Pain is the most individualizing thing on earth. It is true that it is the great common bond as well, but that realization comes only when it is over. To suffer is to be alone. To watch another suffer is to know the barrier that shuts each of us away by himself. Only individuals can suffer.
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Aeschylus from Agamemnon
Blessed are those that mourn, for they will be comforted.
Jesus quoted in Matthew 5:4
I’m anticipating venturing into unknown territory. Thankfully Christ came, died and rose from the dead, and in doing so leads us out of death into a new kind of life. But the reality of living this Christian life is that I live it in community; dying is facing God alone. That can be a terrifying thought. If it isn’t, it should be. So, by looking at creation, particularly infinite creation (cosmos), I’m looking at the character, in part, of the Creator. And I am comforted by what I’m seeing.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
It has been three weeks since Dona died, my constant companion for 43 years. No one said it would be easy to endure this loss, I didn’t expect it to be easy, and it isn’t easy. But I am comforted and lifted up by memories; memories of how she breathed life into me over and over again. I am thankful as I think of her unfailing belief in her creator and savior. It was infectious.
And, of course, I am comforted by the support and concern of family and friends. I am thankful for their memories of Dona. Two days ago, I got a text from a friend:
“I’m acutely missing Dona today. There’s something I really want to talk to her about — she would have been my first call:)”
She went on to add:
“I’m sure you’re madly missing her!!”
Yes, I am madly missing her, but that acknowledgement of my loss somehow lifts my spirits.
Grief and loneliness joined with thanksgiving and comfort.
So, we move forward with the knowledge that those that mourn are somehow and someway blessed and will be comforted. Thank God.
This vantage point for the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau is one of the most photographed views in Alaska. This spot, which I could see from my office when I served in the Coast Guard, offered insight and reassurances as I watched my wife deal with metastatic cancer.
In the foreground is the muskeg meadow; wet, nutrient-rich, verdant, home to vast clumps of fireweed, Alaska’s state flower. In the background, framed by the glacier, are the Mendenhall Towers; mountain peaks rising 1.3 miles straight up from near sea level. These are young mountains, exposed as the vast icefield encasing them began to recede in the 1700’s. First scraped clean by the ice field and continuously swept clean by snow, ice and wind, these peaks have little of the life of the fireweed meadow they preside over.
So different – the fireweed meadow and the rock pinnacles – yet no one would argue successfully that the meadow is more beautiful than the peaks, or vice versa.
The meadow produces; the peaks stand in testimony. The fireweed meadow shows Alaska’s nurturing hand; the peaks show signs of Alaska’s harshest nature: hurricane force winds, snow and ice.
Like fireweed, many of us bloom because we happened to take root in the most accommodating and nurturing of soils. Like the Mendenhall Towers, some of us are scraped clean by the harshness of life, whether it be our environment, disease, or tragedy.
Turning the comparison of the meadow and the peaks slightly in another direction, I can write that nearly all of us start in the bloom of youth and over time evolve to a form more pronounced, bearing the marks of the ice and wind of this world, still beautiful as God’s image bearers, but deeper, more complex, weathered and polished.
I watched Dona deal with a serious cancer since early 2014. Most cancer sufferers are described as ‘fighting cancer’ or ‘enduring a long struggle with cancer.’ I appreciate the spirit and determination those descriptions signal. But Dona did not fight her cancer, she let her oncologist do that. Dona seemed to maneuver her cancer, somehow positioning the disease at a place where she could learn, grow, even flourish. With each setback – a disappointing scan or lab report, a quality-of-life diminishing side-effect – I saw Dona maneuvering, adjusting, and finding a way to grow a little higher, like the Mendenhall Towers of Juneau; perhaps scraped and scoured a bit, but nonetheless ultimately towering over her disease.
Where does this come from?
As much as I would like to give her full credit I cannot. I was with Dona for 43 years. This is a new spirit. She has always had many attractive traits: thoughtful, kind, empathic but, also, a relentless planner, troubleshooter; dedicated to seeing peril around the corner and making big plans to counter the threat. Once she stored $2000 in a box after reading a report that cyber-terrorists could easily shutdown the electric power grid, making banks and ATM’s inoperable. But once she faced her worst and most real crisis, she became less anxious, more relaxed, less out to prove something to herself. When scan reports were not good, Dona took the news with courage, dignity, grace, humility; always encouraging and thanking her health care providers.
And she liked her ‘new metastatic self’. She wrote about it on more than one occasion.
I would not call this new outlook serenity. A more serene person would have done less on-line shopping. It was not stoicism either. We were still quite anxious during each visit to the hospital. As we waited for our oncologist to enter the treatment room, I would read her dumb jokes from the internet as a disruption.
I am still struggling to define and understand the change.
Recently, I have described this change as Dona’s confidence in God’s big plans for her future. Fear revolves around our thoughts about the unknown future and our imagining the worst of that which is unknown. But she was convinced that she had a future, and it was a good one. We prayed for a miracle of healing, for longevity. That is not granted, but no matter, we still have a future, and it is glorious.
Tim Keller writes, “We are future-oriented beings, and so we must understand ourselves as being in a story that leads somewhere. We cannot live without at least an implicit set of beliefs that our lives are building toward some end, some hope, to which our actions are contributing. We must imagine some end to life that transcends.”
But that is not the whole story. Hope and faith are essential, but we need some external help. If it depends only on our personal resolve or insight we are back where we started – some of us succeed through a gift of temperament or fortitude, some not.
And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 5:2b-5; 8:35, 37-39
It can only be the Spirit of God that vitalizes life, communicates God’s truth, and reassures of his eternal plan for us through the grace of Christ.
What was great about this external strength was that when hardship came, I did not worry that Dona would not be able to endure it because it did not depend solely on her. I trust I will be able to draw on that same strength.
I so deeply miss her.
 “Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Skeptical” by Timothy Keller.
On December 22, 2022, the day before the Great Buffalo Blizzard, we agreed with the oncologist to stop Dona’s cancer treatment and enroll her with Hospice. Focus will be on comfort at home. We feel okay about it. She will likely live longer on Hospice than on aggressive treatment.
Dona sleeps most of the day but is in no pain. Praise God. Although a bit confused at times and very weak, there is a calm and focus that must only come from the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding….guarding her heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”
Medical science and technology have given us 8 great years and, according to Dona, some of her best years. (Seriously, see ‘I Like the New Metastatic Me. ) We are grateful to have been the recipient of a dozen or more cutting edge or proven treatments, (which worked well until wily cancer cells morphed and found a workaround) developed by the best researchers and engineers the world has to offer, and delivered by compassionate surgeons, doctors, technicians, and nurses. But over time treatment has taken a toll. Modern medicine has its limits.
When the best efforts of our medical clinicians are overwhelmed and consumed by disease what is left? For the Christian, it is the hope of the resurrection. What does that look like? Perhaps it is like the discovery of a masterpiece that was hidden when painted over with an inferior work of art. As the later work flakes away due to time and the elements the earlier original is revealed, something beautiful and totally different. Or, perhaps it is as simple as Jesus’ parable of the house built on a rock that leaves the home intact when the winds and rains come. (Matthew 7)
It is that underlying beauty, strength, and solid foundation that is now so evident in my wife. Yesterday, I told Dona, “When my time comes, I hope I can also face my mortality directly, look it square in the face without flinching. But I think I will be frightened.”
She gazed at me for a minute, I was beginning to think she had drifted off, and then she said, “When your time comes God will give you grace and strength. But for now, you need to quit with the chipmunk cheeks.”
She was alluding to two posts she wrote early in her cancer journey. The chipmunk cheek image is from John Piper, who writes:
Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day (Exodus 16:4).
God’s grace is like manna. God gives us “a day’s portion every day.” This is why Jesus taught us to pray for our “daily” bread, not “next week’s” bread.
We need to quit being chipmunks. We don’t need to try and stuff our cheeks with today’s manna, anxiously storing up fuel for the nasty winter we imagine around the corner. God doesn’t give us grace for our imaginations, he doesn’t give us grace for our chipmunk approach to life. (Emphasis mine.)
The hardcore truth is that this habitual way of viewing the big scary world can quickly become faith-numbing insanity. “Dona,” I say to myself, “where is God in all this worry about the future? What are you fretting about? Who do you believe is really in charge?”
Me, apparently…….God waits for us to wave our white flags and allow his grace to attend to our present needs and not for those imagined future troubles. And that grace is sufficient to carry us through the day.”
So, as Dona says, I’m going to quit (try to quit) being a chipmunk and train myself through repetition, reminding myself of eternal truths, look for joy each day, and trust tomorrow, both for my life and especially for by wife’s, to the hand of God, who transcends our mortal limitations.
I occasionally get questions that at first glance may seem impertinent or insensitive when posed to a person with Stage 4 cancer. But I am not startled or offended. Afterall, I write unreservedly in my blog about my mortality, and, most gratifyingly, my friends ask questions out of genuine concern and a desire to understand more fully what I am going through.
Recently, a close friend asked:
“Dona, you ever wish that you had died suddenly from an accident or heart attack instead of going through these years of suffering, not knowing when the medical team has no more resources to keep you alive?”
An insightful question I have been pondering ever since.
There was a time when I would have said absolutely, I would rather die suddenly than go through cancer treatments. After all, what other illness fills us with dread as we wonder about lumps, difficulty swallowing, or unrelenting back pain?
Another friend, a physician, told me about a patient that showed up at his medical practice with grave concerns about a skin condition. The doctor’s diagnosis was chronic, severe psoriasis. He told his patient the condition would cause pain, discomfort, interfere with sleep, and make it difficult to concentrate. There would be no cure. The patient relied, “Thank God it’s not cancer!”
We do not walk around fearing heart attacks, gallbladder attacks, car accidents, lupus, or sundry illnesses that can be very devastating and even fatal. It is cancer that fills us with fear. Within literature or human discourse there is no other disease used as a personifier of something malignant, evil, or spreading. (“Bitterness grew like a cancer until it consumed her.” “His hunger for power was a cancer that could not be stopped until he destroyed everyone in his way.”) We use the word cancer because it is a word loaded with all kinds of imagined suffering and dread of when and how it will take our lives. And unlike the animal kingdom we humans have existential angst and future awareness, realizing we are mortal and will leave behind loved ones, future dreams and plans and meaningful work.
Getting back to my friend’s question……
Early on when I discovered I had metastatic breast cancer I wrote a blog post titled “I like the new metastatic me.” It had nothing to do with being masochistic or pathological. It had all to do with welcoming the change of perspective on what was, and what was not, important in life. Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.
Although my cancer had progressed from Stage 3 to Stage 4, I was happy to find that my character development had moved from stage 1 to stage 2. Well, maybe Stage 0.5 to Stage 1.
That was then, this is now. In the last four years there certainly has been more suffering than I would have anticipated when I was first diagnosed with metastatic cancer. But I can say with confidence that after 4-5 years of living with this awful disease that I’m thankful I was not taken suddenly.
I am more others-centered now than 4 years ago. My character development has moved from stage 2 to stage 3. Well, maybe 1 to 2. You get my intent. I am trying to walk the line between braggadocios and false humility. The point is that I have more empathy and heart sickness when I hear of others suffering, whether from the terror-stricken children of Ukraine, the starving children of Somalia, or the grieving parent of a loss child or husband. I used to avoid reading BBC international news (I have an app). Too much tragedy. Now, I read and pray because it disrupts my own suffering and allows, what Mother Theresa called, “my heart to be broken with what breaks the heart of Christ.”
And this suffering somehow reminds me of the Great Hope.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
Before unpacking this, I must reiterate that the grace of God has been apparent every step away. He deserves the credit and glory.
Suffering can breed empathy:
When people are faced with a terrible diagnosis there is a choice that must be made. Will the rest of life be driven by bitterness and anger; resenting the unfairness? As I have heard on more than one occasion, “I took good care of myself: ate healthy, exercised frequently, managed stress, and even served God so how did this happen to me?”
As I noted above, there is an aspect of my chronic suffering that has bred empathy and compassion for those who suffer, whether from cancer, other ailments, heartbreaks, betrayals, extreme losses. My prayer life has been richer and more spontaneous as I read the news or talk with people who are hurting. And for those times I forget I have cancer as I focus on them.
I do not know why suffering has produced empathy, but I have a couple of theories.
The God of the cross
We have a God that suffers with us. The late John Stott, theologian and pastor of All Souls Church in London often said he could not worship a God who had not experienced extreme suffering.
“The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and, therefore, unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.”
I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?
John Stott, The Cross of Christ, pp. 335-336
In summary, my metastatic cancer first gave me a new perspective on what, and what was not, important in life. Consequently, I found a greater peace of mind because I had less things that I was holding onto and less to become anxious about. The new metastatic me simplified life and found me focusing on joy and gratefulness.
Second, suffering has allowed me to empathize with the suffering of others more deeply. This new level of compassion is both heart-breaking and life-giving in equal measure. I am grateful.
My character development has moved from Stage 1 to Stage 3! Will I ever get to Stage 4? Not in this earthly tent!
And this brings me, finally, to the point of all this. The end result of suffering is not character development but hope. (Romans 5:3-4) Hope in what? Eternal life and that time when Christ will “make all sad things untrue.”1 A cold, pitiless universe, full of random disease and tragedy, without God provides little or no incentive to develop character or hope.
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:19
Yes, oh yes, I am thankful, suffering or no suffering, for every moment the Lord had graced me with!
1Originally spoken by Sam to Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s, The Return of the King. Often quoted by Tim Keller and NT Wright in their reflections on the resurrection.
In a recent post Dona described how Carolyn Madanat was processing overwhelming grief from the sudden loss of her husband, Labib Madanat, in November 2021. At the time of Labib’s death, Carolyn had been recently ordained as a minister in the Anglican Church in England and was four months into her first post as a curate. As part of this initial apprenticeship she was assigned, as all curates are, to write reflections on significant events during her curacy and the impact on her prayer life and relationship with God. She shared this reflection with Dona and me. Though painful to read, it is just too insightful and redemptive not to share. With her permission and approval, we post it here.
I am no expert on the stages of grief or how trauma is processed, but Carolyn’s narrative of the months following Labib’s passing show both key waypoints and important routines that will help any Christian; both those suffering overwhelming loss or trauma, and friends and family walking alongside the sufferer. This journal is particularly helpful in showing how a grief-stricken heart and often exhausted mind can still use prayer to engage the Spirit; “reminding us of the eternal truths of God’s goodness and his steadfast love towards us.”
And so, again with her permission, I added text boxes to highlight those waypoints and insights.
Defiant Hope in the Face of Overwhelming Loss
Four and a half months into my curacy, my husband died suddenly whilst on a ministry trip to Iraq.
We received the devastating news by telephone call: thirty minutes after hearing that he had experienced a seizure and was unconscious, a follow-up call came telling us that he had died. I had no time to begin to process what had happened as I had to make immediate plans to travel to Jordan with our five children, where Labib’s family were arranging to repatriate his body from Najaf to Amman. Once there, we were drawn into the communal grief and mourning of family, church, and friends as we prayed and waited for his body to be released and flown to us. The funeral was held hours after his arrival; I was still in a state of shock and disbelief but Labib’s colleagues and family, in the midst of their own grief, carried the burden of planning and leading the service.
In the first few weeks I felt incredibly disorientated. For the ten days that we were in Jordan there was an established ritual of gathering with the extended family each day from morning to late night, receiving people who came to give condolences. It was emotionally and physically exhausting, trying to give comfort as much as receive it, but it provided a structure for our time and interactions with people. The constant stream of calls and messages brought assurance that many were praying for us, and this carried us through the early days when we could not form prayers for ourselves.
The importance of receiving counsel, even leadership, in deciding on a way forward.
Back in England, as per the norm, people gave us ‘space’ and showed kindness and solidarity in a very different way: cards instead of conversation, food left on the doorstep instead of shared communal meals. It was my culture, but I felt very alone and found myself trying to initiate contact with people so that I could explain why I needed them to keep speaking to me!
In retrospect, I really needed pastoral leadership; I didn’t want to be left to decide if and when I should return to work and ministry. I know that the intention was to not make assumptions about what would be best for me, but I was exhausted and needed someone else to tell me to take time to rest and recover. In the end it was my prayer triplet and a trusted family friend and counsellor who stepped into that role and helped me navigate those early days.
Stillness and quiet were not my friends. At first, I found it very hard to even read Scripture without crying, but I turned to the psalms that Labib and I had read together so many times and they became my prayers; I didn’t have to find my own words to say because the psalmists had done it for me. I found the discipline of a daily quiet time very hard to maintain, so I took long walks and trusted that God was with me and that He was somehow ministering to me. I honestly didn’t feel it particularly, but deep down I knew and believed it was so.
Advent began soon after we returned to the UK and I remember lighting the first candle, Hope, as an act of defiance against the enemy who had stolen from our family. There was something comforting in the symbolism and ritual of lighting the candles each night. What had previously been a fun family activity, took on new significance. However I felt, I wanted to declare -in this small way- that I still had faith in God whose light shines in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it. The ‘waiting’ of Advent resonated with me in a new way: it wasn’t about counting down to a day or a week of celebrations but anticipating the day when Jesus would return and make all things right, forever.
As I returned to work in the New Year, the daily routine of prayer with the staff team was an act of obedience. Often, I didn’t feel like praying but the familiar words of the morning prayer liturgy allowed me to participate even when my brain fog made it hard for me to concentrate for long. My prayer requests were for very practical things, usually focused on the needs of our children– for comfort, for the ability to sleep, for strength to get through each day, for stamina to sit through school and college classes; many prayers were answered, including some I hadn’t voiced out loud. I didn’t talk to God much about my own feelings of grief and exhaustion, but I knew that he knew, and that was enough. Throughout this time, I prayed weekly with the members of my prayer triplet which was a lifeline; other friends and colleagues messaged with offers of help and the promise of ongoing prayer. It was one way that I experienced what it means to be part of the Body of Christ and to belong to one another. God was taking care of me through his people, through my people.
Not long after Labib’s death, a friend who had also been bereaved sent me some books, including one on lament. As I read the book, I knew that I accepted it all in principle, but realised that it was the first time that I had actually thought about and experienced what it means to lament. I wanted to be able to express my sadness, disappointment and even anger, but without falling into despair. Mark Vroegop talks about a four-step process that God leads us through in grief and lament:
I still struggled with the idea of complaining to God. Having spent so much time with Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Jordan and hearing their stories of losing multiple family members and friends, not to mention homes and livelihoods, I didn’t see how my loss could be compared to theirs. What I’ve started to realise is that lament isn’t about whether my suffering is sufficiently bad enough to warrant a complaint to God. Instead, it’s declaring, with God, that all is not right in the world and knowing that this grieves him too, while remembering that sickness, death, pain, and injustice do not have the final word.
As Vroegop says, “Lament is rooted in what we believe. It is a prayer loaded with theology. Christians affirm that the world is broken, God is powerful, and He will be faithful.”
Through the year, I have become more aware of the role of lament in both my individual prayers and our corporate prayers as a church family. When the war broke out in Ukraine, when an earthquake killed hundreds in Afghanistan, my intercessions have included a strong note of indignation at the injustices that are being suffered in a world that is under the curse of sin and death; I’ve been led to boldly ask God to intervene as only he can, affirming that he is mighty and able to work good for his people. I’ve come to realise that part of our calling as God’s people is to lament the state of our world and to call on God to act.
I had to spend a few days in Jerusalem, sorting some of Labib’s paperwork, and connected with old friends and colleagues who shared the challenges they were facing in their own ministries. I found myself increasingly praying and interceding for them – for reconciliation and unity between church members and leaders, for Bible translation work, for the Gospel to touch the hearts of the non-Christian majority. Although I couldn’t step into the huge void that Labib had left as a leader in the region, I felt as though God was rekindling the love and concern I had held for the people of the Middle East for so many years when we lived and ministered among them. It was an invitation to stay connected to what God was still doing in and through brothers and sisters there, even if Labib was no longer with us. Since the visit, I have been interceding more often for ministers and ministries in that region that God has put on my heart. It has helped me to keep my own difficulties in perspective and to see the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world.
Over Lent I put together material for a Lent course for St Paul’s and the theme was the spiritual practices of solitude and silence. These are disciplines that even prior to Labib’s death I have found quite challenging. I am someone who works well as part of a team, and this includes praying with other people; my night-time prayer routine with Labib was an important part of our shared life together. As mentioned earlier, I’ve found quiet times particularly difficult in this season and the thought of sitting in silence with God just listening and waiting has felt quite unattainable, not least because poor sleep at night means I have a tendency to fall asleep if I sit still for too long. During the course we reflected on the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 and how he reached a point where, before he could even hear God, he needed time to recover from the traumatic experience he’d just been through; God ministered to him by providing food and the opportunity to rest.
It was very helpful for me to be reminded that sometimes we can be in a place where we just need to trust God and let him take care of our physical needs so that we will then be able to hear him speak. The combination of experiencing a sudden trauma and then needing to carry the emotional and practical needs of the family, in addition to returning to pastoral work, had left me feeling depleted after a couple of months. The Lent reflections released me from feeling guilty about not being able to sustain my quiet devotional times and allowed me to rest in God and trust him to carry me through that season. As my sleeping patterns have improved I’ve had more capacity for silence and individual prayer, although I still favour prayer walking over sitting.
The final reflection I have on how my prayer life and relationship with God has been shaped over this last year, following the loss of Labib, relates to Passion week and particularly Holy Saturday. Coming from a ‘low-church’ tradition, my engagement with Passion week has primarily focused on Good Friday’s Hour at the Cross and then the joy and celebration of Resurrection Sunday. This year, I co-led the Hour at the Cross service and found it very moving; I also had the joy of baptising a new believer on Sunday morning – as part of our Easter family celebration service. However, what resonated with me for perhaps the first time was the poignancy of Easter Saturday. Up until this year, it’s simply been an in-between day that I’ve not thought too much about, but it felt very different this time around. Holy Saturday seemed to encompass all that we had been experiencing over the previous months, which was the feeling of being somehow suspended between two worlds: one of overwhelming loss and one of defiant hope. A friend sent me a poem that finally put into words everything that I felt but hadn’t been able to express. It wasn’t that I suddenly had answers to everything, but I had a space to hold the questions:
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 okay 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 have realized, is surrendering to God the questions we don’t have answers for and having the assurance that these questions 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 to those questions.
I have already seen the importance of this in pastoral situations where there is a great deal of suffering and hardship, and the inevitable questions that accompany it deserve to be heard and held respectfully. Instead of trying to scramble for answers to ‘ease’ the pain, for myself or others, I want to simply acknowledge the presence of God in our pain and his promise to transform it and redeem it for our good and his glory, if we allow him to. Vroegop writes that: ‘the gospel empowers the followers of Jesus to enter the dark moments of people’s lives. Those who know the story of hope and who believe in God’s goodness can be conduits of his grace’.
The grace of lament is helping me to navigate this painful season of our lives and is also giving me a language to use in the face of widespread injustice and suffering in the world. It doesn’t minimalise or ignore the anguish but as we orient ourselves towards God and give voice to the pain we feel, his Spirit reminds of the eternal truths of God’s goodness and his steadfast love towards us.
Bibliography and references
Jenae, D, When Mountains Crumble, Moody Publishers, 2022.
For most cancer patients I would imagine shopping for a burial plot would be a serious and sober pursuit! Nothing feels more final than looking at the place you will be buried one day; especially if that day is more imminent than hoped.
I suggested to my husband of 43 years that we look for our next real estate purchase at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, a beautiful 269-acre expanse where people walk, jog, and bike. (Live dogs not allowed for obvious reasons, but one may be buried with their pet for an additional fee.) Tour guides recount the biographies of famous residents including a US president, many members of Congress, Seneca Nation chiefs, and the inventor of modern indoor air conditioning. The walking paths, valleys and hills, meandering creek, visually arresting monuments and obelisks, and trees of all different species are enhanced by magnificent columbarium’s, mausoleums, and a stone chapel.
And thankfully it is not just for the wealthy and privileged. My daughter has seen a procession of Congolese refugees dressed in white slowly walking towards a child’s resting place.
However, I want to be very sensitive towards those who have every reason to be sobered, anguished, and grieving as they themselves have had or will have the heart-wrenching task of arranging a burial place for their child. It is quite heartbreaking to see burial stones of young lives cut short. The poignant short, engraved inscriptions tell the story of loss so unimaginable! So, the thoughts in this post may not be for you.
But that was not our experience. David and I enjoyed ourselves as the cemetery manager showed us plots and told us stories. I wanted a site under a stately tree on a hill. I figured this would be a challenge given that over 165,000 ‘permanent residents’ had picked sites before me. But eventually, the manager found two sites together that were exactly what I wanted with a bonus view of my favorite sculpture in the cemetery.
Of course, once the site is selected and secured, one must decide on a grave marker. I noticed some residents had a stone bench as their memorial. That was what I wanted. I imagined something like, “Hi! We were Dona and David Eley. Have a seat and think of the Wonders of God.” Unfortunately, that idea did not fly. The “Hi, have a seat,” sounds like me but more than a bit much for David. And our enthusiasm waned when told a minimum of three plots must be purchased to have a bench.
There are many residents of Forest Lawn who over the last three centuries have erected more than mere benches: monuments and mausoleums costing well over a million in today’s dollars. Awesome in their architecture and artistic flair – quite stunning!
A teacher, still living, purchased several plots in the middle of Forest Lawn and then engraved an unpublished short story he had written, in its entirety, on two massive stones. I read the sweet story but walked away wondering about human beings search for remembrance and possibly immortality.
And then there was the family who wanted to inscribe something profane that the deceased was frequently known to say. The manager nixed that. Children visit Forest Lawn.
And then there is juxtaposition. On the morning we purchased our plots, the cemetery manager was late for our meeting because he had met a middle-aged woman who had wandered through Forest Lawn for a couple of hours looking for her grandmother’s grave. She waited 10 years to look for it. There is obviously a story here, but the manager’s concern was that she had been looking for hours on a hot morning and was becoming dehydrated. A search of the cemetery’s database located the unmarked site where the grandmother had been interned 10 years ago.
Back to me. Why do I want to be buried in a beautiful park in the middle of Buffalo; a cemetery locally famous for its rolling hills, fascinating monuments, and rich history? Honestly, it is because it increases the chances that family and friends might more frequently come here to exercise, stroll or picnic on a summer day, and in coming to Forest Lawn pause and REMEMBER me. I am not completely comfortable with this realization. Afterall, I will never know who has visited the site of my bones. And, I will not care. I will be in a place much more glorious.
Cemeteries are certainly reminders that we live in a broken world in which none of us will survive. We will all die, and each culture and individual have customs or preferences as to how to honor the deceased. Some will defy customs and choose radically different expressions for their worldview. My hope is that all worldviews will give way to God’s eternal view.
Burial sites, whether unmarked or colossally grand, will matter none to the eternal creator and sustainer who embraces those that trust him to deliver them from death! There is a place where we will be immortal. Earlier in this post I noted that my plot has a view of my favorite sculpture in Forest Lawn. This sculpture pictures that time of the great resurrection, where we are lifted into the arms of God. (1 Corinthians 15 develops the full impact of this.)
And then there is the famous monument in Utah for Matthew Stanford Robison, who, born paralyzed, died in his sleep at 11 years old. A poignant vision of the resurrection, it captures perfectly that time when we Christians believe that “all sad things will become untrue.”
Our 9-year old grandson accompanied us on one of our visits to Forest Lawn. He noted that many headstones were ideally positioned for jumping and climbing from one to another. We reluctantly told him that would be inappropriate. He told us he wanted his tombstone inscription to say, “Children are welcome to climb up and play here.”
Jesus will think that is just fine. (Matthew 18:1-5)
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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).
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.)
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.
“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.
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.
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.