Sleep to Die For

Consistent, restorative sleep has eluded me for over 20 years.  Therefore, an image so often talked about in the New Testament – falling asleep in Christ – has come as an unexpected comfort.

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.”

Victor Hugo

“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all-natural graces, sleep.”

Aldous Huxley

grandma driving“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandma.

Not yelling and screaming, like the people in her car.”

Anonymous

 

I love to sleep but for the last 20 years consistent, sound sleep has remained tantalizingly out of reach. So desperate for sleep at times I have found myself looking on with envy at homeless folks asleep on benches. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I immediately discussed sleep with my oncologist.  I assumed that cancer worries along with cancer treatment would be the end of sleep for good.

Sleeplessness in any degree is one of humanity’s great annoyances. Internet searches (not good sleep hygiene to do at night) are endless in describing and suggesting ways to recover our bodies’ routine and therapeutic need for the sandman’s nightly visits. Why he refuses to come and satisfy some of us is anybody’s guess. But for sure we cannot do well emotionally or physically without sleep.  Twenty years of insomnia has left me wanting to strangle the sandman.  Going for stretches without sustaining sleep has at times been as emotionally painful as my struggle with metastatic cancer.

Worrying about endings

A few people with metastatic cancer might not entertain thoughts about how dying might go for them.  I am not one of them.  Like the confession of the late Billy Graham, I too am not afraid to die as I have confidence in Christ receiving me, but I do worry sometimes about how I may die. I am like most people who would vote to die unsuspectingly at an incredibly old age at the end of a productive, meaningful life while SLEEPING!

To Fall Asleep in Christ

I recently landed on a book, Dying Well, by John Wyatt.  The author, a British medical consultant and devout Christian, has witnessed many people in the last stage of their lives and offers insightful, encouraging, and very practical suggestions for believers facing death from illness or old age. This book is for anybody who is eventually going to die. Yes, we all should push the pause button of our busy lives to think how we would like our endings to go before the end is close.

Wyatt’s chapter describing what it means to “fall to sleep in Christ” was particularly comforting.  To “fall asleep in Christ” is the term used in the epistles for the believers’ death.  Jesus in the gospels and the apostle Paul in his letters describe the death of a believer as residing in a state of sleep awaiting their new eternal life. The early Christians understood something about this image of death. It is one of the reasons they had the courage and hope to withstand all manners of persecution and death.  At death, the believer is, as in sleep, unconscious and unresponsive but none the less a person fully alive, being held safely by the love and power of Christ.

I have known the biblical expression for believers’ death for decades but never has the term meant so much to me as it does now; nor has it provided such hope and reassurance as it does now.  Falling asleep in Christ to be woken up to the most glorious reality of all is my great hope and desire.   I love sleep, I long for it and when I awake having had a good night of sleeping, I am exhilarated.  So now as the pesky death and dying thoughts resurface so does the gentleness of the sleep metaphor. Is this pie in the sky thinking to make the reality of dying easier to swallow?  No and yes!   No, it is not the pie in the sky.  The truths of scripture and God’s love for me did not originate with me and will not end with me.  And yes, life after death has been the great Christian hope for people from all over the world for centuries.  As Paul said, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ we of all people are to be most pitied.”   (I Cor 15:19) According to John Wyatt, we can deduct from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 that “Jesus experienced the full reality of death so that we might fall asleep,” never having to know abandonment from God’s loving presence. Hallelujah!  My imagination has taken a turn from the dreaded to the blessed! Falling asleep in Christ means resting in peace to be woken up by the lover of our souls at the culmination of history.

“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.”

Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis

DEATH VERSES TO FALL ASLEEP BY:

MATTHEW 9:24

JOHN 11:11

ACTS 7:59-60

JOHN 11:25-26

I THESSALONIANS 4:13-14

ISAIAH 26:19

PSALM 17:15

PSALM 16:9-11

PSALM 139:17-18

REVELATION 22: 3-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why do I feel ashamed?

“If you have your health you have everything.”

I have heard this refrain many times in my life, especially from Italian American relatives. Maybe it is an Italian American sentiment, but I suspect many people feel this way. How else can we explain a culture that is consumed with living better, longer, and more independently. Is not living with vim and vigor a prized and admired achievement? Are not many of us willing to put commitment, time and money into achieving our health goals through exercise, better nutritional choices, active recreational activities (baking, bowling and backgammon not qualifying), as well as keeping up with all recommended preventive health measures?

Good health is no doubt a great blessing, but it is also become a badge of honor to proudly display. “God bless you” is an expression that I find myself using when I meet old people who want to brag on their longevity and good health. This is odd. It makes more sense to pronounce God’s blessing on folks who sneeze. They might need a blessing to ward off sickness. Longevity with vibrant healthy living is certainly a gift from God but it is not a reward!

So how does this relate to cancer and shame?

Many cancer patients and those suffering from chronic illness struggle with a sense of stigma, guilt, or shame. Why should this be? Since diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer in 2014 and now dealing with metastatic cancer since December 2018, I had come to understand this feeling.

Two weeks ago I did not get a good scan report. I had been feeling relatively good, not vim-and-vigor good, but good enough to be positive as I waited for the report’s findings. My husband and I were therefore blindsided by the news (some liver tumor progression). The FNP was kindly trying to comfort me before the oncologist came in to discuss a new treatment option but I just wanted her to leave so I could comfort David, knowing he was distressed by the news.

“David I’m so sorry for you,” was, oddly, the first thing I said to him.

He kindly responded, “You shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I feel so badly for you.”

What was my apology about? After some self-examination I realized that I irrationally believed I had let him down and was the cause of his angst and worry. I also was reluctant to tell friends who were praying for me. Again, I felt like I was letting others down; that somehow, I did this to myself or that I was defected and not able to do my part in this battle against cancer. But worst of all I was dealing with the erroneous belief that God did not want to bless me in a way we were all hoping for because I was somehow unfit. I felt ashamed.

With the media applauding the strong and energetic

Shame and Shaming

Shame, according to Webster, is a ‘painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety.’ It is an intensely difficult emotion. ‘Shaming’ is also a noun and is the act of subjecting someone to shame. And there is plenty of shaming in children’s and adults’ lives. Shaming arises from what we esteem in our culture: media-good looks, fit bodies, youth, material acquisitions, achievements, and correct opinions.

Yes, shaming is ubiquitous in parenting, marriages, health visits, social media, teaching, and among kids on playgrounds, middle and high schools.

In his early twenties, my husband taught science in a junior high school in North Carolina. Junior high is ground zero for shaming. No one is exempt. David humorously recalls one day when a student became upset with him.

“You are nothing but a big-nosed, baby teacher!” she shouted, storming out of his classroom.

That evening, David looked in a mirror, carefully examining his face.

“Darn, she is right! I do have a big nose.”

Dave and Dona debutant 1977 edited
Me with ‘big-nose, baby teacher’ in 1977. Story and photo used with complete permission from my husband.  Yikes! On closer inspection, my nose could use a tweak (vanity, vanity!)

David is forever grateful this shaming occurred when he was 22 and not 12; allowing him enough maturity to process the revelation (kinda). But he admits that from that fateful day he has been forever conscious of his proboscis.

Personally, I like his nose. I was a bit bothered by the label, ‘baby-teacher.’ What was that about?

Getting back to cancer

I know that cancers start because of a mistake in copying DNA when normal cells are dividing and growing. Mainly, these mistakes just happen by chance. I remind myself of this over and over. And yet, doubt creeps in.

We have heard it said and perhaps said it ourselves, “He was diagnosed with cancer, but he was a smoker. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, but she was not doing breast exams on herself (that was me), or she ate a ton of junk food.”  I could go on with the ‘buts’ and ‘victim shaming’.  Fear and shame are intermingled with cancer.  Without necessarily meaning to, we feel subtly critical of those stricken with cancer and comfort ourselves against the fear of cancer by looking at our wellness as doing it right.  Then a cell mutates during replication and somehow finds a way to continue to replicate……..and we feel the sting of shame.

The shaming of Christ

“If you have your health you have everything” is shortsighted. We can have our health, live wonderfully well until 105 and not have everything. Everything includes the eternity we are destined for. 105 or 1005 years old is paltry in comparison. Our bodies and/or minds will someday fail us so now is the time to take stock of the purpose of human life as God-imagers, drawing our self esteem and  identity from being beloved children of God.   And most of all we are to take comfort and relief from trusting in the Christ who not only died for sins but also for our shame regardless of what cancer or culture tells us or what we tell ourselves because of shame from things we have done.

In fact, Jesus endured shaming himself.

Hebrews 12:2

We fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

To quote John Piper:

“Shame was stripping away every earthly support that Jesus had: his friends gave way in shaming abandonment; his reputation gave way in shaming mockery; his decency gave way in shaming nakedness; his comfort gave way in shaming torture. His glorious dignity gave way to the utterly undignified, degrading reflexes of grunting and groaning and screeching.”

And so, I work to move on, praying Psalm 25:1-3b:

In you, LORD my God, I put my trust. I trust in you; do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies (my self-image, the stigma of cancer, American perfectionism, Satan the accuser, or any worldly thing!) triumph over me. No one who hopes in you will ever be put to shame.

Cancer, COVID-19 and the fear of God

It has taken me decades to learn the meaning of  “fear God or fear everything else.”  Here is my story.

In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, the majority of Americans finally turned against the Vietnam War, Disney World opened in Orlando, James Taylor and Janis Joplin were at the top of the charts, and I was looking for peace of mind.

At the spontaneous invite of a college acquaintance I joined a bible study. After listening and reading for several weeks, I began to believe, or so I thought, I was finally exposed to the “real Gospel.” I was told Jesus wanted to be my buddy and cheerleader; a celestial presence that would give me peace and lead me on paths of success and happiness!

Fearing the Lord, a common refrain in the scriptures, was tamed by well-meaning Christian encouragers. No need to fear God, just trust that Jesus died for my sins and then enjoy an “all good, cleared for heaven status.” Discipleship, as in learning how to live like Jesus, sounded nice but it also sounded optional and too radical. I thought I was okay with that, but guilty and confusing feelings persisted as I tried to walk the fence between my youth culture and the Christian life. Little did I realize that “fear of the Lord” was wedded to love and comfort from God. I was trying on the new clothes of a Christian commitment and not finding them very comfortable and certainly not stylish. It was grueling. Anxiety and insecurity abounded but I stubbornly persisted towards this dead end; always hoping I would get a thumbs up from Jesus for labeling myself as a Christian. Jesus would understand a young woman just wanting to be, well, cool and culturally relevant while still loving Him or so I wanted to believe. I suspected that I was eventually going to give up this fling; the cognitive dissonance was driving me nuts. My secular friends were also waiting for the penny to drop and figured it would be just a matter of time before I was brought back to my secular senses.

Slide2Before writing further, let me be clear. I had no question that I was accepted by God. I had peace with God through Christ’s sacrifice, not through any action or behavior on my part. But I did not have peace of mind.

Living a double life was becoming too stressful. I finally cried uncle. I embarked on a good old-fashioned biblical activity. I began to REPENT of my double mindedness in order to learn how to live the way Jesus wanted me to.

First, I realized that I had to circle back around to the fear of God. It wasn’t easy. I circled with trepidation; the skittish movements of a timid animal trying to get close to a compelling fierce presence that was simultaneously good and terrifying. For much of my youth fear was the compass that directed my ways and thoughts. It had worked until it didn’t!

Dale Bruner, commenting on one of the most ominous but, paradoxically, comforting sayings of Jesus (Matthew 10:26-31), concluded, “And blessedly, the one who fears God is liberated from fear of people – no little liberation…..Fear God or fear everything!” 1

Again, clear explanations are needed. We are not to be scared of God. Fear of God is not the fear a servant has for a harsh master. It is more akin to the love, reverence, awe, and, yes, fear a child might have for a loving, wise parent who has expectations of the child for her own good. Like the loving parent, nothing can separate us from his love. He will never leave or forsake us. (Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5)

As I approached the center of that terrifyingAs it turned out, as I approached the center of that terrifying, fearful, holy presence that I began to experience a beautiful, flourishing life. I experienced a power to not just want to be good but a liberation that made it possible for goodness, wisdom, love and community to begin to be part of my nature without the white knuckling attempts to be good. My deepest needs were finding the source and power to become a learner of Christ and I was being renewed and refreshed; not overnight but the trajectory was set. I had purpose and purpose that finally brought the peace.

Here I am, 47 years later with metastatic breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and a lung inflammation (side effect of cancer drug). As it turns out, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I never been more grateful for embracing the fear of God. There is an ultimate authority who reminds me of who is in charge and why and for whom I exist.

What is the Fear of God?
Psalm 34 is helpful here.

Seeking the Lord,
Embracing that God is in charge, not me or any other person, institution, or government,
Recognizing that he is the center of the universe, not me,
• Gladly accepting that He is the boss of my life, not me, and finally,
Operating as a mortal destined for immortality because of the will of the one “who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Many of you will have your own descriptors for a healthy fear of the Lord. The bottom line is that the ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a good and needful truth that grounds and encourages us in this chaotic world.

 

1. Bruner, F.D. 2004. Matthew, A Commentary, Vol 1: The Christbook. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 483 pp.

Stories that have nothing to do with cancer

Cancer metastasis tempts me to see all of life and relationships pivoting around the cancer diagnosis. If I’m not careful cancer becomes the only lens from which life is observed. It’s clearly understandable. Cancer demands attention. But as it turns out there is so much to life that cuts into the self-absorbed cancer life.

Story telling

I love stories; especially the real-life ones.
I love telling stories and not just stories about me and mine.
I love other people’s stories and draw awe, inspiration, humor, human pathos, delight and enjoyment from them as if they were mine.
I just don’t enjoy stories; I absolutely need them to keep me grounded and connected to people and to God.
Heroism, desperate need met by extraordinary compassion, grit and human feats of endurance, discovery, invention, sacrifice, visions, dreams, revelations and miracles are stories that I will tell if I have been privileged to know of them. I tell many, many, many stories.

A story of dear friends
india to usaAudra and Jeremy are adopting a Down syndrome 19-month-old – nicknamed Hank – who is in an orphanage in India. They have never adopted or fostered. Audra has never been in a foreign country other than Canada (that doesn’t count), but she could not be more fearless, committed and excited. Passionate love has taken hold of her. Before she was dissuaded by the adoption agency Audra was determined to foster Hank in India for 3 to 4 months until the last court hearing and all documents were in place for her to bring him home. Audra and Jeremy were undaunted by obstacles; even the challenges of leaving her other three children in the care of Jeremy, the Dad. This couple was propelled by extraordinary and extravagant love. They only knew love’s longing to take Hank out of the orphanage, care for him, and ultimately bring him home to be part of his new family and church community; each which await his arrival with joy and anticipation.

The Bad Math of Jesus

God as shepherd and us as his flock is a common motif in the Bible for describing God’s love and devotion for us.

This parable is one of my favorites for describing the extravagant love of God towards his children.

Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus said, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them Jesus_the_Shepherd004wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

So, what is the big idea in this story? The extravagant love of Christ can look foolish, indulgent, and possibly even irresponsible at times.

Phillip Yancey has called this the ‘atrocious math’ of Jesus.

The shepherd leaves the 99 on a hill, not in a sheep pen or in the care of another shepherd. No! He leaves them on a hill, vulnerable and unprotected so that he can seek after the one sheep that has wandered away.

Does the shepherd not care about the 99 because his favorite sheep, Fluffy, is the one who wandered off? Of course not. There are no favorite sheep in this story. There’s no Fluffy or Nemo or Benji because this is not a story about animals. No one sheep is the hero in this story. The only hero is the shepherd who wants his sheep, all his sheep, home with him. And he will put himself and the other obedient 99 at risk in order to go after one foolish and wayward sheep to bring her home. The extravagant, sacrificial love of God is the big story here.

Audra and Jeremy’s love for a disabled child is today’s big story for me. But this love is extravagant and some including myself had wondered whether it is too extravagant. Extravagant, sacrificial love motivated by Jesus’s spirit and example is only thing that can explain it. And Audra and Jeremy would agree. They see it as a calling given by God of which they are delighted to follow for the rest of their lives.

Be inspired but more importantly respond to the calling of God to bring you home. And when you do don’t forget to be grateful and thank Him that his heart is bigger than his numerical calculations.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

From FOMO to JOMO

What cancer has taught me about the joy of missing out (JOMO)

dog restingAs it turns out an antidote for the subject of my most recent post, FOMO (fearing of missing out), is JOMO (joy of missing out). JOMO is basically saying “no” to the push to stay busy and connected with whatever presents itself in order to say more ‘yeses’ to activities that are more in-line with our values and interests. Many are jumping on the JOMO wagon. Productivity gurus are incorporating JOMO in their training. Stressed out working moms have self-help books to achieve JOMO. CEOs are trying to find balance and enjoyment within the pressures of fierce business competition. It’s all part of a new cultural phenomenon – searching for peace and joy within a world of relentless busy-ness, competition, and high expectations.

At first blush the acronym, JOMO, seemed forced and naive to me; but then I realized that it was exactly what David, my husband, and I were attempting to do since my diagnosis of stage-4 cancer. Doubling down on the present and embracing joy is integral to the 3-part strategy my husband and I developed to cope and grow.

1. Pursue the best possible treatments for the best possible outcomes.
2. Double down on the present. Experience joy where we can find it.
3. Think deeply about eternity.

I highly recommend you read his post, For Whom the Bell Does Not Toll: Stage 4 cancer patients have another definition for victory.

And there is evidence that we are doing just that. Laughter has always been coveted in our relationship but there is now more of it as we appreciate grandson antics and their hilarious comments. There is more laughter as we look for the amusing in ourselves and others; reminding ourselves to not take ourselves too seriously. There is more laughter as we retell shared funny experiences. There is joy as we actively pursue our passion to see marginalized people treated with God-given dignity and value. There is joy as we worship in church. There is joy as we enjoy the natural beauty around our creek cabin. There is joy of family and friends. There is so much joy and delight in our lives that we’ve been blessed with. We are grateful. But ….

• This is easier to do if I’m not in pain
• This is easier to do when I have had some distance from a disappointing oncology appointment.
• This is easier to do because it is my story and not a loved one’s.

In other words, there is within the JOMO movement a limitation. There is an exclusion clause, unspoken but nonetheless imbedded in its good intentions. Stopping to smell the roses sometimes leads to being stung. Being stung too many times can lead to anaphylaxis. Smelling a rose must give way to getting help to breathe. There are life experiences that leave us limping along, breathless from the sheer pain and exhaustion of life’s journey. Sometimes I feel like that. JOMO becomes elusive at best and downright annoying at worst. And so I cry. (See: More on finding comfort from God.)

It’s here that the 3rd part of our strategy takes dominance over the “doubling down on the present.“ Thinking frequently and intentionally about eternal life with the God who loves me is fundamental to any nod of acceptance and significance that I give to JOMO.
“So Heavenly-minded that a person is no earthly good” is not born out in the course of my life nor for countless others. It’s quite the opposite: becoming more heavenly-minded has prompted the Jesus-committed to do what can be done to effect positive change in this world while at the same realizing that Christ will ultimately set all things right. And some have made great sacrifices to that end.

But what about the fear of missing out on all the beauty and companionship of this world?

flowering dogwoods texasMany years ago, my two young daughters and I were riding our bikes together in our neighborhood. The balmy gentle breeze of a Virginia springtime with its blooming azaleas and dogwoods, greening weeping willows, and scented pine and magnolia underscored the laughter of my girls. I was filled with an inexpressible Joy. I remember silently thanking God while at the same time bemoaning that it wasn’t going to be ours for long. A transfer to another location in the country was imminent.

I longed for permanence in beauty and perfection. It was then that I realized for the first time that the aroma of magnolias and the music of a child’s laughter were only clues and hints of glory – not yet fulfilled nor meant to be. He has placed “eternity in our hearts”. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) The permanent, perfect, and pure in love and beauty would my inheritance. I think I can wait. Lord, help me wait.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

16246859 - golden retriever looking over a fenceI had not heard of  the FOMO acronym until recently. When I researched the mental health issues stemming from the “fear of missing out,” I started taking seriously its painful and stressful features. Chronically ill folks like me are obvious candidates for this anxiety but hardly the only ones. Social media has perpetuated this condition, and many suffer from symptoms of depression and anxiety as the fear gives way to loneliness and feelings of exclusion.

I’m flying SOLO
A cancer diagnosis puts the breaks on life as one knows it. Initially the diagnosis brings with it a flurry of tests, appointments for treatment, explanations and protocols. There is much to do and consider. The medical environment becomes life’s new stage. Missing out on life submits to a higher calling of just trying to preserve life. But like most chronic diagnoses that have a grim prognosis eventually a routine is established. Treatments become the lay of the land, limitations are realized and conversations with friends and family become less centered on health issues. Life goes on. Everyone else’s life seems to go on. Stage 4 cancer folks as well as all those who struggle with serious chronic conditions are painfully aware of FOMO moments brought on by fatigue, breakthrough pain, hours and hours spent at the medical clinics, and medication side effects. But what is not so obvious is FOMO’s cousin – SOLO – my acronym for the Sadness of Lost Opportunities. There is much more I would like to do in this life: opportunities to help and advocate for the poor and distressed while joining with others who feel called to do the same; opportunities to continue to enjoy those whom I love; opportunities to share the truly good news of Jesus.

FOMO or SOLO rears its ugly head most often when I’m in the company of future planners which turns out to be everybody I know. Benign comments like, “next year I want a real tree not a fake one for Christmas“ (hmm… I wonder if I will be around next year) or a grandson saying, “I can’t wait to get a license when I’m 16.” (hmm… I can miss that one!) Living in the present with its conscious savoring of life’s beauty and meaningful relationships is suddenly tested. My relational bent becomes threatened. Sad thoughts break in and momentarily rob me of the joy of living in the moment.

Preparing for Death by Enjoying Life?
It’s been said that you prepare for death by enjoying the life you have. How does that work exactly when:

• Huddled, starving and freezing on the side of a mountain with other refugees in war-torn Syria?
• Having lost a young child?
• Feeling the fatigue and pain that are the signposts for a disease that will take your earthly life?

Yes, I am to live with gratitude. I list the things I’m grateful for nearly every day. No, I must not be bitter; constantly tasting the acrid bile of ‘being cheated.’ Yes, I must double down on the present. I am still useful, and I can serve others. But, enjoying this present life is not the way to prepare for death. I don’t even think it is doable. And it is not Biblical. (I Corinthians 15:32, 2 Corinthians 1:5, 4:12-18, James 4:13-14, Romans 8:22-25)

How do we prepare for death? Jesus provides the answer.

‘Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”‘ (John 11:25-26).

This life is not all there is. I’ve been made for heaven. Death will be a longed-for homecoming. Christ and the company of others who worship God will welcome me.

As I write this, I’m aware of how strange it sounds for the uninitiated and unconvinced but nonetheless it’s been trusted by millions through the ages and is currently finding its place in the hearts of many throughout the world. It’s because of this that I am brought back from FOMO. It’s because of this faith in the life to come that I don’t need to fly SOLO and can enjoy this present life’s moments.

So, I pray this prayer, a paraphrase of Paul’s encouragement to the Christians in Colossi:

“Since, then, I have been raised with you Lord Jesus, help me set my affections on things above, where you are Jesus…… Set my mind on things above, not on earthly things. And Lord Jesus, encourage me with the promise that when you, who is my entire life, appear, then I will also appear with you in glory. Amen”
(Col 3:1-2, 4)

‘Death Cafes’ and Me

Death Cafes” are springing up in cities throughout the world to address the subject of death and how-to live with death’s inevitably.

Apparently, the movement was started to give people a “safe place” to talk about death without being accused of morbidity. Billed as a philosophical inquiry on mortality, people looking for a grief support group will be disappointed. “Eat cake, drink tea and discuss death”, is the benign motto. The decor includes mugs, teacups and posters with creepy skulls, skeletons, and ravens painted on them. I admit that I’m put off by the skull mugs in the Death Cafes. death mug

But these venues and discussion groups deserve more than half a point. The vast majority of Americans live in the mythical state of immortality. ‘Mythical immortality’ (my term) is the belief that other people die, I don’t. (See, ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me’) When we do think about death it is in the context of avoiding it. Anne Patchett writes:

“The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it is exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality……Despite our best intentions, it (death) is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” 1


Death cafes, though they deal with an inevitability ignored by most, do not capture rightly the travesty of death or the Christian hope of triumph over it.


The point of Death Cafes is to make death less fearful in an age of anxiety. I get it.  But the death mug approach to the subject does not capture the travesty of death. I say travesty because the Bible makes it clear that death is an enemy that is finally destroyed with the coming of the new heavens and earth at the culmination of time. And that is where the Christian hope comes in. The story is not over with our deaths. There is the hope that Christ ushers us into his glorious presence where every tear is wiped away and grand reunions are still to come. So maybe what I could benefit from would be a café whose moniker is “death does not have the last word”. A safe place where my faith tradition is shared with others so that I hear stories about people who have died well within the confidence of being on the threshold of an eternal reality. Granted my death café sounds a bit exclusive as it would possibly not be very attractive to secularists or folks from other faith traditions; but at the end of the day, with facing my own mortality I want to hear a café filled with conversations about hope, faith, courage, love and forgiveness. I want to hear and talk about Jesus. I want to live life in the moment with increasing gratitude. Hearing stories about people who lived well up to the moment of their deaths is my cup of tea and I will happily eat some cake while doing so.

 

  1.  Ann Patchett, “Scared Senseless,” The New York Times Magazine, October 20, 2002.

Intimate News

I made an unusual request of my oncology team. I told them that when I returned the following week to hear the results of the radiologist report and the status of cancer progression, I wanted them to tell David first. I would be in the waiting room to hear from him. He Patient to doctorwould sit with me and go over the results.  We might pray together, then we would go the clinic room together to have the results further explained by the team and have our questions answered.

Weird, cowardly, childish, weak, faithless, avoidant, dramatic, insensitive to my husband by putting him in this position? All those descriptors passed through my mind as the day approached. On the actual day, I decided to forget the elaborate scheme and face up to the news without preamble. But my husband gave me a word picture that took away the shame.

“Dona, you are going to have to eat the whole sandwich (the radiologist’s report) at some point but how you want it presented – open-faced, garnished, toasted – is completely up to you. You’re the one going through this. Do it the way that makes it most tolerable.”

And my team completely understood, or at least acted like they did.  As my lead doctor said,

“Dona is the one with cancer, not me.  We do it her way.”

Intimacy

So, what was going on, aside from fear? It is intimacy and trust – intimate knowledge coming through my most trusted person. I wanted news from the person whose life would be most affected by this personal and significant information and from the person who knows me better and loves me more than any other.

An example from a long-ago happy event:
Who was the first person I told when i discovered I was pregnant? Life changing information that only made sense to share with the person most invested in our lives together. And whose lives would change dramatically as a result? Mine and his.
Again, intimate personal information shared within the most intimate of relationships. It’s really (in my mind) not so different from news about a disease notorious for causing pain, disability and death. I wanted to hear it from my husband no matter what it was.
But fortunately, intimacy doesn’t stop there.

Intimacy with God

David’s intimate relationship with God was ultimately what I was counting on in anticipation of hearing news related to my survival. If the scan and test results were disappointing, then I trusted David to tell me the facts along with the crucial caveats and realistic encouragements that would calm my fears and reorient me once again to the hope I profess in Jesus in all and every circumstance of life. I imagined praying together in those moments – intimacy with God would always and forever be at the heart of my life’s purpose and hope, even in life’s major disappointments.

The obvious

What if there was no husband or one that was willing to participate in my plan? Or what if there wasn’t a substitute like a trusted pastor or friend who could lead me to “the shepherd of my soul”?  Would I have fallen apart? Fallen into a pit of despair of which I couldn’t climb out?

I don’t imagine so. And here’s why:  Betsy Ten Boom who died at Ravensbrück for her participation in hiding Dutch Jews during WW2 said,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”

I cling to that with gratitude.

Thankful Postscript
My test results were encouraging: “Skeletal cancer stable, metastatic liver disease showed marked improvement.”

Of course, this begs the question, would I write this same post if the news was not good? I hope so, I pray so. Again,

“There is no pit so deep that God’s love is not deeper still.”


 





 

 

Safe Havens

A group of Africans, fleeing persecution, showed me how I am safe in Christ, even amidst affliction.

safe haven pictureGun shots were heard in the distance and some of our guests became anxious.

Buffalo, New York is one of the safe havens for asylum seekers from all over the world fleeing political, religious and gang persecution.

Several weeks ago, 6 asylum seekers from different countries in Africa were our guests at our creek cabin in the Western New York countryside for a cookout, fishing, soccer, tennis (a first for them) and walking in the creek. They were visibly delighted for a beautiful country experience. But that changed when target shooting was heard in the distance. Some became immediately disturbed.

One asked, “Who has just been killed?” Another, “Are we safe here? In our countries when we hear gun fire someone has been killed. We came to this country to be safe – are we safe?!!”

These people had experienced unimaginable trauma and had to abruptly leave families, jobs and homes when their lives were under direct threat. So, I took a few minutes to reassure them that they were indeed safe and to explain that target shooting is a popular local hobby.

We resumed our festivities with other guests and the laughter and eating resumed. By the end of the evening each one wanted to give a speech of gratitude. Two African pastors asked the other Africans to surround me. Not knowing what to expect I was deeply touched by their eloquent and prayers on my behalf. I was overwhelmed by their love and their faith in Christ as they kept petitioning God to heal and bless “Mama!” Less the obvious is overlooked, these people had experienced every reason to be bitter and faithless but their steadfastness in the goodness of God was inspiring.

There are many geographic safe havens in this world (but not nearly enough) and I thank God that I live in Buffalo, NY; the city of “good neighbors.” Desperate people from all over the world have found a safe haven through the dedicated work of some city workers and non-profits.

There are also emotional safe havens.

I hope our asylum-seeking friends have found that as well through the kindness and help of many.
There are also spiritual safe havens. So, I trust that those fleeing religious and political persecution are experiencing freedom to worship and believe as they please.

About me:

Oddly enough there are times when I feel safe and secure within the reality of stage 4 breast cancer. It can be at church during the worship singing time when the collective praises to God fill me with joy. It can be times of family and grandchildren as well as friend gatherings where the good will and levity reminds me that I am loved.

It can be in bed at night when my husband reads the psalms to me and prays for me. Or it can be when my friends, Africans and others, surround me to pray. During those times, I just don’t feel safe, I know I am safe. Christ, my SAFE HAVEN, is reminding me that I am not alone or abandoned or without purpose even within affliction. My African brothers and sisters are exemplary testaments to that truth.

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge.” Psalm 16:1

“You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; You encourage them, and You listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed.” Psalm 10:17-18a

“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know Your name will trust in You, for You, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek You.” Psalm 9:9-10