Welcome. This blog offers reflections on the gifts that grace our lives, even in the midst of stage IV cancer diagnoses or other lousy circumstances that come our way. Thank you for visiting.
This post is the sermon I preached this past Sunday at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, where a classmate of mine from Vanderbilt, the Rev. Dr. Buran Phillips, is pastor. After the second service, Buran and a lovely 13 year old assisting minister draped a prayer shawl made by the knitters in the church and then prayed over me for the benediction. As church members told me after the service, all of us were changed by our time together on this beautiful November day.”
“Encourage Each Other with These Words”
Sermon on 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18
Westminster Presbyterian Church
9 November 2014
Last month the Nicholas Cage movie version of Left Behind was released into theaters and panned by the critics. But many of us likely remember the incredible hype around the Left Behind series over a decade ago, and you, like me, may see some resonance between the language of the Thessalonians passage—“Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds . . . to meet the Lord in the air”–and images of rapture from the Left Behind series. The opening scene from the book—and the film—involves the righteous disappearing from their seats on an airline flight, leaving behind the unrighteous, and their clothing folded neatly on their seats.
Many of the people in the faith communities I hang out with are wary of end-time stories like these. In fact, most Christians I know distance themselves from visions of the rapture like those promoted by Left Behind. “We’re not those kinds of Christians,” I often hear. “You know, the kind that forward emails about the end of the world.”
One of the last times I visited my Grandmother at the Care Center where she lived, staff members wheeled her hall-mate out on a gurney.
“We all come here to die,” my Grandmother said matter-of-factly after her sheet-covered neighbor passed from view.
She was right: residents in her wing of the Care Center weren’t waiting to get better or younger or to move somewhere else. This building was their last stop in this life. She and her neighbors had come there to die.
Words failed me at that moment, as they often do when we come face-to-face with the limits of our existence. I held her hand as her words about death lingered in the space between us. The conversation gradually picked up again and we talked about goings on of various members of our extended family. Invariably Grandma’s information was more up-to-date than mine on cousins and great aunts and family friends. Even as the world she inhabited narrowed, her sharp mind and wit enabled strong connections to a much wider world beyond her tiny room. It was true that she longed for death. But even as the end drew very near, Grandma died like she was living.
In December my Grandmother passed away, a month shy of her ninety-fifth birthday. On her birthday weekend in January, her entire family—joined by many friends—gathered to celebrate her life. At the memorial service, the eldest of the nineteen great grandchildren, Linnea Peterson, who I’m also proud to claim as my daughter, offered a tribute to her Great Grandmother. This is what she said:
As the oldest of the great-grandchildren, I felt called to give a tribute to Great-Grandma Swanee from a great-grandchild’s perspective. I’m going to structure what I say around a hymn that I’ve learned and come to love at Tverberg reunions, one that I think Great-Grandma particularly embodied. It’s called Borning Cry. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s is a hymn about a life lived in God’s word and promise, from the perspective of an onlooker. The onlooker is God, but it took me several years of singing the hymn to realize that. Before I figured that out, I often imagined the onlooker as a parent, a grandparent, some sort of older relative. With Great-Grandma’s deep investment in all of our lives of faith, she fit the image I had of this onlooker. Let me show you how.
The hymn begins,
I was there to hear your borning cry
I’ll be there when you are old.
I rejoiced the day you were baptized
To see your life unfold.
I have stage IV breast cancer and I blog about it. But I’m not the only one—with the disease or with a blog. Lisa Adams, metastatic breast cancer patient and blogger with a national profile, recently became a touchstone for national debate about the use of social media in publicly chronicling a serious illness. In early January, two journalists, one at the New York Times and one at the Guardian, wrote pieces critical of some of Adams’ treatment choices as well as the way she lets readers into her life with cancer via blogs and tweets. Outrage over Bill and Emma Kellers’ pieces (who happen to be married) was swift and fierce, not just for the critical questions they raise about Adams’ choices but for inaccuracies in important details (like getting the number of Adams’ children wrong, or how long she’d been living with metastatic breast cancer) and in including quotes from private correspondence with Adams without permission, prompting the newspapers’ opinion editors to publish pieces alternately apologizing for and defending the journalists (if you want to read more, here’s one place to start: The Guardian website).
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Bill Keller’s “Heroic Measures” column is his not-so-subtle suggestion that Adams should consider going more quietly into that dark night rather than aggressively treating the metastasizing cancer. In weighing the alternatives, he contrasts the treatment regiment of Adams to his own father-in-law’s “unplugged” death from cancer in Britain last year. Here Keller is wading into much-larger debates about not just how the U.S. apportions its medical dollars but how and when those of us with advanced-stage cancer (and other really bad conditions) should embrace the inevitability of death. I’m keenly aware of these debates, as they often play out in my own head. When I learn “my” cancer has metastasized from the bones to the liver or the lungs, how much aggressive treatment will I opt for? How are we supposed to decide when enough’s enough?
When I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, I started preparing to die. Granted, we should all “live like we’re dying” as singer Kris Allen reminds us, but an aggressive diagnosis ups the urgency on doing just that. I went back to teaching even though I could barely stand up because I wanted to be in the classroom one last time. I stopped buying new clothes because I didn’t think I’d have much time to wear them. I insisted on a summer vacation even though my stamina was shaky because I thought that would be the last one I’d take with the family. My husband and I secured burial plots. There didn’t seem to be much time, and I was intentional in my preparations for the end.
Then I went into remission. Having already resigned from my life, I gradually let myself believe that there could be another semester in the classroom, that if I bought new clothes I’d have some time to wear them, that I might get to experience another family vacation. What an amazing turn of events. Thank God, thank the doctors, thank the world for allowing me more time.
Last summer, when Amma was diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer, my elder daughter wrote this tribute:
First there were butterfly crackers and squares of cheese at the kitchen table. Amma spoke Tamil and I didn’t understand, but I knew she got out the crackers and that she cut the squares of cheddar for me. I liked adults who did this. I was four, and I liked Amma.
Next there were nightgowns at Christmas – beautiful and lacy – fresh off Amma’s sewing machine. “Thank you,” I said when my parents nudged me, and I hugged her, feeling her stiff, silky sari under my little hands. It was so unlike what my mother and aunts wore, but it felt right on her, because she was Amma.
Later, there were dresses and stockings, sewn and knitted, even as I started to notice Amma’s bony brown hands and wondered, Should they still be sewing?
I’ve never been a fan of February. In February in Minnesota, winter shows no signs of letting up. The few years I lived in Nashville I was shocked when spring started to stir in February. In Minnesota in February, spring is still years away.
On top of the arctic weather, February ushers in the Christian season of Lent, which as a theologian I strongly approve of. Theoretically. It’s important to pare down, do without, take stock of our sin, and reflect on the suffering of Jesus. But practically speaking, it’s the downer season of the church year. o when Lent comes in the middle of a Minnesota February, I dream of practicing another faith in another state.
The first February after I was diagnosed with stage IV cancer, Ash Wednesday arrived and I couldn’t muster up the courage to go to church. The thought of one of our pastors making the sign of the cross on my forehead and saying, “You are dust and to dust you shall return,” was more than I could handle. Two of my vertebrae had already turned to ashes and I feared the rest of me wasn’t far behind. I needed no additional reminder that death was near.
That February—a good two months after getting the diagnosis—was also the time when the seriousness of my condition began to sink in. It was in February I realized that eighty percent of people who have this type of cancer are dead in five years. It was in February when I entered the classroom again and learned I was too weak to stand up and teach at the same time. It was in February that the cancer-winter-Lent triple threat became almost more than I could bear.
In my last blog post on “Rejoicing While Others Mourn,” I reflected on the rejoicing we did as a family at the end of 2012, knowing that at the same time, there was much mourning by families in so many other places in the world. Shortly after I wrote those words, a time to mourn was thrust into our midst with the sudden death of our 20-year-old neighbor as she finished up her semester of studying abroad in South America.
As I spent much of the week at the Kaplan’s, helping plan a service that we hoped would be a fitting tribute to Tamar’s too-short life, the impossibility of such a task was an ever-present reality. How could a 90-minute service possibly capture the essence of Tamar? Of course, the question itself was an excruciating one—one that should not have to be asked by parents and siblings of a bright-eyed young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Yet there we were, compiling pictures, stories, readings, and music, all in an attempt to capture the rich life she lived.
This holiday season our nation experienced a jarring juxtaposition I’ve become
more attuned to since living with cancer: the occasion when heartbreak collides
with celebration. The mid-December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School
injected shock and grief into a time when tidings of great joy are supposed to rule
the day. How does one rejoice in the midst of others’ anguish?
I admit that more than once during our family celebrations of the past few weeks,
my thoughts gravitated to the stark contrast between my family’s days of laughter
and joy and the families in Newtown crying their way through the holidays, knowing
that their precious little ones would never see another holiday, another new year,
another day of school. There were moments where it felt almost dishonorable to be
rejoicing, knowing so many others—both in Newtown and beyond—were buried in
As I approach the fourth anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, I’m caught between conflicting emotions. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful to still be around. Reaching cancerversary #4 is a milestone. Definitely cause for celebration. But with the cancer reactivated and recent moves to new medication and more time in the chemo room, the celebratory urge has become more muted.
Since my diagnosis, I’ve struggled with how to have cancer and how to talk about it. Heading toward the cancerversary, I also struggle with how to mark the anniversary of cancer’s entrance into my life. On the first cancerversary, a dear friend who lost his wife to the cancer I have brought over champagne. We toasted the fact that I was living with cancer, that the medication had put me into remission, that our lives were beginning to resemble our lives before cancer.