Thursday, January 22, 2009

January 22, 2009 - Method in the Madness?

I’ve been in Bradenton Beach, Florida this week, attending The Homiletical Feast – a preaching conference I attend each year. Not that Florida has offered any balmy weather: it’s been as low as 32 degrees here this week. The exegetical papers we’ve considered in the group have been high-quality, as usual, and the discussion and mutual support has been more valuable than words can say.

These 16 or so ministers are among my most valued colleagues. Over the years, they’ve become friends as well. We only meet once a year, but the four days we spend together are a time of talking, sharing and supporting one another, as we reflect on this demanding occupation.

Earlier today, one of my colleagues shared a poem by Larry Smith called “What You Realize When Cancer Comes.” He found it on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac program on American Public Radio. Here’s an excerpt:

“You will not live forever – No
you will not, for a ceiling of clouds
hovers in the sky.

You are not as brave
as you once thought.
Sounds of death
echo in your chest.

You feel the bite of pain,
the taste of it running
through you.

Following the telling to friends
comes a silence of
felt goodbyes. You come to know
the welling of tears.

Your children are stronger
than you thought and
closer to your skin.

The beauty of animals
birds on telephone lines,
dogs who look into your eyes,
all bring you peace.”

The poem ends with these words:

“You are in a river
flowing in and through you.
Take a breath. Reach out your arms.
You can survive.

A river is flowing
flowing in and through you.
Take a breath. Reach out your arms.”

The poem causes me to reflect on many of the things I’ve lived through, these past three years or so. One of the things I’ve struggled with, off and on, is the question: “Why?” What purpose is there in all this?

Smith’s poem captures the transformational aspect of cancer. When those of us who undertake this journey – however unwillingly – complete it, we are not the same people as when we began. Every step we take along the road changes us.

Thinking theologically, I’m led to ask once again what long-term purpose God may have in mind for my ministry. In allowing me to get this disease, curing me from its aggressive variety, then miring me in the interminable limbo of indolent lymphoma’s “watch and wait,” what’s God’s point? If it’s true, as we Presbyterians are inclined to think, that God calls men and women to ministry, then what call could there possibly be in cancer?

The Larry Smith poem suggests some possible reasons. “You will not live forever.” I have a visceral awareness of this truth, now, that has hitherto been a mere abstraction. “You are not as brave as you once thought.” No, indeed I’m not. I’m learning to live with uncertainty, and still rise to the challenges of daily living. “You can survive.” Yes, I can. I’m doing it. One day at a time.

I’ve had some difficulty sensing God’s will in the midst of follicular lymphoma. Aggressive cancer I can understand: it’s a challenge to be met, or die trying. Cured cancer I can likewise understand: it’s a triumph to be celebrated. But, this neither-here-nor-there, neither healthy-nor-unhealthy limbo, stretching on into the interminable future: what’s God up to?

Maybe the purpose is to nurture my empathy, my ability to connect with others. I’m not the only person whose life is fraught with ambiguity, is lived out in the gray country of uncertainty. Maybe I’m meant to be a fellow-traveler and accompany others. Maybe I’ve been enrolled in a school of perseverance, so I may help others persevere.


Carolyn Langlie-Lesnik RN BSN MSN said...

Thank you Carl, again, for expressing your profound wisdom as you travel your cancer journey. I am very much a fan of your blog.
I am always grateful for your words.


Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Carl,

I, too, have thought about the lessons of living with indolent lymphoma. For me, this 18-years-and-counting lesson in uncertainty - up close and personal - has become about letting go and trusting in something far greater than myself.

With a mental image of a whirlwind reminding me this is something I can't understand, I relax.

A second lesson for me has been learning to live with imperfection and to see beauty in something that can't be fixed. Which leads me to my belief that life is good even when it's not what I planned for or hoped for or expect or want.

With hope, Wendy

Unknown said...

Dear Carl,
I want to apologize for not introducing myself to you earlier. I found your blog well over a year ago after my father was diagnosed with NHL (Burketts to be specific) in June of 2007. I was looking for information, suppport and a possible reason God chose my father to travel this road. We lost my father in May of 2008 after a very brave battle against a very vicious fast growing cancer.
I wanted to comment actually many times in the past and just never seemed to, especially after your post in November about talking to children about death, you see I have a 4 year old that knows quite a bit about "God's House" since she has lost both of her grandfathers in the last 2 years.

What casued me to comment today? Well I had to give you another perspective as you look for your purpose. While I agree with your thoughts on empathy and perseverance I wanted to know that for me and my family you also added inspiration, hope, understanding, peace, and acceptance.
Thank you for today's poem, it was beautiful and very much hit home. I went to the original link and printed it to keep. I think it gives me perspective on what my father's thoughts might have been like in his last days.

Good luck on your fight against your NHL and know that there are more people out here praying for you then you could have imagined!


Mikha'el said...

Thanks so much for sharing this poem, wonderful words to live by and ponder.

CLL SPOUSE said...

THANKS for the great pics, the poem and your transparency! Your writings feed my thoughts. Also, the writings of those who have commented above. Your posts provoke good discussions!

While waiting for my "why's" to be answered, there is work for me to do that REQUIRES the lessons I continue to learn.
Moving forward
in belief of this is an act of faith.

I like that you have a group of colleagues that you meet with every year. It sounds refreshing and renewing!

Anonymous said...

Very true. It changes your perspective. We went through it TWICE with our son Jaymun and learned different things each time.

God is good - even our trials are a gift.