Thursday, January 28, 2010

January 28, 2010 - When Positive Thinking Isn't Enough

One of the hardest things to do, in ministry, is to stand by people who are going through hard times: not trying to change the situation, but just being with them, accepting things as they are.

An invaluable lesson I learned, years ago, in my clinical counseling training in seminary, is that sometimes you can’t fix it. Sure, there are some counseling situations in which an easy answer – be it a scriptural citation or a word of practical advice – can make a world of difference. But, not every situation is like that. Sometimes the only thing you can do is to be there – accompanying people through their difficulties, sometimes even to the edge of the grave.

It’s one of the reasons (among many) why I have such admiration for my wife, Claire - a minister who works as bereavement coordinator for a hospice program. Accompanying people in just this sort of way is what she does all the time. When she was a hospice chaplain, she worked directly with dying patients. Now, she specializes in accompanying family members through their days of mourning.

Claire’s grown used to a certain awed response she gets from people she meets for the first time. They often say something like, “More power to you! I could never do a job like that,” or, “That must be so hard! How do you keep doing it, year after year?”

Frequently, she gets another sort of response: “I think hospice programs are wonderful. The hospice team was such a help to us when my mother was dying!” A person who says something like that has come to appreciate the value of standing by those who are suffering. It’s like the famous first line from Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

In my sermon this past Sunday, I spoke about a certain tendency toward magical thinking that can be a detriment in situations of serious difficulty, medical or otherwise. I was inspired by reading an insightful book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, by Barbara Ehrenreich.

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Ehrenreich has gotten a lot of press because of the forthright way in which she takes on the 200-pound gorilla of the self-help world: positive thinking. Her point is that our culture so unquestioningly considers positive thinking to be a good thing, that in situations – like the final stages of hospice care – in which it’s no longer appropriate, people just don’t know what to do. They feel abandoned, adrift, without the familiar life preserver of positive thinking.

Many of us think that, in a tough situation, we’ve got only two choices: think positively, or give up altogether. My point in Sunday’s sermon is that, while positive thinking is often a good thing, there are some situations in which it crosses the line into magical thinking – which is not. Some things that happen to us in life are simply bad things, and there’s no getting around it. It’s one thing to cultivate a positive outlook generally, but it’s quite another to believe we have an obligation to think positive thoughts all the time – and that, if we don’t, we’re somehow putting ourselves at risk.

Sadly, some cancer patients get precisely that message from those around them. Some feel guilty, beating themselves up because they can’t keep the sunny side up all the time. If their disease progresses, they feel irrationally responsible for failing to stoke the positive-thinking furnace.

A new illustrated article on, “In Praise of Thinking Realistically: When Positive Thinking Isn’t Working,” by Lori Hope, speaks to this same theme.

The positive-thinking movement is very often an ally of Christianity, but there’s a point at which the two part ways. Bottom-line, the Christian prescription for spiritual health is not positive thinking, but rather, repentance and the forgiveness of sins. As the Gospel-writer Mark sums up the essence of Jesus’ message:

“Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” [Mark 1:14-15]

If we’re constantly trying to push everything but positive thoughts out of our minds, we’ll never be able to recognize sin in our lives, because we’re so afraid of the negative thoughts that go with it. Without a recognition of sin, there can be no confession. Without confession, there can be no forgiveness. And, without forgiveness, there can be no experience of grace.

I ended my sermon on Sunday by telling a familiar story from the classic Broadway show, The Music Man. It’s about the con man, “Professor” Harold Hill, who travels around selling band instruments to schools, promising he’ll stick around to teach the children how to play – but he never does. He always hops the first train out of town as soon as the money’s in his pocket. In the Midwestern town of River City, though, he falls in love with Marian the librarian, so he’s got to think of something. Harold’s problem is, he knows nothing about music. He’s not a professor of anything, except shady deals.

What he does is tell the children they can learn to play their new band instruments using what he calls “The Think Method.” All they have to do is think of the melody he tells them to play, recalling it over and over in their minds. When they pick up their instruments, he promises, they’ll be able to play it perfectly.

Well, the day of the first band concert comes, and Harold’s ready for his slippery scheme to fall apart. The children pick up their instruments and start to play. The sound that emerges is one of the most awful things you’ve ever heard – everything you’d expect from a teaching strategy so ill-conceived as “The Think Method.”

Wonder of wonders, a miracle occurs. The parents of River City are so pleased to see their children tooting away on the band instruments, they completely ignore the fact that there’s no discernible melody. Professor Hill’s reputation is saved, and he settles down in River City to marry his beloved Marian.

Positive thinking won’t teach us how to play the trombone, any more than it will guarantee we’ll beat cancer. The lesson of The Music Man, though, goes beyond the concrete task of producing the right musical notes at the proper tempo. It’s a lesson about grace and love and unconditional acceptance of children by their parents. Professor Hill’s brand of magical thinking was a complete dud, but the magic of love proved far stronger.

There is no greater magic in the world than this. It’s the love of God, that Christians believe is experienced uniquely in Jesus Christ. We believe that love was demonstrated for us on the cross of Calvary, and is given to us as an unconditional gift. It comes to us in good times and in bad, in sunshine and in storm.

“Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift!”

– 2 Corinthians 9:15

Monday, January 18, 2010

January 18, 2010 - Aisle or Window?

Here I am, again, in Bradenton Beach, Florida, attending The Homiletical Feast – a gathering of fellow preachers who meet together once a year to share sermon ideas and support one another in our work. It’s always good to get back together with this group – especially on the first day, as we share stories of what our lives and ministries have been like in the past year.

I’m thinking, now, about an experience I had on the airplane last night. Usually, when I fly, I reserve an aisle seat if I can. It’s always seemed more efficient: it’s easier to get up and walk to the rest room, if I have the need, and it also makes for a slightly quicker exit from the plane after landing. At one time in my life – when I was serving as a seminary admissions director – I used to fly frequently. I had it down to a familiar routine.

This trip, for whatever reason, I reserved a window seat. Maybe I just wanted to vary the routine. I haven’t sat beside an airplane window for years, so I thought I’d spend a little time reacquainting myself with that view, weather permitting.

Weather was permitting. It was dark for most of the flight, but I could look down on the glistening lights of the east coast, far down below me. It was lovely.

The thought occurred to me that flying is a truly marvelous thing, something the vast majority of airline patrons absolutely take for granted. The expansive view I was taking in so casually is a perspective no person on earth – no human being ever born – had viewed prior to the 20th Century. Maybe a very few people ventured up several hundred feet in hot-air balloons, but no one had ever ascended the heights a modern airliner achieves with such ease. I found myself thinking of those earthbound people of centuries past, whose feet were planted firmly on the ground and who gazed up at the skies with longing. Surely some of them spent their lives wondering what the earth looks like, from the perspective of the birds circling slowly overhead. Yesterday, I – along with every other person who’s ever boarded an airplane – had that opportunity.

So what? What do we do with that opportunity, typically? Not much. We spurn the window seat, in favor of the aisle. The view from the airplane window has become commonplace. For most of us, it has lost its wonder.

If we could somehow transport a curious person from centuries past – let’s say, for example, Ben Franklin – into our century, and offer him a ride on a jet airliner, what sort of seat would he prefer? You can bet your bottom dollar ol’ Ben would choose the window. No way would he pass up the opportunity to view the earth from the perspective of the heavens!

There are numerous experiences in life that can change our perspective. Cancer is one of them. There was a time, as I was going through the worst of my chemo side-effects, that I couldn’t walk around the block without stopping to sit down a few times. It wasn’t just that I felt tired and thought a little rest might feel good. I literally couldn’t do it. Now, of course, I can complete a short stroll like that without thinking twice about it, but do I ever stop and ponder how wonderful it is – how blessed I am – that I have regained my strength? Not often enough.

Of our short attention spans, our stunted capacity for sustaining wonder, the prophet Isaiah has this to say to a wayward people:

“You have forgotten the Lord, your Maker,
who stretched out the heavens
and laid the foundations of the earth.
You fear continually all day long
because of the fury of the oppressor,
who is bent on destruction.
But where is the fury of the oppressor?”

– Isaiah 51:13

Life is good, in so many ways. Life with cancer, life without cancer – there are still plenty of sights to see, lots of new experiences to be had (even some old ones that haven’t yet been drained of their wonder).

Aisle or window? You decide.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

January 9, 2010 - Everything In Its Time

Today I run across an inspiring story on National Public Radio: the saga of one Seun Adebiyi, who has dreams of becoming – I am not making this up – Nigeria’s first contender in the Winter Olympics one-man sledding event called skeleton.

Seun (who pronounces his name “Shawn” when here in the United States) missed making the Nigerian Olympic swim team by a tenth of a second. So, he turned his attention to winter sports, setting his sights on the skeleton event. A student at Yale Law School, who was brought to this country as a child by his immigrant mother, Seun sounds very American. Yet, he does have Nigerian citizenship – which means that, as he trains 5 hours a day on the skeleton track outside Salt Lake City, he’s possibly the only Nigerian aspiring to represent his country in this event.

Seun’s circum- stances sound like those of the Jamaican bobsled team that was the subject of the 1993 Disney film, Cool Runnings – with one exception: he’s just been diagnosed with cancer.

And not just any cancer. Seun’s got two aggressive forms: stem-cell leukemia and lymphoblastic lymphoma.

The most promising treatment for him is an allogeneic stem-cell transplant, one requiring closely-matched cells from a living donor. (It’s the type of stem-cell transplant I’d need to have, should it ever come to that.)

Seun’s problem is that people of African descent aren’t well-represented in the donor registry – and for patients who are actually from Africa, the outlook is even bleaker. Still, that didn’t stop Seun and his mother from traveling to Nigeria recently to set up that country’s first bone-marrow registry.

Seun’s best chance lies in a cord-blood transplant, which he’s going to be having soon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The online audio of NPR’s story on him is well worth the 5 minutes of your time it will take to listen to it. As NPR correspondent Mike Pesca summarizes Seun’s description of his situation, “Living with cancer is like living an extremely concentrated, extremely potent version of life.”

And how. It’s an apt description of what it feels like to go through the cancer-treatment experience.

Then, Pesca relates another thing Seun said to him: “There is a time for all-out effort, and then there’s a time for surrender.” Seun’s approach is to pull out all the stops during the weeks leading up to his transplant, training for that ordeal with the same intense effort he’s brought to his Olympic bid. Yet, he knows there will come a time when he can do nothing but trust the expertise of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering doctors and the technological wizardry they have at their disposal.

Truly, there is a time for everything in life – as I reminded a family just yesterday, at the funeral of their 104-year-old matriarch. At the funeral home, I read these beloved words from the third chapter of Ecclesiastes:

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance...”
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)

On an on the ancient poem goes, weaving its way in and out of all life’s adventures. Its words sound a very different note at the funeral of a centenarian than they do on the eve of a twentysomething’s risky stem-cell transplant. Yet, the best any of us can do, regardless of our circumstances, is to trust that, in God’s providence, there is indeed a time for everything.

I’m beginning to learn, myself, that this has much less to do with the duration of life than with its quality. A long, serene run of 104 years is a beautiful thing. But then, so is a young man’s 80-mile-an-hour dash down an icy hillside in search of Olympic gold.

Either way, I believe the Lord is standing by, to guide and to bless.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

January 6, 2010 - Watching and Waiting, a Little Slower

It’s been a busy holiday season, so I haven’t had much time for keeping up the ol’ blog. Today, though, I saw Dr. Lerner, after having had a CT scan several weeks ago, so there’s a little something to report.

Earlier, I’d received news by phone from the doctor’s office that the scan result was good – no appreciable increase in size. Today, Dr. Lerner confirmed that, and said the remains of the abdominal mass had actually gotten a little smaller – although he was quick to add that this is probably a testing anomaly, the result of the scan segment being “cut through” a narrower part of the tumor.

He did say that, since things have been stable for so long, I could probably wait a little longer between scans next time. So, he’s asked me to come back and see him three months from now. If all is well, and I’m not reporting any problems, he’ll then order a scan to take place just before the next 3-month appointment. In other words, we’ll be shifting to having a scan every other three-month appointment, rather than every one.

I take this as good news, of course. My disease is “stable.” I’m all for that.

I was standing in line afterwards, waiting at the window to schedule my next appointment. Under my arm was my patient folder – or, at least, the most recent one. It was pretty thick: 3 or 4 inches.

Looking around the office, I realized all the other files I saw weren’t nearly as thick. I’m getting to be a real veteran of this stuff. Who would have thought it, four years ago, when I was just beginning my chemotherapy?

A lot has happened in that time. There’s been a lot that hasn’t happened, as well – things I feared might have.

A happy, healthy 2010 to all of you!