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)

Intimate News

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

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

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

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

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

Intimacy

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

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

Intimacy with God

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

The obvious

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

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

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

I cling to that with gratitude.

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

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

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


 





 

 

Safe Havens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are also emotional safe havens.

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

About me:

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

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

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

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

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

Scans: It’s that time again :(

Medical scans make known the presence of disease. That can be terrifying. But there is another kind of knowledge.

ct scanIt’s that time again. I have metastatic breast cancer and so every 3-5 months I have nuclear imaging (bone scan) and a CT scan (vital organs) to determine whether the cancer has progressed. I had the dreaded scans a few days ago and now I await my appointment with the oncology team to review the results.

The whole ordeal feels like entering enemy territory without defenses. My peace is rattled as I sense a power and authority to direct the course of my life. But this is ridiculous. Scans have no power and authority. They are not an enemy. Scans are, essentially, objective knowledge; knowledge of the presence of disease. Scans are a kind of friend but a friend I don’t like or trust to make me feel good. I want friends to tell me what I want to hear. Scans tell it like it is. There is no sugar coating the truth of my physical innards. They may or may not reveal a need for surgery, chemicals and/or radiation to eradicate the sometimes-silent killers – the terrorist cells of the inner space. They can reveal news of intractable corruption and devastation that medical science is powerless to stop. Who wants friends like these? I don’t but yes, I do, but not really. Yes, really, I do. (Terrifying ambivalence!) What to do with such a truth-telling no-holds-barred friend? How am I to get a good night’s sleep the day before such a “friend” encounter? How do I calm down a nervous system that has been designed to be alert to threat? How do I calm the raging mind storm as the machines move up and down the body exposing and objectifying me as they take pictures of bones and organs?

Spiritual application:
In the New Testament the word of God is described as a type of scan – a scan of the heart and soul. And it’s that scan that I truly need to pay attention to. God’s in charge and I am his charge.

“For the Word that God speaks is alive and full of power [making it active, operative, energizing, and effective]; it is sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating to the dividing line of the breath of life (soul) and [the immortal] spirit, and of joints and marrow [of the deepest parts of our nature], exposing {and} sifting {and} analyzing {and} judging the very thoughts and purposes of the heart.”
Hebrews 4:12

There are two types of scans that I have agreed to submit to. They both have authority over me. They both have knowledge of me. But as Lord Byron wrote long ago, “The Tree of Knowledge is not that of Life.”
According to Nicky Gumble of Holy Trinity Brompton in London there are different types of knowledge, and they are not all equally valuable. In French, there are two different words for ‘to know’. One (savoir) means to know a fact, the other (connaître) means to know a person. It is never enough simply to have knowledge of facts. To love a person, one must ‘know’ the person. Love resides in the ‘Who’ not the ‘What.’

Medical technology scans have authority in diagnosis that exceed my own, my doctors, my loved ones – anyone. They have a knowledge that transcends blood tests and feeling states. Scans are designed to guide a path of medical intervention. They don’t cause the problem; they expose the problems so that wise decisions can be analyzed and recommended.

But scans offer no hint to a meaningful existence beyond the body. Medical scans do not reveal corruption of the soul and a cure for it. Scans give no promise of redemption nor power for resurrection. Scans offer no love. And they certainly can’t inspire awesome wonder and respect. Christ fulfills all that and more.

So, this Thursday the door of the consultation room will open, my team will walk in, and my senses will be as alert as a gazelle listening for the approach of a lion. I will be comforted and loved by the faithful husband next to me, and by a medical team who truly care for me. And in that room the Holy Spirit (the Counselor, Comforter and Friend) will be present whether I sense His presence or not. I am known! I am loved! I will be ultimately loved and comforted no matter what