Archive for April, 2015

posted by Amy on Apr 12

I belong to a support group for women with advanced cancer that meets every other Monday at the hospital where I’m treated. The group is facilitated by a wise, witty, funny, caring woman named Hester Hill. Hester’s office is in the same suite as the hematology/oncology suite, so it’s convenient for patients, but anyone can come to the sessions whether they get their treatment there or not. There is no charge for attending the group.

Cancer is clever. It begins with mutations and it keeps on mutating. Once they metastasize, most cancers eventually outsmart all available treatments. For some cancers there can be a fairly long interval between diagnosis and the day the cancer ultimately has the last word in the story. I know a few people with stage 4 breast cancer who are still alive ten or more years after they were diagnosed. But people with lung cancer usually only last a year or two with treatment.

Obviously, the one thing a group of advanced cancer patients has in common is we’re all going to die from our disease. Two of our members who had lung cancer both died recently. One was Jewish, and died the morning of the first day of Passover. One was Christian and died in her husband’s arms on Easter. Neither of them had been coming to group recently, but once a member always a member. These losses were not unexpected, but they are still indescribably painful. Why would I, or anyone facing her own grim cancer diagnosis, willingly make friends with other people who are going to die? Doesn’t that just make living with cancer all the more difficult?

It’s difficult anyway. It would be worse if I tried to do it alone. I have gotten support, encouragement, sympathy, useful information, and joy (yes, joy!) from the group. I have also been able to love and serve others. I have gone from being a scared, stunned newcomer to being one of the role models. A few years ago several of us wrote entries for a “book of writings” that was published in connection with an annual event. Writing my own essays, and reading what others wrote, were profoundly moving and illuminating. Especially in our culture, which seems to be based on avoiding death at all costs, it’s healing to find companions who are willing to help each other face the truth and keep dancing with it. It really is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved. It’s better to realize that not only is there no time like the present, there really is no time BUT the present. Here, now, I’m alive. I can think, feel, pray, learn, knit, read, and write. The things I create–what I write and what I craft–are my legacy.

Hester writes a daily(!) blog. Last Monday she wrote about our latest losses, and about our group. She says, in part, “I feel especially tender about my relationships with women who attend my group for women with advanced cancer. It is remarkable to watch them care for each other and teach how to live in the looming presence of death.” Her post about losing these two women is wise, wonderful and illuminating. You can read it here.

Last night I watched the third episode of The Emperor of All Maladies on PBS. It’s called “Finding the Achilles Heel.” It deals with ongoing advances in treating cancer, but it also shows a remarkable young oncologist talking to two of her patients about death. One is an older man who seems quite ill and frail. She gently suggests they stop treatment and try to get him well enough to go home, and then decide if he wants to try more chemotherapy. Another is a woman who has just been diagnosed with lung cancer. Rather than mislead her, the doctor gives it to her straight. Lung cancer is treatable but not curable. Treatment will buy her time, but not a whole lot. The patient is sad and shocked, but she says she’s grateful for the information. This way she can figure out her priorities for the time she has left, and live as well as possible under the circumstances.

 

posted by Amy on Apr 9

I had “departed from myself”(a phrase from the story of the Prodigal Son) so early in childhood that I was unaware of how inauthentic my life was. My family of origin lived in a story of life, love and God that left me in a constant state of anxiety and fear. I had no foundation, no anchor, except my own self-reliance and self-will. I did not trust anyone because I didn’t know anyone trustworthy. To me, love meant pain, suffering, punishment and abandonment. “God is love” was not a very comforting idea in that context. Neither was the idea of God as a parent.

But I changed. At any given moment the life I have, and my character, are the result of my past and present practices. By practices I mean embodied actions including speech, and by speech I also mean self-talk. I change every day. The stories I tell myself about my life, about my intentions and purposes, and about God, shape the way I receive and integrate each new experience as it occurs. The people I hang out with, and the ways I interact with them, also change me from day to day. My practices form me spiritually, for good or ill. Slowly, over many years, I began living in a different story. Returning to church in 1985 after a 15 year hiatus was a major reason that I changed.

At its best, and when it is most faithful to the Gospel, Christianity lives in a counter-cultural story which is passed on through its practices. The Gospel replaces idolatry with holiness, competition and enmity with love, self-centeredness with adoration of and submission to God, and tribal identity with an expansive view of all humanity and all creation as being under the dominion of Christ as the Lord of all.  This happens primarily through ritual. People go to church and say things, do things, hear things, and think things that make them part of a story of love and grace as members of God’s family. Participants in worship and Christian education experience falling short or missing the mark, confessing, being forgiven, remembering they belong to God, and going out to practice love of God and neighbor.

The life I have now is the life I have designed for myself and have spoken into existence in concert with the people around me. If I want a better life—more joy, peace, beauty, patience, kindness, forgiveness, love, and light, then I have to do physical things that will prepare me to receive God’s sanctifying grace. If I am not experiencing the abundant life that Jesus promised, if I do not see the fruits of the Spirit in my character, and if I want those things, then I have to change what I do. God gives the growth, but I must do my part. I think that’s what Jesus meant by telling us to seek the kingdom of God first, and by saying we have to give up our life to find it. The interesting thing is how it works. It is not necessary to think it all through first. It is not even necessary to believe or understand. All you have to do is show up and pay attention. All you have to do is act as if it might be true. Ron Sider tells of taking an atheist on a mission trip. He agreed to let the young man go, on condition that he participate in all the activities, including prayer and worship. By the end of the trip, the atheist believed in God.

As I kept showing up, going through the motions, and paying attention, it began to sink in that I am God’s precious, unique daughter, that my body is a temple, and that God has a purpose for me. How would God’s precious daughter conduct herself? How would she expect other sons and daughters of God to treat her? How would she speak? I began paying attention to God outside of church. I would pray to God to make me a better mother, lawyer, and wife. When problems arose I would remember that a Love/Intelligence far greater than I can completely grasp was there to help me. Sometimes I would just sit and wait for a good idea. More and more, I felt befriended.

Just making the effort to get up, get ready and show up at church every Sunday morning is an enormously significant and important practice. When I first began taking my kids to church in the mid-80s I started out deciding every week if we would go or not. It soon became apparent that it would be easier on all of us if I just made it a habit, like going to work every Monday through Friday. Occasionally we would do something else on a Sunday morning. I noticed that the weeks I didn’t go to church on Sunday just didn’t go as well. Putting God first one day a week somehow changed everything else. Maybe I’d be more patient or kind. Maybe I’d be more sensitive to injustice. Maybe I’d just be more calm. This new way of living was like a plant that needed to be watered every week.

Sometimes it was the sermon. A good sermon makes you think. It sticks with you all week and asks you questions. You examine your assumptions. You hear something that burrows in and keeps nagging. Sometimes it nags in a good way, for example, if I hear that “There is no fear in love,” then I might figure out that somebody trying to control me with threats may not really be acting out of love. Often it was the music. I am especially attuned to music. I usually have a song running through my head. When I added the practice of showing up for choir I added the dimension of the discipline of studying music and of striving for excellence. We worked hard and did the very best we could to transmit the composer’s intention because we understood ourselves to be worship leaders. The choir’s motto was the same as Bach’s, soli Deo gloria¸ to God alone the glory. I once had the privilege of taking a group lesson from a renowned choir director. He said, “Nobody worships during a bad anthem.” I would add that some people only worship during the anthem. The choir is especially mindful of those people.

Components of the practice of showing up:

Keep doing it

Pay attention

Take yourself seriously

Take other people seriously

Understand that a relationship requires time on task and physical presence.

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