Thursday, February 21, 2013

February 21, 2013 – In Training

It continues to be a difficult for me to make timely entries on this blog, because of the ways my life has changed since Hurricane Sandy. Our home is intact, as is the church building, but our community is badly damaged. The whole focus of my ministry has changed, with a heavier emphasis on crisis intervention and pastoral care, as members of the congregation endure the frustration of insurance claims and FEMA grant applications.

The focus of the church’s mission has changed as well. We’ve recently been named a Volunteer Village by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, housing groups of up to 36 volunteer recovery workers, one week at a time, in our Education Annex (which is across the driveway from the Manse).

I wish entries could be more frequent. It’s not for lack of things to write about. It’s simply about finding the time to sit down at the keyboard and do it.

I hope regular readers will bear with me. Things will get better eventually.

I’d like to reflect today on what cancer has taught me about dealing with a disaster. The two may seem at first to be unrelated — an extended period of cancer treatment, and a natural disaster bringing damage from winds and flooding — but in fact there are a great deal of similarities.

In both cases, there was a period of preparation. It was several months from the day Dr. Cheli handed me a medical test order with the words “Suspect lymphoma” written on it to the actual day when Dr. Lerner confirmed the G.P.’s suspicion was true. Sandy also came on kind of slow: there were several long days of anxiously monitoring the Weather Channel and wondering whether the storm track would intersect with our little piece of the Jersey Shore.

When each of those disasters struck, I was left reeling. The slowly-building sense of dread climaxed in a scenario that, if not exactly worst-case, was pretty far along that spectrum

After my diagnosis, my preeminent role in life became that of cancer patient. I threw myself into research, finding out as much about lymphoma as I could. The single most important items on my calendar became doctors’ appointments, blood tests, biopsies and medical scans.

After Sandy, my ministry became that of “disaster pastor,” focusing on needs more urgent and primal than the typical woes of middle-class suburbanites. At the church, our focus shifted to basic human needs like feeding people and providing temporary shelter. (We’d typically addressed those in the past by soliciting financial contributions for mission agencies; now, the needs were at our doorstep and our response person-to-person.) We handed out clean-up kits. I learned what brand of mold-remediation chemical to recommend. I became familiar with the intricacies of how to register for FEMA emergency aid, so I could urge our people not to miss the deadlines. When the local stores sold out of cardboard moving boxes and plastic storage bins — for people vacating flood-damaged homes to pack up their possessions), we became a distribution center for such items driven in by friends from elsewhere.

I never imagined my ministry would ever focus on problems like where to find plastic storage bins. Yet, when that appeared to be the work Christ was calling me to do, I did it.

In odd way, one I could never have predicted, my experience as a cancer survivor prepared me to become a hurricane survivor.

The disaster itself was over in a comparatively short time. In the case of my cancer diagnosis, it was a single afternoon in the doctor’s office, learning of my diagnosis. In the case of Sandy, it was the 24-hour period of high winds and torrential rain.

An intense period of confusion and numbing dread followed. In those days after my diagnosis, I grappled with the possibility that I could die soon. In the 5 or 6 days after Sandy, we were surrounded by a different kind of darkness, waiting for the power to come back on.

In the days after diagnosis, I felt very much alone, imagining nobody knew the troubles I was seeing — at least those relating to my role as pastor. In the days after Sandy, we were cut off from most forms of communication, except what sporadic text messages and internet access I could engineer on my iPhone.

Ever since Sandy, there has been far more important work to do than I could possibly accomplish. I’ve ruthlessly practiced to-do list triage, letting some urgent but less-important items go for a while — some of them for good..

Again, I went through something similar as I pursued cancer treatment in the winter and spring of 2006. Recovery became Job One. Every other task receded to a lower tier of priority.

Both experiences gave me a keener nose for trivia, giving me permission to jettison mere busy-work with few feelings of regret.

Resting up in those days between chemo treatments, I never imagined I was in training for a very different challenge. But I was.

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Turns out, cancer treatment bestowed some hard-to-discern spiritual gifts that prepared me for an extended period of hurricane recovery.

Who would’ve thought it?