Saturday, November 08, 2008

November 8, 2008 - Unfinished Business?

I just picked up a new book that promises to help me make sense of my situation as a cancer survivor. Oddly enough, it was written by a man who’s dying.

Forrest Church has served more than 30 years as pastor of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow (Beacon, 2008) is the newly-published memoir of his journey through esophageal cancer.

What attracted me about this book, when I first heard it mentioned on NPR’s October 27th Fresh Air program, is that it was written by a preacher. Like me, Forrest Church has struggled to figure out how to be a cancer survivor while at the same time striving to bring a message of hope and peace to his congregation. A challenging task, that – finding the right balance between honesty and privacy.

As I page through this fine book – one of those little volumes that’s best read slowly – I expect I’ll find more than one insight to share here in my little corner of cyberspace.

One of the things Forrest marveled at, when he was first diagnosed, was how calmly he received the news:

“One of the first topics I tackled – still probing it to test any hint of denial at its core – was the way I cut straight to acceptance on first hearing what appeared at the time to be a death sentence. I came up with an explanation for my ease of mind.... The key is unfinished business....

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t happy about the prospect of dying. I had things left to do in my life and regretted the interruption of all my splendid plans.... My acceptance, however, abided in a deeper place. I was free to die, I realized, because, although I had much ongoing business, I had no unfinished business. I had made peace with myself, my fellows, and with God”
(pp. 90-92).

I’m still pondering that distinction Forrest makes, between unfinished business and ongoing business. I think he’s onto something there.

I remember, in those days of December, 2005 and January, 2006, how life took on a peculiar intensity, in a way I’d never before experienced. After months of uncertainty, I had been diagnosed for sure. I didn’t fight that truth, in my mind. I, too, cut straight to acceptance. I girded my loins for the struggle ahead.

It’s not that I went through life preternaturally calm. I was plenty scared. But what scared me was more the prospect of suffering than the prospect of dying. If I am to die, I remember thinking to myself, it is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. I’ve been talking about God’s love, professionally, most of my adult life. Pretty soon, I’m going to find out firsthand how real that love is.

It was actually liberating, in an odd way. Suddenly, much of the oppressive weight of ongoing business in my life slipped away. I no longer needed to bother with that trivial stuff. My life had a singleness of purpose, as never before. That purpose was to get well, or die trying.

Now, several years later, I find myself in this odd limbo of being out of remission but no longer needing active treatment. I could be in this in-between place indefinitely.

Do you want know something strange? I miss the singleness of purpose of those post-diagnosis days. I don’t wish the fierce malignancy back, of course, and I’d be perfectly happy never to undergo chemotherapy again. But somehow, I wish I could recapture that low hum of purposefulness that was the music of my days.

I suppose it’s a sort of wisdom the contem- platives gain, after years of focused prayer. They gain it without having to face down a potentially life- threatening illness. I believe it’s possible to achieve that degree of focus in life, purely by seeking it, but it’s terribly difficult. Only a very few of us achieve it, without a life-threatening crisis to help us along.

As the chemo nurses opened my veins and poured in adriamycin, that harsh medicine they call “the red death,” I was receiving another sort of medication that aided my soul’s healing. It was that singleness of purpose, that purity of heart. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard once wrote a book called Purity of Heart Is To Will One Thing. That’s what I was doing, in those days. I was willing one thing.

“Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus, “for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)


Karen E said...

Hello Carl,
I have left a comment once before, and have managed to read all your back-entries. We have much in common - pastors with cancer who apparently are also NPR junkies (I heard the Love and Death story on Fresh Air too, and intend to get the book). Having spent the week going through another "is it back?" scare that turned out to be a false alarm, I resonate with this entry. It was almost easier to be in treatment than it is to be in the limbo of neither sick nor well. It is VERY hard to do my work. I'm at a year since the initial diagnosis - how did you get through and manage to preach? Or more accurately, make all the stupid phone calls and deal with budget crises and staff conflicts and the other stuff that feels like it matters so little but everyone wants done well? I have appreciated seeing how you've blazed a path - Thank you -
Karen Ebert

Jen Dickey said...

Praying for a continuation of miraculous healing on your life. God is an incredible healer who can do all things. Blessings upon you and your family.

In Christ,

Carl said...

Thank you, Karen. It's helpful to see that my experience is not unique.

It's relatively unexplored territory, because it's only in recent years, as cancer treatments have improved, that people like us have been going into these long remissions (or, at least lulls between treatments).

As for the preaching (or, at least, worship leadership), I never completely stopped. Even during my chemo, I'd be up in front of the congregation at least one Sunday in three (my chemo treatments were 3 weeks apart, which meant I was feeling more energetic during the third week).

Preaching is my favorite area of ministry, so it wasn't hard to stay reasonably motivated for that. The blog, in fact, served during that time as a way of staying creative. I'm with you, though - it's the administrivia that was (and is) hard to abide.

Keep the faith.


Carl said...

Thanks, Jen. I very much appreciate the prayers!


Meg Rodgers said...

Wondering if you've read the book "The Shack". It's about a man's relationship with God after he suffers an unimaginable tragedy.
It's a fictional story but I found it an interesting take on God & humaity.
One of the hardest things I am having to work through is how God can be present through Dan's suffering. As a Catholic, we're kinda taught to accept these things as God's will, but it's pretty difficult to rationalize.
Thanks for your writings.


Carl said...

No, I haven't read The Shack, Meg. But, the name of that book keeps coming up, from some of my church members and others. Looks like I'll have to add that one to my list...


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