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.
Before we move into the season of holiday celebrations, I’d like to say a few words in praise of lament. Lament—the expression of sadness, grief, mourning—is an underrated practice in contemporary life. In their book about lament called Rachel’s Cry, religion scholars Daniel Migliore and Kathleen Billman suggest that we’re reluctant as a society to publically grieve our failures, limitations, and losses. The title of their book comes from the biblical book of Jeremiah (31.15) where the prophet talks about Rachel’s inconsolable weeping for her lost children. In Jewish tradition, Rachel’s grief is revered and respected, while in Christianity her cry receives scant attention. Perhaps it’s because the Christian story ends with resolution—there’s a resurrection!—that Christians and many in the dominant culture do not give the practice of lament its due.
In the past several years, I’ve gained a healthy respect for lament. Dealing with cancer or other tough issues in life leads to lament, to a posture of sadness and sorrow. But that’s a hard sell in America much of the time, land of political slogans like, “Happy days are here again!” and “It’s morning in America.” Writer Barbara Ehrenreich’s most recent book, Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, begins with a chapter about her own entrance into “Cancerland” due to a breast cancer diagnosis. When she found her way to online forums on breast cancer and expressed her lament over her condition—including frustration over the lack of funding for researching breast cancer—other users in these online communities responded with words of caution about Ehrenreich’s negative attitude, telling her they were praying for her so that she might become more positive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about saints. All Saints Day (November 1) coincided with one of my classes studying the lives of medieval female saints. These women were officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church for their heroic displays of compassion and reports of miracles they performed.
It’s also the case that this past Sunday churches around the world honored the saints who have gone before us. Remembered especially were those who died in the past year. At these worship services, bells tolled as each name was read aloud. It was a time to honor the lives of those who passed away, to remember them in death, and to hope for more for all of us who mourn their passing.
I come from a wing of Christianity that does not share in the ongoing Roman Catholic tradition of granting official saintly status to persons performing miracles or living particularly virtuous lives. Nevertheless, in remembering those who’ve gone before us, we still use the word saint.
If it is the case that all of us are children of God, then it seems that all of us are born with huge potential for sainthood. Most of us spend our days far from that ideal; yet it’s true that especially in times of great need, many of us are recipients of grace given by saints in our midst. I know that since my own cancer diagnosis, life has been full of encounters with saints.
Not many years ago, I had a dim view of the Internet’s ability to create cultures of anything productive. Living and working with others constantly connected to—and distracted by—digital tools left me skeptical that any new relational depth was being plumbed through our wired lives. I didn’t even have a cell phone until last year and was quick to judge others who ignored their children to carry on conversations in public on their phones.
Then I got sick. Really sick. In a matter of months, I went from being a healthy forty-one-year-old religion professor, wife, and mother to a virtual invalid with a broken back, a stage IV cancer diagnosis, and a grim prognosis for the future.
To keep family and friends updated during the early days following the diagnosis, my brother created a Caring Bridge site for me, a website dedicated to connecting people with serious illnesses with those who care about them. News of my diagnosis spread quickly; just as quickly loved ones, friends, and eventually even strangers signed up to receive my Caring Bridge updates. From my narration of what stage IV cancer had done to my body to sharing the grief of having to resign from my very full and wonderful life, each of my posts was met with dozens of responses on the Caring Bridge site, as well as emails, cards, packages, visits and calls from people from all corners of my life. It was startling to realize that through our connectedness via Caring Bridge I was being surrounded by a cloud of witnesses greater than any I could have previously imagined.
Welcome to Grace blog, a new forum on issues related to my new book, Hoping for More: Having Cancer, Talking Faith, and Accepting Grace, and the conversations the book has generated. Since being diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer three years ago, I’ve been learning to talk about life with cancer and how it sits alongside experiences of grace. As a religion professor, I work on talking about faith and cancer beyond the predictable—and often inadequate—claims that cancer is part of God’s plan or that the hard times make us strong. To be sure, I’m a Christian (of the Lutheran variety) and I get paid to talk about God for a living. But becoming a cancer patient (which I’m not paid to be) has pushed me to go deeper, to describe a world where God is loving and compassionate even in the midst of an ocean of pain. This is no easy task. But I keep at it, attempting to make meaning in the wake of the chaos cancer creates in our lives.
Even as the vocabulary of grace I draw upon is rooted in Christian tradition and practice, my wrestling with the whys of human suffering in light of divine love has not thus far been simply an in-house Christian discussion. My neighbors, friends, co-workers and even family members of other religions (and even no religion at all) have deepened and enhanced my experiences of grace, particularly since the diagnosis. I hope that this blog will dialogue among any and all who contemplate the grief and grace embedded in our lives.
That this blog is entitled “Grace” and not “Cancer” or “Life Sucks” is critical. What the title indicates is that even as I live with cancer, the moments I want to focus on are the ones that show me life is bigger than any diagnosis, larger than the uncertainties that accompany a life-threatening illness, and inclusive of more than what cancer or other awful circumstances can ultimately steal from any of us. It’s simply the case that even when life is heavy with grief, it also often reflects glimpses of grace. And those glimpses are worth talking about.
So in the coming weeks and months, this blog will include excerpts from my memoir, Hoping for More, as well entries that go beyond the book to other sightings of grace not just in my life but also in the lives of others as well as in the wider world we inhabit together.