegas – although I expect similar, razzle-dazzle entertainment values are typical of large corporate sales meetings, wherever they take place. I didn’t mind, because – in giving us patients our "rock star" moment – the company’s senior management was sending their salespeople an important message: that they want their corporate culture to remain strongly patient-focused.

Later, in the breakout group, four of us cancer survivors sat on TV-talk-show-type chairs, as a senior executive invited us to share our stories. As we spoke, our images played on the overhead screens: a very public display, as we shared highly personal experiences of diagnosis, treatment and the ways life goes on - a rich mélange of faith, hope and love.

I thanked this small army of salespeople for the indirect role they play in delivering life-saving medicines to patients like me. These folks, of course, are the earnest and well-turned-out road warriors, whom we patients see hurrying through our doctors’ waiting rooms, bearing updates on the latest products and treatment protocols. I encouraged them, on their next trek through a waiting room, to let their eyes linger for a moment on the faces of the people sitting there. Each one displays a story. Each one reflects fears for the present, and hopes for the future. We are the reason they do what they do.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

January 17, 2007 - Faith Heals...Online, or Anywhere Else

From time to time, I run across articles that speak of the impact of religious faith on healing. While I’ve yet to see a scientific study on this slippery subject that’s completely convincing, there’s a whole lot of circumstantial evidence that suggests that religious faith is good for our health.

Today, I come upon another one of these: an online news bulletin from iVillage Total Health, a medical information service, that summarizes a recent University of Wisconsin study. The results from this study were published in the February issue of the journal, Psycho-Oncology.

What these researchers did was to examine a group of breast-cancer patients who have been in touch with each other through online support groups. They first gave the women questionnaires, designed to assess their emotional state – both at the beginning of the study and at its conclusion. Then, they analyzed the verbal, e-mail responses of these women over a certain period of time, looking for certain religious words: “holy,” “pray,” “God,” “worship” and the like.

The researchers discovered that “women who used a higher percentage of religious words had lower levels of negative emotions. They demonstrated higher levels of self-efficacy and functional well-being, even after controlling for the pre-program religious belief levels. The participants appeared to use a number of different ways to cope with their illness. These included placing trust in God and finding blessings in their lives. Patients also expressed a belief in the afterlife resulting in a lower fear of death.”

So, it seems faith and healing are intimately related. Just about any pastor – one who’s visited a lot of hospital patients, anyway – could have told the researchers that.

They just had to find out for themselves, that’s all.

January 16, 2007 - The Homiletical Feast

I’m writing these words in Bradenton Beach, Florida, where I’m spending a few days with a group of ministerial colleagues from around the country. We call ourselves The Homiletical Feast. Our official reason for being here is to present papers to one another on how to preach from various Bible passages listed in the Revised Common Lectionary (a three-year calendar of Sunday-morning scripture readings that many preachers use as a guide). Some years, we invite a seminary professor to join our discussion. Other years, we go it alone. This is one of those “other years.” We don’t mind. We’ve come to value each other’s insights so much, that we often learn as much from each other as from the hired consultant.

The biblical and homiletical work (“homiletical” means “preaching”) is what attracted most of us to this group, in the first place. Yet, after not so many years of pursuing this discipline, most of us would agree that the real reason we come – what keeps us returning year after year, anyway – is the fact that this is also a support group.

In our first meeting, each year, we sit around the conference-room tables, lay out our laptops and notepads, and prepare to begin our work of biblical exegesis. Every year, without fail, we end that first session with the laptops still closed and the pens still capped, having spent the whole time bringing each other up to date on our lives and ministries. That opening session is, in many ways, the best part of the week.

Most people outside the trade don’t realize that parish ministry is a high-stress occupation. The old joke is that we ministers have it easy: we only work for one hour a week (well, maybe two, if it’s a big church). In fact – as any one of a whole raft of recent, gloomy books will bear witness – mainline Protestant churches are experiencing unprecedented pressures in America’s rapidly-changing culture. Often, the person who feels these pressures most intensely and most personally is the pastor. There’s a growing consumer mindset, that leads people to expect their church to cater to their every personal whim. “Have it your way,” goes the old, fast-food jingle. Church members hear that drumbeat six days a week, and on the seventh, they come to expect their church to hold the pickles, too. (So much for “Take up your cross, and follow me”...)

Those of us who have been out of seminary more than twenty years or so (as I have) can page through our old student photo directories and marvel at how few of us are still at it. Some of our classmates have simply drifted away from the pastorate, entering specialized counseling or teaching ministries, or leaving the church altogether. Others – having been chewed up, emotionally and spiritually, by nasty church fights – have lost the heart for this work. A few others – only a few, though the newspapers would have us believe otherwise – have gone over to the dark side, falling into illegal or immoral conduct. The dozen or so of us sitting around this table in a Florida hotel are all survivors - and more than survivors. We draw strength from each other, colleagues whom we trust and respect.

I haven’t been to the Homiletical Feast for two years. Last year, I dropped out at the last minute. The very same week my colleagues were meeting together, I was having port-implantation surgery and receiving my first chemo treatment. In my worst moments, I wondered if I’d ever sit at the table with these friends again.

This year, it’s different. Most of my fellow Feasters have been following my progress through this blog, or through e-mail, or through more personal contacts. They know the facts of my treatment, and of my going into remission last May. It feels good, all the same, to tell the story (or at least sketch out its broad outlines), and to hear their words of encouragement and celebration.

“How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down upon the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion.
For there the Lord ordained his blessing,
life for evermore.”

- Psalm 133

Friday, January 12, 2007

January 12, 2007 - Living with Our Troubles

I ran across this quotation the other day, and it’s still rattling around in my brain, so I thought I’d post it here:

“The art of living lies less in eliminating our troubles than in growing with them.”

– Bernard Baruch

I didn’t know a lot about Bernard Baruch, other than that he was an advisor to presidents and prime ministers on economic and foreign policy, so I looked him up. I discovered he was a Wall Street whiz kid who made a fortune by the time he was thirty, then went on to a career of unelected public service, advising Woodrow Wilson and FDR, working behind the scenes as an architect of the New Deal. He was something of an eccentric, who, despite his millions, liked to do his political consulting from certain park benches in Lafayette Park in Washington and Central Park in New York.

What does a man like that know about troubles?

Who can say? Struggles with private demons don’t often make it into the biographies. Yet, if the scriptures are right in saying, “human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7), then Baruch surely had his share.

His homespun advice makes good sense. Some of life’s troubles we can fend off. Others, we can’t. Yet, we all have the freedom to manage and mold ourselves, in response to those troubles. It’s what’s meant by that oft-quoted phrase, “living with cancer.”

It’s what I’m doing these days, and millions of other people, besides.

I like Baruch’s emphasis on not only living with our troubles, but growing with them. It’s all in the choices we make: whether we crawl into a corner and moan, or whether we move forward in spite of it all.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

January 10, 2007 - The Inner Life of a Cell (Video)

Reading through the blog of Lynne Dahlborg, a gallbladder cancer survivor – “Life Changing Cancer” – I come across a link to a very cool video, “The Inner Life of a Cell.” Evidently, it was put together by some people associated with Harvard University, matching electron-microscope pictures with a new-agey soundtrack.

Viewing it, I’m reminded, yet again, of the remarkable processes going on inside me, on the molecular level. The cells in our bodies are numbered in the millions (maybe even billions). Most are healthy, but sometimes cells appear that are malignant. All follow the detailed instructions encoded in their DNA – a biochemical script that tells them precisely when to be born, when to die, when to multiply, when to mutate.

We are, all of us, at the mercy of these microscopic processes, although we’re scarcely aware of it. Indeed, most aspects of the microscopic reaches of our own bodies are every bit as incomprehensible to us as the stars and planets were to the Psalmist of old, who writes:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?”

– Psalm 8:3-4

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

January 8, 2007 - Identity

Today, Claire and I go down to the motor vehicle agency to renew our driver’s licenses. This is a much bigger deal than it’s been in the past. It’s the first time, in these post-9/11 days, that we’ve had to comply with New Jersey’s new “6-Point ID Verification Program.”

We’ve done our homework. We’ve heard the horror stories of people being sent back home, again and again, until they could finally present the right combination of documents. We checked the brochure ahead of time, and have come armed not only with our old licenses, but also our passports and a bank statement with our home address on it. Four points for the passport, plus one each for the old license and the bank statement, add up to six. That gets us over the threshold, convincing the people in Motor Vehicles we’re motorists, not terrorists.

The place is crowded, as motor vehicle agencies always seem to be. The system runs smoothly enough, but there’s a whole lot of sitting around and waiting for our names to be called.

The final step in the five-step process is getting our pictures taken. For many people, the phrase “driver’s license photo” has become a byword for “awful.” Ours aren’t so terrible, though. There’s a holographic image of the state seal hanging down over my forehead, but if you ignore that, it’s not a bad likeness.

The whole process is perfunctory and bureaucratic, until it’s time to stand before the camera. The previous steps in the process have all involved data-gathering, and for them we’ve been paged using our full names. For some reason, the photographers call everyone up using first names. It’s almost as though, having run the bureaucratic gantlet, we’ve become friends. Well, maybe not friends – but at least the Motor Vehicle people know we’re not going to wash out now. If you make it as far as the camera at Motor Vehicles, you’re going home with a new license, for sure.

Maybe it’s because we’ve made the grade, but the people who run the cameras are friendlier than everyone else in the agency. No bureaucratic poker faces in this department: these clerks smile back, and even ask if our photos look OK to us, offering to re-shoot them if we don’t like them.

I think these people are friendlier because they spend their days dealing with faces, not facts. Hundreds of times a day, they look into their computer monitors and see real, live people – members of the human race, in all their wondrous diversity.

Throughout my cancer journey, I’ve gone to all kinds of places to receive medical tests and treatments. I’ve been poked, prodded, punctured and palpitated. I’ve been the name on the tab of numerous file folders, and the ID number that distinguishes one billing record from another. But, through it all, I’ve been a person – a living, breathing, hoping, dreaming human being.

The best medical practitioners are the ones who never forget that – who look up at me and see not a case, but a character.