Endless variety and boundless mysteries are beautiful when you are facing a seashore or sunrise; not so much when you are looking at cancer. And yet, as a mutation of the cells in our bodies and their process, cancer presents itself to us in an endless variety of ways, and there is always another mystery to solve in the attempt to heal.
For those facing the disease, and those who love them, cancer is a hard and exacting teacher, often cruel in showing us who we are, what we believe, and how we love. In a summer working on the oncology unit, and a fall working in this hospital’s Cancer Center, I’ve seen a range of responses to cancer and its treatment. Some people look deeply into the mirror cancer holds up to their lives; others can’t bear to look. Some people consciously reject the “Why me?” question, instead shrugging “Why not me?” (Although I have to say, the “Why not me?” people are always those with cancer; no one has ever managed that degree of equanimity on behalf of someone they love who is suffering.) Some people find their grasp on a good God slipping; others insist God is testing or teaching or — at the very least — working out God’s plan.
Of course, the cruel and exacting teacher has had lessons for me as well, in the departments of who I am, what I believe, and how I love. Who I am is helpless and powerless to control or fix what is happening in the lives of the people I sit with; I am in the very root of the word compassion, that word that means “suffering with.” In my own very small way, I am doing what God did in the incarnation: choosing to enter into humanity’s limitations and suffering as a way of showing love. And so that’s who I am: someone trying to show love.
What I believe often is at odds with those I sit with. Many of them have been taught to believe in the God of Deuteronomy: choose and do the right thing and God will bless you. When the world gets in the way of this excellent plan, and shitty things happen to us even though we are choosing and doing the right, we have two choices: we can find another way to understand God and our lives with God, or we can double-down and defend our beliefs at all costs, even if that requires us to believe in a God who would let us get cancer to teach us an Important Life Lesson.
I’m sorry. No life lesson is important enough that it takes cancer to teach it. I can’t believe in that God. And I can’t kick that belief out of the hands of someone who needs it, either. So, I work with what the patient has, and maybe set another idea or two alongside their belief system, to give them a little something else to lean into if the Important Life Lesson approach wears thin. Maybe what I believe is too thin, too … but here it is. When I believe in God the Creator, I believe in a God who created a world that would participate in its own on-going creation and re-creation, able to grow and innovate and change infinitely, as day follows night and season follows season and eon follows eon. That ongoing transmutation — and the hands-off freedom it requires — means that sometimes things go awry. Maple trees develop burls, rivers develop meanders, and people develop cancer. The “why” of that is equal parts cause-and-effect and randomness and mystery.
The miracle is that there is a Holy Spirit in the midst of that creative and destructive process that sees it all, regards it with tenderness, and holds both pain and possibility with infinite love and hope. That Spirit of Love walked among us in human flesh of its own, once, and beats in human hearts now and always. This Love will never leave us nor forsake us. It wraps all around us, all the time. We need only reach out for it to know it is there.
Midnight wakings have become common for me, and last night as I was laying awake, this phrase popped into my head: “Cancer puts God on the cross.”
Odd. What does that mean? I think one thing it means to me is that when cancer tears up our bodies, hearts, minds, families, that it tears God up, too. When cancer nails us to our pain and fear and anger, those nails go all the way down … to the place where God is holding on with us.
And so, finally, this is how cancer is teaching me to love: to know that I live and move and have my being in the midst of this Love, to know that I can offer it to each one I meet, to know that I am sustained by it even when I can’t feel it or believe in it.
It is in returning to reliance on this Love that I can find some peace, in my heart and in my offering of myself to the world, even when I am in the midst of places and peoples that are not themselves at peace.
In sitting with the texts of the week, Paul the Imprisoned was writing his prayers to his friends at Philippi … let me paraphrase, and send these words forward to you, from my place of feeling both boxed-in and free, at peace in the midst of no-peace, in love in the midst of aloneness … perhaps to some of the same places in your life.
I thank my God every time I remember you,
constantly praying with joy
in every one of my prayers for all of you,
because you have been the good news for me
from the first day until now.
I am confident that the one
who began a good work among us
will walk with us until and through the end.
It is right for me to think this way about all of you,
because you hold me in your heart,
for all of you share in God’s grace with me,
both in our boxed-in times
and in our wide-open free times.
For God is my witness,
how I long for all of you
with the compassion of God’s own heart.
And this is my prayer,
that your love may overflow more and more
with knowledge and full insight
to help you to determine what is best,
so that each day will produce the harvest
of wrongs righted and
illnesses healed and
lost things found
for the glory and praise of God.