The View from the End of the Rope

6:45 pm, Monday, August 8, 2022

It has been a long day.  I just finished chemo.  I am in the Roswell Cancer Institute imaging clinic, waiting to be called for a brain scan MRI. David left to get groceries and prepare a late supper.  I am disappointed, discouraged, teary-eyed, and, to make matters worse, a bit embarrassed.

7:00 pm

As I wait, I take the advice I gave to clients for years and have blogged about more than once: start journaling about the angst.

Confession:

I have been complemented by family, friends, and medical team on how well I’ve handled an abundance of difficulties throughout this process. And yes, I have felt validated respected and brave for my “handling it all so well.”

And yes, I have attributed my persevering, positive attitude to my dependence on God’s faithfulness towards me no matter what happens.

But over the last two days something started to emotionally unravel. It started with overreacting to my husband’s innocuous comments yesterday but thankfully having it all resolved quickly, more thanks to him than me.

I want to blame this emotional roller coaster on the steroids I am taking to heal the liver from an unfortunate turn in the immunotherapy treatment.

But…. Something other than steroid-craziness is going on.

My ‘end-of-the-rope’ was bound to come but I thought it would come at the ‘end-of-the-road’ when all treatment options have been tried and failed, therefore reclassified as terminal. Another counselor told me once that when you reach the end-of-your-rope – the point where you cannot climb back up but cannot lower yourself further – it is time to let go and trust in God.  I love that image.  I have rehearsed that end-of-rope/end-of-the-road moment too many times to count. In that future scenario, when told there is nothing else that modern medicine can do for me, I picture myself demonstrating great faith and even love and gratitude for my wonderful medical team. I become some kind amazing hero of faith in my eyes and in others. Ah, the follies of ego!!!

But I am having an end-of-rope moment now.  This morning, I had an unexpected call from my oncologist to come in for an unscheduled visit. I was hoping he wanted to discuss weaning me from steroids. The opposite happened as my liver enzymes had gone up. He has increased, slightly, my steroid dose; meaning less sleep and immunotherapy still off the table.

I had an unexpected reaction to the consultation. I got visibly frustrated and hurt. Tears!

The irony and hypocrisy of the reaction is that yesterday I had complained to friends of hearing of cancer patients reacting similarly, being unreasonable and unfair to their medical providers.

Not that I went ballistic.  Hospital security was not called.  But I had tears of frustration, and I over-questioned my healthcare providers. I argued about use of words.  “You say ‘increase’ in liver enzymes but I say, ‘slight uptick’ when I look at the graphs.”   After spending more time with me than I deserved I patted my oncologist on his hand as he was leaving, an apology, of sorts. But it did not end there: as I was led to the chemo chair, I was told that my oncologist had just ordered in addition to the chemo an hour of saline for low sodium before the infusion. Come on! My feet were already in a crazy swollen state of discomfort I questioned the purpose of this. I asked the infusion nurse several times to call the oncologist finally reconsidered and gave me what I wanted. (If the low sodium was acute, he would have won that skirmish for sure).

8:00 pm

Back in the imaging waiting room, the technician finally called my name for the MRI.  As we are walking to the imaging room, he said the scan would not take an hour, as I assumed, but only 15 minutes.  That simple correction somehow, in some way, flipped the mood switch. Delighted, I became my friendly chatty self as I sensed that joy was beginning to take hold again. 

The Lord heard my lament and gave me hope. David is thankful to see the smile back on my face!

9:00 am, Tuesday, August 9

But I cannot leave it at that.  It is tempting to think of God smiling at us with approval when we are behaving graciously and mercifully to those around us especially when we are suffering and amid disappointments. Conversely, we imagine him clucking his tongue when we are miserable, irritable, and faithless. The thing about that is that it does not typically lead to a heart change. Why? Shaming is not affirming or inspiring. It gets us stuck in a spiritual arrested development. Spiritual maturity on the other hand fills us with the knowledge of God’s love that surpasses our understanding (Ephesians 3:19).

He made us to trust in his unfailing and never changing love. It is who he is, and the operative word is grace (unmerited favor).

Neither you or I can make God love us more or less by what we do when we have already thrown our hat in the arena of God’s faithfulness. And in a mysterious, wonderful way we are changed and willingly motivated to continue the good fight of our faith.  (1 Timothy 6:12)  We can let go of the end of the rope.

And, as Paul writes, “No eye has seen, and no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined the things which God has prepared for those who love him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9

This is something to fight for, something to live for!

The Place Between Suffering, Overwhelming Loss and Defiant Hope

I pray often – not long prayers necessarily, sometimes short ones.  Sometimes the pain or anxiety I am experiencing is all I can see so my prayers are not eloquent.  “Jesus, help me!”  

I pray for those who ask for prayer and those who don’t. Praying for others feels good – feels like a privilege. And many people appreciate the effort and spirit with which it is done.

Sincere prayer as an act of obedience

My husband, David, was in the city walking when a panhandler approached.  The man described the jam he was in and asked for money.  Over the years, I have challenged David’s cynicism regarding panhandlers and encouraged him to not to ignore people on the street asking for money.  After all, panhandling is not anyone’s dream job.  Although now homeless, or dealing with a mental disability, or both, they were once children dreaming of careers as a pilot, teacher, nurse, basketball player……like us.  As the man pocketed the money David gave him and turned to enter a nearby Burger King, David called out, halfheartedly without real conviction, “I’ll be praying for you.”  The man stopped, did an about-face, walked back to David, and said, “Will you pray for me now?”  My somewhat stunned husband responded positively, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and prayed for him.  David walked away from this encounter with a lot more conviction and much less cynicism.

But certainly not every time we pray do we walk away feeling uplifted or victorious. Sometimes we pray in obedience to a biblical fundamental, but we are left still shedding tears for others or for ourselves. We are just not sure we are always going to get the answer we want. But despite the disappointments, we pray. It’s just what we Christians do.

As my followers know I have been struggling through treatments for metastatic breast cancer for 3 1/2 years. Just yesterday I was told that my X-ray scans showed a reduction of liver metastasis. Hip, hip hooray! The immunotherapy may be the ticket for a longer life. As my daughter said, “You were due for some good news.” The combo of immunotherapy and chemo was doing its job.  But the celebration was short lived. My blood labs showed high liver enzymes that indicated hepatitis.  Immunotherapy had triggered an immune response against the healthy parts of my liver. Immunotherapy is off the table for now and indefinitely as cancer treatment takes a back seat to restoring a sick liver. David and I left the clinic heartsick.  I considered all the prayers from my friends over the years on my behalf for a better outcome to the ongoing story of keeping me alive as long as possible.  I often feel self-conscious about it.  I do not think I am monopolizing my friends’ prayer time but worry that they grow weary or understandably numb to the same requests over and over, month after month, year after year, which go…. 

“Please pray this new therapy will improve my condition.”

“Please pray this side effect will abate.”

“Please pray I will get some sleep………………”

Our doubts do not change who God is.

A friend has been praying for her drug-addicted son for years. He is almost forty and homeless and recently found sleeping in a street by the Buffalo police.  He was taken to jail after the police discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant.  My friend confessed at our church community group that she wondered why, decade after decade, her prayers for her son are not answered. She went through a litany of reasons: “Maybe I don’t have enough faith.  Maybe I have not repented from some sin that blocks God’s answers.”

But in all her doubts and disappointments she persists in prayer.  She and her husband cannot shake the feeling that Jesus is “near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18).  They may doubt and worry, but they do it in the presence of God. 

Lamentations 3:19-23

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
    the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
    and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness

Prayer as the co-existence of grief and defiant hope

Last week, in Fairbanks, Alaska, Josiah, the oldest son (25 years old) of our dear friends, Tony and Lara, was killed; hit by a car while taking a walk on Saturday night. This couple are not new to devastating family trauma. Thirteen years ago, their 5-month-old, Jeremiah, died unexpectedly, and then 9 years later their daughter was treated for an aggressive, protracted leg sarcoma (currently in remission).

Tony and Lara’s children in 2009. Josiah is holding Jeremiah.

And now this! What more can a family take? As my husband and I listened to them we were once again struck with their faith in the faithfulness of God. Truthfully, before we called, I was ready to hear some ‘justifiable’ self-pity, anger, and bitter fatalism. Sure, they cried, and we cried with them, but as we listened, we could only marvel at the Holy Spirit’s care of them as they enumerated all the love that friends, family, and church were pouring out on them. They said, “We feel blessed by all this love!”

To summarize, this heartbroken couple expressed their faith as hope in the resurrection and the mysterious promises of God righting all wrongs some day at the end of time.  We do not live in a cold, impersonal, pitiless universe of random chance and tragedy.

Seven months ago, Labib Madanat (read about him in Christianity Today) died suddenly while leading an exploratory mission group through Iraq. He left behind not only one of the most influential Middle East ministries but five children and his wife, Carolyn.

Carolyn and I talk frequently, she is in England, and I live in New York.

In her grief and questions, she will voice her concerns for her children and admit to overwhelming loneliness and sadness for the husband she dearly admired and loved. (Labib was hard not to love.)

Rev. Carolyn Madanat and her children

I thought she might take a protracted break from her work as a curate (associate pastor) for the Church of England but that’s not happening. She soldiers on, engaging in the rhythms of her church: studying, teaching, counseling, administering, baptizing, leading worship. And then of course there is the running of a household and the comforting of children that are looking to her for the stability they need in such a time. She doesn’t accomplish all this with the stiff-upper-lip British stereotype.  She’s deeply authentic and realistic in what she faces.

But again, I have never heard that she cannot do it or that the Lord is not there for her or real to her.

She leans hard into the presence of God through prayer, church life, and the word of God.

She writes,

“I realized that trust in God’s goodness and feelings of sadness are not mutually exclusive; lament is a path to praise that travels through disappointment and pain and being ok with not knowing everything. It is accepting the co-existence of grief and hope; mourning what has been lost yet grateful for what remains. Part of prayer, I’ve realized, is surrendering to God the questions we don’t have answers for and having the assurance that they are in safe hands; it is having enough confidence in God’s goodness and steadfast love towards us that we don’t need to settle for ‘glib’ answers.”

Often my husband has told me that amid spiritual dryness, frustration, bleakness of spirit, Peter’s response to Christ in John 6:68-68 says it all for him. It is the starkness of its truth that pushes him and many others into a deeper wisdom of God’s goodness.

In this incident, Christ’s teaching has alienated many of his followers and they begin to desert him.  Jesus then turns to his closest disciples and asks, “Will you leave me too?”

Peter responds, “Where else would we go for You have the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

We pray and trust God no matter what because He is the good and compassionate God who loves us. Sure, we are besieged by doubts during difficulties and often find his ways inscrutable, but we still pray and cry out with tears and laments to God. Our laments are not simply floating into an impersonal, pitiless, cold universe. We are not alone, and our lamenting follows the examples of the great men and women of the Bible.

In Psalm 56, the psalmist, presumably King David, asks God to “keep his tears in a bottle” (v.8) in remembrance. David is expressing a deep trust in God—God will remember his sorrow and tears and will not forget about him. David is confident that God is on his side. He says, amidst his troubles,

In God, whose word I praise,
    in the Lord, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
    What can man do to me?

Jesus remembers all the things that happen in our lives, including the suffering endured for His sake. In fact, there are many instances in Scripture of God’s recognition of man’s suffering.

So, like the millions before and the millions after, I pray for certain outcomes, and I will pray fervently for those outcomes to be in God’s best interest for me and others. But if I don’t get my hopeful outcomes, I will assume that my tears and sorrow are held tenderly by God and will be shown one day to have been the just right and good outcome that I could have never imaged. But within Gods cosmic plan those bottles of collected tears like the collected tears of many will be somehow redeemed into a glorious and splendid eternal reality beyond and more we could have ever imagined.

What is Disappointment-Worthy?

In an earlier post, I described how the ‘pre-cancer me’ had too many concerns, strong opinions, and preferences. I was living life poised to be disappointed at every turn. Disrupted travel plans, bad hair days and minor slights were all felt too deeply! It took metastatic cancer to bring more clarity, balance, and self-control to disappointment. I had gotten lazy, neglecting the hard work of self-examination, and taking control of my emotional reactions to disappointments. I like the new me, the metastatic me.

View from my balcony in
St Augustine, FL

My current disappointments are few or less intense because there are less things of this world that mean that much to me. I am vacationing and being with family in St Augustine, Florida. I write positioned to see the smooth coastline, hear the waves breaking, smell the sea breeze, and feel the sun warm my brittle bones. So heavenly and peaceful. But I am feeling increasingly detached from this experience as well as many others that have given me pleasure. This does not feel like a bad thing as I’m experiencing more peace of mind than I have been accustomed.

Anhedonia is a mental condition which describes a pervasive lack of interest in those things that use to give pleasure and enjoyment. It is a core symptom of depression.

As a retired mental health therapist, I have asked myself whether I am experiencing a symptom of clinical depression. Certainly, cancer sufferers have more depression than others. No one would be surprised to hear I was struggling with depression. But I am not. I have received a blessing amidst existential suffering.

“Set your mind on things above and not on things on earth, for you have died and your life is hidden in Christ.” (Colossians 3)

…and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame….consider this…so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  (Hebrews 12:1b – 3)

Do not get me wrong, I feel pain, loss and sorrow. I am not cultivating a Buddhist mindset that sees all suffering originating from and sustained by human attachments. I WANT to be attached to those I love, and I want to enjoy the beauties all around me in this world. I am not numb to disappointments, rather I am having fewer of them because I’m learning through this disease what is ‘disappointment-worthy’.

There also seems to be a supernatural aspect to this ‘screening’ of life’s disappointments. I call this something, “training for eternal life”.

The apostle Paul in the letter to the church at Colossi exhorted the congregation “to set their affections on eternity with God.” Why? Because God wants to bless us. I am going to die, and you are going to die. So, as the author of Hebrews puts it, while we are enjoying this life it is a mercy to fix our eyes on Christ, the author, perfecter and finisher of our faith, and then we will not lose heart or grow weary as we soldier on, training to enjoy the eternal life ahead of us.

I can only think of one disappointment that would have devastating effects for me and for you. The absence of the presence of God due to unbelief or to poor teaching and training would make coping with incurable cancer unbearable.

Where do we go with this?

Continue to be disappointed, even heartbroken over the losses, travesties, and tragedies of life both for us, our loved ones, and for the countless, nameless sufferers throughout this broken world. To do so is to have the heart of God motivating us to call to out to Him for relief and rescue. But leave the disappointments from assaults on ego, the frustration of inconvenience, the slights and criticisms from others on the junk heap of the worthless and inconsequential.

Disappointments are not so bad if we allow them to whittle away at the vain and useless, and cling tenaciously to the grand promises of God – a future where God promises to make every injustice and injury right in the end!  The scriptures say God promises that every tear will be wiped away; all tears, not just the tears of heartache and loss, but the tears of anger, frustration, and petty disappointment. 

Can I get an Amen?

Mourning and Joy

In December we celebrated the season of joy.  Joy, joy, joy written on Christmas cards and banners and sung in our Christmas carols.

But we all know Christmas holidays can be difficult and lonely for many. Christmas time does not give temporary respite from hardships, loss, and pain.  ‘Joy to the World’ can be plastered over cards and banners but far from our hearts.

For me, the hardship of metastatic cancer brings the meaning of joy into sharp focus. Can cancer and joy ride on the same sled together? Stranger yet, is there joy to be enjoyed within cancer treatments even though you can be left grasping for relief as side effects leave you once again feeling diminished?

The answer is: there better be!

First, being playful and joyful, looking for the delightful and comical, in myself and others, is my MO.  I’m not positioning this quality as being superior to all others, I’m simply stating that I have a natural playful orientation.  I’m not pollyannish. I can worry, fret, and grieve along with the best of them but joy and playfulness are my darlings!  My great fear before cancer was that life would hit me with a tragedy so colossally devastating that all joy and playfulness would evaporate instantly and permanently.

Second, and this is far more important, the Scriptures teach there is joy within suffering through Christ and strength to endure suffering through Christ.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.

James 1:2-3

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

1 Peter 1:3-9

The joy of the lord is my strength.

Nehemiah 8:10 

I had an experience of joy two weeks ago. Fever, infection and need of a blood transfusion landed me in the hospital.  Within a few hours I was ready to go home but I was told I needed to stay. I was not happy about being admitted and I was not happy having to share a room.  Comfort and rest were foremost on my mind.  A shared hospital room, with double the nurses and attendants coming in and out would not garner rest and recuperation.  But soon my roommate and I became chummy and by the evening I found myself in the role of encourager and patient advocate as her pain escalated through the night.  Late in the evening I found myself at the nurse’s station, asking if more could be done for my roommate’s pain. I just wanted her to be comforted.  I prayed for her on my bed throughout the night or I sat on her bed rubbing her back. It was distressful and heartbreaking to a be witness to someone’s intense pain. Finally, by the late morning the next day, her pain was under control, and she was feeling much better. I was discharged at noon, feeling relieved for roommate Sue.

By the time I left the hospital I was full of joy.  Why? 

Donald McCullough wrote[1],

“Great mourners are great rejoice-ers.   In opening the door to pain, they also open it to joy. Those sensitive enough to be crushed by sadness are those who also can be lifted by happiness.  Mourners are blessed as they have sensitive hearts: they prove themselves to be children of God and their tears may be turned into healing action but more importantly ‘they shall be comforted by God.’”

Mother Teresa and her associates would mourn and grieve as they walked the streets of Calcutta but the atmosphere in the shelter where the sick and destitute were brought was filled with joy, smiles and laughter.  I am no Mother Theresa, but I understand it.  In the hospital I mourned with and comforted my roommate.  If felt lifegiving and heavenly minded.

Tim Keller, pastor and Christian apologist, upon receiving a diagnosis of incurable pancreatic cancer wrote in The Atlantic.[2]

“As God’s reality dawns more on my heart, slowly and painfully and through many tears, the simplest pleasures of this world have become sources of daily happiness. It is only as I have become, for lack of a better term, more heavenly-minded that I can see the material world for the astonishingly good divine gift that it is.

I can sincerely say, without any sentimentality or exaggeration, that I’ve never been happier in my life, that I’ve never had more days filled with comfort. But it is equally true that I’ve never had so many days of grief.”

Amen.  I will always cherish the ‘joy’ of my sleepless night at the hospital.


[1] McCullough, D. ‘Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.’, November 1990.  Christianity Today.

[2] Keller, T. The Atlantic. “Growing My Faith in the Face of Death”  Mach 2021. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/03/tim-keller-growing-my-faith-face-death/618219/

Advent Postscript: Nativity, Afghanistan Refugees, House Fires

We followed up on the comments and reflections on our last post made by Nikki, friend and blog follower.

Three years ago, Nikki and Peter watched their home burn to the ground. Nikki writes:

“It was such a small fire. We thought the volunteer fire dept would come quickly and put it out with minimal loss.  911 told us to stay outside and wait for them. We were obedient. When they arrived, they couldn’t get the water going from truck.

We could have grabbed so many things. Something I’ve struggled with, so I appreciate your blog! 

I’m reminded of my first thoughts after our fire that took every possession to our name: many fleeing Europe during WWII had to leave in the middle of the night with only the clothes on their back. A suitcase would surely give them away. In this small but significant moment in space and time I related, and they were my comrades.

Digging through the ashes of our home I found this part of our Nativity.  It was such a sign of blessing to me.

Three years and State Farm Insurance has lessened our trauma. Reading about these Afghan refugees, their statements of gratitude and the service provided has again brought focus on what’s most important.

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for ALL people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger.

  • Luke 2:10-12

Advent, Afghanistan, Cancer, Hope

Guest post by Dave Eley

At 716 Ministries, we just finished an intense, 3-week training course designed to help 18 Afghan evacuees, recent arrivals in Buffalo, adapt and succeed within the American work culture.  It was delivered in three languages – English, Dari, Pashto – to a diverse collection of farmers, soldiers, engineers, medics, professors, mechanics, government officials, taxi drivers.  We heard their stories.  Some came with their families; some, tragically, for their temporary safety, left wives and children behind. All left behind their material possessions, or at least what could not be carried in a small bag. 

What is the one thing you’d take if you had to leave your home, your country immediately?

Afghan Work Readiness Class, December 2021

I asked several students what they brought with them; what they packed of their identity. 

  • One woman, a professor, had 15 minutes to pack and flee to the Kabul airport.  Other than essentials, she took her perfumes.  She told me, “My fragrances are part of me, they are part of how I think of myself.”  I get it.  Her colognes reminded her of her essence. 
  • One man – farmer, corporal, citizen-soldier – proudly showed me his laminated wallet-sized certificates of recognition from the US Army, attesting to his contributions to various military deployments.  Operation Eagle, Operation Red Dagger, Operation Achilles.  He played these cards out before me as if presenting a winning poker hand, a royal flush or inside straight.
  • I am grateful for smart phones.  A person with a smart phone can flee a country with the family photo albums intact.  Children, moms, wives, husbands, handshakes with US military special forces.  One man, a mechanic, showed me a short video of his fancy footwork on the soccer field, dribbling around two opponents.  For some reason, this made me sad.  The bright red and yellow football ensembles, the shouting and clapping, the joy of a peaceful summer afternoon on the field with friends in Afghanistan. 
  • On the last day of class, we conducted mock job interviews.  We brought in eight potential employers and let the students rotate amongst them, practicing and refining their pitch.  This is the highlight of all our courses, where students grow in confidence with each successive interview.  One student, an engineer, forced to leave his family behind and currently disabled with a distressing and, as yet, undiagnosed nerve injury, told an interviewer, “I left much behind, but one thing I brought with me was a positive attitude, a strong work ethic, and a hope for a better tomorrow.”

There is a common thread amongst the things these Afghan evacuees brought with them from the Kabul airport to a US military processing facility in Virginia, and ultimately to Buffalo: a reminder of their personal dignity. 

Creek Rock Art: Flight to Egypt (Dona Eley)

Did Mary take the perfumes (frankincense and myrrh) with her when she and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to escape the wrath of Herod?  (Thank you, Egypt, for your hospitality.) During his family’s exile, what did Joseph look to for dignity and hope to deal with the fear, anguish, sense of powerlessness, boredom, lack of community and meaningful work, heavy responsibility? 

Pastor Acher Niyonizigiye, a former refugee from the Burundi civil war of the 1990’s, wrote, “We often see the Nativity (Advent) as a celebration of comfort and innocence.  In Europe and North America, Christmas is often a time to think of coziness.  Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”

Could Joseph or Mary ever fit in with these modern Christmases?”

– Acher Niyonizigiye

Dona and I are big fans of coziness and comfort.  But during this Advent season we are grateful that in our cozy little corner of western New York, we could be a part of one of the organizations providing some measure of comfort and safety for our new neighbors.  I do not want to over-compare myself to Joseph and Mary, or even the strength and resilience of the Afghans I met, but I do pray that at life’s inflection points along the journey through this fallen world I will, like Joseph, ‘get up’ and do what the Lord commands (Matthew 1:24 & 2:13), or, like Mary, be the Lord’s servant and embrace the small role I am given in the Kingdom (Luke 1:38).

I read the paragraphs above to Dona.  After appropriate encouragement she said, with the insight and clarity I depend on, “You are missing the most important part.”

Advent (arrival or ‘the coming’) is a season of expectation.  There are some parallels between the Christian season of Advent and the arrival of the Afghan evacuees and their attendant expectations for a better life.  But for Christian believers there is so much more.  At Advent we look back at the birth of Christ and ahead to the return of Christ.  Faith in the reality of the past and hope in the reality of the future combined.  The Nativity is a big deal.  But we, who embrace the Jesus story, see the return of Christ and our resurrection as the ultimate deal.  With the Second Advent, poverty, missed employment opportunities, anguish, powerlessness, family separation, disease, terror, war, even death will be no more.  We will be done with this fallen world. 

As I reread the last paragraph I thought of our own uncertain future, Dona and I. This month, my brave and lovely wife entered her 4th year of struggle against metastatic cancer. Six different therapies to date, this last one the most draconian: chemical infusion each week, hair loss, nausea, fatigue. There are lots of tears shed by us both, but yet, and yet, we experience the joy of the reward of the ultimate deal. I can say confidently and without false bravado that Dona has a ‘peace from God that surpasses all my understanding.’ And I feel it, too. (Philippians 4:7)

Now, how to proclaim this good news, the Gospel, winsomely, humbly, and authentically to our Afghan neighbors, indeed to all our neighbors?

Wishing you a joyful, hopeful Christmas and 2022.

Dave

Challenges to Feeling Comfort from God

Four Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God, published in July 2015, remains my most popular post.  Nearly every day that post will get several visits.  I’m not sure why.  I am an obscure blogger buried in the internet.  Perhaps the title bubbles up near the top when someone Googles ‘comfort from God.’  I wish I could generate this popularity for my other posts so advertisers for cancer yoga pants and pink ribbon nightshirts would flock to me.  But seriously, I suspect tens of thousands of people trawl (not troll) through the web every day, desperately looking for some comfort, some solace from God.  I have a heart for these people.  On occasion, I am one of them.

As I lurch from one cancer therapy to the next, struggle against one quality-of-life-diminishing side-effect after another, and, consequently, am painfully reminded of my mortality daily…….I MARVEL at the ways God gives me comfort.  I keep a running list in my head of how he meets me more than halfway.  In thinking about these comforts, which are often subtle, I can see why if I am not alert, I may miss them.

  1. I miss the comfort because it does not come according to my timetable.
  2. I miss the comfort from God because it comes through means I take for granted.
  3. I miss the comfort because I do not realize my suffering is an opportunity to serve others.  (The service is the comfort.)
  4. I miss the comfort because I am just too fatigued or lazy to draw on the resources of the church family.

God’s comfort is not according to my timetable

Diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer since 2018, there is not a visit to my oncologist since then that I don’t feel like the sword of Damocles hangs over me, ready to drop. In the run up to the appointment, I am always praying for encouraging news about the level of tumor markers or the results of scans.  And then I pray that I would feel God’s presence and that I would have courage to face what is in store as I wait for news. I am follower of Christ, so I know that my relationship with him comes alongside suffering and comfort. None of us are exempt from this reality but when I suffer, I want that comfort on my timetable, not God’s, for that usually requires waiting. I’m tempted to question God’s love because the waiting feels like an answer: “no comfort for you today and maybe never.”

Antidote: In such times I resort to writing.  It is therapeutic to get my complaints and worries down on paper.  This is a practice that I encouraged my clients to do with excellent results.  The benefits of writing down thoughts, feelings, experiences, grievances have been researched and validated repeatedly.  There are biblical precedents for this as well. The authors of Psalms, Ecclesiastes and Lamentations aired their complaints to God.   Read Psalms 42 and 43 for a blueprint on how to record our grievances. And note the end of these Psalms.  End our complaints in remembrance of God’s faithfulness in the past and therefore a hope for the future.  I often do this as an act of faith, even though I don’t always “feel” it.

God’s comfort comes through means I take for granted so it is not recognized as his comfort.

Many times, I ignore the steady stream of God’s comfort coming my way. I’m looking instead for a spectacular deliverance that takes away all the disappointments, dread, and angst that cancer brings.

“God! Where is your comfort?”, I ask as tears well up upon hearing not so encouraging medical news.  Then, upon later reflection, I realize that God’s comfort is always present. David, my husband is always with me, bearing with me the emotional toll of this cancer – a comfort that I assumed as insignificant compared to some dramatic show of comfort from God that would prove he cared about me.  I am the recipient of comfort that comes by way of family, friends, church community, and good medical care.  It is not good to ignore these obvious God-comfort sources just because they lack a spontaneous, spectacular, supernatural intervention. 

Question:  What brings you comfort?  Who brings you comfort?  Can you tie these comforts back to God?   If so, then practice the habit of thanking God out loud, as well as thanking those who are God’s ambassadors of comfort to you.  Do both often.  It will become a habit which will prepare you emotionally and spiritually for when the really hard times come.   You will be blessed and comforted in the process.

God’s comfort can come through my comfort of others

2 Corinthians 1:4

He comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

Bible makes it clear that our suffering can act as a refining fire for developing character in us as well as producing benefits for others. Our suffering and subsequent comfort from God gives us street cred in helping those who are suffering likewise.

I am touched when people reach out to me for encouragement and comfort. Many times, these people have a less severe cancer diagnosis and prognosis than I have but cancer is cancer and scares the heck out of anyone regardless of the severity.

For nearly 15 years I spent most of every winter working in the Middle East; teaching and coaching women in the practice of good mental health. These Arab women had very hard lives; harder than I could imagine. However, the moment I disclosed my cancer diagnosis (stage 3 back then) I could sense that my audience was touched and had warmed up to me. It was as if this ‘weathy’ American woman was not so privileged after all. On some level I was included into the fellowship of suffering women. The playing field was leveled, and they expressed encouragement by what I taught.  I was blessed by playing a part in their comfort.

Helping others releases God’s comfort not just for others but for us as well. Helping others triggers the release of “feel good” hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine which gives a mood boost.

‘Dragging myself’ to church brings comfort

The kindness and love of the church family brings tremendous comfort.  This comfort is ordained by God. If we are not a part of a church community we miss out.   Being amongst the fellowship of believers in general, and being prayed for in particular, is one of this life’s spiritual, emotional, and physical means of receiving God’s comfort.

Metastatic cancer treatments offer no cure but rather cancer management with the latest targeted drugs and procedures to prolong life as long as possible.  The disease as well as the side effects of treatments can feel endless. “Whack a mole” is what my husband has coined it. One rough symptom is dealt with and right behind it comes another.  I’m tired, physically.  More seriously, I feel like I am tiring out my church family with frequent prayer requests to address the latest physical trial. I am tempted to stifle the prayer requests, ignore my church community, and rely on ministrations of the medical community to see me through till the end.

This past Sunday and I considered not going to church sporting my newest symptom, Bell’s Palsy. My husband was delivering the sermon, so I ended up going to support him. By the end of the service, I was drawn compelled to ask for prayer by from a couple of people. Instead, eight or nine people gathered around me, laid hands on me, and prayed gently and compassionately.  A flood gate of tears was opened but by the end I marched to my car with a lighter step than I had had for a while.

The elephant in this blog post

What happens when comfort gives way to death which we know happens a lot with cancer? Again, depending on your confidence in the reality of the risen Christ, there is yet an ultimate comfort. It’s a tough one to internalize but nonetheless it is expressed too many times in the New Testament to be ignored and its crucial to living faithfully in Christ during this life.   This life is not all there is.  We must think of and dwell on this.  But be warned!  if you think or talk too much of eternal life or heaven or resurrection you will be dismissed as a flake or someone who has their heads in the clouds. Don’t be dissuaded.  Contemplating the reality of heaven is a wellspring of hope for a future where all things are made just, good, and beautiful. It is here that you will find the comfort you need to live courageously and generously.  For relentless sufferers, death in Christ is the best comfort of all! God’s comfort never, never, never lets us down. It is only in forward thinking that I ultimately find comfort. There is sufficient comfort in this life to give us joy within sorrow and hope within disappointment.  But eternal life is where “every tear will be wiped away”, not before. For now, we fight the good fight of faith.

I have envy and I’m learning how to fight it

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.

– Proverbs 14:30

Envy is poison to our souls, and we will be betrayed and even destroyed by it if it gains solid purchase in our character. The fall out of unbridled and unrepentant envy includes relationship difficulties, missing out on joy and peace, cynicism and lack of trust towards neighbors, friends, and family.  Worst of all, envy is incompatible with love.  If we are carried along by envy, we will end up feeling alone without God’s loving presence and the presence of others. We will be miserable.

Envy is a natural human behavior

We are inclined to envy. We want what certain others have.  Seeing the good things that others have and aspiring to reach their level of achievement is okay.  This is simply observing and following healthy role-models.  But healthy aspiration is derailed when:

  • We are unwilling to submit to what is needed to achieve a good thing, or
  • We feel it is not FAIR that others have what we want, or
  • We do not want others to have what we want and do not have, or
  • We are tempted to think that God does not love us like he does others.

“It’s not fair!” How often have we heard children cry and complain about what seems to them is a fairness issue among their siblings when things are not going their way. And if we are honest with ourselves, we can admit to times of struggling with fairness and envy. Perhaps your friend’s children are excelling academically, athletically, or whatever, you are hoping this would be your own children’s life trajectory, but it is not happening. Your understandable concern begins to needle you as you COMPARE your children to others and, this is the most vexing part, you begin to hope the other children will fail!   

My mother-in-law used to tell me, “Never brag about your children.  You will be placing them on a pedestal that other mothers will want to push over.”

Lord have mercy.

Envy and jealousy are not the same

Though the words, envy and jealousy, are used interchangeably, there is a difference.

Jealousy is an emotional response to being afraid of losing someone or something we consider ours. It is typically accompanied by feelings of exclusion and abandonment. When the Bible describes God as a jealous god, it means God does not want to share the affections of his people with idols of wealth, power, or false gods.

Envy is an emotional response to wanting something that someone else has. It is a painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another (Webster).  Envy quickly devolves to coveting (10th Commandment) when we want to rob the other of what they have..

Lord have mercy on us.

Envy is diabolical

It is listed as a vice that God condemns. It appears in narratives throughout the Bible.  Satan envied God and enticed Eve into sin.  Cain envied his brother and murdered is brother Abel.  Envious magicians devised a plot to have Daniel thrown into a den of lions.  Religious leaders who envied the popular appeal of Jesus orchestrated his crucifixion.

Envy blooms when we compare ourselves to others like us

We do not envy billionaires and celebrities.  We may admire or ridicule them.  We may daydream about what it would be like to have their beauty, wealth or status; But we do not judge ourselves against them. 

Nor do we envy the materially poor. 

We become discontented when we COMPARE ourselves with friends, families, and neighbors of similar status.

I once counseled a woman in the Middle East who was mistreating her son especially around homework time. Her initial complaint was around her son’s grades. She wanted advice on how to motivate him to excel. But a subsequent session revealed that it was envy of her sister whose children were excelling that was the root cause of her abuse towards her son and the root cause of his lying about his homework. No wonder he was anxious around his mother and wanted to avoid the predictable yelling and slapping.

I have metastatic breast cancer. I have had family members and friends who had breast cancer detected at an early stage and consequently treatment did what it was supposed to do: cure them of this dreaded disease. Have I been tempted to complain that it is not fair that I wasn’t cured? You betcha! I shudder to think that if I allowed this brooding to bloom, I could actually reach a point where I could wish we were all struggling against metastatic cancer. 

Lord have mercy.

Practical steps to fight the green-eyed monster

To beat back destructive envy or to keep the seed from germinating, try these strategies.

Use thought experiments help manage envy

A thought experiment is a hypothesis, story or procedure that is invented to examine its consequences.

Einstein devised his theory of special relativity (time slows down for objects traveling fast) through a thought experiment decades before it could be proved through measurement.  

My personal thought experiments sometimes help me combat my vices.  I imagine that even with metastatic breast cancer I feel well enough to visit a refugee camp. I meet people who have lost loved ones and endured unimaginable terror and grief and continue to fear for themselves and their families. I listen to their tragic circumstances and then I speak:

“Hey guys, what about me? I have metastatic cancer and you don’t. That is not fair!”

Sounds ridiculous, right?

But this ridiculous thought experiment helps me manage feelings of envy and unfairness when I start comparing myself to people like me socially, whose breast cancer was caught early, allowing treatments to cure them.

Speak blessings and compliments to others

Since my late 30’s I realized that envy could be a spiritual downfall for me, so I consciously decided to speak blessings to the person I was tempted to envy. Example: I am in somebody’s lovely home which has all the features I would want in a home including its placement in a beautiful environment. Instead of entertaining covetous or envious thoughts I speak to the fortunate person of how beautiful their home is and how blessed they are. Yes, I even gush in relation to the strength of the power of envy in a particular situation.  And, I complement people about their children, grandchildren, ministries, careers, physical appearance, and also about their good health outcomes that I could hope were mine.

Bottom line: It works!  (Most of the time.)

Count blessings

Love and envy cannot co-exist.  The antidote to envy is love expressed in gratitude to what God has blessed us with and a love for others, rejoicing in God’s blessings towards them; realizing that Gods gifts are inexhaustible.

I keep a running list of God’s blessings.  I recite them when I’m not feeling so blessed.

Read and study scripture

The Scriptures are inspired by God and are useful to teach us what is true and make us realize what is wrong in our lives.

– 2 Timothy 3:16

None of us like to be judged but if we are overly committed to this position, we will not read the scriptures with conviction.  And, there is always grace when judgment does its convicting work in us of exposing wrong-doing or wrong-thinking.  Thank God for grace!

Comparing ourselves to others erodes healthy self-esteem. When we study the scripture our perception of reality is expanded.  We are loved by God and called to fill a particular purpose in this life.  When we realize this, we stand at the cusp of transcendent self-esteem with has more power and encouragement than we could ever get from worldly gains. 

Take the long, eternal view

It is not only gratitude to God that cuts into envy. Ultimately, having the long eternal view of our lives reassures that God’s blessings will be ours forever no matter what happens in this life. Believing and anticipating an afterlife with Christ is a deterrent to envious feelings. When we realize that we do not have to scratch and claw our way to the desired life we want; when we realize this life is not all there is; when we realize that the point of our lives is to serve God and others; then we hold the weapon against vices like envy that threaten to consume us with resentment, hatred, and bitterness.

I have not mastered these strategies, but over years I have gotten better at recognizing envy and parrying envy’s thrusts to my soul.  Many times, maybe even most of the time, I feel authentic happiness for others’ good fortune AND I am more aware of Gods blessings and love for me.

Not a bad trade off…….even with metastatic cancer.

Important life questions: Readers respond

We asked you to offer up hard questions designed to uncover what we are really about. They spanned the range from the eternal to the minute-to-minute.

Earlier, we (my husband, David, and I) wrote a post about questions we should ask ourselves but don’t.  The reasons we do not ask these questions vary; they could be busyness, belief we will live forever, or simply just a lack of humility.  Whatever the reasons, we need to stop occasionally and ask ourselves those hard questions about what we are about. These questions fall between the philosophical, ultimate questions (Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?) and the important everyday questions (Which car should I buy? Why is my relationship with my teenager so difficult?). 

We asked you to offer up your questions and – WOW – you did.  As we reviewed the questions, we saw certain categories (essential/ultimate, self-assessment, relationships, change-agent, worry/anxiety) and grouped them accordingly.  These categories, by themselves, are worth thinking about.

So, here they are.   Personally, I (David) am going to take up a notebook and try to journal through them over the next several weeks.

Thank you, reader-thinkers, for contributing.

Life’s essential, ultimate questions: 

We call these the 1st order questions.  We noticed several of you could not pass by these.  Note the comment on the second bullet…..

  • Who am I? Why am I alive now?
  • Where will I spend eternity?  As one responder noted, “It is only with this settled that I feel I have the correct perspective to look on this present life and to be able to respond to James 1:2, to “consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
  • How and why was the universe created?

If we live in the universe, are we not aliens just living on our home planet?

Self-assessment and self-awareness questions:

  • What is my greatest pleasure in life and is it appropriate?
  • Am I longing for life in the New Heaven and Earth with God, or am I too content to pursue a comfortable life now?
  • Quick, without reflection or over-thinking, who are my idols?
  • If I wrote a letter to the Younger Me, what would I say?  (If you’re between 18 – 34 years old write your letter to a ~16-year-old you. If you’re 35 or older, write your letter to a ~20 – 30-year-old you.) 
  • To whom am I looking for my deepest satisfaction?  Is that working?
  • What baggage am I carrying that I don’t need because it steals my joy?
  • Am I action-oriented, or reaction-oriented?
  • What am I pretending not to know?
  • Am I doubting my doubts?  Or, has my skepticism run full-circle?
  • Am I content with my financial situation? If the answer is “no’” then the next questions might be, Will my concerns about my financial situation be important 10 years from now? (They might.) Or, what are my concerns about my financial situation telling me about my relationships, fears, priorities, self-image?
  • Is my identity in Christ and not my occupation, bank account, status?
  • What deeper questions are my emotions raising?  (We need to listen to our emotions; not obey them, not deny them.  Listen for the questions of the soul they are raising.  Am I angry?  Why am I angry?)
  • Related to the question above, one responder offered this question-to-next-question process:
    1. What emotions am I experiencing?
    2. Dig deeper: what am I really feeling? (Check out the comprehensive feelings-wheel here.  Very helpful.)
    3. What is prompting me to feel that way?
    4. Why does it make me feel that way?
    5. What does that say about my desires? …relationships? …commitments? …expectations?
    6. What does God think about this?
    7. What should I do in response?

Which came first, the chicken-salad sandwich or the egg-salad sandwich?

Daily review questions:

  • When I think of my first and last thoughts of the day, am I pleased with those thoughts?
  • What did I do today that was eternal?
  • What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
  • Did I point anyone toward God today?
  • Have I moved into the opportunity to share my faith (the hope that I have) authentically, with gentleness and respect for the hearer?  1 Peter 3:15
  • Should I put my device down and make pancakes for breakfast?

Is there ever a day that mattresses are not on sale?

Relationship questions, both with God and others:

  • Do I need to be forgiven?  Am I forgiven?  How do I know I am forgiven?
  • How am I doing supporting those closest to me?  Is there anything I can do this week to better support them?
  • What was my end goal in my parenting/grandparenting today?
  • What do I hope the end result of this conversation to be?  What space can I make for God in this conversation?  Am I expecting God to show up on this conversation – to change both him/her and me? 
  • Thinking about the parable of the Good Samaritan, who are the people in my life I feel too important to help in their need?  (These could be people I don’t like, people who don’t like me (imagine that) and people who probably will never be able to give anything more than a thank you.  They can be people whose religious and cultural backgrounds are different than mine.  Maybe their language is different, their values different…..people I have to make an effort to enter into their world.)
  • What difference will my life have made in those I love?
  • Are there broken or unhealthy relationships (spouse, family, friends) that are within my power to mend?  As another respondent put it:  What relationships do I need to ask or give forgiveness?
  • Have I passed up an opportunity to tell someone I love them?  To whom do I need to say, “I love you”?

Looking towards the months or years ahead:

  • What does God want me to know or experience before I die?  What has God told me to do that I have not done?
  • What should I risk doing with whatever years I have left?
  • What is the thing I am most afraid of?  (It seems to me that to identify and name it is the first step towards taking away its power over us.)  If I was not scared what would I do? 

Do I have a signature dance move? Why not?

Questions for making changes in 2021, or any year:

  • What are the spiritual disciplines I need to cultivate to keep me connected to God?
  • What are the practices of self-care I need to attend to my body and nurture my soul?
  • What core relationships do I need to support me on my journey?
  • What are the gifts, passions, and burdens within me that God wants me to express for the blessing of others?

Questions dealing with worry and anxiety:

  • Will it matter in 10-20 years?
  • If you were dying would you worry about this? 
  • How important will this be in 100 years?  (The responder noted that this is similar to another question above but “making sure that I will be dead before I reflect on this so that it is not just the older self looking back but the one who has now entered into eternity.”)
  • Does __________ really matter?  (Insert anything, relationship, situation, worry, anxiety-maker into that sentence.)  But, does ___________ REALLY matter?

How Fine-Tuning of the Universe Helps Me Cope with Cancer

In a previous post I described how a diagnosis of metastatic cancer inexplicitly sparked curiosity, wonder and questions about the cosmos. I started listening to podcasts and reading interviews with prominent scientists describing the physics of the universe and the surprises from new discoveries about how the cosmos works.

The shock and awe of the marvels of the universe took the shock out of cancer. 

I am not alone in my interest.  Conferences, books, and on-line debates indicate a surge of fascination with cosmology – particularly new observations, theories, and philosophies – among average intellect people like me as well as the scientific heavyweights. And popular culture is on to the cosmos. Sci-fi movies and books paint stories of quantum field irregularities creating portals and wormholes through time or into multiple universes filled with doppelgängers and other mind-bending craziness.

One dominate serious discussion across cosmology, physics and theology over the last 20 years is the fine-tuning of the universe.  In the late 20th century scientists started to describe how the universe is extremely sensitive to changes in physical constants.  If one of the constants is changed even by a tiny bit, the world will look vastly different – it will generally have no suns, no chemistry, and – therefore – no life. This is known as “fine tuning.”  It is as if there are a large number of dials that have to be tuned to within extremely narrow limits for life to be possible in our universe.

If you are looking for examples of esoterica, you have found them in these ‘dials’ – physical constants.  Allow me to state two of many which, because they are almost incomprehensible to me, I copied nearly verbatim:

  • Omega (Ω), commonly known as the density parameter, is the relative importance of gravity and expansion energy in the universe. It is the ratio of the mass density of the universe to the “critical density” and is approximately 1. If gravity were too strong compared with dark energy and the initial metric expansion, the universe would have collapsed before life could have evolved. If gravity were too weak, no stars would have formed.
  • Lambda (Λ), commonly known as the cosmological constant, describes the ratio of the density of dark energy to the critical energy density of the universe. Λ is on the order of 10−122.[19] This is so small that it has no significant effect on cosmic structures that are smaller than a billion light-years across. A slightly larger value of the cosmological constant would have caused space to expand rapidly enough that stars and other astronomical structures would not be able to form.

And the list of physical constants that must be fine-tuned goes on and on.  From constants, like above, required for stars to exist to those tuned for intelligent life.  I do not understand any of these ‘dials’ except that it is extremely unlikely that all of them are tuned precisely to create the conditions for intelligent life.  Interestingly, that is a point on which most secular scientists, theologians and philosophers agree.  Of course, their explanations differ.  Currently, the four main theories are:

  1. Fine-tuning is an illusion:  Once we discover more fundamental physics an explanation will present itself.
  2. Multiverses:  Our universe is just one of many, maybe billions.  If each have different physical constants, we should not be surprised to find our universe hospitable to intelligent life.  (This is also a theory for creation.  If the universe just popped into being – something out of nothing – then other universes have an equal chance of appearing.)
  3. Alien simulation (my personal favorite):   Aliens developed a simulation fine-tuned for us to exist.  Earth and all that effects earth is a laboratory and we are the rats within it.
  4. And, of course, God created the universe and fine-tuned it for intelligent life.

It is odd that there are brilliant physicists who would rather think up farfetched theories to explain fine-tuning rather than be in awe of the FINE-TUNER that created the universe’s inherent physics that allow us to exist.  Occam’s razor indicates that the simplest explanation, the answer that requires the fewest assumptions, is preferable.  Which theory requires the fewest assumptions for fine-tuning?  Billions of other universes coexisting with us?  Alien simulation?  Or, a creator-God?  Theologians and some astrophysicists and cosmologists have no problem with divine fine-tuning and in fact are delighted by its implications. There is a God.

As a serious illness looms over my life, as metastatic cancers find a way to mutate and work around tumor-killing drugs, I am tempted to despair. Cancer acts and feels frighteningly powerful and almost god-like with attributes of omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. At times like this I need something MORE powerful that happens to be benevolent, merciful, transcendent, and eminent. Thinking of bigger realities works to belittle the cancer bully and grow the great hope that the Fine-Tuner of the universe has no rivals, not even the great fearsome cancers of this world. There is hope and reassurance that the great Fine-Tuner of the cosmos loves me and purposes me to further his love in this world and the next. Cancer is no rival to this fact alone! Hallelujah.