Saturday, May 09, 2009

May 9, 2009 - A Most Useless Place?

Dr. Wendy Harpham sent me a link to the blog of Rabbi David Wolpe, who also has non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Several years before that, he had surgery for a brain tumor. Here, he writes about receiving his last Rituxan infusion, ending a two-year follow-up regime after chemotherapy for NHL:

“Recently I had the final infusion. But I was not at all sure that pulling away the safety net was a cause for celebration. My doctor poked his head into the curtained chamber to assure me that he expected a long remission. Kind of him, but what could he say?

Remission is cancer's suspended animation. The renegade cells are poised to return but no one knows when. It could be a month or a decade; for my type of lymphoma (one of the more than thirty varieties of Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma) there is no cure. So I am stuck in what Dr. Seuss – in a book I used to read to my daughter – calls “a most useless place. The Waiting place....’”


A most useless place. That phrase does sum up how it feels, sometimes. Unlike David, I’m out of remission – have been for a couple of years – but there are days when I, too, feel like I’m in suspended animation.

David’s experience is similar to mine, too, in that he is a member of the clergy, serving a congregation:

“I had the strange, surreal experience of hearing my congregants' shock that this could happen to the family of the Rabbi – as though professional piety was a shield against disease. As though God played favorites.

Right before my brain surgery I appeared in front of the congregation and asked them for their patience and their prayers. Three year later I was standing before them, bald. I witnessed the realization in their eyes that there are no guarantees, no protected people. No one is safe.”


No, no one is safe. Yet, that observation ought to be surprising only to those who believe God is some cosmic puppeteer, manipulating the lives and loves and illnesses of us poor, benighted souls who dwell below. Is cancer a thunderbolt, cast down in righteous anger from Olympian heights? I’ve never seen it that way – although I’ve met plenty of people, both inside and outside my church, who fear it may be.

Granted, there are strains within the biblical tradition that portray God that way. God punishes the ten spies who brought back an unfavorable report of the promised land by killing them with plague (Numbers 14:37). God gives the adulterous David and Bathsheba’s infant love-child a fatal illness (2 Samuel 12:15-17). Even worse, God famously afflicts Job with boils, not because he’s an unjust man but simply because God wants to win a debate with the devil.

Yet, before everything is said and done in the Hebrew scriptures, the Lord is portrayed as “merciful and gracious, abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). That’s the majority witness. When it comes to the New Testament, of course, God not only sympathizes with human suffering, but personally undergoes it, becoming incarnate as Jesus Christ.

Yet, the ancient images of a capriciously angry God, that dread smiter of sinners, are maddeningly persistent. “What did I do to deserve this?" is the anguished cry we pastors hear again and again, whether spoken or unspoken, standing at the foot of many a hospital bed.

No one is safe. We’re all going to die. Some of us sooner than others. If we’re spared from some fatal catastrophe on the highways, we’re all going to hear some doctor admit to us, someday, “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing more medical science can do for you.” Is this God’s judgment?

The story of Adam and Eve in the Garden suggests it is. Death is, that story suggests, God’s judgment on the entire human race. That may be so, but, unless we toss out all the biblical witnesses to God as patient and merciful, it’s hard to make a case for God micro-managing the entries in our individual medical files. We belong to a race for whom that dark, old lullaby is all too true:

“Hush, little baby, don’t you cry,
for you know your mama is born to die...”


The divine decree of death is meted out to the human race en masse, not on a case-by-case basis.

The fact of death is perhaps the deepest mystery we children of Adam and Eve seek to plumb – as Rabbi David has himself come to realize:

“For now I am just waiting. I am trying to find my own way through this because, inevitably, I will be asked how I did it. Rabbis are supposed to be figures of authority and calm. It was hard enough to reassure my congregation that a fickle universe does not mean that God is absent. That belief does not indemnify me against adversity. That my faith through all this is unshaken. How does one live, Rabbi, is the question my congregants ask, of not so directly. Tell me, Rabbi – it is your job to know.

My answer, I now realize, is: Live as if you are fine, knowing that you are not. Death is the overriding truth of life but it need not be its constant companion. My safety net is gone. I feel, as all people in remission do, that each time I fly my hand may slip from the trapeze. But to live earthbound is to give the cancer more than it deserves.”


The place David and I find ourselves in may feel, at times, like “a most useless place.” On deeper examination – and, viewed through the eye of faith – it turns out to be anything but.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Wow, you are a wonderful writer. You are absolutely right. You have to live your life as if every single moment counts. Because it does.

There's an up side to cancer that many of us talk about. The realization that every minute does matter. We can't forget that.

I often say I was fortunate to have cancer at 27. People can't imagine why. It's because I realize that every day is one of God's blessings to us. A gift. What you choose to do with it is entirely up to you.