Archive for June, 2014

posted by Amy on Jun 23

On Friday, June 20, 2014 I participated in a pilgrimage conducted by the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Early that morning I and approximately 700 other United Methodists loaded into buses in Pueblo, Colorado and made the journey to the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site outside of Eads, Colorado. We went at the invitation of descendants of the people who were attacked without warning before dawn on November 29, 1864. The descendants all know that the Methodist Episcopal Church (predecessor to the United Methodist Church) had an especially significant, and especially shameful, role both in the massacre itself and in the social and historical context out of which the atrocity arose. Most Methodists don’t.

John Evans, the second territorial governor for Colorado, was a Methodist. He believed the “Indian problem” needed a final solution not unlike Hitler’s “Final Solution” for Jews. John Chivington, the leader of the attack, was a Methodist minister. He was the Presiding Elder for the fledgling Methodist congregations that were founded almost simultaneously with the gold rush into the Colorado area that began in 1858. Chivington and Evans were among the first trustees of “First Methodist Episcopal Church of Denver,” which was organized on July 22, 1863. By 1888, this congregation became known as Trinity United Methodist Church, and is still in existence. Chivington was politically ambitious, and he held Indians in extreme contempt. He wanted a brilliant military victory so he could become a general and then a United States Senator. When ordering his troops to kill and scalp everyone in the encampment on Sand Creek, he famously said, “Nits make lice.”

Our bishop, Elaine Stanovsky, has been working diligently since her appointment in 2009 to educate herself and others about Sand Creek. She began blogging about the pilgrimage on January 15, 2014. Here from her first post is her succinct, brutally honest framing of the issues:

The 150th anniversary of the Sand Creek Massacre falls in 2014. On November 29, 1864 Methodist leaders, committed to living in faithful obedience to Jesus Christ, wielding government and military power, planned and led the slaughter of nearly 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people peacefully encamped where they were promised they would be safe. Many of the victims were women, children and the elderly. For some descendants of the massacre the word “Methodist” means only massacre of innocents. This year we have an opportunity to change that and to enter into a relationship of honor and respect with people who know us only as the source of their scars.

This is a history of atrocity; a history that has been hotly debated for 150 years, despite definitive findings by congressional and military investigations; a history that has been largely untaught in our schools, lost from the consciousness of the church, and distorted in its telling. It is a history in which respected Christian leaders failed utterly to uphold God’s love for creation and Jesus’ promise of abundant life. It is a history that casts a long shadow of doubt that people who bear the name “Christian” or “Methodist” can be trusted to cherish and protect life at all.

[You can find the blog at http://www.mountainskyumc.org/sand-creek-massacre-journey/previous/2. For some reason my software is no longer allowing me to create links to URLs, but I highly recommend that you visit.]

I prepared for the trip by reading three books recommended by Bishop Elaine. My bachelor’s degree is in history, and I welcomed the opportunity to delve deeply into the history of the massacre itself, the lives of some of the key witnesses (especially George Bent, one of four children of William Bent, a white man, and Owl Woman, a daughter of The Cheyenne Keeper of the Sacred Arrows), and the “back story” behind the 2008 establishment of the National Park Service Historic Site. A large percentage of the time allotted to Annual Conference was devoted to educating the attendees about all of this context. A movie about the massacre was shown on each of the thirteen buses that traveled from Pueblo to Eads. Each bus was accompanied by either a Cheyenne or Arapaho person or a historian whose role was to teach and to answer questions. We also watched a National Park Service video at the movie theater in Eads, and had an opportunity to talk to a Park Service representative.

Until last week I had never made the connection between the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Both were caused by the relentless westward expansion of white settlers. The Civil War arose from arguments about whether or not new territories would allow slavery. Chivington was a hero of the battle of Glorietta Pass, where the Union Army stopped the advance of the Confederate army. Sand Creek is listed on a Civil War monument that was erected in 1909 on the grounds of the Colorado State Capitol. The 1950s-era historical marker at the site of the massacre describes it as a “battle.” As the Civil War ended, the U.S. Army was able to dedicate more military resources to protecting wagon trains and white settlements, and to attacking Indians. Sand Creek was the most famous atrocity, but by no means the only one. Four years later, George Armstrong Custer’s Seventh Cavalry attacked a Cheyenne encampment at Washita, killing Black Elk, one of the few “peace chiefs” who survived the Sand Creek Massacre. At every step of this slow-motion genocide, Methodists played significant roles.

The buses took pilgrims to the site in three groups. It was quite hot by the time I got off my bus. Pastors were available to impose ashes on anyone who wanted them, on forehead or hand, as we do on Ash Wednesday, but in the shape of a circle rather than a cross. We also each received a “prayer card” to use as an aid to contemplation or prayer. Each prayer card was different, and we were invited to trade them with other pilgrims. I got a smudge of ashes on my forehead and the first of several prayer cards.

In the heat and wind I walked out to the end of the trail, stopping frequently to look and listen. The large leaves of cottonwood trees blowing in the stiff breeze rattled together loudly. Although it seemed barren and desolate at first, the land actually teemed with life. Little lizards darted across the path, sometimes getting confused about which way they should go to escape all the tramping feet. Birds called from the scrubby brush on either side of the path. Cacti sported large yellow blooms. Dry-looking grass, almost the same color as the sandy soil, grew in clumps all around. Cottonwoods marked the dry creek beds, where their deep roots found underground springs. Since I had done so much background reading, I didn’t need to spend much time with the informational markers along the trail. Several times I swapped prayer cards with other people. When I got to the end of the trail, after standing awhile in silence, I began chanting “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy immortal One have mercy upon us.” Tears rolled down my cheeks as I chanted, and the hot wind dried them. The guide on our bus had told us that her Arapaho spirits don’t speak English, and four octogenarians are the only fluent speakers living on the Southern Arapaho reservation in Oklahoma. I thought, “The spirits don’t speak English, but surely they understand tears, and ‘sighs too deep for words.’” I fervently hoped that they did.

At dinner that night the descendants were asked to reflect on the day. They thanked us for what we had done. They said it helped them. They said it gave them hope. Some said they had found peace. Some said they felt that healing could now begin. I was incredibly moved by their graciousness, gentleness, sincerity, and dignity. Tears kept welling up in my eyes.

There is no way to make amends for the Sand Creek Massacre. It happened because white settlers invaded Indian lands, killed or drove off the buffalo, put up fences, and murdered Indians. Some died quickly by shooting and infectious diseases. Others died more slowly from starvation, whiskey, poverty, and cultural genocide. It was by no means a one-way street. Indians raided, killed, scalped, and terrorized whites. But they were defending their homeland and their way of life. Before white people started taking over land and other resources, relations between the whites and the Cheyenne/Arapaho people had been fairly peaceful. And, of course, the whites had, as Jared Diamond puts it, “guns, germs and steel,” as well as a lot more people.

I, a white person, was born in Denver less than 100 years after the massacre. I went to public schools that taught about “Manifest Destiny” without interrogating its racist, genocidal foundations and its roots in the Catholic Church’s “discovery doctrine,” which unilaterally declared it lawful for Europeans to steal any land not already occupied by “civilized” people, and to slaughter or enslave any “savages.” Cowboy and Indian movies perpetuated the stereotypes of stupid, savage, murderous Indians and their brave, innocent white victims. Nobody told the Indians’ side of the story.

We can’t forge a new path forward without knowing where we’ve been. The descendants were not seeking apologies, and they emphasized that they were not seeking to assign blame or make us ashamed. But they wanted us to know their story. They also wanted us to know that, despite the best efforts of our white ancestors, they survived and they are still here. They spoke of their strength and resilience as a people. They seek recognition as people of equal dignity, people of sacred worth. They want sovereignty. I want that for them too, and I agree that they deserve it.

But they’ve lost so much. I’m especially sorrowful about the impending extinction of the Arapaho language. Language is not just a “tube for communication.” It carries lifeways and culture. It would be tragic to lose the knowledge, wisdom, and goodness embedded in Native ways of life and perspectives on what’s really real and what really matters.

No culture is all good or all bad, and all cultures adapt to specific circumstances and contexts. But we heirs of the European/Enlightenment project of conquering and transforming Creation, treating it as a lifeless machine, have much to learn from peoples who believe that everything the Creator made is alive. As Moses said to the Israelites before they crossed into the Promised Land, “Today I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deut 30:19) Our Indian brothers and sisters can help us choose life, for humans, for other creatures, and for the Earth herself. I pray that we put aside our hubris, cure our amnesia, and decide, finally, to choose life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

posted by Amy on Jun 12

I recently got into a pissing contest on Twitter about cancer and cancer treatment. I’m not sure how it started, but some guy was fomenting two of the most common cancer myths: that cancer is caused by having an overly-acidic body from eating the wrong foods and that cancer “feeds on sugar” and you can prevent or cure it by cutting back on sugar. On his profile, and in some of his comments, he completed his cancer conspiracy trifecta with the claim that chemo is nothing but a pharmaceutical company conspiracy and kills people instead of helping them. Twitter is the worst possible place for nuanced and detailed attempts at persuasion, and I doubt anybody ever gets persuaded, but I sometimes wade into arguments anyway. It must be fun for me.

I absolutely do believe we eat too much sugar, other sweeteners, and artificial sweeteners in the U.S. today. Something like 80% of all processed food has added sweeteners. That can’t be good. But the “cancer feeds on sugar” myth is easily busted. Every cell in your body feeds on glucose, which is what the body converts food into. Eating no carbohydrates at all can force the body to burn fat and muscle for energy. That is actually a tested treatment for severe childhood epilepsy, and it used to be the only thing that could be done about Type 1 diabetes (and not for long–you have to have insulin to stay alive.) But humans evolved as omnivores eating a predominately plant-based diet. Plants have carbohydrates, which get converted to glucose in the body. The Twitter guy said somebody who got a Nobel prize in the 1930s “proved” his sugar theory. Thirty seconds on Google was enough to show that the Nobel laureate had done no such thing.

The acid/alkaline hypothesis is just as bogus. You can influence the Ph of your urine (which is how the quacks test your “body”) but the natural acidity of blood doesn’t budge much, and there’s no way to digest food without the very strong stomach acid that we all have. Again, it’s a fine idea to eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. The fiber, vitamins, minerals, water, and phytates in those foods are good for you. Have at it. But you stand a good chance of getting cancer anyway, and if you do, you should go see a real doctor and follow her advice.

They used to think cancer was one disease that affected different body parts. Cancer is not one single disease. In fact, breast cancer isn’t a single disease. There are at least fifteen different subtypes of breast cancer, for example. That’s true of every other kind of cancer that I’ve read about. Cancer is caused by a combination of heredity, epigenetic changes, and environment. Cancer starts with gene mutations, and it’s very clever about continuing to mutate and outsmart treatments. Learning about how cancer supports itself, so to speak, gives researchers ideas about designing treatments that can interrupt or reverse those processes. The more it’s researched, in finer and finer detail, the more science is able to figure out exactly what is going on at the cellular level. Since each human being is unique, then everyone’s cancer is also unique. Eventually, cancer treatment will be customized to each person’s specific disease. That is a million miles in the opposite direction from saying [__fill in the blank__] cures cancer or [__fill in the blank__] causes it.

In the meantime, we have to make do with what we have. The standard treatment for breast cancer is “slash, burn and poison” (surgery, radiation, and chemo), plus, since the discovery of Tamoxifen, endocrine therapy for people whose breast cancer is hormone-receptor positive. That’s not because cancer doctors are all sadists, it’s because the evidence shows that people who get those treatments live longer than those who don’t. It doesn’t always work. There are always side effects, and some of them are debilitating. There are also all the usual hazards of being in hospitals–infections, mistakes, etc. But that is no reason to reject the whole enterprise.

The reason we haven’t won the “war on cancer” is the opponent is a shape-shifter, and is incredibly complex. It’s not because science is hiding anything. The woman who leads my support group sends us articles from peer-reviewed medical journals. All you have to do to believe in this complexity, and in the sincerity of the people publishing those articles, is to read a few of them. This is tricky stuff, folks, and highly technical. These people are actual scientists who base their work on facts, not folklore. The competition for research money is fierce, so real cancer researchers are very, very careful in designing experiments and reporting on them, because they are being very carefully watched. It is idiotic to think anything is being suppressed.

Another fallacy that comes up pretty often is the “personal exceptionalism” fallacy. A newly-diagnosed member of my online support group said she was thinking of skipping chemo and radiation. The group is for people who have a subtype of breast cancer that used to be the “bad kind.” Before there were targeted treatments for it, it was very aggressive and deadly. It metastasizes much more readily than other types, even when it’s diagnosed and treated at early stages. The standard of care now is to give chemotherapy plus a targeted treatment. The targeted treatment is not chemo, and it’s not approved to be given all by itself until after a course of chemo has been given. She said she was contemplating this approach because she’s “fiercely independent.” I told her that her cancer is more fiercely independent than she is. I didn’t tell her she’s being an idiot, because that’s rude. But she’s being an idiot.

The most ridiculous thing is not trusting science but trusting some quack with a website and a Paypal account. People accuse real doctors and researchers of being self-interested and untrustworthy, but are perfectly willing to believe the “testimonials” that snake-oil salesmen write to convince people to buy their potions. Even if somebody’s Aunt Edna actually did go into permanent remission after she took some quack’s advice or bought the special vitamins, that’s still not proof of anything. As they say, the plural of anecdote is not evidence.

 

 

posted by Amy on Jun 9

My scan results were, as usual, “mixed.” That can be hard to take, especially the first few times it happens. After some practice, I have decided that the thing I care about most is whether or not there are new lesions. To me, no new lesions, along with not much new at known sites, translates to “stable.” Stable is good. With metastatic cancer, most of the time changes are for the worse. So my scan shows no new lesions, and everything else is either slightly better or slightly worse, which averages out to “stable.”

My oncologist agrees, so for now I’ll stay on the same treatment. I have the information. It’s good news (or at least it’s not bad news). I feel fine physically. And my anxiety level is dropping.

I’m lucky. I’m 60, not 30. I have kids, and they are all adults. They have college degrees. They have each other. They will be OK. I have known people who died from cancer who were not so lucky.

There’s really no point in comparing levels of misfortune and suffering, but everyone seems to do it anyway. My niece told me her father (my brother) justified his treatment of her and her brother by saying he had it worse as a child. Even if that’s true (and how can anyone validly judge another person’s suffering?) what difference does that make? If what he did to them was wrong, then it’s wrong. “Let me tell you what real suffering is like” is a nonstarter.

We all have challenges, misfortunes, setbacks, pain, and suffering. We are all going to die. No one’s life is comparable to anyone else’s. But having metastatic cancer makes it impossible to deny that life truly is not fair. I live in Boston and I have great health insurance. I get state-of-the art medical care, with the newest, best drugs for my disease. Millions of people with cancer worldwide don’t even get pain medication to ease their suffering, never mind treatments that will give them more time with their children, more days of living. That’s not fair.

I’m lucky that I’m able to respond to this disease optimally (under the existing state of knowledge), but I’m terribly unlucky anyway, because I have it. A couple of weeks ago two Facebook friends posted a hoax “article” about how “John” Hopkins had finally revealed the truth about cancer. One of the people who posted it said, “Do this; you’ll live longer.”  Some of the “secrets” were pure nonsense, and the rest was the usual good advice about how to stay healthy–eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat, get some exercise, control stress, etc. Only I’ve always done all those things, and I got cancer anyway. The friend who was pushing that nostrum does none of those things and is obese, sedentary, anxious, depressed, and cancer-free.

I usually end on an positive note. I really am happy about my scan results. I can go back to paying attention to other things that I find more interesting and less scary. Death still rides around on my shoulder, whispering in my ear, but at the moment we have a cease fire.

posted by Amy on Jun 8

One of the interesting new ideas I got from seminary is the concept of “liminal space.” It came up in the context of considering the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as a trauma narrative. Seen this way, the Saturday between those two pivotal events takes on new significance. One of the hallmarks of traumatic experience is it gets frozen in time. It isn’t integrated into memory in the same way as non-traumatic events. Also, quite often, the person who experiences trauma has no conscious memory of the event, but only has psychological or physiological signs of having gone through trauma. In liminal space, one feels suspended between the past and the future, in a strange state of expectancy and dread.

Some Christians heavily emphasize the events of Good Friday. Although I have not seen it and have no plans to do so, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is in that vein. The “restitutionary atonement” theory of salvation holds that Jesus had to suffer and die because there was no other way to pay the price for the iniquity of humankind and redeem all of creation. Many Christians emphasize the resurrection. Death didn’t have the last word. What looked like defeat became a victory. Good triumphed over evil. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the general resurrection when God will make all things new. But there is not a whole lot of scholarship on the second day of the “triduum,” as it’s called.

I do not have a tradition for observing Holy Saturday, the liminal space between the crucifixion and the resurrection, except maybe for finishing shopping for new Easter clothes or dyeing eggs. I don’t recall pastors suggesting devotions or observances for the day. That may have a lot to do with the lack of information on what the followers of Jesus were doing then. It was the Sabbath. Presumably they were praying for their dead leader. They were also undoubtedly terrified. He had been executed. They might very well be next. The crucifixion would have been extremely painful to witness. Their world had come crashing down. Their friend and teacher was tortured and killed in a humiliating and horrific way. It can readily be argued that the reason there are no accounts of the events of that day is no one remembered it.

Real life involves many of these transitions and liminal spaces. That is especially true for residents of Cancerland. About every three months I get a scan. Then a few days later I go see my oncologist and find out what it shows. I had a scan last Thursday, and I’ll see her tomorrow morning to talk about it. I’ve kept worry at bay pretty well this weekend, but now it’s only a few more hours until I find out. I can tell myself it’s just information, it is what it is, but there’s still some sense of cramming for a test. What can I do to be ready? Nothing.

I already know I have metastatic cancer. Compared to the day in May, 2011 when I found that out, this should be a piece of cake. My cancer is either better, worse, or stable. If it’s better or stable, I’ll stay on my current treatment. If it’s worse, we’ll talk about how much worse, and what, if any, changes we will make. I’ve already beaten the odds. Median survival after a diagnosis of metastatic breast cancer is around 23 months. I’ve been at this about 37 months, and I’m doing well. However, with so few exceptions they don’t really count, everyone with this diagnosis is on treatment for the rest of his or her life, and will die from it. So even if I’m “better” it won’t mean that anything much will change. My life will always be organized around treatments and scans until I either die from something else or every available treatment has stopped working. “Beating the odds” doesn’t mean I can count on having a normal lifespan. Every time I’m waiting for scan results that all comes back to me, along with the pain, worry, fear, and trauma of the first diagnosis and the staging.

There’s another sense in which I’m living on a threshold. After six years of deliberately not thinking about life after school, I have put some plans in place. In two weeks I will be commissioned as a Provisional Elder in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. (That’s still subject to a final confirmatory vote, but as I understand it, the approval hurdle I cleared last March should suffice). I expect to be “appointed” to school from July 1 through next June 30. That should give me enough time to clear all the remaining hurdles to becoming “ABD” (all but dissertation) in my academic life. Then I plan to return to Denver, get a part-time appointment to a church as its pastor, and get to work writing my dissertation.

When I was in Philadelphia I often felt lonely and isolated, especially after I decided to transfer to another school. It seemed futile to make friends or socialize; I’d be leaving soon. My pastor/mentor convinced me I needed community and human connections regardless of how long I was going to stay. I made some very good friends in Philadelphia, and it feels like a second home town. Now I have cancer perched on my shoulder, and someday I’ll find out that the end is near for me. That’s not likely to happen in the next year, but in any event I’ll be leaving Boston anyway. This “grow where you’re planted” stuff sounds good on paper, but it’s hard to do. Since I am entering ministry in a denomination with a tradition of itinerancy, which means the pastors go wherever the bishop tells them to go, I need to get better at it.

Edited 6/23/14 to correct a spelling error.

 

 

 

 

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