Shopping for Burial Plots

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.

My latest real estate purchase

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.

By John Field, Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo

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.

An unmarked burial site

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)

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.

End of Life Issues: Gratitude

Introduction:

My father-in-law, Jasper, was not known to be disclosing about feelings or reflections, so it came as a surprise when he asked me a question two weeks before his death at 91 years old. In doing so, he showed a side of himself that inadvertently showed a side of me. That was 12 years ago this month, and my husband, David, and I have been talking about the conversation I had with his father ever since.

In January 2009, Jasper was then the oldest man living in his rural village in North Carolina.  He was not dying or even ill when we sat together companionably in the sunroom of his home.  Without preamble he asked me, “Dona, why do you think God has me living so long?” 

I did not answer, thinking the question was rhetorical or a springboard to talk about what he was thinking. I was wrong.

“Dona, why have I lived so long?”

A question which he expected me to have an answer.  But who can ever know such a thing? I sent up a quick silent prayer that I might at least say something meaningful. But I was unprepared and therefore flustered by the significance of the moment.  I stammered out something about his wife needing his companionship and presence because she loved him.  Though true, I did not feel good about my answer.

After a pause, my father-in-law said, “I have a lot to be thankful for. I have been blessed.  I just wish that I had been more thankful earlier in my life.”

It was then and only then that I had an answer to offer.

“Maybe God has been waiting for you to come to that realization; to be thankful to him for what He has given you throughout your life.”

That was our last conversation.

My father-in-law was a very responsible and accomplished man.  If I can be forgiven for putting words in his mouth, he might say that he got caught up in the doings of business, family, civic responsibilities, and whatever else needed to be done to the extent that he neglected looking back and appreciating the gifts that came his way.

My neglect of gratitude was not so different from my father-in-law’s.  As I wrote in an earlier post (I like the New Metastatic Me), I once acted as if I would live forever.  Given that I was going to live forever, issues small and big needed to be dealt with urgently, intentionally, and continually until there was resolution. Too much chronic doing and too much worrying about what else needed to be done was set in motion by an unconscious attitude that things needed to go my way to make this long, long, long life I was destined for enjoyable and to my liking. A spirit of gratitude was being squeezed out of my life from a lack of reflection.

Why don’t we stop and be grateful before we face a life-threatening event (me) or realize we have well-exceeded a normal lifespan (my father-n-law)? 

What is Gratitude?

Harvard Medical School publishes a very layperson-accessible newsletter on current research in human health and wellbeing.  In Praise of Gratitude, Harvard Health researchers noted that gratitude is more than feeling thankful: it is a deeper appreciation for someone (or something) that produces longer lasting positivity.  More specifically and functionally, gratitude is:

Gratitude is “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives … As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Drawing from that helpful description, my working definition of gratitude is:

The act of recognizing and reflecting on a gift one does not deserve. 

And finally, the root word of gratitude is gratia (Latin) or grace.  The Bible describes grace as the unmerited favor of God towards you and me.

The Practice of Gratitude

Gratitude is to be deliberately practiced and cultivated. 

Within the Harvard Health article there are suggestions for the practice of gratitude.  I recommend you read them.  But within their list is an omission. Who should I be thanking when there is nobody to thank?

I can write my thank you notes to people who have blessed me or simply thank them in person but who do I thank for peace or joy or love? Who do I thank when I am “forest bathing” and the natural environment overwhelms me with its beauty?

I am thankful for the many who have blessed me and to them words of gratitude are owed but there are so many benefits I receive that are not people initiated. Who do I thank for the seasons’ beautiful effects on nature?  Who do I directly thank for warm showers, the fresh beautiful faces of children, the convenience and comfort that my resources afford me, or family and friends that delight me? Unless there is a cosmic personally invested Creator whose thumbprint is behind all the small and great wonders of existence then the thankfulness or gratitude loses its mystery, awe and lifegiving power. I feel more alive when I am thanking God. God is eternal and somehow my thankfulness is linked to eternity and therefore takes on a more powerful life-giving meaning.

In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Get out and look at the wonder of creation. Be in awe and praise the cosmic Creator whose penchant for beauty is beyond comparison. Take time to be present to notice what delights you and benefits you and then thank God for his provision of great and small things . It will begin to transform you into a more loving and generous person. It will bring you closer to the Almighty One that loves you and rejoices when you are thanking him for in thanking Him that we begin to paradoxically release our grip on the things of this world and begin to set our affections on transcendent things which in turn blesses everyone.

In conclusion:

Thank you, dear readers and friends who have shown me extraordinary kindness and love in reading my posts, commenting, or reaching out with texts, letters, and calls.

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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